United States Senator John Thune joined me in the first hour today and we covered the waterfront:
HH: Joined now by United States Senator John Thune from the great state of South Dakota. Senator Thune, always a pleasure, thanks for joining me.
JT: Great to be with you, Hugh. How are you today?
HH: I’m great, and I am covering in depth with people like Chuck Todd and John Fisher Burns and Peter Baker the Cotton letter, the deal with Iran.
HH: First, from 30,000 feet, what do you think of the reaction from the White House and Secretary of State Kerry to the letter that you and 46 colleagues signed that was authored by Tom Cotton?
JT: Well, I’ll tell you, the hysteria, the overreaction, obviously, I think suggests it really touched a nerve. And you know, the President has been trying to end run Congress. And in fact, just before that letter went out, he had issued a veto threat over a bipartisan bill with 65 co-sponsors that it would have required Congress to vote to approve the agreement. And so I mean, it’s clearly, he’s trying to go it alone. And I think this is Congress asserting our voice and the voice of the American people in this process.
HH: Now later this afternoon, Reuters reported a senior European diplomat saying we’re not going to be done by the end of March. Even if we get a framework by March 30th, we’re going to need until June 30th to hammer out the deal. What’s that tell you, Senator Thune?
JT: Well, I think it just tells you that they aren’t anywhere close to getting a good deal. And you know, our concern all along has been, and I think the American people’s concern, Hugh, is that we’re going down a path that’s going to get Iran that much closer to a nuclear weapon. And there’s no confidence in the administration or their team to negotiate a good deal, and there’s no trust in Iran to keep a good deal. We know they’re going to cheat. And so I mean, this thing about having a sunset in there not doing anything to dismantle their nuclear infrastructure, there are lots of problems with what we hear shaping up in this deal. And I think that’s where there’s so much opposition and concern about it across this country, and frankly across the entire world.
HH: A lot of people in the last few days – Rush Limbaugh, Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post, many others have pointed to the fact the President might be tempted to go via the Security Council as a means of reducing the sanctions regime on Iran without asking for Congress to do anything. What would be your opinion of such a dodge of the Constitutional authority that resides in the Senate?
JT: Well, I wouldn’t put it past him, but that’s insane. You know, you think about what that means, and how is this thing enforceable, and if you want to, the President can suspend the sanctions. But Congress imposed them. Only Congress can lift them. So I just don’t, I have no idea what their rationale or the logic or the thinking would be behind that. But they are desperate, I think, to go around the people’s representatives in the Congress with regard to this deal. And as we hear some of those rumors, I certainly hope they’re not true. And I guess time will tell.
HH: Now Senator Thune, what could a deal have in it that would persuade you that it was a good deal? How, given that we don’t have a lot of confidence in the President’s ability to discern a good deal, what would be there that would say to John Thune okay, I’ll take an honest look at this?
JT: Well, I think start with behavioral change on behalf of the regime. I mean, they are the leading state sponsor of terror in the world. They fund and arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, they fund and arm Hamas in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen and the Shiia militias in Iraq. I mean, this is a regime that’s literally taken over numerous capitals in the Middle East. So that would be a good place to start. But secondly, I don’t think you can put a sunset on this, Hugh, and I think you’ve got to have something that prevents them from acquiring a nuclear capability. All this says, basically, is okay, we know you’re going to get it, it’s just a question of when, and we’re going to do what we can to delay that for a while. That’s not going to be very much comfort or reassurance to the Saudis or the Egyptians or any of those countries in the Middle East who I think are going to, there’s going to be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East if it becomes clear to any of these countries that Iran is close to breaking out with a nuclear bomb.
HH: Now Senator Thune, I want to switch domestically. While we’re fixated on, and necessarily so on the rise of the Islamic State and the deal with Iran and all that has gone wrong, a district court in Texas has enjoined the Department of Homeland Security from implementing the direction the President has given them vis-à-vis immigration. That sort of opens up a zone of opportunity for the Congress to sit with the President and produce a legislative set of measures on immigration. Is that going to happen, do you think? Or do we have to proceed on the assumption the President will simply go back to willfulness as opposed to negotiation?
JT: Well, I hope it can happen, Hugh, but it’s going to take some, I mean, the White House is going to have to be agreeable to doing that. I mean, I sat in the meeting at the White House where John Boehner pleaded with the President and the Vice President, and to give him a chance to actually move something through the House. And that was a few days later the President took the unilateral action that he did which is now, as you said, found illegal by the courts. I think, to me, you know, just because we can’t do everything on immigration doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something. We ought to, I know you agree with me on this. We ought to build the fence. We need to secure the border. We need a good exit/entry system. We need an electronic verification system in the workplace. And I think we also need a merit-based, skill-based immigration system that encourages the best and the brightest to stay here. So there are things that there is probably 70% agreement on, and that’s where we ought to start. And I hope that the House will move forward with some of those pieces of that, and we’ll see where it goes. But so far, I haven’t seen any evidence that the administration, the President, is serious about working with the Congress to actually find some agreement there.
HH: All right, now moving to the budget, it’s supposed to come out next week or the week thereafter. The number that will interest me most is whether or not there’s at least $577 billion for the Department of Defense. What do you understand, Senator Thune, to be the rough number that we’re going to be looking at for a Department of Defense budget?
JT: Well, I think, it’ll be, at least initially, probably be looking at, in the budget, we’ll probably, I suspect, provide for some room to find offsets, to pay for plussing up and helping out with the Defense budget. But I think you’re going to see the budget come out adhering to the caps in the Budget Control Act. And my guess is that hopefully, a budget that balances in ten years, doesn’t raise taxes. There are a number of things that are going to be pretty important to a lot of our members to have in this budget. But we do have a lot of concerns about the Defense number. And I think there will be some ways hopefully that we’ll be able to look at to do something there, but probably with offsets elsewhere in the budget.
HH: Now you see, that concerns me a great deal, and I think it will concern Republicans across, you know, I had Mac Thornberry on from the House earlier this week, and he said look, we need $577 billion. That’s an absolute minimum. The carrier groups need it. We’ve got terrible training deficiencies going on. We have this terrible accident down in Florida that just underscores how often we have to train to avoid stuff like that. Is there any way, I mean, the Senate can step up and say we’re just going to be bound by this crazy sequester on Defense.
JT: Well, and I think that you will see, and of course, we’ve had a lot of discussions about this, and I’m sure as you know, we’ve got a lot of people in our conference who care deeply about making sure that we’re taking care of defending the country and realizing that what we’re doing right now with the numbers, with the defense that the military has to work with, is hollowing out the force. And so I think you’ll see an effort to, as I said, make some adjustments there. And I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to do that. But it’s going to be tough, because you know, you’re talking about just a very constrained budgetary environment that we’re in right now, and a lot of concern about busting the caps. So I guess what I would hope would happen personally is that we figure out a way to keep a lid on spending, but be able to move money around under that cap and find ways to get more to the military who as you point out really, really needs it.
HH: Yeah, I’m more concerned about busting the military than busting the caps by about a factor of a thousand.
JT: I agree. I hear you. No, I hear you, and you’re, believe me, there’s a bunch of us in the Senate who share the view that we’ve got to do better, and if we don’t, we’re going to put ourselves at great risk in the future.
HH: Now let me conclude by talking about the Secretary of State’s private email server. You’ve been in the government for a long time. You know, like I’ve been talking about on the show all week, what the opposition does to try and surveil our senior foreign policy figures, and sometimes, people way down the food chain, they do their best to surveil. Do you believe the Secretary of State’s server was secure from foreign intelligence services?
JT: Well, I don’t think we know the answer to that. And that’s the problem. You know, she deals with, or dealt with when she was there, a lot of important international issues. And her email correspondence would have been a prime target for cyberattacks. So you know, I’m glad she’s agreed to release a portion of her emails, but there are serious questions that remain. And I think that that’s the concern I have in all this, you know, notwithstanding the issues which are going to be looked at about legality of all this. But more important is what kinds of communications were out there that could have compromised the security of this country?
HH: Now this brings me back to the nomination of Loretta Lynch to be the attorney general. I don’t believe you acted on that this week, did you?
JT: We didn’t. No, we’re scheduled to do it next week.
HH: I’m curious whether it has been discussed whether that nomination could be returned to committee, and the nominee asked her opinion on how to proceed, the investigation of this server. Has that come up, Senator Thune?
JT: You know, I think the developments with regard former Secretary Clinton in this issue came up subsequent to when she was considered. And I don’t know that there’s been any discussion about sending it back to committee and asking those questions. But they’re legitimate questions. And like many others that she got asked, we need to know the answers, and I don’t think at this point, we probably have a good feel for where she would come down on that. But we’ll see. I mean, if it proceeds to the floor next week, I don’t know exactly where the votes are at this point. But I think there’s going to be a lot of issues raised, and certainly this should be one of them.
HH: I don’t think it would be unprecedented to return a nomination for a commitment on a special counsel. Do you think a special counsel is appropriate here? Because I just don’t have trust in this Department of Justice to actually investigate the former Secretary of State on a very serious issue of national security.
JT: Well, you know, and that could be something, because I agree. I just think, I haven’t seen any evidence that the Justice Department on any issue for that matter has been willing to take on this administration on any issue. And so perhaps that’s an option that we ought to be looking at. But this is a serious matter. And we need to get to the bottom of it, and it’s not just really a function of whether or not you like the Clintons, because this has, she was in a position with national security implications, and we need to get to the bottom of it, get to the facts. And so you know, I don’t think that I would at this point rule anything out in order to do that.
HH: Senator John Thune, always a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you, Senator, have a great weekend. Follow Senator Thune on Twitter, @SenJohnThune.
End of interview.