South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham joined me this morning to discuss the crisis on the Korean Peninsula:
HH: Pleased to welcome back to the program United States Senator Lindsey Graham. Senator Graham, good morning to you, thanks for getting up early to talk to me.
LG: Glad to. Thanks for having me.
HH: This is a very serious subject. You and I usually have some lighthearted banter, but North Korea yesterday said they’re going to fire four missiles at Guam. And you have been doing yeoman’s work to alert people that this is a very dangerous situation. How would you categorize the degree of danger that we are in of an actual war with North Korea?
LG: Growing increasingly dangerous, because the policy has changed from strategic patience, which is a code word for weakness, to denial of the capability to hit the American homeland with a nuclear-tipped missile. I don’t think China and North Korea have absorbed the policy change. General Mattis responded forcefully to any launch of missiles toward Guam. So what I’m trying to do is reinforce a message I think should be delivered forcefully, that is we will not allow North Korea to have an ICBM with a weapon on top to hit the American homeland. We’re not going to contain the threat. We’re going to deny that capability, and our policy has changed dramatically, and we’re trying to make sure that our allies and our enemies know that.
HH: Now everyone in the chain of command – the president of the United States, the Secretary of Defense, I haven’t heard from Admiral Harris, who is the combatant commander in the Pacific, but Chairman Dunford, the Joint Chief, General McMaster told me personally, the Army Chief of Staff Milley said it, I’m sure Pompeo and Rogers from the intel community agree, and you’re out there speaking on behalf of the Armed Services Committee. Everybody is on the same page on this, but the press seems to make this a Trump story.
HH: What are they missing?
LG: Oh, most everything. So commentators on another network said last night that North Korea was a rational actor, a former CIA chief who I admire a lot. Look at the Human Rights report on North Korea. Rational people do not do what Kim Jung Un has done to his own people. I don’t believe it’s in our national security interest for anybody to need to put nuclear weapons on top to hit America. They’ve got uranium bombs today. They’ll have hydrogen bombs tomorrow. The last 25 years have failed. This is not a Donald Trump problem. He inherited this mess. Everybody before him failed to stop North Korea, and now there’s no place to kick the can. This is a Kim Jung Un problem, not a Donald Trump problem. And one commentator said well, they’ve got nuclear weapons. They just need to act responsibly and welcome to the club. The last person I want to have the capability to strike the American homeland with a nuclear-tipped missile is the leader of North Korea, because he is crazy.
HH: The, Jim Geraghty of National Review reminded me this morning that in recent years, the North Koreas have sunk a Republic of Korea ship killing many, they shelled an island killing many.
HH: I remember the axe attack. They are prone to sudden erratic deadly outbursts. I don’t believe we can put him in the category even of the Iranians who are themselves not particularly rational on some issues.
LG: Well, you know, I think the Iranian ayatollah has a religious philosophy that doesn’t accommodate us, the Jewish state and you know, moderate Sunni Muslims. The Iranian regime is driven by a religious philosophy that is exclusive. The North Korean regime has hopes of unifying the peninsula and their outlaw gangster state. It’s a cult of personality, and they’re one of the largest exporter of weapons in the world. So from my point of view, not only should we deny them the ability to hit the American homeland with a nuclear-tipped missile, we should deny them the ability to grow their nuclear arsenal, because one day, they could sell this stuff. It’s not good for him to have a bunch of nuclear weapons. I don’t want to welcome him into the club. I’d like to kick him out.
HH: Now Senator Graham, I had a direct message from a senior retired military person who’s a very well-respected analysts today, said to me I have to say in my military mind that if I have to make a choice between the risk of 20 million American dead at a future date with a high probability and 3 million dead South Koreans today, that I would make a strong recommendation for the preemptive strike. Do you agree both on the costs of a preemptive strike and on the conclusion that it may be necessary very soon?
LG: Well, I start every analysis out in terms of America’s national security interest. We would go to war to defend South Korea. If North Korea invaded South Korea tomorrow, we would defend them. If they attacked Japan, we would defend them. But we also have an obligation to defend the American homeland. So we’re in a unique situation of homeland defense versus regional stability. You can’t give your allies a veto when it comes to defending the homeland. So the president of the United States, Donald Trump or anyone else, I think, has to put defending the homeland first. That’s not inconsistent with helping our allies. But we cannot allow the capability to mature in North Korea that could put every American sitting in the crosshairs of a nuclear attack by a very unstable, provocative leader of North Korea. So if there’s going to be a war, which I hope there’s not, it will be over there, not in America. Those are your choices. Containment won’t work. The idea of allowing them a nuclear capability to strike the homeland and contain it is a very bad choice. One, they’ll sell the technology over time, and I don’t believe our missile defense systems are that good. Containment is a bad idea. Denial of the capability is the right approach. War will only happen if China completely fails in stopping North Korea. And China could do more if they choose. I want China to have two bad choices. I want China to have the choice of having to deal with a nutjob in their backyard, which would be very unpleasant and rein him in, or have a war in their backyard. Those are the two choices I want China to face.
HH: What is the timeframe, in your opinion, Senator Graham, for China to make that choice before we are obliged to make our own choice?
LG: I don’t know the actual timetable of whether they have miniaturized a weapon. Have they perfected the capability of reentry? I don’t think, yet, but it’s just a matter of time until they do. So here’s what I would do if I were the president. I would tell everybody in the region the last thing I want is a war. I’m going to beef up our missile defense capability in the region. I’m going to add capability to deter North Korean aggression. But I’m going to deny them the capability of hitting the homeland. I would communicate to the Chinese my red lines in terms of technological development. The Israelis have communicated to the Ayatollah red lines regarding his missile program and their nuclear program. I would do that with China, and I would tell them here’s what I’m looking for. And if they get to these red lines and they pass them, all bets are off, and urge them to rein in this regime, which they have complete control of, economically.
HH: Senator Graham, yesterday Boeing announced that it had successfully tested an electro-magnetic pulse missile, which is capable of disabling electronics without affecting structures. It’s called the Champ, the counter-electronics high-powered advance missile project. It’s very effective. We also have cyber capabilities to blink out North Korea’s limited infrastructure. Are those preferable? But on the other hand, they have nuclear weapons, and they can just devastate Seoul.
HH: I really don’t know how you would talk about this with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, with McMaster. McMaster told me the President is not going to let them get there. So what do you think is on the table if they are not deterred by China?
LG: Well, good military planning assumes the worst, not the best. Okay, so if denial is your policy, denial of the capability, a marriage between ICBM and a miniaturized warhead that could hit America, if that’s your policy, which is should be and I believe it is President Trump’s policy, then you have to have a military response to make the policy real. So this is not Assad’s reactors in the desert that the Israelis bombed. These are hardened sites, very dispersed. There’s a couple ways you could do this. You could start with attacking the infrastructure to deny them the capability to keep developing ICBMs. You could do covert activity. But you’ve got to assume the worst. So here’s what I would assume, that if I fire one shot at North Korea, they’re going to unleash all of their weapons against South Korea and Japan and our forces. So the day you shoot once, you’ve got be willing to finish the job. And I would not fire one missile or drop one bomb against North Korea unless we were ready to finish the job. And that would be a horrible circumstance, you know, a lot of damage to our allies and American interests, but that’s the price we must pay or be willing to pay to protect the homeland from a nuclear attack by a crazy man.
HH: So Senator, play this out with me. If they launch these missiles at Guam, or they do anything provocative right now…
HH: We’ve got a lot of military dependents in South Korea. Are you surprised that we are not evacuating them?
LG: So I’ve had discussions with the President about this in very much detail. He’s got the finest national security team around him in my lifetime. Nobody wants a war with North Korea. There’s only two scenarios that I see that we’d go to war. If they strike an American interest or our allies, we will respond forcefully as General Mattis said yesterday. The second scenario is preemptive action to enforce the policy of denial of capability to hit the homeland. So what I hope we can do here is convince the Chinese that we’ve changed our policy, that if we have the choice between allowing them to hit the homeland and a preemptive strike, we’re going to take the preemptive strike, and at the end of the day, the capabilities of the United States are going to be built up. We’re going to send more ships, more planes, and here’s what you need to watch for. I’ve been a judge advocate for 33 years. I just retired a couple of years ago. We’ve always gamed out what to do in South Korea and Japan. There’s three ways you can evacuate dependents. You can use available commercial aircraft space, and just start sending people out as seats are available on a commercial airliner. You can supplement the evacuation of dependents by using military airlift plus commercial capability. In the third scenario, the one that would be used in the event that war was imminent, is that you could commandeer the civilian fleet with, match that up with military airlift, take over civilian airliners and quickly evacuate dependents. What I would be looking for is a military buildup in terms of capability, and the evacuation of dependents. When you see dependents beginning to leave South Korea and Japan, then you realize that North Korea is very close to crossing red lines.
HH: Senator, would you characterize for the audience the President’s grasp of the situation, his knowledge, his approach, his consultations so that they have more than the shout-fest we see on cable that speculate as to his approach to this issue?
LG: Deadly serious, very curious. I think he’s made a decision long ago, quite frankly, to try to negotiate the threat with North Korea, to try to find a way through negotiations to end the threat to the American homeland. But if negotiations fail, he is willing to abandon strategic patience and use preemption. I think he’s there mentally. He has told me this. Now the question for him is what are the options available to him under the preemption scenario? He’s thinking long and hard about it. His rhetoric yesterday, I think, is a change that is probably necessary. Everybody who spoke before him failed. Every smart person on TV who talks about what Trump should do when it was their turn to deal with North Korea, they failed miserably. There’s no place for him to kick the can down the road. So I’m 100% confident that if President Trump had to use military force to deny the North Koreans the capability to strike America with a nuclear-tipped missile, he would do that. And he’s going to listen to sound military advice, but he’s made a decision in his own mind not to let that happen on his watch. He has got Iran right. This nuclear deal was terrible. He’s looking for a better deal. He understands the threat that North Korea presents. They’re not rational, and it’s not in our national security interest to see this country grow in capability in terms of the type of bombs they have, the missiles they’re building.
HH: Senator Graham, in terms of the national security team, would it be helpful if they had some Democratic senators join you in being as specific, measured and calm?
HH: Because I’ve not heard from one Democrat for political reasons step up and talk about a national problem, a national crisis.
LG: It’s fair to say that I push back on President Trump when I don’t agree with him.
HH: Yes, you do.
LG: It’s fair to say. It’s fair to say. I think as commander-in-chief, he understands North Korea very well. He’s got the right attitude, and the attitude is to deny them the capability to hit the American homeland. Senator Feinstein is a very good friend. I think she is espousing an attitude that got us in this mess, the attitude of capitulation. We can’t afford to capitulate here. We capitulated in the past to evil people, and always lived to regret it. This is a circumstance that you cannot accommodate. It is unacceptable from my point of view to give the North Korean leader the ability to strike America. I don’t want to live in a world like that. He will continue to grow his capability. Nobody is in their right mind believes he’s going to stop until somebody makes him stop, and that somebody will be China and the world community. I wish a Democrat would take their hatred of Donald Trump and park it and realize that on Donald Trump’s watch, because of everyone else’s failure, he’s run out of the ability to kick the can down the road. Now the role of Congress, my good friend, Dan Sullivan, has a missile defense plan that I completely support. But he said publicly the President must have authorization from the Congress to use military force to stop a threat emerging from North Korea to the homeland. I violently disagree. Only Congress can declare war. There’s nothing in the Constitution limiting the ability to use force to protect America. Having said that, it would be very smart if the Congress could come together and tell the President you have our authorization to use military force to stop the threat to the homeland as a last resort. That would send a signal to North Korea and China that would probably do more good to avoid war than anything I can think of. And to accomplish that task, our Democratic friends would have to park their hatred of Donald Trump and put the country first.
HH: Last question, Senator, and we’re almost out of time. The President is tweeting at Leader McConnell this morning that volley, volley, back and forth. I don’t think that’s useful right now. What is your advice to the President and the Leader about that volley right now?
LG: Let’s focus on replacing Obamacare with Lindsey Graham’s idea of a bloc grant. Graham-Cassidy takes all the money we’d spend on Obamacare in Washington and bloc grant it to the states. Four states get 40% of the money under Obamacare – New York, California, Massachusetts and Maryland. Come up with a formula by 2026. Every state gets the same per patient. Focus on replacing Obamacare. Don’t focus on our failures. Focus on our ability to succeed, and we still have another avenue to replace Obamacare. It hasn’t been tried. It’s called federalism. Let’s try federalism.
HH: All right, I’m with you on that. Senator Graham, thank you for your time and your seriousness. Keep coming back and talking to us. Get up some Saturday morning and join me as well on Hugh Hewitt on MSNBC.
LG: All right, buddy. Congratulations on your show.
HH: Thank you.
End of interview.