South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham joined me on the program today:
HH: I’m joined by United States Senator Lindsey Graham of the great state of South Carolina. Senator Graham, welcome back, always a pleasure to talk to you.
LG: Thank you, Hugh. Glad to be with you.
HH: I wanted to begin by asking you, I want to spend most of my time on defense.
HH: But there is this story underway right now in Kentucky where a county clerk, Ms. Davis, is refusing to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples despite the courts of federal and state telling her to do so. What’s your opinion on what she ought to do here, Senator?
LG: As a public official, comply with the law or resign.
HH: And no middle ground, right? The rule of law is the rule of law?
LG: The rule of law is the rule of law. That’s what we are. We are a rule of law nation, and I appreciate her conviction. I support traditional marriage, but she’s accepted a job where she has to apply the law to everyone. And that’s her choice.
HH: All right, now I want to switch over to Defense spending. I have had John Kasich on twice in the last couple of weeks. At one point, he called for up to fifteen carrier groups. One thing he said, and I understood him to mean the sequester had to go, but some people misunderstood it. And yesterday, he came on and said the sequester has to go. Will you support anyone who, for the Republican nomination, who doesn’t support repealing the sequester on Defense?
LG: No, not at all, because we’re on track to have the smallest army since 1940 under sequestration, the smallest navy since 1915. By 2021, we’ll spend 2.3% of GDP on Defense, and the historical average is around 5%. The threats to our nation are overwhelming in number and location, so I would not, but I’m glad to hear that John, here’s what I want all of our people to say. As president of the United States, my number one priority will be to rebuild the military, set aside these Defense cuts under sequestration, move to a 500,000 person army, well north of 300 ships, replenish the Air Force, and deal with a two-contingency Marine Corps, and get Defense spending up to where it’s historically been, and rebuild our intelligence capability that’s been reduced.
HH: Now Senator, earlier today, Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post put out a list of questions that she would like asked. And I responded to her and I said you know, if you’ve got like an eight hour debate, I can ask these questions. And there’s no way, but I’m going to start at the top of her list and just ask what she asked, and see how you, as a presidential candidate, respond.
HH: Her first question is what entitlement reform, if any, do you propose? Would you include raising the cap on Social Security? If not, how do you plan on getting Democratic votes?
LG: I would be willing to raise the cap on Social Security, a revenue component, if the Democrats were willing to means test and age adjust, but one thing I would not do is just make it unlimited on every dollar. That would hurt small businesses at the end of the day. Medicare and Social Security need to be means tested and age adjusted. We need to harmonize the age of Medicare eligibility with that of Social Security, which is now coming to be 67, and adjust them forward based on the actuarial needs of the country.
HH: Second set of questions from Jennifer Rubin, you say you are against nation building. I’m not actually sure that you have said that, but she says that. When do you think we did that? Is fighting the Islamic State nation building? Why was the Iraq surge a success?
LG: All I can say is the Iraq surge was a success, because we created military capability in the Iraqi Security Forces they lacked. We got outside the wire. We engaged the enemy with Iraqi ground forces. The American edge on the ground emboldened the Iraqi Army to fight and hold territory. That’s why it worked. We got outside the wire. We got out into substations with the police. We lived in the remote areas with Iraqi ground forces. We bolstered their capability by giving them air support they couldn’t possess themselves. And we had combat formations out front, not from behind. And we took the fight to al Qaeda in Iraq and brought them to their knees. As to nation building, the only way, excuse me, you’ll make America safe is to do two things, is to kill terrorists, capture as many as you can, deny them safe haven, but also invest in others. Invest in the militaries, in the police forces of the region, try to build up their economy so it would be a good trading relationship over time. But the key to defeating radical Islam is giving a young woman a voice about her children. Educating young women would be one of the tenets of my policy to destroy radical Islam. And here’s my view about the war on terror. We win, they lose. Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Berlin Wall and announced that the Cold War would be won, that peaceful coexistence no longer existed. It was a fight between an evil empire and the rest of us, that he declared that we would win this fight. I’m here to say that radical Islam is an evil force against mankind in general, and if I am the president of the United States, we will destroy this evil force, and one way we will do it is by building up others.
HH: Rubin question set number three. Did we do too much or too little in Libya? What is the lesson you extracted?
LG: Too little. We waited too long. When the Libyan people rose up against Qaddafi, which was a wave throughout the Mid-East, we were hesitant to a fault. When we did engage, we put NATO out front, making it harder to bring Qaddafi down. But the biggest mistake of all is when Qaddafi fell, is withdrawing from Libya. The light footprint approach led to Benghazi. This idea of not reinforcing our consulates and our embassies because we didn’t want to go down the Bush road of a Blackwater compound led to the Benghazi consulate being a death trap. So our biggest mistake in Libya was not rebuilding their police, their army. 90% of the people rejected radical Islamists in the first two elections. But Obama’s hands off-leading from behind approach allowed Libya to deteriorate. We did too little after the fall of Qaddafi.
HH: This is a Hewitt question, not a Rubin question, Senator. And I’ve discussed it now with Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney yesterday, and with Mark Steyn and others. Do you think that the compromise of Secretary of State Clinton’s server, her private server, may have led to the compromise of our people not only in Libya, but around the world by hostile intelligence agencies?
LG: I don’t know, but it says to me it’s far more likely to create a private server network that doesn’t have all the apparatus of what the government offers. I think it was a mistake to avoid transparency. It’s what motivated her. She wanted to conduct her business out of sight of the normal requirements of being Secretary of State, typical Clinton living one way as the rest of us live another. But my beef is not just with the server. My beef is with her as Secretary of State. The request for additional security, Hugh, went to her, not President Obama, to her headquarters. Five additional requests, five requests for additional security were all denied. On August the 15th, the Ambassador from Libya sent a cable to Washington saying I can’t defend the consulate from a coordinated terrorist attack. al Qaeda flags are flying all over Benghazi, and his requests were turned down. All of them were turned down. And where was she during the night of the attack? And how could she have told the families we’re going to get the guy who made this video when there’s no evidence there was a protest caused by a video. That’s what I want her to be responsible for, the death of four Americans on her watch.
HH: What I am curious about, Senator, I was read into code words, and had top secret clearance from 1984-1989. Even with that limited amount of experience, only five-plus years, I know that some of the stuff that came out was instantly recognizable to me yesterday when Ed Henry reported on it, as at least secret, probably top secret…
HH: …and probably code word. You’ve been doing this a long time. There’s no doubt that she knew she was receiving classified material, is there?
LG: Well, there’s two ways to look at this. Once the State Department reviewed the emails, they classified them. The question for me is the people in charge of transmitting to her and when she transmitted herself, how did she not know they were classified? There was at least negligence at the very minimum of not understanding what you’re dealing with is classified. So this idea that at the time I sent it, it wasn’t classified, that’s not an excuse for sending something that should have been classified. Isn’t it her job and her agency’s job to protect classified information? It is no excuse after the fact somebody said well, this should have been classified all along. You’re at least negligent. That’s the best you can say about her handling of this material, that she was sloppy and negligent.
HH: One more question on this, and then I’ll go back to the Rubin’s…a Clinton apparatchik wrote yesterday, a former United States attorney from North Carolina, that what David Petraeus did was far worse than Hillary Clinton. He’s an American hero, and he made a mistake. But I think this is a much more maligned abuse of the system. How do you compare the Petraeus offense with the Clinton record that we know of?
LG: Well, you have the Secretary of State who sets up a system unique to her in violation of policy and regulatory guidelines in the administration she serves. It was done to avoid the transparency and the scrutiny that comes with the job. She clearly allowed classified information to flow through a system that was not as well guarded as it should have been. Her story that everything about business I’ve turned over to the State Department is not holding water, because we now know that Sidney Blumenthal emailed her about business, and those emails were never turned over. So at the end of the day, she was the leader of one of the most important national security agencies in the country, the State Department, and I think she needs to be held accountable consistent with that. David Petraeus has been held accountable for what he did. I would say this, that nobody has been fired because of Benghazi, and that Secretary Clinton has basically gotten away with setting up a system that would put most of us in peril to this point.
HH: Now let me switch back, if I can, Senator Graham, to the Rubin questions.
HH: Her next question was do you support the Defense budget proposed by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, including the $478 billion in cuts? What reforms would you make in the Pentagon? And how much savings do you think is there?
LG: Half of the Pentagon’s budget is personnel cost. The National Defense Authorization Act, which is in conference now, I wrote the personnel part of it, because I’m the personnel chairman. We’re changing the retirement system for the first time in 70 years. After 20 years of retirement, you will get 40% of your pay, not 50%. But what we’re doing for the service member is allowing them to put 5% of their pay into an account that will be matched by the federal government from two years up to twenty. They can withdraw that TSD allocation when they get 59 and a half. They will have more money when you add the two pots together, but it will be delayed, saving the Pentagon money. We’re reforming the Tri-Care system that hasn’t been reformed since 1995. In about 20 years, it’s going to be 20% of all Defense spending is retiree health care. It’s time to reform that. We cut headquarter staffing in the Defense bill in the Senate by 30%. This is the biggest fundamental change in the way the Pentagon and personnel matters are handled in 70 years. Having said that, the number of people we have to defend this nation is inadequate to the task. The amount of money to modernize is woefully insufficient. We need to rebuild our military spending consistent with historical averages at a minimum, because the threats are beyond historical threats. I’ve never seen more threats to the homeland than I do today from radical Islamic groups, from nation-states like Russia and China.
HH: Your colleagues on these podiums, this is a Hewitt question, do they evidence any kind of degree of capacity with regards to the personnel issues, because you know this stuff. You breathe this stuff. You were very vocal in repealing the retroactive deal that was done under the Murray-Ryan…
LG: Yeah, the $6 billion dollar savings at the expense of the retired community and no one else?
HH: Yeah, that one.
LG: Yeah, that one.
HH: But do your colleagues on the podium get these issues?
LG: You know, and I’m not going to hold that against them, because it’s my job. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, so there are things that I don’t know they do know. But here’s what I’m looking for, is an attitude. Victory in the war on terror, whatever it takes, as long as it takes, to defeat them, building up others, not withdrawing too soon, leaving troops in Afghanistan because we should to protect our own interests, understanding we don’t have enough ground forces in Iraq to destroy ISIL in Iraq, understanding there’s nobody left in Syria to destroy ISIL, and to do away with Assad, that you’ve got to build a regional army to go into Syria to destroy the caliphate and its headquarters in Syria, and we’ll have to be part of that army, understanding we can’t leave Iraq once we turn it around. What I’m looking for is someone, man or woman, if it’s not me, who understands our national security has been greatly compromised under President Obama, that he’s weakened our ability to defend ourselves, he’s turned the war into a crime. We no longer interrogate terror suspects. We treat them as common criminals. Somebody who will rebuild the military like Ronald Reagan and use it smartly, that’s what I’m looking for, an attitude.
HH: How big of a Navy do we need, and how big of an Army, Lindsey Graham?
LG: General Odierno, who I respect greatly, says around 500-509,000, he thinks, would do the job. As to the Navy, it depends on what you want to do. We have 11 aircraft carriers, one coming online. I think 14 would give us reach. Here’s the fundamental precepts of my foreign policy – superior capability. I am not looking for a fair fight. I want an advantage over our enemies on land, the sea and in the air. I want to have things they don’t have. I want overwhelming capacity where we can be in two places at once with enough to deter irrational actors. And I want determined will to use this military smartly to seek victory in the war on terror. So all I can say is that I know north of 320 ships would be absolutely necessary. As to landing craft for the Marine Corps, they’re having to actually contract with foreign nations to get the Marines to where they want to go. There’s a lot of damage to be repaired in the Navy.
HH: All right, last question, Senator Graham. In the first debate, we’re coming up to the second one in a couple of weeks, and I’ll see you at the Reagan Library.
HH: People commented that you looked sad on the podium, and that the Graham humor was missing. Are you changing your plans for how you’re going to go about debate number two?
LG: I don’t know if I looked sad, but I’ll tell you this. Not having anybody to talk to was kind of weird. It was like having a debate in a bathroom. And you know, you’ll be there. Hopefully, there’ll be some people there. But here’s my goal, is to take the moment to express a desire on my part to rebuild our military and use it effectively, to take the Obama doctrine, leading from behind, and replace it with the natural position of the United States of leading from the front, to have a strategy not to degrade and destroy ISIL in theory, but in practice, to tell the American people what comes our way if we lose this war and the benefits of winning, and tell them we can win, we must win, and we will win, to restore confidence among our allies and then create fear among our enemies, to lead from the front and declare that the purpose of my presidency will be to destroy radical Islam, not talk about it, as Ronald Reagan chose to defeat communism. I will choose to defeat radical Islam.
HH: You know, Senator, that sounds so much like Dick and Liz Cheney yesterday, and immediately got blowback from the left online.
HH: I don’t know if you’ve read Exceptional. It’s an exceptional book. But the left online says that’s the old neocons. We’re tired, we’re exhausted, we don’t want that anymore, to which, and this really is the last question, what do you respond to that?
LG: To the left, look at the world today. There are more terrorist groups with safe haven, men and equipment to strike our homeland than any time since 9/11, that the policies embraced by the left are failing, that we have multiple threats that Russia is on the move, China is on the move, that Putin has dismembered Ukraine, that China is building islands over resource-rich waters claimed by others, that terrorist safe havens exist in great numbers. The director of national intelligence, the CIA and the FBI said that a homeland attack is very likely coming from Syria, that degrading and destroying ISIL from the air will never be achieved. To our friends on the left, you’re exposing this country to another 9/11. Unless we hit them hard, they’re going to hit us.
HH: Lindsey Graham, it is always a pleasure. Thank you, Senator, I’ll see you in Simi Valley in a couple of weeks, I appreciate the time.
LG: Thanks, pal, take care.
End of interview.