I was joined by Lindsey Graham this morning:
HH: Senator Lindsey Graham and I have talked more about Syria than any other guest on this program over the past ten years. He joins me this morning. Senator Graham, let’s start with your assessment of the strikes on Friday night.
LG: Missed opportunity. Didn’t lay a glove on Assad’s capabilities to wage war. We’re becoming the chemical weapons police. We don’t have a strategy about why Syria matters. It seems like we’re willing to give to the Russians and the Iranians without much of a contest. The ISIS people heard we’re leaving. The Kurds are in a world of hurt, because they’re very much exposed. And the military strike itself was a tactical response well short of what I thought was justified. So he’s been a good commander-in-chief in general, but this is a major step backwards.
HH: Now the strikes, according to General Spiese, a retired major general, told me that they at least demonstrated that the air defenses of Assad are not what they’re cracked up to be, and that if called to do it again, we know how to do it.
LG: Well, but the Israelis convinced me of that. I mean, Israel bombs them on a regular…there’s no way of spinning this. Assad was told by two presidents three times, stop killing children with chemical weapons. He did it last year. He did it again. I thought okay, Trump’s going to go Reagan on him. Ronald Reagan went after Qaddafi when we found out it was Qaddafi who blew up the disco in Berlin and killed five American airmen. I was in Germany at the time. I was at Lakenheath when they took off to bomb Libya. He actually went after Qaddafi, killed one or two of his kids, but missed him. And after that, Qaddafi was a different person. I think this was an underwhelming response. Assad did not pay a big price. And Russia and Iran hear our Pentagon go out of their way to make sure that we’re not going to get in a conflict with Russia and Iranians in Syria and a president announced that we’re leaving. As the missiles were flying, he announced we were leaving. I think this is a disaster for us in Syria.
HH: Have you had a chance to communicate that directly with the President, yet?
LG: Absolutely. I said listen, you’ve been more like Reagan, a lot less like Obama, but this was a step backward. Remember when Obama sent in the surge forces into Afghanistan and announced their withdrawal on the same day?
HH: Yes, I do.
LG: We thought what is that about?
HH: Did you, how did he respond to your rebuke?
LG: I think he says well, you know, Obama left me in a bad spot. Yeah, he did leave you a bad spot, Mr. President. I’m not asking you to invade Syria. I’m asking you to stick it out, to make sure ISIS doesn’t come back, create no-fly zones inside of Syria so that the people there can regroup, go to Geneva and get a peace agreement after Assad feels some military pressure. Train up some Syrians to go after him. Tell the Russians and the Iranians if you cross these lines, we’ll shoot you down. But we’re on course now to leave Syria and turn the place over to the Iranians and Russia, and that is a nightmare for Syria and the entire region.
HH: Now President Macron of France said yesterday that he had persuaded the President to stay. Then, this morning, he walked that back saying that maybe we won’t be staying. It’s very confusing. When Secretary of State Pompeo gets there, and by the way, will he be confirmed?
LG: If he doesn’t, it’d be a travesty. I’ve never been more disappointed in my Democratic colleagues on the Foreign Relations Committee. I tried to work with them. I know them all. You know, we have a good relationship. But to say that Mike Pompeo is not qualified to be Secretary of State under a Republican president really is just taking politics to the extreme. And I will remember this.
HH: Now, but I expect Joe Manchin and Joe Donnelly and Heidi Heitkamp to vote for him on the floor.
LG: They will.
HH: Do you?
LG: Yes, he will pass. I didn’t expect better from Rand Paul. You know, Rand Paul wants a libertarian president, wants a libertarian Secretary of State. But I thought elections did have consequences. I am so disappointed that very good senators could not understand that how qualified Mike Pompeo is to be Secretary of State. He’s the CIA director. He understands the threats of the world better than anybody. He’s a former Army officer, member of Congress, very sharp guy. But he will be Secretary of State, and I think he will have a view closer to mine. Here’s Syria in a nutshell. You’ll never destroy ISIS in Syria unless you deal with the Iranian situation, because they’re the recruiting magnet for ISIS. Here’s what ISIS heard. We’re leaving Syria. And they’re very excited. They can recruit now, because they’re the only people left to fight the Iranians, the Kurds that fought with us to take down ISIS. They’re going to be exposed to Turkey and Assad, and it’s going to be hard to recruit people in the future to help you. And from the Israel point of view, Syria becomes an armed camp for Iran. All this can change, but it has to change quick.
HH: Now when you get Secretary of State Pompeo and John Bolton and Secretary of Defense Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dunford and Gina Haspel and Dan Coats all saying we need to maintain our presence in Northern Iraq, and Lindsey Graham calling the President, you know, on the phone saying that, or going over to the Oval Office and saying that, does he change his mind when he’s confronted?
LG: Well, I don’t know. He’s ready to get out. He wants to wash his hands of Syria. Again, as Obama sends forces in, he announces their withdrawal. As Trump announces a missile attack on Syria, he’s talking about we’re getting out. We can’t solve the Mideast problem. They have to do it themselves. We’ve spent too much blood and treasure. Good luck. I’m hoping people can convince him that if we don’t have some forces in the north training people to hold the territory taken from ISIS, they’ll come back like they did in Iraq. But here’s my problem with the Pentagon, with Mattis and Dunford. They have resisted for years a no-fly, no-drive zone to check Iran and Russia expansion. They don’t want a big power conflict. And basically, Syria is now in the hands of the Russians, the Iranians and Assad. There’s no credible force left. So I’m very disappointed in the Pentagon. And I, get new generals. Get new generals who understand that giving Syria to the Iranians is a nightmare for us in the region.
HH: But I thought General Dunford especially had advocated for continuing our presence there in Northern…
LG: Yeah, it’s different. That’s what, this is so complicated. All of them agree we should stay and train forces to make sure ISIS doesn’t come back.
LG: They’re completely risk averse when it comes to creating a military capability to deal with Assad. Our mission is limited to destroying ISIS. We have no counter-Iran strategy. What I am telling you and others is you’ll never destroy ISIS as long as Iran is the dominant player inside of Syria, because they can recruit throughout the Arab world to fight the Iranians. And all I’m asking is that we train up Syrians who are willing to fight to take the fight to Assad, tell Russia and Iran you fight for Assad at your own peril, then go to Geneva and get a peace agreement where you have some leverage. But our military position regarding Russia and Iran is to give Syria to them. We’re not going to contest Syria. That’s a nightmare for Israel. That’ll be a nightmare for Lebanon and Jordan. And this is where Mattis and Dunford have always resisted any effort to push back against the Russians and the Iranians.
HH: Now Senator Graham, I’m the last guy to ask this, because I’m not even an armchair general. I’m like a barstool general. I’m a civilian’s civilian. But as I saw airstrikes from Israel last week, and again on Saturday night, against Iranian positions, especially the drone headquarters, I thought to myself this thing is going to go up sooner rather than later, and that all of our positioning has got to be against the day when Iran and Israel come to blows. Am I wrong to think that?
LG: No, no, so, so here’s the next big conflict. There’s two conflicts you can watch for. As we withdraw, as we confuse people about what we’re going to do in Syria, Turkey is going to take that as a sign that we’re not going to stay and help the Kurds. So you’re going to see more incursions about Manjeb by Turkey, and maybe Assad. So the Kurds are going to feel pressure. But the real fight to come is when Israel has to go deeper into Syria more often to stop the weapon flows from Syria down to Lebanon. The spark that will start the war is going to come from South Lebanon. South Lebanon is a missile factory pointed at Israel. Hezbollah has 160,000 missiles and rockets coming from Iran pointed at Israel. Now just add Syria to the equation. If the Iranians are embedded in Syria with Hezbollah elements, they basically have a land bridge now between Tehran and Beirut. And Israel, that’s a nightmare for them.
HH: So that’s where it will go up. Let me switch subjects on you while I have you for two more minutes. Before the strikes on Friday, we were preparing to hear the President fire Rod Rosenstein and probably the Attorney General. I don’t know if that’s going to happen. A lot depends upon Judge Kimba Wood and her ruling today. If she rules to get the papers back, then that will have meant the Deputy Attorney General authorized a search of Mr. Cohen’s office that was inappropriate. And at that point, I think the axe will fall. What happens then?
LG: Well, if there’s a reason to fire Mr. Rosenstein, fine. I don’t see one. I think it will be taken as an effort to stop the Mueller investigation, one-off effort, and I think that that’s going to throw the entire agenda of President Trump into a ditch. If I were him, I’d let Mueller do his job. Jim Comey, I’d hate to be a prosecutor building a case around Jim Comey.
LG: He’s destroyed his credibility. So I think the President, if he doesn’t overreact, is probably going to be fine.
HH: But this Kimba Wood deal, this going after Cohen’s…you’re, you’ve been a lawyer a long time, Senator Graham.
HH: You make light of that, but I have been, too, and I know one lawyer that this has happened to, and he immediately got a rule 41 motion to get his papers back. You just don’t do this.
LG: Unless there’s something really bad. So we have a legal process that will see whether or not it was a dramatic overreach. I cannot tell you. You are a very smart lawyer. Going into a lawyer’s office and trying to get attorney-client product is hard to do, a lot of hoops you have to jump through. And the fact that they were willing to do that with this high profile a case really bothers me. But I can tell you one thing. It’s not about Russia. If it were about…
HH: I agree.
LG: …collusion between Russia and Trump, Mueller would never turn it over to the Attorney General in New York. This is clearly not related to Russia. And if there’s no collusion between Trump and the Russians, I think everything else is just background noise.
HH: And even if the Cohen files reveal very complicated financial transactions, the web of which leads back to the Trump organization?
LG: Well, you know, they started with financial transactions in the Clinton and wound up with the blue dress. I think most Americans have built in that Donald Trump is Donald Trump. Unless there’s something really egregious, the only thing that will, I think, affect his presidency adversely is if his campaign did coordinate with the Russians in any meaningful way in 2016. As to his business dealings, I don’t know what they’re looking at. I don’t know the extent of it. But I don’t think that’s going to be a game changer when it comes to his presidency.
HH: Senator Lindsey Graham, always clarifying to speak with you. Thank you, Senator. Follow him, @GrahamBlog on Twitter.
End of interview.