Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota joined me this morning:
HH: I’m joined by Senator Mike Rounds of the great state of South Dakota, first time on the show. Senator Rounds, welcome, it’s great to talk to you.
MR: Hey, good morning.
HH: Good morning.
MR: How are you this morning, sir?
HH: I am terrific. It’s great to talk. Thune comes on a lot, because he knows I’ve got a shirttail relative connection to Philip, South Dakota. I married into the Philip clan, but it’s good to have you. Let me get right to work with you. President Trump, Senator, just tweeted. You’re on Armed Services, so this is very relevant. Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready, Russia, because they will be coming – nice, new and smart. You shouldn’t be partners with a gas-killing animal, capital G, K and A, who kills his people and enjoys it. Senator Rounds, your reaction?
MR: Well, first of all, this is going to be a very serious incident when it does occur. We most certainly have to respond. I hope we keep all of our options open, and that we don’t telegraph what we’re going to do or when we are going to do it. But most certainly, we have to respond. And I don’t think we do it based on Putin or Assad’s timing or terms. We do it when it’s right for us, and I think that’s what’s going on right now. I think we’re putting our assets in place. And then allow our military planners to make the decisions about what the best way is to send that message.
HH: Now Senator Rounds, I’ve had Senator Graham and Senator Ernst on the last two days. They both believe we should not warn the Russians about where we’re going to be hitting, or the Iranians, and that we should target the Syrian Air Force. I want to target the palaces. Does Senator Rounds have any opinions on what ought to be targeted?
MR: I think it should be his command and control system. And but once again, we let the military planners make the decisions based on what our goals as a nation are to send the response. There are some things you have to do first, because you know, you have to take it in a sequential manner. So let our military planners put together the plan, and then there’s no reason why we telegraph it to anybody. But simply, let’s let it happen. Let the military planners, should make the decision about what we hit, when we hit it, and that should be approved by the President beforehand, but let the military planners make the decision about what it is that is the critical infrastructure that is vulnerable, and that will have the most impact on the situation in Syria. Remember, this guy’s already been warned once. We took out part of an airbase before. We made it very clear that there was a new sheriff in town and that we weren’t going to put up with the crap he was doing. Since that time, he’s continued to do it, and just stepped back into it as if we weren’t paying attention. And now, it’s time to pay attention once again, and it’s time to send a very clear message. And this is one that that should be noticed not just by the Assad regime, but by Iran and by Russia as well, very clearly.
HH: Now Senator, we just talked about the tactics – what do you hit. What is the strategic purpose of striking back?
MR: I think number one, you send the message that chemical warfare is simply not acceptable on the battlefield today. So your goal is to send a clear message to the rest of the world, including North Korea, that we will not allow it, and that there will be retribution. So when you do that, it can’t just be a slap on the hand. This one is, this one’s got to be a very serious, a very regime-threatening attack. And it should be done in such a fashion that the other folks go, the Russians and the Iranians go, I guess they really meant it.
HH: A few years ago, Senator, the then-chief of staff to General Mattis when he was down at Pendleton commanding, I think, the 3rd MEF, told me that civilians never think about second order consequences. If we are a regime-threatening attack away, a day away from a regime-threatening attack, do we not risk reigniting what has become a desert? I mean, it’s, they made a desert and they called it peace sort of thing. But do we threaten to reignite the hostilities in Syria if we actually threaten the regime?
MR: That’s one of the risks that we take, but it is a risk that is inherent in any military activity where you actually and truly weaken the Assad regime. It’s one of the reasons why I suggest the command and control that he has would be a vulnerable area to go after. It would be something he could not easily recreate, and you know, would have long term lasting effects. In order to go after that, it means you have to soften up some other parts of his military establishment as well. It means you may very well have to take out some of the anti-aircraft systems. It means you may very well have to take out some of his aircraft themselves so that he can’t respond as we’re doing our job in terms of taking out command and control. But once again, this is a case for the military planners to make a decision as to what the appropriate response is.
HH: Now one of the narratives, Senator, has been that the President is soft on Russia. Well, today he says get ready, Russia, because they will be come, missiles, nice, new and smart. Yesterday, he named President Putin by name.
HH: He’s increased the NATO spending. He has expelled 60. Our combat troops engaged and repulsed Russian mercenaries in Syria. Any doubt in your mind that the President knows what Russia is and is serious about deterring them?
MR: No doubt in my mind, but I think I can explain partially why people have that perception. I think with this president, while he understands the serious threat that Russia is, I think he had hoped to be able to have a personal relationship, to be able to make contact with Putin directly, to have a business-like relationship with the leader of that country. And I think sometimes, that perception that he’s not personally attacking Putin is misunderstood as being soft on Russia. I think what the President has wanted from day one is to be tough on Russia, to once again regain the military strength that we need to be able to make this world safer than what it was for the last ten years. But secondly, I think he really wanted to have the ability to go to that other nation and to have a personal contact with Putin, to be able to establish something different that might very well someday avoid that conflict that otherwise we may be in.
HH: Now let me switch to the Mueller investigation. I don’t believe the President should tweet about Mueller, should leave him alone, let it go its course, because I don’t see any evidence of collusion. Have you seen any evidence of collusion between the President and Russia in Election ’16?
MR: What you just suggested is exactly what I’ve been telling the press for the last umpteen months, that we’ve seen no evidence of collusion. The President would be better off to leave Mueller alone, let him continue to do his work. Don’t fire him. Don’t give everybody a reason to try to create another independent counsel. Leave this person to what he can find. And when he’s all done, make darn sure that his report comes out and says there’s no collusion. Don’t give him an excuse to try to find another reason to do another investigation. Put up with the insults and the clearly irritating attacks where they go into your, I mean, look. We all would feel as frustrated as this President was when your personal attorney’s offices raided. And that clearly was designed to send a message of irritation.
HH: Let me ask you about that. Have you ever, ever heard, do you know any lawyer whose office has ever been raided?
MR: No, not, I mean, this was just a, and to think that they also then made it very clear that the information and the reason why the local authorities were raiding the office was because of tips from the Mueller office. That, to me, sent a message saying that they were out to irritate the presidency, or the President.
HH: And so Rod Rosenstein approved that, correct?
MR: I don’t know.
HH: Well, that’s what is reported.
HH: My question goes…
MR: I can’t answer that one, but I can tell you this. I don’t think we fall for the bait.
HH: I agree.
HH: I agree, but I do want to talk about Rod Rosenstein for a second. I know you served two years only with Jeff Sessions, so you only have a two year relationship with him.
HH: I like Jeff Sessions a lot. He’s been a guest on this show a lot. I know his staff a lot. I worked at Justice under Smith and Meese. I know Justice. I’m beginning to wonder whether Jeff Sessions ought not to step down so the President can have an Attorney General running the department in whom he has confidence. What do you think?
MR: I think that would be a mistake. Look, I did only work with Jeff for a couple of years, but I can tell you during that time I got to know him. He is a man of honor and integrity, and he follows the rule of law.
HH: Well, I agree with that, but he’s not involved. I mean, Rod Rosenstein is making the decision to okay the warrant to go into Cohen’s office. It’s breathtaking. Now it might be justified, but I’m beginning to wonder whether or not Rosenstein is more concerned with the reputation of the Department of Justice and with making Bob Mueller happy than with actually taking care of the national interests of the United States.
MR: You know, I wouldn’t go that far on it, because I wouldn’t connect that with your original question, which was should Jeff Sessions resign. The office of Attorney General is critical. And you want a person in there that understands the rule of law. And I’m just saying this is a man who regardless of whether you like the law or you don’t like the law, this is a man who has lived with it, and he has integrity.
HH: Oh, I 100% agree.
MR: You don’t walk away from that.
HH: I know Senator Sessions.
HH: I agree completely. But he’s not running this, and by the way, Rod Rosenstein has integrity. I’m not questioning his integrity. I’m questioning the ability of a headless Department of Justice to follow a plan and wrap this up if there’s no collusion. I don’t know that Rod Rosenstein has the stature or the political standing to be able to direct Mr. Mueller, wrap it up. If you don’t have collusion, shut it down. Do you think he does?
MR: Yeah, look, and you see in the first thing that I came out of this when I heard that they had started this was number one, they’d better have a darn good reason for why they raided that office. And they’re going to have to answer the questions why would you escalate this by going after someone’s personal attorney? And if they don’t have a real good reason for doing it, and I mean a real good reason for doing it, I think this makes them less credible when it comes to the final outcome of any report. This is almost like the dying throes where an organization that has been charged with trying to take down a president, and in many cases, folks on the other side expected that that’s what would happen, and they’re not getting any place, because there has been no collusion established in this. Otherwise, we’d be hearing about it. And if that’s the case, here is one more opportunity for them to irritate and try to find another incident in which they can now further investigate. Look, don’t take the bait. Get, the President needs to handle his way through this, lay low, and don’t get in the middle of a tit for tat with these guys on what he’s doing on that. Get through this thing, because they don’t have anything.
HH: All right, last question, Senator.
HH: And I’m taking you long, and I appreciate the time.
HH: But I’ve got to ask this. The President’s personal papers are in the possession of the Department of Justice now. I would assume his testamentary dispositions, his divorce decrees, any NDAs that he has, all sorts of stuff that you and I would consider our personal papers if they were in the possession of our lawyers, do we know where they are? Should they not be in a SCIF? And should we not have special protections on the President’s personal papers?
MR: You know, I had exactly the same thought yesterday, was how many personal papers were taken out that belonged to the president of the United States that the rest of us, if they were ours, we would say what in the world are you doing, and why do you think you have the authority to come in and to take those personal papers out? Now that’s where I ended up at, and that’s the reason why I come back to this, they have, they have questions that are going to have to be answered. And if they can’t answer those questions, there’s going to be real problems here. And so they’re going to, yeah, I mean, look, I have a huge amount of respect for the FBI. And I think they’re following orders. And the institution of the Justice Department has to be respected. But there still has to be oversight of any federal agency and any federal activity. And as this draws to a close, those attacks, those inspections, those inquiries will have to be reviewed, and they’re going to have to come up with some darn good explanations as to why they’re doing it.
HH: Senator Mike Rounds, I agree completely, and I appreciate your candor and your time. Thank you for joining me. Come back early and often.
MR: Thanks, Hugh. You have a good day.
HH: You, too.
End of interview.