TRANSCRIPT: Major Garrett interviews White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough

MAJOR GARRETT: And we're back with White House Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough.  Denis, thank you, so much, for coming in.

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Thanks for having me, Major.

MAJOR GARRETT: Your colleague in the White House, John Podesta, told Bloomberg something interesting recently about the Governor Chris Christie scandal, quote, "I think it's a killer, really.  If that was true, I don't think there's any coming back."  The White House is now getting involved in the Chris Christie scandal.

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Oh, I think John was just reacting to news of the day and to a question that was asked to him-

MAJOR GARRETT: Do you agree?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: --on Friday afternoon.  And so we've been pretty clear that this is a New Jersey matter to be resolved in New Jersey.  We don't have a role in this.

MAJOR GARRETT: Politically, do you think it's a killer, if true?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Again, this is a New Jersey issue.  We'll let them resolve it up there.

MAJOR GARRETT: Would you prefer John not commented on this?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Well, I think John was just reacting to a question.

MAJOR GARRETT: Very good.  Keystone.  There was a report from the State Department on Friday.  How does the White House interpret that?  What's the schedule to decide up or down on the pipeline?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Well, this is one of many important inputs in the process.  It's an important one.

MAJOR GARRETT: How close are we to the end?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Well, I'm not going to prejudge that right now.  What's important is the President laid out last summer in a speech at Georgetown his standard for what he thinks should govern the decision on Keystone which is that it should not significantly exacerbate what is a significant climate change crisis we face in this country.

Very chilling story in the New York Times today about the impact of climate change on droughts in the west.  California, which is now seeing some pretty serious developments as a result of climate change.  So we'll be looking at that.  But what the President's role is now is to protect this process from politics, let the expert agencies and the cabinet secretaries make their assessments both of the study that was put on Friday as well as its impact on the national interest.  So we'll resolve that over the coming period of time.

MAJOR GARRETT: Let me talk to you about Syria.  The United States government says only four percent of the chemical weapons due out of that country by June 30th have been removed.  Is this falling apart?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: It's not falling apart, but we would like to see it proceed much more quickly than it is, Major.  This is a very important development.  We've seen one of the world's largest stockpiles of chemical weapons not acknowledged until last summer.  Now we're seeing it begin to be secured and dismantled, moved out of the country.  We think that's important.

 

(OVERTALK)

DENIS MCDONOUGH: But it has to be done along the timeline that the Syrians agreed.  Secretary Kerry has raised this for his counterparts as recently as this morning in Geneva.  We'll keep pushing on that.

MAJOR GARRETT: And we're dependent on the Russians to exert their influence, are we not?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Well, we're not dependent on anybody in particular.  We're going to make sure that the Syrians live up to their obligations.  They have an obligation to the international community to do exactly what they said they'd do? 

MAJOR GARRETT: Or what?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Well, I'm not going to get into any "or whats" here, Major.  But they ought to do exactly what they said they would do.

MAJOR GARRETT: Speaking of Russia, how do you feel about security at the Winter Olympic games?  What's the latest the President's been told?  Are Americans and will be Americans be safe?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: We are tracking it very, very closely as you would expect.  You've heard the President talk about this, and Jay, extensively, obviously with you and your colleagues.  We're in close touch with the Russians.  When we get new information, we share with the American people.

And our request is not that people do not travel.  In fact we have said that people could travel to the Olympics.  We just want them to stay in touch with the State Department while they travel, watch the website for updates.  When we have information, we'll share with the American people.  But we feel good that the Russians are taking serious steps right now.  We'll continue to track that closely.

MAJOR GARRETT: Speaking of information, two weeks ago it was widely said at the White House the Russians were not giving up enough, not sharing enough about new threat matrix information.  Has that improved?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: We always want more information.  That's the life blood of how we keep our people safe.  And big international events like this as you've heard the President say it, are also times for us to be concerned.  I know that Mike Morell and others on this network have suggested as much.  So we're going to stay on top of this.  More information is always better than less.

MAJOR GARRETT: Immigration.  Republicans in the House put out principles.  You can read it one of two ways.  I'm curious how the President reads it.  You could read it as a permanent second class status for certain Americans who are here now illegally.  They could stay here legally but may never become citizens.  Is that good enough for the President?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: We're not going to jump to any conclusions on this.  You know the President's principles, which is that we ought to see a pathway to citizenship for people.  We don't want to have a permanent separation of classes or two permanent different classes of Americans in this country.

We're just not gonna live with that.  So this is an important first step.  We'll see how this plays out.  Our job now is to stand back, see how the House Republicans handle this.  And I think we see some important progress here.  We'll see how it plays out.

MAJOR GARRETT: But it sounds like you're saying House Republicans need to evolve to that position where it's citizenship at least eventually, or it's not deal.

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Look, that's the President's principle, which is he's laid out his principles on this.  We should not have two classes of people in this country.  I'm not prejudging exactly how the Republicans will handle this in Congress.  I know the Democrats in Congress are going to have a view on this, too, and they've been very clear about that over the course of this debate over the last many years. 

MAJOR GARRETT: Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, said that the Iranians are not prepared to give up their higher tech, more ambitious centrifuge purification of uranium.  Is that a deal killer?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: I'm pretty confident that this is not the first negotiation where people have public positions and private positions.  So we'll let Foreign Minister Zarif talk about what he wants to talk about publicly.  We'll make clear what we expect from him privately- 

MAJOR GARRETT: Which is?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: --in the talks later this month. 

MAJOR GARRETT: I guess what I would like to try to figure out, then, is it the American position that once a final deal is reached or in pursuit of a final deal, Iran cannot have any centrifuge purification processes of its own.  That if it has nuclear fuel for civilian nuclear power production capability, it must come from the outside.  Or can it have nuclear power it produces its own?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: I'm not going to conduct a negotiation here on your set or with you, Major.  Here's what the President's position--

MAJOR GARRETT: Is that a key question?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Here's what the President's position is.  A key question is that the President is committed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.  That's what he has made clear to the American people over the course of these last many years.  Nuclear weapons in the hands of the Iranians, who would be a risk to that region, to our friends, like Israel, but also would set off a nuclear arms race in that region which would be in nobody's interests.

That's why we're focused on precisely that.  We'll also continue to press them on things like their support for Hezbollah, their support for international terrorism.  But in the first instance, I'm not going into that debate with you or the negotiation with you here.

MAJOR GARRETT: Last question.  The President talked about trade promotion authority in the State of the Union address.  The very next day, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, "I'm against fast track.  Everyone would be well advised just to not push this right now."  Everyone.  Does that include the President?  Is he gonna back off?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: No, the President's been very clear about the trade agreement with our Asian counterparts, the TTP, as well as a trade agreement with our European friends.  Think about what trade means for the United States' economy.  Each billion dollars in additional trade means 4,000 to 5,000 additional jobs in this country, jobs that are paid at somewhere between 15% and 18% more than the average wage.

If you just take the agreement with Asia when we're able to solidify that agreement, that means as much as $130 billion in additional exports a year to those countries.  So we think this is really important.  Senator Reid has been a great friend of the President's.  We'll continue to work on this.  His position on trade has been clear from the beginning.

(OVERTALK)

MAJOR GARRETT: Will the President get on the phone and try to persuade the Senate Majority Leader otherwise?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: The President will continue to work on this.  He'll use the phone and use other-- means as he has over the course of this week, to do things like-- create additional opportunity for working class Americans.  He'll do it again later this week with creating increased access to wireless education opportunities for U.S. students.

MAJOR GARRETT: Denis McDonough, White House Chief of Staff, thank you, very much.

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Thank you, Major.

MAJOR GARRETT: And we'll be right back.

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