Face the Nation transcript, May 14, 2017: Schiff, Sasse, Gates
JOHN DICKERSON, HOST: Today on FACE THE NATION: The president fires the FBI director, and the White House struggles to get its story straight.
For a president who made his reputation firing people on television...
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DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You're fired.
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DICKERSON: ... it was a messy week of pink slips. It started with new questions about why President Trump waited 18 days before firing National Security Adviser Michael Flynn for lying about his contacts with the Russians.
Then came Tuesday night's firing of the man leading the federal investigation into Russian meddling in the election, FBI Director James Comey, which happened so fast that it caught even White House staffers off-guard. Why the quick action?
The first explanation was based on a letter from the deputy attorney general, who said Comey's mishandling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mail server made him unfit to stay in the job.
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MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: President Trump made the right decision at the right time, and to accept the recommendation of the deputy attorney general.
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DICKERSON: Meanwhile, the Russians seemed amused by the whole thing.
In Washington, Foreign Minister Lavrov joked with reporters about it...
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SERGEI LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: Was he fired? You are kidding. You are kidding.
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DICKERSON: ... and then posed for pictures with the president and Russian ambassador in the Oval Office, a warm reception not extended to American reporters. Those pictures are from the Russian government.
A day later, the president had a different reason for firing Comey, one that contradicted his original reason, his vice president and his staff.
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TRUMP: But, regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey. When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.
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DICKERSON: And yet another reason for firing the FBI director?
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TRUMP: He's a showboat. He's a grandstander. The FBI has been in turmoil.
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DICKERSON: The new acting head of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, told Congress that was not true.
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ANDREW MCCABE, ACTING FBI DIRECTOR: That Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI, and still does to this day.
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DICKERSON: Comey stayed out of the spotlight, but his associates told the press about a White House dinner during which Mr. Trump asked the former director for a pledge of loyalty.
The president denied it and threatened Comey in a tweet: "James Comey better hope that there are no tapes of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press."
Where do things stand now?
We will hear from the lead Democrat on House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, Republican Ben Sasse, who sits on one of the Senate committees investigating the Russian connection. And we will hear from former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DICKERSON: When you saw the firing of James Comey, the director of the FBI, how did that strike you, based on your experience?
ROBERT GATES, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Not terribly well-done.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
DICKERSON: Plus, we will have plenty of analysis from our political panel, and a word about mothers.
It's all coming up on FACE THE NATION. Good morning, and welcome to FACE THE NATION. I'm John Dickerson.
Once again, there's a lot to cover today, and we begin with the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, California Congressman Adam Schiff.
Congressman, I want to start with -- there's -- a lot happened this week. So, for you, what is the most important thing?
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: Well, the most important thing to me is that the president fired the FBI director all because of the Russia investigation.
That first justification given, again, the White House misleading the country about a major action the administration was taking, but the fact that they had a private conversation in which the president, by his own admission, was discussing the future of Director Comey in that job, and the president brings up whether he is under investigation, highly unethical, at a minimum, unethical.
If he was then trying to impede the investigation in any away, it may be beyond unethical, but deeply disturbing, again, a threat to our system of checks and balances.
DICKERSON: So, you say that this was all about Russia. But there is another player in here, of course, the deputy attorney general in the Department of Justice.
And his argument was that Director Comey's handling of the e-mail investigation was terrible. And you were highly critical of that as well. I mean, you said you were deeply disturbed by it, that it had damaged the FBI, it was an error in judgment.
So, wasn't there merit to the case that the deputy attorney general had made in saying that Comey couldn't do his job because of his handling of the e-mails?
SCHIFF: There was certainly merit to the criticism that the deputy attorney general had about how Comey handled the Clinton investigation. And I don't think Director Comey ever adequately explained why he treated the Clinton investigation one way and the Trump investigation another.
But, of course, that was all pretext. That wasn't why Comey was fired. And what disturbed me most, frankly, about the Rosenstein memo -- and I raised this in a conversation I had with him earlier in the week -- is the fact it was addressed to the attorney general.
The attorney general was supposed to have recused himself from anything involving Russia. And here he is recommending the firing of the top cop doing the Russia investigation, in clear violation of what he had -- he, the attorney general, had committed to doing.
And now we have the attorney general participating in the interview of new directors of the FBI, underscoring, I think, yet again how imperative it is we have an independent counsel.
DICKERSON: You say misleading from the president.
So, do you think that Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein and the attorney general, Sessions, are in on the misleading?
SCHIFF: Well, certainly, I think the attorney general should have played no role. So, the violation there is having a hand in how the investigation is going to be run.
In terms of the deputy A.G., I don't know what was behind the creation of that memo. I certainly suspected, I think, as many people did, it was asked to justify a decision that was being made on other grounds.
Now, whether the deputy attorney general knew his memo was going to be used that way, to misdirect the country, I don't know. But, certainly, as the president made all too clear, that was all pretext. This was all about Comey and Russia.
DICKERSON: You say it's unethical for the president to have had dinner.
The president, when he talked about his reasoning for this, he mentioned that the investigation into the Russian meddling was on his mind. So, is this -- do you go all the way to thinking this is obstruction?
SCHIFF: Well, the difficulty -- and I look at this also as a former prosecutor -- can you prove obstruction based on the president's own words, when we don't know whether we can believe this president?
We already know that there are those close to Comey who have a very different take, also a troubling take, on that dinner conversation. So, I'm not sure you could prove the case based on this. But if there are tapes, of course, that would be the best evidence of what took place.
If they exist, Congress needs to get them. If they're not provided willingly, Congress should subpoena them. And if they're not in existence, if this was yet another fabrication by the president, he needs to come clean about it.
DICKERSON: And we should remind people that the president can fire the FBI director for whatever reason he wants.
On those tapes, could you -- would you join with the chairman of the committee to subpoena to those tapes? Is that...
SCHIFF: Absolutely. If the tapes exist, and they're not willfully, willingly provided, absolutely, I would join in subpoenaing them.
DICKERSON: There is a new FBI director being -- there's a series of interviews going on. What, for you, is the threshold question for the next FBI director?
SCHIFF: Absolute integrity and independence.
And, for this reason, I would strongly urge the administration to pick someone who is completely apolitical, who doesn't come out of the political process, someone who is a retired judge or an acting judge willing to step down from their judgeship, someone ideally who has prosecutorial experience, but someone who could come in and give credibility to the Russia investigation that right now is severely in jeopardy.
One of the, I think, heightened responsibilities we're going to have in the House Intelligence Committee is making sure that, whoever comes in, this investigation by the bureau goes on unimpeded, because the FBI has a reach that neither our committee nor the Senate committee has.
They've got agents all over the globe. They have the resources to really do things that we in Congress don't. And so we need to make sure nothing impairs that work.
DICKERSON: You mentioned nobody with politics.
So, Mike Rogers, who has been recommended by the FBI Agents Association, former colleague of yours in the House, so you wouldn't -- you wouldn't want him to gain that post?
SCHIFF: Well, nothing against Mike Rogers or either of the other House or Senate candidates who have been mentioned, but I think the public would have the most confidence if someone who had no partisan background, was completely apolitical was brought in to run the bureau.
DICKERSON: Attorney General Sessions has recused himself from the investigation into Russia, but he is a part of the FBI director choice.
Does that bother you at all?
SCHIFF: It does bother me.
And I think it also underscores why we need a special prosecutor. But, also, if he plays any role in the interviewing of the director, he needs to absent himself from any discussion of the Russia investigation.
And it's hard to imagine. How do you interview someone for a new director without talking about how they would handle and how they would restore confidence, public confidence in that investigation?
DICKERSON: All right, Congressman Schiff, thank you so much for being with us.
SCHIFF: Thanks, John.
DICKERSON: And joining us now is Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse.
Senator Sasse is the author of "The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming of Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self- Reliance."
He joins us from New York.
Senator, why do you think James Comey was fired?
SEN. BEN SASSE (R), NEBRASKA: I'm not sure how this president makes lots of decisions, so I honestly don't know.
But I do know that we are in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of public trust. And we need to talk honestly about our institutions that need to be restored and need to have the ability for people in five and eight and 10 years to trust these institutions.
So, there are lots of reasonable arguments people can make about the way Director Comey made decisions in the midst of the unprecedented complexities of the 2016 election cycle. And lots of people can think that Director Comey, who is a fundamentally honorable man, but people can think that he executed his job in all sorts of clunky and imperfect ways.
That's a different question than whether or not he should have been fired the way he was last week. And I have been critical of that decision. I think it exacerbates the erosion of trust in our institutions.
So, I'm disappointed in the timing of the firing, but I want to preserve room that there's lots of reasonable reasons that people across the political spectrum can argue about the way the FBI leadership conducted its business in the 2016 cycle.
DICKERSON: Help me understand a little bit more about your point about the institutions and the way in which this was handled, recognizing your point that this is really separate from the merits of Comey's handling of the e-mail investigation.
But his firing, explain how that challenges institutions, in your view.
SASSE: Well, here's one of the things that D.C. is just constantly head-in-the-sand about, which is that we've got a bunch of different institutions that have 9 percent and 12 percent and 15 percent public trust and public approval.
America can't work that way, because we need a shared narrative about how we are as a people, what government can and can't do, and what the beating heart of the First Amendment and free press and freedom of assembly and speech and religion means to us.
We need to have a shared civic understanding of America before we get to partisan and policy differences. There are important fights to be had in policy. But we first need a civic sense of what America is. And here's what comes next in things like Russian interference in America and in other countries in the age of cyber-war over the next decade. I'm obviously concerned about 2016, but I'm far more concerned about 2018 and 2020, because here is what comes next.
John Dickerson decides to run for office in 2018, and, all of a sudden, your credit card records get dumped in some sort of a cyber- hack leak, and 97 percent of those records are going to be real. And there's going to be texture to it, and you were in city X on this day, and you were in city Y on this other day.
But 3 percent of the records are going to be fabricated. And they're going to be interwoven. And, John, you have been spending a lot of money at a women's clothing store in Chattanooga, but your wife isn't in Chattanooga, so that's weird.
And then there's public doubt about you. And then, five days later, your phone records are dumped, and they're 99 percent accurate, but 1 percent, you're calling a brothel in Chattanooga on Tuesday nights, when your wife is at bridge club.
That is what is coming next in the era of cyber-war. And we're going to need to have some institutions that we can rely on and believe are apolitical, when the public has more and more doubt. And, right now, Washington isn't at all focused on the long-term challenge of rebuilding a shared narrative about America...
DICKERSON: Let me...
SASSE: ... and institutional trust in our servants.
DICKERSON: Let me ask you, in specific terms with this case, another institution that has kind of been drawn into the conversation this week has been the Department of Justice.
There's the deputy attorney general, who put his reputation and the weight of the Department of Justice on a set of theories that now seem not to have been the entire reason for James Comey's firing.
I wonder if you see that as a potential threat to the independence and the reputation of that institution.
SASSE: Well, I mean, there's been a lot of politicization going on at the Department of Justice over the last five to eight and nine years as well.
And so we should want the Department of Justice to be very, very insulated from partisan politics. We have three branches of government, not one, not 17, right? And so you need to have investigative and prosecutorial functions be in the Article II branch of government. They need to be in the executive branch, but there should be lots of insulation from the career civil servants and the leadership of the Justice Department from political decision-making at the White House.
And so I don't think -- I'm the chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate. So, there are a number of things I don't want to say yet before we have Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein before us, but there's a lot that we need to understand better about how this happened.
DICKERSON: Before we leave, let me ask you about your book "The Vanishing American Adult."
You see a very serious problem here for America. Explain what you mean. It's a nonpolitical problem.
SASSE: Yes, so this book is 100 percent not about politics, and it's 99 percent not about policy.
It's about this new category of perpetual adolescence. And, first, let's just say that, over the last two millennia or so, the emergence of a category called adolescence is a pretty special gift. We believe that, when our kids become biological adults, when they hit puberty, they don't have to be fully formed, morally, emotionally, economically, educationally, in terms of household structure. They don't have to go out and be fully adult immediately.
They don't have to go off to war, and they don't have to become economically self-sufficient. That's glorious, to have that protected space between childhood and adulthood. But it's only glorious if you understand that it's a transitional state, it's a means to an end.
Peter Pan's Neverland is a hell. It's a dystopia. And we don't want to be -- have our kids caught at a place where they're not learning how to be adults. And, right now, we're not tending to the habit formation aspects of a republic.
DICKERSON: All right, Senator Sasse, thank you so much for being with us.
And we will be back in one minute with our political panel.
DICKERSON: And we're back with our panel.
Peggy Noonan is a columnist for "The Wall Street Journal." Jeffrey Goldberg is the editor of "The Atlantic." David Ignatius is a columnist for "The Washington Post." And Ben Domenech is the publisher of "The Federalist."
Peggy, I want to start with you.
The FBI director has been fired. What does this mean at the end of this week?
PEGGY NOONAN, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": It means a hugely unnecessary mess involving chaos and drama and a certain amount of brutality, I think, happened that didn't have to happen.
I think Ben Sasse was right. These things do -- firings like this, when they are badly done, do sort of harm institutions and harm public confidence and trust.
I think the president -- first of all, we all know he has every right to hire or fire those he wants who work for him. But the way in which he did it swamped the substance of his reason, from the original brutality towards Comey and the way he had to find out, through the strange tweets about, boy, he better hope I didn't tape our conversations.
This is all -- this is all the chaos, like the bag of chaos that Donald Trump carries with him every day and everywhere, that is self- destructive for him and self-sabotaging, I think.
DICKERSON: David, a lot of different stories this week on exactly what happened.
DAVID IGNATIUS, COLUMNIST, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, we're still sifting through.
The initial White House account of the firing was shattered by the president himself. The argument that the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, had taken it upon himself to make the case against Comey, and that was then backed by the attorney general, and then Trump comes on television and says, no, that's not how it happened. I wanted him gone.
Talking this week to several prominent Republicans, people who have not been sharp critics of Donald Trump, I heard the same thing, which is: This guys scares me.
And I think the reason that people were scared this week is that they saw impulsive behavior, they saw a kind of vengeful, brooding about past slights. They saw a willingness to be -- to be -- just basically to lie to the country, not to tell the truth.
And I think -- one person said to me, there are no guardrails on this presidency. Another person said, this is Richard Nixon on steroids. In other words, this is kind of a hyperactive -- so, I think that's where we are at the end of the week. A lot of people are scared. And they wonder, how do we get out of this?
BEN DOMENECH, PUBLISHER, "THE FEDERALIST": I'm genuinely surprised that that was their reaction, given that the president has shown himself to be so reserved and organized all the way up to this point.
DICKERSON: But this is a different order...
DOMENECH: It is a different order.
But I think, in this case, what we see is that the president, frankly, from my perspective, just had a situation where he wanted to fire Comey from day one. But I don't think that he felt politically solidified enough in the early going in order to do so. And, as the weeks and months went on, and he saw Comey's repeated appearances, he did the same thing that I think a lot of people do when they see someone who is irritating them on television, which is get irritated at them, and then want to do something about it. In this case, he did.
When it came to Mike Pence's comment about doing the right thing at the right time, the right time, frankly, was day one. If the president believed that James Comey was not qualified for this position, he should have gotten rid of him day one.
He didn't for political reasons. And that's led us to this point of disorganization and chaos.
DICKERSON: We've got a minute, Jeffrey.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE ATLANTIC": It's -- I want to focus on the self-inflicted nature of these crises.
Remember, in the short presidency of Donald Trump, nothing -- nothing terrible has happened yet externally. And so what I mean by that -- and God forbid any of these things should happen -- but we've had no Fergusons, we've had no San Bernardinos, Orlandos, Paris attacks.
A North Korean missile hasn't fallen onto South Korea, Israel- Hezbollah war. We haven't seen any of these things. And so what we're dealing with now is a White House -- look, even the best, most organized presidency, the best White House, sometimes succumb to crises, right?
But we have a White House that creates chaos -- to borrow from Peggy, chaos for itself. It can create chaos on its own schedule, and it still messes it up. And so we have a serious problem here.
DICKERSON: All right, we're going to talk about this some more later.
But we will have, in a minute, more of our conversation with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
DICKERSON: Friday, we traveled to William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, to speak with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
We began by asking him about FBI Director Comey's firing.
DICKERSON: How did that strike you, based on your experience?
GATES: Not terribly well-done.
GATES: You know, I fired a lot of senior people myself.
And I think the key, when you feel compelled to remove a senior official, is essentially to have all your ducks in a row at the beginning, have everybody understand what the rationale was, if possible, to be in a position to announce who is going to step in as the interim immediately, and, if possible, to announce who you're going to nominate to replace that person.
For that to be somebody of impeccable integrity and reputation disarms a lot of the worst criticism that it's some kind of a power play. It's a professional approach to replacing a senior official, which is always going to get a lot of attention. It's always going to be contentious.
But having a single storyline in terms how it happened and why it happened, that everybody is on the same page, and then what the next steps are, I think, helps to diminish the blowback that you get.
DICKERSON: In the reporting about the FBI director, there was a report that the president asked him for his loyalty.
Help people understand the line between duty, loyalty and personal conscience.
GATES: I think, in the context of senior government positions, I think an anecdote of what I told president-elect Obama when we had our first meeting -- and I said: "You don't know me. Can you trust me? Why do you think you can trust me?" -- and so on.
But, at the end, I said: "You can count on me to be loyal to you. I will not leak. I will keep my disagreements with you private. And I -- and if I cannot be loyal, I will leave."
Loyalty means doing what you think is in the best interest of that person, as well as the country. And, often, that loyalty means telling them things they don't want to hear. It's not being sycophantic. It's not telling them how wonderful they are every day. It's being willing to tell them the days they're not wonderful and when you think they're making a mistake.
DICKERSON: We will have more of our conversation with Secretary Gates in a moment, including what encourages him in the Trump administration.
DICKERSON: And we will be right back with a lot more FACE THE NATION, including more of our interview with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and more of our panel.
Stay with us.
DICKERSON: Welcome back to FACE THE NATION.
We continue our conversation with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
DICKERSON: What's your sense overall of President Trump as an unpredictable leader.
ROBERT GATES, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Broadly philosophically. I am in agreement with his disruptive approach. So, in government, I'm a strong believer in the need for reform of government agencies and departments. They - they have gotten fat and sloppy and they're not user friendly. They are inefficient. They cost too much.
I also think, on the foreign policy side, that there is a need for disruption. You know, we've had three administrations follow a pretty consistent policy toward North Korea and it really hasn't gotten us anywhere. So the notion of disrupting and sort of putting the Chinese on notice that it's no longer business as usual for the United States I think is a good thing.
Now, the question is, obviously in - in the implantation of disruption. On the foreign policy side, there's the risk of being to spontaneous and to disruptive, where you end up doing more harm than damage. And figuring out that - that balance is where having strong people around you matters.
DICKERSON: What advice would you give the president before his first big foreign trip that he's about to take?
GATES: That's a good question. I think that the key will be to limit spontaneity to areas that are fun or that sort of say something about you as a real person. I think when it comes to the issue, I - issues, I - I'd advise him to stick to the script. But, I mean, he is going to have some very tough conversations and he's going to be talking about some very tough and complicated issues in all of the places that he visits. And - but I think - I think any time the president does things that are humanizing, I think it's - it's good.
DICKERSON: Should the use of Twitter stop at the water's edge?
GATES: Well, not necessarily. It - but it - I - I would be careful.
DICKERSON: Let me ask you about former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. You used to be head of the CIA. If you got information that the national security adviser had not told the truth about a contact with a Russian ambassador, how serious of an issue would that be if it were - if it were brought to you?
GATES: Well, I would certainly make sure that the president knew that - that we had learned this. If we got that information in an intelligence report, then - then - then I would probably have sought a private meeting with the president to share that with him.
DICKERSON: The concern was that the Russians would be able to blackmail the former national security advisor because what they - they knew he had said something untrue and then caused the vice president to say something untrue. Is that a plausible possible outcome and something to be worried about?
GATES: I - you know, in all honesty, I think it's kind of a stretch. You know, it's one thing if somebody working for the U.S. government has sold secrets to the other side. It's another if they have something in their personal life that they're hiding for which they could be blackmailed. Having evidence that they didn't tell the truth to somebody in the same building where they work, maybe it's just the old intel guy, is - is, it's a problem. And it's a problem, like I just said, that I would tell the president about. But it's not the same as - and - and it's hard for me. I don't know General Flynn well, but it's hard for me to believe anybody would allow themselves to be blackmailed by the Russians because they didn't tell the full story or didn't tell the truth to the vice president of the United States who works 50 feet down the hall. You know, maybe he could have been blackmailed. It's theoretically possible. I - I just think it's a different - it's a different kind of situation than we would have thought of in the intelligence business.
DICKERSON: The president met with the Russian foreign minister and the ambassador in the Oval Office. There were pictures of them smiling in the Oval Office. What did you make of that meeting?
GATES: For a long time, Soviet foreign ministers would come in to see the president all the time, routinely. Jimmy Carter stopped that after the invasion of Afghanistan. Ronald Reagan resumed it in 1984, I think. And - and so the fact of a meeting like that I think is not that big a deal.
DICKERSON: The Trump White House kept American photographers and press out of the room. The photographs were released by the Russians. What do you make of that?
GATES: I thought that was all pretty odd.
DICKERSON: Pretty odd?
DICKERSON: Not worth repeating.
There's important business on the table with Russia all over the world. But there's also this - the intelligence community has a consensus that the Russians did meddle in the last election So people look at smiling photographs in the Oval Office, and they look at this effort to have meddled in the election and they say, is there a disconnect there? Should there be sterner faces and a harsher approach to Russia?
GATES: Well, I think in the policies that have been followed since the president came into office, there really hasn't been any slack cut for the Russians. And I think one of the things that has surprised people has been that the relationship between the United States and Russia has in fact deteriorated since the election.
The administration, the contrast between the way they have treated the Russians and the way they have reacted to the Chinese is pretty - is pretty stark. So, you know, having smiles in the Oval Office, I don't know, maybe - maybe I'm just getting too old, but I don't think that's that big a deal.
It's - it's in their policies and in their actions that - that it - that it really matters. And in those - in those arenas, I think they've been pretty tough-minded.
DICKERSON: Some analysts look at Russia and say, what - what Vladimir Putin really wanted by being involved in the U.S. election was just to throw the West into a kind of chaotic state, to undermine U.S. institutions. Do you think that Putin is getting what he wants?
GATES: Well, I think that he is certainly getting a lot of publicity for what the Russians are doing. And I'm not sure that's unwelcome to him.
Look, I think this is a guy who saw the U.S. basically come out against him in his reelection campaign in 2012. He saw the U.S. being behind all of the color revolutions in Eastern Europe and in Georgia and Ukraine and so on. So his view is the West has been interfering in - in his politics for years. And I think that he has decided, in a very strategic way, to turn the tables and do everything in his power to, as we've described Russian elections as illegitimate, to try and communicate to the rest of the world that Western elections are illegitimate.
And it's not just us. We know that now. It's Germany. It's France. It's a number of other countries. And it's a very broad and not very well-disguised effort to - to create questions about the legitimacy of these Western elections. And I - I think, I mean, this is very KGB.
DICKERSON: In North Korea, the president is relying very heavily on China. Is he relying too much on China so that it makes it hard for him to push back on China when it comes to the South China Sea or human rights or intellectual property rights?
GATES: I think that - that the disruptive nature, the - the tough talk on North Korea, the military deployments, sending the missile defense system to South Korea, I think these are all good things to have done. And I think he's gotten China's attention to a degree that his predecessors have not, that this is a very serious matter for the United States.
My last visit to China as secretary, January of 2011, I told President Hu, just like this, the president of the United States wanted me to tell you that we now consider North Korea a direct threat to the United States. And it had no effect whatsoever.
I think President Trump has their attention. And my one concern is that he may overestimate how much power China has in Pyongyang. They have - they do have influence, and they do have companies, and they do have economic relationships that could make life much more difficult in the North. Their balancing act is, how can - how much worse can we make it in the North without creating that which scares us more than anything, which is a collapse in the North. And then what happens to all those nuclear weapons. An so they're - they're going to work very hard to avoid that.
It's clear the relationship between China and North Korea has hardly ever been worse. Kim Jong-un has never been to Beijing in his leadership. President Xi has never been to North Korea. That's a first in that relationship. The Chinese press are saying some amazingly negative things about the North, and about Kim Jong-un. So - so they are weighing in, and they are bringing greater pressure. Whether it will be enough, I think, remains to be seen.
DICKERSON: A lot of people look at this president and think he is out of the - the bounds of the normal presidency. But your descriptions and assessment of the administration seems like you see him within the bounds of a normal presidency. Is that fair?
GATES: I mean, again, I have tried to focus most of what I've talked about on the foreign policy side. That's the part I know. I didn't think this whole business with Director Comey was handled well. So there are sort of day-to-day aspects of the operation that I think are really troublesome. And - and I know that there are a lot of people in the country who have lots of issues with decisions that he's making on the domestic side.
The thing that reassures me some on the foreign policy side is that he and his team seem to have worked out a relationship of trust. And a lot of the extraneous or extemporaneous things that were going on early on have largely settled out.
DICKERSON: Mr. Secretary, thank you so much.
GATES: Thank you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
DICKERSON: We'll be right back with more of our panel.
DICKERSON: And we're back with more from our political panel.
Peggy Noonan is a columnist for "The Wall Street Journal" and her best-selling book, "The Time Of Our Lives," is out in paperback. Peggy was also recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize in last - for last year's campaign commentary and we congratulate her for that.
PEGGY NOONAN, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": Thank you.
DICKERSON: Jeffrey Goldberg is the editor of "The Atlantic." David Ignatius is a columnist for "The Washington Post," and Ben Domenech is the publisher of "The Federalist." David, I want to start with you.
Coming out of what Secretary Gates said, he feels reassured by the foreign policy team that the president has around him. What do you make of that?
DAVID IGNATIUS, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Bob Gates, as we just heard, is the steady voice of continuity. He's been around since the Reagan presidency and - and he has that depth and clarity. And he's - and he's right, Trump chose a national security team that's first rate. A lot of them are people that Gates recommended. Rex Tillerson was a Gates proposal at the State Department. James Mattis, a general widely admired. Secretary Kelly at Homeland Security was actually Bob Gates' military adviser way back when. H.R. McMaster, similarly, came up in that - in that sort of broad school that Gates helped - helped preside over.
I thought I hear Secretary Gates say that on domestic policy he - he is troubled as he looks at - at the Comey firing. He finds elements that worry him. And so the - the obvious point is, that President Trump and the - the Senate need to respond to this week that we've had by choosing someone to run the FBI who is in that category of - of strong, steady, reliable national security leaders that we just talked about, that Bob Gates, in a sense represents. If they can make a nomination like that, you know, that's got some former judges who are terrific. Mike Rogers, who was recommended by former FBI agents, ran a bipartisan committee and made it work. But, you know, if they can choose somebody that the country will trust, who's on that list, then I think they begin to get out of this.
DICKERSON: Peggy, the - Secretary Gates said the president needs to limit spontaneity overseas.
NOONAN: Yes. Yes.
DICKERSON: What's your - what are your expectations for this big foreign policy trip the president has (INAUDIBLE)?
NOONAN: Oh, that was a deft way, I think, for Mr. Gates to say, please, don't freak us out while you're overseas. My - I take a very simple, unlettered view of this big foreign - foreign policy trip from the president. I think he's saying essentially, I am Trump and I am real. I am a real president. I am doing what real presidents do. I am meeting with popes, I'm meeting with sheiks. I - I sort of thing in a way most foreign policy trips involve a certain symphonic acting out of who you are. So I - I think the trip essentially is meant to say, I'm here and I'm normal. I hope, as Gates says, he doesn't get to colorful or anything like that.
I know there are serious foreign policy components to the discussions. I'm going to leave it to you guys. But, to me, this is symbolic and I hope it is peaceful. It would be very nice if we got a little - no trouble that is unneeded calm, grown-up -
JEFFREY GOLDBERG, "THE ATLANTIC": Chances are -
NOONAN: I know, but a gal can dream.
GOLDBERG: Chances are slim that he's going to say something in front of the pope that - that causes an emission (ph). It's after. It's on Twitter.
BEN DOMENECH, "THE FEDERALIST": Is that a dare?
DICKERSON: But the pope will forgive him. He's in that business.
No, I - I don't think it's going to be - the trips are - are very scripted, you know. It's after the trip. It's when you have a crisis. I hate to keep going back to this point about crisis, but these trips are scripted to avoid crises. It's - he's not going to try to instigate a new Israeli/Palestinian peace process I think at this moment. But what I worry about is when - it's that - you know what it is, it's the 3:00 a.m. phone call. We haven't had the 3:00 a.m. phone call yet. And it's not clear to me that even that iron triangle of Tillerson, McMaster, Mattis can - can stop an impulsive reaction on the part of the president that might not be easily pulled back.
DICKERSON: Let me -
DOMENECH: Well, the - the issue here too, just to get back to Comey for a moment, is that the president has a way of taking something that ought to be done and making it more chaotic than it deserves to be. It's my opinion that James Comey deserved to be fired. That it was clear that he deserved to be fired. That his incompetence in the investigation of Hillary Clinton alone deserved that, even without the various points that he made afterwards. And he had lost and burned through a lot of bipartisan goodwill on both sides of the aisle.
But that's not why the president made the decision that he did. John Podesta, the morning that James Comey was fired, tweeted out in reference to his testimony the previous day, that the American public is getting mildly nauseous listening to James Comey. That's fine. That may be true. But that isn't the reason that the president ought to have made the decision that he made. And that led to all of the chaos this week for something that ought to have been much more organized, much more laid out in - as - as Bob Gates said, something that's planned where everybody says, this is why we did the thing we did.
DICKERSON: Peggy, let me ask you about that chaos because idiosyncratic president with some disruption going on. Secretary Gates suggested that in some places that disruption was doing some good things, getting NATO to pay up.
DICKERSON: Getting the North Koreans to realize America was serious.
DICKERSON: But in this care the president said he made his decision for reason "x." And then the vice president went out and said, yes, it was because of the Hillary Clinton e-mail server.
DICKERSON: So the vice president is now on the hook for a - for an explanation that the president then undermined. So isn't that a cost of chaos to his vice president?
NOONAN: Oh, sure. Trump always puts his people on the hook, do you know what I mean? He - he doesn't just harm himself, he harms his whole operation when he acts in this antic matter.
But let me tell you quickly something I'm thinking of as well speak here about this whole Comey drama. What obsesses us in Washington, as we well know, is not necessarily what obsesses America. What we talk about on this panel is not our views, not necessarily reflected out there. I was so struck yesterday with everybody I know in conversations, it was all about Comey, the FBI, who's the next guy.
Then I put on the TV and I see the president wowing them at Liberty University with - they got their MAGA hats on. I am struck by the distance between our conversation and the national conversation and I'm struck by the distance between Democrats and Republicans as they approve or disapprove of the Comey thing. It's an 80/20. Democrats are 80 percent, I hate the Comey firing. Republicans are 80 percent, I love the Comey firing. This - this distance -
GOLDBERG: On the other hand, it's not the most popular president we've seen at this point.
NOONAN: Understood. Understood.
GOLDBERG: Liberty University might be a little bit outside the norm.
NOONAN: He's got his base, is what I mean. He's not growing his base.
GOLDBERG: The - the base is -
IGNATIUS: Forty percent - but 40 percent of the country thinks he's right. I heard from a Republican this week the best argument against having a special prosecutor, which Adam Schiff and others have called for, which is, you need to keep regular order. You need to say that the 40 percent who voted for him, we're not creating a special committee, prosecutor to get your guy. we're not out to get you and what you voted for and keep it - keep it regular. Ask the politicians who were elected to run it, to run the investigations, as them to reject a bad FBI nominee.
IGNATIUS: If he sends up a crony, a bad person -
DOMENECH: A stooge.
IGNATIUS: The Republicans have to vote against him. And that - that's - that's one we'll know that we're getting - we're getting better here when - if the Republicans reject a bad nominee.
DICKERSON: Ben, what's your sense of where Republicans are in response to this because of course what Peggy says is right, and the president knows how to use, I mean, that disconnect between. But there are some things still, in - in this day and age in which people in Washington are supposed to be concerned about a few things -
DICKERSON: Even if the country isn't. I mean in some case (ph), that's kind of what they're here for.
DOMENECH: What I hear mostly from the Republicans that I talk to is - is they're concerned that - that this level of chaos will prevent them from furthering an agenda. An agenda that they need to run on in a year and a half, that they believe is very important. I think they would be very disappointed if anyone who was not a qualified individual was - was put forward for the FBI director position.
I think, though, the - the real concern they have is, we need to pass a health care law. We need to pass a tax reform law in order for us to be able to go back to our constituents and get re-elected in the year and a half.
DOMENECH: And that's something they worry will be negatively affected by all of this.
GOLDBERG: Let me make one quick point about stability and truth telling and chaos theory. At some point in the future, Donald Trump is going to have to organize an international coalition of some sort in order to combat a serious problem. Let's assume its North Korea for - for right now. Bob Gates worked for President George H.W. Bush, who organized one of the greatest coalitions in history with James Baker against Saddam Hussein in 1991. They did that because they had credibility, because people understood them to be steady and stable and telling them the truth. And this president is - our president, our current president, is spending down that capital, what little capital we have on that, very, very quickly. And so we're heading into a possibility of a situation in which he has no credibility on the international stage when he's going to need it.
DICKERSON: Peggy, let me ask you, just back on the domestic for a moment, though. As Ben says, there are a lot of things that aren't getting discussed.
NOONAN: Yes. Yes.
DICKERSON: And now this sense of unpredictability. If I'm a Republican, where do I - how do I handle the fact that you've got a president who is going to be doing some exciting things that you - you might have to answer for?
NOONAN: Exciting things. What a nice way to put it. What David said, a big decision will be made now about the FBI if they (ph) serious, sober, low drama, integritious (ph) person is put forward, everybody will be relieved, actually, and they will go for it. If some sleaze-ball is put forward, forgive my language, or some toady (ph) or whatever, Republicans will stand up and say, this won't do. I really think that will happen. But I also think it's what ought to happen.
DICKERSON: All right, I'm going to have to stop you there. We've got to talk about mom, right, Peggy?
Coming up, a tribute to moms.
DICKERSON: (INAUDIBLE) event in partisan times. Nearly everyone agrees that we should show mothers gratitude. For those of us who have lost our mothers, there is a little melancholy in the day, though, but that melancholy can be put to good use. A lesson I learned from my mother and that I recommend.
When she died, mom left me her letters and journals. Windows into things I would have been too young to understand when she was alive, or too busy, or too much of a know-it-all. What these paper show is her grit. She was a journalist who, for a decade or so, was told that because she was a woman she couldn't be on television with the men. She got there eventually, but she also later got fired.
In her journals she is scared. There were times the bills couldn't be paid. At one point she typed a letter to her children on carbon paper from the office. It was to be read in case she died. She was on the road all the time working and worried something might happen to her. Nothing happened, but that letter, and all her letters, are a lesson, a gift and a guide. They make sense now that I'm old enough to understand them and see myself in her blemishes too. The pride and selfishness that trips up all of us from time to time.
So as a tribute to my mom, I write letter to my kids on Mother's Day. Letters like the one she left me, to be opened when I'm gone and they're older and the contents make more sense. If I'm around when they're my age, maybe we'll open these letters and read them together, if I'm brave enough, and we'll all thank mom.
Back in a moment.
DICKERSON: (INAUDIBLE) today. Thanks for watching. Until next week, for FACE THE NATION, I'm John Dickerson.
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