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Face the Nation Transcripts March 15, 2015: Kerry, Cotton, Manchin

The latest on the Republican Senator's letter to Iran, and a discussion on race relations in America with Secretary of State John Kerry, Sen. Tom Cotton, and Sen. Joe Manchin
March 15: Kerry, Cotton, Manchin 46:34

(CBS News) -- A transcript from the March 15, 2015 edition of Face the Nation. Guests included John Kerry, Sen. Tom Cotton, Sen. Joe Manchin, Rep. Elijah Cummings, Sherrilyn Ifill, Cornell William Brooks, Dana Milbank, Susan Page, John Heilemann, Peter Baker.

BOB SCHIEFFER, HOST: I'm Bob Schieffer.

Today on face the nation: the secretary of state, the rookie senator and nuclear negotiations with Iran.

As Secretary of State Kerry headed into the home stretch of negotiations to limit Iran's nuclear capabilities, freshman Senator Tom Cotton sent the Iranians a letter signed by 47 Republicans, warning them any agreement could prove worthless. Has that derailed the talks? Secretary of State Kerry tells our Margaret Brennan he's not sure.


MARGARET BRENNAN, CBS NEWS STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: So, how do you clear the air? Are you going to apologize for this letter?

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Not on your life. I'm not going to apologize for the -- for an unconstitutional and unthought- out action by somebody who has been United States Senate for 60-some days.


SCHIEFFER: We will hear more from Kerry and Cotton's explanation of why he did it.

Plus, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin and Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings on that and the week's other news.

Plus, a report on the state of race relations in America, because this is FACE THE NATION.

Good morning.

We begin with Margaret Brennan's interview with Secretary Kerry as he prepared to leave Egypt and fly to Switzerland for the talks. She asked him flatly, had the Cotton letter put the talks in jeopardy?


KERRY: Well, I don't know yet. When I negotiate for the first time on Sunday night Foreign Minister Zarif, I will have better sense of where we are.

But what I do know is that this letter was absolutely calculated directly to interfere with these negotiations. It specifically inserts itself directly to the leader of another country, saying, don't negotiate with these guys because we're going to change this, which, by the way, is not only contrary to the Constitution with respect to the executive's right to negotiate, but it is incorrect, because they cannot change an executive agreement. So, it's false information and directly calculated to interfere, and basically say, don't negotiate with them. You have got to negotiate with 535 members of Congress. That is unprecedented, unprecedented.

BRENNAN: And they have to negotiate with you. You're the one who has to sit at that table.

KERRY: Well, I understand.

But it's unprecedented. I have never seen anything like this. Now, in fairness, look, I don't know how many people really focus completely on it. But I do know that the effect and the intent of the author was to basically say, don't do this deal.

And, by the way, that is to say that before there even is a deal. I mean, it's like, you know, giving people a grade on a test before the test is even written, let alone given.

It's wrong. It's unprecedented. And I hope it hasn't made it very difficult here. And, by the way, we're not -- this is not just the United States of America negotiating. This is China, Russia, Germany, France, Great Britain.

BRENNAN: So, how do you clear the air? Are you going to apologize for this letter?

KERRY: Not on your life. I'm not going to apologize for the -- for an unconstitutional and unthought-out action by somebody who has been in the United States Senate for 60-some days.

That's just inappropriate. I will explain very clearly that Congress does not have the right to change an executive agreement. Another president may have a different view about it. But, if we do our job correctly, all of these nations, they all have an interest in making sure this is in fact a proven peaceful program.

And it would be derelict if we allow some gaping hole in this program that doesn't do so. But let's see what it is first. And I think this applies to everybody, incidentally, who has been trying to judge this before, in fact, the deal, if it can be sealed, is sealed.

BRENNAN: You have made the point this is international agreement; this isn't just the U.S. and Iran.

But Senator Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the decision to bypass Congress and instead go to the U.N. and allow them to vote on some of this deal is a "direct affront to the American people."

How do you respond to that?

KERRY: Well, with all due respect, look, I do really disagree with that judgment.

And I talked to him about it the other day and made it clear. We are negotiating under the auspices to some degree of the United Nations. So, just as Congress has to vote to lift sanctions -- so Congress does have a vote -- so does the United Nations have to lift some sanctions at some point in time.

BRENNAN: Well, that's on sanctions.

KERRY: No. Sanctions...

BRENNAN: But to authorize this deal, do you see Congress having a role?

KERRY: Congress has a role.

We have had over 205 briefings, phone calls, discussions with Congress; 119 of them have taken place since January of this year. We have been in full discussion with Congress on this. We have been in full discussion with allies in the region. We have had our team go to Israel or meet with Israelis in Washington or elsewhere to brief them regularly in this process.

This isn't a complete mystery. And the fact is that -- but we also have been operating under a rule that everybody understands. Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. And so we have to finish our negotiation. And we deserve the right to do so, frankly, knowing we have to submit it to the world to judge.

We ought to be able to find out unimpeded and uninterfered with in an unconstitutional way, in violation of 200-plus years of tradition.

BRENNAN: The president wants a deal by the end of March. If you can't meet that timetable, what happens?

KERRY: Margaret, we are trying to get a deal by the end of March.

BRENNAN: Would there be an extension?


KERRY: Well, the president's view -- and I share this view completely -- is that we have been at this for over two years now.

And Iran has said its program is peaceful. In the time that we have had, the fundamental framework of decisions necessary to prove your program is peaceful should be possible. So, we believe very much that there's not anything that's going to change in April or May or June that suggests that, at that time, a decision you can't make now will be made then.

If it's peaceful, let's get it done. And my hope is that, in the next days, that will be possible.

BRENNAN: But if these talks fail, do you think there is a risk that Iran will make the choice to build a bomb?

KERRY: Of course there's that risk, obviously.

BRENNAN: But is that really what is at stake?

KERRY: Well, look, if they moved along the road to decide suddenly to break out and rush to try to have enough fissile material to build a bomb, we have a number of options available to us.

President Obama has said they are all on the table. And he has also pledged very publicly and very clearly on a number of occasions Iran will not be allowed to get a nuclear weapon.


SCHIEFFER: Secretary Kerry also addressed the situation in Syria. We will have that in our next half-hour.

But now we are joined by Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who wrote that letter.

You heard what the secretary said, unprecedented, inappropriate, unthought-out, unconstitutionally wrong.

What were you trying to accomplish, Senator?

SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: Bob I and 46 other senators are focused on stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

And we wanted to be crystal clear that Iran's leaders got the message that, in our constitutional system, while the president negotiates deals, Congress has to approve them for them to be lasting and binding. And I have to say, I'm surprised by the secretary's comments this morning, because just a few days ago, he testified before the Senate to say that any deal would not be legally binding.

And now he says that future Congresses can't change a mere executive agreement if we disagree with them or if a future president disagrees with them? That's not the way our constitutional system works. And it's certainly not the way we should be negotiating with Iran.

SCHIEFFER: Did you talk to the secretary of state, did you talk to any Democrats in the Senate before you chose to go directly to the Iranians?

COTTON: I and many other senators, Republican and Democrat, have expressed our sincere and long-held intent that Congress must approve any nuclear deal with Iran for months.

In fact, going back almost two years ago, I was part of a 400- person majority in the House of Representatives that sought to impose more sanctions on Iran. We did reach out to some Democratic offices, but I can tell you that the viewpoint is widely shared. And I don't see how anyone can dispute that if a deal is reached with Iran that is not approved by Congress, then future Congresses and future presidents don't have to accept it in our constitutional system. SCHIEFFER: Well, Senator, it's not exactly news to say that the Congress can pass laws to change whatever laws or agreements are on the books.

But why did you decide to try to convince the Iranians that they needed to be wary of dealing with the United States? Why not take your argument to the American people? Why didn't you write an open letter in "The New York Times" or something?

COTTON: Iran's leaders needed to hear the message loud and clear.

I can tell you, they are not hearing that message from Geneva. In fact, if you look at the response of the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, it underscores the need for the letter in the first place, because he made it clear that he does not understand our constitutional system. He thinks that international law can override our Constitution.

SCHIEFFER: Well, Senator, are you planning to contact any other of our adversaries around the country? For example, do you plan to check with the North Koreans to make sure that they know that any deal has to be approved by the Congress?

COTTON: Bob, right now, I and most every other senator is focused on stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

And it's -- that's why it's so important that we communicated this message straight to Iran, because they're not hearing it from Geneva. And, remember, this is not parliamentary democracy. The Islamic Revolution of Iran has been killing Americans, hundreds of Americans, for 35 years in Iraq and Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. They also -- they killed Jews around the world from Israel, to...


COTTON: ... to Argentina.

SCHIEFFER: How does it make America stronger to tell them that any agreement they make with this administration may not be worth the paper it's written on and may not last beyond this presidency? How does that make things better?

COTTON: It's -- well, as a simple fact that our Constitution that, if Congress doesn't approve that deal, then it may not last.

And the deal that is on the table right now is a very bad deal. It would allow Iran to have thousands and thousands of centrifuges to continue enriching uranium. It would do nothing to the military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program. It's excluded entirely the ballistic missile program that Iran has, which is designed solely to strike the United States right here at home. And it could have 10- year sunset.

Bob, since you brought up North Korea, I would point out that, in 1994, the United States entered into something called the agreed framework to stop North Korea from getting a bomb. They almost immediately started cheating on it. And a mere 12 years later, they detonated their first nuclear weapon.

Now the world has to live with the consequences of a nuclear North Korea. I don't want the world to live with the consequences of a nuclear Iran.

SCHIEFFER: Earlier today, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told our local affiliate here, WUSA, that what you did was akin to during the Cuban Missile Crisis if a senator had called Nikita Khrushchev and told him he couldn't be certain that President Kennedy could back up any deal he made with him.

Do you see a comparison there?

COTTON: No. I would disagree. And Secretary Albright was part of the Clinton administration that entered into the fundamentally flawed agreed framework with North Korea.

But, more fundamentally, what we did was to send a clear message to a dictatorial regime. We didn't coddle or conciliate with the dictators in Iran. We told them that the American people, 71 percent of the American people in a recent poll will not accept a deal that puts Iran on the path to a nuclear weapons. Seventy-one percent of the American people are right, and that is for whom we're speaking.

SCHIEFFER: What do you want to happen here? What is your alternative here? Let's say that the deal falls through. Then what?

COTTON: Well, as Prime Minister Netanyahu said, the alternative to a bad deal is a better deal.

The Iranians frequently bluff to walk away from the table. If they bluff this week, call their bluff. But Congress stands ready to impose much more severe sanctions. Moreover, we have to stand up to Iran's attempts to drive for regional dominance. They already control Tehran. Increasingly, they control Damascus and Beirut and Baghdad, and now Sanaa as well.

They do all that without a nuclear weapon. Imagine what they would do with a nuclear weapon.

SCHIEFFER: I just want to make sure. Do you feel that you have not weakened the president's hand here? And do you have any regrets about the way you went about this?

COTTON: No regrets at all.

And if the president and the secretary of state were intent on driving a hard bargain, they would be able to point to this letter and say, they're right. As Secretary Kerry said on Wednesday in his Senate testimony, any lasting deal needs to be approved by Congress.

When past senators like Joe Biden or Jesse Helms communicated directly with foreign leaders, past presidents, like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, did just that. The fact that President Obama doesn't see this letter as a way to get more leverage at the negotiating table just underscores that he is not negotiating for the hardest deal possible. He's negotiating a deal that is going to put Iran on the path to a bomb, if not today or tomorrow, then 10 years from now.

SCHIEFFER: All right. We will stop there, Senator. Thank you for coming by and explaining your point.

COTTON: Thank you.

SCHIEFFER: We are going to go now to Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who serves on the Armed Services Committee. He joins us from Charleston, West Virginia.

Senator, did you have any contact or discuss any of this with Senator Cotton before he took this action?

SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: I did not. And no one from my staff came and said that anyone had approached them.

And this was going to be a sense of the Senate, Bob, you would think it would try to be as bipartisan as possible to see if that is a direction we feel strongly about, and maybe we could have helped negate this from happening. I think it was wrong. I would not have signed it. But I was not approached.

SCHIEFFER: The White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, has written the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker, and asked him this morning to hold off on any legislation on Iran or this deal on the issue of whether or not a nuclear deal can be reached until at least June.

Does that sound right to you? Because I know Senator Tim Kaine says that probably you can't wait that long. And he's the Democrat. He wants Congress to vote on this.

MANCHIN: Well, let me just say this, that Democrats and Republicans alike are committed not to allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.

It's just, I guess, the approach of how we go about it. You have got to speak with one voice. Now, we can speak within the process that we have and let the White House and the State Department know how strongly we feel about something, against it or for it.

A perfect example, Bob, was back when the State Department came over and tried to explain to us why they wanted to start bombing Syria, if you recall that not that long ago, a year or two ago. I, as a Democrat, spoke out loudly against it. I thought all it did was light the fuse for the third world war.

And, basically, all of us, Democrats and Republicans, who felt strongly that we shouldn't drop the bomb, we were able to succeed and the president was able to negotiate with Russia to remove the chemical weapons. That did not take an approval of Congress. But we were heard. This same process should be used now. And what we need to do, we sent a -- I signed a letter with Bob Menendez and other senators, basically saying, let's see how far you have progressed on the end of March, if we have a deal in the making. And then, at the end of June, if we don't have a deal at hand, we will double down on sanctions. But we're still allowing the White House and the State Department to do their job.

SCHIEFFER: Do you think this action by Senator Cotton and this letter has poisoned the well?

MANCHIN: It sure hasn't helped a thing. It hasn't helped one thing, except drive us further apart.

The country is divided enough. We need to start bringing us together. And for, like you said, over 200 years, we have operated under a process that basically we have had the executive branch, the State Department, the executive branch working and speaking as one, but speaking through and with us being able to have input from the legislative branch.

I believe that has worked very well. I believe it still can. But we could second-guess all day long and get nothing accomplished. There's five other countries, as Secretary Kerry had said. It's not just the United States of America. And if you want sanctions to work, it's got to be a bigger part of NATO, a bigger part of the world doubling down and saying, listen, you're not part of the civilized world. Either get your act together or we will make it more difficult for you.

SCHIEFFER: All right, well, Senator, we want to thank you for joining us this morning.

We will talk about some of the other news of the day when we come back in one minute.


SCHIEFFER: And we're back now with Congressman Elijah Cummings, who is not only the top Democrat on the Benghazi investigating committee, but the top Democrat on the oversight committee investigating the seemingly endless problems that the Secret Service is having.

Another week here, Congressman, where we just kind of had an overload on news, and mostly bad news. I am dismayed and perplexed about what the Secret Service is going through. It seems like ever since they took them out from under the Treasury Department and put them under the Homeland Security Agency, that it's just been one thing after another.

Are you satisfied with what you have found out about this latest incident so far? And what needs to be done here?

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: I am extremely upset about it. And it's extremely frustrating, Bob, to see an agency that is supposed to be the number one elite protective agency in the world, protecting the most important person in the world, the most powerful person in the world, to operate like this.

Director Clancy has come in and he has made many, many changes. As a matter of fact, he's now gotten rid of the half of the top folks in the agency. But, clearly, this latest incident shows that we have still got a lot of work to be done.

And, Bob, there is a culture of complacency and mediocrity taking place. And so we're going to have to do a deep dive. And one thing I am glad about is that Republicans and Democrats agree on this, that we have to put a high-powered microscope on this agency and address some of these issues.

SCHIEFFER: Do you now have confidence? Does Director Clancy still retain your confidence?

CUMMINGS: He does. He's only been there for a few months, Bob.

He's -- again, I'm very impressed with the things that he's done already. But now I think he's going to have to begin to get rid of even more people. There are certain people that should not be there. And you cannot have supervisors telling the rank and file that they can't do their job, such as when they wanted the other night perform a sobriety test.


CUMMINGS: Yes. Give me a break.

SCHIEFFER: Let's talk a little bit about the other -- the other other big story of the week, and that is the Hillary Clinton e-mails.


SCHIEFFER: Clearly, if you cut to the chase, basically, what was going on here, it seems to me, is that Hillary Clinton did not want to leave a paper trail. And so she set up the various procedures and so forth.

Do you think she is the best judge of what ought to be made public and what ought to be part of the government record?

CUMMINGS: Well, Bob, every federal employee under federal regs has the responsibility to determine what is personal and what's official. She made that judgment.

I listened to her carefully. And I believe her. But, Bob, if we have issues with Hillary Clinton, we have to keep in mind, number one, she's been extremely cooperative with our committee. She agreed to come in as late -- as early as last December. And I would -- and so she is willing to come in under oath and testify as to the e-mails, how she selected the ones she did. And we ought to have her come in, not only to testify about the e-mails, but also to testify about Benghazi. By the way, just last Friday, her lawyers contacted Trey Gowdy, the chairman, and yours truly and urged us to release the 850 pages of e-mails that we now have. And, hopefully, Trey will agree to that and will make that happen.

SCHIEFFER: Well, are you satisfied that there's anything else to find out about Benghazi?

CUMMINGS: I don't know. We have been at this now, Bob, since May. And I still don't know the scope of what we're looking for. I think there have been eight investigations. They have been done extremely well.

And they -- I think they have resolved most of the questions.

SCHIEFFER: All right.

Mr. Cummings, we certainly thank you for coming to see us this morning.

CUMMINGS: Thank you.

SCHIEFFER: And I will be back in a minute with some personal thoughts.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) SCHIEFFER: In a time when real leadership is such a rare commodity, I want to recognize the decisive action of Oklahoma University president David Boren.

I knew David Boren when he was a U.S. senator. He was a good one. And since joining the university, he has been a strong leader in higher education.

When that nauseating video of O.U. fraternity boys singing racist songs showed up on the Internet Boren had all kinds of options, open an investigation, confer with his trustees, maybe convene a focus group. But he moved with such speed, I doubt he did any of that. He simply expelled those involved and threw the fraternity off campus, no ifs, ands and buts. He said, you are out of here. And don't let the screen door hit you on the way out.

I'm not surprised, in our litigious society, that the fraternity has now hired a lawyer who may sue unless Boren reconsiders and joins in making this a teachable moment.

I think what is teachable is pretty obvious. Actions have consequences and hateful words are dangerous things, sometimes as harmful to those who deliver them as those they are aimed at. If the students didn't know that before, well, now they do.

Back in a minute.


SCHIEFFER: Well, some of our stations are leaving us now, but, for most of you, we will be right back with a lot more FACE THE NATION, including a discussion on race in America, more of Margaret Brennan's interview with Secretary Kerry, and our panel.

So, stay with us.


SCHIEFFER: Welcome back to now to Face the Nation, we're going to pick up where we left off with a discussion of the racist videos that came out of a University of Oklahoma fraternity.

This week protests that continued in Madison, Wisconsin where an unarmed black teenager of shot and killed by police last weekend, and in Ferguson where two police officers were seriously wounded while managing protesters following the resignation of the police chief, which came after the Justice Department's damning report of racial bias there.

And joining us now, Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NCAACP legal defense and education fund, and the president of the NAACP Cornell William Brooks.

Thank you all so much for coming. You know, this is actually the anniversary, the actual date when President Johnson made the famous "We Shall Overcome" speech and it was five months after that of course that the Voting Rights Act was passed.

We had all these wonderful demonstrations last week down in Selma. President was down there, and yet all of these horrible things have happened this week.

Mr. Brooks, what -- how would you judge the state of race relations in America today, 50 years after that speech?

CORNELL WILLIAM BROOKS, PRESIDENT, NAACP: We as a nation seem to be uncomfortably poised between our past and present. It was my privilege to walk in Selma behind the president and between the president and Amelia Boynton who 50 years ago was beaten down. She is 105 years now.

The point being here is that much of the country, particularly some of our young people don't seem to understand or remember or be aware of the history and what so many people had to go through in order for them to enjoy the rights they have today, because if they understood, you would not be able to sing about lynching. 5,000 or so people were lynched in this country, so to have members of fraternity sing about lynching in a cavalier way and associate lynching with exclusive policies with respect to membership, absolutely shocking.

SCHIEFFER: Sherrilyn, what is your take? You know, some of the residents who were interviewed in Ferguson this week said they didn't understand why people were still protesting down there. After all they got rid of half the police force and the people there. Why do you think those demonstrations go on?

SHERRILYN IFILL, NAACP LEGAL DEFENSE FUND: Well, in many ways I think they have to go on because the work is not complete. In fact, we're at the moment where the work really has to push forward and that is that the Department of Justice now is entering into negotiations with the leaders of Ferguson about how they're going to change that police department.

And I think this is the time when the protests actually have to become more focused and more targeted in terms of thinking about what is the result that you want. Elections are next month in Ferguson. And you've got city council elections, and African-Americans running for city council seats at numbers they never did in the past.

So, there's a real opportunity for change. And I think the people who are out want to make sure that that change actually happens. It's a lot of work to be done. And I think this discomfort that we're all feeling actually, even though it feels like we're going backwards, that's actually when we go forward. It's just like in Selma. It's just like on that Edmund Pettus Bridge, it's these moments of confrontation when we actually get to see what is really happening in America, whether it's that video that shocks us all that so repugnant.

The most dangerous time for race in America is when we're papering over what the reality is.

SCHIEFFER: Well, you know, and things have been pretty quiet here in recent years, but then all of a sudden we have these police incidents in Ferguson, and in New York, now up in Wisconsin. Is this just coincidence, Mr. Brooks, or is there a connection here?

BROOKS: I don't believe it's coincidence. I believe we're in a particular moment, if you will, a third reconstruction. We are at a point in American history where we can move forward or we can move backward. We have made tremendous progress in terms of voting rights, but we've seen tremendous challenges in terms of criminal justice reform and a backward movement with respect to voting rights.

So, we are at a moment where we need to catalyze these disparate protests around the country into a real movement for reform.

In Ferguson, we have handful of bills in the state legislature that would make tremendous difference in systems in terms of civilian review boards. We have in congress, a voting rights act amendment that needs to be tweaked, needs to be improved, but we need to move forward on that, because we're at a point where this country has to move forward and you have a generation of young people who get it.

They think we can do better, and I believe we can do better. And in fact, we need a congress that is as engaged as committed to a highest democratic and constitutional values as these young people on the streets.

IFILL: Well, I actually don't think it's been quiet. I think actually in communities all over this country African-American communities, this is what people have been rolling against. And it's only that's it's come to national consciousness largely because of cell phone videos and other ways in which we have been able the see what people have been saying for years. So, that's what's created the moment, the fact that it has now risen to national consciousness, and that's a good thing.

There are things that can be done. We've got an End Racial Profiling Act that has been languishing in congress for years, that congress needs to act on. Cornell just talked about the various bills that are in the Ferguson legislature. And we're also seeing a crisis of democratic governance.

You know, the democratic structure of Ferguson is very much like the democratic structure of communities all over this country with the part-time mayor that gets $350 a month and the part time city council and the town manager who has really all the power. It's an opportunity for us to really look at representative government and to make real change. And that's the moment that Cornell is talking about.

So, rather than just sit with discomfort, we really have to begin to dig in and work on change.

BROOKS: And Bob, I'll note this, that the NAACP has launched what we call America's journey for justice, a series of demonstrations, direct actions from Selma, Alabama, across Alabama, across Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina and into D.C.

Why? Because we're trying to take advantage of this democratic upsurge in this country based upon real problems. We think about the fact on the Voting Rights Act, 11 percent of electorate doesn't have an ID, 25 percent of African-Americans, and yet we see this frenzy of voter disenfranchise all across the country, people responding to real problems.

When it comes to the criminal justice front, we see massive racial profiling. And so the point being here is we have people in this country who sense what is wrong, and they also sense what can be made right. And they know that congress can act, but has failed to do so.

SCHIEFFER: All right. Well, I want to thank both of you for bringing this to our attention on this really what is an historic day.

Thank you so much.

We'll be right back with our panel to talk about all of this and other stuff, too. So, stay with us.


SCHIEFFER: And we're back now with our panel. Joining us this week, Susan Page who is USA Today's Washington bureau chief, The New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker, plus Bloomberg politics managing editor John Heilemann and Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank.

Well, you heard the man of the hour here in Washington, Senator Tom Cotton, this 60 days in the United States Senate and now he's at the top of every story. What did you make of this, Susan?

SUSAN PAGE, USA TODAY: Well, he certainly didn't back off in response to your questions, including about whether he was next going to try to send letter to the leaders of North Korea.

You know, what's surprising to me is not that Tom Cotton would choose to write a letter like this. What's surprising to me is the most senior Republicans in the Senate, including the Senate majority leader would sign such a letter, that is as with the Netanyahu speech to a joint session of Congress, really the kind of steps we have not seen taken before in modern times.

SCHIEFFER: Peter, what do you think Cotton -- Senator Cotton's motive -- what was his objective here?

BAKER: Well, I think, in some ways, yes. I do think he feels strongly -- and a lot of people in the Congress in both parties actually feel strongly that these talks are not leading to a deal that they feel they can support.

His North Korea example as a precedent is actually a reasonable one to look at.

Did that show that inspectors can do what we're asking inspectors to do this time around?

What's interesting about it, though, is it seems to jeopardize what had been a bipartisan skepticism. There also were a number of Democrats who had signed onto legislation intended to force President Obama to come to them. And now they are kind of upset about this.

They did not sign this letter and they're -- and it's -- actually -- the White House, actually, is kind of happy, frankly, that it played out this way.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right. Now, clearly, Cotton has no regrets. But some of his fellow signatories are beginning to.

We had John McCain this week blaming the weather, saying there was a snowstorm and we were rushing out of town and I didn't read the fine print. And I think they're realizing, yes, Cotton is well- intentioned in doing this, but it's backfiring, you know. And if the ayatollah is going to give you this ayatollah's Medal of Honor this year, I think Cotton is going to be a finalist, because it gives them an excuse, if they pull away from the agreement now. And the rest of the world is going to say, oh, well, it's the Senate of the United States' fault, making it more likely that Iran gets (INAUDIBLE)...

SCHIEFFER: Well, you know, I was a little surprised. Here is a guy who is an Iraqi and Afghanistan veteran. He was in the military. He has an exemplary record. I just found the whole thing sort of surprising, John. JOHN HEILEMANN, BLOOMBERG NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Well, you see some freshmen senators who arrive in town and want to get on the map pretty quickly. And that seems to have been part of -- I've seen so you get a sense that that's part of his motivation.

I think it's been fascinating this week listening to former foreign policy people from past Bush administrations, people like Richard Haas, this morning Michael Gerson, saying this is a huge mistake. And partly because of the thing that Dana is related to -- is referring to, which is that if these talks fall apart, you want to be in a position to blame Iran for the talks falling apart.

Now, there is a plausible counter-narrative. If the talks fall apart, that it's dissension on the U.S. side.

And, secondly, if they do fall apart, you're going to want to put back together and up -- and ratchet up the sanctions regime. And that requires huge international cooperation. And this makes it harder.

So the -- in the worst case scenario, that could be the biggest effect here, no -- we get no deal, but it's harder then to keep pressure on Iran going forward.

SCHIEFFER: One of the things that Secretary Kerry also talked about in addition to this, when he talked to our Margaret Brennan last night, was Syria and the whole situation there.

And I want to just play a portion of what he said on that.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: We are working very hard with other interested parties to see if we can reignite a diplomatic outcome.


Because everybody agrees there is no military solution. There is only a political solution.

But to get the Assad regime to negotiate, we're going to have to make it clear to him that there is a determination by everybody to seek that political outcome and change his calculation about negotiating.

That's underway right now. And -- and I am convinced that with the efforts of our allies and others, there will be increased pressure on Assad.

MARGARET BRENNAN, CBS NEWS CORRESPONDENT: And you'd be willing to negotiate with him?

KERRY: Well, we have to negotiate in the end.


SCHIEFFER: So there you hear the secretary of State saying we may have to negotiate with Assad.

Is that a change in the administration's position?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, it is, in a way, because the condition had always been, through all of these negotiations that have taken place in the past on Syria, with the Russians and others, was that Assad had to go and that he could not be a part of these conversations because, you know, except to negotiate his own withdrawal, in effect.

So there is an implication in what Senator -- Secretary Kerry just said that Assad might, in fact, have room to remain in power in some sort of future talks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's probably not terribly helpful what Secretary Kerry just said, because it may be true as a matter that you have to negotiate a political solution, but they're trying to get an authorization for the use of force through Congress now. So you can imagine Senator Cotton hearing that and pulling out his quill pen and dashing off another letter now to Assad and saying, watch out, man.

SCHIEFFER: I'm going to make a prediction. I'm going to predict that he doesn't do that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right. Not after your questioning of him.



SCHIEFFER: He might do that.

Let's talk about the -- the other huge story of the week, and that is the Hillary Clinton e-mail saga.

What's going on here?

PAGE: Well, I -- I guess I think there's no voter who is on the fence about Hillary Clinton, and there, in fact, may be no voter who is on the fence about Hillary Clinton. But if there were one, I don't think the idea that she had her own serve and her private e-mail account as secretary of State would sway anybody.

But it does make us feel like welcome to the new Clinton campaign, just like the old Clinton campaign, where we're going to have these kind of pitched battles, scandals, privacy, control and that is, I think, not good news for Hillary Clinton, who really needs to be talking about the future, what is her vision, what would she do about income inequality, what would she do about Syria?

So I find it -- I think it's probably kind of disheartening for those of us who are going to spend the next two years of our lives covering this campaign.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, her husband and -- her husband famously says that's what campaigns are about, that campaigns are about the future and not the past. For a 67-year-old woman who has had the history she's had -- and she has had an incredible history in American politics -- for her to be demonstrating all of the kinds of traits that people associate with the worst aspects of the Clintons...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- there are many great aspects about the Clintons that plane in America love. But there's other aspects about them people are uneasy with. And in particular, the notion that they play by their own rules.

And that came through seeing that spectacle, seeing that press conference, all of that just revives memories that make -- for people who have some unease about the Clintons, it revives all those memories. And it certainly looks for her -- makes her look, as Susan said, not like a candidate of the future, not like an avatar of the future, but like some kind of a relic from the '90s.


SCHIEFFER: But what was the purpose here, Dana?

Was she just trying to make sure there's no paper trail here of her actions?

MILBANK: Well, maybe it was a convenience, as she said 10 or 15 times during that press conference. I don't think the particular e- mail thing is a scandal or particularly damaging. It's been the way she's handled it.

And that's what's given all of us who have covered these campaigns before some kind of PTSD, seeing this is going on again. Lanny Davis is out defending her on television. And oh, my, you know, that not only is the server private, but we've destroyed some of the e-mails.

And it just feels like the Rose law firm all over again. And when -- if you want to get rid of this, yes, it's unfair, the scrutiny, but if you want to get rid of it, you've got to come clean and move on.

PAGE: To be clear, I don't think Americans care about how we react to it, right, that it's not...


PAGE: -- that it's not (INAUDIBLE)...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But they may...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- or a member of the Rose law firm.


PAGE: Yes. But it... (CROSSTALK)

PAGE: -- it does -- it does definitely -- it does definitely have that feel.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But to Dana's point, though, I just -- I do -- it may not be a huge scandal, but there has never been another secretary of State who -- or a secretary of any -- a head of any other government that we -- any other government agency we know of that has done what she did, which was proactively, at the very beginning, decide I'm going to set up my own parallel information infrastructure in my house and then after I leave office, I am going to be the sole judge and jury over what I'm going to release and then I'm going to destroy everything else.

I'm sorry, from the -- from the perspective of history, that just looks weird.

PAGE: And it's as...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It does not smell right. And it is unusual to say the least.

PAGE: And as President Obama said last night at the Gridiron Dinner, I didn't even know you could have your own server.


SCHIEFFER: And let's just take...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He said, I thought I was the candidate of the technological future and here it's Hillary way out ahead of me.


SCHIEFFER: But let's take a break right here.

And we'll come back and talk about this and some other stuff.


SCHIEFFER: And back now with more from our panel.

Well, we've talked about the Democrats today. But we've got to talk a little bit about the Republicans here.

To me, the most interesting story of the week was the disclosure that Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney have suddenly become new best buddies.

And now, mind you, Marco Rubio, his mentor was Jeb Bush. I can remember when people said, look, if Jeb Bush decides to run, there's no way that Marco Rubio is going to get in the same race, because Jeb Bush was his mentor. All in those Florida politics, and yet now we see something entirely different.

John, what do you make of it?

HEILEMANN: First of all there is a part of the Republican establishment that is -- that likes Jeb Bush fine but does not want to sacrifice the mantle of the future. They think if Hillary Clinton may be the nominee, do not want to have another Bush running against her.

There's an openness to someone of a younger generation, whether that's Scott Walker, Marco Rubio or someone else.

So Marco Rubio is going to get a look. And you'll remember that when Mitt Romney announced he was not going to make a third run one of the things he said explicitly was that it was time for a new generation, and people read that as an implicit shot at Jeb Bush.

The fact that the two of them are now new best friends, BFFs, as you say, doesn't surprise me that much. I think he was leading us toward his support or potential support for Rubio in that statement.

SCHIEFFER: What's interesting about that, Romney said that after it became clear that Jeb Bush was getting most of his --


SCHIEFFER: And they had told Romney they were for him and then suddenly they became supporters of --

HEILEMANN: Not a lot of love lost between Romney World and Bush World.

MILBANK: It's always shocking to find disloyalty in politics.


But it's happened once again with Marco Rubio. I think what you have happening here is Jeb Bush is in that position that Romney was before him and McCain was before him and George W. Bush was before him. That is, he is the likely guy, he's going to be everybody's second choice. First they have to flirt with all the others.

They are going to have their Scott Walker flirtation, their Marco Rubio flirtation, all the others down the line when they realize we probably don't have a choice and it's going to be Jeb Bush again.


Well, why wouldn't Marco Rubio, by the way, take this chance?

BAKER: Barack Obama proved that you don't have to be in the center for very long. You don't have to necessarily wait until you're wizened and spend 40 years in the trenches anymore. In fact sometimes you're better off not doing that because you have a cleaner record, you have less of a baggage to run. So it's a free shop for Marco Rubio. Why wouldn't he want to get out there and mix it up?

PAGE: Also you can very credibly see Marco Rubio -- I realize he's running for president, but I think we could clearly see him as potential a vice presidential nominee on the Republican ticket. And at his age he can afford to run for vice president and run for president down the road because he's a young man, he's Hispanic and these are important assets in a Republican Party that's trying to look for a new direction.

SCHIEFFER: Do you all think at the end of the day it's going to be Bush and Hillary Clinton?

Because I've got to tell you, I think they're both overwhelming favorites right now. But I'm not convinced it's a done deal on either side.

HEILEMANN: I've been saying now for about two months that I cannot construct a rational argument for why it will not be Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton and yet deep in my gut somehow I just don't believe that somehow they will be the --


HEILEMANN: I can't explain it but it just --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I somehow can't see it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is rarely a linear process.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Especially when Clintons are involved.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right. From point A to point B, it's a simple boom, boom, boom.

BAKER: Things happen. Surprises happen. We've had a hard time putting together a plausible argument just 3-4 years ago that Jeb Bush could have been a candidate even because of the fatigue with his brother and so forth. Yet here he is as the front runner. So I do think politics is --

MILBANK: It's hard even to see where the surprise will be. I spent some time with Martin O'Malley this week, saying maybe he could be it. And it just was Milquetoast O'Malley. Talking about sewage treatment plants and I think probably just not going to light the nation on fire.

PAGE: I don't think it's going to be a Bush-Clinton race. I can't tell you what it is going to be. But it's too neat, we're too far out, we're always too wrong at this point to say what's going to happen. While I think Hillary Clinton is definitely an overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination, only Hillary Clinton can cost her that. I think Bush is a fragile front runner when you talk about the Republican nomination.

HEILEMANN: He's a better retail candidate than people give him credit for, but between immigration, Common Core and the sense of "not another Bush," there's an opening there for some other Republican to somehow that alchemy will open the door to somebody else.

BAKER: Clinton-Rudy Giuliani race eight years ago --


SCHIEFFER: What about Bibi Netanyahu, it was such --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He probably not run.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Or maybe. He gave a good speech.

SCHIEFFER: But it was such a big deal when he came over to address Congress and now it seems to be kind of just swept away.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, clearly it didn't help him and maybe it hurt him. But I think what needs to happen here is Tom Cotton needs to write a letter to the Israelis saying we will not recognize the results there unless Netanyahu is returned to power.

PAGE: No one will be more pleased than the White House if Bibi Netanyahu does not get another time as prime minister there.

SCHIEFFER: And now here is the question. And I'm sure you'll be able to help.

Where is Vladimir?

BAKER: Is that a great question? Yes.

BAKER: This is very unusual. Even in the old bad Soviet days, when leaders died and it took them a while to make it public, it didn't last this long. So, look, he's probably not dead. Obviously that's pretty hard to cover up. But he might be sick. He might not be presentable in that sense. He cultivates this macho healthy image; if he had the flu, if he had some other stroke, some people have argued perhaps, he would want to stay out of the public limelight for a little while.

But this is something scary because this man is in such singular control of the only other country on the planet that could destroy us all. It's a pretty important moment. It's kind of funny but it's also important.

SCHIEFFER: Well, who knows, he may have come down with the flu, running around without his shirt. It gets cold over there.

PAGE: But it's hard to understand why they haven't had a picture or released a picture of him talking.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shirtless or not.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But they haven't. This dated them, actually, to make it look like their current dates. They took old pictures and said this is dated more recently.

PAGE: I think they need to do a new picture.


SCHIEFFER: If you all find out where he is --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- your table last night at the Gridiron --

SCHIEFFER: -- call me. OK? It will be news.

And thank you all so much. We'll be back in just a minute.


SCHIEFFER: Well, that is all the time we have this week. So we want to thank you for watching and to tell you that we will see you next Sunday, right here.

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