Full transcript: Pete Buttigieg on "Face the Nation," June 16, 2019

Full Interview: Pete Buttigieg

The following is a transcript of the interview with Mayor Pete Buttigieg that aired Sunday, June 16, 2019, on "Face the Nation."


MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. Mayor, thanks for making time. 

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG: Thanks for having me on.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You said the Democratic Party can't go back to the 90s, can't go back to the 2000s. The party, though, seems to be sort of trying to figure out what it is. What does it mean to be a Democrat right now?

BUTTIGIEG: Well I think it means being committed to American values that lead you in a progressive direction. So I- I talk a lot, for example, about freedom. I think freedom is something that, across my lifetime, has been talked about as though it were a conservative value. But it's an American value, and I don't think that you enjoy freedom if you're afraid to start a new business because leaving your old job means losing your health care. I think women's reproductive freedom is under assault and only Democrats seem prepared to defend it. Very important freedom in my own life, the freedom to choose your spouse, is something that really only exists by the grace of a single Supreme Court vote, and it's the kind of thing that progressives are standing for. We're thinking about economic freedom. We're thinking about security in a different way that's actually ready for the 21st century, where there are security threats that you can't answer by putting up a wall. So, I think a meaningful democratic platform today is one that will make as much sense in the 2050s as it does right now and the choices we make now around climate, around taxes, around infrastructure, are going to decide whether we will be able to look back on these years as the years that we set the United States on a better path, or the years that we really failed to protect what makes our country the country that we love to live in.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You faulted Democrats, in a speech this week, for kind of not having much of a strategic foreign policy for the past few decades--

BUTTIGIEG: I think--

MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you mean by that?

BUTTIGIEG: I think that it's been difficult, even confusing, to figure out what our foreign policy is because Democrats became so absorbed in opposing whatever the Republicans were doing. Now often, rightly so. What the Republicans were doing was often terrible. But we got so sucked into that. For example, take the Iraq war, which I opposed as a student and continue to think was a terrible idea. We were so horrified by the way that democracy promotion was done at gunpoint then, that it very nearly made our party into isolationists when actually, we've often been the ones who believed in more international engagement. And so--

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you would fault Joe Biden, who you'll be standing on the debate stage with for his vote.

BUTTIGIEG: Well, I certainly think that vote was a mistake and- and I have a different view on that- that conflict. But it's more than any individual voter, any individual conflict. It's- what worldview is going to anchor our approach? We're not going to be able to figure out who we are as Democrats by keying off the Republicans and just deciding when we're against it and when we're going to accommodate it. We have to have our own view, and I think our own view needs to be based on the idea that American interests, American values, and American relationships all need to fit together. And I think that'll help us deal not only with threats we've been thinking about a lot, like stateless terrorism and the kinds of things I dealt with as a- as a military officer specializing in terrorism, but also uniquely 21st century threats like climate disruption, that is a threat to life and limb in this country. Things like cybersecurity, that didn't even exist as a major national security concern just one or two generations ago. We've got to have a plan for that too. And it's very clear that the U.S. is adrift. I would argue, under this administration, the US does not have a foreign policy. Maybe an approach, but the approach is not pretty. It involves coddling dictators. It involves blaming fellow Americans for a lot of the problems we have around the world. And it's no substitute for a policy in which the US is leading. We can either lead the rest of the world or we can resent the rest of the world. We can't do both.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You are in a field of about two dozen candidates. We found out, on the debate stage, at the end of the month, you'll be up there with the two frontrunners with Joe Biden and with Bernie Sanders. How are you going to distinguish yourself?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, I think it's safe to say that I'm not like the others. And for voters who are looking for a new approach, not new values--

MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you mean by that?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, I just have a different style and a different vocabulary. Part of it's because I'm a mayor. And so my world is one of being on the ground. We- we eat what we cook as mayors. We- we live with the policy decisions we make. There's no force field of- of staff between me and the constituents who count on me to deliver everything from life, safety and security to clean safe drinking water to good economic development. You just have to get things done. I also come from the industrial Midwest, the exact part of the country where Democrats had trouble getting our message through in recent years, which is part of how we got the president that we have now. And I'm someone who's committed to taking on the flaws in our systems at a very basic level. Our political and economic systems. If they weren't flawed we wouldn't be here. A president like the one we're living with today does not even get within cheating distance of the Oval Office under normal circumstances, but we're not living under normal circumstances, and I think we need new voices ready to explain what it's going to take in order to make sure that we have better wages and a better standard of living and a more secure life and also a social fabric that actually makes us all feel like Americans, rather than being pitted against each other.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You've praised Bernie Sanders in the past. In fact, we went back and looked at an essay you wrote, an award winning one, about him. 

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: You said, "His energy, candor, conviction, ability to bring people together stand against the current of opportunism, moral compromise and partisanship which runs rampant on the American political scene. You were a fan of his.

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: If you weren't running, would you be voting for Bernie Sanders?

BUTTIGIEG: You know, it's not unusual, in a moment like this, to admire somebody and also find yourself competing with them. And I still admire a lot of those qualities that drew me to him when I was an 18-year-old writing that essay. The fact that he was somebody who says what he believes. I think all of us ought to do that. But I have a different approach. I have a- a- a somewhat different message and I represent a very different messenger and so-- 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think that moment has passed for him?

BUTTIGIEG: I think it- I think the moment we're in right now calls for something new. And I think that, again, our values are the right values. I mean, the values that make us Democrats shouldn't change. We've got to find a different vocabulary around them. We've got to find a way to communicate, in terms of real world impact, what it means to go with a progressive direction, rather than stay on this drift that we have right now in Washington. And if we get it right, we can win. You can see that very clearly in how health care, which is an issue that we got killed over back in 2010, was the winning issue for us in- in 2018. It shows that when we're talking about the concrete impacts of our policies in Americans' everyday lives, which is what a mayor thinks about all day because that's what we're accountable for, most Americans are with us. The crazy thing is, right now, there is a strong American majority aligned with Democratic positions on everything from our desire to raise wages, to our insistence on universal health care, to our belief in bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform and common sense gun safety. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: You--

BUTTIGIEG: Most Americans are with us on the issues which is exactly why this president functions by getting us talking not about Americans' lives, but rather about him and whatever outrage of the day he has perpetrated in person or on Twitter in order to get us all focused on nothing but the White House.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, one of those things is what I'm about to ask you about. President Trump said if a foreign government offered him information on his opponent he'd listen. He said it's just like opposition research. What do you think of that answer?

BUTTIGIEG: We're talking about foreign interference in American politics. And by the way, this isn't hypothetical. This isn't theoretical. We were attacked by a hostile foreign power that decided that they could damage America, destabilize America, by intervening in the election to help him win. And they did and he did, and now America's destabilized. So this is not some academic exercise. This is something that has happened and will probably happen again. And you have to draw a very clear line. If you care about this country, if- if you believe in putting this country first, how could you ever talk about allowing a foreign- potentially hostile foreign power to interfere in the most sacred thing that we have in our civic tradition in America, which is our elections?

MARGARET BRENNAN: He said he'd listen before he'd considered reporting it--

BUTTIGIEG: Just call--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is there a scenario in which that's acceptable? 

BUTTIGIEG: No. Just call the FBI. It's not hard. It's not complicated. The FEC chair, I think, felt shocked that she had to remind everybody of this. But if you think there's a foreign effort to tamper with an American election and you're an American who cares about America, you call the FBI. This shouldn't be hard. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: You have said, when you've been asked about the president and the Mueller report- you said that if you are elected, that you would consider pursuing obstruction of justice charges.

BUTTIGIEG: It's not up to the president to pursue charges. This is the thing--

MARGARET BRENNAN: But his Justice Department--

BUTTIGIEG: --so I absolutely- I absolutely believe that there are plenty of reasons to- to think that there may have been illegal behavior and prosecutors should look at that and no one is above the law. Not a president, not a former president, no one. I also believe that the last place you look for guidance on how to conduct a prosecution is to the Oval Office. The less our law enforcement and prosecution has to do with politics the better. And I-- 

MARGARET BRENNAN: So when some of your colleagues, your competitors, say that there should be obstruction of justice charges pursued. You're saying you're not endorsing that.

BUTTIGIEG: There should be a Department of Justice that can think for itself. There's tons of evidence that would point to an obstruction investigation. I'm just saying it shouldn't be ordered up by the president. The whole idea is we're the ones who don't believe that a president ought to be going around calling for their political opponents to be targeted for investigations. If there is criminal activity or a suspicion of criminal activity, then I expect a DOJ that thinks for itself to prosecute that criminal activity and hold everybody accountable, with no extra treatment, better or worse, for somebody because of their political profile.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So what Senator Harris has said goes too far for you?

BUTTIGIEG: You know, I'm thinking about it in terms of the way I would want a DOJ to work on my watch, and part of how it would work is that prosecutorial decisions would not be run out of the Oval Office. They would be as far from the political side as possible.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So there are a number of investigations going on in- different state levels. If you do get to that position of the presidency and you look at a ButtigiegJustice Department potentially prosecuting the president- former president, would you ever consider a pardon?

BUTTIGIEG: I don't think that it's appropriate for pardon power to be used to cover for malfeasance or corruption in office. You know, right now--

MARGARET BRENNAN: So Ford's pardoning of Nixon--

BUTTIGIEG: You know, I don't--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --inappropriate? 

BUTTIGIEG: --know what I would have done in the 70s and- and- and that historical counterfactual other than that I'm bothered by the possibility that public corruption went unpunished and the idea that that could happen in the future is equally problematic. That's, I think, not at all what the pardon power was- was for when it was first contemplated. And again, I think the less presidential slash political interference there is with any process in the Department of Justice, the better.

MARGARET BRENNAN: How does the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a state that has I think less than 10 percent of it is African-American- how do you win that important part of the electorate? How do you convince them that you are going to fight?

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, so my own city of- of South Bend is quite diverse. We're about 40 percent- 45 percent non-white. About a quarter of our city is African-American. So we're more diverse than the state as a whole. And it's one of the reasons that, as a mayor, seeking to serve everybody, I've had to really learn how to take on board the concerns and- and the issues that uniquely face Latino residents, black residents and others, many of which are the result of institutional and systemic racism. I think it's especially important that a- a president recognize that because, you know, for too long, I think we've had this assumption out there that if- if we just replaced racist policies and- and racist systems with neutral ones, everything would take care of itself. But it just doesn't work that way. Not when for decades or even hundreds of years, some people have systematically had their opportunity to build wealth, to participate in society, legally constrained. And we're talking about policies, not just- not some accident of culture that have delivered us to the point where we are. And that's why I think an agenda for black America needs to include not only criminal justice reform, which clearly is needed in order to have more racial equity, but also look at--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Further than what the Trump administration has done so far?

BUTTIGIEG: Yes, although it might be the one thing that they've done right domestically is moved or gestured in the direction of criminal justice reform, but it needs to go further. It needs to pay attention to racial inequity. But also, we should be talking not just about the black experience with criminal justice but black entrepreneurship. What's going on with wealth building in minority communities and- and how the- the United States could support it. We need to be talking about housing, homeownership. We've got be talking about health and education. All areas which can hold people back, but also areas where the right kind of intervention with justice in mind, can help make America a better place. And I think we will all be better off when we are in a world where we can no longer say that people are being held back by their race.

MARGARET BRENNAN: CBS News conducted some polling here. It's called the CBS News Battleground Tracker and according to it, three quarters of the voters asked who support Joe Biden feel that he would probably beat President Trump. Only 30 percent of your supporters, though they like you, believe that you could beat him. How do you convince people that you're the best challenger?

BUTTIGIEG: Well I think the most dangerous thing we could do, ironically, is to try to play it safe. This president won by portraying our party as defenders of the system. And there are a lot of people, certainly where I live, in the industrial Midwest, who are so furious with the system, politically and economically the ways it's let them down that, they voted for somebody they know is not a good person. They voted for somebody they disliked, it was a vote to burn the house down. And the- the brew of what happened in that campaign, not only the nefarious activity, not only the- the xenophobia and the racism that contributed to the Trump campaign, but the- the fact that it ever got this close is a result I think, partly — of the Democratic Party being viewed as just offering up more of the same. I believe it is time for something completely different. And Americans, as a general rule, tend to elect whoever appears to be the opposite of the president they've just had. It's how you get somebody like- like Ronald Reagan after Jimmy Carter. It's how you get somebody like Barack Obama after George W. Bush. If you're looking for the opposite of the current president, I would argue that a Midwestern, middle class, new generation mayor, somebody who actually served in the military when it was his turn, somebody with a totally different style, like me, is about as opposite as it gets. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you about foreign policy. You laid out your foreign policy vision this week in a big speech. Let's talk about some of the specifics. Do you believe the Trump administration when it says that those attacks on tankers that happened this week were conducted by Iran? 

BUTTIGIEG: We're seeing more information come in as we speak. There is certainly concern that this is consistent with a pattern of malignant behavior by Iran. What I'm also concerned about, is that this appears to be part of an escalation where this administration might be leading us on a path to war that could get away from this White House very quickly. Look, it- it is nothing new for Iran to be acting in destabilized- destabilizing ways in their region. We see it quite a bit. The question is what are we going to do to make things more stable before the situation becomes uncontrollable.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So what would you do?

BUTTIGIEG: Well first of all, engage our allies. We are not alone. At least we shouldn't be acting alone. And if we want to see stability in the Middle East, we should be engaging with our partners there, as well as allies like our European partners who are such an important part of the Iran nuclear deal. And by the way, another thing I would never have done, is to get us out of the nuclear deal setting off a chain reaction that has destabilized the regional security framework and the politics of that area, and making it that much harder for any moderates that- that are still in the Iranian regime to get anywhere because they look foolish for having staked their careers on the idea that you could trust Americans. We need to have a completely different approach. And when the same people who led us to the war in Iraq, like the National Security Adviser, John Bolton, are now apparently guiding our policy toward Iran in- in the White House, it makes you wonder whether we can really take this president at face value when he says he doesn't want us to go to war.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You also said you would rejoin that nuclear accord with Iran, but the U.N. watchdog, the IAEA, has already said that Iran is ramping up its production of nuclear fuel. There are bans on arms that are going to expire right on the precipice of the election and shortly after you'd be entering office, so is that really a viable alternative?

BUTTIGIEG: We're going to have to do something new. The point is that we never should have left it in the first place.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you want new negotiations and a new deal with Iran?

BUTTIGEG: Any negotiation is going to have to meet the needs and the realities of the moment. Unfortunately, the moment we're in is one where the United States influence in this region has diminished because of the way that we have withdrawn. So what we're going to have to do is re-engage with our partners, re-engage with anybody who has an interest in stability in the region and do whatever we can to once again meet the objective of stopping Iran from developing nuclear capabilities which is exactly what that deal was doing even this administration certified that that was the case and--

MARGARET BRENNAN: But do you think Iran would sit down and negotiate--

BUTTIGIEG: I think it's going to be--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --with a President Buttigieg? 

BUTTIGIEG: I think- I think it's going to be that much harder now that we've seen what we've seen out of this administration, but for the sake not of the Iranians but for the sake of American security we have to do whatever we can to make sure that we contain that nuclear threat and that does mean trying to get to the table once again with international partners, including the Iranians.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you would lift sanctions on Iran? How would you prevent that money from flowing to fund terror?

BUTTIGIEG: Well again, part of this is a question of what kind of verification we can get into a deal that's necessarily going to be different than the last one. The issue of Iranian malign activities in the region is a very serious one and one, at the same time, that can be dealt with on a separate track from the extremely urgent issue of stopping them from developing nuclear capabilities. Withdrawing from the deal accelerated Iran's path toward nuclear weapons at exactly the moment when we can least afford that. And if we think it's hard containing their nefarious activities now, imagine what it would be like trying to do that when they also have nuclear capability in their military.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Would you advise an 18 year old today to enlist under President Trump?

BUTTIGIEG: I believe serving our country is the right thing to do. And you do it, and I felt this when I took the oath myself, you do it without regard to who's in political office, because you don't know who will be leading during different times in your service. It is one of the things that makes serving in the military such a leap of faith, such a- an act of belief in our country. Because really what you're doing is you're trusting your life not only to the chain of command you're about to join, but to American voters. Because you're trusting that American voters will put in place leaders who will never send you into a conflict without a good reason and who will never fail to take care of you, both while you're in uniform and afterwards. The truth is, that promise has not always been fully kept. I'm worried that that promise isn't being kept right now, the idea that we should never ever use our troops as pawns or as props and yet, we've seen just that from this administration. And yet at the end of the day, I believe that I wouldn't be running for office if I didn't believe, that our Constitution and our country is capable of setting a better path and that when we put a foot wrong, we do something better. And we need a military composed of energetic strong, ethical capable people. And I think we're going to need that more than ever. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Who is America's greatest foe? 

BUTTIGIEG: Well certainly concerned about repeat Russian malign activity for reasons we just talked about. We're worried about Iran. I'm also worried about the competition from China. You know I'm not one of those Democrats who thinks you can wave away the China challenge and that it'll sort of take care of itself. China has been-- 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is that another veiled swipe at Joe Biden?

BUTTIGIEG: There are 23 of us and I haven't scrutinized everybody's China policies, but I can tell you about mine. I believe that China is using technology for the perfection of dictatorship and that their fundamental economic and political model is a major challenge to the US. Not only that, it's actually being held up as a convincing alternative on the world stage to ours because ours at the moment looks chaotic and unpredictable and unstable and perhaps easier to manipulate. It's why part of how we were going to be stronger abroad is to be stronger at home. But we're disinvesting in the very elements of American competitiveness: infrastructure, education, health, not to mention the need for a strong and unshakable democracy.  We're disinvesting in the very things that make us competitive, while China is investing hugely not only domestically in- in things like artificial intelligence where they could very well outpace us in a matter of years but also globally, where they are- with their Belt and Road Initiative. Undertaking a massive over trillion dollar level investment in various other countries, not just out of the goodness of their hearts, but in order to make friends and in order to fill a vacuum left by the US appearing to withdraw from the rest of the world. That makes us worse off. And we've got to be ready to re-engage before the next century gets decided on China's terms rather than ours.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Would you accept a contained nuclear North Korea rather than demanding they denuclearize?

BUTTIGIEG: I do think that we can take steps toward peace on the Korean peninsula in parallel with steps toward denuclearization. I think the prior framework was we can't get anywhere toward peace until we get completely to the promised land on denuclearization. I think it's possible that we could take small incremental verifiable steps on- on the nuclearization- denuclearization peace while pursuing overall peace in the peninsula. But at the end of the day, with the kind of activity we're seeing now the kind of nuclear threat we're seeing right now the sanctions must remain in place.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I'm running out of time, but I want to quickly make sure I ask you about Afghanistan since you did serve there. You promised that as president, you would help end the war. How do you do that? And do you trust that you can cut a deal with the Taliban that doesn't have them repeating what they did leading up to 9/11?

BUTTIGIEG: You know the one thing that- actually first of all let me say this, five years ago when I left Afghanistan, I thought I was one of the last troops and we're still there. I'm worried that we're not that far away from reading about the first Afghanistan casualty, American, who was born after 9/11. We have to put an end to a war that is becoming endless and the one thing that I think the Afghans, the Americans, the international community, the right and the left in our own country agree on, is that we need to get out. So the question is can we do it well. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you go to zero on troops? 

BUTTIGIEG: I think that we will always, as a country, to keep ourselves be ready anywhere in the world to have a limited intelligence and special operations capability to prevent attacks on the homeland. But I do think that the time for this open ended commitment of troops on the ground has come to an end. I also think-- 

MARGARET BRENNAN: That sounds like President Trump.

BUTTIGIEG: Well let's see if he actually delivers on what he's saying. So far, I'm not seeing a lot of comforting signals, especially when you see that in this engagement with the Taliban, the legitimate Afghan government, the elected government of Afghanistan,  is being left on the sidelines. We should at least have them at the table. We should be engaging them, not cutting them out if we expect our departure from Afghanistan, which will happen, to be on terms that will be relatively stable. It's not going to be a- a perfect democratic and perfectly secure country in the near term. We just need to make sure that it is not one where attacks on the homeland can originate. And we would be better off toward that goal if we have done what we can, as we depart, to make sure that the Afghan government is in a strong position.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And lastly, what keeps you up at night? 

BUTTIGIEG: Well a lot of things. There is a- a- a nuclear threat that has never gone away. There's stateless terrorism. There's nefarious activity by so many countries. There's America, really in terms of prestige, in a kind of decline that could become permanent if we don't reverse it quickly. And I'm worried about climate disruption. This has literally woken me up at night. I remember realizing at about 2:00 in the morning in South Bend that the rain that usually lasts for a few minutes was going on for a few hours and discovering that we were in the midst of a thousand year rainstorm. I was within a matter of- of hours finding myself activating the emergency operations center of our city. I've had to do that twice in a two year period for floods that are supposed to only happen once every few hundred years. Things are changing around us with life and death consequences. And if we're not prepared to treat climate disruption as a security issue then we are putting my generation and anybody who comes after us at tremendous risk of having our life opportunities diminished because of the failure of those in charge now to do something about this issue across America and across the world.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. Mayor thank you for your time. Good to be with you.