Transcript: Former Defense Sec. Robert Gates on "Face the Nation," May 14, 2017

Interview: Robert Gates
Interview: Robert Gates 13:48

President Trump's abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey sent shockwaves through Washington.  

CBS News' chief Washington correspondent and "Face the Nation" anchor John Dickerson sat down with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to discuss Comey's firing -- and more.

Gates, the Chancellor of William & Mary who served as defense secretary under Presidents Obama and Bush, said in the interview that the firing was "not terribly well done," and that it helps to have a "single story" in place when firing a senior official. 

What follows is a full transcript of the interview, which aired Sunday May 14, 2017 on "Face The Nation."


JOHN 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.

JOHN DICKERSON: What does that say to you, based on your experience?

SEC. ROBERT GATES: Not terribly well done. 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. 

Gates weighs in on Comey's firing 02:26

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 story in line in terms of 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.

JOHN DICKERSON: In the reporting about the F.B.I. director, there was a report that the president asked him for his loyalty. Help people understand the line between duty, loyalty, and personal conscience.

SEC. ROBERT 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 if I cannot be loyal, I'll 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.

JOHN DICKERSON: We'll have more of our conversation with Secretary Gates in a moment, including what he finds encouraging about the Trump administration.


JOHN DICKERSON: Welcome back to Face the Nation. We continue our conversation with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

JOHN DICKERSON: What's your sense overall of President Trump as an unpredictable leader?

SEC. ROBERT GATES: 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. 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 the implementation of disruption.

On the foreign policy side, there's the risk of being too spontaneous and too disruptive where you end up doing more harm than damage. And figuring out that balance is where having strong people around you matters. 

Gates on presidential credibility 01:36

JOHN DICKERSON: What advice would you give the president before his first big foreign trip that he's about to take?

SEC. ROBERT 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 issues, 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 anytime a president does things that are humanizing, I think it's - it's good.

JOHN DICKERSON: Should the use of Twitter stop at the water's edge?

SEC. ROBERT GATES: Well, not necessarily. But I would be careful.

JOHN DICKERSON: Let me ask you about former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. You used to be head of the C.I.A. If you got information that the national security advisor had not told the truth about contact with the Russian ambassador, how serious of an issue would that be if it were brought to you?

SEC. ROBERT 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.

JOHN DICKERSON: The concern was that the Russians would be able to blackmail the former national security advisor because 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?

SEC. ROBERT GATES: 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 - 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 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 just think it's a different - it's a different kind of situation than we would have thought of in the intelligence business.

JOHN 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?

SEC. ROBERT 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 so the fact of a meeting like that I think is not that big a deal.

JOHN 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?

SEC. ROBERT GATES: I thought that was all pretty odd.



JOHN 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?"

SEC. ROBERT 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 stark. So, you know, having smiles in the Oval Office, I don't know, maybe I'm just getting too old, but I don't think that's that big a deal. It's in their policies and in their actions that really matters. And in those - in those arenas, I think they've been pretty tough-minded.

JOHN DICKERSON: Some analysts look at Russia and say 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?

SEC. ROBERT 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 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 create questions about the legitimacy of these Western elections. And, I think, this is very K.G.B. 

Robert Gates on Putin 11:03

JOHN 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?

SEC. ROBERT GATES: I think that - that the disruptive nature, 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, "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 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. So 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. 

Extended Interview: Robert Gates, May 14 35:46

JOHN DICKERSON: A lot of people look at this president and think he is out of 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?

SEC. ROBERT 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 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.

JOHN DICKERSON: Mr. Secretary, thank you so much.


JOHN DICKERSON: We'll be right back with more of our panel.