Transcript: President Bill Clinton on "Face the Nation," September 20, 2020

Clinton: "Can't possibly be surprised" by Trump, McConnell stance on SCOTUS
Clinton: "Can't possibly be surprised" by Tru... 07:44

The following is a transcript of an interview with former President Bill Clinton, that aired Sunday, September 20, 2020, on "Face the Nation."


MARGARET BRENNAN: Joining us now is the man who nominated Justice Ginsburg for the court, former President Bill Clinton. Good morning to you. 

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Good morning, MARGARET.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I'm told you spent time with Justice Ginsburg last September down in Little Rock when she was in poor health. What do you remember about that and- and how did she want to be remembered?

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Well, I remember everything about it, and I- she was just coming out of the hospital, but she had promised to give this speech and she was determined to give it. And the people down there appreciated it. There were 15,000 people filling the basketball arena. They couldn't fit in either my library or the convention center. And that was only about half the people who tried to get into the speech. So she had- people were really pulling for her and they really gravitated to her because of her sense of equality and fairness, and they thought, unlike much in politics today, she was totally on the level. So I remember that. I remember the great dinner we had afterward and I invited a friend of mine who was in town, Carlotta Walls LaNier, who was one of the surviving members of the Little Rock nine who integrated Little Rock Central High School when President Eisenhower sent the troops there to enforce the court's order in the case of Cooper v. Aaron. And I remember how fascinated they were, and this was late at night and Ruth Ginsburg was still talking to her, still getting out information, wanting to know how it felt then. She was an astonishing human being and I was- I'll always treasure that night and one where Hillary and I did an interview at Georgetown Law School with her and spent time there. She- she just never stopped going. She said keeping- her work was keeping her alive and she just kept doing it and she had a good time doing it.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Why did you select her?

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Because I found that she had the best combination of skills and instincts of any of the people I interviewed and boy, I interviewed some great people. And I reviewed 40 candidates, settled on five, then got down to three. But I just- you know, Hillary mentioned it to me, she thought I ought to look at her more closely, so I read- first of all, the account of the cases on gender equality she'd prevailed in in the Supreme Court as a lawyer. Before she ever even went on the Court of Appeals, she'd done enough to shape American law for a generation. Then I read her Court of Appeals decisions, and I really was intrigued. So I invited her to the White House to come talk to me. And she came on a Sunday night, and we weren't interrupted. And after she'd been there about ten minutes, I just knew that I wanted to appoint her because I wanted somebody who was open minded, passionately committed to equality and capable of working in the setting of the Supreme Court, that is getting to know the other judges, getting to know how they felt and working with them and- to try to forge consensus when possible. I figured of all the people I've met, she had the best judgment on when to work with others whenever she could and when to stand up when she couldn't stand it anymore. And she proved for 27 years that I was right about that. She turned out to be even better than I thought.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The New Yorker reported that when her name was first floated to you by- by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, you had some misgivings. Why? 

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I don't remember that. I, first of all, there were- everybody that I know is taking credit now for- for 27 years for nominating her, but I didn't have misgivings. I- I know that I did what I always do. I said that I would look at it, and if I'd heard any questions, I would ask those questions. I- for example, I was intrigued by her, a number of her opinions, and her ideas that she- she thought- she supported a woman's right to choose, but thought that the case should have been decided under the equal protection clause rather than the constitutional right to privacy. I wanted to know why. When we met, I did talk. But there were some people who thought she was, it seems funny now, thought she was too conservative. And that's because anything that's political tends to be two dimensional, almost cartoonish in its demand for labeling. And she was not a woman to be labeled with. She- she was who she was, and I was immensely impressed. So I'm embarrassed that- I remember most of my conversations with Senator Moynihan. I don't remember that, but I'm might have just had a lot of questions when I started out. I wanted to read her opinions. I wanted to read her articles. I wanted to talk to people who knew her, and then I wanted to see her. That was my job. It was an important part of being president.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Ginsburg reportedly told her friends that she had intended to retire under what she expected to be a Hillary Clinton presidency. Did you ever talk to her about that? Do you know who she envisioned taking her place?

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: No, I mean, I knew that- I knew she had hoped Hillary would be elected in 2016 and thought she would and hoped that she'd have some time because she wanted to leave the court while she was still at full steam. And she wanted to leave the court with someone who she thought was not an ideologue, somebody who was too far to the right, but I- I didn't- I don't think she necessarily had a preferred candidate. I think she trusted Hillary to make a good decision.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You know, as you mentioned, it's getting pretty politically heated. If a Democrat were in the White House and the Democrats had control of the Senate, wouldn't they insist on a vote on a nomination while in control?

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I don't know. There is a difference between what happened with Judge Garland. That is with Judge Garland, you're talking about missing probably one and a half full terms of court. It was almost a year, but there is a tradition of the president foregoing an appointment when you're closer to the election. Abraham Lincoln faced this very thing in early October, Justice Roger Taney died. And he couldn't know for sure whether he was going to win re-election because we didn't have all the tools we have now to determine such things, and even then we don't know. So he knowingly waited until after the election to appoint, as former Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase to the Supreme Court. He thought the people deserve to have a say. Now, that's what Senator McConnell said they deserved back in 10 months before the presidential election of 2016. So it didn't take that long to change their tune. But that is their tune. They're for whatever maximizes their power, and I think that in this case, we should ask. Senator Graham and Senator Grassley, who said they wouldn't vote no matter what the party the president was-

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right. 

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: --if it was close to the election, the voters should be heard first. I think that we should ask the others, we should see what's going to happen, but you can't be possibly be surprised that Senator McConnell and President Trump are taking the position. They are- they're for whatever maximizes their power. I don't know--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you--

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: --what the Democrats would do.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think this galvanizes Democratic or Republican voters more? Are- are Democrats missing an opportunity, not having talked about the potential vacancy earlier on in this race?

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Probably. But, you know, we- we all respected Justice Ginsburg a lot, and we thought we had no business talking about her as if she were already gone. And we were hoping she would live for lon- longer. And so I don't think there's anything can be done about that. But I think that the voters at least have to know that if you put one more conservative, particularly an ideologically conservative Republican on the court, they're giving up the healthcare bill for, you know, 20 million people's health insurance, losing all the preexisting conditions for tens and tens of millions of people. No help on the other front. That's just one example. So there are consequences. Right now, we've had a debate. And basically, Justice Roberts has enforced some sense of balance where they debate the substance and the Republicans have been pretty reliable on the politics. You know, they still, since 2000, we've had a lot of very important political cases like Shelby County v. Holder, the voting rights case where Ruth Ginsburg strongly dissented. But there are a lot of other things that could go either way. And so there's a lot at stake here. And since it's only 40 days, I think that maybe the Democrats should leave. There are no rules on this. There's no law. So we'll just have to see what happens. But if we're going to have a vote, then it's important that the Democrats and the Republicans make absolutely clear that the voters understand what the consequences of it are.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. President, thank you for your time and your reflections.