Transcript: Robert Gates on "Face the Nation"

The following is a transcript of the interview with former Defense Secretary Robert Gates airing Sunday, May 12, 2019, on "Face the Nation."


MARGARET BRENNAN: So the world is watching these trade talks between the U.S. and China and there seems to be this brinkmanship game over tariffs underway. How would you assess the Trump administration's work so far?

FORMER SECRETARY ROBERT GATES: I think that they have taken on the issues that really need to be taken on, which is why they're so hard. You know, the trade imbalance is one thing. But the real problem is- is the structural imbalance in the way the two countries work with each other economically. So the Chinese place restrictions on joint ventures, on foreign investment, on- they- they require turnover of technology by companies that want to do business in China. They steal intellectual property and those are the real issues and they're really hard because fixing them is actually kind of important for the future of China's economy. But they're also politically very hard in China. And I think what the administration is trying to do- you know the president talks a lot about the trade imbalance but I think the real sticking point in these negotiations has been on how do you solve these structural imbalances that have disadvantaged U.S. and other foreign companies wanting to do business in China for so long.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: But isn't that just the Chinese business model to be able to do things cheaper and be able to--
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: But it's--
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: --access things without investing in research?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: It's not- it's not about doing them cheaper. That's- that's part of the reason for the trade imbalance. But it's an unfair set of rules. A columnist not too long ago, I think a couple of years ago, said, you know our approach to China ought to be, we think your restrictions on foreign investment and so on are so good we're going to adopt them all. And I think what- what the U.S. has to demand is reciprocity. We need a level playing field and if they can do it cheaper, that's one thing. But cheating is a different thing. And that's really what we're talking about here.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: You know, many, many different administrations have said economic policy relates to national security and particularly on China. You know, the secretary of state has accused them of using their business model to basically advantage their military and intelligence arms. China has a strategic plan to expand its influence economically with this Belton Road Initiative. The kind of bickering we're seeing in Washington compared to that. I mean- does China have an advantage over us?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: The Chinese have an advantage because they have a strategy. We don't. I mean they really- whether it's China 2025 in terms of advancing their technologies like quantum computing and artificial intelligence and robotics and stuff or where they want to be economically in 2030, they have- they have set goals. They have a strategy for achieving those goals. And we really don't have a strategy. We haven't had a strategy in quite a while. So it's- it's always an advantage when one side has a plan and the other side doesn't.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: You don't think the Trump administration has a broader plan for China?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I don't think basically that the recent U.S. administrations have had a strategy for how to deal with China long-term.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: Why?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: It's very difficult- you know, in Washington I always like to say that long term planning is a week from Thursday. Washington is so consumed all the time by the issue of the moment that it's very difficult to have- to get senior people to set aside the time to think about where do we want to be in five years with this country or that country or in terms of some of our own objectives. And I think the military does that in part because planning is- they have the resources to do planning but a lot of their weapons systems and so on require 10, 15, 20 years looking out to see how things are going to develop. But the military can't do this on its own, it needs to be basically a whole of government strategy. That's what the National Security Council and its staff is supposed to do in terms of bringing together all of the elements of the government to figure out where we want to be. But recent administrations, I think, have not been able to do that very well.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: You spoke- you spoke about distractions. This week alone, we've seen there are number of hot spots right now attracting attention from the Trump administration, Iran in particular. The U.S. just sent B-52s, redirected an aircraft carrier to the region. It's supposed to be a warning to Iran that the U.S. will defend itself, but how do you interpret this sort of muscular response?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Well, you know most of the time when I was secretary, we had two aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf area, one in the Gulf, and one in the Arabian Sea. So in a way, we're kind of returning to a presence that we had when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were at their height. But I- I think that- that- the perspective that's important to have here is that every American administration, since the Iranian revolution, beginning with Jimmy Carter has reached out to try and reach some kind of an accommodation with Iran. Every single one. I was there for most of them. And in some cases, the Iranian president, whether it was Khatami or Rouhani indicated some interest in doing that. But every time they were quashed by the Ayatollah, first Khomeini, then Khamenei. And so the- the- the theocracy in Tehran really is hostile to the United States, all the way down to the core. And- and so trying to figure out how to deal with these guys, and to warn them not to take some rash action that would precipitate a response by the United States I think is a is an important element.  I think the administration is sending that signal. But- but I think people shouldn't be- it isn't just the fact we walked away from the Iranian nuclear deal. This is a more deeply embedded rivalry and and dislike between these two countries.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: President Obama's famously said, you know, if you unclench your fist we can extend a hand. The Iranians took that opportunity. They sat- they would argue- they negotiated with the United States with the world. And the result after that diplomacy was to have the U.S. walk away. What is their incentive now to talk?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Well, I think- I think what- what the agreement did not address was what the- was their testing of ballistic missiles of increasing range. And it did not address at all their meddling and interference in the Middle East. Their support for Hamas, their support for various other terrorist organizations, the activities of the Revolutionary Guards and so on. Now, those are the kinds of things that actually are creating a lot of turbulence in the Middle East. And- and so getting a handle on that kind of behavior seems to me important. I believe that the agreement- the original agreement had some very deep flaws. But once it was signed, I think it was a mistake to walk away from it. We we should have then used various other pressures to address these other issues, such as ballistic missiles and- and their behavior in the region.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: So that was a strategic misstep by the Trump administration?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I think so, in part because it ended up isolating us as well as the Iranians. And so all of our closest allies in Europe have sustained the agreement in no small part because everybody agrees, at least until recently, that the Iranians have been abiding by the agreement. It was just the narrow nature of the agreement that this administration had issues with.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well we heard this week from Iran this threat that they may not comply, as you said, they have been and the rest of the world stayed in the deal. All the world powers besides the United States. So what happens if this thing actually does fall apart and you don't have monitors on the ground and you don't have Iran's nuclear program frozen?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I think that if the- if the Iranians take steps to begin resuming some elements of their nuclear program, the Europeans have already indicated that then they would have to impose some sanctions. So, I think moving ahead like this for Iran just puts them deeper in a box because then it will not only be the United States that has re-imposed sanctions, it will put the Europeans in a position where they have to do that as well.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: So you think the Iranians are bluffing?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: No, they may be making a mistake which may be even worse.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: But if they- if the nuclear deal falls apart, if it doesn't have monitors and it's not frozen, what is the next move for the United States?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Well this goes back to my earlier comments about us not having a strategy with respect to China. What is our long term approach toward Iran? And- and what are our goals and how do we intend to achieve them, and how do we limit Iran's misbehavior in the region, whether it's Yemen or Lebanon and Syria and so on.  And I just don't think we have an integrated strategy on how we're gonna do that, other than just putting as much pressure as possible on the Iranians, perhaps in the hope that the people will rise up and overthrow the government, which I think is a very low probability.  I think that I think that the Ayatollah and Revolutionary Guards and others are amazingly ruthless. And I think if there is an uprising against the regime, it will be put down very, very ruthlessly.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: We spoke recently with Iran's top diplomat, Javad Zarif, and he basically said he thought President Trump was being manipulated by his advisors, particularly John Bolton along with some U.S. allies and he seemed to be saying, we're on the path where an accident- a military confrontation of some sort could happen. Is that where you see us headed?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I think there's that risk. Absolutely. I mean, if the Iranians make the mistake of launching an attack in the Persian Gulf on a more- American warship or if they carry out an operation against American troops in Iraq or something like that, the administration probably won't have any alternative but to retaliate and--
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: But do you think that- that there is that manipulation happening to create the conditions for that?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I don't- I don't believe that- first of all I don't have much connection with Washington these days. But I don't- I don't believe that the president is being manipulated and I don't believe his advisers are trying to maneuver him into a position that provokes an incident with the Iranians that could then be expanded. I don't- I don't believe that.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, it sounds like you're saying miscalculation, though, is still a possibility here.
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I think it's a very real risk right now, yes.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: So should the next president decide to try to rejoin the nuclear deal? Is that even possible?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I think- I think that the next step ought to be to say, we need to go back and fix this agreement, which is actually what this administration is trying to do but has not been successful because they're going to have to offer some incentives for the Iranians if they go back and try and expand the agreement or also include in it ballistic missiles and behavior in the region. But I think- I think that- there's- conflict between the United States and Iran would have tremendous unforeseen consequences in the Middle East. And I think it would be very, very dangerous. So I think that the- that the strategy needs to be how in fact do you get the Iranians back to the negotiating table and understanding that the agreed- that whatever agreement emerges has to be broader and has to deal with some of these other issues.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: You're a former Secretary of Defense, former CIA director. Do you still speak with foreign leaders?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Sometimes, not all that often but sometimes.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: President Trump said in the Oval Office that John Kerry should be prosecuted under the Logan Act because he still talks to foreign leaders, specifically Iran's foreign minister. What do you make of that?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Well, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever been prosecuted under the Logan Act. And I think it's been in effect since World War I, so--
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: But you're- you're laughing about this.
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Yeah, I mean this is not going to happen. And American politicians and former leaders talk to other leaders all the time.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: So these accusations from the president that it is because the former Secretary of State is interfering that it's keeping Iran from negotiating. You think the president's just wrong?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I don't believe that.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: And there's nothing wrong with it in your view?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I think- I think it's a matter of judgment and I think- I think trying to hold a negotiation, if you will, with a foreign leader when you're out of power is a mistake. I think that's a mistake in judgment. There's only one president at a time and negotiations with other governments ought to be left to the administration- to the president.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: North Korea, another hotspot. Do you think the president is on the right track?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: You know, I thought- first of all, the United States for 25 years, under his- President Trump's three predecessors, all tried to negotiate with the North Koreans and all failed. And so after 25 years of failure, I thought that the president's decision to reach out to Kim Jong Un and offer a personal meeting- sure there were risks. You gave up the prestige of a meeting with the president of the United States, but I thought it was a bold stroke that might create an environment where there could actually be progress toward getting limitations on on the North Korean nuclear program. I believe that the North Koreans will never completely denuclearize. I think they see at least- having at least some modest nuclear capability is essential to their national survival and the survival of the Kim dynasty, if you will. But I think that the outreach was- was a bold thing to do. And- and I think what Kim- when Kim was asking for a significant lifting of the sanctions for really modest changes in taking down part of the nuclear establishment--
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: The proposal in Hanoi--
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: --was basic- yes, was basically the same strategy that he's followed with- with Trump's predecessors. You know, we'll do a little and you do some. You- we'll do a little and you do more.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: So you don't think he's serious about diplomacy?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I think- Kim? I think he is. But I think he's got a different set of objectives. And- and so the problem is-over the years of negotiations, the nuclear facility at Yongbyon has been opened and closed so many times, it ought to have a revolving door.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: So that's not a serious offer by North Korea, when they put it on the table in Hanoi?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: They've done this before.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: So the president was right to walk away?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I think he was.  I think he was. Because now, I think they're unrealistic in believing that they can get complete denuclearization. So the question is, if the North won't give up all of its nuclear weapons, are other limitations worth pursuing? And what's the alternative to pursuing those other alternatives?
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, North Korea hasn't handed over its weapons inventory. They haven't dismantled their missiles. They haven't broken down any part of their nuclear program. So how long do you keep talking before you say, this just isn't gonna work?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Well I think- I think you have to keep at it at least for a while, but there's no- that's- the status quo is also not acceptable because they are continuing to produce nuclear weapons, even if they're not carrying out nuclear tests. And- and now they've resumed some of their ballistic missile testing, not the long- long range tests, but these shorter range missiles have the capacity to reach our allies, South Korea and Japan. So, you know, as long as there's no nuclear testing, it's probably worth keeping the door open. But at some point, people have to realize that if you just drag this thing out, it's not going to lead to anything. Now the problem that Kim faces is their- the country is facing another famine, and the country is under severe stress. The Chinese will never go along with sanctions so severe that they break the North Korean regime. They will keep it minimally alive, if you will. So the notion that the North is going to collapse, I think, is probably unrealistic. But at the same time, if you just let this thing string out, the North is just continuing to build their capabilities.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: I hear you describing with Iran, with North Korea, the message that these maximalist positions, that in particular, National Security Adviser John Bolton articulates, just- they're not right headed. They're overestimating what the U.S. can accomplish.
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Yeah I mean, I think- I think- the objective of Iran not having nuclear weapons, and not having the ballistic missiles to attack their neighbors in the Middle East, and us. The objective of North Korea denuclearizing and not being able to threaten its neighbors. I think those are laudable objectives. The problem is we've got 25 or 30 years experience with both of these regimes, showing that that maximalist objective is probably not attainable. And so, if that's the case, then what's our fallback position? What- what advances our national security by taking- by limiting those threats in some way?
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: The president no longer has all those generals around him, General Mattis, General Kelly, H.R. McMaster, they're all gone. Do you think that has changed the influence on the president? I mean, he doesn't have those military advisers all around him any longer.
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Well, I'm a big admirer of General Mattis- Secretary Mattis, and I was sorry to see him go. I think he's a very wise and thoughtful national leader. But you know, presidential advisers come and go, I've seen that firsthand. And I think that the- I think sometimes people overestimate the importance of a president's advisors. It's really- it's the president that matters--
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: President Trump would agree with you on that, that's what he says.
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Well, but I would tell you that the first President Bush, and the second President Bush, and President Obama also felt the same way. They wanted their advisers, they were interested in getting alternative points of view, but the decisions were their decisions. And no- and they never left any of their advisers in any doubt whatsoever- who was the decider.
 
MARGARET  BRENNAN: Afghanistan, you were intimately involved when you were the secretary of defense. President Trump campaigned on bringing the troops home. President Obama campaigned on bringing the troops home. U.S. troops are still there. Is it time to bring them home?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I think that the circumstances under which you bring them home matter. And- and I think trying to give the Afghan government the best possible shot at survival
is really important for the future of Afghanistan. I mean, if we just walk away from Afghanistan and- and the Afghan government is completely left on its own,  just think of the consequences for Afghan women, for example, or girls in schools in Afghanistan. So if you hand over this country, in effect, to the Taliban, do they go back to where they were in 19- in 2000 or 1999? And what are the costs of that and what will be the- what will be the reaction in the United States when they see women being stoned to death and things like that? So the question is, can you negotiate an arrangement whereby the Taliban agrees to operate under the Afghan Constitution, becomes a part of the political process? But the aspects of Afghanistan that have been modernized, in terms that I've just been describing, survive and I think that's--
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you believe they want to be part of the Afghan government or do they want to actually rule Afghanistan?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Oh they want- they want to take over Afghanistan.
The question is- the question is whether you can negotiate a deal--
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: So it's unrealistic to believe then that the Taliban would agree to do things like respect women's rights, isn't it?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Well- but if they- if they agree to any kind of a compromise deal, it's really up to the other Afghans at the end of the day to- to resist any moves, to get rid of those changes, to go backward, if you will. But I think it's up to us after all this time to at least try and put the Afghan government in as positive a position for that contest that will come at some point as we can. But at the end of the day, you've got to admit, it's going to be up to the Afghans themselves.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: The point you're making is not something that the Trump administration is doing though in terms of involving the Afghan government or keeping them fully informed in these negotiations with the Taliban. Do you think those peace talks are headed in the wrong direction?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: No, but I think- I think there is such a thing as sequencing and- and obviously a big part of the Taliban's interest in this is getting the U.S. out. And so the discussions are really about what's the role of the U.S. in the future. And- and I think there have now been moves to include the Afghan government and larger representatives of Afghan society in the negotiations with the Taliban.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: Last question on this. So the- the former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, who you know well, compared this to Vietnam. He said, "You pull out your troops, it doesn't end the war. That hands the battlefield to your adversaries." Do you see that?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I think there's a very real risk of that, yes.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: A repeat of Vietnam?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Well, a repeat of- of the government that we have supported being unable to sustain itself.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: You are a longtime Cold Warrior. So I have to ask you about Russia and Vladimir Putin. The Mueller report found sweeping and systematic Russian meddling in the 2016 election and quote, "numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign." No conspiracy, however, was established. Do you think Vladimir Putin paid an adequate price?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: No, and I think we have- I think we have not reacted nearly strongly enough to Putin and to Russia for their blatant interference in 2016. And I think there are ways we can do that. It's not military, but it's perhaps a certain set of sanctions. It's also using some of our own capabilities to go back into Russia and, let's say, inform the Russian people of the magnitude of corruption of Putin, and the henchmen around him, and the oligarchs who support him, and how one of the reasons that average Russians have- continue to suffer and have economic deprivation is because these guys are taking all the money. And- and- and I think we can make a case about that. And I think- I think we can create more problems for him in a- we have the capabilities to do that. And I just- I feel like, here again, we don't have a strategy. How are we going to resist Putin's spoiling efforts? His electoral interference, not just in the United States, but they were involved in the Brexit vote, they were involved in the French election. The Russians loaned Marine Le Pen's campaign millions of euros in France. And what are we going to do to- to respond to that? And I just, you know, the Congress- largely due to the Congress, we have imposed sanctions on Russia and individual Russians, but I think there's a lot more we could do.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: Why don't you think the president has done that?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I think that- well, I think that, interestingly enough, some of his advisers are much more hard line on Russia than he is. And- and a lot of these sanctions have come more at congressional initiatives than out- out of the White House. I don't know whether it's his peculiar relationship with Putin, whether he feels like any acknowledgment of Russian involvement in the 2016 elections somehow de-legitimizes his being elected president. I don't know what the mix of motives are. But the interesting thing is everybody around the president actually has a much more realistic view of the Russians and that includes up on the Hill.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: And it's a favorite talking point for the Trump administration to say that they're- that they've been the toughest on Russia of any administration.
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: And in some respects, that's true.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: In some respects.
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: And the sanctions--
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: You're a Cold Warrior. You- you actually believe that?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I- I think in terms of the magnitude of the sanctions that have been put on Russia, they are more significant than had been imposed in the past.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think it's a legitimate criticism of the president that he didn't confront Vladimir Putin about what the Mueller report concluded?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I think that was a mistake, yes. I think he should've- he should've said, "We've had this discussion, the evidence is in, and- and- don't ever do this again or there will be consequences for Russia." I think he- I think he very much should have raised it with him.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: The Republican leadership on Capitol Hill says, "Mueller report case closed." Should it be?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I think that- I think that- the- the piece of the Mueller report about Russian interference is not case closed. And frankly, I think elected officials who depend on honest elections to get elected ought to have- ought to place as a very high priority measures to protect the American electoral system against interference by foreigners.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: Should it- should it be proposed? Would you be supportive of legislation that would make it a crime if it- some say it's already considered, or should be, to accept intelligence from a foreign asset or agent to win in an election?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Well, for me, that's- that's very vague. What's- what is intelligence? I mean, is intelligence a- a secret dossier? Is intelligence intercepts- intercepted telephone conversations? Or is it a- a- a French government that has a view on the policies of a candidate, with respect to economic policy or something like that? I think it would need- I think any legislation would need to be very carefully crafted to make it clear what exactly is being talked about.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: Hacked e-mails from the Democratic National Committee?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Yeah I think- I think that should be illegal.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: Secretary of State Pompeo is about to meet with Vladimir Putin in the next few days. Is there a deal to be cut with Putin when it comes to the meddling he's doing in America's backyard in Venezuela?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I don't think so. I think- I think Putin is largely a spoiler. I think he will do anything he can to make trouble for us. He believes we make trouble for him in his backyard. If he has an opportunity to make trouble for us in our backyard, he will take it. So the Russians, I think, are taking advantage of the situation in Venezuela. The Russia- the Chinese by contrast I think just want to get their money out. But I think the Russians are very actively involved in trying to keep him in power--
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: Keep Maduro in power.
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: --in league- in- and leave- and- and particularly in league with the Cubans. I mean, I've read that the Cubans have infiltrated the Venezuelan military from top to bottom and it's very difficult for any two officers in the Venezuelan military to have a conversation without it being overheard or without having the Cuban intelligence know about it and then allow Maduro to take action.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: Patrick Shanahan has been officially nominated now to be the next secretary of defense. What do you think of him? He was a longtime Boeing executive but he doesn't have extensive foreign policy experience.
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I think- I think Shanahan brings a couple of things to the Pentagon that are really needed right now. One is extensive management experience and managing and leading large organizations involved in producing complex equipment and- and so on. I think he also is- is an appropriate person to lead and affect the technological revolution in American weaponry and the changes in strategy that are going to be needed to take into account the capabilities of those new weapons. We're looking at a whole new and different kind of conflict in the future, particularly if it ever involves countries like China or Russia. And I think having somebody with Shanahan's background is an asset in getting the Pentagon not only to adopt these new technologies, but then to reconsider and revise strategies on how you make use of these weapons in the future.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: Is there anyone right now who can tell the president no?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Well, I'm not there so I don't know the answer to that.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well you had great praise for the former Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, who disagreed with the president on a few points. Do you see anyone who can really push back on some of the president's views?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Well again, I- I just don't know who- I don't know how the internal dynamics work in the administration and whether people will tell him that that's a really bad idea. And he says, "Well thanks for your advice, I'm gonna go do something else." But he would not be the first president to do that by any means.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: That's fair. But you've been critical of John Bolton in the past. Do you think he's giving the president good counsel now?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Well, I think Bolton is very well-informed. He's- he's got a long background in international affairs. I think that, you know, he and I probably disagree on some things, but I think- I think, you know, these are- some of these are very tough problems, dealing with very tough leaders. So, you know, I'm not sure that I'd want somebody who- who had a more conciliatory approach, if you will, to North Korea or Iran or Russia at this particular juncture.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: So for those who say--
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: And that's why you have a secretary of state, a secretary of defense. It's a team. It's not just- it's not just one person.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: We're- we have already kicked off campaign 2020. Will you be supporting President Trump?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I have no idea what I'll do in 2020.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you--
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: We'll see.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: You consider yourself, though, to be a Republican?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I do. I do.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: But you're not sure if you're going to support the Republican nominee?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: It's a long time until the election.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: So you don't think the president's gonna run?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: No, I- I don't. I- you know- when I retired as director of CIA, I gave up predict- predicting the future.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: You're leaving yourself some room there. Do you think, though, when you say you still are a Republican, has the party itself become the party of Trump?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I think, to a considerable extent, it has and- and I'm- I'm disappointed that more Republicans don't stand up more often for traditional Republican values, whether it's greater fiscal discipline, internationalism, trade and so on.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: I was rereading your memoir before we sat down to talk and you said in your memoir, "Joe Biden is impossible not to like." Quote, "He's a man of integrity, incapable of hiding what he really thinks, and one of those rare people you know you could turn to for help in a personal crisis." And you know what I'm about to read to you. "Still I think he's been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades." Would he be an effective commander in chief?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: I- I don't know. I don't know. I- I think I stand by that statement. He and I agreed on some key issues in the Obama administration. We agreed on, to oppose- we both opposed the intervention in Libya. We both opposed the way that President Mubarak was handled- the situation in Egypt. We disagreed significantly on Afghanistan and some other issues. I think that- I think, as I say elsewhere in the memoir, I think- I think that the vice president had some issues with the military. So how he would get along with the senior military, and what that relationship would be, I just- I think, it- it would depend on the personalities at the time.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: He's a peer of yours, he's about a year older.
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Yes.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: You think he's right for this moment?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Well I- you know, I think I'm pretty busy and pretty active but I think- I think having a president who is somebody our age or older, in the case of Senator Sanders, is- I think it's problematic. I think that you don't have the kind of energy that I think is required to be president. I think- I'm not sure you have the intellectual acuity that you might have had in your sixties. So, I mean, it's just a personal view. I- you know, I- the thought- for me, the- the thought of taking on those responsibilities at this point in my life would be pretty daunting.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: But you know, the argument being made though is he's- you think he's been wrong for 40 years, but he's got 40 years experience. He has foreign policy experience and there's this argument about American values right now and who we are as a country. Do you think given that, that- that there is a role for him in the conversation right now?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Well, I definitely think there's a role for him in the conversation. And I think he will raise some issues that the other candidates for the Democratic nomination need to address. For example, you know, I've had my issues with- with him on foreign policy as you've described, but I've hardly heard a word out of any of the other 20 candidates on foreign policy at all. I have no idea what any of them think about any of the issues you and I have been discussing.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: You think that's a mistake that more of this isn't discussed on the campaign trail? Because the argument is foreign policy doesn't win you the election.
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Well, and it certainly doesn't win you the primaries. But I would think that in the interviews and so on that as part of the larger dialogue, I know they're not going to talk about foreign policy when they go to a campaign rally in Iowa or- or in New Hampshire or South Carolina. But I think when they sit down for interviews with media and others, that that's the opportunity for them to say, "You know I actually know something about foreign policy and here's what I think on these issues." So I- I think- I think it's irresponsible not to give people, the- the electorate more broadly, some idea of where you're coming from on issues of war and peace and the role of the military and what you would do with the military with the understanding that those are not going to be topics that you're going to be bringing up necessarily on the campaign trail itself.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: What is the key foreign policy issue facing whatever presidential candidate we see in 2020?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Well, I think the overarching issue is what's going to be the role of the United States in the world in the 21st century. We- we face a world today that in my view is more complex and more unpredictable than at any time since the late 1940s. And after all these decades of fighting communism and fascism and Nazism, we've actually in many respects reverted to a pre-World War I environment of great powers vying for influence and territory and markets. What role is the United States going to play in that world? Are- we now- we- I think we pretty broadly agree we don't want to be the world's policeman. But do we just come back to our shores? Do we think we can survive and thrive in a- in a world like that? These are the kinds of overarching issues about America's role in the world that I think are really central to the discussion for 2020.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: So you still don't know who's going to take your vote in 2020?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: No.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: Going back to the question I asked you about Joe Biden being a peer of yours and his age, you raised Senator Sanders age also as a concern. Is the president's age a worry for you?
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Well, he's getting up there too. He's- he's a little younger than we are but- but not a lot.  I think- I think it has to be, you know, it's a question people ought to- ought to address.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: But if it's--
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Although the- you know-  the other side of the coin is, by the time of his second term, Ronald Reagan was up there also, and I think Ronald Reagan was a pretty great president. So I mean there are exceptions.
 
MARGARET BRENNAN: But the mental acuity issues that you raised for Joe Biden, or for anyone in that age group, you would apply to the president as well.
 
FMR. SEC. GATES: Well I was talking about myself as much as anything else.  But I think- I think it's a question- when you're talking about being the president of the United States, the ability to do the job in every respect has always got to be a consideration.


This interview took place on the College of William & Mary campus, where Mr. Gates is serving in his second term as Chancellor.