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Transcript: Robert O'Brien on "Face the Nation," November 10, 2019

National security adviser says U.S. "concerned" about war crimes in Syria
National security adviser says U.S. "concerned" about war crimes in Syria despite Erdogan visit to White House 12:00

The following is a transcript of an interview with National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien that aired Sunday, November 10, 2019, on "Face the Nation."

MARGARET BRENNAN: Joining us now to weigh in on Syria and more is the President's National Security Adviser, Robert O'Brien. Good morning to you, Mr. Ambassador. 


MARGARET BRENNAN: You just heard Charlie lay out a very complicated landscape. Diplomacy means talking to your friends and to your enemies and having difficult conversations. But you just heard everything Charlie laid out. I mean, Erdoğan defied the United States by invading Syria. He's buying Russian made weapons. He's doing everything you're telling him not to. Why is he getting rewarded for bad behavior?

O'BRIEN: Well, let me just point out, MARGARET, that- that you got it right. And unfortunately Charlie got it wrong. When Charlie said we greenlighted the invasion of Syria- of Syria. That's just absolutely false. It didn't happen. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well the U.S. moved troops

O'BRIEN: --The President- the president--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --out of the way.

O'BRIEN: Well, the president made it very clear that- that Turkey shouldn't go in. He even said, "if you go in, I may have to obliterate your economy." He did it on Twitter. He did it on- on the phone. He did it a letter that was a very strongly worded letter. So the- so the idea that the U.S. somehow greenlighted Turkey's military operation, that's- that's just simply false. And- and the American people shouldn't- shouldn't believe that. Now, what he did do, we had 28 Green Berets who were at a forward operating post on the border that would have been caught in a crossfire between 15,000 Turkish troops and armor and- and seven or eight thousand YPG SDF troops. And the president was not willing—

MARGARET BRENNAN: Kurdish forces—

O'BRIEN: Kurdish forces—

MARGARET BRENNAN: --that are allies with the U.S.

O'BRIEN: Correct. And the president was not going to leave those young men in- in harm's way in a crossfire. And so he pulled those- those troops out because it's— look, it's ultimately it's the president who has to call the families. It's the president who has to go to Dover—


O'BRIEN: --if something happens. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: But that's why the question is relevant. Why reward that bad behavior? This is a NATO ally who is putting U.S. troops at risk, who is putting U.S. allies at risk.

O'BRIEN: Well, we're not rewarding the behavior. The president promptly put on sanctions, and—

MARGARET BRENNAN: And then he took them off.

O'BRIEN: Well, he did because the Turks agreed to a cease fire. And- and Turkey said they wouldn't agree to a cease fire, the president dispatched me and a number of top diplomats—  David Satterfield, Jim Jeffrey and then- then dispatched the Secretary of State and the Vice President to Ankara. And in 24 hours, we had a cease fire. And by the way, that was a cease fire that the Kurdish forces had a lot of input into. We want- we wanted to save lives. We wanted to save Turkish lives. And keep in mind there were Turkish civilians being killed and- and rocketed by the Kurds. There were Kurdish folks being killed, including Turkish soldiers. We got a cease fire. And- and in a short amount of time, we got those Kurdish soldiers evacuated to- to a safe area. So I think the Kurds appreciated the cease fire. I think the Turks did as well. And that was a- a real diplomatic coup from the president because he- because of his tough line. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you recognize that there were war crimes committed? 

O'BRIEN: Look, it- some of the things that we've seen are very disturbing, and—


O'BRIEN: Well—

MARGARET BRENNAN: and Turkish supported militias?

O'BRIEN: Maybe the Turkish supported militias. Turkey has assured us that those are being investigated. We're very concerned about those issues, the war crimes issues. We're watching them. We're monitoring it very closely.  There is no place for genocide, for ethnic cleansing, for war crimes in the 21st century. The U.S. won't stand by for it and-  and we've made that position very clear to the Turks.

MARGARET BRENNAN: If Congress passes any of the at least three sanctions bills on Turkey that are going to get bipartisan support, will the president veto all of them?

O'BRIEN: Look, we'll have to see what- what happens this week with our meetings with President Erdoğan. I mean, there are things that, Turkey's a member of NATO. Turkey plays a very important geopolitical role for- for our friends in Europe, for ourselves. They- they sit astride the Bosporus—


O'BRIEN: --the strait that goes into the Black Sea. We have NATO allies, Romania and Bulgaria that are Black Sea powers. So- so losing Turkey as- as an ally is not something that's good for the Europe- for Europe or for the United States. 


O'BRIEN: And- and we're going to-  we're going to work on making sure that—


O'BRIEN: --we can do our very best to keep them as a- as a NATO member.

MARGARET BRENNAN: More to talk about your portfolio in a moment. We have to take a break. We'll be right back.


MARGARET BRENNAN: Welcome back to FACE THE NATION. We continue our conversation with Ambassador Robert O'Brien, national security adviser to President Trump. I- I want to pick up on this idea where we left it with Turkey coming. And they are a NATO ally, as you emphasized. One of our NATO allies, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, said this week that NATO is suffering a brain death because of lack of American support and resolve. From what he's seeing and then what we're seeing with Turkey causing these cracks in the alliance, I mean you must be very concerned. Is that why you've brought the NATO secretary general to the White House this week as well?

O'BRIEN: Well, we the NATO summit coming up the third and fourth of December. So, we'll be in London for that summit. I think- I think it's going to be a good summit between NATO allies. NATO's an important alliance to us. But look, I think the cracks of that have formed in the alliance are because we have members of the alliance that aren't paying their fair share, that aren't spending money on defense. I mean, the- the United States taxpayer and- and the taxpayer of eight of the NATO country- taxpayers of eight of the NATO countries that are spending their two percent on national defense. We spend over 4 percent. They're doing the right things. But there are a bunch of countries, including Germany and others, that- that aren't paying their fair share. It's not- it's not right for the American taxpayer to have to defend these countries that don't want to defend themselves. So- so, the president has been very- very strong on this issue. There's been a hundred billion dollars in new NATO defense spending since he took office. It's a great accomplishment of President Trump. I think the Americans are happy about it. I think most Europeans are happy about it.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, Emmanuel Macron was voicing out loud some real concerns. And if you look at what Turkey has done, as you just described, you thought that there was a potential NATO ally would fire on the United States, intentionally or not, in Syria. You've also seen Turkey go ahead and buy Russian made weapons in defiance of NATO. 

O'BRIEN: Yeah, we're- we're very upset about that. And we've made—

MARGARET BRENNAN: Can you get behind sanctions on them?

O'BRIEN: Well--

MARGARET BRENNAN: I mean, they're supposed to be triggered by Congress.

O'BRIEN: Well, look- look, if- if Turkey doesn't get rid of the S-400, I mean, there will likely be sanctions. The CAATSA sanctions will- will pass Congress with an overwhelming bipartisan majority and Turkey will feel the impact of those sanctions. We- we've made that very clear to President Erdoğan. There's no place in NATO for the S-400. There's no place in NATO for significant Russian military purchases. That's a message that the president will deliver to him very clearly when he's here in Washington.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I know you're just back from Asia. The president says he wants to meet with Xi Jinping and possibly get a trade deal by December. Is that a hard date on the calendar?

O'BRIEN: Look, there- there's no deadline. We want to get a good deal. And I think we're very close to getting a phase one trade deal. And it will be the first time that we've had a trade deal where China has actually respected the United States and- and hasn't, you know, stolen intellectual property, has been fair and reciprocal in trade. So, if we can get a good deal, then we'll get a good deal. I think we're very close. And I think if there is a deal, the president and President Xi, will- will get together and sign it. Look, we want great relations with China, but this is the first president that stood up to China that- that has been, you know, stealing American intellectual property. Not all American companies that have access to Chinese markets engage in unfair trade practices. That has to come to an end because the Chinese have been using that to fill- to- to fund one of the most massive military buildups in history. 


O'BRIEN: And- and- and you know, that has to come to a stop.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, as I just said, you're back from Asia. You've been raising concerns about China's militarization, particularly of the South China Sea. I mean, this only seems to be escalating militarily.

O'BRIEN: Well, I don't think it's escalated militarily. I think the president put tariffs on- on China. We've always- and- and those tariffs have- have led the Chinese to the negotiating table. And I think we're going to get a pretty good deal for the American people, especially for the American farmers, for owners of intellectual property.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So- so you see a trade deal going ahead and what you're talking about in terms of militarization in the South China Sea, that kind of thing is not going to complicate?

O'BRIEN: Look we're- we're going to still stand up and I did at the ASEAN summit at the East Asia Summit. I made it very clear that that just because one country's big and other countries are small in the region, the bigger countries shouldn't bully the smaller countries and- and take their resources, whether they're fishery resources or oil and gas resources. And the U.S. Navy will continue to have freedom of navigation operations through the South China Sea. This nine dash line or cow's tongue that the Chinese have drawn around the entire South China Sea, which is a major swath of the Pacific Ocean, and claimed that as internal waters, as if it was Lake Tahoe or something, that just can't stand. The United States Navy won't put up with it, the countries in the regions- region won't put up with it. And- and all those countries, with very few exceptions, were grateful because- that America's standing up for them, standing up for their resource patrimony. That's the future for their kids and their grandkids with the oil and gas and the fisheries, the minerals off their shores, China shouldn't be allowed to take it just because they're bigger.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You on Ukraine. I know you were not at the White House when this July 25th phone call happened. That is now at the heart of this impeachment inquiry. But you are now part of Ukraine policymaking. You heard Senator Graham at the top of the program say the policy is completely incoherent. Will the U.S. continue lethal military aid to Ukraine until Russia backs out of Crimea and stops supporting separatists in Ukraine?

O'BRIEN: Well, look, I think you put your finger on the most important issue, and that's lethal military aid. I was in Ukraine in 2014, I was there to observe the elections in Ukraine. I was there as part of a bipartisan election observation mission and I had younger Ukrainian soldiers and young Ukrainians come up to me and say, why won't the U.S., the arsenal of democracy, send us lethal aid? You're sending us blankets and MRE's. Why won't—


O'BRIEN: --President Obama send us military aid?--

MARGARET BRENNAN: And President Trump changed--

O'BRIEN: --and there- and there--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --policy by doing that.

O'BRIEN: There was no military aid going to the Ukrainians under the- the Obama-Biden administration. When President Trump got into office he sent military aid. So I think what people ought to be focusing on is the president has been helping the- the Ukrainians defend themselves by sending them lethal military aid to stand up to the Russians. That's the real story that's been lost in all this.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But is the- is the policy though, that? That that lethal aid will continue until Russia stops backing separatists and trying to annex parts of Ukraine?

O'BRIEN: Well, I'm not going to get into hypotheticals about what could happen down the road. I mean, hopefully Russia and Ukraine can get along and there can be some sort of a peace treaty and- and an agreement between them. So I'm not going to commit the United States to what we're going to do forever. But- but for right now, we're set. We're the first administration, President Trump is the first president to send lethal military aid to Ukraine. I think that's very important. And I think that's something that's been lost in- in all the hullabaloo about the- about the telephone call. And one other thing I'd say about this, I've been with President Trump in two dozen conversations, either in person or on the phone with foreign leaders. And if the American people could be on those phone calls they'd be extraordinarily proud of the president, how he represents America, the cordiality that he- he has with world leaders, but also the tough message that he has to- to protect U.S. interests. I mean, they'd- they'd be proud of what their president does in those meetings with foreign leaders.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, who has testified under oath, is serving on the National Security Council currently. Will he continue to work for you despite testifying against the president?

O'BRIEN: Well- well look, one of the things that I've talked about is that we're streamlining the National Security Council. It got bloated to like two hundred and thirty six people from- up from 100 in the Bush administration under President Obama. We're streamlining the National Security Council. There are people that are detailed from different departments and agencies. My understanding is he's- is that Colonel Vindman is- is detailed from the Department of Defense. So everyone who's detailed at the NSC, people are going to start going back to their own departments and we'll bring in new folks. But we're going to get that number down to around 100 people. That's what it was under Condoleezza Rice. She came and met with me. I met with a number of my successors.


O'BRIEN:  We don't need to recreate the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security over at the White House. We've got great diplomats and soldiers and- and folks that can- that do that work for us in the departments.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Just to button that up, though. You're saying Colonel-  Lieutenant Colonel Vindman is scheduled to rotate out. You are not suggesting in any way that there will be retaliation against him? 

O'BRIEN: I- I never retaliated against anyone. So the- the- it's—

MARGARET BRENNAN: But his time is coming to an end?

O'BRIEN: There- there will be a point for everybody who's detailed there—


O'BRIEN: --that their time, that their detail will come to an end. They'll go back to their agency. And what we want them to do is take the experience and skills they learned at the White House, take it back to their departments and agencies and- and do an even better job there. And- and so we're grateful that we can have these detailees come in, and they'll come spend the year- a year or, you know, maybe a little bit more at the White House and then they'll go back to their agency. And they'll do a better job at their agency--


O'BRIEN: -- having been at the White House.  

MARGARET BRENNAN: Thank you very much—  

O'BRIEN: Thank you for having me, MARGARET—

MARGARET BRENNAN: — Ambassador O'Brien for joining us. Appreciate it. We'll be right back with our panel. Don't go away.

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