Transcript: Sen. John Thune on "Face the Nation," December 9, 2018

Thune warns against "speculation" on Trump, Cohen

The following is a transcript of the interview with Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota that aired Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, on "Face the Nation."

MARGARET BRENNAN: We go now to South Dakota Senator John Thune. He will be in Senate Republican Whip when the new Congress convenes in January. And he joins us this morning from our CBS affiliate KELO in Sioux Falls. Senator, welcome to "Face the Nation."

SENATOR JOHN THUNE: Good morning, Margaret.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Question for you, to start off here is based on the news we learned this week surrounding some of the legal problems with the president. Federal prosecutors in Manhattan said that his personal attorney made illegal campaign finance payments at the direction of "Individual-1." Specifically prosecutors say, "Individual-1," President Donald Trump, made payment in coordination with and at the direction of "Individual One." So everything that Michael Cohen paid for prosecutors say was directed by the president. What do you make of this filing? The president says it exonerates him.

SEN. THUNE: It's a sentencing filing Margaret but I think- and you- a couple of your former guests have already suggested this, that, it is important until we await, you know, the additional evidence that comes out and the Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team continue to do- do their work. But I think at this point we have an incomplete picture, and I think at this point the president, as you know, as you said earlier has denied some of these allegations that have been made. Michael Cohen obviously has plenty of incentive now to cooperate and the representations that he makes I think you have to you know there are going to be some questions raised about those as well. So I guess my view is that let- let's wait. This thing is still not complete until it is complete. I think it's probably mostly speculation on the part of those of us who are not privy to all the details that the Mueller investigation are looking at.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well this was specific to the prosecutors in Manhattan in terms of those specific charges.

SEN. THUNE: Right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But moving on here.

SEN. THUNE: Correct. Yeah. But I think it's the same- same thing I mean they're- they- they've got- this is a- this is still- we don't know all the facts until we know all the facts. I think it's important probably not to- to- to draw any judgments but we'll know in due time.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You have a big job now as we introduced you. You're going to be the whip here. How quickly can you get President Trump's nominee to be Attorney General William Barr confirmed. What is the timeline we're looking at here?

SEN. THUNE: Well there's certainly a process and confirmation hearings you know the name gets submitted obviously there's a background checks. It shouldn't be all that difficult. This is someone who has a long record in public life and also has held this position previously. My guess is that when it's all said and done if it- when it comes to a vote in the full Senate that he'll have strong support. I would hope that he would have strong support from Democrats in the Senate as well as Republicans. He is- we know very qualified and I think has a proven record of accomplishment as a lawyer both in the private sector and his work in the- in government as well. So but we- we will await the process, allow it to move forward and the confirmation hearings to get underway. But I would suspect his prospects would be pretty good at least if you looked at it this point we're trying to handicap it.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well let's talk about what's happening in the next few weeks, what some call the lame duck here. There is some work you still need to be able to get done. One of the things that Senator Lindsey Graham has been vocal about is a conversation he had with the president, in which he says the president told him he wants to attach criminal justice reform and border wall funding to the year end spending bill. What do you make of that proposal?

SEN. THUNE: There are several things that we have to do before the end of this year, before the next Congress starts. We have to fund the government, about 75 percent of the bills that fund the government have been passed by the Congress and signed into law by the president. But there remain about 25 percent, one of which is the-the appropriation bill that funds the Department of Homeland Security, which would include funding for the border wall. Criminal justice reform is an issue that we have a lot of members in our conference who support, but that's still being worked on and if it's going to be considered this year I think it's probably going to have to- they're going have to find a consensus that would enable it to move fairly quickly because we just don't have a lot of time. We've got to fund the government, we've got to pass a farm bill, we've got a lot of nominations we want to move through the process. So, there's a pretty detailed list of things that Congress still has to get done and criminal justice reform obviously is in that mix at the moment, but how it shakes out in the end, I think remains to be seen. But I would suspect in order for it to be a part of that year end train, and everybody tries to hitch a ride on that year end train, that there'll have to be some consensus about it so that it can be expedited and not take you know the full six days procedurally that it could if- if all the you know procedural tools were used by those who are opposed to it.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well the president's publicly pressuring Republican leaders to act on this. He wants criminal justice reform done. So it-it, you can't commit to that now?

SEN. THUNE: Well, he- he does and we know that. And we've had conversations with him and there are many, as I said, many Republican senators and a lot of Democrat senators who want to see it happen as well. There are timing issues associated with it but there- at the moment at least- there are still some substantive issues that are being resolved. I think if they get that worked out, if they can attract the support of more Republican senators, there- there's still an opportunity I think for that to be finished this year, but if not obviously it- it will be taken up again next year--


SEN. THUNE: --and it's an issue that there's a lot of interest in.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Very quickly, can you avoid a shutdown before Christmas?

SEN. THUNE: Well, I think we can. I think that people have to come together. Democrats obviously are- are- need to support and- and get behind this border security issue, you know? They shut the government down earlier this year over the issue of immigration and that didn't end well for them. I think--


SEN. THUNE: --that, you know, making sure that we defend our borders is a priority for the American people, it should be a priority for the Congress.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Thank you, Senator.