Transcript: Sen. Mike Lee on "Face the Nation," January 12, 2020

Mike Lee says Trump not to blame for Iran briefing

The following is a transcript of an interview with Senator Mike Lee that aired Sunday, January 12, 2020, on "Face the Nation."


MARGARET BRENNAN: We're back with Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee. He's written a number of books about the Constitution and our country's founding documents. He joins us this morning from Salt Lake City. Good morning to you, Senator.

SENATOR MIKE LEE: Good morning. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: You heard the secretary of defense say that there was a specific threat assessment shared with the Gang of Eight. Should that threat stream have been shared with the rest of Congress, people like yourself?

SEN. LEE: Yes, it should have. It's important to remember that the Gang of Eight does not equal Congress. The House of Representatives has 435 members. The Senate has one hundred members. Look, I understand Secretary Esper's point. I understand that not every piece of information can or pragmatically should be shared with all 535 members of Congress, but drive by notification to eight people is not the same as notification to Congress. Remember, there is an important constitutional reason for this. We have some overlap between- and some natural tension between the Article 2 commander in chief power--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right. 

SEN. LEE: -- enjoyed by the President and the Article 1 Section 8 war power that is possessed by Congress. In order to know and understand where one power ends and another begins in any context, we need to have a certain amount of information--

MARGARET BRENNAN: You--

SEN. LEE: -- and an adequate amount of information was not shared with us.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, there was information shared with Fox News in that interview the president gave where he said it was his belief that there were four embassies that were going to be threatened by attack by Iran. You've spoken to the president. Was that television interview the first time you heard it?

SEN. LEE: Yes, it was. Let me say about the president. I have great respect for President Trump for how he's handled this situation and how he's handled other situations involving his immense power as commander in chief. I believe more than any other president in my lifetime,  President Trump has shown restraint in the way he's exercised that power. There- any other president--

MARGARET BRENNAN: But do you have a problem with learning it on television?

SEN. LEE: --would've taken us to war several times. Yes, but the problem there is not with the president. The problem is with those who were briefing us. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: OK. 

SEN. LEE: Those who were briefing us, I believe would have done a different job under the light of day had television cameras been there than they did in private--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right. 

SEN. LEE: where his boss couldn't see what they were saying, that they were not helpful and they didn't reflect well on the president's great restraint that he's shown and deference to the American people.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Senator, I want to continue this conversation specifically about war powers as well on the other side of this commercial break. So stay with us.

*COMMERCIAL BREAK* 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Welcome back to FACE THE NATION. We're back now with more from Republican Senator Mike Lee. Senator, you heard the defense secretary say there was not one definitive, specific piece of intelligence that indicated these four embassy attacks were being planned. It was a belief. Does that give you pause?

SEN. LEE: No, not necessarily. Look, I want to be clear, within hours after General Soleimani was killed, I made a public statement to the effect that the fact that he is dead is a good thing. It's a positive signal for the safety and security of the American people. And I stand by that. This is a guy who would done a lot of damage.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I'm not sure if the senator can still hear me. I think we just had an interruption on that feed. So hopefully we'll pick it up. You were persuasive enough to get Senator Mike Lee on board with this, and he joins us now. Senator, thanks for sticking with us. I know we had some problems with the uplink there, but we can see and hear you now just fine. What Senator Kaine essentially said here is no elected official wanted to get their hands dir- dirty and go on the record to vote for a war, which is why Congress is allowed for this to continue without a new vote on an AUMF. Can you get other Republicans onboard with this beyond yourself and Rand Paul?

SEN. LEE: Yes, we can, and I believe we will. Look, my grievance here is not with the president of the United States. He's exercised his power with great restraint and respect for the Constitution. It's not even really as much with the briefers, even though I didn't love the briefing the other day, as it is with Congress. Congress is the problem. We have to remember that this isn't just about this president or this war. This is about the future question of what any president can do to get us into any war. Over many decades, Congresses and White Houses of every conceivable partisan combination have put us down this path where it's very easy for members of Congress to wash their hands of it--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right. 

SEN. LEE: -- to step away and say, this isn't our problem and we have created this problem. We created the day- of a full explanation.

MARGARET BRENNAN: All right, Senator. Can you hear me?

SEN. LEE: Yes. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: OK, good. 

SEN. LEE: Pretty fine, thank you. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: We had some interruption there. You spoke to the president. Have you received any private assurance that Congress would be consulted if he plans to take future military action against Iran?

SEN. LEE: Yes. And it's always implicit that we will be consulted. I always want to make sure that any step that is taken is either authorized by one of the AUMF's in question in 02 or 01, or that there is some indication that the strike in question is necessary in order to repel an imminent or actual attack on the United States. That's always the question. And that's one of the reasons why I'm co-sponsoring Time Kaine's resolution is to make clear that neither the 01 nor the 02 authorization can be read fairly to authorize a war against Iran.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But this was- there are things short of war. There are- is hostile activity. There is, you know, a targeted strike like this. And- and what you are supporting here, this resolution, there is still a carve out for an imminent threat. So how would that stop the administration from doing again what it just did?

SEN. LEE: Well, anytime we have something like this and we've signaled in advance that it's not covered by an existing AUMF then yeah we're- we're relying on the good faith use of a commander in chief power by the president. This is not a new precedent, it's not- it's not contingent on or- or rooted in- in this presidential administration. This goes back to 1791 when George Washington pointed out that it's okay for the president to act in order to repel an actual or imminent attack--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah.

SEN. LEE: --without authorization from Congress. But he also noted that it's important that any sustained military effort does have to be authorized.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Senator Lee, thank you for joining us. Next time, I hope you're here sitting across from me so we can see and hear each other more clearly next time.