Transcript: Sen. Tim Kaine on "Face the Nation," January 12, 2020

Kaine says Congress "stepping up to the plate" on new AUMF

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


MARGARET BRENNAN: Going live now to Virginia Senator Tim Kaine. Good morning to you, Senator.

SENATOR TIM KAINE:  Good morning, MARGARET. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: And you and Senator Lee have actually found some common cause here, despite the difference in your parties, on a frustration regarding the president's lack of consultation with Congress. And I want to dive into that. But let's--

SEN. KAINE: Right. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: -- start off specifically on- on what we learned. Because you are on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has oversight of the State Department and therefore embassies, were you aware that there was any kind of threat specifically to Embassy Baghdad and three other posts, as the president has described?

SEN. KAINE: No, I wasn't, MARGARET. I- I was at the classified briefing because I'm both a- an Armed Services and Foreign Relations member. That was not told to us in the classified briefing, nor was there a suggestion that multiple embassies were threatened. And I think that was one of the reasons that the senators in the briefing were so unhappy. We felt that the evidence was far short of imminent threat. We were mad that they were so dismissive of the notion that Congress would have anything to do with questions of war and peace. And we also thought that the administration was very cavalier about the Iraqi reaction- the Iraqi resolution of parliament that the U.S. should leave. They were sort of like, oh, that's just the way the Iraqis talk. This is a very serious concern. And the administration was downplaying it in a way that I think was very unrealistic.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But specifically, the Defense Secretary said the Gang of Eight was told in specific detail and they chose not to share it with members of Congress. You are saying that you were never told of a threat to the U.S. embassy?

SEN. KAINE: No, no and as I've talked to the Gang of Eight, again, this is classified information, I'm not going to put that all on the table. But members of the Gang of Eight on the Senate side, were not happy with the degree of him- this- this question of was there an imminent threat? The administration says there was exquisite and detailed intelligence. That means it was specific. But for it to be- justify the president taking essentially an act of war on Iraqi soil to wipe out a- an Iranian military leader, it had to not just be a plan, but an imminent threat. And that usually means it's more than a plan. There's been some move toward making a decision to execute on the plan. And we heard nothing about that in the briefing or in any of the conversations I've had with administration leaders.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Why is it not sufficient enough for the administration to say broadly there was a threat to U.S. personnel in the region, as Esper said, within days? Why don't you trust that?

SEN. KAINE: Well, look, the bottom line is the Constitution makes really plain it's- it's Congress that gets to make the decision about whether to go to war. And, ultimately, that's a judgment about the troops. We don't want to put our troops in harm's way unless there is deliberation in front of the American people about whether it's important. Now a president can act unilaterally to stop- defend against an ongoing attack or an imminent threat. But if it's more than that, it's supposed to be for Congress, because Congress will have this debate in a way that the American public will be informed of the stakes. And then if we debate and vote at the end of the day—

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.

SEN. KAINE --then it's fair to ask our men and women in uniform to risk their lives and health. But if we're not willing to do that, or if the president tries to rush to war and escalate, then you run the risk of making mistakes that are just so fatal in their consequences you can hardly ever, you know, undo them.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The president says he doesn't want to go to war. I want to get to that authorization of use of force. We went back and we looked, and the original AUMF from 2001, and then there's one in '02, but in the wake of the al-Qaeda attacks on this country, that was the premise for this authorization Congress gave at the right time. 

SEN. KAINE: Right. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: It was then used over the past almost 20 years to send troops to Libya, Turkey, Georgia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, The Philippines, Cuba. There are Democratic presidents. Why hasn't any party made a full throated effort to get a new authorization for military force?

SEN. KAINE: Well, Margaret, as you know, I have been working on this since I came to the Senate, and I have the same concern. When I came to the Senate in 2013, I criticized President Obama for taking us into military action in Libya without congressional authorization, for going on ISIS in Iraq and Syria without congressional authorization. I will say this, when I started on this crusade six, seven years ago, very few people were interested in it. But in the last year, the good news is finally, members of both parties and in both houses have started to step up and take the congressional responsibility seriously. I do think we have to rewrite and redo the 2001 authorization that authorize us to wage war against non-state terrorist groups--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.

SEN. KAINE: --that are connected to the perpetrators--

MARGARET BRENNAN: But- but what--

SEN. KAINE: --of the 9/11 attack.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What you're proposing now and you happen-- 

SEN. KAINE: Here's- yeah, here's what I'm proposing now--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --you're working with Senator Lee on it. 

SEN. KAINE: --is that--

MARGARET BRENNAN: But I just want to point out that there does seem to still be a carve out for imminent threats. How--

SEN. KAINE: And there should be. So, Senator-- 

MARGARET BRENNAN: How would that not stop what the president just did?

SEN. KAINE: Well, Senator Lee and I are basically trying to restore this to its constitutional place, so we have- we have a resolution that would basically say no war against Iran unless Congress specifically votes to authorize it. But we do state, as you point out, the president can defend the nation against an imminent threat, and that is existing law. That's- the constitutional framers clearly understood that. We're skeptical of the evidence that this president has put on the table about imminent threat. And that's why we're challenging the briefers and that's why we're challenging the president. But at the end of the day, I think this is less about the president than it is about Congress. Congresses of both parties for a very long time have hidden under their desks rather than have votes about war. Votes about war are tough. I- I've cast two of them in the Foreign Relations Committee, fundamentally different than any vote you'll ever cast. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah.

SEN. KAINE: And so many members of Congress, what they want to do is hide under their desks, let the president just do whatever the president wants, and then they think they can escape accountability for the consequences of war. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah.

SEN. KAINE: It's time to go back to what the framers envisioned. We shouldn't send our best and brightest into harm's way if Congress doesn't have the guts to- to have a debate and have a vote.

MARGARET BRENNAN: All right. Senator Kaine, thank you for laying out your case. You- you were persuasive enough to get Senator Mike Lee on board with this, and he joins us now.