Transcript: Sen. Tom Cotton on "Face the Nation," August 6, 2017

Sen. Cotton: Afghanistan

John Kelly took the reins at the White House as chief of staff last week after a chaotic period marked by the departure of several top officials. Meanwhile, the impaneling of a grand jury suggested special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election is deepening.

"Face the Nation" sat down on Sunday with Sen. Tom Cotton, a member of the Intelligence and Armed Services committees, to discuss some of the national security issues facing the country. 

What follows is a transcript of the interview with Cotton, which aired August 6, 2017, on "Face the Nation."


JOHN DICKERSON: Good morning, and welcome to "Face the Nation." We begin this morning with Arkansas Republican senator, Tom Cotton. He joins us from Minneapolis. Senator, welcome. I want to start with something that people are watching now. It's what you, on the intelligence committee, have been investigating. And that is Russian- potential Russian efforts to influence American actions. So what's happened is the National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster has been under a bit of an assault in the digital space. And The New York Times reports that on Friday on social media, 600 Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations at one point had the hashtag, "FireMcMaster." It was so popular, it was the number one item on Friday. What do you make of all of that? And does it look like what you've been investigating during the election? 

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SEN. TOM COTTON: Well, John, good morning. First off, I think H.R. McMaster's a great American. There aren't many generals out there who are highly decorated in two different wars, and also have best-selling Ph.D.'s about civil military relations. I was happy to bring him to the President's attention in February, pleased that the President chose him to be his national security advisor, glad to know that the President said on Friday that they're working very well together.

I don't want to comment on the specific report from The New York Times. But I will say that Russia has a long history of using disinformation, deception, subterfuge, and espionage to influence Western democracies. That happened in our election last year when Russian intelligence services hacked into those emails and released them.

It happened in 1983 when Russian intelligence services were behind much of the protest against the deployment of intermediate range nuclear forces to Western Europe. So it should come as no surprise that Russia continues its effort to manipulate Western democracies in a way to sow discord and disagreements between our countries in NATO and within the United States or any other Western European country. And it's something the United States obviously must be on guard against.

JOHN DICKERSON: Do you think the Russians are involved in what is obviously some kind of an operation to hurt H.R. McMaster as the national security advisor and perhaps push him out?

SEN. TOM COTTON: Again, John, I don't want to comment on that specific report. But it shouldn't surprise any American to know that Russia uses its money and its intelligence services to spread disinformation, use subterfuge and deception and manipulation, to try to divide political opinion within the United States, within any Western European country, or among NATO countries. That's one of the techniques that Russia has used for decades, during the Cold War and during the Putin era.

JOHN DICKERSON: So given that Russia is an ongoing threat, you signed onto legislation to sanction Russia. Is there more that the administration should do?

SEN. TOM COTTON: Well, Russia remains an adversary to the United States. We have some overlapping interests. It would be better if our relationship was better. But our relationship is not good right now because of Vladimir Putin. There are steps that I think that we should be taking that we should have taken under the Obama administration.

For instance, providing defensive weaponry to Ukraine. I encourage the President and the administration to take a look at those steps. I know they are doing so through deliberate, careful National Security Council meetings.

JOHN DICKERSON: And you- and you support- Do you think there'll be a decision on that with respect to arming the Ukrainians?

SEN. TOM COTTON: I hope so, John. And I hope there's other steps that we can take to try to strengthen NATO's defenses against Russia. For instance, Russia's conducting a major military exercise on their western border, on NATO's eastern border. I've long supported the efforts to send more of our troops to Eastern Europe to try to increase the permanent presence there, and to make it clear to Russia that we'll stand by all of our NATO allies, and they can't take steps that will intimidate or interfere with NATO's member countries.

JOHN DICKERSON: Another thing the administration, the President, the defense department are looking into is the situation in Afghanistan. I want to ask you a couple questions that the President appears to be asking, which is first of all, after 16 years, why is it still in the US national interest to be involved in Afghanistan, where you served and- and fought?

SEN. TOM COTTON: John, Afghanistan is the place from which we were attacked 16 years ago next month. It's the one place where we successfully ejected Al Qaeda from. Today, though, it's still- you still see a resurgent threat from the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But also, the Islamic state, as well. And we don't want to see what happened in Mosul in 2014, when the Islamic State took over that city, happen in Kandahar, Kabul, or Jalalabad, and let that space become an area from which terrorist extremists can plot and launch attacks against the United States and our citizens again.

JOHN DICKERSON: Do you agree with the president, who reportedly has said he believes that the U.S. is losing in Afghanistan?

SEN. TOM COTTON: We aren't making enough progress. And in military terms, if you're not winning, sometimes you are losing. We've seen the Taliban and associated terrorist organizations make gains in recent years. It's time to stop those gains and roll them back. There's a lot of different techniques to do so, but we cannot allow Afghanistan to once again become an ungoverned country from which terrorist organizations can launch attacks against the United States and our citizens.

JOHN DICKERSON: You and I, during the campaign, talked about Congress' role in overseeing the President. I wanted to get your thoughts about three things that Congress did before everybody left town. First, there was the vote on sanctions, which the President did not like, with respect to Russia.

Also, in the Senate, you took measures to make sure there were no recess appointments. And finally, there are a couple bipartisan efforts to make sure that if- that the President can't fire the special counsel. What do you make of all of those actions with respect to- Seems to be Congress is trying to constrain the President. 

New sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea

SEN. TOM COTTON: Well, those are all very different kinds of actions. On the sanctions legislation, I supported that legislation because Russia and China are adversaries, and North Korea is racing towards having a nuclear armed missile that can strike the United States. The recess appointment issue is something that goes back to the Obama administration.

I can tell you, as a junior senator, I signed a sign-up roster early this year that was choosing when I was going to be in Washington, D.C., during a recess, to preside over a short session of the Senate, to insure that there wasn't a recess appointment. That's simply Congress taking its responsibilities seriously, to provide advice and consent to all nominations.

We did it under the Obama administration. It's happening under the Trump administration, as well. Finally, on those two pieces of legislation, I don't see them going very far. The Independent Counsel Statute in the 1970s and '80s and '90s was a disaster. We have an executive branch in which the power of all the departments and all the agencies reports to the single elected member of the President.

So those are all very different kinds of actions. But Congress is a co-equal branch of government. And in my opinion, for decades, Congress has ceded too much authority to the executive branch. And we should exercise our constitutional responsibilities seriously and with vigor.

JOHN DICKERSON: All right, senator. We're going to have to leave it there. Thanks so much for being with us.