Transcript: Sen. Tom Cotton on "Face the Nation," June 16, 2019

Cotton calls for "retaliatory military strike" on Iran

The following is a transcript of the interview with Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas that aired Sunday, June 16, 2019, on "Face the Nation."

MARGARET BRENNAN: We turn now to Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton. In addition to serving on the Intelligence and Armed Services committees, he has also written a new book called, "Sacred Duty: A Soldier's Tour at Arlington National Cemetery." Good morning and Happy Father's Day, senator.

SENATOR TOM COTTON: Good morning, Margaret. Thanks for having me on.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You have long been defined as a hawk on Iran. You see these recent attacks, these are commercial vessels not military installations. What kind of response is warranted?

SEN. COTTON: Well Iran for 40 years has engaged in this kind of attacks going back to the 1980s. In fact Ronald Reagan had to reflag a lot of vessels going through the Persian Gulf and ultimately take military action against Iran in 1988. These unprovoked attacks on commercial shipping warrant a retaliatory military strike.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Are you- you're comparing the tanker war in the 80s to now and saying that that's the kind of military response you want to see?

SEN. COTTON: We can make a military wreck- response in a time and in a manner of our choosing. But yes, unprovoked attacks on commercial shipping warrant a retaliatory military strike against the Islamic Republic of Iran.

MARGARET BRENNAN: A retaliatory strike? When we had Secretary Pompeo on just a few moments ago, he said the U.S. always has the authorization to defend American interests. As someone who sits in Congress, do you believe that he can act- the administration can act without coming to Congress first?

SEN. COTTON: Yes, Margaret. Going back to President Washington and all the way down to President Trump, the fastest way to get the fire and fury of the U.S. military unleashed on you is to interfere with the freedom of navigation on the open seas and in the air. That's exactly what Iran is doing in one of the world's most important strategic choke points. The president has the authorization to act to defend American interests. Certainly, he- it would be in keeping with what President Obama did unwisely in Libya in 2011 in launching a weeks long campaign to overthrow the government there. What I'm talking about is not like what we've seen in Iraq for the last 16 years or Afghanistan for the last 18 years. But retaliatory military strikes against Iran that make it clear we will not tolerate any kind of attacks on commercial shipping on the open seas.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you believe that the existing authorization for military force is sufficient? You've also said, though, and as someone who served in Iraq, you have an appreciation for the need to be careful in parsing intelligence and in first reports. How do you convince the American people that they need to stomach something, in terms of a potential strike, that you're describing as somewhat easy to carry out, when there were such vast underestimations of what U.S. force would bring about in Iraq and elsewhere in the past?

SEN. COTTON: Margaret, those are two very different things. In 2002, our intelligence agencies, just like every Western intelligence agency, was trying to assess the state of a weapons of mass destruction program, one of the things that states worked the hardest to keep secret. There's really not much to assess right here. Everybody can see with their own two eyes, those Iranian sailors going up to a ship and taking a mine off of it. Iranian sailors, ultimately boarded and height- and took hostage the crew of one of those ships that they just released yesterday. They tried to shoot down one of our surveillance aircrafts over the Persian Gulf as we were simply trying to monitor what had happened there. 

As you heard Secretary Pompeo have said, they've increased their support on attacks on American troops by supporting a Taliban attack in Afghanistan, just like they killed five hundred Americans in the Iraq war. So there's no doubt here what Iran is up to. They are struggling under the sanctions that we have placed on them. The status quo for them is unacceptable. They're hoping that they can drive up the price of oil and therefore benefit from it, since their oil exports have declined so much. And also, get more pressure put on the United States to back off our campaign of maximum pressure. That's not going to happen. If anything, we need to increase that pressure and I think this unprovoked attack on commercial shipping warrants retaliatory military strikes.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Okay. So that's a step farther than what the secretary said the president was currently willing to stomach. I want to ask you as well about what the president said this week. He said he would listen, as you heard in that ABC interview, to foreign countries who might have dirt on his opponents before deciding whether or not to report it to the FBI. Doesn't this underest- undermine all of the efforts to make our elections secure when you have the president of the United States say something like that?

SEN. COTTON: No- no, Margaret he said as well not just on ABC, but especially on Fox- Fox and Friends later in the week that he would in fact report those kind of contacts to the FBI. That's a very different thing, too, than what happened in 2016--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right, but that's why it's relevant now and--


MARGARET BRENNAN: --what we're talking about now in terms of negative signals--

SEN. COTTON: --and the president--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --being sent.

SEN. COTTON: The president said that he would report that to the FBI. And remember that's just simply receiving information in a hypothetical. What happened in 2016 is Hillary Clinton hired a foreign spy--


SEN. COTTON: --who then recruited- let me finish- who then recruited Russian spies to fabricate lies about her political opponents. That was then used--

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you're okay with what the president said?

SEN. COTTON: --that was then used to generate a law enforcement investigation into the administration's political opponents.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you're okay with what the president said?

SEN. COTTON: The president said that he would report those kind of contacts to the--

MARGARET BRENNAN: He said maybe.


MARGARET BRENNAN: He said maybe. Which I'm asking you. I ask you the same question--

SEN. COTTON: The president said he would as- as--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Would you say maybe as your answer?

SEN. COTTON: --as anyone should. And what people should not do is what Hillary Clinton and the Democrats did which is hire a foreign spy to recruit Russian spies to fabricate lies about their political opponents.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is Tom Cotton's answer to the question "maybe" when it comes to offering you and your campaign dirt?

SEN. COTTON: I would report those kind of contacts the FBI.

MARGARET BRENNAN: No "maybe." Thank you very much, senator.

SEN. COTTON: Thank you.