Transcript: Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates on “Face the Nation,” May 13, 2018
President Trumpthat his highly anticipated summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will take place on June 12 in Singapore. In anticipation of the meeting, Kim that the North will dismantle one of its nuclear test sites in a “ceremony” open to international media.
Over several decades in public service, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been involved in his fair share of high-level diplomatic talks. Gates joined us to discuss the North Korea summit, the Iran nuclear deal, relations with Russia and more.
The following is a transcript of the interview with Gates that aired Sunday, May 13, 2018, on “Face the Nation.”
MARGARET BRENNAN: Thank you very much for making time. We have so much to talk about in terms of national security issues all around the globe but I want to start with the news of the week and North Korea.
In your mind, does this prisoner release signify anything about Kim Jong Un’s actual willingness to negotiate away his nuclear weapons?
FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY ROBERT GATES: No. But I think it is an important stage setter in terms of setting a tone for his meeting with the president.
They have taken and released hostages periodically in the past. Released them when it served their political purposes. So it is a gesture. Certainly for the three who were involved, it’s not a meaningless gesture. But this is the way they generally approach important meetings or negotiations is to try and set a tone of being forthcoming and — and being serious about negotiations.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And you believe there’s some skepticism that should be there in terms of the seriousness of Kim Jong Un?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well I think he’s serious about this. I think he sees an opportunity. As do we. I think it’s a combination of things. First of all, I think the president’s tough talk and the willingness of the Chinese and the Russians to agree to the toughest sanctions we’ve ever really applied to North Korea certainly increased the pressure on the North Koreans to come to the table. So, I think that’s an important piece of it.
But I think he also feels that he’s at a point with his nuclear program and his ballistic missile program that he can, at least for some period of time, go without testing and test the U.S. administration and see if — see what might — see what might happen. I think it’s very complicated.
They have a nuclear enterprise that is dramatically larger than Iran’s — miles and miles of tunnels, multiple sites, existing nuclear weapons. So, getting to genuine denuclearization will be a very complicated process. But, I think that getting started, and I think that the president’s decision to meet with Kim Jong Un was — was a bold decision. But the reality is, you know, 25 years we have tried and failed to get a handle on the North Korean program. And, so why not try something different? And perhaps the drama and the nature of this meeting will — will provide a path forward that — that may ultimately lead to a good outcome.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You’ve raised concerns in the past about President Trump’s unpredictability as a leader, but do you see that unpredictability as an asset in this case?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: I think that the unpredictability in terms of some of the tweets and some of the tough talk did get the attention of the North Koreans and the Chinese as well — in terms of fire and fury and so on. You know, my view is generally that tactical unpredictability is good and as an asset; strategic unpredictability is probably not a good idea for a great power.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Where would you put the president’s unpredictability? Tactical or strategic?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well, I think that’s not clear yet.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, one of the questions is, for when the president walks into that negotiating room, what are the cards he has to play there? What is he actually able to offer as some kind of incentive for Kim Jong Un to negotiate away his weapons?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Actually, I think the president goes in with a lot of cards to play. A peace treaty. Diplomatic recognition. A guarantee that the United States would not try and overthrow the regime by force. The whole panoply of economic sanctions that have been put on. So, he has a lot to negotiate with. And the question is how you move the ball forward in a way that — that extracts from the North genuine movement in these areas and that isn’t reversible, as we saw with the 1994 agreement and so on – and that’s the key.
So I think the two — the two things to watch out for, if you will, are — are agreements where the North Koreans could reverse themselves at relatively little cost. And the second is some kind of an agreement that leaves the South Koreans and the Japanese out in the cold. And — and I think we can’t underestimate Kim’s interest in splitting, particularly South Korea off from the United States, but perhaps even Japan. So I think those are the things to be particularly concerned about.
MARGARET BRENNAN: The president has talked about his frustration with the cost of U.S. troops’ deployments in South Korea. May not be on the table now, but he says in the future, maybe it should be reconsidered. Is that something that should be talked about?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well I don’t think that that ought to be part of our negotiating position at all. The reality is over the years, over recent years, the South Koreans have significantly increased the amount that they pay for our troops to be there. And they have, you know we’ve moved all of our military forces out of Seoul and into Camp Humphreys, which is outside the city. And the South Koreans put up about 11 billion dollars to make that happen.
So, I think the South Koreans have really stepped up to their responsibilities as a partner in this regard. And, they — unlike a lot of our European friends — they have really done what they needed to do in terms of the strength of their own military forces. So, I think my view is this — this whole negotiation should have very little to do with a cost analysis of what it takes for our forces to be there, because the amount is relatively small at this point.
MARGARET BRENNAN: What are the red lines for the president when he walks into these talks? What are the things that we should not be putting on the table?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well I think the alliance with South Korea and with Japan, above all. I think we should not have as a — as part of our negotiating strategy a reduction in U.S. forces. That — that may be part of the solution, down the road, in terms of changing the strategic environment so that Kim would be willing to give up his nuclear weapons. But it’s way too early in that process, I think, to put that out on the table.
MARGARET BRENNAN: One of the criticisms of the Iran nuclear deal was that it wasn’t a treaty ratified under U.S. law. It was okayed under international law. If the president gets something in hand from the North Koreans, do you think he has to go to Congress to get approval of it?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: I think he should, because we’ve seen with the Iran deal — if you — if you just do these things by executive agreement, first of all that doesn’t make it the law of the land for the next president. The next president, with the stroke of a pen, can overturn it, just as President Trump has done with the Iran deal.
So, you know, Congress does have a role here. And if you’re going to have an enduring agreement, that survives one presidency to the next, it really does need to go before the Congress, it seems to me. But if we get a — if the president is able to negotiate an agreement with the North that actually leads to denuclearization of the peninsula, I say, I think that would be a huge achievement. And I think he would be proud to take it to the Congress, and almost dare them not to ratify it.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But for you, that would need to include inspectors on the ground in North Korea. That would need to include Kim Jong Un actually dismantling some of his nuclear program. I mean, is the benchmark here at least what was negotiated in the Iran deal? And the president has to go beyond that?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well it’s at least that. And frankly you know, just a few months before the Iran deal was signed, the Obama administration said that “any time, any place” inspections were absolutely essential for the agreement. But they ended up having to give that up, or they gave that up in the negotiation.
When you have a — a program as expansive as the North’s, you have to have “any time, any place” inspections. You have to have a huge number of inspectors that can go around the country and can observe destruction of facilities, who can monitor that they stay destroyed, that they aren’t being rebuilt someplace else, in secret. So — so the magnitude of the — of the monitoring and the verification of any agreement would be, I think, an order of magnitude more complicated and bigger than is the case and has been the case in Iran.
MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you put the odds of success at?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well, I think if you can change — I put the odds of immediate success as very low. But the odds of a — of a — of getting something accomplished over a longer period of time, and a kind of step-by-step approach, beginning with what the president has already gotten in terms of their willingness to talk and the cessation of the testing and so on.
But, look, just very briefly. Kim looks at the world and he sees that Gaddafi gave up his nuclear program, he’s dead, his regime is gone. Saddam never had nuclear weapons. He’s dead. His regime is gone. Ukraine in 1994 gave up two thousand nuclear weapons in exchange for a guarantee by Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom of its territorial integrity and it’s lost half its country.
Kim looks at this and says, ‘Why would I give up my nuclear weapons?’ And so, I think you have to change the strategic environment in Asia for Kim actually to be willing to consider giving up his nuclear weapons.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And yet you hear, from John Bolton on “Face the Nation” just a few weeks ago, he said that Libya model is what they’re looking at. What does that say to you? I mean, does that signal that the diplomacy isn’t serious? Or is he being literal —
SECY. ROBERT GATES: No I think —
MARGARET BRENNAN: — in terms of replicating that?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: I think they have to give up the whole program. And I mean, kind of just doing it part way, or kicking the can down the road five or ten years, isn’t good enough. And particularly if — if the end game involves some change in our military deployments in South Korea, some change in the way — in our relationships with South Korea and Japan, or our naval operations out there. Any of those kinds of things. If we’re going to do any of that, we have to have really total assurance that the North Koreans aren’t playing “hide the ball” with us.
MARGARET BRENNAN: What is the immediate impact of exiting the Iran nuclear deal?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well I think in the short term it — it isolates the United States. I think it was a flawed agreement. We were supposed to get “any time, any place” inspections, and to have an inspections regime where the Iranians can say, “You can’t look at any of our military facilities” — where — where would you most logically put a nuclear program except on a military facility? So I think that and the — and the limited duration of the agreement are the two big flaws.
Now, there are two other flaws. Another flaw that’s actually not part of the agreement, in my view, and that is what to do about the ballistic missiles. I negotiated, I was part of the negotiating teams that did strategic nuclear weapons negotiations with the Soviets for 25 years. We never negotiated anything outside the nuclear programs. But there was an acknowledgement that the competition would go on in all of those other areas, in the third world, and everywhere else.
And, so what, where the failure was in my view — people forget that right after the agreement was signed, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution unanimously, with Russian and Chinese support, telling the Iranians that they couldn’t develop ballistic missiles for eight years. And then the Security Council, including the United States, essentially ignored that. And so when the Iranians began to test their missiles, nobody did anything. And instead of saying, “Okay, if you want to do that” — and the Iranians said, “We don’t — we’re not subject to that resolution.”
MARGARET BRENNAN: Why do you think that was? The hesitation to enforce?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: I think they were afraid — I think the administration was afraid that the Iranians would kick over the nuclear agreement itself. And they were so worried about preserving the nuclear agreement, they ignored not only Iran’s ballistic missile testing program, but other Iranian activities in the region.
And — and I think those are the issues that people have complained about, where the — where the agreement fell short. It hasn’t stopped Iranian meddling in the Middle East. In fact it’s gotten a lot worse and I think —
MARGARET BRENNAN: It wasn’t meant to, as you say.
SECY. ROBERT GATES: I think that, you know, this is just my opinion, but I think the reason that President Obama agreed to a time-limited agreement was his belief that, with the additional financial resources, that Iran would invest in its people and in opening up its economy. And that in 10 years, Iran would be a different kind of country. That’s a huge bet. And we kind of made that bet on China, that if you had a middle class of hundreds and hundreds of millions of people, that the political system eventually would open up. That has not happened. And I think it’s a very highly risky bet, with respect to Iran as well.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But do you think President Trump, breaking a U.S. commitment to this international agreement, will have implications that are negative?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: I do. I absolutely do. I am — my own view, would have been, it would have been better to stay in the agreement at least for another six months, and essentially lay down an ultimatum to our allies. And say either you join us in very heavy penalties against the Iranians for the ballistic missile programs. And, you join us in resisting Iranian meddling in the Middle East and trying to build this Shia arc from Tehran, through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, that is positioning against Israel. Either you help us with those things, or in fact I will walk away from this agreement.
I think — I think we could have pushed the Europeans a lot harder, to work with us. And then in six months, basically if they hadn’t done that, then you would be in a much stronger position. But as it is now, at least for the time being, we’re the country that’s isolated.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Since the president exited the Iran nuclear deal, you have seen an acceleration in the sniping at each other between Iran and Israel, within Syria. Do you think they’re directly related?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: I think — no. I think that the Iranians are building a position in Syria, to complement their relationship with Hezbollah, that basically surrounds Israel in the north and puts Iran in a position directly on Israel’s borders, in effect, operating from Syria.
And, Prime Minister Netanyahu has made clear, for a long time, that they will not allow — Israel will not allow Iran to establish a military presence, a permanent military presence in Syria. So, I see this more as this playing out of the relationship, an adversarial relationship between Israel and Iran, really independent of the — of the nuclear deal.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But do you see us escalating that? I mean, are we headed towards a regional war? Are we in one already?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: I think there’s a very real risk of that escalating. The — the Israelis have drawn some very tough red lines. When the Israelis draw a tough red line, they tend to enforce it. And — and the Iranians I think see an opportunity to strike directly at Israel, without making Tehran the target. And it would not surprise me at all to see this escalate.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And all of this is playing out in Syrian territory, right now. You, in the past, had called for more U.S. engagement there. The president now says he wants to draw down U.S. troops from Syria. What would be the implication of that?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well my — when I was calling for U.S. engagement was really more at the very beginning of the civil war and more in the way of covert assistance to, much as we did with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan back in the 1980s.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you see similarities between President Trump and President Obama’s strategies in Syria?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: I think both presidents are — have been loathe to see the United States get deeply involved, and particularly militarily involved in a way that might involve significant numbers of troops. I think that President Obama eventually came around to a more significant advisory and assist role, that has been continued by President Trump. Somewhat increased under President Trump.
But I think, what both of them have in common is — is not at all wanting to get involved in a way that looks anything like Iraq or Afghanistan.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Is that position sustainable? Or do you see, because of the escalation, the U.S. having to get more involved in Syria?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: I don’t think we have to get more involved. I think — I think it’s key not to have mission creep. That’s where we’ve gotten into trouble in the past. And there are a lot of other players out there that have a lot more force than we’re prepared to put in. And — and so we need to help our friends and allies where we can, particularly with equipment, with intelligence, perhaps with advisers, special forces advisers.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Does that include redevelopment? Those funds have been frozen by President Trump.
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well I think my perspective would be, it would depend on how effectively those redevelopment funds could be used. If — if you’re going to use them in a village, and the village is going to be taken over by the bad guys the next week, then what’s the point?
So I think, you know, I wouldn’t rule out the use of development funds. I particularly wouldn’t — I particularly wouldn’t cut money that has been allocated to try and provide some humanitarian relief and refugee relief in the region. I think — I think we have an obligation to to try and help there.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Much of the president’s national security team cautioned him against moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. That’s about to open this week. Do you see this as sort of a propaganda risk, emboldening our enemies? Or is it a negligible impact?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well, first of all, I think it’s — I think that remains to be seen, because it’s just, we haven’t even done it yet. I think that the reluctance always before — because as has been pointed out, several previous presidents committed to move the embassy to Jerusalem. I think the hesitation has been, that it would end any prospect of an agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
I think the prospects of an agreement between those two parties, at this point, is so low that the other consequences of moving the embassy are probably more modest than they — more manageable than they would have been at any time in the past, mainly because the diplomatic connection to the Israeli-Palestinian issue is less important.
MARGARET BRENNAN: The two state solution —
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Right
MARGARET BRENNAN: — dead?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: On life support, barely.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Sounds like Jared Kushner has his work cut out for him, then.
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Yes.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to switch to Afghanistan. President Trump has yet to visit our troops in Afghanistan. Do you think that’s a mistake?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: I think that — that decision really needs to be made on the basis of those security circumstances. I think it is a gesture. I think — but his predecessors, both President Bush and President Obama, when they went, were there for very brief periods of time and generally would meet in a hangar with several hundred airmen or soldiers and so on.
I think — I think when you have people on the front lines like that, it is a morale builder for those who are serving to see that the person who sent them there cares about them. So if I were — if I were advising him, I would say find an opportunity, maybe on the back end of the Singapore meeting or something when he’s already out in the region to make a very quick visit. But again it really depends on their assessment of the security circumstances. You know, the security circumstances were dicey for presidents when we had a hundred thousand troops out there. We don’t have a hundred thousand troops anymore. So I think I think security does have to be taken into account.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You referenced your time as a — as a cold warrior of sorts. President Trump describes himself as, you know, the toughest US President when it comes to Russia. No one’s been tougher than him. How would you describe his approach?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well I think — I think the actions of the administration have actually been pretty tough, including providing defensive weapons to Ukraine and — and the additional sanctions that have been voted or have been imposed. I think it’d be pretty tough to characterize the president’s rhetoric as particularly tough on Russia, but the actions of the administration I think actually have been pretty tough. Not as tough as Ronald Reagan’s and some others, but — but tough nonetheless.
MARGARET BRENNAN: How do you account for that discrepancy — what they say and what they do are different things?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: I haven’t got a clue.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Would you say Vladimir Putin is in a stronger or weaker position now than he was in 2016?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: I think that – I think that Putin appears to be in a stronger position. But the truth is he has — he has led Russia into a box canyon. Russia has no friends, it has no economy other than what comes out of the ground. It’s a repressive state. It has a strong military, but what does Russia have to offer anybody except weapons? And — and — and in order to preserve his power at home, he continues to beat this nationalist drum of, “The whole world’s against Russia, and we have to worry about that, and how do we take care of ourselves? How do we — how do we separate ourselves from the West?”
You know, if there is any world leader who ought to be worried about President Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” program, it’s Vladimir Putin, because the biggest potential participants in that are the Central Asian states that used to be part of the Soviet Union and now have the potential of being drawn toward China by these big economic projects, and then even politically.
MARGARET BRENNAN: The president calls this investigation led by Bob Mueller, the special counsel, a “witch hunt,” when it comes to the question of Russian election meddling and collusion with his campaign. Is that how you’d describe it?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: No, I wouldn’t describe it that way. But, you know, that’s — that’s the way most presidents react when they’re being investigated.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Should Bob Mueller be allowed to continue to conclude his investigation into Russian election meddling?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: I think he should, yes. I think it’s in the best interests of the country.
MARGARET BRENNAN: For national security reasons?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: I would say both for national security reasons but also for domestic reasons. I think people need to know what happened, and you know I — I have no idea how it’s going to come out. But, you know, what would the president’s position be if he’s exonerated? So I just — I think without knowing how this thing is going to come out, I think it’s in everybody’s interests for it to play out to the end.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you a bit about the personnel. We’ve talked about policy. You were a good friend with Rex Tillerson; you recommended him to be secretary of state to the president. Why do you think he was fired?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well I think — I think ultimately he and the president just didn’t see eye to eye on some key foreign policy issues. And you know I served eight presidents between Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama. And the one thing that is a constant is that to be effective, the secretary of state has to have the full confidence of the president. When George Shultz would speak, they knew — people knew he was speaking for Ronald Reagan. When Jim Baker spoke they knew he was talking for Bush 41. When Condi Rice spoke, they knew she was speaking for Bush 43. You have to have that relationship of trust and confidence, and without it you really can’t be effective as the secretary of state.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So it sounds like you’re saying Tillerson had to leave.
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well I think, just looking at it from the outside, it just looked like the chemistry didn’t work.
MARGARET BRENNAN: How is Rex?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well I haven’t really talked to him. I’ve spoken to him once. But I think he’s doing fine.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you see —
SECY. ROBERT GATES: I think he’s a man who felt like he did his duty for his country.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, do you see a difference in the policymaking now without Rex Tillerson at the table?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well, again, I think it’s too soon to tell. Pompeo has been secretary of state for what? Two weeks?
MARGARET BRENNAN: Busy two weeks.
SECY. ROBERT GATES: And John Bolton’s been national security adviser for about the same amount of time. So I think we’ll have to wait and see how it gels.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You had privately cautioned against the appointment of John Bolton. Now he is within the administration. What are your concerns about the advice he’s giving the president?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well I think that the — again, there’s a difference between being a television commentator and having responsibilities of office. And I’ve seen this happen a lot. One thing that has struck me is — is that the process at the NSC seems to be working better, in terms of documentation of things, of positions being taken. He’s clearly got a strong relationship with both — has developed a strong relationship with Secretary Mattis and obviously with Secretary Pompeo. So I think, in that sense, the president is probably better served because there’s less infighting, if you will, within the administration.
But I think it’s too early to tell what — what Ambassador Bolton’s impact is going to be at the end of the day. Because as — as he and as Rex Tillerson and everybody else points out — it’s actually the president that ends up making these decisions.
MARGARET BRENNAN: There’s concern that because of his past positions in government, not just on television, that he is pro-regime change — that he is so hard line that he won’t be able to moderate some of the president’s instincts. Do you think that’s a fair concern?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well I don’t — I honestly don’t know. But I also know that the president has a very strong secretary of state now, and he has a very strong secretary of defense. And all of those people are going to be significant players in any decision.
MARGARET BRENNAN: There’s a belief among some Democrats that Secretary of Defense Mattis is sort of the last man standing, the last moderate in the room. Is that how you’d describe him?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well I I think that’s certainly not how he would describe himself. I — I think that — and the irony is, of course, in the Obama administration, let’s just say he was not considered a moderate. That’s one of the reasons that they wanted him out of the Central Command job which I recommended that he be appointed to, as a matter of fact.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But the perception is he’s a necessary restraint on the president.
SECY. ROBERT GATES: I think what — what Jim Mattis brings that is so valuable to this administration is not just strength of character, but his experience, his — his historical knowledge, the perspective that he brings as somebody who has studied and worked on these issues all — virtually all of his life. He brings — he brings a lot to the table in addition to just his judgment, in terms of these things that I’ve described. And I think that makes him extremely valuable.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Is he secure within the administration?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well I don’t think, you know — I have — I have multiple presidential commissions on my wall and from multiple different presidents, and they all have, when it comes to tenure, “During the pleasure of the president for the time being.” That’s how secure every Cabinet officer is. So, you know, right now it looks to me like he and the president have a very strong relationship
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, anyone serves at the pleasure of the president, but the level of churn, I think you would agree, has been pretty high —
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Yes.
MARGARET BRENNAN: — and turnover within the cabinet, does that concern you?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Probably unprecedented. Um, for a president who had no experience in government, bringing with him a variety of people who had little or no experience in government, the churn has not been a surprise to me.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Has it been a negative for the country?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Um, the sooner things settle down and there’s a modicum of an organizational process that goes on in terms of policymaking, I think that’s better for the country. I mean, the president will always be influenced significantly by his instincts, and in a number of cases those instincts have served him pretty well. And – and he needs to have a group of people around him with whom he has – in whom he has confidence, and with whom he feels comfortable. That’s been true of every president. It has taken him longer to get there than his predecessors. But it – I think it’s because he came to the job with a very different background and a very different personality.
MARGARET BRENNAN: John Kelly served under you. Now that he’s chief of staff, how would you assess his ability to institute that order?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well, I think – I mean, my impression, again, I’m – I live a continent away from Washington D.C., not by accident. But my impression is that since John got there, that there has been more order, a more orderly process in terms of staff meetings, in terms of coordination within the White House and so on. He says himself his job is not to control the president, but it’s to have some order within the White House in the way decisions are surfaced for the president. I have the sense he’s – he’s been – has accomplished that pretty well.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And yet, reports just this week that the Homeland Security secretary drafted a letter of resignation because she’d been so picked at, yelled at during a Cabinet meeting, and that showed the president didn’t have faith in her.
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well, um, you know, different presidents deal with the people that work with them in different ways. The first president I worked for, Lyndon Johnson, did a lot of yelling and swearing at – at his senior officials. In his own way, so did — so did Richard Nixon.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But this fits a management-style pattern for President Trump.
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Yeah, I mean, that’s the way he is. That’s the way he deals with people. I mean, let’s just say I have a totally different style, um, but he is president of the United States.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think, though, that he shows a level of respect for his Cabinet and staff that is warranted?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well, as I say, that’s not the way I would deal with people. That’s not the way I think I ever did deal with people, and I did fire people — very senior people. But, you know, every president is going to have his own style — the way he deals with people. And, as I say, it’s not the way I’d do it but that’s the way he does it.
MARGARET BRENNAN: One of the issues that I want to switch to next — I know you have some personal experience with the end of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” What do you make now of Defense Secretary Mattis handling the question of transgender people continuing to serve within the military?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well I think as I’ve read it from afar, the basic approach has been — anybody who is able to serve — physically able to serve and wants to serve should be allowed to serve. And it seems to me that’s a pretty good rule of thumb.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So you think that his management of that, despite the president initially saying he wanted to end any transgender service, that Mattis has handled that well?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: I do.
MARGARET BRENNAN: The Trump — the Trump administration has been ordered by courts to continue the DACA program. But this may be headed to the Supreme Court. You’ve argued in the past that this could actually hurt the U.S. military. How do you think this is going to play out?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well I hope one way or another that the DACA program is — is allowed to continue and I’m you know I’m — you know, I’m open on the issues of chain migration, or chain immigration and so on but — but those who came here to this country as children, out of no decision of their own and have never known another country, I think it’s a mistake to try and send those people home.
And we have, as I wrote in an op-ed, we have about 800 people in the military under a program I established in 2009 for people with special skills — language skills, medical skills and so on — who are protected under this legislation so they can serve. And they would be — and we have about 300 on a waiting list. We’ve had something like 150,000 immigrants enter the U.S. military since 9/11 and become citizens while wearing the uniform of this country. So I think all those things have to be taken into account. But personally I believe that DACA has to be resolved in a way that allows at least the children who came in here and have never known another country to remain.
MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you think of the president’s rhetoric on immigrants?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well, it’s — I think it’s pretty harsh. I think it does not — it does not reflect the great strength that our immigrant — immigrant population brings to this country. And I think, I really, I think the thing that would be helpful would be to differentiate between legal — legal immigrants and illegal immigrants. Legal — legal immigrants are part of the fiber and fabric of this country. And you know, those who are concerned about the fact that 11 million people snuck into this country and are here illegal–illegally. That’s a — that’s a legitimate concern because what about all the people around the world that would like to come and and are going through the legal process to become American citizens or get a green card. So I think there needs to be a differentiation between legal and immigrant — and illegal immigration even in the — even in the rhetoric. I frankly think that the description of, of some of the immigrants, regardless of their stature, has been has been pretty insulting.
MARGARET BRENNAN: The Pentagon just issued a report on the incident in Niger that led to the death of four Americans. And it indicates that the team didn’t have the authorization, the training, or the equipment to carry out the mission that they were on. Would you recommend charges against these officers or commanders?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: I — I wouldn’t begin to speculate on that without having gotten into the particulars and, and really knowing the situation in detail. I always felt very strongly about accountability, and I fired a lot of senior officers on grounds of accountability. So I think accountability is terribly important, especially when lives are lost. And — and I would approach it with that in mind. But without knowing the particulars in this case I wouldn’t even venture a guess.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well it’s led to new scrutiny of Africa Command. Do you think U.S. forces are too stretched there?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well again, I just don’t know.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to quickly ask you, because you — you were at the CIA for 26 years. Do you agree with Senator John McCain that Gina Haspel is a patriot, but that a refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying for her to be the director of the CIA?
SEY. ROBERT GATES: No, I don’t think it’s disqualifying. I think that — I worry about presentism. I think you have to go back to 2001, 2002, and the horror that people in the administration felt, getting reports literally every day that Washington or New York were going to be attacked again, there were going to be nuclear attacks. We didn’t know anything about al Qaeda. People were terrified about when the next attack was coming. And only with the retrospect of 17 years of no foreign-based major attack taking place again, can we go back and revisit these things. I felt and said, when I became Secretary of Defense, that I wish they had revisited those rules and those practices once we had a better feel for what al Qaeda was doing, where they were, and what their capabilities were. So in 2004, 2005. But I think that — I don’t know Miss Haspel — I retired as Director of Central Intelligence 25 years ago, so she was probably a very young case officer when I was director. But by all accounts, she’s had an extraordinary career, a very distinguished career, has really served her country well. And I think to — to say she should not be director of CIA today, in the absence of any evidence she did anything wrong fifteen or so years ago, I — I think is a mistake.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Senator McCain is warning that we may be witnessing an end to the American world order. Do you agree with him?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: I am worried that we have had two presidents now in a row who have sent signals to the rest of the world that the United States is pulling back. President Obama’s drawback in Afghanistan and the Middle East, leading from behind in Libya, refusal to enforce the red line in Syria, refusal to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that China was setting up, when all of our allies did, followed by President Trump berating our allies and pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris agreement and so on. I don’t — I’m not arguing the merits or demerits of any of these individual agreements, but the collective impact is to send a message to the rest of the world — the United States is pulling back from the kind of leadership role we have exercised for the last 60 years. And I think one of the things we don’t focus on enough is uniquely, we are the only major power in the world that has allies. China has no allies. Russia has no allies. And we treat our allies cavalierly at the risk of eliminating or weakening one of the great strengths we have that’s a unique strength in the world.
So I think, I — I am all in favor of being much more cautious in the use of American military forces abroad, and I think that’s in part what both Obama and Trump are reacting to — 17 years of war. So I am much in favor of being much more cautious using military force. But there’s a difference between that and pulling back from our leadership of international institutions and international efforts to deal with problems.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Final question. How — how do you assess President Trump at this point of his presidency?
SECY. ROBERT GATES: I think the jury is still out, so to speak.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But you’ve moved away from your initial criticism of him in 2016.
SECY. ROBERT GATES: Well I wrote — I wrote an op-ed that talked about the things that he had said about foreign policy in the campaign. And — and those things concern me. I’m concerned about the way he’s treated our allies. By the same token, I — I think that his — his tougher approach to North Korea has paid dividends. We’ll see how many dividends they pay, over how long a time.
I think that his tough talk with the Europeans has accomplished something that all of the rest of us, who berated them for not spending enough on defense — they are beginning to increase defense spending. So it’s — it’s not an, an entirely one-sided picture in my view.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Thank you very much for your time.
SECY. ROBERT GATES: My pleasure.
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