Today on CNN’s State of the Union with Candy Crowley, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) spoke to Candy Crowley about his support for the compromised budget bill and his hope that it will pass in the Senate in order to avoid another government shutdown. Sen. McCain additionally spoke to Crowley about upheaval in global hotspots North Korea, Iran, and Ukraine.
Video and transcript of the interview are available after the jump.
CROWLEY: There has been talk about the semi-Cold War undertones to this protest. What do you think Vladimir Putin is trying to accomplish here? What’s been his role?
MCCAIN: Well, there’s no doubt that Ukraine is of vital importance to Vladimir Putin. One of — I think it was Kissinger, I’m not sure, said that Russian without Ukraine is an Eastern power; with Ukraine it’s a Western power.
This is the beginning of Russia. It was right here in Kiev. So Putin views it as the most highly important, and he has put pressure on Ukrainians. The price of energy, different kinds of activities, and the word is very clear that he has made certain threats. Whether he would carry those through or not, I don’t know.
CROWLEY: When you look at the totality of Putin’s actions over, say, the last year, things he has done with and against the United States, what is the end game for him? Is this part of it?
MCCAIN: I’ve watched him become more and more assertive in his desire as an old KGB apparatchik to restore the near-abroad. He’s put pressure on Moldova, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, all of the so-called near-abroad. And of course, Ukraine is the crown jewel. And his efforts here, including keeping his naval base in Sevastopol, has been part of it. So there’s no doubt that he is very much interested in this sphere of influence.
As far as his other activities are concerned, you know, as we work with the Russians to remove the chemical weapons, there are flights of aircraft that are landing in Damascus as we speak, with conventional weapons that are slaughtering Syrians, which is something that I just find appalling.
So I think he is assertive. I think that he is now a player in the Middle East, which he has not been since 1973 when he was thrown out by — when the Russians were thrown out by Saddat. And I think he’s realizing, thanks to our weakness, some of his ambitions.
CROWLEY: We should tell people the noise that they’re hearing right now are the demonstrations that continue to go on.
Let me ask you this about the U.S. role. I know that you have wanted of the administration perhaps to consider sanctions, something to help boost the anti-government protesters. Question to you is, while we’re trying to work on so many things with the Russians, for instance with Iran and in Syria, is this really a good time for the U.S. to be taking on Russia?
MCCAIN: Well, I don’t think that we would be taking on Russia. And by the way, I am very pleased with Secretary Kerry’s statement, our deputy secretary, Victoria Nuland, who was here. Look, these people love the United States of America, they love freedom, and I don’t think you could view this as anything but our traditional support for people who want free and democratic society.
We’re not talking about military action. We’re not talking about blockades. We’re talking about the possibility of sanctions if they continue to brutally repress their people. That would require some action on our part, just because that’s what the United States of America is all about.
And by the way, there are estimates around 200,000 to 300,000 people are singing in the background that I hope you can hear.
CROWLEY: We can indeed. I want to turn you to Iran right now and the fate of Robert Levinson. Reported this week in several media outlets that he was, indeed, on a mission for the CIA in Iran. He’s been missing for about seven years. Haven’t heard anything since 2011 from him.
We’re going to read you a part of the statement from the Levinson family, which said “the U.S. government has failed to make saving this good man’s life the priority it should be.” Is that true?
MCCAIN: I am confident that we are doing everything that we can, probably under very difficult circumstances. And by the way, this should and the other Americans who have — in Iranian custody should affect our relations with them.
CROWLEY: Do you think the government of Iran knows the fate of Mr. Levinson?
MCCAIN: Oh, I’m sure they do. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.
CROWLEY: And do you — just your gut feeling, following this, knowing about this, do you feel Levinson is dead?
MCCAIN: I don’t know, Candy. I know I saw that picture that everybody is seeing. The Iranians are known for their brutality. But we have to keep our hopes and efforts alive for the sake of him — for his sake and that of his family.
CROWLEY: After the secretary of state came up to Capitol Hill this week to try to persuade you all not to vote for sanctions which would go against Iran that would take place in six months if there’s no deal with Iran about its nuclear ambitions, you said that — I mean, basically called the secretary of state a liar. You said it just doesn’t jibe with the facts.
First, do you think that was purposeful, and second, do you think the Senate will pass that bill?
MCCAIN: I think that it’s very likely that we could have a sanctions bill, which would take effect at the end of six months if there is no result in the negotiations, is I think what it would be.
As far as the information, it’s just a disagreement. It’s not that the secretary of state is not telling the truth. It’s just his view of the facts are very different from mine.
For example, he thinks that the agreement states that basically the Iranians maintain the right to enrich. I don’t think that that should be the case after their lying and cheating and concealing for all of these years. And there’s many other aspects of it. The centrifuges keep spinning, the — there can still be quote, construction around the facility at Arak. So we are now pausing when they are continuing — we’re easing sanctions while they’re continuing a lot of their activities.
CROWLEY: Let me quickly turn you to a couple of other stories. North Korea, I guess, because it is so isolated and we seem to know so little about it, you have seen the stories that the uncle of Kim Jong-un has been executed, and this started off this whole debate on whether that means that Kim is consolidating his power, or if he’s losing it. Because this was one of his closest advisers, his uncle. What do you make of that?
MCCAIN: I think it’s very dangerous. I think this young man is dangerous. You know, we know that he had began work again on a nuclear reactor, the Yongbyon reactor. We know that he has closed down the facility that South Korea was using, a manufacturing facility, then reopened it. It’s very aberrational behavior. This must be a huge embarrassment for China.
The uncle that he just executed was really the interlocutor with China, the one who maintained the relations and was a very powerful voice, I am told, for some maturity.
I think it’s very obvious this young man is capable of some very aberrational behavior, and given the toys that he has, I think it’s very dangerous. And you would think that the Chinese would understand that as well. They’ve got to rein this young man in, and they can.
CROWLEY: And one of the things that we noticed this week, of course, was now that famous handshake at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela between President Obama and Raul Castro of Cuba. You likened this to the handshake between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler, that sort of pacifist imagery. Do you regret that statement?
MCCAIN: Oh, I think it was gross exaggeration. But have no doubt that that is of great propaganda value for the Cuban government, which is oppressive, repressive. Continues to jail dissidents and continues to be one of the — probably easily the most repressive government in our hemisphere. I don’t think you should shake hands with someone who continues to violate his own country’s human rights. It happened. But it is what it is. And I’m sure that Mr. Castro appreciated it.
CROWLEY: But to liken the president to Neville Chamberlain, though, seems — did you think in retrospect, it was over the top?
MCCAIN: I’m sure it was an exaggeration, Candy. If you want me to plead guilty here on CNN, guilty.
And finally, are you going to vote for the compromised budget bill, and whether yes or no, do you ultimately think it will pass the Senate?
MCCAIN: I hope it will pass the Senate. I’ll do anything, not anything, but we must not shut down the government again. We can’t do that to the people of this country and my state.
Second of all, Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has pledged to us that we will review this provision concerning military retirement, and military leaders I have talked to have said because this gives them relief from the harsh effects of sequestration, that they are supportive of this legislation. I wish that provision wasn’t in there. But to shut down the government again I think is an unacceptable act to inflict on the American people.
CROWLEY: So just to nail this down, assuming that this budget package stays the same, you will vote for it?
CROWLEY: OK. Senator John McCain, we did a tour around the globe. I really appreciate your being available to us out of Kiev, of all places. So good to see you. Come back home soon.
MCCAIN: Thank you. And I’m glad you found me guilty.