January 25th, 2015

WH Chief of Staff on Iran negotiations: “Congress should let us finish this job”

Today on CNN’s State of the Union, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (Obama Administration) joined CNN host Michael Smerconish (Smerconish airs Saturday’s at 9:00amET on CNN/U.S.) to discuss the recent reported beheading of a Japanese hostage by ISIS, the power shifts in the Middle East and their effects on United States policy, as well as the nuclear negotiations with Iran and the upcoming Israeli elections and the Congressional invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu.

TEXT HIGHLIGHTS

On Israel and Benjamin Netanyahu: “This is the most important relationship we have in the world.  This is something that ought to be and will continue to be, as far as we’re concerned, above partisan politics.  This is a relationship, given its importance, that stretches across many different things, from values straight through intelligence cooperation to defense and security assistance.  That’s the kinds of things that we will be focused on in this regard.  That’s why we think also we ought not get involved in their politics.  That’s why the president thinks it doesn’t make any sense for us to meet with the prime minister two weeks before his election.”

On Iran: .”We have isolated the Iranians over the course of six years.  We now have robust international multilateral sanctions in place and we have very aggressive bilateral sanctions in place.  That’s leading to Iran being isolated, its economy being in tatters, its ability to export and sell oil at near — near record lows.  So, we’re going to continue to do that.  We can maintain that international unity by pressing through these last several months of negotiations.  Congress should just give us the time to let those negotiations play out.  It doesn’t make any sense for them to prematurely act on legislation that the president will veto if it’s going to risk maintaining this international unity.  So, Congress should let us finish this job. “

On recent ISIS hostage situations: “We don’t either negotiate or make exchanges or pay ransoms.  We think that results in just more cash floating around with these very hateful characters who will just have more ability to ply their trade.”

Full transcript after the jump.

TRANSCRIPT

THIS IS A RUSH FDCH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
SMERCONISH: Will Ripley, thank you. Denis McDonough, nice to have you here. You’re pulling the full Ginsburg today. I appreciate your time.

DENIS MCDONOUGH, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I guess so, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

MCDONOUGH: Thanks for having me, Michael.

SMERCONISH: Should that exchange be made? Should that kind of a swap be entertained with terrorists?

MCDONOUGH: You know our policy on that, Michael. We don’t — we don’t either negotiate or make exchanges or pay ransoms. We think that results in just more cash floating around with these very hateful characters who will just have more ability to ply their trade.

SMERCONISH: Should family members be permitted to entertain their own negotiations with hostage-takers?

MCDONOUGH: I just want to be clear here that we’re in very close touch with the families.

They understand the strength of the President’s feeling on this. And, obviously, the President understands the strength of their devastation, as some of this has transpired over the course of the last several months. So, we will continue to remain in close coordination with and consultation with the families.

SMERCONISH: You know that there — there have been some criticisms made by family members who say that they — they were held back by the administration from participating in negotiations that they wanted to pursue. That’s why I ask the question.

MCDONOUGH: I’m very familiar with the criticisms. And I’m very — I also want to be very clear that I’m neither going to divulge our conversations with them or get into a negotiation with anybody else through you on this show.

We’re going to continue to work very closely with these families because this is an issue of grave concern for us.

SMERCONISH: As you know, I like to say my day job is that I answer phones for a living. I entertain telephone callers from across the country on SiriusXM each and every day.

MCDONOUGH: Yes.

SMERCONISH: I want to convey to you that I’m hearing a sense of exasperation about world events from callers. They open up newspapers and watch televisions every day and they see a new hot spot, and they wonder, have we reached a tipping point where no U.S. policy is going to be capable of maintaining order worldwide?

What would you say to them?

MCDONOUGH: I would say a couple different things.

One is, what we’re seeing is, obviously, with the democratization of media, the ability for even the most nefarious actors in the world to reach out and, through very social media outlets, get their story in front of us. That exacerbates their ability to terrorize us. I recognize that.

Second, the resolution of all these situations, Michael, is going to be dependent on those people on the ground, Muslims in many cases, Arabs in other cases, taking the steps that they need to resolve the situations on the ground.

We cannot be an occupying force in a place like Yemen or in Syria and hope that we will be responsible for bringing this, as you say, chaos to an end. We ought to train them, the security forces. We ought to press their political leaders to come up with political resolutions on the ground.

And the third thing we’re going to do is, where there is a threat to us — and you I have had this conversation going back to 2007 — we will take action to protect the American people. This president has done that. He will continue to do that.

SMERCONISH: Earlier today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and I think I have the quote that we can put on the screen, but he said, “I will go anywhere I’m invited in order to enunciate the state of Israel’s position and in order to defend its future and its existence.”

Who does the White House blame more, Boehner for extending the invite or Bibi for accepting it?

MCDONOUGH: The White House doesn’t get into blame games on these kinds of things.

Let’s take a step back. This is the most important relationship we have in the world. This is something that ought to be and will continue to be, as far as we’re concerned, above partisan politics. This is a relationship, given its importance, that stretches across many different things, from values straight through intelligence cooperation to defense and security assistance.

That’s the kinds of things that we will be focused on in this regard. That’s why we think also we ought not get involved in their politics. That’s why the President thinks it doesn’t make any sense for us to meet with the prime minister two weeks before his election.

SMERCONISH: Did the president invite this action by Congress through his executive actions and his statements in the State of the Union that he won’t hesitate to exercise veto ability?

MCDONOUGH: You know, I want to not pretend that I could somehow explain any motive for anybody else but the White House.

Let me tell you about the things that we have done on Iran and why the president thinks Congress acting now will undercut that. We have isolated the Iranians over the course of six years. We now have robust international multilateral sanctions in place and we have very aggressive bilateral sanctions in place.

That’s leading to Iran being isolated, its economy being in tatters, its ability to export and sell oil at near — near record lows. So, we’re going to continue to do that. We can maintain that international unity by pressing through these last several months of negotiations.

Congress should just give us the time to let those negotiations play out. It doesn’t make any sense for them to prematurely act on legislation that the president will veto if it’s going to risk maintaining this international unity. So, Congress should let us finish this job.

SMERCONISH: One final foreign policy question. Does the passing of King Abdullah mean the administration now will release the 28 pages pertaining to the Saudis and September 11?

MCDONOUGH: Well, this is obviously an issue that you have been working on for some time. And this goes back across administrations.

We’re — the president will be visiting Riyadh to express our condolences and to underscore the important issues that we have going on in the region. I’m not going to get involved in the 28 pages now, Michael, any more than I did before.

SMERCONISH: I got a feeling from the State of the Union that it was a victory lap of sorts and that it was the president saying, hey, the metrics are all on our side, whether it’s unemployment, whether it’s gas prices, whether it’s the Dow, whether it’s the deficit, but there’s a funk out there in the country, and I want to convince people, especially those in the middle class, that it’s OK to start being more optimistic about the economy.

Is that what he was really trying to do?

MCDONOUGH: Well, the president did tick through several things that we have made progress on, unemployment from 10 down to 5.6 percent, 10 million people with now access to health care, health care costs at the lowest level in more than 50 years now for four years in a row, more energy production, be that clean energy, or be that oil and gas, in this country than ever before.

That’s leading to new jobs. So, there are good data. But the other thing the president said is, there’s a big unfinished piece of business. And you put your finger on it. Middle-class families like the ones you grew up in Doylestown or the ones I grew up with in Stillwater, Minnesota, have not seen the kind of wage growth that they deserve.

Wages have been stagnant now for three decades. So the president laid out a plan the other night that said, let’s make sure that the wealthiest few give back a little bit, that we invest in things like child care, like training, like community college, and make sure that we’re making — we’re going to keep the good jobs that we have here and bring more of them back home.

That’s what the president is going to do. He won’t trim his sails on that. The middle class deserves a shot at this now. The crisis having been passed, now we have got to get at the one remaining issue, which is, how does the middle class get the fair shot that they deserve?

SMERCONISH: Final question.

You may have grown up in Minnesota, but your folks are from Boston. Have the McDonoughs soured on the Pats?

(LAUGHTER)

MCDONOUGH: Well, my dad was a big Pats fan going back a long, long time. But I have got a lot of stuff on my plate right now, Michael. I’m a Vikings fan.

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH: Have you talked to the president about it?

MCDONOUGH: I haven’t talked to him about it in the last…

SMERCONISH: Big sports guy.

MCDONOUGH: He’s a big sports guy. I haven’t talked to him about it in the last couple days. He’s been on the road, as you know, in India.

SMERCONISH: Yes, a lot on his plate.

Denis McDonough, thank you.

MCDONOUGH: Great to see you, Michael. Thank you.

SMERCONISH: You too. Thank you for that.

### END INTERVIEW ###