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Sen. John McCain: ‘There Will Be Scandals’ in New, Money Fueled Campaigns

June 14, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has criticized President Obama's foreign policy on Syria and has called for an independent investigation into high-profile leaks on drone attacks and cyber warfare. The 2008 Republican presidential nominee speaks with Judy Woodruff in his Senate office.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to our interview with Arizona Sen. John McCain.

He’s criticized President Obama’s foreign policy on Syria and called for an independent investigation of high-profile leaks about drone attacks and cyber-warfare.

I sat down with the 2008 presidential nominee in his Senate office this afternoon to talk about those issues, plus campaign finance and the economy.

Sen. John McCain, thank you very much for talking with us.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In this election year, American voters facing two very different visions of what should be done about the economy. What would Gov. Romney do that would give the economy a boost, get it moving?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I think one of the things that Gov. Romney would do is to declare that we would basically have a halt to new federal regulations, that he would make sure that the tax cuts are permanent, at least until our economy can — is on the road to recovery.

I think there’s no doubt that, for example, we have $1.5 trillion sitting overseas. If businesses would provide a plan for investment in hiring, he’d let them come back and not be taxed at the highest corporate tax rate in the world.

But most of all, I think he would give confidence to the markets and to the businesses that are holding back that we would have in a climate that which is basically pro-business. Now, whether it’s right or wrong, there are many businesses today that believe that this administration is anti-business, so therefore they’re holding back on hiring and investment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, as you know, Gov. Romney right now is not only criticizing President Obama for that comment he made last week about the private sector is doing fine. He’s actually running a television ad that’s almost identical to the ad the Obama campaign ran four years ago after you made a comment about the underlying fundamentals of the economy were strong.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Are those ads fair, or are they just wrong?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Well, again, I think they’re a little bit different, because we were in the midst of a fiscal meltdown when I said, look, we’re in a terrible fiscal crisis, but the fundamentals of our economy are strong.

Not long after President Obama was elected, he said basically the same thing. I think that’s different from saying the private sector is doing fine. The private sector in Arizona is not doing fine. The private sector Arizona is in still serious, serious trouble.

So I think there is a difference between the two. But we also know we’re in a political season. And we also know that when there is a — either intended or unintended misspeak, like when Gov. Romney said that he liked firing people, the other side is going to exploit that.

Now, I think that’s unfortunate because then it keeps everybody on script almost, but it’s the reality of the world we live in today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me turn you, if you will, to foreign policy, Syria.

You have argued that military intervention is a necessary prerequisite to a political solution there. What specifically do you think needs to be done?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: First of all, we need American leadership and we need Americans’ moral support for those who are being massacred.

The president of the United States had a press conference just last Friday. He hasn’t spoken out in favor of these people, in sympathy for the massacres and the torture and the rape that is taking place. Remarkable.

We need American leadership. What does that mean? It means getting weapons to the people who are fighting against Bashar al-Assad. The tanks and helicopters and artillery are overwhelming in — compared with what the resistance has, which is light weapons. The torture and the rape and the murder continue on in an unfair fight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you still believe, Senator, as you said in March, that the United States should lead an international effort to have airstrikes against Assad’s military?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I think, first of all, we need to give them weapons with which to defend themselves.

Second of all, I think we need establish a sanctuary with other countries, Turkey in particular, but other countries in the region. And we need to tell the — Bashar Assad that if he attacks that sanctuary, he will be punished with airpower. And that airpower would be a number of countries’ airpower. Not just U.S. airpower is needed to do so.

I don’t believe Bashar Assad can last long if he experienced a very robust resistance, because he’s obviously lost the support of the Syrian people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But would you also need some sort of ground forces in the area?


JUDY WOODRUFF: Because Assad’s forces are operating very much in the middle of the civilian population.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: We wouldn’t.

Putting U.S. ground forces in would be not only not appropriate, but counterproductive. We just need to arm and equip these people, the same way that we did in Libya.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But I asked because you mentioned — when you talk about airstrikes, when their forces are very close to civilian forces, how are you going to distinguish?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Well, they were at the gates of Benghazi and we were able to stop them there.

We have precision-guided bombs. We could have people on the ground as air controllers. I think it’s a very doable kind of situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about, Senator, the arguments of former Republicans secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and James Baker, both of whom have said that for reasons of cost and because there’s no real clarity about what’s going to replace the Assad regime, that it would be a mistake to move militarily?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Well, in all due respect, I heard — I have seen this movie before. I saw the movie when people said we shouldn’t go to Bosnia. I saw the movie when I — they said we shouldn’t go to Kosovo. I saw the movie when they said and succeeded that we shouldn’t intervene in Rwanda, and 850,000 people were slaughtered.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Government leaks, you have made it very clear in the last few days you favor an outside independent counsel to investigate possible leaks of classified information from the Obama administration.

Today, there was an editorial, a lead editorial in The Washington Post. It points out past investigations like this have been — have taken a long time, they have been very costly, and ultimately they have been counterproductive, in part because disclosing classified information in and of itself is not illegal.

What’s the right answer here?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Well, first of all, I think it’s important to put it — these leaks in the context that the chairperson of the Intelligence Committee, Sen. Feinstein, put it into.

She said it was the worst security breach in the 11 years she’s been in the Intelligence Committee, and that it’s placed American lives at risk. Now, if actions are taken by anybody that puts American lives at risk, then we should find out who’s doing it and bring it to a stop.

I mean, it’s unconscionable for me to — and I think the American people — to say, well, that’s OK if they take actions that put American lives at risk.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Final question, Senator, about campaign money.


JUDY WOODRUFF: You have long been passionate about the idea of restricting the amount of money that flows in campaigns.


JUDY WOODRUFF: But in the wake of the Supreme Court decision Citizens United, we are seeing enormous sums of money going into this campaign, to the campaigns themselves, to outside supporters.

Is this — is it just inevitable that we’re now in a period where money is going to be playing this dominant role in American politics?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I’m afraid, at least for the time being, that’s going to be the case, because of the most misguided, naive, uninformed, egregious decision of the United States Supreme Court I think in the 21st century.

To somehow view money as not having an effect on election, a corrupting effect on election, flies in the face of reality. I just wish one of them had run for county sheriff. So what we are. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean one of the justices?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: One of the five Supreme Court justices that voted to invalidate what we know of as McCain-Feingold.

Look, I guarantee you, Judy, there will be scandals. There is too much money washing around political campaigns today. And it will take scandals, and then maybe we can have the Supreme Court go back and revisit this issue.

Remember, the Supreme Court rules on constitutionality. So just passing another law doesn’t get it. So I’m afraid we’re in for a very bleak period in American politics. You know, we all talk about — and you just did — about how much money is in the presidential campaign.

Suppose there’s a Senate campaign in a small state, and 10 people get together and decided to contribute $10 million each. You think that wouldn’t affect that Senate campaign?

JUDY WOODRUFF: This question of campaign money highlighted today by this — the announcement that there’s a huge amount of money coming in from one donor in the state of Nevada.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Mr. Adelson, who gave large amounts of money to the Gingrich campaign. And much of Mr. Adelson’s casino profits that go to him come from this casino in Macau.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which says what?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Which says that, obviously, maybe in a roundabout way, foreign money is coming into an American campaign — political campaigns.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because of the profits at the casinos in Macau?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Yes. That is a great deal of money. And, again, we need a level playing field and we need to go back to the realization that Teddy Roosevelt had that we have to have a limit on the flow of money, and that corporations are not people.

That’s why we have different laws that govern corporations than govern individual citizens. And so to say that corporations are people, again, flies in the face of all the traditional Supreme Court decisions that we have made — that have been made in the past.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sen. John McCain, we thank you for talking with us.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: It’s nice to be with you again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there’s more from our interview with Sen. McCain online. He accuses the Obama administration of antagonizing Pakistan by encouraging India to form a closer relationship with Afghanistan.

And, here on the broadcast, we will talk with a Senate Democrat in the coming days.