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Vice President Pence on the Supreme Court fight, the travel ban and Bannon’s sway

February 1, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT
Vice President Mike Pence joins Judy Woodruff for his first television interview since assuming office to discuss political tensions in Congress over a new Supreme Court nominee, why he believes the president’s travel ban by executive order is an effective way to fight terrorism and won’t violate religious freedom, the influence of Counsellor to the President Steve Bannon and much more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we turn now to my interview at the White House today with Vice President Mike Pence. It’s his first since assuming the office.

I began by asking the former Indiana governor how he thinks the first few days have gone, a time some have described as turbulent.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: I think we’re off to a great start. The American people are seeing in President Trump a leader who is keeping his word to the American people.

We like to say we’re in the promise keeping business. And literally from the first day of this administration we’ve been working to put into effect the policies that the president campaigned on, and that we really do believe will strengthen America at home and abroad.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, big announcement last night. The president announced his choice to fill that vacancy on the Supreme Court, Judge Neil Gorsuch. I think virtually everybody agrees he is imminently qualified to be on the court.

Democrats are pointing out, so is Merrick Garland, imminently qualified. But Republicans didn’t give the hearing for nine months. Why is this different?

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Well, first let me agree with you strongly that Judge Neil Gorsuch is exceptionally qualified to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. He actually was confirmed unanimously by the United States Senate for the 10th Circuit a decade ago.

And has an academic career that spans from Columbia to Harvard to Oxford. And yet he’s a man of the West, a fourth-generation Coloradan. And I think he brings practical, real-word experience, but an extraordinary intellect to succeed, not replace, the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

And I know the president’s grateful that Judge Gorsuch is willing to step forward. And I think it’s one more example of President Trump keeping his word to the American people to appoint to the court someone who will be faithful to the Constitution and apply the law as written.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But if Republicans weren’t willing to hold a hearing for nine months for President Obama’s pick for that vacancy, why should Democrats do the same thing?

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Well, we understand there’s some angst. And I talked to Republican and Democrat members of the Senate about last year. But it was a vacancy in an election year.

And I think it’s important to remember that the court itself, the federal government itself belongs to the American people. The decision that the majority made is essentially to put the direction of the court and the appointment of this justice in the hands of the American people. And they did that.

And in President Trump they elected someone who’s committed to appoint someone in the tradition of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. He did that last night. And I think the very broad and bipartisan support that you’re witnessing for Judge Gorsuch is a reflection both of his character, of his career, but also a gratitude that President Trump has followed through and did exactly what he said he would do one more time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So Democrats say they are going to look at his record, they have a lot of questions. They want to see if he’s in the mainstream. If they decide to slow this down, this process down, should the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, go ahead and change the rules? So that instead of 60, which it is now, votes required, it would only take 50, the so-called “nuclear option”?

We know the president said this morning “Go ahead and go nuclear” he said to Sen. McConnell. Do you think that’s what he’ll do?

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: President Trump and I, and our whole administration are extraordinarily enthusiastic about the opportunity to see Judge Gorsuch confirmed by the Senate. It’s one of the reasons why I accompanied him to Capitol Hill today to get those conversations started.

But let me also say we’re very heartened by the response now of seven Democrat members of the Senate who said that they believe the judge deserves an up or down vote.

And I do believe that as Judge Gorsuch travels across Capitol Hill in the weeks ahead, sitting down with Republicans and Democrats, they’re going to see what the president saw. Someone who is a first-class intellect, a fourth-generation Coloradan, and someone who in a fair and impartial way is going to uphold the Constitution and apply the law as written.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you know …

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: We believe that he’ll get that same level of consideration that the nominees in the first term for President Clinton received, the nominees for President Obama received in their first term.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you don’t think the Senate Majority Leader McConnell will have to resort to the so-called nuclear option?

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: I’m hopeful that he doesn’t. I’m hopeful that he doesn’t. The president and our entire team are committed to supporting Judge Gorsuch’s nomination.

But I do believe that when you look at those first term nominations of President Clinton …


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: … and of President Obama, none of those were filibustered. All four received broad bipartisan support. And all were considered and resolved in the Senate in a matter of 60 to 70 days.

I do believe that once members of the Senate in both parties have a chance to sit down with Judge Gorsuch we’re going to see the same bipartisan support.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to turn now to the immigration executive order that was issued over the weekend.

We looked this up and since 2001, 9/11, 82 percent of the fatal attacks by Islamic extremists in this country were committed by either legal permanent residents or citizens. The rest were committed by people who were not from these seven countries that this ban applies to. So is this the right answer?

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: I believe it is. President Trump has no higher priority than the safety and security of the American people. And he made it clear in this election, particularly in the wake of the terrorist attack in Paris where individuals had used a refugee program to gain access to that country.

The president made it clear that we were going to pause. We were going to implement extreme vetting. And focusing on countries that the Obama administration and the Congress have identified as being problematic, being in many ways compromised by terrorism. Having a pause that ensures the people that are coming into the country don’t represent a threat to our people or to our communities is of paramount importance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even though they’re not a country from which those who perpetrated terrible acts come?

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Well, the reality is, is there’s a — as you’ve seen American forces on the move overseas just in the last week, and the loss of life of a courageous Navy Seal. …


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: We are in a struggle against radical Islamic terrorism, al-Qaida and ISIS. The president, in his campaign for office, made it clear that he would make a priority of confronting radical Islamic terrorism abroad. But also adding new measures to ensure that individuals would not be coming into this country with the motivation to harm our people. And we really do believe that this temporary pause with regard to the countries other than Syria, temporary pause where we evaluate our screening process and ensure that people coming into the country don’t represent a threat is appropriate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I want to pick up on what you said because a number of even Republican senators, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Ben Sasse, former CIA Director Michael Hayden have said their concern is that by doing what the administration has done it’s going to not make this country safer, but it’s going to encourage those overseas who are trying to recruit new people into the jihadist movement..are going to use this as an excuse and say, see, we told you the U.S. doesn’t like anybody who is Muslim.

In other words, they’re saying it’s going to have the opposite of the intended effect.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: I’m aware of those comments. But I respectfully disagree with them.

I truly do believe that President Trump making decisions to pause our various immigration programs and refugee programs for a period of time so that we can ensure that there are new safeguards in place, just as Secretary Kelly described this week, is in keeping with the expectation of the American people.

And I have to tell you, having been a governor and now having the privilege to serve as vice president, it heartens me to know the passion that President Trump has for ensuring our system of immigration, the way people come into this country is operated in a way that puts safety and security and the well-being of every American, regardless of their race or creed, first and foremost.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you not only have, as I said, bipartisan senators making some of these comments but a thousands people who work at the State Department have signed a letter saying they think this is going to lead to the country being less safe.

We heard the press secretary at the White House, Sean Spicer, say if they don’t — if they’re not on board, don’t stay in your job. Is that how you view this? Their dissent?

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Well, obviously there’s a history of — and a tradition even within the State Department for dissenting opinions. And I can tell you, working with President Trump closely and seeing the way he operates as a leader, he’s always interested in a broad range of opinions. But make no mistake about it. We want in this administration people that share the president’s vision for a safer America. For a stronger America. For a more prosperous America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So they should leave?

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: And I believe, as Secretary Kelly laid out in that press conference this week, that people are getting a better sense of the direction, the focus of this executive order. We’re making sure that all due process rights of individuals are respected. All orders from courts that have been imposed in recent days are being respected. But Secretary Kelly, with his vast background in military, is bringing his abilities and his judgment to bare to implement that order in a way that I believe is a great source of comfort and confidence for the American people. But let’s be clear again. This is what President Trump said he was going to do in the election. And what the American people have seen in these early days of the administration is that President Trump is a man of his word.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly. You, the president and others have said this is not a ban on Muslims. It’s very specific to these countries. But there are those out there who are reading this as the beginning of what they fear will be a religious test. Are you confident that this is not going to lead to some sort of religious litmus test for people coming into this country? That America will continue to welcome people of all faiths?

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Oh, I’m very confident of that. Our religious liberty, our religious pluralism is a hallmark of America, celebrated by our people and reflected on all over the world.

And I think the focus of the president’s action here is very clear. And that is identifying countries that the Obama administration and the Congress have confirmed lack the kind of internal safeguards so we can know who these people are for certain who are seeking to gain admission to our country.

It’s just simply appropriate for us to pause and to look at everyone who’s applying to come in from those areas that have been compromised by terrorism. And ensure that the people, as the president says, the people that come to this country love this country and want to be a part of our communities and our nation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just a quick follow to that, there are voices coming from the Capitol, members of Congress who are saying they were not adequately consulted. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas was saying the president needs to consult with Congress. Yes, some staff was brought in, but there needs to be more consultation.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: I will tell you that in the early days of this administration we’ve been engaging very rigorously on a broad range of issues with members of the Senate. And we’re going to continue to prove those efforts its — with Republicans and Democrats — in the course of the president’s consideration of his nominees of the Supreme Court, he dispatched me to Capitol Hill to talk with Republicans and Democrats. He met with Republican and Democrat leaders in the Oval Office.

I think what you’re going to continue to see on an increasing basis is more consultation, and more input. But at the end of the day, the American people are going to continue to see strong and decisive leadership from President Trump that I think will make America great again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Moving through a lot of reporting in the last few days about Steve Bannon, the adviser to the president, having more influence than anyone else now on the president. And looking at his background, running Breitbart News, being an advocate of limiting immigration, keeping out people from the United States who are not in his view welcome here. Are you comfortable with the amount of influence Mr. Bannon has?

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: I’m very comfortable with the fact that there’s only one person in charge of the Trump administration. It’s President Donald Trump.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right …

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: But we value Steve Bannon’s input. Here’s an individual serving in a war, a captain in the United States Navy, a partner at Goldman Sachs, successful businessperson who brings a strong perspective into discussions.

But to be around President Trump, I can tell you Judy, it’s very dynamic. He leads by asking questions. He asks for input from everyone in the senior circle and a lot of people outside the circle. And then he makes decisions. I think the action that people are seeing in these early days is just the beginning. I think it’s a prelude to the kind of energetic and decisive leadership the American people haven’t seen for a while in the Oval Office. And I’m honored to be a small part of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Three very quick questions. The border wall with Mexico. There was talk of a 20 percent tax. Is that going to happen?

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: We’re working right now with the Congress on tax reform legislation. I expect it’ll come this spring. And we’ll do part of the president’s commitment to get this economy moving again.

But make no mistake about it. Whether it be our negotiations with countries in bilateral trade agreements, or whether it be in developing reforms of our tax code, we are determined to support the president’s vision to take the incentives out that make it attractive for companies to pull up stakes like in my home state of Indiana, and leave and take jobs out of the country down to Mexico and elsewhere.

We really believe that we can bring about changes in the tax code that will make America more attractive for investment and job creation and business. But the president has also made it very clear that he wants to put — he wants to put new elements in the tax code that are going to have companies pay a price if they decide to take jobs out of the country and then sell their goods back into the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly about priorities. A lot of talk about tax cuts. You just mentioned that. About infrastructure, and about health care. Not just getting rid of the Obamacare plan, but replacing it. Is one of those a priority over the other?

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: The president made very clear to leaders in Congress from right after the election that repealing and replacing Obamacare will be the first priority of this administration. We’ve been working very closely with leaders of the House and Senate to formulate a plan that will happen simultaneously.

That’s the other piece of this that’s very important. The president made it clear that he expected Congress, while they take action to repeal the most corrosive elements of Obamacare, the taxes, the mandates, things that are suppressing job creation and driving up the premiums for working families across the country. But he made it very clear that in the very same breath he wants to see the Congress bring forward the kind of replacement plan both through legislation — and we’ll support through executive action — that will create a better health care system that expands consumer choices and drives down the cost for health insurance for every American.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Final question. The tone coming from this administration. You — folk out there who voted for President Trump and for you, polls are already showing they’re very happy with what they’re seeing. At the same time, in the president’s inaugural address, you could argue the immigration order, some of the president’s tweets, there’s a sense that it’s not a — there’s not an effort to reach beyond the base, people who supported this president and you originally. Is that the message you want the American people to have right now? That it’s not going to be an outward-looking, inviting in message? That it’s going to be more of a, you know, we’re going to continue to talk to those who sent us here?

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: I think there’s two messages coming out in these early days, Judy. Number one is President Trump is going to keep the promises he made to the American people through decisive executive action and through legislation.

The other message is the same one he delivered on election night, that he’s committed to being the president for every American. I’ve sat in that Roosevelt Room in the West Wing where he’s brought in people, labor union leaders recently, to sit down with people who largely did not support him in the campaign and said how can we work together?

I was there in New York when he brought together high tech executives, many of whom actually strongly supported our opponent in the election. And he simply sat down and said how do we make it more possible for you to create more good-paying jobs in the United States? I think as time goes on it’s going to be more apparent to more Americans. President Trump is going to be president for everyone.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Vice President Mike Pence, we thank you very much for talking with us.


Editor’s Note:  Vice President Mike Pence’s office clarified after the interview that he misspoke. Steve Bannon’s rank in the Navy was not captain, but lieutenant.