Transcript: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on "Face the Nation," April 28, 2024

Transcript: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on “Face the Nation,” April 28, 2024

The following is a transcript of an interview with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that will air on April 28, 2024.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Thank you for making time for us today.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Glad to be with you.

MARGARET BRENNAN: A lot of topics I need to get to you on in regard to national security. I want to start here at home with these protests that we have seen on college campuses throughout the US in support of Palestinians in Gaza, but mixed in there, some posters, some statements that are anti-semitic. Speaker Johnson visited Columbia and told CBS, “we need to call in the National Guard and law enforcement to take control.” Governor Abbott of Texas said “all of the protesters belong in jail.” There are protests in Texas. Do you agree with them?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, here’s the way I look at it. The First Amendment is important. But it doesn’t give you the ability to claim there’s a fire going on in a theater, because it threatens everyone else. What needs to happen, at least at the beginning, is these university presidents need to get control of the situation, allow free speech and push back against antisemitism. I thought that was largely gone in this country. But we’ve seen a number of young people who are actually antisemitic. Why don’t they all sit down and have a civil conversation rather than trying to dominate the talk? And I think the first line of defense is these university presidents.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you wouldn’t go to the National Guard at this point?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Let’s see if these university presidents can get control of the situation.They ought to be able to do that. Civil discussion is what college education is supposed to be about. I’d be interested in hearing the antisemitic people explain the justification for that kind of talk.

MARGARET BRENNAN: President Biden said he condemns the antisemitic protests and condemns those who don’t understand what’s going on in Palestine, with the Palestinians. Do you agree with his statement?

SEN. MCCONNELL: It’s not a question of whether I agree, I can speak for myself. And what I think is what I just said about how these college campuses ought to be controlled by the administrations.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Understood. I want to move on to Ukraine. I understand you just hung up with Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy. The US has shipped him capabilities, including these long range missiles as part of this new congressional aid package. What did he say to you? Does he need more specific weapons in the immediate term?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, one of the things I apologized for is it’s taken too long. If you go back to the beginning of this administration, even though I supported obviously the supplemental request and worked hard to get Republican votes for it, this all started with a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan. It’s like sending out a green light to all the rogue regimes around the world that the Americans are going home. Number two, not giving the Ukrainians what they need soon enough. Didn’t just start with this administration, I remember the Obama administration sent them meals ready to eat. It’s not exactly a way to defend yourself.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Following the 2014 partial invasion?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Yes, yeah. So, it’s gradually gotten better. The administration has still been self deterring themselves, with some fear that the Russians would be deterred by our lack of action. So my main complaint is let’s get the weapons there as quickly as possible. I apologized for how long it took Congress to do its part, but we finally did. And he was also impressed by the fact that Republican support grew in the Senate substantially, substantially.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Because you were whipping those votes, you convinced nine additional senators.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well I tried- It wasn’t something I felt lightly about, let’s put it that way.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But who did you feel you were apologizing for?

SEN. MCCONNELL: The slowness of it.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But when- that wasn’t in the Senate?

SEN. MCCONNELL: I’m sorry?

MARGARET BRENNAN: The slowness was not in the Senate. Were you apologizing for House Republicans?

SEN. MCCONNELL: No, it was in the Senate. We spent about four months trying to- to agree to a deal to deal with our own border with Mexico, which is a disaster. And initially, obviously, to make a law you have to deal with the other side. They’ve got the White House, they got the Senate. We came up with a proposal. It was, my members felt many of them were not good enough. Our nominee for President seemed to be unenthusiastic about acting on that. And so that took three or four months. Once we realized we were not going to be able to legislate on the border, we board in on the subject of the supplemental. And I think a number of my members focusing on that changed their mind, and we grew from 22 to actually 32. One member missed the last vote but would have voted for it.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  You mentioned the border, you had empowered Senator Lankford to come to this bipartisan deal with the White House. The President says that he regrets that that wasn’t part of this final package. I know you mentioned the Republican nominee didn’t support it. Did Donald Trump kill that border bill?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I think there was a genuine lack of enthusiasm for the product. And the product–

MARGARET BRENNAN: — But you liked the product?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, but I mean, in order to make a law- it’s a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate, you couldn’t do exactly what you wanted to do. Would I have liked to have had more? Absolutely. That was not possible if we were trying to make a law. And we were trying to negotiate. Senator Lankford did, in my view, an excellent job. But it wasn’t good enough for a majority of our members, or apparently for the House either.

MARGARET BRENNAN: On Ukraine, the administration has reportedly told the Ukrainians not to target Russian energy supplies, not to fire into Russia with these US supplied weapons, and to avoid attacks on Crimea, out of fear of escalation. Should there be restrictions on these US weapons that you just helped provide them?

SEN. MCCONNELL: I don’t think so. They’re- they’re trying to tell the Israelis how to run their war against Hamas. These are democratic allies of ours, under serious threat, and I don’t think we ought to be trying to tell them to have an election which we did in Israel, or what their military tactics ought to be. So–

MARGARET BRENNAN: — In Israel, you’re talking about now?

SEN. MCCONNELL: In either country, I think we ought to give them what they need to win.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you believe that President Zelenskyy is empowered to use these weapons as he sees fit?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I hope so. I don’t think we- I don’t know how many times I can say it. I don’t think we ought to be telling them how to win their own war. They’re in the middle of it. They’re there. They know what they need. I think our job is to help them win.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you worked with the Democratic leader to get this package through. But in the time of the delay that you acknowledged, Russia’s military land forces have grown back to where they were before the invasion. The Army is 15% larger, and they’ve reinforced the 20% of Ukrainian territory that they hold. These are all the words of the Supreme Allied Commander himself. Do you feel your party is responsible for those setbacks?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Many of them, yeah. We took too long. This issue was like a family reunion, if you will, with a lot of different points of view being expressed around the table. Chuck did a good job. But all the Democrats were for Ukraine. There is no question that the debate was in our family, on our side. And there was a lot of skepticism for a long time, but I think it got better. And I think we proved that earlier this week.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you think changed minds?

SEN. MCCONNELL: What do I think what?

MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you think changed that?

SEN. MCCONNELL: The actual facts. Once we realized we were not going to get a border result, I think our members really started focusing on the-the package. It was- it was clear that it was not going to have a border provision attached to it. And there are almost no good arguments against this. Almost no good ar- every argument that made it- made by the opponents is provably wrong. And the facts, I think, were convincing for a number of our members and they changed their minds.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You are leader for another eight months. But you’ve said you’re going to stay and serve out your term. Donald Trump may again become president. According to our latest CBS polling, 79% of self-identified Republicans told us that the source of information they most trust on Ukraine and Russia is Donald Trump. The Pentagon came in lower than that at 60%. This sentiment doesn’t seem to be disappearing, how are you going to counter that?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Look, what I want to do and what I’m focused on is not the presidential race, but getting the Senate back. I’ve been the majority leader, I’ve been the minority leader, majority is better.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But this isn’t the race. This is persuading public opinion.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Yeah. Let me finish. I think the single most important thing I can do is make sure my successor is the majority leader, no matter how the presidential election comes out. I haven’t been entirely satisfied with this administration. I think the fact that our nominee basically decided not to continue whipping people against the package was a good sign and I’m going to be advocating increasing the defense budget no matter who gets elected, and preparing ourselves for the long term, which is China, Russia, and Iran. This administration’s budget requests for defense haven’t even kept up with inflation. That needs to change and we need to change as well. Here in Congress, the Democrats have always insisted that we spend just as much on domestic as defense. That changed in the last appropriations process. Our spending needs to reflect the needs, and the needs now are on the defense side.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So the Biden defense spending for fiscal year ’25, calls for a 1% increase, but your point is: doesn’t keep up with inflation because they’ll actually be decreasing year prior.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Right. Yeah. I- I think this conflict has gotten our attention on both sides, that the world has changed and that this is a very, very dangerous period for our country.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you said the Republican nominee decided not to whip against the package. In other words, stopped telling lawmakers that- not to vote for it, but we know Donald Trump is not a fan of- of Zelenskyy. Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary, recently had dinner with Mr. Trump at Mar-a-Lago and then told reporters that Trump said he won’t give a penny to Ukraine and that’ll be the way he forces an end to the fighting. If that’s the fundamental belief of the man who’s going to be commander-in-chief, how do you stop him?

SEN. MCCONNELL: What I’m doing is trying to change the Senate so that we have a majority and trying to produce a majority of the majority of the importance of defense spending, no matter who wins the presidential election. I can’t control that. I have some influence here in the Senate. I intend to use it no matter who gets elected president to increase our defense budget and get ready for the challenges that we have ahead of us, rather than just looking backward.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But that’s a challenge where you might have to be the firewall against your own party and its leader.

SEN. MCCONNELL: I’ve been willing to do that. I had something to do with changing opinion in the Senate on this issue and I think a lot more of my members now understand the importance of it.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You, in your press conference the other day, you unloaded a bit on Tucker Carlson for demonizing Ukraine and for going to Russia and speaking to Vladimir Putin. Donald Trump never endorsed this package and in your words had mixed views on it. How can you say that isolationism and the streak within your party is going to be controlled when there are powerful voices like this? You seem to be saying here the institution will prevent this.


SEN. MCCONNELL: We- we- we’ve been there. We may not have time for a history lesson, but we’ve been there before. Before World War II and after World War II, the most prominent Republican of that era was Robert Taft. He opposed lend-lease. He opposed NATO. He opposed the Marshall Plan. So that strand of isolationism prior to this last really big war was stopped when Eisenhower beat Taft for the nomination and had a totally different view of our role in the world and that’s been the case of most presidents since then. So having a debate about isolationism has occurred in my party before. It’s not fatal, but yet you need to engage and make the argument and that’s why I’m proud of the fact that we increased our support significantly in the Senate.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And it came with it not just support for Ukraine, support for Israel, support for Palestinians and support for the Indo Pacific, including Taiwan. Do you think the way that you wrote this and structured this can withstand these forces of opposition and a potential Trump presidency?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I mean, we’ve got a lot more to do. I mean, this was an important episode. I think the fact that isolationism, at least on this issue, was defeated is not nearly enough.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You do think it was defeated.

SEN. MCCONNELL: On this particular issue. I don’t think it’s completely gone. We need to fund defense based upon the conditions and the conditions are we have two big adversaries: China, Russia. World War II, we had Japan, Germany. What do we have in addition to that now that we didn’t have then? Isolationism and the threat of Iran, and terrorists. That’s different and we need to defeat that mindset, and pass budgets that reflect where we are now and likely to be in the future.

MARGARET BRENNAN: About a month after January 6, you voted to acquit Donald Trump after he was impeached. And you said on the Senate floor, “Trump didn’t get away with anything yet… We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation. And former presidents are not immune from being accountable by either one.” Do you still believe that former presidents are not completely immune from liability?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Let’s put it this way. I addressed that issue on February the 13th–

MARGARET BRENNAN: It’s active before the Supreme Court as we speak.

SEN. MCCONNELL: –And January the 6th of 2021. I stand by everything I said then. Obviously, it’ll be up to the Supreme Court to decide whether I was correct.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You got involved, though, and part of what you said is part of this case, in some ways. Because you argued for the Senate not to convict Mr. Trump, and central to his immunity argument is the claim that a former president who was impeached and convicted by the Senate can be criminally prosecuted. He was not. Do you regret your choice? It’s part of the defense.

SEN. MCCONNELL:  I don’t regret anything I said then. I haven’t taken it- anything I said then back, but the answer to your question is going to be in the courts. The Supreme Court’s gonna decide that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you think of that argument?

SEN. MCCONNELL: I told you what I thought on January 6 and February 13 of 2021. I stand by everything I said then, but the answer is in court. The Supreme Court’s gonna determine that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you stand by your description of Trump as practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of January 6, and potentially criminally responsible and liable?

SEN. MCCONNELL: I don’t know how many times you’re gonna ask me the same question. I stand by everything I’ve said on January 6, and February 13, 2021.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, I’m asking you the question because since the past few months have passed, and our last conversation, you’ve endorsed him for reelection and you have clear moral clarity, as you describe it, and you say you still have these beliefs.

SEN. MCCONNELL:  You need to get better research. I was asked that question three years ago. If he were the nominee, would I support him?

MARGARET BRENNAN: And you said you would support whoever the nominee was.

SEN. MCCONNELL: And I said yes. Because the voters of my party across the country have made a decision. As the Republican leader of the Senate, obviously, I’m gonna support the nominee of our party.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you have taken stands on issues you feel morally are- are- are of strong national security interests and morally imperative. That- that was your argument on Ukraine. And that you were bucking, in some ways, a populist opinion. So on this one, I’m just wondering how you explain that, when you say it was good enough for a number of Republicans that he’d be the nominee, because that is the populist opinion. It’s not taking the position that he has- he doesn’t live up to the role.


SEN. MCCONNELL: The issue is- the issue is- the issue is- what kind of influence, even if I had chosen to get involved in the presidential election, what kind of influence would I have had?

MARGARET BRENNAN: You’re one of the most powerful Republicans.

SEN. MCCONNELL: I’m- I’m the Republican leader of the Senate. What we do here is try to make law. I like us to be in the majority. I’m spending my political time and my political capital, whatever amount I have, on trying to flip the Senate so that my successor is the majority leader and not the minority leader.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I understand that. But you are fighting those forces, not just in the form of Donald Trump, but all these others- other senators, including J.D. Vance and others, who are espousing things that he supports that are counter to your worldview and counter to what you are saying is in the best interest of America.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, you and I–

MARGARET BRENNAN: So it’s hard to understand sometimes.

SEN. MCCONNELL: You and I sit here the week of a victory for the forces who are against isolationism, and you persist in talking about those who lost. I think the best evidence of how we’re doing pushing back against isolationism is the difference between 22 and 32.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You’re more aligned with Joe Biden than Donald Trump in your view of America’s role in the world, it would seem.

SEN. MCCONNELL: I’m sorry, what- what do you-

MARGARET BRENNAN: Your worldview seems more aligned with Joe Biden when it comes to American leadership–

SEN. MCCONNELL: –I wouldn’t–

MARGARET BRENNAN: –In these global conflicts–


MARGARET BRENNAN: –Then with Donald Trump–

SEN. MCCONNELL: –I certainly wouldn’t–

MARGARET BRENNAN: –Who has spoken against Volodymyr Zelinskyy, who has not endorsed the package that you just worked so hard to get over the finish line.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Okay. Look, I- I wouldn’t have withdrawn from Afghanistan. I wouldn’t have submitted four budgets in a row for defense that don’t even keep up with inflation. I’ve got plenty of differences with the current administration. Whether I will have differences with the next administration remains to be seen. And so I’m not going to predict what might happen on this issue. I know what- what I think and it doesn’t make any difference what the outcome of the presidential election is. I’m going to be focusing on this remainder of my time in the Senate.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But this has to be something that you think a lot about and struggle with. Donald Trump comes after you personally, he’s come after your wife.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, it- it’s not about me, it’s about what the right thing to do for the country is.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is he the right thing to do for the country, as a Republican leader here–


MARGARET BRENNAN: –One of the most powerful in the country?

SEN. MCCONNELL: This is the right–


SEN. MCCONNELL: –Thing to do for the country and that’s what I’m advocating. No matter who gets elected president, I’m going to be pushing, what I’ve said repeatedly to you today is for an increase in defense budgets for us to take seriously the threat of China, Russia and Iran. And that requires more defense spending than we are currently engaged in.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What I hear you saying, tell me if I’m getting it wrong, is that you can stop Donald Trump if he’s commander in chief. Even if you’re not leader, you’re going to do the most you can to counter this isolationist worldview and to counter, or limit, what he could do if reelected.

SEN. MCCONNELL: I’m gonna counter, no matter who’s elected president, advocating things that I think are not good for America. So as to whether I’m closer to one or another will depend on who the president is and what they advocate. Campaigns are pretty vociferous and what I care about is, what does the person who actually gets elected ultimately do. And I’ve made it perfectly clear, right, as we’ve discussed over and over and over again, where my interests are and where my advocacy will be.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Should he go to Kyiv like you did? Should Mr. Trump, as candidate, as representative of your party, go and see Ukraine for himself?

SEN. MCCONNELL: I’m not gonna give him any advice. I- I am try–

MARGARET BRENNAN: –Other Republican candidates who are racing against him and lost, they did that. You did that. You put your own life at risk. You went and saw–

SEN. MCCONNELL: Margaret, I don’t know how many times I have to tell you. I’m focusing on turning the Senate Republicans into the majority here and focusing on advocating, as I think I successfully did this very week, for moving away from the isolationist movement that began with Tucker Carlson.

MARGARET BRENNAN: It began with Tucker Carlson?

SEN. MCCONNELL: It did. He has a huge- he had a huge audience among rank and file Republicans. And I think it was very destructive, very impactful on regular Republican voters and created a big problem.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Because he mimicked Republican propaganda and amplified it and then that’s been repeated on the House floor as the House Intel Chairman said?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I certainly disagreed with him and then he certainly ended up where he should have been all along, interviewing Vladimir Putin.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Will you fact check Donald Trump when he says these things? Because he has also repeated some of these claims —

SEN. MCCONNELL: –I’m not gonna give any advice to our candidate in the- in the presidential election. What I’m focusing on is turning the Senate into a majority Republican.

MARGARET BRENNAN: A number of your Republican senators, including JD Vance, repeat some of these ideas–

SEN. MCCONNELL: –Well, each of us make a decision–

MARGARET BRENNAN: –That American can fight one war at once, that America, even if it’s not directly involved in Ukraine with its own troops is somehow–

SEN. MCCONNELL: –Well, look, I- I- I choose how I spend my time and I’m not going to spend it giving the Republican candidate for president advice. I’m going to focus on trying to turn this Senate Republicans into a majority.

MARGARET BRENNAN: How much of the time will your successor have to spend on this, on the infighting?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I think this was a big issue that we resolved this week. How many issues pop up between now and the end of the year that create controversy. Who knows?

MARGARET BRENNAN: I’m being told, Leader, that we are out of time. Is there anything that we didn’t get to that you think we should discuss?

SEN. MCCONNELL: I think we’ve covered it pretty well.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Thank you for your time today.

SEN. MCCONNELL: You’re welcome.