Transcript: Sen. Tim Kaine on "Face the Nation," April 15, 2018

Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia has harshly criticized President Trump's decision to launch a military strike against targets in Syria in response to a suspected chemical attack. Kaine says military action without congressional approval is illegal, and has criticized the White House for not seeking the authority to conduct the strikes.

Kaine, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joined us to discuss the Syria strikes, Congress' reaction and whether he would vote to confirm CIA Director Mike Pompeo as secretary of state.

The following is a transcript of the interview with Kaine that aired Sunday, April 15, 2018, on "Face the Nation."  


MARGARET BRENNAN: We want to go now to Richmond, Virginia and Senator Tim Kaine. Good morning to you Senator. You've called the strikes illegal and reckless. The Trump administration says Article II of the Constitution gave the president clearly the powers to take this action. Why do you think they're wrong?

SENATOR TIM KAINE: Margaret, I was interested to hear Ambassador Haley talk about our hope that we would get to a Syrian Constitution. I hope President Trump will follow the American Constitution. It's very, very clear Congress has the power to declare war and only Congress. So if you're initiating war against a sovereign nation like Syria that hadn't declared war on the United States it's only Congress that can do it. President Trump is not a king. He's a president. He's supposed to come to Congress to seek permission to initiate a war. As Ambassador Haley said they've been following these chemical weapons attacks for months. They clearly had time to come to Congress to seek our permission.

And- and this is really important Margaret, it's not just about the Constitution. It's about the value underlying the Constitution. The framers basically said if we're going to order our troops to risk their lives, put them in a situation where they can kill others, be killed or wounded themselves, then there has to be a debate and a vote by Congress to say this is in the national interest. The president flouting this and saying I can do it without Congress. What's to stop him from starting a bombing campaign against Iran or North Korea or some other nation and saying, "Well I think it's in the national interest." It's illegal because he didn't come and ask permission.

Moreover, it's reckless because as you pointed out there isn't a strategy. We need to defeat ISIS. But we heard different things from the administration. Are we staying there now to topple Assad, to counter Iran, to check Russia, to help the Kurds, to buttress Israel, to rebuild our relationships with Turkey. They haven't laid out a strategy and military action shouldn't be taken as a one off. It should be taken as part of a strategy.

BRENNAN: So do you not think the U.S. should have taken action in the wake of a chemical attack?

KAINE: Margaret, when President Obama came to Congress on exactly the same instance in 2014, saying Syria's used chemical weapons against civilians, Congress should give authority for us to take military action. I voted for that as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. But the president was doing it the right way. He came forward with a plan and strategy and we voted yes.

BRENNAN: Well he wasn't going to get the full support of Congress on that one.

KAINE: Well look we got it we got a resolution out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It was on the floor of the Senate and then Syria said we'll give up our weapons stockpile. But as you know Margaret in 2014 at that --

BRENNAN: Which they did not clearly.

KAINE: Citizen, citizen Donald Trump said the president can't constitutionally do this without coming to Congress. Mike Pompeo as a House member currently being considered as secretary of state said the president needs Congress. I'm very troubled that this is a president who seemed to understand what the Constitution required when President Obama was in office. But now he thinks he's a king and he can do whatever he wants without Congress.

BRENNAN: You mentioned Mike Pompeo. The CIA director was before your committee this week testifying as he sort of auditions for this role of secretary of state. You voted for him as CIA director. Will you vote for him to be the next secretary of state?

KAINE: Margaret, I've decided to vote against him to be secretary of state. I did vote for him as CIA director. He has an intel background that I thought suited him for the position. But look, we have a president who is anti-diplomacy. And I worry that Mike Pompeo has shown the same tendency to oppose diplomacy. He was not just against the Iran deal when he was a House member, but he spoke about the relative ease of wiping out Iran's nuclear capacity with a bombing run. He has supported regime change--

BRENNAN: Well, Senator, that's significant you are saying that you're not going to vote for him because this would mean he's the first nominee to be secretary of state to not get a favorable recommendation by that committee (*). But this still doesn't stop him from becoming America's top diplomat.

KAINE: Well, you're right.

BRENNAN: He can still get confirmed.

KAINE: We're- we're going to have a floor vote and I'm telling you what my vote is. I don't want a secretary of state who is going to exacerbate the President Trump's tendencies to oppose diplomacy. You've seen President Trump try to underfund the State Department and USAID, not appoint key ambassadors, tweet out insults about foreign leaders, back the United States out of international agreements and organizations. We do not need a secretary of state who's going to exaggerate those tendencies. We need a secretary of state who is going to stand up for strong diplomacy. I don't believe that's Director Pompeo's inclination.

BRENNAN: Sir, I also want to ask you because you were of course the running mate in the 2016 election on the Hillary Clinton ticket. You harshly criticized former FBI Director James Comey for his decision to make it public that he was reopening that investigation into the Clinton emails. He spoke to ABC News about his justification for doing so and I want to play that for you now.

FORMER FBI DIRECTOR JAMES COMEY: I was operating in a world where Hillary Clinton was going to beat Donald Trump. And so I'm sure that it-- that it was a factor. Like I said, I don't remember spelling it out, but it had to have been. That, that she's going to be elected president and if I hide this from the American people, she'll be illegitimate the moment she is elected. The moment this comes out.

BRENNAN: What do you make of that explanation?

KAINE: Margaret, the FBI has two real clear rules: don't talk about a pending investigation and don't inject controversy right before an election. They followed those rules with respect to the ongoing investigation into Donald Trump at the time. They didn't follow the rules with respect to Hillary Clinton. There was a clear double standard. But look I have so much on my plate to worry about today and tomorrow that I'm not spending time thinking about two years ago. I'm trying to get a president to follow the Constitution. I'm trying to make sure that if we are putting our military troops in harm's risk-- I've got a kid in the military and Virginia's very, very connected to the military mission. There's got to be a strategy. Those are the things that I'm focused on.

BRENNAN: Well, your voice and face are in some RNC ads with your criticism of the director. So I thought it was important to have you comment directly on that. You still stand by your criticism of him?

KAINE: Jim Comey in my way- in my way of thinking is a good man who made a very consequential blunder. Good people make mistakes all the time. It just so happened that the double standard blunder that he made had a huge consequence.

BRENNAN: Senator, thank you very much.

(*) since 1925