'This Week' Transcript: Denis McDonough, Sen. Ted Cruz and Gregory Hicks

ByABC News
September 5, 2013, 6:55 PM
PHOTO: White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on 'This Week'
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on 'This Week'
ABC News

NEW YORK, SEPT. 8, 2013— -- A rush transcript of "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" airing on Sunday morning, Sept. 8, 2013 on ABC News is below. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


It wasn't even on the agenda one month ago, but now, the vote to use military force in Syria has become the most critical test of the Obama presidency. The stakes are high. America's security and credibility on the line. So is the balance of power between the president and Congress and the rest of Obama's agenda in his second term.

And right now, it's a vote the president would lose.

ABC's whip count in the House shows 229 members likely in the "no" camp, only 44 are likely to vote "yes."

And let's start out with more on that from ABC's chief White House correspondent, John Karl -- and, John, the situation a bit better for the White House in the Senate, but this is an uphill battle for the White House and they know it.

JONATHAN KARL, ABC CORRESPONDENT: Oh, George, that's right. Even White House officials acknowledge if the vote were today, the president would lose. But they are promising a massive effort to turn that around.

This will be the biggest Congressional effort by the White House since the battle over health care in the president's first year as president.

And it's going to be a very visible effort. First, you're going to see the president do six network television interviews, national interviews, tomorrow. There will be a big address to the nation on Tuesday.

And, George, the most important thing here is they have even enlisted former members of the Bush administration to make the case for Republicans, including Bush's former national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, who has been talking directly to Republican members of Congress.

But, George, the president himself has also been making a personal effort. They've brought individual members to the White House, even bringing them into the Situation Room to show them classified ef -- ev -- evidence.

But, uh, George, one key thing that is not happening here, the president's grassroots army, Organizing for America, 30 million Twitter followers, they are completely on the sidelines here. They will not be taking part in this effort.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes, not a lot of -- a lot of support for this from the president's base, at least right now.

But what if the president can't turn this around?

The White House has been dancing all over that question.

KARL: George, that is the big question, a -- especially given where the vote count is now. I tried to ask that question directly to the president and he told me point blank he would not give me a direct answer.

But what I can say is his -- some of his top advisers have told me that they cannot conceive of him going forward with military strikes if Congress says no.

On the other hand, we've had military officials tell us that given where the planning is now, they can't see him pulling the plug on this, either.

STEPHANOPOULOS: OK, Jon Karl, thanks very much.

Let's go right to the president's chief of staff, Denis McDonough.

And, Denis, so many questions about the president right here and what he would do if you can't, uh, succeed in getting those votes in the next couple of weeks.

As Jon pointed out, the president did not directly answer that question on Friday, but he did say this. He said his call to Congress was not a political ploy or symbolism.

And he went on to say this.


OBAMA: I put it before Congress because, uh, I could not honestly claim that the threat posed by Assad's use of chemical weapons posed an imminent direct threat to the United States.


STEPHANOPOULOS: With those words, hasn't the president effectively ruled out taking any action if the Congress votes no?

DENIS MCDONOUGH, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Well, George, I think it's important for us to -- before we jump to any conclusions, I obviously really admire Jon, uh, Jon Karl's reporting. But, look, I've been talking to dozens of members of Congress over the last week. Not a single one of them so far has rebutted or refused the intelligence, which is to say, everybody agrees that on August 21st, Assad used chemical weapons against his own people.

So the question facing Congress this week is a very simple one -- should there be consequences for his having used gases, chemical weapons, to kill more than 1,000 of his own people, including more than 400 children?

The answer to that question will be followed closely in Tehran, the -- the answer to that question will be followed closely in Damascus, the answer to that question will be followed, uh, very closely by members of Lebanese Hezbollah.

So this is a big -- a big question and a big week for Congress to address that, uh, very fundamental national security issue.

Now, as you heard the president say, we didn't go to Congress because we thought this was an empty exercise. We are investing a lot of time and effort in this because we think Congress should be a full partner in our national security matters. And when they are, we're stronger as a country.


MCDONOUGH: Now, members of Congress also need to understand that if they want to see Assad held to account for this activity, they should vote yes on the resolution.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I understand that -- the arguments you've been making, but as you -- as we've seen, members of Congress are not buying into it, at least not yet. And some have even raised the specter of impeachment if the president goes forward in the absence of Congressional approval.

Here's Duncan Hunter, Republican of California: "I think he's breaking the law if he strikes without Congressional approval. And if he proceeds without Congress providing that authority, it should be considered an impeachable offense."

How will the president factor in the prospect of impeachment into his final decision?

MCDONOUGH: What the president is focused on right now, George, is the national security implications of what is undeniably and unrebutted intelligence, which suggests that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against his own people, killing 400 children. So that's what he is focused on right now. We believe that we have the capability in place to do it. Congress should be our full partner in that effort, George. That is exactly what we're focused on. That is the question before Congress this week. My hunch is you know Washington better than anybody, George. There will be all sorts of distractions and other things that try to knock us off our game, but that's the question before us and before Congress this week.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So I know you're not going to give me a yes or no answer on what the president will do if they don't vote him up (ph), but what are the consequences? You hinted at some of them. What are the consequences if the president and Congress cannot go forward after this? How much damage will that do to his presidency? Ross Douthat of the New York Times and many others have said basically this would finish off the president as a credible actor on the world stage. Do you agree?

MCDONOUGH: I really enjoy Ross's reporting and his writing. I think he's a really thoughtful guy. I have to say that right now, politics, all those questions are going to be debated and worked out by others. We're focused on the national security question before us, George. And it's a very fundamental and important question. Will there be consequences? Now what we are trying to reinforce here and what our allies supported us reinforcing just Friday at the G20 is a prohibition that goes back almost 100 years. A prohibition against the use of chemical weapons. Why does that matter? You know, in World War I, our troops were subjected to chemical weapons attacks regularly. Not since World War I have they seen the same kinds of attacks. That is important. That increases our security. That reduces the burden against our men and women who are in the armed forces, who have taken a lot of burdens lately, by the way. So we want to underscore this. We think Congress should join us in doing it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You are facing a lot of opposition, even from your allies. Moveon.org, strong supporter of the president in his first run for the presidency, backed him up on his opposition to the Iraq War, but they have given us this new ad exclusively that they're going to start running in the country tomorrow. Take a look.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We never set out to spend eight years at war in Iraq or to be mired down for more than a decade of fighting in Afghanistan. So what should America expect if we rush into Syria, alone, with no real plan for the consequences? We already know. It gets worse.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Meanwhile, our next guest, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, suggested American forces who were part of the strike against Syria would be serving as al Qaeda's air force. You're seeing opposition from both the left and the right. Your response.

MCDONOUGH: I am outraged for somebody to suggest that our people would be serving as allies to al Qaeda, one. Two, on this question about what this is and what this isn't. What this is, George, is very clear. Targeted, consequential, limited attack against Assad forces and Assad capabilities so that he is deterred from carrying out these actions again. Here is what it is not. It is not boots on the ground. It is not an extended air campaign. It is not Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya. This is a very concerned, concentrated, limited effort that we can carry out and that can underscore and secure our interests.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Finally, yes or no question. Will this resolution pass?

MCDONOUGH: This resolution is going to pass after we work this, this week, George. Members have been in their districts and in their states, we've been talking to many of them, dozens of them. And when they see this intelligence, they do not rebut it. So the bottom line is, they have to answer the question, should there be consequences? And the answer to that question will be followed closely in Tehran, in Damascus, and elsewhere.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Denis McDonough, thanks very much.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Denis McDonough, thanks very much.

Let's go straight to Republican Senator Ted Cruz. You just heard Denis McDonough right there say he was outraged by your suggestion that American forces will be serving as al Qaeda's air force.

CRUZ: Well, George, it's good to be with you, and I do agree there is a lot to be outraged about. Number one, all of us are outraged at Assad's conduct. Assad is a brutal murderer who's murdered over 100,000 of his own citizens, has gassed over 1,400 people, including over 400 children. And he rightly should be subject to condemnation worldwide.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But an attack?

CRUZ: I think a military attack is a mistake.


CRUZ: For two reasons. One because I think the administration is proceeding with the wrong objective, an two, because they have no viable plan for success. They are beginning from the wrong objective because this attack is not based on defending U.S. national security.

It is not based on defending Americans or our allies, rather it is explicitly framed by President Obama, by Secretary Kerry, as a defense of what they call international norms. And I don't think that's the job of our military to be defending amorphous international norms.

There are many other steps we can do to express strong disapproval to Assad's murderous conduct, But I don't think it's the job of the military.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Like what? What would you do?

CRUZ: Like what? I'd do several things.

Number one, there are reports that Iraq is allowing Iran to fly over and resupply Assad. I would right now cut off Iraq's $500 million in aid unless they cut you are a air rights.

Number two, we should force a vote in the U.N. security council condemning Assad's use of chemical weapons to murder his own citizens. Now we know...

STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, it would get vetoed.

CRUZ: We know Russia and China would veto it. They said that, but we should make them veto it on the world stage. And if they do veto it, we should respond by, with respect to Russia, we should reinstate the anti-ballistic missile station in eastern Europe that was canceled at the beginning of the Obama administration to appease Russia, and with respect to China, we should go through with selling the new F-16s to Taiwan that again this administration put the kaibosh...

STEPHANOPOULOS: So that hurt's China and Russia, but what does it do to Assad in Syria?

CRUZ: What it does to Assad in Syria is we should unify international opinion condemning him. But the second piece -- and, you know, Mr. McDonough said he was outraged at the suggestion that this attack would help al-Qaeda. Well, I agree it's outrageous.

But just because Assad is a murderous tyrant doesn't mean his opponents are any better. In June, the intelligence showed that the nine major al Qaeda -- of the nine major rebels forces in Syria, at least seven appear to have significant ties to al-Qaeda.

And the problem with this strike is one of two things is possible, either the strike is really significant, it weakens Assad and the result is the rebels are able to succeed, and if what happened there is al-Qaeda taking over, or al Nusra taking over, and extremist terrorists getting access to those chemical weapons, that hurts U.S. national security.

STEPHANOPOULOS: As you know, your fellow Republican Senator John McCain disagree with that. He said you were uninformed. And Congressman Adam Kinzinger, an Iraq War vet, has also taken exception to your comments.

Here's what he said.


REP. ADAM KINZINGER, (R) ILLINOIS: They say if we go in and we strike Assad that we are acting as, quote, "al-Qaeda's air force." And I believe that's a cheap line by people to garner headlines.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Cheap line to garner headlines.

CRUZ: Well, look. I don't know Mr. Kinzinger. I certainly respect his service, he's entitled to his opinions. What I can tell you is that actual line initially was said by Dennis Kucinich. And where I saw it after that was a current naval sailor who tweeted and said I didn't sign up to serve as al-Qaeda's air force.

And the reason why we're seeing -- and I'll tell you, this past two weeks I have been traveling all across Texas, and everywhere in the state of Texas it has been unanimous of Texans saying don't put us in the middle of a sectarian civil war, particularly when doing so would help al-Qaeda terrorists.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Finally, do you think the president has the authority to go forward without congressional support or is it an impeachable offense?

CRUZ: I don't think he has the authority. And we know that from two things. Number one, the Supreme Court in the Steel-Sager (ph) case said that when Congress affirmatively rejects congressional authority, which it would do if it votes down this resolution, that the president's authority is at its lowest ebb. And secondly, the residual presidential authority to act militarily in the absence of a declaration of war is based on an imminent, direct threat to the United States.

And President Obama has already explicitly said there isn't.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So acting would it be an impeachable offense?

CRUZ: It would be contrary to the Constitution.

And listen, this is not the time for politics. This is a grave and serious moment. I would like to support our commander in chief. I would like to see our commander in chief focused on protecting U.S. national security.

One of the problems with all of this focus on Syria is its missing the ball from what we should be focused on, which is the grave threat from radical Islamic terrorism. I mean, just this is the one-year anniversary of the attack on Benghazi. In Benghazi, four it was the first ambassador since 1979.

When it happened, the president promised to hunt the wrongdoers down, and yet a few months later, the issue has disappeared. You don't hear the president mention Benghazi. Now it's a phony scandal.

We ought to be defending U.S. national security and going after radical Islamic terrorists.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And we're going to be talking about Benghazi with the diplomat on the ground Greg Hicks in just a moment.

Senator Cruz, thank you very much.

CRUZ: Thank you, George.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: We're talking about people being killed by gas and you want to go talk about Benghazi.

REPRESENTATIVE JEFF DAVIS: Absolutely want to talk about Benghazi. Four Americans lost their lives.

SECRETARY KERRY: We don't deserve to drag this into yet another Benghazi discussion when the real issue here is whether or not the Congress is going to stand up for international norms.


STEPHANOPOULOS: One year later as you can see, the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is still a political football. But for the Americans there on the ground it was a story of heartbreak and the struggle to survive. Greg Hicks was the Diplomat in Charge that night. The only officer who has spoken out about that harrowing night. This dramatic account is an ABC News exclusive.


GREGORY HICKS, FORMER DEPUTY CHIEF OF MISSION IN LIBYA: I've been perplexed and frustrated with the way this has all played out. Because to me this is a simple story. Ambassador Stevens went to Benghazi to do his job. To what he knew Secretary Clinton wanted him to do. And he was attacked while he was there.

And the American staff in Benghazi and in Tripoli responded as we've been trained to do, in an amazing way, to save the lives of our people who were in Benghazi. Unfortunately we lost four people in the line of duty.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's take a look back at the events of that night. You're home in Tripoli--

HICKS: Right.

STEPHANOPOULOS: That evening at around what, 9:45?

HICKS: It's at 9:45 Tripoli time, right, 3:45 Washington time. Our regional security officer comes running into the house where I was and yells, Greg! Greg! The consulate's under attack! And I immediately look at my telephone and I see a missed call. I call back on that number, I get the Ambassador.

And the Ambassador says Greg we're under attack.


HICKS: Chris Stevens. And I say, OK and the line is cut.


HICKS: And that's all.

STEPHANOPOULOS: We are under attack.


STEPHANOPOULOS: You knew there were a lot of bad, a lot of bad guys in country.

HICKS: We knew that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You were also worried about the overall security situation and the amount of protection both the Embassy and the Consulate had.


STEPHANOPOULOS: And the Ambassador had been concerned about that?

HICKS: He had been concerned. He had sent in a cable in July requesting that our security personnel situation not change.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You had a special security team in place.

HICKS: Right.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Then it was reassigned.

HICKS: Exactly.

STEPHANOPOULOS: On the night of the attack, there were five diplomatic security agents with Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith. There are at least 20 hostile attackers in the compound.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Months earlier the State Department had forged an agreement that in the event of an attack on the vulnerable Benghazi Mission, Security personnel would response from a nearby facility called The Annex, run by the CIA.

I know that you can't say so, but we know it was a CIA facility, and we know that the CIA facility was getting protection and more security than the diplomatic facility.

HICKS: The numbers are clear about twice as many in terms of trained security providers.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What did you tell Washington?

HICKS: I called Washington right after I talked to the Annex Chief and I told them that the consulate was under attack. That the--

STEPHANOPOULOS: You used the word attack?

HICKS: I did use the word attack. That there were at least 20 armed intruders in the compound and that help was on the way from the Annex.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Had you heard anything earlier in the day about any kind of protest or were you worried at all because of these reports of this video?

HICKS: No it was a non-event, the video, in Libya. And we had heard nothing about protests. The building had been set on fire by the attackers and our Diplomatic Security Agents there were heavily outnumbered.

STEPHANOPOULOS: About an hour after the attack began, the heavily armed CIA Team arrives at the mission.

HICKS: They began trying to find the Ambassador and Sean Smith who were unable to get out of the burning building. After tremendous efforts and exposing themselves to serious harm, they did find Sean and pulled him out. Unfortunately he was already dead.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So while all this is happening, what are you saying to Washington?

HICKS: I'm reporting it back to Washington every 15 or 20 minutes.

STEPHANOPOULOS: State Department?

HICKS: State Department Operations Center. Exactly. By this time there's a second wave of attackers and looters coming to the Compound. Many, many poor people than--


HICKS: Yeah dozens. Perhaps hundreds. There's no way that 10 or 11 guys who were there can hold that off. So the decision is made to evacuate. They have to ram their way out of the compound. They are immediately brought under fire including heavy machine gun fire.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The entire group now heads back to the Annex but they have not found Ambassador Stevens.

HICKS: When they get back to the Annex they come under attack there.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So at this point, this is ongoing battle. Did you ask for reinforcements?

HICKS: I had already spoken to the defense attache. I asked what help is coming? And he said there's some fighters in Aviano but it's going to be 2 or 3 hours before they could make an appearance. It was clear it was going to be a long time before any help came. So I made sure that people knew that they were going to have to hold out for as long as they could.

STEPHANOPOULOS: As the battle aged at the CIA Annex, a crowd overruns the now abandoned Mission. Some Libyans locate Ambassador Stevens, clinging to life, and rush him to a local hospital.

Meantime a team of reinforcements from Tripoli, military and CIA security has arrived at the Benghazi airport.

HICKS: About 3am, 9pm Washington, they get the call from the Prime Minister than Ambassador Stevens is dead.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What did he tell you?

HICKS: He just says, I'm very sorry Greg to tell you this, but our friend Chris has passed on. I think those were his words. There was deep remorse in his voice when he said it.


HICKS: For me it, I think it's the saddest moment in my career honestly.

STEPHANOPOULOS: With the news of Stevens' death, the security team from Tripoli heads to the Annex.

HICKS: And soon after they get there the attack on the Annex is renewed. And then the mortars come in. Those are the rounds that killed Ty and Glen.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Since this has all happened we've seen all of the top Pentagon officials at the time, all the top Military officials said there was just no way to respond in time. Military assets could not get there.

HICKS: I don't know exactly what was available. I still don't quite understand why they couldn't fly aircraft over to Benghazi. When I was a kid I grew up watching Western movies. And you know the Calvary always came. I just thought that they would come.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You've had, you know, quite a journey yourself in this last year. Deciding to speak to Congress.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Back in May. Since then it appears you've been in something of career limbo inside the State Department.

HICKS: That's correct. That's true.

STEPHANOPOULOS: State Department this was an assignment you requested, you're getting the same pay as before. But do you feel you're being punished for speaking out?

HICKS: Yes I feel that I have been punished. I don't know why I was punished. I don't know why I was shunted aside. Put in a closet if you will.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Does the State Department know you're speaking out now?

HICKS: No. They don't know I'm here with you.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Then why talk?

HICKS: Because the American people need to have the story. And Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Ty Woods and Glen Dohery's names are names that should be remembered by every American for the sacrifice that they made.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Could those four American heroes have been saved?

HICKS: Sadly, I think that Ambassador Stephens and Sean Smith maybe not. Ty and Glen of course were killed in the mortar attack that took place eight hours after the initial attack. It's possible they could have been saved, I think.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And what's the best way we can honor the memory of the four diplomats and security professionals who lost their lives that night?

HICKS: We can't forget them. And we need to make sure that those people who are going out into the world on our behalf have the tools that they need and the resources they need to do the job that they've been asked to do for the people of the United States.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Greg Hicks right there. In response to his contention that he's been punished, the State Department has sent us this statement which reads in part, "The State Department has not punished Mr. Hicks in any way. We appreciate his exemplary service on the evening of September 11th. His departure from Libya was entirely unrelated to any statements he may have made relating to the attack in Benghazi, and we are working with him on his next permanent assignment." You can read the full statement on our web site, abcnews.com.

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