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CNN "Piers Morgan Tonight" - Transcript

Interview

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BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

This is PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT.

Good evening. Our "Big Story" tonight, in depth with John McCain. In the wake of my interview with Justice Antonin Scalia, I sat down with Senator McCain a little while ago in the Armed Services Committee hearing room. And I can tell you that true to his reputation as a maverick, he was very candid.

He disagrees strongly with what Justice Scalia said about super PACs. You'll see what he had to say about the state of American politics, about Michele Bachmann and what he thinks of Mitt Romney's record at Bain.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MORGAN: Senator, thank you for finally allowing me to interview you. It's taken 18 long months.

MCCAIN: Thank you.

MORGAN: You finally cracked.

MCCAIN: Finally gave in, there you go.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN: That was -- looking forward to it.

MORGAN: Well, so have I, very much. Let's start with we're three months away from the election. You've been exactly where Mitt Romney is right now. What is your advice? What is the real strategy at this stage of the battle plan that you think he needs to be most aware of?

MCCAIN: I think it's very obvious, Piers, and that's jobs and the economy. Most people don't care when Mitt Romney left Bain Capital and went to run the Olympics and save them, or exactly where his tax returns are. So I think the focus obviously is what most Americans are caring about now. We do have a very stumbling economy, that's the best description, and so jobs and the economy, jobs and the economy.

I feel very strongly about some national security issues which you and I will be talking about later on. And I wish more Americans were involved in these national security issues. But it's understandable that jobs and the economy is the key to winning the election in November.

MORGAN: Given that it's going to be about the economy, I completely concur with that. Clearly a lot of attention now on Mitt Romney's business record, on his tax affairs and so on. Let's go through this stage by stage. In terms of his record at Bain, clearly when you took him on a few years ago, as everybody does in these campaigns, you were pretty critical of his record at Bain and indeed as governor of Massachusetts.

How much of a problem is it going to be if Barack Obama begins replaying that criticism and indeed from other senior Republicans to say, come on, even you guys didn't think he was that great?

MCCAIN: Well, probably the same impression that people have when they show Hillary Clinton saying, "Shame on you, Barack Obama."

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN: I never reached that point in my debates. Look, things are said in political campaigns which are pretty tough. It's not bean bag. I can recall way back when George Herbert Walker Bush called Reagan voodoo economics, and he ended up to be his running mate. I think most people understand that in the case of Mitt Romney and me, after the primary was over, no one worked harder for my campaign. We became good friends. And I obviously, as you know, supported and endorsed him very early in hopes to have some impact in the New Hampshire primary.

MORGAN: Being as dispassionate as you can be, when you study his record at Bain as a businessman, do you think he was predominantly a force for job creation? Or as some other people say, look, it's fine, he did create jobs, but he also wrecked a lot of jobs?

MCCAIN: You know, the problem with the free enterprise system is that not everybody succeeds. The great thing about communism and the old Soviet Union is nobody ever failed.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN: So the point is that in this system that Bain is involved in, they went to companies and groups that were either struggling or just beginning, and they invested. Sometimes they failed. Sometimes they succeeded. Best example, of course, I'm sure you've heard many times. A warehouse and $5 million ended up as Staples. It's so obvious that Bain was in the business to make money.

And I know how evil that is for people to make money, don't get me that wrong. I know how terrible it is.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN: They were in the business to make money. But in the process, they created thousands of jobs. Unfortunately, the downside to the free enterprise system is is sometimes businesses fail. I think it's important to note and, again, this, I hope, will come out, Mitt Romney would probably made one heck of a lot more money if he'd have stayed at Bain Capital instead of going out to save the Olympics.

The Olympics at Salt Lake were about to collapse. They were -- there was corruption. There was all kinds of problems. He went out there and worked 16 hours a day and made it a very profitable enterprise.

MORGAN: And that is undeniably true. I mean whatever people think of Mitt Romney, he turned around those Olympics. And that was incredibly successful.

MCCAIN: And left Bain Capital which then meant that he didn't make one -- a lot more money than he was already making.

MORGAN: He's not exactly struggling, I don't think, is he? Let's be honest.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN: No, he's not.

MORGAN: Now you were in a unique position, Senator.

MCCAIN: Yes.

MORGAN: Because obviously when he was vetted to potentially run with you, you got to see these now infamous documents detailing his financial affairs, going back many years. You said you didn't see anything in those that should be a concern. So the obvious question, I guess, is if that is the case, why is he being so reluctant to put them out there? His own father put out 12 years of records. Why doesn't he just do it?

MCCAIN: Well, first of all, let me put this in context. When -- and this is done by everybody, when you're vetting people that you're considering to be your running mate, you ask for every kind of confidential information. Of course. And one of the things you guarantee those people when they give you that information that it will remain confidential.

And I feel a little regretful that I have to say what I'm saying that I saw nothing or our team saw nothing in his tax returns that would have been damaging. Second of all, look, I released two years. John Kerry didn't release his wife's tax returns. It's been a standard of behavior. And what, frankly, they worry about, OK, release five years, why not 10, why not 15, on and on like that.

So it's a decision that Romney campaign has to make. But to somehow say that he should do something that no other candidate in recent history has done, I think is patently unfair.

MORGAN: But just to clarify, you never saw anything that you think would cause him embarrassment?

MCCAIN: Of course not.

MORGAN: I mean the implication is that because we know -- we know about Swiss bank accounts, the Cayman Islands, and so on, that there is more of that stuff that would over time show he had saved a lot of money through tax -- it's not illegal, but through sharp tax practice. MCCAIN: Well, first of all, as I said, I saw nothing -- or my team saw nothing in any way that would be harmful. But the important point here is that we now have a campaign based on his tax returns or not his tax returns. It's -- the Obama campaign has sunk so low that his deputy campaign manager Miss Cutter says he may have committed a felony.

Now I've got to tell you, I have not seen a presidential campaign where that a campaign sunk that low this early, that he may have been a felon. Really? On what basis of fact would anybody say anything like that? So listen, this is a Chicago-style desperate campaign that the Obama people are running. And because --

MORGAN: What does Chicago-style mean?

MCCAIN: Chicago style means that there's very few depths you won't plummet. That is the reputation of Chicago-style politics. And in fact this may have been a felon reaches a new depth that I haven't seen before. Maybe it's happened before --

MORGAN: Seriously, the lowest you've ever seen?

MCCAIN: I have not seen anyone accused of possibly being a felon. I would have never considered any opponent of mine saying they could be a felon but that's just part of the tenor of the campaign. Now, I --

MORGAN: But let me -- let me throw it back to you, though, on that point.

MCCAIN: Sure. But let me just finish.

MORGAN: Yes.

MCCAIN: With one additional point if I could. Now they've run an ad making fun of Mitt Romney singing "America the Beautiful." Now is that really -- is that really the right thing to do? I hope that every American at every event will sing "America the Beautiful" where people do that. So now you ridicule somebody because they sing that off key? That's this Chicago-style politics. Go ahead.

MORGAN: Having said that, and I don't dispute what you said at all, and many people wouldn't, isn't Mitt Romney a victim of his own savagery? I mean, when I was running around the Republican race, he was using this super PAC line, whether he admits to knowing about it or not, to absolutely brutalize his opponent. I mean some of the most negative stuff I've ever seen. Certainly far more negative than anything I've seen in British politics.

So I was quite stunned. I'm not sure you can do that kind of campaign and then honestly stand back and go, come on, you're not being fair to me, can you?

MCCAIN: Well, your point is well made in this respect. Probably not complain about it. Let other people judge whether it is -- let me people like me and others make that judgment. That is perfectly accurate. And I will say in all fairness the attacks on John Kerry and the swift boaters back in that campaign was something that I did not approve of.

MORGAN: And you yourself were the victim of some horrendous smear campaigns which is why I'm interested that the -- calling him apparently possibly a felon you think was even worse because you had some terrible --

MCCAIN: That someone committed, you know, committed a crime that would put them in jail if they were guilty. But that's just an example.

MORGAN: Yes.

MCCAIN: Look, this is going to be -- I guarantee, this is going to be the roughest, toughest campaign that I have ever observed. It's already that way. And so one of the unfortunate aspects of this is that it makes voters even more cynical and it drives both candidates unfavorables up but again --

MORGAN: We'll come back to that in a moment.

MCCAIN: OK. Key to this campaign is jobs and the economy. And that's why I believe Romney will eventually win.

MORGAN: Let's take a break. Let's come back and talk about Syria, which has blown up again today, and also about Michele Bachmann who you've been ripping into to the delight of people on both sides of the political divide.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LEON PANETTA, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: It is more essential than ever that the United States and the international community continue to work together through the United Nations, through whatever possible vehicles we have to bring additional pressure on Assad to step down. And to allow for a peaceful transition of government there in Syria.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MORGAN: Senator, we just heard there Leon Panetta talking about Syria. Syria's blown up again today. It's never been worse. And you've seen again Russia and China vetoing an attempt by the United Nations to increase sanctions on Syria.

It's a pretty depressing picture, 17,000 people we think now have been killed. The killing is escalating. What should be done about this?

MCCAIN: What we should have done a long time ago was join with other nations and set up a safe zone and together provide arms and equipment to the resistance fighters who are being massacred. It's not surprising that, again, a resolution failed in the United Nations. It's really a sad spectacle to see the United States of America and its policies and actions dictated by the U.N. Security Council where Russia and China exercise a veto.

We didn't do that when we went to Kosovo to save Muslims. It's a total failure of American leadership. If America would lead with other countries, and I do not mean American boots on the ground, we could bring the Assad regime down. Now everybody says that the Assad regime will fail. I agree with that but it's been 17 months of slaughter. And the longer --

MORGAN: The best parallels that I've seen you make, if you don't mind me just jumping in there, is Bosnia. Because you met a guy -- I was very moved by this when I read it. You met a guy who had been in Bosnia. In Srebrenica, I think. And you met him in a Turkish refugee camp for Syrians. And he said to you, I can't believe this is happening again. Because the parallels are very, very similar.

And of course then Bill Clinton eventually, a Democratic president, decided to do something. We now have another Democratic president. Similar situation.

Is it time that President Obama did something?

MCCAIN: Yes, and one of the sad aspects of this, he doesn't even speak up on these people's behalf. Did you ever hear him? Have we seen at all him from the Oval Office say what's going on in Syria today is terrible, they've set up torture centers? A manner of their policy and indoctrination is to gang rape young women and kill kids in front of their parents? I mean it's --

MORGAN: And you've met some of these people?

MCCAIN: I've met them in a refugee camps. Freshly wounded young men, defectors from their army who said their instruction and orders were to do this torture and rape and murder. And yet -- you mentioned Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton also went to Bosnia, as you know, Kosovo. He said his greatest regret, President Clinton said, was not intervening in Rwanda where some 800,000 people were killed.

It cries out for American leadership. And when I see the secretary of defense make comments just like he just made, I've been hearing that same comments for 17 months, while the massacre goes on. And these countries in the region, some of them are helping already. But it cries out for American leadership.

MORGAN: If you were -- if you were president, if you'd won the last election, what would you be doing now --

MCCAIN: We'll sat down --

MORGAN: In terms of direct military intervention.

MCCAIN: With the knowledge that the Russians and Chinese are probably going to hamper, hamstring any effort by the United Nations, I would talk with the willing. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, other states. Even Libya is willing to help out now after their experience. And the Turks. And work together a coalition where we would set up the safe zone and we would then be supplying and equipping the resistance forces and giving them the aid that they need.

The longer this lasts, the more brutal, the more massacres, the more brutality and the more likelihood that these extremist elements enter in, the more likelihood that these chemical weapons stockpiles that Bashar Assad has gets in the wrong hands or even maybe used. So it is in our interest. And finally, one of our generals, General Mattis, head of Central Command, said that would be the greatest blow to Iran in 25 years because of its effect on Lebanon, Hezbollah, et cetera. And Iranians are on the ground.

And the thing that makes me so sad, when we hear this from the secretary of state who I admire and Leon Panetta, it's not a fair fight. The arms are coming in from Russia. There's Iranians on the ground. They have established torture centers.

Why can't we help these people? And frankly I have to be honest with you, there are people on the right of my party, the same ones who passed a resolution through the House of Representatives that we shouldn't do anything about Libya, by the way, which just had a fair election where a moderate was overwhelming majority of the votes, so --

MORGAN: Is part of the problem that -- I would say the majority of American people, from what I sense, haven't really understood what's happening in Syria? Because unlike, say, Egypt, where Tahrir Square was beamed to the world every night. You saw these guys on horseback rampaging around, attacking people. The imagery was so stark that people can relate to it in America. And then began to demand something happened.

I'm not sensing that demand from the American people. They're more like, you know what, it's happening there, we've got bigger problems at home.

MCCAIN: Well, first of all, I agree with that. But I would point out that it requires leadership to tell the American people what's going on. We didn't have nearly the coverage, frankly, in Srebrenica and in Kosovo that we have on this. So it requires American leadership to inform the American people. And second of all, it is a situation that the United States, the population, unless their attention is directed to it, it's jobs and the economy. They're war weary from Iraq and Afghanistan.

I understand that. So it requires American leadership. And to tell the American people. The American people are the best people in the world. British as well.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN: We believe, we believe that America has a special role to play in the world. We believe in American exceptionalism. And unfortunately, I don't think President Obama does.

MORGAN: One of the problems people say is that there's no real dialogue now between Republicans and Democrats as there used to be. I want to come back after the break and talk to you about the state of Washington right now. Has it ever been this bad? And how do we sort this problem out?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MORGAN: Senator, let's talk Washington. Because there's a sense that it's never been more puerile, pathetic, stonewalling. Nothing is getting done. Everyone in Washington should grow up a bit. What do you say to that charge?

MCCAIN: I say that's true but I also think that there's a variety of reasons, including a polarization amongst the American people. It's always exacerbated by people who are in totally safe seats as you know. But in the economy, difficulties have exacerbated that. I have to put a lot of blame on Republicans and Democrats. But I would also argue that perhaps the president of the United States could have done a -- like Bill Clinton did after Democrats suffered a defeat in the election.

He called Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich over and they did -- they've reformed welfare. They did -- made some agreements. I would love to see the president -- maybe now it's too late until after the election. If he's re-elected, to call Republicans and Democrats together. If Romney is elected, call Republicans and Democrats together.

You are seeing the rise of the independent voter in this country. I don't know exactly what's going to happen. But the dissatisfaction with both parties is palpable.

MORGAN: You've been very vocal about fundraising for parties and for candidates. I interviewed Justice Scalia last night and he was quite fascinating because he said under freedom of speech, it should include, as we saw with Citizens United going through, the power to raise as much money as you want to express your freedom of speech.

What do you think of that?

MCCAIN: I think that it's a very unique interpretation of the real world to say that money is speech.

Very brief anecdote, when Jack Kennedy assembled his Cabinet after he was elected and it was the best and brightest in America, and they went to Lyndon Johnson and he said, what do you think about this, these are really the most brilliant people in the world. He said, I just wish one of them had run for county sheriff.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN: I just -- I just wish one of these five had run for county sheriff. When Sandra Day O'Connor and Justice Rehnquist went on the Supreme Court, they came to a different conclusion. Money does corrupt. Money is a corrupting factor in politics. And there's thousands of examples of it. This Supreme Court in their ivory tower somehow believes that all we need to do is let everything be unleashed. And now we are seeing clearly money and campaigns the likes of which we've never seen.

MORGAN: I mean it is unbelievable. And it seems to be unstoppable. And the figure is getting even more outrageous. And it will get to the stage where people can literally buy an election. And we see a direct correlation between the money you have available, the television spend that you have at your disposal. To simply blow away your opponents simply on the power of the media you can buy.

MCCAIN: I promise you there will be major scandals and there will be major scandals. There's too much money washing around for there not to be major scandals. If you think Watergate was big, if you think Abramoff was big, just wait when you see what happens in this cycle.

MORGAN: If that is the case, why are so many Republicans oppose to the Disclose Act? What is the fundamental principle issue here that you object to?

MCCAIN: The fundamental principle is that it bring -- it does not rein in any way the activities of the labor unions. There was a study in -- story in "The Washington Post" that they were involved in $4.4 billion of activities. They take union members dues without their permission and put them into various campaigns. One of the guy that was the head of the service employees union in the 2008 campaign borrowed $200 million to spend for the Obama campaign.

That's not right. So there's got to be a general reining in on both sides, total disclosure of union activities, a prohibition on unions using members' dues without their permission, would be two of the fundamental principles.

MORGAN: Basically, if the unions put themselves under the same scrutiny they want political donors --

MCCAIN: Then I would --

MORGAN: You would sign up for that?

MCCAIN: Absolutely. Unfortunately, this act we voted on has no impact whatsoever on labor union activities.

MORGAN: People say this week, after they watched you yesterday railing in against Michele Bachmann, we've got John McCain back. This is the guy we love most, because he's not just having a go at the president. He's taking on one of his own on a point of principle where everyone agrees with him. This was completely out of line, what she did.

What motivated you to do that? How do you feel when people say, we've got the real John McCain?

MCCAIN: I say I never left. But -- but, Piers, the point is that I know Huma. I know her from traveling with her. I know of her reputation. I know this great story that we love, the immigrant who comes to our country and does so well. And it was really unfair to do what was done to her.

But it wasn't -- it was five members of Congress, by the way. It wasn't just Michele Bachmann. And it's not so much that I'm attacking them as it is defending her, and also I hope that this sends a message to other people, both right and left, that we shouldn't attack people's character unfairly.

MORGAN: Would you like Michele Bachmann to apologize?

MCCAIN: I don't know --

MORGAN: -- in particular?

MCCAIN: I don't know what she should do. I think she's in a very uncomfortable position right now obviously. Because there was no substance to this allegation that she got from this organization, whose head, by the way, I have known many years. Frank Gaffney, I have known him for many years. He's a friend. But what they did was wrong.

MORGAN: What does it say about the state of modern politics, that that kind of thing can happen?

MCCAIN: Listen, we just had a sheriff of Maricopa County, again, who has taken it upon himself to prove that President Obama was not born in the United States of America. Need I say more?

MORGAN: Well, I think you need to say one thing more, which is what does it tell you about the state of politics?

MCCAIN: It's crazy. It stokes the fires of extremism and passions of people that really is very unfair. So it's up to us to try to steer things into a more rational behavior and thought. But this is still the greatest nation in the world. It's still the best people in the world. It's still the most innovative nation in the world.

When I get depressed, I get out of this town and go back home and go to different places in America where -- I was in Fargo, North Dakota, not too long ago. What a great experience. Had trouble understanding them. You know, you betcha, you betcha, you betcha. Ya, ya, you know. Wonderful people. Wonderful people.

MORGAN: Let's take a final break. I want to talk to you about family, which I know is hugely important to you, and about Vietnam and the lessons that you learned personally from that extraordinary experience you had out there.

MCCAIN: Sure.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MORGAN: What goes through the mind of a wife in this situation?

CINDY MCCAIN, WIFE OF JOHN MCCAIN: It is day by day. You get through -- with the 24-hour news cycle with the way it is now, you are forced into a situation where you have to be on -- absolutely on tap at every minute of the day. So I -- not only do I understand how tiring this is for them, but also how fun it can be.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MORGAN: Senator, you heard what your wife had to say to me. By the way, a magnificent woman, if you don't mind me saying. Incredibly impressive. Saying that this kind campaigning that the Romneys are going through now, it's torturous endurance testing, but it's also great fun. Was that your memory of it?

MCCAIN: Yeah, its exhilarating. I have to tell you in all honesty, I knew that after the stock market crashed and the economy was in the tank, I knew there were very long odds. But at the same time, the friendships, the experience. Look, I'm a guy that was fifth from the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy. If you would have told my old company officer when I graduated that John McCain would be running for president of the United States, he would have think that there would been some hallucinatory drugs in use.

I am the luckiest guy you will ever interview of all the thousands of people you have interviewed. I am the most fortunate person. I've had the fullest life. I've had the greatest friendships. Those guys that I was in prison with in Vietnam that I know and love, every day, one of them calls me up. I've had the best life.

And when I lost, you know, you can either start feeling real sorry for yourself or just be proud that you were able to do what you would do and move forward. And that's what I -- I keep telling myself. Now, that isn't always the case. I wallow in self-pity from time to time. It really makes you feel good.

But overall, I've realized how lucky I am. And I just truly have the most remarkable life when even I look back at it.

MORGAN: They say you lose 100 percent of the gambles and risk you never take.

MCCAIN: Exactly.

MORGAN: You've always been a maverick. It's always been this thing attached. It's what I've always admired about you. When you took the big roll of the dice with Sarah Palin. And that's what it was. It could have been a spectacular success that drove you to an improbable triumph. Or it could have been, as it played out, not a success.

Do you actually regret -- if you're honest, do you look in the mirror and regret at least going for it?

MCCAIN: Oh, no. Listen, I think that Sarah Palin -- I know that she invigorated our campaign. She galvanized our base. She is -- she and her husband and family are wonderful people. I'm very proud to have them as my friends. And I think that she, at the end of the day, was the right choice. I really believe that.

MORGAN: It could have worked? MCCAIN: Well, it's not that it could or couldn't have. I really believe that, honestly, the day -- we were three points up the day the stock market went down 700 points. At the end of that day, we were like five points down. I understand that. I understand why people would -- and you've got to give great credit to President Obama. He ran a great campaign, hope and change.

I don't know what's happened to that. But he galvanized African- American voters and lower income people. He really -- you've got to give him credit also.

MORGAN: In the movie "Game Change," which I watched, and I enjoyed it as a form of entertainment and politics, you swear a lot, your character. Your wife said to me, he doesn't swear that much.

MCCAIN: No, I don't. I didn't see the movie, but I was told that was the case, that I used the F word all the time. I don't. I just don't. I don't know why they felt that to be necessary.

MORGAN: When you were in Vietnam, and you went through five, six years of absolute hell, repeated tortures, beatings, so on, what did you learn about yourself that has now dictated the way you are as a politician?

MCCAIN: I was proud of my ability to resist all kinds of pressures from my captors, both mental and physical. But I also recognize that I had limitations, because at one point, after sufficient physical extended mistreatment, I broke and signed a confession. So I realized I wasn't the toughest. I wasn't John Wayne McCain, as some used to call me in my earlier days.

And so I think it made me aware that all of us have our not failings, but our vulnerabilities and sometimes we don't always do what we would like to do. But the point is, pick yourself up, as I did right after that, go right back into the arena again.

MORGAN: What has been the greatest moment of your life? If I could relive -- outside marriage and children, if I could have the power to let you relieve five minutes of your live, what would you choose?

MCCAIN: Probably the day I left prison. And I left with all of my comrades when I left. And earlier, a couple years earlier, they had offered me to go home early. I was so grateful I had not accepted that offer and left my comrades behind.

MORGAN: Pretty extraordinary thing to have done. Thank you for your service, senator. Thank you for a great interview.

MCCAIN: Thank you, Piers.

MORGAN: Great to meet you at last. Don't keep me waiting so long next time.

MCCAIN: Absolutely. MORGAN: You heard what John McCain said about Syria. Next, I'll ask a top military commander, General George Casey, if U.S. forces should step in.

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT


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