Ron Johnson on Meet The Press today - Mueller was appointed too soon

CHUCK TODD:
Joining me now is Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. He's chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. And he's fresh off a visit to Asia. Senator Johnson, welcome back to Meet the Press.

RON JOHNSON:
Happy Easter.

CHUCK TODD:
Happy Easter to you, as well. Let me start with a Eurasia country first, and then I want to get to China and North Korea, where you spent -- and that is the state of U.S -Russia relations. On one hand, you can look at it and say, "Oh, my God. This looks worse than the Cold War." On the other hand, if you just look on rhetoric with President Trump, he gets criticized, because it seems like he has nothing negative to say about President Putin. Where do you characterize this? What’s the real--

RON JOHNSON:
Well, I wish Russia were no more than a friendly rival. But unfortunately, they're an unfriendly adversary. And it's been their aggression, their, their provocations, that have really, you know, resulted in, in a relationship that is not healthy for, you know, the world, for world peace, whether you start looking at the invasion of Georgia, Crimea, eastern Ukraine. What they're doing with Iran in Syria is not helpful. We need them to be working with us in terms of enforcing sanctions on North Korea. So we -- we need to work with Russia. They have 7,000 nuclear weapons. So I understand the President's desire to try and improve relations with Russia. But you have to look at the reality of the situation and react accordingly, as well.

CHUCK TODD:
Most Putin analysts, particularly Russian ex-pats, who have gone after him, whether you talk to Garry Kasparov, they'll sit there and say, "He doesn't respect diplomacy. He, he respects strength,"-- And that, and that President Trump has not punched him in the nose, I mean, to be blunt that way, and that that's the only thing Putin respects. Do you, do you buy---

RON JOHNSON:
No he -- Putin is very opportunistic. Where he sees vacuums and voids, he's going to fill those. And you know, of course, Russia can do nothing in terms of improving the economic situation of, for example, eastern Europe. All they can do is destabilize. And that's what they're doing. It makes no sense to me. I think a tragedy, historic tragedy, is really the, the transferred power from Yeltsin to Putin and then having Russia going down the path to to- trying to, you know, reconstitute the Soviet Union as opposed to, for example, if it would've been Boris Nemtsov taking power, that we'd be in a totally different situation with Russia. It’s, it's a tragedy.

CHUCK TODD:
Does the west have the resolve to stand up to Putin right now?

RON JOHNSON:
We have to have the resolve.

CHUCK TODD:
I understand that.

RON JOHNSON:
I mean, we have to.

CHUCK TODD:
But right now, it doesn't look like we do.

RON JOHNSON:
No, I know. Because there are economic interests. I mean, you take a look at the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that Germany's trying to promote. That will just give Russia even more geopolitical power. It's ridiculous.

CHUCK TODD:
What, what, we- It is clear that the president, when we did retaliate on the Russians for what they did in the U.K., he chose what was the medium response, leaving one tougher response later. Do you think he should have left that on the table? Or should we get tougher with Russia now?

RON JOHNSON:
Long term, we have got to have better relationships with Russia, we just do. And so you have to, you have to respond. I think the better way to respond is build up troop strength in some eastern European- European countries, in the Baltics, to make sure that Russia goes no further. Now, that's my concern is that they make some kind of move in one of the Baltic states.

CHUCK TODD:
Do you think the president's actions have anything to do with the Russia probe, that the way he talks or doesn't talk about Russia, that he's somehow influenced by what's happening with Mueller?

RON JOHNSON:
I have no idea.

CHUCK TODD:
Now does that--

RON JOHNSON:
I have no idea.

CHUCK TODD:
Do you think he'd be in a better place, if he would get tougher on Putin?

RON JOHNSON:
We, as a world, you know, as, as the – you know -- western democracies have got to show greater strength and resolve. And of course, what President Trump did is prod our European partners. And more of them are reaching their 2% spending in terms of NATO. So we do need Europe to step up to the plate and help us work with, with Russia.

CHUCK TODD:
Let me move to where you were in China and North Korea. First of all, you apparently, were in China when Kim Jong-un was rumored to be in China. Do you know for sure that you were there at the same time?

RON JOHNSON:
Oh, yeah, definitely. Our, our, our whole itinerary got switched around. We were supposed to be in De Nang then Dang (PH), by the Broken Bridge. And that's, of course, the bridge that Kim Jong-un crossed with his armored train.

CHUCK TODD:
And you spent some time in North Korea, as well. And I think we're showing some pictures here of you at the Blue House. At the--

RON JOHNSON:
That is, that is just a surreal experience. It is just bizarre.

CHUCK TODD:
I can only imagine. Let me ask you this. The president planning to sit down with Kim Jong-un. Good idea?

RON JOHNSON:
I think it is. The last thing we want is miscalculations. I think it's extremely important that China is fully involved. And I think it was actually good that Kim Jong-un met with President Xi, who cannot be happy with Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-un conducted missile tests during the G20 meeting in Beijing. Same thing, he conducted a nuclear test when they had, I think, the ASEAN meeting. So President Xi, it is not in China's best interest to have, you know, North Korea have nuclear capability combined with ICBM and start proliferating throughout the region.

CHUCK TODD:
Are you confident that President Trump is going to represent America's interests well, one-on-one, with Kim Jong-un? Or is he going to be prepared?

RON JOHNSON:
Look it's-- incredibly difficult situation. You know, it's, it’s, it’s not easy.

CHUCK TODD:
Are you worried about his improvisation? He improvs all the time.

RON JOHNSON:
Well, what, what, what I can say is there's no doubt about the maximum-pressure campaign is working. That is what has driven Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table.

CHUCK TODD:
Would that be your advice to the president—

RON JOHNSON:
And, and the main thing—

CHUCK TODD:
-- the maximum-- the sanction stuff has worked.

RON JOHNSON:
Maintain it. And by the way, we met with defectors. And as much as it's hurting North Korean people, their, their advice to us is, maintain the pressure. Ratchet it up. It's the only thing that's going to solve this problem without, without military conflict.

CHUCK TODD:
All right. As a senator, you have to provide advice and consent on cabinet nominees. We have another opening, this time, at VA, Veterans Affairs. Number one, Secretary Shulkin, should he have been fired? Did the president do the right thing?

RON JOHNSON:
I think the IG report's pretty troubling. And you also, you know, presidents do deserve and have advisors that actually agree with them on policies. And apparently, there were some policy disputes.

CHUCK TODD:
So you think the firing was justified.

RON JOHNSON:
But, but it's a completely thankless job. I mean, we've had some, some, you know, high-quality individuals in, in that position. And they haven't made a whole lot of progress, in terms of reform--reforming the VA.

CHUCK TODD:
Is that a reflection on what? Is that a reflection on--

RON JOHNSON:
It's a reflection--

CHUCK TODD:
--on, on the agency, the bureaucracy, our politics? What is it?

RON JOHNSON:
--yeah, it’s, it's a reflection of the fact that the VA healthcare system is a government-run, single-payer, bureaucratic healthcare system. And it doesn't work. You know, Senator Coburn, one of his last reports talked about how the VA system, in-- on average, doctors have about 1,200 cases. In the private sector, it's about 2,300. You know, we've, we’ve, we’ve spent so much money on the VA. And we've increased funding, overall, about 2.3 times in the last ten years, on healthcare spending, 1.5. And it's still a mess.

CHUCK TODD:
What about the way it was done? This is the third person the president has fired by Twitter just in the last month.

RON JOHNSON:
It’s not, not – It’s not the way I'd do it. It’s not the way I'd do it.

CHUCK TODD:
This isn't the way to recruit good people to replace them, is it?

RON JOHNSON:
It's not the way I'd do it.

CHUCK TODD:
You would understand if people were like, "I don't know if I want to take this job."

RON JOHNSON:
I – I – I think the president does need to understand the effect it has on attracting other people.

CHUCK TODD:
And you think that this could lead to a brain drain? Are you concerned about that?

RON JOHNSON:
I'm, I’m concerned about all kinds of things, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:
You seem to be hesitant. You seem to be hesitant with your criticism. You seem to be annoyed. You seem to be unhappy with how things are going and how he's handling some of these things. But you do hold back. Why?

RON JOHNSON:
I don't envy any president. They're tasked. We have enormous challenges facing this nation. I tried to work with President Obama in terms of making this country more prosperous, greater opportunity, reduce the debt and deficit. I want to see any president succeed in their prime mission of keeping this nation safe and secure. So it doesn't help to be overly critical of any president, if you're actually trying to help them accomplish their goals.

CHUCK TODD:
Last October, you thought Special Counsel Robert Mueller should be fired.

RON JOHNSON:
No, no, no.

CHUCK TODD:
You thought he should be replaced.

RON JOHNSON:
What, what I've always said about it was -- the special counsel was named far too soon. I would've much rather had the Senate and House Intelligence Committees complete their report. Because I, I know what happens. When you have a criminal investigation, it's that much more difficult for Congress to get the information, to allow the American public to understand what's happening. There, there are completely different goals of a special counsel versus congressional oversight. I think, in this case, the most important thing is public disclosure. And that is harmed when you start having special counsels, and all the information is, is gathered and is held close and sometimes never disclosed.

CHUCK TODD:
So what you're saying is you feel as if the Senate, the congressional investigations, have been hampered by a special counsel.

RON JOHNSON:
Yes--

CHUCK TODD:
The fact is, neither one can be--

RON JOHNSON:
I think, I think absolutely. And, and my, my concern with, with Special Counsel Mueller is he's so close to the F.B.I. You know, I've been conducting a three-year investigation on the F.B.I.'s investigation of Hillary Clinton. I think we're starting to see some real problems there. And I just didn't think somebody so close, like Director Mueller, Former Director Mueller, would be the, the right type of person to investigate that. Now, I'm actually pleased with the appointment of John Huber. He is a disinterested U.S. attorney to work with the Office of Inspector General.

CHUCK TODD:
So you're okay with Jeff Sessions not appointing a special counsel.

RON JOHNSON:
Yeah. I think, I think that's actually the best case for the time being. Because the Office of Inspector General is somewhat-- is independent of the agency. I think Horowitz has done a good job. Hopefully, we will get his report in the next month. We've asked him to testify before our committee. I hope he does so as soon as that report is issued.

CHUCK TODD:
And where are you on Mueller right now? You think he should--

RON JOHNSON:
Yeah, he should, he should--

CHUCK TODD:
--be kept into place, finish his investigation?

RON JOHNSON:
Yeah. Again, I just thought he was appointed too soon. I would've rather had the process play out. Because I think public disclosure, the public's right to know, is-- trumps everything else.

CHUCK TODD:
All right. Paul Ryan, you're good friends with him. Is he going to run?

RON JOHNSON:
You have to ask Paul.

CHUCK TODD:
Do you want him to run? How important--

RON JOHNSON:
I’ve got, I’ve got--

CHUCK TODD:
--how important is it for the Republican Party in Wisconsin? Would it be a demoralizing blow to the party if he decided not to run as Speaker of the House?

RON JOHNSON:
That'll be, that’ll be, that’ll be Paul's choice. I've got a great deal of respect for Paul Ryan. And I'm a Paul Ryan fan.

CHUCK TODD:
So, you don't think it impacts the party either way?

RON JOHNSON:
It's, it’s up to him. He, he still has a young family.

CHUCK TODD:
You would understand the decision?

RON JOHNSON:
I would’ve not-- I, I didn't enter public life until my family was grown. I mean, younger members of Congress sacrifice an awful lot. They spend a lot of time away from their family.

CHUCK TODD:
Senator Johnson, I'm going to leave it there. It's Easter weekend. I hope you enjoy the holiday.

RON JOHNSON:
I will. Same to you.

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Published on

April 1, 2018

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NBC News' "Meet the press with Chuck Todd"

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