Transcript: Sen. Tom Cotton on “Face the Nation,” May 12, 2024

The following is a transcript of an interview with Sen. Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, that aired on May 12, 2024.


MARGARET BRENNAN: And we’re back now with Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton. Senator, welcome back to the program. 

SEN. TOM COTTON (R-AR): Thank you. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: You just heard Secretary Blinken explain the administration’s policy. He says Hamas absolutely does not abide by international law, Israel is inconsistent with international humanitarian law. But he stopped short of saying they’re violating weapons sharing agreements. Does this make sense to you?

SEN. COTTON: No, it doesn’t make any sense at all, Margaret, it sounds like a bunch of weaselly, mealy-mouthed politics. He said it’s “reasonable to assess”, he said that like three or four times, it’s like he was coached to say that, as if it was some magic talisman to help them walk the political line they want between the pro-Hamas wing of their party and the vast pro-Israel majority of the American people. The report that they put out Friday night, after news deadlines passed, was very clear. There is no evidence that Israel is violating international law. All civilian casualties in Gaza are solely the responsibility of Hamas. In fact, Israel’s probably doing more than any military in history to avoid civilian casualties.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, actually, it says, the U.S. intelligence community notes security forces in Israel “have inflicted harm on civilians in military or security operations potentially using U.S. provided equipment.” U.S. assesses Israel “could do more to avoid civilian harm”. But it doesn’t say they’re not doing it. It says they can’t for some reason, come to a clear conclusion–

SEN. COTTON: It says- Secretary Blinken’s own- no, Secretary Blinken’s own report says there’s no evidence, that they can’t reach that conclusion. Ben Cardin, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, agrees that the report says there is no evidence. In fact, he also says that Joe Biden was wrong to impose this de facto arms embargo on Israel. Again, Israel is doing more than any military in history, in all likelihood, to prevent civilian casualties. If Hamas did not hide behind and under civilians, there would no- there would not be civilian casualties. For that matter, if Hamas simply surrendered and turned over all these hostages, there would be no more civilian suffering in Gaza.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Which is what President Biden says as well. But I mean, I know you’re a lawyer, you went to Harvard Law, you were an army officer, you deployed to Iraq, you deployed to Afghanistan. It has to trouble you when the Israeli Prime Minister says himself that they killed more civilians than terrorists. Thousands more civilians than terrorists.

SEN. COTTON: It troubles me deeply that Hamas is using those civilians as human shields, because that is their strategy. Remember, Margaret, remember–

MARGARET BRENNAN: So should U.S.- but-  but to that point, though, because the United States provides billions of dollars in weapons to Israel, should it have a say in how those weapons are used? Because the- the needle Blinken seemed to be trying to thread here was to say it was very specifically tailored in terms of withholding these large bombs, the 3500 bombs. 

SEN. COTTON: Well, the reason Israel needs these larger bombs is because Hamas has buried tunnels, or they’re holding hostages, and where its leaders are holed up, deeply underground. They’re also potentially delaying the kits that allow the so-called dumb bombs to become smart precision bombs.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The JDAM kits that they’re reviewing.

SEN. COTTON: And- and apparently- and apparently based on reports this morning, the administration even says they’re withholding intelligence about the location of senior Hamas leaders and therefore, hostages, to include potentially American hostages, from Israel, to try to force Israel not to go into Rafah. Think about that, they’re–

MARGARET BRENNAN: The White House denies that, and John Kirby briefed the other day that the U.S. is sharing intelligence, including the location of Yahya Sinwar, who has not been killed in the seven months of this war.

SEN. COTTON: It was in the Washington Post with- with four officials familiar with it. The Washington Post is like the message board for this administration and the Democratic Party.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You believe that the intelligence community is withholding information from the Israeli military?

(CROSSTALK)

SEN. COTTON: I- I believe- I believe that Joe Biden is willing to do that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you have any evidence of that?

SEN. COTTON: I mean, he’s imposed- he’s imposed a de facto arms embargo on Israel and sanctions on Israelis. In the meantime–

MARGARET BRENNAN: They’re sending weapons this weekend, that’s not an arms embargo.

SEN. COTTON: In the meantime- he just said last week that he’s not going to send offensive weapons. We have no idea what he’s going to withhold.

(END CROSSTALK)

MARGARET BRENNAN: He- that was, as- as we just exchanged with- with Secretary Blinken, not a very clear statement in that CNN interview. Democrats have said that. But what Blinken said there was it was just that one single shipment. You’re saying you do not believe the Secretary of State when he says that?

SEN. COTTON: Margaret, in March of 2022, Tony Blinken came on your show, this very show, and said the United States would be perfectly fine to see fighter jets sent to Ukraine. Joe Biden immediately reversed Tony Blinken’s statement on this show. So what Tony Blinken says on this show cannot be credited when Joe Biden is out there imposing a de facto arms embargo on Israel at the same time he’s letting arms embargoes on Iran expire.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You know, $26 billion in emergency funding was just approved by the President. And there is not an arms embargo on Israel and there is not a block on intelligence sharing with Israel. You know that.

SEN. COTTON: Joe Biden said last week that he’s going to stop supplying offensive weapons that can be used in an urban setting. That is the only setting–

MARGARET BRENNAN: –If they go into Rafah–

SEN. COTTON: –In Gaza. That- that is the only setting in Gaza. And they have to go into Rafah. It- Joe Biden’s position is de facto for Hamas victory at this point. Israel’s goal is to destroy Hamas, which committed the worst atrocity against Jews since World War II. Hamas’s goal is to survive. If they do- if Israel does not go into Rafah and destroy Hamas in Rafah, Hamas will survive.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, the Biden administration says they can go into Rafah, it’s how they do it. But I- I want to ask you more broadly because people like Senator Van Hollen, who is going to be on here, we’ll talk about the principle and the spirit and the meaning of U.S. law. And you know that past presidents have withheld military aid to Israel to force changes in behavior. President Reagan did that. President Bush did that. Why do you have a problem with President Biden doing it?

SEN. COTTON: Well- well first off, when he talked about the principle and the spirit of U.S. law, it sounds to me like they’re not talking about the letter of U.S. law, because Tony Blinken’s own report concluded they did not violate U.S. law. Ronald Reagan’s decision to pause the delivery of fighter jets in the 1980s was totally different from what happens here- what has happened here. Israel is fighting a war of survival against a terrorist group that committed the worst atrocity against Jews since World War II. In the 1980s, an Israeli ambassador had been targeted for assassination. Ronald Reagan knew that the pause of fighter jets would not interfere with Israel’s fighting because they had plenty of fighters. He did not pause munitions. Joe Biden is not sending munitions in the middle of a shooting war, that’s a war of survival. And look at the broader context. Israel knew that Ronald Reagan had its back in the region, he sank half of Iran’s navy. Joe Biden has consistently given Iran hundreds of billions of dollars of sanctions relief that exactly funded groups like Hamas and Hezbollah–

MARGARET BRENNAN: And you know that they dispute that and they are still sending weapons. But last month, Donald Trump told TIME Magazine, “Bibi Netanyahu rightfully has been criticized for what took place on October 7”. Do you agree with that assessment? Are you comfortable with any criticism of the Prime Minister?

SEN. COTTON: Well, I- I think Prime Minister Netanyahu and other senior Israeli leaders have acknowledged they have responsibility for the failures on October 7. And they’ve said, as is the Israeli custom, when this war is over, there’ll probably be a commission of inquiry to figure out exactly what went wrong to ensure it doesn’t happen again. But President Trump said just last night that he would absolutely provide Israel with the weapons they need to finish the job. This would have never happened on President Trump- Trump’s watch, it didn’t happen on his watch. And if he were president, this war would have probably already been over with much less civilian suffering in Gaza because he would have backed Israel to the hilt from the beginning.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, that’s a debate on counterfactuals for another day, Senator, but it’s good to have you here in person. Thank you for your time. We’ll be right back.

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