The following is a transcript of an interview with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that aired on Oct. 22, 2023.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has not done many interviews this year, but he invited us to Capitol Hill Friday to talk about President Biden’s request to Congress for $100 billion in aid for Ukraine, Israel and US border security. And that’s where our conversation began.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: We have big power competition from China, and Russia and we still have terrorism problems, as the Israelis have certainly experienced in a brutal way in the last week. So I think that requires a worldwide approach rather than trying to take parts of it out. It’s all connected. The Chinese and the Russians said they’re now friends forever. Iranian drones are being used in Ukraine and against the Israelis.
MARGARET BRENNAN: There’s resistance among some Republicans, including here in the Senate, about bundling things together. Is it possible to pass Ukraine aid if it’s not tied to Israel?
SEN. MCCONNELL: I just think that’s a mistake. I mean, I know there are some Republicans in the Senate, and maybe more in the House, saying Ukraine is somehow different. I view it as all interconnected.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And you’ve said that you believe there is enough oversight of aid to Ukraine. Why hasn’t that persuaded some members of the- of the Republican caucus?
SEN. MCCONNELL: If you look at the Ukraine assistance, let’s- let’s talk about where the money is really going. A significant portion of its being spent in the United States in 38 different states, replacing the weapons that we sent to Ukraine with more modern weapons. So we’re rebuilding our industrial base.
MARGARET BRENNAN: That’s what President Biden is seeking to do.
SEN. MCCONNELL: It’s- it’s correct. No Americans are getting killed in Ukraine. We’re rebuilding our industrial base. The Ukrainians are destroying the army of one of our biggest rivals. I have a hard time finding anything wrong with that. I think it’s wonderful that they’re defending themselves- and also the notion that the Europeans are not doing enough. They’ve done almost 90 billion dollars, they’re housing a bunch of refugees who escaped. I think that our NATO allies in Europe have done quite a lot.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You sound like you have a lot in common with President Biden, and his worldview, based on what you just laid out.
SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, not on the domestic side, but on this issue that we- we’re discussing today, we’re generally in the same place.
MARGARET BRENNAN: On the issue of Israel, that does seem to be a unifying issue for many Republicans, and I want to ask you about this 10 billion dollar request the President is making. Do you think there needs to be any provisions in there that would account for the risk of human rights- human rights violations in Gaza?
SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, we want to make sure we’re not sending money to Hamas. I can tell you that. But there are genuine humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza who are not Hamas, who’ve been thrown under the bus by what Hamas did. Innocent people. But we want to be careful about how the money is spent, be sure it actually gets where it’s supposed to get.
MARGARET BRENNAN: For any military aid that’s going to Israel right now, do you think there needs to be- need to be strings attached?
SEN. MCCONNELL: Israel is our strongest ally in the world. We trust them, and we have a very tight relationship with them both on the intelligence side and the military side. So I don’t think the kind of oversight we’re talking about for Ukraine, for example, would be necessary for Israel.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You know, to do all of these things you need a partner in Congress. Senator Welch said, you are the only Republican negotiator right now, because of all the disarray in the House. How can you deliver on this at a time when you’re saying it’s essential?
SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I hope we’re going to have a speaker sometime soon and we–
MARGARET BRENNAN: Before November 17th, when government funding-
SEN. MCCONNELL: We need one. We need one because the House can’t do anything without a speaker. And it’s a- it’s a problem, but I hope it’s gonna get solved pretty quickly.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Is there anyone in the House who can lead the Republicans?
SEN. MCCONNELL: Look, I’m not an expert on the House. I have my hands full here in the Senate, and we’re gonna do our job and hope the House can get functional here sometime soon.
MARGARET BRENNAN: There is no current U.S. ambassador to Israel right now. And some of your Republican colleagues have voiced concerns about President Biden’s nominee. Do you have concerns about Jack Lew?
SEN. MCCONNELL: He is a very controversial nominee because of his relationship with the Iran nuclear deal, which was opposed by everybody in my party. And by the way, I hope that flirtation with Iran is finally over with regard to the nuclear deal. And Senator Cotton and I also have a bill to freeze the 6 billion dollars that was on the way to the Iranians in relation to the hostage release, so-
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, it’s in Qatar, the White House says Iran hasn’t been able to make any withdrawals from it.
SEN. MCCONNELL: Yeah, but we’d like to make it law so that it can’t be undone. Look, I think we need to get tougher with Iran. And I do think the weakness of both the Obama administration and the Biden administration, is the thought that somehow we could do business with Iran on something. And I think it’s pretty clear we can’t. I mean, they’re funding Hezbollah, Hamas, creating problems all over the Middle East, and we shouldn’t be doing any business with them.
MARGARET BRENNAN: President Biden said that he’s going to hold Iran accountable. What do you think that means?
SEN. MCCONNELL: Yeah well, I think the proof will be – what are we going to do to hold them accountable? And that’s- it’s got to be credible. You- you can’t on the one hand, be negotiating with Iran on some kind of nuclear deal that you know they won’t keep, and then turn around and declare that you’re going to get tougher with Iran. I think, number one, quit talking to the Iranians about any kind of nuclear deal. Number two, don’t give them the $6 billion. Number three, back up the Israelis in every conceivable way, after this attack by Iran-sponsored Hamas.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You-you oppose all diplomacy with Iran?
SEN. MCCONNELL: It’s not a question of whether you ever talk to them or not. But it’s a question- what do you do? What do you do? And clearly, the nuclear deal that the Obama administration agreed to and the Biden administration tried to reconnect is- is not the way to go. There’s an axis of evil in the world: China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. And we need to stand up to the axis of evil, not try to do business with them.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you as well about the moment here in Washington that we are in. A number of members of Congress, including Representatives Miller-Meeks, Ferguson, Bacon, Ken Buck, have said just this week that they have had death threats against them. How concerned are you about violence against lawmakers working here?
SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I think there have been more threats lately, and I am concerned about it.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Are you concerned about more political violence? Going into an election year here?
SEN. MCCONNELL: Look, I think since 9/11, and January 6th, we’ve had heightened security here at the Capitol. I’m sure we’re a target for all kinds of evil doers both in the United States and abroad.
MARGARET BRENNAN: People wonder about your health, how are you feeling? How are you doing?
SEN. MCCONNELL: I’m fine. I’m completely recovered, and I’m just fine.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You and your office felt the need to share and disclose some of the details about your health because of some of these public incidents. And the doctor here said there was no evidence of Parkinson’s disease or a stroke or- or a seizure. And I wonder, is there anything the public should know that wasn’t disclosed?
SEN. MCCONNELL: I’m in good shape, completely recovered and back on the job.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So does that mean that you think you are able to continue serving, and you want to continue serving here at a time when we are talking about incredible dysfunction in Washington?
SEN. MCCONNELL: I think we ought to be talking about what we were talking about earlier, rather than my health.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You’ve made clear you have a lot of policy disagreements with the former president, Donald Trump. Doesn’t it trouble you that he is the front runner for the Republican nomination, given the questions he has raised about aid for Ukraine, for example?
SEN. MCCONNELL: I’m not going to comment on the various candidates for president on either side. I’ve got my hands full here in the Senate.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Former Secretary of Defense Gates told us this is one of the most dangerous moments that he has ever seen for our country. And we’re talking about the basic functioning of our democracy being a problem right now. I’ll ask you, again, who can lead the Republican Party, not just in the House, but to deliver on the vision that you are laying out here?
SEN. MCCONNELL: Typically, it’s the candidate for president, when you have a presidential election, who becomes obviously the most visible person in your party. And we don’t know who that’s going to be. In the meantime, we have divided government, we have a job to do, the election is not until next year. Dabbling in the presidential election is something I’m just not going to do. I don’t think it’s productive.