Return to Transcripts main page

The Axe Files

Former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Robert Gates Weighs in on Trump, Terrorists, Global Tensions, Joe Biden, and Serving Under 8 U.S. Presidents. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired June 08, 2019 - 19:00   ET




ANNOUNCER: Tonight on the Axe Files, Former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Robert Gates weighs in on Trump, terrorists and global tensions.

ROBERT GATES, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE AND DIRECTOR, CIA: I think it's strategically unwise to antagonize every country in the world simultaneously.

ANNOUNCER: His experience with 2020 hopeful, Joe Biden.

DAVID AXELROD, HOST, THE AXE FILES, CNN: One of the guys in the room was Vice President Biden. Would you be comfortable with him as Commander in Chief?

ANNOUNCER: And the biggest moments of his career serving under 8 U.S. Presidents.

GATES: You knew every day you went into the office, history was being made.

ANNOUNCER: Welcome to the Axe Files.

AXELROD: Secretary Gates, great to see you again here in Washington, not that Washington.

GATES: The real Washington.

AXELROD: As far away from the Washington DC as you can possibly get at the Skagit Historical Museum but I know that even in these bucolic surroundings, you think about the world and I wanted to ask you, we just celebrated the anniversary of D. day and that really was a harbinger of a new era, super power era and the construction of these global institutions.

Those institutions feel like they are fraying a little bit right now. Why?

GATES: Well, I think that first of all the those institutions were developed in the context of the Cold War but they were very much in the context of the United States being really the one power that came out of World War II stronger than when it went in.

AXELROD: And we were the guarantor really.

GATES: And the guarantor. But for example when those institutions were created in the late forties, China was irrelevant in terms of the global economy. China was pretty much irrelevant in terms of the global scene. It's just a different world.

And the other - the other part of the problem I think is that with the end of the Cold War, the United States really began unilaterally to disarm when it came to all of the non-military instruments of power.

I think-

AXELROD: Chinese have really filled that void. I mean they're all over the world now providing infrastructure and other kinds of aid.

GATES: In my view is that you know, we should have been more pro- active after the end of the Cold War but more particularly as the Chinese economy began to take off, maybe we ought to look at how we restructure these institutions to take into account China's global economic power and the shift in power in Europe and elsewhere and to modernize these institutions.

AXELROD: The other thing that's evolved is a reaction to these institutions, a populist - nationalist - because they represent globalization that not everyone sees as working in their benefit. It feels now like the President is very much on the other side of the debate, relative to some of these institutions, he's suspicious of them, feels like America's been taken advantage of.

Was just in Britain urging Brexit. What role is the President playing here?

GATES: What we are seeing in terms of backlash against globalization is not limited to the United States.


GATES: I mean it's really what's behind Brexit, it's what's behind--

AXELROD: Sweeping Europe.

GATES: - many of the elements in Italy.


GATES: And I think in part, it's because there are a lot of people in these countries that believe globalization has been a project of the political elites and they have neglected the consequences of globalisation, not to mention technology in terms of the lives of these people.

I mean you look at Macron's gas tax.

AXELROD: Yes. GATES: And you know if you live in Paris and can get on the metro, that's great but if you - if you're a farmer in France and need diesel to run your tractor or to take your truck into town, a big increase in the tax is a big deal and that's why you had these demonstrations in France for weeks on end.

So I think the President's kind of out in the forefront on all of this but the truth is I think it's part of a much broader--

AXELROD: There's no question about that.

GATES: - resentment about - about the fact that the elites, I would say across the entire political spectrum really didn't pay attention to the consequences for a lot of average working people.


AXELROD: His America First philosophy, it stresses national sovereignty, it's rooted in a kind of anti-trade, anti-immigrant view which is common to these other movements as well. Are we in a new historical epic here?

GATES: I think that there is a lot of anxiety and I would say exhaustion on the part of the American people with the global role that the United States has played over the last 20 years. I think a huge impact David, is 17 years of war.


GATES: And people are seeing this as a manifestation of the U.S. taking on global responsibilities and spending several trillion dollars that could have been more effectively spent in their view here at home. A President always has the first responsibility to look out for the United States of America.

The worry that I have is how do you do that while still appreciating the fact that one of the unique strengths we have in the world is our alliances. And how do you press for others to carry their own weight and actually have impact.

While at the same time trying to keep these alliances intact and healthy and you know my last speech as Secretary of Defense in Europe. I told them, it was in Brussels before a NATO audience. I basically said, I am the last senior American official, national security official you'll ever encounter who has an emotional tie to NATO because I was there for the last half of the Cold War and saw the role NATO played.

I think the kind of emotional and historical attachment that American leaders have had with this alliance for nearly 65 years is aging out.

But this is in 2011, I said a new generation of politicians is coming to power in the United States in the Congress and inevitably in the presidency. They're going to have a very different view and your failure to carry your own weight, to bear the burden that the United States bears or to share that burden is going to weigh very negatively.

AXELROD: I remember--

GATES: That was eight years ago.

AXELROD: I know and I remember that and you know, the one thing that one must say is that Trump is jaw bone NATO and you have seen more of an investment by these countries but he's been pretty tough on our allies. At times, it seems tougher on our allies than our adversaries.

GATES: I think some of the language, some of the personal attacks, I think have made this worse than it needed to be. I will give him credit.

I mean he has produced results in most of the European countries in terms of increases in their - in their security and the question I've always had is, is there a middle road between the rhetoric that I and others like me used against the allies and their failure to carry their fair share of the burden which frankly had no results, produced nothing.


GATES: And the President's over the top pressure.


GATES: And personal--

AXELROD: His nuances.

GATES: That have produced results but at a considerable cost and you'd hope that there was some middle ground but I'm not sure what it is.

AXELROD: So one of my big concerns, technology is churning faster and faster and liberal democracies are moving slower because they're designed to move slow when countries are divided and I think it creates this tension and sense of doubt that drives people in the direction of authoritarian.

This is the argument that the Chinese make that they're better suited to deal with the challenges and the opportunities of this century because authoritarian regimes can move more quickly, they can plan for the future.

GATES: I think our economic crisis in 2008-2009 was a turning point. And not just for us in many ways but for countries like China and especially China because all of a sudden, it was obvious that our political system wasn't producing what it needed to produce.

But what that economic crisis showed was that our economic system wasn't working either. Frankly Xi Jinping is not shy about positing China as an alternative model of governance and development. You know, do it our way and people - I mean they brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in a very short period of time.

They have all this extraordinary infrastructure and they say basically we can get stuff done.


GATES: And we can bring prosperity to people.

AXELROD: So get a little hope here.

GATES: Well, I think you know, people often ask me, what's the greatest national security danger to the United States and I've been saying for quite some time that I think the biggest national security threat lies within the two square miles that encompass the White House and the Capitol building because in all honesty, if we can't figure out a way to get stuff done and address some of our big problems here at home, we're at much bigger risks than from any foreign threat.

So we've always had political polarization in United States but what's new really in the last 25 years or so? It's paralysis, the inability to get anything of any real consequence done. Every now and then you'll get a Bill but it's pretty - they're pretty few and far between and they're not tackling any of the really big issues, whether it's infrastructure, immigration or public education and so on.

AXELROD: Yes. Let me ask about a few quick tariffs, President has used them. I don't know if the word liberally is the right way to say it but we're in a trade war with China. He's now brandishing them to Mexico, not as a matter of trade but to try and influence their policies on immigration, is this a winning strategy?

GATES: First of all on China, I think that I give the administration credit for challenging the Chinese and being tough on those issues and hanging tough I think, makes a lot of sense. The United States has not for 30 years for all practical purposes used economic leverage for geopolitical or geostrategic reasons.

I mean my view is well, for openers, I think it's strategically unwise to antagonize every country in the world simultaneously. I think we ought to establish some priorities. We ought to understand the critical nature of the trading relationship with both Canada and Mexico.


GATES: And realize the disruption that that will cause. I just think we're applying them too broadly to too many countries all at the same time and it's not clear what the priorities are or what the long term strategy is.

ANNOUNCER: Coming up on the Axe Files.

AXELROD: You're also former Director of the CIA. What impact does it have on the intelligence community to have this open rift?


[19:15:00] AXELROD: I have to talk to you about Russia. You were a Russia expert before you entered public life, half a century ago or so, that's how you started out. Today Russia it seems like a degraded power but a first rate provocateur. Tell me how we should be dealing with Russia right now?

GATES: Putin's initial objectives were essentially to restore Russia as a great power and to establish a buffer of frozen conflicts or friendly states on the periphery of Russia but I think after the Color Revolutions in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan and Georgia in 2003-2004, I think Putin concluded that we were trying that he was next.

That the west was trying to overthrow him and then in the election of 2011, parliamentary election in late 2011 and Secretary Clinton's speeches criticizing the lack of free elections.


HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER FIRST LADY, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: And we do have serious concerns about the conduct of the elections.


GATES: He saw as outright interference in the Russian election and he'd never seen anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow before so this really antagonized him so I think Putin is now in the position where one of his primary objectives is wherever in the world he can create problems for the United States he will do that and he is also determined to accentuate divisions between ourselves and our allies.

But also to exploit differences within each of our countries, whether it's the United States or France or the U.K. I mean we know the Russians, we know about the Russians and us in 2016 but they were very much involved in the Brexit elections.

AXELROD: The elections.

GATES: They loaned millions of dollars to Marine Le Pen, Right Wing party in France so I think he's really determined to create as many problems for the West in as many places as you possibly can and he's a provocateur and he's a spoiler and he's been pretty successful at it.

Putin is a classic bully and the only way you deal with Putin, in my view is from a position of strength.

AXELROD: So let me ask you a question, when you saw the President in Helsinki stand on the same platform and say Putin assures me that they had nothing to do with meddling in our elections and I see no reason not to believe him when American intelligence was very, very clear on this.

And now we have the Mueller report as well. What message does that send to Putin?

GATES: Well, I think he - I think he thinks he has a friend in the White House and you know, it would have been nice to see the President do a few winks and so on even if he was saying that for diplomacy's sake. The administration is correct when they say they've imposed some of the toughest sanctions on Russia ever.

And yet, you have the President's rhetoric that in a very different place in terms of Russia and so you have the actions of the administration which are what they ought to be doing and then you have some of the President's rhetoric which conveys that he thinks Putin is a really great guy.

AXELROD: And what about the Intelligence Community generally? Among your many hats over many years, you're also former Director of the CIA, where you worked for decades. [19:20:00]

AXELROD: What impact does it have on the intelligence community to have this open rift between the President and the Intelligence agency and people like Clapper who are very well respected. John Brennan, very well respected.

GATES: In the past, it hasn't been as personal but I will tell you from personal experience that most Presidents don't much like CIA and have been critical. Richard Nixon was once quoted as saying, "What the hell did those clowns do out there in Langley?"

And after the fall of the shot, Jimmy Carter sent the director, a hand written note saying, I am not satisfied with the quality of our intelligence and most Presidents have had issues with the intelligence community and one of the reasons is because whenever the intelligence analyst write a piece, assessing what's going on in a foreign country, the President and the secretary of state off and look at it as a grade card on how they're doing.

But the other part of it that really gets under the skin of Presidents is that all the analysis the CIA does goes to the Congress and I used to tell our analysts. I said, just always remember the members of Congress aren't looking for enlightenment, they're looking for ammunition and that's how the Presidents see it.

AXELROD: But this President.

GATES: No, well.

AXELROD: I mean, he is basically accused the Intelligence Community, FBI of being involved in an operation against him.

GATES: I would say that first of all, that those differences are much more public than they have been under previous Presidents and more personal, there's no doubt about it.

AXELROD: You know, now we know, Mueller laid it out in detail what the Russians were up to, wouldn't it - wasn't it the responsibility of the FBI with the assistance when they needed it of the CIA overseas to run these rumors to ground, that turned out to be absolutely true.

GATES: Well, you know, I wasn't there at the time--

AXELROD: Of course.

GATES: So I don't know what they did or what they didn't do but I would say as a matter of general principle, any evidence that a foreign power was trying to interfere in American election should have elicited a very strong reaction from Intelligence Community, the FBI and frankly our political leaders.

AXELROD: Do you think of the Obama administration was strong enough in response?

GATES: Based on what I know, just reading the newspapers and so on, probably not.

AXELROD: And what should we do now headed into 2020? Because they're clearly - as you say, Putin has made his choice. He is involved in a full scale subversion campaign worldwide to try and weaken the Western alliance and certainly the United States.

What should we be doing now?

GATES: Well, again, there's a difference in my view between the actions of the administration and the rhetoric and my impression is that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security and Intelligence Community are working very hard to try and identify what the Russians are doing and trying block and try to block it.

And the Congress, I think has been has been concerned. I think the problem is that endeavor really needs leadership from the top, it needs the President to say, we're not going to allow any foreign country to interfere with our elections and we will take whatever steps are necessary.

AXELROD: Why doesn't he? Why don't you think he?

GATES: I don't know.

ANNOUNCER: Up next on the Axe Files.

GATES: I said you know, the President's just lost control of both houses of Congress, losing two wars, what could possibly go wrong?



AXELROD: I want to talk a little bit about you - I know that is not necessarily your favorite topic but just a little bit of history. You're born in Kansas so far as I know you grew up in a Norman Rockwell painting, your parents you wrote were a mixed marriage, a Republican and a Democrat.

But did you have a thought then about politics? Could you see yourself in government really?

GATES: No, when I went to college I enrolled in pre-med. I wanted to be a surgeon and as I've often told people since then, God only knows how many lives have been saved by my becoming CIA and Secretary of Defense instead of a doctor but I went to the College of William and Mary which is in Williamsburg, which is where really the first steps toward independence were taken in many respects.

Walking those streets and just you know, being in those buildings had a big impact on me. Then I wanted to teach. I had no intention of going to government.

AXELROD: You went to Indiana University and got a master's degree.

GATES: And when I got my masters, I had two job offers in hand. One was to teach seventh grade history back in Williamsburg and the second was to go to work for CIA. I said, well, I'll go to work for CIA for a little while and then I'll go teach.

AXELROD: You were in the Air Force. You had a missile defense.

GATES: No, an ICBM base.

AXELROD: And then you went back and you were in the CIA, you spent some time in National Security Council. In the eighties you had a kind of meteoric rise in the CIA and you were appointed by President Reagan, I guess to be CIA Director and you had to withdraw.

You had to withdraw because of the fallout from the Iran contra scandal. For a guy who had had this meteoric rise, how was it to have this set back?


GATES: I'd like to tell young people, I say, if you've never had a failure, your education is incomplete. You know, I never - I never got into any real trouble because of it but - and David Boren who was the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee told me at the time.

He said, if you're willing to wait six months, we'll get to confirm and he was a Democrat.


GATES: And I went to President Reagan and I said, you know, I don't think CIA can be without a permanent leader for six months. And then I think I'll stay on as deputy if you want me to and frankly, one of the reasons why I still had a future in front of me was because the Congress still trusted me.

And because of the way I conducted myself and I think - I think the key is you just have to keep a sense of perspective and I actually the whole thing ironically ended up creating some opportunities for me, I probably wouldn't have had otherwise.

AXELROD: You went back to National Security Council under President Bush, the first, 41. You were there, ultimately you did get the CIA job but you were there during the obviously, the fall of the--

GATES: It was the most amazing closure you could possibly get. I joined CIA to do my bit in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union collapsed six weeks after I became Director of Central Intelligence. To be with Bush, two or three or four hours a day while he was managing this liberation of Eastern Europe, the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War, you knew every day you went into the office, history was being made.

GATES: You also mentioned his stewardship of the Gulf War. Years later when the U.S. went into Iraq, there wasn't that kind of global coalition. Was that a mistake to move forward without building the kind of architecture that that the first President Bush built?

GATES: Well, I think - I think ultimately there were at least nominally a couple of dozen different countries.

AXELROD: Coalition of the willing, some of them quite small.

GATES: Cooperated, yes. I gave a speech six weeks after the invasion and I said that the concern that I have is that we're a little bit like the dog that caught the car. What do you do with it now? And I said in the speech that I thought that the post-military, the post- invasion problems we're going to be much harder than the military piece of it and the challenges inside Iraq were just enormous.

AXELROD: When you were called back in 2006, the war was being lost and public opinion was dramatically negative.

GATES: That too we were losing two wars.

AXELROD: In Afghanistan and Iraq. You were down at Texas A&M, happily ensconced, leading that institution. Why did you come back and did you know what you were walking into?

GATES: So a year and a half earlier, I'd been asked to become the first Director of National Intelligence by Bush and after really wrestling with it for a couple of weeks, I told him no. I wanted to stay at A&M but when the National Security Adviser Steve Hadley called me in October of 2006 and said if the President asked you to become Secretary of Defense, would you agree?

And I said, Steve, there are thousands of kids out there putting their lives on the line every day, doing their duty, how can I not do mine? And I said, of course I'd do it. And I kind of remember hanging up and saying my God, what am I going to tell my wife?


GATES: And one of the things I told her, I said, you know, the President's just lost control of both houses of Congress and we're losing two wars, what could possibly go wrong?

AXELROD: And you manage the surge and the surge was successful. I'm sure you know that the leader of the democratic the Democrats in the Senate, Harry Reid called Barack Obama in the summer of 2008 and said, you ought to ask Bob Gates to be your running mate for Vice President. You knew that? GATES: I did not know it. Actually he had called Obama. I did get a call from Harry Reid. I remember the first question he asked me was, what's your position on abortion? And I'm the Secretary of Defense. I said, I have no position.

And he said, well, I think you ought to - I think you ought to be the Vice President and I - you know, I told my secretary when I hung up, I think - I think he's smoking something but I had no idea, he had actually called.

AXELROD: Oh yes, he called and it was - it was taken seriously.


AXELROD: The President did come back. President Obama and asked you to stay on which was an unusual--

GATES: Unprecedented.

AXELROD: - request. Were you reluctant?

GATES: No. we were still engaged in these two wars and I felt like you know if I can help, how can how can I not agree to stay on.

ANNOUNCER: Ahead on the Axe Files.

GATES: We didn't have a shred of solid evidence. I think there was really a big political risk for the President.



AXELROD: I have to ask you about the Bin Laden raid partly because there's an iconic photo that goes along with this, that I think will be one of the most famous photos of our - of our of our time. You were opposed to the raid initially and really until your staff persuaded you at the end, that it was it was something that should go forward and you said you were sort of the prisoner of your own experience.

GATES: I had been in that same room, in Situation Room 30 almost exactly 30 years earlier when we tried the hostage rescue mission in Iran which was a complete disaster which by the way also the disaster started with a helicopter crash so my opposition to the raid.

I wanted to attack the compound, I wanted to kill Bin Laden, there was no question about that. The question is whether to do it with a drone or do we do it some other way than going in. My concern about a ground operation or about the seals going it was tied solely to the future of the war in Afghanistan.

My concern was that the Pakistanis would be so antagonized by a raid into their territory that they would shut down our lines of communication from Karachi to Afghanistan and we would lose the war in Afghanistan overnight. That was my biggest concern about the raid. I had no doubts about the capabilities of the team or the military

plan or anything else. I have to say about the photograph, I got a photoshop copy of that picture with all the key players in superhero costumes. Obama's Superman, Biden's Spider Man. Hillary naturally is Wonder Woman and for some reason, I'm the Green Lantern.

AXELROD: I saw that.

GATES: And we all had a good laugh. But then I held it up and I said Mr. President, these pictures are why you must never release the photographs of the dead Bin Laden. Because somebody will photoshop them and anger a billion Muslims.


GATES: It will put our troops at risk, it'll put Americans in the Middle East at risk. And to the best of my knowledge David, those photographs are the only thing about that raid that's never leaked.

AXELROD: You've talked about other Presidents, the President Bush's decision to go forward with the - with the surge which was quite unpopular but what about the President Obama's decision to - on not 100% verifiable intelligence to go forward with this in his first term when he was going to have to run for re-elections?

GATES: I thought and I wrote that I thought it was one of the most courageous acts that I'd seen a President carry out. We didn't have a shred of solid evidence. The entire case was circumstantial put together by a group of analysts out at CIA but there was no solid evidence at all.

And I think that the Iranian hostage crisis and the failure of the rescue mission contributed to President Carter's defeat in 1980. The economy didn't help but--


GATES: But this was a was also a big issue and so I think there was really a big political risk for the President.

AXELROD: You know, one of the guys in the room was Vice President Biden who's now running for President. He clashed with the Pentagon and with the leadership over Afghanistan and you've been fairly critical of him at one point. You said, he was wrong in every foreign policy issue for 40 years.

Would you be comfortable with him as Commander-in-Chief?

GATES: Well, I think we have to wait and see. I don't want to go down that road with anybody frankly. I think Vice President did have some issues with the military. And I did say that recently that I stand by the statement that I thought he'd been wrong about most foreign policy issues for 40 years especially during the Cold War.

But in truth apart from Afghanistan, there were a number of issues he and I agreed on. He's obviously got a lot of experience, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee for a long time and you know, we'll just have to see how these things play out.

AXELROD: You can't say whether you'd be comfortable with him as Commander-in-Chief but are you comfortable with the current Commander- in-Chief?

GATES: Well, I'm just not going to go down that road.

AXELROD: OK. I just want to know that I gave you the invitation to go down that road. You also mentioned the issue of age. I sat next to the Presidents. I know how taxing that job is. You've raised questions about whether anybody should be in that - I mean should there be an age limit for the President?


AXELROD: You were there when President Reagan at the end of his term, did you have concerns about anybody?

GATES: It's not the level of energy for certain periods of time. It's the level of energy that I think is required over a protracted period of time and it's the fact that you're dealing with 20 different complex issues simultaneously. It's 3-dimensional chess every day.

I know how exhausted I was when I left the Secretary of Defense after 4.5 years. I worry and I mean, I'm just talking about myself. There's a certain point at which you have to recognize you don't have the same energy level that you did when you were in your sixties. I mean things have changed.

I think sort of 75 is the new 60 or whatever, I hope. But I do think that there's a question there and there's also a question about intellectual curiosity and intellectual flexibility. How willing are you to change your views, are you to adjust your views in light of changed circumstances?

And the truth is the older most of us get, the more set in our ways we get.

AXELROD: There was a definitely some tension over how many troops to send to Afghanistan and now we're almost 18 years into the war there. We have a fraction of the troops we had at the peak of the surge but still we are there. How does this end or does it?

Is this just a never ending commitment?

GATES: I think you know, we've - we've had troops in South Korea since 1950. We've had troops in Germany since 1945. They're there for different reasons and so on. If the Taliban take over just willy-nilly and there's no political agreement, for all the trouble we have had in Afghanistan, for all the lives we've lost, for all the treasure that's been spent.

The fact remains there are 5 million girls in school in Afghanistan. Women are in the parliament, women are part of the society in a way that there's a relatively free press. Do we just chuck it all?

I mean it's a very - it's a very tough problem.

AXELROD: You have written about it and I know and I know from working for the President and I had the chance to go to Iraq and Afghanistan with him and see these splendid young people. Some of them had to do on your orders, on his orders, on President Bush's orders, four-five tours of duty.

Many lost their lives, many limbs and many came back with psychological scars of that but that repeated horror of war. We have 20 suicides a day among veterans. It's a national crisis. Have we met our obligations to these - to these young people who serve.

GATES: No, I don't think so but I must say, it's not - it's not for a lack of people trying. The challenge is how do you make them feel part of the community again, that people actually recognize you know, it's not enough just to say thanks for your service.

I mean these guys go, men or women go from being part of a very closely knit unit where they've got mutual support. And then they come disproportionately from rural areas and small towns and all of a sudden, they're back home and they're alone. How do you take those people and create an environment in which they can reintegrate and be great citizens?

And the truth is the vast majority already do that. The vast majority come back, they adjust, they deal with the problems and they move on with their lives and they're mentally healthy and they're contributing and everything else.

The problem is that subset that have had those difficulties and find it difficult to overcome them. To tell you the truth, I think a big part of the solution is not the government but society itself. And whether it's businesses or churches or other organizations, even small towns that create a sense of bonding.


GATES: I thought that was a very poor show. I thought that was outrageous.

AXELROD: Should there have been resistance to that?


AXELROD: General Mattis is someone you know well, served while you were Secretary of Defense. You probably knew General McMaster as well. Rex Tillerson was someone you knew and I think recommended to the President. They're all gone now. What do their absences mean?

GATES: Every secretary brings a different set of skills to the job. I think the key is, is not necessarily is personalities but are there people who are still willing to tell the President when they disagree and it sounds like just from what I read in the newspapers, that there are disagreements within the White House.

And that those are put in front of the President. For me the key is, you can argue and debate with the President until he makes a decision. But you do need people around the President who will tell him, that's a mistake. And when the President makes a decision, you have two choices.


GATES: You either say yes Sir and go implement the decisions or you resign. The worst of all possible worlds and I've seen this before are people who disagree and stay and then try to undercut the decisions. You saw this in the Obama administration, we've seen it in every administration, that's the worst of all possible worlds.

So the question is with Tillerson and Kelly and Mattis and McMaster gone, are there still people around the President who disagree with him and who were willing to tell him when they think that something is not going the right way?

And my sense is just based on newspaper articles from the fights inside the White House, there still appear to be such people.

AXELROD: You knew John McCain well, pride battled with him at times but indisputably a person who sacrificed greatly for this country, loved the country. What was your reaction when you saw over in Japan that they covered up the name on the ship, on the carrier that was named for him and his father and his grandfather, all honored servicemen.

GATES: I thought that was a very poor show, I thought that was outrageous.

AXELROD: Should there have been resistance to that?

GATES: You know, the question is, you know, you go back to the Bush administration, you're going to fire the advance guy that pushed - put the Mission Accomplished banner up on the on the aircraft carrier when--

AXELROD: Should have honestly but--

GATES: I mean--

AXELROD: But the military had to cooperate in that, right?

GATES: Yes, I mean those kinds of things, I mean, I have seen - look, with all these Presidents, I have seen advance people do really crazy things. And as long as it's not illegal or you know, immoral or whatever, people try to accommodate what the President's team wants him to do.

I've also seen a lot of advance guys do things the President didn't know anything about.

AXELROD: So eight Presidents, what are the kind of the most important things or the most important thing that you've learned watching all of them very different. All of them with strengths and weaknesses. What's the most important quality that a President and a leader can have? GATES: So in 1933, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior was asked his opinion of Franklin D. Roosevelt and he said you know, he has a second rate intellect but a first rate temperament. And I think at the end of the day what's most important is a first rate temperament.

You take the greatest Presidents, Lincoln, Washington, FDR, Eisenhower, Reagan, they weren't necessarily the smartest men in the room but they had enough self-confidence, their temperament was such, they were comfortable surrounding themselves with people who were smarter than they were.

And I think - I think the willingness to have people around you who disagree with you, who tell you that that's a bad idea is absolutely critical but that's part of the temperament. So I would say you know, you can come up with long lists and different skill sets and everything but at the end of the day, every one of our greatest Presidents has had an extraordinary temperament.

Macarthur said old soldiers never die, they just fade away. What about old Secretaries of Defense? What--

GATES: They do interviews.

AXELROD: What's in the - thank goodness for that. I'm very appreciative and what is your - what is your level of confidence about our future as a country?

GATES: You know, David, I'm despite all the problems, I'm actually an optimist and the reason - one of the reasons I'm an optimist is, I've probably had more experience with young people in this country than almost anybody else. I led the Boy Scouts, I was the President of Texas A&M, I was Secretary of Defense, led CIA.

And I see this rising generation of really amazing young people who are dedicated, who are determined, who want to serve, who are unhappy with where we are, who I think see the role of the United States in the world in a positive way. For me, the greatest source of optimism is our young people.

AXELROD: Secretary Gates, it's always good to see you. Thank you very much.

GATES: Thank you David. My pleasure.

AXELROD: See you. For more of my conversation with Secretary Gates, you can visit