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Interview With Florida Senator Marco Rubio

Aired February 25, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: a SITUATION ROOM special report, the 2016 contenders.

In the spotlight: Senator Marco Rubio. I will talk to him at length.

The Florida Republican has many issues he cares about. We will talk about some of those that potentially could shape his potential bid for the White House.

Rubio is fired up about ending repression and bloodshed in Venezuela, Cuba, and around the world, and he's firing back at Venezuela's socialist strongman, who accused Rubio of being crazy.

Plus, tough words for President Obama on one of Rubio's signature issues, immigration, and his answer to the question about 2016.


BLITZER: Do you want to be president of the United States?


BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We expect this to be the first in a series of one-on-one interviews with the possible 2016 presidential contenders. It's still early in the game, but the men and women who might be the next president of the United States, they are busy weighing their options and testing possible campaign themes.

Senator Marco Rubio has been making news in recent days with his passionate views on the unrest in Venezuela. And that prompted a fiery response from the country's president.

I went to Rubio's Senate office to ask him about that and much more.


BLITZER: Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's talk about Venezuela right now. You know the president of Venezuela, he had some sharp words for you. He called you -- and I'm translating from the Spanish -- "the craziest of the crazies because of your views on what's going on in Venezuela right now."

What should the U.S. be doing in Venezuela?

RUBIO: Well, first of all, let me just say about this individual, Mr. Maduro, he's someone who actually said Hugo Chavez, after his death, appeared to him in the form of a bird. So I'm not sure who the crazy is here.

All I've done is point to the human rights abuses that are occurring on the streets of Venezuela every single day. There are now documented instances, numerous, of government troops and some of these civilian militias that they have armed and they have trained who have shot and killed student protesters.

This all began as a student protest two weeks ago because the government wasn't doing enough to go after a rapist in sexual assault cases on campus.

And, of course, the government cracked down, but it didn't crack down on the rapist, it cracked down on the students. And this, of course, has spiraled into this broader discontent.

BLITZER: What should the U.S. do, if anything?

We have limited influence...

RUBIO: Well, first of all...

BLITZER: -- I assume.

RUBIO: -- we should be involved and care. Right now, the -- you know, I heard yesterday, the State Department said they are concerned. They shouldn't be concerned about what's happening in Venezuela, they should be outraged by it. And it should be getting the same level of attention as what's happening in Egypt or what's happening in Ukraine or other parts of the world, because this is actually closer to us.

The second is, and I think we now have documented instances of human rights abuses. We should be put together a package of sanctions against these individuals who are committing these atrocities and these crimes.

And beyond that, I would say that we should study whether, in fact, we are at a stage where we should explore some specific sanctions against this Venezuelan government, the people are -- maybe a moratorium on private investment or what may -- what have you.

But we need to begin -- there has to be consequences for what's going on here. We need to lead through our example.

BLITZER: Is there a connection between what's happening in Venezuela and Cuba, which is another subject close to your heart?

RUBIO: Well, the connection is the Cubans get free and cheap oil from the Venezuelans. So their interest is keeping this regime in place because they're their benefactors. The Cubans have been deeply involved in the government apparatus in Venezuela for many, many years, going back to Hugo Chavez. One of the chants on the streets now among the protesters is we don't want to become Cuba.

And Cuba is clearly involved in assisting the Venezuelan government with both personnel and training and equipment to carry out these repressive activities, including, for example, the ability to shut down Twitter and social media.

And I think it's a broader part of an agenda that Cuba has of further terrorism around the world. As we saw very recently, a U.N. report found that Cuba helped North Korea evade U.N. sanctions.

So this is par for the course with the Cuban regime.

BLITZER: Because you Tweeted on February 3, "Havana's puppet, Nicolas Maduro, can attack me, but world sees what he is doing to people of Venezuela."

RUBIO: That's what he is, he is a puppet of Raul Castro, as Chavez was of Fidel. He's largely controlled by what the Cuban government tells him they want him to do. And I think within Venezuela, within the Venezuelan government and certainly within the Venezuelan population, it's created a tremendous amount of resentment.

BLITZER: So you see targeted sanctions as one option right now?

RUBIO: Certainly against the individuals.

BLITZER: Is there any indication the administration is ready to do that?

RUBIO: Well, there's no indications the administration is even thinking too much about Venezuela right now and that's unfortunate. I think we -- we hope to be able to change that.

But I think this is part of a broader issue with foreign policy in this administration. They largely view these things as challenges to be managed rather than causes to be advanced. And so the interest of the administration seems to be stability at all costs, as opposed to furthering our national interests in some of these issues.

BLITZER: So be specific.

What else -- what -- if you had your way, if you were the secretary of State or president of the United States, what would you do right now?

RUBIO: Well, the first thing we have to understand is that many of these Venezuelan officials and their government have assets in the United States. The Venezuelan government has operations in the United States, non-diplomatic operations. Those should be targeted to be closed down and those individuals need to be sanctioned.

BLITZER: Ukraine, Russia, you're on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Are you satisfied with the way the administration is handling the unrest in Ukraine right now?

RUBIO: Well, I think it remains to be seen. I mean certainly I think the important thing is what happens moving forward. I think the Ukrainian people took this issue upon themselves and removed someone from office using their legislative process to do so.

Since then, we've seen evidence of horrible corruption that existed and that's why, in addition to the crimes that were committed against people in the streets and -- and those -- these former leaders of the Ukraine are going to have to face consequences for that.

As far as moving forward, I think now is where the administration needs to step up.

BLITZER: What do you want them to do?

RUBIO: Well, I -- first of all, we need to help galvanize the European Union and the rest of the free world to provide assistance so that the sticks, so that what's in place now is a peaceful transition to a stable government that does not continue to feel cross-pressure between joining the -- the -- the Russian effort and/or becoming part of Europe and the free world, but, in fact, are stable, whether it's IMF funds, whether it's a U.S. package in combination with the European Union, to ensure that over the next few years, there is a period of transition that is stable and sustainable.

BLITZER: Do you trust Putin?

RUBIO: No, of course not. I think Vladimir Putin's goals are to reestablish Russia as a world power and kind of recapture some of what he feels they lost -- lost after the fall of the Soviet Union. And so this customs league that they're trying to set up as a part of that, his efforts to thwart us, whether it's in Syria or Iran or right -- even in Venezuela. You mentioned Venezuela. They're flying Venezuelan -- Russian-made jets are what's flying over the skies in Venezuela to try to intimidate the population.

He views anything that's bad for the United States is good for him in this geopolitical contest.

BLITZER: So was Mitt Romney right when he said Russia was America's number one geopolitical foe?

RUBIO: Well, I think he's right in the sense that Russia is an emerging geopolitical foe, in that they are trying to thwart our national interests at every step along the way. That's a change in direction from what you found in Russia 20 years ago. That has only been a -- that's grown as President Putin came into power and them reemerged in power again after a brief...

BLITZER: But the administration...

RUBIO: -- after a brief...

(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: -- makes the point, the U.S. needs to work with Russia, not only in areas like, say, Ukraine, but Syria, Iran, elsewhere. Russia has some significant influence.

RUBIO: Well, we need to work with Russia if Russia is willing to work in a cooperative fashion. But I think we have to go in clear-eyed about their -- their intentions.

We've now tried to work with Russia through this reset that administration put in place and what has it led to?

They have thwarted efforts to sanction Syria. In fact, they are the benefit -- they're Assad's most important supporter, perhaps other than Iran.

BLITZER: They did join the U.N. Security Council over the weekend in supporting some humanitarian...


RUBIO: Well, what they supported was a move in the U.N. -- at the U.N. saying that these humanitarian aid need to be allowed to be delivered to the people.


RUBIO: What they haven't supported are sanctions against the criminality of Assad. On the contrary, they are equipping him. They are supporting him. They are propping him up. They are capacitating him to carry out these...

BLITZER: You know what...

RUBIO: -- crimes against his own people.


RUBIO: To where?

BLITZER: To Syria.

RUBIO: No one has ever -- I -- I heard Secretary Rice make that argument over the weekend, that, well, people that want to put boots on the ground.

Who is that exactly?

What -- who -- who is -- who has called for American troops in Syria?

I haven't heard a single policy-maker say that. That's an absurd -- I don't -- I don't understand how she could say that on the air and not be challenged. No one -- I've never heard anyone argue for American troops on the ground in Syria.

What I have heard, especially early on in this conflict, which is what I advocated, is let's equip the Syrian rebels, the non-Islamists, because if we don't, you're going to leave a vacuum and it's going to be filled by jihadists. That's exactly what's happened.

BLITZER: What about this interim deal with Iran right now, six months, they're go to supposedly freeze their nuclear program. The U.S. eases up, together with the allies, some sanctions, hoping that afterward, there can be a real deal to eliminate Iran's nuclear weapons capability.

Are you with the president on that?

RUBIO: I'm not, and I'll tell you why. I would love nothing more than to wake up tomorrow morning to the news that the supreme leader in Iran has decided to forever abandon their nuclear ambitions. That's not going to happen. For them, above everything else, other than a matter of geopolitical pride and influence, a nuclear weapons capability, they view, as the ultimate insurance policy against ever being overthrown. They believe it provides them immunity.

BLITZER: The president says if you pass this legislation in the Senate, he'll veto it in -- in the interim period.

RUBIO: Well, I'm sure he will and I hope we'll have enough votes to be able to overturn that, because what we're seeing already is even when this interim deal is in place, already, exports of Iranian gas and trade in commerce with the Iranians have skyrocketed. The horse is out of the barn with this now. You're not going to be able to put this back together, in fact...


BLITZER: Because he says, and the secretary of State says, if they cheat, if they violate this, the U.S. can turn on those sanctions within a day.

RUBIO: Violate what?

What kind of deal are they looking to make?

Because they will not assure us that it will not involve any enrichment capability. And if Iran retains any ability to enrich or to reprocess, they are a nuclear power whenever they want to be. All they have to do is flip the switch.

And that's their strategy. This is what North Korea did. This was -- this is a time tried -- a time-tested model.

What you do is you use sanctions and you use negotiations to buy time, but you retain the enrichment capability and then when you decided, a few years from now, when the world is distracted and something else is going on, to move forward and develop a weapon, you can and will. That's Iran's plan.


BLITZER: Still ahead: much more of my interview with Senator Marco Rubio.

Does he think -- does he think he could beat Hillary Clinton if they both ran for president of the United States?

And the immigration wars -- did Rubio's party hang him out to dry on one of his signature issues?


RUBIO: The single biggest impediment to immigration reform today is not Republicans, it's Barack Obama.



BLITZER: We're back with our special report, the 2016 contenders, and my one-on-one interview with Senator Marco Rubio.

He's been a key player in the immigration reform debate. And as a Florida Republican of Cuban heritage, he has a special interest in immigration reform. I asked him about that and another pressing domestic policy issue right now.


BLITZER: Raising the minimum wage, it's what, $7.25 right now. The president would like to see it $10.10. You with him?

RUBIO: I don't think that's an adequate policy. I understand that it polls well. The problem is that we also know it will destroy jobs, at least 500,000 jobs, according to one estimate that was put out last week.

I think a better approach is what I proposed, and that is a wage enhancement that would use -- we would convert the existing earned income tax credit into a wage enhancement that would be available to low-income workers. It would be deposited instead of one time a year through their tax return, it would be added directly into their paycheck on a biweekly basis or however they're paid. And that's a bill we're going to be coming out with soon. I think that is a better approach.

Another better approach is allowing people to acquire the skills they need for middle- and higher-income jobs in America and incentivizing the kind of vibrant economic growth we need to create those jobs.

BLITZER: Immigration. Now you were in the forefront, tried to get a deal. Got it through the Senate. Didn't go anywhere in the House. Pathway to citizenship. Is it going to happen?

RUBIO: Well, I don't know it is going to happen this year or not. I'm not a political prognosticator. It is a difficult issue --

BLITZER: Do you still support that, the pathway to citizenship?

RUBIO: Look, I don't think -- we have 12 million people in this country that are here illegally. Some because they committed crimes or because they haven't been here long enough are not able to stay. The others, if they can pass a background check and they can meet certain conditions -- and there are going to have to be consequences and a long wait time for having violated the law. But eventually, I don't think it is good for America to have millions of people here illegally, permanently who can never become Americans. So, I do think that has to be part of a total solution.

That's not, I don't think, the big debate anymore. I think the big debate is how do we do this? Do we do it in one big, comprehensive piece of legislation? Or do we --

BLITZER: Which you tried to do.

RUBIO: Right. And I think at this point in time -- it has always been hard to pass good policy in one comprehensive piece of legislation. I think the fact of the matter is the last two or three big comprehensive pieces of legislation that passed into law have proved disastrous. Dodd-Frank or Obamacare or what have you.

And so I think a better approach is for us to begin to address is issue sequentially and individually. Let's begin working on the things there is agreement and consensus on and use that to build momentum and the political space to finish the job.

BLITZER: There was an article in the "New York Magazine" by Jonathan Chait, who wrote this about you and the immigration issue. I'll read a sentence or two from it.

"Compromising on immigration means handing a legislative accomplishment to Obama, a taboo that dwarfs any ideological commitments. And so Rubio was cast in a role nobody could play. The party elders who thought they were enlisting him as the Republican savior were instead making him its martyr."

RUBIO: Yes. Nobody enlisted me for anything. I live in Florida; I live in a community surrounded by immigrants. I see the good, the bad, the ugly of immigration every single day.

I know people who have become citizens and watch them weep at these ceremonies after years of trying to become an American. I've seen people that are here illegally to violate our laws and to take advantage of our social welfare system. I see people that are here illegally because children are desperate and hungry and they will do anything it takes to make children better off. So, I've seen every aspect of it.

And what enlisted me to do something about it is not just that part about it, but it's also the fact that we have a broken legal immigration system, which is damaging our country. We have a de facto amnesty. That's what enlisted me to do it.

But here is the predicament that we're in. It requires the government to enforce the law so that we don't have this problem again. And because this president has unilaterally decided which parts of the law he is going to enforce and which parts he will waive or ignore, he has made it difficult -- not just on immigration but on anything that requires trust that the federal government will enforce the law. So, the single biggest impediment to immigration reform today is not Republicans. It's Barack Obama. And it his spending the last couple of years ignoring the law, including his own signature law where he applies the parts he wants and ignores the parts he doesn't like.


BLITZER: Just ahead, I will press Rubio about his own presidential ambitions. If the Florida governor -- the former Florida Governor Jeb Bush runs for the White House, will Rubio stay out of the race or will he dive in anyway?

And then the Hillary Clinton factor: how Marco Rubio stacks up against the likely Democratic front-runner.


BLITZER: Republican Marco Rubio has been a rising star on the national political stage since he was elected to the Senate back in 2010.

Is a race for the White House next?

Here's the final part of our one-on-one interview.


BLITZER: Do you want to be president of the United States?

RUBIO: Not today, but...


RUBIO: -- Wolf, you know, I don't know, I'll have to make that decision next year. It's certainly something we'll think about and talk about with our family and see if that's a place that we think we can make a difference.

I can tell you that I think America is at a real crossroads between another American century and a slow and steady decline.

And I think that 21st century offers extraordinary opportunities for our people. But it's going to require us to make some changes. And if I feel I can make a difference in that and from that office to lead us in that direction, that's something I would have to strongly consider. But that probably won't happen until later this year or early next year.

BLITZER: It sounds like a yes to me.

RUBIO: I don't know. It sounds like I don't know yet. It's something we're going to think about, as I'm sure others who have been approached about this and have been asked the same question have made that answer.

I certainly feel compelled to continue to do something to help this country make the right choice on this crossroads that we're in and, again, we'll examine whether that's the right way to do it.

BLITZER: Jeb Bush gave me -- not me, but he said the same thing yesterday. He said the end of this year he'll decide.

Here's the question -- and then I'm going to let you go.

If he runs, will you run?

RUBIO: Well, I haven't even thought about it that way. The truth is, that I think if you're going to run, it should have nothing to do with who else is in the race. It should have to do whether you think you're prepared to do the job and you think you have a clear vision for where you want to take the country.

I have tremendous admiration -- we're personal friends -- for Governor Bush, worked with him when he was governor and I was in the state legislature. I think he would be a very formidable candidate and I'm sure he's being -- and I know he's being encouraged by a lot of people to consider it.

I've got my own calculation, of course, with a lot of decisions I want to make with my own life.

So I -- it sounds like we have the same time schedule, but I'm not quite sure how -- you know, I haven't given some -- any thought to how that would play out.

But my decision will be based on me, not what anybody else decides.

BLITZER: And finally, if you run, could you beat Hillary Clinton?

RUBIO: I -- I think Hillary Clinton is going to struggle to win on multiple fronts. First, she's going to be asked to account for her time as secretary of state. And I don't think it's the sterling success people think it is.

Quite frankly, much of the foreign policy failures that we see in place today began when she ran the Department of State.

I think she's going to have to answer for Benghazi. I know people want to push that aside, but here's a fact. The State Department knew that the risk level for that facility was extremely high. They should have either closed that facility or provided it adequate security. They did not, under her watch. She will have to answer for that.

And here's my final point. The 21st -- we have to turn the page on the 20th century and move to the 21st.

What ideas does she have to position America for 21st century leadership in a new economy, in a new world that's changed so dramatically?

The Democratic Party, including Secretary Clinton, all the policies they continue to spew out are old school, big-government policies that have never worked, work less now than ever before, and do nothing to position us for success. BLITZER: So the answer is you think you could beat her?

RUBIO: I think a handful of people could beat her. I'm -- I -- again, she's formidable because she's experienced as a campaigner and in office. She'll raise a lot of money. She may not even have a challenge in her primary.

But at the end of the day, I think she's going to have a lot to answer for. And I -- I think the American people are willing -- ready to turn the page and move forward to doing the things we need to do in this new century to have another American century.

BLITZER: Senator, thanks very much.

RUBIO: Thanks, Wolf.

Thank you.


BLITZER: You heard me say it to Senator Rubio. It sure sounds to me like he's running for president of the United States. I was impressed with his knowledge on a variety of domestic and international issues, from the minimum wage to immigration reform to Syria, Iran. He didn't just say no to the president's policy; he offered some of his own ideas as well.

And Rubio clearly has given a lot of thought to the politics of 2016. He says his decision on running won't depend on whether or not Jeb Bush, his fellow Floridian, does run himself.

And you heard the early hints of a strategy for running against Hillary Clinton.

So, if Rubio gets in the race, he would likely have an edge with two critical groups, first Latinos. Immediately after my interview with Rubio, he gave a separate interview in Spanish with Juan Carlos Lopez of our sister network CNN Espanol.

And, second, he'd also have a certain edge with voters in his home state of Florida, the mother of all those presidential battlegrounds, Florida. It is a critically important Electoral College state. President Barack Obama carried that state twice.

So as we dive deeper and deeper into the 2016 campaign, we're going to invite all of the major presidential contenders, the possible contenders out there, to join us for an in-depth interview in the weeks and months ahead.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.