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CNN "The Lead with Jake Tapper" - Transcript: Interview with Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin



TAPPER: All right, Arlette Saenz in Wilmington, Delaware, thank you so much. Appreciate it.


The incoming Biden/Harris administration will need to lobby members of their own party over their pick to run the Pentagon. And while confirmations go through the Senate only, not the House, confirming General Austin as secretary of defense will require a special law to be passed to provide a waiver, since he has served in active duty within the last seven years.

And among those who need convincing to vote for that waiver, our next guest, Democratic Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin from Michigan. She joins us live.

Congresswoman, thanks for joining us.

You shared on Twitter that you have deep respect for Lloyd Austin, but that his appointment -- quote -- "Choosing another recently retired general to serve in a role designed for a civilian just feels off" -- unquote.

So you will vote against a waiver?

REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN (D-MI): Well, I am leaving it open. I mean, I need to hear from General Austin and from the Biden administration what they're going to do to ensure that his recently retired status is going to -- isn't going to keep him from really taking the advice and counsel of the civilian part of the Pentagon.

And we have seen over the past four years the real atrophying of the civilian role at the Pentagon. Obviously, I used to be at the Pentagon, so I hear about it constantly. And I need to know that General Austin is going to support bringing that robust role back.

And that's just harder, given that he's coming from a uniformed background. Now, he's fantastic. He's amazing. And I worked with him directly over many, many years. But it's not about him specifically. It's the principle. And principles are there because, frankly, our founding fathers put them in place. And the law has been in place since 1947.

So, I need to hear from him and from the Biden administration what they're going to do to ensure that civilian role.

TAPPER: Did you hear anything in today's announcement that quelled your reservations? President-elect Biden saying that this is the right man for the job, and it's an extraordinary time, and he's the one I need to do this. Vice president-elect Harris saying the same thing.

SLOTKIN: Yes, I mean, I don't think there's any disagreement that Lloyd Austin is a fantastic military leader.

I think what I felt good about was hearing from General Austin himself and talking about the importance of the civilian role. I mean, he verbalized that. So, that was a good start. I just hope that he comes. I'm a member of the House Armed Services Committee. We all vote on the waiver.

And my hope is that he's open to making commitments to ensure that strong, robust civilian role.

TAPPER: A source tells CNN that president-elect Biden and General Austin have known each other for a long time and there's a comfort level between them.

That does seem to be a theme with a lot of these Biden administration picks. And I'm wondering if you're concerned at all that Biden is overlooking candidates who could be potential great Cabinet officials, Cabinet secretaries, but don't know him as well, because they, for example, are younger, they didn't serve in the Obama administration.

Is it possible that this comfort level is too important?

SLOTKIN: I don't know. I think that all presidents choose a Cabinet that they feel comfortable with. I think that that's the privy -- that's the responsibility of any president is to nominate people that he feels comfortable with.

They also should be qualified. And I think you can look at all the officials that have been nominated so far. I mean, these are qualified people. And so I don't -- I don't have a concern about that.

I think the important thing is that President Biden have an atmosphere where he supports people pushing back and coming up with alternative views. And, as long as he creates that atmosphere, I have no doubt that he will do that. Then it should be fine to have people he's known for a long time and that he's comfortable with.

TAPPER: Let's talk about the bipartisan proposal, $908 billion for a COVID relief package.

I know -- I'm sure you have a lot of constituents who desperately need help, because the economy is still struggling so much as the pandemic continues to get worse. When you hear from constituents, what do they tell you is the most

critical thing they need from Congress right now?

SLOTKIN: I think, for a lot of people, it's extension of unemployment. They don't have their jobs right now. And so they want to make sure they can still survive, and unemployment is going to run out.

For our small businesses, they want to have access not just to loans, but to some potential loan forgiveness, so they can make it through the winter. We know our -- we need money for the vaccine and to get that distributed.

So, it's a range of things. Food security -- I mean, look at some of the lines for our food banks. I mean, I think people need to acknowledge that is a modern-day bread line, right? That's the kind of thing you see when you look back in the 1920s. And 40 percent of those people have never been to a food bank in their entire life.

So, I think we cannot go home for Christmas without some sort of a deal. And I wish that everybody felt the same sense of urgency. I don't know how they're avoiding it. I'm being bombarded in my offices in phone calls, texts, just when I go grocery shopping.

People want to know that we can still get something done for the country. We just can't go home without that.

TAPPER: We could be a mere days away from a COVID-19 vaccine.

And, this morning, Michigan's top point woman for the vaccine rollout, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, told CNN that her goal for 2021 is to vaccinate 70 percent of Michigan's adult population.


Is that enough?

SLOTKIN: Well, listen, I mean, I think we're going to have to see about the distribution plans and make sure we can get our hands on all the vaccine that we want.

We'd like to have more. We know that there's skepticism about the vaccine, and I think people's confidence will grow when they see people they know and people they respect getting the vaccine.

I'd like it to be north of that. But she -- our health officials in Michigan are extremely conscientious. And so I always trust a doctor's advice over mine.

TAPPER: Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, thank you so much for your time. Congratulations on your reelection.

SLOTKIN: Thank you.