The thin-skinned need not apply.

Denis McDonough Welcomes the Criticism

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said his relations with Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham remain good, even though the two Republicans are among the most vocal critics of President Barack Obama's foreign policy.

"I watch what they say very closely and I admire them both a lot," McDonough said in an interview on "Charlie Rose." He said he listens to what the senators have to say "privately" as well as publicly, and respects their "hard-earned" perspective on national security and foreign policy.

The Arizona and South Carolina senators have condemned Obama for reportedly sending a private message to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In a joint statement yesterday, McCain and Graham said the letter suggesting Iran and the U.S. had a mutual interest in fighting Islamic State was an "ill-conceived bargain," because the U.S. continues to withhold sufficient support to pro-American rebels seeking to bring down the "brutal" regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

"It is outrageous that, while the cries of moderate Syrian forces for greater U.S. assistance fall on deaf ears in the White House, President Obama is apparently urging Ayatollah Khamenei to join the fight against ISIS," the lawmakers said.

McDonough wouldn’t confirm reports of the private letter, though two U.S. officials confirmed its existence on condition of anonymity yesterday. Even so, he suggested it would make sense to seek a dialogue with Iranians as the two sides try to reach an accord on that country's nuclear capacities. He rejected the claims by McCain and Graham that such a discussion would endanger alliances with Arab partners.

McDonough, a former top congressional staffer, has forged a good personal relationship with McCain, who was defeated by Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

The chief of staff, who said a meeting between the president and congressional leaders today had been "constructive," won’t accompany Obama on a trip to Asia that begins tomorrow. With Republicans taking control of the Senate after the midterm elections and the current Congress coming back for a lame duck session next week, he has a full agenda in Washington.

Separately, McDonough said Obama's decision today to approve the deployment of as many as 1,500 more U.S. military personnel to Iraq didn't amount to "mission creep." He said the forces wouldn’t be involved in combat and that he didn’t expect any more troops to be sent.

Excerpts of the interview will air on "Charlie Rose This Week" on PBS this evening; the full interview airs on "Charlie Rose" later tonight on PBS and will be rebroadcast on Bloomberg Television. (Check local listings for times.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Albert R Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net