Sen. Marco Rubio on Monday night unveiled a new line of attack on the Republican who's become his primary competition for the party's nomination in recent days — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whom Rubio said voted to "weaken our intelligence programs."
"At least two of my colleagues in the Senate aspiring to the presidency - Senator Cruz in particular - have voted to weaken the U.S. intelligence programs just in the last month and a half," he said during a discussion at the Wall Street Journal's CEO Council event in Washington. "And the weakening of our intelligence gathering capabilities leaves America vulnerable."
His comments referenced Sen. Rand Paul as well, though not by name. Both Paul and Cruz voted in favor of the USA Freedom Act in June, which would have reigned in government surveillance programs.
Rubio called the issue of intelligence gathering a "distinctive issue of debate in the presidential race." And as he seeks to carve out a distinct lane in the presidential primary as a candidate with both the right experience — having served on a number of national security committees in the Senate — and the right perspective — leaning more towards the hawkish neoconservative wing of the party — on defense, intelligence is an area on which he draws a sharp distinction from his more conservative opponents.
He went so far as to suggest the government would need to "force" technology companies to turn over information about their users to the government, in response to a question on the issue.
"The U.S. government has neither the competence, the money or the time to spy on every American, and so that's not happening," he said. "But we need to have access to this information in order to save lives, especially in an exigent circumstances. And so we need the cooperation with these technology companies, but ultimately the authority of the United States might be necessary."
Rubio also sounded a hawkish note on Russia, suggesting the nation is only involved in Syria to attack non-ISIS forces and create a "false choice" for the world to choose between the Assad regime and ISIS. He emphasized the need for a no-fly safe zone in Syria for those fleeing the chaos there, and suggested if Russia were to break such a zone they'd be asking for the U.S. To attack.
"I think that we would be more than capable of discouraging the Russians from conducting those attacks," he said.
Pressed on whether that means the U.S. Would "shoot down" a Russian plane, Rubio said "I don't think it will get to that point but that would be their choice," noting the U.S.'s "superior military capability in the region."
Rubio also again slammed Cruz and the rest of the GOP field on immigration, charging every candidate supported legalization of those here illegally, even Donald Trump, who's called for the mass deportation of all undocumented immigrants.
"Donald Trump wants them to leave before he legalizes them…and then he's going to legalize them and bring them back in," he said.
Of Cruz, he repeated his charge that the Texan has "not only sponsored an amendment that would have [legalized undocumented immigrants] but months later was still talking about his support of it.
"If he's changed his position, he has a right and I think he should be asked whether he changed his position," Rubio said.
The Floridian, however, seemed to shift his own stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement currently under review in Congress. While he supported fast-tracking approval of the agreement in a vote earlier this year, and his office then told National Review that he "read the TPP text weeks ago," on Monday night Rubio sounded uncertain, and said he'd have to review the final document.
"I support tree trade, I support a TPP, whether this specific one I'll support, we have to review. We just literally got it I believe a week ago Thursday or Friday, we have a 90 day review period." he said.
And he laid out his top three priorities as president, what he'd spend his political capital on: Rebuilding the U.S. Defense, in part by eliminating the sequester; doing "everything possible to ensure that America fulfills its potential in the 21st century economy," which includes Obamacare repeal, tax reform, regulatory reform, full utilization of our energy resources & entitlement reform. If he has any capital left, he said, he'd "modernize higher education."