Interview With Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC


John Kerry
Secretary of State

Treaty Room

Washington, DC

February 26, 2014

QUESTION: And good day. I’m Andrea Mitchell live from the State Department here in Washington. Secretary of State John Kerry joins me now here in the Treaty Room.

Mr. Secretary, thank you very much.

SECRETARY KERRY: Glad to be with you. Thank you.

QUESTION: Thanks for being with us. Obviously, a lot of crises to cover, but first of mine is Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has issued an order for a drill mobilizing troops in the west of Russia. How worried should we be about any kind of military action from Russia into Ukraine?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Andrea, first of all, let me just say that what has happened in Ukraine is quite remarkable. It’s a demonstration of the rapidity with which the people’s will be heard or felt in today’s society. And I think the rapidity with which it has moved should frankly be a message to Russia, and Mr. Putin should listen carefully to Ukrainians who have voiced their desire for change. That’s number one.

Number two, President Putin, in a telephone conversation with President Obama just the other day, committed to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine. And I think that’s incredibly important. It would be very difficult for me to understand how Russia would reconcile its position on Libya, its position on Syria, its warnings against intervention in another country and then not respect the sovereignty of Ukraine and the will of the people there.

So we’re hoping that Russia will not see this as sort of a continuation of the Cold War. We don’t see it that way. We do not believe this should be an East-West, Russia-United States – this is not Rocky IV, believe me. We don’t see it that way. We see this as an opportunity for Russia, the United States, and others to strengthen Ukraine, help them in this transition, and there’s no reason that they can’t look east and west and be involved as a vital cog in the economy of all of us going forward. And that’s what our hope is – that there’s a transition government, that there are reforms put in place, that the IMF becomes involved, and that the Ukrainian people have an opportunity to decide their future after they’ve formed a new government.

QUESTION: The Russian Foreign Ministry only today said that the opposition and the rebellion in Ukraine are extremists. They are really dialing up the rhetoric in the last 24 hours.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there’s been some hard statements. I think that – I think to some degree, Russia has not been in touch with some of what’s been happening on the ground here. I think there were some encouragements by some people for Yanukovych – President Yanukovych to take – former President Yanukovych to take a very harsh position here. And I think the people made their wishes and their aspirations as clear as you can make it – 75-plus people killed in the streets, a remarkable day or several days of extraordinary violence, which their courage is now being rewarded.

And I think Russia needs to be very careful in the judgments that it makes going forward here. We are not looking for confrontation, but we are making it clear that every country should respect the territorial integrity here, the sovereignty of Ukraine. Russia has said it will do that, and we think it’s important that Russia keeps its word.

QUESTION: Do we know where Yanukovych is?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to speculate on the whereabouts of Yanukovych.

QUESTION: Well, should he be prosecuted for war crimes?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not going to speculate on any of the accountability components. Generically, we believe that anybody who made a decision or anybody who created these several days of government violence against their own people ought to be held accountable. But the first thing that has to happen is to establish a new government. The people have spoken through their elected representatives. This is active politics at the grassroots that has sprung up in the Rada, their legislature. They have voted according to their process, incidentally. They followed their procedures. They had the requisite number of votes. People who previously supported Yanukovych changed their positions, pulled their support away from him, and voted to impeach him.

So, I mean, this has been a democratic process that has been felt in profound ways, and now I think it’s important for everybody to respect it and let the people of Ukraine find their government, create a reform process, have elections, and begin to get their economy moving. And that’s perhaps the most important thing here. Russia does not need or want a Ukraine that is unstable and more violent going forward and economically a basket case. It’s in everybody’s interest to try to help put this back together and have a democratic, pluralistic Ukraine.

QUESTION: And – but Putin seems to think that we are meddling. Is the United States meddling? You know that there are those overheard conversations in the —

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, you know that – no, the United States has been engaged with a country and with its people in the way that we are around the world engaged like any country. I mean, it’s no different. I mean, Russia is engaged with Assad in Syria. Russia is engaged in various places around the world through its diplomacy, trying to meet its interests. And we are engaged and have been engaged with Ukraine for a long period of time, as they have expressed their will to try to sign up for the Association Agreement with Europe and the Eastern Partnership. That’s what they wanted to do. Russia then came in and engaged with a $15 billion program and different things. I mean, I don’t think we need a sort of back-and-forth about who is pushing what set of opportunities for the people of Ukraine.

The key here is to give the people of Ukraine the full space within which to make their decisions about where they want to go. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re not putting pressure on them. We’re not urging something that they haven’t themselves expressed as a desire. We are trying to honor their intentions of putting together a democratic, pluralistic government that breaks away from this kleptocracy that existed there. And now we’re beginning to get some insights on the lifestyle of Mr. Yanukovych with his multimillion-dollar dining room and his yachts and the rest of it, and this is what the people were rebelling against.

So I don’t think there’s any defense of what was there. What we need now to do is not get into an old Cold War confrontation. We need to work together in what does not have to be a zero-sum game to provide the capacity of the people of Ukraine to choose their future. That’s all that’s at stake.

QUESTION: I want to ask you about Syria. For three years, we have watched horrific pictures. You spoke of this when you were a senator. Obviously, now you’ve got the lead role on it. Horrible pictures. I looked at video of a child weeping over his mother’s body after a barrel bomb was dropped on her and other civilians by the regime. Just today, this picture on the wires from Yarmouk, from the refugee camp in southern Damascus. Why isn’t this genocide?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Andrea, that gets into all kinds of definitions. What it is is wholesale killing of your own people. And —

QUESTION: But it’s killing of one or another ethnic group by a minority leadership.

SECRETARY KERRY: Again, I don’t want to get into the definitions. What he is doing is outrageous, unconscionable, unacceptable, disgraceful, craven. It’s horrendous. And we all know that; everybody knows that. And President Obama has been deeply committed to trying to make a difference in ways that we have chosen within the law that we believe are appropriate and permissible. We are giving aid. We’re helping in many different ways. We’re the largest donor to the humanitarian crisis. We’ve been leading the effort to help put together a political process that might help to make a political resolution possible, where everybody agrees there is no military solution. So the only solution is a political one, and we’ve led the effort to try to help move down that road. We —

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, not everyone agrees that there shouldn’t be some military options. Your former colleague John McCain has been scathing in his criticism that airstrikes are an option. And in fact, back on August 30th you said to the American people in a speech that was widely described and praised as being Churchillian – you said, “As previous storms in history have gathered, when unspeakable crimes were within our power to stop them, we have been warned against the temptations of looking the other way. History is full of leaders who have been warned against inaction, indifference, and especially against silence when it mattered most.”

Now, that was a call to war. And then the President made a different decision to consult Congress. We know how that evolved. He did agree on military action. I know the history here. But without re-litigating that, what about the inaction on airstrikes, on other things that would have taken out the air power of Syria, stopped these bombings by helicopter, by fixed planes, of the civilian populations?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Andrea, as you know better than anybody because you’ve been doing this a long time, there are limits on the ability of any nation to just spontaneously go out and use force whenever it wants. There are laws you have to follow and there’s a process. The fact is that unless the nation that you’re considering invites you in, unless you’re doing it as a matter of self-defense, or unless you have a UN resolution, there are greater limits on what you’re able to do.

The President has taken no option off the table – none. And the President has charged me and the rest of the Administration on his security team to analyze every single available option on an ongoing basis – not something new. He’s constantly reviewing this. He is constantly making judgments about what options may or may not be available. And I can tell you that none of us are satisfied – not the President, not me, no one in this Administration is satisfied – with where we are today. We believe we need to do more.

Now, the President did make a decision to use military force. And he made that decision clear to the world. He then did what was also appropriate, which was ask the Congress of the United States to approve it. And obviously, everybody understands that that was very, very difficult. And before that decision had to be voted on, we came up with an alternative of getting the chemical weapons out. Now we are continuing to put additional pressure on. And I will be – I am constantly talking with our allies in this effort. We are going to be meeting and discussing this in the course of next week in the course of two meetings on Libya and Lebanon – we foreign ministers.

QUESTION: But Russia has blocked any teeth. They finally let the first UN resolution be passed last week. There’s still no enforcement of it, so there’ll be review after 30 days. Russia is again not really our partner here in helping to lessen Assad’s power. And the President said years ago Assad must go. He’s still there. Doesn’t that undermine American authority and the credible threat of military force?

SECRETARY KERRY: I think it’s a challenge to all of us to figure out how we are going to get more pressure on Assad and on others. Frankly, Russia is increasing its assistance to Assad. I do not find that constructive in the effort to try to get him to change his mind and be able to come to a decision that he needs to negotiate in good faith. So we need – that’s one of the reasons why the President is pushing all of us to look at additional options.

The one thing I assure you, Andrea, no one is comfortable with where it is today. We all understand that this is a huge humanitarian crisis. It is putting pressure on Jordan, pressure on Lebanon. There are increasing threats from transfers from Assad to Hezbollah and therefore threats to Israel. There are challenges to Turkey. And all of those countries are engaged in the discussion with us about what steps should be next, and I can guarantee you that every energy and effort of our Administration is going into this discussion right now and the President has taken no option off the table.

QUESTION: Let me ask you about North Korea because the UN has exposed for all to see the horrors of those death camps, the prison camps in North Korea. The human rights wing of the UN is taking it up in Geneva. A former prison guard testified to the UN that he witnessed years ago dogs attacking five children. Two of these children survived the attack by the dogs and were buried alive. How much longer can this go on with China protecting its client, North Korea, and the UN not recommending that the leaders of North Korea be taken to the World Court and prosecuted if they could possibly be captured?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think that every aspect of that report is a huge human – is a huge service to all of us, and I applaud the report. North Korea is one of the most closed and cruel places on Earth; there’s no question about it. There’s evil that is taking place there that all of us ought to be deeply and are deeply concerned about.

I just came back from China. The President sent me there specifically to raise the question of North Korea, of the imperative of our dealing with all of these challenges within North Korea, particularly the nuclear program. We had very serious discussions there about the options available to us, and we are continuing to press for action.

But in the meantime, there is no question that the level of depravity, the level of human rights violations – they’ve conducted executions using 122-millimeter aircraft guns to obliterate people and force people to watch these kinds of executions. This is an evil, evil place, and it requires enormous focus by the world in order to hold it accountable. And I think every aspect of any law that can be applied should be applied.

QUESTION: We have many more questions for you, including, of course, the important Israeli-Palestinian talks. We’ll be right back. Coming up, more with Secretary of State John Kerry live from the State Department. Stay with us right here on Andrea Mitchell Reports on MSNBC.


QUESTION: And welcome back to the State Department and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Venezuela – these protests have been spreading. It started as a student protest; now it’s a lot more. But Maduro is now suggesting that after four years they want to at least consider an exchange of ambassadors. Is there a diplomatic option for us here? Is he beginning to worry perhaps about his own grip on power?

SECRETARY KERRY: I don’t know the answer to whether he’s worried or not, Andrea, but I’ll tell you this: We’ve made several outreaches. I’ve had – I met with the foreign minister of Venezuela when I was down at the OAS meeting, I’ve called and had telephone conversation in which we had – both meetings – we’ve emphasized that we’re looking to improve the relationship, we’d like to see a change.

Regrettably, the president, President Maduro, keeps choosing to blame the United States for things we’re not doing or for things that they’re unhappy about in their own economy and their own society. We’re prepared to have a change in this relationship. This tension between our countries has gone on for too long, in our view, but we’re not going to sit around and be blamed for things we’ve never done and see our diplomats declared persona non grata and sent out of the country for things they didn’t do.

So we’re happy to have a discussion. We’d like to move forward in the relationship, and hopefully Venezuela will begin to deal with its own internal problems and position itself so that we can engage thoughtfully.

QUESTION: Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu is coming to meet the President and obviously, you’ll be having top-level meeting next week. In Israel, some of the hardliners have reacted very personally and viciously against you, accusing you of being anti-Semitic in one case – a cabinet minister – because of your pursuit of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Your reaction?

SECRETARY KERRY: It’s a very complicated, very difficult issue for a lot of people. It’s so emotional, so deep historically and culturally that I do not get agitated, or I just don’t let those things get in the way. I believe and President Obama believes that Israel and the region and the Palestinians will all be served by having peace. And what we’re trying to do is move the process forward, not impose on anybody something, but move the process forward in a way that respects the needs of everybody.

Israel has fundamental security needs. We honor that. Our security bond – our bond, period, with Israel is ironclad. It’s not going to be changed. And we will meet our obligations and our commitments to Israel with respect to its security, even as we try to nudge this process forward to end what has been too many years of conflict. And the other side of the coin, Andrea, is there’s this enormous set of possibilities for the economy, for what relationships could be established through the recognition that would come with peace from 57 Muslim countries – 22 Arab countries, 35 Muslim countries. It’s all in the waiting. It’s all out there. And we’re going to continue to press forward notwithstanding these occasional comments from one corner or another, which I just don’t let get in the way of the process.

QUESTION: But one reason that even the prime minister is very concerned about you and your policy and the President’s policy is the Iran negotiations. Iran has right now lived up to every one of its commitments in terms of not installing more centrifuges, not reactivating the construction at Arak, not enriching beyond a certain level. So, so far, so good. But the next part is really the hard – the hard step.


QUESTION: And are you prepared to accept a deal that lets them continue enriching beyond a certain level and reinstall those advanced centrifuges and continue construction on their – and keep their missiles?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Andrea, I’m not going to – let me —

QUESTION: And keep their missiles?

SECRETARY KERRY: Let me just say to you that I’m obviously not going to negotiate on a television program, even yours. And I appreciate —

QUESTION: It’s always open to you.

SECRETARY KERRY: But we’re not going to – President Obama is not going to enter into a bad deal. He didn’t do that in this first step, and he’s not going to do it in a final step. The President is committed. As he said from the beginning, his policy is Iran will not have a nuclear weapon. And it’s important for us in this negotiation to keep the rhetoric and the tone of this in a place where we could actually try to have the best opportunity to get to a final deal.

It’s going to be tough. We know this. We have no illusions about this and we are approaching it with an attitude of looking for maximum accountability, maximum transparency, maximum verification so that the world can know that if there is a final agreement, they are assured that Iran is on a peaceful track. That’s what we’re looking for. We believe there’s a way to get there. But none of us would say to you today, “We know we will get there.” It’s a very difficult negotiation.

QUESTION: Uganda, you have the law – the anti-homosexual law in Uganda. Now we have a state, Arizona, where the governor has yet to make a decision on whether to permit a ban on businesses serving gays and lesbians. Doesn’t it undercut our moral posture telling Uganda and other countries – Putin, for instance – on human rights abuses against people for reasons of their sexuality when one of our states is about to do this unless it’s vetoed by the governor?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let’s see whether the governor vetoes it. I’m counting on the governor. I cannot imagine how that law would withstand the scrutiny of the Supreme Court of the United States. So I would hope that she’ll make the right decision. And until then, it doesn’t, no.

And I think we’ve been through our own struggle. Everybody knows that. This has not been an easy path in the United States, but what’s important is we’re on the path, we’re staying steady. We’ve made enormous progress in the United States. And we will stand up for people’s rights anywhere in the world because that’s who we are in the United States of America.

I think this law in Uganda – the notion that somebody for being gay would be thrown into jail for 14 years or otherwise punished in other ways – is disgraceful. We’ve spoken out about it. It’s contrary to fundamental, basic human rights. It’s also contrary to science. It’s contrary to fact. It’s contrary to everything that we believe is representative of a growing understanding in the world about the rights of our fellow human beings. And so we will fight against it.

Now, I was not aware until recently – very recently – that there are 80 countries that have laws on their books of one kind or another that outlaw homosexuality. And it’s just – this is going to be now a fight that’s going to be taken from places where great progress has been made to the world. And I think we’re going to see increasing discussion, increasing change, and ultimately, I believe people’s rights will be honored in the way that they should be. It’ll take a while longer, but this is a fight worth fighting.

QUESTION: Speaking of science, last week you called climate change perhaps the “most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.” You’ve been a lifelong environmentalist, committed to climate change. I’ve seen and heard you over the years.

Now, you have a big decision to make. There’s a report on your desk. I don’t know when you have time to read anything with all your travel, but the report does give you a pass on this if you choose to take it by saying that climate change would not be affected one way or the other. And in fact, there are arguments by some environmentalists that there would be a worse impact if rail or trucks were used for the same natural gas that would be fracked in – certainly in Canada. So how do you approach this decision?

In social media, a friend of the show on Facebook today asked: “What are you going to do? What can you tell your allies in the environmental movement?”

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, first of all, let me correct one thing. What I said about climate change is it’s one of the two or three top sort of weapons or instruments of mass destruction, which it is. It’s having a profound impact on a global basis and will continue to. Obviously, we have others that are also of enormous concern. But climate change, global warming, whatever you – whatever anybody preference to call it is, is increasingly a national security threat. It is increasingly going to provide major challenges to food security, to water security, to refugee populations which it’s going to create, to the stability and instability of countries, to economies. This is growing in its urgency for us to respond to it. And so I will continue down that path.

With respect to Keystone, I am prohibited under the process of – to discuss it publicly. And I’m not going to. I’m engaged in a very private, personal process within the Department to look at the facts. And I’ll make my judgment based on the facts to make a recommendation to the President about the national interest. And I’m not going to make any hints or any indicators of what that might be at any point in time. I’m going to just do my job and do the due diligence, and when the time is right, I’ll make that report.

QUESTION: Speaking of social media, I wonder how you finally got the State Department to let you get back on Twitter. You’ve been making up for lost time, it seems. Just to review some of the things you’ve been doing, you’ve been tweeting about the Olympics, joking about no longer having dark hair to Seth Meyers, you’ve talked about the Beatles, your picture with John Lennon. You even started your own hashtag, #jktweetsagain. You do need to do a little work on your selfies. We saw the one in Jakarta —

SECRETARY KERRY: How did you know that was my selfie?

QUESTION: At Jakarta at the climate conference with all those kids? Well, yeah, we’re showing it now.

SECRETARY KERRY: That was a great selfie.

QUESTION: That was a great selfie.


QUESTION: But just – are you enjoying being back on Twitter? Speak to your followers.

SECRETARY KERRY: Speak to my followers. How could I not self – (laughter) – I’m enjoying being back on Twitter, sure. My staff is extremely nervous, but that’s all right.

QUESTION: Let John Kerry be John Kerry, or jktweetsagain.


QUESTION: And looking at your predecessor, Hillary Clinton – making a decision whether she will run, whether she won’t run – how much do you think Benghazi and admitted – acknowledged State Department failures of security, which were articulated in the State Department’s own independent report, how much should that be an issue or not an issue in whether she —

SECRETARY KERRY: Andrea, one of the great virtues – if Hillary were sitting here, she’d tell you the same thing as she did many times – one of the great virtues of this job is I will not get engaged in presidential and domestic politics of any kind.

QUESTION: Do you miss politics?

SECRETARY KERRY: I beg your pardon?

QUESTION: Do you miss politics at all?

SECRETARY KERRY: I loved being a senator for Massachusetts for the years I was senator, and of course I miss a lot of aspects of it. Yeah, I do. But this is a spectacular job, and I love doing what I’m doing, and I love the fact that for a concentrated period of time, even though I miss some of the other aspects – not all of them, mind you – I am able to focus on a specific task, a specific set of issues. And that is a luxury, believe me, to not have to go to a fundraiser, to not have to ask people for money, to not have to engage in some of the day-to-day things is really – it’s a blessing. And I love the ability to be able to focus on the issues as intensely as I am right now.

QUESTION: And in terms of social media, we did open up for questions on Facebook for friends of the show, and Gayle Hoffman said she’s concerned about your wife Teresa. Can you share with our viewers how she’s doing?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that’s very sweet of her. She is doing her due diligence to get better. She’s working hard. She’s up in Boston right now. I was with her on the weekend, and she’s working very, very hard to come back fully from a very tough seizure that she had. And part of the worst of it is just the medicine itself kind of flattens you a little bit. But she’s fighting.

QUESTION: Well, she is a fighter. We know her and love her, and wish her our very best, and you, Mr. Secretary. Safe travels. Come home more often. (Laughter.) And thanks to you for your hospitality —


QUESTION: — and to the entire staff here at the State Department for letting us do our broadcast here today.

SECRETARY KERRY: Good fun. Thanks.

QUESTION: Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Appreciate it. Thanks.