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Condoleezza Rice: Amid Russia investigation, we should have confidence in our democratic institutions

May 12, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joins Judy Woodruff to discuss her new book, “Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom,” as well as President Trump’s abrupt firing of former FBI Director James Comey, the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, her confidence in Attorney General Jeff Sessions and potential cuts facing the State Department.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now one-on-one with Condoleezza Rice.

I sat down with the former secretary of state earlier today to discuss President Trump’s abrupt firing of former FBI Director James Comey, the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election, and her new book, “Democracy: Stories From the Long Road to Freedom.”

Secretary Condoleezza Rice, thank you very much for talking with us.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, Former U.S. Secretary of State: A pleasure to be with you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Trump, as you know, fired the FBI director, James Comey, this week.

You are someone who has served at the highest levels of government. Do you believe what the president did, at the moment of the Russia investigation going on, crossed any ethical lines?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, the president obviously had the authority to relieve the FBI director. Obviously, these are 10-year terms because it should be rare that that happens.

But I really think, at this point, we need to settle down, step back and let the investigation move forward. I have great confidence that whoever is at the FBI is going to find a group of career people who are dedicated to a thorough investigation.

Senate Intelligence has all of the tools that it needs, all the information, because, Judy, I worry that this is starting to erode people’s confidence in our institutions. And we shouldn’t have that erosion, because we have institutions that can handle even disruption of this kind.

But we need to find out what happened. It was a hostile act by a foreign power. We need to find out what happened and let the facts fall where they do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the president said the investigation should go forward, but he’s also called it a charade and said that it all stems from Democrats being angry over the outcome of the election. So, he himself has undermined what’s going on.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, whatever is said, the investigation will go forward, and it will reveal whatever happened there.

And so my view, and I think it’s probably shared by a lot of my fellow citizens, is, could we get on with this and really find out what happened here?

You know, I look at Vladimir Putin as somebody who is an eye-for-an-eye kind of person. We questioned the legitimacy of his election in 2012, Secretary Clinton did — rightly, by the way. It did have — it was quite fraudulent.

And so I think he’s saying now, I’m going to show you that I can do the same thing.

And we shouldn’t let him do that. We should have confidence in our institutions, let them get started, let them get finished, because we have a lot of other work to do on behalf of the American people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To get to the bottom of this is going to take time, is going to take an investigation.

This country needs to take seriously what President Putin has done and his government has done, shouldn’t it?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: We absolutely need to take it seriously. As I said, it’s a hostile act.

But there are ways to handle even hostile acts. We say to the Russians, we know you did it. At a time of our choosing, we will find a way to punish that behavior.

But we do have confidence in our institutions. We are not Russia. We have an executive that is constrained. We have a legislature that is real. We have a press that is free. We have courts that are independent. This is not Russia.

And we don’t have to allow him to draw that parallel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Separate, but related question, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had a role in essentially signing off on the decision to fire the director of the FBI, at a time when the attorney general had himself recused himself from the Russia investigation because of things that had happened before this.

You wrote a letter of endorsement for the attorney general. Any concern about that?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I still have the highest regard for Jeff Sessions.

Look, I can’t — I don’t think any of us know now what the course of events actually as it led to this. There seems to be a lot of confusion about what came when from whom.

Let the White House speak to why this unfolded in the particular way, but I have a lot of confidence in Jeff Sessions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the same time, in the middle of all this, the president had a meeting in the Oval Office with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak.

What of this, again, at the same time this investigation is under way?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, I don’t have a problem with him meeting with the Russian foreign minister.

President Putin received Secretary Tillerson when he was in Moscow. It would be reciprocal for the president to receive the foreign minister of Russia when he’s in Washington.

We have important things to talk to the Russians about, despite their meddling in our elections. I hope they’re talking about a way to eventually end this horrific humanitarian crisis in Syria, end that war. The Russians have more leverage than we do. I hope they’re talking about the fact that, if Kim Jong-un’s long-range missiles can reach Alaska one day, they can also reach Vladivostok.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about with the ambassador to the U.S.?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, the ambassador is going to always accompany the foreign minister.

And so not everything is abnormal in this situation, and that seemed to be perfectly normal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The book. You write with great passion about how important it is for the United States to pursue democracy, democratic values, freedom, as it pursues its foreign policy in the decade to come.

Why was it important to you to write this book now?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I think, on some level, I have always wanted to write this book, because I think there is a kind of mystery about democracy.

How do people come to trust these abstract institutions, the Constitution, rule of law, courts, elections, to carry out their concerns, rather than going to the streets? How does that happen?

And in the United States, you know, I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. We weren’t full citizens. My parents couldn’t go to a movie theater with me. My dad couldn’t register to vote in 1952. And yet I remember very well — and I relayed it in the book — standing as — being in the car with my uncle on the way back from school.

It was Election Day. And George Wallace was about to be elected governor of Alabama. And my 6-or-so-year-old self knew that that wasn’t good for black people. There were lines and lines of black people voting.

And I said to him, “So, this man Wallace can’t win if all these people vote.”

And he said, “No.” He said, “We are minority.” He said, “He will win.”

I said, “Then why do they bother?”

He said, “Because they know that, one day, that vote will matter.”

And I have always seen people around the world doing that, and I think people have this — they are attracted to it. So, there is a moral case for supporting people who want the same benefits that we have. We are safer when we support democratic development as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were a — one of the major advocates for Rex Tillerson being hired to be the secretary of state. And the president is proposing a 25 percent cut in the budget of the State Department. Are you concerned?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, I don’t think you will see cuts of that magnitude.

Let’s remember, the administration proposes, but it’s the Congress that authorizes and appropriates. And I think you’re going to have to see some rebalancing, because diplomacy is a very important part of national security.

Now, there are some efficiencies that the State Department could achieve. I think there’s no doubt about that. And I think the numbers have gone up a lot. There seem to be many more people. So, maybe there are efficiencies.

But when I look to the department, I look, first of all, at a Foreign Service that is already a bit stretched. I remember Bob Gates once said there are more people in military bands than foreign service officers.

I also see programs that have just redounded to America’s benefit abroad, for instance, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, that showed our compassion and saved the continent from pandemic, the Millennium Challenge, which is a foreign assistance program that is predicated on the idea that you get foreign assistance only if you’re governing wisely, fighting corruption.

Why wouldn’t you want to help countries like that? Look, we needed to raise the defense budget, but we need to be careful that we keep our diplomatic tools intact as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re confident that the things that you just described are going to survive?

(CROSSTALK)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, I certainly am going to be out there arguing for them. And a lot of people are.

And, you know, in the book, I try to explain to people that democracy promotion isn’t all that expensive. When we think of it, one of the regrets I have about Iraq and Afghanistan, and say this, is that people have come to think of that as democracy promotion.

And that was so hard, and that was the loss of life and so expensive. I would never have said to President Bush, use military force to bring democracy to Iraq or Afghanistan.

We had a security problem in Iraq and Afghanistan. We used military force to bring down those governments. Then we had to have a view. What comes after? And we thought that it was better to give the Iraqi and Afghan people a pathway to democracy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re describing things that I don’t hear this administration talking about. They’re talking about more troops in Afghanistan 15 years after the U.S. first went in.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Yes.

Well, we may well need more troops, but we’re also going to need — you know, we didn’t stabilize and win the hearts and minds and ultimately the stability of Germany and Japan with our military forces alone. We defeated imperial Japan, and we defeated Nazi Germany, but it was the bet on a democratic Germany, on a democratic Japan that they would never again threaten their neighbors, that’s what paid off.

And now they are firm pillars of international stability.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last question, human rights.

Secretary Tillerson has spoken out forcefully just in the last few days about how, in making decisions about U.S. policy, national security, that human rights and American values can’t be part of that conversation right now.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, I heard a little bit more nuanced speech from Secretary Tillerson on this.

I remember when I gave the speech in Egypt in 2005 saying Egypt had to leave the world for democracy and reform, and people said, well, then how can you talk to Mubarak?

Well, you have to talk to the Egyptian president or the Turkish president. You have to talk to people who have bad human rights records. I had to sit with Moammar Gadhafi, for goodness’ sakes.

Sometimes, policy, you do have to deal with people who don’t share your values. But you are always better off to remember that your values and your interests are linked in the long run. And that’s how America has prospered.

And the moral case is that we are an idea. And it can’t be that liberty is right for us and not for them. And so the language here will matter. I saw nuance in that speech, but I do want to hear the administration say that America’s always going to stand for the voiceless. That is what has made us a great power.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And are you hearing them say that?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: These are early days.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Condoleezza Rice, thank you very much, the book, “Democracy: Stories From the Long Road to Freedom.”

Thank you.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Thank you.

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