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John Kerry: Putin, countries like China ‘taking advantage’ of Trump

Former Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday he’s “never” seen an administration in as much disarray as President Donald Trump’s, and warned that other countries were “taking advantage” of the chaos in Washington.

“There are certain people who are readily and happily taking advantage of this president,” including China and Russia, Kerry told PBS NewsHour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff. “I think people all over the world are holding their breath and wondering what’s next.”

Kerry criticized Trump’s foreign and domestic policies, saying the president had a “disdain for fact,” and argued that congressional gridlock and partisanship in the U.S. was having a “horrible effect” around the world.

Kerry, who served as secretary of state under former President Barack Obama, compared the infighting and turmoil in the Trump administration to Richard Nixon’s White House during the Watergate scandal. But Kerry also took leaders in Washington to task.

”What we’re seeing [today] is simply not rising to the level of concern publicly or in choices that are being made by people in Washington who have an ability to have an impact,” Kerry said.

The NewsHour interview comes as Kerry is back in the spotlight with the publication of a new book, “Every Day Is Extra.” The memoir recounts his long career in public service, including his service in Vietnam and his nearly three decades in the Senate, including a failed White House run in 2004.

Here are more highlights from Kerry’s interview:

On Syria: When asked if the Obama administration’s inaction led to the country’s entrenched conflict and humanitarian disaster, Kerry said it was the “failing” of the entire international community, not just the U.S. He called the result a “festering wound.”

On North Korea: Kerry criticized the results of Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June, saying it ended with no clear definition of what “denuclearization” is, nor how the North Koreans would achieve it.

On Iran: Kerry said he believed the U.S. is “reaching for a regime change strategy.” National Security Adviser John Bolton and others have claimed regime change was not the administration’s intent by pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. Kerry, who helped broker the Iran agreement, said the U.S. withdrawal infuriated American allies and empowered Iranian hardliners.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    John Kerry has led many lives over a five-decade career in public service. He enlisted in the Navy in 1966 and served in Vietnam after graduating from Yale.

    A highly decorated officer, he then famously spoke out against that war upon his return. He would go on to serve in the U.S. Senate for nearly 30 years. In 2004, he was the Democratic nominee for president.

    And, in January 2017, he completed four years as secretary of state under President Obama.

    He recounts those years and those lives in a new autobiography, "Every Day Is Extra."

    And John Kerry joins me again.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • John Kerry:

    Thank you so much. Happy to be here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, this book is about your life, your public life, your personal life.

    I want to back into it, though, by looking at Washington right now. A lot of news about disarray, confusion inside the White House, questions about President Trump's leadership.

    In all your time in this city, have you ever seen anything like this?

  • John Kerry:

    Never.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And is there anything you can compare it to?

  • John Kerry:

    Well, obviously, the closest comparison is the years of Richard Nixon.

    Richard Nixon taped himself. Donald Trump had Omarosa, so there's a little more spice to it.

    But what we're seeing, Judy, I regret to say, is simply not rising to the level of concern publicly or in choices that are being made by people in Washington who have an ability to have an impact.

    And I particularly the United States Senate was designed for moments like this. That's why people have six-year terms. It's why it's operated under different rules.

    But one party appears to have decided that their fealty, their loyalty to party, president and power is greater than their loyalty to upholding the Constitution and preserving the institution itself.

    I think it is stunning to me that — I mean, look, you have a president I would states about whom everybody knows there is a disdain for facts, there is almost no truth coming out on a daily basis.

    The major media documented almost 5,000 lies now. You have a document being taken off the desk of the president so that a policy isn't put in place.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What effect do you think it's having on United States' position in the world?

  • John Kerry:

    Horrible effect.

    And it's not what I think is happening. It's what I know is happening. There are certain people who are readily and happily taking advantage of this president. And you have seen that, I think, with what China is doing right now in certain places. You see that with President Putin in so many ways.

    I mean, what happened in Helsinki is a total disgrace, when he met with President Putin. And he came out of a meeting with President Putin and ratified, seemed to take President Putin's position on how we could get to the bottom of the Russia investigation, by having Mike McFaul, the former ambassador, be submitted, be subjected to coming over to Russia to have to be interrogated by the Russians.

    He gave up on the idea after 24 hours, but it shouldn't have lasted for 24 seconds. I mean, this is the kind of thing that I think people all over the world are holding their breath and wondering, what's next?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let me ask about some specific places, parts of American foreign policy where we are watching problems right now.

    Syria. This is a place, it's been in the middle of the civil war. Right now, they are on the cusp of what appears to be a humanitarian disaster. The Syrian government, with the backing of Russia and Iran, about to go in and attack the last holdout of rebels.

    This — over the — it happened, built up over a course of years, in which the U.S. has not played the role that many thought it had. You tried in your time in the Obama administration to get the U.S. more involved.

    Is what we are seeing today, honestly, the fruits of decisions made during the Obama administration not to get more involved?

  • John Kerry:

    It's the fruits of a long period of, unfortunately, the entire international community failing to do what the international community should do.

    But I write in the book — there's a chapter on Syria called "The Open Wound." Why? Because it is a festering, open wound, because we didn't, in my judgment, make the moves we should have made to leverage Assad to the table.

    I thought there were things we could have done. The — I lost that argument.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why do you think President Obama didn't go along with you?

  • John Kerry:

    He had a perception and a different conclusion to his thinking process. And his judgment was that it carried risks that were not worth taking, that it also would probably drag us in even more at a time when we were trying to get out of several other wars.

    I didn't carry the argument. The president is the decider. And I backed the decision. I mean, he makes those decisions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to move you through several other elements of American foreign policy.

    North Korea, you have been very critical of President Trump, but he did extend an outreach to leader Kim, North Korea. They had a summit. There are some signs that the North Koreans may be slowing down — we don't know what more they are doing — their nuclear development program.

    There haven't been any more…

  • John Kerry:

    Well, the intelligence community says they're continuing.

    Our intelligence community says they're continuing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So you don't believe there's been any positive move toward an agreement on nuclear — denuclearization?

  • John Kerry:

    I believe that it is good to talk.

    I supported the president in his effort to try to reach out. But I don't support diplomacy that has not been thought through sufficiently to have a clear preparation process for a summit and a clear understanding of what you can get out of that summit.

    But the truth is, there is no understanding on what denuclearization means. There is no understanding for how you move to actually account for the current weaponry they have. There has to be a declaration of what they have. Then there has to be an adequate process of access to determine whether that declaration is truthful and then, how do you manage it?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So you don't…

  • John Kerry:

    None of that has happened.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you don't see anything positive there that…

  • John Kerry:

    I see positive that they reached out and positive that they're willing to talk.

    I see it's positive that, for at least this period of time, he's not firing a missile. But what we hear from our intel community is that they are continuing the production behind the scenes, quietly, under the table. And there are great indications that, in fact — that, in fact, Chairman Kim is playing rope-a-dope.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very quickly through some other points, because I want I want to get to the book.

    But I do want to ask you about the Iran nuclear deal. You have made it clear you think it was a huge mistake for the Trump administration to withdraw the U.S. from that nuclear deal. What do you — do you think — just very quickly, do you think the Europeans can hold that together, A, and, B, what do you think the Trump administration's goal here is? Do you think it's regime change?

  • John Kerry:

    Well, I do.

    I think that, fundamentally, they have — they're reaching for a regime change strategy. But I think that they have, in fact, made a decision which is extraordinarily dangerous and counterproductive for our country.

    And so let me ask you a question. I mean, what countries are with us? I mean, a couple of countries in the Middle East who have always hated Iran, their focus is Iran. But the countries that were involved in the negotiation, China, Russia, Germany, France, Britain, are all supportive of the agreement today, trying to keep the agreement.

    And what's interesting is, Iran is supportive of the agreement and trying to keep the agreement.

    Now, President Trump, by pulling out, has abandoned our allies, actually infuriated them. He has also broken apart the capacity of a moderate president of Iran, moderate, by their standard — I'm not — don't qualify here — but to try to begin to move his country away from where they were heading and embrace change and an opening to the world.

    Now the hard-liners in Iran have been empowered by what has happened, and the president has made it harder for any Iranian leader to sit down and negotiate with an American, because the hard-liners said, don't negotiate with the Americans because you can't trust them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To the book — or more on the book and more on your life.

    How do you see your role in how the United States looks back on Vietnam?

  • John Kerry:

    What I hope — I mean, John McCain and I defined that role to a degree together.

    John and I didn't know each other well. He was the prisoner of war, spent five-and-a-half years in jail. I was a protester who came back after the war I had seen.

    So we went back to Vietnam. We created the — an enormous process by which we account for those missing and dead or prisoner. And I write in the book that one of the most profound moments of my public career was standing in the jail cell in Hanoi, in the Hanoi Hilton, where John McCain spent some of those years, with him, just the two of us.

    And it struck me, if John McCain and John Kerry can come together and find common ground in a jail cell in Hanoi, we can solve any problem here in America.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's what I want to ask you about, because you do write about your time in the Senate in the 1980s, the '90s, the 2000s, when, even though there was clearly disagreement between Republicans and Democrats, they were able to work together on some important issues.

    Is this country ever going back to a time like this? Or are we permanently changed?

  • John Kerry:

    Depends on leaders.

    The rules of the Senate, I tell people, are only marginally — tiny rule or here, the nuclear piece, obviously, on judges — but, basically, the rules of the Senate are the same they were when it worked. It's the people who have changed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have been talking, in talking about this book, about the importance for Democrats of these midterms, of showing up, voting.

    What is it that Democrats should be saying to the American people this fall?

  • John Kerry:

    Well, I think the Democrats are saying it to the American people. It gets swallowed up in daily tweets and in other things that are happening.

    But it's very, very clear only one party in this country made a point of nominating a candidate who didn't believe the president of the United States was born in America or was American. Only one party in this country has been willing to walk back from their constitutional responsibility when you look at what's happening in the White House today.

    But the Democratic Party, I believe, wants to make sure that they're not going to take away health care from Americans because of — because of preexisting conditions. I think the Democratic Party is very clear about climate change. We want to be the — the people who bring the energy revolution that is millions of jobs, cleaner, saves lives, and makes America a leader in the world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have referred several times to the need for presidential leadership. You haven't ruled out yourself running in 2020.

  • John Kerry:

    I have not been thinking about doing it.

    My entire effort right now is focused on 2018, because, in two months, we have an opportunity to make our democracy work. And it's a great course correction we could have.

    The difference in Donald Trump's presidency is not the people who voted for him. It's the people who didn't vote at all.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you haven't ruled it out, 2020?

  • John Kerry:

    You keep going there, you guys.

    (CROSSTALK)

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former Secretary of State John Kerry.

    And the book is "Every Day Is Extra."

    Thank you.

  • John Kerry:

    Thank you. Appreciate it.

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