Former Secretary of State John Kerry joined me Wednesday to discuss his new memoir, Every Day Is Extra:
HH: So pleased now to welcome former Secretary of State John Kerry to the program. Secretary Kerry, welcome. Every Day Is Extra is a fine read. I love memoirs. I’m a sucker for memoirs, but this one is very good. Welcome, and thank you for joining us.
JK: Well, thank you, Hugh, and I apologize for being a moment late. I was trying to dial in, and the number wouldn’t work, but I finally got it.
HH: Oh, I’m glad you’re here. I’m going to save the last ten minutes for Iran, but I want to begin, one of the many revelations, many surprises in this, I did not know on the 4th of July weekend of ’13 when the government of Mr. Morsi was falling apart in Egypt that your wife had a serious health episode. That was very surprising. How is her recovery going?
JK: She’s doing great. Thank you very much. She’s a fighter, and she came back from it very well. But she did. She had a bad seizure, what they call a grand mal seizure. It’s the only one ever, and we learned a lot. I learned a lot about that challenge that apparently in 50% of all seizures, they can never tell you why it happened, and you may never have it again. It’s just amazing.
HH: Yeah, idiomatic syncope. I had it in my family, and so when I read that, I was fascinated. And you were in the middle of following and sort of overseeing our response to the army’s takeout of Morsi. It doesn’t, it brought home the fact that diplomats have lives.
JK: They do, occasionally. That’s for sure.
HH: I also liked the story about Tom Hanks breaking your nose. I imagine you’ve told that a few times.
JK: You know, I’ve only told it in the last few days. I never really revealed that, actually, until the last couple of days with the book. But yes, we were in a hockey game out at Christmas time in Ketchum, Idaho. And he fell in front of me, and I tried to leap over him, and started to get up before I’d leaped and cleared him, and hit the back of my legs, and legs went up and face went down, plant, boom.
HH: Yeah, there are not many people whom Big’s star has broken their nose, or Saving Private Ryan. Let me go to a serious…
JK: Well, it was a real Forrest Gump moment, I’ll tell you that.
HH: It is funny as hell, but I want to talk on a serious thing. Anne Smedinghoff, Page 418…
HH: Never heard of her before. I salute you for including her. Tell the people about her.
JK: Well, Anne Smedinghoff was this brilliant, young woman that I met when I went to Afghanistan, in Kabul. And she was my control officer. She shaped my whole trip. She introduced me to these remarkable ten Afghan women who were running their businesses, which is quite extraordinary, in Afghanistan, among other things. And she was just so full of life and energetic and happy and thrilled to be doing something that she thought was important. And literally, just weeks after I’d met her there, she was killed when she was trying to deliver books to a school with other people, and a suicide vest went off near them. And it was just a terrible, terrible story. And people with her were killed and injured very, very badly. Her name is now up on the wall in the first floor of the State Department where people who have lost their lives in the course of duty are honored. She had a wonderful family, a sister who is also in foreign service. I mean, it’s just quite an amazing story, these unsung heroes that most Americans never hear about who believe in America, they believe in helping other countries, they believe in service, and they literally lay their lives down in service to country.
HH: You know, I put the book down at that point, because it comes around again and again when you’re not expecting it. I went out to interview your successor at State, Mike Pompeo, when he was at the CIA, and I saw the wall with the stars. My college roommate, good friend, you know him, Mark Gearan, would lose people when he was running the Peace Corps.
HH: And we don’t, we do honor the men and women in the military, and rightly so when they fall. But we don’t often hear about Anne Smedinghoff and their counterparts.
JK: No, we don’t. And that’s why every year, we have a day of honor in the State Department, and you know, it doesn’t matter who the secretary is. We take time out to honor those people. And of course, the stars that are on the wall at the CIA, I mean, there are unsung heroes whose names are never public. And it’s just an extraordinary, I think it’s a particularly American trait, to be honest with you. There’s something about our country and about people who serve that they’re willing to take great risks in order to advance our interests.
HH: Well, it’s, I’m just very glad you included her. I salute you for that. Your long career means there are many coincidences. For me, it’s the fact that my first campaign as a freshman at Harvard was working on Paul Cronin’s ill-fated 1974 campaign when he lost to young Paul Tsongas, whom you would replace in the Senate. I find that Bob Mueller ran the BCCI investigation on Page 187, and Paul Manifort pops up with Roger Stone as Marcos’s lobbyist. I mean, there are so many names that show up in your long and very storied career that are now back on the front pages.
JK: It’s quite amazing. And I mean, that really is coincidence and quite remarkable, but yes, I mean, they’ve been around a long time, Paul Manifort and Roger Stone. They were involved in a lot of different things. That was in the course of the Philippines and Cory Aquino and the changes that took place, which Ronald Reagan, by the way, deserves credit for having pulled the plug on that. And Paul Laxalt, I remember, was then the senator, and he went over delivered the message to Marcos, which the Reagan administration decided needed to be sent based on that election.
HH: Well, I always also write down the most surprising thing I find in every memoir. And I’ve read every page of your book, Secretary. I did not expect to find Doug Coe on Page 171. I knew Doug and I know Marty Sherman well. I did not expect to see you expounding on John Paul the Great’s theory of suffering. I really didn’t. That was unknown to me. How can you run for president and not have people know that you’re that serious about theology and Bible study?
JK: Well, I think just because if you’re really serious about it, you don’t exploit it, and you don’t sort of push it out there at people, number one. And number two, you know, campaigns are difficult places for legitimate conversation, I’m afraid. It’s just part of what’s happened in American politics that it’s hard to have those conversations. But Doug Coe became a very good friend. He, we had many a conversation about faith and belief, and I think we agreed on a lot of things in that context. So I do. I write about my journey of faith, if you will, when I began with, like many people, a certain agnosticism that came out of the war and came out of probably just the age I was, and then sort of a rekindling of it, and finding it at a very, you know, the prayer breakfast in the Senate are very, again, many people don’t know about that, but every Wednesday there’s a prayer breakfast in the Senate, and people gather. And you’ll find improbable folks there, and many people sharing stories that are you know, very helpful in helping people sort through different phases of their life and different thoughts. So yes, I do expound on it.
HH: Very well crafted. Very well crafted. Now given that we’re both Catholics, I just have to ask you. Francis and the handling of these scandals, Donald Wuerl flying off to resign, what is your advice to the Pope about getting out of this vortex, this black swan moment for the Church?
JK: Well, I don’t know if it’s my place to give advice to His Holiness, but I, you know, I had the privilege of meeting with Pope Francis several times, and I find him to be intriguing and an important teacher in the scope of things. But I think the Church has got to be open. The Church has got to just deal with this frontally. It’s the only way to, you know, purge this evil, this thing that has clouded the mission of the Church itself. And I think it’s absolutely essential for them to be, to tackle it, to tackle it openly, forthrightly, to deal with it, and to make it clear to the world, not just parishioners, but to the world that it’s simply not acceptable, and have got to move authoritatively to a new place.
HH: So I’m back, Mr. Secretary. Sorry about that. My studio generator blew up. I think maybe Hurricane Florence is beginning to take a toll on us here. But…
JK: Wow, I’m sorry to hear that. I didn’t know whether it on my end or what. I don’t know what the last thing is you heard me say.
HH: I wanted to ask, you had started to talk about being impressed with Pope Francis. Do you think he could have handled this better?
JK: Well, I just was saying, yeah, the way they’ve got to deal with it, and I said this was, they’ve just got to be as open and accountable, forthright, and firm as possible. They have got to make it clear to the world, not just to parishioners, that this is over, that this is going to end, because people are really disturbed the by the dribble and the kind of slow walking and constant revelations. It’s got to end.
HH: Now Secretary Kerry, one of the great things you described is the Billy Bulger St. Patrick’s Day breakfast. And of course…
HH: I’ve heard about this for years, but I’m on the other team, right? I’m working for Cronin. I’m not working for Tsongas in ’74. I’m working for ford in ’76, not for Carter, so I never got to go to this. Tell people about that. That’s one of those great things about American politics.
JK: Well, I wish you’d been able to go. I mean, it’s one, it really was, under Billy Bulger’s leadership, tutelage, it was one of the great events of politics. And there would this unbelievable gathering of the faithful in what one of the columnists in the Boston Herald called Halitosis Hall. And it was, every St. Patrick’s Day, this breakfast took place, but it was roast, basically, but a live roast, not contrived. People would come in, and Billy Bulger’s wit was just stunning, and very quick, acerbic, unbelievably appropriate. And he would shred people. And he had his own microphone, and you’d stand up there and no matter what you tried to do or how you did it, Billy always won. I mean, it was home court for him. But every politician, anybody who was running that year, really needed to show up. If you didn’t show up, it was a bad moment. And you know, I think President George Herbert Walker Bush, I think Ronald Reagan came in by telephone. I mean, there was just, it was enormously watched, and had impact, you know, whether you could stand up there and take it and how you took it. So Governor Weld and I were teeing off that year, and we just had a very funny year. I had a fire hydrant that was planted smack dab right in the middle of our house.
JK: And no other fire hydrant on our block was right in front of the house. They were all on a corner. So it took up a parking place, and we wanted to use the parking place and facilitate parking for people coming in, and busy place, etc. So we got permission from the city to move it. And then the newspapers learned that this hydrant was being moved, and we were paying for it, by the way. The city was not paying for it. And it just became a cause celeb. So the fire hydrant was on the front page of the newspaper and so forth. So my wife came to this breakfast with me, and she walked in, and carrying a plastic fire hydrant under her arm, and the place went crazy. And she was new to Massachusetts, and I turned to her and I said to Teresa, you know, how do you like Massachusetts? And Teresa said I love it. How much is it?
HH: It was a great line. And I wondered when I read that, if Teresa Heinz-Kerry, your wife, has that sympathy for Melania, because of the accent, because of the fact that she takes barbs from the press, because she comes from some education and wealth? Does she have some empathy for Melania?
JK: I’m sure she does. I haven’t really asked her specifically, but I know she always felt that the press would focus on the wrong things in terms of personality and things like that. But look, she’s fine about it. She understands that politics is not bean bag. And she’s okay with it.
HH: Now let me talk about politics when it is coming together. At the funeral for your longtime colleague, John McCain, it was interesting to see you, everybody there, and W. eulogizing him. But you detail in Every Day Is Extra, their collision in South Carolina in 2000, it was brutal, it was tough, it was angry. As you say, Karl Rove is smart. It was nasty, and yet they came, that W. came to honor McCain. Is that gone from American politics where eventually you lay down the swords and you come back together and you salute each other?
JK: I hope to God it’s not gone, because it’s absolutely essential to American democracy. It’s one of the great traits of our system. You know, I mean, George Bush and I squared off, obviously. We had a fun thing we did at the Alfalfa Club last year where we both were standing opposite each other for a public part of the evening, and it worked, and people appreciated it. I think it’s important. John McCain had a wonderful capacity for forgiveness. He and I forged a friendship and a partnership, because we worked together on the issue of POW/MIA. We put together the strongest, most accountable system working with the military and the Bush administration of any country in history to account for its missing or its potential prisoners. And you know, I think if, I mean, that’s essential to democracy that you find the capacity to compromise, and that you can come together no matter your party, no matter your beliefs. And John McCain’s, the tribute to him that day in the cathedral was a real recognition of that. And frankly, you know, I thought it was quite significant that you had President Clinton, you had President George W. Bush, and you had had President Obama there, two of them speaking. It was quite remarkable.
HH: Now you remark in the book at length about, in the chapter on Syria, the open wound chapter, that John McCain and Lindsey Graham disappointed you, that they knew you had a ‘uphill battle internally’ inside the administration to strike at Assad, and they let you down. Did they even explain, did they ever regret not…I asked this during the presidential debates of Marco Rubio. Did the Senate and the House fail the country by failing to support the president? Now I think the president ought to have struck Syria anyway. It appears to me you thought so as well, correct?
JK: I did. I believe that. That’s correct. But I think in a context, I mean, I thought that as Assad continued to violate ceasefires and continued to drop barrel bombs and continued to use gas, it was critical for all of us to hold him accountable for that. But I remember, though, we did have as a consequence of the threat of bombing that the president made, we got all of the declared chemical weapons out. 1,300 tons of chemical weapons were taken out in the middle of a conflict. And the OPCW that actually affected that collection of the weapons and getting them out and destroying them won the Nobel Peace Prize. So it wasn’t insignificant what happened as a result of the threat of the bombing. But there was a perception the president had backed off. The president asked Congress for, to join in the effort, and you know, the disappointment was obviously Congress was clearly not going to do that. Congress did not move fast as we thought they would, nor were they prepared to actually vote for it. I hope that both Lindsey and John would sort of understand the degree to which we were trying to make it happen. But you know, I think they were rightfully very disturbed by the killing and chaos of Syria, and the whole international community failed to do what was necessary. And now, some half a million people have been killed in that conflict, and it’s still a mess.
HH: And we’re on the verge of an Aleppo-like disaster in Idlib. Would you recommend, if chemical weapons are used, that President Trump strike again? James Mattis seemed to indicate it would be the most devastating response yet. Would you support that?
JK: I would support, I supported President Trump twice in his response to the use of chemical weapons. I would support it providing, as I said previously, that there’s the diplomacy to back up that attack so that we use the attack as leverage and as an ongoing policy to try to get the political settlement that’s so critical. And people need to understand there won’t be a political settlement in Syria without dealing with Iran and Russia, because they’re there in much greater numbers and in greater force than we are.
HH: Again, I want to spend the last ten minutes on Iran. But before we get there, back to the deal with Syria and Russia. Did Putin and Lavrov lie to you then, or did they just, did Assad lie to them about what he had?
JK: No, Assad lied about what he had. I think the Russians actually were cooperative in the effort to get the chemical weapons out. I mean, Lavrov called me. I was in London at a press conference. I said, as I was asked is there anything Assad could do to prevent being bombed, and I said yeah, he could get all of his chemical weapons out of there within a week. And Lavrov called me to follow up on that, and within five days, we had an agreement. The hard part was getting in the middle of a war into the country sufficiently to inspect all the site. I think the OPCW did the best job possible given the nature of the conflict. We knew that Assad had kept some, because we had a discrepancy between what was declared and what we estimated he had. So we went right back to the United Nations to try to get additional sanctions and additional cooperation. We actually then ran into some slow walking by the Russians, regrettably, and that complicated getting the further accounting that was necessary.
HH: All right, now before I move to the 2004 campaign, I just have to say sometimes, a memoir has a dog that doesn’t bark. In Every Day Is Extra, I’m reading very closely, very closely, and I note that the Kissinger of the Obama years, Ben Rhodes, is in here exactly once. One time, he’s mentioned in here in regard to the secret mission to Cuba. What was your assessment of Mr. Rhodes’ role in the administration?
JK: Well, he played a very important role. He was very trusted by President Obama. He was a very thoughtful, creative guy who was the principal speechwriter for the president, but also somebody who was thoughtful about policy and had his points of views. And the president respected that. So he played an important role. When I became secretary of state in my first conversations with President Obama, as we talked about the agenda and the things we would work on, the president made it clear to me that he already had an initiative that had begun that he was, that Ben Rhodes was leading this effort with respect to Cuba. And you know, I respected that. I mean, that was fine. We cooperated, and as the thing came together, the State Department became more and more involved, and we took it over in terms of negotiating the actual diplomatic components of restarting our relationship. But I think it was an effective process, and Ben Rhodes deserves credit for what he did.
HH: So I shouldn’t read much into the fact that there’s a lot of Wendy Sherman in Every Day Is Extra, there’s a lot of a lot of people in here, but there isn’t much of Ben Rhodes, there’s just one reference?
JK: Well, the problem, you know, the problem, Hugh, to be honest with you, the problem is there were some parts of my life, I mean, there are some things that just aren’t written about in there. I mean, I’ll give you an example. I negotiated when I was a senator for the tribunal that held Pol Pot and the Cambodian, you know, Khmer Rouge responsible for the terrible killings of the Killing Fields in Cambodia. And it was stuck, and I was in Cambodia and negotiated for the UN and with the UN with Kofi Annan and others to make that happen. I don’t think I even talk about in there, because…
HH: No, you don’t.
JK: …because it’s just too…
HH: You don’t.
JK: There’s too much. And that is…
HH: And North Korea’s not in here, either. North Korea is barely mentioned.
JK: It’s, well, it is, it’s in there. We talk about, I talk about it in the context of how complicated and difficult it was because we didn’t have the kind of full measure of sanctions necessary, which we were trying to get. And I went to China several times. I talk about that, and how we got the Chinese to lift, to increase the sanctions on two occasions. But we knew that we needed still more sanctions. And the President, Obama, gave President Trump the advice that that was going to be his central focus, that he needed to raise the sanctions even more, which President Trump did, and deserves credit for. And finally, the dynamic shifted. But we tried very hard to get back channel efforts going. We reached out. We had one meeting that was going to be set, and then it pulled apart. And there were complications with China at the time between China and North Korea. I mean, remember that Kim Jung Un hadn’t even made one trip to China at that point in time. So that dynamic finally ripened, but it just, it got some attention in the book, but it wasn’t something that had moved far enough and fast enough to merit being in there in a significant way.
HH: Well, I’ll tell you, I understand that it’s a great, detailed life recall, but you can’t put everything in. I want to go to the politics. Again, I’m saving, you tell me when you’re ten minutes out from having to go, because I want to do Iran for ten minutes, but…
JK: No, I’m good. I’m fine.
HH: Oh, great.
JK: Sounds good.
HH: Let’s go to the 2004 campaign. You have a big comeback. People forget you came back from cancer, not just from behind, and not just down in money, but you came back from cancer to beat Howard Dean. But you don’t write in Every Day Is Extra. What was your reaction to the Dean Scream when you heard it?
JK: I was surprised. I mean, obviously, I was a little bit shocked and surprised by it. But I was much more focused on the positive side of what we had accomplished that night, and really started immediately to look ahead to New Hampshire. You have no idea how quickly one thing drops behind you and the next is there, because one week later, New Hampshire was going to take place. And we had to get back there right away, and we left in the dead of night and arrived very early in the morning.
HH: So when you heard him let loose with that litany of states in the Dean Scream, you didn’t say to yourself done, baked, finished, I’m it?
JK: I didn’t quite say that, no, because things are never that way in politics. Every day is an eternity, to be honest with you. But I had an inkling that it was going to be costly and it might have some meaning over the course of the next days. But no, you don’t count your chickens before the eggs hatch.
HH: All right, let’s turn to the pick of John Edwards. You say when, and this is, by the way, a piece of Every Day Is Extra that is going to be read by every candidate who ever gets nominated about picking a vice president. You need a Mr. August, a Mr. October, and a Mr. January. My first question is how could your vetters have missed so much about John Edwards?
JK: Well, you know, I guess because the major part of his private life at that point in time wasn’t taking place. And I think that was a subsequent next campaign episode. The vetting was pretty intense and pretty deep, and I think they caught the relevant things at that point in time in our life.
HH: But you couldn’t forecast from those problems that which was going to come later?
JK: No, no, no.
HH: Let me ask…
JK: There was no way to forecast with any specificity that. There were questions that I raised, and I raised the in the book, and I talk about them. I was pretty frank and honest about them. But no, there was no way to tell that. And I think I’m pretty candid about what disappointed me in the course of the campaign.
HH: Oh, you are. You write his speech on the night when you conceded was a sour coda to his troubled performance as a vice presidential candidate. That’s on Page 328 for people who want to find it. I wonder if your advice would be what Nixon’s advice was – don’t hurt yourself. And I guess pick a serving governor from a swing state like Mike Pence. It just seems to me so obvious for presidential nominees. Am I wrong?
JK: I think in today’s world, there’s more to it than that. I think you look at what President Obama had with Vice President Biden, that’s, you know, a terrific relationship. It had a lot of qualities that it brought together, the experience that Joe Biden had in his years in the Senate, the relationships that he had, his own campaigning style and other things. I think it was obviously a terrific choice, and I think that you know, there were, it was a little more complicated, my year, for a lot of different reasons. And I write about them in the book. I’m pretty clear about, you know, who performed well in what ways, and what places, and where we thought the lift would come to the campaign. We had a great rollout. I mean, I think you have to acknowledge that the, you know, Mr. August component of it worked fairly effectively. But the latter part of the campaign, as I write in the book, presented some challenges.
HH: Oh, he began to campaign for president in 2008. It’s pretty clear. You call it the last rope line campaign. I began to reflect, made some notes on this. I think you’re right. I think that social media combined with the amplification of everything, like the amplification of the photo of you and Dianne Feinstein and Senator Kennedy makes it very hard to be anything other than totally scripted. If you run for president again, are you going to have to be aware of every minute of every day?
JK: Well, first of all, I’m not, you know, that’s not my focus, and that’s not what this is about, and I haven’t thought about what you’d have to do or how you do it in that context in a current campaign. I think, I say this again and again. I think everybody’s focus right now ought to be, and I hope is, on the elections that take place in two months, Hugh. I mean, that’s, that’s the moment for the country to have a course correction if they’re concerned about what’s happening. And I think all our energy ought to go into speculating about that. But I do think in answer to your question politics has changed. There’s no question about it. Social media has had a profound, enormous impact. I mean, we have, I’ve seen some data that suggests that 80% of people’s news comes from Facebook. I mean, it’s just a whole new world we’re living in, in terms of how people communicate and what they get. And certainly, you know, President Trump has understood that. I think he’s excessive in the way in which he does it. I don’t think he’s serving himself well in the way he does it. But he obviously understood it and tapped into it and used it effectively. And no campaign will ever be the same now so long as those platforms are what they are today, nor will the funding of campaigns be the same because of what has happened. But it also, and I think this is important for everybody to think about, it also diminishes our politics. It has made it more trivial, more complicated, harder to communicate. It’s much harder for people in public life to build consensus around facts, because it’s much harder now to determine the facts. And it shouldn’t be. I mean, facts are facts. But we have alternative facts, we have you know, a very clear shredding of truth in many, many different ways. And boy, does that make it, if you’re trying to, you know, if two plus two doesn’t make four anymore, we’ve got a problem when it comes to deciding how we’re going to build America, how we’re going to do things.
HH: And we have epistemic closure. When Secretary Clinton was my guest talking about her book, What Happened, we agreed on one thing completely, which is Franklin Foer’s book, World Without Mind, about the rise of social media and the closing down of access to people of information is deadly to a democracy. Have you read Foer’s book, yet, World Without Mind?
JK: I have not, but I’m going to, because you just mentioned it. I need to.
HH: Well, you do write at length about other broken institutions. You think the Senate is broken.
JK: Well, clearly it’s broken. I mean, look at what John McCain called for in terms of regular order. Regular order is following the rules of the Senate and doing the things that the Senate’s supposed to do. But we don’t even pass budgets that way anymore. You know, we have a continuing resolution. And everything gets done in a room, you know, out of sight, late at night, last minute agreements. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. There’s, I mean, just the Merrick Garland thing, there’s an example of the way it’s not supposed to work. But beyond that, there are countless examples of the ways in which the Senate is gridlocked and is not working properly. I think this most recent hearing, I mean, and I say this not being partisan about Kavanaugh. I mean, like him or not like him, or want him or not want him, we ought to have a process for having hearings and doing things that follows a regular order, not jamming things through you know, in this sort of rushed and out of regular order way. And I really think that everybody in the Senate loses for that. It’s not a partisan issue. The rules of the Senate have not changed that much. I mean, there are a couple of tweaks, obviously, on the nominating process and the 51 votes here and there. But by and large, the rules remain the same about how you bring amendments, how you do legislation, the recognition of people and the time you get to speak, and all those kinds of things. What has changed is the approach of people, people. And people themselves have changed. And I think what our founding fathers intended, you know, during when I first came in the 1980s, people worked together. You weren’t chastised by your caucus for reaching across the aisle and trying to form a coalition and be bipartisan and make things happen. But bipartisanship has fallen by the wayside to a large measure, and it’s costing our country.
HH: You have kind words for your then-leader Harry Reid, and we disagree on his effectiveness. But he did kill the filibuster. Was that a mistake in retrospect, because you know, Kavanaugh couldn’t get 60 votes, but he’s going to get 54.
JK: Yeah, he is. And I do think that that did not serve the institution in the long run. I thought that, you know, the problem with any decision that any leader makes, whether it’s the Republican leader or the Democrat leader, that if you change those kinds of things, something else can get changed, and it begins to eat away at the, at those things that made the Senate so different and so important to the country. It always was meant to be the place to think, the place to slow things down. That’s why they have six-year terms. And that’s why there was this right of unlimited debate. You know, you can abuse it, but on the other hand, you know, it is critical sometimes to getting the right outcome.
HH: Now you have some harsh words for my friend, Tom Cotton, on Page 505. We’re transitioning now to the substance of your secretary of State period. You have harsh words for Tom, Senator Cotton, on Page 505. Why so critical of his letter to the mullahs?
JK: Because it is unheard of. Never before in Senate history has a senator put a group of people together to write to another country’s leader to undermine the negotiations of the existing administration, which historically has the right to negotiate as the executive department of our, you know, three branches of government. And then the Senate has the right to engage one way or the other. There are plenty of things they could have and should have done. But to write and interfere in the middle of a negotiation in that overt way and suggest that you cannot trust the people you’re negotiating with who are your fellow, who are your administration, is just unheard of.
HH: Now Secretary Kerry, sincere question. How is what Senator Cotton did different from the trip that you detail that you and Tom Harkin took to Nicaragua in April of 1985?
JK: Because we didn’t negotiate anything. We didn’t interfere in anything. We did what United States senators always do, Republican and Democrat alike. John McCain would constantly be on, I mean, this is how the Three Amigos came to exist. You know, Kelly Ayotte and Lindsey Graham and John McCain would be on an airplane and fly to a country, to Ukraine, to Europe for a security conference, whatever, and they’d meet with everybody and they’d talk to the presidents of a country. And they’d learn about what was happening. It’s exactly what I did with Tom Harkin. We made a Senate trip, a factfinding mission. And in the course of that, at the end of it, the president of the country gave us a letter to give to the president of the United States. All we did was deliver the letter. I mean, we didn’t negotiate anything. We weren’t involved in anything outside the norm. But it became a big deal, because the leader of the country, Daniel Ortega, offered a peace plan. And it was very clear to me that the administration was more interested in supporting the Contras and having an alternative policy, which ultimately got them into a lot of trouble. I mean, look at what happened with Iran-Contra and the entire scandal around it. That could have been avoided had people, you know, proceeded in a different way. So it was unfortunate, but we did what senators and congressmen do every single day, and you know, as I write in the book, we kind of got a brushback pitch thrown at us.
HH: Yes, you did.
JK: …because people didn’t like it.
HH: Well, my last question on it, if Cotton had gone to meet with Javad Zarif and sat down with him and said what you said to Ortega, which is…
JK: He had a right, he had a right to do that. He had every right in the world to have a delegation go and sit and have a conversation. Sure.
HH: But not to write a letter?
JK: But that’s very different from a public letter warning the people on the other side of the negotiation that they shouldn’t be negotiating with the administration, or they can’t trust the administration, because the Congress is going to turn around and whack it or something. If he had wanted to just stand up in the Senate and say that, that’s his prerogative. But to enlist a whole bunch of senators to write a letter to undermine a negotiation is unheard of.
HH: All right, interesting, interesting topic. I want to move to Iran, but the first step is Syria. Just one of my notes – you point out, you spent a lot of time with Assad. Now you didn’t know it at the time. I’m not faulting you for that. But that’s like saying in retrospect I spent a lot of time with Hitler. Did you ever get the sense he’s a genocidal maniac, I mean, a war criminal on par with Pol Pot and Hitler?
JK: No, not at that point in time. In fact, most people who had met with him, Republicans and Democrats alike, because he was then, you know, the new leader of Syria and untested, and nobody really knew much about him. But he was, he was talking about reforming his country. He was talking about moving in a very different direction. He wanted to try to make a deal to have oil pipe from Iraq. He wanted to have health care technology. He and his wife were talking about opening up to Western business and they were moving in a different direction. And you know, I mean, again, we had meetings to explore where Syria was going and where the region was going, and what peace might look like with Israel and so forth. And then when the Arab Spring came, he made, and it’s very interesting, because Foreign Minister Lavrov and Putin both told me they thought he had made some really lousy decisions, and that he made mistakes. And they backed him, obviously, because of other strategic interests, but they were not particularly happy with some of his choices. But the point is that when the Arab Spring took place, Assad responded to these young people who were demonstrating for jobs and for education and for an opportunity by sending his thugs out to beat them up. And the parents, then, were really disturbed by that. They joined in the protests, and Assad sent thugs out with bullets. And that was the beginning of the civil strife, the uprising in Syria. It was Assad’s gross miscalculation, and perhaps the demonstration of who the real Assad was. I’m very blunt in the book.
HH: Yes, you are.
JK: I make it very clear he is a war criminal. He is, he has, he has departed from all, any kind of redeeming notion that there’s an element of reform or anything else in him. And I think the Russians and the Iranians in their support of Assad have crossed a line, because they have supported this man and his war criminal activities. So I think the international community, regrettably, has failed as a whole to hold him accountable, and to take advantage of opportunities to try to leverage a better outcome in Syria. Ultimately, regrettably, because Russia made the decision to go in, and by the way, Russia’s presence in Syria is not new. It’s not because of the Obama situation. Russia’s been there for years, 30 years, 40 years. Russia built the Syrian air defense system. And Russia has had people manning some of those facilities for decades now. So the Russian presence grew, but it’s not new in Syria. And the truth is that the only way to have a political resolution now that will end the violence and provide some kind of a new governance that can include the opposition is through diplomatic process. And the only way to get there is going to take Russia and Iran to be at the table. Now ironically, Hugh, both of those countries supported a diplomatic structure for a resolution of the war in Syria, which included an election run by the international community, not by Assad, in which the entire diaspora of all the refugees in Turkey, in Jordan and around the world would be allowed to vote. And they supported the idea that that was the framework for a new Syria which was united, democratic, unified with all minorities being able to be represented and protected. That was embraced in a UN resolution, 2254, and both the Russians and the Chinese voted for it, supported it in the Security Council, and Iran supported that. So there is a framework for peace. The problem has been getting the dynamic in place where you actually hold Assad accountable to a ceasefire, and you hold al Nusra, which is al Qaeda, accountable to a ceasefire and you create a structure where you can move forward.
HH: Let’s move to Iran. Every Day Is Extra is full of detail about the JCPOA. And if I’m correct, did you spend more time talking in person or on the phone with Javad Zarif than any other foreign minister? Maybe Lavrov, but was he your number one interlocutor?
JK: I’m not sure. I never did a tally of the numbers, but I spent a lot of time with my European colleagues also at NATO in many other meetings. We spent a lot of time on Syria in the international Syria support group with our other colleagues. I mean, certainly Javad was up there. But I spent a lot of time with France, Germany, Britain, China, Russia. Those were the principal interlocutors, and I’ve never divided it up.
HH: Okay, it’s been reported you’ve met with him a couple of times at least since leaving office as well. So you still…
JK: Yes, I have. That’s accurate.
HH: And is it a half dozen times, a dozen times?
JK: No. No, no, no. I met with him at a conference in Norway. I think I saw him in a conference in Munich at the World Economic Forum. So I’ve probably seen him three or four times.
HH: Are you trying to coach him through the Trump administration’s rejection of the JCPOA?
JK: No, that’s not my job, and my coaching him would not, you know, that’s not how it works. What I have done is tried to elicit from him what Iran might be willing to do in order to change the dynamic in the Middle East for the better. You know, how does one resolve Yemen? What do you do to try to get peace in Syria? I mean, those are the things that really are preoccupying, because those are the impediments to people, to Iran’s ability to convince people that it’s ready to embrace something different. I mean, and I’ve been very blunt to Foreign Minister Zarif, and told him look, you guys need to recognize that the world does not appreciate what’s happening with missiles, what’s happening with Hezbollah, what’s happening with Yemen. You’re supporting you know, an ongoing struggle there They say they’re prepared to negotiate and to resolve these issues. But the administration’s taken a very different tack. I don’t know as I talk to you today if there’s been any dialogue or sit down. I don’t think there has, which would open up any kind of diplomatic channel. And it appears right now as if the administration is hell bent for leather determined to pursue a regime change strategy to bring the economy down and try to isolate further. And I would simply caution that the United States historically has not had a great record in regime change strategies, number one. And number two, that makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for any Iranian leader to sit down and negotiate anything, because they’re not going to do it in a capitulatory, you know, situation. It’s just not going to happen.
HH: Oh, that makes sense. Part of Every Day Is Extra which is useful training for diplomats is you can’t say you make people do things. They have to say they agree to things. I get all that. But does Zarif at least acknowledge to you they’re running arms through Oman to the Houthis that are becoming missiles that land in the UAE and Saudi Arabia? Do they, are they open about that?
JK: They are open about the fact that they are supportive of the Houthi, but they also say they are prepared to, that they don’t expect the Houthi to be running the government of Yemen. They don’t expect anything except a representative process in which they’re represented as a minority, but they’re able to be safely part of governance. So in effect, I think there could be a capacity to have a process in place that could resolve this. In fact, the negotiations that took place in Kuwait came close to a resolution. And when I went to Oman and met with the Houthi and others, we got them to agree to go back to that discussion and be prepared to accept the outlines of a peace process that we put on the table. I regret to say that it was Hadi, President Hadi who balked and refused to go forward with what he had previously agreed to in Kuwait.
HH: Now I really hope as you continue to talk with Zarif or with the Sultan of Oman, who’s clearly a good friend of yours, that this has just got to stop. To me, it’s as bad as they’re cheating on the JCPOA or sponsoring a terrorist attack on the expats in Paris. They are sending sophisticated weaponry that can kill a lot of people in these missiles that the Houthis are there. And Zarif and the Sultan, they’ve just got to stop that. Do you agree, Secretary?
JK: And we, absolutely, and we made it very, very clear to them, and the issue’s been raised with the Omanis and others. I think there are ways to get at that, but you’re to again have to engage. But I made it crystal clear that that’s unacceptable. In fact, Hugh, it’s not well known, but we kept in place in the JCPOA negotiations, we kept the sanctions in place for human rights. We kept the sanctions in place for the missile testing. We kept sanctions in place against their transfer of weapons in Yemen. And we raised those sanctions during, even during the time we were negotiating the JCPOA. So we never relented with respect to accountability on those issues. But we believe that having an Iran that didn’t have a nuclear weapon or a pathway to a nuclear weapon was a better place to be in negotiating on those other issues. And our theory of the case was you get JCPOA in place, you prove you’re going to enforce it as you agreed to, and then you put all those other issues on the table. So from my point of view, I think President Trump would have been much better advised to have kept the JCPOA, which would have kept China, Russia, France, Germany and Britain together with you, united. So you keep it in place, and you say to the Iranians hey, guys, we’ve told you you’ve got to stop these other things. I’m going to give you two years or a year or whatever. We’re willing to negotiate on these other things. But if you don’t, if you haven’t done it by then, I’m out of this agreement. And that way, you have China, Russia, these other countries with you in the effort to leverage this different behavior from Iran rather than unilaterally pulling out and isolating yourself and making it much more difficult to sit down with any Iranian.
HH: Now when you get done talking to Zarif in Norway or Munich, do you call up Pompeo and talk with him about this sort of stuff and how…
JK: Well, those conversations took place before Pompeo became Secretary of State. And I haven’t seen him since then. But I did have a fairly long conversation with Secretary Pompeo before the Iran decision was made. And I made the argument that I just made to you. I made it very clearly, and it was clear that he disagreed with that approach, or President Trump disagreed. I don’t know which. But the bottom line is that is not the approach they took.
HH: All right, let me go through my questions about the agreement. I was a big opponent of the JCPOA, and you know candidly I’m glad we got out of it. But if they had delivered, for example, Siamak Namazi, I believe they promised that to you, did they not, that they were going to release him, and he’s still in a jail in Iran?
JK: They promised they would make their best efforts to get him out, because Javad Zarif and the foreign ministry doesn’t control that. It’s controlled by the interior ministry, and they’re at odds. The hardliners, the IRGC and others are the hardliners in Iran. And what I think the decision to get out fails to understand is there’s this fight going on in Iran itself for the future of the country. And there are, you’ve seen people marching. You’ve seen people who have a different point of view trying to express it. And I think what getting out does is it makes it harder for President Rouhani and those who are trying to move in a more reasonable, moderate direction, it makes it harder for them to be able to carry the day.
HH: Now you know, Secretary Kerry, when I read Every Day Is Extra, I kept writing down in my notes I just don’t believe that that division exists, because if they won’t deliver, if they can’t deliver the promises they make to you, and the best you can get on inspections is a 24 day notice for their military base, they’re always going to cheat.
HH: Now persuade me why I’m not right about that, that they’re all, that that’s the nature of a religious mafia running that country. We cannot trust them.
JK: Well, I’m not, nothing is based on trust. That’s the point. I agree with you. We, it’s not an issue of trust. And nor would I, you know, I have never suggested, I buy into the Reagan you know, maxim, you know, trust but verify. But in this case, don’t trust but verify. Nothing is based on trust. It is based on your access. Now 24 days is irrelevant to what’s happening with nuclear, because nuclear, you can’t wipe it away. You know, it lasts for a thousand years. We have the capacity to detect. And the fact is they’re not going to be able to clean something up in that period of time, number one. Number two, what happens is the 24 days are the date not by which you get in to inspect, but by which the sanctions, every single one of them, come back automatically. So if we set up a structure in this agreement where if we suspected that some facility was being used, in other words, if Israel came to us or someone came to us and said we’ve got information that says this building is now being used for illicit activities to break out, we could say we want to inspect that building. And if they haven’t after those days allowed us to get in there in a span of time, which we could get in, in four days, in ten days, whatever it’s going to be, all the sanctions come back automatically. And we set up a structure where there’s no veto by the UN Security Council. Russia, China can’t, you know, veto our ability to do that. They’re automatically back. So we thought we had enormous amount of leverage. Moreover, if we are operating on really good intelligence, and we know what’s happening in that building, every single military option available to us today would have been available to us then. So we could bomb the facility. We could do whatever is necessary to guarantee that we hold them accountable. And finally, Hugh, I’ll just say to you, the fact is that when we started our negotiations, the breakout time to a nuclear weapon was about two months. Because of what we put in place, the breakout time is more than a year. So we have plenty of time to be able to make the decision that we need to make. And we thought that made Israel safer, made the region safer, made the world safer.
HH: Well you know, one of my very dearest friends is a guy names Dan Poneman, and my college roommate. And so I spent hundreds of hours debating this with him, and he tells me if Ernie Moniz says it works, it works. And I read with great interest how you brought in the secretary of energy to tell you it works. But I’ve got to tell you, I read constantly about this. And just recently, Ali Akbar Velayati, who’s a senior advisor to Supreme Leader Khamenei…
HH: …said nobody is allowed to visit Iran’s military sites, period, end of story. Isn’t that a…
JK: Well, he’s the hardliner. That’s correct. And if that’s the way, and if that played out that way, they’re going to have a very ugly outcome. And all of us would have supported enforcing this to the nth degree. And that’s why I said that is not what the agreement states. Now Velayati may say that. I don’t know if that’s for public consumption. But if Iran in effect blocked us under this agreement from a legitimate inspection of a military facility or whatever facility we deem, which is what is in the, what’s called additional protocol, I would support doing what we have to do to enforce the agreement.
HH: Now Secretary Kerry, that’s a red line. And I believe you, but I just never believed President Obama after the first red line wasn’t enforced. You just laid down a red line, but why would we believe it?
JK: Yeah, but, I know that. I know that the red line cost the administration and president dearly, but I’ll just say this, my friend. The fact is that that red line, he never backed off the notion of bombing. But all of the declared weapons got taken out. And Congress had not passed what he asked them to do, which was given the authority to do it. But he never said he wouldn’t do it. And the fact is that, but there was a mythology that grew up that he was going to Congress in order not to do it. And I don’t think that’s accurate. And it’s just where things came out in the belief system.
JK: And that belief system gained a certain life of its own in the region and elsewhere to this day.
HH: Let’s stay on that for a second. I know I’ve got you for ten more minutes, but I want to tell you…
JK: Yeah, I’ve got to run in a few secs, here.
HH: All right. There was an exchange at the Aspen Security Forum where I was this summer. Ali Shahabi of the Arabia Foundation stood up and told Tony Blinken that the Iranians seized our sailors, and they would never do that under President Trump, but they dared do it under President Obama because we had lost the respect and fear of the Iranians. I think it goes back to the red line. What would you say to Ali Shahabi about that incident?
JK: Well, I would say never underestimate what, don’t miscalculate what President Obama would be willing to do, because President Obama put his presidency on the line to send a helicopter into Pakistan, into another country, in order to go after Osama bin Laden. And he proved that he was willing to risk his whole presidency. Carter lost the presidency partly because of Desert One in which he tried a rescue mission and it failed. And it cost him dearly, and I think everybody would agree on that. President Obama didn’t hesitate to go after and to take the risks when he deemed it necessary. And I saw him make decisions like that. We did a number of rescue operations for hostages, which the world never really heard about, in which American forces were sent into Syria in helicopter missions, and unfortunately came up with, I write about one, the dry hole. And the people weren’t there anymore. But the president didn’t hesitate to do things when he thought the risk was important and the stakes were something that you’d get a return on it. And I think that it would be a mistake to make the judgment that the fellow made out in Aspen.
HH: Is it a mistake to conclude when we gave $1.7 billion in small bills and four hostages appear that we paid for those hostages and made it more difficult to get hostages out anywhere?
JK: Well, I don’t, you know, it’s regrettable that I guess the coincidence of it at the same time. But those were separate negotiations.
HH: Oh, you write that. You write that.
JK: They were separate tracks.
JK: And not only were they separate tracks, but we were paying, the American taxpayer was paying billions in terms of interest that was accruing on this particular money. And the money was a completely separate component. It was not a payment for. But as I write, and there’s more detail necessary to lay it out, and it’s verifiable, there was a need to carry that out in the way it was, because if it didn’t happen that way, it would have been, it would have been very difficult to get the hostages separate from the return of the money in a way that you know, didn’t somehow wind up creating a linkage. And I remember there was a very careful choreography in the whole thing, because we didn’t want to wind up with, you know, a repayment before that and then you don’t get your hostages back. So the coordination of this just fell out in a way that that is unfortunate. But they were completely separate negotiations, and one had nothing to do with the other.
HH: My very last question, Senator Kerry, Secretary Kerry. I, after so many years of calling you Senator Kerry, I apologize.
JK: It’s all right. A lot of folks do. It’s a noble title, or it used to be.
HH: First time I have spoken to you in all of my years of broadcast. I’ve been doing this since 1989, national syndicated show since 2000, because Democrats don’t talk to conservative talk show hosts. Secretary Clinton said she regrets not talking to me during the campaign. Do you think, what’s your advice to people for running for president? Should they go in harm’s way and talk to, I mean, this has been a great conversation. I could talk to you for five hours about this book. But do…
JK: Well, I don’t think, I don’t think, I’m not, of course I think people should. I mean, I don’t, I don’t not talk to conservatives. I have a lot of conservative friends. And I think that exchange is healthy. I’d rather have the conservation, because I think that there’s more to agree on than disagree on. And usually, you can find a way to understand somebody’s point of view so that you see that you know, it’s not crazy, it’s not off the wall. They’re just different ways of seeing certain things, and sometimes similar ways of getting things done.
HH: And so your encouragement to presidential candidates is to go in harm’s way and go on conservative talk radio?
JK: Well, I don’t consider it harm’s way. I mean, if you have a rational, you know, if you’ve thought through why you believe something and you actually believe it, you ought to be able to defend it.
JK: And you ought to talk about the position.
HH: Exactly. Well, I appreciate your time. You’ve been very generous. Every Day Is Extra is a must-read, and for me, it’s a walk through Massachusetts political history that I shared with you for a little while, and I appreciate the book, and I appreciate the time you’ve given me, Secretary Kerry.
JK: Well, I have appreciated the conversation. Thank you, Hugh.
HH: Thank you.
JK: Take care.
HH: Thank you.
End of interview.