Interview with Elise Labott of CNN

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Palace Hotel
New York City, NY
September 19, 2016

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for joining us on your last UNGA. I just have to ask you about these explosions last night. I know the mayor discounted terrorism, but is it a little early for that, especially given the fact that these devices might have been similar to the Boston Marathon?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I have to leave the judgment to the mayor and his team. They’re really an outstanding first responder team, and everybody knows nobody has more experience, unfortunately, with this than New York. So let’s just let the New York authorities do what they’re doing. The FBI is involved. Obviously, we’re concerned, but --

QUESTION: Especially given how many world leaders are here.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the security in the City of New York will be unparalleled. It always is, and I’m not concerned about that. But I think we have to be concerned for every American and for the folks in New York on a day-to-day basis to understand what’s going on. The teams are doing that, and as I said, they could not be more qualified or capable.

QUESTION: Okay, I’d like to ask you about the events of last night, yesterday in Syria. You said the strike that hit the Syrian regime forces was an accident. The Russians are saying that this was a ploy to avoid cooperation, and now they’re saying this casts the ceasefire in doubt.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, they can make their judgments, and obviously they have. The biggest judgment they need to make is to stop Assad from bombing people indiscriminately, which he continues to do. And if you are serious about having a ceasefire – and they say they are – then they should keep Assad from flying right now and prove their sincerity about a ceasefire. But to allow Assad, who is a spoiler – he doesn’t want a ceasefire – to allow him to continue to go after opposition pretending that they are Nusrah is, in and of itself, a huge challenge to this effort.

So we call on Russia to stop the grandstanding, stop the showboating, and get the humanitarian assistance going. It is now Sunday morning. This started Monday night of last – this past week. And the humanitarian assistance is supposed to be flowing. The regime once again is blocking it. So Russia’s client, Russia’s supported friend, is the single-biggest blockade to the ability to move forward here. And the opposition feels threatened because the bombs continue even as there is supposed to be a cessation of hostilities.

So let me just say this clearly: Russia signed up to a cessation of hostilities; Assad said he would live by it. Then he needs to stop and let the Joint Implementation Center get set up so Russia and the United States can coordinate in order to avoid the kind of terrible thing that happened yesterday, which we all acknowledge and regret. But it happens when you have a conflict.

QUESTION: But can you do that – can you do that? Can you set up this center and – with what you --

SECRETARY KERRY: Not until there are days of calm. And we have --

QUESTION: So how long are you going to give this?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re just in the beginning stages of it, Elise. There’s always going to be a complication as – I mean, there are more than a hundred different opposition groups. And is one of them going to play spoiler to the entire effort? I don’t think we should be blackmailed by one or two groups. So we need to be absolutely calm, clear, collected; go slow; and keep the prize, which is actually a ceasefire, front and center in our minds. And I call on the Russians to stop the grandstanding. We could have had any number of Security Council meetings on the hospitals that have been hit, on the schools that have been hit, on the barrel bombs, on the chlorine that Assad has repeatedly used in the last months. I mean, it is time for serious purpose here, and Russia needs to show that it is actually committed to a genuine ceasefire and not to gamesmanship.

QUESTION: It sounds from what you’re saying, I mean, as imperfect as it is, it sounds like you don’t necessarily have an alternative, that there are no more options.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s not that there are no more options, but there are no good options. Options are ugly because one option moves in a direction of trying to get a ceasefire and trying to get to the table to have a negotiation, but the other option moves to more arms moving into the area, more fighting, more destruction; more migrants, more refugees, more children, women, schools, hospitals hit; literally possibly the destruction of Syria as an entire nation-state, and it’s getting close to that even now. So the options are not pretty, but you’ve got to put to test the seriousness of purpose of a nation and --

QUESTION: Well, I mean, aren’t they showing – you put it to test. Are they showing --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, no, we haven’t. It’s just starting. We all knew there would be difficulties in getting the setup for the humanitarian in day one or two. We knew that, so we didn’t expect humanitarian assistance to flow until perhaps Thursday. But now it’s Sunday, and the regime keeps putting up a new condition, a new requirement. The agreement was it would flow, they would allow it to flow. The regime needs to live up to this. And believe me, this is very clear whose responsibility it is to deliver with respect to letting the humanitarian assistance through.

QUESTION: Secretary Carter pretty openly opposed this agreement. The Pentagon says it doesn’t trust the Russians. And from what you say --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, nobody --

QUESTION: Well, I just want to ask you, the fact that they are so publicly saying that they might not hold up their end of the bargain, that must weaken your hand with the Russians.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, no, they’re not saying that. No, they’re not – the Pentagon, the entire team, is in sync.


SECRETARY KERRY: We are united. Yes, really. We are united. They may have reservations. Yes, they do. Everybody knows that. We all do. There isn’t any of us who approaches this with a sense of existing trust. We have to build trust. And trust is going to be built by not doing something like what happened last night going to the United Nations, but by working together effectively in order to determine how we are going to end this war. And you build trust.

So nothing in this agreement is based on trust. It is based on very specific steps that each side has to take. And that includes pulling back from this key access road in the north near Aleppo. It includes restraining both sides – Assad, and for us the opposition – from engaging. And then it includes the delivery of humanitarian assistance and delivering a real cessation of hostilities.

QUESTION: This is the same leadership, though, that is being investigated by intelligence agencies for hacking the U.S. electoral systems. I mean, is this a government we should be doing business with?

SECRETARY KERRY: But, Elise, Elise, unfortunately, we live in a world where you have to do business even with people with whom you have deep disagreements, and that is not new. Ronald Reagan sat down with Gorbachev. Ronald Reagan negotiated with the “evil empire,” as he called it. The fact is that Richard Nixon sent Henry Kissinger to China to, again, Red China, to open up an initiative that began to create a relationship between the United States and China. We still have some differences, but we work constructively at the relationship.

Even Russia, with whom we have differences obviously – differences over Ukraine, differences over NATO and other things – we worked very effectively together to get all of the chemical weapons that are reported out of Syria during a conflict, we worked together on the Iran nuclear agreement. Russia is cooperating enormously now helping with the fuel and fuel cycle and fuel provision. We cooperated with Russia with respect to some of the disease control, Ebola, other things. So we --

QUESTION: What do you think they’re --

SECRETARY KERRY: We can find ways to cooperate.

QUESTION: What do you think they’re up to here with this election with all these suspicions of election --

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not going to --

QUESTION: Are they trying to help Donald Trump win over Hillary Clinton, or is this a broader attack on the U.S. democracy and electoral system?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not going to speculate. We’ve all read about --

QUESTION: It must concern you, though.

SECRETARY KERRY: Of course. All of these things are of concern. We live in a world of concern today, Elise. We wake up every single day and we’re trying to deal with the challenge of an African nation that has got a president who’s challenging its constitution, or we have Boko Haram --

QUESTION: This is challenging – Mr. Secretary, though, this is --

SECRETARY KERRY: -- or we have al-Shabaab or we have challenges in --

QUESTION: This is challenging the U.S. Constitution.

SECRETARY KERRY: And we have made it crystal clear to Russia what the consequences might be. The President, myself, we’ve had conversations. We know what’s happening. We’re being vigilant. And I do not --

QUESTION: What is happening?

SECRETARY KERRY: I do not believe that Russia will have an ability to affect this election, and we are going to be absolutely vigilant about it. The President has made that clear, and Russia is warned.

QUESTION: You’ve spoken about anxiety you hear from world leaders about this election, particularly some of the campaign pledges from Donald Trump. How much of this week is going to be spent not being able to address some of these problems but having to allay the concerns of some of your allies that, come next General Assembly, we could have a much different U.S. foreign policy?

SECRETARY KERRY: We’re not going to spend time on that. We’re going to spend time constructively on dealing with the problems that are in front of us right now. We have a huge agenda. I go from here right now to the announcement of a major demining initiative which we will engage in with Norway together, co-chairing an effort in Colombia that is about to sign a peace agreement. That’s progress.

We are going to be working – I’ll be meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan to talk about the challenges of the West Bank and the Middle East and security. We have a very, very full agenda, and we will be working on – the International Syria Support Group will be having a meeting. We’ll be working on Libya, working on Yemen, working on all these issues.

QUESTION: Okay. But --

SECRETARY KERRY: We are not going to be – no one is going to be spending time on any --

QUESTION: Are you worried if Donald Trump is elected it could roll back some of the gains that you’ve talked about?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to get involved in the campaign. I’ve said that many times. My position requires that I stand back, and I’m standing back.

QUESTION: Okay. But you are in an exclusive club. There are very few people that know what Hillary Clinton is going through right now as the Democratic nominee. What does she need to do in these next 50 days?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, again, that gets me into the campaign, and I --

QUESTION: Okay. But take out – put your hat as a Democratic presidential candidate on for a minute.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think any candidate – I’ll just talk generically.

QUESTION: Talk generically.

SECRETARY KERRY: Right now you are getting into October. October is the month when your juices, your blood really begins to flow. You’re down to 30 days. You’ve been at this for two years-plus, whatever it is. It’s exhausting, but you can see the end. And the stakes really descend on you. You really have a sense of just how much is up for grabs here in terms of the future of our nation. And I think that energizes, that clarifies the focus. It provides an intensity and a passion. And I’m confident that over the next month we will see a sharpening, if you will, of the differences and of the arguments between the candidates.

QUESTION: Do you think her arguments will carry the day?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not – again, you’re trying to get me in this race, aren’t you? (Laughter.)


SECRETARY KERRY: I don’t blame you, but I’m not going to bite, at least not today.

QUESTION: Is there a role for you as secretary of state if Clinton --

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I’m planning – I’m laying my plans --

QUESTION: Mideast envoy maybe?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, absolutely not. I’m laying my plans for – to be a private citizen and engage in some private sector endeavors and other things, and keep a foot in the public sector.

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, thank you very much.

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