Former Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Iowa yesterday for a brief visit to help out an old friend. The 2004 presidential nominee headlined a fundraiser for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who backed Kerry in the Iowa Caucus. Kerry held a quick press conference with local reporters beforehand to discuss some of the news of the day.
“I found that very disturbing,” he said of the confirmation of Michael Flynn’s policy negotiations with Russian officials while President Barack Obama was still in office. “President Obama said very clearly that he was going to live by the notion that we have one president at a time … You don’t engage in a separate diplomatic track unless it is at the invitation of the sitting administration, because we do only have one president at a time. I was aware of the fact of conversations taking place that were trying to undermine what the sitting administration was doing at the time.”
Kerry declined to get into the specifics of the day’s revelation that Flynn will cooperate with Robert Mueller’s investigation, saying he didn’t have all the details, but he did note that Flynn’s guilty plea was significant.
The State Department has come under significant scrutiny in past weeks, and a New York Times report on Thursday claimed Rex Tillerson would soon be pushed out (which Tillerson and Trump later denied). There’s also growing concern that Tillerson’s deep cuts to State Department personnel and programs were undermining the department’s mission.
“We’ve had a record number of people departing the state department for one reason or another, and it’s decimating the build-up of years of experience that is necessary to be able to act in the interest of our country … You cannot do good diplomacy without people,” Kerry said, adding that even when he disagreed with some of the analysts’ views, it was still helpful to hear other opinions. “You need people who have spent years honing their skills, building relationships and learning about a particular region.”
Kerry pointed to specific situations where a lack of American officials on the ground in foreign countries can cause problems. Without economic officers around the world, it’s harder for American companies to sell goods and services in other nations. Without law enforcement agents or mutual assistance legal treaties, prisoner transfers can fall through the cracks. He also noted that America still doesn’t have a lot of ambassadors and assistant secretary of states in place, undermining the country’s ability to build relationships and cooperation, which he noted is how ISIS was defeated.
Beyond the institutional deficiencies, Kerry was also concerned about how Trump’s tweets were undermining confidence in American leadership.
“I think it’s extremely significant that [Prime Minister Theresa May] feels compelled to go publicly to chastise a moment of incitement engaged in by the President of the United States,” Kerry said of Trump’s retweeting this week of British extremist groups. “People from all parties and walks of life in Britain reacting adversely, powerfully, to this intervention that was uncalled for, unnecessary and frankly, even dangerous because it provides a basis for hate to be able to grow and maybe even be acted on in dangerous ways.”
He also warned that those kind of actions in foreign policy hot spots around the world could further inflame tensions. That’s particularly the case in North Korea, where Kerry said the administration’s overall approach of encouraging China to influence the rouge state was still the right one.
“What troubles me is that you have a reckless dictator in North Korea who is young and untested and inexperienced, and I think you have to be really careful not to put him in a box or create a situation where you make things more risky and more dangerous than they are anyway. I think you have to be very thoughtful about the rhetoric.”
On the Saudi Arabian front, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently seized control of all power centers of the government and imprisoned hundreds of political opponents and businessmen, Kerry signaled support for the reformer’s goals, though avoided weighing in on the methods.
“I believe he has a vision, I believe he has been doing some hard and important thinking about Saudi Arabia’s future,” Kerry said of the Crown Prince. “I think he’s trying to change the country, which is not an easy task. What he wants to do is really move to a more diversified economy and to modernity. He’s going to let women drive, he’s going to change the level of opportunity in the country.”
Kerry only spent about half a day in Iowa for the Miller event, but was there more to it than that? Probably not, as Kerry simply noted that he’s happy to campaign for Democrats who ask for his help in the 2018 cycle – he had also recently campaigned for the successful New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy, who was once ambassador to Germany. But he also noted that his backing of Miller was more than just helping out and old friend.
“At this moment in our country where rule of law is so important, having people like Tom in a place where they can make a difference makes a difference to me,” Kerry said. “He’s worked on a national level with other attorney generals who were standing up for justice and fairness with respect to DACA, with respect to consumer loans for students, with respect to consumer protection, with respect to housing. He’s fighting for the average person.”
by Pat Rynard