QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thanks for much for joining us.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you.
QUESTION: Donald Trump – does his disparagement of the U.S. Intelligence Community hurt the U.S. with allies and undermine the U.S. with adversaries?
SECRETARY KERRY: Wolf, I don’t – honestly, I don’t want to get into the president-elect’s current back-and-forth. He has a meeting today. I presume hopefully that might advance his discussion. But I have nothing but respect for and admiration for the extraordinary work that our Intelligence Community does. I think the President and Vice President, myself, all of us in policy positions would simply not be able to make good judgments without their input. And I trust that the president-elect will come to understand that and I hope sooner rather than later.
QUESTION: Some of your Russia experts here believe that he’s being played by Putin. Do you believe that?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to – again, I’m just not going to get into the back-and-forth with respect to the president-elect on this. We still have diplomacy to do. We have another two weeks. I’m going to be on a trip representing the country and I’m just not going to get dragged into the personal belief issues regarding the president-elect at this point. Plenty of time in the months ahead to digest where we’re headed and what’s happening. But they haven’t even gotten in yet, they haven’t made real decisions as a government, and I think we need to wait and see where we’re going.
QUESTION: Do you believe Russia is America’s number-one geopolitical foe right now?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, again, I don’t think – I don’t get into classifying number one, number two, this and that. There are a group of dangers in the world today – Daesh, ISIS, radical extremism, North Korea, Kim Jong-un. Certainly, efforts where they have occurred to interfere with our democracy and to engage in cyber theft and so forth is a serious problem. We’ve made that very clear and the steps the President has taken to respond to it.
QUESTION: What’s Putin’s endgame?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, again, I think it’s a mistake to start laying out and conjuring up another president’s psychology or strategic plans when a lot of it is surmise and intel, et cetera. It is clear President Putin has his own perceptions about the West, his own perceptions about threats to Russia, and his own efforts to try to restore to Russia some of what he misses from the former Soviet Union. So we all understand that and some of the choices he has made have actually cooperated with us – on the Iran nuclear agreement, on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria, on the Ross Sea in the Antarctic, on UN resolutions. But other choices he has made have put him into direct conflict with the United States. So it’s an uneven playing field and I think we need to be very thoughtful and strategic as we go forward, and that’s what we’ve tried to be.
QUESTION: Why did the Obama Administration wait so long to retaliate against Russia’s cyber attacks against the United States?
SECRETARY KERRY: Because I think the clarity with respect to what was happening occurred towards the late summer and I think that it would be extremely difficult with great possible negative consequences that politicized the steps taken if they were to have occurred in the middle of a presidential race or at the critical ending of a presidential race.
QUESTION: Because on October 7th, the Director of National Intelligence, Secretary of Homeland Security said it was —
SECRETARY KERRY: Yes.
QUESTION: — Russia and only the highest levels of the Russian Government could have done this.
SECRETARY KERRY: But you’ll notice that the President and the Vice President and other people who were in a position to be political and were out – didn’t raise that in a context of —
QUESTION: So I just want to be precise, Mr. Secretary: For political reasons, to give —
SECRETARY KERRY: No, I think —
QUESTION: — to give the appearance of not interfering in the presidential election, you delayed retaliating against Russia?
SECRETARY KERRY: There were also – no, no, I didn’t say that. Please don’t put words in my mouth.
QUESTION: Well, go ahead and talk, sir.
SECRETARY KERRY: Moreover, the President made it clear that he would choose to respond in ways that he thought was appropriate, and you would know about some of them and you wouldn’t know about some of them, and you still don’t know about some of them. So I’m not going to get into what was chosen or not, but to make it a full-throated issue in the context of the campaign had its own set of very serious consequences and risks. So I think there were some —
QUESTION: What were those consequences? If the U.S. would have retaliated in October, a month before the election —
SECRETARY KERRY: But what —
QUESTION: — what would have been those serious consequences?
SECRETARY KERRY: What the President – but you don’t know completely because you don’t know what else might have been dumped into the ether of the campaign. I mean, there are a lot of different considerations there. But what the President did authorize was very important. DHS, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Director of National Intelligence did go out to the country, did go out to the world in an open way, but they did it – not the sort of elected officials. It was really under the roof of the intel community speaking for itself. That was an appropriate way to do it. And so it wasn’t kept from the public, it wasn’t kept from sort of a consideration, but it was done in a way that I think was managed most effectively.
QUESTION: There are now reports that the new Trump Administration will ask all U.S. ambassadors to come home even if a new ambassador is not in place yet. You saw that story today. What would be the impact of that?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I mean, they already have made the request, but it’s a perfectly normal request that —
QUESTION: Sometimes ambassadors are allowed to stay for an interim period.
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, but everybody serves – all political appointees serve at the pleasure of the president of the United States. And last December, we all had to issue our own resignations effective the 20th of January at the request of our chief of staff of President Obama. So it is normal that this is a part of a transition that political appointees serve at the pleasure of the president.
QUESTION: So you’re not worried about that?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think that some people ask for an extension for some reason or another, and in some cases it might make sense to think sensitively about that. But again, as a – in a large sense, the overall request is a normal request between administrations.
QUESTION: A few weeks ago, you said complex foreign policy issues can’t be boiled down, in your words, to “pithy little tweets.” Are you worried that some of Donald Trump’s tweets could be misunderstood – taken literally, for example, by someone like Kim Jong-un of North Korea?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think – again, Wolf, I’m just not going to get into speculating on what one leader or another leader may or may not read into the president-elect’s tweets. But I stand by the comment I made that I think that foreign policy needs much more strategic and thoughtful kinds of messaging and engaging, and it – I think that – let’s see what happens when the president is sworn in and how they begin to actually govern.
QUESTION: You recently were captured on audio saying how frustrated you were that the U.S. didn’t use force in Syria to prevent the slaughter that continues to this day. Hundreds of thousands of people over the past four years have been killed, many more have been injured, millions have been made homeless, refugees. Was this your biggest failure – stopping the bloodbath in Syria?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think it’s – was it our biggest failure? No, because stopping it was not up to or necessarily in the capacity of one country, the United States.
QUESTION: But the United States is the world’s leader.
SECRETARY KERRY: Yes, it is the world’s leader.
QUESTION: And on your watch —
SECRETARY KERRY: And many things —
QUESTION: — this must be so frustrating to you, Mr. Secretary, because I know you – to have gone these four years and to see this slaughter continue.
SECRETARY KERRY: Sure, it’s frustrating. I’ve said that very, very clearly. It is deeply frustrating. But —
QUESTION: Was this the biggest failure of your Administration?
SECRETARY KERRY: Again, I want to repeat to you: The United States of America doesn’t have the power by itself to end the war in Syria. It could make the war bigger.
QUESTION: Not by itself, but the U.S. could have done more. You know that.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, yeah, but Putin had to do more, Assad had to do more, Iran had to do more.
QUESTION: Assad’s —
SECRETARY KERRY: And a lot of questions —
QUESTION: Putin and – Putin’s working with Assad right now to slaughter a lot of these people.
SECRETARY KERRY: That’s correct and that is why, unless you choose to go to war and/or engage in other kinds of choices – and I don’t want to run through all of them right here and now – the simple reality remains yes, it’s deeply frustrating that the war in Syria has not been able to be stopped. But do I look on it as a failure of this Administration or otherwise? I look on it as a failure of the international community and of other countries to see reasonable ways in which this war could have been stopped.
Now, are there things we might have been able to do to effect some of that? Perhaps. That’s a debate for the future and I’m not going to start going backwards today. But I do think that we did what was appropriate, which was try in every way possible with whatever leverage was available to us to be able to try to end the war. And I’m proud of what we did in that regard. I don’t view it – I mean, we are the single-largest donor in the world to the refugees in terms of those finding themselves in other countries. Turkey is a huge donor to its own country to take care of the people who have come across the border, Jordan likewise struggling.
But we’ve worked, I think, diligently to try to guide this thing to a place through the International Syria Support Group, through our UN resolutions, through other efforts to try to encourage people to make peace. But there’s an old saying: You can lead a horse to water, you can’t make it drink. And we’ve done a lot of leading and a lot of getting to the water, but people were not in a mood to drink.
QUESTION: Our time is limited. A couple quick clarifications from you: Do you regard the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest site of Judaism, as occupied Palestinian territory?
SECRETARY KERRY: No, and I don’t think we’ve ever referred to it as such, nor to the resolutions that have passed with the UN or prior references indicated something to that effect. What they do indicate, though, is —
QUESTION: Well, let me, Mr. Secretary, interrupt.
SECRETARY KERRY: — the territory – what they indicate – previous resolutions have historically referred to the land that was taken into the 1967 war that is east of that border as occupied territory. But that doesn’t affect our view of what the Western Wall is to Israel, what it means as a religious site to Israel, and how we would protect that going forward. In fact, we’ve made it very, very clear in the speech I gave and the principles we laid out that the status quo with respect to religious sites must be respected and should not be changed. So people are trying to make a fight out of something that is not a fight.
QUESTION: Well, the prime minister of Israel keeps referring to that and he cites the UN resolution —
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I just made it very clear —
QUESTION: — that the U.S. allowed to pass – well, let me read the line from UN Security Council Resolution 2334. It reaffirms that the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity. It constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.
SECRETARY KERRY: That’s a reference to the settlements, Wolf.
QUESTION: So let’s just be precise. Is the Western Wall —
SECRETARY KERRY: It is a reference to the settlements. It is not a reference to the Western Wall.
QUESTION: Is the Western Wall part of Israel?
SECRETARY KERRY: I am – that has to be resolved in the context of final status negotiations. It is the position of the United States that that is a religious site of particular criticality and importance to Israel and that the current status quo with respect to those religious sites must be respected. So we respect Israel’s position without, in effect, speaking yet to the issue of sovereignty because that has to be resolved between the parties.
QUESTION: One final question: If Donald Trump follows through on his commitment to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, what would happen?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I can only speak to what other countries have said about it. I mean, the countries in the region – the Jordanians, the Arab countries, the Palestinians themselves have said that that would be extremely provocative and potentially create a very dangerous situation. Now, that’s them speaking. We obviously don’t want to see that happen. The United States, for a lot of reasons – pertaining to sovereignty, pertaining to law, and pertaining to the kind of reactions – has always opposed – actually made – we support the embassy being there one day. We want that to happen. But we have opposed unilaterally moving it without resolving the other surrounding issues and that continues to be the position of this Administration.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us.
SECRETARY KERRY: My pleasure. Thank you.
Source: U.S. State Department.