Why Is This Happening? John Kerry and America's (bad) reputation: podcast & transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with former Secretary of State John Kerry about why he refuses to be mad about Trump undoing years of his work.
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By Why Is This Happening?

Will America’s reputation survive President Trump? A common trend underlying President Trump’s policy decisions is to undo whatever President Obama accomplished. For former Secretary of State John Kerry, that means watching years of his hard-earned achievements in the international community come apart.

Hear Kerry explain what it’s like to watch President Trump on the world stage, why he refuses to let the current administration anger him, and what he believes threatens the basic fabric of American democracy.

JOHN KERRY: When I came back from the war, opposing the war, it was hard, and we took a lot of flak, a lot of personal flak. Richard Nixon’s years were hard.

CHRIS HAYES: Did it get to you?

JOHN KERRY: Sometimes, sure. I'd be a liar if I didn't say that it's not fun having some fellow vet attack you because he says you should have been, My country no matter what, right or wrong.

CHRIS HAYES: Says you're a traitor.

JOHN KERRY: What we said about our country is, Look, when it's right, keep it right, and when it's wrong, make it right. And we were wrong. Everybody knows today — or everybody who actually studies it and thinks about it — that Vietnam was a terrible mistake. Iraq was a terrible mistake. We pay a price for these mistakes.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host, Chris Hayes.

All right, we've got a big one today, a real big one, a real big name up in the marquee lights here. Before I introduce the name — which, who am I kidding? You've read the intro on the podcast, so there's no suspense here. You know what happens to Oedipus at the end of the play.

So, Richard Nixon had this thing that he would say about the presidency that I think about a lot, and I don't know, I'm gonna paraphrase (which is in line with my no-notes on "WITHpod" rule; we just work off the old noggin here, so I could Google the quote, but...) basically, it's something like, Really, the real reason you become President, and the real power of the American presidency, is foreign policy. When you're talking about domestic policy, you've got all these different constraints, like you've gotta get a bill through Congress — in the House and the Senate — and every senator's got their own idea and members of the House have their own idea, and then it gets implemented by a federal bureaucracy, and the bureaucracy is vast, and you have cabinet secretaries and all this stuff is constantly being massaged by all these other interests. But it's on the world stage, it's in the realm of foreign policy, the president has this kind of singular effect and singular power.

Nixon prided himself on his foreign policy acumen. He thought that domestic politics was penny ante bullshit that any piker could do, but that only Nixon could go to China, that he was this grand visionary about setting up the geo-strategic chess.

I've been thinking about that a lot because of who we have as president now — he's not a real chess master, I think. I don't know what you would call him. He basically acts on the world stage like a third-rate New York City real estate developer, which is what he is. Everything is this bluster, hype and bait-and-switch, big fights that blow up, and then he slinks away from them. He's constantly getting into beefs with people, and I can't tell if it's out of personal pique or for some tactical reason. He thinks it's gonna help him in negotiations?

It's really bizarre to watch Donald Trump conduct foreign policy, but it also has tremendous stakes. The U.S is the most powerful country on earth, and what we do in foreign policy has tremendous ripple effects throughout the globe. One obvious example, which is front of mind and something we've talked about in the podcast, is the war in Yemen, where the U.S. government is just backing to the hilt the Saudi campaign in Yemen that is responsible for the death of tens of thousands of civilians and threatens the starvation of 14 million people. It has already caused the worst cholera outbreak in recorded history. We've talked about it on this show several times.

That's an example of the consequences of American foreign policy, that old line about, "When America sneezes, the world catches a cold." Little things we do, decisions we make at the margins, can have life or death consequences for millions of people. So it matters a tremendous amount about how America conducts itself and how the American head of state — which is what the president is, he has a sort of official role and also the symbolic role — speaks for the American people on the world stage. When there's a summit, that's our country — us, you and I. We're represented by that guy. The guy from "Home Alone 2" is the person who's representing the whole country at these things.

So as I've been watching this and I've been watching the cloddish, embarrassing — and also destructive and bad conduct — of American foreign policy in the Trump era, I've been thinking a lot about what the alternative is and what precedent is and what we would want American foreign policy to be or what diplomacy to be.

So today's conversation is with a person who approaches foreign policy in literally the opposite way of Donald Trump. That's the former Secretary of State of the United States, former presidential campaign candidate and former senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry.

John Kerry was, for years, on the Foreign Relations Committee, cultivated relationships around the world in that role. He then became Secretary of State. I think he was, editorializing for a moment, a quite effective Secretary of State. He was the one who negotiated the Iran deal, which has been withdrawn from by Donald Trump. He was one of the people that negotiated the Paris Climate Accords, voluntarily carbon emission reduction targets for every country in the world. Everyone joined, and then the U.S. has pulled out.

He also did diplomacy on Yemen, which was not that effective, I think, or the diplomacy might have been effective but the solution was not. He worked on Syria in the Middle East. Again, I think a lot of people fault him for the way that that was handled. But he is also someone who just takes extremely seriously the role of diplomacy and the importance of diplomacy and the ways in which America navigates the world stage and navigates international relations. And he thinks about it, I think, with sophistication, experience, strategy, and not like a third rate real estate developer who's trying to bullshit his way into getting his hands on some parking lot so he could build a condo tower. I mean, just for an example of one way you could think about foreign policy.

I got to talk to Secretary Kerry here in the WITHpod Studios, in our secure location. And, just some context for the day of the conversation, it was after the midterms but it was amidst the growing outrage over the murder of the Saudi dissonant critic, Jamal Khashoggi, by the Saudi regime, and this bizarre defensive statement was put out on the day that I talked to John Kerry by the president, that begins with, "The world is a very dangerous place!" And then it talks about Iran and it goes on and on, and it talks about how the Saudis are buying lots of arms, and of course, lies about the number and inflates it by like a factor of ten, and then it basically says, Eh, maybe he was killed by the Saudis, maybe not, and then he slanders him as being part of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Gross, gross statement, but also perfectly representative of the insanity that is Donald Trump's foreign policy. So that was what we were talking about. It was also just after he'd gone to Paris. Remember how the president wanted his own military parade and then it got nixed because it was such a dumb idea and then he decided to fly across the Atlantic to attend a military parade there, because he wanted to see one so badly, but then he got into a fight with Macron on the way over there, and then when he got there, it was raining and he didn't want his hair to get messed up, according to at least one report? So he didn't go to an event. That was kind of weird. That had just happened.

Then Mike Pence had gone to the APEC Summit, which is the big summit of Pacific countries in east Asia and has traditionally been a place American presidents go because of the importance of U.S. relationships with Asia, also projections of strength and leadership against the encroaching Chinese, yada yada yada. Obviously I don't really buy all that stuff.

But those are all the contextual things to keep in mind. What I think is really valuable here, and what I came away from, is just thinking about the actual human practice of diplomacy on the level and scale that a person who is the Secretary of State for the United States has to conduct it and trying to get John Kerry, who is thick skinned and diplomatic and judicious in how he talks about what's going on, to really reflect deeply about what it was like and what it is like to do the job of representing the U.S. on the world stage.

The president put out a statement today that was a strange one. Have you ever seen a statement like that, the statement he put out about the Saudis and Khashoggi?

JOHN KERRY: Well, I've never seen a statement that seemed to be drafted and uncorrected from the president directly.

CHRIS HAYES: What did you think of the statement?

JOHN KERRY: I thought it was strange. What strikes me more than anything else is we have a president of the United States who, from day one when he came in, has been at war with the intelligence community of the United States of America, let alone other people.

It's very troubling to have a president who does not accept the judgment of the entire intelligence community of the United States that Russia hacked and interfered with our election. It's very disturbing to have the president behaving as if he has actually solved a nuclear crisis with North Korea, and then you have front page of the newspapers of America showing missile sites that are expanding and nuclear weapons that are growing in number, and the president still acts as though there's an agreement of some kind, when there isn't.

Now it is, obviously, disturbing to have judgments made about how a man was killed in the consulate of another country, by admission intentionally, and he just doesn't seem to feel there is anything to worry about in all those contexts.

CHRIS HAYES: I want to play devil's advocate about the U.S.-Saudi relationship and I want you to respond. The most cynical way of saying this is look, since all the way back with the House of Saud and F.D.R., the U.S. and Saudis have had this special relationship and we have looked the other way, time and time again, as they have done a million terrible things. It's been a repressive regime forever, they have been human rights violators, and this latest iteration is just the latest chapter in what has been a tawdry affair, based on mutual interest from the beginning, and all you folks are getting upset that they murdered and chopped up a Washington Post columnist are hypocrites.

JOHN KERRY: Well, I think everybody knows there is a long history of events that have happened with Saudi Arabia that have been disturbing, and we've taken issue with. When President Obama was there, we worked very hard to try to focus effort on creating a policy vis-à-vis Yemen, creating a policy vis-à-vis neighbors, creating a policy vis-à-vis extremism, support for people in Syria, by the way, when we first came in.

There were many different iterations of different agendas being carried out in the region. That was problematic, and we did hold everybody accountable then. We raised those issues and we dealt with them.

I think the difference after the death of King Abdullah and the rise to power of King Salman and then, eventually, his son, Mohammad bin Salman, is that Mohammad bin Salman genuinely has been perceived by an awful lot of people as someone who is trying to set Saudi Arabia on a different course. He came up with this 2030 vision, major economic overhaul.

CHRIS HAYES: Were you one of those people? Were you a buyer on that?

JOHN KERRY: Well, I believed that he was the only person in Saudi Arabia who was talking about a potentially different economic future for the country. He was the only person who publicly took steps to make a change. He ended the cultural police roaming the streets of the country. He then promised that women were going to be able to drive and indeed, they were. But with each effort and initiative, we began to see some other clouds on the horizon, with large numbers of people being imprisoned in the Ritz Carlton hotel, and the efforts in Yemen, where even this administration was beginning to caution them about the bombings and what was happening. It just continued and raged on.

I think that the hopes that we're going to be able to move in a similar direction together are still hopes, and we don't know the answer to that yet. We're going to have to see what happens over the course of the next weeks and months.

CHRIS HAYES: Ask you a emotional, personal question. I was thinking about this as Pompeo was flying over to meet with MBS after the...

JOHN KERRY: News first came out. Correct.

CHRIS HAYES: When you're going to a meeting like that, you're going to have to walk into a meeting — and this is true sitting across the table from the Iranians — how are you thinking in an emotional way about centering yourself to have a confrontation with someone across the table on something difficult?

JOHN KERRY: Chris, you basically have a job to do and you know why you're there and what you believe in, and what motivates... when I say "you," what motivates the State Department, what motivates an administration with respect to the policies of another country. You have to compartmentalize, to a certain degree. You're there to do a certain something. There's a way to do it, which is both forceful but also respectful, polite, and you make it clear that you have a difference and you're going to have to work through this difference.

CHRIS HAYES: Your response to that, when I saw your...

JOHN KERRY: You just don't personalize it.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, because your response was — in my head, and this is why I'm not Secretary of State of the United States — is I think of it as being fraught. I think of my stomach being tight and being anxious. But your response to that question was like, What are you talking about?, because I guess it's just second nature. This is just what you do if you're United States Secretary...

From left, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talk before a group picture in Vienna on July 14, 2015, after Iran and six world powers agreed to a nuclear deal.Carlos Barria / Pool via AFP - Getty Images file

JOHN KERRY: Chris, well, it's not just being Secretary of State. As a senator, you have plenty of fights with colleagues over one issue or another. You've gone to plenty of meetings that are frustrating, where one person or another explodes in the middle of it, and over the course of a long career of being a prosecutor, a lawyer, a lieutenant governor, a senator, negotiating, pushing, legislating, and doing things, you know when to get angry, when not to, and how to put things in their place.

It doesn't mean when you go home you don't feel like throwing up, or you don't feel, like, that you don't have some choice words for somebody in the confines of your conversation with the chief of staff or your immediate team. But you don't do it in a way that doesn't serve a purpose.

Sometimes anger and an explosion can serve a very real purpose of making it crystal clear, Here's what I am and here's what we're gonna be, and you leave and you let things terminate for a while.

CHRIS HAYES: As a tactical choice in a negotiation or?

JOHN KERRY: It may well be that you have to walk out in order to get what you need to do, ultimately. There's always a walk-away line, and I did. I walked away several times from the Iran nuclear agreement. When they backtracked on something that we'd agreed on, I said, "I'm not coming back to this. You guys decide what we're going to do when we go forward."

But there are times where you have to call it that way. But all of that is done with a fair amount of consistency of the values you're applying to it and the consistency of the policy that you're pursuing. That helps the other side to have a sense of, Whoa, these guys are serious. There's continuity here. This is what Eisenhower did, this is what Reagan did, this is what Jack Kennedy or whatever. They begin to see that they're not gonna...

CHRIS HAYES: ... Bigger than you....

JOHN KERRY: ... pull a fast one on you, and it's bigger than you alone and individually. Sure, it's about country, it's about major issues between nation states.

I think this is a different kind of thing. This is clearly the gravamen of this offense, of a guy being chopped up and people coming with a bone saw and a team of 15 guys and...

CHRIS HAYES: ... In a consulate.

JOHN KERRY: Yeah, in a consulate.

CHRIS HAYES: Which is a really gross violation, in and of itself.

JOHN KERRY: It's a major violation of international legal standards, etc. That's on a different level, and it demands some kind of response.

CHRIS HAYES: You mentioned Yemen before and the Saudi offense against the Houthi rebels, the Saudi-backed offense against Houthi rebels. It started when you were Secretary of State under Barack Obama. I've actually asked you about it. It was something that the U.S. backed, with some strings attached, I think it's fair to say, that the U.S. government was supportive of the Saudi efforts, saw it as a sort of part of U.S. foreign policy to back them.

What would you be doing now, if Barack Obama was president or you were president or you were Secretary of State in a Democratic administration, what would you be doing about the Saudi-led offensive?

JOHN KERRY: Well, I'd do exactly what we were doing and what we did. I took a peace plan to the Saudis, to the Emiratis, to the Omanis, and it was also presented to President Hadi of Yemen and to the Houthi and their supporters. They knew what the game was, what the goal was.

We had negotiations that had taken place in Kuwait, which we were deeply involved in. Our ambassador was our point person on it, over there, permanently, working this peace process. I went a number of times, and in the end of the administration, I went to Oman. I met with Houthi, and we actually got them to sign onto an agreement. They would go back to Kuwait and they would finalize the mechanism. The night that I got that agreement, I called my counterpart in Saudi Arabia. I said, "I want to make sure you guys are on board, as you said you were."

100%. We're on board. We're ready to go forward, etc., etc.

Our ambassador had cleared all of this with President Hadi. So we got a signature from al-Houthi to actually say, I will have a ceasefire. I will join up. We will go back and we will abide by this particular framework agreement, which required Hadi — by his agreement, by the way, earlier — to resign after six months, and a new president would come in and you'd have representation of the Houthi and the government and you would begin to re-patch Yemen together.

Lo and behold, when I came back to Riyadh the very next day, President Hadi "voiced objections." I turned to the Saudis and I said, You've got to be kidding me. This guy is a guest in your country. He has no army, he has no money, he has no house, unless you put him in a house, and you're telling me he's now saying

CHRIS HAYES: Wait, so the official Saudi line was, We're fine with it, but the guy that we are putting up here, who's the president, ostensibly, of Yemen, but who lives in Saudi Arabia, he's got a problem with it.

JOHN KERRY: Totally out of the blue and completely contrary to everything we'd worked on. So we began this dance that went on for a while about who was going to bring him to his proper understanding and readiness to move forward, and we ran out of time is what happened, Chris. We ran out of time. The last conversations I've had with people in the region, they all say that plan is the operative plan that is still on the table and it's what we'd like to head for. But there's no real negotiation taking place to try to make it happen. There's an absence of diplomacy.

CHRIS HAYES: What do you think? The current situation in Yemen has been called the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. The US-appointed head of the World Food Programme was just on air talking about...

JOHN KERRY: Yemen?

CHRIS HAYES: Yes.

JOHN KERRY: Oh, it's a disgrace. Together with Syria, they are the two greatest open wounds, scars, on the multilateral structure, on the U.N., on the global/international community's unwillingness to confront reality and push for peace.

CHRIS HAYES: But isn't Yemen an easier call than Syria? I mean, Yemen seems a simpler thing to shut down than Syria.

JOHN KERRY: It is. It is. It is a simpler call.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, just getting the Saudis to stop, say for instance...

JOHN KERRY: Yeah, but the Saudis have a legitimate complaint, which unfortunately there's a circular argument here that goes around, which is the Iranians shouldn't be in our backyard in the middle of Yemen. And it's true. Obviously Iran has had a major impact in transferring weapons and consulting; General Soleimani's been there and so forth and so on. But the Iranians are prepared to sit down and have a negotiation about it. The other guys are not. That's the big difference.

CHRIS HAYES: Has Soleimani been to Yemen?

JOHN KERRY: It's my understanding he had been. I'm pretty sure he had been.

CHRIS HAYES: There's contestation, obviously, about the level of Iranian involvement, even though it's clear they do back the Houthis, but in terms of how deep they are and how and how indigenous...

JOHN KERRY: What the Iranians made very clear to us as an administration was they want to make sure that the Houthi are represented in the government. They have no expectation as stated to me that the Houthi will run the government. None whatsoever. But they want to have a fair structure with fair representation and fair security arrangements in place so that they're protected.

And they view themselves as the protector, in essence. And there is an element of Shia-Sunni divide in what is going on in that regard, and there's got to be some sensitivity to that.

CHRIS HAYES: Part of the reason, obviously, that there's no real diplomacy with Iran is what the Trump administration's done with the Iran deal. What was it like? I mean, I guess you had to...

JOHN KERRY: Well, it precedes that even. It's not just the deal and Trump's attitude about it. It's also a fundamental Saudi strategic judgment that they don't want to deal with them until they're "out." So they've put all the requisite end game issues as the prerequisites to sitting down. And that's not going to work.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, that seems like that's the problem in the big proxy war in the region across the board, which is that the Saudis are committed to a complete rollback of Iranian influence in every sphere. And they have basically struck a deal with Jared Kushner and Donald Trump in a very kind of personal way that they will get carte blanche, even if it means murdering a Washington Post columnist in an embassy, to do whatever it takes to jointly confront the Iranians and roll them back.

JOHN KERRY: Well, it certainly appears that that's what's playing out. And in the absence of any other reality, you're left pretty much with that judgment.

CHRIS HAYES: The Iran deal was a product of so much effort, so much work, for so long, in so many different directions. It was such a multilateral undertaking. It was extremely delicate and fraught negotiation, time and time and time again going to the table, backing away, etc. How do you feel, personally, emotionally, and also intellectually, analytically about what has happened to that deal?

JOHN KERRY: Well, I don't feel personally about it, Chris, honestly, because of the simple reason that...

CHRIS HAYES: Are you Spock? You keep...

JOHN KERRY: No, no, no. I really don't. There's just no point in that. Where's that going to? It just doesn't take me anywhere.

CHRIS HAYES: But you're a human. You're a human being who worked hard on something.

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JOHN KERRY: Well, yeah, let me give you my human take on it. Right now, as of what? A month and a half ago or so, when everybody met in New York, the Iranians sat down with the Chinese, the Russians, the Germans, French, and British. And they all said, Let's talk about how we're going to keep the deal. So I actually, sitting here today — to be honest with you — I'm proud of the fact that that deal has had enough legitimacy that President Xi, President Putin, Chancellor Merkel, and President Macron, and the prime minister of Britain all decide, We're going to say to the United States, we don't agree with you; we like the deal. And they're standing up for it and fighting to try to hold onto it.

So I think that in a way, I think it's a worthless exercise in keeping a bad campaign promise that was nothing more than opposing Obama and finding an issue to try to make it seem like it was incompetent. When in fact it's the strongest nuclear agreement on the face of the planet. And when you put that agreement up against where they are on North Korea now, it is literally like night and day. So I'm fine... I'm not fine, I'm just, I know this is a continual fight. That's what I know about politics.

That's what my book is about. My book is about a journey of fights — constantly. Fighting to end a war, fighting to get healthcare, fighting to do things in the Congress, to hold people accountable. Politics is a fight. It's a struggle. And so I don't have any illusions like that. If I took every piece of what I've been through in the last 30 years or 40 years personally, I don't think I'd be sitting here with a whole head of hair the way I am now, and feeling pretty strong and vital.

CHRIS HAYES: Since this is not a visual medium, let me note for the record it's an extremely fine head of hair. It is fuller than mine at age 39.

JOHN KERRY: Yeah, not only that. President Obama in the Oval Office, no less, said to me one day, "You know, you have the best hair in politics."

CHRIS HAYES: I think it's probably true.

JOHN KERRY: So that's why I feel fine today.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, but I mean, the case that was made, right? It was a campaign promise, but it's part of this bigger geopolitical struggle around Iran. Basically the question is...

JOHN KERRY: But it's worth having a look. Let me make it clear, because it never comes out enough and that's the advantage to a podcast. You can sit here and we can talk about reality.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.

JOHN KERRY: We in the Obama administration — President Obama, myself, all the members of his security team — we all agreed that Iran's activities were menacing with respect to Hezbollah. We didn't support it. With respect to weapons being exported and smuggled into other countries, with respect to meddling in Iraq, with respect to Hezbollah and threats to Israel, all of these things we object to. And by the way, we never took away the sanctions with respect to any of those things. We kept sanctions on missiles, we raised them even as we negotiated with them. And we made it clear to them, if you guys mess around with these sanctions, you could blow this whole deal.

We could not have been tougher on that. But here's what we believed: Much better to take the nuclear weapon out of the equation completely, so you can focus on those issues and you're not put in the position where you may be trading something nuclear for one of these other issues. We didn't want any of that. I think that was the right strategy.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gestures while speaking during a news conference at the State Department in Washington on Nov. 20, 2018.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

And what I respectfully suggested to Secretary Pompeo, when we had a conversation before they pulled out of the deal, was Look, why don't you hold on to the deal for a year or two? You got 13 more years. Why don't you just say to the French, Germans, Brits, and Russians, and Chinese, Hey guys, we don't like this deal. My inclination is to pull out of it. And guess what? If we don't get a follow-on agreement on missiles, on arms, on Hezbollah, we're going to pull out of it. But I want you guys to pledge to me, if I agree not to pull out of the deal for the next year or two years, that you're going to stand by me side-by-side, you're going to support me in the U.N., you're going to support and help us get the follow-on agreement from Iran.

Now that seems to me to be logical. That seems to me to be in keeping with the idea of being the best negotiator in the world. But no. That's not what they did. They just pulled out. Then they slapped the sanctions. Why did they do that? Because they really have a regime-change strategy. Their intention is to squeeze, squeeze, squeeze, break the economy. And, despite all the pain and suffering that will incur to the Iranian people writ large, they have this belief they're going to rise up and have a revolution and it's going to change.

Guess what? There is no Jeffersonian Democrat waiting in the wings in Iran to suddenly take over if this happens, number one. Number two, the people with the power, the people with the guns, the people with the security apparatus, the people who are going to take advantage of any uprising, are going to be the hardliners who didn't want this negotiation to take place in the first place. Who wanted to have a nuclear weapon. Who wanted a nuclear program.

So we've gone back. By virtue of the president's decision we go back to square one.

CHRIS HAYES: Here's what's nuts about this analysis to me, and I'm just a humble cable news host so what do I know? But having watched Iraq and watching Syria, the idea that some regime change strategy would work seems crazy. But what seems particularly crazy to me is the investment that the Israeli government and the Saudis have in it, given the fact that they're actually there.

It seems to me from sitting here across the ocean — you know, I'm not a professional in this — that that's a recipe for true disaster and that the nuclear deal did take something very crucial off the table. And yet the people with skin in the game, the Israelis and the Saudis, think you're wrong and think Donald Trump and Jared Kushner and Mike Pompeo are right.

JOHN KERRY: Well, they live with a sense of immediate threat because it's their backyard. They see the Iranians spreading their wings in the region. And it's threatening. There's no question about it. I think there are a number of different ways for the Saudis and Israel and others to have the upper hand here and to deal with this more effectively. But I think what they're doing is falling into a trap, number one.

Number two, there's a real risk that you could have a conflict here, because a number of the countries you've mentioned want the United States to attack Iran on their behalf.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes.

JOHN KERRY: That's their goal.

CHRIS HAYES: That is very clearly the goal.

JOHN KERRY: And that's what we understood and President Obama was unwilling to be sucked into that.

CHRIS HAYES: You just said something about being a negotiator. I mean, when you watch this president and the way he conducts himself on the international stage, the kind of petulance, the berating, he's flying to France and he's dissing the French and he's getting into a weird standoff with Canada over milk prices and stuff. There's two schools of thought. One is this is a emotionally incontinent individual who is naturally aggressive and petulant, and the other is that this is a sort of set of tactical choices about trying to wrangle the best deal.

JOHN KERRY: Well I think what you saw in Paris the other day was very reactive. It didn't have any of the sense of confidence or clarity of planning that left you with a sense that this is carrying out a strategy. I mean, there is a strategy sometimes to be the disruptor. There is a strategy sometimes to be the person pulling apart the seams of something broken. But most rational people do not believe that the relationship with Germany, the relationship with France, the relationship with Britain, the relationship with NATO, etc., which has served us brilliantly ever since the end of World War II, that this is broken. And I think what you saw was genuine petulance, genuine narcissism, genuine sort of lashing out, a kind of anger. And I've heard some reasons for what that anger might have been coming from. I'm not going to throw it around on a podcast or in public.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, please, it's just us.

JOHN KERRY: I know it's just us.

CHRIS HAYES: Here we'll kill the recording.

JOHN KERRY: It's kind of cool. Just a small family.

CHRIS HAYES: Just kill the recording and just tell me and then I promise we won't run it.

JOHN KERRY: But I do think that the president, look at his statements. I mean, run the list of them. He just made an extraordinary statement the other day to the Associated Press about climate change. First of all he said there's plenty of water in California, there's no drought, which is rather remarkable judgment. But then he says "My uncle was a great professor at MIT, John Trump. And I haven't asked him about this subject, but I have a great instinct for science." That's a quote. Just about a quote.

CHRIS HAYES: We've done numerous bits on this. On the uncle.

JOHN KERRY: Have you?

CHRIS HAYES: It's crazy. He does it all the time. Any time anything comes up he goes well, my uncle...

JOHN KERRY: It's just stunning. It's just beyond. There's nothing rational or balanced about those kinds of statements and that kind of judgment.

CHRIS HAYES: And it also connects. I mean, again, those statements are preposterous and they're humorous and we have a lot of fun with the John Trump invocations on the show. Particularly that one, which was I know about climate because I have an uncle who was an nuclear scientist and even though he didn't work on climate and even though he's just my uncle and even though I just talked to him there's a kind of osmotic understanding that I have of the complexities of climate modeling.

JOHN KERRY: He understands it all. He understands the science.

CHRIS HAYES: It's a genuinely preposterous contention. But there are real stakes in what they did with Paris, which is another, if I could humbly say, I thought a signature accomplishment of both yourself and the Obama administration.

JOHN KERRY: So again, in the old vernacular, let me say this about that. I again, personally, I'm not sitting around lamenting, but I think he's done a really dangerous, stupid thing that hurts our country, it hurts the world. Because we were the leader. We led people to Paris, in a sense, by going to China, getting the Chinese on board, then the two of us sort of laying out a groundwork which showed people how there was a road forward for Paris. And then the E.U. came on board and then it was almost certain we could get there. But that leadership's gone now. There's no one leading. And the result is people are saying Oh, the United States isn't pushing now. They're not trying to do this. Why should we do this?

So at a moment where the IPCC comes out and says Hey guys, you got 12 years left to try to get it right on the next .5 degrees centigrade of increase. And if you don't get it right it's going to be catastrophic. And by the way, Paris doesn't get you there. We all knew that.

CHRIS HAYES: That's right.

JOHN KERRY: We knew in Paris we weren't promising that, but what we were doing was making the best of a difficult thing, as to how you get every nation on board to do something. And the doing of something was going to get the private sector excited that the largest market in the world, the energy market, was available for investment. And indeed it worked. We had $358 billion invested in alternative renewable energy that next year. More than fossil fuel for the first time in history. Now that's being dissipated. So that's the danger of what's happened.

CHRIS HAYES: Is that the worst thing that he's done on the international stage, the Paris?

JOHN KERRY: In terms of costing lives immediately and having an impact on billions of dollars of property and damage down the road I think it probably is.

I think close to that is the irresponsible way to have approached North Korea in that summit. Where you come away and you don't even have an agreement on what denuclearization is or on how you're going to have a declaration with respect to everything that follows. Now that may come; I don't know. But to have given away that meeting without the certainty that you get that upfront has made things very difficult. And now it's hard to see how, as an election cranks up in 2020, people outside are going to be suddenly rushing to jump the verdict of that election.

CHRIS HAYES: What do you mean?

JOHN KERRY: Well I mean, Paris for instance, doesn't take effect until the day after the 2020 election. So people are going to be sitting there saying let's see what happens in 2020. It may be in, may be out. Same thing on nuclear thing. Is Kim Jong Un going to give up or get too far down the road, depending on how he feels about Trump or how he feels about his long term interests? I don't know.

CHRIS HAYES: You know, an American member of Congress said this to me. He said: "Most people that engage in statecraft on behalf of the United States have a sense of continuity, which is they understand that they're pulling one set of versions of an iterative game that's going to extend over long periods of time." That is not the approach of this president. And this member of Congress said to me "There are some small, marginal ways in which that might give you some small tactical advantage in the moment. You may be able to get some relief on dairy tariffs, but you're doing it at the cost of something longer term that this individual just doesn't care about."

JOHN KERRY: Correct. And that's the bottom line. There's not that much more to say about that. I mean, he...

CHRIS HAYES: Anonymous member of Congress was correct?

JOHN KERRY: Yeah. He doesn't care about that. That's very, very clear. He puts out policy statements that his team hasn’t even heard of.

CHRIS HAYES: My wife worked in the White House and she's a lawyer — she's both a lawyer and a stickler — and rule-follower and cares about process deeply, and the Obama administration really did. And I always wonder what it's like to watch this kind of insane run-and-gun.

JOHN KERRY: Well you don't get good policy out of this. Part of the reason for having process is not just to come up with a good policy for the outside, it's to come up with a policy in which all your departments that are going to be implementing it are actually vested in it. And if you leave them completely on the wayside and they've had zero say in it, but they're going to wind up being the ones who implement it and they don't agree with one point or another within it, you're not going to have an effective policy. It's not going to be implemented.

I mean, lots of presidents have found that out the hard way. There are folks there who survive every administration and they all know how to slow-walk something.

CHRIS HAYES: Your book sort of sketches the trajectory of your life through various stages. And as I'm sitting here talking to you now, you have a kind of unflappability that doesn't strike me as posed. It strikes me as truly genuine. And I wonder where you think that comes from. Is that something that you have naturally or was cultivated?

JOHN KERRY: Chris, that's a really good question. And maybe now I am flappable.

CHRIS HAYES: You don't like introspecting. This is what I'm learning.

JOHN KERRY: No, no, no, no. I'm trying to think about it. I think it just comes from years of being engaged. When I came back from the war, opposing the war, it was hard. And we took a lot of flak. A lot of personal flak. Richard Nixon's years were hard.

CHRIS HAYES: Did that get to you?

JOHN KERRY: Sometimes, sure. I'd be a liar if I didn't say that it's not fun having some fellow vet attack you because he says you should have been, My country no matter what.

CHRIS HAYES: Says you're a traitor.

JOHN KERRY: And what we said about our country is, Look, when it's right keep it right and when it's wrong make it right. And we were wrong. Everybody knows today — or everybody who actually studies it and thinks about it — that Vietnam was a terrible mistake. Iraq was a terrible mistake. We pay a price for these mistakes.

And I think, over the years, I've had a lot thrown at me, so it's hard to get me. I certainly get angry at some things. I may not do it on air, but I'm perfectly capable of walking out of a studio and putting my fist through a wall.

John Kerry, 27, testifies about the war in Vietnam before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, 1971.Henry Griffin / AP file

CHRIS HAYES: We're going to follow you with microphones.

JOHN KERRY: It won't be from this interview I promise you. Sorry.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, this relates to another question, which is — again, I'm projecting out my own personality and temperament — I think that it would drive me a little crazy to watch. If I had been Secretary of State of the United States and was followed by this particular administration, it would drive me a little nuts.

JOHN KERRY: But I would rather save my energy for doing something.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

JOHN KERRY: I learned that a long time ago, honestly.

CHRIS HAYES: Like what's that get you?

JOHN KERRY: It doesn't get you anything. It's just frustrating. You're angry, frustrated, and you don't work well when you're angry.

CHRIS HAYES: That’s how I live my life. But continue.

JOHN KERRY You gotta find a different outlet then. Maybe you ought to run for office, Chris, and get into the mix.

CHRIS HAYES: Here's my question though. There are people who are watching what happening in the country now and thinking this is something unprecedented and kind of existentially threatening to the basic fabric of American democracy and global leadership, etc. And then there are other people who think, this too shall pass.

And I'm curious what...

JOHN KERRY: There are things that definitely are threatening to the fabric of our country's structure, no question about it.

CHRIS HAYES: What are those?

JOHN KERRY: Oh, there are many of them. I mean the disrespect within the Congress for compromise. The inability to get out from under the reams of money that set agendas and that steal from the average person the ability to have their voice heard. That's not democracy. And if democracy is just money, we're in trouble. And that's what the Supreme Court decided and the Citizens United, that speech is money and so forth. To have ignored the earlier Supreme Court decision about corruption and the capacity of money to corrupt and the need to have some restraint, is a vital component of how you sustain a democracy.

I also think that the gerrymandering and the orthodoxy police of particular extremes make life difficult. Now, that's not all together new to American politics: You go back to 1700s and look at the names they called — Jefferson, Franklin and Adams and all these guys — it was pretty rough stuff, too.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, one guy murdered another dude.

JOHN KERRY: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: In New Jersey.

JOHN KERRY: Yeah, in New Jersey. One guy did murder a guy in New Jersey. And, another senator — member of the House came up to [Sen.] Charles Sumner, [he caned the hell out of that United States senator, and he basically died from his injuries a few years later. [Ed. note: Sumner died after a heart attack 23 years after the incident. They were never conclusively determined to be related.]

So yeah, it can be tough and ugly. The point I make is: This world of ours is moving really fast now. We are seeing tectonic shifts of influence. The hierarchy of power, which we worked with through 1956-57, has changed. It's now a network of power.

And the networking of power changes how decisions are made and not made but — here's a huge but — we have lost an ability to decide what the facts are. And if you can't decide what the facts are in a democracy, you can't build consensus and you can't make decisions.

So we're not. We don't do infrastructure. We don't really fix health care. We don't do what we need to do in education. We're not living up to our responsibilities in terms of global engagement right now. I mean, China is spending a trillion dollars a year on the one belt, one road. It has some problems, I assume that they'll confront some of those.

CHRIS HAYES: This is their huge sort of transcontinental infrastructure project.

JOHN KERRY: Right. Transcontinental: 70 countries are involved in this. They are building out things. You know what we're dong? We're pulling away. We sent the vice president instead of the president going to the APEC conference in Asia, of all places just last week.

CHRIS HAYES: That was wild.

JOHN KERRY: It's incredible. So I think there are a lot of different dangers, but the inability of Congress to do its job is perhaps one of the biggest of all.

And you have President Xi and President Putin actively selling a new narrative. The new narrative: The liberal order of the west is dead, United States of America is in decline and we are the real model for how you get things done. Look at what we've built, look at our railroads, look at our country, look at our wealth that we've transferred. And they have.

I mean severe poverty in parts of China is below one percent. When I was in college, it was 50 percent in the world, it's below 10 percent broadly in the world now.

So I think the dysfunctionality of Washington is a fundamental threat.

CHRIS HAYES: But it's interesting.

JOHN KERRY: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Because the diagnose you just gave had nothing to do with Donald Trump. You lay down a whole variety of structural...

JOHN KERRY: No, Trump is the symptom of that. Trump is the manifestation of this anger that's been building now for many years. And I saw it in the 1990s when you had the Gingrich revolution, then you had the Tea Party, then you had the Freedom Caucus. Trump is just the hostile takeover of the Republican party that came because none of those entities delivered any of what they promised.

So here we are, very different time and place in America. Now, so people are going to hear this and say, Oh, my God, I’m gonna throw up my hands, I can't do anything. Wrong. Wrong. And why do I say wrong? Just look what happened in the November election.

More young, new congresspeople going to Washington than at any time since the Watergate class of 1974, two months after Richard Nixon had resigned. Amazing circumstance. And they're great interesting people who are angry at this inability at congress to be able to function. They want to move it forward and I think they are going to be very much engaged in that initiative.

So I'm hopeful that in 2020, we're going to continue what we began in this race. And we only got to 49 percent turnout.

CHRIS HAYES: I know, it's crazy.

JOHN KERRY: That's insanity in the United States.

CHRIS HAYES: Which is the highest its been in decades and decades and decades.

JOHN KERRY: No, no, no, that's the highest it's been the mid-term elections, ever, in the [modern] history of our nation.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, that's right, it's absolutely right.

JOHN KERRY: So my point is, we're not going to live our dream and make our experiment more than an experiment if we don't get Americans coming to the polls and voting again. And we've got to stop being a country, by the way, in which one party is allowed to get away with stopping people from voting.

So these are threats, these are very serious threats, when a lot of people running around with guns, as they are, without any restraints on emotional capacity and other things, this threatens the kind of life that most Americans want to have.

CHRIS HAYES: All of this happens against the backdrop of climate, which to me is the big super-challenge. And you said something that struck me: I think it was a few days ago, you were talking about the intersection of migration flows in climate, which is something that is really under-appreciated for what it will mean for the world.

JOHN KERRY: Well, it has the potential to mean the end of Europe, as people have known. And I don't think it's going to happen, because you're going to have civil war or a barrier war before you have that happen, but that's ugly.

Look at the rate of... I think Nigeria has 170 million people today, it's going to go up to 500 million people by the mid-century. They bragged to me about that when I went as Secretary, and I turned to them and I said, "You know Prime Minister, let me tell you something, that's not something to be happy about. You can't live sustainably today, do you think you're going to live sustainably with 500 million people coming at you? It's not going to happen."

So where are they going to go? What happens when the rivers start to divert? What happens when the Himalayan glaciers have melted away? What happens when you have food production disrupted in certain very populous places? Do you think those people are going to sit?

Secretary of State John Kerry pauses a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the Iran nuclear agreement in Washington on July 28, 2015.Carlos Barria / Reuters file

CHRIS HAYES: No.

JOHN KERRY: You see a caravan now to Mexico today, which is fleeing violence, but when people can't even eat, we don't have a world food capacity to be able to supply. It's not going to happen. So, I think there are genuine massive threats. We have a billion eight children, 15 years old or younger in the world today. We have two billion kids, 15 years to 24. If those kids don't get franchised in their countries to vote, to go to school, to have a job, to be engaged, woe be to all of us — especially with respect to extremism, and what begins to supplant that absence of opportunity in a vacuum. So we're being tested here, and we're not meeting the test.

So, I'm very serious about this. I think climate change — while some people scoff at it and our president is actually the denier in chief — the reality is, it's the most serious by far, the most serious security threat we face in the world today with exception of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorist group, but that is existential. And right now, when you measure the report that was put out by the scientists — a thousand scientists plus — on where we are today, we have 12 years left to prevent an additional point five degrees centigrade raise of temperature, relative to pre-industrial times.

We're not on course to make it. We are on course to hit four degrees centigrade in this century. That is beyond catastrophic.

CHRIS HAYES: People don't understand: That means you can't live in Scottsdale. To make it real concrete. Four degrees centigrade means...

JOHN KERRY: Arizona, you can't live.

CHRIS HAYES: You can't live, Phoenix and Scottsdale, it's gone. No one is living there.

JOHN KERRY: And Florida, by the way, Florida with respect to sea level rise, will be dramatically inundated. They are already pumping water out of the streets of Miami Beach. It's insanity to be going down the course we are going when we know we have the solution right now. The solution to climate change is energy policy.

So, put the energy in: Produce your electricity, drive your vehicles with energy that is sustainable and we're not doing it, we're not choosing to do it. And certainly not at a rate that is fast enough to preclude the problem.

CHRIS HAYES: So then what gives you hope? What is your feeling? You said, don't throw up your hands, engage in the mid-terms, but...

JOHN KERRY: What gives me hope, Chris, is what I write about in the book, my whole book. My book is not a secretary of state's policy tome. My book is the journey of an American, young American, who was inspired by President Kennedy and others to become involved in public life, to try to make a difference, and the journey of that, and how I think we showed we could make a difference when we did certain things — which we're not doing today, although, in the last election, we did.

That's my hope. The last election was exactly what I had been prescribing to people is the way we take back our future, which is to make the issues we care about voting issues. Go out and mobilize around them. Argue the case. Organize, street for street. Bring people out of their homes. Become a country where voting is a passion and people all want to go do it. We then will choose wise things, because the vast majority of the American people know climate change is happening, they want to move in these different directions and part of the anger that has captured our politics is coming from the extremes and the special interests that are stealing that agenda right now.

So you have to take it back from them. Make it a voting issue. That's what we did in 1970 with the environment. We had Earth Day. People didn't want to live next to a toxic waste site. People didn't want to live, you know, with water that may give you cancer. They didn't want to see an Ohio river burning up, the Cuyahoga River and so forth. So what did they do? We targeted the 12 worst votes in the United States house. In the next election, 1972 we defeated seven of the 12. Immediately, the issues became a voting issue.

And so you had the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water, Marine Mammal Protection, Coastal Zone Management. In fact, Richard Nixon signed the EPA into existence. So voters got the things they wanted by voting. And if we do that again now, we do it around these big issues, we can set the agenda.

I can't accept the other choice. The other choice is, you do nothing, you accept it, you take care of yourself, you go away and that's it. I'm not ready to do that. I've got kids, grandkids and I believe in our responsibility to try to deal with it and make a difference. Period.

CHRIS HAYES: Final question. What is your life like? I mean you're someone that you have been engaged in public life for decades in a bunch of different roles. You've seen American governance and international relations from all these different angles. You've done a ton of different things, and I just wonder what it's like. You wake up, you're John Kerry and...

JOHN KERRY: I wake up and I'm still John Kerry.

CHRIS HAYES: You wake up, you're John Kerry, you've got a great head of hair and an incredible resumé, you've done all these things, you know a lot, like, what's it like?

JOHN KERRY: It's busy, it's exciting, it's busy, I'm probably doing too many things — my family would say that — but I love it. I mean, I feel like I know what I'm doing, fully, if you know what I'm saying. I do believe experience brings a certain sense of place to issues, to yourself and to the choices that you face. And I feel like that today, because I did the Iran Deal, because I did the Paris Negotiations, because I worked with Lavrov on getting chemical weapons out of Syria, because I've had years — 28 years — in the United State Senate, I have a sense of what matters, what doesn't, how you get it done. And I feel very fulfilled in that regard, but I'm not fulfilled when I look at these crises.

And so I thought I would be happy in total retirement, I never planned to be as active as I've been right now, but we have to be, all of us. Nobody has a right to pull back from the choices that we face right now.

CHRIS HAYES: John Kerry is former secretary of state of the United States, former U.S. Senator from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the author of "Every Day is Extra."

Thank you very much, I really appreciate it.

JOHN KERRY: My pleasure to be with you. Thanks a lot.

CHRIS HAYES: My great thanks to Secretary John Kerry. As you heard in that conversation, he has this new memoir out, which is called "Every Day is Extra," which (just as a note), is not... And I know, I had to explain this to Tiffany, because Tiffany is our millennial producer, it doesn't mean "extra" in the way that millennials mean "extra." Just like that, each day is an extra day and you should live life to your fullest but not like, “whoa, extra Tuesday, extra.” (Oh my gosh, she's grimacing so hard.)

It is a really fascinating book, it's a really good memoir, it's really interesting. I suggest you check it out. John Kerry, "Every Day is Extra."

I also want to thank two other people. And this is something I want to start doing more routinely. This conversation, if you listen to it or you liked it or you thought it was interesting, there's two other, Why Is This Happening? conversations we've had that are useful context.

One is with Shareen Al-ademi, who is a Yemini woman at Michigan State University who we spoke to about the war in Yemen and I still think is one of the best, kind of in depth context setting explanations of the situation there. It's complicated and it's hard to make sense of, but if you listen to that conversation, you'll come away much better informed. I came away much better informed just conducting the conversation.

And also Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker, who is a great reporter who wrote a great piece about the kind of contours of conflict in the modern Middle East.

Both of those conversations can be found where ever you get this podcast, in the archives. So check them out.

One other thing that we are going to start doing: A lot of people have asked for links to things that we talk about in these conversations. A lot of times that will book references, it might be articles references ,and we have been putting links in the transcripts that we put up on the, "Why Is This Happening?" page, which is NBCNews.com/whyisthishappening

You can go there, you can look at the transcripts of the conversation and, when we mention the thing in the conversations, there will be a link to it. But that's kind of hard to have all on one place, so what we are going to start doing is in the episode description on your podcast app as well as bunched together at the bottom of the transcript, in two places, will be a list of links so, for further reading. You can see them there in your podcast app description and you can see them in the transcript we post at the end if you scroll down, so that there's a kind of easily collated assessable list of the texts that we discussed in the conversation so check that out.

As always we love to hear from you. In fact, extra plug for hearing from you. Big tease ahead, I never do this, I never tease ahead but I'm going to tease ahead this week, right? Can I do this? You should tweet us, #WITHpod or email us withpod@gmail.com, because coming up soon in very special first ever with pod holiday mail bag. We're going to be taking your emails, I'm going to be responding to your questions and a special guest on the mic of that episode which is also extremely exciting so believe me, you're going to want to listen up and you should also send us your emails withpod@gmail.com #WITHpod.

"Why Is This Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC news, produced by the "All In" team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work including to links that we mentioned here by going to NBCNews.com/whyisthishappening.

RELATED LINKS:

"Every Day Is Extra," by John Kerry

Detailing America's role in the world's worst crisis with Shireen Al-Adeimi: podcast & transcript

Untangling the Middle East with Dexter Filkins: podcast & transcript