Rex W. Tillerson , Secretary of State – Interview With Jake Tapper of CNN
Washington, DC, October 15, 2017
QUESTION: Here to discuss this and much more is the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Secretary Tillerson, thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate it.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: My pleasure, Jake.
QUESTION: So before we get to what the President did, I want to ask a question. You said recently that Iran is in technical compliance with the deal, but President Trump said on Friday that the Iranian regime has, quote, “committed multiple violations of the agreement.” So which is it? Is Iran in technical compliance or has it committed multiple violations?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, the answer is really both, Jake. Under the nuclear agreement, the JCPOA that is a multilateral party agreement, there have been a number of technical violations – carrying too much inventory of heavy water, having materials that are used to construct high-speed centrifuges. But under the agreement – and this is part of the weaknesses and the flaws – Iran has a significant period of time to remedy those violations. And so they have remedied the violations, which then brings them back into technical compliance. I think, though, that demonstrated pattern of always walking right up against the edges of the agreement are what give us some concern as to how far Iran might be willing to go to test the limits from its side of the agreement. Our response to that has been to work with the other parties and demand that we be much more demanding of the enforcement of the agreement – much more demanding inspections, much more demanding disclosures – and that is what we are shifting since we have taken our seat at the table of the Joint Commission.
QUESTION: Okay. President Trump decertified the deal on Friday, but he did not withdraw from the deal as he could have. Did the President want to withdraw unilaterally before people in the administration such as yourself, Secretary Mattis and others, successfully persuaded him to pursue what might be described as a middle course?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: No, what the President wants is a more comprehensive strategy to deal with Iran in its totality. I think for too long – and certainly the last administration really defined the Iranian relationship around this nuclear agreement. This nuclear agreement is flawed. It has a number of weaknesses in it. But – and so the President said throughout his campaign, even, he said I’ll either reform the agreement, I’ll renegotiate the agreement. Basically, he’s saying I’ll either fix these flaws or we’ll have to have a different agreement entirely. And I think his decision around the new policy is consistent with that.
So now we want to deal with the nuclear agreement’s weaknesses, but we really need to deal with a much broader array of threats that Iran poses to the region, our friends and allies, and therefore threats that they pose to our own national security. The policy itself really has three components, and I think it’s important that people understand this, and the President described these in his speech. There is the nuclear agreement, which we are going to undertake an effort to see if we cannot address the many flaws in the agreement, working with partners. It may be a secondary agreement; maybe it’s not within the existing agreement, but we may undertake a secondary agreement. But then there’s a much broader array of threats from Iran: its ballistic missile programs, its support of terrorist organizations in the region, Lebanese Hizballah, Hamas. These are all very threatening organizations. And its destabilizing activities in Yemen to support the rebels, the Houthis, to support the rebels in Syria – the Assad regime. Everywhere you look in the region, Iran’s activities destabilize the region and threaten others.
But the third element of this policy, and the President touched on it in his address, is this is not about the Iranian people. This is about the regime in Iran, this revolutionary regime that ever since it came to power has been intent on killing and harming Americans and harming others in the region. We do not hold the Iranian people accountable for that. So our effort is to support the moderate voices in Iran, support their cries for democracy and freedom, in the hope that one day the Iranian people will retake control of the Government of Iran and restore it to its rich history of the past, reintegrate, and become a fruitful member in trade, commerce in the region.
So that is really the end game here, but that’s a very long game, and we realize that.
QUESTION: Before the Senate not long ago, your counterpart at the Pentagon, Secretary Mattis, was asked if he thought staying in the agreement was in the best interests of the United States. Not a question about whether or not he wanted to improve upon the deal or add a secondary deal, as you just discussed, but whether or not the U.S. should stay in it or leave. And he said staying in it was his course. It sounds like you agree with that as well, that you would not want Congress to immediately impose sanctions that would end this deal.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: No, I do agree with that, and I think the President does as well. That’s why he took the decision he took that, look, let’s see if we cannot address the flaws in the agreement by staying within the agreement, working with the other signatories, working with our European friends and allies within the agreement. But that – as I said, that may come in a secondary agreement as well. So we want to take the agreement as it exists today, as I said, fully enforce that agreement, be very demanding of Iran’s compliance under the agreement, and then begin the process of addressing these flaws that we see around not – the absence of addressing ballistic missiles, for instance. The concerns we have around the sunset provisions, this phase-out of the agreement. We know what that looks like. We’ve seen this in the past, in the ‘90s with North Korea, agreements that ultimately phase out. What happened has put us on the road where we are today with North Korea. We don’t want to find ourselves in that same position with Iran.
QUESTION: Speaking of North Korea, you talk about working with European allies. As you know, our European allies are very concerned about the step that President Trump took on Friday. I want to show you what the German foreign minister had to say. Quote, “My big concern is that what is happening in Iran or with Iran from the U.S. perspective will not remain an Iranian issue but many others in the world will consider whether they themselves should acquire nuclear weapons too given that such agreements are being destroyed.” And I guess the question there is, as voiced by the German foreign minister: Why should North Korea believe anything that the United States has to say if the President has shown his willingness to walk away from agreements about nuclear weapons?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I think what North Korea should take away from this decision is that the United States will expect a very demanding agreement with North Korea, one that is very binding and achieves the objectives not just of the United States but the policy objectives of China and other neighbors in the region: a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. We intend to be very demanding in that agreement. And if we achieve that, then there’ll be nothing to walk away from because the objective will be achieved.
The issue with the Iran agreement is it does not achieve the objective. It simply postpones the achievement of that objective, and we feel that that is one of the weaknesses under the agreement. So we’re going to stay in, we’re going to work with our European partners and allies to see if we can’t address these concerns, which are concerns of all of us.
QUESTION: All right. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, stay right here. We’re going to take a very quick break. We’ve got a lot more to talk about including your role in establishing a dialogue with North Korea, something the President said is a waste of time. Stay with us.
QUESTION: And we’re back with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Secretary Tillerson, you were in China. We were just talking about the North Korean problem. You were in China trying to resolve the dispute with North Korea in a diplomatic way. President Trump tweeted, “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” and then he sent a second tweet saying, “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!” Now, if I were a Chinese official or a North Korean official seeing these tweets while you were there trying to negotiate and trying to solve this problem, I might think Secretary Tillerson doesn’t really speak for President Trump.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, fortunately, Jake, President Trump and President Xi have probably one of the closest relationships the President has with a head of state. As you’re aware, they’ve had two major face-to-face meetings – the summit in Mar-a-Lago, a very comprehensive bilateral in Hamburg. The President speaks to President Xi on the telephone frequently. I think they’ve had eight – seven or eight calls. I have a very close relationship with the state councilor of China, who reports directly to President Xi on their foreign policy. So rest assured that the Chinese are not confused in any way what the American policy towards North Korea or what our actions and efforts are directed at. So —
QUESTION: But don’t tweets like that undermine you?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think the President – what the President is doing is he’s trying to motivate action on a number of people’s part, in particular the regime in North Korea. I think he does want to be clear with Kim Jong-un and that regime in North Korea that he has military preparations ready to go and he has those military options on the table, and we have spent substantial time actually perfecting those. But be clear, the President has also made clear to me that he wants this solved diplomatically. He is not seeking to go to war.
QUESTION: So he doesn’t think it’s a waste of time?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: But I – no, sir. He has made it clear to me to continue my diplomatic efforts, which we are, and we will – as I’ve told others, those diplomatic efforts will continue until the first bomb drops.
QUESTION: The relationship that a secretary of state has with a president is one of the most important relationships in the world. World leaders need to know that you speak for him and that he has faith in you and that you have faith in him. NBC News reported that you were frustrated with President Trump over the summer and you called him a moron during a meeting at the Pentagon. Now, you’ve dismissed the question as petty, but this is literally one of the most important relationships in the world, the one between you and President Trump. Is it true, did you call him a moron?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Jake, as I indicated earlier when I was asked about that, I’m not going to deal with that kind of petty stuff. I mean, this is a town that seems to relish gossip, rumor, innuendo, and they feed on it. They feed on one another in a very destructive way. I don’t work that way, I don’t deal that way, and I’m just not going to dignify the question. I call the President “Mr. President.” He and I have a very, very open, frank, and candid relationship. I see him often. I speak to him nearly every day. I’m in the Oval Office a number of hours every week. We have a very open exchange of views on policy. At the end of the day, he makes decisions; I go out and do the best I can to execute those decisions successfully. And he understands at all times what we are trying to achieve to fully implement his foreign policy.
He has assembled a very, I think, unconventional team. He himself is an unconventional President. He has assembled an unconventional cabinet. I’m an unconventional pick for Secretary of State. But that’s because he does not accept the status quo with the many threats that we’re confronting in the world today, and he is going to take forcing action. And oftentimes the tweets or decisions he takes are intended to cause this forcing action to get off of the status quo, to force people to take action and move to a different place. So whether it’s the decision on the Iranian agreement that was announced to force action to address this defective agreement, whether it’s decisions on forcing North Korea to move to a different place of engagement, all of those are steps the President is taking to force action. He is not going to accept the status quo. The American people elected him to change the status quo, and that’s what he’s doing.
QUESTION: Ever since you called it petty, I’ve been thinking a lot about it because I’m a reflective guy and I understand the media makes mistakes and the media always could improve. But here’s the thing: either you didn’t say it, in which case there are a whole bunch of administration officials telling the press and telling the President that you did, and that’s a serious problem; or you did say it and, look, you’re a serious guy – for you to say something like that suggests a real frustration with the Commander-in-Chief. So when you don’t answer the question it makes people think that you probably did say it. But either way, whatever happened, it is serious.
So can you please clear it up?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: As I said, Jake, I’m not playing. These are the games of Washington. These are the destructive games of this town. They’re not helpful to anyone. And so my position on it is I’m not playing. I’m not playing. You want to make a game out of it? I’m not playing. It’s as simple —
QUESTION: I’m not making —
SECRETARY TILLERSON: It’s as simple as that.
QUESTION: I’m not making a game out of it. I mean, I’m just trying to seek clarity because saying that – if I said that my boss was a moron, that would be a serious issue. It wouldn’t be – and my boss doesn’t control nukes. I’m willing to move on, but I just want to be clear: you still haven’t denied that you called him a moron, and a lot of people are going to watch this and think, “He probably said it.”
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I’m not dignifying the question with an answer, Jake, and I’m – I’m a little surprised you want to spend so much time on it when there are so many important issues around the world to deal with.
QUESTION: I want to ask about Senator Bob Corker, who said something about you, and he was referring – he’s a friend of yours. He has tremendous respect for you. He speaks highly of you all the time. He says that you’re one of the best things about the cabinet, and he’s dismayed he thinks President Trump is constantly undermining you. This is a Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said that the President has, quote, “castrated” you before the world stage. That’s his word, not mine. What’s your response to that?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, as I indicated earlier, Jake, I think this is an unconventional President. He uses unconventional communication tools. He uses unconventional techniques to motivate change. And for people that have been around Washington a long time, this is a place that – you know better than I; you’ve been here longer than I have – this is not a place that likes to change. It actually enjoys the status quo. The last thing anyone likes to do in this town is make a decision, because when you make a decision you’re suddenly accountable for that decision.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: And so the President is out trying to motivate people to change, whether it’s on health care, whether it’s executive action he recently took to motivate that change, whether it’s on executive orders around immigration to motivate that change, or whether it’s under the action he took under the Iran deal on Friday. It’s to motivate a change. People in this town get very nervous and get very uptight about having to address serious issues by making decisions.
And so the President is simply trying to do that in his very unique style, and he is very unique. I don’t think there’s any doubt that anyone sees him as anything other than the most unique President we’ve certainly ever seen in modern history that we can – we have recorded history of it —
QUESTION: Hard to dispute that.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: But again, I would say I am fully committed to his objectives. I agree with his objectives. I agree with what he’s trying to do. How he wants to use his own skills tactically to push things toward change, I’m there to help him achieve those.
QUESTION: That’s all – you’re a cattle – you have a cattle ranch. You don’t want to say anything about this senator calling – suggesting you’ve been gelded before the world? That’s not anything that bothers you?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I checked; I’m fully intact.
QUESTION: (Laughter.) I did not expect that answer. So let’s turn to Russia. Senator John McCain, a Republican, and Ben Cardin, a Democrat, they slammed the Trump administration on Wednesday for missing a deadline to implement sanctions passed by Congress against Russia. It was clear that President Trump didn’t want to sign that legislation. He made that very clear, but it was passed through with a veto-proof majority, so he signed it into law. But it does seem, at least according to McCain and Cardin, that the administration is slow-walking the implementation of these sanctions. How do you respond?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, with respect to Russia in particular, we are being very careful to develop the guidance that companies need, because there are business entities that need guidance; there are important allies and partners in NATO, other parts of the world, who need specific guidance so that they do not run afoul of the sanctions act as well. So we’re working with the Treasury Department to develop the guidance, develop the guidelines, so people understand what will be allowed and what will bring them afoul of the sanctions themselves, putting themselves at risk. I have been through one session on that. It’s with Treasury now. We’re going to get those guidelines out so that we can begin the full implementation of the act. We have every intention of implementing Congress’s intent.
QUESTION: President Trump says that the United States is more respected now in the world than it has ever been. Polling to the contrary notwithstanding, what do you think is the Trump administration’s greatest achievement internationally since you became Secretary of State?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think there’s been more than just one, but a couple I would highlight is the President early on called upon NATO member countries to step up their contributions, step up their commitment to NATO, modernize their own forces. And he got a lot of blowback from that, concerns that we were going to leave NATO, that we were not committed to Article 5. He’s been very clear and as a result of that, countries have stepped up their contributions toward their own defense. This leads to a strong NATO, which we desperately need with the threats that all of us are aware of in the European theater and beyond in Central Asia, where NATO is playing a very important role in the fight against terrorism.
The second area I’m quite proud of that he has brought great international support for is our policy towards North Korea: the implementing of sanctions, the implementing of diplomatic pressure. We now have the most comprehensive sanctions in place that have ever been put in place to strangle the North Korean regime’s economic revenue streams. We have China now joining us in putting pressure on North Korea in ways that has never been achieved before, and I attribute a lot of that to the very strong relationship President Trump has with President Xi.
So we have the international community more unified against North Korea’s nuclear program than we have ever seen, countries sending North Korean ambassadors home. So it’s a combination of economic, diplomatic pressure, and then the President building a very strong message to North Korea that you will engage with us at some point to solve this because we are not going to allow you to have nuclear weapons, and if I have to take the ultimate decision, the tough decision, the hard decision, the-one-I-don’t-want-to-take decision, I will.
And so I think in North Korea we have completely unified the international community, including North Korea’s previously closest allies now are aligned with us. I think that’s a significant achievement from a foreign policy standpoint for this President.
QUESTION: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, thanks so much for your time. We hope you’ll come back and we wish you the best of luck in your job.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Thank you, Jake.
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