This forum event is at full capacity, but we invite you to watch a live stream of the conversation here at the event time.

Rachel Maddow
The Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC

Ashton B. Carter
Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School
Belfer Professor of Technology and Global Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School
United States Secretary of Defense (2015-2017)

Jeh Johnson
Partner, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP;
Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (2013-2017)

Ernest Moniz
Co-chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Nuclear Threat Initiative;
Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems (emeritus), MIT;
United States Secretary of Energy (2013- 2017)

Samantha Power
Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School;
Professor of Practice, Harvard Law School;
United States Ambassador to the United Nations (2013-2017)


RACHEL MADDOW: That was very friendly. Thank you all very, very much for being here. This is humbling to the point of being super intimidating, for obvious reasons, but I am going to make up for my nervousness by trying not to talk too much. I’m going to go 17 minutes, and then we’re going to take a commercial break. [Laughter] Let me introduce my really quite esteemed panel, former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, and former UN Ambassador Samantha Power, as you well know. [Applause] Let me just confirm at the outset that none of you are running for President. [Laughter] Everybody? Okay, which means you can be extremely candid and tell us what you really think.

I want to start off by telling you some of my prejudice on this subject. I feel, as a lay observer of these things, like in national security as opposed to other forms of policy and U.S. government, there is a little bit more inertia, a little bit more resilience when it comes to the partisan winds. And in national security, it’s my perception that there is a little bit less change from administration to administration and even from party to party as governments evolve. And I say that not only because of present company, I say that because, as somebody who covers modern politics, I feel like when I’m talking or writing about a former National Security Advisor or former Secretary of Defense, a former Homeland Security Secretary, I often to look up what their partisan affiliation is, because that doesn’t seem to be the most relevant thing about them when I’m trying to think about their legacy.

Now that we have had this change in government, does that still hold, is that still true, and how much do you think there has been change between the last administration in your field? Secretary Johnson, I’ll start with you.

JEH JOHNSON: Oh, I knew you were going to throw that to me. Okay. [Laughter] First of all, it’s great to be here with my friends and colleagues. The former cabinet-level officials here happen to be three of my best friends in the administration.

ERNEST MONIZ: He is running. [Laughter] He didn’t mean it.

JEH JOHNSON: Dr. Sherwood Randall, Deputy Secretary of Energy, Sally Jewell was here a little while ago, so it’s great to see our old friends, along with one of my favorite inquisitors, Rachel Maddow. I have a case of Bell’s Palsy. I’m just getting over it. I did not have a stroke. I did not go to the dentist. It doesn’t matter unless I try to smile or laugh. Rachel, I think the premise in your question is probably right. It has been traditional in our government that administration to administration, we tend to honor our international agreements. We tend to, for the most part, live within a certain set of parameters when it comes to our national security and how we protect the homeland. We have seen, of course, huge change when it comes to immigration enforcement policy, and my colleagues can talk more about national security, but I think it’s probably the case that our friends and allies, and perhaps even our enemies, have come to depend upon the fact that the United States has for the most part adhered to certain international standards and things we have agreed to in the past.

RACHEL MADDOW: Secretary Carter?

ASH CARTER: That certainly has been the tradition, and it’s very strong in defense. And so when I, in the last year and a half of my time as Secretary, when this seemingly endless campaign with at one time more than a dozen candidates vying for attention, I would be asked all the time by the press or the Congress to comment. And I always said, “I’m not going to do that. I don’t do that. I don’t do that. And moreover,” and then I would try to protect, usually with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joe Dunford. And I said, “I’m not going to let Joe answer that question either. Because politics stops at the water’s edge here and we’re going to try to stay out of it.”

A good way of practically answering your question about this transition, and let’s just walk around the world a little bit here, Rachel. So, start with the what is going on right tonight, which is the destruction of ISIS in Raqqa, necessary, a place from which people were plotting to kill Americans in our country, friends around the world, pretty much stayed on track. The campaign plan that was in place, jeez, two years ago, which called for the destruction of ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa has done exactly that. Afghanistan I think, and I was pleased that President Trump had apparently an earlier inclination to leave Afghanistan which was not where I would have voted, and has been dissuaded from that view, and I think that is good, that is also continuity. Russia, all the things that were said to be imminent during the campaign about getting friendly with a Russia that I don’t think it is prudent to be friendly with—I don’t want to be unfriendly either— and none of that has come to pass, and boy it doesn’t look like it’s going to either, because there isn’t a soul in the country who wants to see, or around the world, who sees that as remotely plausible. China is a little more complicated, but also no great departure there.

North Korea we have been concerned about as long as I have been doing this, which is a long time. And North Korea has been bad as long as I can remember. The father whom I dealt with, the grandfather whom I dealt with, and yes it gets worse. And so, I don’t know where that is going to go, so that is conceivably going to head off in an odd direction now, Rachel. I cannot tell. And then Iran, Ernie really can speak to best. That does seem to be going in a direction that is the opposite to the direction that was set, and I think taking away an important protection. We don’t like Iran in lots of ways. The President made that clear and that is, there has certainly been bipartisan continuity in that regard going back a long time. But the agreement that Ernie Moniz played the instrumental role in crafting took off the table one big headache with Iran, which was nuclear weapons. And it doesn’t sound to me like a good idea to put that back on the table, and especially at the very moment that we’re getting justifiably concerned about North Korea.

So that is one area where there may be really a sharp discontinuity, I think unfortunately so. But elsewhere, there is more than you may think from looking at what was certainly an odd campaign and conduct that is for me a very uncomfortable—just sort of personal conduct—in the way we are, in the compartment with which people are behaving in political space these days. That’s not okay with me. I, as Secretary of Defense, I told our people, “I want you to behave yourselves and to stand for something.” And I think behaving oneself is pretty important.

RACHEL MADDOW: When you’re talking about comportment are you talking about the President?

ASH CARTER: It’s partly that, no doubt, and it’s partly a reflection now everybody—after this presidential campaign, people feel like they’re loosed from the bounds of telling the truth, treating other people decently. There is something in one of our founding documents about a decent respect for the opinions of what was then mankind, and one needs that kind of decency in the public space. That bothers me. That is not a national security issue, but as somebody who has been around for a long time, it bothers me. I hope we’re able to gather that back.

RACHEL MADDOW: Before I stop our trip around the world, can I just ask you a specific question that came up today in the Rose Garden? Is there any reason that you know of and that you can talk about as to why the President hasn’t made comments about those Green Berets who were killed in Niger? I know that sometimes when it comes to military action or other types of kinetic action around the world, there is reasons why public officials don’t discuss it. Would that be true about the Niger situation?

ASH CARTER: I can’t say. I mean there are frequently reasons why one wants to make sure that families have been appropriately informed and that may have played a role in this case. I did see that my successor, Secretary Jim Mattis, did make a comment on it, and I’ll let it speak for itself, but he was kind of explaining why it was that it occurred. And this is important, and I dealt—I went to Dover and many times when fallen heroes came home, and it’s important for families to, first of all, be the first ones to hear, and second for them to understand the why. And I used to say to families, “Look, nothing I can say to you today is going to mean anything to you today, because I can’t give you what you most want, which is your loved one back. But I’ll say something to you that maybe someday will mean something to you.” And then I would kind of explain what the larger significance was of the operation in which their loved one was put at risk and why that was necessary. That kind of explanation is important and to do that right may take some time. So I don’t know in this case, but I can think of several different reasons why. And on top of that, Jim Mattis did say something today, but it’s a grave matter and the families come first. All the rest of us can learn later.

RACHEL MADDOW: Secretary Moniz.

ERNEST MONIZ: Rachel, I’m going to start with a couple of comments teeing off from what Ash said and then talk about three areas where unfortunately, we are seeing change or the threat of change. First of all, I do want to just stress that projecting American values is a national security imperative. I think it’s an enormous underpinning of what we can do and what we can do with allies. Secondly, in these three areas I’ll just touch on one of the problems in my view. This is a different take off on your last comments, Ash, is that there is never—there is never really an explanation about what the factors are, as opposed to reference to maybe some campaign promise, or anything I didn’t do is the worst deal in the world, etcetera etcetera, but three areas I would comment on.

One is, and this remains a little bit open, despite the very, I would say—I would have to say loose talk of the campaign and more recently on nuclear weapons and their role in our national security. There is now going on what is called a Nuclear Posture Review. It’s standard for a new administration to do that. And we’ll see what happens, but there are indications of potentially elevating the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy. I think that would be a terrible mistake to do that. I’m not arguing against having a strong deterrent—we need that—but that is different issue from elevating it in our national security strategy. So, we will see what happens.

Again, there are certainly words, including words around North Korea, that are troubling, but I think this, we’ll see what happens in the next few months.

RACHEL MADDOW: Can I just ask you to explain what you mean by elevating nuclear weapons in our nuclear security strategy, our national security?

ERNEST MONIZ: I mean, for example, is the role of nuclear weapons, let’s say for deterrence, so that others don’t use nuclear weapons, or is it something that we would consider as a battlefield weapon, as unfortunately we hear others may be thinking about? So, I think maintaining the strong deterrence posture serves our interest well and that may—we’ll see how that plays out. Second, Iran, that was already mentioned, but let me say on the Iran announcement last week, it is true that it did not take us out of the Iran agreement, but it has already done damage with our allies, common theme, with our allies. It’s a slippery slope. It will depend now, critically, on what the Congress does in the next step. Certainly, for all kinds of reasons Ash referred to, if we were to abrogate the agreement while Iran is complying, it’s just a long list of negatives for us and for our national security.

Third, and this is not normally in the national security discussion, climate change. Climate change does have an important national security dimension, including what DOD has often called “the bond to respond” to as the consequence of environmental catastrophes. And as another area where, of course, on June 1st, the President said, “We’re going to start the process of getting out of the Paris Agreement.” There is no credible reason given for any of these steps, and they are all hurting us a lot in our work with our allies.

I’ll just mention in ending on Iran the last two weeks, two weeks ago in the Senate, last week in the House we had—several of us were called to discuss with a number of members the Iran agreement. In both cases, four European Ambassadors, U.K., France, Germany, and the EU, were present, absolutely singing from the same song sheet, “We will not follow the United States if it withdraws in this.” And if you start thinking, it only takes a few chess moves ahead to figure out how this just leads to nothing but bad outcomes for the United States. So, we will see how Congress deals with this. But I do want to emphasize we will not be without damage just from the announcement already made.

RACHEL MADDOW: Can I ask about that chess game? Can you spell that out in terms of those bad outcomes?

ERNEST MONIZ: Well, okay, let’s just take one example. If we pull out by the Congress imposing so-called nuclear sanctions, Europe has said, “We’re not playing.” Number one, we know sanctions were effective only when we have the international community working together, so they’re going to be ineffective, number one. Number two, I presume what Europe is saying is, “Hey look, our companies have invested funds. The Iranians have complied. We support them going forward.” Well then we have two wonderful choices: do nothing, and not exactly look very strong in imposing sanctions, or impose sanctions on Europe, which would be a worse outcome. So, you’re always going to be faced with bad and worse.

RACHEL MADDOW: Ambassador Power.

SAMANTHA POWER: Well, I’m struck by Ash’s examples of the continuity on the battlefield and very much agree with the way that he has described that. But I think we can’t conflate continuity on the battlefield with continuity of security for this country, for our people, for our institutions abroad. And my bailiwick, of course, would be diplomacy and alliances. And here, you have seen the administration basically turn its back on even a concept of diplomacy or an investment of diplomacy. And some of the rejections of the agreements that we forged in the Obama administration feel rooted in longstanding ideology, policy platforms. Denying, for instance climate change, some, especially given that they override the advice of the Defense Department, it seems, and others within the administration seem almost just a product of, “What was Obama for? Okay let’s get rid of that or let’s do the opposite of that.”

And if you look at Iran and Cuba, we have Jeff DeLaurentis with us here today who ran our embassy in Havana and would have been, Senate willing, our first Ambassador to Cuba in a very long time. But if you look, you can see in both instances they know they want to get out of it, they know they want to do the opposite, they know they want to give red meat, and then they try to find a way to do it in a manner that avoids some of the most egregious consequences. But it ends up doing all of the damage, sending us on the path that squanders the political capital that we may have obtained through doing the agreement in the first place, whether with our allies in the Iran context or with all of South America and Latin America in the Cuba context, that was money in the bank that we could then draw upon to be useful in the Colombia peace process.

So, this sort of willful, sometimes even gratuitous desire to do the opposite, and the opposite for us was a real investment in diplomacy and taking on of taboos when it came to Cuba, to Iran, to other matters. But the other dimension of that diminishment that bears, I think, stressing is personnel, is not filling these high level political appointments overseas or not even putting forward career people who are superstars within the State Department to go and run embassies abroad. To allow some of the top young talent, people who come from institutions like this one, or who have aced the Foreign Service exam and put their time in all around the world and are ready to take on those mid-level negotiation roles. They’re fleeing the government, because they see the signals sent really not just at the Presidential level, but also sadly at senior diplomatic levels, that we no longer see diplomacy as central to what we’re about in foreign policy.

And then the last point I make just, Rachel, is on the issue of values and human rights. There is what Ash described, which is both the lack of credibility because of just saying things constantly at the highest level of our government that aren’t true, that are demonstrably not true from a crowd size to what one said the day before that is on tape, I mean just so many things that are not true, but to also very willfully saying that the way a country treats its own people just doesn’t matter to us. And we were not perfect. I think no administration has ever been perfect or consistent in our embrace of our values and our deployment of those values. It’s hard to be consistent. There are a lot of interests at work. But this level of kind of almost just contempt or disregard for those values. I mean we have a State Department that is rewriting its mission statement to cut democracy promotion from its even stated purpose. That is a fundamental misunderstanding again of what is central to the political capital we have around the world, and it just opens the stage for China to step right in, as they are doing globally on climate and on other matters. And at the UN with the U.S. not leading on human rights, imperfect though our leadership may have been in the past, that just means you see the Europeans ducking for cover on some of the key human rights issues of our time and you see China uncontested, putting forward a kind of amoral, much more mercantilist and transactional form of leadership.

RACHEL MADDOW: So, you all are describing forms of change in the national security sphere that are sort of range from worrying to “I have to leave, I have to go to the doctor.” Yes, I’m having a fit thinking about it right now. I mean, the projection of American values, the abandonment of the basic mission statement of American diplomacy, the loss of relationships with allies, the loss of credibility in terms of both allies and enemies in terms of what people can expect from us. I mean, this is very serious stuff. I wasn’t planning on asking this, but I guess I wasn’t expecting to hear such dire answers from you on the outset. I am going to assume that none of you had a crystal ball and knew that Donald Trump was going to win the election. At least you didn’t know early on. If you had known that very early on, is there anything else that you would have done while you were in office? Would you have done anything differently in your last year and a half in office had you known this was where things were going?

JEH JOHNSON: Wow. [Laughter] I never thought of it that way. Well, this was—I happen to believe in the pendulum theory of American politics. The voters want something very different from what they had before, and there are probably no two human beings more different than Barack Obama and Donald Trump. And so I think we all recognize that the citizen public servant model, our time in office as members of the Cabinet is limited, irrespective of who the next administration is. There is very likely to be some sort of policy change from the standpoint of homeland security.

I’m thinking about the southern border. You look at migrants from Central America. They were faced with two very radically different possibilities. Either somebody who was advocating a policy that was even further to the left than ours and somebody who is saying, “I’m going to build a wall and deport everybody.” And so, certainly the public at large, and migrants in Central America, south of the border, people in the international community were looking at the very real possibility that there was going to be some kind of change one way or another. And so I think it was our attitude that, irrespective of who was coming into office next, we had an agenda, and we were determined to fill it in our time in office.

I wanted to say one more thing though, which is, and Ash kind of touched on this, but I think this is a huge deal. Over the last three years we have done a lot, from my homeland security perspective, to make the homeland safer in that we have taken back a lot of the territory that ISIL once occupied in Iraq and Syria from which they could launch attacks, plan, and so forth. Our military, with the international coalition, has done a remarkable job of doing that under the previous administration and this one. But a lot of that was set in motion under a plan put in place by this Secretary of Defense right here. And so that is something that he deserves a lot of credit for. [Applause]

RACHEL MADDOW: Would you do anything different?

ASH CARTER: I can’t really say I would, and here is why: I didn’t get to finish everything I wanted to, but I did get to start everything I wanted to. And part of that was I’ve been doing this for a while, so I kind of knew what I wanted to get done, and then there are things came along that just had to get done. And maybe I’m old-fashioned in this regard, but you do things, and then your best safeguard against the future, and I believe this, no matter who got elected, is an explanation for why something makes sense. And I used to tell people, and people asked after the election, “Do you think this and that or the other thing that you got started?” And I said, “Well it makes sense, and in the end, things that make sense really do get through.” And people are kind of giving me that sort of puzzled look here, and it may be hard to believe that after such a fevered election and so forth and so much divisiveness, but at least in defense, I really think that is the case and that that will carry the day and bring along people.

There may be some zigging and zagging, and I have gone through some transitions. My very first job was, believe it or not, for Ronald Reagan in Department of Defense, and there was a brand-new administration and that went one way. And then I’ve seen in Republican to Democratic transitions, Democrats going the other way as well, but that is kind of normal. I think what is not normal in our political time in my lifetime is what I said earlier about behavior. And Sam talked about conduct for the truth, conduct with respect to the truth. And nevertheless, I really do believe, Rachel, that if you do things that make sense, and you’re willing to stick with the, “Hey, come on, this is really very sensible.” Like, it doesn’t make any sense to—if as a consequence of this agreement with Iran, they’re not able to get a nuclear weapon without us getting a lot more warning and visibility than we would without an agreement, then I really believe that in the end the good sense of that will prevail. So everything I did I didn’t do as a fad. I did it because I thought it made sense. And I really have to believe, and again I may sound Pollyanna-ish, but there is nothing like iron logic behind something, and iron logic tends to be iron. It sticks, and you can avoid it and evade it for so long, but in the end it wins, because it makes sense and things that make sense will prevail.

RACHEL MADDOW: Secretary Moniz, I think in your case had you had the crystal ball that told you well in advance that Donald Trump was going to win the election, I think that crystal ball still would not have told you that your successor was going to be Rick Perry. [Laughter] [Applause] And so, it’s a big jump from Ernest Moniz to Rick Perry. It’s a big, big, big change. And having been through that dramatic change, if you had known that was coming, what would you have done?

ERNEST MONIZ: It’s actually the same answer that Ash gave. We had very, very clear objectives across our various missions—nuclear security being one of the big ones—but energy, basic science, etcetera. And as Ash said, actually, a flipside, or not the flipside, it’s the same side actually of the coin of what he called iron logic, I might call analysis or something else, but that is because they’ve got a lot of big iron over there at defense. [Laughter] But it also means, it was. And I think our department was remarkably nonpartisan and viewed as such in the Congress, and that does provide a stability. It does not protect against some of the things I discussed earlier, but it provides a backstop to some of this, and so I think that’s true.

And since you mentioned Rick Perry, let me say that he is, look, he is obviously a different—it’s a different template. But he was a Governor for over 13 years of a big state, and he has embraced the innovation agenda, the R&D agenda, the laboratory agenda. So I think one of the big problems, frankly, is the disconnects within the administration. For example, I mean look, Secretary Perry made some very, very strong statements about the merits of ARPA-E, exactly on the mark, inconsistent with the proposed zero in the budget. So, look, let’s face it, that is another characteristic right now that we’re seeing that has to get worked out over time, because it is very, very confusing, these mixed signals.

RACHEL MADDOW: Have you been in touch with Secretary Perry?


ERNEST MONIZ: I’ve spoken with Secretary Perry many times.

RACHEL MADDOW: How is your relationship?

ERNEST MONIZ: I’m not getting into the temporal aspects.

RACHEL MADDOW: Have you spoken with him since he has been Secretary of Energy?


RACHEL MADDOW: More than once?


ERNEST MONIZ: How many fingers do I have right now? Let’s see.


SAMANTHA POWER: Let me, I’ll get Ernie off the hook. But to offer maybe a positive, since we’re at risk of causing this entire forum full of people to head straight to the doctor, a more positive way maybe to look at the question that I’m very proud that we did in retrospect and wasn’t at all obvious that we would do, given what the forecasts were for the election. And I’ll give you a few examples, but the first is on climate. We worked between, collectively as an administration, including everybody up on this stage and including the President of the United States at the time, between December when the Paris Agreement was forged and November 4th last year, 2016, to bring the Paris Agreement into force. The Paris Agreement came into force by virtue of a certain share of the emissions and a certain share of the number of countries within the United Nations being part of it. So it was both get all those small island states who have no emissions but who count as countries, and we’ve got to get, obviously, India, China, the big emitters and many of the European countries as well to sign on so that we cross the threshold.

The way we worked to bring the treaty into force was like nothing I think you’ve seen in the history of international law. It was like a full-on political campaign. And it wasn’t because we anticipated what happened in the election. But it was, frankly, motivated 100 percent by the knowledge that even things that are only 20 percent likely to happen happen 20 percent of the time. And so, as a result, while what has happened in terms of the announcement to pull out of Paris is terrible—and more importantly what is happening domestically in terms of clean power plant rules and so many of the climate regulations that comprised our Paris packet, and our ability ourselves to be compliant with the agreement that we had helped negotiate, Secretary Kerry helped negotiate—at least the actual withdrawal won’t occur until after the next, potentially next President takes over, the next election occurs. And the rest of the countries who are party to the agreement will still be part of a treaty that exists and from which, we, if we do withdraw, will be absent.

So, I think that is hugely significant and some graduate student here should look at what that campaign looked like. You literally had the President of the United States and the Vice President calling heads of state and saying, “Where is your package? Where is your ratification package? Is it executive agreement or is it parliamentary? How are you getting involved?” Which normally, the kind of pressure goes off after you actually have forged the agreement itself.

The other two quick examples I would offer in the positive vein, and I have a few examples in the negative, but we have had maybe enough of those, the Secretary-General. The new Secretary-General to the UN, who the permanent members of the Security Council, in fact all the members of the Security Council, agreed upon in the fall of 2016 exceeds, I think, what anybody would have imagined in a polarized world. The idea that Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, and President Xi and the rest of the countries comprising the council could have chosen such a strong person, a former Prime Minister of Portugal, former head of UNHCR, at a time of the largest displacement crisis since Hitler, is extremely significant. And it’s a legacy that will live on. So it happened in the tail end of our time, but it at least means, even as the United States retreats from global leadership, that there is a voice.

Now, as everyone knows, the Secretary-General is technically more secretary than general in the sense that he doesn’t have a bank account of his own or a troop of his own or much executive authority. But he has a platform.

And the last example is on an issue that we’re not seeing the Trump administration lead on at all: LGBT rights internationally. Recognizing that the UN is comprised of a lot of countries who are very hostile to LGBT rights, we worked really hard in those last months to get the first-ever UN position created dedicated to tracking violations of LGBT rights around the world and improvements in LGBT rights around the world, and that position lives out of Geneva. It’s an independent expert on LGBT rights. And it was about again embedding within a system a position that then couldn’t be taken away by any single country, even the most powerful country in the UN, which is ours.

ERNEST MONIZ: Rachel, can I make a comment?


ERNEST MONIZ: Going back to this issue of the stability that derides from logic, analysis, and the like, just to say that with the climate issue, there is a lot of stability. In the United States, after the President’s announcement, 1,400 businesspeople came out and said, “Full steam ahead,” because they have got to look ahead down the road, and they know where we’re going anyway. I’m not being Pollyanna-ish. A lot more bumps in the road. Similarly on Iran, you had Ehud Barak coming out saying, “Stay in the deal,” a hawk on that. But there is a logic there, and that’s why I’m also saying let’s wait and see how that plays out as well.

So anyway, I just think that is a really important, a really important point. And if we run our businesses when we were in the Cabinet that way, I think, long-term, it really pays off.

RACHEL MADDOW: It’s an interesting theme that is emerging in different ways from what you’ve all said about the power of explaining yourself, the power of logic, the power of making the case, and the optimism that it takes to have faith that that means that case will survive. That seems like that also undergirded some of the frustration you’re all expressing in terms of decisions being made without there being an explanation, a justification now for why those changes are happening.

It is 6:40, which means that now is the part where you get to ask questions. We’re going to wrap at 7:15, so that means that we have got a good chunk of time here in order to take your questions. And there are very few rules, but they are ruthlessly enforced, and the rules are you have to say who you are, and your question has to be short, and it has to end with a question mark.

ERNEST MONIZ: And friendly.

RACHEL MADDOW: And—No, I’m not going to tell them to be friendly. Are you kidding? [Laughter] Let’s start right here.

Q: Hi, my name is Sarah Shimon. I’m a freshman here at the college. My question has to do with South America, particularly Venezuela. We have seen how there is a constant sense of instability in the region, and Russia and China have a lot of power as a result of debt from Venezuela and oil fields, and there are oil fields from Venezuela that are in the U.S. So, snowballing from that, how does that kind of affect the purview of national security in the U.S.?

ASH CARTER: Sounds like a diplomatic issue.

SAMANTHA POWER: Yeah. [Laughter] I’m not sure—Let me say this. Speaking of continuity, there is actually a fair amount of continuity, as far as I can tell, in the Trump administration’s approach, denunciation of the tactics, the repression by the government behind the scenes, but at much lower levels, sadly. And encouragement of the regional players to lead on Venezuela and to try to put pressure on the government to compromise with the opposition and forge a way forward. Unfortunately though, as the Trump administration imposes sanctions on Venezuela, actually invoking human rights, the very language I was describing earlier that they were largely walking away from with regard to the rest of the world, it rings so hollow. It rings hollow because of the embrace of torture, because of the embrace of police brutality at the highest levels, because of the lack of credibility, and because of the open disregard for human rights as a feature of American foreign policy.

And if I had to guess, and this is not—this is speculation on my part, when the Trump administration comes out and embraces the cause of democracy or of political prisoners in Venezuela, something that was very welcome in the Obama years and indeed we would have the spouses of political prisoners come and visit with us and beg us to speak publicly, because Obama was seen to have credibility in the region. But I would suspect at least in a lot of quarters within Venezuela that now the democratic opposition would be quite reluctant to hear that kind of language. Because they on the ground are fighting with their lives, risking their lives in the name of democracy, in the name of human rights. And for that kind of tinny American embrace of their cause to occur, it would actually conceivably be something that the regime would be able to take advantage of without much upside.

RACHEL MADDOW: Gentleman there.

Q: Hi, my name is Justin Sun, and I’m a freshman at the college. My question is related to the Department of Defense, specifically research and development and procurement. So, in the last two decades, we have seen a lot of projects going over budget and them having been scaled down or outright abandoned. And the ones that go through, we often find out like foreign adversaries and intelligence agencies have sort of compromised them and kind of stolen a lot of information. So, what are ways that we can make R&D and procurement much more effective?

ASH CARTER: Well, you’re being polite. It’s been a lot longer than 20 years that we have had programs that have been overrunning in cost, and there is no justification for that. And I was the acquisitions czar before I was Deputy Secretary of Defense before I was Secretary of Defense, so I’ve been there, and I never tried to apologize for it. It’s not okay to ask the taxpayer for $600 billion a year, which we do, and I believe we need in order to defend ourselves, and not make sure that every single dollar is well spent. And it’s—we have got a lot of work to do in that regard, and I spent a lot of time trying to make that so.

There is one little piece that is kind of, I think would be of interest to everyone here, which is this: this is a tech hub. We’re in Boston now, a big technology hub. Harvard, MIT, other universities here, some of the smartest people in the country. It was a big priority of mine to reconnect the tech community with defense. That was, I thought, going to be harder than it was. See when I came up, I’m a physicist, and how did I get in defense, well when I started out as a physicist, the people who were older than us had been in Manhattan Project, Cold War. And they told us, and Ernie had similar upbringing, I think, another physicist, that we had a responsibility and an opportunity that came with our knowledge and the fact that we were changing the world. And I felt that and that is kind of what got me into this business in the first place, got me an interest in defense. I wasn’t otherwise a very aware person as a young physicist. How many young physicists do you know who are very aware? [Laughter]

And then, that kind of spirit went away for a while, and now it’s coming back. And I sense in the tech spirit, not always defense, although I was able to get them back, despite Snowden and all that stuff, and there may be people here we’re just going to have to agree to disagree about Edward Snowden if you favored his actions, because I don’t and didn’t. But despite all that, if we met one another halfway, I needed them, because we have two things that make our military the best. It’s people and technology. And we’ve got to have access to people. It’s an all-volunteer force. That’s why we have to be flexible about the kind of people we have in our force and everything and how we train them and everything, and technology we have to reach out and get those young people.

I think there is something bigger, Rachel, about connecting the tech community to public purpose, and I think it’s really important. Because there is a lot of, there is a feeling in the country, which is not entirely without justification, that things are happening without regard to their human consequences. Jobs are going away, all this stuff. And I think that technologists and scientists have an obligation, even as they did in days past, to help society to do the right thing so that most of the people benefit most of the time by change, from change. And so I think that is true in defense, and I think it’s true in non-defense. And I hope those bridges come together.

I really sense—I don’t know how many people in here are technologists, but in the young people who are coming out of universities now and starting startups and so forth, they want to—they know that it’s more than making money. Making money is important, and that is a way that you show success, that is a reflection of success, and we want people to be successful. But they have a wider idea of what is good for everyone as well, and I really think that is great. And any of you who are in that category, good on you. We need that kind of world where change is for everybody.

RACHEL MADDOW: That kind of a call to public purpose, it can come from unexpected places too. We all think about John F. Kennedy and talking about what you can do for your country, but those kinds of calls, depending on the industry, have sometimes arisen from very non-political places. Up there.

Q: Hi, my name is Kacey Gallagher-Schmitz. I’m a senior at the college. My question I guess is really for any of you, but what do you think the lasting impact of the Trump administration will be on America’s standing in the world? Let’s say in 2020, an Amy Klobuchar administration enters the White House and restores some kind of normalcy. Do you think we’re going to see this as a blip, or is this the end to American leadership on the global stage?

RACHEL MADDOW: Let it be noted that the idea of an Amy Klobuchar presidency has now been cited to signal for normalcy. [Laughter] So that glass ceiling may not be broken, but it’s warped. [Laughter]

ERNEST MONIZ: But my question is why 2028?

Q: Or 2020, sorry. [Laughter]

SAMANTHA POWER: He got the Constitution changed in the hypothetical.

JEH JOHNSON: Well, none of us should assume that this is a blip on the screen. As Americans get kind of used to this style of presidency, there are a lot of people who may just say, “Well, what the heck? Why should I change in 2020?” And so, I don’t take for granted that he is a blip on the screen. And so I once heard Ted Sorenson, my former law partner, say, “Democracies are self-correcting, and every four years we get a chance to self-correct if we don’t like what we have had for the last four years.” So, those of us who want change are going to have to work really, really hard for it with an incumbent in the White House that we don’t like, if that is the case. And so, I think the answer to your question remains to be seen.

The change thus far has been profound over the last nine months. It feels like it’s nine years. But I don’t take for granted that it’s only a four year aberration that we elected somebody so radically different from what we have had before. It’s apparently what 40 percent of the American public wants right now as we sit here, and that could go either way.

RACHEL MADDOW: Can I just interject just for one second? Just on that point, and I know I’m not supposed to be on the panel, but eh. [Laughter] I mean in political science terms, after you’ve got a president of one party for two terms the pendulum swings the other way and it’s very difficult—

__: That’s eight years.

RACHEL MADDOW: Right, after eight years you’re likely to get a president from the other party.

JEH JOHNSON: That’s a long time.

RACHEL MADDOW: So, whoever the Republican Party nominated in political science terms was likely to be elected, all other things being equal. I would also say that when you have, and this isn’t American political science, it’s international political science, but when there is an authoritarian populist leader in a democracy or pseudo-democracy, those people almost always get re-elected. And we haven’t had an, I mean I don’t say authoritarian populist in a pejorative way, I think that is just, that is my view of the style of this presidency. And historically speaking, around the world, those types of leaders do well, because they use government in a way that is designed to get them re-elected. Sorry.

ERNEST MONIZ: I was going to say, I mean earlier, I talked about the, kind of a certain stability in ways programs can be put together. But I have to say in terms of the direct question that you asked, what concerns me the most is what Samantha referred to earlier and that is damage that will take a long time to repair in terms of our multilateral relationships. This country, the United States, look, after World War II, the United States was in almost in a completely anomalous position in terms of its dominance in so many arenas. And we spent, sure we make mistakes, no question about it, but the fact is, basically took a leadership role over 70 years in building up liberal institutions, building up financial systems, alliances.

By the way, you look, we often talk about Russia, China, the United States, who has got alliances and allies? It is not common to all three of those countries. One country. And the foundations of that have been challenged. We don’t know how much is real, how much is verbiage in the end. But we have already—even if it’s verbiage “only,” the reality is allies are responding to that, and there can be some very fundamental changes. Maybe we could manage them for the better. But very fundamental changes that could take more than Amy Klobuchar’s eight years to fix.


Q: My name is Rashne Primatene and I’m a freshman at the college. My question is for all of you. And Admiral Stavridis, the Supreme Commander of the NATO Armed Forces recently estimated a 20 to 30 percent chance of breaking out in a conventional war with North Korea that could have from 500,000 to a million deaths. And then a 10 percent chance that we break out into a far more lethal nuclear war. I was wondering what your all’s responses are to these estimates, and what we as a country and a public should do in regards to them.

RACHEL MADDOW: I won’t try to answer this one.


JEH JOHNSON: Those odds are much too high, aren’t they?

Q: Yeah.

JEH JOHNSON: And I too am very worried that the current relationship could come to hostilities. In times past, where the temperature in a relationship has gone up, we always look to someone who knows how to lower the temperature with a mature level-headed approach to defusing a situation. Even if it means costing them politically in some way. And right now at least that dynamic is missing. So, I too am very worried about the prospect of hostilities with North Korea.

ASH CARTER: You’re right, it’s concerning. And you’re right about the consequences as well. And for those of you who have imagined this situation, and I have been working for a long time, first in 1994, on the war plan with North Korea. And this is not like anything we have seen. If it comes to that there is an intensity of violence in this particular war, now we’ll win, confident of that, but the intensity of violence is of a kind the world has not seen since the last Korean War. Seoul, the suburbs of Seoul are right there up against the DMZ. Artillery comes raining down. I think this was the distinction made between conventional and nonconventional. It was a pretty ugly baby before North Korea had nuclear weapons. It’s obviously worse now with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. So, I think that this is something that even if the odds are quite small is a pretty fearsome thing.

Now, we have good defenses, we have strong deterrents, but with a country like North Korea, that isn’t complete reassurance by any means. And which gets back to Jeh’s points about how you actually deal with this situation short of war.

RACHEL MADDOW: Admiral Stavridis’s estimates though, in terms of the likelihood of this war, do you think those estimates are high or low or right?

ASH CARTER: Well, I would sure like to think they’re less than that. Here is what I’ll tell you though, Rachel, and you also. I worked with, worked in this funny relationship, a potential antagonist with this guy, his father, and the grandfather, and they have gotten stranger over the successive generations and inherently trickier. So even if we were playing the strongest possible hand now, it’s a lot trickier than it was. On top of which they tested their first nuclear weapon in 2006. And so for 11 years, they have had that really fearsome capability. And so, this is not something to speak lightly about. We have strong defense, we have strong deterrents, but it’s a—I just can only say again, it’s like something the world has not witnessed in two generations.

ERNEST MONIZ: Let me just add a note specifically on nuclear weapons. And I don’t mean now specifically North Korea, although North Korea is one of the cases in point, and I’m sorry, this is going to be one of those go to the doctor moments, but—

RACHEL MADDOW: I’m already there in my mind.

ERNEST MONIZ: One of my jobs now is CEO of something called the Nuclear Threat Initiative. I work closely with Sam Nunn, etcetera. And we certainly feel, I’m not going to give any numbers, but we certainly feel that the possibility of a nuclear weapon being used, probably through miscalculation, is probably, is higher today than any time since the end of the Cold War, and arguably since the Cuban Missile Crisis. And that just means we’ve got a lot of hard work to do on these issues.

This is India/Pakistan, it’s Euro/Atlantic with Russia, North Korea. I mean it’s many, many cases. And, frankly, I think that a common thread here is often a major asymmetry in conventional security capacity. And which to me means that in many cases, certainly including North Korea, I don’t think we’re ever going to resolve the issue until there is a more holistic approach to the security needs of all of the neighbors, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, and of course U.S. military posture. And it’s all got to be on the table at some point, but it’s got to address the legitimate security needs, not just nuclear needs of all of those countries.

RACHEL MADDOW: How does a nuclear weapon get used through miscalculation?

ERNEST MONIZ: A lack of understanding. For example, I guess I don’t want to choose any of the three explicitly, so let’s just say Country A and Country B are very asymmetric. B is much stronger than A. B makes a move towards A. A decides, “I can only stop them with a little teeny-weeny nuclear weapon.” And all hell breaks loose, for example.


RACHEL MADDOW: That doesn’t feel like miscalculation. That just feels like what happens next.

SAMANTHA POWER: Can I just add one, two things on this?


SAMANTHA POWER: Just to come back to the importance of diplomacy, which has been so denigrated at the highest level of our country. I mean when our Secretary of State comes out to try to deal with some of the threat perception risk and the potential for misunderstanding. Where we see our moves as defensive, but in the eyes of one man who is surrounded by sycophants who, if they challenge him may be lined up for assassination with heavy weaponry—in the eyes of that man, what we do is seen as offensive and is seen as threatening. It’s extremely important that we are sending communications, that our diplomats are seen as credible. So, when our Secretary of State comes out and says how important it is to have a channel, however, wherever that channel lives, and then gets denigrated—the Secretary of State, not the guy who is developing this nuclear program—gets denigrated by our Commander in Chief, that is extremely damaging to our diplomacy. It’s also extremely damaging when the Republic of Korea and Japan, with whom we have been in lockstep, often difficult lockstep, it’s extremely hard to keep the alliance on solid footing in the face of again this exponentially increasing threat from North Korea, but nonetheless through hard work, painful diplomacy that is something we have managed to do. Yet those allies now read about our intentions through a Twitter feed and don’t know what is bluffing, what is good cop/bad cop, what is real, what the contingencies are, and don’t probably trust, in the case of the Republic of Korea especially, don’t necessarily know that this President values Korean lives.

There is a real open question, I think, that hangs over a lot of these policy issues. Ash mentioned human consequences earlier within our own country, but these are real questions about whether President Trump, just the way he views the world, does the welfare of other human beings move him? Because Jeh said we count on a President to lower the temperature. We also count on a president to internalize the gravity. Harry Truman lived with the consequences of what happened in the second World War with the use of nuclear weapons and was haunted by that. Still thought he did the right thing, but was haunted by it. Is President Trump a person who gets haunted, who can think about other people, even in this country, as deserving of empathy and respect, or can he put himself in the shoes of others? I think that is a critical ingredient in the temperament of a leader, and there are grounds for worry, obviously.

RACHEL MADDOW: When you say that Koreans in particular have reason to worry about whether or not the President, I’m paraphrasing what you said, whether the President values their lives, do you mean both in South Korea and in North Korea?

SAMANTHA POWER: I mean, in other words, can one internalize the consequences of war on the peninsula in terms of whether those numbers or other numbers. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t scenarios in which military force is required. I mean, obviously, there are things that North Korea could do and would do where those options would have to be considered. So it’s not as if I’m saying that he should become a pacifist because one human life matters as much as we all know it does. But it is to say that every President is doing a cost-benefit, right, and the question of what variables are weighing in his cost-benefit as he considers these options, I just don’t know how moving those consequences would be for him or how much they would weight in that calculus. And I would love to be wrong and see lots of evidence of empathy in small ways, and then you could imagine them applying in big ways, but that is not something for which he is yet known.


Q: Hi, thank you all for coming. My name is Teresa. I am a Harvard alum. My question is to you, Secretary Johnson. What are the chances that the Trump administration signs a DREAM Act or anything similar to help with the Dreamers?

JEH JOHNSON: Well, this is a test for our democracy. You’ve got the President who says he supports the Dreamers. You’ve got the Speaker of the House who says he wants legislation to support the Dreamers. You’ve got just about every Democrat in Congress who says that and a good chunk of the Republican caucus. So, with all of that critical mass, you would think that, in a democracy, we could get this done. Now, the problem is, it’s our democracy, and it doesn’t always work so well. Our Congress is dysfunctional, and so what is happening now is the White House crew, the immigration hardliners now want to attach all these other really horrible things to just simply protecting the dreamers—the wall, shutting out immigration from Central America, and a whole lot of other things that most people in Congress will never agree to as part of this one little simple concept.

And so, when we started out, I thought the prospects ought to be pretty good. But I’m watching this ship sinking just under the weight of dysfunction and politics, and so I’m very worried about this.

Lesson learned, when Congress repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2010, we tried to do it first by attaching it to the National Defense Authorization Act, the one bill beyond the Appropriations Bill that has to be passed every year. And we couldn’t get it out of the Senate, couldn’t get 60 votes to get the NDAA with the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” out of the Senate. Then somebody had the bright idea, “Hey, why not a freestanding bill to repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’?” Oh, good idea, freestanding bill, repeal, and it passed. And so, it ought to be with this much support and this much sympathy for this class of young Americans, they are de facto Americans, because they grew up here, that we can, someone can author and champion a bill, put it on the House floor, a majority of the Congress supports this, and we just get it done. But unfortunately, it ain’t that simple. Sorry.

Q: Hi, my name is Hannah. I’m also a freshman at the college. My question is for Secretary Johnson and also Ambassador Power and whoever wants to answer. So, in recent years, we have seen China really ascend on the world stage with the One Belt One Road Initiative and with it taking really aggressive stances in the South China Sea. How should we be dealing with that? What sort of relationship should we be having with China, and where do you see that relationship going under the current administration?

JEH JOHNSON: I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with my Chinese counterparts, negotiating an agreement on cybersecurity and on law enforcement cooperation. I found that the Chinese are anxious to be seen as world players with the United States and we can, through some pretty frank diplomacy, agree in the areas where we can agree. There are a lot of areas where we don’t agree, where we have definitional problems about things where we can’t agree, and there are some really tough sharp issues right now, but some progress was made. We prevailed upon the Chinese to agree on one of our cybersecurity international norms that a nation-state shall not attack critical infrastructure for purposes of commercial gain. And that was a small piece of good news. But there are large areas where I know we just simply haven’t been able to agree, but persistence and diplomacy pays.

SAMANTHA POWER: Yeah, I would just add that people often say, “Well, how do you reform the UN, and when will the UN work like it should?” And the UN works when the powerful countries that comprise it decide to cooperate on issues of shared concern. And so, the reason we got a Paris Agreement is that President Obama sent John Podesta to Beijing and basically worked out a P2 Agreement just for these two powers, and then took that agreement to the rest of the world and multilateralized it. It’s more complicated than that, but in a nutshell that’s how it worked.

Even with the Ebola epidemic, President Obama decided to send 3,000 troops and health workers into the eye of the storm when West Africa was being ravaged by Ebola. And then we go forth, and their first port of call was to the Chinese to see whether they could send mobile health clinics, health workers, and the like. And then we built a coalition up around that. That is the way of the future. However, it’s not clear that that is at all the current mentality of this administration, which is more, a lot more use of public diplomacy and sort of saber-rattling on issues like North Korea, on trade, on currency, on the South China Sea. Ash is the expert on that. Maybe he can speak to that.

And to the earlier question about what happens after a Trump administration, whenever that day is, whether in four years or eight years, I think what we will see in this period was that the trend lines around China’s greater assertiveness on the global stage getting massively accelerated by the form of leadership that President Trump is at least so far choosing to take. And therefore, as Jeh said, under President Obama, they wanted to be at the table with us, they wanted to be part of that P2. It’s not clear, three years from now, that they will embrace that framework in the same way they will now. I suspect they will, but a lot can happen in those three years.

RACHEL MADDOW: Do you want to talk on South China Sea?

ASH CARTER: Sure. That is one of the areas—and by the way I really take my hat off to Secretary Johnson for what he did in the cyber area. That is a big deal, and it’s an example of what Ambassador Power was talking about, which is diplomacy really works. If you’re deft at it, and you’re persistent at it, and it’s properly undergirded, and there is an iron logic to that too, you win. You win, meaning you get what you want. And I think there is a—people tend to think that diplomacy, like alliances, are favors we do for foreigners. And it’s not, it’s one of the ways you get what you want. And so I need to preface anything I say about China.

South China Sea is one of those sharp issues, and I’m not going to gloss it over. This is a place where China is making wildly unfounded and belligerent territorial claims that don’t have any foundation and the nine-dash line—which I don’t know how many of you ever had the story of the little boy with the purple crayon who draws things, and they become real. Well, they drew a line in a map, and now like Harold with the purple crayon, they want to make it real. So, we have our real differences with China in that regard.

At the same time, we have areas where we could work together, and it takes persistence to do that. North Korea is one of those. Sam talked about the diplomatic efforts of Secretary Tillerson. I can only tell from the outside looking in, but it looked like that is an earnest effort. It’s the right thing to do, to give that a shot before we turn anything more dire, given the consequences that were talked about earlier. And it was discrepant to hear a Secretary of State and a President talking about exactly the same thing in different ways. It can’t really help us in that regard.

Where I think we have a harder nut to crack with China, and I’m just going to be honest with you, is on the economic matters. We have never had an economic relationship of a lasting large sort with a Communist country, a controlled economy. We don’t have a playbook for that. We don’t have our economist, our economics, our Treasury secretaries, and so forth here, but I don’t think we have a playbook for that. And we still tend to treat China like it’s a big France, but it’s not a big France. It behaves in ways that are predatory, intentional, unitary that we cannot. And that puts companies at a disadvantage when it comes to intellectual property protection, intrusion in cyber and other ways, anti-competitive practices. And it’s real. It’s real. And I’m not saying a trade war is the answer to it. That’s not what I’m saying. But I’m saying one has to be intentional about what is a fact. Which is they conduct economic affairs in a way that we don’t actually believe is the right way for human beings and societies to conduct their economic affairs. We do it more through free initiative and free enterprise. And I believe that that is important. But you are at a disadvantage with a country that can behave in that way.

That, in addition to a lot of other strategic issues and military issues, but a lot of things we can work with China in those areas. Maybe North Korea, I certainly hope so. This economic one is trickier. It’s not a defense thing, so that’s all I’ll say, and I’m not the one to solve it. But I can see it as plain as day in front of me there is a big issue here.

ERNEST MONIZ: Let me just add one comment since the questioner talked about One Belt One Road. Here we have—this is in the economic sphere, Ash, as you were talking about—here we have a trillion dollars on the table to build an infrastructure stretching over a large piece of geography to integrate economic opportunity. Just think about our infrastructure opportunities in the United States that we cannot fund at all, number one. And number two, with regard to China—look, I’m not going to get into whether you like or don’t like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But it is a geopolitical fact that canceling that was to our economic disadvantage in that sense at least. And, frankly, I just don’t think we’re integrating all these issues as we look at our foreign policy.

RACHEL MADDOW: I want to apologize to everybody who stood behind microphones all this time and who is not going to get called on. It’s my fault, because I have to go do this other thing. But I do want to say, I started off by saying that I was humbled to the point of being intimidated. All the more so now. It’s just an honor to be, it’s an honor to be here today. But it also just makes me proud of us as a country to have had the wealth of intellect and sort of civic goodhearted-ness that is represented on this stage having held such positions of power in our government. And I think we all, whatever any of us think about the transition from the last administration to the next, I think we could all agree that you guys leave big shoes to fill. And we want more than anything that our country finds a way to fill them. But thank you all for your service, and thank you for tonight.