Kerry Bemoans ‘Factless Political Environment,’ Takes a Dig at Trump’s Tweets

By Patrick Goodenough | January 11, 2017 | 4:13 AM EST

Secretary of State John Kerry discusses foreign policy at a U.S. Institute of Peace event in Washington on Tuesday, January 10, 2017. (Photo: State Department)

( – Secretary of State John Kerry expressed concern Tuesday about the rise of “authoritarian populism” around the world, bemoaning what he called a “factless political environment” and adding an indirect dig at President-elect Donald Trump’s use of Twitter.

“If policy is going to be made in 140 characters on Twitter and every reasonable measurement of accountability is being bypassed and people don’t care about it, we have a problem,” he said at an event hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Kerry did not mention Trump, but the president-elect has raised eyebrows with his use of the social media site, posting sometimes provocative messages on foreign policy matters including Taiwan, North Korea and the United Nations.

Kerry has been generally cautious about publicly sharing his views about the incoming administration and its likely policies, although at Tuesday’s event he went a little further than before, alluding to Trump’s criticism of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord.

Asked what he would say to the next administration if he had the opportunity, Kerry said, “we won’t lead by walking away from the Iran deal … we will not lead by turning our backs on a 186-nation climate change agreement where the world is moving to try to deal with a major problem.”

In response to a question about how well the Obama administration has fared getting the message out about its accomplishments, he conceded it could have done better, but then wondered whether that would have made a difference in today’s world and the “current framework of communications.”

“One of the greatest challenges we all face right now, not just America – that every country in the world is – we are living in a factless political environment,” he said. “And every country in the world better stop and start worrying about authoritarian populism and the absence of substance in our dialogue, if you call it that.”

“There’s a long, well-defined history of what happens when you have economic fear and pressure, and a level of exploitation of those fears, coupled with sectarian or ethnic exploitation, and a kind of simplistic sloganeering politics,” Kerry added.

Asked by moderator Judy Woodruff of PBS what the U.S. could do about that, he said, “we’re going to have to fight for it.”

“If policy is going to be made in 140 characters on Twitter and every reasonable measurement of accountability is being bypassed and people don’t care about it, we have a problem,” he continued.

“And it’s not just our problem here in the United States; it’s all over the world.”

Kerry, an ardent global warning campaigner, voiced disbelief that in all three 2016 presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate, moderators had not asked a single question on climate change.

“Not one question. It’s stunning,” he said. “This is a huge problem, folks, and we’re all going to have to figure out how we are going to restore a measure of accountability to our system.”

Before ending his answer, Kerry added one more point, turning a critical eye on the process, now underway, of Senate confirmation hearings for senior administration positions, suggesting that Trump’s nominees were getting an easy ride from Congress.

“We have a whole bunch of hearings that are taking place without any – and I’m stepping beyond my bailiwick, but it’s quite amazing to me when I think of the hoops I had to jump through with respect to paper submitted, and documentation, and tax returns, and a whole bunch of things,” he said. “Suddenly, that’s gone poof, and it’s not as important.”

Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee want Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, to submit three years of tax returns, citing his long career with the energy giant and the fact he has never been in public service.

Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has pushed back, saying the committee has not asked previous nominees for the post to provide tax returns.

Tillerson had already submitted a nominee questionnaire, would soon provide an “extensive financial disclosure,” and would also “go through the same ethics and FBI checks as previous secretary of state nominees,” Corker said.

Tillerson’s confirmation hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.

Kerry concluded his answer at USIP by hinting at plans to play an active role in public life after his tenure ends on January 20.

“I think we have a lot of reckoning to do in our country in the next days and months, and I can assure you that when I’m out of this office, I’m going to spend time along with a lot of others trying to focus on it,” he said.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow