National Security Adviser John Bolton on Monday criticized North Korea’s denuclearization efforts, saying leader Kim Jong Un was not living up to the commitment he made to President Donald Trump at their June meeting in Singapore. Bolton talks with Nick Schifrin about North Korea, as well as U.S. plans to reinstate sanctions on Iran.
NICK SCHIFRIN: The snap-back of economic sanctions on Iran today fulfills President Trump's promise 90 days ago, when he withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal.
At the same time, the administration is trying to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, and dealing with ongoing Russian aggression.
At the center of all this, National Security Adviser Ambassador John Bolton.
I spoke to him a short while ago.
Ambassador, thank you very much.
What is the goal of the sanctions that are snapping back today?
JOHN BOLTON, U.S. National Security Adviser: Well, we believe that the government of Iran has not given up its intention to get deliverable nuclear weapons.
And so, by abrogating the Iran nuclear deal, which we felt was fundamentally flawed, this enables us to put sanctions back on and to recreate the pressure that we think will be necessary to get the regime to change its behavior.
We have been in consultation with our ally about this. We're all of a mind we don't want Iran to get nuclear weapons. But I think we all also recognize that the Iran deal didn't cover ballistic missile development, it didn't cover Iran's terrorist activity, it didn't cover Iran's belligerent military activity in the Middle East.
We think all those issues need to be on the table to talk to Iran about.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Some of those activities that you mentioned across the Middle East are fundamental to Iran's regime and fundamental to Iranian behavior.
Are you actually trying to change the Iranian regime itself?
JOHN BOLTON: No, that's -- that's not the administration policy.
But when you say support for terrorism is fundamental to the Iranian regime, it puts us on a course that's flatly contradictory to basic American national interests. Iran has been the central banker for international terrorism for a long time. That's not behavior that we should tolerate.
And when you consider the danger of a terrorist regime in possession of nuclear weapons, I think you can understand why our concern with the badly flawed Iran nuclear deal led the president to withdraw the United States and to take the steps we have taken, which we think have already had a significant detrimental impact on Iran.
NICK SCHIFRIN: But, with all due respect, sir, a lot of people listen to what you have said and what you have written over the years, your support for the group NEK -- MEK, rather, a group that advocates for regime change.
And also, the administration's policies right now in general, advocating for protests that are calling for political change, as well as putting economic pressure on the regime, is that not a policy to actually change the regime itself?
JOHN BOLTON: No, it's not.
And I'm always happy to have reporters and anchors refer to my previous writings. I'm glad you had a chance to read them.
But that's not what I do now. I give advice to the president. I don't make decisions. I think I can say that we are determined to put enormous, unprecedented pressure on the regime to get it to change its behavior. And I think the collapse of the Iranian currency -- it's down by more than two-thirds from the beginning of the year, much of it in the last 90 days -- the flight of large amounts of money out of Iran -- the Iranian elites are taking their money out of the country, putting it in European bank accounts to safeguard it -- and the protests we have seen all around Iran, from those in Tehran itself to small towns and villages, where the people are showing their enormous discontent with the regime of the ayatollahs, shows that the pressure is having an effect.
NICK SCHIFRIN: The regime often uses anti-U.S. propaganda, but the U.S. itself is actually relatively popular among the Iranian people.
And I wonder if you have any fear that whether your strategy risks alienating the U.S. among the Iranian people, at the very time that you're calling for Iranian people to protest?
JOHN BOLTON: Look, what we have seen in these demonstrations, which, as you know, began in earnest in over 100 towns and cities last December, is that the protesters, farmers, shopkeepers, workers, not the educated elites, although they're getting increasingly involved, what they have been chanting is death to the regime.
They haven't been chanting death to America this time. I actually give regular people a good deal of credit for common sense. I think they know their problem is with the regime in Tehran, not with the United States.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Mr. Ambassador, I want to move to Russia. And I want to read you something that you wrote last summer.
As you said, you have changed roles now, but I do want to read it.
You wrote last summer -- quote -- "Trump got to experience Putin looking him in the eyes and lying to him. Denying Russian interference in the election, it should be a fire-bell-in-the-night warning about the value Moscow places on honesty, whether regarding election interference, nuclear proliferation, arms control, or the Middle East. Negotiate with today's Russia at your peril."
You also wrote Russian meddling in 2016 was a -- quote -- "act of war."
If that was an act of war, has the U.S. response been proportionate?
JOHN BOLTON: Well, as I say, I love hearing my words read back to me.
What I can say today is that the president is deeply concerned about Russian election meddling. He has said so on numerous occasions. And that's why he ordered, after a briefing by key agencies on the National Security Council of the steps they were taking to prevent Russian and other foreign meddling in the 2018 election and the broader issue of influence operations against the United States, that's why he ordered the press briefing that we had.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Well, with all due respect sir, I think -- I think we saw that briefing, and we saw other security officials doing that briefing, but we also see the president himself and the rhetoric he chooses to use, especially standing next to Vladimir Putin and saying that he believes his denial on election meddling in 2016.
JOHN BOLTON: Well, now you will let me finish the answer I was giving.
He heard all of what you heard in that briefing. He knew exactly what people were going to say, less detailed, because classified information was withheld. And he wanted the American people to hear what the government was doing to protect the integrity of our elections, so that they would continue to have confidence in our constitutional process.
I think, really, one of the objectives of Russia and other adversaries is to erode confidence, to erode mutual trust among Americans. And I think hearing that we were working effectively to stop it was important. The president has said on multiple occasions that he believed that Russia had meddled and he was determined to stop it.
And that's the position, that's the policy we're all pursuing.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Were there any areas of cooperation that came out of the Helsinki summit that you are pursuing with Russia today?
JOHN BOLTON: We didn't really anticipate that there would be concrete agreements. We felt that this was an opportunity for the two leaders of these two significant nuclear powers to have what we call in diplomacy an exchange of views.
And they did across the full range of issues, including election meddling.
NICK SCHIFRIN: From the Russian side, they say that the two presidents discussed Syria as well, discussed trying to get humanitarian assistance into Syria, repatriate some refugees into Syria, and help reconstruct Syria.
Was there any agreement specifically on working together in Syria?
JOHN BOLTON: Well, no, as I say, there was a broad discussion.
We said -- and much of this discussion, I might say, also took place in the expanded bilateral meeting, where the two leaders were joined by senior advisers. We talked about the importance of having a political framework within which to consider these questions and, in particular, the president's strong view that we needed to work with the Russians to get Iranian forces out of Syria and back into Iran.
NICK SCHIFRIN: You mentioned Syria. You mentioned Russia and Iran.
Russia, of course, has intervened in Syria. Iran is well steeped inside Syria. Do you believe that Russia and Iran have actually guaranteed President Assad's victory?
JOHN BOLTON: Well, it's possible.
On the other hand, President Putin told me in my preparatory meeting before the Helsinki summit, he told President Trump there that the Russians too would like to see Iran out of Syria, although they didn't think they could guarantee it on their own.
I think it's unclear exactly what the relationship among the three is, the Assad regime, Russia and Iran. But the Trump administration inherited an expanded Russian presence in Syria from the Obama administration. And the growth of the Iranian threat took place substantially during that administration as well.
President Trump's objective here is to get around out of Syria, get it out of Iraq and Lebanon, get it out of Yemen, get it back inside Iran. That's one of the reasons why any discussion with -- with Iran about their nuclear weapons program has to take place in this broader context, or else we're ignoring a significant aspect of the Iranian threat.
NICK SCHIFRIN: I just want to ask, in the brief time I have left, a couple questions on North Korea.
North Korea has frozen nuclear tests. As you know, they have blown up the entrance to their nuclear test facility. They have shut down an engine testing site. They have handed over remains of U.S. soldiers. And North Korea now says that the U.S. is backtracking from some of the commitments that the president made in Singapore.
So, what steps has the U.S. taken to live up to the president's commitments in Singapore, to provide security guarantees, and to establish a new relationship with North Korea?
JOHN BOLTON: Well, the president at Singapore suspended major exercises, joint exercises between the United States and South Korea. That's been done.
But what was significant about Singapore was the North Korean commitment to denuclearize. And they have not taken effective steps to do that. Let's just take the decision to close the entrances, as you correctly say, to the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. That was done before the agreement.
There were no international observers present really to inspect what was done. There were some, you will forgive me, representatives of the media who were kept at a distance and not shown anything, except the bright explosion.
And I think that view in South Korea and elsewhere is that that test site is not necessarily disabled. That's why, when you engage in the process of denuclearization, you need international inspection, you need declarations of what North Korea has, you need observers and inspectors who can verify exactly what's happening.
That needs to take place in a process of negotiation. We have asked again recently for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to return to Pyongyang to meet again with Kim Jong-un on this subject.
We're not looking for rhetoric here. We're looking for performance of North Korea's own commitment made to us, made to South Korea beforehand to denuclearize.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Are you suggesting North Korea is not living up to that commitment?
JOHN BOLTON: I'm suggesting President Trump has held the door open for them. They need to walk through it.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Ambassador John Bolton, national security adviser, thank you very much.
JOHN BOLTON: Thank you.