President Bill Clinton spoke to Fusion’s Jorge Ramos today in Chappaqua just days before the Clinton Global Initiative’s Latin America meeting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They discussed a wide range of issues including Obamacare, immigration reform, NSA leaks, Cuba, and 2016 Presidential politics.
Below is a full transcript of the interview:
JORGE RAMOS: Mr. President, thanks so much for talking to us.
I really appreciate that. Before we start talking about Latin America and CGI in Rio, I want to ask you about some things in the news. What’s the political damage for President Barack Obama on that disaster on the Obama-care roll-out?
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Well, first of all, we’re talking about the individual insurance market. There’s about 11 million policies. I believe that if the computer problems are all fixed, and it’s up and running by – and healthy in the next several weeks, I think that the damage will be minimal. When President Bush passed the bill to provide drug coverage to senior citizens under the Medicare program, it was more unpopular when it was passed. And there were lots of problems in the beginning with the computers.
RAMOS: So the long-term effects would be minimal?
CLINTON: If it’s fixed, yes. I think that’s right. Because there are so many other things. We have the lowest medical inflation in 50 years as a result of a lot of the changes sparked by this bill. We have about three million – three and a half million young people now on their parents’ insurance policy. We have at least five million people we know of that are going to be added to the Medicaid rolls. And most of them are lower income working people with families.
And there are lots of states, including Washington state – Kentucky, Connecticut, California that are doing very, very well. So we’ll just – I think we need to see if this can be worked through. If it’s worked through, I think within four or five months people will be talking about something entirely differently. And they will be – and no one will want to repeal this law. They want it to work.
RAMOS: How difficult it is for you to suggest something to a sitting president, and do you take credit for President Barack Obama honoring his word on Obama-care?
CLINTON: No. Well, first of all, I think it’s important to point out he actually is trying to go beyond what he promised now. And in many places he will be able to do that.
RAMOS: But you don’t take credit for that?
CLINTON: No. No. I waited for him to say that he felt badly about it. But the truth is the law that he signed did grandfather in the policies that were in existence when he signed the law. But he didn’t – and the government didn’t take over the insurance industry. And the insurance industry gets rid of these individual policies all the time. So I think he’s trying to go beyond what he pledged to do. And I think that, you know, when they get this the main thing is now to get all these computer glitches ironed out so that people can actually see what their choices are, and sign up.
And they – when problems arise, they work them out. I think that I’ve seen just in the last few days how they’re able to iron out individual cases where someone gets told something that’s not right. And then they go back and get it fixed. And that – it’s getting better. I think it’ll be fixed by – in the next few weeks.
RAMOS: So should he honor other promises that he made? Like closing Guantanamo, or immigration reform? Is that the next step?
CLINTON: Well, first of all, he hasn’t dishonored his promise on immigration reform. He’s not a dictator. He said he’d try to pass it, and the Congress hadn’t passed it.
RAMOS: First year in office.
CLINTON: He did. But the – you forget. The first year he was in office, he first had to avoid having the country, and therefore the world slide into a great depression, which would have been even worse than what we’ve been…
RAMOS: (Inaudible) somebody for politician promises something.
CLINTON: I understand that.
RAMOS: You know that.
CLINTON: But when a person start – but when he started running for president, nobody said – now when you started running in 2007 this 2008 race, remember on September the 15th, 2008, we’ll have the biggest financial crash since the Great Depression. So you should make every political commitment with the absolute certainty that a year and a half from now, you are going to have a big political crash. Now I just don’t – I don’t think that’s a fair rap on it.
RAMOS: Yes. Because I said, remember Hillary promising that she was going to introduce immigration reform during the first 100 days. So could she have done a better job on immigration than President Obama? Her idea was the first 100 days, otherwise it wasn’t going to happen.
CLINTON: It’s just not fruitful – it’s not fruitful to go back over that ground. The – a lot of people who didn’t vote in the 2000 election – 2010 election who could have voted could have done a better job, and we’d have a different Congress, and we would have immigration reform. So, you know, I think this is not a fruitful line of inquiry. I think that we’re trying to pass immigration reform. The country needs it. If – I wish that all these members of Congress who oppose immigration reform, and who feel threatened by it, had been with me on my recent trip to Asia.
And they – and Japan and China where they’re worried about the population growth just coming to a halt. And what it’s going to do to them economically. And I think it would give a lot more energy to immigration reform in America. The – we’re going to have to do it, because it’s the only way to keep our country growing. And the sooner we do it, the better. It’s – and I’m still – I haven’t given up all hope that the – we can get enough Republican votes to pass the decent bill.
RAMOS: Not this year, right?
CLINTON: I don’t know. Next year is the election year. Not this year – 2013 – 2014 maybe.
RAMOS: Talking about – you know, I have to ask you this question, and you’ve been asked this question many times. So let’s just get it out of the way. So is she running? Or do you know if she’s running? Hillary’s running?
CLINTON: No. I don’t.
RAMOS: You don’t know?
CLINTON: No. And I – she’s trying to finish her book. She’s gotten her – several projects up and going with our foundation. And she believes and I believe that the four year campaign mania is a big mistake. This country has serious problems. Our region, and our world has a serious problem. We should work on the business at hand. And you know, we’ll have one or two years to conduct a presidential campaign even – that – you know, there are countries – the United Kingdom. They have races that last five weeks.
RAMOS: And that’s it.
CLINTON: And I just think this – you know, we have newspapers that have people devoted to doing nothing but covering a campaign that doesn’t exist. So then they have to decide to create stories. You know, we don’t need that. We need to focus – the American people have economic and other challenges. And our region and world have challenges. We should be focused on those things. And that’s what Hillary thinks too.
RAMOS: So we shouldn’t concern right now on Chris Christie running, and…
RAMOS: And talking about him, and Hillary Clinton as front runners.
CLINTON: Neither one of them. I bet you he would say the same thing. Or maybe he wouldn’t. I don’t know. But I – this country needs to be about the business of dealing with our challenges today. And we’ll have plenty of time for a campaign later. And I just think it’s way too soon.
RAMOS: Right. Let me just ask you about the latest polls at Pew Research. They just said that 70% of the people think the U.S. is less respected than in the past. Do you think it has to do something with the spying on foreign leaders? You’re going to Brazil in just a few days. President Dilma Rousseff was very upset about being spied on. The President of Mexico, Pena Nieto, exactly the same.
So does this hurt U.S.-Latin America relations?
CLINTON: I do think that the stories about the data collection has had a damaging affect. And not just in Latin America, but in Europe and Asia. Now it’s interesting, because in some other countries it’s come out that those governments were doing the same thing. Or that other governments have given us permission. Here’s the problem. If you use big data to track patterns of cell phone calls and emails, it might really enable you to prevent terrorist attacks.
Because if someone has a pattern of contacting the cell phones or doing – using an email account that we know is associated with an organization engaged in terrorism that’s helpful. But you don’t want to be in a position where the government says, “This is what we’re doing. And you have to trust this, that we’re not listening to the underlying telephone calls, or reading the underlying emails.
And then there’s the separate question of whether we should be listening to the conversations or reading the emails of other world leaders. And you know, I…
RAMOS: Did you do it when you were president?
CLINTON: I have – I have serious reservations about that. Well, it depended on who they were. You know, if we thought they were engaged in hostile acts against the United States…
RAMOS: So you did?
CLINTON: … then they might do it. But I’m not sure – we didn’t have the capability then to do a lot of what’s being done today. So I don’t – I don’t want to – I think what I’d like to see – what we need here is more transparency, and more privacy, and more security. We’re getting into a position here where people didn’t know what was going on. And the way the data has been handled, it’s not clear that it’s maximized our security, and it’s perfectly clear that it’s eroded some people’s sense of privacy.
So I think the most important thing we can do now is have a really public discussion about what the rules should be.
RAMOS: And the limits, right?
CLINTON: Yeah. And the limits. And talk to the public about it. And say – for example, if you knew in Mexico, let’s just take Mexico, that there were a set of email accounts that were regularly used by these super violent narco traffickers. And all of a sudden a surprising number of people were going into those email accounts, I wouldn’t mind if the Mexican government had the power to track that, and to run it. But on the other hand, they would find that in a market basket of thousands of conversations or emails about other things to other people.
I don’t think they ought to read those other things. And I think that we should try to get – we shouldn’t sneak around about this. We should try to have a conversation, and tell people what the rules are.
RAMOS: Because it (inaudible) has gone more widespread than we – than we thought…
CLINTON: Yes. And people didn’t know…
CLINTON: … and I think…
RAMOS: … emails to phone calls, the N.S.A. report recently they were spying on the porn habits of six Muslims. So what’s the limit? What’s porn has to do with national security?
CLINTON: And I think – I think the other thing is that we have a court in America that’s a secret court. I think that we should be more transparent about what the guidelines are there. But not just the United States, but others have a – there are a lot of other countries that use big data analysis. And a lot of them have been sort of hiding behind a tree here hoping they wouldn’t be called out. But I think it’s very important that just – we just lay this out and say, “Here are our objectives. We’re trying to present terrorism and the deaths of innocent people. We don’t have a right to erode the right to privacy.
And how are we going to balance these two things? And then I think there ought to be very explicit rules on listening in on conversations of world leaders.
RAMOS: Let me concentrate now on Latin America. President Mujica from Uruguay just recently asked other countries to legalize drugs. And as you know in Latin America many people criticize the United States, because we are asking them to fight drug trafficking. And at the same time we have millions of people using drugs here. So are we failing the war on drugs?
CLINTON: Well, I think there’s a difference between – at least in the United States – what most people think about Marijuana and what they believe about more serious drugs. There’s a big debate going on all over America now at the state level about whether Marijuana should be decriminalized. And we have a process in our country. That’s the way we’ve always done it. We’ve always…
RAMOS: What’s your take on that? Is it more dangerous – marijuana than alcohol?
CLINTON: Well, I – it depends like anything else. It depends on what you do with it. But the states that have started this experimentation that, you know, they did it with a vote of the people. And they are now working out the rules. So I think this process is underway here. This rethinking this. And apparently it’s being rethought in Latin America too. But I just think that it’s all too complicated to say that if you legalize it, you wouldn’t have any of these armed gangs trying to exercise strangle hold over whole communities and lives.
Or that, you know, we should – we could actually get away with legalizing cocaine, and then the criminals would go away. I – I just think it’s – it’s like they get to call the tune, even if we would do things that – from a public health point of view, make life more dangerous to our people. I think that – so I think I draw a real line difference between marijuana and cocaine. And I think that…
RAMOS: So marijuana, should it be legalized here in the United States? I mean, you famously said that you didn’t inhale for instance. President Barack Obama wrote that he experimented with Marijuana and cocaine. So would you have answered that question differently now days? Is it more accepted? Is it…
CLINTON: Well, that – like many things in the press, that whole thing has been totally twisted to try to make something untrue. I was sort of joking about something had to be true. A very distinguished English journalist named Martin Walker said – and then all the other press covered it up, because it messed with the story. He said, “You know, Bill Clinton told the truth. He literally didn’t have the ability to do that.” I didn’t say I was holding it in now. I said, “I tried.” I didn’t deny that I did any thing.
RAMOS: That you didn’t inhale. Yes.
CLINTON: I never denied that I used marijuana. I told the truth. I thought it was funny. And the only journalist who was there said I told the truth. So everyone else had to cover that up, because that’s not the story they wanted to tell. That’s a silly thing. Let’s take – the serious thing…
RAMOS: … now days…
CLINTON: The serious thing is that the drug issue should be divided – decided by people in each country, based on what they think is right. We have a process in America for doing it that’s being revisited state by state. And Latin America is free to do the same thing. And that’s where I think it is. So it’s obvious that attitudes are changing, and opening up. But I still think that to act like that’s the number one problem in – to somehow excuse from blame, all these people who are killing huge numbers of people, and terrorizing others so they can make a double ton of money off of peddling cocaine, is a mistake.
RAMOS: Let me ask you about a few other countries. When you were president, you started a trade agreement with China – a dictatorship. But you didn’t do the same with Cuba. Why?
CLINTON: No. When I was president, I moved to put China into the world trade organization. And they met the standards of the membership for the world trade organization. And when I was president, I was very interested in improving relations with Cuba. And I increased all kinds of contacts with Cuba. And through…
And what did they do in return? They murdered innocent pilots who were there with brothers to the rescue in total violation of international law. They shot planes down that were not in their air space that they couldn’t legally shoot down if they were in their air space. And they continued to have serious human rights abuses…
RAMOS: So that was the difference?
CLINTON: … in our neighbors. So I was doing my best to fix that. And the Cuban government decided they don’t want it fixed. Or they didn’t have enough discipline to stop doing things which made it impossible. The United States Congress after those brothers were rescued, planes were shot down. Passed the bill with almost 90% of both houses — all people in both parties — saying that the president could no longer lift the embargo without a vote of Congress.
RAMOS: Is it time to lift the embargo then now?
CLINTON: That’s now up to the Congress. They – and it’s up to the Congress – 100% because of Cuba.
RAMOS: Now let me ask about Venezuela. Do you think Venezuela is becoming a dictatorship now with President Maduro?
CLINTON: Well, he certainly exercised those plainery economic powers. Now I – in there – as I understand it, under the Constitution, he had the power to do it. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. And I’m disappointed that, you know, I was hoping our relationships with Venezuela should – would improve. They – Venezuela is an amazing country. It’s not just a big oil producer. It has amazing rain forests. They have 25% of the world’s bird species. And they’ve got a lot of challenges to people.
I wanted them to do better. But it doesn’t appear that it’s getting better now.
RAMOS: Now, let me just finally ask you about these conference in Brazil. Why did you choose Brazil? Why was it so important to do it over there?
CLINTON: Well, we wanted to go into Latin America. The last time I had a meeting of the global initiative out of the country it was in Hong Kong in 2008. And then when Hillary was Secretary of State we decided we – and the White House asked us not to have any of these meetings overseas, which I thought was absolutely right. I didn’t want any feeling of conflict. So I wanted to go to Latin America, and Brazil – Rio made a big push for the conference. And they made a very good presentation. And we decided we could have a good conference there. I also…
RAMOS: What’s the main issue right now? Poverty? Lack of development?
CLINTON: The poverty, lack of development. Can you make the – can you save the rain forest, and other natural resources of Latin America? And go to a greener energy based in a way that’s good economics. Can’t we reduce income and equality in Latin America? But if you look at it, it’s very interesting. Brazil used to be, and is no longer the most unequal country in the Americas.
RAMOS: Is it Mexico?
CLINTON: No. Mexico and Brazil both were the only rising economies in the last decade that reduced inequality. Now they’re still quite unequal, but they reduced it. How did they do that? They did it by Bolsa Familia program that President Lula started that President Rousseff has supported. They did it by the incentive that Brazil gave all the universities to take more poor people into the university.
They did it by former President Calderon’s building 140 tuition free universities in Mexico so that Mexico last year produced almost as many engineers as the United States with half our population.
RAMOS: So that was a trick.
CLINTON: And so I think that’s one – so there are a lot of things going on. But what I’m trying to do is to go down there and highlight some of the things that are working. And let people talk about the challenges. And then bring people together. I – even – look at the difference in the way Brazil responded to demonstrations in the street. And the way Syria did, or Libya did, or these other places. You know, the president goes out there and says, “You’ve got a good point here. There is too much corruption still in…
RAMOS: … said it was because of democracy. That’s what she said.
CLINTON: Yes. Come in. That’s – so I think it’s – what I want to try to do is to see if we can continue to bring together the public and private sector, and the NGO Civil Society to solve these problems. That’s where we’re going.
RAMOS: Okay. Thanks so much.
So you’re vegan. So what are you going to be eating in Brazil? How was Thanksgiving by the way, as a vegan?
RAMOS: It was good?
CLINTON: Yes. We just…
RAMOS: No turkey?
CLINTON: I – yes. We just – we eat everything else. But everyone else in my family eats the Turkey. And we fed 28 people. So they all – there’s plenty of people to go around just off of the turkey.
RAMOS: So, president. Thanks so much.
CLINTON: Thank you.