TODAY   |  July 24, 2014

Kerry: Geithner made ‘honest mistake’

Jan. 14: TODAY’s Matt Lauer talks to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) about the confirmation hearings for Sen. Hillary Clinton and Timothy Geithner, who admitted he had failed to pay $34,000 in taxes.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

LAUER: All right, Andrea , thanks very much. Andrea Mitchell in Washington . Senator John Kerry is the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the Finance Committee as well. Senator , good morning to you.

Senator JOHN KERRY: Good morning, Matt.

LAUER: Let me start with congratulations on the chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee .

Sen. KERRY: Well, thank you.

LAUER: That's a big deal . It really is.

Sen. KERRY: Thank you. Thank you.

LAUER: And let me ask you about the hearings held yesterday and continuing today for Senator Hillary Clinton . She talked about the re-emergence of diplomacy as the central tenet in US foreign policy , about not giving up hope of peace in the Middle East , about the possibility, as we just heard, of direct engagement with Iran . Did you see any area, Senator , where she didn't show, I guess, complete mastery of the issues?

Sen. KERRY: No, I thought she did a terrific job, as I think she will do as secretary of state. She clearly demonstrated a different path from the past administration in terms of engagement with Iran . I think even talking about how they're going to walk a line in the Middle East as an honest broker in the effort to end the violence, I thought it was a -- it was a very strong performance, and we anticipate voting her out of the committee tomorrow...

LAUER: It was called a love fest by some people.

Sen. KERRY: ...and trying to get a vote as soon as we can.

LAUER: And one of the local papers here in New York said nothing but softballs from the senators. I mean, has she been questioned harshly enough or thoroughly enough to take on this number one role in diplomacy for the US?

Sen. KERRY: Well, I've been through these nomination hearings before with any number of secretaries of states now and other nominees, and really, there's a certain pattern to them, Matt. In the case of somebody who is as qualified as Hillary is, and she is qualified and she demonstrated it yesterday, you're really not going to get very far if the administration is not prepared to tell you something. So I think senators really understood that.

LAUER: Right.

Sen. KERRY: There was a healthy discussion about Iran , engagement with Iran , nuclear proliferation, re-engaging with Russia , the importance of the Chinese relationship, global climate change . I think on the major issues, Afghanistan , Pakistan , she was very clear about the direction that we're going to move in.

LAUER: All right.

Sen. KERRY: And in fairness, as you know better than anybody, until you sit down and have one of those important conversations, you really don't get a flavor for what's on the table or not.

LAUER: Let's talk about the important conversation you're going to have with Tim Geithner . He's the president- elect 's pick for Treasury secretary. And here we go, Senator .

Sen. KERRY: Yeah.

LAUER: He failed to pay some $34,000 in taxes between 2001 and 2004 . The irony, of course, is that as Treasury secretary, he'll oversee the IRS . How big a problem is that?

Sen. KERRY: Well, it's obviously an embarrassment. I don't think -- I mean, it's not a problem in the sense of derailing his nomination. I think that most people understand that on the self-employment taxes, it is possible to make an innocent mistake , particularly with the IMF , simply because Americans working with the IMF , it's always been a little bit complicated as to what the tax status is, whether even there is any tax status. So I think this is an honest mistake . He's paid the difference. Obviously, it's an embarrassment. One wishes that it wasn't there, but I don't think it's going to stop his moving forward. We need a Treasury secretary. We need somebody with the skills that he brings. The economy is the number one issue for the moment.

LAUER: Right.

Sen. KERRY: And we need to move on it.

LAUER: You mentioned the economy. You had some problems with some of the tax provisions inside the economic stimulus plan that the president- elect is proposing...

Sen. KERRY: Yeah.

LAUER: ...particularly, I think, the employer tax credit . Can you guys work out these differences in time to get that bill delivered and signed by Presidents' Day weekend, which is what Barack Obama wants?

Sen. KERRY: Well, that's our goal also and we're working on it very, very hard. We're in discussions with all of the -- all of the key players on it. We've had a lot of progress made. A lot of changes have already been made on some of the questions that were raised by Congress , and the president appropriately is saying -- he came and visited with us yesterday at our caucus meeting -- he has been very clear that he welcomes input. I mean, he's been in the Senate , he understands the process.

LAUER: Right.

Sen. KERRY: And we're working very, very closely together. I'm confident that we're going to come up with a strong package. The key here for all of us is to have provisions that don't just provide tax breaks or tax cuts where the impact is going to be way down the road. We're trying to create jobs now, immediately, as fast as possible.

LAUER: Right.

Sen. KERRY: And there's a difference of opinion , which is perfectly legitimate...

LAUER: But you...

Sen. KERRY: ...as to exactly which provision works best.

LAUER: Real quickly, let me just end. Any mixed emotions for you yesterday, Senator ? You're sitting there in the Foreign Relations Committee , and as chairman you've got to be proud of that, but was there any part of you that was thinking you'd rather be in Senator Clinton 's seat as the designee for secretary of state?

Sen. KERRY: Well, Matt , it'll probably come as a surprise to you, but the honest answer is no. I think that, you know, personal disappointments and personal desires don't go very far in Washington . What really matters is making a difference and getting the job done. I have a very exciting job. I never would have thought -- I mean I really never contemplated being chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee . I had people with strong heartbeats in front of me. Joe Biden, Paul Sarbanes, Chris Dodd. They're in different places now, so I am the chairman. And it provides me with an enormous ability to be able to have an impact, to work with Hillary Clinton , with the State Department , with the administration .

LAUER: Right.

Sen. KERRY: But I'm still an independent voice, free to choose the places that I think I want to put the focus. So I'm excited by that, and it would be silly in this moment of unbelievable challenge to our country and to the planet, really, not to find anything except excitement in the days ahead.