TRANSCRIPT: Interview of the President by Jay Leno, The Tonight Show [excerpt re Russia]

File Photo of Vladimir Putin Leaning Towards Barack Hussein Obama With Flags Behind Them

(The White House – Office of the Press Secretary – NBC Studios – Burbank, California – August 7, 2013)

For Immediate Release

Q    Now, were you surprised that Russia granted Snowden asylum?

THE PRESIDENT:  I was disappointed because even though we don’t have an extradition treaty with them, traditionally we have tried to respect if there’s a law-breaker or an alleged law-breaker in their country, we evaluate it and we try to work with them.  They didn’t do that with us.  And in some ways it’s reflective of some underlying challenges that we’ve had with Russia lately.  A lot of what’s been going on hasn’t been major breaks in the relationship, and they still help us on supplying our troops in Afghanistan; they’re still helping us on counterterrorism work; they were helpful after the Boston bombing in that investigation.  And so there’s still a lot of business that we can do with them.

But there have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality.  And what I consistently say to them, and what I say to President Putin, is that’s the past and we’ve got to think about the future, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to cooperate more effectively than we do.

Q    And Putin seems to me like one of those old-school KGB guys.

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, he headed up the KGB.  (Laughter.)

Q    Yes.  Well, that’s what I mean.  Yes, that’s what I mean.  He has that mentality.  I mean, look at this picture here. You two don’t look pretty — (laughter) — you look like me and the NBC executives.  What is going on there?  (Laughter.)  That doesn’t look like a friendly picture.

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, the truth is, is that when we have meetings we can have some pretty blunt exchanges and animated exchanges.  But he’s got — that seems to be his preferred style during press conferences, is sitting back and not looking too excited.  (Laughter.)  Now, part of it is he’s not accustomed to having press conferences where you’ve got a bunch of reporters yelling questions at you.

Q    Now, the G20 summit is in St. Petersburg next —

THE PRESIDENT:  Coming up, right.

Q    Are you going to that and will you meet with Putin?

THE PRESIDENT:  I will be going to that.  I will be going to that because the G20 summit is the main forum where we talk about the economy, the world economy, with all the top economic powers in the world.  So it’s not something unique to Russia.  They’re hosting it this year, but it’s important for us, as the leading economy in the world, to make sure that we’re there — in part because creating jobs, improving our economy, building up our manufacturing base, increasing wages — all those things now depend on how we compete in this global economy.  And when you’ve got problems in Europe, or China is slowing down, that has an impact here in the United States.

And I’ve been saying for the entire tenure of my presidency that my number-one priority at all times is how do we create an economy where, if you work hard in this country, you can succeed. And there are a lot of things that we can do here in this country, but we’ve also got to pay attention to what’s going on outside it.

Q    Well, something that shocked me about Russia — and I’m surprised this is not a huge story — suddenly, homosexuality is against the law.  I mean, this seems like Germany:  Let’s round up the Jews, let’s round up the gays, let’s round up the blacks. I mean, it starts with that.  You round up people who you don’t
— I mean, why is not more of the world outraged at this?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I’ve been very clear that when it comes to universal rights, when it comes to people’s basic freedoms, that whether you are discriminating on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, you are violating the basic morality that I think should transcend every country.  And I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.

Now, what’s happening in Russia is not unique.  When I traveled to Africa, there were some countries that are doing a lot of good things for their people, who we’re working with and helping on development issues, but in some cases have persecuted gays and lesbians.  And it makes for some uncomfortable press conferences sometimes.  But one of the things that I think is very important for me to speak out on is making sure that people are treated fairly and justly, because that’s what we stand for. And I believe that that’s a precept that’s not unique to America, that’s something that should apply everywhere.  (Applause.)

Q    Do you think it will affect the Olympics?

THE PRESIDENT:  I think Putin and Russia have a big stake in making sure the Olympics work, and I think they understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn’t tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently.  They’re athletes, they’re there to compete.  And if Russia wants to uphold the Olympic spirit, then every judgment should be made on the track, or in the swimming pool, or on the balance beam, and people’s sexual orientation shouldn’t have anything to do with it.  (Applause.)

Q    Good enough for me.