Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s Interview with Rachel Maddow

Ambassador Linda Thomas-GreenfieldU.S. Representative to the United NationsNew York, New YorkSeptember 18, 2023


QUESTION: Joining us now for the interview is America’s Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Madam Ambassador, it’s really nice to see you. Thank you for being here. 

AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You too. Thank you for having me 

QUESTION: I know – if I know one thing about the United Nations General Assembly being here this week, it’s that you do not have time to be here right now talking to me, so I’m very grateful. [Laughter.]

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I have time to here to be talking to you. Thank you for inviting me.

QUESTION: Let me ask you first about the dramatic prisoner swap today, five Americans who had long been held prisoner in Iran being freed – they are on their way home as we speak. Five Iranians, Iranian Americans, who were either federally charged or already in custody here in the United States swapped for them.

I wanted to ask you about a statement made by one of the Americans who was freed today, who described this – his incredible gratitude at being freed, but he said this: “Over the past 44 years, the Iranian regime has mastered the nasty game of caging innocent Americans and other foreign nationals and commercializing their freedom. By now Evin Prison is virtually a dystopian United Nations of Hostages. We must channel the pain of the victims of this wickedness into the kinds of measures that would upend the cost-benefit calculations of Tehran’s foul business if we keep this venal path to profit free of risk and toll for them, this vile regime will keep treading on it. Again. And again. And again.”

Even as he’s being freed, he’s saying this system where countries like Iran take American hostages effectively for profit – financial profit, diplomatic profit – we have to stop that incentive. What’s your response to that?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: There is no profit that the Iranians got from this deal. We released five unfairly held American citizens and brought them home to their families. And what the Iranians got were five of their citizens who we ensured were held accountable for what they did. And as I heard from your report, one or two of them don’t want to go home.


AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: So, they have to explain that as well. But this was about the Americans who were released and unfairly held. And I know that they are rejoicing with their families tonight. There are other Americans being held elsewhere, such as in Russia – Evan Gershkovich, Paul Whelan – who we’re working around the clock to get released and brought home to their families as well.

QUESTION: I feel like it is a – it tells us something important about regimes like Iran and Russia that however much they swagger and however much they try to use other means to display themselves in the world as if they carry weight and have influence and are rich and powerful, they’re effectively having to resort to these criminal, desperate tactics of taking hostages – preferably American hostages whenever they can – in order to try to get concessions out of us and out of other countries. Is there some sort of regime that the United States could lead – some sort of compact the United States could lead – to further disincentivize rogue countries like that from going – plucking off individual Americans for this type of reason?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, we certainly work in the United Nations with our partners, with other allies to make it as difficult as possible for these countries, to hold them accountable at every opportunity we can hold them accountable, in every forum where we can call them out for their bad deeds. This is something that is a core value for us in working in the United Nations, working with partners to hold countries like Iran accountable. It’s not easy because we’re dealing with individuals who really have no heart and don’t really care, but we’ve had some success. And I think most recently kicking Iran off the Commission on the Status of Women when they killed Amini was a huge, huge deal, and I don’t think they expected that they would get that kind of reaction.

QUESTION: We’ve seen leaders like Vladimir Putin in particular in Russia trying to recast the idea of international institutions and international alliances, so there’s some sort of alternative to the world, right. We’ve got the United Nations, we’ve got the American-led Western world, and they’re trying to create what they say is a multipolar world that doesn’t include the United States, that isn’t based around international rules-based institutions like the United Nations, and instead alliance – based on alliances of convenience among dictators.

And it sounds pitiful, and it sounds doomed to failure until you take a wider lens and you realize that, actually, right-wing authoritarian governments are on the rise around the world, including in some old democracies that you think would be immune to this sort of thing. I mean, how – President Biden has talked about the choice between democracy and autocracy as being the guiding international light of – sort of guiding global light of what he’s doing as President. Do you see it the same way?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I do, and we do have to really ramp up our efforts to support democracies, because we know that when democracies succeed, they bring about changes in the lives of their people. And Russia knows that, and that’s why they are doing everything possible to damage democracies around the world. But we in our – recently we had a meeting of Community of Democracies, and we were able to say to the world that democracies do work, democracies do deliver to their people. We know that there are attacks on democracy today. We’ve seen coups happening in Africa recently, and we have seen autocratic governments try to do everything possible not to engage with the world. But we can’t just say, “Oh, it’s okay. They’re doing this; they’re winning.” We have to keep fighting, and that’s exactly what the Administration is doing. It’s what I’m doing every day in the United Nations.

QUESTION: When you take America’s case to the world – which is literally your job at the United Nations – one of the things that has changed that you sort of have on your plate or at least that you need to account for in the way you represent America to the world that no other UN Ambassador has ever had to deal with – is the fact that, for the first time, we have a former president facing criminal charges. He happens to also be the leading Republican contender for the next Republican presidential nomination. Lots of countries have charged or locked up former presidents, former prime ministers. It’s not that unusual in most parts of the world. It’s very unusual, it is unprecedented, here. I wonder how that factors into your job of talking to the rest of the world about the values of democracy and about the rule of law and about accountability?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, there is no question to people around the world that our democracy is strong, but it is under attack, and we have to defend that democracy every way we can. When I arrived in New York in 2021, I was embraced by countries around the world. I was embraced by friends as well as competitors. They were happy to see the United States back at the table. They’ve asked me over and over again: Can we feel confident that you’re going to stay at the table? And I can’t give them that confidence other than to say that our country is strong and our country will always survive. That we’ve been tested before. We survived a Civil War, and our country continues to thrive. We’re not a perfect democracy by any means, we’re constantly self-correcting, we acknowledge our faults. But we survive. And we will continue to do that.

QUESTION: Our guest is Linda Thomas-Greenfield. She’s America’s Ambassador to the United Nations. We have to take a quick break. When we come back, I’m going to ask [laugher] – going to ask you a thorny question that you are not going to want to answer. That’s the only thing I can promise you about it. [Laughter.]

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I know how to not answer. [Laughter.]

QUESTION: [Laughter.] I know. The world’s most diplomatic people are the world’s most difficult interviews. We’ll be right back with our UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield right after this. Stay with us.

QUESTION: Back with us now for the interview is Linda Thomas-Greenfield. She is the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. This is the week of the United Nations General Assembly. Along with President Biden, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is going to be speaking with the UN General Assembly this week. I think they’re both speaking tomorrow. 

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I know the President is speaking tomorrow.

QUESTION: The President is speaking. I also expect that President Biden and President Zelenskyy will meet and continue their talks in person on this trip. I have to ask you about something that I realize is a thorny sort of thing, which is that one of the things we’ve learned in the news in the past week or so is that – as America is supporting Ukraine in its war to defend itself against Russia, a single American citizen has business interests of such a type that he has been able as an individual to make decisions to constrain Ukraine’s military from carrying out operations against Russia. And I’m talking, of course, about Elon Musk.

It is – I’m sure this is not an unprecedented thing in American history, but in Mr. Musk’s case we’ve got somebody who is an American businessman who effectively has foreign policy sway on his own and who – for whatever reason – has effectively decided to conduct competing and, I would say, oppositional foreign policy to the United States, a country of which he is a citizen.

Who does President Zelenskyy come to to complain about that? I mean, you are [laughter] the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, but Mr. Musk appears to be competing with his own country in terms of what his foreign policy is, and he has the technological resources to do it in a materially significant way.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, I would assume that President Zelenskyy will raise that with the United States. And having served as an ambassador overseas and served here, I do have countries come to me to complain sometimes about the actions of an American company in their country, and we do try to address those issues when they’re brought – they’re brought to our attention. So, I assume if President Zelenskyy has a complaint, he will bring that to us, if he hasn’t already. He hasn’t brought it to me.

QUESTION: With the kind of technology that we’re talking about here – this Starlink technology linked to Mr. Musk’s SpaceX company – is an integral, effectively information supply line for Ukrainian military forces, an irreplaceable asset for them. And that’s bad in one sense, we now know, because the United Nations – the United States, as a government, effectively can’t make a decision as to how that – how that resource should be deployed to help or hurt our ally in that conflict. It’s instead being made by a business – which is purportedly an American business but not behaving in a way that is consistent with America’s stated interests.

What do you – what are the responsibilities of the American Government toward American businesses that are messing with American foreign policy?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, we do two things working with American companies overseas. We support American companies in their efforts to work overseas, but we also establish certain parameters for how American companies operate. This is a situation that I can’t comment on specifically. I don’t know any of the details of this. But I do expect that President Zelenskyy will raise it and it will be brought to the attention of others to address.

QUESTION: I knew you were going to avoid answering me on that question. [Laughter.] I knew. I could tell you before I asked it, because I know that you – there’s – you can’t answer it in the specific. But I find it to be a confounding situation just as an observer and as an American.

Another situation that is confounding and concerning is one that the Biden administration has expressed very sharp concern about, which is a new law in Uganda which is being called the “kill the gays” law, which establishes – in fact – the death penalty for something they call “aggravated homosexuality.” They’ve already started to arrest people under this law. They’re threatening to kill people just for being gay. The Biden administration has been very sharply critical of this. The Obama administration was very sharply critical of this in 2013 and 2014, when the Ugandan Government tried it the first time around. But there are a couple of ways in which U.S. fingerprints are actually on this horrific policy. One is that American right-wing evangelical activists have encouraged the Ugandan Government to do this. The other is that U.S. funds make up a significant portion of the Ugandan Government’s operating expenses, specifically the massive assistance we give them through the PEPFAR program to contradict the effects of HIV and AIDS in that country. PEPFAR is of course a very successful program, and I think all sort of righteous people want to defend it in terms of how many lives it’s saved around the world. But I keep hearing –


QUESTION: Twenty – I mean, it’s an astonishingly effective American – 


QUESTION: – program, perhaps one of the most lifesaving American interventions in the world ever.


QUESTION: And I keep hearing from activists who are trying to keep the gay community from being killed off by their government in Uganda that PEPFAR funds are specifically being routed through the Ugandan Government in a way that empowers and rewards the ministries and the individual ministers who are most responsible in Uganda for that policy.

And given how strongly the Administration feels about this – isn’t there a way that that funding could be directed so that it’s still solving the problem in Uganda but it is not making the problem worse for that sexual minority that is facing really, really serious, serious risk? 

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, I was asked this question by Lawrence O’Donnell when I was on his show the last time, after you spoke to him. And let me just start out by saying that this law is horrific, and we’ve made very clear in no uncertain terms to the Ugandan Government that it is unacceptable. And we are doing everything in our power to support the LGBTQ community in Uganda to ensure their safety and to ensure that they are not damaged by this law. And we do know that at least one individual has recently been arrested and charged and is in the process of being tried under this law.

QUESTION: And, because it’s a capital offense, is being held in prison awaiting trial. 

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And it is a capital offense.

QUESTION: A life-threatening situation.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: So, we are looking at – and I said this before – how we can continue to provide the good support that PEPFAR provides directly to individuals to help save their lives, without putting that funding through the Ugandan Government or through individuals in the Ugandan Government who are responsible for implementing this law. It’s a huge dilemma, but we have to find a way to do that. And we have to find a way to hold those accountable who are basically violating the human rights of the LGBTQ community in Uganda.

We engage with them on a regular basis. I was involved with this situation during the 2013-2014 period, during the Obama administration, when I was Assistant Secretary for Africa, and we were successful in getting the government to stop moving forward on the law. We failed on that this time around, but we’re continuing to engage the LGBTQ community on how we can help them, and also to put pressure on the Ugandan Government to push back and urge them not to enforce this horrific law.

QUESTION: Neighboring countries of course watching closely –


QUESTION: – to see what happens in Uganda to see if they should also pursue legislation like this – 


QUESTION: – raising the stakes even further.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Madam Ambassador, our Ambassador to the United Nations, busiest woman in New York this week. Thank you so much for your time. 


QUESTION: It’s an honor to have this much time with you. Thank you.