Preet Bharara: From CAFE, welcome to Stay Tuned, I’m Preet Bharara.
Jared Cohen: Typically, a vice president is chosen to win a state, balance the ticket, appease a constituency. As you pointed out, historically there’s no evidence that it does any of those things. You’re incentivized as the party’s nominee to choose somebody who is sufficiently boring that they won’t upstage you but not so boring and problematic that they’re going to embarrass you, so you basically want a sort of JV version of yourself. My problem with that is I don’t want the JV version of the party’s nominee, potentially one heartbeat away from the presidency.
Preet Bharara: That’s Jared Cohen, he’s the CEO of Jigsaw, a Google ideas incubator. He also served in the State Department as an advisor to Condoleezza Rice and later Hillary Clinton. He’s now out with his fourth book, Accidental Presidents. And Jared is still a few years away from turning 40. Anyway, I got over all that. And we spoke about how history can be changed by a heartbeat and about Jared’s time in the State Department, where an unusual approach to unrest in Iran landed him at 27 in The New York Times. That’s coming up, stay tuned.
Preet Bharara: So there are a lot of questions rolling in because there’s been a bit of news, we’re taping this on Wednesday, May 1st at around 2:30 PM. And we’re in the midst of Bill Barr, the attorney general testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I watched pretty much all of it up until this point, but now I got to go into the studio to talk about some of the issues that have arisen. On the eve of the hearing, the big news was an article in The Washington Post, which was a fairly significant scope reporting that three days after Bill Barr put out his four page letter about the Mueller report on March 24th, Bob Mueller and his team took some issue with the characterization of the Mueller report, that a lot of us have been wondering about. And to the extent there was a mystery surrounding what Bob Mueller thought about the four page Barr letter, we now know what he thought. And as of this morning we actually have the letter itself, which was released by the Justice Department.
Preet Bharara: Let’s just go right to Bob Mueller’s letter, which is fairly extraordinary. And by the way, this letter dated March 27th, three days after Bill Barr’s letter makes clear that this was not the only letter sent, this was the second letter. The march 27th letter begins by describing how Bob Mueller previously sent a letter dated March 25th, that’s just one day, the Monday after the special council’s report was delivered to the AG. What did that first let her have? It enclosed the introduction and executive summary for each volume of the special council’s report marked with redactions. So Bob Mueller was essentially saying, I see your summary even though you won’t call it one Bill Barr, and I raise you our summaries. And then when those things were not released, Bob Mueller fired off another letter.
Preet Bharara: And now a couple of things before I even read what the characterization is by Bob Mueller. It is not a usual thing for this kind of communication to take place in writing. Obviously Bob Mueller wanted to create a record. This letter refers to a meeting that they had on March 5th. And obviously Bob Mueller didn’t think that meeting was sufficient and wanted for posterity the record to reflect a clear objection to Bill Barr’s letter, and a preference, a decided preference, a strong preference and in fact a written preference for having the special council’s own summaries in whatever redacted form necessary put out to the public, so they would have a fair understanding and view of what the conclusions were even while it might take some time for redactions of grand jury material of classified information to take place over the course of some weeks.
Preet Bharara: And here’s what Bob Mueller said in his March 27th letter, “The summary letter the department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24.” And note, Bob Mueller calls Bill Bars letter a summary. We’ll come back to that ’cause I think that’s important. But he says, “That summary letter did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this officer’s work and conclusions. We communicated that concern to the department on the morning of March 25.” And then the letter goes on to say, “There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation.” And he goes on to say, this is pretty strong language for a person like Bob Mueller who’s a fairly measured person, “This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the department appointed the special council to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”
Preet Bharara: And Bob Mueller goes on to note in this letter that with these summaries that have already been prepared and do justice to the report writ large, that it need not be delayed. And so the public could get a full and better accounting and perspective on what the report says and what the investigation undertook and what its conclusions were. So it’s a little bit mind boggling that Bill Barr has never told us that these letters came in, never really suggested publicly in any way at all that Bob Mueller and his team were dissatisfied with his four page letter other than to say they were given a chance to review the Bill Barr letter on March 24th and they declined, and now you understand a little bit why they did. Why should they? They had their own summaries that were prepared based on their deep knowledge of the investigation and prepared in a way that they could be released publicly immediately. So it’s an odd thing for Bill Barr.
Preet Bharara: It also clears up another semantic mystery that’s interesting to at least me and that is, this insistence that Bill Barr over and over and over again would fight about the word summary. “It’s not a summary.” He said. It’s four pages, it’s not a summary. What is it? It’s a statement of principle conclusions. And I think he even uses in his own letter that’s not a summary, the word summarized. And it seems to me if you use common English, you have a large document that in this case is the Mueller report of 448 pages and then you have a smaller document that attempts to convey some of what’s in the larger document, I think most people would call that a summary. But he over and over and over again, over the last number of weeks has objected to the use of summary.
Preet Bharara: He’s actually quibbled with senators, he did today multiple times when I was watching the hearing. He kept saying it was not a summary, it is not a summary. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop, “It’s not a summary.” For those of you who don’t know that movie, you should go watch it. So why would that be? Well, it occurs to me that one reason is he wants to distinguish what he presented to Congress and the public Bill Barr, from what Bob Mueller wanted to present to the public, which he called summaries. So it seems to me that in some sort of semantic magic act that he wanted to perpetrate, he says, “Look, I’m just giving the top line principle conclusions. I was not interested.” Bill Barr says, “In the public seeing of summary, they should have the whole document at some point when it’s ready to be given to the public.”
Preet Bharara: And therefore he rejected the Bob Mueller summaries because he’s not in the business of providing summaries. And by the way his own thing was not as summary. Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t make sense to me. But maybe it makes sense to someone who is I think going out of his way as we saw in the hearing in round after round after round in over the last number of weeks, someone who does really appear to be acting more like the defense lawyer for the president and also a spin doctor for the president rather than a somewhat independent lawyer for the American people, which is what the attorney general is supposed to be.
Preet Bharara: So what’s odd to me about this and I guess the significance of this is that there is now more evidence in favor of the criticism and the conclusion that Bill Barr, that first weekend after the Mueller report was delivered to him was acting in a way as a press agent for the president. That Bill Barr wanted to put out on behalf of the president is the best face of the Mueller report, leaving aside certain things that might make the president look particularly bad, especially those findings in volume two. And had no interest in the special council’s own summaries getting out.
Preet Bharara: Leaving as I’ve said before on the program, the imprint on the American people of exoneration and sort of nothing to see here, time to move on. When, as you’ve heard being discussed and if you had a chance to read some of the report yourself. There was episode after episode after episode of conduct that I think in the obstruction section makes out a crime, and whether or not you think it makes that a crime certainly makes out abuse of power and bad conduct that you don’t want a sitting president to be engaged, nothing to be proud of is I think a better phrase than nothing to see here.
Preet Bharara: From what I saw of the hearings before coming into tape, there are other examples of Bill Barr basically taking a spin approach to some of the more incriminating things that are mentioned in the report, especially in the obstruction section. And the particular incident that’s been getting a lot of attention both generally and in the hearing. This incident that described at some length where president Trump calls Don McGahn and says, “Mueller has conflicts and he has to go.” And tells McGahn that he must tell Rod Rosenstein this, and that Mueller has to go. And there’s this back and forth, it’s kind of extraordinary over the meaning of the word, he has to go and what exactly was in the mind of Donald Trump. Whereby Bill Bar, just like what Giuliani has been doing on television, is left to say, “Well, the word firing wasn’t used. The president didn’t say fire.” And so to the extent that the president then also tells Don McGahn to create some document that makes clear that he wasn’t trying to fire Bob Mueller when The New York Times reported otherwise.
Preet Bharara: The slender reed they have to stand on is that the word firing was never used. Even though in the mind of Don McGahn who’s a pretty smart guy, who decided to work for the president, who one would believe is a fairly careful lawyer, understood the import of what Donald Trump was telling him, so much so that he declined to carry out the instruction. He declined to do what he was told to do. He packed up his things and was had to other things like, “I’m not going to be involved in another Saturday night massacre.” To the extent Donald Trump as Bill Barr would have you believe was just sort of doing some innocent musing based on his wealth of knowledge about conflicts law and nothing to see here, nothing so significant. That’s belied by the actual reaction and actions of Don McGahn. But you see a lot of bobbing and weaving going on in the part of the attorney general in the face of what looks like pretty clear evidence that the president wanted Bob Mueller gone.
Preet Bharara: There’s another occasion during the hearings where Bill Barr is taken to task for suggesting that the president fully cooperated with the investigation, which again strain credulity given all sorts of things that are in the report including that the president refused to give sworn testimony with respect to the obstruction and only gave written testimony with respect to the conspiracy aspect of the investigation, that on multiple occasions he tried to get rid of Bob Mueller whether he used the word fire or not. And by the way, there is evidence that Chris Christie understood that the president was trying to fire Bob Mueller and used the word firing. On top of which obviously there are many occasions where the president wanted Jeff Sessions to unrecuse himself for what purpose, to protect the president.
Preet Bharara: And forget about just the general bleeding by the president over and over again about the 13 or 17 angry democrats, and the constant attacks on the integrity and standing and competence about Mueller personally and on the part of his advocates. That doesn’t sound like cooperation and yet there you have the attorney general for United States of America standing by his representation that there was full cooperation, strain credulity.
Preet Bharara: Here’s another example that I thought it was kind of enlightening about what’s going on in Bill Barr’s head. You’ll recall that a few weeks ago, he sort of threw out the casual accusation without any evidence and conceded that there was no evidence for it, but he wanted to take a look at it. That people in the intelligence community or the FBI were quote unquote spying on the president’s campaign, on Donald Trump’s campaign. That immediately had a huge effect on the public’s mind because the president has been using that phrase, which is not the way people talk about authorized surveillance in connection with law enforcement or intelligence gathering operations.
Preet Bharara: And so I think ordinary people who understand the toxic rhetoric that the president has been using and some of his supporters have been using about quote unquote spying. People have been a little bit taken aback that the attorney general would sort of, in what I’ve been calling a non-virtuous toxic feedback loop, taking some of the terms that the president uses, sort of laundering them through the office of the attorney general and then using them himself. But then he says in the hearing today in the back and forth that I thought was fairly extraordinary saying, “Look, spying is a perfectly good word in the English language. I don’t consider it a pejorative, it’s a word that’s used.” He said, “I started my career in the CIA and spying is just the word we use. And I don’t know why anybody would suggest it has some bad connotation.” Knowing fully well that the president and his allies use it as a barb to suggest significant, insidious, bad, nefarious conduct on the part of people who they have claimed using other words that I guess are perfectly good English words, coup and treason.
Preet Bharara: And here you have the attorney general saying, “No, nothing to see here. I just used the word spying because it’s a good English word.” Again, strain credulity. And it happened again and again and again. Even as I’ve been taping this, I got a report that in an exchange with Senator Kamala Harris, the attorney general Bill Barr said to her, “I’m trying to grapple with the word suggest.” As if suggest is a lexically ambiguous term that we have to quarrel over.
Bill Barr: Yeah. But I’m trying to grapple with the word suggest. I mean, there have been discussions of matters out there that they’ve not asked me to open a investigation.
Kamala Harris: Perhaps they suggested.
Bill Barr: I don’t know, I wouldn’t say suggest.
Kamala Harris: Hinted.
Bill Barr: I don’t know.
Kamala Harris: Inferred. You don’t know? Okay.
Preet Bharara: Again and again and again, it’s kind of interesting how many times during the course of these hearings and over the course of the last few weeks, whether it’s the word summary or the word collusion or the word findings or the word firing or the word cooperating or the word spying or the word suggest. Depending on the nature of the question and what the spirit of it is and what the upshot of what they’re trying to get at is, Bill Barr, the sitting attorney general has either a common sense view of the term or a completely bizarre view of the term. And he’s parsing even while he bobs and weaves, it’s not the kind of performance that instills a lot of confidence that he’s playing it straight. That’s just my initial thought from listening to several hours of the hearing.
Preet Bharara: Members of CAFE Insider can hear more of my thoughts about this in a special Stay Tuned bonus. To join, go to cafe.com/insider, that’s cafe.com/insider. My guest this week is Jared Cohen. He’s a former diplomat, a CEO, and the author of four books, including most recently Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America. It’s a fascinating look at a collection of leaders who ascended to the highest office in the land even though they were not selected by the voters or by their party. We talked about how the number two spot can do more than compromise or balance a campaign ticket, it can turn out to be very consequential. Jared also told me what Theodore Roosevelt kept in his dorm room. And if you listen to the end of the interview, you’ll find out what life-size figure Jared has in his arms. That’s coming up, stay tuned.
Jared Cohen: Thank you for having me.
Preet Bharara: Congratulations on the book.
Jared Cohen: Thank you, it’s been a long slog.
Preet Bharara: It’s a very long and good and interesting and excellent. I have just finished writing a book, as you may know. This is your fourth book.
Jared Cohen: My fourth, yes.
Preet Bharara: And you’re younger than I am. Sorry, I hate you just a little bit.
Jared Cohen: That’s very nice of you. It seems like a benevolent hatred, I appreciate.
Preet Bharara: So the book is entitled Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America. And it’s about the ascension to the presidency by vice presidents when the first person on the ticket passed away. It appears to be very meticulously researched, so I appreciate that. It’s a work of storytelling and also scholarship. I believe you have a 108 pages of notes. Look, it’s another week here at Stay Tuned, 37 year old scholar, that’s what we do around here, we recently had Pete Buttigieg on.
Jared Cohen: Oh, I love Pete.
Preet Bharara: So we’ve got to find some more 37 year old road scholars to keep the streak up.
Jared Cohen: It’s like a [inaudible 00:18:39]
Preet Bharara: You might be the only two that I’m aware of. Let me ask you a very simple question, what do you mean when you say accidental president?
Jared Cohen: So what I was really captivated by is the eight times in history that a president dies in office and history is changed by the beat of a heart. So I often get asked, why didn’t you include the Nixon into Ford transition and it’s because that was a man-made crisis. There’s something about the unexpected transition that thrust somebody who wasn’t elected and wasn’t the voter’s choice into the helm of power. Oftentimes by the way some of the most important inflection points in the country’s history. So it’s that suddenness and that unexpected aspect of it that I was most interested in.
Preet Bharara: And what’s the biggest challenge generally? I know you have different stories, I’m going to ask you about two or three of them in particular that I’m sort of interested in, in modern times. But what’s the biggest challenge for someone stepping into the shoes of the person who’s duly elected president of United States, especially if it was an accidental thing.
Jared Cohen: Well, in the eight times that it’s happened, the biggest challenge is in all eight cases, they were completely ostracized from the administration. So if you look at Harry Truman, he’d only met FDR twice. In his 82 days, he didn’t get a single intelligence briefing, didn’t meet a single foreign leader, wasn’t briefed on the Manhattan project, had never stepped into the map room where the war was being planned. Millard Fillmore was bitter that he’d been cut off from patronage opportunities. So when he ascends to the presidency, he sacks the entire cabinet immediately after taking the oath of office.
Preet Bharara: So the biggest challenge is they don’t know what the hell is going on.
Jared Cohen: I interviewed Kissinger for the book and his explanation for why vice presidents are kept at a distance is the president doesn’t want somebody around that they can’t fire, and the president doesn’t want somebody around who’s greatest source of joy would be if they dropped dead.
Preet Bharara: Right. What’s the old phrase, I think there’s some controversy about whether somebody said that the vice presidency isn’t worth a bucket of-
Jared Cohen: Well, the quote is John Nance Garner, who was FDR’s first vice president said that the vice presidency isn’t worth a warm bucket of piss.
Preet Bharara: But people have-
Jared Cohen: Revised it to be spit.
Preet Bharara: Spit. Right, this is a podcast, you can say piss.
Jared Cohen: Okay. I wasn’t sure about that.
Preet Bharara: In the podcast you can say piss. We do a children’s version in which we’ll insert spit, because it’s important for people to learn history, children to learn history.
Jared Cohen: But historically nobody wanted the vice presidency. The person who became the vice president, it was a combination of somebody who needed to be punished and somebody who was available.
Preet Bharara: But isn’t that odd given that … as you described during the first 170 or so years, and maybe I’m getting the number wrong. The accidental presidency was something that happened every 10 to 20 years, so it was something that was completely foreseeable and yet people didn’t want the vice presidency even though there was a decent chance if you were kind of macabre that you would ascend to the presidency, putting aside the likelihood that you could be the nominee and the party standard bearer after the president served out his terms.
Jared Cohen: Of all the accidental presidents, the only one who seems to have done the math was LBJ, who reasoned that there was more than 20% chance that if he left the most powerful seat in the Senate, he could end up as precedent. But if you look at the eight times, I mean the framers of the constitution, they didn’t think much of the vice presidency. They added it as an afterthought, as an electoral mechanism. What I find more interesting is the fact that you did have this kind of every 10 to 20 year occurrence, not to mention by the way the 19 close calls where somebody almost died in office. So this kept happening and yet we basically winged it. So it’s interesting when we talk about constitutional crises today and so forth. I mean this to me is one of the most sustained constitutional vulnerabilities that we’ve had in our history.
Preet Bharara: What makes the succession work in the cases where it has worked and gone well, not withstanding what you’ve already said that most of the time the vice president is on the outs, has not been briefed on very important issues, in particular the case of Harry Truman. How do the successful accidental presidents make it work?
Jared Cohen: Well, so it’s a combination of two things. The secret sauce and the thing that the ascending accidental president has control over is the people around them. So you get some who on one end of the spectrum decided to keep all of the predecessors advisors so that they didn’t seem like they were coming in and changing things too much. And then you had some that went on the other extreme and got rid of everybody. The ones that iterated on it and the ones that sort of played musical chairs in a way that fit the administration that they wanted to shape are the ones that were most successful.
Jared Cohen: But context mattered a lot, so if you look again at Harry Truman versus Lyndon Johnson, by all accounts, Truman never should have been successful. If you look at what he inherited, some of his lack of engagement and lack of being integrated into the administration, but he inherited a war where Hitler was still fighting from a bunker, the Battle of Okinawa was raging in the Asian Pacific. You had a massive bureaucratic battle between the army and navy. Stalin was reneging on every single promise from Yalta and he had to make a major decision about invading Japan and potentially losing a million men or dropping the most devastating weapon in the history of the world.
Jared Cohen: So if you look at his advisors around him, Dean Acheson, George Marshall, they had nothing in common with Truman. Truman was a sort of provincial off shucks politician from Missouri. These men were sort of elite Ivy League intellectuals, but the fate of the world rested on whether Harry Truman was successful. So you can trust that with LBJ who also had nothing in common with Bob McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, the elite Kennedy Advisors. The fate of the world did not rest on what happened in Vietnam, just Lyndon Johnson’s reputation and his presidency.
Preet Bharara: So what’s the best strategy for the ascending vice president to maintain some continuity with the prior administration and consistent with the grief that the public is generally feeling, or to set out your own course or some combination of the two?
Jared Cohen: So if you look at the men who ascend to the presidency, they’re typically either foreign policy people or domestic policy people. If a president who ascends to the highest office in the land, the first thing they have to figure out is which one are they? And then they have to look at the hand that they’ve been dealt and figure out if that’s the right group for them to push an agenda based on their core competence. But then they have to look at the predecessor, if they’re a domestic president and they get a foreign policy team of advisers that are telling them one thing and their instincts tell them another, they have to demonstrate a level of courage to shake it up if necessary.
Preet Bharara: Let’s talk about some of the particular examples and we’ll go out of chronological order. So Johnson ascends to the presidency, it’s well known that Johnson and John Kennedy and also Bobby Kennedy, they didn’t get along so well. There was a feeling of envy, jealousy, all true, right?
Jared Cohen: Well, and also RFK never forgave Johnson for making a comment about JFK’s health during the campaign, he just never forgave him for it.
Preet Bharara: Right. So now he becomes the president, there’s that famous photograph of him being sworn in on Air Force One in the air, the nation’s grieving, everyone is upset. People don’t even know the nature of the assassination. And then you have another assassination that occurs with Inspector Jack Ruby three days later. How did Johnson turn that around to his advantage?
Jared Cohen: Well, Johnson was determined to be a great domestic president, and unlike the other accidental presidents with the exception of Teddy Roosevelt, he had dreamed and fantasized about being president. And had he gotten in the race earlier in 1960, he may have found himself more competitive, but he was certainly qualified to be president and he had certainly thought about it. For Johnson, as he looked at his situation, he was struck by two things. One, a deep concern that civil rights was going to collapse on his watch. You had the bombing in Birmingham, you had the Selma to Montgomery marches. He was terrified that Vietnam was going to collapse on his watch. In both cases he was determined to make sure that he navigated a path forward. On civil rights, he knew what to do, he understood the rules of the Senate, he knew how to get that done. On Vietnam, he was completely flailing and he essentially outsourced it to men he inherited from the Kennedy administration.
Jared Cohen: What he did was Johnson was deeply cognizant of how loved Kennedy was. And he had this mixture of hatred and admiration for the elite intellectuals around Kennedy who he called the Harvards. He worked the phones and he got on with them and said, “I need you, this is about JFK’s legacy, not my legacy.” And he convinced-
Preet Bharara: But he didn’t really mean that.
Jared Cohen: Of course he didn’t mean it.
Preet Bharara: He was so tactical. And I guess also in some regards strategic that he was capable of being able to humble himself for the purposes of his own legacy later.
Jared Cohen: Oh, absolutely. I mean, Johnson was a political craftsman. He understood hand gestures and the color of ties and the patterns of ties, he just wasn’t a great judge of character.
Preet Bharara: Right. Do you think that if Jack Kennedy had not been shot, a lot of people have opined on this, I want to know what you think based on what you wrote in the book, whether or not those civil rights advances would have been possible.
Jared Cohen: I do not believe we would have had the civil rights act of 1964 had Kennedy survived. If you look at RFK’s turnaround on civil rights it’s remarkable, but it doesn’t happen at 1964. The Kennedys were prepared to pay lip service to civil rights, but if you look at their reaction to the bombing in Birmingham, they weren’t really ready and willing to back it up in a way that could potentially risk the election. So I just don’t believe they would have made the gamble in the lead up to the 1964 election. Whereas LBJ felt differently, LBJ felt like if he could get civil rights legislation done in 1964, if he could prove that he could do it, that would be his path to winning the presidency in his own right.
Jared Cohen: And every one of these accidental presidents, the first thing that they get captivated by when they ascend to the presidency is this notion that they’re an accident and that they don’t belong there. And everything that they do is in some form guided by wanting to win an election in their own rights so they are no longer an accident.
Preet Bharara: Well, so LBJ had the wind at his back and beat Barry Goldwater decisively in 1964, 49 states. Did that help him feel that he was no longer an accidental president?
Jared Cohen: Oh, absolutely. I mean, right after achieving victory, one of the things he said is, “I’ve been given a mandate, now let’s basically get on with it.” If you look at the comments of the last four accidental presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and LBJ, they’re the only four who ended up winning election in their own right. And their behavior and their actions in the second term is always noticeably different than the first term. They become-
Preet Bharara: More confident.
Jared Cohen: They’re more confident, they’re less deferential to the legacy of their predecessor. Although Teddy Roosevelt basically evaporated the legacy of his predecessor the moment he took the oath of office.
Preet Bharara: Did LBJ make a better transition because he was a very accomplished senator in the first place unlike some of these others, or did it not matter?
Jared Cohen: I think LBJ was able to be more productive out of the gate than some of these others because he understood the legislature. So it’s hard to look at LBJ’s track record and say he wasn’t anything but legislatively productive, but he was also a foreign policy novice. So the contrast of LBJ as a great domestic president and a horrific foreign policy president, I think in a lot of respects illustrates what happens when somebody is thrust into the job and they have expertise in one area but lack it and another.
Preet Bharara: Right. So Teddy Roosevelt became president at what age?
Jared Cohen: 42.
Preet Bharara: Remains true that he’s the youngest president in history.
Jared Cohen: Yes. Not the youngest elected, but the youngest president in history.
Preet Bharara: To become president in history. How does he compare to the others?
Jared Cohen: Teddy Roosevelt is my favorite of all the accidental presidents because if he was alive in today’s context, you would view him a bloodthirsty lunatic. The man, basically-
Preet Bharara: He would live a few blocks away.
Jared Cohen: And he would have lived a few blocks away. The man was crazy by all accounts. And his father who he admired and loved had paid a substitute to fight for him in the civil war. And ever since Teddy Roosevelt learned about that as a child, he basically spent his entire life wanting to vindicate his father’s decision and the poor guy just never got a war for most of his life. And then he gets appointed as assistant secretary of navy under Mckinley in his first term, much to Mckinley’s resistance. But the story of Teddy Roosevelt’s rise is a story of party bosses in New York just trying to get rid of him. And there’s an amazing story with Teddy Roosevelt where the secretary of the navy literally takes six hours off one day to go get the equivalent of a spa treatment and makes Teddy Roosevelt promise not to take the country to war. And he effectively gives what one biographer describes as an orgy of orders and mobilizes the country in all kinds of ways that pushes us closer to war.
Preet Bharara: In the six hours.
Jared Cohen: In the six hours. And then once the country goes to war with Spain and the Philippines and Cuba, he immediately seeks combat. So when you read the medal of honor nominations for Teddy Roosevelt, most of which he engineered for himself about his charging up San Juan Hill and Cuba, they don’t read like somebody who has been incredibly heroic even though the outcome was, they read like somebody who was in kind of a psychotic trance, marching towards like shooting. And he was so intoxicated by the idea of war that he forgot to tell his men it was time to charge the hill. So he initially charges it basically alone and then asked to go back and give the order. So when Teddy Roosevelt ascends to the presidency upon McKinley’s assassination, he can almost hardly contain his enthusiasm for the opportunity to finally be in this role. And he has this great quote where he basically says, you can mourn this but it’s better not to be morbid about it.
Preet Bharara: Right. I mean, Teddy Roosevelt I think was even younger than you when he wrote his first book. [crosstalk 00:31:34]
Jared Cohen: Yeah. He wrote the definitive history of the navy and the war of 1812.
Preet Bharara: And he was like nine.
Jared Cohen: He was a little older than nine, but I think he was-
Preet Bharara: 17 or 18, very young.
Jared Cohen: He was either in his late teens or early twenties.
Preet Bharara: Right. Love to have him on the podcast.
Jared Cohen: Can you imagine having been his dorm mate, the guy literally would bring a combination of live and dead animals and he turned his college dormitory into a taxidermy studio.
Preet Bharara: He was a great naturalist and also sportsman and a hunter. In fact where Roosevelt used to live is now a museum, a few blocks away here in lower Manhattan. And I remember taking my daughter to the museum some years ago to show her the most impressive thing you would see perhaps in a museum to Teddy Roosevelt and that is the bullet hole in the shirt that he was wearing when he was giving a speech outdoors was shot essentially in the heart and continued to speak.
Jared Cohen: But there’s so much to that story. So because Roosevelt was so verbose, he had a 40 page speech. So the bullet-
Preet Bharara: I love you and I love this podcast. Someone shot me right now, we would have to take a rain check on this.
Jared Cohen: Well, that was not his philosophy. So the bullet, it’s just typical Roosevelt in theatrics. He gets shot while running as a bull moose in 1912. And the bullet penetrates the speech, hits the glasses case, it does end up penetrating his skin. So he opens his shirt in front of everybody, examines the wound, declares that he’s an expert taxidermist, which was true and that he could probably survive long enough to give the speech. So he delivers the speech and then goes to the hospital.
Jared Cohen: But what’s interesting is that’s the story that people often cite about Teddy Roosevelt, an accidental president, nearly being killed, but he wasn’t in office when that happened. But a year after Teddy Roosevelt ascended to the presidency. So one year into being president, he is in Pittsfield and a trolley crashes into his carriage and flings him about 30 feet, he lands face down, breaks his glasses, ends up with a terrible wound. His driver is killed, his body guard is killed, by the way the first secret service agent ever killed in the line of duty. And he eventually is helped to his feet. He goes up to the trolley driver, flashes his epic teeth, which were epic, and basically gets in the guy’s face. I mean, he was a tough guy.
Preet Bharara: He was a tough guy.
Jared Cohen: But he ended up in a wheelchair for six weeks.
Preet Bharara: Was Teddy Roosevelt a great president?
Jared Cohen: I think Teddy Roosevelt was an extraordinary man who was a great president in terms of ushering in an era of progressiveness and trust busting at a time where the country wasn’t quite ready for it. But I think we should also consider ourselves lucky that Teddy Roosevelt as commander-in-chief did not preside over a war.
Preet Bharara: Because what would have happened?
Jared Cohen: I think the unthinkable could have happened.
Preet Bharara: The unthinkable back then.
Jared Cohen: Back then.
Preet Bharara: We didn’t have the big weapon then.
Jared Cohen: We did not have the big weapon, but I think that Teddy Roosevelt was certainly prone to certain types of impulsive foreign policy behavior.
Preet Bharara: I see. It’s interesting because we had a couple of historians on the show and after the show I was [inaudible 00:34:28] Teddy Roosevelt and I’ve always been impressed by him in part because of what he did with public corruption in New York and hated it with a passion.
Jared Cohen: As police commissioner.
Preet Bharara: As police commissioner at the age of, I don’t know, like 19. He did everything really young that guy.
Jared Cohen: It is very annoying.
Preet Bharara: Yeah. You should really sit this one out.
Jared Cohen: Yeah. I’m working on it.
Preet Bharara: Look for 37. And it’s interesting, impressive person. I mean, in some ways, maybe the most impressive person who was in the office of the presidency in the 20th century, who would be more impressive than he as a person in terms of intellect and ability and energy and all of that.
Jared Cohen: Oh, I mean, I think there’s nobody who comes even close to as impressive. The sheer volume and quality of the books that he wrote. He was a prolific writer. He was a prolific talker. He was an expert zoologists, taxidermist, probably not an orthodontist but various other [inaudible 00:35:16] And he was an incredible sportsman, but he was hyperactive. And the way to think about Teddy Roosevelt is he was never supposed to survive. He was a very sick child and he suffered from mental depression. So he spent his entire life basically trying to outpace his depression. And it led to an almost hyper activity and sort of anxious way of living. So he used to just invite people to the White House, they’d strap pillows for themselves and they would just literally like beat the crap out of each other.
Preet Bharara: We do that here also.
Jared Cohen: I mean, it’s not fit for modern times.
Preet Bharara: Thursday’s we do that with the pillows. Right guys? We do the pillow thing on Thursdays. Let’s talk about Harry Truman, which in some ways I find the most fascinating. So he’s a guy who’s the vice president and it’s not tranquil times as you’ve already described. We were at war, the war had not been won. It was going fairly well at that moment for the United States and for the allies. And you would think he would’ve prepared, you would think he would have been good on the backup planning and yet he was not, how irresponsible was that?
Jared Cohen: So it’s interesting, people oftentimes fault FDR for knowing that he was going to die and not doing more to read Truman in. But Truman deserves a fair amount of that culpability as well. Everybody knew that FDR was a dying man when he was elected in 1944 which is precisely the reason the party bosses did not want Henry Wallace on the ticket. Truman basically ends up on the ticket so that Henry Wallace doesn’t end up as president one day, so everybody knew it.
Preet Bharara: So everyone knows we’re still at war and we don’t know what the peace, if there’s going to be a peace is going to look like. And there’s going to be a lot of hard work in recovery from the war even though the war is not even over yet. And Roosevelt is dying and he’s in his fourth term, and was Truman the right pick?
Jared Cohen: I think Truman was a grossly irresponsible pick that ended up working out the right way. And I think that it’s easy to look at how well things played out in the war and the post war order and forget how incredibly negligent this is. And I think this is, a lot of respects the story of the accidental president, which is, we basically winged it and got lucky. And I think Truman is the ultimate example of how lucky we get. Now, I think we owe a lot of credit to Dean Acheson and George Marshall, for helping him be successful. But we also owe Truman some credit for listening to them. They said, “Don’t worry about Asia, leave that to MacArthur. Focus all your attention on Europe.”
Jared Cohen: But what’s interesting about Truman, about three weeks into his vice presidency, he gets a phone call saying the president is dead. And it’s kind of a false alarm. It turned out one of his advisors, Paul Watson, had died, not the president. But Truman knew what it was like in that moment to learn that the president was dead, to imagine himself as president. And when you read his letters and his memoirs, it seems to have had zero impact on him and then he basically went back to socializing.
Preet Bharara: So how do you explain that?
Jared Cohen: Because FDR refused to admit that he was dying, it was taboo for anybody to talk about the fact that FDR was dying.
Preet Bharara: Yes, sure. Taboo to talk about it, but there is this thing called talking behind people’s backs and he could have done that.
Jared Cohen: It does not appear that there was a lot of that [crosstalk 00:38:26]
Preet Bharara: I don’t do that because it’s not polite.
Jared Cohen: I don’t either.
Preet Bharara: But people do that.
Jared Cohen: Yeah. I mean, to me it’s one of the great sort of psychological mysteries that despite what everybody knew about FDR, the only time it was really apparent that anyone took an action based on the fact that he was dying was in the 1944 convention when it appeared that Henry Wallace was going to get the renomination as vice president.
Preet Bharara: It’s remarkable that among other things, it’s one thing not to be read into certain elements of foreign policy and certain war plans. But the United States had the bomb and Harry Truman knew nothing about it until when?
Jared Cohen: 30 minutes after he took the oath of office. And by the way not only-
Preet Bharara: That’s a crazy meeting, right. Like, okay, I’m the president now. Hey sir, we have something to tell you.
Jared Cohen: What’s interesting is it actually took a couple of meetings. So when secretary Stimson initially does the briefing for Truman on the Manhattan project, he’s kind of vague about it and Truman remember something along these lines from when he was in the Senate and so forth, but it takes … Somebody should’ve sat him down and said, Mr President, we have this incredibly destructive weapon. Here’s how it works, here’s what it can do. There’s a decent chance that you’re going to have to decide whether or not to use it against Japan. And it took a couple of meetings to get to that point. But Truman literally spends his first couple of days in office studying maps and figuring out what the heck is going on in the war. Nobody’s even given him a read out on Yalta. His only read out on Yalta, which was the best sort of indication of the closest thing that Stalin and FDR had do a plan. Truman’s readout was the same readout that the joint session of Congress got when FDR delivered his message explaining what happened at Yalta. Nobody bothered to clue the guy in.
Preet Bharara: Can you remind folks what happened at Yalta?
Jared Cohen: So Yalta was the gathering of the big three, Stalin, Churchill and FDR, in which, and it was at that meeting that they secured the Soviet Union’s entry into the war, to open up an Eastern front against Nazi Germany. But there were a lot of other details beyond that. I mean, that’s sort of the most famous but that’s where they sort of talked about Poland and they talked about Greece and they talked about essentially a lot of what was going to happen with Europe, they even got into China and so forth.
Preet Bharara: I find that just remarkable. Let me ask you some general questions about how people today should think about the vice presidency, is an article of faith that people are running for president and get their party’s nomination, think that their choice of vice president will somehow help them balance out the ticket, young, old, male, female, Southern, Northern. And it appears also to be an article of faith on the part of political scientists that almost never makes a difference. Has writing this book and doing this research and being immersed in the subject changed your view on how people should think about who to vote for in a general election based on who they’ve selected as vice president?
Jared Cohen: Oh, it’s absolutely changed my view. I also, if you look as recently as the selection of Sarah Palin it also-
Preet Bharara: I was going to ask about that.
Jared Cohen: It does not appear that we’ve learned anything. And I think it can be, it’s a mistake to look at the fact that the last several vice presidents by all accounts had been integrated into the administration with their own national security apparatus and so forth.
Preet Bharara: And that’s going back to … I’m sorry, Al Gore was that way.
Jared Cohen: So I think you basically have Gore, Cheney, Biden and Pence by all accounts are part of the administration, but that’s not mandated by law. That’s just because the vice president has a decent relationship with the president or maybe not in the case of Gore. But my view is, first of all, historically it has not been the case that the party’s nominee chooses their vice president. Historically, it’s been chosen by delegates at the convention representing the party. I like that approach much better because there’s at least some degree of accountability on the ticket. The nominee may be the leader of the party, but the nominee is not the dictator of the party. So a simple way to think about this, you look at the current field today where you have somewhere between 50 and 60 candidates running for president-
Preet Bharara: 50 and 60,000, I think you’re off [crosstalk 00:42:23]
Jared Cohen: You have a stadium’s worth and candidates running for president on the democratic side. Why not create a new party rule or a new party norm that says in order to be eligible for that second spot on the ticket, you need to first be a candidate for president yourself so we can all see what it looks like when you interview for the job. And then you could imagine anointing the sort of super delegate tight people to separately choose the vice presidential nominee.
Preet Bharara: Does that have any hope of happening?
Jared Cohen: I think it seems pretty unlikely because the nominee is in effect the party boss, but I still think it would be a worthwhile idea. I think the problem you have with the vice presidential selection is typically a vice president is chosen to win a state, balance the ticket, appease the constituency. As you pointed out, historically there’s no evidence that it does any of those things. The advice that I would give in the current structure to somebody just based on what works and what doesn’t work is you’re incentivized as the party’s nominee to choose somebody who is sufficiently boring that they won’t upstage you but not so boring and problematic that they’re going to embarrass you. So you basically want a sort of JV version of yourself. And my problem with that is I don’t want the JV version of the party’s nominee, potentially one heartbeat away from the presidency, especially when we’re in the longest period of time in history without a president dying in office. And we have had this happen eight times and we have had 19 close calls.
Preet Bharara: Do you have a pick for most prepared vice president who never became an accidental vice president in recent times?
Jared Cohen: Oh, that’s a good question. So the most prepared vice president who never became an accidental-
Preet Bharara: It doesn’t have to be someone who you agree with. And I’ve sort of in my mind I’m thinking about an interview I did with Adam McKay, and he directed this movie Vice about Dick Cheney, who some people thought was essentially the president.
Jared Cohen: I mean, all the ones who are most prepared ended up, or the ones who were most experienced ended up ascending to the president. I mean, I think the fact that I’m having a hard time thinking of one shows you how unremarkable the list of vice presidents in history have been. I’m literally just reciting them in my head and all the ones that are worth acknowledging ended up becoming president themselves like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, et cetera.
Preet Bharara: Yeah. Do you think that as we approach 2020, there were at least three people who will be in their seventies and some late in their seventies if they were to be elected, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Donald Trump himself. How important a factor should that be for voters?
Jared Cohen: I think it should be a very important factor. I mean, the fact that it’s been so long since we’ve lost a president in office means that most of the people alive don’t remember what it was like. And the ones that do remember it, remember it in the context of an assassination. The number of people who are alive who remember FDR dying in office is, I mean, you have to talk to like Henry Kissinger and people of that generation to really understand what that felt like. So as a country we’ve sort of lost our frame of reference for the fact that this can happen. And statistically it’s happened a lot. You take away this lengthy period where it hasn’t happened and then you look at the close calls. In this time where we’ve not lost a president, Gerald Ford was shot at twice, once the gun malfunctioned and the second time a secret service agent got his finger between the trigger in the assassins finger. Reagan was in fact shot. There was a grenade thrown at George W. Bush, which was a much closer call than people realize.
Jared Cohen: So I get nervous that we forget that this can happen and we take for granted the fact that this can happen. And the way that manifests itself is we’re totally comfortable with the idea of people in their late seventies running for president of the United States. And we still don’t seem to give a hoot about who their running mate is. But I think if we have such old people in the mix who are running for president or are president, we should have a serious conversation. We should basically have the conversation that nobody had in 1944.
Preet Bharara: What’s the conversation?
Jared Cohen: About the fact that the unthinkable could happen. And you look at this moment, you think about how politically incorrect that sounds and so forth. Nobody wants to talk about the president dying in office, it’s a very unpleasant thought. We hope that never happens regardless of what one’s politics are. But when you’re talking about people in their late seventies, running for office in campaigns that are even more active with each successive campaign cycle, doing the job in ways that are only getting busier and more taxing on the body, it’s something that we have to have a serious conversation about.
Preet Bharara: At least you and I are having it.
Jared Cohen: But we’re two people, do we scale?
Preet Bharara: There are millions of people who are going to listen to this podcast.
Jared Cohen: Multiple millions.
Preet Bharara: Tens of millions of people. I’m going to ask you, do you consider yourself to be a historian?
Jared Cohen: I consider myself to be an amateur historian in the sense that I could not have written this book had serious historians, the Doris Kearns Goodwin’s of the world, the David McCullough’s of the world, had they not literally spent decades writing some of these extraordinary books that form a foundation of our history. And they did so in an era that’s pre-internet. I mean, I have a luxury that all the periodicals are online, all the archives are online. It’s still fun to go into the library of Congress and so forth-
Preet Bharara: You got to watch some more Veep.
Jared Cohen: Well, I’m going to cite Veep in the paperback.
Preet Bharara: In the paperback. I want to talk about some other things you’ve done and then I want to talk about what you’re doing now, some of the interesting work you’re doing now, which is fascinating and really relevant to the current day with respect to technology and how it can do good things and how it can do bad things. But I want to talk about a very young Jared Cohen in his twenties. Some people that go for spring break and vacation, thinking of the Caribbean, thinking of Fort Lauderdale. You spent a bunch of your youth in places like Lebanon and Iran, what the hell were you thinking?
Jared Cohen: So when I was an undergraduate at Stanford, I spent a lot of time traveling to conflict zones in sub-Saharan Africa. And I had a professor of mine ask me if I’d ever done probability and statistics. And he explained to me that had I taken a serious statistic class, I would have realized that I was recklessly putting my life in danger. So when I went to grad School, I said, “You know what? I’m going to take a break from traveling to conflict zones in sub-Saharan Africa and I’m going to go to Iran. Because I just think it’s super interesting.”
Preet Bharara: You need a break.
Jared Cohen: I need a break, right.
Preet Bharara: You need something lighter.
Jared Cohen: Yeah. So a stable totalitarian state.
Preet Bharara: Tell folks what you did in Iran, you didn’t sort of hang out in your hotel. What did you do in Iran?
Jared Cohen: Well, I went to Iran to interview opposition leaders and reformists and activists and I ended up getting in some trouble pretty early on while I was there. And I was told to keep a lower profile. So I just started-
Preet Bharara: Who told you to keep a lower profile?
Jared Cohen: The Basijs, who are the sort of part of the security apparatus. And they would sort of bring you into these offices, and I’ll never forget this guy Mr Salah, he had his multiple buttons on his shirt undone and he would come in and be really nice, leave, come back and then just start yelling at me and playing mind games on me. It was very-
Preet Bharara: The thing you remember is interesting to me, that you remember a lot of the buttons undone.
Jared Cohen: Yeah, it was the bulging chest there that you don’t forget.
Preet Bharara: That’s the one piece of [inaudible 00:49:22] that you wouldn’t want us to take away from-
Jared Cohen: You zero in on it.
Preet Bharara: It’s nice to see you’re wearing, you’re looking very buttoned up with the tie.
Jared Cohen: Well, thank you. And so I ended up just deciding, you know what, I’m just going to try to keep a low profile. I’m going to find people my own age throughout the country and I’m going to hang out with them. And what I realized in spending time with all these young people, this was 2004, 2005, is they were all using technology in ways that I had never seen before to organize, to do things they weren’t allowed to do, largely for social and recreational purposes and flirtation. And it became very clear to me that they, without realizing it, were training in a new version of civil society activism with tools that we’d never experienced before. And that one day these tools of flirtation would become tools for political revolution. So I realized that I had actually gone to Iran to study the wrong opposition and the real opposition was the 67%, at the time, a country of 78 million people who are under the age of 30.
Preet Bharara: It’s always the young people, right?
Jared Cohen: Yeah. And look, Iran was the first of the countries to experience an uproar.
Preet Bharara: I want to talk about something else that happened with respect to Iran. So you have these amazing jobs, early in your career you worked at the State Department. Why did you work at the State Department?
Jared Cohen: Secretary Rice was a mentor of mine.
Preet Bharara: At Stanford.
Jared Cohen: No, I actually met her … So it’s a funny story. I think, I first met her when I was traveling to Iran before I went and we developed a relationship after I got back. And I think to this day the first reason I got the initial meetings, I think she thought I was one of her students at Stanford, but I’ll take it.
Preet Bharara: Oh, you were a different Jared, that’s the other Jared.
Jared Cohen: Yeah, exactly. But we developed a close relationship and when she moved over to become secretary of state, I was offered a job on her policy planning staff.
Preet Bharara: And then you stayed on.
Jared Cohen: I stayed on under secretary Clinton.
Preet Bharara: When President Obama became the president, not accidental by the way. And then there’s a story that I told you I wanted to ask you, I’m sure you’ve told this story before. But explain to folks what happened in 2009 when you had occasion to call the CEO of Twitter Jack Dorsey.
Jared Cohen: So Jack Dorsey and I had met ’cause I took him on what was called a tech delegation to Iraq, where we were bringing CEOs and founders from Silicon Valley to help us think through how technology can be used as an instrument of statecraft in some of these geopolitical hotspots. And Jack had signed me up for Twitter right there at the embassy in Baghdad and I became an early user at least by State Department standards. And then when the Green Revolution started happening in June of 2009, we had seen a post from an Iranian saying that Twitter was doing a scheduled maintenance and was going to be shutting down and it was shutting down at sort of the height of the protests.
Jared Cohen: There weren’t a lot of Iranians that were using Twitter at the time, but the few that were using it were very important for getting information out. So I had just sent a note to Jack Dorsey asking if they could reschedule the maintenance, so it was inconvenient for Americans from a time zone perspective and more convenient for Iranians. And he said, “Let me get back to you.” And then-
Preet Bharara: Did someone give you authorization to talk to the head of Twitter to have them change?
Jared Cohen: No. [crosstalk 00:52:22] it seemed like a good idea.
Preet Bharara: And you’re how old at this time?
Jared Cohen: I was 27.
Preet Bharara: 27. And you’re like, hey, can you pause on the Twitter fix?
Jared Cohen: Yeah, so he did it. He wrote back said, “Done.” I went home, I felt good. And then I see a massive email that has a lot of powerful people on it from Denis McDonough saying, “Everyone stand down.” And I still didn’t really think anything of it. I went-
Preet Bharara: McDonough at the time was?
Jared Cohen: He was the deputy national security advisor, very influential in Obama world. So I come to work the next day and I realize I’m in loads and loads of trouble. And I knew I was in loads and loads of trouble because somebody called me up and said, “You better pick up The New York Times and you’re above the fold.” President Obama said there will be no meddling in Iran, 27 year old State Department official Jared Cohen more or less had a different idea. And I said, “Oh my God, I’m in a lot of trouble.”
Preet Bharara: The quote that I have read about this incident is that President Obama reportedly got upset and said, “Who is Jared Cohen and why haven’t we fired him yet?”
Jared Cohen: There were expletives in there as well, and whether he said it or someone else said it who knows.
Preet Bharara: So what did you think? Did your family call you and say, Jared what [crosstalk 00:53:32]
Jared Cohen: It was this awkward thing because I had lots of people calling me and saying, “This is great, congratulations.” And I had people who literally were like dangling me in front of the crocodiles.
Preet Bharara: Did you get fired?
Jared Cohen: I did not get fired.
Preet Bharara: Bully for you because sometimes people do get fired.
Jared Cohen: No, I lived to tell another day. And I give Secretary Clinton a lot of credit for this. What happened in the morning meeting is she had the paper and apparently put it on the table with her senior staff and said, “This is exactly what we should be doing.”
Preet Bharara: You wrote a book, one of your earlier books based on the experiences you had in Iran and elsewhere called Children of Jihad. Tell us about that book. [inaudible 00:54:07] about the current book and then later by Children of Jihad.
Jared Cohen: Yes. And the current book is Accidental Presidents.
Preet Bharara: I think I’ve said Accidental Presidents, I think I’ve name dropped your book in conversation about 35 times.
Jared Cohen: That’s true. And you and I did talk about light references to the book. I wrote an early book called Children of Jihad, which was my experiences living in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, talking to young people about how they were using technology to subvert and circumvent these autocratic regimes. And I wrote that in 2007 and it ended up I think foreshadowing a lot of what came with the Arab Spring.
Preet Bharara: So fast forward some years and you got involved based presumably on these experiences and other things in tech, but not in the way that some people think about tech. You thought about tech in the sense of how can we use tech to make things better? You and I had many conversations about this and I think it’s extraordinary work. Explain what you do at Jigsaw.
Jared Cohen: So Jigsaw is a unit within alphabet, which is Google’s parent company. We come to work every single day looking at the biggest challenges that are destabilizing the internet. So if you look at all the things that are giving us anxiety about our digital world, the trolling problem, the disinformation problem, state sponsored cyber attacks, spread of extremism, general decline in civility and rise and toxicity of conversation online. This is what we focus on.
Preet Bharara: So when are you going to fix that?
Jared Cohen: We’re working on it. But our approach is we look at all of these challenges that I think are well understood today and we ask how will they manifest themselves on a one to two year time horizon. And then we build and shape products against those projections. So a simple way to think about this is we want to build tools that help protect the 2020 election in the United States. So the best way we believe to protect the 2020 election in the United States is to look at who has an interest in digitally disrupting our election and what are they looking at as target practice today. Which is why we spend a lot of time on places like Ukraine. Because there’s nothing that a country like Russia will do to the US that they won’t do to Ukraine first and worse. So by looking at the challenges that Ukraine is dealing with today, it almost forms a crystal ball of what we’ll deal with tomorrow.
Preet Bharara: So let’s take some of those issues that are a big deal. One that people are talking about now and you mentioned is the rise of extremism and in particular kind of extremist and white supremacy, white nationalism. Should we be concerned about that, and how do we address that on all sorts of digital platforms including Twitter, Google, YouTube, et cetera.
Jared Cohen: Yeah. I mean, I think technology is, certainly has an exacerbating quality to it. So I think that if you look at the spread of extremism online, there’s no doubt that in the digital realm technology can be used to recruit, it can be used for propaganda, it can be used to coordinate activity. But it also means that people are more accessible. So it used to be that people were radicalized in a cave and you had no chance of thwarting the radicalization process. So my view is we need to find ways to disrupt the extremist ability to recruit online. But there’s also an opportunity to counter the narrative among the young vulnerable people that are out there that are seeking out extremist ideas.
Preet Bharara: That all sounds sounds good, but what says we have a tactile concrete way that these platforms can do something about the spread of extremism.
Jared Cohen: So I’ll give you an example of what we’ve done at Jigsaw with Google. Our view was online there’s this sort of bottom of the recruitment funnel, meaning people who are radicalized already and they’re actively trying to take the violent next step, that’s bad. But the good news is that’s specific enough that you can really target towards it. So we worked with sort of various counter extremism experts to identify about three to 4,000 keywords and phrases that we believe those radical populations are searching for to try to figure out how to take the next step.
Jared Cohen: We then worked with counter extremism organizations to tee up ad words, display ads and video ads against those search queries that looked like answers to their questions, so basically clickbait. And then rather than creating brand new government sponsored counter extremism content from scratch, we built two playlists, one in English and one in Arabic that answered their questions in different ways. So the radicalized individual is searching for, how to get to Rocca. They click on an ad that looks like an answer to their question and then they get redirected to a video that counters the narrative on why they should go to Rocca.
Preet Bharara: Do you think companies are doing enough?
Jared Cohen: I don’t think we should ever be at a point where we say companies are doing enough. This is such a massive problem and the problem is evolving so quickly that complacency is not a healthy state. I think the challenge we have is we want the private sector to think about technology, not just through a private sector lens or a public policy lens, but it’s important for all of us to start looking at some of these challenges through a geopolitical lens. And I think the key is not just dealing with the problem as we see it today, but also forecasting where it’s going.
Jared Cohen: So I assume that any terror group in the future can do all the things that ISIS was able to do online, but they’ll also possess an ability to conduct cyber attacks. They may have some of the online fundraising capacity of regimes like North Korea. They may be actively involved in the types of disinformation campaigns that we see coming from Russia and elsewhere. So how do we get ahead of that? How do we spot where that might happen and how do we address some of these challenges before they manifest themselves in a successor to ISIS?
Preet Bharara: Do you think Facebook deserves the criticism it’s getting with respect to how it does or does not police bad conduct on its platform?
Jared Cohen: I mean, I think they’re working on it. I think that, the way I view these things is, are the company’s taking it seriously. I think anyone who thinks the companies aren’t taking seriously the idea that terrorism is a problem, and we’re all sort of on the same team here, nobody wants to see terrorism and violent extremism-
Preet Bharara: [crosstalk 00:59:47] and also interference with the election. Trolling bots, false information being disseminated. Do you think Facebook is doing enough?
Jared Cohen: Again, I don’t think any of the companies can claim to be doing enough, but I think the important thing is the companies are moving in that direction. I think part of the problem is all of this, we became aware of all of this extremely fast and the learning curve was really steep. But I think talk to anybody, talk to even the biggest experts on the disinformation problem, you get 100 different definitions of fake news, you get a thousand different definitions of disinformation. These are very difficult problems to diagnose, let alone problems that have a corresponding engineering solution. And so I think that what you’re getting right now is a lot of efforts to try to counter this. You certainly have the company’s putting the bodies behind it. I think what we all need to work a little bit harder on is forecasting where it’s all going.
Preet Bharara: Do you think on the issue of general toxicity and hatred and bullying on various platforms, including Facebook and Twitter. Twitter for example, I was listening to a debate on television recently about whether or not you should be able to be anonymous on Twitter. And the idea that you are able to hide behind no photograph, no real name, and people sort of come out, and they say terrible things about other people and just contribute generally to the toxicity of that platform, should that be disallowed? Should people have to reveal who they are if they’re going to be on places like that?
Jared Cohen: So my view is, I’m in favor of real people controlling real accounts. I think the question of anonymity is a tricky one because I deal with a lot of human rights activists and people in really repressive countries who count on anonymity or being an image of an egg in order to be able to protect themselves and their family. So none of these things, I think it’s very hard when we start trying to be binary about these things, is it good or is it bad? The answer is, it really depends on the context.
Preet Bharara: Just going back to something I asked a minute ago, specific to white nationalism, can these tools and redirect approaches do something with respect to white nationalism and white supremacy as well?
Jared Cohen: We’re definitely looking at this and we’re definitely going to experiment at deploying the redirect method which I described before against this challenge. There’s a few things that are different about the violent white nationalist movement online relative to the various jihadist movement. One, it’s far more decentralized and more prone to the lone wolf phenomenon. Two, there’s another issue, which is you have what’s called the all tech ecosystem, which is basically dummy platforms to mainstream platforms that when a white nationalist gets kicked off one of the mainstream platforms they end up there and it almost becomes like an address book for how to find the really nasty content that’s likely to get somebody radicalized. So then you start getting into kind of deep and dark web type ecosystems and it’s a lot trickier, but you can absolutely bet on us trying to find a way to apply the tools that we’ve built to this challenge.
Preet Bharara: True or false? You have a life-sized figure in your office.
Jared Cohen: That’s true. I think you and I took a picture of it together.
Preet Bharara: You said all these things about this person, and I forgot to mention that you have a life-sized figure of what? And just to be clear, we’re not talking about a cardboard cutout, we’re talking about a life-size wax figure.
Jared Cohen: Of Teddy Roosevelt.
Preet Bharara: Teddy Roosevelt.
Jared Cohen: Yes.
Preet Bharara: What’s up with that?
Jared Cohen: And he wears my [inaudible 01:03:10]
Preet Bharara: It’s a little bit weird.
Jared Cohen: Is it weird?
Preet Bharara: I don’t know.
Jared Cohen: You don’t have [crosstalk 01:03:14]
Preet Bharara: I don’t mean to be negative.
Jared Cohen: It would be weirder if it was like William Henry Harrison, or if I just broke out with Chester Arthur but Teddy Roosevelt is a pretty … I sort of view my wax figure of Teddy Roosevelt the way I view the locks of presidential hair that I have hanging on frames.
Preet Bharara: I wasn’t going to mention that.
Jared Cohen: No, bring it.
Preet Bharara: Because I think you’ve been very likable so far and people are like, what’s the hair? Lots of hair.
Jared Cohen: I’ll tell you something, the hair is weird until you see it. Now, I recognize most of your viewers won’t see it but you’ve seen it.
Preet Bharara: I have.
Jared Cohen: And you’ve gone through that journey of thinking, it’s a little strange.
Preet Bharara: And now Jared, I cannot unsee it.
Jared Cohen: Right, exactly. You’re a better person for it.
Preet Bharara: I don’t know about that. Jared Cohen, an honor and a pleasure to talk to you today. Good luck with the book, which is, shall I say it again?
Jared Cohen: Say it.
Preet Bharara: Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America. Congratulations and thank you.
Jared Cohen: Thanks Preet.
Preet Bharara: That’s it for this episode of Stay Tuned. Thanks again to my guest, Jared Cohen. Stay Tuned is presented by CAFE. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The senior producer is Aaron Dalton. And the CAFE team is Julia Doyle, Calvin Lord, Vinay Basti and Geoff Isenman. Our music is by Andrew Dost. If you like what we do, rate and review Stay Tuned on Apple podcasts. Every positive review helps new listeners find the show. Send me your questions about news, politics and justice. You can tweet them to me at Preet Bharara with the hashtag ask Preet. Or you can call and leave me a message at (669) 247-7338, that’s (669) 24 Preet. Or you can send an email to Stay Tuned at cafe.com.
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