Stay Tuned Transcript: Duty to Impeach & Realpolitik (with David Ignatius)

Stay Tuned Transcript: Duty to Impeach & Realpolitik (with David Ignatius)

David Ignatius, transcript from Preet Bharara interview, Preet twitter, david ignatius, washington postRead

Preet Bharara:              Hey listeners, I think most of you know by now that I wrote a book. It’s called Doing Justice and it’s a New York Times bestseller. If you want to learn more about it or buy it head to Thanks for your support from CAFE, welcome to Stay Tuned. I’m Preet Bharara.

David Ignatius:             It’s very hard to have out sized power if you’re just seen as a selfish, nationalistic country. Unless you stand for something larger than yourself an aspiration that transcends national interests, you’re stuck and my worry is that the Chinese are building this idea. It’s larger than just China, I think or at least seeing this out.

Preet Bharara:              That’s David Ignatius award winning columnist for the Washington Post. He’s covered foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East for over 25 years. David and I discuss how the US ended up in the current standoff with Iran, why diplomacy still matters and why Trump might hopefully want to avoid conflict. But first let’s get to your questions. That’s coming up. Stay tuned.

Larry:                           Hi Preet, this is Larry in Denver Colorado, would you talk for a minute about the difference between evidence and proof. All I’m hearing is that there’s no evidence of collusion when what I see is evidence out the Wazoo at all over the walls of collusion. Could you speak to that for a minute? Thanks.

Preet Bharara:              Hey Larry, thanks for your question. As I think of it informally, evidence and proof are kind of synonyms for each other, and I think the confusion lies in the way some people have tried to spin things to say there is no proof of X or there is no evidence of X just because a prosecutor like the special counsel or someone else makes the ultimate decision not to bring a charge. The ultimate decision not to bring a charge simply means that the prosecutor does not believe there is proof or evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to convince a unanimous jury of the guilt of the person that you’re thinking about charging.

Preet Bharara:              So when you talk about conspiracy/collusion or obstruction, there’s lots and lots of evidence at the end of the day, the special counsel for different reasons with respect to volume one and volume two of the Mueller report chose not to bring a charge, but you are right to be concerned that people try to spin the situation as being devoid of evidence. When someone testifies about something and when there is a conversation between the president and Don McGahn about getting rid of Bob Mueller, that is all evidence. Some people might not find it overwhelming evidence, persuasive evidence. Some of it may be circumstantial evidence, but it’s evidence.

Preet Bharara:              This next question is in the form of a tweet from Charlie 047 #askpreet, now it’s reported Mueller doesn’t want to testify publicly. What should we make of this? Charlie, I’m a little surprised and confused by that reporting myself. To be clear, the report that I read, I assume you’re referring to is that special counsel Robert Mueller’s team has expressed reluctance and him testifying reportedly because they’re worried that he might look too political. I don’t know if that’s the view of Robert Mueller himself. I don’t know even necessarily if it’s the view of his team. This might be second hand, third hand hearsay, so I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in it.

Preet Bharara:              I sort of get the point, what I’ve been saying all along, based on my familiarity with Robert Mueller, both as a colleague and also as a staffer in the Senate when I saw him come and testify a number of times. Bob Mueller doesn’t shy away from testifying. Bob Mueller doesn’t shy away from hard questions. Bob Mueller doesn’t shy away from answering questions forthrightly when a lot of other people in his kind of position in station would hedge or [filibuster 00:04:41] as we’ve seen, some people do.

Preet Bharara:              I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, I have never seen a person testify to a Senate committee more bluntly and more forthrightly and more credibly. So whether or not they’re concerned about him looking political, I don’t think that based on my experience watching him, that his demeanor or his approach or the way he formulates his answers suggest being political. And maybe it’s the case that things have changed with respect to his perception of the world because of all the ways in which his report has been politicized and his work has been politicized and the attacks on him and the rest of the team.

Preet Bharara:              So maybe he views the world through a slightly different Lens. Certainly the people around him in may, but they’re not Bob Mueller. And I still think whether or not he has concerns about how the testimony will be perceived, I think he owes it to the American people and he owes it to Congress to come testify. He’s been silent and there’ve been critics of his silence. There also been people who have supported his silence and I think generally overall it’s probably a better strategy given how much noise there is out there and how poor decision it might be to get into a back and forth with the president, the person who has the largest megaphone and loudest megaphone in the world. But now it’s over. And now there are questions about what he found and questions about why he did what he did and I think he owes it to everybody to come and testify and not behind closed doors, but publicly as I’ve seen him do very, very well on many occasions.

Preet Bharara:              This next question comes in a tweet from @pokerbishop also known as Katrina Muller, without the e. #askpreet, do you think Congress has the duty to impeach or just the power to impeach? Is the distinction important to this question? That’s a very thoughtful and difficult question Katrina and I probably need to think about it more deeply. The duty to do something versus the power to do something. And the way I thought about my authority when I was a US attorney and the prosecutor was clearly we have the power to bring charges. We have the power to indict particular people if we thought it was in the interest of justice to do so. And I suppose overall we thought there was a duty to do justice and a duty to protect the public and a duty to hold people accountable. I don’t know that I ever thought about it as I have a duty in a particular case versus just the power in your particular case to bring a charge.

Preet Bharara:              But I suppose depending on the circumstances there sort of was. Duty is a deeply complex moral, philosophical, I think question and power or less so. Having the power to do something as simply a matter of you having the authority vested in you by statute or some other regulation or a delegation of authority from some higher power. But your question reminds me about another thing I’ve been thinking about with respect to this night. And I tweeted about it this past weekend, I spent all day Saturday thinking about some of these issues and what I would talk about with Anne Milgram on the Insider Podcast and what I might write in that newsletter. And so I tweeted the following, I said, so you’re a House Dem, you’re not sure impeachment is electorally smart, but you are sure impeachment is constitutionally warranted based on the facts. What is the right thing to do? Isn’t duty, your word, greater than political speculation, especially since everyone has basically sucked at the latter. Apologize to my parents for the use of the verb sucked.

Preet Bharara:              As I think about your question further, it probably is the case if you have the view that there was overwhelming evidence, someone committed some transgression and you also have the power to hold that person accountable, then I think, yeah, in a manner of speaking, you do have a duty. The reason I sent that tweet is I’m recognizing on the part of Democrats there hesitation on the part of Nancy Pelosi and others. And as I’m taping this on Wednesday morning, there was apparently a meeting of the caucus of Democrats with Nancy Pelosi, with various people discussing how to proceed on this issue. This very issue of whether you call them impeachment proceedings or not is unclear, but what are you supposed to do?

Preet Bharara:              And so I understand that as a political prediction matter, if you think the most important thing for America, and I actually think this is correct, if you think the most important thing for America and the world in the next couple of years is for Donald Trump to be defeated in 2020 and then you also think based on your reading of semi ancient history from 20 years ago, that proceeding with impeachment will undermine the ability to defeat Donald Trump in 2020, then I get why you might have some hesitation. Because if in good faith you’re still working towards this important election, you don’t want anything to get in the way of that. And so I get that. The problem is, as I said in the subsequent tweet on Saturday, that I was making a point about some dubious calculations. I see being made by members, members of Congress, [ninja 00:09:32] timidity based on 1998 jitters is not leadership.

Preet Bharara:              So on the one hand if you have this concern about the election and the effect that impeachment proceedings will have on that election, but on the other hand you have certitude, moral, ethical and factual certitude that the president committed acts that justify impeachment. How do you choose? And to me, I having thought about it for a while and just having flipped life for a while, the first thing is speculative and people have been very bad at speculating what’s going to happen in the future. And so in a world in which the one decision is merely speculative and the other you feel in your heart and in your mind is certain, you go with a certain, you go with a definite and you hope that actually changes hearts and minds. And if people understand that you’re doing things in good faith and you’re proceeding in a way that is about the truth and about accountability and about values as opposed to scoring political points.

Preet Bharara:              If you can do those things in that way and people can see you’re doing things in that way, then I think you need to proceed and I’m not saying that tomorrow articles of impeachment need to be filed, but what I am saying is if you are a member of Congress and you feel deeply that impeachable offenses have been committed, then I think you can’t shy away from moving towards that. Whether it’s by having hearings along the way to get more evidence and to put more of the picture of what happened before the American people, before you get to a point where you pursue formally that thing called impeachment, but you need to proceed.

Preet Bharara:              On the other hand, if you don’t think that impeachable offenses have been committed, then it’s an easy decision for you and you don’t proceed. I will note as we have before that there at least one republican congressman who is very controversial and has his issues as well and maybe seeking to unseat Donald Trump in potentially a primary challenge or an independent challenge as a Libertarian Justin Amash. But I think that every congress person needs to decide for themselves what they think happened here and not to unduly shy away from something because of some speculation about how it will be perceived in a future election.

Preet Bharara:              The next question is in an email from cliff in Toronto, Canada. Hello cliff, from Toronto. Very simple, pithy question. Pardoned versus exonerated pre, please clarify the distinction. Well, it’s pretty simple distinction exonerated as I understand it, not in the parlance used by the president of the United States who as I’ve said before, could go to a Chinese restaurant, look at the menu and says the menu totally exonerates him. Anything that doesn’t charge him with a crime or proves his commission of a crime, Donald Trump thinks exonerates him. But as I understand exoneration and I think most other people do to be exonerated from something is for there to have been proof that you did not commit that act.

Preet Bharara:              So for example, as I described in my book, there was a situation where an investigator in my office worked really hard based on evidence that he had gathered to exonerate and get out of prison six people who were convicted of a crime they had not committed and were released from jail 17 years after the fact. That’s an exoneration. A pardon is an act of mercy by an executive, whether the president or governor of a particular state deciding to pardon someone for a particular crime. The law recognizes that the federal constitution permits that kind of mercy function on the part of the president of the United States, but also recognizes that the acceptance of a pardon remains a recognition of guilt in the underlying crime.

Preet Bharara:              So unlike an exoneration where one or more investigators and perhaps a court have basically come to the conclusion that a person has not committed the crime. There is not sufficient evidence to show the commission of a crime.

Preet Bharara:              A pardon is essentially a way of a president for giving an act that was the commission of a crime. And also generally in conjunction with that person, the pardonee, accepting responsibility for the crime and being contrite and establishing a period of time of good conduct because they’ve moved on and they’ve recovered from their past conduct and they have rehabilitated themselves. Unlike exoneration, a pardon is not a signification of innocence. You should all know, dear listeners, that as I was answering that question in a serious way, as sometimes as my [want 00:13:35], the CAFE team has been asking, well, how do you explain the parting of a Turkey? Has the Turkey committed some crime for which the Turkey is now apologetic and contrite and is it an act of forgiveness in the same way? You know, I don’t, it’s not Thanksgiving asked me in November.

Preet Bharara:              This question comes into tweet from Matt Ben Dealt, Hey, @PreetBharara just seeing you for the first time in a while on CNN. What happened to the beard? #askpreet, #staytuned. You know, it’s been a year. I grew at when I was writing the book. I don’t know if you’ve heard, I have a book. I don’t know if you’ve heard it was published. You should still buy it if you haven’t bought a copy. But the book tour’s over. Summer’s coming, I felt it was time to go back to my normal self. And also I think my daughter started to not like it so much. So she asked and I shaved.

Preet Bharara:              I addressed the president’s expected appointment of an immigration are in the special bonus for CAFE Insiders. You know, it’s been reported that the president has chosen former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli for the post over former Kansas Secretary of state, Kris Kobach, who made a series of czarist demands. To listen, become a member of

Preet Bharara:              My guest this week is David Ignatius. He’s a journalist who writes a biweekly column on foreign policy for The Washington Post. He’s also a novelist of 10 soon to be 11 espionage thrillers. I speak with him about defining the Trump doctrine, the essential elements of a relationship between the president and their national security officials and why world leaders need to stand for something more than self interest. I also asked David if he thinks we’ll be going to war with Iran that’s coming up, stay tuned.

Preet Bharara:              David Ignatius, thank you so much for being on the show.

David Ignatius:             My pleasure.

Preet Bharara:              Lots going on in the world of international relations and foreign policy. I’m going to ask some basic questions about that first and you have enormous expertise and you’ve been writing about these issues and thinking about them for a long time. So this might be a dumb question, but is foreign policy, is it art? Is it science? Is it a game? People like to use chess analogies? Is it guesswork? What is it?

David Ignatius:             There is an art to diplomacy, like any kind of a human interaction, the way in which personalities work together does shape the outcome. All right, more and more writing about the subject, watching it, I feel as if it’s at its center about being careful about thinking of the not so obvious consequences of your actions. The really catastrophic things that I have watched and written about were mistakes that we just kind of sailed into with our eyes wide open. The invasion of Iraq is a good example. We knew for months and months we were going to invade Iraq. All the warning signs were there.

David Ignatius:             The national security bureaucracies, were pretty much clearly opposed. We went forward anyway and boom, we ended up in this disaster from which we’re really still recovering. I could think of other examples. So when I think about diplomacy, I often have the kind of dull but essential theme in my column’s Be careful. How does this end? What’s the imagine end game to this strategy that’s being laid out so boldly and usually there are not very good answers. That’s really that disturbing thing, that’s true of this administration obviously, but this was true with Obama too. They often didn’t really know where they were going.

Preet Bharara:              The personalities of the people and the character that people matter. What are the qualities of the people who are involved in diplomacy that helped to avert these mistakes that you’re talking about?

David Ignatius:             One thing I think that’s important that Americans often aren’t very good at is seeing the world through other people’s eyes. We see ourselves as exceptional, other people should conform to our norms, our values. We don’t tend to think, how does this seem to the other guy? I thought that the Iran nuclear deal was highly successful and agreement that benefited the United States and Israel. Think what a mess the world would be now if it wasn’t still being observed by Iran. And I think that that agreement was really the outcome of several administrations worth of diplomats trying to see the world as Iran saw and trying to come up with an agreement that in the end would be acceptable to all the different opinions in Iran.

David Ignatius:             I think that’s an example of, of doing it right. I think, at his best, forgive me for using that phrase, Donald Trump does seem able to see things through other people’s eyes. I think when he’s in his flattery mode, my dear friend Kim Jong on my dreams of the future development of North Korea, talking like a real estate salesman. I think in a weird way in those moments he is trying to imagine what the world looks like to his counterpart. I think that’s really important. I think being meticulous is important. Thinking about the detail that got left out. I also have seen the most successful national security advisers or the people who have the best relationships with their presidents.

David Ignatius:             Jim Jones was a wonderful General, but he had a zero relationship with Barack Obama. It was a crazy appointment to make him national security adviser and he wasn’t successful at the job. Brent Scowcroft typically the model of exactly how you should be as national security advisor. One of his secrets was Bush 41 was his pal. They just used to tease each other, laugh together. Same thing with Brzezinski and Jimmy Carter. They were actually a very close personal friends. So I think that personal chemistry be the last thing with the principles within the group.

Preet Bharara:              Is there sometimes a problem with too much personal chemistry where you might have a top advisor, like the National Security Advisor as someone else who may be a little too in sync with the president who may at times need someone to argue with him more or does the friend always have the better ability to make the argument because they’re comfortable?

David Ignatius:             I think what you want is the friend who is genuinely close enough to say, “Hey, wait a minute boss, I’m not sure that really makes sense.” I think the problem in the period after 9/11 where I think the honest truth tragically is that we destabilized ourselves with our overreaction to events. There weren’t enough people who would come into that bubble of anxieties. These people were getting up every day and reading intelligence briefings about dirty bombs and chemical weapons. I mean, they had reason to be really scared. I think we have to put ourselves back in that mindset. But there weren’t enough people who said, “Hey, wait a minute. I’m not sure about that intelligence from Iraq and I don’t really think it’s true that the Al Qaeda and the [Iraqis 00:22:13] have any connection.”

David Ignatius:             Those people who will talk, honestly, to the boss are so precious. So we know that in life. I’m sure you had that experience as US attorney, that the [inaudible 00:22:24] attorney, he’d say, “Honestly, Mr. US attorney, I’m not sure this case works. I don’t think we’re going to get a conviction here.” That person was gold to you. The editor who says to me, “David, I don’t think this book is quite there yet.” Those are such hard people to find in foreign policy and everything else. I hope when presidents find them, those are the people that they hold onto. You have a sense with Trump that the guy who says, “Sir, you’re full of it.” Gets shocked the next week.

Preet Bharara:              Do you think that it’s possible for a president like Trump to find that golden person in the form of his son in law?

David Ignatius:             So, it’s Jared and Donald. I’m not sure I really can get my mind inside that. I think Jared Kushner is a person who sees himself as the deal maker’s younger advisor, whether that deal maker was his own father, his father in law, somebody else. I think he just, he sees himself this tall slender fellow whispering in the principal’s ear. That’s the guy to go with. I think we can get a little more out of them. The concern I’d have with Jared Kushner is does he know enough about the world to give that measured advice and say, “Sir, I’m not sure this is going to work. Sir, I worry about this guy working we’re with so closely in Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salman.”

David Ignatius:             Clearly that’s not Jared Kushner. Clearly Trump needs somebody like that. I have the feeling, what do I know? But I have the feeling that Mike Pompeo may have that ability with Trump to say, “I’m not so sure. Mr President.” Pompeo has a funny way of saying pre, pre, pre. David, David, David. Sort of try to get his point across by repetition. I can imagine him actually doing that with Trump. It’s hard to imagine anybody else but maybe Pompeo can do it

Preet Bharara:              Right, but it may be the case. It sounds like the Jared Kushner might have the relationship to say the things that you need to say but doesn’t have the wherewithal to make the right recommendations or judgments, which those are two different things.

David Ignatius:             I think that’s right. I think for the longest time the two of them were embattled together on the other side of the Mueller investigation that produced a sort of bunker like mentality at the White House with Kushner driven to the same sense of embattled as his boss. It may be now, but that pressure is reduced. There’s more room to be critical to raise a skeptical voice. But again, there’s very little evidence to me that Trump really likes that kind of criticism. Again with a possible exception of Pompeo.

Preet Bharara:              David, let me ask you this question. Maybe this is a question that’s odd and overly basic, but I’ve always had a problem understanding diplomacy and foreign policy and international relations, and it may be because I’m very stuck in my mindset of being a lawyer and there’s always a charter for conduct and how you make your decisions. There’s a statute, there’s a constitution, there’s a body of law, and you can have disagreements about things that are ambiguous and that are vague. But when I was used attorney, and I’ve told this story on other occasions, the State Department had one goal with respect to dealing with something and maybe the justice department had a different goal, which was that easier stated and more obvious based on what the statutes were and what the FBI thought made sense in terms of law enforcement and we were at odds with each other.

Preet Bharara:              What have not understood is what’s the charter for a secretary of state or someone who’s leading some important diplomatic mission or effort. In other words, are there reduceable principles like look, whatever is good for America or avoid war at all costs or some other simple formulation that then has under it more complicated sub formulations or is it something different?

David Ignatius:             Well, I think the standard answer would probably the diplomats mission is to advance the interests of the United States. Recognizing that that’s complicated because our interests are partly a rail politique interests in the conventional sense. And we also have an interest in maintaining our values, the credibility of our values that’s part of American power so that the diplomat is trying to find the balance between interests and values to get a good deal done. I’ve always thought that America’s power and the time that that I have been alive, I was born in 1950, has been about our network of alliances and partnerships around the world and the international institutions that we created, the United Nations, the World Bank, IMF, NATO didn’t diminish our influence. Actually, they expanded it because they allowed us to work through all these different channels.

David Ignatius:             There’s this to me, crazy idea that’s developed that Trump is the primary exponent that these institutions weaken American power. I think it’s the opposite to the extent that we have multilateral backing, we ended up being much stronger. That’s why I thought it was completely nuts to abandon the transpacific partnership trade agreement. That would have been the cement for the rational way of containing Chinese power going forward. So I think good American diplomats have seen this network of power. We have been blessed. Again, we don’t think about it enough, but we’ve been blessed with having really good allies after World War II. Our allies in Asia in particular have been fantastic. Trade has been a nuisance, obviously worse than that ever since the revolution, the Korean War. But we had increasingly a strong Japan as a way to help contain the problems in the region.

David Ignatius:             We had an increasingly strong South Korea. We help build a strong Singapore out of the jungle. We had a strong and steadfast partner in Australia and increasingly we’ve had a strong India. Again, I just don’t think people understand that it’s those envelopes of power that help us to avoid the direct bilateral crunch where it’s just us facing off against the adversary. We have these buffers that absorb it. Again, good diplomats understand that’s why they spent their much time [inaudible 00:28:57] visit all these capitals is to kind of stroke our partners and let them know that they mattered to us. Not just in a diplomatic cookie pushing way, but they matter to us in terms of our interests, in terms of how we project power to.

Preet Bharara:              You mentioned the fact that people often don’t understand this principle and the importance of alliances. Is Donald Trump under those people?

David Ignatius:             Yes. I think Donald Trump is just clueless about the value of our structure of alliances. He’s a go it alone guy. He’s always been suspicious of multilateral agreements. There’s a reason that he’s never been effective as a member of loan syndications or big business deals. You talk to people who do business in New York, because I’m sure you have, and one thing that’s always amazing to me is how often people say, “I can’t really tell you that much about Donald Trump. I never did business with him. I first got into real estate or banking. He just didn’t seem like a guy who wanted to have as a counterparty or have on my syndication team.” He’s been in his own sandbox. Playing with others is never been his thing, and so I think in the international context, he doesn’t get it. He doesn’t really value it. He blows off allies without realizing how much damages he’s doing.

Preet Bharara:              I get a question a lot in my area of expertise, I suppose the law enforcement, democratic institutions, the relationship between politics and law enforcement, those kinds of things. And people often ask what will be the lasting damage, if any, from the ways in which Donald Trump is trampling norms, whether it’s about the free press or it’s about the independent judiciary in this other area of diplomacy and foreign affairs, this habit that you’re referring to of not fully understanding and appreciating the value of these alliances and doing things that are out of the ordinary and trampling on norms. What is the lasting effect of that? Is it in some way changing materially and permanently the world order or not?

David Ignatius:             Well, the world order was is probably changing anyway. The American Century was long in the tooth. We weren’t wise after 9/11, we certainly weren’t wise in Iraq and Afghanistan and the world saw that. I think we were due for some adjustment, but not as catastrophic as we’ve seen. My fear is two fold. First, I think in the beginning of the, Trump presidency, I would often say and write in my columns that the basic momentum of American power was so enormous. Our military and our intelligence services that it just would continue forward. You had Madison as a strong secretary of defense, you had Tillerson as a smart … not great a leader of the State Department, but a smart guy as secretary of state, and that we would contain the mischief that Trump would do.

David Ignatius:             I once heard from one of these cabinet members is, he said to me, “I always have to remind myself a tweet isn’t the same thing as a policy.” So you can tweet, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to issue an order changing our deployments are notifying allies , no wait until I get the policy directive. I tended to think, man I know the damage will be there, but not overwhelming. I don’t think that anymore. I think the damage will be significant. One reason is the world doesn’t stand still. Other countries see our weakness, our disorientation. I was traveling overseas recently and a foreign person said, “America’s lost.” And I didn’t really have a comeback to that.

David Ignatius:             I think in this period where we’re all lost, our political system is pretty much paralyzed, other countries are making up ground China especially, but Russia too. I think by the time we get back to our senses, hoping that we do, I think the world will look different.

David Ignatius:             The second thing that we’ll have trouble recovering from is the world’s realization that something that they never thought could happen. The world just really couldn’t imagine that somebody like Donald Trump as immoral, as crude, as deceitful could become our president. But it happened. So you and I can say, well, we’ll come back, we’ll revert to the mean and we’ll elect a different president down the road. 2020, 2024. But not always going to be Donald Trump’s country, but overseas people say we have to take account of the possibility that what we never thought could happen could happen again because we realized that you’re different from what we thought. You’re the country that did elect Donald Trump and I don’t think we’ll get that one back.

Preet Bharara:              Is it in some way, they’re thinking you’re not what we thought you were. You’re just like us. You can elect a demagogue just like us.

David Ignatius:             Yeah. How do you tell tricks that we’re a beacon on the hill and they should stop following [inaudible 00:34:08]’s authoritarian government when [inaudible 00:34:11] the sense is just cut from the same cookie cutter as the American president. It’s hard to do.

Preet Bharara:              Is there such a thing as the Trump doctrine and must every president have a doctrine? Is that important? Is that something we foisted upon them?

David Ignatius:             Barack Obama’s doctrine was, don’t do stupid shit. That was a doctrine, it didn’t help him much.

Preet Bharara:              That’s my doctrine in life too.

David Ignatius:             Trump’s doctrine is … I think Trump’s doctrine is destabilize the adversary so as to get the deal and there’s not enough thought to the reality that when you try that for two years running as he has, yeah, you blow up everything under fire and fury, put on sanctions, the people eventually figure it out. They go, they get the game. Okay, well I see what he’s doing and it doesn’t work so well. And that’s what we’re seeing now. I think with Iran, with North Korea, with China, they’ve assessed him out. What’s his doctrine? His doctrine he would say is America first. It’s restoring national sovereignty and pride. Some aspects of that I think are probably positive. I think standing up to China, trying to rebalance the terms of trade with China, even pushing back Huawei before it builds a global infrastructure for Chinese interests.

David Ignatius:             I think those are the positive things. I’m not sure he’s going to accomplish them. I think the Iran policy basically is folly. I have no idea what he’s trying to achieve there. I think the end result, because the sanctions are real and really punishing, may well be to create a failed state in Iran and that failed state will be controlled even more viciously by the RGC, the worst of the worst. If he has a real plan for getting something better, I don’t see it.

Preet Bharara:              Speaking of Iran, it’s on everyone’s mind. Everyone’s very concerned. And you wrote, I think less than a week ago, America and Iran are both oddly eager for war. Are we going to go to war with Iran?

David Ignatius:             I don’t think so.

Preet Bharara:              When David Ignatius says, I don’t think so, it doesn’t give me great comfort. I was hoping that someone as wise as you would say no Preet we’re definitely not. There’s a tiny sliver of a chance. When you say, I don’t think so …

David Ignatius:             I can amp that up. But obviously your listeners are smart enough to know that I’m winging it. The Iranians are risk takers up to a point. But my experience writing about them is that they’re not crazy risk takers. They get the message and it seems over the last several weeks that we’ve seen an example of that. I mean, not just to briefly run through what I think I know about May 3rd, US intelligence got evidence that the Iranians were giving new instructions internally before they had basically been saying publicly and privately, we’ll write this out. We’ll write Trump and his sanctions out. We’re not going to be destabilized by that. And I think they made a decision, which we learned of beginning of May, that they would try to reset the table. That they felt that just hanging on wasn’t a good policy.

David Ignatius:             So we observed a bunch of things, different formations of their military and other forces loading missiles of board, little boats known as dhows in the Gulf and instructions to their proxies in Iraq and Yemen. There were a series of things, I think that intelligence was real and it resulted in this sharp movement of US forces, aircraft carrier, Abraham Lincoln, that B-52s, et cetera. And from what I’m told, that message got through that by May 8 or 9, there were different instructions going out to Iranian Forces and the were observable steps back.

David Ignatius:             Some of the missiles put on board these [dhows 00:38:21] were taken off. The Uranians used military force, but very deniable way floating mines hitting ships off the UAE. That’s a deniable way operate the [houthis 00:38:37], their proxies in Yemen sending drones to attack a Saudi pipeline. They were deniable gray zone operations. Not Direct military operations. They fired a missile on Sunday at the Green Zone in Baghdad, but it landed a mile from the US embassy. Missile lands a mile away is I think meant to send a message not to kill Americans.

David Ignatius:             And I think that’s the way this is being read by the administration today. As we’re talking, they’d been up briefing senators and congressmen on the intelligence. And I think the picture that the briefers are giving is probably pretty similar to what I just said, that the Iranians seem to have gotten the message. They seem to pull back from the most aggressive formations of two weeks ago.

Preet Bharara:              But what happens if the Iranians either intentionally or by mistake, given what you’re describing, is there probable strategy, a rocket attack gets a little too close or a pipeline attack is a little less deniable. What does America have to do with anything?

David Ignatius:             Well, I’d that assume that anything that leads to the death of Americans triggers a kinetic response, military response. I think they must understand that. How heavy would it be? Would it trigger a spasm of Iranian retaliation? You have to assume no, they’re not crazy. They know how much power the United States has relative to Iran. If they kill Americans with one of their proxies firing something that one of our bases are at our embassy and we retaliated for them to step it up and they’d get pounded and they realize that pre .. as you know, we’re in a new era where conflict is not an on off switch. It’s [rheostatic 00:40:26]. It’s dialed up and down and all these different domains.

David Ignatius:             So I’ll bet that right now there are all kinds of cyber operations that are going on against Iran that are having consequences. I have no idea what they are but there are a lot of operations the Iranians are running against us in that domain of conflict. There lots of other domains and they’re not visible to us, but I suspect in this period of tension, there’s been action. There ought to be some stability that emerges when people are flexing their muscles. I mean you have to be an idiot to get in a fight with a guy who’s going to beat you up. So [inaudible 00:41:06].

Preet Bharara:              Who’s running the show with respect to Iran in our government?

David Ignatius:             Well, in our government, I mean, who knows? If you’re talking about Iran, I can give you an easy answer. I mean, who’s running any show in Washington? The answer at the end of the day as the president, that’s one thing we’ve learned that the President’s whims … people may talk about something for a day, a week, a month, but eventually he’s going to come back to it. The Syria decision was it an example of that? He kept saying, “I don’t want to have troops in Syria.” And matters would cut a slow rolling. Yes sir. Well, it’s really important. And he come back. I don’t want to have to finally, I think one of the worst decisions he made, he announced in December that he was pulling them out and let the Turks worry about it. But in a sense the mistake was for people to think that they could sweet, talk them out of something that was really important to him because it doesn’t seem to work with him. So he’s the decider again, I think Pompeo was the one Trump whisper who gets to them and he’s able to pull him off the wedge.

Preet Bharara:              You see people on both sides of the aisle talking about who does or does not want war. And you hear people say, well, John Bolton wants war. Politicians have a way of speaking about things. If you’re just a thoughtful citizen listening to the chatter among politicians in America, how do you separate out what is true and what is smart versus what is not with respect to the motivations of the people in Washington?

David Ignatius:             It’s a really hard question. I struggle with that as a columnist writing about foreign policy. I think a lot of what’s published isn’t true. I mean people tell things to reporters because they want to try to spin the debate, have an effect or blogged an effect. People from foreign governments are always trying to spin us. So I think you have to spend a while trying to figure out what’s really true here as opposed to what people are saying. Whenever I read six sources say that, I always think, “That’s nice, but how do you know that it’s true? How do you really know that this is true?” In foreign policy that can be a much more difficult. Take the US relationship with Saudi Arabia. What really is said behind the scenes in those contacts.

David Ignatius:             I have a feeling that it’s sharper than it is anything that’s said publicly, but I have a feeling that whatever the head of the CIA or Secretary of state Pompeo may say privately is blunted by Donald Trump’s public embrace. So you have all these different factors going together. I come back in this government with this president, at the end of the day, it is what the president says that’s going to be decisive and no matter what his senior team are trying to do in private.

Preet Bharara:              What about what the president says publicly as in tweets and the use of pretty bellicose language. I think he said things like, if Iran does x or Y, we’ll end them as a nation. Is that helpful? Is it in service of a madman theory of politics and diplomacy?

David Ignatius:             He thinks it is. He’s convinced that when he does that, it has the useful effect of reminding people, we do have the ability to vaporize on. I can’t imagine a situation in which that would happen, but he likes to remind people. He actually seems fairly calibrated in this actual use of military power. This is not a president who I think wants to get us into war. Quite the opposite. One thing about Donald Trump, that I’ve come to realize is that after he went catastrophically bankrupted multiple companies, he became much more cautious. He stopped putting his own money into deals. He began basically franchising his name.

David Ignatius:             He’s not the biggest risk taker in his business life. He hasn’t made much of money, it turns out but, after the bankruptcies, I think he dial down the risk. I have a feeling that there’s more of that than most people think with his foreign and military policy. I think talk of how he’s ticked off at John Bolton who seems to go to war with everybody on the block. I think that’s probably right. I think Trump probably thinks, this guy is going to get me into a mess that I don’t want to be in.

Preet Bharara:              Well, he made the joke recently about Bolton, right? He’s the one who has to temper Bolton. Can you believe that? Do you think that shows some awareness?

David Ignatius:             Well, I think it shows a useful awareness of Bolton’s historic overenthusiasm for confrontation and threat, presumably they use of military force. I think Bolton is the proverbial … I think call it mannered man with a mustache, a bowl. He’s the bowl [inaudible 00:46:04].

Preet Bharara:              Outside of Iran, what’s the most difficult foreign policy predicament the US finds itself in?

David Ignatius:             I think the most interesting thing that’s happened recently, most consequential, maybe the most consequential foreign policy decision of Trump’s presidency was the decision to really try to stop the crown jewel of China’s technology sector, Huawei from expanding its networks around the world by first forbidding American companies from selling them technology. And then there’s a second corollary people haven’t noticed, which is that American companies will be prevented from buying technology from Huawei.

David Ignatius:             The advocates of this policy very deliberately want to decouple the technology world. Now this is a big stop sign, more than that offense against the expansion of China’s one real technology champion. Huawei is a world class company. A number of these Chinese companies are not that, but Huawei is, and Trump is not alone in thinking that this is a potential long longterm threat to the US. The people in the intelligence community would absolutely agree. They’ve been arguing for 10 years, that we ought to take steps to limit Huawei’s, a ability to grow and install its networks around the world. I think this was really a big deal.

David Ignatius:             I think that Chinese are still struggling to figure out what to do about it. If it’s successful, it’s a real setback for China, Huawei is an almost dominant company, but it still needs to buy chips. The Chinese are not able to make the chips that drive advanced digital systems on their own. They either steal them or buy them and so they’re still vulnerable. I think one thing that people in the Trump administration have said, and I think they’re probably right in this, is it’s better to confront China today than 10 years from now. 10 years from now, there’ll be a lot more powerful and it will be much harder to draw lines and alter the terms of trade, insists that Huawei play by rules closer to international rules.

David Ignatius:             So it’s a really big deal of the Trump administration. I think characteristically didn’t discuss it enough internally because there are a lot of complicated knock on issues. There are a lot of legal issues. You probably have thought about pre. There’s a lot of alliance management. We’re basically asking our allies to go along with us. We’re saying you’re going to have to choose between us and the Chinese, between Huawei and alternatives that are coming along, Nokia, Samsung and Erickson are the three companies that in another year or so, will be able to challenge Huawei.

David Ignatius:             So we’re asking the world to take a pause here to reset and keep the Chinese from being dominant. Will they go along with us? I don’t know, but I think this was a much bigger deal and people who have generally recognized.

Preet Bharara:              Fair to say that we’re already a little bit late. You said better to deal with China now than 10 years from now. Reasonable argument to say we should have done it 10 years ago?

David Ignatius:             Yeah. But as I like to say, it’s never too late to do the right thing.

Preet Bharara:              Sometimes it is.

David Ignatius:             Well, sometimes it is but I don’t think … in this case, I’ve written my column about this. I just tried to think, okay, if it’s basically makes sense to challenge Huawei, how do you do it? What are the problems with the way the Trump administration has chosen [inaudible 00:49:44], and there are some real ones. We want to live in a world where there is technological coexistence. A world where there are fences is one that will make everybody worse off. Reduced economic growth and benefits for the Chinese and for us both. Where’s that sweet spot and how do he get there? And I think that’s the debate. We’ve talked about all this stuff that doesn’t matter so much. This is something that I’d love to see people talk about more.

Preet Bharara:              Do you think that the rhetoric surrounding immigration in this country, particularly with respect to some parts of the world affects the world’s perception of what America is and has become?

David Ignatius:             I think to the extent that we had moral in the world, it’s because people really thought that we were different. Selfish venal nationalistic interests, smallness of mind that characterizes so many countries. People thought rightly, that America was different. We had this kind of inexplicable idealism, generosity, openness to other people. My grandparents came to American, benefited from this amazing openness and generosity that was at the core of the American character. I think we’ve become less generous as a people. Maybe it’s because we’re not as rich and dominant in the world. I’m not sure why but I think the world perceives us a little bit differently.

David Ignatius:             Think of the movies. American movies had been dominant through my lifetime, but you look at the kinds of movies that we used to make and the themes and the idealism, the American values that ran through them. Think of the classics that the world watched and then compare them to, the Avengers, the latest super hero blockbuster. It’s just different. It’s just a different image of America that’s projected. I think the world sees that. I think the final point I’d make on this is that it’s very hard to have out sized power if you’re just seen as a selfish, nationalistic country.

David Ignatius:             Unless you stand for something larger than yourself, an aspiration that transcends national interests, you’re kind of stuck. And my worry is that the Chinese are building this idea that they talk about with their belt and road initiative, their immense investment in Africa, in the developing countries in Asia. They’re there with capital and infrastructure. They’re there for selfish reasons, but they also keep propaganda align, we’re all going to get rich together, work with don’t worry about [inaudible 00:52:33]. Let’s get rich together. It’s may be a mercantile appeal, but it’s larger than just China, I think or at least seeing this out.

Preet Bharara:              How many times have you watched the Avengers, David?

David Ignatius:             Well, watched … not very many, I did go see this latest one and I sat through all three hours and 10 minutes of it. My wife and I staggered out of the theater. I was thinking, why do we do this? But …

Preet Bharara:              No spoilers. Don’t tell people what happened.

David Ignatius:             I won’t. No. I would never want to do that.

Preet Bharara:              But at the end of the day, you’re saying something that seems very obvious but seems to have been lost from current discussion that is generosity on the part of the power, whether it’s a super power like the United States or anyone else is also effective and smart and can actually help you aggregate power to yourself. Fair?

David Ignatius:             Yeah. I think we all know … I’ll personalized it that people who were confident and generous just have opportunities to interact with others, that the person who’s tight, selfish, self interested doesn’t. I mean, we all see the selfish person coming and who’s only out for himself and it’s rare that that person succeeds in the kind of really powerful way. Again, it’s one of the mysteries that I’m sorting out for a long while, how it is that America came to elect its president such a transparently selfish, self interested person as Donald Trump who to me seems so different from our national character. We were all as a kind of reticent people [inaudible 00:54:12] and the cowboy didn’t say much. Now we’ve got this loquacious Braggadocio guy. I mean, it doesn’t really seem like the American character, but people voted for him.

Preet Bharara:              Although people do speak about the American tourists, the ugly American is pretty loquacious when they go to Europe. So in that regard, he’s not completely alien.

David Ignatius:             I don’t mean to say that there aren’t a lot of Americans like Donald Trump. Clearly there are. It’s just that wasn’t our national image that laconic, speak softly character. Not only is those were the images we presented, but that’s what people admired. That’s how we saw ourselves. Don’t tread on me. I’m a tough man or woman, is that frontier heritage. Donald Trump is not a man of the frontier. He’s not really connected with it. I don’t think he thinks in those traditional American images.

Preet Bharara:              David Ignatius, thanks so much. Thanks for joining us. Take care.

David Ignatius:             [crosstalk 00:55:08] pleasure, bye.

Preet Bharara:              My conversation with David Ignatius continues in the special bonus for members of CAFE Insider. To join head to Thank you everyone for supporting our work.

Preet Bharara:              So often in the show talking about something wonderful that someone did or said that didn’t get a lot of attention and I thought it was worth amplifying. This week I want to talk about something wonderful that happened that did get a lot of attention and rightly so, and I’m sure you heard about it, but I think it’s worth talking about as much as possible both because it’s good to acknowledge also because it sets an example for others perhaps to follow. And finally because it points to a major problem in the country that hopefully people who are running for president and others will take some more effort to help.

Preet Bharara:              And that is when the billionaire investor Robert F. Smith, who founded a company called Vista Equity Partners and also became the richest African American in the country, was the commencement speaker at Morehouse College. I’ve been at commencement speaker at many law schools and never occurred to me to do the following, mostly because I don’t have the wherewithal to do it. But as I’m sure you’ve read in various reports, the heartwarming story about how he announced in the midst of his commencement address that as he put it, we’re going to put a little fuel in your bus.

Preet Bharara:              What does that mean? He decided he was going to take care of all of the student loans going forward of everyone graduating in the class of 2019. What effect that had on the class of 2018 and as of 2020, unclear. But at least for the almost 400 students who are graduating this year, they will no longer have the crushing burden of student debt over the course of years and years. The kind of thing that causes people not to pursue what they really want to do. What causes people to make decisions that are more about money than about their passion, than about what they want to actually contribute to the world.

Preet Bharara:              So I can only imagine what it must’ve been like, not just for the students, but for the parents of the students and family members of the students to get such a surprise on that day as Morehouse College President David Thomas put it, “This was a liberation gift, meaning this freeze these young men from having to make their career decisions based on their debt. This allows them to pursue what they’re passionate about.” Now, isn’t that true of everyone who goes to college or doesn’t go to college. I think we’d be all better off if people didn’t have to make decisions about how they want it to contribute. If they wanted to be a teacher they could. If they want to be a police officer, they could. If they wanted to go into the Peace Corps, they could. All sorts of things that they might do if they didn’t have the crushing debt from college and other higher education.

Preet Bharara:              It also raises other questions about why it should be necessary for people to have to rely on the large ass of a billionaire to be able to have better choices going forward. For example, here’s the view of an author, Anand Giridharadas who makes an interesting argument in his book called Winners Take All and he has a view of philanthropy that you don’t hear that often, but it’s an interesting one. And when we’re thinking about, he says, “But a gift like this can make people believe that billionaires are taking care of our problems and distract us from the ways in which others in finance or working to cause problems like student debt or the subprime crisis on an epically greater scale than this gift.”

Preet Bharara:              There’ve of another notable and good and generous examples of people of great wealth providing opportunity and removing student debt and we’re moving even entire tuitions from various schools including NYU Medical School, which is now tuition free. That was made possible in large part by a gift from Ken Llangollen, another billionaire who has now had the medical school named after him. The bottom line is, I think this is terrific news and what Robert Smith did is a wonderful thing and wonderful not just for the students at Morehouse this year, but for everyone to think about and contemplate and perhaps emulate, but more importantly I think this issue of college debt and the hamstring and people’s dreams is something that everyone needs to be thinking about a lot more on a policy level.

Preet Bharara:              I think there are a number of people who are running for president in 2020 on the democratic side who are addressing the issue. And one of the things that I think we should be looking at very closely in deciding who to support or not support is how they view this issue because it’s not going to be solved by a few well-meaning billionaires.

Preet Bharara:              Well that’s it for this episode of Stay Tuned. Thanks again to my guests, David Ignatius. Tweet your questions @PreetBharara with the Hashtag #askpreet or you can call 669-247-7338 and leave me a message. That’s 66924, Preet or you can send an email to if you like what we do, rate and review the show on apple podcasts. You reviews, help new listeners find the show. Stay Tuned is presented by CAFE. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The senior producer is Aaron Dalton and the cafe team is Carla Pierini, Julia Doyle, Calvin Lord, Vinay Basti and Geeff Isenman. Our music is by Andrew Dost. I’m Preet Bharara, Stay Tuned.