Preet Bharara: From CAFE, welcome to “Stay Tuned,” I’m Preet Bharara.
Ben Rhodes: When you think about what your early conceptions of the American story, usually you’re thinking about John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” I think that presidents kind of tell us who we are. They tell us what we stand for, they tell us where we’re going. And they fill that gap of what is our national identity.
Preet Bharara: That’s Ben Rhodes, he served in the Obama administration for all eight years, like my previous guest, Valerie Jarrett. He’s also the co-host of “Pod Save the World” from Crooked Media and the author of the best selling book, The World As It Is; A Memoir of the Obama White House. Sometimes for me, foreign policy can be an intimidating topic to tackle. But I speak with Ben about Iran Nuclear Deal, which he worked on and we discussed the role of presidential rhetoric, including the most recent presidents and their very different speaking styles. But first, let’s get to your questions. That’s coming up, stay tuned.
Preet Bharara: You can tell a lot about somebody by the company they keep and also by the company they don’t keep. That’s why I put this right in my Twitter bio, “Banned by Putin, fired by Trump.” And now we’ve put it on a t-shirt, to get yours head to shop.cafe.com for your very own “Banned by Putin, fired by Trump” t-shirt. And even more “Stay Tuned” merchandise. That’s shop.cafe.com.
Cheryl C.: Hi there, this is Cheryl Carmichael, California. So I read that the Office of Special Counsel has recommended that Ms. Kellyanne Conway be dismissed for her repeated violations of the Hatch Act and the President says, no, not doing that. So who enforces the Hatch Act? Or does it just crawl in a corner somewhere and die? Thank you.
Preet Bharara: Cheryl thanks for your question, Anne Milgram and I talked about this a little bit and I think it’s in the CAFE Insider podcast sample that was in the “Stay Tuned” feed this week. But further to your question, who enforces the Hatch Act, it’s the Office of Special Counsel. Now you can argue that the Office of Special Counsel does not have a lot of teeth that it can make recommendations in. It can make pronouncements and it can issue reports, all of those things it does. But like a lot of other things, including security clearances or anything else, in these circumstances if the recommendation to fire someone is not accepted by the President, there’s not a whole hell of a lot that the O.S.C. can do. In fact, we got a related question about the Hatch Act from a Twitter user, Jean Synodinos, who asks, “Question, if the O.S.C. says that Kellyanne Conway has broken the law, why the heck isn’t she being arrested? The way it sounds, the recommended recourse is firing and that’s not exactly a legal remedy. Love the podcast, #curiousminds #askpreet”
Preet Bharara: That’s another good question and people have to remember that there are two kinds of laws, there’s lots of things that people can do that are contrary to law, like for example, discriminating against someone in the workplace, speeding or all sorts of other things but they are not criminal in nature. In other words, the penalty for those things has been determined by Congress, or a state legislature, not to be punishable by criminal indictment and enforceable in the courts in that particular way. Lots of things are violations and you’re not supposed to do them, but the remedies are often civil damages or some other disciplinary action. So if Kellyanne Conway, as it’s been determined by the O.S.C. has broken that particular law, there’s no basis for arrest, because it’s not criminal. The law requires lots of things, not all of them have a criminal penalty and this is an example of that.
Preet Bharara: This question comes from Twitter user, Scott Monty, who asks, “What are your thoughts on the D.O.J. stepping in to object to Paul Manafort’s placement in Rikers? Did the state of New York have to respond in kind to the request? #askpreet.” Scott, thanks for your question. You’re referring to news reports in the last few days that Paul Manafort, who is not only be charged in federal court but also been charged by the Manhattan District Attorney, Cy Vance, for various tax and other violations. Now that he has to face justice in the state court here, as it typically happens when you have both the federal charge and the state charge. In this case, the federal charge has essentially gone first, there was a conviction and then a guilty plea and now he’s not done. So typically, you get transported to the jurisdiction where the next case has to unfold and that’s here in Manhattan.
Preet Bharara: Now ordinarily, in my experience and I have a lot of experience with this, the prisoner or inmate who’s facing prosecution in some other local jurisdiction, gets taken into custody of that local agency and usually is confined if the person is confined, to the normal correctional facility where other people charged in that jurisdiction are housed. In this case, as I’ve written about in my book, it’s not a pleasant place by any stretch of the imagination, is the correctional institution called Rikers Island. Ordinarily, that’s where someone like Paul Manafort would be spending his time. As we learned this past week, very high up in the Justice Department, all the way up to the Deputy Attorney General, Jeffrey Rosen, who replaced Rod Rosenstein, seemed to intervene on behalf of this one inmate who has a very famous name, Paul Manafort. And wrote to the local prosecutors, making the point that Paul Manafort perhaps should be remaining in federal custody.
Preet Bharara: So as I understand it at the time of this recording, he will be held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. Now, there are various arguments about how Paul Manafort, because he is particularly notorious and particularly well-known, for his own safety should be accommodated in a particular way and not be sent to Rikers Island. I don’t yet know the merits of that argument, but it is highly unusual, I’ve never heard of such a thing. And what’s in particular highly unusual, is that someone way up in the food chain, the second most powerful person in the entire Justice Department, would be weighing in on something that’s usually left up to local authorities and the Bureau of Prisons. It’s odd and unusual and I’ve never heard of an example of this. And as one of my former colleagues from SDNY has suggested on social media, it may be something worth looking at by the House Judiciary Committee. Anne Milgram and I will be discussing this further on the Insider podcast this coming Monday.
Preet Bharara: My guest this week is Ben Rhodes. He’s the former deputy national security advisor to President Obama. Ben was responsible for national security communications, global engagement programs, public diplomacy, and speechwriting. Ben was also one of earliest members of the Obama campaign. Joining him in Chicago as a senior speechwriter and later foreign policy aid as a 29 year old. Ben gave me his assessment of our current situation in Iran and his take on some of the Democratic 2020 hopefuls. That’s coming up, stay tuned.
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Preet Bharara: Ben Rhodes, welcome to the show.
Ben Rhodes: Good to be here, Preet.
Preet Bharara: Congratulations on your book, which is recently out in paperback, The World As It Is.
Ben Rhodes: Thank you, thanks.
Preet Bharara: How did you come up with that title?
Ben Rhodes: Actually, Obama used to have a phrase that he used again and again, which is that in order to pursue the world as it should be, you have to see the world as it is. So it’s funny, because a lot of people heard that title and they’re like, “Oh, here’s this guy, he’s beaten down. He’s kind of sacrificing his idealism to the world as it is.” But actually the point of it is, if you want to be an idealist, you have to see the world as it is in order to pursue the world as it should be. And that’s kind of the end of a bunch of his speeches, the Nobel Peace Prize included. And actually, I didn’t know this but when Michelle Obama wrote, Becoming, she says that on her first date, Barack Obama used that line.
Preet Bharara: That’s a hot line.
Ben Rhodes: Yeah, exactly. I didn’t use that on my first date but like a lot of things in my life, I stole from Barack Obama.
Preet Bharara: I’m looking at the memo I got from the staff, which is excellent as always. And I thought there was a typo because I followed your career for a bit, we share the same book agent.
Ben Rhodes: Yup.
Preet Bharara: Elyse Cheney, we should give her a plug.
Ben Rhodes: We should. We can test if she listens.
Preet Bharara: Right, exactly. And I thought that something clearly was wrong when it stated your age as …
Ben Rhodes: 41.
Preet Bharara: 41, I’m like clearly that’s an error.
Ben Rhodes: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: How the hell are you only 41? And if you’re 41, you’re four years older than, for example, Pete Buttigieg. Why is it that you are not running for president?
Ben Rhodes: Yeah, I was going to say, the thing about being 41, because I was in government so young, I’m now retired at 41. Strange.
Preet Bharara: Right, it’s kind of nuts, you were like a kid-
Ben Rhodes: I was, I was-
Preet Bharara: … when you came into the Obama administration to write speeches.
Ben Rhodes: Yeah and actually it’s one of the ways in which I frame the book, which is I was 29 years old when I went to work for Barack Obama in the beginning of his campaign in 2007. I was hired as a speechwriter and look, part of that is, mostly of the establishment lined up with Hillary. And Obama needed people and so we tend to be younger. When I moved out to the Obama headquarters in Chicago to write speeches and to be kind of a foreign policy staffer, I was like the oldest guy in the room sometimes.
Preet Bharara: How was Jon Favreau?
Ben Rhodes: Jon Favreau, who was the chief speechwriter, was probably 25 at the time, maybe he was 26.
Preet Bharara: Kids, a bunch of kids.
Ben Rhodes: We were kids there to change the world. And I’ll never forget what it felt like to go from being one of the older guys in the room to then coming in government at 31, being one of the youngest guys in the room. I think Obama deliberately wanted a generational balance. So in the first term, he had Hillary and Bob Gates and all these greybeards. And then he wanted some younger people around too, he wanted diversity of views, diversity of generational viewpoints. I recognize the advantage I had is, I was not famous, I was not known. I was relatively this anonymous 31 year old. And so I could tell kind of coming of age story. What’s it like to be spit into the White House at 31 and spit out at 39? And to essentially have come of age at the center of all these events.
Preet Bharara: So what was it like? Were you in awe when you went to the White House or just in shock? Or was it like, yeah, this is how I roll now?
Ben Rhodes: Well, we were part of this cultural phenomenon of the Obama campaign. And this thing which started as a few dozen people working to elect the first African American president suddenly became this phenomenon over the course of 2007, 2008. But then when you come into the White House the first day, no matter how much you think you’ve earned it, no matter how much you think the right thing has happened, you can’t help but be somewhat awed. First of all because it’s so small, I was struck by and you’ve been there Preet but you walk into the West Wing of the White House and there’s like 40 people who work there, 50 people. And you’re kind of looking around, where are the other people?
Preet Bharara: They’re across the street.
Ben Rhodes: They are across the street but what you get is that, this is human beings in these offices making these decisions. My office in the West Wing had a very low ceiling which didn’t really matter for me because I was short but I realized that the reason why was that the Oval Office was right above me and they had a lot of communications and encryption equipment in the ceiling. And then I remember kind of walking around and I kept expecting to be stopped by some armed-
Preet Bharara: Get out of here, kid.
Ben Rhodes: Yeah, get out of here, kid. And you’re walking by Abraham Lincoln’s official portrait and you’re walking by rooms where these momentous decisions have been made. In the first few days, you are totally awe inspired. We were also dealing with a financial crisis and two wars. So the work is right on top of you right away. But then what’s really strange is after a few months, it’s like your office. It’s just like the place you go to work and where you have hallway conversations and you get takeout food at the White House mess and eat at your desk. So transformation happens.
Preet Bharara: How do you keep from getting jaded over … because you were there the whole time?
Ben Rhodes: I was there eight years, which is very rare.
Preet Bharara: It’s like you and Valerie Jarrett.
Ben Rhodes: Me, Valerie Jarrett and Denis McDonough, I think were the three people who stuck it out, yeah. You get jaded, I mean, I tried to be honest in this book that the cynicism and nihilism in a way of American politics does grind on you and it wears on you. But every now and then, there are these moments that remind you of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. And for me, as long as I believed in the guy I was working for, I could get through that. I described after a particularly difficult stretch of time, sitting in my office, and Obama was going down to the church in Charleston, South Carolina where the shooting had happened from the white supremacist, and he said something kind of particular before he left. He was like, “I might sing, “Amazing Grace.” Because he had written this whole speech that was around the concept of grace.
Barack Obama: Amazing grace …
Ben Rhodes: So I’m watching this speech and I’m thinking, “Is he really going to sing?” And it’s a great speech and he gets to the end, he kind of stops and I could tell, I know he’s going to sing. I’m one of the only few people who knows this.
Barack Obama: (singing)
Ben Rhodes: But then I remember watching him doing this and thinking, “This is why I’m here.” That’s there’s something intangible of about politics that goes beyond even policy or any individual debate. That if you’re a part of an enterprise, in this case, the Obama administration that can produce this moment, then it’s worth coming to work every day.
Preet Bharara: Yeah, did you know if he could sing?
Ben Rhodes: Yeah, he sings a fair amount, I mean-
Preet Bharara: In the Oval?
Ben Rhodes: Yeah, I describe a different moment where I was going over some speech with him in the Oval Office and I told him this story, I don’t know how we even got on 9/11 but I told him this story about 9/11. Because he was going to Baltimore to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the “Star Spangled Banner” or something, the kind of stuff presidents do. And I said, “I always liked “America the Beautiful” better.” So I told him this story about how after 9/11, I lived in Queens, in a Queens neighborhood where there were a bunch of firefighter funerals on the blocks around me and it was a really horrific experience. And I’d go out to these kind of [inaudible 00:15:58] bars kind of full of these burly guys who are 9/11 responders and they were in tears. And coming home one night and putting on Ray Charles, “America the Beautiful” and kind of having all the emotions hit me and breaking down. And he said, “They should make that the national anthem.” The Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful.”
Preet Bharara: It’s really good.
Ben Rhodes: And he like, “You should make it the national anthem.” As if like I could do that. And I’m like, “Well, you could do something about that.” But then yeah, he kind of broke into it. He said, “It’s all there, American history is more in that song than the “Star Spangled Banner.” It’s black and white, it’s suffering and victory.” He broke into “America the Beautiful,” imitating Ray Charles and then kind of singing on the way out the door to walk to Marine One and closed the door and leaves me standing there in the middle of the Oval Office. And it’s another one of these moments where it’s like, okay, the first African American president just sang the Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful,” walked out to Marine One and left me standing alone in the Oval Office with a bust of Martin Luther Kind, and the quote from Martin Luther King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” on the rug. And I’m like this is again another one of those moments that makes this worth it.
Preet Bharara: So you were not jaded that day.
Ben Rhodes: Not that day, a lot of other days. Mainly when I had to deal with Republicans.
Preet Bharara: All right, we’re going to come to that and bipartisanship. I want to talk about the whole idea of speechwriting, writing for someone else. First of all, how important is it for a president to be able to give a good speech?
Ben Rhodes: It’s really important because Obama used to tell me that everything that we were doing was telling one story about America. When you look at what made Obama successful as a politician, the 2004 Democratic Convention’s speech that launched his ascent, is essentially the same speech as the 2017 farewell address he gave before he left office. There was a consistency and an authenticity that people connected to. And all the different things we were doing, whether it was healthcare, or an Iran Nuclear Deal or climate change, it kind of added up to one vision of a progressive America drawing on its best self and the ability to communicate. Sure it’s important in a crisis, it’s important to persuade people but it’s also important to give people a sense of direction. What’s interesting is Trump doesn’t give traditionally good speeches but he has a consistency in his rhetoric, which I think appeals to his-
Preet Bharara: No, some people love it. And I want to talk about his speech giving but I can ask you, what does it say about people, us, the citizenry that we can be so moved by a single speech by somebody even without knowing a lot about that person. I’ll give you an example, Cyrus Habib, who is the Lieutenant Governor of State of Washington, who’s been a guest on the show. Very impressive guy, he once told me, I had breakfast with him when I was in Seattle a few weeks ago and he’s a very good orator speech giver. Very persuasive and moving and he has a great story. And he said, “I was talking to a bunch of people one day and they were all, we want to vote for you because that was a great speech.” And he says, “You don’t know anything about me. I mean, it’s wonderful, it’s really nice. It’s a nice compliment.” But how can it be that guy give a speech somewhere, a woman gives a speech somewhere and people are so moved by that, that they think there’s something special about a person based on one speech. Is there something weird about us that we’re moved so quickly by someone’s ability to give a good speech?
Ben Rhodes: There is, and I’ve thought a lot about this. One of the things I think and this may seem fairly high level but our identity’s not rooted in ethnicity, a religion, a monarchy, the things that nations generally are rooted in. That’s not the case here. We kind of count on presidents in particular, to tell us who we are. I mean, when you think about what were your early conceptions of the American story, usually you’re thinking about John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Republicans may think of Reagan, think of quotes from Lincoln and other presidents.
John F. Kennedy: Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
Ronald Reagan: I’ve always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, I’ve from the government and I’m here to help.
Barack Obama: A president who chose the moon as our new frontier and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land. Yes, we can to justice and equality.
Ben Rhodes: I think that presidents kind of tell us who we are. They tell us what we stand for, they tell us where we’re going. And they fill that gap of what is our national identity. I also think Americans, they like performance and they also recognize, it’s not just the United States, it’s the rest of the world, the power that is vested in this one office of the presidency is enormous. I remember if something was happening on the other side of the world, there’d be this, what is Obama going to say about it, what’s he going to say about what’s happening in Ukraine? What’s he going to say about what’s happening in Egypt?
Ben Rhodes: And I remember thinking, nobody’s waiting to hear what Xi Jinping has to say about that, right? It’s this combination of the power of this office and the fact that we look to leaders to tell us where we’re going in a pretty distinct way in part because America is kind of an open and contested thing. I mean, what story are we going to choose? Are we going to choose the Obama story or the Trump story?
Preet Bharara: How do you go about preparing a speech for someone else? Explain to folks how you go about it. With this particular president who himself happens to be a great writer and speechwriter.
Ben Rhodes: Well the first thing you have to recognize is, it has to be not just a great speech, it has to be a great speech for this person. It has to be in their voice. One of the famous speeches I worked on, the “Yes, we can” speech in New Hampshire.
Barack Obama: Generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people. Yes, we can, yes, we can.
Preet Bharara: That was pretty good.
Ben Rhodes: It was a pretty good, it had a music video and all this stuff. And sometimes people see me and they’re like, when I tell them I worked on that, Favreau and I were speechwriters on it, they say, “I wished Obama just kind of delivered that extemporaneously.” And I’d say to them like, “Look, close your eyes and imagine John Kerry or Hillary Clinton or Al Gore giving that speech.” It would make no sense. It would actually be absurd. It worked because it was so core to Obama, it was his message, it was his life story behind that. And so the first thing I had to do was, what is this man’s voice? What it his worldview? I need to read everything he’s written, I need to read his interviews, I need to try to get his cadence. And I need to kind of absorb that. And then if I had to sit down and write a speech, I had to sit down with Obama first.
Ben Rhodes: He would essentially kind of dictate a high level outline, here’s what I want to say and here’s some key points I want to make. Once I had that guidance from him, I’m basically blending it with all the policy we need to address or all the issues we need to get out there. Throughout the process of a speech where you’re getting edits from all kinds of White House advisors and other people. My job was essentially to make sure that those edits didn’t take away what was essentially Obama’s voice in the speech.
Preet Bharara: How would you describe what his voice is and what his cadence is?
Ben Rhodes: Every Obama speech has a basic formula, which is how his mind works. How did we get here? What is the story of how we reached this particular moment when I’m giving this particular speech? Actually I always thought that was some of the more interesting parts of his speeches, the backstory. And then he would essentially describe, okay, here’s the moment that we’re in. And here are the different directions that we could go and then here’s what I’m doing and why. And that was essentially the outline. I think his particular cadence, at times he would tilt in the direction of the professor but if he needed to let rip, if he needed to perform, if he needed to give a lift as he would say. I mean, I would always look forward to him saying, give this one some lift and then you could really tap into, frankly it’s a cadence that grows out of I think, the African American church community, the black church community in this country. It’s very aspirational, appealing to people’s better angels of their nature.
Ben Rhodes: So he could dial it in either direction, something that almost no politician I’ve seen can do. And what I had to struggle with at times and I got wrong at time is, and this is something that people really misunderstood about Obama, he never thought his presidency was going to end racism in America. That was something white people thought. That was something I hoped, I was the one that wanted to project the more feel good story about race. The “Green Book” story, the Hollywood story and at times he’d have to take me back down to Earth and rooted in the structural continued challenges of racism in this country, while still appealing to optimism.
Preet Bharara: Did you learn something, not just about Obama’s voice but about language and writing and rhetoric from the way he edited your speeches?
Ben Rhodes: Yeah, absolutely. As a speechwriter, you’re often trying to come up with the most flowery way to say something or the best way to say something. What I learned from him is, the truth is the most powerful thing you can say. And it seems like an obvious point, most of the time you don’t feel like politicians are telling the truth. When Obama was really on, it was when it felt like this guy was telling you something that you knew but you didn’t hear people tell you. Sometimes rhetorically, that’s just simple language, the most memorable lines from his speech on race for instance, were not the kind of lines you carve into the well of a memorial. It was about how he could no more disown his pastor then his white grandmother who he loved who said terrible things under her breath. And everybody’s kind of nodding like, yeah, actually, we all have these prejudices. To me, the power of the rhetoric is in the sense of truth and authenticity that is being communicated, not necessarily in the beauty of the line.
Preet Bharara: Sometimes in a way that a novelist might by making an observation that people could nod at.
Ben Rhodes: That people know to be true and just haven’t heard it that way, put it that way before. That’s the ultimate success.
Preet Bharara: When you’re writing a speech for Obama are you just thinking about the words and the language or are you also thinking about the delivery? In other words, are you in your mind’s eyes visualizing him give the speech?
Ben Rhodes: Yeah. I mean, the good thing I had going for me which most speechwriters don’t have is I knew that the speech would be better in delivery. Because he’s just really good at delivering a speech. I’ll tell you the thing when we came to the White House that I had in mind that was different, was the audiences. I remember the first time I had to write some remarks on Afghanistan, somebody said something to me like well remember you have the American people and the American media, who’s kind of who you think about, then you have Afghans and you have the Taliban, they’ll watch this speech. And then you have other countries-
Preet Bharara: You’re like, “I’ve got to write for the Taliban?”
Ben Rhodes: Yeah, and I’m suddenly thinking, he’s listening and then we have our native allies who have troops in Afghanistan. Writing for a president and again Trump doesn’t care about this, but to me one of the most challenging things is, you have so many different audiences around the world and what may sound really good to one, is going to sound terrible to another. So it would have been easy on foreign policy in particular, Preet, it would have been easy to write chest thumping speeches all the time that Americans would love and that the media would say, what a great speech. And Obama wouldn’t do that because he knew that would turn everybody off around the world. I remember the speech we wrote about sending more troops to Afghanistan, I gave it to him and it had all this, “we will achieve victory and we will win” and he took all that out.
Ben Rhodes: He said, “We’re not going to win. We’re not going to lose either, we’re setting some objectives for these troops. And if I say we’re going to stay there until we win, then we’re going to stay there forever. Because we’re not going to eradicate every member of the Taliban.” And it was not as good a speech rhetorically because of that. But it was in his mind a more responsible. So to me, I heard the delivery but what I also really thought about is how is everybody going to consume this.
Preet Bharara: Right, like the State of Union speech, which is often among the worst speeches that a president-
Ben Rhodes: It’s a terrible genre-
Preet Bharara: It’s often one of the worst speeches a president can give because you have so many constituencies. You think the Taliban is hard, now think of all the constituencies in America that you have to please in a laundry list type. Was there one speech that was the hardest for you to write, was it the Mandela speech or something else?
Ben Rhodes: The hardest speech, that’s a really good question. The hardest speech for me to write, he gave an address to the nation about Syria in the late summer of 2013, this was the infamous redline, Syrians conduct this chemical weapons attack, Obama’s inclined to use military force but he decides to seek congressional authorization to have a legal basis for doing this and that’s a whole legal issue that’s interesting. But it became evident that Congress was not going to give us the votes to get this authorization. We had decided to give this address to the nation before that was evident. So I had been tasked to write a speech to basically try to mobilize public opinion around bombing Syria and getting congressional support for that position.
Ben Rhodes: And in the window while I’m working on this speech, congressional support collapses and then this diplomatic option emerges where the Russians say, well, we’ll work with you to get the chemical weapons out of Syria. And it was the strangest speech to write because I was condemning this horrific thing that had happened, this chemical weapons attack. I was saying that we were prepared to use military force to deal with it but we’re not going to. And everybody knew that the reason we weren’t was tied to the fact that Congress wasn’t giving us its votes. But we also had this diplomatic agreement that hadn’t been completed yet so that’s the worst place to be for a politician is, when you’re caught in the middle you don’t know the end of the story yet and yet you’re still narrating the story. And there were a few instances like that.
Preet Bharara: So Obama had been less scripted, he got some criticism for always using a Teleprompter and I guess there’s an argument for that, you want to be careful and precise, maximize the opportunity but should he had been less scripted?
Ben Rhodes: Well, yes and no. The no is, if you watch Obama in an interview, he’s full professor, he’s much more inspiring on a Teleprompter and that’s not because we’re writing the words.
Preet Bharara: You saying professor is a bad thing, you know I teach at [crosstalk 00:29:22]
Ben Rhodes: I’m teaching now too, so I don’t want to diminish it but his actual natural speaking style is not that inspirational. And if you look at John F. Kennedy, it’s the same thing. This is not just unique to Obama. Some people for whatever reason, are much more energized on a text. And he would go off the text, that’s where it was really good, is if you had a good text but then he could ad lib stuff. So I don’t know that he necessarily would have been more compelling off script. I do think that Trump has shown you, I don’t agree with just about anything Trump has done but we were sometimes overly careful. I mean, I think Obama’s instincts as a lawyer, as a constitutional lawyer were to not ever cross certain lines or break certain norms. His instincts as an African American were like Jackie Robinson, they were going to be hurling insults at me from the bleachers and I’m going to stand on first base and not yell back.
Ben Rhodes: I understand that psychologically but I do think at times it restricted our ability to call out the massive amounts of bullshit around us. Because he wasn’t going to … you’ve got people yelling at him in Congress when he addresses Congress. You’ve got the cynicism of Mitch McConnell, you’ve got the kind of racism of the birther movement, and the birther movement, his response to that was to release his birth certificate and prove rationally that I’m correct and that these people are crazy. And I’ve never really thought about this but the place to be unscripted was in calling out the complete and utter cynicism emanating from the Republican Party. Because it was there all eight years, it didn’t just emerge with Trump.
Preet Bharara: But what’s odd is and you seem to allude to this a couple of times, Trump people will say, [inaudible 00:31:02] will like my characterization, he’s an effective communicator.
Ben Rhodes: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: And a lot of people who don’t agree him think that he’s got a poor vocabulary, which is true, he’s very repetitive, which is true, which is another way of saying, he’s always on message. I mean everyone understands that the guy has a view about “fake news,” no collusion, whether or not the Mueller report says it and some people get faulted when they’re running for office and when they’re trying to make a persuasive argument about something. Intelligent people sometimes don’t want to be repetitive and say the same thing 17 different ways, non of which ever ends up being memorable. But the one criticism of Trump, from all sides, is that when he does use a script, it tends to be not a good speech.
Ben Rhodes: It’s terrible.
Preet Bharara: The theorem that you just suggested a few minutes ago is that some people like Obama is better with a script. What is it about Trump that makes him worse with a script?
Ben Rhodes: It’s authenticity. So Barack Obama was able to get authentic with a script, in part because he would work on it. When Trump reads a speech, you feel like he’s reading it for the first time on the Teleprompter, right?
Preet Bharara: It’s like a hostage message.
Ben Rhodes: With Obama, he put his stamp on that speech. He’s given us a guidance for it, he’s edited it a bunch. He’d edit things 10, 15 times before it’s finalized. The key element for any politician is to be authentic. Trump doesn’t sound authentic when he’s reading a script. When he gets up in front of a big crowd and he’s just talking, he is entirely himself. And Obama was able to be entirely himself reading a speech which is actually a rarer skill in some ways. But that’s Trump and if you want to see him at his best, you have to see him at those rallies.
Preet Bharara: But then there was a speech that Trump gave recently at Normandy, which got a lot of praise. And it was a scripted speech, did you watch it?
Ben Rhodes: Yeah, but I actually didn’t, I mean-
Preet Bharara: I’m not saying I thought it was great. But a lot of people including critics of the President, and they got criticized for this, thought that it was a good speech and it was written by someone else.
Ben Rhodes: Here’s the thing, I have a problem with this because this has happened a few times with Trump.
Preet Bharara: Lay it on us.
Ben Rhodes: I’ll lay it on you.
Preet Bharara: Don’t hold back.
Ben Rhodes: And here I’ll be a little cynical.
Preet Bharara: It’s a podcast.
Ben Rhodes: Every single speechwriter who’s ever lived can write a good D-Day speech. This is not a hard fucking story to tell. These guys stormed the beaches, the biggest heroes in American history, literally, I teach a class that deals with speechwriting, anyone of those students could probably write a serviceable D-Day speech. And what happens in the media here that drives me insane, is if this guy does anything at any point that looks vaguely like what we would expect from a president, they over crank the praise. It’s like, wow, instead of insulting the press-
Preet Bharara: Our allies.
Ben Rhodes: Our allies, he actually uttered the written words that any U.S. President would say at D-Day. That doesn’t mean that this was a great speech. If he didn’t knock over the podium and hurl insults at Emmanuel Macron, you have these pundits poised … and part of this is, Preet, which also drives me crazy, they think that well, because I’m hard on Trump all the time, I have to occasionally really give him appraise. And so this happened in the State of the Union, his first State of the Union, at the end he told the story about some Navy SEAL who had passed away. Again, any president would do this. You would have thought that the combination of John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln were reincarnated. This is when everyone said he became president tonight just because he did something that any movie president would do.
Ben Rhodes: He doesn’t believe those words, the reason it’s not a great speech is that he doesn’t believe that. A great speech is when somebody say something that is true and authentic to who they are that nobody else could deliver. The fact that Donald Trump delivered a speech that literally anybody could deliver and just happened to not insult people, doesn’t mean he did something great, it just means he chose not to be Donald Trump that day.
Preet Bharara: I could talk to you about speechwriting for the whole hour and multiple more hours because I find it fascinating and it’s rare that I get to talk to somebody like you who was so deeply involved, especially with the last president but I also want to talk about foreign policy, which has been your specialty. At the intersection of communication and foreign policy is where you sat or stood or marched or whatever word you want to use, for a number of years. I find foreign policy intimidating. I think a lot of people do. It’s not covered in quite the same way, when you come upon an issue, whether it’s the Middle East or Russia or something else, there’s so much history that precedes it. That a newcomer to an issue, who’s a thoughtful American citizen, as I’d like to think I am, it feels difficult to get up to speed on something. And when people talk about it on the news, whether it’s in the paper or T.V., unlike with other things, there’s a lot of assumption of knowledge about what has transpired in the past and what the failures have been in any part of the world that’s complex.
Preet Bharara: It’s also complex because there are no real rules. I don’t understand the rules of engagement are. How do you think about talking about foreign policy and international relations in a way that the public can understand?
Ben Rhodes: I actually think that this is a huge deficit in our national discourse. One of the most important elements is, there’s a question of agency. How much can the U.S. effect something that is happening? I remember talking to a journalist who I respected a lot who covered the White House and then went to London. He said, he was in the White House and something would happen in the Middle East or anywhere in the world, it would be like, sentence one this happened, sentence two, what does this mean for Obama, what’s he going to do about it? Whereas when he moved to London, it was like, first paragraph, this happened, this is why it happened, this is what could happen and then here are the options for the U.S. and other countries.
Ben Rhodes: We assume because we’re American that our president, this has gone out the window a little bit with Trump but, should fix everything around the world. And so part of what ends up happening is we cover foreign policy like kind of a score card. Where do you knot your winds? Did you deliver the democracy in this country or did you take the nuclear weapon away from that person. And these are incredibly complex issues informed by historical forces. Sometimes U.S. has a lot of capacity to get something done, sometimes we don’t. So the example, the Iran Nuclear Agreement, the argument we get is, and we had this agreement that rolled back the Iranian nuclear program, they had to take out about two thirds of their nuclear centrifuges. They had to ship out their nuclear stockpile.
Ben Rhodes: I don’t want to get to in the weeds, but the critics are basically like, why are they allowed to have any nuclear program? And that’s a good easy argument to make in the U.S. To answer that I have to explain nuclear physics and the fact that they already know what the nuclear field cycle is and so you can’t erase nuclear knowledge. I have to talk about 1979, and the Iranian revolution and the Iranian psychology is such that they’re not going to capitulate completely so we have to design this. And that’s not going to come up in the coverage. To me the biggest challenge is, the American impulse for solution for agency, we have to do something, is how coverage is framed.
Ben Rhodes: If something bad is happening in the world that is bad for Obama or that is bad for Trump. Rather than, there’s something bad happening in the world, let’s figure out whether we can do anything about it. That’s gotten us into trouble because that’s how you end up in wars that you can’t win. Because the expectation is well, go fix this, go remove this dictator, go stop this killing in another country. And it’s almost always not that simple.
Preet Bharara: You said something very interesting to me, that’s going to take us back to the speechwriting in broad strokes. So you write a speech for the president, maybe it’s a 20 minute speech, maybe it’s a 45 minute speech, most speeches are not covered in full by the cable network and even if it is, most Americans have other things that they’re doing. Maybe they read an article about it and they’ll be some quotes from the speech or some lines on the evening news. When you’re writing a speech, do you think about, I think you must, but confirm this for me, do you think about what those takeaway lines, the quotable lines are going to be and is that your point about foreign policy that because it’s so complicated, you were not going to do justice the issue for the public given the reality that in the 40 minute speech that you’ve written, the background stuff is never going to make its way into an article or in a clip. And so that’s why that’s more difficult.
Ben Rhodes: Yeah. This changed even while I was in the White House. By the end of the White House, if I wrote a speech, I had to know that a lot of people were going to consume that speech on Twitter. Literally, bits and pieces. You also had the politicization of how all these issues are covered. For a lot of reasons, we don’t have to get into all of them, but basically in part because news organizations shrunk, and news organizations became more political focused, more D.C. focused. The way in which an issue was covered, let’s take a hard issue like Syria, was not, what is happening in Syria? Who are these different forces fighting on the ground? It’s, John McCain and Lindsey Graham called Barack Obama the weakest president in history of the world, what’s your response? And that has nothing to do with solving anything in Syria. But that’s the prism which all of these things get consumed is, it’s just another issue in the back and forth.
Preet Bharara: Who’s up, who’s down.
Ben Rhodes: Who’s up, who’s down. So it’s a combination of information not reaching people, the information that does reach people is usually in the who’s up, who’s down frame. And foreign policy just doesn’t work that way. I mean, very few things work that way, but foreign policy certainly doesn’t. And you see this with Trump to give an example. He understands this in a weird way. So we have a huge problem in North Korea, they have nuclear weapons, they have missiles, they’re a reaching a capacity where they could reach the United States with a nuclear missile. He has this big summit with Kim Jung-un. The illusion from that is he did something big. He solved this problem. We’re sitting here a year later, almost exactly a year later, North Korea has built more nuclear weapons, they’re still testing missiles. The problem has gotten worse.
Preet Bharara: It wasn’t solved?
Ben Rhodes: Well I would bet you that at least his people think it was solved. So he’s figured out that the shallowness I guess of how these issues are presented, gives him an opportunity, where he doesn’t even have to solve the problem.
Preet Bharara: His people think that the Mueller report doesn’t say anything negative about the President.
Ben Rhodes: Yes. Well this is a whole other thing in the way in which the right wing media ecosystem works. But it affects foreign policy because what you’re seeing now is, on Iran it’s a classic example. He railed against the nuclear agreement like everybody else did because they thought that was good politics, call Obama weak. He pulled out of this agreement. And here we are a year after he pulled out of the agreement, and Iran has announced they’re going to start building up their stockpile again, the problem’s going to get worse.
Ben Rhodes: He approached the issue as an American domestic political issue, not as a foreign policy issue. Foreign policy issues, how do I have an agreement that achieves my objectives as best it can? He approached it has how can I look like I’m tearing up Obama’s deal, I’m being tough on Iran. Well in the real world, when you do that, the Iranians say, well, we’re going to start rebuilding our nuclear program. So we’re going to be dealing with the consequences and the problem with foreign policy is the consequences usually take additional time to come home to roost.
Preet Bharara: Is it fair to say that the Obama doctrine with respect to foreign policy was don’t do stupid shit.
Ben Rhodes: I always say that that was the first side of the coin and the other side of the coin was doing smart shit but essentially, if I had to summarize it, it is, Obama came in after a period of massive American overreach. The Iraq War and the financial crisis, we were an overextended superpower. And what Obama was saying is, we need to pull back and not do stupid shit like the Iraq War and then we need to build new forms of international cooperation to solve problems. Paris Agreement to solve climate change, the Iran Nuclear Agreement to solve the Iranian nuclear issue. Trade agreements that allow us to have a block that can confront China and on and on around the world. And so what he was essentially doing is, if we are going to be pulling back American over extension in the Middle East, we’re going to have to be building multilateral efforts that amplify our power.
Ben Rhodes: Trump, what’s interesting is he’s made similar critiques, we shouldn’t be fighting these wars. But his idea is to just pull back entirely and tear up the agreements and then pick fights where you feel like you want to. They made similar diagnoses, but have the opposite solution.
Preet Bharara: Did you ever get an assignment from Obama saying, hey, you write a speech about how we shouldn’t do stupid shit and then give it some lift?
Ben Rhodes: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: There’s a lot to lift there.
Ben Rhodes: I mean, as people may remember, so Obama says this kind of offhand comment. Part of his foreign policy is don’t do stupid shit. What he was clearly referring to is stop going to wars in the Middle East, because he was constantly under pressure to go into some other country. What’s interesting is this was considered a gaffe. Preet, like in life? Who wants to do stupid shit?
Preet Bharara: That’s always been my doctrine. My personal doctrine has been don’t do stupid shit.
Ben Rhodes: [crosstalk 00:43:20] do no harm and it’s like-
Preet Bharara: It’s worked out pretty well.
Ben Rhodes: It was interesting because it poked this sensitivity because everyone knew what stupid shit was, Vietnam, Iraq, you could argue Afghanistan. You could argue Libya under us. It was interesting because it was controversial in Washington circles for somebody to say, we shouldn’t do stupid shit. And they’re like, no we must keep doing the stupid shit.
Preet Bharara: This is the most we’ve used the word shit on this show.
Ben Rhodes: Sorry.
Preet Bharara: [inaudible 00:43:48] children listen to this.
Ben Rhodes: [crosstalk 00:43:49] Crooked Media.
Preet Bharara: This is not “Pod Save.”
Ben Rhodes: Sorry.
Preet Bharara: Let’s talk about some arguably stupid shit. Were we under the Obama administration too soft on Russia?
Ben Rhodes: Yeah, I think we were too slow to realize. And people forget, Medvedev was there for the first three years. And he really wanted to do all this stuff with us. So we did an arms control agreement, the New Star Treaty. They agreed with us on doing Iran sanctions. The relationship was really good. Putin comes back in 2012 and he is just hell bent on pushing back on the United States. And I think not just from Obama but from 20 years of perceived humiliation. He felt Russia had been getting a bad deal for 20 years. NATO’s getting to his borders, the EU’s getting his borders, regime change in Iraq, regime change in Libya. And we were wrong in thinking that all that good progress with Medvedev was something that Putin must have been onboard with. Everybody assumed that Putin was kind of behind the throne and it took us too long to see the extent to which when Putin came back, all bets are off.
Ben Rhodes: Now we got there obviously with what he was doing in Syria and the Ukraine. And then we were quite tough with him, I mean the sanctions that we put on Russia with the Europeans are having a huge impact on him. But I do think that the analytical failure was to think that the first Obama term was going to foreshadow where things are going to go in the second Obama term. And the shift from Medvedev to Putin was much more dramatic than we anticipated.
Preet Bharara: Was Mitt Romney more correct than Obama-
Ben Rhodes: Yeah he was more correct-
Preet Bharara: … in the 2012 debate, the famous debate.
Ben Rhodes: Yeah, I think that … the answer is yes so I’m giving him the credit but I also think that these things become talisman, as if Mitt Romney had foreseen everything that was going to happen. I mean, what’s interesting about it is, Mitt Romney was representing a conventional Republican Party view, that the Russians are the number one geopolitical adversary. I think Obama’s view was that, well, terrorism is the biggest threat, but frankly to this day, I would argue China is actually still the biggest geopolitical competitor. China’s much more powerful than Russia. So the addendums I make to Romney being right in his identifying the Russian threat are one, I still think China’s a bigger challenge than Russia with all that Russia’s doing. And two, what the hell happened to the Republican Party? These are the guys who literally built their entire foreign policy in the post-World War II era around opposition to Russia. The Mitt Romney rhetoric of 2012, some of the same people threw that quote back at me, Preet, are enabling everything Donald Trump is doing and essentially letting Vladimir Putin run rampant in our democracy. So I take it with a grain of salt.
Preet Bharara: Stay tuned there’s more coming up right after this.
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Preet Bharara: So let’s talk about Iran, which is much in the news. I heard General McCaffrey on television, saying if it comes to the point where Iran, whether by mistake or otherwise, does anything with our Navy, we’re going to war and it’s not going to be for Iran. Before we get to the issue of war, you mentioned a couple of times, the Iran Nuclear Deal.
Ben Rhodes: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: Describe for folks because you know people assume knowledge everywhere, describe for folks what the point of that was and whether it was good or not.
Ben Rhodes: So Iran has had a nuclear program for a long time, at least 20 years. And it has steadily advanced over that period of time. There are different ways in which a nation can acquire a nuclear weapon. Technically they could do that by acquiring enough enriched uranium, that is one kind of material that can build a nuclear weapon or plutonium. So Iran had advanced to a point where they were closing in on having enough centrifuges operating. Those are the machines that produce the enriched uranium, where they could stockpile material for a bomb. And they were closing in on building heavy water reactor, which is what produces weapons grade plutonium. So we have a problem we have to solve. The problem we have to solve is this country that has a foreign policy that’s [inaudible 00:48:51] the United States, it supports terrorism, it threatens Israel, is reaching a point where they have enough enriched uranium and potentially plutonium to build a nuclear weapon. So we have to figure out, okay, how do we stop them from doing that?
Preet Bharara: So the options, broadly speaking, the options for any president at that moment and that could have been a moment in a Reagan presidency or a Carter presidency-
Ben Rhodes: Any presidency.
Preet Bharara: Any presidency. So broadly speaking as a foreign policy expert, the potential options at that moment are what?
Ben Rhodes: Honestly, there are three options. One is you essentially succumb to this and they cross this threshold and acquire a nuclear weapon. Which is what happened with North Korea under the Bush administration. North Korea reached that threshold and tested a nuclear bomb in 2006 and we said it was too risky to war and now ever since we’ve been living with a nuclear [inaudible 00:49:38] with North Korea. So one is you don’t do anything or you kind of succumb to it. Two is, you take military action to stop them from developing this capability.
Preet Bharara: Which is essentially war? Can you do that in a lightening strike?
Ben Rhodes: Well I’ll come back to what McCaffrey said later but yeah it’s war. Because essentially what it is, is you bomb these facilities. And one of these facilities is around Tehran, you would kill people. The way in which this is talked about in euphemisms and I just did, military action. We would bomb things and kill people to set back their nuclear program. And the risks associated with that are one, it doesn’t actually entirely solve the problem because they know how to do this, they know how to produce this material. They may think, well, you just bombed us, we’re going to double down and accelerate our efforts to try to develop this nuclear material. Some estimates were you’d only set them back kind of a year by doing that. And you risk a much wider war with Iran and we can talk in a bit about why I think that would be a catastrophe.
Ben Rhodes: But one is, bomb the facilities, one is do nothing, and the third is some kind of diplomatic agreement. And those are really the only three options. And so what we did is over a period of years, we enforced very tough sanctions on Iran to squeeze them and force them to come back to the negotiating table and then we sat down with a bunch of other countries, Russia, China, France, Germany, the U.K., the European Union, to negotiate a deal that gave us satisfaction that Iran would not be able to build a nuclear weapon. And what they did is essentially say, okay, you’re worried about plutonium, we’re going to destroy the core of this reactor. You can rebuild it so that it could never produce weapons grade plutonium. Literally, we got to participate in the design of something that cannot produce plutonium for a weapon. So you take that away.
Ben Rhodes: Then on the enrichment side, you say and this is a painstaking negotiation because the Iranians are saying, well, we’re entitled to some nuclear power for peaceful purposes, we don’t really accept that but at the same time you’re making a deal. They’re not going to get rid of every last bolt and screw of their nuclear program. So what we say is, what is satisfactory to us? Well, you have to ship all of your stockpile out of the country, so you don’t maintain a stockpile of this material. You have to take out two thirds of the centrifuges, so you have much more limited capacity to produce nuclear materials. And we have to have inspectors in your nuclear facilities, in the mines where you get this material, in the mills where you convert it, literally sensors on the centrifuges. So if they turn on a centrifuge, that’s supposed to be taken out, we’d know immediately.
Ben Rhodes: Is it the perfect deal? No, the perfect would eliminate every last vestige of the nuclear program. But is it a good deal? I think absolutely yes, because it solves this one problem. Iran cannot get a nuclear weapon with this deal in place. And we can verify that because we have all these inspectors in there. It sets them so far back that even if they cheat, even if they decide to kick out all the inspectors and produce a nuclear weapon, we would obviously know that and we would have a sufficient period of time, at least a year to figure out what to do about it.
Preet Bharara: A lot of people didn’t like the deal, including Democrats, their criticism that was most pointed was what?
Ben Rhodes: I think there were a lot of disingenuous criticisms but the most valid ones, I think the most valid ones were some of these provisions about the limitations on their nuclear activities had expiration dates. So the prohibition on Iran never getting a nuclear weapon was permanent, the inspections, a lot of that was permanent, but after 10 years, after 15 years, we said, you will have earned some trust if you comply with this deal 10 years, 15 years and we will allow you to reinstall some of these centrifuges to do some additional activity. So some people said, wait a second, why can’t this deal be permanent, why can’t the strongest elements of this deal be permanent? Our argument was essentially, that’s a fair argument but what I’d say is, if you’re worried about what’s going to happen in 10 or 15 years from now, you can deal with that 10 or 15 years from now. Why not just accept these constraints for the time being. We can see what the current dynamic is in 10 or 15 years.
Ben Rhodes: And if you don’t like that Iran acquired more stockpile then, than all the same options are available. You can sanction them, you can bomb their facilities. Trump in pulling out of the deal, and not providing Iranians with sanctions relief, they’re doing now what people criticized us for happening 10 years from now, which is to getting to start their stockpile again.
Preet Bharara: Is the Trump criticism of the Iran deal that among the three options, do nothing, go to war, some diplomatic resolution, but he can negotiate a better deal, some better diplomatic resolution or is it inexorably leading towards the second option, which is to go to war?
Ben Rhodes: And this is the crux of the debate, Preet. First I’d say, I think this is important, I don’t think Donald Trump has the slightest idea of what is in the Iran deal.
Preet Bharara: But John Bolton does.
Ben Rhodes: John Bolton does but I’ve always wanted a reporter to just say, what are the elements of the Iran Nuclear Agreement? Because it’s kind of–
Preet Bharara: [inaudible 00:54:35] you’re being a little wiseguy.
Ben Rhodes: Yeah, but it’s kind of breathtaking, it’s pretty clear he has no idea. But take it face value. There is a view that I never, honestly never understood but I’ll try to present it fairly, and then I’ll present the disagreement. I think John Bolton, if Bibi Netanyahu was sitting here, if Mohammad Bin Salman was sitting here, would say there’s a fourth option. Which is what they’re doing now, maximum pressure, which is you just sanction and sanction and squeeze and squeeze and at some point you just kind of break them. And what’s never been articulated is what that means. The regime collapses, does that mean they just kind of come out with their hands up and give up their nuclear program. Because honestly if you squeeze them to get a better deal, the Europeans have been trying desperately to do that.
Ben Rhodes: Since Trump started trying to pull out of the deal and then did pull out, the Europeans have been saying, well come back with us to the table and we’ll try to add some additional elements to this deal and they’re saying no to that. I think they might argue that there’s a fourth option, but this is a key point in the whole debate and the debate that happened in 2015, 2016. We said, guys, no, it’s a deal like this or it’s a war. There’s not another option. And people would say to us, you guys are being disingenuous, we honestly believe that. You might disagree, I honestly believe I don’t see any other option. Because I don’t see the Iranians capitulating on our sanctions, I actually see the Iranians becoming more belligerent under sanctions. And I have to say, Preet, and I’ve warmed up to some things we got wrong in this, and this I’ll we were right, that’s exactly what’s happened.
Ben Rhodes: Trump pulled out of this deal, the Iranians became more belligerent, they’re more belligerent in the region. They’ve now restocked their stockpile and we’re ultimately going to get to a point where either you’re coming back into a deal like this, or you’re going to go to war. Or they’re going to get nuclear weapons, I don’t see what the other way is.
Preet Bharara: What is the goal, the foreign policy professionals, who are trying to keep their eye on the ball, is the goal just eliminate the nuclear program, stall the nuclear program, all about the nuclear program-
Ben Rhodes: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: Because that presents the most existential threat to Israel and others. Or is it long term regime change or some other goal, a product of which will be hopefully something good about the nuclear program.
Ben Rhodes: This is another difference, the goal for us was to eliminate the nuclear threat. And so you have a country in Iran that is a bad actor, that does things that we don’t like, they meddle in affairs of other countries, supports terrorism. And so we’re saying, well the biggest threat is that they can get a nuclear weapon. So let’s remove that element from this picture. The biggest thing that we’re worried about as foreign policy professionals is these people having a nuclear weapon. And then let’s get that off the table and try to deal with these other things. I personally think Bolton’s goal and this is what he wrote and said before he was in government, was regime change. Was to say that as long as this regime exists in Iran, it’s an unacceptable threat.
Preet Bharara: Is that a bad goal?
Ben Rhodes: Yeah, I think so. I mean, can I wish for the Iranian regime to change? Do I think the Iranian people would be better off with a different kind of government? Sure. But for the U.S. to remove it? If we were to remove them militarily or let’s say even I’m wrong and they do collapse. I think that what emerges is worse. But we’ve seen this in plenty of other countries. The people with guns in Iran are the people who are even worse than the people running it now. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard, you prosecuted-
Preet Bharara: We did.
Ben Rhodes: … one of their foot soldiers, those are the guys who would win a power struggle. There’s not some fifth column of, even if I do believe there are a lot of small d, democrats in Iran who want a more democratic society and want a more rational foreign policy. I just don’t believe that the U.S. imposing regime change on Iran would make things better, I think it would make it worse. Our bet was that you will do more hopefully over time to encourage Iran to move in a different direction. By engaging them and trying to deal with them, than by shoving them in the corner. One of my experiences in foreign policy, is we had this misperception I think as Americans that if we just punish and punish and punish some of these places will change. And Cuba is another place I worked on. And we’ve been punishing them for 60 years. And guess what, the Castro regime is still there. I think we can get further opening up and having more ideas and more people and more opportunities that can provide an incentive for a place to change rather than saying, we’re going to impose regime change.
Preet Bharara: So let’s talk about what happening in the present day in the immediate term. So there’s this business with these tankers, which if you read the press casually, you would think that they were American tankers, they’re not.
Ben Rhodes: No.
Preet Bharara: What’s happening there?
Ben Rhodes: So you have these two tankers, Japanese flag tankers passing in the Gulf of Oman, it’s in a part of the world where there’s a ton of shipping that takes place. And they’re attacked and set on fire a few days ago. The Trump administration comes out right away and says, Iran is to blame.
Preet Bharara: Aren’t they correct about that?
Ben Rhodes: I mean, probably. The problem is Preet, when you have this level of credibility problem, I think it’s fair to say, you guys got to cross a higher bar than Mike Pompeo coming out and showing us one grainy video of some guys in a speedboat-
Preet Bharara: Although I do think the House Intel Chair, Adam Schiff, also said that he believes it to be true as well.
Ben Rhodes: Look, and I don’t want people to think I don’t think Iran did this. I do think-
Preet Bharara: You want more proof.
Ben Rhodes: I want more proof because look when Trump pulled out of the Iran deal, he said that Iran wasn’t complying with the deal, even though they were. If I’m sitting in Europe, if I’m one of our allies, I’m thinking I just need … but by the way, it’s not just for my, if something’s going to happen here, the world needs more proof. If they want to build support for some action to take against Iran in any way punitive, I just think the normal course would be to present your evidence to your allies or at the U.N. so yes, but let’s say Iran did this. You also don’t know what happened, was this Iran, was this an Iranian proxy, was this something that the Iranians meant to do or was this something that a bunch of cowboys did. This kind of stuff matters to other countries.
Preet Bharara: [crosstalk 01:01:05] Since the intelligence debacle that caused us to war in Iraq-
Ben Rhodes: This is what I’m saying.
Preet Bharara: You want more proof and we can’t take dramatic actions in the absence of a higher threshold of proof.
Ben Rhodes: So right now people say to me, “Who’s this guy, who’s side is on?” And what I’m saying is not that I’m on Iran’s side-
Preet Bharara: Who’s side are you on? Settle it right here.
Ben Rhodes: What I’m saying is, look at the Gulf of Tonkin and look at the Iraq War. The two biggest catastrophes in American history in terms of our foreign policy were started under false pretenses. And the Gulf of Tonkin, I think people really did think that that was attacked by North Vietnamese at a certain point and it turned out to be wrong. I think some people really did think that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and it turned out to be wrong. Look you need to interrogate this evidence, this is what you used to do, Preet. And then the second question is, like as I watch the news coverage, there’s a presumption that we go to war over these tankers. Why on Earth would be go to war over two tankers being on fire in the Gulf of Oman? That’s crazy, I don’t think most Americans think that we should go to war. A war with Iran is a real thing.
Preet Bharara: That’s right up there with don’t do stupid shit. A war with Iran is a real thing.
Ben Rhodes: This is a big country, they have the capacity to hit back in a lot of ways. They would attack us in Iraq. They would attack us in Afghanistan. They would attack Israel. They could launch attacks in Lebanon. They could launch, as you know, terrorist attacks in the Western Hemisphere. We could be talking about a very costly war that could make the one in Iraq look like the warm up act.
Preet Bharara: Do you think that Trump himself wants to go war?
Ben Rhodes: I don’t think he does, I think Bolton does. So what’s weird to watch this is you have Bolton and I think Pompeo had this agenda where-
Preet Bharara: You think Pompeo wants to go to war also?
Ben Rhodes: Well, I know Bolton does and if people say, well, how … he said it. He’s said this for years. He believes this is ultimately ending in some kind of war. I don’t know if he wants to go to war tomorrow but I think he does think that at a certain point the U.S. is going to have military conflict with Iran. I think Pompeo has either deluded himself into thinking that we can sanction into dust or he wants to go to war. I don’t know the answer to that question. All I know is what they are doing is making war more and more likely. And Trump’s, he wants to have the rhetorical bogeyman of Iran, but that is creating its own logic that is leading towards war. The constant battering of Iran and the constant piling up of sanctions on Iran, and the constant provocations emanating from us towards Iran are not resulting in Iranian provocations towards us. And once you get on that kind of cycle of escalation, how do you get off? And are these the kind of people Trump, Bolton and Pompeo who can get off? I hope they can. Please, I really hope they can but I fear they can’t.
Preet Bharara: Is Joe Biden the right person to be the next president of the United States?
Ben Rhodes: I think anybody who’s running on the Democratic side is the right person.
Preet Bharara: Am I correct that you, I’m kind of going through the list of 4,000 in my head.
Ben Rhodes: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: Am I correct that Joe Biden is the one you know best, personally?
Ben Rhodes: Yeah, I know him best but I know a lot of them. I’m avowedly neutral.
Preet Bharara: You’re not advising anyone?
Ben Rhodes: I provide advice to anybody who asks, that’s kind of my … it’s a good place to be. I think Joe Biden would be a great president. I think Joe Biden has a set of skills that are unique to Joe Biden. Democrats [inaudible 01:04:15] have a choice to make Preet, is do you go with a guy like Biden, who I think is someone who is a steadying influence, knows how to do the job. Or do we want to fall in love with somebody new comes along.
Preet Bharara: Who’s the new person you’re [inaudible 01:04:32] with?
Ben Rhodes: Everybody’s going to get a turn, right? So Buttigieg got a turn, and Warren, she’s new relative to Biden. I mean I basically think there’s this cohort of Warren and Pete, people used to think Beto, who knows, maybe he’s get another shot. Kamala, a bunch of other people. What’ll happen is either one of these people will build the juggernaut that gets bigger and bigger and overtakes Biden. Or they won’t and Biden will be the nominee.
Preet Bharara: You haven’t mentioned Bernie.
Ben Rhodes: Yeah, first of all, I’ll say something really nice about Bernie, which I think Bernie’s been a hugely positive force on the debate for the last four years. By the way, foreign policy as well as domestic policy. Clarifying, motivating to people. Bernie’s definitely part of this mix. I don’t think there’s space for both Bernie and Warren, they’re both kind of tapping into a certain kind of populism.
Preet Bharara: One’s going to knock the other one out.
Ben Rhodes: One’s going to knock the other one out. We’re sitting here today, Warren looks like that person. But man, I’ve been through a primary. Barack Obama was 30 points down at this time. I’m aware that we could be sitting here six months from now and Bernie is where Warren is now.
Preet Bharara: That’s actually gets me to my next question. Do you think Trump’s election was a fluke, or did it reflect something about America that you did not appreciate?
Ben Rhodes: I think it was … I don’t think it was a fluke in the sense that I think that by the time Donald Trump came down the escalator at Trump Tower in 2015, he was the obvious Republican nominee. The Republican Party’s been moving in this direction-
Preet Bharara: Did you think that then, you didn’t think that then?
Ben Rhodes: No, I didn’t think that then.
Preet Bharara: Okay.
Ben Rhodes: When I went back and was writing this book, there’s a direct line. Sarah Palin to the Tea Party, we had a phenomenon in the Obama campaign in ’08 of what I would call, forwarded emails, which is emails forwarded around by someone’s racist uncle. Obama’s a Muslim, he’s not born in the United States or whatever. They’re forwarded enough that we had to actually respond to these and give field organizers talking points. Then Sarah Palin is like that forwarded email is the vice presidential nominee. And then the Tea Party and then the birther movement. And then all the conspiracy theories. Benghazi, which I had to live through and the rest of it. This kind of radicalization happening in republican politics and right wing media. The ugliness, the anti-immigrant pieces of it, the anti-Muslim pieces of it were building and building, the extremism of their opposition to Obama. These were all there as early as 2010. I mean, so Trump, that’s why he never trailed.
Ben Rhodes: So I think it wasn’t a fluke in the sense that Donald Trump represents the views of the Republican Party of the United States and that’s where I disagree with Biden by the way. This is not an aberration, this is where this party has gone. And maybe not the Republicans that you and I know, but the voters. And it’s not to say their bad people, but it’s this mix of the media they’re consuming. And the failure of politicians to take a principled stand on certain things. So I don’t think it was a fluke in the sense that I think the Republican Party is moving in that direction. I think 900 weird things had to go wrong for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and they all did. And their campaign had problems. So I don’t think that this was some decisive shift in American … I mean, Donald Trump had less votes for president than Mitt Romney got and Obama cleaned Romney’s clock. So I don’t think there’s some huge shift in American public opinion.
Ben Rhodes: I think now though Preet, and we talked about stories earlier, we’re presented with the starkest choice possible. The story that Barack Obama represented, is that the future of American politics? Or is the story that Donald Trump represented, is that the future of American politics? And I think the answer to that question will answer everything.
Preet Bharara: And what do you predict?
Ben Rhodes: I predict, if you look at American history, there’s always blow backs to change, after we advanced for civil rights or social rights or social safety net, there’s always a backlash. And then we always pick up and keep moving forward. And so to me, this answer of legacy, I don’t think our legacy has been undone. Because frankly, it could be picked up and carried forward. The Paris Agreement, day one of the next Democratic administration. Cuba opening, sure a Democratic will pick that up too. So you realize that this is all a continuum. And what matters is the overall direction of things, it’s not settled any one election.
Preet Bharara: So you’re hopeful?
Ben Rhodes: I am hopeful.
Preet Bharara: Ben Rhodes, congratulations again on the book, which continues to do great. The World As It is, much better title than As the World Turns.
Ben Rhodes: Yeah, yeah or General Hospital.
Preet Bharara: Thanks for being with us.
Ben Rhodes: Thanks Preet.
Preet Bharara: The conversations continues for members of the CAFE Insider community. In this special bonus you’ll hear the job advice President Obama gave to Ben Rhodes. His feelings on the personal relationship approach to foreign policy and the pressure he felt as a white kid from the Upper East Side, writing for America’s first black president. To hear that and get the exclusive weekly CAFE Insider podcast, subscribe now at cafe.com/insider. You know, sometimes at the end of the show, we don’t need to talk about politics or news or something that’s either upsetting or controversial. Sometimes we can just talk about music. And I was struck in the interview with Ben Rhodes how he talked about his conversation with Barack Obama and about Ray Charles and his version of “America the Beautiful” and how presumably President Obama was kind of joking, that should be America’s anthem. I take no position on that point of view, I thought we’d leave you with a few notes from Ray Charles, “America the Beautiful.”
Ray Charles: (singing)
Preet Bharara: Well that’s it for this episode of “Stay Tuned,” thanks again to my guest, Ben Rhodes. Stay Tuned is presented by CAFE. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The senior producer is Erin Dalton. And the CAFE team is Carla Pierini, Julie Doyle, Calvin Lord, Vinay Basti and Geoff Isenman. Our music is by Andrew Dost. I’m Preet Bharara, stay tuned.
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