The Biden vice-presidential-nominee finalist discusses Trump’s pandemic response, Benghazi, and her family’s politics.
Edward-Isaac Dovere – The Atlantic-Alex Wong / Getty
A few days before Donald Trump’s inauguration, then-National Security Adviser Susan Rice held a press briefing in her office to talk about the threats she saw on the horizon as Barack Obama’s presidency drew to a close. “What keeps you up at night? one reporter asked toward the end of the meeting. Her answer: a pandemic that spirals out of control.
Yesterday afternoon, I asked Rice how the past five months have compared to what she’d been worried about in the early days of 2017. “This is about in the realm of my worst nightmare,” she told me. That’s why, Rice said, she worked to put together plans, and why she oversaw the creation of the pandemic-preparedness office that Trump famously closed. “We knew it was going to happen. We just couldn’t know when.”
Rice criticized the current administration’s handling of the pandemic, saying there are “absolutely many more Americans dead because of Donald Trump’s failed leadership.” Our conversation can be heard in full on the latest episode of The Ticket.
These days, Rice isn’t speaking just as a former national security adviser and a former United Nations ambassador, or an author whose memoir, Tough Love, just happens to have come out in paperback at the beginning of August. Rice is among the finalists under consideration to be Joe Biden’s running mate, and an announcement is expected within the next few days. If she is picked, she’ll be the first vice-presidential candidate since Henry Wallace, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s third running mate, to have never run for office before.
She joked that no call from Biden had come in while we were talking.
Edward-Isaac Dovere: You’re a huge supporter of statehood for your native Washington, D.C. To some people, it is a ridiculous idea that Washington should ever be a state. To others, like Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, Washington, D.C., shouldn’t be a state and Wyoming should because “Wyoming is a well-rounded, working-class state.” What do you make of that?
Susan Rice: What are the demographics of Wyoming versus Washington, D.C.? I think it’s an important priority, particularly when we have 700,000 disenfranchised Americans here who are, as you know, red-blooded, hardworking, decent, tax-paying as any others. And there’s a large history to this, which is that the Constitution has established something called the federal enclave. But the Constitution doesn’t require that that federal enclave be any larger than the federal buildings and territory within the city. So you could take the capital in the Mall and the White House and the Supreme Court and the Smithsonian and the federal entities and continue to reserve them as the federal enclave per the Constitution and allow the rest of the city, which is where the population is anyway, to have statehood. And if we had statehood, it would have been a lot harder for President Trump, for political purposes, to call out federal forces to club and beat and terrorize people in the District of Columbia who are peacefully protesting.
Dovere: You’re known as someone who curses, and you write about being known as “direct” and being called a “hothead.” Why do you think that’s been a focus?
Rice: I am accused of using profanity. I cop guilty to that. I do occasionally use profanity. Not in my official functions. Not when the circumstances make it inappropriate. But it is the case that I have used the occasional profanity. Does anybody remember what Dick Cheney said on the Senate floor? Told [Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy] to go F himself. On the Senate floor. Does anybody talk about Dick Cheney’s foul mouth? Or does that in any way define him as the vice president of the United States? I think it’s sexist; that’s what it is.
Dovere: The Sunday-show appearances around the Benghazi attack have become so much of your public identity. Your mother actually warned you not to do it, and thought Hillary Clinton should have instead. In the end, that became an issue getting in your way to be Obama’s secretary of state, and continues to be an issue Republicans attack you over now.
Rice: She said, “Why you?” And I said, “The White House asked me to do it.” And she’s like, “Well, where’s Hillary?” And I said that she’d been asked, but declined. And I presumed—I hadn’t had this conversation with her—that she had had an extraordinarily draining week, having lost four Americans in an American overseas facility, and all the pain and trauma that that entails for the people of the State Department, for the families, for everybody. But I agreed, as a team player. And her instinct was, “I smell a rat. You shouldn’t do it.” And I said, “Mom, don’t be ridiculous. I’ve done this many times before.” She was absolutely right.
Dovere: What did that experience teach you about the way that politics, and at least cable news, political media work?
Rice: First of all, the core lesson is always: Listen to your mother. I think this was what she was getting at, and what I suspect in retrospect that Secretary Clinton and other senior officials understood is, when you have a tragedy, a crisis of the sort we had in Benghazi and the terrorist attack, particularly in the height of a presidential campaign, a hot electoral season—it’s going to be politicized and the opposition is going to be looking to shoot the messenger as much as shoot at the message. And that’s what happened.
I wasn’t thinking about myself. I’m part of a team, a team that had a very hard week. We’ve lost our colleagues. Christopher Stevens, our ambassador in Libya, was somebody that I knew and worked with and respected and liked. It was painful for all of us and for me to think about myself, rather than think about the responsibility that the administration had to communicate to the American people, was not where my head was. And in retrospect, maybe it should have been. Maybe I should have been more self-centered in how I thought about it, because clearly it has not redounded to my benefit in right-wing circles. But if not that, I’m sure they would have found something else.
That was eight years ago, and it was sort of an early leading indicator of how ugly and dishonest our politics were going to get. Eight congressional committees investigated Benghazi ad nauseam through 2016, and not one of them found that I had done anything wrong or that I had deliberately misled the American people or anything else. The fact that really only one piece of that information later turned out to be inaccurate doesn’t make me a liar for having shared it and caveated it as our best current information. That could change. But it shows you how the right wing latches on to a meme or a caricature and drives it relentlessly, and they do it to this day. This one is tired and overwrought, and there’s no substance to it.
Frankly, for the Republicans to be harping on Benghazi in 2020, when under Donald Trump’s watch, three Americans were killed on a U.S. military base in Pensacola, Florida, last year in a terrorist attack inspired by al-Qaeda—what appears to be the first foreign-directed terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11—because the Defense Department failed to adequately vet the Saudi military personnel who are being trained on that base. But no investigation, no outrage, not a boo out of congressional Republicans. Four American servicemen were killed in a terrorist attack in Niger in West Africa on Donald Trump’s watch, and not a boo, not an investigation. Not an expression of concern. So this is all political distraction. And in a year when over 160,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 because of this president’s ineptitude and incompetence and disregard for human life, putting his own political interests above the health and well-being and the economy of the United States and the ability to educate our kids … they’re going to talk about Benghazi? I say fine, let them.
Dovere: You were the national security adviser when the office was set up in the National Security Council to deal with pandemic response under President Obama. That’s the office that Trump famously disbanded. With your experiences and the awareness you had of the dangers of a pandemic, how does what has actually happened compare to the fears that you had?
Rice: This is about in the realm of my worst nightmare. The only thing that would be worse, potentially, is a very deadly flu virus that’s as transmissible as COVID, but much more deadly. Some of the avian flus have a mortality rate of 50 percent. So think about that. Yeah. But in terms of the number of infections, the number of deaths, the economic implications, the complete disruption to our domestic and global economy, this is exactly what I worried about and wrote about in the book when it was published almost a year ago. So this is entirely foreseeable, which is why we tried to put in place plans, offices, equipment, preparatory briefings to help the incoming administration be ready for such a scenario, because we knew it was going to happen. We just couldn’t know when.
Dovere: You write in the new afterword to the book, “I find it exhausting and difficult to remain hopeful in the face of such immoral and incompetent leadership.” Is it strange to watch what’s going on, having been on the inside?
Rice: Strange is to put it mildly. It’s infuriating because it didn’t need to be this bad.
Dovere: Are Americans dead because of Donald Trump?
Rice: I’ve said that repeatedly. There are absolutely many more Americans dead because of Donald Trump’s failed leadership.
Dovere: Your son is an outspoken conservative, who’s been identified as a Trump supporter. You are outspoken against Trump. How does that family dynamic work, and what does that tell you about the larger divisions in America right now?
Rice: You should not accept press characterizations of my son. You should read what I say about what his views are. And I write about them in the last chapter of the book. And he and I worked on that portion together to fairly reflect his views, and where we agree and where we disagree. He likes to characterize himself as a Reagan Republican. We have really fundamental disagreements on a lot of issues. And sometimes they get heated, as I write about in the book. But at the end of the day, it’s so much more important to us to be united as a family, to recognize that we have a shared history. We have shared interests. We love each other. We want to stay together, and we fight not to let political differences or any other kind of differences divide us in any kind of irreparable way. As much as I disagree with Donald Trump and his policies, I can’t write off or discount or fear or hate or dismiss those Americans who support him. If everybody did that, we would literally be irreparably divided as a nation. And I don’t think we can afford to do that. I can’t afford to do that in my family.
Dovere: You were a diplomat. You were a behind-the-scenes person. How has it been getting into the political fray yourself?
Rice: What I discovered the hard way was, even when I was serving in New York as our ambassador to the United Nations trying to be very much a policy maker in a policy role, and then went on to be national security adviser, I was sucked into the political fray. I didn’t ask for that. But that’s the nature of the way Washington has devolved. I was sucked in, and I know as long as I was a sitting U.S. official, I was responsible to the interest of the United States. I was speaking on behalf of the United States and on behalf of the president and our administration. Now that I’m a private citizen, I have the ability to speak in my own voice.
It’s telling my own story in my own voice, and because of how governing has transpired under Donald Trump, I feel compelled not to be silent about the many ways in which I think he is disserving our nation. Americans are dying who didn’t need to die because of failed leadership. And I refused to be silent about that, whether I’m a private citizen or not.
Edward-Isaac Dovere is a staff writer at The Atlantic.