- Show Notes
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On this episode of Stay Tuned, Preet speaks with Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s longest serving adviser and author of “Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward.” Plus, Preet answers your questions about:
- Donald Trump Jr.’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee
- Attorney General Bill Barr’s appointment of Connecticut US Attorney John Durham to look into the origins of the Russia Investigation
- The fight for President Trump’s tax returns
REFERENCES & SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS
Trump’s tax returns
- New York State Senate Bill S5072A, “Trust Act”
- “New York Is Offering Trump’s Taxes, But Democrats May Not Bite,” Bloomberg, 5/14/19
- “A History of Presidential Tax Returns, NPR, 2/15/19
Donald Trump Jr. testimony
- “Donald Trump Jr. has agreed to appear for limited closed door session with Senate Intel committee,” ABC News, 5/14/19
- “Judiciary chairman says Trump Jr. should plead the Fifth to Intelligence panel,” The Washington Post, 5/13/19
- “Barr’s pick to investigate the Mueller probe’s origins has a history of penetrating the FBI,” Washington Post, 5/14/19
- Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward, Penguin Random House
- “The Ultimate Obama Insider,” New York Times Magazine, 7/21/09
- “Friction over women’s role in Obama White House was intense,” Washington Post, 9/20/11
Chicago mayors: Harold Washington & Richard Daley
- “Harold,” This American Life, 11/21/97
- “Private Man with a Public Life,” Chicago Tribune, 11/26/87
- “The Daley Legacy, Inescapable,” New York Times, 9/12/10
- “Is Chicago really that corrupt? Yes,” Chicago Tribune, 12/14/16
- “How Chicago Politics Produced A Deeply Entrenched Culture Of Corruption,” WBUR, 2/28/19
- “In 2000, a Streetwise Veteran Schooled a Bold Young Obama,” New York Times, 9/9/07
- “Stunner in N.H.: Clinton defeats Obama,” NBC News, 1/9/08
- “Barack Obama’s New Hampshire Primary Speech,” New York Times, 1/8/08
- The Audacity of Hope, Penguin Random House, 2007
- “Senator Barack Obama 2004 Democratic National Convention Keynote Speech,” C-SPAN, 7/27/04
- “The Speech,” Chicago Magazine, 5/29/07
- “Even-Keeled Obama Built Image On Bridging Divides,” NPR, 9/25/08
- “Rep. Wilson shouts, ‘You lie’ to Obama during speech,” CNN, 9/10/09
- “Emanuel Wields Power Freely, and Faces the Risks,” New York Times, 8/15/09
- Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing Transcript, 5/17/07
- “Former Justice Deputy Describes Political Clash,” NPR, 5/15/07
- “Bombings in Madrid: The Attack; 10 Bombs Shatter Trains in Madrid, Killing 192,” New York Times, 3/12/04
Do you have a question for Preet? Tweet it to @PreetBharara with the hashtag #askpreet, email [email protected], or call 669-247-7338 and leave a voicemail.
Preet Bharara: From Café, welcome to Stay Tuned. I’m Preet Bharara.
Valerie Jarrett: When you were in his presence, you were the most important person in the world. He had the ability to just like look at you right in the heart. And I joined in his second term, so I already had one whole term to watch how he did business, and then to talk through City Hall and see people who I had looked at as like celebrity sightings who were part of his administration, and I think what it brought out of me is a sense that we all should feel about the people who represent us the way I felt about Harold Washington.
Preet Bharara: That’s Valerie Jarrett. You may know her as a long-time advisor to President Obama. Jarrett also has a wealth of experience and history in Chicago, starting at City Hall with the city’s first black mayor, and later becoming chairwoman of the Chicago transit board. Valerie’s new book is called, Finding my Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward. I speak with her about growing up in Shiraz, Iran, leaving her job at a top law firm to get in the mud of Chicago politics, and meeting Michelle Robinson and Michelle’s then-fiance, Barack Obama.
Preet Bharara: But first, I’ll get to your questions. That’s coming up. Stay tuned.
Preet Bharara: Hey folks. Café recently launched something to help you keep on top of today’s new cycle: the Café brief. It’s a newsletter that recaps news and analysis of politically-charged legal matters, sent twice a week. Sign up to stay informed at café.com/brief. That’s café.com/brief.
Preet Bharara: This question comes in a Tweet from Twitter user Chris Houston, who asks, “Is it legal for Lindsay Graham to suggest Don Junior break the law and ignore a Senate subpoena? Should it be?” And then he tags various people, including folks that I like very much: Ben Wittes, George Conway, Ben Rhodes. “It’s very unsettling watching the rule of law become squishy and optional. That’s a Soviet thing, not an American thing.”
Preet Bharara: Thanks, Chris, for your question. So we often talk on the show and on the insider podcast about the distinction between something being unlawful, crossing the threshold of being illegal, and/or criminal, versus it just being sort of wrong, immoral, unethical, and sometimes even unpatriotic. And so here, based on what I have seen that Lindsay Graham has said about the prospect of Donald Trump Jr. testifying again before the Senate does not really break the law. He’s a senator who’s exercising his power of voice. And from what I have seen, I think he has suggested that Don Jr. like any other witness could just assert his fifth amendment privilege against self-incrimination which, by the way, has a political consequence. Donald Trump, his father, once upon a time said, in a way that repudiates a couple of centuries of jurisprudence and understanding of the fifth amendment, that anybody who pleads the fifth is obviously guilty of the crime. But consistency doesn’t seem to be a part of anything important to Donald Trump or his family. So there’s that.
Preet Bharara: I do think, on the other hand, though, if you’re actually a member of the Senate and one of your fellow chairmen, remember Lindsay Graham is the chairman of the judiciary committee and Senator Burr is the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, to suggest that a good-faith request for testimony through the form of a subpoena, which is compulsory, to any American is somehow something that should be ignored or flouted is a terrible look for a senator. I’m sure Lindsay Graham wouldn’t like it if other folks, including members of his own party, were saying that about things that he wanted to look at.
Preet Bharara: I will note that various Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have come to the defense of senator Burr and have defended the work of their committee. It’s sort of an odd thing to see: one chairman of one senate committee essentially criticizing the chairman of another committee and making an argument that a witness duly called should ignore or plead the fifth.
Preet Bharara: So there’s more news about the prospect of Don Jr. testifying, and that is even though lots of people said he shouldn’t show up, and I think some people have said he would be a fool to show up and he said that it was unfair, and his father, the President, said he shouldn’t be called, there appears to have been some accommodation reached. What’s odd about it, if this source can be believed, there’s a report that a source close to Trump Jr. says the President’s eldest son, and again this is a report secondhand from a source close to Trump Jr. with all due caveats. If this is true, it’s kind of disturbing. The statement is that Donald Trump Jr. is “incredibly appreciative to the members that went to bat for him, and he will return the favor, come the 2020 campaign.”
Preet Bharara: Again, I want to be very careful to say I don’t know if that’s what Don Jr. said. I don’t know if that’s a mischaracterization, but if that’s all true and that’s how Don Jr. felt about it, that sounds awfully close to a quid pro quo. It doesn’t seem appropriate at all, and I think a lot of the jockeying, posturing over Donald Trump Jr coming back to testify when you had a bipartisan basis and bipartisan support for issuing the subpoena is something that should be frowned upon.
Preet Bharara: So something else that’s been in the news just in the last couple of days is something that is not completely unexpected or shocking, but in some ways arguably is disappointing. William Barr, the Attorney General of the United States, has appointed John Durham, who’s the sitting United States attorney in Connecticut, to look at, investigate the origins of the counter-intelligence investigation with respect to Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign. So it’s not shocking that that has happened because the President has been inveighing about it for a long time. Bill Barr used this phrase that later the FBI director, Chris Ray, sort of disavowed, and that is, “Was there spying done on the Trump campaign?”
Preet Bharara: One thing that’s odd about it is that’s what I thought and a lot of people thought the Inspector General at the Department of Justice was already looking at. It seems to be the better way to take a look at these issues of the origins of that investigation. And I think that’s been underway for a period of time. Typically, the Inspector General does a very thorough report and explains all of his finding and comes to fairly sober conclusions about it. So it’s not clear, given what we know so far, why there has to be yet another person who is not in the category of Inspector General, but rather United States attorney whose principle job is to bring indictments, why that was necessary at this time.
Preet Bharara: As I’ve said before, if people do things that merit investigation, so be it. But the problem with a lot of these things including the rhetoric coming out of the White House and the rhetoric coming out of the mouth of the President himself and a lot of his supporters that makes it seem like these things are not good faith investigations, but rather retaliatory attempts against rivals, or non-political, apolitical career investigators and prosecutors who are simply doing their job and to punish them in some way, to have a chilling effect on future investigations that are undertaken in good faith. I think that undermines and corrodes people’s belief in the rule of law.
Preet Bharara: To the extent a lot of this is being propounded by and put forward by political voices who think there should be Hell to pay for anyone who had the temerity to investigate a President or his associates or the campaign, even though there was all sorts of smoke, undeniable smoke, much of which is laid out in volume one of the Mueller report, that’s really too bad. So that’s on the negative side.
Preet Bharara: On the positive side, I know John Durham mostly by reputation. He is not a political figure. He became a Senate-confirmed United States attorney, the District of Connecticut US attorney’s office. He has been a career prosecutor for about 35 years. He has served, obviously, when there were Republican presidents and Democrat presidents. And more than that, separate from, I think, his very notable work prosecuting organized crime and the full gamut of cases that you get in US attorney’s offices, he has been called upon by administrations of both parties to look at sensitive things, including by Attorney General Eric Holder and Attorney General Michael D. Mukasey to investigate various aspects of allegations of abuse by CIA officers who were engaged in… Some people call it “torture,” some people call it “enhanced interrogation,” and also the CIA’s destruction of tapes that documented some of those enhanced interrogation techniques.
Preet Bharara: If memory serves, his work on those investigations and the recommendations that he made and the recommendations that he did not make were, I think, well-received and considered to be professional and apolitical. So this is a person who is getting a, in some ways, kind of sketchy and sensitive assignment, particularly in the current political climate. But he has done this kind of thing before, and he has been trusted by Attorneys General and appointed by presidents of both parties. So I do have confidence that if there’s nothing to see here, he will say that.
Preet Bharara: My view is when you make a decision to appoint a US Attorney to do something and look at something when the principal thing that that person does, just like the special counsel, is to see if a crime was committed or not committed, that sounds like something more than just a generalized review, especially given all the debate over whether people like special counsels or US Attorneys should be issuing reports. When you talk about something being a review to see if ethical rules were violated or prudential rules were violated, that’s usually not something a US Attorney does. There’s been a lot of talk, especially from people who are lawyers for the President and supporters of the President, that prosecutors have a binary choice. And John Durham is a prosecutor. You bring a criminal case, or you don’t bring a criminal case. I don’t know what this thing is going to yield, and to the extent that the New York Times reporting is correct that there’s some kind of review happening, that would suggest that there will be some kind of report being made public in the future. But I don’t know under what regulation, statute, guideline we would be able to receive such a thing.
Betsy: Hi, this is Betsy calling from La Cañada Flintridge. I love your show, listen to it every week. My question is, with all this back-and-forth over obtaining President Trump’s recent tax returns, I’m just wondering, is that something that Robert Mueller would have had access to as part of his collusion with Russia investigation? Thanks so much! Bye.
Preet Bharara: Hey Betsy, thanks for your question.
Preet Bharara: So there’s been a lot of discussion for a long time now about Trump’s tax returns. That dates back to before the election where there was a raging debate about whether or not a candidate should, as everyone has done who is a major party candidate since Richard Nixon, disclose some years of tax returns so the public could know what their finances were and various other bits of information about the person who might end up leading the country. I think Nixon said something like, Nixon, recall. It was Nixon who said something like, “I think the public should have access to my tax returns to learn whether or not their President is a crook.”
Preet Bharara: With respect to Mueller, I think there was a lot of speculation. I might have joined the speculation during the course of the investigation before it concluded, that he probably would have sought a court order. You can’t get tax return just based on a subpoena or an informal request. You have to get a court order. We did it on a fairly routine basis when it was appropriate to do so in criminal investigations that I oversaw in the southern district. And Bob Mueller, who is acting, essentially, as a US attorney though his title is special counsel, would have had the same ability to get the tax returns.
Preet Bharara: We don’t know if he ever did that. Maybe he never bothered to do it. Maybe he didn’t think it was part of his investigation, which was focused mostly on conspiracy and also obstruction, and not so much, it seems, at least with respect to his own investigation, separate from the ones he may have spun off to other offices. We know there are fourteen of those. But with respect to his own, maybe thought he didn’t need to have access to those financial documents because he wasn’t pursuing a certain kind of financial investigation.
Preet Bharara: So I have no indication that he sought them, or that he got them. Or maybe he sought them, or that he got them or maybe he sought them and nothing ended up happening with that. But there’s also reasonable possibility that, either in connection with beginning an investigation that he later spun off, or one of those other offices to whom an investigation was spun off in the course of their doing a financial investigation, where tax information might be more appropriate to further the inquiry, that they had been obtained.
Preet Bharara: You could be cynical enough to think, “Well, if that happened, that would be such a sensational thing that it would have leaked.” But, there’s lots and lots of stuff that happened in the Mueller investigation that did not leak.
Preet Bharara: So, that naturally leads to a discussion of what other places Trump’s tax returns can go. And there are a number of those places. So as I mentioned, any one of the US attorney’s office, including the southern district of New York, if they think it’s relevant and essential to one of their ongoing inquiries, they can get a court order for the tax returns. There’s also, of course, the ongoing standoff between the House Ways And Means Committee Chairman Neal, and the administration, the IRS in particular, over whether or not that Committee can see the President’s tax returns.
Preet Bharara: As I have said on the show before, and Anne Milgram and I have discussed, whether you like the law or not, it’s fairly clear on its face that the tax returns shall be provided to the Committee. And there are political arguments to make. And as I’ve said, I think it would have been better for Chairman Neal to cite some of those other, better reasons, not just the plain language of the statute, so that people have faith, even more than they have now, that those tax returns are being sought for an appropriate purpose. But the law is the law, and I don’t see at least, and I think a lot of experts agree with this, how on a good-faith basis, the tax returns can be withheld.
Preet Bharara: So that’s the federal tax returns. There’s sort of new news now coming from the state of New York, where I live, with respect to a particular bit of legislation. It hasn’t passed yet, but some state senators have suggested they have enough votes to pass a law that would allow the commissioner of the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, which is basically the state equivalent of the IRS, to release state tax returns, requested by a leader of any one of three congressional committees, including Ways and Means, for any “specified and legitimate legislative purpose.”
Preet Bharara: So the state tax returns, which mirror, in some ways, a federal tax return and can provide a lot of the same information, not all of it, but a lot of it, may be in the hands of Chairman Neal long before the federal tax returns are. So those are various ways in which the tax returns might still come into play.
Preet Bharara: And finally, you may have read that the various states are making it a condition of being put on the ballot in their state for the 2020 presidential election, the release of some number of tax returns. And I can also predict that there will be a discussion about a federal law that requires major presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns in order to run for office. That’s one of the recommendations of the Democracy Taskforce that I co-chaired with Gov. Christie, Todd Whitman, that you’ve heard about already.
Preet Bharara: So, lots of news about tax returns, lots of people angling for them, but notwithstanding what the New York State Legislature is doing to be helpful to the House Committee and the Federal system, there’s another wrinkle there as well, because Chairman Neal and his staff, presumably, are doing their own legal and strategic analysis. And there’s a report that suggests Chairman Neal may not actually request from the New York state tax authorities those documents because it might hurt his ability to get the full tax returns, the federal tax returns going back six years from the IRS. Lots of other skirmishes and issues relating to obtaining financial records relating to Donald Trump and his organization.
Preet Bharara: And I talk a bit more about that in the “Stay Tuned” bonus, available to Café insiders. To become a Café insider, sign up at café.com/insider.
Preet Bharara: My guest this week is Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s longest-serving senior advisor. We speak about growing up overseas, overcoming shyness, and handling the responsibility that comes with advising the most powerful person in the world. That’s coming up. Stay tuned.
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Preet Bharara: Valerie Jarrett, thank you so much for joining us on the show.
Valerie Jarrett: My pleasure. Delighted to be here.
Preet Bharara: Congratulations on this book, Finding My Voice: My journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward. Fascinating look at your life, all parts of your life growing up, and also your time in the Obama administration. I congratulate you also for your publisher allowing you to have a picture on the front.
Valerie Jarrett: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: My guy said no, Preet, we can’t, we can’t, we can’t put you on-
Valerie Jarrett: Why? Why no photo?
Preet Bharara: … They’re like, you know what? Face for radio and podcasts. We’ll put you on the back.
Preet Bharara: So I feel like that’s an accomplishment that I wasn’t able to achieve.
Preet Bharara: I want to talk about a lot of things: the past, the present, and the future.
Valerie Jarrett: Great!
Preet Bharara: Which means we’re going to talk about everything.
Preet Bharara: So you grew up in Chicago, but you were not born in the United States of America, like me. I was born in India. Where were you born?
Valerie Jarrett: I was born in Shiraz, Iran in the mid-’50s.
Preet Bharara: How did that come about?
Valerie Jarrett: Well, my dad was a physician, was just leaving the Army and was looking for a job in an academic teaching institution in the country. And he couldn’t find a job equivalent to what his white counterparts where receiving as they left the military. And so he and my mom were adventuresome spirits and not afraid of taking chances. And so they began exploring options outside of the United States. And he was offered a job of being chairman of the department of pathology, as well as helping to start a brand-new hospital in the city of Shiraz, Iran.
Valerie Jarrett: And at that point, obviously the United States had far better diplomatic relations with Iran than they have today. And in fact, their department of health was very interested in bringing physicians together from around the world to work with the Iranian doctors, to share best practices back and forth. And my father thought that’d be an interesting opportunity and so off he and my mom went, and I was the second baby born in the Numazi hospital. They practiced on some other kid first. And so after five years, my parents were thinking about heading back to Chicago, and he was offered a one-year fellowship in London. So he took it.
Valerie Jarrett: And at an international conference, he gave a paper. The Dean of the University of Chicago Medical Center was at the conference and offered him a job at the University of Chicago, where my mom was from, Chicago.
Preet Bharara: And that was that.
Valerie Jarrett: Yeah. And so the lesson, for me, in that, that they lived, was sometimes the shortest distance to where you want to go, you’ve got to be willing to take the longest way around.
Preet Bharara: So you tell a story that’s unexpected about why it is your parents decide to bring the family back to the United States from Iran around the time when you were five. Could you tell us that story?
Valerie Jarrett: Sure. So, a few things were going on at that time. One, Iran was very much of the caste system. So, the people who were helping in our home, for example, were considered in Iran servants and expected to be treated very poorly. And, so one day, my mom walked in the house and mu nursemaid, Soroya, had done something, who knows what, that I didn’t like, and I hauled off and kicked her hard-
Preet Bharara: As a five-year-old?
Valerie Jarrett: … And my mother observed that. Yeah. Really hard.
Valerie Jarrett: And my mom, of course, came in and like grabbed me and said, “What in the world’s going on?” And Soroya said, “It’s fine.” And my mom was really worried about that. What kind of a message is that sending to a five-year-old that she could kick an adult?
Valerie Jarrett: The other thing going on at the same time was that my parents were trying to explain to me that I was black, and we were living in a city where there weren’t any other black people. And my mom’s family was in Chicago, and she missed them. And she and my dad were like, “how are we going to raise this child to appreciate her black identity when she’s living on the other side of the world?”
Valerie Jarrett: So I think the combination of fearing that I was falling into the culture there, as well as this desire to instill in me a sense of identity and attachment to the African American community really were part of the decisions that drove my parents back home.
Valerie Jarrett: And my mom, I think, was very homesick for Chicago, and my dad had gotten to know Chicago since he did his residency there. And they ended up moving around the corner from my grandmother.
Preet Bharara: How many people have you kicked since the age of five?
Valerie Jarrett: I can’t think of a one, actually.
Preet Bharara: You didn’t kick any member of Congress?
Valerie Jarrett: I think there was someone… Oh, but boy did I want to. No, part of what I had to learn was to resist the temptation.
Preet Bharara: You must have kicked Rahm Emmanuel a few times.
Valerie Jarrett: No, no, I can’t say I would kick Rahm. I was afraid he would kick me back. So, no, I didn’t kick Rahm.
Preet Bharara: Right. And… yeah. I’ll leave that right there.
Valerie Jarrett: Learning restraint was a big part of how I was raised.
Preet Bharara: Do you have a memory, as a child, moving from Iran to Chicago, and were you upset about that, or did you welcome it?
Valerie Jarrett: I was very upset about it. I was upset about leaving Shiraz to move to London in the first place. And we lived there for a year. And it’s really where my shyness began. My memory of Shiraz is that it was ideal. I was joking with my mom when I was like, “Yeah, it was 80 and sunny every day!” And she’s like, “You know, it snowed sometimes in Iran.” I was like, “No, I have no memory of that.”
Valerie Jarrett: So it was what I knew, just as with all children, which what’s familiar you crave. And so going to London was disruptive for me, and I kind of withdrew a little bit. And then when we got back to Chicago, my parents, for them, they’re going home. For me, I’m going to a foreign country. And there was nothing about it was familiar. And by then, I had developed a British accent after spending a year in Great Britain. I spoke three languages, and I was from a country that nobody in my public school in our neighborhood had ever heard of.
Valerie Jarrett: And I used to get beat up all the time. And my younger cousin would have to come to my rescue. It was kind of embarrassing. I lost the British accent like week one. I stopped speaking Farsi week two, and I never liked to talk about where I was from. And the first 20 years of my life, nobody had ever heard… 22 years of my life… Nobody had ever heard of Iran. And then after the hostage crisis with President Carter, everybody had heard of it. And our relationship with Iran has degraded since then.
Valerie Jarrett: And so it was always a source of, well, do I really want to explain what I’ve taken now ten minutes to tell you about, which is why I was born there.
Preet Bharara: Have you ever been back?
Valerie Jarrett: We went back frequently until I graduated from high school. So, 1974 was the last time I was back.
Preet Bharara: And not during the Obama presidency, obviously.
Valerie Jarrett: Oh, no, no, no. We’ve… No, no, no.
Preet Bharara: You would have to use your kicking skills probably?
Valerie Jarrett: I didn’t. But my parents went back. I think the last time they were there was in the late ’90s. Again, adventuresome spirits. I would ask them not to go, and of course they wanted to go. They were curious. And so they did go back.
Preet Bharara: So then you grew up in Chicago, and you had a successful academic career. You went to all these great schools. You became a lawyer. Then you started practicing law, and you didn’t much like it.
Valerie Jarrett: No, I did not much like it.
Preet Bharara: That’s very common.
Valerie Jarrett: Yes. I get that a lot.
Preet Bharara: We have some lawyers who are listeners. You can always leave and go become one of the top advisers to a future president of the United States. That’s a pretty good path that you found.
Valerie Jarrett: If only had I known at the time that I left what the path-
Preet Bharara: You mentioned a couple things, now. You said, which I want to get into, your shyness, because you don’t seem shy.
Valerie Jarrett: … I know. I’m not anymore.
Preet Bharara: I used to be incredibly, deathly shy, which I’m not going to get into here because I’m interviewing you. And then you overcome these things. It’s an odd thing for someone who, growing up was very shy, to get involved in politics. How’d that happen? How do you square those things?
Valerie Jarrett: Well, so, painfully shy to the point where I… And you’ll appreciate this, Preet. I was called on twice my first day of law school, because my maiden name is Bowman. And I didn’t think there’d be a second day. I was just mortified, and I just went blank. And I hated moot court. I hated everything that involved me having to speak in front of more than three or four people.
Valerie Jarrett: And what happened was, I was so bored to tears at my law firm and in a bad marriage, and I had a very good friend who had worked for mayor Harold Washington, the first African American mayor of Chicago. Left his firm gone to work for the mayor, and was heading back to his firm. And he said, “Why don’t you consider public service? You’ll feel like you’re a part of something more important than yourself.”
Valerie Jarrett: And something about that thought resonated with me. And I had knocked on doors for Harold Washington. So, I loved his progressive agenda. And I took the leap of faith and then several years later, after Mayor Daley was elected and I had been promoted a couple of times, I ended up being the commissioner of Planning and Development. No one told me, when I took that job, I was going to be required to speak in public. I somehow missed the memo.
Preet Bharara: Is that a condition?
Valerie Jarrett: I guess it was, but I tried to fire my press secretary, because I was like, “Well, what do I need you for? I’m never going to talk to the press.” And he’s like, “Give it a couple weeks, see whether you still want to fire me.” Well, of course I held onto him for dear life once I realized that an important part of the job was being outward-facing and explaining to the public what the administration was trying to do. And the first time I had to give a speech, I remember writing on a notecard the seven bullet points that I wanted to make. And I was speaking in front of about 40 people. I was terrified. And I was so nervous, I started to perspire. And so the ink from my notecard smeared all over my hand. And I looked down at my hand is covered in blue ink, and I can’t read anything on the paper. And I get there and I’m like, “Oh my gosh!”
Valerie Jarrett: And so, somehow, I survived it, right? And then I had to do it again. And I survived it. And I had to keep putting myself in what was a very uncomfortable zone, because that was the nature of the job. And eventually I kind of figured out. I remember the first time there was a newspaper article that was critical of me, I went into Mayor Daly an I was like, “Look, I can’t believe what they said about me in the newspaper!” Well you know what he said? “Well, I’m in there every single day! What are you doing complaining to me?”
Valerie Jarrett: But then the other thing he said, which was a good lesson, he says, “If you don’t like it, go to the editorial board and defend yourself and me, and our administration.”
Preet Bharara: Metaphorical kick.
Valerie Jarrett: It was a real swift kick.
Valerie Jarrett: And so, I thought, you know what? You’re right. Let me go pick myself up. I got that press secretary I almost fired, and off we went. And I don’t know your experience since you don’t want to talk about you, but it took years-
Preet Bharara: I talk about me plenty.
Valerie Jarrett: … It took years for me to get over the shyness. And I can’t even pinpoint when it happened. I’m certain that, with each new challenge, it was scary again. I wrote in the book, the first time I had to speak in the East Wing of the White House, paralyzed again, was hesitant to do it. Fear, like, oh my gosh, how can I speak from here on the North Lawn of the White House?
Valerie Jarrett: And every time you have these mew experiences, you’re terrified. And then when it’s over, and you don’t fall flat on your face, it’s exhilarating.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Valerie Jarrett: And I began to enjoy the exhilaration, which helped me overcome the fear.
Preet Bharara: So with respect to public speaking, I’ll tell one quick story then. My parents basically forced me, as a freshman in high school, to join the speech team.
Valerie Jarrett: Oh my gosh. I could never have done that.
Preet Bharara: So I was deathly afraid as a 14 year old getting in front of 5 or 6 students and a parent judge or a teacher judge and thought I was going to die. And then I had the same experience: you get through it, and it’s not so bad. And then I actually became kind of interested in it, and I became sort of good at it and began to do really well.
Preet Bharara: Now, you might think if you’re then engaged in public speaking for four years in front of audiences, and sometimes it would be larger, and I start to do fairly well, that that overcomes your shyness. It did no such thing. I learned how to perform in front of an audience.
Valerie Jarrett: You’re acting.
Preet Bharara: I’m acting, and remained deathly afraid and wouldn’t talk to anybody at a party.
Valerie Jarrett: Yes!
Preet Bharara: Even though I could get up on stage, and sometimes a lot of people, and win and be the best speaker in the competition, and then immediately get off the stage, and you’re like deathly afraid again and shy. And if a stranger tried talking to you, or God forbid a girl, I went immediately into my shell. It took a long time to become less shy in my regular life, not just in my performing life.
Valerie Jarrett: Yes! You perform! My mom said to me early on, I remember she said to me, “Just because you’re nervous doesn’t mean other people have to know it. You can actually hide it and pretend.” And that was kind of empowering to me, and to your point about parties, I would go to parties with my parents, sit next to my mom, and she would say to me, “The protocol is you have to talk to the person on the other side of you.” And I would say, “Why? Why can’t I just talk to you?” I would blush.
Valerie Jarrett: And for people who are shy, they absolutely understand what I’m talking about. It is a visceral physical, physiological feeling, and over 60 years, I learned I could overcome it and enjoy it. Now I enjoy it. Now I’m actually not shy. Are you still shy?
Preet Bharara: You know, I-
Valerie Jarrett: You don’t seem so shy anymore.
Preet Bharara: … Not so shy anymore. But it doesn’t mean that I love going to parties necessarily and talking to a thousand people. I like this.
Valerie Jarrett: Me too.
Preet Bharara: What was it like working for the first black mayor of Chicago, and what did that mean for the city, for you, because you mentioned your parents’ concern about your own identity and being aware of your own identity? Describe what that was like.
Valerie Jarrett: Growing up in Chicago I really didn’t have much interest in politics. I knew who the mayor was, but he didn’t speak to me. And even she… We had a woman who was a mayor, too. None of it really resonated with me. Harold Washington’s progressive campaign touched every corner of the city, and I felt for the first time curious about how the city works. And so while he was mayor, I started reading the newspaper on the city pages, where you could find out what was going on in politics. I learned who my alderman was, how the city council deliberated and what kinds of issues came before the city council. I started actually even looking at the budget of the city to see what all these different departments did. And it’s because I felt that it represented me in a way that I hadn’t felt previously.
Valerie Jarrett: And because I loved him, and he had this bigger than life personality. He never used words that were fewer than three syllabus, and he put them together in a really unusual way that made you think and laugh. And he was well-read, and he was curious, and he was a very astute politician. When you were in his presence, you were the most important person in the world. He had that ability of just like looking you right in the heart.
Valerie Jarrett: To be a part of that, and I joined in his second term, so I’d already had one whole term to watch how he did business, and then to walk through city hall and see people who I had looked at as like celebrity sightings who were part of his administration was just extraordinary for me. And I think what it brought out in me was this sense that we all should feel about the people who represent us, the way I felt about Harold Washington. And the fact that he was black, and that people in Chicago, African Americans had not traditionally had a seat at the table of power, made me feel like I was a part of something that was reflective more of my identity than the previous mayors had been.
Preet Bharara: But then you came to work for Mayor Daley, who’s white.
Valerie Jarrett: I stayed, yes, after Mayor Daley was elected.
Preet Bharara: This may be an odd way of asking it: was it different?
Valerie Jarrett: Yes, at first it was. The people with whom I had worked for two years, by the time that Mayor Daley took office, many of them left. Most of them left. And a few of them with whom I was very close really resented me for staying. One of my closest colleagues said, “You’re going to be compromised. You can’t be a part of this administration if you truly believed in Mayor Daley’s vision of inclusion.” But I did have one very good friend who knew Mayor Daley well, and in fact when he got married, and Mayor Daley was a state’s attorney, he sat me at the table with the state’s attorney. And I remember saying to him at the time, “Why are you sitting me with him? I want to be with my friends.”
Valerie Jarrett: And he goes, “That guy is going to be mayor one day. Get to know him.”
Valerie Jarrett: And he said to me, “Valerie, you love your job. Why don’t you just stick around and see? See whether he’s true to the ideals that you believe in.”
Valerie Jarrett: And what I think… Who knows what kind of mayor Mayor Daley would have been like had Harold Washington never been mayor, but I think Harold Washington put the city on a trajectory of inclusion that Mayor Daley supported. And so, yes, they were different people, but I grew to respect Mayor Daley, and he gave me a platform to work on the issues that I cared much about, including focusing in the neighborhoods and revitalizing parts of Chicago that had been disinvested in, and he was completely behind it.
Valerie Jarrett: And the other thing that he did that I really respected is that, I mean, the first election he didn’t win any of the wards that were predominantly black. And he went about the business… Every Saturday he’d go out to a different ward. And he started in the wards where people did not vote for him, because he recognized that as a public servant you have to earn people’s trust. And he ended up winning the vast majority of the city in each successive election, and I think that’s because he made people appreciate the fact that he was there for them, too.
Preet Bharara: What an interesting concept, to expand your base, and to try to represent all the people. That’s so fascinating!
Valerie Jarrett: Totally fascinating, right?
Preet Bharara: Some people think you do that as opposed to double down on your base. I’m going to ask you about Chicago politics. Now, for the purposes of this question, assume we are not recording.
Valerie Jarrett: Oh, sure. Okay.
Preet Bharara: All right. How dirty is Chicago politics?
Valerie Jarrett: This is what I would observe to you. It’s funny you frame the question that way because, for reasons I don’t really remember, my mother took me to work my first day working at city hall. And when she dropped me in front, she looked at me, and she said, “I can’t believe I paid all that tuition for you to go do this with your life.” I mean she and my dad were just… They loved the fact that I was in this big fancy law firm, and I had an office with a view of Lake Michigan from the 79th floor of a high-rise downtown. And I was the first lawyer in my family, and so all of that. I just… I saw a difference between service and politics, and I focused on the service. And I left the politics to other people.
Valerie Jarrett: Now, while I was there, and certainly before I got there, the aldermen of Chicago, so many of them were indicted I can’t even count. I think Mayor Daley, during his time in office, appointed the majority of the city council. So a fair number of them went to prison. Others left or departed or passed away. But there was a level of corruption that I found discordant with service. It’s like, well, if you’re doing that then it’s about you. It’s not about this. And fortunately for me, I had a group of both bosses and mentors who were not at all corrupt, and Judd Minor, who was the corporation counsel when I came in, had a reputation in the city for being a huge progressive and coloring well within the lines and the straight and narrow, and so I was very comfortable working for him. And his successor was the exact same way. My experience with the mayors was that they were not corrupt either, but I can’t tell you there was not any corruption, because clearly there was.
Preet Bharara: When your mother dropped you off, and she had that reaction, what was that based on? Was it because she thought-
Valerie Jarrett: She’d seen all-
Preet Bharara: … this was beneath you, and it’s corrupt, and you’ll be corrupted?
Valerie Jarrett: … A, it’s beneath you; B, it’s corrupt; C, you won’t be corruptible, and therefore you won’t thrive here. Because my parents taught me to color well within the lines, and so she thought, “How are you going to survive in this environment that’s so rough and tumble, where so many aldermen do get indicted?” What I did, and what I always insisted the teams that I formed do, is remember that you are there in service. If you do your job, and you do it well, and you insulate yourself from all of the [inaudible 00:34:44] going around you, you’ll be fine.
Preet Bharara: Let me ask you a different way, then. How tough is Chicago politics? And people will say, and they’ve said about you, and who some people might say, “Well, you know, maybe they’re a little soft,” but then the credential that they will point to is they’ll say, “Well, she comes from Chicago politics,” which is supposed to signal-
Valerie Jarrett: Now, what does that mean?
Preet Bharara: … It’s supposed to signal some kind of toughness, and…
Valerie Jarrett: Okay, I’ll leave it to you this way. Yes, I hear where you’re going.
Preet Bharara: I’m not talking about corruption, but you know politics is not beanbag, as they say, and there’s a lot of tough stuff that goes on.
Valerie Jarrett: It’s rough and tumble.
Preet Bharara: And there are blows below the belt that might not be corrupt, but Chicago is known for very rough and tumble politics.
Valerie Jarrett: It is.
Preet Bharara: How did you handle that, and what did you learn that helped you later?
Valerie Jarrett: Well, what I enjoyed about local government in Chicago, and I think this applies to local government everywhere, is that it is proximate to the people that you are there to serve. So, if I went to the grocery store, people would come up to me in the grocery store and lobby me about something or complain about something. I used to get people who slipped notes under my door or gave them to my daughter, which I thought was off-limits.
Valerie Jarrett: But what it taught me about service is that it is 24/7, and that it is hard. And that it is our job as public servants to each day earn the confidence of the people that we are there to serve. And so I went into it not thinking about the fact that, you know, an alderman might embarrass me at a hearing, or that the newspaper might say something critical about me. I went into it thinking that I was there to use whatever skills I had to try to improve the lives of people who had not been represented at the table, because I knew what it felt like when I thought of government as not representing me.
Valerie Jarrett: And so when the mayor’s office… I tell this story about this guard who would call me all the time, and all I knew is whoever he was calling me to see was going to have smoke coming out of their ears, because just think how angry you have to be to show up in the mayor’s office. That means you got a babysitter, you took time off work, you couldn’t get the phone calls returned, and they would just come in furious. And I really enjoyed going out there and proving to them that we were better than they thought government would be, and that I could solve their problems. And I looked at it as a challenge.
Valerie Jarrett: And there were always times where like five different departments were disagreeing with one another, and it was my job to bring them together and say, “Hey, you all. We have to do better by this person.” I’m excited just thinking about it. I mean, I loved doing that, and so it made the pain that ges with it… Wherever you’re serving, there’s always some pain, but you have to learn how to absorb that pain, and you can do it if you’re there for a purpose beyond yourself.
Preet Bharara: Do you feel that you learned how to play hardball?
Valerie Jarrett: I? No. I learned how to get things done without compromising either my integrity or my core values. I found that to be the challenge. And it’s like, no, I’m not going to do it that way. I’m going to do it this way. And usually what it involved was bringing people in and using our good offices and talking to one another. And I found that, when you get people together, even if they disagree, if you just talk to them long enough, and they feel that they can trust you, and that you’re actually listening to them, I learned to be a very good listener, that you can figure out the art of the possible. That’s one of the things that frustrated me so much about Washington because I thought, foolish me, that the skills that I learned in local government in Chicago and that Barack Obama learned as a junior state senator, where he could go and get videotaping of police interrogations passed by a Republican House and Senate, those skills I thought would come in handy in Washington, because we’re both really good at listening to the other side and saying, “Okay, I’m not going to let perfect be the enemy of the good. I’m going to meet you halfway, and I’m going to figure out what do you need, and I’m going to figure out what I need.”
Valerie Jarrett: And so the compromise skill is really what I think made Chicago work for me, and there was none of that in Washington. And I found that deeply and profoundly disturbing and frustrating.
Preet Bharara: Let’s talk about your path to Washington, then. So by now, I think a lot of people know, and you describe it in the book in greater detail, how you came to know Michelle and Barack Obama.
Valerie Jarrett: Sure, so after practicing law for four years in the corporation counsel, the city law department, Mayor Daley promoted me to deputy chief of staff. And one of my jobs there was to help recruit people to join our office with his chief of staff. The corporation counsel at the time, Susan [Shurer 00:39:00], sent me a resume, and across the top it said, “Brilliant young lawyer, has no interest in being in a big corporate law firm, would like to explore public service.”
Valerie Jarrett: And since I had gone through that same experience with a big law firm, I thought, “Oh, just the kind of person I want to meet.” And so Michelle Robinson, in 1991, walked into my office, tall, simply dressed, no makeup, hair pulled back, looks me right in the face, shakes my hand and never mentioned Princeton undergrad, Harvard Law School, none of that. She told me her story, and we all know now it’s like the quintessential American story: growing up on the south side, parents working class, hadn’t been to college, wished for me for she and her brother. And I just fell for her and offered her a job on the spot. Didn’t have any authority to offer her that job, I might add, but I offered her the job. A few days later, after I cleared it with my boss, I said, “Well, what about the job?”
Valerie Jarrett: And she said, “We got bad news.” So I’m like, “What?” She said, “My fiance thinks it’s a dreadful idea.” And I said, “Why is that?” And she said, “Well, he started his career as a community organizer.” And I’m like, “Who is he?” And she’s like, “His name is Barack Obama.” And I’d heard of him because of his work as a community organizer, and also being the first black head of Law Review at Harvard.
Valerie Jarrett: And she said, “Yeah, he’s worried about me going right from the law firm into a political environment. You at least had four years of a buffer to prepare you for it; I’d be going right in. Would you have dinner with us?”
Valerie Jarrett: And I said, “Yes.”
Preet Bharara: So the three of you went to dinner?
Valerie Jarrett: The three of us had dinner. Sitting across the table from the two of them, and keep in mind they’re engaged, but what was clear to me was not just that they loved each other; they were listening to one another. You could feel the respect, and that they were approaching this decision as a team. And so people have said to me, “Well, you know, why was it any of his business what she was going to do with her career?” And I would say in response that, having now known them for 28 years, and every political race and major decision in his life, he’s never made one without her at the table. That’s how they roll.
Preet Bharara: Or you, it seems.
Valerie Jarrett: Well, yeah, I guess that’s true. Since then, yes, exactly. I was embraced into a threesome.
Preet Bharara: Yeah, there’s so much to talk about here. Maybe we’ll fast-forward a little bit. So Barack Obama becomes a senator, first a state senator then a United States senator. He had a loss along the way, by the way.
Valerie Jarrett: Yes, a shellacking, shall we say.
Preet Bharara: Did he deserve that loss?
Valerie Jarrett: Yes, he did.
Preet Bharara: Why? What was so bad about that campaign?
Valerie Jarrett: A number of things. He didn’t have any major endorsers who were rooting for him. When he first ran, there was an open seat, so that’s obviously a lot easier. But this time, he was trying to unseat a popular incumbent, Bobby Rush, who’d been there for a bit.
Preet Bharara: A member of the House of Representatives.
Valerie Jarrett: He was a member of the House of Representatives and still is a member of the House of Representatives, and I think we, we, and I put myself in that too, underestimated how hard it is to unseat an incumbent, particularly without any validators. Everybody needs a validator. And in Chicago it’s like, who wants somebody? Nobody sent. But it’s the same kind of, “Well, if I don’t know you, who do I know that does know you that’s willing to go to bat for you?” And he didn’t really have that. And he didn’t have a ward organization or any sort of a political operation that could raise the kind of money that he needed to make his presence known. And so he lost badly.
Preet Bharara: But was there anything that was his fault in losing that-
Valerie Jarrett: Well, underestimating the opposition, I suppose, was his fault. But I think losing was important, because it teaches you something.
Preet Bharara: … Well that’s why I ask, right.
Valerie Jarrett: It was important.
Preet Bharara: So then he runs for the Senate-
Valerie Jarrett: Over my objection, and his wife’s. We both had a brunch to talk him out of it.
Preet Bharara: … So he doesn’t always listen to the smarter women?
Valerie Jarrett: Well, he didn’t in that case, but I will say, we orchestrated a brunch to talk him out of it.
Preet Bharara: Why?
Valerie Jarrett: I thought it was too soon. He had just lost to Bobby Rush, and I thought, well, if you can’t win your district, how are you going to win the whole state?
Valerie Jarrett: I wondered how he was going to raise money. I wondered like, if he lost so quickly, then would that end his political career? And at one time during the brunch, he looked at me, and he said, “You’re talking about all these things you’re afraid of. If I’m not afraid, why are you afraid?”
Valerie Jarrett: And he said, “You don’t think I can raise any money? You should chair my finance committee, and that will solve that problem.” So…
Preet Bharara: So much for that argument.
Valerie Jarrett: And the fear thing was important because his message to me was right. It’s like, you have to be willing to risk failure, and the worst thing that’s going to happen is you’re not going to win. Well, you’re certainly not going to win if you don’t run. And he had corrected for some of the problems in the first race. He’d been downstate, and the farmers from Southern Illinois knew he cared about their issues. He took time to listen to them. He had the leader of the senate endorse him and get behind him. That was important. And by that point he had a better organization, and he really thought he could appeal statewide, because he knew the state of Illinois. He traveled it mightily before he ever ran.
Preet Bharara: Right, but he also knew himself. So my question always about politicians and politics is what degree of self-confidence does a person need to have to do that thing?
Valerie Jarrett: A lot. You have to have self-confidence, and you have to have a tough skin, and you have to be resilient. And you have to recognize that you have to earn people’s trust, and you can’t just expect them to hand it to you on a silver platter. When he lost the race in New Hampshire, just to fast-forward a little bit, I remember that night. We thought we were going to win. He didn’t have a concession speech. And I remember getting into the elevator with he and Michelle Obama like within a half an hour after learning he’d lost. And I remember he said to her, “It shouldn’t be too easy. I have to earn it.”
Preet Bharara: During that campaign when he was the underdog and everyone thought Hillary Clinton would be the nominee, back in 2008, 2007-2008, something special was happening. That’s actually not an opinion, that’s a fact, I think.
Valerie Jarrett: It is a fact.
Preet Bharara: And so people refer to that now, because everyone’s thinking about 2020, and there are moments with particular candidates and it looks like maybe something special is happening. And I’m not defining “special,” I don’t know what that means. But it’s a thing in the way some people would say, during the Reagan campaign, something special was happening if you’re on the other side of the aisle. Did you appreciate something special was happening, and if so, when?
Valerie Jarrett: First of all, let’s go back to the speech he gave in 2004 at the convention. And that was a wonderful way of him introducing himself on the world stage, before he was running for President. And I think the speech, when I was sitting in Boston in the arena that night, listening to him, I thought, “This is a message that’s going to resonate with this country.”
Valerie Jarrett: Sure enough after that, he was really popular as a junior senator to fundraise and be present and support many of his colleagues. And he wrote a book. Audacity of Hope was a getting a lot of traction. So I always believed he could win. When I thought he would win was after the Iowa caucuses. That night, I thought, well, if you can win Iowa, a state that’s like vastly, predominantly white, it’s the gauntlet. That’s retail politics at its best, and that you might be in a living room with four people and you’d better give those four people your all. And having watched him do that over the course of the year, nearly a year since he announced, I thought, “You could take this all the way.”
Preet Bharara: When that happened, and you and other people high up in the campaign and close to the candidate think, “Wow, this is special, and you can win.” How does that change you, if at all, in how you work on the campaign?
Valerie Jarrett: Keep in mind, just a few days later, he loses New Hampshire.
Preet Bharara: Well, yeah.
Valerie Jarrett: So it was pretty short-lived! It was like a moment in time. But what shouldn’t happen is that you begin to feel entitled. And that’s why he said it shouldn’t be too easy. And if you think about his New Hampshire speech, that’s where “Yes, we can” came out of. And it was like a, “Yeah, nobody thinks I can do this.” Which is part of the cautionary tale I offer to people right now when they say who’s inspiring me in this race. And I say, “At this point in President Obama’s first race in 2007, he was down by about 20 points, and Hillary Clinton was the inevitable candidate.”
Valerie Jarrett: It’s so early, let’s give these people a chance to show us who they are.
Preet Bharara: So let’s skip ahead. Barack Obama wins the presidency in 2008. He is sworn in as the President of the United States, and you come to work at the White House. You talk about this in the book a little bit. Do you have an immediate reaction to, “Yes, I want to do that”? Did you think about doing other things? What was your thinking in deciding to go take a position in the White House?
Valerie Jarrett: Well right before he won, Senator Durbin approached me, my home-state senator, somebody for whom I have an enormous amount of respect. And he said if he wins, might you want to succeed him in the senate? And initially I said no, and then we were sitting on the dais together at a dinner that lasted about five hours, and by the end of it, he had me at least considering it. And I had talked it over with the Obamas, and President Obama, at that point after the election, he kind of humored me for a minute to say, “Well, if you’d like to think about it, you should think about it.”
Valerie Jarrett: And then by the time, I think it was a Sunday… Yeah, I think it was the Sunday after the election, he said, “That’s enough about that. I think you should come and work in the White House.” And he said, “I know the Senate and I know you and I know what I want to do in the White House, and I know the role I want you to play. Come with me.”
Valerie Jarrett: And so when the President of the United States who happens to be like your younger brother who you love dearly asks you to do something, you do it.
Preet Bharara: Did you have any worries about how that would go?
Valerie Jarrett: I did.
Preet Bharara: Given that you are not the sort of typical aide, that you’ve known him for a long time, that you know the first lady for a long time, and you were intimate and friendly and had a long-standing personal relationship. Did that make you think you could be of greater assistance, or did you worry that that might get in the way in some way because of the feelings of other staffers? And I know that some of that happened even in the no-drama Obama administration, there’s always a little bit of drama, even if it’s not intended. How’d you navigate those things?
Valerie Jarrett: So the answer is yes to all of the above. And I had had experiences in the rough-and-tumble mayor’s office in Chicago to see what happens when you might have the mayor’s support, but if other people do not necessarily wish you well, it can be hard to thrive.
Valerie Jarrett: And so we talked it through, which is one of the many things I respect about him, is he’s like “Let’s talk about what your misgivings are.” And he said “Look, the role I want you to play heading up governmental affairs and public engagement, those are the skills and the strengths that you have from the years that you spent in city government running the Department of Planning and Development, chairing the Board of the Chicago Transit Authority.” He said, “You’re coming in at a time when the economy is in a free fall, and you ran your own business. You were the CEO of a company. You’ve served on all these corporate boards, the federal reserve bank. You bring an usual skill set the date to the table. And I want people there who I know and trust, and who also, you are not looking for your next job. You’re only in it for me. You want to make sure that I do the best job as president that I could possibly do. And you’ll be honest with me.”
Valerie Jarrett: I was a little hesitant and worried. Rahm Emmanuel was not that thrilled about it. He actually tried to get me to be a senator. He’s like, “Why don’t you go be in the Senate?” And I thought, oh, gosh, do I really want to come in and-
Preet Bharara: Ambassador to Indonesia! Right.
Valerie Jarrett: … Exactly.
Valerie Jarrett: And Rahm, he and I have been very close. I was supportive of his campaigns, I knew him well. Tried to get him to endorse Barack Obama when he was first running in the primaries. So, I was a little tentative, and what Barack Obama said was, “Look, we’re going to make this work. When the team gets to know you, they will see that you are not the person that goes and undercuts them, or when you’re over for dinner, you try to re-litigate issues. They’ll see the person who you are that will help make the team better.” And so that’s what I tried to do.
Preet Bharara: Did you find, even at the highest level, there were people who had strong personalities and distinguished careers that come and work in the White House, and they’re afraid of telling the truth to the president?
Valerie Jarrett: Of course. Everybody’s afraid… Or, I wouldn’t say afraid. Everyone in any organization is intimidated by the people at the top. And when you are the President of the United States, and the Leader of the Free World, that’s magnified exponentially. Of course.
Valerie Jarrett: The setting is intimidating. You walk in. The first time I walked in the oval office, our second day there, January 21st, I was looking around at the ceiling, it’s a really pretty ceiling, and because I couldn’t take my eyes of the ceiling. It’s distracting! And you have to, like, OK, I’m here to do a job.
Valerie Jarrett: But one of his management strengths, I think, was to try to empower people to speak up. Not because their ideas were more important than somebody else’s, but that he would make a better decision if he had the benefit of all ideas. And I had noticed early on that some of the voices of the women or shrinking a bit. I think everybody was starting a new job, you kind of bring your baggage to the table with you, what happened to you in your last job, and because we were in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, there was a lot of emotion flowing early on. And he said to the group that he had invited over, he invited over all the senior women over for dinner, and he said, “Look, I need you to fight for your ideas, and it’s not about you. It’s about what we can do if I am better informed.”
Valerie Jarrett: And we had very elaborate processes in place for vetting ideas and policy recommendations before they came to him. And he said, “I want you to weigh in.” And he always wanted everybody who is working on an issue coming to the meeting, so he could hear from all voices. And there was one time, I remember, where we were about to make a very important decision and President Obama looked around the room, and he says, “Is everybody on board?” We said, “Yes.” And he said, “Does everyone on your teams think this is the right thing to do?” And one person said, well I do have a team member who doesn’t support this. And he said, “Well where is that person?” And so we waited 10 minutes for that poor soul to run over from the Old Executive Office building. And he said, “I want to hear what you have to say.”
Valerie Jarrett: Ultimately, he didn’t follow that person’s advice. He went with the rest of us. But imagine the message that that sends when you say, “I cannot make a decision without hearing the dissent.” And in meetings, the junior most person on the back bench, he could read a room like it was nobody’s business. And he could just see, you know, your people start to bounce up a little bit that they’re afraid because you’re the leader of the free world, and they are actually afraid to disagree with you. If you disagreed with Barack Obama, then you got what I call the full Obama where he’d lean in, and he’d go, “Tell me why. I’m curious. Help me understand.”
Preet Bharara: And you’ll be fired soon!
Valerie Jarrett: Never! Never! If anything, he would say to people who weren’t speaking up, speak up! Because I’m better if you’re speaking up.
Preet Bharara: Look, I saw this just as US attorney, not the Leader of the Free World, much smaller organizations. I should’ve known this long before I took the helm of that job. But I remember reading this about President Obama. I think it’s a simple technique that good leaders in meetings and having discussions. I thought for efficiency, if I had a thought about how to make a decision, I called in five or six people. And I would say, “You know, in order to cut through a lot of the nonsense, and the red tape, here’s what I’m thinking. Here’s my preliminary view, but I have a completely open mind.” And I always did, so let’s go around the room. And I realized that was a huge error. If people know the boss is going before the discussion, it changes everything.
Valerie Jarrett: Everything.
Preet Bharara: And you keep your mouth shut, and you have a poker face, especially when it’s a closed question. And then you asked everyone their… And I remember times when I started changing my approach to this that I would not say what the view was, and should we do X or Y and go around the room and people would have a different point of view, and they would be fairly robust. And as soon as I said, even in the course of the deliberation and the discussion, as soon as I said, I am leaning towards X based on this discussion, I want to hear more from the Y people. And the Y people already were backpedaling from their views because they thought, well maybe, “Preet doesn’t think I’m smart.” Maybe, “I’m going to be on the wrong side of the decision, which is really, really dangerous.”
Valerie Jarrett: Particularly, when you’re in a position such as yours and certainly the president’s. But I would always argue that even if you’re running a small business, you want people to feel empowered and you have to understand the power dynamic. First of all, they think you’re smarter, because you’re the boss. So by definition, you must be smarter, right?
Preet Bharara: Totally wrong.
Valerie Jarrett: Exactly. And I always said, will know, no, I have surrounded myself with people who are smarter than I am. That’s how I do better.
Valerie Jarrett: But you have to give people the right signals and get them comfortable speaking up, and in so doing you have to be curious, which means you have to listen when they speak up. And I think a lot of people in positions of power actually think they have all the answers. And they stop listening.
Preet Bharara: I think maybe you have said or others have said, or maybe you and others have said that part of your job there was to remind the president that he came there to do big things. What does that mean?
Valerie Jarrett: Take the long view. And he’s the best at it, but having people there to reinforce that when so much pressure was to do what was politically expedient, knowing that it would take years for people to actually have the benefits of the Affordable Care Act materialize meant you had to weather an unnecessary diabolical thunderstorm from Republicans talking about death panels and all these other things. And you had to have the courage to say, “Yeah I know that, but over the long term this is what’s best for the country. And absorb a lot of pain in the short term.
Valerie Jarrett: And what frustrated me, again, was the willingness of the Republicans to not focus on the long-term.
Preet Bharara: Do you think that you had better ability to tell President Obama he was dead wrong that other people because of the long standing relationship?
Valerie Jarrett: of course, that’s the nature of a long standing relationship in the beginning, but as people got to know him, they appreciated the fact that he really did value what they had to say. The act of somebody pushing you and disagreeing with you, as you know, only refines your argument. You may not ultimately agree with him, but you will feel more strongly about your case if you’ve looked at it from the other viewpoint.
Preet Bharara: This may be an odd question then, but I’ve been thinking about this issue, and I let a large office two of my deputies were close personal friends before they took that job, the number two person. And then the third is a lifelong friend now. And I thought that was important because they could tell me what was what. They might not tell me in front of a lot of other people; they would come to my office and say, “You know, that was really stupid. Don’t do that.” And I might not agree with them, and they had the office’s best interests at heart, but they also wanted to be truthful. And a lot of other people, as you say wouldn’t necessarily be that way.
Preet Bharara: You know, President Trump has come under some criticism for having among other people advising him his own daughter, Ivanka Trump, and Jared Kushner. Is there some argument, given the parallel, and I know you’re not related to the Obamas… It’s different situation, but along the lines of what we’ve been discussing, that a president, even someone like Donald Trump, if those are the people that he trusts and those are the people that can be honest with him, that he deserves their counsel in a way that they’re able to give with a security clearance and having an actual position at the White House?
Valerie Jarrett: Well, you mixed a few things.
Preet Bharara: Yeah, I-
Valerie Jarrett: So-
Preet Bharara: … I was making it hard for you, Valerie!
Valerie Jarrett: … Well, let’s make it simpler to a more direct analogy. I believe elections have consequences, and that the President of the United States is entitled to have whatever advisers he wants. But what we did to protect the country is ensure that the people who were advising the president, our president, Obama, didn’t have even a hint of a sense that they had objectives other than service. And I think part of why I sold all of my assets when I came in, invested in treasury bills, as did we all, and went through the procedures for clearance and abided by whatever recommendations the professional national security staff made is to avoid even a hint of a conflict of interest.
Valerie Jarrett: But if the question is simply should you be able to surround yourself with which ever advisers you choose, yeah. That’s what elections are all about. There about whoever is in charge of assembling their own team.
Preet Bharara: Do you think that Donald Trump has a real chance of winning reelection?
Valerie Jarrett: That depends on the American people.
Preet Bharara: Well, do you think it’s important to say that he does so that the American people who believe a certain thing are galvanized to work?
Valerie Jarrett: Well, I think if you weren’t happy about the last election, and you were caught surprised by it, that should’ve been a wake up call. 43% of eligible voters did not vote in 2016. If you didn’t vote, hopefully now you see over the last two years with the consequences of that are, and this was like three states in less than 100,000 votes. To people who say, “Well, my vote doesn’t really matter,” yeah, your vote sure does matter. One of the organizations where I’m chairing the board is called When We All Bote. And it’s non-partisan, because I’m troubled that in this country we have a culture that seems to tolerate people not voting, and our democracy is only going to be as effective as we the people demand that it be. And if we abdicate, I promise you that the special interest groups, they aren’t abdicating. They are right in there fighting for the status quo. And if we don’t disrupt that, then is it really a democracy?
Valerie Jarrett: So I don’t feel the need to scare people. I feel like they should already be pretty scared.
Preet Bharara: I feel the need to scare people.
Valerie Jarrett: Well, you scare them more, and I’m going to try to motivate them, because again, it’s about more than just this next election, although I obviously care very deeply. It’s really about what builds a democracy. and what are we teaching our young people is their responsibility as a part of a functioning society. They can’t just sit on the sidelines and focus on their devices. They have to actually be a part of our society.
Preet Bharara: What’s the proper role for a next president who remains very popular like Barack Obama in connection with the next election?
Valerie Jarrett: Well, I think he’s doing it. He’s offering his advice and counsel to whomever asks for it.
Preet Bharara: The 90,000 Democrat candidates, right?
Valerie Jarrett: The 90,000 Democrats, they’ve all… I can’t say they’ve all, but a whole bunch of them come through his office and his door is always open to them, in a sense having been a part of the small cohort that has won two elections, unusual in our country. I think he has a lot to offer, and help inspire them and give them counsel.
Valerie Jarrett: So I think that’s his role for right now. And I think they should all go out there and earn the trust for what makes them authentically capable of doing this, and not beat up on each other, for two reasons: number one, I’m actually not interested in what you think of the other person. I can figure out what I think of the other person. I want to know what are you going to do for me. And secondly, I don’t want our ultimate nominee in the Democratic field to be so bloodied and beat up in the primary that it weakens that person going into the general. Because whoever comes out of the primary, I think Democrats need to rally behind. That doesn’t mean we don’t hold them accountable, but we can’t hold a litmus test of perfection.
Valerie Jarrett: And I think sometimes, that’s what we do. We say, “Well, if you’re not for this, then I can’t support you.”
Preet Bharara: That’s happening now, you think, right?
Valerie Jarrett: I worry that it is beginning to, and I encourage everybody to take a deep breath. We can’t just look for the person that’s going to inspire us and think that they’re perfect. They’re all human. Vice President Biden often used to say, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty; compare me to the alternative.”
Preet Bharara: Would Michelle Obama win running away if she ran for president?
Valerie Jarrett: She’s certainly the most popular woman in America, but you know what? As you well know, you’re popular when you’re not a threat to the power base. I saw in the election when President Obama was first running for president, how first, Michelle Obama was just everybody loved her and thought she was wonderful. As she became more powerful and effective on the campaign trail, she became a target, because that’s what we do. You’re fine until you become a threat to power. And then they come after you fiercely.
Valerie Jarrett: So she won’t be running for president, but she will commit the rest of her life to service.
Preet Bharara: Complete the following sentence: when they go low, we…
Valerie Jarrett: We go high.
Preet Bharara: You still believe that?
Valerie Jarrett: Absolutely.
Preet Bharara: And do you think that works in the current climate where somebody will have to go against Donald Trump, who goes low, low, low, low effectively, all the time? Have you thought, have you re-thought that principle?
Valerie Jarrett: No. Because it’s about values. It’s about the fact that the children are watching us. It’s about that we are role models for the next generation. And I do believe that this is still a country that embraces what we have in common and not polarizing our differences. And that’s not to say 100% of the country, obviously. I’m not naïve. But I think the vast majority of Americans really do want somebody who brings us together, who appeals to the goodness in us.
Valerie Jarrett: Who said it was easy to go high? Let’s not pretend it’s easy, and let’s not… I mean somebody said to me once when President Obama was giving his first joint address to Congress and Joe Wilson screamed out, “You lie!” Well, why didn’t he just call him on that and just curse him out right there? Why? Because he was giving a speech about the importance of the Affordable Care Act.
Valerie Jarrett: And so you have to have to discipline to stay true to why you’re there. I believe it’s important for a President to not be thin-skinned enough to think that this is about them. It’s about service. Part of appreciating the importance of service is knowing that to lead, you have to be a role model, and the kind of role model I want is somebody who goes high. That doesn’t mean that you don’t call somebody out when you see BS. I’m not-
Preet Bharara: Pulling Chicago politics a little bit.
Valerie Jarrett: … A little bit. Not too much.
Preet Bharara: Okay.
Valerie Jarrett: Not too much.
Preet Bharara: So, 20% maybe?
Valerie Jarrett: Hmm, I don’t know.
Valerie Jarrett: Be honest. Be authentic, but be decent. Have some core values. Appreciate the fact that, not just in this country, people around the world look at us as a beacon of hope. And if we don’t, if we don’t do that from the highest level, what kind of message are we sending?
Preet Bharara: Do you plan to make any endorsement of a Democratic candidate before the nomination is clinched?
Valerie Jarrett: I don’t know. It’s too early to say that.
Preet Bharara: You may.
Valerie Jarrett: It’s possible.
Preet Bharara: You could do it right here on Stay Tuned.
Valerie Jarrett: I could. I could. But I think it’s too early.
Preet Bharara: Who are your three favorites?
Valerie Jarrett: I wouldn’t even venture… That’s like saying, “Who are your favorite siblings?” No, I think holding my powder dry and seeing how it goes over the next several months, even year, is where I am right now. And also because, look, I want to be helpful to everybody, and I tell them all, I’m talking to all of them, and who knows who’ll emerge?
Preet Bharara: Should the House move toward impeachment of the President?
Valerie Jarrett: Oh, that’s up for the House. I am actually more focused on what can we do to galvanize this country to care about who the President is. I’m more worried about the longer-term engagement and getting people to appreciate their responsibility of citizenship. I leave it for House to determine what they do.
Preet Bharara: Am I correct that you were the longest-serving White House aide?
Valerie Jarrett: In history?
Preet Bharara: In history.
Valerie Jarrett: Yes.
Preet Bharara: That’s kind of nuts.
Valerie Jarrett: It’s surprising to me, because I left at 11:59, after the Obamas left. And only because Secret Service was like staring at me like, “You have to go now.”
Preet Bharara: But what that says, and you seem to have survived it very well, and you have a great attitude, and you look younger than you did when you started the job-
Valerie Jarrett: We all do.
Preet Bharara: … So, because this is something that’s an issue for everyone, no matter what job they’re… how do you avoid burnout? Now they say about White House jobs, unlike any other place, it’s a crazy crucible in which to work. Chiefs of Staff last, you know, nine minutes. Some people have referred to you as a de facto chief of staff. You worked around the clock. A lot at stake. And maybe it’s always more at stake because you had a personal closeness to the President and the First Lady. How the hell’d you make it eight years?
Valerie Jarrett: Old enough to appreciate it was the best job I would ever have, enough experience to understand that you have to build in mechanisms for resilience and replenishment, so whether it was the Sunday brunches I had with my girlfriends and my cousins, or dinners, dinners with my family; surrounding myself with the best possible people I could on my team, who, people say “What do you miss most?” I miss the people; the collegiality, and the sense of being in this for the same reason was magical for me.
Preet Bharara: Valerie Jarrett. The book is Finding my Voice: My journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward.
Preet Bharara: Congratulations on the book.
Valerie Jarrett: Thank you.
Preet Bharara: Thank you for all your service to the country.
Valerie Jarrett: Thank you for your service as well.
Preet Bharara: So, as I mentioned, I’m taping this on Wednesday morning, May 15th, 2019th, and I thought I’d end the show today by referring back to something that happened on this precise date 12 years ago that had a very big impact on me, and I think a lot of other folks.
Preet Bharara: Twelve years ago, when I was a United States Senate Judiciary Committee staffer and overseeing, somewhat ironically, an investigation into the firing of United States Attorneys and other politicization at the Justice Department, a bipartisan investigation that we did spring and summer of 2007, of which I’m very proud, I helped to organize a haring on May 15th that was chaired by Senator Schumer, my boss at the time. And at that hearing, the principle witness testifying before Congress was the former Deputy Attorney General of the United States, and the future FBI Director of the country, and that’s Jim Comey.
Preet Bharara: In fairly surprising testimony that almost no one knew he was going to give, he described what has become known as the famous “hospital visit.” And that hospital visit scene had occurred a few years earlier on March 10th of 2004. On that day, Jim Comey was the acting Attorney General, because the Attorney General John Ashcroft had a severe case of pancreatitis and was hospitalized. So Jim Comey, in his capacity as acting Attorney General advised the White House that he could no longer certify what was sort of known in common parlance as the President’s “terrorist surveillance program.” That was a program that had to be reviewed every 45 days, and at this point in consultation with people at the Office of Legal Counsel and others, the determination was made that in good conscience, it could not be re-certified without significant changes.
Preet Bharara: So on that same day, notwithstanding the acting Attorney General Jim Comey’s decision that he could not certify the program or re-certify the program, the President’s Chief of Staff at the time, Andy Card, then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, decided to make a nighttime visit to the bedside of Attorney General John Ashcroft, who, as I said, was suffering from severe pancreatitis and was at the hospital with his wife.
Preet Bharara: And, in a scene right out of The Godfather, Jim Comey rushed to the hospital, called the FBI director at the time, who you all know as the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and they intercepted the White House Counsel and the White House Chief of Staff in the hospital room in this sort of bizarre standoff scene. As Jim Comey describes in the hearing, “At that hospital, Ashcroft refused to re-certify the program as well, and said, ‘For these purposes, Jim Comey is acting Attorney General.'”
Preet Bharara: It’s just worth thinking about at this time when some of the names you mentioned have become controversial figures, when there is a concern about whether the Constitution matters in certain decision-making, whether the rule of law is in decline or not, if it’s possible to act on principal, if it’s possible to act on the basis of your good-faith view of the Constitution, even if it’s going to anger someone including a President or the President’s Chief of Staff or the President’s Counsel. And so that night, Jim and others decided that they would resign in protest if President George Bush proceeded without legal certification from the department.
Preet Bharara: Here’s the other remarkable part about that story that is often overlooked. The next day after the standoff was March 11th, 2004. And on that day, terrorists in Madrid killed 191 people with train bombs in the worst terrorist attack since 9/11. And you would think that on a day like that when there was an argument and a battle between a belief in what the Constitution allowed and the importance of having National Security and protecting the country that the Constitution might lose out. But you would be wrong, because even in the face of that day of death and destruction from terrorist, Jim Comey and John Ashcroft and Robert Mueller and perhaps another dozen folks were prepared to step down from public life rather than give George Bush an illegal tool in the war on terror.
Preet Bharara: And by Friday, the president backed down. And I remember sitting at the judiciary hearing that day behind Senator Schumer, and I saw Senator Leahy and Senator Specter and Senator Feingold, all of whose jaws basically dropped when they heard the real-time telling of the story.
Preet Bharara: And I’ve thought about that a lot. On that day, the Department of Justice honored itself, the 100,000 or so folks who worked there, and the 300 million plus people who rely on that institution to uphold the rule of law. And I think we need more days like that one. We need more people who can bring our institutions in line with our ideals.
Preet Bharara: And so today, May 15th, 12 years after I sat in that hearing room as a young staffer or younger staffer, I think it’s worth thinking about.
Preet Bharara: Well that’s it for this episode of Stay Tuned. Thanks again to my guest, Valerie Jarrett. Tweet your questions @PreetBharara with the hashtag #AskPreet, or you can call 669-247-7338 and leave me a message. That’s 669-24-PREET. Or you can send an email to [email protected] If you like what we do, rate and review the show on Apple podcasts. Your reviews help new listeners find the show.
Preet Bharara: Stay Tuned is presented by CAFE. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The senior producer is Aaron Dalton, and the Café team is Carla Pierini, Julia Doyle, Calvin Lord, Vinay Basti, and Jeff Isenman. Our music is by Andrew Dost. I’m Preet Bharara. Stay Tuned.