Preet Bharara: Hey, Stay Tuned listeners. There’s some jaw dropping news over the last couple of days. So we’re bringing you a special episode today to make sense of the mayhem. Anne Milgram, the former New Jersey Attorney General and my cohost on the CAFE Insider Podcast, joins me to discuss the latest developments in the Ukraine whistleblower story, including how speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement of a formal impeachment inquiry, the revelations and the readout of President Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president. Boy, that’s something, the status of the whistleblower complaint, and more, a lot more, too many issues to list out here. I hope our discussion is helpful to you as we do our best to tackle these complex issues at this fairly historic time for our country.
Preet Bharara: Hey, Anne. How are you?
Anne Milgram: Hi Preet.
Preet Bharara: I’m in San Francisco.
Anne Milgram: How’s California?
Preet Bharara: California is fine. Just a lot of stuff going on. I had spotty internet service, spotty Wi-Fi on the plane trying to catch up on all the news. But I’m glad you and I can get together and at least talk about some of the things that are happening today, historic day in many ways. I think we’re going down this road of impeachment, which seemed not likely just a week or two ago. And now if you listen to the reports coming out of Washington, some people think it’s all but inevitable. Lots of people’s minds have been changed. So, what happened today? The “transcript” of the call between the President of the United States from July 25th of this year, and the President of Ukraine, President Zelensky, was released after all this Sturm and Drang about how it didn’t need to be released, and it was going to cause a lot of problems.
Preet Bharara: Let’s just start out with a couple of quick things, and I want to get your top line takeaways about this call. It is not a transcript. Some things look like they may be the actual language used by the parties, the presidents speaking, but it’s not a transcript. It’s notes. There’s actually, if people haven’t read it. There’s a caution on the bottom of the first page. It’s saying it’s not a verbatim transcript. The other reason why people think it’s not a verbatim transcript is that there are ellipses, and it appears that the call was 30 minutes long. But the transcript is only about five pages single spaced. Now, I saw the president of Ukraine speak today and he speaks in a slow, slightly halting way, because English is not his first language. So, there seems to be a bunch missing. Apart from the fact that there’s a lot of obsequiousness on the part of the Ukrainian president when he’s talking to Donald Trump, what else did you think about this?
Anne Milgram: I agree. I agree with all that to start with, and what I really felt was you and I talked a lot on Monday about how this is really about the President of the United States abusing his official office to try to get dirt on a political rival. We talked about the fact that Trump had already said publicly, he’d made the call, he discussed Biden. We also saw all the reporting around the withholding of aid for Ukraine, and then to see this document. My first reaction was that it was actually worse even than I had expected it to be.
Preet Bharara: Much worse.
Anne Milgram: You had the same reaction?
Preet Bharara: [crosstalk 00:02:56] much worse.
Anne Milgram: Yeah. That’s amazing.
Preet Bharara: Didn’t you assume… We’d been talking, you and I, and then we’ve also been talking to other friends of ours who used to be in this business, prosecution business, I mean. You assume that the same administration that fights tooth and nail to not release, not release, not release, to the extent they decide they’re going to release. It must have been pretty good for them. I was expecting you and I to come in today, and have a discussion about whether or not he’s justified in saying, “Case closed.” Totally exonerated. And, boy, it’s a lot worse than people thought given how quickly he relented in releasing it. Why do you think that is?
Anne Milgram: Yeah. The only thing I can think is that there’s one of two possibilities. One is that he really miscalculated this as being not problematic in any way because there is no explicit quid. And if that’s true, he really miss understands the United States law, the United States Constitution, and he also misunderstands what an enormous abuse of power it is to use the Department of Justice in this way to try to push the Ukrainian president to abuse their law enforcement agencies. And so, that is one possibility. The other possibility, which may be less likely, but I think is worth considering is that Pelosi moved pretty decisively. She moved pretty quickly as pieces of evidence started to come out to say, “We’re going to move forward with impeachment.”
Nancy Pelosi: The president must be held accountable. No one is above the law.
Anne Milgram: I personally believe that Donald Trump does not want to be impeached. And so, she exerted power. It was likely that this was going to come out potentially anyway. Again, I think he didn’t appreciate just how devastatingly problematic on its face this memo of this conversation is.
Preet Bharara: Yeah, it tells you something about their mindset. I mean, from the reporting we see… and again, you can’t trust all the reporting. But given the speed with which they put it out, and how much they usually don’t want to put stuff out it tells you something about what’s in the minds of the president and his advisors about what they think of ethics, what they think of integrity, what they think of the scope of their power, what abuse of power means. This for him is just… This is what they do. Put aside the quid pro quo for a second, completely.
Preet Bharara: Just on its face, the call, the request, when you have to have equal parties, you have the president of a small country just elected… And by the way throughout… I mean, I mentioned the obsequiousness for a reason. Throughout he makes it a point to tell Trump that he stays in the Trump hotel. He says, “You know, I should run for office more often because then I get to talk to you more often.” It is not an equal relationship. And the president of the United States has a lot of authority, and a lot of power. Forget whether or not he’s withholding aid or not withholding aid. He tells him in the course of the conversation that there’s stuff to look into with respect to Joe Biden. I think Trump doesn’t understand why that on its face alone is supremely problematic.
Anne Milgram: I agree.
Preet Bharara: It kind of boggles my mind. It’s not that different from what he did in the… I mean, he may not be think it’s bad when he’s in America calling up Jeff Sessions, if he has done this, and say, “Go after Hillary Clinton,” or open up investigations of other adversaries of mine, or knock it off on Michael Flynn. As the Mueller report says, he did so with respect to Michael Flynn. He has learned no lesson from the Mueller investigation. He’s learned no lesson about what proper conduct is. And I think he must be quite taken aback at all of this.
Preet Bharara: I agree with you. I don’t think he wants to get impeached. I got a I got a nice text from my daughter today, who’s in college. It was wonderful to hear from her, and she asked me what I thought of this theory. Does Trump want to be impeached because he can use it as a cudgel? I don’t think so at all, and maybe we’ll get to this later. Did you have a chance to see any of his press conference?
Anne Milgram: I did.
Preet Bharara: Late this afternoon.
Donald Trump: On the so called whistleblower information, even though it was supposedly secondhand information, which is sort of interesting. And other things have come out about the whistleblower that are also maybe even more interesting. But I also insist on transparency from Joe Biden and his son Hunter on the millions of dollars that have been quickly and easily taken out of Ukraine and China. Millions of dollars, millions and millions of-
Preet Bharara: He looked-
Anne Milgram: Terrible.
Preet Bharara: … like a low energy to pick a phrase. This is not making him happy. I think this whole thing has backfired on him, and they have brought it upon themselves.
Anne Milgram: I agree with that. I don’t know if he was doubling down or if he felt vindicated. Remember the testimony of Robert Mueller was the day before he made this call to Presidents Zelensky in the Ukraine. And so, he clearly… He feels very entitled here to basically say, the United States spends a lot of effort and time on Ukraine, but it’s not reciprocal, meaning you’re not holding up your end of the bargain. Europe has to do more, essentially, if you want things from us like military aid and other things, which he doesn’t say explicitly, but it’s very much in my mind implied. Then he goes on to say, “I want to ask a favor.” And that really to me, it’s so clear that that’s the entire point of the conversation is to basically say, “Look, we do a lot for you, you don’t do enough for us, and here’s my ask.”
Anne Milgram: Then he goes on to talk about this conspiracy theory related to Hillary Clinton’s emails, which he talks about CrowdStrike, which is the company that the Democratic National Committee had hired to do that initial investigation for the DNC into who had hacked the Clinton emails. Then he goes immediately into Biden, and Biden is specifically named. I didn’t expect to see it in black and white that clearly that this call was completely about trying to get the Ukrainians to investigate his leading political rival.
Preet Bharara: Right, because what is the reason? If you’re generally talking about corruption, there’s all sorts of corruption in a lot of different places. You can say it generally. It reminds me always of the pretext that Trump has used in the past, and got Rod Rosenstein to write the memo on saying, “Well, one basis for firing Jim Comey is that he wasn’t nice to Hillary Clinton.” Who believes that? Nobody. And here also he’s saying, he’s making a general point about corruption.
Preet Bharara: But just to go back to the basic point, again, that I think people need to understand, remember because you’re going to hear the talking point from a lot of folks. We heard it from Lindsey Graham today, and other Republicans, not all of them, but some of them, that there is no direct quid pro quo. So, there’s nothing to see here. That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard if you’ve been in this line of work for any period of time. You and I both know that there was never a written or spoken, almost never explicit quid pro quo. We convicted lots of significant politicians in New York on implied quid pro quo. But putting that aside again, for a second, the fact that he’s abusing his power by asking this kind of thing, and then mentioning a political rival by name, there’s no excuse for it. Combined with saying that he wants to accomplish this, not just by asking this other person who’s running another country to do it, but saying, “Call my attorney general, work with him.”
Preet Bharara: So, he’s bringing the United States government bear on it also, simultaneously talking about his other personal attorney besides Bill Bar, Rudy Giuliani. It seems completely out of bounds with respect to how we expect the president to behave. And if you want to do the thought experiment, but it doesn’t make a lot of headway in persuading people because it’s bad if they don’t want to believe it. Just imagine any other president in the past doing that with respect to the son of a future political rival. Obama doing it with respect to Mitt Romney’s son in 2012. You just can’t do that. Bottom line is, it is crazy bad on its face. He didn’t get that.
Preet Bharara: On the question of whether or not there’s a direct quid pro quo? No, there’s not. But let’s spend a minute talking about… And you’ve mentioned some of these features already. What evidence there is both in the document from the conversation and also surrounding context, that suggests you could make a pretty good argument and summation, once you have more evidence, and you have other witnesses, that it is quite clearly a quid pro quo, something for something, even though it’s not stated specifically. Among them, among those things you say, there was clearly a mention of the Ukrainian president buying missiles, javelins. There is the context of this money that’s been approved by Congress that hasn’t come in yet. There’s the hope for future opportunities. There’s a doctrine in corruption law in many places that talks about an arrangement in which people understand that as opportunities arise, you want to grease their hands a little bit to get those future opportunities.
Preet Bharara: It can be either and people, I think, sometimes talk about it as bribery. The flip side of which is extortion, right? If you do this thing, I will give you something. And the flip side of that extortion is if you don’t do this thing, I’m going to withhold something from you or I’m going to punish you in some way. And there’s a bunch of evidence to that extent, right? Donald Trump says specifically, over and over again, “We do a lot for you. We do a lot for for Ukraine.” And as you said, it’s not reciprocal, necessarily.
Anne Milgram: Yeah, I completely agree. And I think your point about the two sides of a coin that it could be, we’re not going to sell you missiles, or we’re not going to give you money. This is a quid. There are a lot of different ways that the pressure was being put to bear here. And it’s important to note that Zelensky at the time of this call knew that that money, that they were waiting on, and that they desperately need for the safety and security of their country. Millions and millions of dollars, that money was being held, and the Ukrainians knew that.
Anne Milgram: What’s important to note also is that there’s a level of consciousness of guilt here that we did not have in the 2016. There was just a different conversation about what the president knew, what he could understand, what the boundaries were. Here you have in the wake of the 2016 election, Russian interference, all the conversations about the Mueller report. The president talks about it, tweets about it constantly. You have him calling a foreign leader, and essentially pressuring him and putting the full weight of the United States government on him in a way that feels to me exactly like you say, it may not be explicit, but the reality is that, in my experience, people who commit crimes use only the amount of force or fraud or extortion they use… It’s calibrated to use the amount that’s necessary.
Anne Milgram: If you don’t need to make an explicit, we’re not going to do this unless you do this. You don’t do it. We see constantly in crimes that people use only the amount of deception that’s needed in order to accomplish their goal. There is no question here that the president was sending a very clear message, at least in my mind about this. And again, it’s not about the crimes, but it’s worth just refuting this complete line of argument because this is the president’s primary argument right now is that there is no quid pro in the memo. And therefore, I didn’t do anything wrong.
Anne Milgram: It’s worth noting that you don’t need a quid pro quo. There’s campaign finance laws, which again, from the Mueller investigation, and from 2016, it’s very clear that a political campaign cannot accept anything of value, including dirt on a political opponent from a foreign government. There’s constitutional provisions that prevent the president essentially from abusing his authority in office. There’s a ton of different ways in which we can think about this criminally. And yet, it feels to me like it really is a smokescreen that’s been put up by the president to say, “I did nothing wrong, because there’s nothing in this letter, in this memorandum.”
Anne Milgram: The other point, Preet, which I think it’s pretty clear is that you have Senator Ben Sasse, who’s a Republican member of the Intelligence Committee. You have him walking out of a period in time today after he’s been in the secure room, in the skiff, reading the whistleblower complaint, where he says, the Republicans of which he’s one should not be quick to circle the wagons on this matter. There’s a lot here. And so, it’s not just the memo.
Preet Bharara: But I’ll just say about Ben Sasse for a minute. I don’t want to talk ill of senators, but I quite admired and respected him early on in his tenure, and he would say things that were not knee jerk partisan. And he’s pretty smart guy, written a lot of books, and a thoughtful intellectual. In recent months, he has not been that way. There’s been a lot of talk about how he seems to have been co-opted a little bit by Trump. So, it’s encouraging to see that he’s prepared to say things that won’t necessarily gel with with the leadership, but with the White House, unlike Lindsey Graham.
Anne Milgram: Yeah, you’re right. I think the bigger point is that this isn’t the end of the conversation or the inquiry. It’s the beginning.
Preet Bharara: Okay, folks. So as you might expect, Anne and I went really long on this stuff because there’s a lot to digest, and we didn’t want to make the episode of Stay Tuned unbearably long. So, Anne and I kept talking about this, and if you’d like to hear the rest of that conversation with Anne head to café.com/preet and sign up for free to receive an email with a link to the entire discussion. The story continues to develop at a breakneck speed, and Anne and I will continue to break it down on the CAFE Insider Podcast, and I’ll keep talking about it here on Stay Tuned as well. So again, to listen to our full in depth conversation for free, head to café.com/preet and we’ll email you a link. Now back to our regularly planned UN Week episode of Stay Tuned.
Preet Bharara: From CAFE, welcome to Stay Tuned. I’m Preet Bharara.
Samantha Power: To me idealism I have a simple understanding of what it means. It means, do you like what you see, or do you think some change might be in order? I think whatever it is that consumes a person if they believe that change is necessary, the reform will be beneficial. That more equity is needed, more justice is needed. That’s a form of idealism.
Preet Bharara: That’s Samantha Power. She’s the former US ambassador to the United Nations. Her new memoir, The Education of an Idealist catalogues a journey from Ireland to America, how she became a journalist, then a full time humanitarian activist, and ended up at the White House. Ambassador Power and I get into the politics purpose, and fair criticisms of the UN. We also talk about how to combat what she calls a human rights recession. And we revisit one of her bad days working in the Obama administration. Hint, it involves metal from Norway. That’s coming up, Stay Tuned.
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Preet Bharara: My guest this week is Samantha Power. Power first made waves when at 32 she won a Pulitzer Prize for A Problem From Hell, her book on America’s response to genocide or lack thereof. She joined the National Security Council at the start of the Obama administration, and in 2013 was nominated to be America’s ambassador to the UN. We taped this talk before this week’s UN General Assembly. But we go into some of the perennial criticisms of that international body. Ambassador Power address crises ranging from the Ebola epidemic to Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria, publicly battling with the late Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin. We talk about how to keep focused on the individual within a sprawling bureaucracy, whether leaders should strive to be passionate, or try to keep their cool. And the consequences of Trump’s strategy of diplomacy by tweet. That’s coming up. Stay Tuned.
Preet Bharara: Samantha Power thanks so much for being on the show.
Samantha Power: Thank you.
Preet Bharara: Congratulations on your book. Was it hard?
Samantha Power: So hard.
Preet Bharara: But this is not your first book, you’ve written other books, one of which won the Pulitzer Prize, very impressive. Can we talk about the UN, which is a complicated organization, and is in for a lot of criticism from certain quarters. My former office led a number of prosecutions of corruption that touched on the UN over time. There might be a matter of expectation a little bit, and you quote from former UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold who said, “The UN was created not to lead mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell,” which I thought is a great way of putting it.
Preet Bharara: If you’re sitting around as an American, and you think about the purpose of the UN, what is it? It’s very easy to complain that your bike doesn’t take you to California quickly. But the purpose of the bike is to get you around locally. So, do we over criticize the UN because we expect more from it than it’s intended to be?
Samantha Power: Well, in articulating its purpose, which is something the Secretary General of the UN, or people who are speaking on behalf of the UN should do more often, frankly. But I think it is there to solve fundamental collective action problems that we face. And that’s a little wonky way of putting it but I mean, fundamentally, there’s not a threat, or a challenge really on this earth right now that doesn’t cross a border. That means that we need an organization to pull resources and mobilize actions from more than one country at one time. So, the UN is a great venue for bringing together the key stakeholders in solving the hardest challenges of our time. However, it is a building. Into that building come 193 countries-
Preet Bharara: Right. But then, in some ways, why do you need the UN at all? Those countries can decide to interact on an ad hoc basis as much as they want. And they can have meetings and summits wherever they want. As everyone knows from reading history in high school, hopefully, there was once a plan for something called the League of Nations, which would have been some different things. So, you can imagine a world in which there was no UN, there was no such thing, or you can imagine a world in which there’s something better than the UN. What would be something that’s better than the UN?
Samantha Power: Well, I think that for starters, countries have proven very unlikely to act in ad hoc ways that take into account anything other than short term and immediate problem. So the reason that the institution is built is to assemble all the countries of the world in one place. It’s the only organization that does that. The way would it improve, I think is the countries acting differently. And I’m sorry, I keep coming back to the countries, but the UN is not going to get less corrupt if the countries that send corrupt individuals to work at the UN, don’t stop sending them. You’ve mentioned your investigations into UN officials, it should be the home countries of those that are not even considering sending such individuals.
Samantha Power: I think the UN as an organization, like the Secretary General and the people who carry blue passports, so not the national officials who work at the UN to advance their national interest, but people who actually represent the UN. They could be much more outspoken, much more aggressive in seeking to rid the system of dead weight, the people who are using the organization to advance their own ends, whether through corruption or something else. More of that should be done. But I’m telling you, every time the Secretary General sticks their head up to crack the whip on even just the UN staff you will get let’s say the government of China saying, “Hey, that’s the Chinese national. You don’t be touching him.”
Preet Bharara: It’s like herding cats. Talk to any Chief Judge of any courthouse where every other judge for whom you’re supposed to be the chief has life tenure. This is not a ton you can do, or you’re in academic now, and you’re married to a very renowned law professor. Talk to any Dean of any law school, it’s not that different from what you’re describing. These countries are all sovereign, and they have their own agendas, issues they want to advance. So, I get that it’s hard. Let me ask you this. Does the US pay too much towards the UN?
Samantha Power: Well, I think that there are just two ways to look at it. I mean, I think that the share of the regular budget is 25%, which is higher than any other country, the second largest contributor now for the first time is China. They have overtaken Japan and Germany. One way to look at it is, wow, 25% is a lot. The next highest contribution is half that. Another way to look at it is we have figured out a way to get the countries of the world to pay 75% of the UN dues, and on issues like peacekeeping, where the budget is much higher actually than the UN regular budget. Countries like China, again, are paying more and more. Our share of both of those budgets is going to go down because it’s all done by a formula that’s kind of GDP and per capita income together. And so, our share is going to go steadily down for all the wrong reasons as our share of the global economy goes down.
Samantha Power: But another way to look at it is of the peacekeepers who actually put themselves in places like Lebanon and Molly and South Sudan, almost none of them are Americans. And so, while it’s true we pay more, we also do physically a lot less within peacekeeping. Now, we do all kinds of things. Obviously, our military is the most overextended military in the world. So it’s not as if we’re not active in the security space. But if you could have told Harry Truman that you could get 100,000 troops from all over the world including from Western democracies to go to the world’s most dangerous places, not on behalf of their own national interests, but in order to try to prevent mass atrocities or try to stabilize parts of the Middle East that have been wracked with conflict for generations, and that you could do it for the price that it costs. I think that’s a deal that the founders certainly would have taken certainly a deal that I think we should take.
Preet Bharara: With respect to Israel. So President Trump moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and a lot of people lost their minds. Should they have? How big a deal was that because I think that’s confusing to some people.
Samantha Power: Well, I think people lost their minds in part because it just seemed like such a crass political ploy that was so much more about the base than about anything that would actually improve the welfare of Israelis, and certainly Palestinians.
Preet Bharara: Even though it was the stated policy of various presidents.
Samantha Power: Well, it was the stated policy, but it was also… And this is, of course, not the only occasion that this has happened. But it was part of a recurring pattern of President Trump giving up unilaterally by tweet something that is an incredibly important part of a negotiation. And many of these negotiations whether it’s the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation, which isn’t happening at the present, or the US effort to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, we don’t have… There aren’t a ton of moving parts in what a final package solution is going to look like. There aren’t a ton of incentives and disincentives that one can work with.
Samantha Power: Your job as negotiator is to expand your toolbox, to expand the array of inducements that you can bring to bear. Your job as a negotiator if you actually care about peace, or a two state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or if you care about denuclearization of North Korea, your job is not to give away inducements and get nothing back. There was that sort of practical reaction, which was just, they just gave something up that makes the prospect of peace even more elusive now than it was the day before. And people particularly lost their minds, I think, because they sense that that wasn’t a coincidence. That basically the administration had no intention really of pursuing a two state solution, and everything that’s happened since confirms that.
Preet Bharara: There’s something that you said in an interview a couple of years ago that’s wonderful. And that I think is applicable to lots of different fields, including law. And you’re describing, being the UN ambassador, you’re talking to your young son who’s just beginning to read, and you’re trying to explain your job to your son Declan. By reference to a series called Mr. Men, which I’m not familiar with. I wish I knew what Mr. Men was, it sounds lovely, and you would associate characters with countries. And then you say this, “In some ways, that’s the ultimate test of any policy in any government. If it doesn’t make sense to a six year old chances are it doesn’t make sense, overall.” Is that really true? I tend to think it is.
Samantha Power: As a general proposition, I think it is true. I mean, we can get wrapped around the axle or even get self satisfied about things that we do. And then a child can bring you back to earth because they’re looking at the real scoreboard. I was in a very, very heated confrontation with the Russian ambassador over Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea. And this was the first time I’d been on the spot. I mean, really, in the public glare. You probably had a moment like this, where it went from, okay, I’ve been in the public eye, but I’ve never been this bunch in the public eye. And it was that moment for me. And it was like, we were going back to Hungary in 1956, the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Suddenly Russia’s decided to go into Ukraine and steal part of its country. How is this happening? And all the Security Council sessions were carried live on TV, and I just wanted to represent US interests, and stand up against this aggression, and just do right by the responsibility that Obama had given me, and it was nerve racking.
Samantha Power: Partly, I never did debating and in law school, I was actually kind of a retiring student. I was pretty reticent, and had my own things I was interested in, and I was a bit intimidated by the whole scene. And so, the idea of sparring with the Russian ambassador on live TV on Fox and CNN and Ukrainian TV and Russian TV-
Preet Bharara: He could have wicked off his shoe and banged it on the table.
Samantha Power: Yeah, exactly. No, no. And it was like that kind of… That’s how I felt. I felt those historic resonance. I said, “God, don’t screw this up, Samantha.” Anyway, this will sound immodest, but basically I think I nailed it. And I somehow delivered. We went back and forth multiple times, and I was comparing his fiction to that of check off and Tolstoy and he was invoking the human rights purpose that Putin had, and going into Crimea was nonsense. So, it was easy to win the debate on one level. But anyway, I came home, Casse was commuting from teaching in Boston.
Samantha Power: And so, I come home, I want to talk to somebody. It was the end of this night. I got through it, it went well, all things considered. So, I’d wake up my son who at that time, I think is six or seven and drag him to the local burger place. It’s 10 o’clock at night, and I said, “I got to tell you what mommy did today. Here’s what Putin did, and he went in… Can you imagine somebody coming in and stealing your toys, and then just walking away with them and thinking that that was okay. And so, that’s what Russia has done in Ukraine. They’ve gone, they’ve stolen part of this country, and he’s trying to make everybody think that it’s okay.” Mommy said this, and then the Russian said this, and then mommy said this. Then he said…
Samantha Power: And so my son, who’s at that moment has a limp french fry. He’s just dipped in mayonnaise, and he’s just about to eat it. He goes, “So, did they leave?” And I said, “What?” He said, “Did they leave?” And I said, “What do you mean Dec?” And he said, “Did the Russians leave Crimea?” I was like, “No, not yet?” Not yet. And sadly, as we speak today, not yet still.
Preet Bharara: You could have retorted, “Son, you stick your french fry in ketchup not mayonnaise.”
Samantha Power: I know, seriously, maybe then he wouldn’t have been so hard on me on Crimea. But I thought, it’s just a reality. It’s like, okay, you can express yourself well. You can make a good argument in front of the president in the Situation Room. But again, and again, to just ask yourself, what is what you are doing delivering for people? That’s the question.
Preet Bharara: Congratulations on the book, The Education of an Idealist, a memoir, does it get easier or not?
Samantha Power: You know, you would think, but first of all you block out all of the pain of the prior books. It is exactly like childbirth in that respect.
Preet Bharara: And then you have more.
Samantha Power: Exactly.
Preet Bharara: And you’re like, all right, that was kind of hard.
Samantha Power: But this was harder because I find it inherently presumptuous to write about myself. I think you and I are both former public servants who believe fervently in public service. We’re living at a time when some of the best and brightest public servants are fleeing public life, either because of polarization or because they’re being pilloried by the President or ridiculed as deep state, I mean, nonsense. But whether it’s scientists, Arabic speakers, Mandarin speakers, seasoned sanctions experts, part of our challenge now is to draw the young bright lights who want to change the world around them back into believing that you can do so in government, and in your community, and so forth.
Preet Bharara: So, you talk about your background and your youth, and right before we came on, we were having an interesting discussion about how odd it is that you get these exalted positions, whether it’s in the Justice Department, you have this incredibly important and high profile position, as the ambassador to the UN, and people look at you a certain way. You have a certain stature, but you’re a person too.
Samantha Power: So, it seems.
Preet Bharara: So it seems. One of the pieces of advice I would give to people, which is the utter totality is that everyone is a human being, and people forget that. You forget that judges are actually flesh and blood, criminal defendants are, prosecutors believe it or not are people too. Were there particular things that were hard to write about yourself from your youth, and did you struggle with any of those? Then also, is there something you left out?
Samantha Power: Being Irish, I have an awful lot of alcoholism, unfortunately, in my family, which I write a little bit about. One of the sayings in AA is never compare your insides to somebody else’s outsides, which I think is so brilliant because everyone else looks like they’re strutting around. When I got to the White House, and I had my first meeting in The Oval with President Obama, I had been over in the West Wing multiple times to be in the Situation Room, but I’d never been up in The Oval before. In general, my very close relationship with President Obama suddenly was a little more distant, and there were many layers in between me and him, and I was all discombobulated, and a bit bruised by that.
Samantha Power: Here I had my meeting, and this is what I was going to wow him in the meeting, and he was going to remember why he needed to spend much more time with me. So, I walked into the West Wing, and I realized I had no idea where The Oval was. I was pregnant, quite pregnant, maybe five months pregnant, and I ran back to my office, the old Executive Office Building just across a little lane, and I googled Oval Office. Where is the oval office? I ended up printing out a map from the Washington Post website. It was so pathetic because they had put a map that was like Valerie Jarrett’s here, David Plouffe is here, David Axelrod then was there. And so, I use this map, and then I go, and then I end up on the third floor, and it’s on the second floor, and the floors are miss…
Samantha Power: Anyway, I come in breathless, I’m late, pregnant. I’m carrying a Poland spring water bottle that had been battered with the sticker, kind of worn off and I stick it on the coffee table. The reason I was carrying that is I had fainted twice, having only fainted twice in my entire life prior to that, but I fainted twice in my first week working at the White House, don’t ask. So, I put the bottle down. My sort of lifesaver so I don’t faint again. This posh butler or whatever comes and removes it from Obama’s view, and I’m asked to brief. I’m breathless, and I’m scattered, and it’s basically a disaster. But the point of all of that is, as I finally mastered the language of government and the process and the locations of various rooms, I also developed a network of relationships and friendships. I was stunned later, way later, to learn how many people had found The Oval Office using that Washington Post map. The very map-
Preet Bharara: Don’t they have signs?
Samantha Power: No.
Preet Bharara: Don’t they have signs?
Samantha Power: They don’t have signs, The Oval Office.
Preet Bharara: Oval Office this way.
Samantha Power: Maybe for Trump they’ve they’ve made accommodations.
Preet Bharara: With a Sharpie. They probably use a Sharpie along the walls, the hallways.
Samantha Power: Maybe. But it was just so telling to me that I felt like such a loser, and everybody else looked so together, and like they’ve been working there their entire lives.
Preet Bharara: But they’re not. This is the thing.
Samantha Power: Their insides are doing all kinds of somersaults as well when they’re briefing the president.
Preet Bharara: With one possible exception. I have a lot of self confidence from time to time, but also I have roaring self doubt on a regular basis. President Obama, does he have self doubt? Does he get nervous? Because the sense I get about that guy, and I only met him a few times, and don’t know nearly as well as you is that he’s always cool as a cucumber outside and inside.
Samantha Power: He is very calm. He is very centered if you think-
Preet Bharara: Not normal.
Samantha Power: Yeah. I mean, he has a lot of Spock going on. He’s got that ability to be extremely rational, sometimes maddeningly so. But gosh, just the quality you want in a leader for sure.
Preet Bharara: Why is calm so important, as opposed to passion? And it’s not to say that someone who’s calm doesn’t have passion? I think President Obama was very passionate about a lot of things. But there’s a sort of explosiveness sometimes in certain leaders, that some would say is good. I tend not to think that. Why is calm so important?
Samantha Power: Partly, you want to center yourself to think not only about the immediate and the impetuous, and the short term… Just the vantage that he has, and then the weight of the decisions that he carries. I think you want somebody who’s not going to be motivated by their own self advancements, even if every politician at some point pursued their own self advancement almost by definition. And you want somebody who’s going to think not just about tomorrow, but what the ultimate legacy of a decision is going to be as best you can because you also have such imperfect information on the front end. Having said, he has that calm that he’s so famous for. Again, going back over my decade or so with him first in the Senate office, then on the campaign, and then for eight years in the administration. You see his… there’s all kinds of churn going on inside emotionally. And he’s just really good at keeping that inside and keeping a lot of that very private.
Samantha Power: I mean, one of the best examples of this, I think, was on the occasions where he would speak publicly give a very eloquent, or even spontaneous exchange, let’s say with a journalist. Then you would just see a tear in the wake of a school shooting or some horrific incident where he was put in the position where had to be controller and chief. And inside he’s a dad, and he’s a spouse, and he’s a person, and he’s feeling everything that you would imagine someone who had to go in and talk to a parent who’d lost a child in a shooting. Everything you’d imagine that person is feeling, and yet he has to suppress all that, and somehow pragmatically try to chart a path forward to get gun control legislation through a body that seems impervious to the pain and suffering of thousands of Americans.
Samantha Power: That’s a kind of public example. With me also, in the campaign, he had promised that he was going to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Not a huge foreign policy issue today, but something that matters hugely to Armenian Americans. He had promised and when he became president he’s looking at the war in Iraq and terrorism, and Turkey as a NATO partner. And there’s this commitment, he ended up not recognizing the Armenian Genocide, and it was something that we… In fact my water broke arguing with him about it. Because I’ve mentioned I was five months pregnant. By that time, I was eight months pregnant, and my son was actually born on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. Because it was such an emotional argument for me because I felt like we had promised but also it’s a good idea to say what’s true.
Samantha Power: I thought, many analysts thought that the relationship with Turkey could withstand this, even if it would cause definitely some bumps in the relationship. He’s looking at it from a totally different vantage point in having that argument with him. I didn’t get Spock. I got somebody who really was torn between incommensurate interests and values and just wrestling with it and was wracked by the sense of responsibility in the sense that when you say you’re going to do something you should go and do it on the one hand. And then also the commander in chief who’s thinking about our military in Iraq and supplying them. I mean, a very powerful argument on the other side, and just the emotion in him I often saw come out at the times where he felt the most internally conflicted.
Samantha Power: Syria is another example where he was probably the most irritable on that issue more than any other because on the one hand, he was absolutely firm that the risks at least would outweigh the benefits of getting involved militarily. He believed that time and again. That shaped his decision making. On the other hand, he seen the same images that you and I are seeing of children being murdered on the way to school.
Barrack Obama: I always feel responsible. I felt responsible when kids were being shot by snipers. I felt responsible when millions of people had been displaced. There are places around the world where horrible things were happening. And because of my office, because I’m President of the United States, I feel responsible. I asked myself every single day, “Is there something I could do that would save lives and make a difference? And spare some child who doesn’t deserve to suffer?”
Preet Bharara: You describe your time early in the Obama administration as waking up every morning wondering what bad news you’re going to read about because you have to deal with crises around the world and the world is a complex place. Then one morning, you got a certain kind of bad news. And it was that the United States, the fairly new President of the United States had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Why was that bad news?
Samantha Power: It’s a strange thing to call bad news. But I think I was not alone in just saying, “Oh, it’s like a hole in the head.”
Preet Bharara: It’s a great award.
Samantha Power: It’s a great award.
Preet Bharara: And it comes with some money.
Samantha Power: Yeah, you get some-
Preet Bharara: You get to give a speech.
Samantha Power: Exactly. [crosstalk 00:43:36].
Preet Bharara: And I think there’s a medal.
Samantha Power: A very attractive gold medal, and Teddy Roosevelt had won one. So, we actually had been looking at the medal in the White House for the bulk of that year working in the West Wing, and there was that medal. Then suddenly President Obama was told that he was going to be getting one too having just started in his job at the time of the worst economic plight for Americans since the Great Depression before he’s had a chance to get healthcare through. Before we’ve made any inroads on climate change. A lot of progress had been made on the economy at that point. But while people were suffering terribly across the country, there had been the rap on Obama that he was all speech, and glitter, and cosmopolitanism, not enough substance. Suddenly, to get this, it just wasn’t clear what the upside was.
Barrack Obama: Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize. Schweitzer and King, Marshall, and Mandela, my accomplishments are slight.
Samantha Power: I think we made the most of it. He ended up giving a speech that was one of the best of his presidency.
Preet Bharara: Great speech.
Samantha Power: Grappling with the core tension of what does it mean to try to live morally in a world of evil and injustice. Look, here I am getting a peace prize, and I’ve just ordered thousands of American men and women to Afghanistan in a major troop surge. What does it mean to believe in nonviolence and King and Gandhi on the one hand, but to recognize that terrorists want to come and blow up civilians? What does it mean to employ violence against them?
Barrack Obama: We must begin by acknowledging a hard truth. We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations acting individually or in concert will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem. That it merely creates new and more complicated ones. As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s his life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there’s nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naive in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state, sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone.
Samantha Power: It was a profound meditation. But the timing wasn’t great. Let’s put it that way. The committee address this because I went over there with him as he accepted the prize. And it was really interesting talking to them. They sort of seemed to think they were giving an attaboy. That hope itself. It’s a pretty interesting theory and case actually, that hope itself can have a virtuous knock-on effect me. Certainly he’s he changed America just by getting elected, and created a wholly different sense of what African Americans can do in this country, and the positions that they can reach in the same way that when a woman becomes president that will have that effect for women in this country. And so, there was something to the fact that his election alone did good. But I think they also thought that it would sort of more wind in his sails then as he set forth on this bruising agenda that he had set for himself.
Barrack Obama: And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength. That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we can compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. We honor those ideals by upholding them not when it’s easy, but when it is hard.
Preet Bharara: So, enough about Obama. People are always talking about that guy. Let’s go back to you. You’re an immigrant, like I am, I was born in India. You’re Irish born in London, and you had to become a United States citizen. And immigrants these days are in a little bit of an odd spot given the rhetoric and the policy changes going on emanating from the White House. Then you became the ambassador to the UN. How did you think about the fact that you’re an immigrant when you held that position, representing United States of America in front of all these other nations leaders and representatives?
Samantha Power: Well, I thought about it as an amazing source of what they call soft power. Nothing to do with me specifically, but I being and you being an illustration of the opportunities that this country has afforded so many families through the ages. Operating at the United Nations does give it a particular magic, I think. Frankly because you’re looking out at 192 representatives of 192 countries, and virtually all of those countries have huge immigrant communities in our country. It wasn’t just me. Zalmay Khalilzad was President Bush’s. UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright, of course a Czech refugee was President Clinton’s UN ambassador. And so, there is this tradition, but it’s tempting to say, “Oh, isn’t that amazing? Successive presidents have appointed immigrants into this role.” Not really, right? Immigrants are everywhere.
Samantha Power: I presided once as ambassador over a naturalization ceremony in which the woman without him I wouldn’t been able to do my job was being naturalized by an amazing nanny named Maria Castro. She was being naturalized, which was thrilling, and in retrospect a massive blessing given the current state of affairs. I’m looking out at the sea of faces next to her as you give… You’ve done these I’m sure. Presiding over these-
Preet Bharara: Yeah. It’s one of my favorite things that I’ve ever done.
Samantha Power: Absolute best thing to do in the world. And they’re choked up with emotion, and their families are there, and they’re in their Sunday best. You’re looking out and you just think, they’re all from the minute they take the oath, they are Americans now. They’re no longer a Russian this or a Costa Rican that. I was just moved by it as one is. Then I came back to my office at the US mission to the UN, and I look around and there’s my staff assistant whose father came from China with nothing more than a pair of pants and sent for her and her and her mother. My human rights advisor whose father’s Lebanese and fled the Civil War. My deputy was a Palestinian American, half Egyptian, half Palestinian, who speaks five languages thanks to his parents and the education that they got. My scheduler was grandparents for Holocaust.
Samantha Power: I looked around and it was I couldn’t find one-
Preet Bharara: Like the UN.
Samantha Power: … mayflower person. Yeah, it’s like the UN. Exactly. So, I don’t know if it’s life imitating life or art imitating life. The fact that I was an immigrant was an important thing to project to the world because it’s something that gives us tremendous power and appeal. But then, I wonder if you feel the same, but it does give you I think an insider outsider perspective. So you become, given the opportunities that you get, and the privileges that have been afforded to me by being in this country. I love this country. I’m extremely patriotic. At the same time, I go home, to my prior home every summer and always have, and hear from my cousins and my aunts and uncles about what they view as our transgressions or our mistakes.
Samantha Power: I also see America from small country’s perspective, in the sense of Ireland is an island country, a very poor country until very, very recently. And to view the superpower through those eyes is very different. And to remember that we are American, and we have such power to do important things in the world. But we are also like a bull in the China shop. And when we make mistakes, the whole world sometimes bears the consequences.
Preet Bharara: Can we go back to the book and the title of your book, which is intriguing. The title of your memoir is The Education of an Idealist. And there’s this tension in all walks of life, in my former profession prosecution between being an idealist and being a pragmatist that’s certainly been debated for not just decades or centuries, but I guess millennia in the world of Foreign Affairs. What did you mean by the title, and is idealism possible in foreign relations?
Samantha Power: I wrestled with whether I wanted this title in the sense that I think when you see it, The Education of an Idealist, what springs to my mind is, what is it? A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality.
Preet Bharara: Like an evolution in thinking. You got schooled on your [crosstalk 00:52:56].
Samantha Power: Yeah. You got schooled. You got schooled, the world was nasty, brutish, and you just were naive to think that you could make a difference, and that is not my story. I mean, I believe that the world as it is right now is flawed in innumerable ways. To me idealism, I have a sort of simple understanding of what it means. It means do you like what you see, or do you think some change might be in order? I think whatever it is that consumes a person, if they believe that change is necessary, the reform would be beneficial that more equity is needed, more justice is needed. That’s a form of idealism. It’s not a statement of how I see the world. Do I see the world through rose colored glasses? So I think the change is easy? Years ago, the way I got to know Barack Obama was I wrote a 500 page book on American responses to the major genocides of the 20th century. And it was all about how the system systematically excludes consideration of human consequences.
Samantha Power: So, nobody had to remind me that there’s evil in the world, and that, in general, large institutions struggle to humanize what they do. It’s just very hard to keep individuals at the center of bureaucratic debates and very easy to lose sight of what draws you into public service in the first place. I was very alert to all of that. But how do you get better or at least try to get better at prosecuting your ideals, at making that change. In my case, building coalitions of lots of countries to try to help you tackle climate change, or Ebola. Doing a better job, seeing the individuals around you.
Samantha Power: The penultimate chapter of the book, I call Shrink the Change. My students I know are not going to like that much because we’re at a moment where we know that the change we need is so broad based and so fundamental, and the inequality and racial injustice, and everything that pervades in our society is so devastating, frankly. So, to hear shrink the change? Like really, we need big ass change. We don’t need to shrink the change.
Preet Bharara: That’s a technical term, I think. Big ass change.
Samantha Power: Big ass change. But we do need big change. But part of what you learn as you go is not that you can’t change a slice of the world or someone’s world. But it’s that often the change happens in smaller portions than you would like, and it happens a little more incrementally than you would like. And that’s disappointing. I use the example of confronting the Human Rights recession that is going on all around the world, of which Donald Trump, of course, is a symptom, but it’s reflective of a larger challenge, and we were dealing with it even before Donald Trump descended onto the scene. [inaudible 00:55:38] in my office, and I remember the president’s cabinet. I was like all I’ve ever wanted to be, able to be able to do something about something this impactful on people’s lives, and it’s just so big. A human rights recession. I mean, what does one even…
Samantha Power: So, I said to my team. I said, let’s shrink this down. What is one thing that we can do that we think we can actually achieve that will make a small dent in this problem, and that maybe will give rise to other change. We decided we would choose 20 women political prisoners, and we launched a very modest campaign called #Freethe20, and we profiled 20 women from countries like China and Egypt and Uzbekistan and Ethiopia. So, countries with which the United States had good relations. Those from Syria and places with which we had bad relations. We just methodically pounded the pavement. We got the 20 women US senators on a bipartisan basis, something bipartisan did happen in 2015. We got other countries to get behind the campaign. And it’s so small, but with others, and of course, working with the families and the lawyers of these individuals. 16 of the 20 women were released from prison, and thus were able to go back into their communities and activate in a way that maybe would have ripple effects for other individuals in those communities.
Preet Bharara: One of the things I find fascinating about your illustrious career, and I guess there’s been other people who have engaged in diplomacy, who have law degrees, but it always strikes me as interesting given my shortcomings, and the way I think about the world. You’re a Harvard trained lawyer. In law school, and in the practice of law, you pursue strategies based on rules. Many of them are actually written down. And lawyers agonize about the wording of statutes. And so, there’s a playbook for how to do stuff. There are rules and regulations and precedents. It strikes me that foreign policy and diplomacy and even what you’re describing now, which is an amazing feat, that wasn’t written in a book anywhere. You didn’t apply some pre-existing constitutional principle or right or statute. As someone who’s trained as a lawyer, have you found it difficult to try to effect change in this sort of wild west that I still think diplomacy occupies.
Samantha Power: It is a kind of last Hobbesian arena in some respects. But I think one of the great contributions of FDR and Truman and the post World War Two architects of the UN and other international institutions is they laid down some rules, and I wouldn’t want to-
Preet Bharara: What are some of those rules?
Samantha Power: I mean, basic [crosstalk 00:58:12]-
Preet Bharara: But I want to distinguish rules as opposed to norms because there’s a lot of discussion now. Norms can be trampled, and there’s a person who does that every single day. I just wonder how strong those rules-
Samantha Power: No, they’re not. They’re, A in the eye of the beholder. And B, at the mercy of the countries of the world to choose to enforce them or not. So no, there is no… You’re absolutely right. There’s no… That’s why it’s so Hobbesian. There’s no Leviathan. There’s no overarching authority other than the UN Security Council and the UN Security Council is comprised right now of, of course, as always, five veto holders, but three of those veto holders are President Xi of China, President Putin of Russia, and President Trump of the United States. I’m sorry, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom. I should now add him to the-
Preet Bharara: Can’t think of that guy.
Samantha Power: To the roster of who you would not want to be enforcing international peace and security or thinking about human dignity or collective threats around the world. Those are four individuals you would not have on your wish list to advance the rights and the welfare and the security of humanity, and that’s where we are. And so, your point is very well taken. I guess all I meant was, you still need standards. You still need accountability. If the United States can recover and return to respecting its democratic institutions at home, promoting democracy and the rule of law abroad, rather than its alternative, which it sometimes feel like we’re promoting today. The UN works best when that team captain who has been the United States since World War Two until very recently mobilizes other countries starting with our closest allies who are democracies as well. And these days, of course, democracies facing their own internal challenges, but build a coalition of like minded people with shared values, domestic rule of law, who have domestic accountability.
Samantha Power: That kind of coalition of the willing then when it acts in unison, on behalf of common cause, can get an awful lot done within the UN. But when there’s no team captain. When many of the democracies of the world are looking inward given that we haven’t dealt with widening inequality, and some of the effects of globalization. That’s going to continue for some time, the system becomes a bit of a self help society. And worse, given China’s rise, it’s a system that’s very vulnerable to China seeking to reshape the rules of the road much more according to their domestic norms rather than Western liberal norms that were put on paper even if they weren’t necessarily readily enforceable after the Second World War.
Samantha Power: It’s both, as you say, a kind of chaotic world at its best. Richard Holbrooke, the late Richard Holbrooke, a mentor of mine used to say that blaming the UN, let’s say, for the Rwandan Genocide, or the invasion of Iraq, or any of the bad things that happened in the world, blaming the UN is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the Knicks play badly. You’re blaming a building. Fundamentally, countries come into the UN to pursue their interests. At our most enlightened, we view those interests in a longer term way. So we see that our fates are connected to those of others. We see that in order to undertake collective action to deal with terrorism, we have to get other countries to share their information with us about who’s traveling where. In order to deal with climate change, we have to make sacrifices domestically in order to get China and India and other big emitters to make those sacrifices at earlier stages of their development. But at our worst, we’re immensely short term focused transactional.
Preet Bharara: You’ve used the term Hobbesian a few times. For those nonpolitical philosophers who may be listening. You’re referring to Thomas Hobbes who talked about the state of the world before people come together and form a social contract. And you refer to that among other people as the state of nature where life is nasty, brutish, and short. And so, this chaos you’re talking about comes in part from this image that Thomas Hobbes crafted a long time ago.
Preet Bharara: I want to ask you about diplomacy. I had on George Packer, who has recently written a very interesting biography of Richard Holbrooke who you’ve mentioned. I asked him what he thought the essence of diplomacy was, one of the things he said was, first of all, reading the other, whether it’s an adversary or not deeply in a sensitive and nuanced way.
Samantha Power: I think that’s brilliant. Yeah. I think that’s hugely important aspect of it. And it’s the thing that powerful countries representatives are often not prone to do. Because when you’re used to having the economic might or the military might to get things by fiat, the idea that you have to be stepping into the shoes of another nation that is of a totally different socioeconomic status that may be reckless in the international system from your standpoint. The idea that you still have to step into their shoes. It’s not a habit that comes naturally. It’s something President Obama did really unusually well, at least with his foreign interlocutors this ability to say, “Well, if I’m President Xi, how am I thinking about the South China Sea?” Or even as we’re negotiating the Iran nuclear deal? Well, if I’m them, if I’m Rohani, and I have the hardliners on one side, and the people who elected me on the other, how am I threading this needle?
Samantha Power: I think what George characterized Holbrooke having is something that I aspired to bring to my negotiations. One of the things that I did, which hadn’t been done before, kind of weirdly, is a very simple step of deciding that I was just going to go and visit with each of the other 190 plus UN ambassadors. When I would say this at the time to friends or colleagues, they gasped. You’re going go to 190 countries? No, just go traveling around Manhattan. They have offices in Manhattan. This is not a major thing. And yet, I’d say 50, 60 of the missions to the United Nations from these other countries had never been visited by the US ambassador of the UN in the entire history of the country. And a number of occasions, the ambassadors got choked up, and they’d have the ceremonies. I’d be there kind of between negotiations or about to fly down to Washington for a cabinet meeting. But I would go and I would just show up on their turf.
Samantha Power: Traditionally, they would come to the United States, because we’re the host country, we’re the most powerful country. Often the US ambassador of the UN didn’t feel they had the bandwidth to even see the representative, let’s say, of a small island state in the Pacific that might be now getting submerged underwater because of climate change that isn’t on any important UN body, but that still exists as a country in the world. And longs for a little bit of America’s time or attention. I did that, and I went in with no asks, which was very hard for me because I always wanted things from other countries. And I would just ask them about their lives, about how they got into diplomacy. Many of them were the first in their families to get educated, especially those from developing countries.
Samantha Power: An individual who I found frightfully dull counterpart who I was going to visit, I was thinking, how am I going to get through this courtesy call. The reason he was dull was he was always just reading his country’s talking points. Never been updated. He had no feeling about any issue that it seemed that came before him. But when I asked him about his life, it turns out, most of his family had been murdered by the Khmer Rouge. He described what it was like to live on just a few grains of rice for many months, or watching his sister getting executed before him. And just to think of why that would close somebody up, and then how he had decided to join his country’s government and become, and eventually land in what was a prestigious post representing Cambodia at the United Nations. To get a lens into their countries, just by hearing their own stories, but also what matters to them. What are they trying to get done at the United Nations on behalf of a Cambodia?
Samantha Power: Anyway, so you do that, and then you get to know them. You feel like you’re better at least at stepping into their shoes. I did that with the Russian ambassador, and this was controversial because our relations with President Putin were breaking down. But even as I ended up in pitch battle with the Russian ambassador, who often was not telling the truth, either because he was misled by his boss, or for other reasons. But I mean, it was maddening to hear him distorting what was happening in Ukraine or in Aleppo, later of course with election interference. But I still had to find a way to maintain a relationship with him, to carve out a space in which we could cooperate on Ebola or on sending peacekeepers to a different place.
Samantha Power: By maintaining that relationship as we then negotiated on Syria chemical weapons, I could try to get a sense of his cost benefit within his own system. He’s got bosses too. With Russian politics in mind, and the crazy claims that President Putin had made publicly and how that was going to affect the scope for an agreement. It was going to shrink it dramatically. But to know those individuals, to hear them from their standpoint, however warped sometimes that vantage point could seem, and then to be able to articulate something in a manner that would give them something that they could argue on their terms, in their systems, in their politics.
Samantha Power: These courtesy calls, which were such an investment of time, but not relative to going to their countries, when it came time to do really controversial things at the UN like promote LGBT rights where the majority of countries within the UN are either homophobic or not at all enlightened, in terms of their laws, in terms of criminalizing homosexuality, and so forth. Those ambassadors who you go, and you get to know, and you listen to, and you show that America respects their national stories as well as their individual stories, the number of those ambassadors who showed up for me… I really felt for me and for America on the really hard votes, which were going to cause them no end of trouble at home because of the politics on LGBT rights at home was too high to count.
Samantha Power: So, it can look like touchy, feely, can’t we all get along stuff. But at the end of the day, everybody’s making judgments about whether we share values and whether we share objectives. When you show that respect, when you put yourselves in their shoes, it’s much easier to make the case that your interests have converged.
Preet Bharara: We spent a lot of time talking about all of your accomplishments and things you’ve done for the country and for the world. You speak very movingly at many points in the book about your family, and about the importance of family. I’ve had other people on the show, and I’ve had these discussions in my own life, and with other people about this tension that always gets discussed between the work-life balance. I had one very prominent journalist who said very bluntly, if you want to be the best at something, if you want to achieve true excellence, and prominence then there’s not balance. It’s impossible to do them all together.
Preet Bharara: Before you answer, I want to read something that I thought was particularly beautiful about this point. And you write in the book, if one lesson in my experience stands out above the others, it is that the people we love are the foundation for all else. I have never found the optimal balance between immersion in my work, and the pull of home, love, and laughter that are my fuel. What I do know that when we turn in our White House badge, or its equivalent in other fields, what is left is our own garden, and what we have sown and cultivated.
Preet Bharara: How do you do it? People look at folks like you who’ve accomplished so much. And you found what we talked about how you explained your job to your son. What’s your advice to people who are a little bit younger than you and I are, and ambitious and want to change the world but also want to have a family?
Samantha Power: I think what I have experienced is just the inelegance of the struggle to do both things well, to be the kind of parent and partner that I want to be, that I long to be. And to be at the top of my professional game having the kind of impact that I seek. Particularly, impact that will affect other families and their ability to live in safety and with dignity. I mean that that aspiration, like what my son… “What about my dignity mommy?” There’s one scene in the book where he stomps off. I’m on a conference call and he stomps away and he just like all kids do when they can’t get their parents attention. He just said Putin, Putin, Putin, Putin. When is it going to be Declan, Declan, Declan, Declan. That to me is… scenes like that played out every day in our household as I tried to just keep it all together, frankly.
Samantha Power: I do write about that, honestly, because I want everybody who’s struggling with a balance and who feels inadequate as a parent, as a spouse or partner, as a professional, to just know that all of us feel that way. And part of trying to do two really, really important things at the same time means carrying with you that sense of inadequacy. And I feel very fortunate that after eight years of very intense public service and eight years of not being the parent that I wanted to be to my two children that I don’t feel fortunate to have left government because I loved it. But I feel very fortunate to be tilting the balance in a slightly different direction now and being able to be more present. But a lot of people don’t have that luxury. They need to work at that pace in order to pay the bills.
Samantha Power: And so, not everybody has the chance to binge on work, and then go binge on family as I have tried to do a little bit these last years. But I think we all have the chance to just go easy on ourselves. And just know that whatever we are doing, we are doing the best we can to assess as often as one can. To not let gravity carry us forward. But to just say, “Is this the best balance I can get at this moment, all things considered?” I think being self aware and intentional is important, but also to not compound the struggle with the self flagellation that so many of us do to ourselves.
Preet Bharara: Samantha Power, thank you for being on the show, and thank you for this important and powerful book, The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir.
Samantha Power: Thank you Preet. Thank you for your ongoing service.
Preet Bharara: Thanks so much.
Preet Bharara: The conversation continues for members of the CAFE Insider community. In this week’s Stay Tuned bonus, Ambassador Power talks to me about the view of the UN as a global ATM. And she describes a complicated personal idol, Burmese leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi. To hear the bonus and the exclusive weekly CAFE Insider Podcast, go to café.com/insider. So, this week was United Nations General Assembly which causes a lot of traffic havoc in Manhattan, as it does every year, but we put up with it. And we still get you the show on time.
Preet Bharara: One bit of controversy arose from a speech given by an extraordinary young girl, Great Thunberg from Sweden. I probably pronounced that wrong, who was on a mission to raise awareness about climate change. She delivered a very powerful speech, and it was pretty intense. She’s pretty fired up about it. I don’t blame her. There’s lots of debate raging about whether or not anybody should be listening to a 16 year old, or whether she’s been used as a prop or not. My view is without going into too much detail. Good for her. It is a problem, and if she can shine a light on it all the better.
Preet Bharara: I did find it interesting that so many people have seen the need to attack her. There was a commentator on Fox News who said some terrible things that even Fox News decided to issue an apology for his disgraceful comments. Then, of course, because he can’t resist the President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, weighed in himself with some sarcasm, and he writes in a tweet because he has nothing better to do. She seems like a very happy young girl working toward a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see. I would leave it there except that, guess what Greta did, within a short time she changed her own Twitter bio to read a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. I would point out, she has 1.9 million followers, and gaining more every minute. Congratulations on your sense of humor.
Greta Thunberg: This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet, you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you? How dare you continue to look away, and come here saying that you’re doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight?
Preet Bharara: So, to all the people who think we shouldn’t be listening to young people, I don’t see why that should be the case. I’m not taking orders from my teenagers, but I listen to them. And often they have smarter things to say than quite frankly a lot of adults who have been elected to office, including one in particular. So, if we got to listen to that guy, I don’t know why we shouldn’t be listening to somebody who cares so much about an important problem that other people are sweeping under the rug. And also like the fact that she doesn’t get bullied. That’s really important too. So, young people continue to speak out. Whether it’s Great Thunberg speaking at the UN or Malala Yousafzai, or anyone else, speak and hopefully more people will listen.
Preet Bharara: Well, that’s it for this episode of Stay Tuned. Thanks again to my guest, Samantha Power. If you like what we do, rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new listeners find the show. Send me your questions about news, politics and justice. You can tweet them to me @preetbharara with the hashtag AskPreet. Or you can call and leave me a message at 669-247-7338 that’s 669-24 Preet, or you can send an email to [email protected]
Preet Bharara: Stay Tuned is presented by CAFE. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The senior producer is Aaron Dalton, and the cafe team is Carla Pierini, Julia Doyle, Calvin Lord, David Colander, and Geoff Isenman. Our music is by Andrew Dost. I’m Preet Bharara Stay Tuned. Simply Safe makes home security easy. No contract, hidden fees or fine print. Just $15 a month for 24/7 professional monitoring. With Simply Safe video verification technology break-ins are visually confirmed allowing police to get to you 3.5 times faster. Visit simplysafe.com/preet, and you’ll get free shipping and a 60 day risk free trial. That’s simplysafe.com/preet, simplysafe.com/preet.