John Bolton has advocated for war with Iran and North Korea. He loathes the United Nations, disdains international law and still thinks the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was the right idea. He’s a China skeptic and a Russia hawk who, as one former colleague from the Bush administration put it to me the other day, never met a military option he didn’t like.
And he’s confrontational in person too. Bolton, President Trump’s choice to replace the national security adviser he unceremoniously dumped on Thursday, is already criticizing the staff he stands to inherit, publicly vowing to bulldoze any bureaucratic “munchkins” who stand in his or the president’s way. Bolton is, in short, a most unusual figure in American foreign policy: personally belligerent and professionally bellicose, and soon to be the closest adviser to an inexperienced president on how to handle all the world’s many challenges.
So how alarmed should we be?
Commentators – and not just liberal Democrats – started warning us to hit the panic button within minutes of Trump’s Thursday announcement. Several Republican colleagues from the Bush administration – when the famously divisive Bolton could not be confirmed for U.N. ambassador even by a Republican-controlled Senate – weighed in with critical takes about his uniquely dangerous combination of government savvy and ideological fervor. Defenders hardly denied Bolton’s pugnaciousness, instead making the case he’ll be a better fit for Trump, a president who seems to delight in Bolton’s Fox News bluster and go-it-alone unilateralism.
“It’s not just your typical national security establishment types crying foul,” argues Jake Sullivan, this week’s guest on The Global Politico, our weekly podcast on world affairs. There’s broad agreement, Sulliva says, “that John Bolton represents a dangerous new element in the Trump national security apparatus. And I don’t think we should reach a point of fever pitch or hysteria, but I do think that it is very difficult to overestimate the potential danger that John Bolton could put us in.”
Those are rare fighting words from Sullivan, the generally measured foreign policy alter ego of his longtime boss Hillary Clinton—someone I’ve found to be a reliable guide over the years to the evolving views of the Democratic foreign policy establishment. At the end of Trump’s first year, for example, I interviewed Sullivan about Trump’s record so far, and found him hardly inflammatory, arguing along with many in both parties that while he disagreed with the president’s rhetoric and incendiary tweets, Trump’s foreign policy actions to date had been much less radical than his campaign-trail rhetoric suggested.
But Trump’s dramatic purge of his national security team over the last few weeks – with both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster dumped in favor of more hawkish advisers – has changed how Sullivan, and no doubt much of the rest of the Washington foreign policy establishment in both parties, now assesses the president’s intentions toward the rest of the world. The shakeup, Sullivan says in our interview, amounts to a “sea change” in the Trump administration, one that introduces a whole new “element of risk and danger to the way U.S. policy will be conducted,” scares allies and raises the much more real chance “we are going to end up in a shooting war.”
Sullivan, a Rhodes scholar and, like Bolton, a Yale Law School graduate, spent four years by Clinton’s side at the State Department, traveling everywhere with her as her policy planning chief. Then, after a stint as Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser in the Obama White House, when he was secretly dispatched to begin talks with Iran, Sullivan returned to Clinton to run her campaign policy shop and serve as a key consigliere in Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Had Clinton won, he almost certainly would have been her national security adviser, the position Bolton will now take up in the Trump White House.
Our conversation was initially recorded just days after Tillerson’s abrupt firing via Trump tweet – and updated over the weekend, after Trump surprised even his own staff with the timing of his ouster of McMaster. Sullivan shared his thoughts on everything from the emerging Trump doctrine of “militant unilateralism” to the perilous future of the Iran nuclear deal he helped negotiate and the president’s ongoing obsession with his former boss. You can read the rest of our conversation below, or listen to the whole thing here.
Susan Glasser: Hi, I’m Susan Glasser, and welcome back to The Global Politico.
This week’s guest is Jake Sullivan. In the midst of what feels like a key moment in the Trump presidency, when he’s thrown out his first foreign policy team — booted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by tweet and, just this week, National Security Adviser H.R.McMaster, there’s no better guide to and analyst of what it might mean than Jake, who served throughout the Obama administration in top jobs at both State and the White House. Jake was Hillary Clinton’s policy planning chief, he was Joe Biden’s national security adviser and throughout the 2016 campaign he was the policy chief for Clinton’s campaign. Had she won he would have been almost certainly her national security adviser.
So Jake, we were joking before we did this, right, Jake, that our conversation could not possibly last a few days in advance. I’ve learned that taping The Global Politico is an increasingly perilous job, even if we tape it on Fridays, often it seems outdated by Mondays. So, this is a special emergency reconvening of our fantastic Jake Sullivan Global Politico episode to cover, really, the tumult in President Trump’s national security team, and what we think it means.
Jake, you’re there in Washington. It’s fair to say, right, that the foreign policy blob has never been so vocal as they have been in registering their dismay and concern about an appointment like that of John Bolton to be national security advisor. Is this hysteria warranted?
Jake Sullivan: Well, first of all, I would say, this is one of those cases where it’s not just what you called the blob; it’s not just your typical national security establishment types crying foul and raising questions about this. It’s members of Congress who don’t necessarily often pay that much attention to foreign policy who are saying, what the heck is going on here?
It’s journalists and commentators who may disagree with the foreign policy establishment on a lot of things, but agree that John Bolton represents a dangerous new element in the Trump national security apparatus. And I don’t think we should reach a point of fever pitch or hysteria, but I do think that it is very difficult to overestimate the potential danger that John Bolton could put us in, given the sheer number of countries he’s said he wants to go to war with, and the way he’s conducted himself in government service in the past, the way he’s treated other people, the way he’s treated information and intelligence.
So, I think this is a serious moment, and it deserves to be treated and taken extremely seriously.
Glasser: Well, you have the cover in this month’s Foreign Affairs magazine, and basically your argument is that the world and American leadership can survive four years of Trump, but not eight years. Did this cause you to rethink your thesis in any way? Do you think that this is a new and different stage of Trumpism?
Sullivan: You know, one of the things I say in the piece is that Trump has to a certain extent on some issues been constrained by the team around him, and I know in saying that that whenever part of the constraint is your team, well, your team can be replaced. And I didn’t necessarily anticipate that John Bolton would be the person who bore out that particular observation, but I think it does—like I said—introduce an element of risk and danger to the way U.S. policy will be conducted in the months ahead that is a sea change from who he had serving in that role before, and that does raise the very real question about whether we are going to end up in an actual shooting war, and about the way the rest of the world is going to look at the United States and our capacity to lead going forward.
So, it doesn’t make me fundamentally fatalistic about the future of American leadership, but it certainly poses a serious risk, and it’s something that the Congress should be trying to hold Trump accountable on, more generally. Obviously, the national security advisor is an appointed position that does not go through Senate confirmation. But we’ve got to find every tool we have to be able to reduce that risk as much as possible, to put as many curbs around Bolton and Trump as we can, going forward.
Glasser: Although you have to say that so far the Republican Congress has not seemed notable in its desire to stand up to President Trump. The Russia sanctions, which passed by a vote of 98 to 2 and were obviously an effort to constrain Trump, are really an exception so far in what we’ve seen.
Sullivan: Well, you did have the strikingly close vote on the question of war powers in Yemen. By just a few votes that motion failed—the effort to put constraints on the president in terms of the prosecution of the military campaign in Yemen—and I think what that shows you is, there is now a bipartisan concern about the manner in which this president goes about putting U.S. forces in harm’s way, and how he exercises his war powers.
And I expect that that kind of—even though that didn’t succeed—the momentum that got built up around it will continue as we go forward. So, I’m never going to hold my breath and think that Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan are going to come riding to the rescue, but I do think that there are even some Republican senators who worry about Donald Trump and the possibility that we end up going to war, and I guarantee you that they are not sleeping easier at night with John Bolton occupying the national security advisor’s chair.
Glasser: Well, that’s probably a fair thing to say, but, you know, it is interesting that a lot of people have pointed out over the last couple days since Trump decided to name Bolton, that there is a contradiction at heart, right, that Trump has been a consistent basher of the Iraq War with which Bolton is so closely identified. He has been still talking about negotiations and making the deal of the century in some of these long-running foreign policy issues. Those would seem to be quite at odds with the foreign policy recommendations that are likely to come with Bolton. I’m wondering how you square the circle.
Sullivan: Well, I’d say a couple of things about it. First, the way Donald Trump has conducted himself as president has been a far cry from what he said on the campaign trail about the deployment of military force. He's increased our troop presence in Afghanistan; he’s expanded our presence in both Iraq and Syria; he’s expanded our conduct of the war in Yemen that I was just referring to before.
In almost every theater, he has in fact, upped the degree to which the United States is militarily involved. And some people sort of mistake Trump and America First for a version of isolationism, but what it really is, is a kind of militant unilateralism, and that’s actually not inconsistent with John Bolton. And so the possibility that Trump tears up the Iran deal and we end up at war with Iran is real, and I don’t think there’s an inconsistency between his natural instincts and Bolton’s.
North Korea presents an interesting scenario, because it is a case in which Trump clearly wants to do a deal, but also in which if he doesn’t get what he’s looking for, he has indicated a certain comfort with using military force. And instead of Bolton operating as a check on that comfort, he is going to be stoking it and trying to push it along. So, I think that the situation in both the Korean Peninsula and with respect to Iran have just gotten considerably more perilous.
Glasser: You’re always so good at being pretty calm and level-headed about these things, but I have to say, it’s not a super-optimistic scenario at the moment. I guess a lot of people are wondering how much of a difference does it really make, anyway, since Donald Trump is cycling through staff at such a remarkable pace and this is now his third national security advisor?
You’ve thought a lot about the job of national security advisor. Many people thought, including myself, that you would have made a very good national security advisor for President Hillary Clinton. Do you think the role is as powerful as described? I mean, is it worthy of this level of concern and freakout?
Sullivan: Right. Well, I think you have to approach that question from a couple of different angles. First, is Bolton likely to be in the job for long? There’s a perfectly credible story to tell, that the reason that he was asked to take the job was because Trump was just trying to deflect from the stories of these women who are coming out on TV and accusing him of various things. Meaning that Bolton could be discarded in a few months’ time. That is an eminently plausible scenario.
But there’s another scenario, which is that Bolton is a canny bureaucratic operator, a deeply political person who knows how to show Trump that he’s wearing the Trump jersey, and that he will work to protect his position, and then to advance his ideas in an administration where there are not a lot of procedural or organizational or institutional checks on a guy like Bolton, and that’s a scary thought.
And I guess what I would say about the job of national security advisor is that you want someone in that role who runs a fair process, and we know from Bolton’s history that he’s the opposite of an honest broker. You want somebody who presents all of the most accurate information possible; and we know from Bolton’s history that he was a champion of the most aggressive intelligence assessments of Iraq WMD and, in fact, tried to cook up his own assessments of a nonexistent Cuban biological weapons program.
And you want somebody who is fundamentally going to try to explain to the president the downside risks of military action and of some of the kinds of more aggressive steps that Trump might consider. And Bolton, I think, is only going to super-charge all of those things. So, in all of those ways I think he’s ill-suited for the job, but also by occupying that perch in an administration that does not have kind of regular order procedure, he will have outsized influence on decision-making.
At the end of the day, the president makes the decisions; that doesn’t change, even with Donald Trump as president; but I think this national security advisor in this moment has the capacity to have a really significant amount of influence on the way things play out on some of these crucial national security issues.
Glasser: I mentioned Hillary Clinton for the first time in this conversation, and that’s probably as a good a place as any to pick back up with the original conversation you and I were having a few days before. In Trump time, it seems like every day is a week or a year, but it was really just only a few days ago. We were talking about, really, President Trump’s ongoing obsession with Hillary Clinton, and the fact that she does seem to keep managing to make news of her own when she comments on the reasons why she lost to Trump, as she did just the other day. I think the only update in that part of our conversation is she said she was sorry for how she phrased her remarks in India. Is that right?
Sullivan: Yeah. I mean, she came out and basically said, “I don’t want what I said in India to be misunderstood by people. I wasn’t trying to convey that which was being conveyed through the headlines.” And I think in general, Hillary Clinton is trying through everything that she’s doing right now, including her political efforts, including her philanthropic efforts, her academic efforts, to look forward, to move forward.
But the box that she’s in—and Hillary Clinton is always being put in a box by somebody—is that she’s going to continue to be asked questions about 2016 because it remains an object of fascination, both here and around the world, and she can’t simply decline to answer them. So, she will continue doing her best, but it’s not like she’s going out and giving speeches saying these things; these are answers she’s giving to questions, and I think that now that she is no longer a political candidate, people should be giving her much more of the benefit of the doubt than they have been.
Glasser: Meanwhile, Jake, your old boss—another of your old bosses—Vice President Joe Biden, is out there threatening to beat up Donald Trump. Do you think he could take him?
Sullivan: I mean, it is not even a close call. I mean, I guess the vice president—
Glasser: He does seem like he’s a little bit more fit.
Sullivan: It’s—yeah—I mean, that barely deserves more than a second’s thought, because it’s so obvious how that would end up. But, the vice president did say, I think, on another podcast not long ago that he wants to move beyond the back and forth with Trump on this thing, and focus in on all of the president’s dangerous infirmities, as far as running the country is concerned. And I think that’s the right thing. But could Joe Biden take Donald Trump in a fight? I mean, come on, please—it would be no contest.
Glasser: All right. Well, Jake Sullivan is our guest on this week’s Global Politico. I’m praying that no more news happens between now and the few hours when we release this to all you great listeners on Monday morning. Jake, thanks again for joining us.
Sullivan: Thanks for having me, Susan.
Glasser: Okay. So you wrote this article. It’s a very interesting article about what a Democratic foreign policy might look like right now. And your basic takeaway is the world can survive four years of Donald Trump, but not eight. Why?
Sullivan: Well, let me start by saying that actually there is growing cottage industry of voices, not just in the Democratic Party, but I would say across the foreign policy establishment, essentially saying the American era is over. Either the Chinese are on the come, or chaos will reign, or it will be a purely multipolar world. But in any event, the days when the United States was the main actor, catalyzing and mobilizing events and change in the world, they’re behind us.
So my starting point is to argue that both the system, the international system we built, and America’s role in it are more resilient than people think. And they are certainly resilient enough to survive a term of Donald Trump because, A, I think a lot of countries in the world are sort of hoping this is an aberration, and that the United States will come back to its senses, and reclaim its rightful role. B, I think Trump has actually been constrained by his own team, by the Congress, by reality in ways where the worst things he said he would do on the campaign he hasn’t been able to do. But the reason—
Glasser: It’s early days.
Sullivan: Well, this is why I worry about the difference between four and eight years, is that it takes time for a president to impose their will. And we’re seeing this recently in the way that Trump moved forward on the steel tariffs, for example; that he’s tired of the shackles that he feels have been put on him. But even so, to do the truly destructive kinds of things he was describing on the campaign trail—a full-on trade war, encouraging an all-out nuclear exchange in Northeast Asia—I think that it takes time to be able to get beyond those constraints, number one.
Number two, I think the difference between him getting reelected to repudiated in 2020 will say a lot about how the rest of the world looks at America, and how we look at ourselves.
Glasser: Right. So the battle for understanding what’s happening with United States and with Trump depends upon the ending of this story?
Sullivan: Right. If he is reelected, I think the rest of the world stops saying, “What that an aberration,” and starts saying, “Oh, my goodness. That’s the new normal. That’s America.” And I think that the allies and our adversaries would adjust their strategies pretty decisively in the outcome of a Trump reelection.
In the case that he is not reelected, I think we’ve built enough give and flex into this international system of alliances, and institutions, and problem-solving arrangements that it can survive. It is resilient enough over the next three years to get to 2020.
Glasser: So it’s a really interesting argument, but one part of it, though, seems to imply that if you believe Trump was a one-off, or a black swan event, or whatever you want to call it, that kind of absolves the two-term Obama administration in some ways. You know, the implication is that America was leading and that we were moving forward in a way that Trump has sort of taken us off course. But there’s a growing number of people, I think, who are willing to reexamine whether that was really the case.
I mean, that some of these debates and questions about whether America was really leading in the way the world needed, or whether it addressed crises like the rise of a resentful Russia, or Xi Jinping, who became the unshackled leader of China in the period of the Obama presidency. You know, how much do you think this was already a trajectory that we were on?
Sullivan: You know, I think a big part of the argument by the fatalists, the people who say it’s over for America, is—just look at the Obama years. You know, it’s almost an article of faith at this point that this was a period of the receding nature of American power. And not just an article of faith in the United States. I think there’s a narrative around the world that somehow in this period, the United States was not stepping up and filling its role. I think there’s a fundamental baseline problem against that.
If you measure American leadership in the world against 1991, then, of course, the United States is not going to act the same way in 2010, 2015, 2020. But what I think the Obama administration and President Obama himself did a much better job than he’s given credit for is manage the shift from U.S. dominance to U.S. leadership.
And what I mean by that is to move from a period in which we had such a preponderance of power that we could really kind of call the shots on a lot of things, to a place where we were the key actor in mobilizing and catalyzing outcomes.
And you look at the record of the Obama administration on the big threats that we face: on climate change, without Barack Obama, there is no Paris Climate Agreement. On the possibility of terrorist getting their hands on loose nuclear weapons, it was Barack Obama who set up the Nuclear Security Summit and got 50 nations to all work to lock down loose nukes. And not to mention the Iran nuclear deal. On pandemic disease, when it looked like an Ebola crisis would sweep West Africa and possibly the world, it was the U.S. who deployed troops and health experts, and stamped that out without the loss of any significant life, sustained significant life in a radiating way out from where the conflict began.
I think the reason why President Obama gets some of the grief that he gets is because of Syria. I think Syria has taken an outsized place in the narrative about the Obama administration. Now, on the one hand, it is a moral and humanitarian catastrophe of epic portions. On the other hand, I think—I have not heard, as somebody who advocated for stronger U.S. action in Syria while I was in the administration—I’ve not heard anyone make a convincing case that a different president using a different set of tools could have produced a decisively different outcome given all of the other dynamics that were at play in the Middle East at the time.
Glasser: Well, you know, you did participate. I mean, tell us a little bit what it was like. Was President Obama simply not open to this by the time you were in the White House and participating in those conversations? I get the sense that over and over again this was looked at, but that it was the president personally, as opposed to those around him, really who was making the call on Syria.
Sullivan: You know, looking back on it, I think one of the big challenges in the debate over Syria policy was that those of us who advocated for more means, for the U.S. to do more in Syria, were also advocating for more ambitious outcomes: that is, Assad must go. We need the Geneva process to produce democracy in Syria, and so forth. And there was no one really making the case for both more means, but also less ambitious ends; a messy, contingent outcome that’s produced in part by the application of American power.
And because of that, when President Obama was presented with military options, they came associated with this argument which said that we can also get to—
Glasser: That will therefore lead to tackling Assad.
Sullivan: —a pretty good outcome here at the end of the day. And he looked at that and said, “I’m not persuaded.” And so it wasn’t theological for him, I didn’t find in the conversations we had. He didn’t shut this down. We repeatedly had the opportunity to come back and make the case to him. He just never saw a scenario of a greater use of American military force leading to the kinds of outcomes that were being advocated for.
And while I believe that if the U.S. had done more earlier we could have averted some of the disaster and catastrophe we now see, I cannot look you in the eye and tell you that that’s a certainty; that Obama’s position was totally unreasonable. And that’s why I have a hard time with using Syria as a crucial metric of American leadership in the world; of American power in the world. Because even in previous moments, in the earlier 2000s, during the Bush administration, when we were at the height of our military power in the world, you had crises in Sudan and in the eastern Congo leading to the loss of immense life.
And if you look around the world historically, the United States has never been able to perfectly grapple with or deal with the combination of failed states and humanitarian tragedies. We have a bad record on this generally. And yet, somehow, the Syria case, in my view, became canonical of the Obama administration’s overall foreign policy. I think unfairly because on many of the key issues of our time that really matter to the welfare of Americans, I think Obama made some meaningful progress that is going to be sustainable and durable through the Trump era.
Glasser: Well, it’s a good point. Fareed Zakaria’s book, The Post-American World, was actually published in 2001, I believe. So well before we could have envisioned the Syrian civil war, or any of the foreign policy issues really that defined the Obama presidency. But another critique, and one that you certainly observed firsthand, I do hear a lot of people inside the national security world, foreign policy world, who say, “Okay, but it is true that there was a very micromanaging, hair-splitting, almost agonizing process of making decisions on foreign policy when it came to the Obama administration; that one way or the other didn’t help us out, and not just on Syria.”
You lived inside of that. Did it have real outcomes in the world? I mean, every administration gets the dysfunctional process it deserves, right? So maybe it was a constitutional lawyer’s process before. Now we’re seeing a reality TV show star’s process.
Sullivan: Well, it really depended on the issue. There were times when President Obama was very risk acceptant, and really gave his team a lot of room to run. So for example, on the Iran nuclear deal, he sent me and Bill Burns out with a very simple instruction, which was don’t screw it up.
Glasser: And this is your secret talks, by the way.
Sullivan: These are the secret talks, right, that began the process by which we produced first the interim deal and then the final Iran nuclear deal. This was not a circumstance of micromanaging. Similarly, in trying to pursue the opening the Cuba, he had Ben Rhodes and his team have the flexibility they needed to be able to work towards that. And I would say with respect to Brian Deese, and Todd Stern, and the team that was working on the Paris Climate Agreement similarly.
So where Obama felt he was on his front foot, he had confidence in what he was trying to accomplish, he let people do things. Now, in the space of the deployment of military force, I think the president did feel that he was operating to a certain extent in a corrective fashion from the president who came before him. And now we have Trump who’s swinging the pendulum back the other way. There’s something kind of natural in the cycles of administrations, that they kind of respond to what came before.
But to me, this leads to a broader point, which is one of the things President Obama was uncomfortable with was the escalation ladder. He didn’t like the idea of making a move that could possible lead either the Russians or the Chinese to take a further move that would then get us into something unanticipated. And so, you know, we had long debates, for example, about whether he should actually, on Japanese soil, assert that our alliance commitment to Japan extended to these rocks in the East China Sea, the Senkakus.
And for a while, he was reticent to do that because he didn’t know if that was going to get us into a war over these rocks with the Chinese, and thought, “I don’t really want to go down that road.” But he ultimately did it. And the net result of him doing it, of him being decisive in that was, was to get the Chinese basically to back off.
And so I do think a fair criticism of the last eight years was it took him some time on certain issues to see that being decisive early could actually set you up for better success diplomatically. But I don’t really buy this idea that the core challenge of the administration was somehow micromanagement. I don’t buy that.
Glasser: I have a couple reactions to this. Number one, any discussion of the Obama administration and its foreign policy deliberations in the engaged, careful way in which the president was involved tends to be seen like a report from another planet.
Sullivan: Yeah. Right.
Glasser: This feels not like one year, or a year-and-a-half ago. It feels like century ago because we’re living in Trump time, where this week feels like a century, frankly. So, I guess, the flip side of that question is, how much does chaos really affect our foreign policy? How much does the rule of the president himself? You and I have both heard many Republicans around town, over the last year, say, “Well, you know, try not to pay too much attention to the chaos or the tweets. The policy itself is withstanding.”
Sullivan: Well, let me put this way, chaos matters even when there’s not an existing crisis. So for example, early on in his administration, President Trump approved a military operation in Yemen involving American personnel basically over dinner, without really kicking the tires on it in any serious way. What was the result? A dead Navy SEAL and a lot of dead civilians in Yemen. A completely botched raid.
Glasser: That was his first week in office, I think.
Sullivan: Very early on. Then a few months later, similarly, you have a lack of oversight from the White House, the president, the National Security Council, in terms of our military maneuvers in Niger, a West African country. And what’s the result? Two dead Americans and the possibility that that could have gone even much more horribly awry. And that’s not even in a circumstance where he’s facing a crisis.
The president has yet to have to deal with a crisis that was not essentially of his own making. And the minute that he does, the fact that there is not a systematic, effective, decision-making process in place is going to be exposed in ways that could be terrible in terms of U.S. national security. And I think this is something that sounds procedural and it will continue to sound procedural until it has very real-world impacts. And it already has in both Yemen and Niger it has. And it will, we can predict with near certainly, when the rubber hits the road on some future crisis that this president will face.
Glasser: Well, you know, I was just going to say that, that people roll their eyes at the sound of process, and does it really matter? We’re just having an inside the Beltway conversation. A mutual friend of ours, Mike McFaul, who worked in the Obama White House before he then became the ambassador to Russia, he told me that his takeaway from working inside the White House after a career as a professor at Stanford, was that academics actually misstate and fail to understand the great man theory of history. That’s been devalued over time. But that he came away from the White House thinking, “Wow, the individual matters much more -- who’s in the chair at the White House, who’s the president -- than a lot of our analysis tends to attribute it to.”
Do you agree with that? I mean, how much does it really matter that it’s President Trump as opposed to President Cruz, or President Pence?
Sullivan: I do agree with that. I think it matters enormously. And it matters most when the unexpected happens, because that’s when someone’s personality and their predilection shine through. The process can provide guard rails on any given day, when you’re kind of plodding along. But when the stuff hits the fan—I guess this is a family show—
Glasser: No, we can say, “When the shit hits the fan.”
Sullivan: My mom will probably listen to it, so I’ll stick with stuff.
Glasser: Jake is from Minnesota, folks.
Glasser: He’s Minnesota nice.
Sullivan: When the stuff hits the fan, that’s when personality really matters. What’s interesting is that Trump is unlike any previous president in that he couldn’t care less about policy. In a way, the process can shape a lot of policy stuff around him, more than would have been true with President Obama, or President Bush, or others. But he has these just momentary flashes of instinct. “I want those tariffs. I want that Iran deal ripped up. I want to go meet with Kim Jong Un.” You know, there’s no process you can put in place to manage for that.
At the end of the day, the president makes the call. And that is why I think people should be so worried about having Donald Trump occupy the Oval Office.
Glasser: Okay. So the president does make the call. I don’t want to spend too much time in this sort of “what-if universe,” but how would President Clinton have been different, President Hillary Clinton have been different from Barack Obama. You know them both well. And you were actively planning for how you would run foreign policy and national security under her presidency. What are specific examples of a couple things she would have done differently than either of these two, with the same problems?
Sullivan: I guess the challenge I have in answering that question at this point is those differences now seem so picayune compared with the difference between a Hillary Clinton and a Donald Trump; where it’s like we now operate in a world where saying alliances are good and nuclear war is bad is not a banality. It’s a principle that has to be advocated for against counterarguments.
Glasser: Right. We used to live in a much more incremental world.
Sullivan: Right. And so Hillary Clinton talked about a different approach to Syria. Hillary Clinton talked about a more aggressive pushback vis-à-vis Russia. I think that Hillary’s balance of competition and cooperation with China might have looked a little bit different from President Obama’s. But we’re talking about differences within a zone of reasonableness that do not fundamentally alter the trajectory of American foreign policy in a dramatic way.
Whereas the challenge that we face right now, the impulsiveness, the impetuousness, and the natural instinct Trump has to view everything through zero-sum terms. If someone else is winning, we’re losing. If we’re not taking, we’re giving. That is abandoning a core precept of American foreign policy that both President Obama and Hillary Clinton shared, which is that the United States can do better off while others do better off. And that has been what’s separated us as a leader in the world from basically any previous leader in history.
And that Trump is giving that up, I think just dwarfs anything about differences between Obama and Clinton.
Glasser: Fair enough. Although, I guess people would say mostly it’s focused on domestic policy, but they would say it maybe about foreign policy too; that one of the issues of the 2016 Clinton campaign that it was a very cautious, almost an incremental approach to policy; a vision of the world that wasn’t fundamentally a compelling one that reflects the major shifts underway in the world. Do you think she would be speaking out about this new era of great power competition and a cold war between Russia and China and the United States, even in the way that some of Trump’s advisors are?
Sullivan: Look, I think Hillary Clinton, while she was secretary of state and as a candidate, wrote the book on thinking more strategically about the challenge that Russia and China posed. I think if you went to Beijing or Moscow and asked them, you know, “Who do you see as the person in the United States who’s kind of sized this whole thing up,” they would say, “We’re most worried about Hillary.” So I don’t fully buy that coming onto this great power competition frame is some novel insight.
The thing that made Hillary different—and maybe this is too complicated for a—
Glasser: But she didn’t talk about it on the campaign trail.
Sullivan: Well, if you go back to the speech that she gave in San Diego, in early June, and look at the affirmative case that she put forward in addition to the quite compelling critique she made of Donald Trump, the affirmative case she put forward was a case in which the United States doubles down on its friends and allies, and creates a world in which we are managing a resurgent Russia and a rising China.
And from her perspective, the way you do that is not just declare this a purely competitive frame. That’s it. It’s take all of the advantages the U.S. has as being the global leader, and mobilize them to make sure that China’s rise is net positive rather than net negative; that Russia’s activities are constrained and deterred in important ways. I think she very much talked about that on the campaign trail.
Now, was she able to convert that into the kind of simple messages of America First and the like? She wasn’t.
Glasser: And it’s amazing actually, also, that June 2016, you point out that was a speech she already clearly was suspicious deeply of future-President Trump’s views towards Russia. Trump had been very positive toward Putin. But now, when you look at what we know about this unfolding Russia investigation—we didn’t know at the time—this was exactly the time of the secret Trump Tower meeting with the Russians. At this point, the DNC had already been hacked, and apparently, they already had John Podesta’s emails. But you didn’t know about it then, did you?
Sullivan: Right. At that moment, when Hillary was musing about Donald Trump’s bizarre fascination with Vladimir Putin—
Glasser: Vladimir Putin was actually working to defeat her.
Sullivan: Yeah. And the Trump campaign was talking to Russian individuals about getting dirt on Hillary Clinton. And we did not know that. No. All we knew was that this was really odd; that not only was Trump lavishing praise on Putin, but he was also making a series of statements on the campaign trail that were straight out of Vladimir Putin’s talking points on NATO, Ukraine, et cetera.
Glasser: And you never heard about that Steele dossier? Really? I mean, you’d never heard about it?
Sullivan: Never heard about—
Glasser: The Steele dossier?
Sullivan: Well, what I knew, during the campaign, was that there were ongoing research efforts, as there were on a whole bunch of issues, including on Trump ties to Russia. But I didn’t know who was funding that. I didn’t know who was doing it. I didn’t know the name Christopher Steele, or that it was an MI6 guy, et cetera, until after the campaign had ended.
And so I didn’t actually see the Steele dossier until everyone else did.
But I had a sense, in the closing months of the campaign, that there was something amiss here in respect to the relationship between Trump and the people around him and the Russians. It’s just that it wasn’t my job. I was the policy director on the campaign. I wasn’t the opposition research guy. It wasn’t my job to convert that into kind of political hay. I was focused on trying to make people see that from the policy perspective this wasn’t adding up. How is the Republican nominee for president taking all these pro-Russian positions? Something really weird is happening here.
Glasser: And you did start to use and activate that—
Glasser: —on the campaign trail, which is interesting. You certainly did portray that. One of the problems, it seems to me, that Hillary Clinton had talking about Russia as a candidate, and her views were well known certainly inside the world of Russia hands. However, from a public point of view, she had been Barack Obama’s secretary of state when he launched his “reset” policy in the first term of his administration with Russia. And that always seemed to be sort of a political constraint on her. You were at the State Department at the time. I always felt that Hillary Clinton was pretty constrained. She was so eager to make it appear that she was, in fact, a loyal member of the Obama administration; that that hampered at least her public ability to talk about Russia.
Sullivan: Well, I would say, in the early days, Hillary Clinton definitely bought into the logic of the reset, in the early days. Because she felt that there was low-hanging fruit we could pick, and she was definitely focused on making that happen. So, for example, we got the Russians to sign on to sanctions against both North Korea and Iran. And especially the Iran sanctions ended up having a decisive effect. We got the Russians to agree to allow us to transit lethal supplies across their territory—
Glasser: For Afghanistan.
Sullivan: —to our troops in Afghanistan. We got the New START agreement on nuclear weapons with the Russians, and a series of other things in that first 18-month period. Those are real tangible modes of progress for U.S. foreign policy and for the American people. So Hillary was happy to do that and to execute on that.
What happened, though, was when Putin declared that he was going to return to the presidency, her view of where all this was headed shifted almost on a dime. And she began writing memos to the White House and making presentations in Principals Committee meetings that we had to look out for basically the end of the reset and the start of whole different kind of deal with Vladimir Putin. And she ran into some resistance on that. That was not a widely held view in the administration at that time.
Glasser: So can you make those memos public now?
Sullivan: Well, I think one day they will be made public. They’re classified.
Glasser: In her next memoir?
Sullivan: She wrote about them in Hard Choices. But she, of course, can’t get into detail on them because the memos were classified. But at some point, people will be able to go back and look at those, and also look at the minutes of the various meetings in which she made this case. You could even see it in what she was saying publicly.
I mean, during her time as secretary of state, she went out and said, for example—and this was before Ukraine—that Vladimir Putin was trying to re-Sovietize the former Soviet Union, and that that was one of his animating principles. And made other comments of that sort publicly, and people sort of looked at her like, you know, “What are you talking about, lady?” So I don’t feel she was as constrained on this issue, although I think your underlying point, which was that people were hypersensitive to any daylight between President Obama and Secretary Clinton is a fair one. And I think overly so, unnecessarily so.
But that did—she had to think about that; that if she said something slightly at odds with the president, that for anyone else wouldn’t have even registered, it could get blown up into this rift between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. And she wanted to avoid that.
Glasser: I’m smiling again because, once again, this conversation reminds me of the very, very different—
Sullivan: Yeah, right.
Glasser: —universe that we lived in. You guys were hypersensitive and worrying about like a nuanced statement from her, and would it possibly be seen as sign of daylight. It’s like in this current context, she would have been out there publicly disagreeing with him, and saying, “You know, I really think the president is dangerous and going off half-cocked here.” Who knows what would have happened—
Sullivan: I mean, Rex Tillerson did call Donald Trump a moron, okay?
Glasser: Mom, close your ears. He called him a fucking moron. Sullivan: So, yes. This is exactly—we’ve entered a different universe.
Glasser: Okay. Let’s get back to the president, quickly, now, because there’s so much to discuss about what you think going forward. The State Department, you spent a full term there. You worked at the Policy Planning office, which under Rex Tillerson had seemed to become almost the main agent of all State Department policymaking under the current chief, Brian Hook. We don’t know what will happen now that Tillerson has been fired by tweet. He will certainly go down in the record books as the first secretary of state fired on Twitter. I don’t know what else it will show. What do you think about what’s happened to the State Department so far?
Sullivan: I think this is still—even though the story is getting more air time than it used to—is still an under-reported story because the damage is so decisive and so long-lasting that this deserves to be a national scandal, actually; the way in which systematically, and apparently with intent, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson came in to essentially dismantle the diplomatic pillar of American power. And he’s done a pretty bang-up job of driving out senior Foreign Service officers; making more junior people either want to flee abroad to avoid coming into under his tractor beam; and has, generally speaking, put the State Department and the U.S. diplomatic corps generally in a position where they cannot support the national security objectives of the United States to the extent that they ought to be able to.
I think that that is a disgrace and one of the major rebuilding tasks of a world after Trump is going to be restore the
Glasser: So quick lightning round here on what you see happening on some of these issues that are now on his plate, given that he’s inserted himself to be kind of the main deciding actor. Iran deal, we have a deadline of May coming up once again, where President Trump has said if there aren’t unclear changes made or new conditions imposed on the Iranians, he may go ahead and walk out of it altogether. You, as you mentioned, helped to set that deal in motion. Does it survive the year?
Sullivan: I think there’s a war inside Donald Trump’s head between the part of him that says, “I need to kill Obama’s deal,” and the part of him that says, “I want to come out and say I fixed the deal.” Even if “fix” is a very loose concept. And I don’t think that war has been won by one side or the other yet. If you ask most Europeans and most people who support the deal in the U.S., they’d say it’s dead. I think, if you were putting money down on the table, saying it won’t survive the year is a decent bet. But I think there’s a possibility that he ends up crowing about how somehow he fixed this flawed deal. So let’s see what happens.
Glasser: Will there actually be a summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump?
Sullivan: I believe that there will be a summit. And beyond that, I believe that Donald Trump, and probably Kim Jong Un, have in mind to come out of that summit with something; that this will not just be a handshake. And if I had to predict, I would predict that what Trump has in mind is he and Kim work it all out on a piece of paper, and then they kick it to the experts and the other little people, and those people have to go work out the details, and that takes forever. But I think people may be surprised by the results of the first meeting between Kim and Trump.
Glasser: Will we have a trade war and will NAFTA survive the year?
Sullivan: First of all, let me just say, the fact that we are asking whether we could end up possibly at war with Iran, possibly at war with North Korea, and possibly without NAFTA, or at a trade war with China—
Glasser: So it’s a really cheery point. Yeah.
Sullivan: —you know, and that I have to pause on each on each of these and think—
Glasser: Right. These are difficult questions.
Sullivan: —“Oh, my goodness, that’s a very real possibility,” pretty much sums up where we are right now with the chaos, and the potential risks and recklessness of this presidency. I don’t think he will pull out of NAFTA, but I do think that we are going to end up in a period where there is something of a race to the bottom everywhere; that everyone gets more mercantilist; everyone gets more protectionist over the course of this year. And as a result, everyone loses.
So full-on trade war, I don’t know. But trade scrimmages leading to trade battles, potentially over time leading to a trade war, a very real risk.
Glasser: So in my parade of horribles here, what scenario have I failed to mention that you are currently worried about?
Sullivan: The unknown too. I mean, can you imagine if we had an Ebola crisis and instead of having the steady hand of Barack Obama kind of managing the hysteria that came as a result of that, you had Donald Trump whipping it up? If we have, God forbid, another terrorist attack; if something happens in Saudi Arabia, or Egypt, or in a lot of places that are less stable than they may appear; any of those things could happen at any moment as we learned from our time in office. And having steady leadership at the helm is really important. And so those things also keep me up at night.
Glasser: This has a thoroughly cheery conversation. Jake Sullivan is our guest this week on The Global POLITICO. Jake, a final thought. A lot of people might remember seeing you. You were constantly at Hillary Clinton’s side. You were really a close advisor of hers throughout her tenure at the State Department and then throughout that long, traumatic, bruising 2016 campaign. I’m sure you’ve thought through that election so many times in your head. Is there anything in particular that you second-guess about 2016? I mean, what are the recurring nightmares or themes for you?
Sullivan: There’s nothing I don’t second-guess about 2016. Honestly, every conceivable decision. Should we have taken a different approach in terms of the kind of policy arguments we were making? Should we have had a different tag line? Should we have tried to address some of the bricks in Hillary’s backpack from the emails to the foundation, to what have you, that she had to carry around the whole campaign, in a different, more effective way? On down the line.
And the answer to all of those question is, probably, well, yes. We should have done it differently because, of course, we lost. And so by definition, we should have tried something else. What we tried didn’t work. I still to this day lose sleep over the fact that I was part of the decision-making team during that campaign. I bear some responsibility for the outcome. And I think back on those things that we might have done differently.
But even more importantly, I think, “Okay. How can I now learn from that and constructively contribute to making sure that doesn’t happen again; that Donald Trump is not reelected; and that Donald Trump’s vision for our country does not prevail in 2018 or at any point down the road.” And so I am motivated not just to recriminate about my decisions and other’s decisions, but to try to actually do better as we go forward.
Glasser: All right. Well, we’ll see. I guess we’ll have to have you back on and we can check in and see how that’s going. Do you have a candidate for 2020?
Sullivan: No, not at all. My view is, let’s get through 2018. I know that sounds like a political answer, but honestly, I am a little worried that the 2020 sweepstakes gets so interesting that people lose sight of the need to really focus on what is an incredibly consequential midterm year. I mean, if the Democrats take the House back, their ability to hold Donald Trump accountable in the next two years is great. If they don’t, it’s going to say a lot about where we’re all headed down the road.
So I’ve got very little, if anything, to say on 2020. I’ve got all my focus right now on the next several months.
Glasser: Jake Sullivan, thank you so much for being with us on The Global POLITICO. And of course, thank you to our audience, all of you. You can listen to us, rate us, subscribe at Apple podcasts, or your favorite podcast platform. And you can email anytime at SGlasser@ politico.com. Thank you.
Sullivan: Thanks for having me.