His new book is “War on Peace.” Oh, and he won a Pulitzer.
On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, investigative journalist Ronan Farrow takes the stage at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco to talk with Kara about his new book, “War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence.” He also talks about his reporting on Harvey Weinstein and the culture of silence around powerful perpetrators of sexual abuse, for which he shared in a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Announcer: Please join me in one more round of applause in welcoming Ronan Farrow and Kara Swisher to the Commonwealth Club.
Ronan Farrow: Hey, everybody.
Kara Swisher: Hey, everyone. Oh man, it’s totally …
Hi, Ronan. You look great, apparently.
So I’m gonna read this from this script I’ve got here because they tape it, and we’re also gonna put it on the Recode Decode podcast so people who aren’t here get to listen to it, and then we’re just gonna jump in. We got lots to talk about.
Kara gives great podcast. You should all subscribe.
I give great podcasts. And Pulitzer Prize-winning Ronan gives great journalism. So we’re gonna call him tonight … We’re only gonna call him Pulitzer Prize-winning … I guess I can’t say PP Ronan; that wouldn’t work.
Anyway, hi everybody. Welcome to tonight’s program at the Commonwealth Club. I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode, and tonight it is my privilege to be in conversation with Ronan Farrow, investigative journalist and author of the new book “War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence,” so positive, for which he interviewed every living secretary of state, and some who didn’t seem like they were living, among many others. He’s also the newly … That wasn’t in here. He’s also the newly minted winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for his journalism on Harvey Weinstein and the culture of sexual harassment in Hollywood and beyond. There’s so much to discuss, so let’s get started.
Let’s do it.
So let’s talk first … I don’t know where to start; there’s so much to discuss with you. Let’s start with …
We also go way back, and I still owe Kara because she really went through the hell that was appearing on my midday cable show.
Yes, that was an exciting moment.
Repeatedly. So, you know, I owe her.
I don’t think I was really nice to you.
Both people who saw that program, I owe them a lot. You were nice. I think you were great.
No, I think I said you look like Joffrey on “Game of Thrones.”
Wow. Wow. I do not remember that, but now I think we have beef.
I think that was the problem, connecting with the audience at the time. And he was killing a lot of people. He’s dead now, so …
I think that’s also probably pretty fair, the Joffrey comparison.
Yeah, well, at the time. I was thinking at the time, that’s what I thought the problem was, but really it’s midday program on cable, really, is the issue.
Nonetheless, you were … I’m sure you have a huge television career in front of you, going forward.
I’m at HBO.
Yes, that’s right, that’s right. You’re working on that show. We’ll talk about that too. That’s not gone up yet though, you’re working on it.
No. That deal starts in a month or two and obviously, you know, I was on the “Today Show” for the past few years.
Right, exactly. So we’ll get to NBC and all your television stuff, but let’s talk about the book. Let’s start with the book, because I do want to get to Harvey Weinstein because today, I think Ashley Judd said she was suing.
And we’ll talk about that. But let’s talk about the book, because first of all, when do you find the time right now? Because you jump from topic to topic. But talk about this book and how you got into doing this. You worked for the State Department.
Yes, I only look like Joffrey. I actually have more work experience than Joffrey.
Yes, I know. You’re 30, although I suspect secretly you’re 102, but …
Both probably true. I am quite old-fashioned and not very cool. I mean, you see the shoes I’m wearing.
Yeah, I do.
And, you know, I went to school really young; I was a big nerd and I had this kind of Doogie Howser trajectory where I went to college when I was 11. And so I started working early, and that was partly journalism. You know, I was doing UNICEF advocacy in Sudan and a number of difficult African conflict zones, and trying to tell stories that I felt weren’t getting enough attention there. And actually a lot of that aligns very closely with the reporting I ultimately did on sexual assault for the New Yorker because I was telling the stories of survivors of rape as a weapon of war in Sudan. And a lot of that ran in the Wall Street Journal, in the Washington Post, the LA Times.
But I was just kind of cold submitting these rinky-dink op-eds, you know? They were small pieces of commentary. I went off to law school after that and was at this inflection point where I was considering whether to go back to a big, corporate, evil-ish-seeming firm. Some of you clearly have been there.
So many to choose from, but go ahead.
Yes. So I mean, it’s the only kind they do there.
But Richard Holbrook, who I had interned for years before, who was this larger-than-life veteran diplomat, came along and was putting together this kind of “Ocean’s Eleven” heist team of weirdos and outsiders — which literally was the phrase that was used to describe it by a very senior military official in this book: “Weirdos” — and he was an incredibly persuasive guy; very difficult, huge ego, but really behind … certainly one of the great examples of modern peacemaking in Bosnia. And Henry Kissinger once said, “Never say no to Richard Holbrook, you’ll eventually say yes and it’ll be painful getting there.”
So I took that to heart and I went off to Afghanistan.
Also a fascinating person, he was larger than life. I once sat at lunch with him and watched him eat an entire basket of bread, but that’s another thing that was fascinating.
No, he was not a delicate eater, which I talk about in this book.
No, he wasn’t, but I wasn’t gonna say, it’s not very nice. But he had a lot of things to say. So you went over there, what age were you?
I was by then 20, I was no longer a wunderkind.
As Holbrook likes to point out all the time, “You’re not a kid genius anymore.”
And we were in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Washington, going back and forth. And one of the trends I watched unravel on the ground was the shrinking space for diplomacy, and how if you wanted anything done, whether it was getting a well dug or starting dialogue with the community on the ground in Afghanistan, you had to do it through the Pentagon, because that was the only place we had capacity left.
Right. So this was happening well before what’s happening now, the ideas.
And why, from your perspective, was the declining role?
There’s several answers to that. One is that it’s a vicious cycle. Every time we slash away at America’s diplomats and what we invest in them …
Which has been going on for a long time.
Yes. We create a situation where American diplomacy is less useful because it’s been hobbled. And that takes years to regenerate, and we haven’t been doing that.
So I talk about how after the Cold War, the Clinton administration came in and presided over budget cuts to the State Department that are on a similar scale to what we saw under Rex Tillerson and the Trump administration, 30 percent cuts over the course of the ’90s.
And you talk to Madeleine Albright — as you said, every living former secretary of state is on the record in this book. And Albright will say, “Well, that was Jesse Helms’ fault, this was the fault of Republican Congress.” And then you talk to Republicans who were in congressional leadership at the time, and they say, “Well no, it was the Clinton White House.”
And the truth is, both are true. Both are to blame for how we treated the State Department during that era. But if you look at how Warren Christopher, Clinton’s first secretary of state, sounded going onto the hill and saying, “Here’s why we should slash our State Department to ribbons,” he sounded a hell of a lot like Rex Tillerson in a more recent era.
The commonality is that administration after administration sees this low-hanging fruit of … Diplomacy and development is just 1 percent of our budget. But it’s easy to talk about dusty bureaucrats not getting anything done.
Top to bottom.
Yeah. So if you want to not take the political risk of saying, “Hey, maybe we need to rein in the Pentagon,” if you are already in the thrall of …
And we can use the Pentagon as effective, presumably. It’s effective in whatever we want.
It’s effective, but I think what I chronicle in this book is just how many long-term costs there are that we don’t see up front if all we’re empowered to do is think tactically.
So what mentally happened, if it hadn’t started? Tillerson synopsized that idea of cutting the State Department and the backlash was massive for him, and we’ll get to him in a second. But what did it start as? What was the impetus for this happening?
Well, if you go back to that example during the Clinton Administration, the impetus was, as James Carville put it, “It’s the economy, stupid.” We’re refocusing on the domestic, we’re not gonna spend on these international boondoggles anymore.
And those kinds of arguments rest on, I think, a really dangerous set of misunderstandings about our diplomats, who are fundamentally brave men and women who get crappy pay and drag their families around the world to difficult places, often dangerous places, and give up opportunities to have a cushier life in the private sector, to serve this country and to make us safer. To screen dangerous people from coming in. They’re the first line of defense to broker the deals that can keep our array of servicemen and women out of the line of fire.
This is really important work, but because of the optics of peacemaking being less easy to understand than making things go boom, very often on the campaign trail, these are the guys that get the shaft.
But it isn’t just because we have a conception of ourselves as the secretary of state being most important, one of the more important roles, and we have this historical number of secretaries of state who have been so prominent over the course of entire U.S. history.
She says this because she watches “Madam Secretary” on CBS.
I do, I do. And I right now wish Tea Leoni was indeed secretary of state.
I think Tea Leoni would make a great secretary of state, she would look fierce.
She looks good, she’s sensible, she always solves everything by the end of the program. She just solved a crisis in the Sudan yesterday, last night. It was great.
And then she made dinner for her handsome husband. And they were adorable.
It’s a very accurate show.
But the conceptual idea is, this Henry Kissinger, this is an exciting … I just heard an interesting anecdote. I hate to drop a name but I was at a dinner with Tony Blair, and he told an … I just dropped so many names.
For people listening on the podcast, I just gave the audience a look like, “Mmm.”
He said it, I didn’t want to take any responsibility, he gets credit for it. But apparently someone went up to Henry Kissinger and said, “I hear you’re fascinating. Fascinate me.”
That person sounds terrible, but go on.
It does, but I kinda like it. But we have that idea of this swaggering secretary of state.
Stuff like that. But it’s a canard from your perspective that we don’t give the kind of respect it deserves, because we want to do might over …
Well, we’re talking about two different things here. There are the career foreign services officers, from whom you often have ambassadors and high-level leadership positions filled but who are separate from the political appointees who come in, which is mostly what we’re talking about when we say secretary of state.
I think that the denigration of those career officers is a real problem. And is one of the things underpinning this repeated slashing away at the State Department.
Did you ever want to join, become a foreign diplomat? I was in the school of foreign service at Georgetown.
Yeah. I wanted to be a spy, though, so it’s different.
You’d be good at both, to be honest.
I might be one right now, and it’s the best cover ever.
Well, I may also be one, Kara. But technically they are not supposed to have journalist cover stories.
We would be like “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” but without all the sex. But go ahead.
Kara, first of all, the night is young.
It’s not happening.
She’s always rebuffing me.
I am. Constantly.
So I’m interested actually in your answer to this question, because even when you were in school looking at this decision, I think the prestige of the profession is already …
It’s better than it is now, that’s for sure. But you clearly decided not to go that route. Why?
Because I was gay and the process was terrible at the time.
Good answer. Yeah.
And I’m super old, but it was really bad at the time. And I remember the interview was terrible, it was all about being out, and I’m like, “I am out,” but what if you went to Saudi Arabia? It was ridiculous, it was an insane thing. I would’ve done it.
I’m glad you raised that, actually, because right now obviously one of the points of contention during Pompeo’s confirmation process was his views on this issue, and in the soup of fears evoked by his hawkishness and his willingness to stand lockstep with the president on the rolling back of major diplomatic accomplishments, there was also for many foreign service officers, including openly gay ones who talk in this book, a lot of fear about this particular strain of conservatism coming into a now very liberal department.
Yeah, absolutely. Greatest hits. Talk about this idea, if you have all these different things around the world that are challenges right now, let’s lead up to it. One of the things you were talking about was the last very prominent secretary of state was Hillary Clinton. How do you assess her, because Trump attacks it a lot of the time, a lot of the deals they made during the time. Hhow do you assess that tenure? Because people thought she did a great job, for example, during that time.
And I reported to her for several years while she was in that job. Here’s the interesting and complicated thing about the story of the Obama administration when it comes to diplomacy. People think of Obama as standing there in Cairo and talking about peace and the importance of not just relying on military solutions, which he used that kind of language a lot. But in fact there are a lot more pros and cons, when you look at Obama’s diplomatic legacy.
In this book, “War on Peace,” you have people like Ben Rhodes speaking very frankly about the fact that for much of the first term for many of the major policy reviews, they were somewhat snowed by a culture of celebrity generals, which is a phrase Ben uses when he talks about this.
And Richard Holbrook’s story ends with him fighting for peace negotiations in Afghanistan for some kind of a political settlement, and being rebuffed partly because there really wasn’t any room for points of view that weren’t lockstep with the military’s views.
So that’s the con. When I was there for the first term, and that’s when Hillary Clinton was there, obviously, there was a very, very hawkish, militarized climate in a number of different policy processes. There was a consolidation of power at the White House, to the exclusion of the empowerment of diplomats, and I talk about how that echoed around the world, and people like Samantha Power are again frank about saying mea culpa on that.
But I will say, in the second term of the Obama administration, which I was not present for and Secretary Clinton was not present for, an interesting thing happened. Which is, by the admission of a lot of these officials, they course corrected, and they spent a few years really investing in large-scale diplomatic endeavors. And by the end of that second term, in just a few short years, you had the Iran deal, as controversial as it is, certainly a serious diplomatic undertaking. You had the thaw in relations with Cuba. You had the Paris climate change accord, all in rapid succession. So I think the Obama administration gives us both lessons. How dangerous the militarization of foreign policy is and also how quickly you can pull out of a nosedive if you choose to.
So listen, about today, because a lot of people feel your piece and the section in this book about Rex Tillerson was the decimation, may now be so damaging that it’s not recoverable, though I suspect it probably is recoverable. The concept of this particular secretary of state and what happened here in a very short period of time. So talk about that, and then I want to go through a couple areas and switch over.
So to be clear, I’m not drawing an equivalence between what happened under Obama or George W. Bush and what’s happening now.
It’s more the militarization of diplomacy.
Well, I think it’s a difference of degrees. What is happening now is an unprecedented new extreme. There are lessons to be drawn from history where we have tried this before, we’ve seen a little bit of this movie before, but this is a much bigger production of it. We are laying waste to the State Department. Within days of the Trump administration assuming power, there were these mass purges of our career officials.
And yes to an extent, political appointees come and go, and they leave when new people come in. But this is different, these were people who had been there for decades, with expertise in some of the most important challenges we face in the world, just unceremoniously being given the boot. Positions that have not been completely wiped out, as in they no longer exist, are left unfilled. There are embassies without ambassadors, everywhere. There are regional offices across the State Department without assistant secretaries of state. Everyone is an acting official. It’s chaos.
And is this by plan or by not plan?
I think that it is by plan, without a care in the world for the consequences. This is a White House that it appears simply does not want to deal with or engage with our diplomats or the idea of diplomacy.
Or use them.
Or use them. Rex Tillerson was a great crystallization of just how bad it can get in terms of a secretary of state who firewalled himself from all of the experts in the building who presided over these incredibly deep budget cuts, who really was seen as the willing executioner of the State Department. And he is more candid on the record in this book, in one of his last interviews, than I’ve ever seen him be.
Probably could give a fuck at that point, right?
I think that he was …
It’s like, “I ran Exxon and now this clown is firing me by Twitter.”
Perhaps he was approaching the point of giving zero fucks. He says that he was too inexperienced to know how to do budget advocacy on the hill. He says that he fought the White House tooth and nail and lost those fights to fill a lot of these empty positions. There’s a lot of passing the buck.
But like so many of these giant characters in “War on Peace,” he’s complicated. He’s not all good or all bad. He had a tremendous legacy of private sector leadership, that doesn’t happen by accident. Clearly he is a smart guy with a good degree of skill in this who just wound up deeply at sea.
I did like your part where the whole staff is arguing with each other in front of you. Which was fantastic.
Yeah. It was really acrimonious at the end.
A lot of fighting, it was like Red Wedding was about to happen.
Yeah, they just weren’t even hiding it, it’s like an Italian family going to town. My family arguing in front of guests, which was interesting.
So what does that leave, given there’s so much going on, like Africa for example, the Chinese making end runs in Africa. Or the Iran deal, or the Paris accord. They’re just not …
That’s a lot of questions at once. So let me do this in reverse, because I think that’s the strongest question.
We’re gonna end in Korea, but go ahead.
Great. And North Korea is addressed, love ending on North Korea. Look, we may all end with or as a consequence of North Korea if we’re not careful.
So when you ask about these diplomatic accomplishments like the Paris accord, they are an endangered species right now. And the Trump administration has very deliberately set about trying to dismantle all these accomplishment, and it seems from the rhetoric that’s used, that this is less a … yeah, it’s less a substantive concern and more about just wanting to tear down Obama administration accomplishments.
Which is incredibly short-sighted, obviously. These are deals that brought us closer to our allies internationally, where we’ve made major commitments that if we go back on them, it will raise serious questions about the United States as an actor of good faith in the international arena. And in each of these cases, I think the rollback has already proved to be destructive for our standing in the conflict in question.
You asked about Africa. A couple of things. One is, there’s a chunk of this book where I look at the trend you’ve just heard about, but how does that echo around the world? And Africa is one of the examples. I was in the Horn of Africa at a time when we were propping up the Ethiopians as they invaded Somalia. And I give this whole complicated story where we’re backing different factions as they fight each other on the ground. The interesting and instructive thing about this is we did that because we kicked the diplomats out. We did that because opportunities for regional agreements and regional peace-keeping forces presented themselves, and we thought it would interfere with what the Pentagon and the CIA were doing, which is backing these regional warlords.
So we actively sabotaged chances at diplomacy. I tell that story in several different parts of the world but that’s one of them. That’s part of the Africa question. And then you mentioned China. China is the shadow that looms over this whole narrative. Because whether it’s in Africa or Afghanistan or Pakistan, or …
Technology, all of these places where China now has massive, massive infrastructure projects, we see a stark difference in the trend line. I’m careful not to overstate the case here, the United States still has the upper hand in a whole lot of ways. It will take time for China to truly erode our foothold.
However, it is striking to notice that in so many places where China was until recently a rapacious interloper that didn’t care about human rights and was just commercially minded, now they’ve got regional envoys doing shuttle diplomacy in places like Sudan, trying to get big splashy political settlements exactly in the arena where we’ve stepped back, and I think partly because we’ve stepped back.
They are doubling down on their spending on their embassies and their development projects. I personally have talked to young people around the world who grow up with these spectacular examples of Chinese investment in their country.
Versus U.S. investment.
Which has now come to embassies without ambassadors, in many of these places.
Right. So talk about our relations. We just had McCrone, Angela Merkel came and ran as fast as she could back to Germany, it looked like.
After a few sassy looks.
Doesn’t work, it didn’t work for her. But McCrone did whatever he was doing with Trump, it’s like “Cages aux Folles III.”
Dug a grave, I think.
I’m not sure what was happening. I have to say, it was the happiest Trump has looked in a long time.
Well, he loves putting people down. We love for the president to be happy. But he loves the move of, “There’s a fake speck of dandruff, let me take it off,” you caught that moment?
Yeah. I saw that.
I guess that’s a kind of diplomacy?
Yeah. So how are we looked at around the world, especially with the Russians so aggressively intruding themselves in our national affairs?
The question of what this has done, “War on Peace” has done to our relationship with our allies is a really important one, and the answer is, you’ll be not at all shocked to hear, very troubling. Angela Merkel is one of the international leaders who has repeatedly had to say frankly extraordinary and unprecedented things about the United States because we are no longer viewed as a trustworthy actor.
This happens in all sorts of situations, she’s been very frank in her alarm of our posture towards North Korea, for instance. Certainly that’s true of McCrone too, you see him in this most recent trip saying, “Yeah sure, maybe another Iran deal basically as a Hail Mary pass,” to try to not have this administration blow up an agreement that will A) if we pull out unilaterally and sabotage the thing, drive a wedge between the United States and all of its European allies, B) send a devastating message to the North Koreans at a time where we desperately need to believe that if we strike a deal we will stick to it.
And C) potentially reinstate a rising nuclear threat that we had at least temporarily contained for the sake of the whole world.
For the period of time we did.
So North Korea, they’re meeting this week. It was another bunch of photo ops. I’m expecting him to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair at any moment. You know what I mean? It could go either way.
It could go either way, and I think honestly that’s the point. Obviously we all hope sincerely that this moonshot of Kim Jong Un meeting with President Trump will be productive. However, time will tell whether that’s actually the case.
Because they have come this close before.
We’ve seen this movie before, and we’ve heard these exact promises before, and they have turned out to be lies. We have gotten played before. I tell the story in this book of the decades of diplomacy around North Korea and the reasons why it failed, and also the reasons why it didn’t completely fail. And we might have been better served not to walk away from that diplomatic progress. And why the situation we’re in now is partly a consequence of the periods in which we did walk away, like in the Obama administration.
How do you assess Trump’s strategy here? It’s basically, “I’m gonna be crazier than that guy and see what he does,” it seems like. He said it.
There’s actually nothing wrong with that as part of a toolkit of diplomatic options. I think if you have a controlled craziness and you can deploy that at will, that can be really powerful. But it’s gotta be embedded in a set of expertise and individuals who know the pressure points and the history, and the ways in which they lie again and again, and the concessions that you should take and the ones that you should not.
The crazy part seems to be working. But the second part, I know a lot of people on those desks are gone.
Gone. And you can really just directly contrast what the staff around this looks like now, versus what it looked like during the Bush administration, where under Condoleezza Rice, there were these six-party talks. And I tell the story of the diplomat who led those, this really tireless endeavor where although it fell through in the end, we got them to shut down one of their reactors for the first time in years. We made huge inroads in our relationship with China around this, and any long-term solution to contain North Korea is going to involve China. They’re the only players who have leverage there.
We made progress, and then we walked away from it. And right now we are not going back to leverage those gains, we are throwing it all out of the window, he is doing diplomacy by tweet. There’s gonna be this one-on-one meeting, as you say, the experts who once steered this process during that Bush era, there was a huge unit of North Korea experts who really knew the region, that’s no longer the case.
Well, he’s saying they didn’t get it to work anyway, so what’s the difference if I do it this way?
Yeah. Exactly, and I think that is an ahistorical view. And I think if you look at what those experts and diplomats accomplished, it is not inconsiderable. And the people who know where we screwed up before and who know how we affected the modest gains before are the guys you want to be listening to right now, where we desperately need those views to embed to this moonshot of a leader-to-leader meeting in a long term strategy.
So who’s … just Pompeo and who?
You know, it is very difficult to see how this administration can turn this around, given realistically what the president seems to think of diplomacy and how little he seems to care about empowering America’s diplomats. Mike Pompeo is a more experienced government operator than Rex Tillerson was.
As much as people are fearful about what he might bring to the table, the career officers that I’m talking to who were brave enough to turn whistleblower for this book are hopeful as well. They hope that he’ll be able to stand up to the president more, and that when the president says actually this guy is much more on my wavelength than Rex Tillerson, that’s maybe actually Pompeo knowing how to play the president better.
There’s a White House official who describes Mattis’s approach to the president in this book, and says, I believe the quote is, doing Mattis’s voice, whatever that sounds like, “Yes, Mr. President. You’re so perfect, Mr. President. You won so much, Mr. President. But here’s an alternative view, Mr. President.” And that White House source gave the anecdote in the context of saying, Rex Tillerson never got the hang of that.
So maybe, just maybe …
Ass-kissing to get what you want?
Sure. And maybe Mike Pompeo knows how to play that game better and therefore will be able to actually advocate for the State Department. It needs leadership.
So what would be a win in North Korea? And then I want to move on.
What would be a win?
I think that any concession in terms of their nuclear ambitions is at this point a win. And any actual verifiable inspectable gains in terms of dismantling their nuclear capacity is a win. But again, much more so than Iran, this is a regime that has cheated in the past when we’ve struck these deals and given incomplete or inaccurate data, even describes an incident where they turned over that incomplete data on pages that were tainted with enriched uranium. Like, the pages that were supposed to say they didn’t have the enriched uranium.
Oh, they’re funny.
They got a sense of humor. So all of which is to say, you need experts keeping an eye. Yeah, you need experts keeping an eye over …
Plus they preside over a vicious series of internment camps and they’re all …
Of course. I’m glad you raised that, because one of the things that falls by the wayside as a consequence of this trend of the militarization of foreign policy is human rights. It’s one of the first things that goes out the window when you’re dealing with warlords in a really expedient way, and strong men in a really expedient way, and all of the relations are general to general and spy to spy.
That said, I think one of the misunderstandings about diplomacy that gets exploited and weaponized against the State Department is this idea that these deals can be perfect. That diplomacy can look complete. Realistically, what happens is what you got in Bosnia, which was a difficult and imperfect agreement that gave too much power to the aggressors and maintained a lot of the factionalism and ethnic strife. Lots of reasons to critique that deal. But also it stopped years of bloodshed.
And likewise, the Iran deal faces these not incorrect criticisms based around the fact that it’s not complete, it doesn’t address Iran’s human rights track record and its kidnappings and its non-nuclear ballistic missile tests. But it wasn’t designed to. It was designed to just contain in a limited way this one narrow band of behavior around nuclear progression. And it did that effectively. There was no perfect deal that could’ve been an alternative. This was the best that we had, because we got to it too late and too many centrifuges were already going.
And likewise, I think any deal with North Korea, if we really want to invest in a diplomatic solution, is gonna look imperfect and there are gonna be the human rights problems and we are gonna have to get to them later. And correctly, that’s gonna make people angry.
Absolutely. And your assessment of the leader of North Korea?
They make for quite a pair, and I’ll leave it at that.
So congratulations on your Pulitzer.
Thank you to all of you for caring about this issue. Thank you to all of these sources, these women did an incredibly great thing, they went through hell to do it.
So how did you … This has been a story a lot of people, I knew David Carr very well before he died, but he talked to me about this story quite a bit. I’ve heard so many people talking about this story over the years and Harvey Weinstein’s behavior.
You probably saw in one of those stories that I wrote, I uncovered the way in which David Carr was being intimidated and surveilled and the way in which Harvey Weinstein really felt he had effectively intimidated him.
He just couldn’t get … and having been dealing with a lot of stuff here, the same thing, getting people to talk was really the key to a lot of it. And we’ve written a lot on this issue. We covered the Pao trial, we heard a lot about Uber’s problems. But the actual unlocking people’s abilities … let’s talk about that. How did you manage to do that?
One of the things … I want to make the observation, I made it publicly before, is that it’s also being able to see things in a different way from the victim’s mentality and to be more empathetic. And I know that’s a broader term, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these stories were broken by women and a gay man. You have an ability to see an empathetic thing and allow people to understand people’s problems. And maybe you don’t agree with me. I think my argument for diversity …
It’s a fascinating point. I think that anyone who has felt othered or unseen or unheard probably has an elevated understanding of what survivors of sexual assault go through and the extent to which they frequently feel invisible in our culture.
And that flowed from a number of my identity, including my sister being a survivor of sexual assault.
I had had people who were very dear to me confront this issue head on, and had learned just how oh so high the stakes are and how devastating the fallout is.
And a lot of reporters say don’t do something that’s that close to you, but I think that’s exactly the people to do that.
I think every reporter I respect draws a distinction. You don’t do something that’s close to you in the sense that you have a personal relationship with the people directly involved.
And I didn’t, I have a perfectly lovely superficial cocktail party relationship with Harvey Weinstein, and no business.
No. That is past tense. I don’t think he’s at a lot of cocktail parties now, although maybe in Arizona, whatever sex rehab he’s at.
I had no adverse feelings about him, but I did care passionately about the issue and feel close to it in the sense that I had some understanding of it. And I think every reporter that I respect agrees that that drive is …
It creates a better outcome.
Is only a good thing. We all … You report on tech and you’re close to that world and it makes you a better reporter in that world. Any matter that you feel a close affinity to and care about, I think you use that in whatever your profession is.
How did you get these women to talk to you? Because I think that was the key part. That to me was astonishing. And the New York Times did also. But the interviews you did were particularly gripping, they really were. They ripped your heart out, the stories of Annabel Schule and all the others. How did you go about that, how did you … Because you had done it, there’s a lot of controversy, NBC not backing you, essentially. Are those reports correct that you were working on it, they say they didn’t feel you had it. I’ve heard it from them and I said, “I don’t believe you in any way.” So I don’t believe what they said there. You felt like you didn’t have support there so you moved it over to the New Yorker.
I would say yes, it is publicly known and everyone involved has admitted that the bulk of the year of reporting on this story happened at NBC and was intended to be for my “Today Show” investigative series where I was already doing these kinds of truth-to-power, large-scale investigations. Deaths being covered up at a government nuclear plant, or miscarriages of justice in campus sexual assaults. And the Title IX issues around that. Contentious issues that sometimes touched on this very matter. So yes, it was intended to be for that.
So did you have trouble getting them on camera to talk? Was there issues around that?
No, the very first interview was an on-the-record, on-camera interview with a prominent person accusing Harvey Weinstein of rape. So from the very beginning, this was clearly a high-stakes story, and very rapidly the body of evidence expanded to an extraordinary extent. That interview would’ve been January of last year. By April of last year I had — and had played through my editorial and corporate chain of command — this extraordinary audio of Harvey Weinstein admitting to a sexual assault, which was made during the course of a police sting operation and had been buried for various reasons, some but not all of which have been made public.
And I uncovered that, and there was a growing group of women saying, “This is a safety issue. This is a pattern, I wish I had been warned, and maybe you can help warn the next women.” So it became impossible for me to stop at that point.
So what caused you to move that? They just wouldn’t …
I think that … I get this question all the time, obviously, and people are correct to ask. The fact that there was a veil of silence around the Harvey Weinstein story for decades is not accidental. And there were a variety of systems that kept it so.
Which you also wrote about.
Which I wrote about. And the question of the complicity of the media and the role the media played in keeping this quiet for as long as it was quiet are important ones. And I think there will be more to say about that as time goes on and various investigations into this unfold. I just want to make sure I tell the story that I witnessed and reveal the evidence that I have in a careful way, and that it’s also timed in a way that doesn’t take away from the spotlight that is correctly placed on the women and their allegations on the issues.
Right. At the time you’re doing them.
Correct. So no reporter wants to become the story. And when there is a considerable story behind the story, you want to make sure that doesn’t come out at a time where it would eclipse the very hard-fought stories of these accusers.
We’ll get to the idea of him trying to shut you down in a second, but when you started putting this together finally for David, who’s an astonishing editor …
Astonishing. David Remnick is one of the best forces we have in journalism. Yeah, he’s a real hero. He really champions the tough stories and is mentally principled.
Absolutely. Why did you go there? You thought that was the place you could get the entire thing?
Ken Oletta, who is a wonderful New Yorker writer, had attempted to break this story for the New Yorker several times, as early as the early aughts, 2001, 2002. And I became aware that he had dug into this and had a number of accusers who had spoken to him and was struggling to get people on the record.
One of the most moving things about this story in addition to the tremendous sacrifice and bravery of the women, was also just how generous fellow reporters were. To an extent, David Carr from the grave essentially, because his widow was wonderful in helping me put together the puzzle pieces of his story, and his co-workers were generous in the same way. Ken Oletta literally gave me his notes from that time. I went into a dusty archive in the New York Public Library and sifted through all of these meticulous reporters’ notebooks, and found these contemporaneous accounts of conversations that backed up the things that I had been chasing and the sources I had been talking to.
So that was immensely helpful at a time where I was very much being gaslit and told this wasn’t a story, and was running into all sorts of obstacles in my career and in my life that were being arrayed around me because I wasn’t stopping. It was a lifeline to have fellow reporters say, “No, there’s something here. Keep going.” And Ken was one of those people.
What do you think the breakthrough moment of that was for you? What was the second where you’re like, “Aha, now I have him”?
I think any time you hear a literal recording of someone of that stature admitting to it, it’s pretty cut and dried. Although obviously that didn’t stop many people from trying to squash it even after that point.
Yes, and also try to squash her, try to ruin her.
Yes. Yes. There were whole systems arrayed against not only me and the reporters working on this, but also of courses against the women, including Amber Batalina Gutierrez, who was the woman in that tape, who is an incredibly savvy and strong person and did a really brave thing that she didn’t have to do, with no prospect of gain.
The argument that was constantly weaponized against her was that she was some kind of a hustler, and she was in it to turn a buck. All I can say is, she did not have to go back to Harvey Weinstein wearing a wire, terrified, and there was no deal for her at the other end of that. There was nothing she got out of that except maybe preventing another woman from getting in the same situation. And she did a number of really brave things in the course of this reporting, and was smeared terribly throughout.
And the other women when they started to speak on the record, why now do you think they did decide to? Because again, I remember with David and Ken they wouldn’t do it. What do you think changed?
I think the world changed, Kara. There was a progression of brave women and also of course eventually men, I don’t want to discount the importance of male survivors of sexual violence and how much we need to hear their voices. But at the time it was mostly women coming forward, and chipping away at the culture of silence. And that was true of Cosby’s accusers, who spoke out at a time where it’s easy for us to forget now, as this court verdict against him is hailed as a victory for human rights, when they first spoke out and I was having these fights in newsrooms wanting to cover that, they were terribly smeared. It was a 50/50 split between serious coverage of their stories and op-eds saying, “But wait, look at his cultural contribution, look at what he did for race, look at what he did for comedy.”
A lot of men, it really was a gendered reaction, writing these spirited defenses of him and assisting in the takedowns of these women. I remember and have written about fights that I had where, for instance, I would have on my cable news program, Cosby’s official biographer Mark Whitaker, who didn’t mention the allegations in the biography. And I just knew about them through the grapevine and had read about the various aborted legal processes and wanted to ask a question. “Why didn’t you include that? Is it ethical for you to exclude that?” And I got terrible pushback. And not all of it from a conscious place of evil or even cowardice. Just people saying, “That’s not the way we do this in polite company. Why would you ask about that?” That’s not in the headlines.
Right. It is interesting, because that happens all the time. I remember Gabriel Sherman who did a great job on Ailes later, I remember sitting with him, I go, “None of this was in your book.” And he’s like, “The women wouldn’t talk, I tried.” I was like, “Did you try real hard? Not hard enough.” We had a really great discussion about it and at least he was willing to talk about it.
Similarly, I had a Commonwealth Club talk with Adam Wichinski, and he wrote an entire book about Uber without discussing the sexual harassment and everything else there. It was like, how was that?
I hope there’s a lesson for every journalist tackling a story where there’s a little voice saying, “Hey, there’s this other thing, and it’s maybe impolite to raise it, but it might look really bad if you don’t, in retrospect.”
And I do hope that’s a cautionary tale for people, and I think in this case it was the women who penetrated that veil of silence against all odds, and broke through the odds story here, that’s the Cosby accusers, it’s my sister, it’s Gretchen Carlson talking about the situation at Fox. Those were precedents that I was able to point to when I had these conversations with women over months and months and months as they turned over, “Okay, if I relive the worst trauma of a lifetime and put my trust in you as a reporter and take this risk that I will be wiped out career-wise and maybe threatened in terms of my physical safety, what happens at the end? Am I ever heard?”
Citing those precedents, I was able to give them a glimmer of hope. Not a great glimmer, but something, some shred of hope that they would be heard eventually.
What was your convincing argument to them?
It was telling them that the world had changed, and that speaking out about this after those other precedents was going to be different, that we were in the midst of a sea change. You couldn’t have anticipated how much that was true, but I sensed that that was happening, and I was able to point to the beginnings of it. And it was about altruism. Every single woman who went on the record about Harvey Weinstein did it because they wanted to help the next woman, and they wanted to help the culture.
And they did it, I guarantee you, looking at much more downside than upside. And it was still important enough to them that they help. And not everyone made that decision. There were women I was talking to for months and months who ultimately decided they weren’t gonna help.
It looks like there were some that were, and later it shifted.
Every variation of that. There were women who never decided to go on the record, there were women who did a gradual progression of going on background as an anonymous source and then going fully on the record. There were women who were out and then in and then back out and then back in.
And that too is part of reporting on these stories. This is a reporting process that forces people to relive the worst trauma they ever knew. It’s gonna be a rough ride. I’m still dealing with sources going through hell trying to tell stories that haven’t yet broken.
I want to get to questions from people in a second, but talk about people, what their big questions now are. Where are we now? Are we in this post #MeToo era, are we still in? You don’t have to place us, but what do you imagine is happening now, because you’ve seen this come out in orchestras and art, architecture, tech, everywhere pretty much. It’s a lot in media, a whole lot in media and Hollywood.
I think one reason why I structured those stories and the incredible team at the New Yorker structured those stories with me around systems rather than individuals is because the systems still have a long way to go.
This in my mind was never a story about Harvey Weinstein or a story about the entertainment industry, this was a story about the abuse of power and the way in which most powerful people in this country can manipulate the press, manipulate the judicial and legal process. In Harvey Weinstein’s case, directly influence the DA’s office in a really breathtaking way. Smear people, intimidate people. For crying out loud, hire combat-ready former Mossad agents to assume false identities and follow people.
Make someone think they’re crazy.
Yeah. And insinuate themselves into people’s lives and go after women, and go after reporters. These are systems that are still being used every day.
You’ve written about the president’s David Pecker, and those still in place, with McDougal and Stormy Daniels.
Yes, that’s a great example of the through line here, where these are common systems employed by multiple powerful people seeking to silence opposition. What Kara’s referring to is I broke a number of stories in the last few months about secret election-season payments to cover up stories on behalf of the president.
Those were undertaken through an intermediary that Harvey Weinstein also used, American Media and the parent company of the National Enquirer. I talk about how that company and a number of others were used by this echelon of wealthy and influential persons to smear people they wanted to take off the map and to …
And to undertake secret payments to keep stories out of the media, and in the case of Trump, out of the political narrative in the crucial window before Americans went to the polls.
Right. And where does this end now? Obviously [Trump lawyer] Michael Cohen, they’re investigating that, it’s gonna slow roll presumably for a bit.
Well, we know that the southern district of New York, when they undertook the search warrants of various premises owned by Michael Cohen, one of the express aims, the Times has reported, was to go after communications between Michael Cohen and AMI, the National Enquirer.
There are a number of other proceedings ongoing that are looking at these systems with respect to both the president and respect to Harvey Weinstein. I think there’ll be a lot more unfolding in terms of the justice system and how it confronts these issues finally after so many years of being in the shadows. Until we see the results of that, I’m reluctant to say we have put any of this behind us.
Right. Until they get either dismantled or exposed.
Yeah. You look at every pillar of complicity that I reported on over the fall, and a lot of those are still thriving. Whether it’s corruption in the justice system or complicity in the media, and I think there’s gonna be a lot more to say about all of those things.
And what happens to Harvey Weinstein?
I get asked this question a lot, and forgive me if this is an annoying answer because it’s a dodge, but it’s a sincere dodge with good intention, which is yes, there are ongoing proceedings and I’m in contact with brave law enforcement officers who are very committed to not dropping the ball the way the ball has been dropped in the past with respect to Harvey Weinstein.
But I would just caution everyone that I think it’s a misstep to become focused on the taking down of men and the specific men who were behind some of these crimes. This for me, and I know this is the sentiment of a lot of survivors I talk to, was always about the survivors. This was about taking stories that hadn’t been heard for so long and putting a spotlight on them and making sure these brave women felt heard and seen.
And I think the moment we start turning back to the spotlight being on Harvey Weinstein or any of these alleged predators, it detracts a little bit from the focus being on the women.
Can you imagine there’s a fatigue now to this? I don’t think there is. But I think angrier is a good thing.
It’s not really for me to say. You mean on the part of the culture? I hope there is no fatigue for justice or accountability. I hope not.
All right. Let’s answer some questions. “What would you ask Harvey Weinstein if you were interviewing him?”
I’ve said this before. I would do a really fair interview with Harvey Weinstein. We have obviously a lot of contact with Weinstein and his team around the publishing of these stories. While I am sure he is not thrilled with the ramifications of these stories, I think he would be hard pressed to find a moment at which we were in any way unfair to him. We gave him a very generous opportunity to comment again and again, and integrated his viewpoint in whatever way he felt was important and appropriate, and I would, doing an interview with him today, adopt exactly the same posture. I would be very fair and meticulous, and if he felt that there was something important to say, I would interrogate those claims really carefully, but also give them a fair airing.
Well that’s really nice, I would pop him in the nose. I met him once at a Google event and he spit food at me.
This is why we’re a good team, Kara. You’re the brawn. She’s the muscle.
I’d be like, “I’m gonna get you. Later I’m gonna kill you.”
I love that.
I would. There was someone I was writing about in tech, and they were like, “When are you gonna stop?” And I was like, “When you stay down.”
Good for you.
Yeah, but they didn’t stay down. They all stay rich, I can tell you that.
“How do you produce on such a high level?” I wanna know that too, besides being a young man. “What are your keys to success in this arena?” Your terrier-like mentality, obviously.
Right. I’m very stubborn. I think any source who has been hounded by me will tell you I can be extremely annoying.
I’ve heard that.
And persistent. I also hope that I bring a certain level of compassion to these conversations. I certainly aspire to. There were women who ultimately decided not to put their name on their stories. Of course that is always disappointing as a reporter, but I always respected those wishes. Not every outlet that reported on this did that. There were people who used names without permission.
I’m not demonizing that, every reporter makes different calls. But I just felt, having seen my sister live through this and knowing what a personal experience it was, it was important to make sure they had the opportunity to consent in every way and really control their destinies. I think giving sources that latitude is part of …
What about your own energy level?
I don’t sleep a lot. I really need to. I would probably be a lot more likable if I slept ever. I don’t manage my time well at all. This last period was crazy.
It looks like you work a lot.
Yeah. This was working at the Weinstein stories til 2 am at 1 World Trade in New York, and then going home and typing until my fingers were bleeding, and turning in a draft of “War on Peace” at 10 am, then collapsing for three hours and then going back to work. So I was just, I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping. My poor partner is taking calls from me and I’m falling apart constantly. “They’re coming after me and they’re trying to kill me, I have no job.” He’s like, “Yeah, yeah. I’ve got a life too, I can’t do this all the time.”
Yeah. Jon. His partner is Jon Lovett. Pain in the ass but I love him.
And I was really lucky to also have a great support system in that respect. My mom is wonderful and really instilled a really strong sense of public service. (applause) Thank you guys, she deserves that applause. And I would extend that to any strong single mom out there. I just learned so much watching her and admire her so much.
I saw you at the Time 100, she looked thrilled. Cute picture.
She’s the sweetest, she’s a fan of yours.
Yeah. She’s a pretty good movie star.
She is a pretty good movie star.
I just saw it.
She’s wonderful in it.
She’s good in a lot of stuff.
“Would you define the U.S. as a dying empire? What can we do to preserve the republic, or is it too late?” Oh well.
We did have that Civil War and we managed to recover from it. So perhaps.
We’ve recovered from a lot.
We have. We have a terrible history.
I do not think that “War on Peace” is a eulogy. I view it as actually quite optimistic in the end. I wouldn’t have bothered writing the thing if I didn’t think there was a way out, and the last section of the book is actually devoted to profiling how you can turn things around. And it uses some of those examples from the Obama administration. The first part of the book lays waste to the Obama administration and the ways in which it screwed this up and the ways in which that is a microcosm for the more extreme ills happening now.
But the end is really about looking at the turnaround and the lessons we can derive from that. I think there is a roadmap to pulling out of the nosedive. And I think as I said, as much as there are fears about Mike Pompeo coming in, there’s also a lot of hope, and there’s a lot resting on his shoulders and the shoulders of the next administration that comes in.
Okay, all right. “Who will or should succeed Mike Pompeo?” He just got there, right?
I want to assume that’s some high-level humor, no one is safe for more than five minutes in this administration. Who should succeed Mike Pompeo?
Scott Pruitt, obviously.
Not Scott Pruitt.
Come on. Sorry.
Scott Pruitt fans here, I guess. They talk about how the White House was leaking these rumors about Tillerson’s firing and there were always two names that were leaked as potential successors. One of which was Pompeo and the other was Nikki Haley.
Nikki Haley, right.
So if Mike Pompeo gets fired in the next five minutes, I don’t know if it’s Nikki Haley or if she’d want to do that. She said she wouldn’t, but it’s something to think about.
So she was …
This is why we need Kara Swisher to run for office, by the way. Bring Swisher back to politics.
Thank you, campaign manager. We have some great mayor candidates in San Francisco coming up.
She’s thinking about it. You can tell she’s thinking about it.
I’m thinking now about a bigger office. So Nikki Haley, she had a back and forth over the Russia things. What is her status now?
She has a lot of back and forth with this administration now. Without betraying any confidences, I will tell you most reporters who have dealt with her team will tell you one of the first things they stress is her independence from this administration.
And I think that she has a political future ahead of her in a way not all these administration officials do, and she is being pretty savvy about trying to preserve that.
She literally has said, “I will be running for president soon.”
Yeah. This is an administration that has so stripped back our expertise and our culture of expertise that anyone who’s just not insane feels like an oasis.
I agree with you. All right last question, we have two more minutes. And I want one last question. “If Susan Rice had been confirmed as secretary of state instead of John Kerry, how would the American diplomacy have differed in Obama’s second term?”
They’re both on the record in this book. They’re both people who hew close to a certain establishment model of leadership and values in the Democratic party. I don’t know it would’ve been that different. John Kerry was probably uniquely ambitious in terms of wanting that job and wanting that legacy in that job, and he’s gonna take a break from wind surfing if he has to.
I joke about that but he was … I usually don’t give these kinds of blunt assessments of leadership good or bad in this job. I think there’s a really good argument that he was a spectacular secretary of state.
He had to be.
I’ve seen him be a blowhard, all these things. He gave really thoughtful, insightful answers to tough questions in this, and I’d string him up for not being hard enough on various human rights, there are also tough things about John Kerry in this book. I don’t know the guy that well, I saw him in action when he was on the Senate Foreign Relations committee and I was working in Af-Pak stuff.
Who’s the key senator in all this? Was it John McCain?
It depends on what respect you mean. Kerry was a key senator in a lot of the conflicts that I profile when he was in that role.
Is there a senator right now?
I talk about Patrick Leahy a lot as someone who tried to introduce a layer of accountability to those military-to-military relationships. The Leahy law is the one thing that prevents us from …
Anyone right now? It was Corcoran.
Lindsey Graham has done some shuttle diplomacy in a pretty high-profile way, he shows up in a couple of the anecdotes here.
And last question from me. Who’s your favorite secretary of state? Not Tea Leoni. Of all the ones you interviewed.
That was gonna be my next joke.
Yeah no. Can’t do that.
I was profoundly moved by Colin Powell’s contribution to this book. And I know people not incorrectly criticize him and call him to task for his involvement in Iraq. But what he evinces in sincere commitment to the work of American diplomacy, and his raw emotional devastation at what he describes as an administration tearing the guts out of diplomacy, mortgaging your future he says, was a level of candor he didn’t need to go to. And reflects a really sincere leadership that I wish we had more of.
You talk to a guy like Colin Powell in the midst of all the tawdry and awful stories about present-day politics, and you see a decorum from a very different era. And it really breaks my heart.
Yeah. What are you working on next? I can’t wait.
She looks at me with the eyes of a hawk.
Seriously. Enough of this. You did this, Harvey Weinstein, war on diplomacy, what’s next?
I am hard at work at my next New Yorker story.
I am starting my HBO deal. I had to make the complicated decision whether to go back to the morning TV reading spaghetti recipes with Matt Lauer in the plaza.
Matt Lauer is gone.
I would not have been going back to him, but the equivalent somewhere else. And I decided in the end, as much as I like anyone else is vulnerable to the shiny thing of a lot of airtime, one of the lessons of this series of stories is if you go really deep and work your ass off for a long time to get it right, people respond to that and it resonates in a really special way. So the HBO deal is a one-off.
And it’s a new show.
Yeah. Honestly, they are letting me shape it to whatever frequency I want. Trying to heed that lesson, I will likely do less frequent, very very in depth documentary miniseries around the biggest stories in America. And that will be shared with the reporting I’m already doing in print, and along the same lines about abuses of power and cover-ups.
I was heartbroken that I didn’t get the chance to tell those stories visually. If you look at the progression of the investigations I was doing on television, you can see the direction that was going in. I’m excited I have the chance to tackle that.
Well, you’re a pretty decent reporter, from what I can understand here.
So are you Kara, so I appreciate hearing that.
You surpassed me already. But thank you.
Not in terms of sass.
Oh no. But just like Rex Tillerson, I could give a fuck. So anyway, thank you so much.
Thank you, Kara. Thank you. Isn’t she great? Thanks, everybody!
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