May 15, 2020

Susan Rice

Susan Rice, President Obama’s National Security Advisor and the former ambassador to the United Nations, calls President Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic abysmal. She says the lack of leadership has led to the loss of American lives and jobs. Rice says that she would run as Joe Biden’s vice president if asked.

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She’s the former National Security Adviser who warned that a global pandemic was inevitable this week on ‘Firing Line.’

Be who you are. Be authentic.
Believe in yourself and don’t take crap.

As a teenager, Susan Rice appeared at the White House with her father.
Years later, her baby son in her arms as she worked in the Clinton administration.
During the Arab Spring, Rice was the ambassador to the United Nations.

Susan Rice is extraordinary.

As President Obama’s National Security Adviser, she tackled the Ebola outbreak…
This is a national security priority.

…and prepared for worse.

We handed them a 69-page playbook, Pandemics for Dummies.

With a global pandemic here, what does Ambassador Susan Rice say now?

‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible by… Additional funding is provided by… Corporate funding is provided by…
Welcome to ‘Firing Line,’ Dr. Rice.

Great to be with you.

You served in President Obama’s cabinet as National Security Adviser and ambassador to the United Nations.
You were also in President Clinton’s National Security Council.
And because of the COVID pandemic that continues, we are practicing social distancing.
Thank you for joining me from your home.

Good to be with you.

You are also the co-chair of the ReOpen D.C. Advisory Group, and you are focusing on how to reopen the economy in our nation’s capital.
How are you thinking about balancing the urgent need to reopen the economy with the need to curtail the spread of the virus?

Well, we are advising the mayor, Muriel Bowser, and we’re thinking about this very simply.
The simple point is that the health and safety of the residents of the District of Columbia is paramount and we can’t successfully reopen the economy without preserving and protecting to the greatest extent possible to help the people of the district.
And so the mayor has been quite cautious.
And obviously we all have an interest in getting the economy back going in a sustainable way.
But we recognize that if we make a false start, if we come out of the box too fast and too soon, we risk a major setback.
D.C., as you know, is a city that has a large — has large economic disparities or people who are doing very, very well and people who are suffering and struggling and disproportionately, the coronavirus has affected lower-income communities, communities of color, and the rate of death is much higher for African-Americans and Latinos in the District of Columbia.
And we’re deeply concerned about that.

Two White House officials just this past week tested positive for COVID-19.
We’ve seen pretty striking images of White House staff, White House press corps showing up to work in masks.
The new guidelines is that they wear masks, though these guidelines don’t apply to the Vice President or the President.
How important from your perspective is it for tone to come from the top, to see President Trump in a mask?
Would President Obama have worn a mask in these circumstances?

I think tone at the top is hugely important.
And yes, if we were in this circumstance, my expectation is that President Obama and Vice President Biden would have worn masks because they would have modeled to not only the staff of the White House, the press corps visitors, but frankly, to the rest of the country, the guidance that they’re giving and the reason for that guidance is to protect all of us.
And, you know, when the President is not modeling that kind of behavior you saw, it wasn’t until, you know, those cases arose that the President finally said, ‘Okay, everybody around me wear masks, even though I won’t.’
Before that, the macho tone he was setting was, you know, ‘I’m not going to do it.’
And nobody wanted to look like a wimp in the eyes of the culture of that White House and come in with a mask.

So you think it’s about a certain machismo in the White House?

It’s a false machismo.
And in the case of a massive health crisis that’s claimed over 80,000 Americans, this is not the time for machismo.
This is a time for science, for facts, for clear-cut communication, for honesty and a responsible, sober tone set at the top.

You have just published your memoir, ‘Tough Love: My Story of Things Worth Fighting For.’
Why do you call it tough love?

I call it tough love, which to me means loving fiercely but not uncritically, because that’s — it’s — that characterizes my whole personal and professional life.
My parents, who I write about at some length in the book, who are extraordinary influences on me — My mother was the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica who came to Portland, Maine, of all places, in 1912.
My father was the grandson of slaves who was a Tuskegee airman and ended up being a governor of the Federal Reserve.
They were extraordinary influences on me, but they raised me and my younger brother with tough love, meaning that they were there for us all the time, but they were very quick to tell us when we were falling short, when we could do better, when we were not doing our best.
And, you know, I’ve tried to lead my teams and government in the same way I benefited from colleagues and subordinates and superiors telling me when I was not doing optimally and could do better.
And it’s very much how I’ve tried to serve our country.
I love our country deeply and passionately.
I think we are the greatest country on Earth.
Even in tough days like now.
But we’re not infallible and we can always do better.
And we ought to be on a quest to do better and be honest about those areas where we still have room to improve.
So tough love encompasses all of that.

I’m glad you mentioned your parents’ history and your father you mentioned was a Tuskegee airman and a Federal Reserve Board governor, but only the second African-American man to be a governor of the Federal Reserve Board.
One of the things that was most striking to me in your book was how he summarized key lessons about race.
I want to just read a paragraph.
He said…
So, my father’s wisdom — and that’s a good excerpt of his many bits of wisdom that I tried to capture in the book — came from his experience of being born around 1920 in segregated South Carolina at the height of lynching, in the height of Jim Crow.
He was the son and the grandson of college-educated men.
And yet, you know, he really never knew a white person to have a conversation with until he was in the latter years of high school and then in college in New York City.
He was really burdened by this challenge of ‘How do I fulfill my potential?
I know I’m bright.
I know I’m capable, but the world around me is telling me, no, I can’t.
You’re not allowed.
You can’t go in this restaurant.
You can’t serve in a integrated army.’
Well, these messages were very fraught and heavy for him.
And yet, you know, he went to graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, where he got his PhD. in economics.
And from that point on, he sort of began to be liberated psychologically, emotionally, and to realize that despite the color of his skin, he could become who he set out to be.
That was a critical lesson and hugely valuable to me as a woman, as an African-American, as a young assistant secretary and policymaker, where the people I was working with were mostly 20 to 30 years my senior.
And you know what that, I think, getting to your question, you know, I’ve operated with a sense of confidence and self-esteem that my parents taught me early on.
And I think to some people, perhaps at certain stages of my career, that was off-putting that I wasn’t seeking permission or affirmation from them.
I was confident in who I was and what I was trying to become.

You have been quite outspoken since the beginning of the pandemic about how the administration might be handling the COVID pandemic differently, and audio has also recently emerged of President Obama, who agrees with you.
And we have some sound from that call.
Look, it is a departure for presidents to be critical of previous presidents.
Although he said it in what he believed was a private setting, when there are 3,000 people on a call, the likelihood that it gets out is quite high.
Why do you think President Obama is speaking out now?

I don’t think he’s speaking out.
He hasn’t gone on television to say that.
And he said it to —
Perhaps he was less careful now than he had been previously.

Well, he’s been extraordinarily careful and respectful of his successor when his successor spends virtually every day trashing him, lying about him, calling him a criminal, you name it.
This is a crisis of historic proportions.
It’s the greatest national crisis we’ve faced at least since World War II.
We’ve lost 80,000 Americans in the space of barely two months.
Our economy is in the worst place since the Great Depression and may exceed that mark.
Over 33 million Americans have lost their jobs.
And the reality is President Trump didn’t invent the virus or cause the pandemic, but his handling of it, as I’ve said many times, has been abysmal.
And the loss of life and the loss of jobs and the ruin to our economy is substantially worse than it needed to be or would have been had he and the team been on this from early January when they first got the warning of what was happening in China.

So you’re —
Having been — I’m sorry.

No, no, I didn’t mean to cut you off.
I was just going to point out that you in your book, ‘Tough Love,’ which was published in October of 2019, five months before COVID-19 was declared a worldwide pandemic, you said this.
So tell us why this was inevitable.

Because if you look at the span of history, we’ve had global pandemics every 30 to 40 years.
We’ve heard a lot about 1918.
But there was also a pandemic in the late ’50s, again in the ’60s.
We actually had one during the Bush administration, the H5N1 avian flu, as you know, having served in the Bush administration, it rightly caused President Bush to put real emphasis on pandemic preparedness.
When the Obama administration came into office in 2009, within the first four months, we faced the H1N1 flu pandemic, which killed hundreds of thousands around the world.
So we were wrestling with that right out of the blocks.
I set up an office in the White House at the National Security Council, reporting to me and through me to the President solely to prepare for this kind of challenge.
It was called the Office of Global Health, Security and Biodefense.
Unfortunately, that office was dismantled by this administration in 2018.
When we went to the transition, we not only gave them a 69-page playbook on pandemic preparedness, but we sat down in the only meeting that the Obama cabinet had with the incoming Trump cabinet, and we conducted a three-hour exercise to prepare them for different scenarios — a terrorism scenario, a cyberattack scenario, and a pandemic scenario.
And we picked pandemic because we viewed it as on the scale of these other threats, if not greater.

So is your principal criticism that the President — do the majority of the critiques about the failures of the Trump administration’s effectiveness in confronting the COVID pandemic really stem from the lack of executive leadership from the beginning?

And throughout, because, yes, that’s a good way to summarize it.
A lack of presidential-level leadership, because in fairness to many of the folks laboring in the vineyards at the working level inside the administration, from what I understand, many of them did understand the importance of this, but they couldn’t sort of get the President of the United States to focus himself and public attention on it.
But it also gets to how he’s communicated.
He’s delivered misleading, dishonest, mixed messages about the severity of this.
You know, when we had to close down, he clearly did it reluctantly.
He reopened prematurely and has been, you know, on the one hand issuing guidance as to how states should reopen and then cheerleading when states violate that guidance.
You know, touting hydroxylchloroquine, which is now considered to be more harmful than beneficial.
This is not what we need from the President.

Of the various players that you see out in front of the podium, from Dr. Fauci to Vice President Pence to Dr. Deborah Birx, who are the voices that you trust?

I trust Dr. Fauci.
I know him.
I’ve worked with him on crises in the past.
I know him to be a man of integrity.
He’s completely apolitical.
He’s a scientist and a physician with extraordinary knowledge and experience.
And he is the one person that gives me confidence.

So I’d like you to take a listen to two things.
One first from President Trump and then after that from Dr. Fauci.

Well, I feel about vaccines like I feel about tests.
This is going to go away without a vaccine.

When you talk about will this virus just disappear, and as I’ve said publicly many times, that is just not going to happen because it’s such a highly transmissible virus.

When you have directly contradicting messages, what is the effect of that?

It’s very detrimental.
It has given the American people license to not take this seriously, to hear the message that’s convenient for them to hear.
And it’s not just a failure of presidential leadership.
It’s deadly, Margaret.
Those parts of the country that are reopening prematurely before they’ve hit their metrics that are not doing adequate testing, a whole lot more people are going to get sick and die.
And it’s going to set back our economic recovery.
The President is running this as a political enterprise.
He has, you know, encouraged — He’s pitting states against one another.
He’s disparaging Democratic governors and governors from blue states.
He’s saying we’re not going to do any blue state bailouts.
I mean, it’s ridiculous.
We’re all Americans and we’re facing a crisis.
And this is a moment where the President of the United States should be unifying us.

Has the President’s response cost American lives?

There’s no question.
There is absolutely no question that it has cost us lives.
It’s cost us jobs, and it has deepened the economic pain that we’re all enduring.

I’m curious.
There’s one part of your book with respect to the Ebola crisis that caught my eye.
And it was you said that the World Health Organization had initially botched the response but finally, in the end, seemed to grasp the gravity of the situation.
How did the World Health Organization botch the initial response with respect to Ebola?

This is now eight years ago.
No, six years ago, 2014.
The World Health Organization was under different leadership and the World Health Organization had not yet been revitalized and reformed.
They just missed Ebola in 2014 and weren’t in a position to respond effectively.
They recognized that.
They retooled.
And then when the Ebola crisis occurred last year in the Democratic Republic of Congo, they were much better prepared and much more effective in stamping it out.
The World Health Organization has its flaws and challenges, but it doesn’t deserve the acrimony and the blame and the elimination of U.S. funding that the Trump administration has imposed on it.
And let me explain why.
It’s imperfect, like most multilateral organizations, but it’s essential.
It’s the only body in the world that has the capacity to provide support and assistance to all countries, importantly, the least developed countries.
And without that, Margaret, without that funding that we’re providing, without the ability of those countries to provide testing and treatment to get a vaccine, ultimately, that’s widely distributed, we are in danger still here in the United States.
There’s no version of this where we just protect ourselves, distribute 330 million vaccines to Americans and say we’re done because a disease anywhere of this sort is a disease that can come back and reach our shores, just as this one did in the first instance.

So funding for the World Health Organization aside, do you believe that they responded effectively to COVID-19?

I think there’s multiple things here.
I think we have a problem with China and how it responded.
We have a problem — You can pick holes at how the World Health Organization —
Let me just read you a tweet.
Can I just read you something and have you respond to it?
I mean, they tweeted on January 14, 2020… But according to the Associated Press, on January 14th, China already knew they had a potential pandemic on its hands.
So how do you explain the World Health Organization’s response?

I think they probably, like everybody else in this, have made some mistakes.
They were hamstrung by what the Chinese were prepared to provide them.
We can talk about the relationship between China and the WHO.
And I have no doubt there’s room for criticism there.
My concern is not to say by any stretch, and I don’t represent the WHO, that they’ve done a great job or that anybody else has done a great job.
I’m looking at the U.S. response and what I know we are capable of, and we are blaming everybody from the WHO to China to the Obama administration, to you name it, to distract from the reality that this administration under President Trump 3 1/2 years into their tenure, have failed utterly in their response.

Let me shift to China.
This program, ‘Firing Line,’ was originally hosted by William F. Buckley Jr.
for 33 years on PBS, and it ran from 1966 to 1999.
Buckley had opportunity to debate and discuss the role of China with Henry Kissinger, who served in the same position that you have served in.
Of course, Kissinger was arguing for the liberalization of — for the acceptance and the normalization of trade relations with China into the global community.
Let me just let you take a listen to his part of the argument.

I believe the future of China is open and can be affected by American actions.
I have been meeting with Chinese leaders for 30 years.
And the evolution of their thinking from Mao to the present leaders is extraordinary.

Do you think the international community was too hopeful about the prospects of liberalizing the Chinese Communist Party?

You know, we can debate history and we can debate the failings of every administration since 1949 as they related to China.
I don’t think it really matters.
I think what matters is where we are now, and where we are now is a China that is very wealthy, that is trying desperately to match us and surpass us from a military and a strategic perspective, that has a powerful economy and is playing in many ways against the rules.


But having said that, Margaret, I still believe, as I wrote in my book and as I’ve said many times, that the U.S.-China bilateral relationship, for better or for worse, is the most consequential relationship in the world.
And China does not need to be our military adversary.
We do not need to view conflict with China as inevitable.
In fact, that’s dangerous.
And if we make it a self-fulfilling prophecy, then all that we’re dealing with today is going to, you know, potentially pale in comparison.
We do not need a global conflict between the United States and China.
And yet we need to compete with China forcefully and effectively in those areas where our interests diverge, whether on the economic side or on the strategic side.
And to do that, Margaret, effectively, we need our allies and partners with us.
But we also need to be able to cooperate with China on those areas where our interests converge.
For example, we have a shared interest even now, even after all of the bad blood over the pandemic in stamping this out fully and effectively across the globe.
We should be working together with China and other countries on that.
The United States is is AWOL instead.

Do you think that, based on U.S. policy, we can somehow impact Chinese strategic ambition?

I think we can compete and limit their gambits in certain areas if we are effective and we’re smart about it and we bring our alliances to bear.
But the Communist Party’s ideology and its, you know, its commitment to self-preservation, which it underlies so many of the behaviors we find most offensive — its human rights violations, its treatment of the Uyghurs, its oppression of religious freedom, all these things are things that they are committed to as a matter of existential importance.
And so we may — we ought to be vocal in criticizing.
We should be standing up for our values and principles.
But we should be sober about the extent to which any outside player can, you know, meaningfully affect their ideological orientation.
We need to align ourselves to ensure that our interests and our values are preserved and upheld and that we are not being pushed around by China strategically or economically at the same time as we stand up for what we believe in.

You’re on the list, one of the people to be considered for Joe Biden’s Vice President.
Would you consider serving as a vice president on a vice presidential ticket with Joe Biden?

Margaret, I’m humbled and honored to be among the extremely accomplished women who are reportedly being considered in that regard.
I know Joe Biden well.
I’ve worked with him very closely.
I know he’ll be a great President of the United States.
And from my vantage point, I’m committed to doing all I can to help him win and to help him govern.
So I will do as I best can in whatever capacity makes most sense.

Would you say yes if he asked you to be his V.P.?
I certainly would say yes.


Should I say no?
[ Both laugh ]
Let’s talk about —
Margaret, let me just add to that.


You know, I think everybody who’s been asked that question has given the same answer.
So that’s not a surprise.
But my point is, I want to help enable him to become the next President of United States, in any way I can, and to support him if he wins in any way I can because I believe that’s what is vitally important for the future of our country.
And it’s not about me.
It’s not about my ambitions.
I am not campaigning for anything.
But, you know, obviously, if that were the role in which he felt I could best serve, then I’m not going to say no.

With that, Ambassador Rice, thank you for coming to ‘Firing Line’ and sharing your views.

Thank you, Margaret.
Appreciate it.

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