Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
A little over three months into the Trump presidency, and the administration is confronting two major world crises, the civil war in Syria and North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons program.
But what are President Trump’s foreign policy plans? And what about issues here at home like jobs and healthcare? Tonight, a conversation with two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, journalist and author, Nicholas Kristof, of the New York Times.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. That conversation starting right now.
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Tavis: Last week, President Trump showed the world he was not afraid to use military force when he launched a missile strike in Syria and dropped the mother of all bombs in Afghanistan. But now all eyes are on North Korea’s nuclear missile program and rise in tensions with the U.S.
So with Mr. Trump’s foreign policy plans still largely unknown and a confluence of domestic and world crises at his feet, what next? Pleased to welcome Nicholas Kristof from the New York Times back to this program. Nick, good to see you, man.
Nicholas Kristof: Good to be with you.
Tavis: Good to have you on the program. Here in L.A., of all places.
Tavis: Not on satellite from New York for a change.
Kristof: Delighted to be on the correct coast [laugh].
Tavis: Glad to have you on the West Coast. Before I jump into all these crises, can I just tell you? I was on the plane back home from the East Coast last night to see you here today. I was reading your brilliant conversation with President Carter yesterday. And the title was “Am I a Christian?”, a question that you posed to President Carter. I love the questions that you asked him. I love even more…
Kristof: Some pretty tough questions, actually.
Tavis: There were some very tough questions and I love the answers that President Carter gave. I’m just curious what kind of response you’ve gotten to that column yesterday. Because I was in a number of conversations about that on the way home yesterday.
Kristof: Yeah. I mean, I think there was really an outpouring of just warmth toward President Carter. It followed a previous kind of similar conversation which I’d asked Tim Keller, who’s a very, very prominent Evangelical thinker. I had asked similar questions and he had given a much kind of a tougher, hardline approach. He basically said, “No, you’re not a Christian if you don’t believe in miracles.”
Jimmy Carter took a very different approach, much less willing to judge and kind of much more inclusive approach. So I think the reaction depended a lot on one’s theology, but there’s just so much respect for Jimmy Carter. I mean, at least I think that we in the media truly wronged him when he was president.
Tavis: I asked him on this — by the way, if you didn’t see his piece yesterday on Easter Sunday in the New York Times, just Google the piece, “Am I a Christian?” Kristof talks to President Carter. I think you’ll be empowered by the questions that Nick asked and the responses that President Carter had.
I was moved by it yesterday, as you heard me say a moment ago. So check it out if you haven’t seen it. I asked Jimmy Carter in this very chair at one time as a guest on this program whether or not he thought, as some do, that he was the best ex-president that we ever had.
He’s my friend. He took some exception to the question, but he gave me an honest answer. He says, “Tavis, maybe I am the best ex-president, but I also think I did a pretty decent job as president.” Since you raised it, in retrospect, why do you think we wronged Jimmy Carter?
I ask that in part because the one thing that he mentioned that night in terms of what he had done that he thought was pretty great was that he did not get us engaged in any wars around the world, didn’t fire a single bullet during his four years of presidency. So what do you make of why we were so tough on Jimmy Carter?
Kristof: You know, I think there was a certain amount of snobbishness on the part of the media and on the part of the Washington establishment. Here is this peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia showing up, so I think part of it was just that kind of snobbishness.
I also think that in the media we have a weakness for narratives and that once the narrative was started that he was kind of a weakling, then we in the media looked for bits of evidence to support that. Do you remember the famous rabbit episode?
Tavis: Of course, absolutely, absolutely [laugh].
Kristof: That was us at our worst, you know. He’s in a pond and then word spreads that a rabbit has tried to jump on his boat. All of a sudden, we’re reporting that, you know, a rabbit has attacked him. He very unfairly became something of a joke when, in fact, looking back, he was really the first president to raise human rights internationally in a big way and in a lasting way.
He solved the Panama Canal problem which would have haunted the United States for decades to come. In other hands, we might have ended up in a war with Iran. You know, the economy was bad for reasons that didn’t have anything to do with him, but with the rise in oil prices. And I think we were profoundly unfair to him.
Tavis: So to my question to him, how good an ex-president has he been?
Kristof: Oh, he is the best. I mean, he is the best. Diseases like River Blindness are about as awful a disease as you can get. It’s a parasite that gnaws away at the optic nerve. Because of Jimmy Carter, more than almost anybody else, it’s not eradicated, but it is on its way out.
And there have been vast parts of West Africa, for example, that people can now farm again that nobody ever could before because they didn’t dare to live in these places because everybody went blind by middle age.
I mean, his work on international peace and disease, because of him, we’re about to eradicate a disease called Guinea Worm which is one of the more painful, humiliating diseases globally. It’s because of his incredible work that this may be the last year in human history that Guinea Worm has bothered people.
Tavis: So let me pivot then from Jimmy Carter to Donald Trump. As I said a moment ago, one of the things that Carter is most proud of, President Carter, is that he did not fire a single bullet while he was president for four years, which stands in great contrast to Mr. Trump, who theoretically could drop three bombs in a matter of weeks on three different countries.
What do you make of what he has done as juxtaposed against the promises that he made on the campaign trail? How do you read this military exploration that he has gone on?
Kristof: Well, I think that he actually was right to have military strikes on Syria after the use of chemical weapons there. I think that one of the important taboos to uphold that’s lasted 100 years, more or less, has been the one against the use of chemical weapons. And I think that he indeed probably made President Assad a little less likely to use chemical weapons.
But having said that, I do worry that the lesson that President Trump will learn is that, if he wants to raise his poll numbers, firing a few missiles will do it. And while I think it made sense in that context of Syria using chemical weapons, I don’t think that it would make sense in attacking the port of Hodeidah in Yemen, which is something that I think the administration is thinking about.
And it would even make less sense in the case of North Korea where, as I think about things that could go badly wrong in the next four years, a preemptive attack on North Korea is just about at the top of the list.
Tavis: Why so?
Kristof: North Korea is the problem from hell. It really does present us with a serious challenge and the path we’re on is not sustainable because they are developing both an increasing number of nuclear war heads and the missiles that would give them the ability to deliver them to the continental U.S. So the present path is not sustainable, so that creates a temptation to turn to a military response.
The theory among some people in Washington is that, if we were to attack a missile launch, for example, or a nuclear test site and warn North Korea that, if you respond, that’s the end of your regime, they would accept that. Maybe they would, but the risk is that they have 13,000 artillery tubes aimed at Seoul, which has a metro area of 25 million people.
There was one military study in the 1990s that suggested that in the event of a new Korean war, there could be a million casualties. My fear is that we would launch such a limited strike and North Korea would respond by devastating Seoul and also by firing missiles at Tokyo, which it could hit, that it might apply chemical or biological weapons which it has several thousand tons of Sarin and VX gas.
It would be an extraordinarily devastating incident for South Korea and for Japan and for the world economy. We would win the war quite quickly. We would be able to topple the North Korean regime very easily, but the human cost, economic cost, would be catastrophic.
Tavis: So if you think that President Trump was right to do what he did in Syria, do I take it then you think Obama was wrong to have not done more when Assad crossed over his line?
Kristof: I do. Actually, not at that moment. I think that President Obama makes a good case that the deal that he struck at that moment to remove most chemical weapons from Syria was a good one. I think he makes a pretty good case there.
But when Hillary Clinton, David Petraeus, various other people, were suggesting supporting the moderate rebels as they existed then, I think that he should have done more at that time.
And I think that also as things went on that we could have taken out some of the air strips in Syria that President Assad was using to drop barrel bombs on the Syrian people. I think that the reason President Obama didn’t was, frankly, that early on it seemed as if President Assad was losing ground. He would be toppled anyway, so why get involved?
But that was a reasonable thing to think at that time, but it proved to be misjudgment. In fact, Assad proved to have more staying power than we’d expected. And, of course, Russia came in to help him in a big way.
Tavis: Let me do what I should not do on television or any conversation, for that matter, ask a three-part question, but I want to get it out of the way so you can handle it. So in Syria, is it one and done? Should it be one and done? And if not, what should be done next? Because as I hear the Trump administration, I’m hearing more talk about regime change.
Kristof: I think that it will probably be one and done. You know, here’s a lot of easy talk in Washington about regime change. How do we go about that? Maybe Assad will collapse tomorrow, but we don’t…
Tavis: We’ve done it before [laugh].
Kristof: Yeah, but taking out…
Tavis: I mean, I’m not bragging about that. I’m just saying that we’ve done it too many times.
Kristof: And, hopefully, we learned some lessons from that. Taking out President Assad would be immensely complicated. I don’t think that we have the political will to do that. It’s not clear what would follow, so I hope that we’re not going to take on that burden of attempting regime change.
Now what I would like to see is something in between one and done and overthrowing the regime, which is to take out his air capacity by striking some airstrips, taking out some of his aircraft, so that he won’t be able to drop barrel bombs and it’ll limit his air capacity.
And then the idea is that then, if he sees that there is no military solution, he may be a little bit more willing to negotiate some kind of a long-term cease fire that is a de facto partition of the country. Will this work? You know, we don’t know. Are there risks? Absolutely. But 400,000 people have died in Syria and there are real risks of doing nothing as well.
Tavis: So long as Vladimir Putin is his best friend, Mr. Assad, he might not be motivated to do much of anything over and against whatever the U.S. wants him to do, which leads me to ask what then you make of the quandary that that puts the Trump administration in now with this relationship with Russia, which has changed dramatically from what we thought it was going to be just a few weeks ago.
Kristof: That’s right. I mean, it’s astonishing. Not so long ago, we were worried about lifting sanctions against Russia.
Kristof: I thought it was interesting to see Rex Tillerson’s trip to Moscow. I thought for the first time, he really did seem to be acting as a Secretary of State. I’ve been concerned that we basically didn’t really have a Secretary of State, that he finally kind of emerged in that role.
Tavis: There’s Jared Kushner, but I digress [laugh].
Kristof: Well, yeah. One of the larger problems in Syria is that issue of do we have a real Secretary of State? John Kerry was pleading with the White House for some military strikes to give him leverage to achieve a peace deal. Well, now we finally have that military power, but we don’t have a Secretary of State who wants to use that leverage for peace. And I do think that’s a missed opportunity.
I hope that Rex Tillerson will grow further into the role, but I’m a little skeptical. Where our relationship with Moscow goes [laugh], American foreign policy now seems to be if it’s Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, then it’s this and Tuesdays and Thursdays, it’s that and then on the weekend, it’s something else entirely.
Tavis: How do we get to — that’s actually the wrong question. Not how we get to, but will we get to a place where we think we have a clear understanding of what the Trump doctrine is? Or do you think that there are already some signs that are leading us in a particular direction? To your point, the policy is so schizophrenic now…
Kristof: That’s right.
Tavis: Not just in terms of what they do, but in terms of who you’re talking to on any given day that I don’t know that there’s any sort of cohesive, comprehensive strategy at this point.
Kristof: Tavis, I think you’re entirely right. I don’t think we’re going to see that emerge. I mean, I think that the Trump doctrine to the extent it is going to emerge is going to be based on who the last person was who talked to President Trump and, secondly, what seems most likely to promote his poll ratings.
You know, whether domestically or in foreign policy, he’s not ideological. I think he’s very much shaped by the last person he talked to and almost what mood he’s in. You look at his relations with China. We started off with a two-China policy and then somehow we’re back at a one-China policy.
I mean, it is true that I think there’s been some maturation of his foreign policy and the reality has caught up with him. We are certainly much better off with the foreign policy team today with General McMaster as National Security Adviser, with Jim Mattis at the Pentagon. They are both grownups in the room.
Steve Bannon has been brought down a peg in national security issues. Mike Flynn, who was a disaster, is gone. So I feel I could sleep a little more safely at night now than when the Trump administration began in terms of foreign policy.
Tavis: Since you intimated this a moment ago, let me ask explicitly whether or not you think, even if you think that President Trump was right to do what he did in Syria, do you think it was a weapon of mass distraction from all the other stuff that he’s dealing with here at home?
Kristof: I don’t know, but that has certainly occurred to me. One of the things that frankly, Tavis, I worry about is that while I approved of that strike and a lot of liberals did, you know, I fear that that creates an incentive for him or makes him think that the road to greater popularity or approval is to fire off more missiles. You know, that would be a pretty catastrophic narrative for him to absorb.
Tavis: There were also, as you will acknowledge, a lot of progressives who thought it was not the right thing to do because, in fact, it would lead to what we’re seeing now which is that this guy will become trigger-happy.
So to those progressives who say, “Nick Kristof, we love you, we read your stuff, but you were wrong about that and those liberals who agree with you are wrong about that. We progressives who are against it are right because now you have a trigger-happy president”…
Kristof: And I think that’s a compelling argument and I understand that. But, you know, I’m motivated, I think, having reported in Syria, having spent so much time with Syrian refugees, it’s striking that Syrian refugees themselves overwhelmingly applauded this action.
Indeed, I thought that the best thing that President Obama did in Syria was a military strike that, I think, few people have heard of. But in Mount Sinjar, he had a limited military strike that averted a genocide against the Yazidi people.
So, you know, the problem is how one conveys the idea that sometimes a limited military strike in context makes sense and can even save lives, as it did in Mount Sinjar, as I think was beneficial in this case, and yet not see the military as the tool that is going to solve all problems or that is going to elevate one’s own damaged popularity. To those critics who see that as a risk, point well taken.
Tavis: To the extent that he has won, what then do these crises — what impact do they have on his domestic agenda?
Kristof: I guess another of my concerns is that I think that in the domestic agenda, there are a lot of checks and balances, and I think he’s seeing that healthcare turns out to be more complicated than he knew [laugh].
I don’t think he’s going to — I’d be surprised if we see a major tax reform package because, again, I think it’ll be really hard to put together a consensus there. Infrastructure maybe is a little more doable, but frankly will also be tough.
Those checks and balances largely don’t exist in foreign affairs. So to the extent that the president feels stymied domestically and is much less constrained internationally, I guess I worry that he might become over time a little bit more prone to adventures abroad for political reasons and partly because it’s the path of least resistance.
You know, as you — I mean, I’ve interviewed lots of politicians over the decades and I can’t think of a national politician that I have ever met who has been so unfamiliar with policy details or even as uninterested in policy details as our president.
Tavis: If these escapades, military or otherwise, around the world end up taking his eye off the ball from his domestic agenda, at least the one that he promised to those persons who supported for him, what ultimately happens to the faith that those supporters had in him when they elected him? Does he pay a price for that?
Kristof: If the economy doesn’t improve and in particular if jobs don’t come back, then at some point, I think he will pay a price. But I don’t think that he will pay a price for a lot of things that, frankly, I think he should. There are a number of policies that he’s pursuing that are going to hurt his base and I think that he’s not going to pay that price.
I was in Oklahoma recently interviewing a whole series of Trump voters who were upset about how his budget cuts would hurt programs they really appreciated. Yet every one of them said they still supported President Trump and were still open to voting for him for reelection.
One of the problems, frankly, is they we’re so polarized as a nation right now that Trump voters, I think, feel to some degree defensive and that when Democrats come across as patronizing and accusing them of being dumb bigots, that makes it harder to let go of President Trump.
Tavis: Let me go to the other side. Hillary Clinton, the opponent of one Donald Trump, she’s made a couple of appearances of late. I saw her in New York at a signing ceremony with Governor Cuomo about free education. Then she spoke at the big Women in the World conference. And I think you are the only journalist to date who has actually interviewed her. You spoke to her at that conference.
Kristof: That’s right.
Tavis: What sense did you get from her? What did she say to you? What did you make of her? How is she?
Kristof: You know, I thought she was actually doing pretty well and that she seemed so much more relaxed and at ease than she had in the campaign. I mean…
Tavis: But they always are when it’s over. Al gore is the best example [laugh].
Kristof: Yeah. That’s actually a good example. Al Gore as a candidate was stiff and formal and had this shell around him as a candidate that smothered his authenticity and his power as a candidate. Likewise, I think Hillary Clinton had been attacked so much for so many reasons that she developed this protective shell that weakened her charm as a candidate.
And it was really good to see that I think she’s shed that shell and she’s back to herself. I asked her if she was planning to run again. She pretty definitively said no. She was pretty blunt about some things, about the role of misogyny in…
Tavis: In her loss?
Kristof: Of her defeat, which I don’t think she would have said if she was planning to run for office again.
Tavis: How did you — not that you were with her at 3:00 in the morning when she wakes up perhaps and sheds tears, I don’t know, but how did you sense her spirit to be?
Kristof: She said, and I think I take her at her word, that she’s kind of worked her way through that, that it was really rough at the beginning, and that she was spending a lot of time walking in the woods sorting things out. But that friends came through, spending time with…
…she was expecting to win. She was expected to be president. She prepared for it, and then it slipped through her fingers. It’s a hard thing to come to terms with, but at this point, I think she has as much as anybody can.
Tavis: The irony of all this is, as we close this conversation tonight, that had she won. at least on Syria, there’d be no distinction between what Trump did and what she did.
Kristof: That’s right.
Tavis: That’s the ultimate irony.
Kristof: Absolutely, absolutely. I asked her about that and — this is a few hours before the Trump strike — and she essentially prescribed the same action that President Trump did [laugh].
Tavis: I digress [laugh]. Mr. Kristof, good to have you on the program, sir.
Kristof: Hey, good to be with you.
Tavis: Good to see you. That is our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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