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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Hello, everyone, and welcome to “Amanpour and Company.” Here’s what’s coming up.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: It’s been a very interesting journey. I learned a lot about COVID.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: The president insists he’s on the men, but what does the public or America’s adversaries really know about his condition? I ask Elliott
Abrams about national security. He’s the U.S. special rep for Iran and Venezuela. And Middle East expert, Vali Nasr joins me.
Then, how will history judge our leaders in this time of crisis? Perspective with author and Oxford historian, Margaret MacMillan.
Plus, the hardest job in the world, Journalist John Dickerson talks about the American presidency with our Walter Isaacson.
Welcome to the program, everyone. I’m Christiane Amanpour in London.
President Trump’s COVID infection has thrown some chaos into the final weeks of the election campaign. With just 29 days to go now, today, another
six states began early voting and in mail-in ballots being an absentee voting that is already underway with more than 2 million votes already
The poll shows the same story more or less, former vice president holding a lead over the president, up 10 points according to the latest poll average.
In recent days, a corona virus outbreak has also spread within the White House among senior staff and also some Republican senators. But the
president still is in campaign mode, taking a drive on Sunday to wave at supporters outside Walter Reed Hospital. It was a move that was immediately
criticized by some doctors. The irresponsibility is outstanding, tweeted one who says that Trump has put the agents inside the SUV with him at risk.
Also worrying, are conflicting reports of the president’s actual condition. This matters when, in fact, you are president of the United States of
America, not least when it comes to implications for national security. So, let’s ask Elliott Abrams, the State Department special representative on
Iran and Venezuela, and he has served many presidents in the past.
Welcome back to the program, Elliott Abrams.
ELLIOTT ABRAMS, U.S. SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR VENEZUELA AND IRAN: Thank you.
AMANPOUR: So, can I ask you? Look, everybody wants to know how the president of the U.S. is, and there have been some conflicting reports from
his own doctors and then chief of staff and then the Walter Reed team, are you getting briefed inside the administration? Does the State Department
feel like it has a handle? Do you have a handle on exactly what the situation is?
ABRAMS: I don’t think we need a handle on the exact medical situation because we’re not doctors. But it’s clear that the president is doing his
job. He’s not incapacitated and the entire machinery of government is following under him, and we’re all doing our jobs.
AMANPOUR: So, you say you’re not doctors and we don’t need to be totally apprise, but you do remember, I mean, I know you weren’t there but you came
to the Reagan White House some two months after the president was shot in March of 1981. And one of the key things that even his daughter has written
about today is that his people in the White House instructed the doctors to tell the American people the truth, every last detail. And specifically,
they said his own personal doctor should not be that person nor the doctors who are operating on him and taking care of him at that time but it should
be somebody tasked with telling the absolute truth. I mean, that was the right way to go, right?
ABRAMS: You know, Christiane, it’s really not a good analogy. President Reagan was nearly killed. We remember when President Eisenhower had a very
debilitating heart attack. In many cases, we know that COVID does not have that impact and it seems pretty clear it’s not having that impact on the
AMANPOUR: I’m going to try one more time. COVID can be a deadly illness, as you know, it’s cost 200,009 American lives, more than 1 million around
the world. W.H.O. is now saying 10 percent of the world’s population may be infected, although most of those un counted and untested.
Why do you think that the world doesn’t need to know the precise condition of the president of the United States, particularly actually in relation to
what I want to talk to you about and that’s national security and what others around the world, particularly adversaries, you know, some
opportunism that they may think they can, you know, take advantage of now?
ABRAMS: Well, the ideal advise to try that. Look, I think it’s very clear that the president is not incapacitated and he’s doing his job. What the
doctors decide to release about the exact conditions, I think, is different in each case and I don’t think we got the exact, exact operation they did
on President Reagan in real-time and it’s, I think, a very poor analogy. I think it’s very clear that both the president and the rest of the
government are handling public affairs a pretty much as usual.
AMANPOUR: Look, Mr. Abrams, I fully admit that one may not have got the exact minute by minute details of President Reagan’s operation as it was
going on, but the American people were apprised on a daily basis of his condition, of his recovery and all the rest.
OK. You want to go there. So, I want to ask you this. Some former American, you know, foreign policy and National Security experts have told “The
Washington Post” that one of the things that both allies and foes are all thinking is that his infection is a consequence of the chaotic handling of
the epidemic, the pandemic as it struck America. How would you answer that and what would — again, would you say to nations, I know you say it would
be ill-advised, but do you have any intel at the State Department or anything that them — you know, you may need to be sending some messages
out? Is there any chatter as you will say in the intel and diplomatic world?
ABRAMS: I have seen nothing to that effect. I do think it’s because people recognize that the entire chain of command is completely intact and
functioning. But, you know, the secretary of state was just in Europe as you know and is now in Tokyo. The secretary of defense was in Kuwait
yesterday to meet the new emir. The air force, the navy are fully functional. So, I have not seen anything suggesting that any hostile power
believes there is an opportunity here.
AMANPOUR: Yes. And I know you say the chain of command is intact and you’ve mentioned, you know, the military and the secretary of state,
obviously. But, I mean, it’s pretty alarming that so many people in the White House have — you know, have contracted it, many in the National
Security staff. In fact, we’ve even heard reports that the National Security staff, which you used to be amongst, I mean, the previous
administration, are kind of not really being told what to do, who to contact, you know, contact tracing and all the rest of it, some senior
Republican senators who have to make, you know, decisions on various issues have also contracted it.
I want to ask you about Iran though because this is something that the president promised the United States, promised the people during his 2015,
’16 campaign, and that was to pull out of the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal and bring a better deal. Well, the better deal hasn’t happened and the
president’s strategy of maximum pressure hasn’t delivered what he said it would deliver, like bringing them back to the table, et cetera.
How do you judge that right now and do you think if the president is reelected or if there’s a President Biden that there needs to be a
different tack to try to do what you want to do with Iran?
ABRAMS: I don’t think so. I think the maximum pressure campaign has had an enormous effect on Iran, you just look at their oil exports with the
condition of their economy, look at the riyal, which has basically collapsed, the Iranian currency.
I don’t think they can take four more years of this. So, I think it’s the president’s reelected or if there is a Biden administration, if they’re
smart enough to do this, we’re at the moment where the Iranians will recognize because they can’t take four more years of this, they will be
ready to enter into a negotiation. I think the pressure it will have achieved its goal if they see that we’re ready to keep it going.
AMANPOUR: OK. So, this is really interesting because you say they can’t take another four years. Well, they’ve taken 40 years of maximum American
pressure and maximum international pressure and they haven’t bended over, so to speak. And, in fact, the foreign minister, Javad Zarif, was recently
in New York, he spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations and he said, if America’s goal is to bring us to our knees, they haven’t done it and they
won’t do it.
So, you know, I’m just trying to figure out how you will get to where you want to go in terms of — you know, in terms of policy because even you or
rather your administration was isolated at the U.N. recently trying to deal with the arms embargo again, trying to put U.N. sanctions on Iran, and it
was the U.S. who was isolated there, your allies said no.
So, if you don’t have your allies, how is this going to work?
ABRAMS: Well, first, Christiane, previous sanctions which were as, you know, relieved by the Obama administration, which were made it about $150
billion to go to the Iranian regime. Previous sanctions were nothing like what we have now. You can see it in the Iranian currency, you can see it in
the Iranian economy, you can see it in Iran’s inability to export very much oil, it’s down about 90, 95 percent. So, there’s never been this kind of
Now, as to the so-called isolation of the United States, I think we’ve demonstrated many times that it doesn’t matter when it comes to sanctions.
What foreign ministers say, whether in the U.N. or anywhere else, the decision to abide by U.S. sanctions isn’t made by foreign ministers, it’s
made 10,000 or 50,000 individual company presidents, bankers, lawyers for companies and financial institutions who look at those sanctions and say,
I’m not going to risk it. So, the pressure has never been like this and we will keep it going and we will increase it as you’ll see in the coming days
AMANPOUR: So, let me ask you because you’re also a representative for Venezuela. And what we’ve seen in the last, I mean, you know, not so —
when was it? Just recently over the weekend, Iranian ships are sending gasoline to Venezuela. They have — you know, obviously, they’re very rich
in gasoline and oil in Venezuela but it’s so mismanaged that they needed from elsewhere.
What is the U.S. plan to do about it? Are you — do you think you’ll try to stop them? I mean, is trying to confront Iran right now on the high seas
part of your plan?
ABRAMS: Well, what we’ve done first is to make sure that no one else will touch this trade. As, you know, we managed to persuade some Greek ship
owners to get out of the Iran-Venezuela trade. It’s interesting that, you know, Russia and China have plenty of gasoline too because demand is low,
but they’re not selling it, it’s only Iran and the amounts are — you know, they give Maduro, I don’t know, three weeks, let’s say, worth of gasoline.
The Iranian sales, which are done for gold, in exchange for gold, really are not capable of having a significant impact on the Venezuelan economy.
So, I wouldn’t exaggerate them.
AMANPOUR: So, what about China then? That’s a big huge important country. China is, you know, almost at superpower level. It’s contesting the United
States dominance around the world. And because of all of this, Iran has been pushed into the arms of China, they’ve just signed a 25-year deal with
China. And I wonder whether that gives you pause for thought that there may be a little bit of, you know, backfiring here that now Iran can get so much
support from such a big economy, which doesn’t really care about the kinds of values you care about.
ABRAMS: Sure. I think there’s less here than meets the eye. They just announced a $425 billion 25-year trade agreement between Iran and China. If
they did that, if they carried it out, that would be 10 times today’s amounts of trade, it’s completely unrealistic in part because the Iranians
don’t have the money, the Iranians simply don’t have the money.
So, you know, they can make announcements just like announcements in the U.N., it does not at all mean that you will see them being carried out. I
would also note, by the way, that China in the last year or so has invested zero dollars in Venezuela, zero, no new loans, no new investments. It’s
AMANPOUR: Can I ask you last question? You know, there’s some talk about your boss, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, some are suggesting that
the conversation he’s having in swing states, the — you know, the convention speech he gave from Jerusalem, all of these skirt around the
idea of the State Department being apolitical and skirt around the so- called Hatch Act, I think it is.
Also, he is a he is a Christian. He’s a man of faith, Mike Pompeo. He goes to Rome and the pope refuses to meet with him, you know, and then the pope
over the weekend puts out a letter in which, you know, read between the lines, but he’s been he’s criticizing, you know, refugee treatment in the
United States and this sort of, you know, partisanship and poisonous political dialogue. What do you make of that as a State Department
ABRAMS: Well, the encyclical that the pope issued obviously was, you know, in the ways of the Vatican, these things take months and months and months.
So, I think they’re completely unrelated to anything that that involved the Pompeo trip.
Look, I think we’ve saw story after story in the American press saying, why is the secretary going to this state and that the other state? You know
why, because he’s going to run for the Senate, that’s why. Why did he go back to Kansas all the time? Because he’s going to run for the Senate in
Kansas. Well, not true. Proved to be completely false.
So, you know, I think we’re in an election year, people write lots of stuff that in retrospect doesn’t look like a great story. So, I frankly just
don’t pay attention to it. The secretary was in Croatia. After that, the secretary is now in Japan. So, he’s doing a great deal of traveling. He was
in South America recently, to Colombia, Brazil and Guyana, the first secretary of state who ever visited there. It’s got nothing to do with
election year, it’s got nothing to do with politics. It’s his job as secretary of state.
AMANPOUR: Elliott Abrams, thank you for joining us from the State Department this evening.
Now, listening in and joining me with more is Vali Nasr. He’s a former senior advisor at the State Department under the Obama administration. He’s
an Iran expert and a professor of Middle East Studies and International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University.
Vali Nasr, welcome back to the program as well.
I just want to ask you because it did actually shock me that the pope did not meet with the American secretary of state and then put out that
encyclical, which has been viewed as a not so veiled criticism of the Trump administration policies in terms of people, refugees and the like. As a
former State Department official, did that surprise you?
VALI NASR, PROFESSOR OF MIDDLE EAST STUDIES AND INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS, IS INTERVIEWED ABOUT TRUMP: Well, it surprised me that that the pope decided
to be very undiplomatic about this and to be very open and overt about it. But the fact that this pope has criticism of the Trump administration is
not new, he wasn’t very pleased when President Trump went to the Vatican, there are photographs where he had a — he wasn’t a smiling in those.
But I think the pope has decided that he’s not going to let Vatican be used in the American elections and he’s going to make it known — be known that
he’s not happy with the way in which this administration has conducted foreign policy, but he’s also conducting a number of social issues
including how it handles migrants and the like.
AMANPOUR: And what about what I asked Elliott Abrams and that is the issue of national security given the president’s infection, the fact that he is,
you know, in the hospital. He is seeming to be working, there’s no doubt about it. His people are giving fairly upbeat reports of his condition. And
yes, the other institutions of government are working, the military and the other departments.
Do you, from all your long experience in Middle East and elsewhere, think that there’s any game to be had or game to be made by any foreign
adversaries right now?
NASR: Absolutely. Because even though the president is working and to the extent that he worked in the past, you know, there are kinds of meetings
that might have happened at a very high level in order to do crisis management are not happening, is not going to have sit around the table
with his National Security team and, for instance, discuss the war in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and what does it mean for
that for the United States.
It does allow adversaries and competitors to at least do things on the margins that they may think that they can get away with. But also, there’s
another dimension here, is that everybody is watching what’s going to happen on November 3rd in the United States. And I think the fact that the
president is in the hospital, the way in which this — his illness may impact public opinion and the outcome of the elections is already leading
both friends and adversaries to begin to calculate what does it mean for them. And they may make these calculations in ways in which that is not
beneficial to the United States, and I think that’s something that they’re just saying that he’s working right now in the hospital does not make go
And unlike President Reagan being shot, which you cover, this disease will — could be — could keep the president in a limbo for another two weeks,
for another three weeks. And in world affairs, that is a pretty long time.
AMANPOUR: So, let me ask you because one of the main adversaries that certainly this president has sought to, you know, be very hardline is Iran,
right, and there was all sorts of worry or thought that maybe there might be some so-called October surprise around, you know, some kind of action in
the Persian Gulf or elsewhere.
But a lot of intel is saying that Iran is basically keeping its powder dry, that the chief supreme leader is telling his people, do not do anything
provocative. We don’t want to get into any fight before the election. Is that what you hear? Is that an accurate reading of what’s happening inside
Iran? And if so, why?
NASR: Well, I think it is accurate and I think this administration has gone out of its way to provoke Iran into some kind of action. And Iranians
have so far decided that it’s not to their advantage to go to war and they don’t want to do anything that would help Trump. I think that’s the biggest
reason why they are adopting a wait and see attitude is that they think that if October surprise benefits President Trump, then they don’t want to
play that game if they can help it.
And in addition, I think they’re watching very carefully to see whether there’s going to be a change of administration, after all the Democratic
Party has said that it wants to deescalate tensions in the Middle East, that it wants to go back into the nuclear deal and that it may not follow
the same kind of strategies that this administration has done.
So, it’s a logical for the Iranians to try to survive until January 20th and see that whether there is a path with the United States at that point.
Any kind of military confrontation with Iran at this point — with the United States at this point would make that outcome less likely. And so, I
think the Iranians are following a very clear strategy of what they call patience.
AMANPOUR: So, you know, Elliott Abrams listed the amount of pain that is being inflicted on Iran, it’s absolutely correct. I mean, the reality is in
the tank, you know, people are finding it really, really difficult, medical supplies haven’t been forthcoming amidst this pandemic, there’s a massive
number of infections and deaths there, probably mismanagement as well. But nonetheless, it is hurting.
But as I mentioned, the foreign minister said, if you think it’s going to bring it — bring us to our knees, it is not. So, what should the next
administration do in order to get Iran back more or less to where it would like to see, America would like to see Iran in terms of international
behavior and all the issues that it says it wants Iran to change?
NASR: Well, I mean, partly with this administration, the very — one of the problems is not just the sanction, it has been also it’s very caustic
and very insulting tone in which it speaks about Iran and its leaders, it’s very difficult to get around the table with people whom you name call and
call liars and things of that sorts. So, a change of language under a new administration will be important.
But secondly, when you put so much sanctions on a country, at some point, additional sanctions are not going to make a difference. It’s rather
sanctions relief that is going to get some concessions. So, whether it’s Trump or Biden, if they want to get Iran around the table, the very first
step would be to say in exchange for showing up at the table we’re going to lift these sanctions. And in exchange for you doing this and that, we’re
going to lift these other sanctions.
So, I think the path forward with Iran would be — would have to be sanctions relief. And I think one of the things that did — the
administration won’t admit is that they have shown how effective the United States can be in imposing sanctions, but that they have also shown that
sanctions is an inexact weapon, they haven’t got what they want, and there is no evidence that they will get what they want. And then after all, we
forget, the United States didn’t get from sanctions what it wanted from Saddam Hussein. In the end, it had to invade Iraq and incur a multi-
trillion-dollar cost on the American economy to fight that war.
So, the U.S. is now in that kind of a position, either it goes down the path of another war with Iran or it has to basically back away from maximum
pressure and find a way to get back to the negotiating table.
AMANPOUR: So, do you not agree then that Iran could not tolerate four more years of this maximum pressure as Elliott Abrams said? And what do you make
of the fact that the U.S. is the one that looks isolated on the world stage right now given the defeat at the Security Council on trying to amp up
global sanctions? Yes, there is heavy U.S. sanctions and yes, many companies around the world are abiding by those, but it’s still U.S.
sanctions are not global U.N. sanctions. Is the U.S. isolated?
NASR: Well, the U.S. is diplomatically isolated. And ultimately, it may not be able to operate in the way that it has done for four more years
either. So, I think there are huge assumptions here. One is that Iran cannot tolerate this situation for four more years. That is not proven. If
you if you go back four years ago, they would have said that Iran cannot tolerate this for six months.
President Trump believed — told the European leaders that Iran would be on its knees within a matter of two months and would be begging for a new
deal. And we’re now four years after when he said this to the European leaders and Iran has not caved in. So, the administration is assuming that
Iran will not be able to tolerate it. And Iran may tolerate it. Iran — the Iranian regime may still be there and refused to come to the table. And it
also is a huge assumption that the United States can wield this sort of sanctions on friend and full in equal measure for another four years.
And another factor that the administration’s not taking into account is that it’s leaving the Middle East, at least that’s what he’s saying, that
the Middle East is becoming far more dangerous, there are wars being — raging from Libya to Yemen to now Azerbaijan and Armenia and the idea that
the administration can remain focused in — on Iran alone where the rest of the Middle East is falling apart is also is not credible.
AMANPOUR: OK. So, briefly I want to ask you this. Many have said that Iran actually is sort of on the back foot and is being more isolated by the fact
that Israel has made these normalizations with two states in the in the Gulf region, the UAE and with Bahrain, and maybe there’s more to come. Does
that isolate Iran?
NASR: Yes, to some extent it is a diplomatic setback for them. But ultimately, Israel, UAE and Saudi Arabia cannot control the whole of Middle
East. And that does — and the fact that they build an alliance will not force Iran essentially to change its foreign policy all by itself. And at
the same time, this alliance between them has been there for a while except it was never made public. So, Israelis and UAE and Saudis have had a
security relationship for some time.
And so, in a way, again, you know, it is important but it’s not necessarily going to get the administration to where they want to be. I think, you
know, the maximum pressure on Iran has been tried, it has not worked, it’s time for a new policy.
AMANPOUR: Well, we shall see. Certainly, Vice President Biden said that he would go back to the nuclear deal if he becomes elected. Vali Nasr, thank
you very much indeed.
Now, when history looks back on this era, it will record a world facing a pandemic, an economic earthquake, racial justice uprisings and a myriad of
other crises, especially a dangerous erosion of truth and trust in government. So, let’s get some perspective with Oxford University history
professor, Margaret MacMillan. Whose new book, “War: How Conflict Shaped Us,” is earning rave reviews right now
Margaret MacMillan, welcome back to the program.
So, let me ask you, we laid out all the things that — you know, that the world faces right now. Does the United States and the alliance face sort of
an existential crisis or is this just another Monday in a very disruptive, you know, Trump led world?
MARGARET MACMILLAN, HISTORY PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO: I think it may be the former, and I don’t want to think that, but I think we’ve got
almost too many crises happening at once. I mean, your previous guest were listing them, crises around the world, an economic crisis, a pandemic and
tension spots in the world, tension between the United States and China, tensions the Middle East, now tensions over — between Azerbaijan and
Armenia. China and India have been exchanging shots. And sometimes you think there are almost too many things happening at once. And I think it is
a very worrying time actually.
AMANPOUR: So, what do you think the Trump administration, the president can learn, for instance, from historical parallels? Woodrow Wilson was
caught up in the middle of pandemic, your own great grandfather, the prime minister, David Lloyd George, during the flu epidemic. What historical
parallels are there for a leader right now of such a powerful country being ill in this maelstrom that we’ve just been talking about and how do you see
the way out, you know, more than a century later?
MACMILLAN: Well, we have to have some faith, I think, that the institutions and the other people in the government will be able to carry
some of the burden. And I think it was important when Woodrow Wilson was sick, there were others who could step in, it wasn’t an ideal situation,
but the American government went on. And when David Lloyd George as prime minister had flu, he had a strong cabinet. And so, there were institutions
and people who are ready to step in.
And I think this is a real test of the American system and a test of both the Trump administration and American institutions, and these are strong
institutions and there are capable people around. And so, we have to hope that they will be able to pick up some of the slack and deal with some of
the problems. But I do think in these sorts of situations, leadership matters a lot. And when a key leader gets sick, that’s really when I think
we have to worry.
AMANPOUR: So, one of the issues and I mentioned it to my other guests, you know, people are looking — certainly from overseas, looking and basically
saying either to themselves or their friends, if not out loud, that the president, the fact that he got this is reflective of, you know, his
treatment of the pandemic in the United States, his bungled, you know, leadership on that regard, as many people say, and the fact that he sort of
played it down so much.
What do you make of that coupled — yes, go ahead.
MACMILLAN: No, I was just going to say, it shows the power sometimes of wishful thinking and it also shows the limits of wishful thinking. I mean,
there is a reality and there is a virus and there are other players out there who are going to do things differently. And I think the Trump
administration and President Trump himself have been forced to accept this reality, perhaps in a way that they didn’t expect they would have to.
So, it is, I think, a very testing time. And what I think is really important is what some of your other guests were talking about is the
importance of alliances, both within a country where you will get people working to together to deal with a common issue and a common threat and a
coming challenge, but also the importance alliances even for a country as enormously powerful as of — as the United States to have alliances around
the world who work with others.
AMANPOUR: So, interesting, because that whole issue seems to have flown out the window, because there hasn’t been an American-led global coalition
to defeat this pandemic, as there have been in so many crises and wars in the past, American-led coalitions to bring coherence to this.
But you said inside the country as well. And so the fact that there is no alliance on trust and truth, I mean, the two major issues that people need
for government, seem to be very much broken right now.
How do you — how does that fit in with the historic case, in terms of when leaders are in crisis, whether through illness or other — economic or
wars? If people don’t believe or trust in the government, what does that — what’s the effect, the real-time effect of that?
MACMILLAN: I think it could be very dangerous, because what you will get, if people lose trust in their governments — and this has happened through
history, but I do think we have a special problem today. And that is, of course, the power of the Internet and the power of disinformation.
And I think there’s been a steady erosion in a number of countries of trust in fact, trust in evidence, but also trust in those who are leading us. And
this has happened in the past, but I think it’s accelerated and magnified now because of the power of social media.
But we know what happens in the past when people lose faith in their leaders. They begin to look for other leaders, and they begin to look for
other solutions. And the danger, it seems to me, is always, and particularly moments of crisis, that you will get people saying, look, I
can solve it. There’s a simple answer. Let me solve it for you.
And we have seen this before. We have seen the sort of demagogues who come along with very simple solutions to very complex problems. And that, I
think, can be very dangerous, because often they can’t solve the problems, but they promise that they can.
And people, when they are desperate, will turn often to people who promise all sorts of things. And those promises often can’t be borne out. And often
it’s just a way for the demagogues to get into power.
I mean, I would not in any way compare the current situation in the United States to what was happening in Germany, for example, in the 1930s or Italy
in the 1920s, but I think it was very striking that the Italians and the Germans, many of them lost faith in their own governments, and were
prepared to listen to people who came along and said, look, I have got a solution.
And those people were on both the right and the left. I mean, it’s not something that’s particularly right-wing or particularly left-wing. And
we’re seeing, I think, the rise of leaders around the world of various political stripes who do promise the sun and the moon, and promise that
solutions will be easy and promise that it can all be solved.
And I think that is dangerous, because people may support such leaders, but they will find, I think, very rapidly that they’re not going to get what
they hoped they would get.
AMANPOUR: So, I want to ask, in relation to your book “War: How Conflict Shaped Us,” now, President Trump has not started any international wars,
unlike his predecessors.
On the other hand, I want to know how you feel. Do you see any worry about war now? And, conversely, you have written about and we hear a lot about
how so much progress and transformation actually comes out of war, whether it’s building the middle class after the First World War, after the Vietnam
War, et cetera.
Tell me how war fits into this historic period right now.
MACMILLAN: Well, I think, in some ways, wars can be an analogy, that major wars can bring a nation together and bring a people together, if they feel
that something vital is at stake.
And I think we don’t want a war to make people feel like that. But I think that example can be a good one, that if people will come together for a
common cause, to defeat an enemy, to protect themselves. And we have seen that. I mean, in the past in major wars, governments in democratic
countries, for example, form coalitions.
They have brought in the opposition politicians and people have agreed to bury the differences until the end of the war. And I think that is a useful
example, that we can, when needed, as societies, come together and deal with major crises.
But, of course, we wouldn’t choose a war to make us realize that, and I think we need to realize just how very present war has been in our
societies, have been in our history, and how easily it can start.
So many of us have been so lucky. We have lived through a long period of peace in the West. Much of the West and many people in the West have never
experienced war firsthand, not since 1945.
And I think the danger is that we might become complacent.
MACMILLAN: And I think we need to be aware of the danger of war.
AMANPOUR: So, one of the war spirits certainly in the U.K. in 45, et cetera, was keep calm and carry on, the whole Blitz spirit and all the
In America, it’s about American exceptionalism. And yet there are so many articles that are saying that those are — that’s what’s led Britain and
America into some peril, as they try to face this coronavirus. It’s not about that. How do you analyze that?
MACMILLAN: Well, I think what’s happened at present, unfortunately, dealing with coronavirus has become politicized in some cases. And I think
that is very unfortunate, because this is not something that is about politics. This is about health.
And the virus doesn’t vote left-wing or right-wing. It doesn’t vote Democrat or Republican. It is there. And it’s going to affect, as we are
seeing, people wherever they are on all sorts of spectrum and all sorts of social classes and all sorts of parts of the world.
And so I think it’s very unfortunate that our response to the coronavirus has become politicized, when you get one country calling another country
responsible for it, or when you get attempts to monopolize vaccines or get attempts to blame others for what is going wrong and you get divisions
within a country as well.
And I think that is deeply unfortunate, because this is surely a crisis, like a major war, like a major attack on a country, like a major economic
crisis, where you really need to get beyond partisanship, because this is a problem that affects everyone and is going to go on affecting everyone,
unless we all get together and do something about it.
AMANPOUR: Professor Margaret MacMillan, thank you so much for joining us.
And our next guest says that we look to the president for far too much.
John Dickerson is a correspondent with CBS’ “60 Minutes” and a seasoned political journalist. His latest work hit “The New York Times” bestseller
list. It is called “The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency.” In it, he reminds us how much the office has been expanded, especially
since the 1950s, and why that makes it such an onerous role.
Here he is talking to our Walter Isaacson about it.
WALTER ISAACSON: Thank you, Christiane.
And, John Dickerson, welcome to the show.
JOHN DICKERSON, AUTHOR, “THE HARDEST JOB IN THE WORLD: THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY”: Thank you, Walter Isaacson. Great to be with you.
ISAACSON: And your book, “The Hardest Job in the World,” it’s sure become prescient now.
When we look at what’s happening this week with Trump’s health, let me ask a basic question, which is, what do we have the right to know about a
president health, and why do we have the right to know it?
DICKERSON: Well, the president does have a privacy screen, but it’s a pretty small screen. And that gets pushed to the side when his private
health starts to conflict with his public role.
And something — as you know, the president’s a lot of times don’t want these public details out about their health. This one in particular, the
reporting tells us, has been very reluctant to have things out in public, including the fact that he needed oxygen.
But the problem is that they have a — that his staff and the president have a stewardship duty to the job and a national security role, which is
both in decision-making, but then also in the public posture of the presidency.
And those obligations are bigger than the private security or the privacy interests of the individual president. And also, I should say, finally,
since his health connects with this larger story of COVID-19, how his health is handled actually sends a message and connects with greater public
confidence about the federal government’s ability to handle the pandemic that still rages.
ISAACSON: Explain that a bit more. The secrecy about his health, and the way that they approach the COVID crisis, how do those intersect?
DICKERSON: Well, if you look at the major criticisms of the administration, it has been that they have downplayed the risk, that they
did not take sufficient effort to fight the pandemic, and then, once they had — were pressed with the issue that they repeatedly misinformed the
Those are the three public criticisms of the overall pandemic. Well, they have now replicated, in miniature, as if by plan, all of those mistakes
with respect to the president’s specific health, and here, with 30-some-odd days until the election, very bad timing.
But the way in which now the president, who is at the focus of every news story right now, is repeating the mistakes of the larger administration,
and there is still a pandemic raging, and people need clean public information about the nature of the pandemic, not just the president’s
Why? Because that’s the precondition for people being able to inch their way back into public life, which is the precondition for getting the
economy going again.
And this debate over masks, which the president has been a participant in, is really — when you talk to economists, they say we have to stick to
masks because that’s the only way people will feel less risky about engaging in public life again, which is the way you get the economy going
again, not to its previous place where it was before the pandemic, but people have to be able to get back out again.
They can’t do that if they’re fearful about the way this pandemic is unfolding.
ISAACSON: We’re about to go into a vice presidential debate.
And we have two people at the top of the ticket who are in their 70s. Does this change the nature of what we’re looking for in a vice president?
DICKERSON: And that debate, when it takes place, they will be five feet further apart, so in — to accommodate the new reality of a White House
where the — which seems to have been host to a super-spreader event.
And so it’s just another way in which this is constantly in the forefront or even in the background. Vice presidential debates, they always have to
kind of dance around the idea, well, you might be in the top job to — and, as you remember, that’s what got Dan Quayle in trouble, when he compared
himself to John Kennedy, because he was trying to say, I have as much experience as Kennedy does.
Well, now that question is right on the nose, I mean, maybe a little too on the nose for the moment we’re in. But also — so, they will obviously talk
about that. And it is important, as you say, not just because of the president’s health at the moment, but because of the age of the president.
And so it adds a little more weight to the event, but also because the role of the vice president has changed. Dick Cheney was quite involved. Joe
Biden was very involved in the Obama administration. And Mike Pence is the head of the task force combating coronavirus.
So he’s got a lot to answer for, sort of separate from his — from what he may do in the future if there’s a second Trump term.
ISAACSON: Do they have a plan for how to deal with crises doing this current moment, where the president is somewhat out of the main action?
DICKERSON: Well, they have — in some sense, they have a plan, in the sense that the 25th Amendment is there for replacing a president. And then
there are also patterns for the way the 25th Amendment has been used in kind of short-term periods.
We had Ronald Reagan use the 25th Amendment, although he did a funny little legal thing to keep from actually using it — but when he went in for his
colonoscopy. George W. Bush did that twice when he went under for a colonoscopy. Dick Cheney was briefly in charge.
So, that pattern and operations manual is pretty well in place. Of course, if the president refused to give up power for a temporary period of time,
then you would start to get into the really exciting parts of the 25th Amendment, where the majority of Cabinet has to vote and so forth.
But what they lack a plan for, it seems, from the way they have handled this so far, is just the operational tempo that’s required to handle
surprises. And, again, that’s the way in which the administration has echoed in this moment the larger challenge they have had handling the
surprise of COVID-19.
And that starts long before COVID-19 was even in the conversation. It starts, based, again, on all of my reporting, from having an operating team
where people understand how the others operate. They might — there will be tensions, as there is any high-functioning team, but if you put a premium
on having a good team without a lot of turnover — and the president has had serial turnover in his top spots — then people get used to working
with each other.
They can move without having to have a conversation, because they have patterns of thinking and understand how to manage things, even if they
don’t know what the specific crisis is going to be.
We have seen in the handling of the president’s own personal health, everything from Chris Christie, who was a participant in the debate prep,
not knowing that he was exposed until he read about it in the newspaper, then the conflicting reports about the president’s health, all of those
things suggest what we have seen in the administration, which is basically a team that doesn’t work that well together in tackling the to do list of any particular surprise.
ISAACSON: In your book you write about Eisenhower’s heart attack. Tell us what the relevance of that today.
DICKERSON: James deacon wrote a book about the modern American relationship with press relationship with the, the presidency. And he starts with Eisenhower’s heart attack as a moment where the press changed its relationship to the presidency, because they basically lied to the press about what had happened to Eisenhower. They said, he’d had too many onions on his burger while he was playing golf. Now he was a hothead and had a big temper, but it was not the burger in his temper that had caused him to be out of commission. And that lie about the heart attack and the, and the importance of that. I mean, um, because of the national security cold war environment was a moment where the press started to, you mentioned the credibility gap started to think about that, started to think about the information they were getting from the white house, and it wasn’t, um, and it had, again, this important national public service interest, which was that you needed to make sure the president was okay to make the kinds of weighty decisions you had to during the cold war. So Eisenhower’s heart attack and the handling of it made started to make the press more skeptical, particularly on the health issues. Um, and, uh, but having said that, um, of course John Kennedy, uh, basically lied about his Addison’s disease straight up during the campaign and then throughout his presidency. Um, so as skeptical as the press may have been, uh, they weren’t so skeptical that they, they burst through that, that curtain of lies with, with John Kennedy. Um, but that was before Eisenhower, of course, you know, Cleveland got him, his jaw reconstructed when he was sick. Wilson was basically, uh, an invalid for the end of his presidency. Um, so there had been even greater shielding of the press from, from the truth about the president and, uh, and after Ike, that started to disappear, um, and we’re even watching the president is limited as the information has been with Donald Trump. Um, it’s far more than we would have had in previous generations.
ISAACSON: In your great book, you called the presidency, the hardest job in the world, because there are all sorts of what we call black Swan events or unexpected things happening. And we judge our presidents, uh, on what they do on things that just hit them, even if it wasn’t exactly their fault, like hurricanes. You have a wonderful scene of Lyndon Johnson coming right down here in New Orleans, right down the street from me, uh, because Russell Long pushed him to do so. And you contrast that with Trump throwing paper towels to the people in Puerto Rico, and then to George W. Bush getting it wrong at first, and then finally getting it right on how to handle a hurricane. How do you see Trump’s ability to deal with those type of crises?
DICKERSON: Well, you know, Michael Bloomberg said, when he was asked as mayor what he did his first hundred days, he said, I built a team and he said, nobody in the press understood what he was talking about, but what he meant was I figured out who we’re going to be the best people in the best possible positions, because the job even at being mayor of New York was too big. And so you had to think about it in it as an organization, not just an individuals, um, an individual’s responsibility, president Trump never thought of it that way. Um, he refused to talk about the transition while it was going on. And when his transition team gave him a plan for how to set up his administration, the administration was a, the transition team is run by Chris Christie. Christie was fired. His work was thrown out. So from the start that, um, foundation and administration needs to be able to handle the kinds of crises you’re talking about was never put in place. So that’s the big first problem. The second is that the president is highly improvisational, which is fine if you’re a single actor, but, um, you know, if you go back and talk to any of the chiefs of staff, because an organization is so large in the presidency, the individual improvisation of any one of its members, particularly the person at the top throws the, of the system out of kilter. So the ability to respond is very difficult when you’ve got all kinds of when you’re having to respond to the crisis and respond to the improvisations in the moment. And so that makes it very hard to respond to these kinds of crises. On Puerto Rico and the president’s disaster response more broadly, it requires a sense of empathy and a view that the job is that it is knit into the job that you were supposed to not only be empathetic towards other Americans, but that you must show it publicly because it sends a message to the public that it’s government, that it pays all these taxes to is on the case. And the president doesn’t feel that obligation. Um, and so when he went to Puerto Rico, he was talking more about the spinning, the numbers of the dead, throwing the paper towels, just not feeling as though he was obligated to play that public role that as you said, Lyndon Johnson really was one of the, the entrepreneurs in recognizing the connection between caring for the public and how that could benefit you publicly or politically as a president.
ISAACSON: One of the roles you talk about in the book as well, that a president must play is that of unifier. Why does Trump act the way he does if that’s supposed to be the role of the president?
DICKERSON: Well, he may have, and his certainly his voters, uh, believe that he has a central insight, which is all of these, this talk of bipartisanship and all of these Washington, the coziness has hurt his voters. Secondly, it doesn’t get anything done that if he wants to get something done, he can either waste a lot of time pretending to try to get bipartisan solutions that he’s never going to get because of the structure of Washington, which is to say that the presidency that he walked into was one in which he had, uh, angered a lot of Democrats during the campaign. He made a calculation, both because it’s temperamentally the way he, his instincts tell him, but also no Democrat was going to work with him because they would pay such a political price for doing so. So if that’s the reality, why, why waste a lot of time on bi-partisan efforts? Just try to get everything you can through the structure in the way it exists in the moment. That essentially is the position that Barack Obama, after failing several times to try to do things through a bipartisan process, came to at the end of his presidency. And he basically said, you know, these Republican senators that you think I might be able to convince their voters are never going to let them work with me. In fact, Pat Toomey, the Senator from Pennsylvania said on gun control legislation, don’t talk about it because if you, mr. President talk about it, it then becomes associated with you and my Republican colleagues can’t vote for it. They told them the same thing on immigration. If you, mr. President are associated with this bill, it becomes a Barack Obama’s bill. Republicans will be tarred if they vote for it. So lay off, um, in that environment, president Trump has made the case, like why bother with trying to work for bipartisan solutions? The problem of course, is that that that makes the BA the partisanship even worse. And you have this tit for tat and you see it most with respect to the Supreme court nominations, those issues where people are at their fire, easiest and hottest, emotionally.
ISAACSON: Donald Trump, when asked about things like the total fiasco of testing and America, or some of the problems that we’ve had, uh, stopping the spread of COVID said, it’s not my fault. I’m not at all responsible for this in your book. You talk, even describe how Truman got the buck stops here, sign put on his desk, uh, to what extent should the president abide by that policy of the buck stops here?
DICKERSON: You know, I went into the book thinking maybe we’re a little bit too sloppy in saying the buck stops here for the presidency, because what it came to mean in, in Truman’s case, of course it meant I have to make the decisions. Nobody else can make these decisions I have to. And so, um, all you Monday morning quarterback, so we’re looking at me, you know, you see, you think about how you would have made that decision yet under the circumstances I had to make it because there’s no passing the buck. It’s coming to me now, essentially the president sort of blamed for anything that happens during, from inauguration day until they leave the office. And I thought that was maybe a little unfair. Barack Obama was blamed for the BP oil spill. He had nothing to do with it. And the federal government doesn’t have a particular skill in capping belching oil Wells, however, after doing some reporting, but looking both at Eisenhower, who said, basically you have to take responsibility because of the effect it has on your team. When I looked at Bloomberg, says a version of the same thing sometime, and Tim cook talks about his job is as taking the noise away from his colleagues. And then I talked to him, Mitt Romney, who’s done a lot of leading in his life in lots of different kinds of organizations. And he basically said, yeah, the job is basically you get blamed for everything, but that means also you can take credit for everything. Why is this important? Well, politically it tells all of your advisors immediately, I’m taking the blame for this and therefore don’t spin this problem, solve it because we can’t get around. And COVID-19, it’s a perfect example. You can’t talk your way out of COVID-19 you have to solve it. You have to come up with a solution to it. And that very bulky, a blunt kind of, uh, accountability for a president as, as blunt as it is. And maybe it’s unfair. In some cases it does move the bureaucracy into action in a way that based on my interviews is effective. And so I kind of changed my mind on that in the course of doing the reporting.
ISAACSON: Ever since you wrote whistle stop what we’re best at time magazine. And now with this great history book, you’ve loved the flow of history throughout American history. This is not the worst period of America has gone through. I mean, it’s certainly not the civil war, maybe even the 1960s, but is this past few months, the weirdest time you’ve ever read a witness?
DICKERSON: Well, if I got that passion, you’re in part too, you’re in part to blame for it, uh, as starting me out on in life so many years ago at time. But it is, I mean, you’re weird as a really good example. I mean, people have made jokes about the fact that the script writer for 2020, um, you know, has, has lost their creative flair. And they’re just doing things that are just so outrageous. And yet, of course, this is the reality that we live in. I mean, part of it, of course, is that everything’s so quick. And, um, we have, um, the, the sense of the Gallup of events, which means that there’s no time to kind of settle and maybe find some stability. So there’s a constant sense of jitteriness, but the events themselves are pretty jittery, but as you quite rightly point out, um, you know, there aren’t tanks in the street, as there were in, in 1968, you don’t have, uh, the assassinations. I mean, when you spend time in 1968, you just wonder if by today’s hyperventilating hummingbird responses to things. If we reacted that way in 1968, I mean, you would, you, I don’t know that the country could have handled it. Um, there was a kind of stability that it feels like in reading about with respect to those events that we don’t have today. It’s a con the hyperventilation in the moment really makes this feel, um, um, very different. And, but also as you point out, it’s very weird. It’s very weird to see a president in a, in a vicend, waving at his supporters at Walter Reed. That’s, there’s no analog in that, in presidential history for that, that can help, help give us a little stability, which is what history usually does.
ISAACSON: John Dickerson as always thank you for being with us.
DICKERSON: It’s great to be with you, Walter. Thanks, Walter.
AMANPOUR: And that’s it for our program tonight. Remember, you can follow me and the show on Twitter. Thank you for watching “Amanpour and Company” on PBS and join us again tomorrow night.