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The Effects of Undoing Obama Policies - The World is Watching.
Aired July 3, 2018 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: He was President Obama's right hand man, serving as trusted advisor throughout his term. Ben Rhodes opens up about
life inside the White House, the decisions that shaped Syria, Russia, and Iran and how Barack Obama really felt about Donald Trump's election.
Hello, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London. President Donald Trump has a huge European trip coming up next
week with what's shaping up to be a contentious NATO summit in Brussels, followed by a visit to Britain where he's likely to met with massive
protest and a one on one meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. That could create even more tension with America's western allies.
The relationship between the United States and Europe has been this flawed since the George W. Bush years and the risk over the Iraq War. Repairing
that risk and restoring America's global reputation was a critical focus for the Barrack Obama administration.
And my guest, Ben Rhodes, was at the heart of all of that as Deputy National Security Advisor and as Foreign Policy Speechwriter, Rhodes served
as Obama's sounding board and spokesman for eight very full years. And in his new book, "The World As It Is: Inside the Obama White House," Rhodes
takes us into the inner sanctum for a glimpse at how the Obama presidency worked.
It's impossible to read his book, though, without being struck by just how much of what Barack Obama did is being undone by his successor Donald
Trump. And so, we begin by reliving some of the most memorable Trump reversals.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARRACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today, the world has officially crossed the threshold for the Paris Agreement to take effect.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord.
OBAMA: Today, the United States, together with our allies and partners, has reached a historic understanding with Iran.
TRUMP: I am announcing today, that the United States will withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal.
OBAMA: Today, as the President of the United States of America, I offer the Cuban people (FOREIGN LANGUAGE).
TRUMP: Effective immediately, I am canceling the last Administration's completely one-sided deal with Cuba.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: Ben Rhodes, welcome to the program.
BEN RHODES, FORMER DEPUTY U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Thank for that welcome, Christiane.
AMANPOUR: It would almost be like a standup comedy routine.
AMANPOUR: .if it wasn't so serious.
AMANPOUR: What goes through your mind when you see those signature achievements of President Obama all overturned?
RHODES: Well, you know, first of all, hey look, it's disappointing. It's sad to have worked so hard on things to see somebody attacking and, really,
for no - there's no unifying principle that would make those decisions for you other than, Obama did this so I'm going to undo it. I do think, if I
look at the three, you know, because Paris was brought into force as he announced, the rest of the world is still in it and the United States can
come back in.
AMANPOUR: And the U.S., by the way, is implementing it on a state and city level.
RHODES: Exactly. So, if you're Cuba opening, he said to canceled it. No, we still have an embassy there, you know, he's just not moving it forward.
The Iran Deal is a little bit more black and white. We're out and, frankly, I don't that deal can survive without us.
So, it's a bit mixed in. Trump likes the fear of I'm undoing all of these things, but the world is a little more complicated than that.
AMANPOUR: So, before we plunge in to some of the more, sort of, atmospherics, let's just quickly take the Iran Deal.
AMANPOUR: .because that was a signature of President Obama. And, in fact, even in his campaign, he said.
AMANPOUR: .I will negotiate with countries like Iran and North Korea.
AMANPOUR: Right now, you're seeing President Trump threaten his allies, saying that they must cease all, for instance, oil imports from Iran, they
must cease doing any business in dollars with Iran.
Europe, the allies, are in a position of - of having to, sort of, side with Iran to try to.
AMANPOUR: .figure out how to save the deal. And then, companies don't know which way is up. And it just seems like an unprecedented fight
RHODES: Yes. Well, and the irony of it is that for Trump to do the things that he says he wants to do, to impose those sanctions and pressure Iran.
He needs allies more than ever. When we imposed the sanctions on Iran, they only worked because Europe came along and China came along. He's
making it impossible to accomplish what he wants, which is to pressure Iran more.
So he's got the worst of both worlds. He's -- he's potentially losing the constraints in the nuclear deal and he's losing the ability to bring the
rest of the world along with him to pressure Iran.
AMANPOUR: President Trump keeps saying -- you see? Since I was tough with Iran and I've pulled out of this, they've changed their behavior in Syria,
they're changing their behavior, they're not looking so aggressively at the Mediterranean. And I think they really believe that there'll be a regime
change in Iran, that's what they want the Administration. How do you analyze those -- first of all, those statements and what might happen
RHODES: Well, I think he's -- he's lying. I mean, as a matter of fact, I don't see any change in Iranian behavior. If anything, we've seen the
supreme leader say that we should restart our nuclear program. Regime change has been kind of the fantasy of parts of the American right and
Prime Minister Netanyahu for many years.
This is not a regime that is about to collapse. And frankly, I think, if somehow there was a regime collapse, the people who would emerge from that
are the worst people; the -- the IRGC, the -- the revolutionary guard there.
AMANPOUR: You know President Obama didn't have a very good personal relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Now Prime Minister Netanyahu
is thrilled to bits because he thinks he has his .
AMANPOUR: . ally in the White House. Do you see this Middle East policy being directed by the Israeli Prime Minister?
RHODES: I think the two most important people in American Middle East policy are Mohammad bin Salman and Bibi Netanyahu. I .
AMANPOUR: The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia?
RHODES: The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the Prime Minister of Israel. I think they are driving this. If you look at, essentially, the -- the
gloves are off completely in Yemen. The -- the -- spat with Qatar, the bizarre episode with the Prime Minister of Lebanon. You know, that is
Mohammad bin Salman unconstrained with the full support of the United States.
And if you see the -- the American embassy moving to Jerusalem and then the killing of those Palestinians in Gaza, you know, that is Bibi Netanyahu
feeling unconstrained. And so, I do think that in the absence of a lot of -- any -- well, any real vision or strategic clarity out of Washington,
that Middle East policy has been essentially outsourced to Riyadh and -- and Jerusalem (ph).
AMANPOUR: Do you take any sense of responsibility for that? Famously, the Saudis believed that President Obama was abandoning the region, whether it
was selling their ally, the Hosni Mubarak of Egypt down the -- down line, or whether it was pulling back from the red line that President Obama
himself established over Syria .
AMANPOUR: . or whether it was, as they think, cozying up to Iran at the expense of -- of the Gulf allies.
AMANPOUR: Do you take any responsibility for the tension in the region?
RHODES: Yes. Well, you know, I wrestled with this a lot in -- in writing my book. I mean, the -- I think that -- the Arab Spring, at the outset of
the Arab Spring, you know, we broke with Mubarak and President Obama took a very dramatic step that angered the Gulf countries very much. We never
really followed through.
We got caught kind of in the middle, which is not where you want to get in foreign policy, on Egypt in particular. Because he made the dramatic break
from Mubarak but then we kind of reverted to forum in terms of supporting the Egyptian military, having that be our principle interlock here in the
country, as they're sidelining secular activists and making this kind of a binary Muslim brotherhood or us choice, which is what the Gulf countries
And the Gulf countries ultimately poured a lot of money into Egypt to help put the military back in control. I think we never really repaired that
breech, nor did we actually truly follow through on the democracy promotion in Egypt. That's the one that actually -- it's not the one that people
think of, it's the one I look at and think about what could we have done differently.
On Iran, we just, you know, we had a different view. It's not that we wanted to be friends with Iran; it's that we thought a nuclear deal was the
best way to stop them from getting a nuclear weapon. They basically wanted to have this -- this war across the region between Saudi Arabia and Iran
and all their proxies. We thought that was not in U.S. interests or frankly in their interests.
AMANPOUR: Let's just get back then to election night.
AMANPOUR: I'm going to play a little bit of a Netflix documentary that caught you on election night.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RHODES: Just came outside to try to process all this. It's a lot to -- a lot to process. I mean, I -- I can't even.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: Ben Rhodes, uncharacteristically .
AMANPOUR: . stumped and silenced.
RHODES: Yes, yes.
AMANPOUR: What did the President feel? How did you all process it?
RHODES: Yes, you know, the President he called me that night of the election. And his first response was kind of, "Well, that happened." I
mean, he literally said that like, we -- we couldn't -- we were shell- shocked, you know. As I'm walking home that night, he sent me this e-mail that said, you know, "There are more stars in the sky than grains of sand
on the earth." You know, groping for the biggest possible perspective that we cannot be too overwhelmed by this result.
You know, then he went through the process of this (ph) with, could the Clinton campaign have done better, how much did the Russian meddling
matter? The Comey letter? But then he got more philosophical about this, and he made a couple of comments that I opened my book with that stuck in
my mind. One is, he said perhaps I was 10 or 20 too early, speaking really of the demographics of the country, that demographically, a guy like Trump
can't get elected 10 or 20 years from now, when, you know, it's going to be a minority white country, essentially, and you can't have that whole
coalition, and it's kind of rooted in a sense of white grievance. And the other he said was, what if we were wrong? What if people want to fall back
into their tribe?
AMANPOUR: He obviously has some words with President Trump during that first meeting a couple of days after the election. I guess, how did he
feel that the man who had questioned his very birthright, the man who claimed that was a Muslim or whatever, was actually his successor? And
that's one question. Then I just -- well, let me ask you that one first.
RHODES: You know he was very disappointed by it. I mean, you know again what he was most disappointed by is, he said, I worked so hard to take this
office seriously and to carry myself with a certain dignity. And so it wasn't just an insult to him, it was that Trump was such a fundamentally,
kind of unserious person, that the stewardship of that office is being handed over to somebody who wasn't going to take it as seriously. I think
that's what bothered him.
AMANPOUR: And President Trump -- I'm sorry, President Obama, you quoted in the book is calling President Trump "a cartoon character," more concerned
about his crowd size than serious policy. So one of the policies which he railed against and still rails against is Obamacare, and this is what
President Obama says that he told him about it. "I said to the incoming President just change the name and claim that you made these wonderful
RHODES: Yeah, call it Trumpcare. He called me up to the Oval Office, a couple of us after that meeting with Trump, and he was really kind of
bemused and he looked kind of confused shocked. And I said, well, what happened in the meeting? And he said, first of all, he kept on wanting to
steer the conversation back to his crowd size. I'm trying to brief him on healthcare, immigration policy, and he saying, you and I can get big crowds
but Hillary, did you see, she couldn't get the same crowds, right?
And then, you know, Trump would act very open to his ideas on healthcare and immigration, and Obama would say to him, yeah, just make a few changes
and call it Trumpcare. But in retrospect clearly, Trump had no intentions of being open to those policies. I think his manner, as a lot of foreign
leaders have experienced after -- is that in the meeting, he'd be quite solicitous at times, and he goes out and says something different.
AMANPOUR: And President Trump really sort of looks like he's on a binge to disrupt the alliances, to change or completely destroy the sort of so-
called 70 Year Global Liberal World Order.
RHODES: Yes, that right, yes.
AMANPOUR: President Obama said that he had advised, for instance President Trudeau -- Prime Minister Trudeau to speak up more vocally and
defend share values. I wonder what you think when you see President Trudeau having done that in the G7 Summit and then being literally abused
by President Trump by a Twitter storm, being called dishonest and weak and all that. What are allies meant to do, do you think?
RHODES: You know what? I think they have to stand up for what they believe. We've seen different approaches. We saw President Macron, who I
have huge admiration for, try very, very hard to build a relationship, a personal relationship, but all the things he cared about, the Iran deal,
the Paris Climate Agreement, avoiding a trade war, Trump ignored it. So I don't think, you know, just going the route of flattery and reaching out,
at a certain point, I think you're going to see allies say, if we can't count on the Americans to be with us, which I would obviously prefer as an
American, they're going to have to stand up to Trump. And I think that's going happen more and more over the course of this year because people have
seen, he's made his choice and his choice is to pick these fights with us and to walk away from that libral order.
AMANPOUR: So tell me then about the grand- dam of Europe, the European leaders, the Chancellor Angela Merkel. You talk a lot about, in the book,
about the last meeting, and that you know, President Obama said Angela, she's alone now, and as they parted, there were one tear in her eye. And
you said you have never seen her so emotional ever; she was stoic. Describe how she must be feeling and what President Obama thinks of her now
being beaten up on Twitter by the President of the United States.
RHODES: Look, Angela Merkel is a great woman and a great historical figure. And for someone like that, who has weathered all of these crises
and been shoulder to shoulder with the United States and standing up to Putin and help rescue the global economy in the Eurozone crisis, taking in
all these refugees, showing the true meaning, I think, of western values are by welcoming people into Germany. To have now an American president
literally attacking her, an American Ambassador who's actively trying to undermine her, she deserves far better than this.
This is a woman who's been with us. And -- and I think the rest of the world is going to look at this and say, can we trust America anymore? If
this is how they treat their friends, the people who stood by their side, can we trust them?
AMANPOUR: President Trump, himself, has made the two percent of GDP for the NATO budget a hallmark. And we've got a NATO Summit coming up next
week. She's obviously going to put that on the table again. Of course it started under President Obama, the NATO Summit I think in 2014, and they
insisted on this two percent.
RHODES: Here in the U.K.
AMANPOUR: Here in the U.K., in fact. Do you fear -- is there a fear that the United States might, under Trump, pull out of NATO or abandon Article
Five. I mean, he did reinforce it last Summit last year. But has things changed?
RHODES: I think they have. I mean, look, he reaffirmed it but he clearly seemed to have -- to be dragged to the position of reaffirming it. He
seems more intent on beating up our NATO allies. Yes, I think we'll stay in. But the question is, if you're an Eastern European country and your
survival depends on that Article Five commitment.
And you're seeing the President of the United States kind of hedge about it and you've got Putin bearing down, I think you're going to be much more
susceptible potentially to Russian influence. I think some of those countries will stand up to Putin but some of them, you know, you've already
seen are beginning to develop their own independent relationships with Putin and with Russia.
And so the danger, I feel, is not that NATO collapses but that once that Article Five commitment doesn't feel firm to people and -- and frankly, the
U.S. is really the guarantor of it, you know, you're going to see less investment from countries.
And we've gotten more out of those countries than, you know -- then -- you know Trump likes to act like they've done nothing for us. The only time
Article Five was invoked was on 9/11. They didn't want to be in Afghanistan. Their publics didn't want to be there and yet they fought and
died with us there. The next time we need them, they're probably not going to be with us. And so that's how it's going to hurt us.
AMANPOUR: You just mentioned President Putin. The next big meeting is going to be between President Trump and President Putin in Helsinki in a
couple of weeks from now. There's all sorts of expectations and sort of -- you know trying to think of what this meeting is going to be about or who's
going to give what to who.
One of them suggest that President Trump, egged on by Bibi Netanyahu and the Saudis, are going to try to ask Putin to get Iran out of Syria in
return for America allowing Assad to stay in place.
AMANPOUR: Have you heard that?
RHODES: Yes. Yes. And potentially, some recognition of Crimea .
AMANPOUR: Recognition of Crimea as well.
RHODES: That why Bolton -- Bolton kind of dangled that recently.
AMANPOUR: Deputy Director of State said to me, no way.
RHODES: Yes. No, I would think no way. But that's what the Russians are going to want. Right? Look, I -- I think that's right. I think that the
-- the Saudis and (inaudible), Israelis have had this idea of some play where essentially they can realign with Putin. It ignores the reality that
we butted up against and failed, completely failed.
AMANPOUR: Yes, because you -- you were all in for Putin during the Syria.
RHODES: We tried and failed. And -- and big time. Yes. And people can hold us to account (ph).
AMANPOUR: A mistake.
RHODES: It was only-- you know we -- we -- we -- the only course we could find to diplomacy to deal with Assad had to involve the Russians. I think
you can find mistakes along the way there including at the -- the beginning of the conflict that -- we can go back to this.
But, you know, I don't know that we moved aggressively, not at the beginning before things really went into an -- an all out civil war there,
to forestall that. By the time we were really engaging the Russians on this in a really aggressive way late in our administration, it was -- it
was in some ways too late.
AMANPOUR: I detect a certain movement of your position. You know, you talk about we should have potentially gone in somehow and been more
aggressive, you know, before this turned into a massive civil war.
You know your administration's been criticized amongst many in the foreign policy establishment and many in the region for failing in Syria.
AMANPOUR: And you've always defended what you've done there.
RHODES: Yes. Yes.
AMANPOUR: So do you think you should have done something different at the beginning?
RHODES: You know everybody focuses on the military question, which you know we've debated on many times. There was also the question of at the
beginning we probably presumed that Assad was going to go.
You know we had -- you know Mubarak had gone, Ben Ali, Saliha (ph) and -- and we moved pretty quickly to call for him to go. But by doing that
without a clear strategy that we we're going to put means behind to remove him, we kind of closed the diplomatic window in a way.
You know, we -- we -- we -- our ability to make some deal with -- with the Syrians and the Iranians and the Gulf countries and everybody in the region
about how to potentially forestall this civil war.
We kind of lost that window of opportunity, probably because we were reading the events as leading to Assad falling. Right? The Russian's and
Iranians though, were backing him in a way that none of those other leaders had support.
I think people can go back and question every step along the way, including the red line, but I actually think people should look at -- to get the
diplomacy wrong at the beginning, sometimes the best thing you can do is stop the war before it happened.
Maybe we couldn't, but I think we should look back at 2011 -- 2011, 2012 and least consider it.
AMANPOUR: And you sort of said the red line under your breath, but of course that is .
AMANPOUR: . what everybody points to this Administration for, is big failure. The big thing is going to have to be answerable. The big opening
it gave to Assad, to Iran, to Russia and of course the region taking it's queue about your Administration from that failure. And even allies believe
that as isolationists and as America first and go it aloneists, as the Trump administration is, that they trace the pull back to that failure to
enact your own red line.
AMANPOUR: Are you prepared to admit that that was a massive strategic failure?
RHODES: I -- so, I took people into the decision making after the red line attack, you know, and I think new details about what Obama was doing, which
is essentially, he's already skeptical that you can - you can solve this with our military. Iraq and Afghanistan weighed heavily on him. There we
had huge deployment (inaudible) and couldn't fix those countries.
Then he's thinking, what do I need in place for a military intervention to potentially succeed? I need some domestic support, international support
and the week after that attack, it didn't materialize. Internationally the British parliament voted against joining us.
Angela Merkel called him and said she couldn't support military action publically unless an U.N. investigation was done. At home, the Republicans
are saying, it would be an unconstitutional act without Congressional authorization and as unsatisfying as it is, I also think it is true that
Obama's weighing, not just whether there's a case for intervention, but if I intervene like this, can it work?
AMANPOUR: And it will be for the history books.
AMANPOUR: Endless studies will be done on that. But let's now talk about the trade war.
AMANPOUR: Which everybody thought President Trump was just using rhetoric, it was a negotiating tactic, but actual sums and numbers are now being
Actual allies and competitors are threatening retaliation and he says things like, I didn't know when I talked to Prime Minister Trudeau, I just
made it up. I just said we had a deficit. I didn't know. He says all these things.
It's fascinating to read what you wrote about the meeting with President Xi of China when you were with President Obama and this is what he said about
Trump. We prefer to have a good relationship with the United States, but every action will have a reaction and if an immature leader throws the
world into chaos, then the world will know who to blame.
I thought was one of the most interesting comments by a leader in your whole book.
RHODES: It's so iconic. And this is November of 2016, right after the election and Obama was warning him about trade. I think Trump is serious
about this trade, and Xi looks -- he kind of sat back and folded his hands and he took a measure of this and what he was saying is exactly what's
happened, which if Trump goes down this road, we're going to take your place.
We're going to pick off your allies. We're going -- they have a One Belt One Road Initiative that extends all the way from China to Africa, through
Southeast Asia and Central Asia and the Middle East and he knew that there would be an opportunity for him. Yes, there's risks with Trump picking a
trade war, but China could beat the United States in a trade war because they don't have politics. Right?
So, than can assume a lot of pain, but when they start squeezing pieces of the American electorate they know that American politicians are going to
back down. So, he's sitting in a much stronger position. The only way to actually have a trade war with China it to get all your allies on your side
and Trump has given away the only leverage that he could really have.
AMANPOUR: By threatening a trade war against his own allies.
RHODES: His own allies. Europe, Japan, Korea.
RHODES: Canada -- Canada. So, what you'll see -- and suddenly, if you notice, Christiane you've been covering this for so long, but the Chinese
leader is suddenly the spokesperson for globalization. He's showing up at Davos and talking about free trade and sitting with the WTO and that is
China wants to make maximum use of these Trump years to do as much as possible to reorient the international order and the global economy to be
anchored in their view of how things should work.
AMANPOUR: You know I almost don't dare ask you where you see light on the horizon, but I will ask you at the end of this conversation about a really
sweet sort of retrospective when President Obama came over here and went to Buckingham Palace and of course met the Queen, they really bonded.
RHODES: Yes, he really loved the Queen and I describe him, after the first dinner at Buckingham Palace, we sat next to her all night and he said, they
just chatted about -- first of all, she'd met every person there was to meet for the last 60 years and he's like this is the only person you can
talk to who's literally known everybody.
But the other thing that he said, that was real interesting, is that she reminded him of his grandmother, who raised him. Who was kind of a tough,
pragmatic, but plain spoken woman, he really saw the person who he loved as much as anybody in the world, in the Queen. So, it's that interesting
juxtaposition of the woman, who's met everybody, but also a woman who's so plain spoken and commonsensical that she reminds him of his grandmother.
AMANPOUR: And how do you think the meeting between President Trump and the Queen will go?
RHODES: Oh, let me tell you, I think the Queen takes a measure of people pretty quickly, and she doesn't stop for fools, so she'll be highly
appropriate, I'm sure, but I don't think it'll be as warm as the relationship with the Obamas.
AMANPOUR: And what's next for you, after eight years of being right at the center of power and decision making? What happens next for Ben Rhodes?
RHODES: You know, well, I've caught up on some sleep and written this book. You know, I told my own story now; I'd like to tell other people's
stories. And I'm going to try to do some more writing.
AMANPOUR: Foreign policy writing?
RHODES: .foreign policy, but also, I want to - I want to get at the stories of people around the world, how are they impacted by these polices?
My friends have a podcast that I might join them in for the Policy of America group.
So you know, I want to try other projects, and I want to try - you know, I worked for somebody and spoke for somebody else for a decade, and now it's
kind of liberating to be able to do my own thing for a little while.
AMANPOUR: We're going to say goodbye, watching those amazing pictures of the President, with your infant daughter laying on the ground at the Oval
RHODES: Yeah, yeah.
AMANPOUR: Yeah, yeah there you go, there, and the other one when he's .
RHODES: The elephant costume, yeah.
AMANPOUR: Look at that.
AMANPOUR: .it's beautiful.
AMANPOUR: All right, Ben Rhodes, thank you very much.
RHODES: Thank you.
AMANPOUR: And with that tour around the world that is it for our program, and remember, you can always listen to our podcast and see us online at
amanpour.com. And you can always follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for watching, and goodbye, from London.