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Transcript: Jake Sullivan talks with Michael Morell on "Intelligence Matters" podcast, Sept. 11, 2018

North Korea meeting with Trump
North Korea meeting with Trump 02:11

Jake Sullivan is interviewed by CBS News senior national security contributor and host of "Intelligence Matters" podcast, Sept. 11, 2018.

Listen to this episode on Stitcher


              MICHAEL MORELL:

Jake, thanks for joining us today. It is great to have you on the show.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

So, we served together in the Obama Administration. And I don't want to embarrass you here, but-- I found you to be one of the smartest, most insightful, most impactful participants in national security discussions that I was involved in. I believe you have an extraordinarily bright future in serving our country-- if that's what you want to do.

Indeed, it was widely rumored that had Secretary Clinton won, you would have been her choice to be national security advisor. And, putting all that together, Jake, I'm very much looking forward to this discussion. And, now that I set the bar-- sky high (LAUGHTER)-- let's-- let's dig into it.

I know you get asked-- a lot of questions about the 2016 election. An-- and I'm guessing that they're not your favorite questions. But allow me to ask two. And-- and I promise I won't ask why you think Secretary Clinton lost or what you guys could have done-- done better. But-- the first of the two questions I want to ask you is if there were important things about the electorate that you learned after the election that you don't think you fully understood beforehand.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Absolutely. I'd go so far as to say there wasn't a single person involved in the 2016 election, including Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders, who didn't get surprised by the nature of the electorate in 2016. This is just one anecdote-- early on, Bernie went to a rally. And he saw a whole bunch of people lined up outside.

And he asked his campaign manager, "Who are all these people? Is there a concert in town or something?" And-- and his campaign manager said, "No. They're here for you." And Bernie was struck by that. Because he didn't quite, I think, getting into the race, expect the spark of populism, of resentment, of "Blow up the system," of, you know, "Let's have a revolution--" that fervor-- that spread both through the Democratic Party electorate and the Republican Party electorate.

And, you know, I had been working in national security in the years leading up to the campaign. I'd been focused on what was going on over there, not back here. And I didn't fully understand or appreciate the extent to which people felt that everything, our politics, our economy, our society were broken. And that they wanted a fundamental change. Now, that became apparent to me fairly rapidly. But it was still kind of a shock to the system. And it was for everyone who-- who worked on the Hillary campaign in 2016.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

And do you think we're in the same place today? Or-- or has it evolved a bit?

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

You know, I think what's happened is that fairly broad-based, bipartisan sense that things weren't working has now been divided into two tracks. One track is the Trump track, which is really laying the blame for all of that at the feet of those other people, whether it's immigrants, or Muslims, or African--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

China.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

--Americans, or China, or it's somebody-- or Mexico. It's somebody else. And so, they look at the president and say, "He's fighting for me against those people." So, they kinda think things are working. But there still is that other track, the track that-- Trump actually appealed to some of them in 2016; Bernie appealed to a lot of them.

And, frankly, Hillary Clinton also, with-- some of her progressive economic messages, appealed to some, who feel that, fundamentally, the deck is stacked against-- working people, and that the middle class continues to be hollowed out. And I think that sense, that sentiment out there in the public, is still very much alive, and will be on display in the Democratic Primary in 2020.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Second question is I want to ask you, when did the campaign first see what the Russians were doing on social media? Was there a moment? Did the sense of that occur more slowly? Talk about that a little bit.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

It's a great question. It's not a question people ask that often. Because most folks who explore these subjects really look at the hacking as being the core thing, and say, "Oh, when'd you learn about the hacking?" and so forth. The answer on the social media is very, very late. Very late in the game.

In the closing weeks-- maybe even the closing days, did we really come to appreciate the-- interplay between sort of fake news and misinformation in an active state-sponsored effort on behalf of the Russians. It was not something that, in early September, when we were grappling with the-- the leaks and the hacks, and into October, with the Podesta files-- this was not something we were really focused on. It sort of hit us, and hit us hard, later in October-- in the waning days of the campaign as we started to realize, "Holy cow, there's something larger going on here."

              MICHAEL MORELL:

You know, my sense is that the same is true of the U.S. government-- have a really hard time getting a firm answer to that question when I-- when I ask somebody who was in the national security community at the time, you know, "When did you see it?" My sense is it was pretty late--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Yeah.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

--for them, as well. Right--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Yeah. And it's because, you know, this is the kind of thing that people-- despite warnings from some folks about the potential misuse and abuse of social media, it just wasn't built into our sense or risk and threat in the way that it should have been.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

And, therefore, a sense of what we monitor?

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Exactly.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Right?

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

And so, at the government level, I'm not a bit surprised that they were a bit late to find out. And, at the campaign level, I mean, w-- we had our eyes focused on attacks from the RNC, Donald Trump, all of the (LAUGH) typical to-ing and fro-ing of a hard-fought presidential election.

The idea that there was this whole other campaign under way-- was something that finally struck us. And, when it did, it was-- an absolute eye-opener. And-- and we didn't, even until after the election, come close to fully understanding the depth and breadth of it.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

So, looking back on it, did you see the impact on the ground of what the Russians were doing? Did you see it in polling? Was it visible?

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Now, looking back, it was somewhat visible. At the time, we didn't know what exactly was going on. I'll just give you one example. We would see, in some of our focus groups and our pollings, spikes in concern about Hillary Clinton's health-- not around the time when-- she had--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

She fell on 9/11--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

--she-- she fell and-- right, exactly. But much later, in October. And we thought, "Well, what is going on there?" And it wasn't until after the fact that we saw that one of the elements of this social media campaign was to raise questions about whether Hillary had some terrible debilitating disease and so forth.

There were other examples like that, where we could see spikes in interest about things that were being-- basically m-- made up out of thin air by the Russians and their echo chamber. But we didn't really know where it was coming from. All we could see was the--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Was the effect?

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

The effect, exactly.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Last-- last question before we move on-- your view on how President Obama handled all of this before the election. I know there were huge debates inside the administration.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

And I could only imagine at the time what was going on. Now, at the time, I was much more focused on what had happened with the DNC and what had happened with Podesta than with the social media side. But I, having served in the Obama Administration, could picture who was sitting around the table--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Me too. (LAUGH) me too--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

--and how they were debating, and which position each person was taking, and how the president was trying to weigh and consider all the different options. And, frankly, I had a great deal of sympathy for the president. Because I do believe that, if he had come out in a much more forceful way publicly-- that-- he would have ended up creating a circumstance in which Republican leaders in the House and Senate, Donald Trump, and others, would have all cried foul, would have said this is politics. And so-- I feel--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

The rigged election that Donald Trump was--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Which he had already set up--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

--was (UNINTEL), yes.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

--in the debates as his narrative in case he lost. So, while I believe that, if the president had come out and spoken much more forcefully, it might have made a difference, it might have had an impact, it is hard for me to criticize the decision he took. Because he was, to a certain extent, boxed in. And-- and-- you, of course, know about the effort to go up to The Hill to get a bipartisan statement out of the leaders of the Congress to say, "Our country's under attack." And Mitch McConnell and others refused to go along with that. And I think that sent a signal to the president that he had to tread very carefully in this area. Pa--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

But the politics were really thick here despite this being an incredibly important national security issue.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Exactly. And, since the ground had never been plowed with the American public that this could be a thing, that you could have this kind of integrated, state-sponsored interference campaign, the president would have been, indeed, plowing new ground.

And that would have made the politics even more difficult. Whereas, I think, next time around, in the future-- not with President Trump, but a future president who-- faces a similar situation, they can learn from this and-- react appropriately both publicly and behind the scenes with respect to their messages to Russia and so forth.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

All right, let's take a step to the present, Jake. I want to ask you about the political dysfunction that we're suffering from. You've been around politics for some time now. Where do you think that comes from fundamentally? And how do we get beyond it?

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Well, I think that there's a few different factors at play. I-- as I alluded to earlier when I was talking about the two different tracks or anger and resentment-- and one track being the Trump track, I do think that identity-- is a critical part of the current dysfunction in our politics. That--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Seeing yourself as a white Christian--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Right.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

--versus a Hispanic, as opposed to the traditional approach of seeing yourself as white-collar, blue-collar, or whatever (UNINTEL)--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Precisely. And, in that sense, American civic nationalism, American identity, who we are as a country, is now contested in a way that it has not been in quite some time. And it's contested on the ground that-- a great number of what I consider to be fairly dark forces-- including the president himself, including Fox News and others, are playing on people's insecurities, are telling white working-class Americans, "There are other people out there who are taking your country away from you."

And that is ripping at the fabric of commonality that has really held our country together. So, I think that that's an important part of the dysfunction. But then, there's something else happening. Which is, at the leadership level-- there are moves by senior leaders, including people like Mitch McConnell, to shred norms that have kind of held up our democratic system, our checks and balances-- have kept everything in some equipoise.

And that goes to everything from not being willing to be a check on the president, basically saying, "He's wearing the same jersey I'm wearing, so I'm gonna just affirm and approve everything he does," and it goes for saying that, "The other guys, because they wear a different jersey, necessarily, we have to fight tooth and nail to block them from getting anything."

And we saw that maybe most distinctively with-- what the-- Republican Senate leadership did with respect to Merrick Garland. My experience in Washington is that, once norms start to unravel, it is very hard to-- shall we say, "re-ravel them"? And-- so, I'm worried. I don't know what the answer is. And it's not-- this can't all be v-- I think, r-- the Republican leadership has a large portion of the blame to shoulder for this. But this will end up having--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Is there any part on the Democrats hands here in terms of the shredding--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Sure. I mean-- you'll end up being-- yeah, that'll end up being a race to the bottom because of this. That you will see-- you've seen Democrats in the past make moves with respect to the judiciary that were fundamentally partisan and political. Nothing, I think, that rises to the level of what happened to Merrick Garland. But there will be a great temptation on the part of Democrats to say, "They screwed us; we're screwing them." And that--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

"It worked for them."

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

--that cycle--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

"It worked for them; it might work for us--"

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

--can go. And, for someone like me, who believes deeply in trying to re-stitch some basic fabric of civility around our politics, especially our politics at the level of Congress, the White House, the judiciary-- we're in a hard place right now.

Because, to say, "Oh, just get along and reach across the aisle," you know, a lot of people can look at you and say, "You're just a chump. Where have you been? What have you-- you haven't been paying attention to what's happening." On the other hand, to put on battle armor and say, "We all have to go to the ramparts and just fight for our side" is not going to make our country stronger. So, we're going to have to struggle with this balance as we go forward.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

It really sounds like we're in need of an extraordinary leader. Right?

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Yeah. And a leader who breaks the mold, who's surprising. I think, almost even more than having traditional leadership qualities, it's gotta be someone who your average person looks at and doesn't just see, "Okay, that's someone cut from the cloth of a Democratic standard bearer or a Republican standard bearer.

It's gotta be someone who can bring a different voice to the process. That doesn't mean it can't be someone who hasn't been around a long time; it could be. But the message they're going to have to carry and the c-- type of campaign they're going to have to run to pull this country together--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Is--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

--will have to be different than anyone before.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

So, Jake, the reason I'm asking you about domestic politics-- is that I think it's getting in the way of the long-standing non-partisan consensus that America has-- America has a deep interest in being a leader in the world, the leader in the world. Can't tell you how many people around the country say to me, "You know, we have our own problems here. Let's not fix the world's problems when we have problems." I'm sure you hear the same thing. So, I'm wondering if you agree or not that these domestic issues are a threat to what we need to do in the world, I guess, is the first question.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

I do think they are. I think they're a threat to any kind of consensus for the U.S. to have an active engaged foreign policy in which-- we operate on behalf of our enlightened self-interest, and go out and try and solve problems before they come to our shores.

But I think it's a challenge in another way, too. Which is, because our domestic model is not working for so many people-- there are other actors and forces in the world, in China, in Russia, and elsewhere, basically saying, "That system, that open market, democratic, liberal values society, that doesn't work. Our model, the neo-authoritarian--"

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Gives them a talking point.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

"--state capitalism model works." And they are taking that case around the world. And not just in the developing world, but in the heart of Europe.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

And do you see that having impact?

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

I do think that it is having an impact. I think that there are-- a lot of voices, both within democratic societies and kind of playing into democratic societies, like the Russians did in 2016 here, essentially saying, "You know what? This whole thing with-- you know, free markets, free societies, civil liberties, do we really need this? Shouldn't we have something else going on here?"

And I think Brexit and-- some of the-- leading voices in countries like France and Italy are playing into this. And, certainly, in Hungary and Poland, you've already seen dramatic turns towards the illiberal. But I think there's one other thing going on, as well. And it didn't start with Trump; it existed before Trump.

And that is our capacity to go to other countries to advocate on behalf of what we consider to be our interests-- are reduced when our system's not working, and those countries say to us, "Well, what are you talking about?" And just to give you one example, I was with Secretary Clinton in 2011 when we went to Greece at the height of the-- the Greek debt crisis. It was at the same moment when Republican and Democratic leaders couldn't figure out how to avoid the debt ceiling here. And so, Hillary sits down with the Greek prime minister to say, "You know, we really, you know, need you guys to--"

              MICHAEL MORELL:

"To do X, Y, and Z."

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

"--do X, Y, and Z." And they looked at her, and were sorta like, "How's that working out for you--"

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Right. Yeah, "Where's your moral authority here," huh--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

And we went from Athens, from that-- later in the trip, we were in China, meeting with Dai Bingguo, the state councilor, who basically said-- taunted us, said, "Hey, you know, what's up with this whole debt-- debt ceiling thing? You know, you guys-- you guys can't get it working. You keep telling us about democracy, but democracy doesn't work." And, at a moment when fundamental values are being contested in the world, and geopolitical competition is revolving around how we think about the very idea of a good society, this is a huge problem.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

So-- so-- how do you make the case to an ordinary American that this stuff should matter to them? Right? That what's happening in the rest of the world should matter to them, given everything else going on in their lives. And why-- why it should matter to them that we take the leadership role in the world that you and I both think we need to take in order to have a stable world.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Yeah.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

How do you make that case to them?

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Look. If I had the right answer on this, if any of us had the right answer on this, we'd be (LAUGHTER) telling everyone, and we'd all-- you know, get on the same song sheet and really sell it. I think we are struggling to figure out how to take something which is abstract and longer-term and make it immediate and real for people.

And that is never an easy proposition. But my basic case kinda brings things down to first principles. Which is, what is the purpose of a foreign policy? Fundamentally, it is to defend and protect our way of life. And so, then you have to ask, "What are the real threats to our way of life?"

Well, if the global financial crisis had turned the Great Recession into the Great Depression, boy, that would have had a real-- would have been a real assault on our way of life. If we had not stopped the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, and it had spread across Europe and to the United States, man, that would have had an impact.

What about the irreversible planetary harm of climate change? What about the possibility of large-scale cyber attacks? If you sit down and actually walk through a set of genuine, bona fide threats with people, and then ask the question, "How do we deal with those things? How do you actually stop Ebola from spreading across the world? Keep a financial crisis from turning into a Great Depression? Reverse, or at least try to reduce the impacts of climate change?" the answer is the United States needs to build a coalition of countries that are prepared to tackle those things.

And that requires that we're out there, in the world, leading the response so that American crops and American cities aren't destroyed by climate change, so that American jobs aren't lost to a global financial crisis, and so on. When you actually sit down with people, as I did on the campaign trail across the country, and have the chance to really play all that out, people start saying, "Yeah, that completely makes sense to me. I'd buy that."

But then, they have a question. Which is, "You guys have been saying a version of this for the last 30, 40 years; and, yet, my life hasn't been getting better. So, why should I keep trusting you?" And, for that, I think we have to ask ourselves, "Have we made some basic mistakes around the level of priority we've placed on the wellbeing-- the economic wellbeing of our people in our foreign policy--"

              MICHAEL MORELL:

You know, one of those things I've seen on college campuses is a growing belief, sense, at least questions about the U.S. role in the world historically. And how positive has it really been?

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Yeah.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

And I-- you know, I-- I have that conversation with the kids. But it-- it's-- it's-- I see it more and more and more.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Yeah.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Right? Where it's not-- the story's not as positive as-- as I think it is, or as, certainly, I was taught.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Yeah. And-- and part of that-- I teach-- on a college campus. And I encounter this every day. And part of the reason is because the kids who are in college or law school-- or graduate school today, most of them were in elementary and middle school in the 2000s. So, they came of age with Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, with the war in Iraq, and Snowden, in terms of what their sense of the role of the United States in the world is.

And all of the many other things the U.S. did, from PEPFAR to Paris climate agreement, and so forth, didn't quite penetrate the consciousness the way that some of those bigger, more controversial headline issues did. So, that's the--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Right. We're-- we're thinking about World War II--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Right.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

--and winning the Cold War and--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Right. Exactly. And they're not--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

--for them, that's ancient history. The more recent history of the United States for them is much more challenging. And so, then they use that as the prism to look back at the decades of the Cold War. And are much more likely to cast a bit of a gimlet eye on, you know, "What-- what is a checkered record?"

And the case that I make to my students is that what actually makes the United States a different country, a unique country distinct from other great powers in centuries past is we do have the capacity to learn from our mistakes and to do better. And, you know, one example I give is, if you look at the history--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Because we're a democracy?

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Because we're a democracy--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Because we're--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

--and because there's something about the American project uniquely, going back to our constitution, which is a constitution that foresaw amendment and improvement and overcoming some of the sins of our past. And that has been the story of America. And President Obama spoke about that quite eloquently in a speech he gave on American exceptionalism in Selma.

And, you know, I-- I think young people are open to that argument as long as those of us who come from a more traditional view about America as a force for good in the world are willing to meet them on their terms by saying, "Has the United States made mistakes in its foreign policy through every president, Democrat and pub-- Republican? Yes.

"Do we need to even make adjustments from the last eight years, let alone what Trump is doing today? Yes. Okay. Now, let's have a conversation about that." But it is a little worrying to me, that-- that the sense of the United States as having aspiration and purpose and drive and thrust in the world is being lost a little bit.

And not just among young people. Because older people are being convinced by Trump's argument, which is, "The U.S. has basically been played for a sucker. And we've shouldered all the burn-- the burdens, and other people have gotten all the benefits." And, when you put those two things together, the Trump argument to some older generations and young people who don't buy that from Trump, having a different objection to American foreign policy--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

A little bit more sophisticated, actually--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

--you know-- yeah, it's-- it's hard--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah, I mean--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

It's-- it creates a t-- it creates some challenges--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Okay, great-- great transition. So, let's-- let's switch to President Trump and his foreign policy. We're almost two years into his term. How would you assess his and his administration's-- and I make a distinction there-- his and his administration's approach to the world? What have they done right? What have they got wrong? What overall grade would you give them? How do you think about that?

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

You know, it's a little bit hard to grade them on a traditional curve. Because Donald Trump has basically come in and said, "Everything about the core tenets of American foreign policy no longer really apply. I'm going to do things totally differently." So, in a way, it's like he's-- he didn't even-- participate in the class. He just blew it all up. For him, allies are a net liability, not an asset. For him-- American values are not even a luxury; they're an irrelevance.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Hindrance?

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

A hindrance. So that he's much more likely to feel positive towards a dictator or a corrupt autocrat than he is towards-- a fellow democrat-- small "d" democrat. For him, the idea of multilateral cooperation is just an opportunity for the United States to get taken for a ride.

So, he has unwound all of our efforts to rally the world to solve big problems, whether it's the Iran nuclear program or the Paris-- climate agreement. He has thumbed his nose at our friends. He has coddled our adversaries. And so, from my perspective-- he's missed the thing that has really distinguished the United States, which is this idea that we can be better, safer, and stronger when others are better, safer, and stronger. Because, for him, this is a purely zero-sum calculus, and a dog-eat-dog world's a good thing as long as we're the biggest dog. I think this is fundamentally dangerous--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

And that was an absolutely key principle that we took out of World War II.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Correct.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

And established and-- and built and-- and-- and fed and grew.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Through, you know, taking Germany and Japan, vanquished foes, and helping rebuild them. Or, you know, something you worked on over the course of your career in the U.S.-China relationship. We helped create the conditions of stability and security in East Asia that allowed China to have this remarkable economic rise.

So that it's rising, in a way, is not the failure of American foreign policy; it's the success of creating those stable conditions. And Trump, I think, basically says to all that, "It's nonsense." Now, on the other hand-- I would say there are certain areas where we should pause and say-- "Is Trump onto something?"

He is much more willing-- to push hard in the way that the Chinese and the Russians both push hard on friends and foes alike to try to get to a good outcome. The problem is that it's not actually directed towards anything particularly useful. But I do think--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

In-- in-- in some cases, the motive is the right motive.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Right. And-- and the concept that the U.S. has more leverage to bring to bear to produce outcomes.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

It's how it's done. It is a little--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Right.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

--a little rough around the edges--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Exactly. Exactly.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

So, China-- Chinese economic practices, Chinese coercive economic practices would be one of those, in your view?

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Right, exactly. That-- that Trump is looking at that and saying, "You know what? This has been going on for too long." And President Obama complained about it, too. And President Bush did, as well. "And I'm gonna do something about it." Now, the way he does something about is-- is, I think, completely flawed and faulty.

But the idea that you don't just say, "Well, we'll nibble around the edges. Or we'll grin and bear it." "We're going to actually do something here." I think that's a sensibility, a sentiment that the next commander-in-chief should take up. But combine it with a combination of enlightened self-interest and an actual systematic decision-making process that--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

And some-- and some nuance diplomacy.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Yeah, exactly.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

That reminds me, Jake, you-- you sounded the alarm bell when-- John Bolton was named national security advisor. I think you call him-- you called him ill-suited for the job. How do you think he's doing? Has your view changed? You know, sometimes people, when they get into a job, surprise you. How do you think about that?

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

You know, I-- I don't have enough of a view as to what is happening on the inside. But two things that I didn't completely factor in-- when I was analyzing his appointment were, first, the degree to which Trump himself was going to seize the reins of-- of foreign policy, and basically say, "I'm tired of listening to all these advisors. I'm doing my thing."

And we saw that prominently on North Korea, where he essentially said, "I don't want to brook any criticism from you, Bolton, or anyone else on my course of action." We've seen it with respect to the trade issues. So, I actually think Bolton has not been able to have the impact on foreign policy that he might have been able to have in the first year of a Trump Administration, when Trump was more willing to listen to people around him. That's one thing I didn't totally factor in.

And the second thing is that, as much as I believe that, if John Bolton's substantive ideas about American foreign policy were put into practice, it would put our country in danger, I underestimated to a certain extent how much of a canny bureaucratic operator he is, as well.

He's got a career in government. He knows how to maneuver. He knows how to keep principles happy. And I think he's gone into this job and thought, "Okay, I diverge from the president in some big ways on some big issues. I'm not going to test the limits right now. I'm going to try and settle into the job." So, the jury's still out on how this all will play. But those are two things I didn't fully factor in in the story--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

In some ways, he's the-- he and the president are ideological opposites, right? And the president and at heart, is an isolationist. And John's an aggressive interventionist, right--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Yeah.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

And I think that will-- my view is that will affect their relationship at some point.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

And that's why I think Bolton has been sort of careful to not call the question on the divisions between their world views. But sorta, you know, go along, maneuver as we go. But one area that this-- the chickens will ultimately come home to roost is North Korea. At some point along the way, you have to think--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Well, that's-- that's another great transition. So, let's go into some specific issues and on North Korea. We'll start with North Korea. What's your expectation for how this gets played out? We've started a process here.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Yeah.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Right? Oddly, but we've started a process.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Yeah.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

How do you think this plays out?

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

You know, it's interesting. I wrote a piece in The Washington Post shortly after this summit was initially announced, where I said what I expected Trump would do is go have some piece of paper that announced some big bargain-- between the United States and North Korea, tout it as a great success, and then not really pay that much attention to what comes next. Kinda just let the process run indefinitely. I think that's more or less what's happened so far.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Without the piece of paper?

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Well, you have the Singapore Declaration, right, that-- Trump held up and said--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Yes, yes, yes--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

--even though, on its own terms, it was weaker than previous commitments that North Korea had made to the Bush Administration or the Clinton Administration, he came out and said, "I have this piece of paper which has solved the North Korea nuclear issue." In fact, he went so far as to say thatNorth Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat to the United States.

So, I think, from his perspective, it's fine to just have this bump-along now. Because he's had the big summit. He's gotten some w-- extracted some words, even if they're very weak words, from North Korea. And I think, at least for the time being, it's in his interest to downplay any sense that this thing has gone off the rails.

The big danger for American foreign policy in all of this, though, is that, in the current posture, North Korea is sitting pretty. Because they now no longer feel the pressure they were feeling before.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

For which the Trump Administration deserves some credit.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

There's now holes in the sanctions.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Holes because why would the rest of the world hop to an American-led maximum pressure campaign when the Americans are saying, "Hey, we're good friends with the North Koreans now"? So, the Chinese, the Russians, and others--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Even the South Koreans.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

--are unlikely to. And then, there's the South Korea factor. Because, essentially, what Trump has said to-- President Moon-- not in so many words-- is, "I'm not going to stand in the way of your effort." And Moon really wants to drive towards rapprochement and normalization with the north.

So, Kim Jong-un still has his nuclear arsenal, has the South Koreans coming to him seeking-- a better relationship, has the Chinese and the Russians now not aligned with Washington, but seeing how they can play this to their advantage vis-à-vis Washington. And so, it's been all upside for Kim Jong-un. And I don't see how we disrupt that dynamic as long as Trump is continuing to essentially claim his brilliant presidential diplomacy has solved the North Korean nuclear issue.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Same question on Iran. You were deeply involved in the Iran negotiations. I know you're a strong opponent of the president withdrawing us from the deal. Where do you think this goes from here?

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Look-- this is one where, unlike on North Korea, where they're, you know, sort of struggling to figure out a way forward, they have a very clear sense of what they want to accomplish with respect to Iran. And it is ratchet up the pressure, not just to a ten, but to an 11, 12, or 13. They use the phrase, "financial or economic warfare against Iran." And I think their first goal would be to actually bring down the government-- and see-- see what happens next--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

(UNINTEL) policy is regime change?

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Well, I don't think the stated policy of -- is regime change. I think the stated policy is pressure for pressure's sake. And then, you ask, "Well, what are the potential outcomes of pressure for pressure's sake?" Well, it would be great if the government fell. But, even if the government doesn't fall, at least Iran will be weakened and have some of its--its claws or its-- its wings clipped.

But, even if that doesn't happen, well, at least-- we're not-- continuing a policy that the Trump Administration believed was providing some kind of credibility or-- authenticity to the Iranian regime. So, for them, the actual outcome is a little bit less important than to be seen to be just cranking the pressure as much as they humanly possibly can. And--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Do you think the Iranians come back to the negotiating table?

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

I think it's going to be very difficult for President Rouhani to authorize a negotiation with the Trump Administration right now-- on the basis of what Pompeo has laid down as the lines that we're insisting on. Which is essentially as maximalist as you can possibly get.

That being said, I do think, at some point, there will probably be some back channel discussions between the United States and Iran. And the real question is, after Mike Pompeo went out publicly and said, "We will only accept a deal with these 12 elements," and it's worth your listeners going and looking at those 12 elements, because what they essentially add up to is surrender by the Iranians.

The real question is, will the United States back off of that, and say, "Actually, we're prepared to do an Iran deal round two, that might look similar to/slightly different from Iran deal round one." I just don't know if Bolton, Pompeo, and others in the Trump Administration are willing to do that. So, my guess is there'll be some discussions between U.S. and Iran, but you will see no progress between now and 2020, because each side is gonna wait the other side out.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Maybe the-- the-- the most important question-- maybe the most important national security challenge we face-- China. I think the relationship between Beijing and Washington is probably the most important bilateral tie for how the world's going to look over the next 25 to 50 years. How would you assess the China issue-- quotes around that, "the China issue"? And what should our strategic approach be to dealing with it?

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

You know, it's interesting. One thing that has really struck me about the policy conversation in Washington over the last year or two around China is how dramatically the center of gravity has shifted. So, when I came into the Obama Administration, in 2009, the kind of consensus among China watchers was still this idea that we had-- should seek to encourage Beijing to be a responsible stakeholder, a phrase that-- that Bob Zoellick, a Bush appointee used-- first in 2005.

And that idea that somehow we could work in a cooperative constructive way with China and Beijing to produce coexistence over time was pretty much I wouldn't say the absolute consensus, but was the main line of reasoning of China hands. In short order, we have shifted from coming--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

From-- it's-- it's fascinating how dramatically it has changed--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Yeah. Exactly. And how quickly. And how-- it didn't kinda stop halfway in the middle. It went from like coexistence all the way across to competition, you know. And-- and robust, vigorous, you know, pretty intense competition, at that.

And I'm a little nervous that maybe it's we pushed it too far, in a way. I have always been someone who believes that we have to take a firm line with the Chinese-- in areas in which they have-- are acting aggressively, or they're flouting basic international norms, like the wholesale theft of U.S. intellectual property.

And I do believe that China, under Xi Jinping, does believe that it should be advancing a neo-authoritarian model for the rest of the world, not just for itself. And he said as much. But I also think that we are going to have to work with this country on some of the biggest challenges that we face. And we've got to find a way to manage this in a mature, predictable, stable way, so that we don't end up with the self-fulfilling prophecy that intense competition turns into confrontation, potentially turns into conflict.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

There's no doubt, right, that our shift to a competitive view of this relationship affects how they think about, as well, right--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Right. And then--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

So, it reinforces--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

And then, a cycle--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

It self-reinforces.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

And then, it comes back to us. Exactly. And so, I-- I don't want to-- come in sounding like, you know, "Let's just go back to the responsible stakeholder model." That's not going to work. We're in a different mode. China's in a different mode. And-- and we have to stand up and fight and compete. I fully accept that. But I think we do also, at the same time, not have to throw the baby out with the bath water as we make adjustments to our policy--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Isn't the fundamental deal, at the end of the day with Beijing-- and I don't know if it's possible anymore-- I-- I once thought it was the fundamental deal being, "We will-- we, the United States, will give you more room in the world to exert influence, because you are a rising power, if you play by the rules of the international order." That's the basic deal to be had.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

So, what the-- this is, I think, why the consensus has shifted so swiftly and so dramatically, is that a great number of China hands, Republicans and Democrats alike, have basically concluded the Chinese will never accept that deal.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Hmm.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Therefore, time to head into competition mode. I ha-- I happen to believe that we're not going to get exactly that deal. Because the Chinese view the current system, even with adjustments to give them more voice, as a threat to their own system. But I would argue that you-- we should think about an alternative framework for the relationship between the U.S. and China, and for China having to participate and play by a certain set of rules, that it does not simply take off the table the idea of an international order, and just get down to competition. Which is where I th-- I worry that--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

We're heading --

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

--the extreme lines are heading.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

If your former boss, Joe Biden, were to run for President in 2020, would that be enough to lure you back to Washington and back into the political game? (LAUGHTER) Oh, I know that's the farthest thing from your mind at the moment--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Getting-- getting back into the political game right at the moment is-- is not particularly appealing. But I tell-- I will tell you what-- Joe Biden not only is an incredible national treasure-- but he has, I think, all of the attributes to basically expose everything that is wrong with the current president and to show this country a way forward that will pull people together. So-- I have the greatest respect for him.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

You saw it in his eulogy of-- of-- Senator McCain--

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Exactly. And-- and you've seen it in the way that he's conducted himself over the last two years. And he's somebody who's been around Washington a very long time; but, in a way, has never really been of Washington. Because he's never really gotten too far from where his roots were. And-- you know, as for my own participation in politics, I'm the-- the only silver lining in the dark, dark cloud of the Trump presidency is that I get to be at least semi-retired for a while.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Okay. Jake, thanks so much for your time. It's been great having you on the show.

              JAKE SULLIVAN:

Thanks for having me.

              * * *END OF TRANSCRIPT* * *

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