Talking Trump and Tennis With Susan Rice

Susan Rice. Photo: Brian Finke/New York Magazine

“It was kind of a week of WTF,” says Susan Rice. “Or two. Because it’s something made up out of whole cloth.” Rice is sitting in her office on the American University campus in the leafy neighborhood about four and a half miles northwest of the building — the White House — where, until five months ago, she worked as national-security adviser. She’s talking about the moment President Trump suggested to the New York Times she was a criminal for seeking the names of Trump-transition officials who’d come up in surveillance of foreign agents. The room is filled with Star Wars posters and figurines; Rice, a distinguished visiting research fellow in the School of International Service, quickly notes that they belong to a male colleague on sabbatical and that this was the best available corner office (still none too large). Rice, dressed Friday academic-casual in a white blouse and skirt, will be getting her own digs by August.

Before the Trump onslaught in April, which brought with it a barrage of incoming fire from the right-wing media (Rice’s action was proof that the Obama administration “weaponized” intel to destroy its foes, howled Rush Limbaugh), she had been relaxing: vacationing in the Maldives for two and a half weeks, playing lots of tennis, doing some writing and speaking, and “trying to be as present as I can for my kids, my husband, my friends, all the people who put up with me for all those years that I was torn in multiple directions.” (Her son is a rising sophomore at Stanford, and her daughter will start ninth grade this fall.) After four years of the enormous pressure of waking up every morning to top-secret security intel and spending 45 minutes briefing the president every day he was in Washington, a rest was feeling great.

Then, in early April, the story broke, first from Trumpophile writer–troll artist Mike Cernovich, then in a Bloomberg piece, and then everywhere, saying she had asked the intelligence community for the blacked-out names of American citizens appearing in intelligence reports — the now infamous “unmasking.” It was widely assumed that it was a leak from inside the Trump administration aimed at deflecting attention from Russia, and for a few days it did just that, especially after the president told the Times: “I think the Susan Rice thing is a massive story. I think it’s a massive story.
All over the world.”

Rice tells me she doesn’t want to “get into the sausage-making” of how she planned her response, but it was surgically done: She gave one interview, to Andrea Mitchell, saying, “I leaked nothing, to nobody, and never have and never would”; intelligence-community professionals from both parties stepped forward to confirm that what Rice had done was neither wrong nor extraordinary. But Rice had been a particular focus of the right ever since that Sunday after the Benghazi-consulate attack in September 2012 when she stuck to the script of the later-disproved CIA talking points, and it’s been after her ever since.

I ask Rice why she thinks she became a target. She laughs, sort of. “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. What do you think?”

I mention Benghazi, the moment when much of the right’s base became aware of Rice’s existence. “Does it start there?” she asks. She is not a person given to agitation, but here, Rice’s focus sharpens — she looks at me more directly, with heightened intensity. “And why me? Why not Jay Carney, for example, who was then our press secretary, who stood up more?”

Carney isn’t an African-American woman, of course. Does Rice credit that for the disproportionate amount of scrutiny she’s gotten? “I don’t know,” she replies. “I’m not being a smartass when I say I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I’m trying to understand it better,” she says. “All that stuff happened while I was a sitting public servant. I perhaps mistakenly assumed that once I was no longer a sitting public servant, and a private citizen minding my own business and trying to go to my daughter’s soccer games with more regularity, that I would not be of interest to these folks. Um … Silly me. So this has prompted me to really try to get underneath that question.”

She mentions that other women in public life of all races have come in for some pretty rough treatment. Hillary. Condoleezza Rice. The other Rice, says this Rice, “took a lot of stuff. Not, frankly, I don’t think, to the same extent I have, but that was ad hominem.” I point out that she has a reputation for being tough, and a strong-willed woman who seems sure of herself makes a certain kind of man nervous.

“Let me just put it this way,” she says. “I do not leap to the simple explanation that it’s only about race and gender. I’m trying to keep my theories to myself until I’m ready to come out with them. It’s not because I don’t have any.”

Rice lay low for a while after that early-April dust-up but in more recent weeks delivered a speech on America’s global responsibilities at a Center for American Progress gathering and wrote a Times op-ed on the same theme. She has also become active on Twitter in the past few months and hasn’t been shy about critiquing the Trump administration there: for going around the NSA to change a NATO speech, for not understanding the finer points of North Korea’s relationship with the Philippines, for throwing away “our leadership mantel.” The things she tells me she’s proudest of — Paris, Cuba, and, most of all, the Iran nuclear deal — are things that Trump has either already chucked or given every indication of wanting to chuck. At the very moment we are talking in her temporary office, Trump is elsewhere giving a speech walking back Obama’s Cuba policy. She shakes her head at the thought. On the U.S. getting out of the Paris accords: “It’s a huge shame for no reason that I can decipher the current administration has pulled the United States out of that,” she says. “They could have adjusted their nationally determined targets without pulling out of Paris and isolating the United States.”

Rice says, delicately, that she thinks there may come a day when “other branches of government have a compensatory role to play,” but so far, this Congress hasn’t exactly been aggressive in its oversight of Trump. “I hope that will change,” she says. “First of all, I hope the president finds the wherewithal to lead in the fashion that we all hope and expect our president to do. Whether you disagree with him or agree, for the vast span of our history, we’ve been able to count on that. I want, for the sake of the country, for the president to steady his leadership, or whatever you want to call it. Because it’s too risky if he doesn’t.”

*This article appears in the June 26, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Talking Trump and Tennis With Susan Rice