In a wide-ranging interview in Minneapolis on Friday, former Obama administration Chief of Staff Denis McDonough delivered a pointed critique of President Trump, expressed grave concerns about North Korea, and offered some blunt advice for current White House staffers.
The interview was part of MinnPost’s 10th-anniversary celebration, during which McDonough discussed everything from football to foreign policy in front of a capacity crowd at the Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis.
The day before the interview, President Donald Trump had announced that his administration would end the subsidies paid to health insurers that currently allow millions of lower-income Americans to afford coverage under the Affordable Care Act, a decision that was paired with an executive order by Trump allowing alternative health plans to skirt the law’s requirements. Taken together, the developments were seen as another attempt by Trump to undermine the viability of the ACA, the Obama administration’s signature domestic policy.
“The fact that people who had become covered as a result of a nonpartisan idea are now at risk of losing their coverage — I find that an outrage,” McDonough said. “I don’t think this is a question about the president’s legacy. I don’t think this is a question of tit for tat, who is up and who’s down. … This is going to fundamentally hurt American people. We used to have a government that defended American people from such things. So I’m outraged.”
McDonough, who was interviewed by MinnPost editor Andy Putz at the event, also took issue with the current administration’s actions regarding the nuclear agreement with Iran, which Trump refused to certify on Friday — an agreement McDonough said “is working and it’s serving our national interests.”
“The president seems to continue to believe that some of these things are debating matters or public relations questions. … I think that’s a mistake,” he said. “This isn’t a question for the president to figure out how to volley it [back] to Congress. This is a question for the president to continue to lead.”
When asked what kind of advice he’d give the current White House staff, McDonough offered a bit of tough love: “What I’d say is, ‘You know you guys run the most powerful building in the world; stop pretending like you’re somebody’s victim.’ ”
McDonough, who served as Obama’s deputy national security adviser before becoming chief of staff, touched on several foreign policy issues, including North Korea and the Obama administration’s response to Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
When asked what international issue concerned him most, he had a quick answer: North Korea. “I think there is a role for steady, reserved American leadership here, to make sure that we’re not giving any reasons for escalation from any of the parties now,” he said. “Ultimately, it looks to me like the North Koreans want to try to deal with the Americans. … There’s definitely a role for China to play, but that does not replace the American role.”
McDonough defended the Obama administration’s actions regarding Russia, saying that the Obama White House was concerned about upholding the integrity of the elections and making sure that Russia’s actions were exposed to the wider world. “Not only did we name the Russians in a public way but it also put the rest of the world on notice that this may happen there,” he said. “So I think we played an important role in forewarning other democracies … about what to worry about. We then took a series of very concrete steps, including the imposition of not only diplomatic sanctions but also economic sanctions, that have continued to have a pretty significant impact on the Russian economy.”
But McDonough also said the episode also revealed the downside to the disruption of the media industry over the last 15 years, “why it’s so important that as educators, as leaders, as parents, as neighbors, that we be more discerning in what we consume,” he said. “The world’s biggest intelligence agencies are trying to influence us, including influence us in how we vote. And they’re using all available means to do that.”
McDonough talked about how his upbringing and education in Stillwater and at St. John’s University affected his career. He described a household steeped in conversations about public affairs, how his family — he’s one of 11 kids — regularly engaged in dinner-table discussions about what was happening in the world, an ethos that was further cultivated at St. John’s. “They send you out there with the belief that not only is it an interesting place that you should go to check out,” he said, “but that you also have something to give.”
McDonough, who now works for the Markle Foundation and teaches a class at the University of Notre Dame’s Keogh School of Global Affairs, said that he has no interest in ever running for office, but that he would like to become involved in the plight of refugees worldwide at some point in the future. “There’s 62 million people right now … who are not in their homes. They want to be in their homes, but they’re not allowed to be in their homes. And so my next dream is to get more active in that fight.”