Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s appointment as a special counsel to investigate Russia’s role in the 2016 election as a sign of the strength of U.S. institutions.
Rice took the stage at the Kansas City Public Library for a discussion with library director Crosby Kemper III a little more than an hour after the U.S. Department of Justice announced that Mueller, who served with Rice in President George W. Bush’s administration, would lead an independent investigation into links between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Kemper informed the crowd of the news Wednesday, sparking raucous applause, and pressed Rice on her thoughts.
“I think what we’re seeing is we have a troubling development, which is that the Russians interfered in our election. This is a hostile act by an adversarial power, and we need to get to the bottom of it,” she said.
Rice praised Mueller as a man of integrity and noted that he “had the extraordinary task” of becoming FBI director a week before the Sept. 11 attacks.
“If you can imagine becoming the FBI director, and all of a sudden not only is the country attacked for the first time since the War of 1812, but now the FBI, which has always been in charge of internal security, has to link up with those who are worried about external security,” said Rice, who served as national security adviser at the time. “I remember sitting in the Oval Office with Bob Mueller … just going over every threat.”
The broad-ranging discussion, which coincides with the release of Rice’s new book, “Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom,” covered topics from Rice’s life as African-American child in segregationist Alabama to her service as White House Soviet specialist at the end of the Cold War.
Much of the discussion centered on the threat that Russia now poses to Western democracies.
Rice recalled meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in 1992 when the former KGB officer was serving as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg and being struck by his “pale blue eyes” and shy demeanor.
She said that both the Clinton and Bush administrations were optimistic about the prospect that Russia could successfully transition into a liberal democracy, but that Putin has built his power by using a narrative that the U.S. took advantage and humiliated Russia at the end of the Cold War.
She contrasted Russia with China, a country whose leaders have built their legitimacy on the prosperity that results from international trade.
“The Russians are essentially a negative force in the international system because they don’t have anything positive to give it,” Rice said. “Russia’s influence is mostly around its ability to dominate. … China is not the disruptive power that Russia is.”
Without naming Trump, Rice appeared to take aim at his ideology. She called nativism, isolationism, protectionism and populism — all words that have been used to describe Trump’s campaign promises — her “four horsemen of the apocalypse.”
Rice said that nativists and populists play on fears of the other.
“We can decry that, or we can try to do something about it,” she said. “And I think in the United States, our democracy has worked best when we recognize that we don’t actually have an identity that is built around nationality, or religion or ethnicity. Our identity is about an idea … and when that’s true, we do very, very well.”
Rice said that U.S. democracy was born with a birth defect, referring to slavery, but also said that the founders left a framework that allowed questions on slavery and women’s rights to be answered generations later.
“I grew up in a way of being assertive of my belonging of where I was,” Rice said when asked about her success in the male-dominated field of politics.
Rice said she grew up with parents who believed that she could become president of the United States, but were still pretty happy with secretary of state.
She said she encourages her students at Stanford University to seek out mentors who don’t necessarily look like them, noting that few African-American women were experts on Soviet politics when she began her study of the subject but that she was able to reach the top of the field.