CNN's Sciutto set for conversation series
Over nearly 30 years of work, Jim Sciutto has developed an incredible wealth of information and experience regarding America's foreign policies.
On Wednesday, CNN's chief national security correspondent will share some of that with readers of The Berkshire Eagle.
Sciutto, whose new book "The Madman Theory: Trump Takes On the World" was released on Tuesday, will join Politico's Daniel Lippman for the next event in The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute's online conversation series, hosted by The Eagle's Executive Editor Kevin Moran.
"First of all, I wish it was face-to-face. It's such a bummer, 2020 is one, endless Zoom call," Sciutto said when reached by phone a week in advance. "With my book last year, one of my favorite things was interacting face-to-face. But, this will still give the opportunity to interact and take questions from people who you hope will read the book."
The conversation at 7 p.m. Wednesday is free on Zoom to the public, but registration is required at BerkshireOLLI.org.
Sciutto's new release draws lines from President Richard Nixon's employment of what Nixon coined "The Madman Theory" during the Vietnam War, to how current President Donald Trump has approached foreign policy over the last four years. Coming hot on the heels of his last book in 2019, Sciutto said he wanted to tell the story of Trump's "America First" ideology and how it has fared.
"I wanted to do it, but I wanted to do it well. So the thing I did first was reach out to folks at the administration to see if they would be willing to talk to me about this, and on the record. I wanted to have people on the inside, at the senior level, because I didn't want this to be a blind quotes book," he said. "I approached it as a journalist and with an open mind. I went in saying I was going to listen to the folks who work with him to make the case. Where has it worked? Where has it failed? I tried to lay it out that way."
Sciutto has a unique perspective from which to draw on, along with the Rolodex that comes with having been in the game for so long. He served as chief of staff and senior advisor to the U.S. Ambassador to China under President Barack Obama, and has reported from Iran, Myanmar, Iraq, Russia and more. It was during five years living in Hong Kong, though, where he says he witnessed an area Trump's methodology of standing up to a foreign power was sorely needed.
Sciutto set out tell the story down the middle, but early on realized the correlation to that old Nixon tactic.
"The first question I asked everybody was, 'Describe to me [Trump's] strategy.' One consistent thing was just the description of him as an unpredictable president. He would make decisions on the fly, he wanted to shake things up and do it his way, sometimes overruling the advisors, at times overruling the intelligence or the facts," said Sciutto. "And remarkably, some folks saw that as wisdom and some folks saw it as folly. They're basically owning the Mad Man Theory, hearkening back to Nixon. The classic Trump phenomenon is that for some it's brilliance and for some it's deeply damaging."
He wanted first-hand witnesses, facts from people who have been in the room with Trump where decisions are made. Quotes in the book come from a veritable who's who of folks from in and around the administration, including Fiona Hill, Steve Bannon, Peter Navarro and H.R. McMaster.
"Susan Gordon briefed him repeatedly on intelligence and could describe his reactions," Sciutto said. "Joseph Yun was directly involved in the negotiations with North Korea. Mick Mulroy was in the room for the decisions on Syria withdrawal and Iran, etc."
During those countless interviews, a consistent theme emerged of unpredictability from the president.
"That kind of unpredictability, it wasn't, most of the time, attached to a broader strategy that even his own team could follow," said Sciutto. "He dismissed and destroyed the whole national security policy-making process in this country. He's denigrated institutions, the individuals, the intelligence. 'I know better than you,' that's the way he operated."
Sciutto had the manuscript in by mid-January, and then COVID-19 appeared. While the pandemic has stripped him of in-person book signings and talks, it did provide the landscape with which to revisit some of his sources to see if the through line carried on.
"Across the board, they felt that it did," he said. "It also helped me, because it put into a finer focus a lot of the aspects of this approach. The principles of 'America First,' minimize the crisis, politicize it, marginalize or even demonize the experts: 'I know better than the doctors.' The hyper-personalization of the pandemic is a perfect crystallization of that mad man sort of approach. Americans might be able to hold Syria or Ukraine at an arm's length, but a pandemic comes right up onto your doorstep. Everybody is getting a direct and personal experience of the mad man theory now."
Mike Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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