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'The Last Politician' author shares stories behind Biden's successes and failures

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When Franklin Foer started his book about the first two years of the Biden administration, he says he shared the Washington establishment's skepticism of the man and thought Biden dangerously fetishized bipartisanship. But Foer goes on to say, with a slight cooling of the political climate, bipartisan-minded senators passed a raft of legislation confirming Biden's instincts that creaky institutions could be rendered functional.

Now, coinciding with the publication of the book, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has launched an impeachment inquiry into whether Biden helped his son Hunter profit in foreign business dealings and if President Biden himself profited from those dealings, too. Investigations have revealed no evidence that this is true. The White House called the action extreme politics at its worst. We're going to talk about the attempt to impeach Biden, the stories behind his biggest successes and failures and the debate over whether he's too old to run for a second term. Foer's new book is called "The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden's White House And The Struggle For America's Future." Foer is a staff writer at The Atlantic. During the administration of the twice-impeached President Trump, Foer investigated connections between Trump, his presidential campaign and Russia and wrote about the Mueller investigation. We recorded this interview yesterday.

Franklin Foer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on your new book. So you say that, you know, Biden, when he became president, he set out to prove that politics was the way out of this political mess that we've been in. That through coalition building and deal-making, he could find a way out. And he did manage to pass some, you know, pretty heavy-duty legislation. But now, Congressman McCarthy, the speaker of the House, has opened an impeachment inquiry into Biden. So you have sources inside the Biden administration. What is the reaction inside, and what do they plan to - how do they plan to handle this?

FRANKLIN FOER: Well, this is a blatantly political act. And impeachment has become this normalized part of American politics at this stage. It's a cycle that's repeated fairly endlessly. One of the things that Republicans have struggled to do with Joe Biden during the last campaign and during the first couple years of his administration was to slap him with some sort of tag that stuck. They failed to define him in the negative sort of way that they're usually quite good at doing to their political opponents. And so, belatedly, you know, in anticipation of this campaign, they've launched this two-pronged attack on Joe Biden.

One prong is to portray him as Sleepy Joe, this character who is hardly compos mentis who is dancing on the strings of some puppet masters, apparently. And then the second prong of attack is to portray him as corrupt because of his association - I mean, it's more than an association - because of his son, Hunter Biden, and his business dealings. And this is an important line of attack for the Republicans because it plays into the sort of populism that Donald Trump has always tried to cultivate around himself, the sense that his enemies are corrupt members of the swamp. And of course, it's also its own form of what about-ism. That by depicting Hunter Biden in this sort of way and depicting Joe Biden in this sort of way, it blunts all of the indictments, all of these things that are hanging over Donald Trump. Never mind that there are 90-some-odd counts against him versus this one thing where there's not even hard evidence attaching to the president of the United States. But this is now the political battle that Joe Biden confronts.

GROSS: Do you know anything about how the White House plans to deal with this impeachment inquiry?

FOER: You know, my sense is that there is this hope that Republicans will go through the same cycle that they went through with the Bill Clinton impeachment and with a lot of the attacks against Barack Obama that even Kevin McCarthy seems to sense this, that they're opening up a Pandora's box here, and that if they let things go, there is going to be this overreach and independent voters in the middle will backlash against it.

GROSS: All right. So apparently, according to The New York Times, Trump has been talking to the Freedom Caucus about impeachment and to Marjorie Taylor Greene, who had already introduced articles of impeachment in Congress. Do you see this as trying to overthrow the election by other means? Because Trump was active in trying to change the results of the election, and he's been indicted for conspiracy for trying to do that. So do you think - see this as another way of trying to do the same thing?

FOER: I think it's a bit late in the day to even mess around with those sorts of plays, given how close we are to the next election. And also, the Senate is never going to convict Joe Biden on any of this stuff. It's hard to imagine that they can even get this through the House without imperiling blue state Republicans. So I think this is more a political ploy than something that's tethered to all those other nefarious attempts to overthrow democracy.

GROSS: So you're saying Republicans don't really believe that Biden will be impeached?

FOER: Yeah. I think they're kind of - they're going through the motions in order to build a message headed into the 2024 election.

GROSS: Meanwhile, government shutdown is on the line if the budget deal isn't passed, I think, by the end of the month. What do you think the impeachment process means for the budget deal's chances?

FOER: Well, it's pretty clear that these two processes are interconnected, that Kevin McCarthy would prefer to avoid a government shutdown because he knows that his party will get blamed for that. And in order to placate the Freedom Caucus and the Matt Gaetzes and the Marjorie Taylor Greenes in his party, he's assented to go forward with impeachment, even though I think he could probably see some of the political perils there, as well.

GROSS: Joe Biden will be 81 in November. Do you think a lot of Democrats believe he's too old to serve a second term but are afraid to say so? Because he doesn't have any serious challengers within the Democratic Party right now, for whatever reason. And do you think Democrats are afraid of speaking about Biden's age because they're afraid of what would happen if Trump won or DeSantis or other Republicans from the far right?

FOER: There's something strange that's happening with the age question, because on the one hand, questions about his age are obviously incredibly valid and important questions to be asked just as a matter of governing. You want the president of the United States to be somebody who's in tip-top mental shape. And then on the other hand, you can see the way in which the age question is falling into a continuum with Donald Trump's own mental acuity questions. And the way that the media has begun to talk about the age question, it's as if Biden's age is on the same spectrum as Trump's mental acuity issues.

And they're very, very different sorts of things because Joe Biden's age, you know, there's two components to it. There is the question, does he have the ability to actually do the job of governing, and does he have the energy to actually govern? And I think what I tried to document in my book based on my reporting is that he's had actually a very energetic first term, even if that doesn't convey to the public in the most palpable sorts of ways. But then there's the political question, which is very different, which is how do voters perceive Joe Biden? Is his age an issue to them connecting with his political successes? Does he have the energy to run a political campaign? And I think that's a little bit more of an open question for me.

GROSS: And I think - and honestly, I think a lot of people are wondering, can anybody in their 80s - and he'll be - like, if he's reelected, he'll be in his mid-80s by the time his term is over. Can anybody at that age really endure the stresses and the travel and, you know, the impossible-to-solve problems that a president has to deal with when, basically, the whole world is on their shoulders?

FOER: Yeah, a totally fair question, and I think it's one where everybody brings their own experience, their own baggage to the question. Every one of us has parents or grandparents who have aged. And it's hard not to see Joe Biden through that filter. And also, you know, people age differently. And that's why I don't especially enjoy being a pundit having to talk about Joe Biden's aging, because I'm not a gerontologist. And I can't predict what Joe Biden specifically will look like in - you know, by the time he's in his mid-80s.

GROSS: And nobody can.

FOER: Right. And it's also, aging is not - it's not linear. It's not like we reach a threshold point where there's a human sell-by date and we're no longer able to do certain basic things. We have traits that change as we age. Our energy levels change as we age. There are certain people for whom work is almost an antidote to the whole process of aging. And there's a flip side to all of these questions about energy and acuity, which is that there's also real wisdom that comes from having been around the block and having relationships with leaders. And that's the harder part to sell politically because a lot of that stuff happens out of public view.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you have any insights or direct knowledge of why Biden thinks that he should run for a second term at his age, knowing that the public, that ardent Democrats would have questions about his age, let alone Republicans trying to use that, to exploit that to their advantage.

FOER: Yeah, the interesting counterfactual is to imagine, what would he have done absent Donald Trump's decision to run in 2024? I think that Trump's running again, in Biden's mind, simplified the decision, that he views himself as the dragon slayer, that he is the one who figured out how to beat Trump in 2020 and that he's uniquely able to do that again in 2024. And, you know, maybe there's a bit of self-myth there about the indispensability of Joe Biden in that regard. I think that he also knows that there is safety in familiarity, that, you know, right now, it's easy to wish-cast that there be another, younger, more energetic version of Joe Biden running for president or somebody who was a fresh alternative to Joe Biden.

But you can't guarantee what happens in a Democratic primary. You can't be sure what issues get raised in the course of a Democratic primary. Or you can't be sure what ill feelings are left after a Democratic primary. I mean, the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders primary in 2016 was a really bruising thing. And that primary fight arguably left Hillary Clinton weaker in the 2016 election. So the counterfactuals are powerful, but it is hard to know what the alternative would actually look like.

GROSS: You write in your book that you initially saw Joe Biden as a bloviator who dangerously fetishized bipartisanship, but then he renewed your respect for politicians. What changed your mind about him?

FOER: I got to see him up close. And there's a - you know, the profession of politician is one that is - our culture has very, very little respect for. When I was a kid, one of the first jokes I learned was about a guy walking into a used brain shop. And the most expensive brain there was the politician's because it was hardly ever used. And there's this artificiality to the politician. Joe Biden tells these stories that just seem kind of cornball to me. I mean, aesthetically, I'm not - I've never been attracted to Joe Biden as a political figure.

But watching him up close and watching what a politician who's very, very good at understanding the minds of the people he's sitting across the table from - and knowing how to take this empathy that everybody, I think, attributes to him and applying it to foreign leaders and applying it to politicians, and knowing how to bring them to yes, how to get them to assent to deals - that's a real skill. There's a lot of real technique there that I came to see as very effective and very admirable.

GROSS: Can you give us an example of that? You know, I'm not sure that empathy would come in that handy dealing with someone like Putin, but where did you see it really come in as a powerful tool?

FOER: Well, I mean, the Putin thing is actually an interesting example unto itself because on the second day of his administration, he got a call from Vladimir Putin. And it was an unexpected call. And a lot of his advisers urged him not to take it because Putin had meddled in the 2016 election. He'd meddled some in the 2020 election. They felt like he could just wait his place in line. And Biden's attitude was, no. When, you know, a leader of a nuclear nation calls you, you take the call. And Biden thought about Putin's emotional, psychological makeup. And he went back, and he revisited in his own head how Obama had treated Putin. And he described Russia as a declining power.

And Biden's attitude was, you know, there's a very high likelihood Putin's going to engage in mischief over the course of my presidency. I can't predict what it's going to be, but there's no doubt that he'll do something to try to derail me. What's the best way I can deal with him in order to prevent that from happening? And so he decided that he needed to both show him signs of respect, that he still thought of Russia as a great power, and while simultaneously telegraphing to Putin in a very, very clear sort of way that if you do bad things, there's going to be consequences. And so when he first decided to meet with Putin, he didn't want to do it on the fringes of another gathering of global leaders. He wanted to create a scene that resembled some of the superpower meetings of the past. So he decided to have the meeting in Geneva, where it was a tete-a-tete between the two of them. And, of course, that didn't work out in the end. But I just tell this story in order to highlight the way that he goes about thinking through a problem like Vladimir Putin.

GROSS: Well, we need to take a short break here. So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Franklin Foer. He's a staff writer for The Atlantic and author of the new book "The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden's White House And The Struggle For America's Future." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Atlantic staff writer Franklin Foer, author of the new book "The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden's White House And The Struggle For America's Future." So you mentioned in the book Biden's almost fetishistic belief in bipartisanship. We're living in a time where there's very little bipartisanship. But Biden did manage to pass some important bills. What do you think are his most important legislative achievements in terms of the direct impact they're likely to have on the lives of American people?

FOER: So he passed a clutch of legislation, each of which you could make a case for its significance on its own, the most important of which, I think, is the Inflation Reduction Act, which is going to significantly trim American carbon emissions, that it supercharges the transition to green energy. But one of the things that I think is important about this legislation is that it compounds.

So you have the infrastructure bill, which was passed in a bipartisan sort of way, the CHIPS Act, which makes investments in the American semiconductor industry and in scientific research. And then you have the Inflation Reduction Act, which makes these investments in batteries and solar and other alternative energies. And those investments are being coordinated so that they can compound, so that you have supply chains which may not have formed on their own, absent government directing this money, coordinating the investment so that those businesses that are taking advantage of this money exist in geographic proximity to one another, and so that each step in the supply chains, which are very, very intricate, snap into place.

And as a result, you have all of this capital that had been sitting on the sidelines now rushing into American manufacturing. You have the emersion of something that they call the battery belt happening in the American South that's going to make the transition to green energy happen so much faster than anybody had actually initially anticipated. One of the fascinating wrinkles of the Inflation Reduction Act is - it was a bill that was negotiated with Senator Joe Manchin. And one of the things that I think Manchin didn't understand in the moment and is now quite sour about is that there is no cap to the amount of money that the American government can spend subsidizing green energy, spending on tax credits. And so the Congressional Budget Office had initially anticipated that there would be $370 billion spent on clean energy, and it's probably going to end up somewhere in the ballpark of $1 trillion. And that's why everything is happening so much faster. There's so much money there for companies to be incentivized to move in this greener direction.

GROSS: As a senator, Biden was known as somebody who could, you know, count heads, know when legislation could pass, know how to make compromise deals to get legislation passed. So how did he use those skills in the legislation that you've been talking about to get those bills passed? Because, like, some of that credit goes to congressional leaders.

FOER: Absolutely.

GROSS: And some of the credit goes to Biden. So give us an example of what Biden did.

FOER: Passing Biden's legislative agenda with a one-vote margin in the Senate was something that required a lot of political tact. He had to bring along the left to agree to bipartisan things. He had to bring along moderate senators who didn't want to do left things. And, of course, it all exploded at one moment in December when Manchin pulled the plug on supporting the Biden agenda. And the hardest thing at that moment was for Biden to shelve his ego and to let somebody else do this thing that he loved most, which was negotiating with senators. In the end, it shocked the world when they were able to get Manchin to yes, to agree to that massive amount of spending on green energy.

GROSS: Do you mean Schumer took over the negotiation with Manchin?

FOER: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, it's time for another break, so let me reintroduce you. My guest is Franklin Foer. He's a staff writer for The Atlantic and author of the new book "The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden's White House And The Struggle For America's Future." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Franklin Foer, author of the new book "The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden's White House And The Struggle For America's Future." During the Trump Administration, Franklin Foer investigated ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. He also wrote about the Mueller investigation.

The U.S. has become such an ally of Ukraine during Ukraine's war with Russia - we're supplying arms, were supplying intelligence - but Biden has such a contrast with Zelenskyy. Biden is a lifelong politician. Zelenskyy is a former comic and sitcom star who got elected just in time to lead his country in war. Biden is 81, Zelenskyy is 45. Zelenskyy uses social media to get public support and is very charismatic. You wouldn't call - you'd call Biden very politically savvy, but not necessarily charismatic, not the king of social media. And their relationship got off to a pretty bad start. What caused it to get off to such a bad start?

FOER: Well, Zelenskyy first came to the White House in September of 2021. And he had - he was a traumatized figure. He'd just been through the Trump impeachment saga, where his phone call had become the source of controversy. And he didn't fully understand the ways in which American politics worked. And so I think he brought a lot of baggage to that meeting, started to demand all of these things of Joe Biden that Biden thought was - that Biden thought were implausible. And so Biden took a very dismissive attitude towards Zelenskyy at the start.

GROSS: What was Zelenskyy asking for?

FOER: He wanted NATO membership, which is something that Ukraine has always asked for. But there was a moment in the conversation where he started to be very dismissive of NATO after Biden told him that it wasn't plausible that he could get NATO membership for Ukraine in the short term. And Biden didn't really like the emotional tenor of Zelenskyy's case.

GROSS: And is that when Zelenskyy said, you know, NATO - like, France and Germany are going to be pulling out of NATO?

FOER: (Laughter) Yes. Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: What made him say that?

FOER: I think he just got frustrated. And at various points in the course of the Ukraine war, various American public officials, whether it's the CIA director or the secretary of state and the secretary of defense, have had to talk to Zelenskyy to kind of coach him through his relationship with Joe Biden, because Zelenskyy has his own - not just style, but his own national security needs. And it's understandable that he would be extremely emotional about them.

His country is teetering on the brink. It needs weapons in order to survive. And so he'd like to address Joe Biden by just reading him these long lists of demands. And that never went - that never sat very well with Joe Biden, who has his own, I think, interests as the president of the United States. I mean, he's a child of the Cold War. Biden's always super worried about the prospects of the war escalating. He's worried about the dangers of a nuclear Russia and what they might do if they feel cornered. And so they're working towards a common interest, but they're asking very, very different questions.

GROSS: How did the relationship between Zelenskyy and Biden end up improving?

FOER: Well, the arms just kept coming to Ukraine. And there was a logic to the way that the U.S. was arming Ukraine. It wasn't just giving them everything that they wanted, but it was helping them plan the weapons deliveries in the context of a changing military plan. And for all of Zelenskyy's understandable frustrations with the Biden administration, I think it is pretty clear to him and to the world that the United States has made a tremendous financial investment in the Ukrainian war and that there's been a political investment made in waging - in supporting the Ukrainian side, that there are higher gas prices in this country because of the war, that Western publics have suffered. And it's a tremendous act of solidarity.

GROSS: I want to ask you about abortion in the post-Dobbs world. Now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade and now it's up to states to decide abortion laws, and abortion has been outlawed in some states, women have to travel far distances. And Republicans - some Republicans seem to be doing everything in their power to make abortion access impossible. Biden is Catholic. The church, of course, is opposed to abortion. How would you describe his position on abortion now?

FOER: Well, it's evolved. As it was clear to the world that Dobbs was coming down the pike, there were all sorts of discussions within the administration about how to respond. And I think Biden initially was tormented. He didn't fully appreciate the radicalism of the Dobbs decision. I think that he was thinking about abortion both through the lens of his own Catholicism and knowing that he was going to get reprimanded by the leaders of his own church for that decision. But I think he was also thinking about abortion as a culture war issue from the 1980s and 1990s, where, you know, all of these debates were happening about third-term abortions and the like.

It felt like the center of the country was as conflicted as he was about the abortion issue. And I think he struggled initially to appreciate just how sweeping Dobbs is and just how radical the right has become on this issue. And it's one of the ironies of the Biden administration that this issue where he has a lot of personal ambivalence and has had to kind of think his way through the issue and to adapt his own personal morality on the issue is actually the thing that offers him the greatest political hope going into the next election, because so many Americans are afraid and angry about the trajectory of sexual freedom in this country.

GROSS: Roe v. Wade was based on a woman's right to privacy. And a woman's right to privacy should allow her to choose to have an abortion, a very private matter. But when Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the Dobbs decision, he objected to it being based on the right to privacy. And that's one of the reasons why Dobbs was overturned, perhaps the primary reason. And something that really disturbed Biden was Clarence Thomas' concurrence with the majority decision. And Clarence Thomas wrote, in future cases, we should reconsider all of this court's substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence and Obergefell. And those are the decisions that use the right to privacy to overturn laws against birth control, gay sex, you know, gay marriage. Why did that really disturb Biden?

FOER: Well, privacy was an issue that he talked a lot about in the 1980s when he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And it was his initial frame for understanding the radicalism of it. As somebody who was personally conflicted about the issue of abortion, it was easier for him to think about the decision in that broader context of privacy. But I think he still wasn't convincing in explaining this to the nation. His speech that he delivered right after the Dobbs decision was released was widely panned because it just didn't look like he had his heart in it. And it took him about two weeks to get to the place where he could speak convincingly about Dobbs. And it was really because it took him that long to understand all of the radical implications of it. And there was this case of a 10-year-old girl - that I'm sure your listeners remember - who was from Ohio, who had to go to Indianapolis in order to get an abortion after she'd been raped. And then the law fell on her. And I think Biden saw that, and it was an easy morality tale for him to latch on to. And then you could see him talk about Dobbs in this very, very passionate sort of way.

GROSS: So what has Biden done and what is in his power to do to make abortion more accessible for women post-Dobbs?

FOER: In the weeks that followed the Dobbs decision, there were executive orders and executive actions that protected the right of women to travel out of state in order to get abortions. They protected the drug mifepristone, which is used to manage and treat miscarriages. But his analysis has always been that there's a limit to what a president can do on their own in order to protect the right to abortion, that this is going to require a political response, that it's going to require the Congress passing laws. It's going to require changing the composition of the Supreme Court, which requires voters to elect Democrats who will install justices who could ultimately reverse Roe. And so his instinct has been rather than testing the limits of executive power to ensure access to abortion, that it's better to allow Republicans to own the issue and that the only solution will come when the public recognizes that Republicans are solely responsible for the collapse of this right.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Franklin Foer, author of the new book "The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden's White House And The Struggle For America's Future." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Franklin Foer, author of the new book "The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden's White House And The Struggle For America's Future." He's a staff writer for The Atlantic.

So I want to change the topic to Afghanistan, which was seen as a real fiasco, you know, when America pulled out of Afghanistan, officially ending the war. There was a conflict then between, you know, the military leaders and the State Department. The military wanted to pull out as soon as possible because Biden had already said we're pulling out, we're ending this. And the military was worried that the longer it'd take - it took for the U.S. to pull out, the harder it would be to get out. Whereas the State Department wanted to stay and wanted to have the time to protect its own people and the people from Afghanistan who'd worked closely with it. So that was the conflict, or at least one of the conflicts. How did Biden position himself between the military and the State Department, which wanted conflicting things?

FOER: He tended to defer to his military leaders on all of these questions. Belatedly, the administration had reconsidered the idea of keeping Bagram Airfield - which was the largest air base that we had in the country - open in the course of August in order to facilitate removal of people in order to give the Afghan government their best shot at hanging on. But Lloyd Austin, the secretary of defense, had actually run Bagram Air Base, and he said that that was not a plausible policy for the administration to take. And so you did have the State and the Defense Department kind of out of sync in terms of their policy priorities. But I'm not sure that that was actually the biggest problem at the end of the day.

I mean, the biggest problem, I think, goes back to the way that the decision was formulated and Biden's priorities in the course of planning the Afghan withdrawal. I mean, his desire was to rip the Band-Aid off, to end this chapter in American foreign policy, to end the longest war in American history, because he did not like the idea that soldiers like his late son, Beau, were being sent to this country in the name of a fruitless cause. And in the course of prioritizing that, I think he didn't really think long and hard about the humanitarian consequences of his decision and didn't elevate the planning of a humanitarian evacuation in the event of the Afghan government collapsing.

GROSS: Yeah. So pulling out ended up being a fiasco. However, you say that that part was a fiasco, but at the same time, once the decision was made to pull out, once the Biden administration saw the chaos, it managed to pull together a more strategic plan to get people out of Afghanistan. Can you talk about that a little bit and how the Biden administration managed to figure out a plan where planes took off, like, every 45 minutes carrying people outside of Afghanistan?

FOER: Right. So you have these terrible scenes coming from Kabul. You have this especially terrible image of a young man falling from a C-17 plane that's leaving, plummeting from the sky.

GROSS: Because he was so desperate to get out.

FOER: Exactly. He was clinging to - he was in the wheel well of the plane.

GROSS: Right.

FOER: And Biden, having seen this level of humanitarian desperation and absorbing all of these political blows that he's taking from his own party, from the Republicans, from media, decides that no plane is going to leave Hamid Karzai International Airport empty. And so every C-17 that's flying into the airport is then filled with refugees. And taking those refugees out of Afghanistan required an incredible amount of improvisation. They needed to be housed. They needed to be fed. They needed an ultimate destination.

And so we ended up - the United States government ended up negotiating with governments in the Gulf and in Europe in order to create what they described as lily pads, which were these temporary dormitories where refugees would be housed and processed until they were taken to their ultimate destination. And so one of the kind of perverse ironies of the debacle at Kabul was that because things went as badly as they went, there was this willingness, even among Republicans, to get refugees out of the country. And so in this moment, the U.S. ended up extracting 124,000 refugees in a matter of weeks, which was an incredible act of improvisation.

GROSS: One of the things I found most interesting in your chapter about the U.S. exit from Afghanistan was Hillary Clinton's role in it. Hillary knew a lot of the women in Afghanistan who had taken leadership positions on women's rights and employment for women. And she got access to - she was leaked what was called a kill list of 125 women who were targeted for assassination. And she wanted to get them out. And she did some very creative things to do that - I think too complicated for us to get into the full story. But the part that I found just really fascinating was there was a whole plan in effect for a lot of these women to temporarily be flown to Albania. But they didn't have visas from Albania, and the Taliban were preventing these women from leaving unless they had a visa. So talk about the plan that people came up with to get around that.

FOER: Right. So Hillary had set up a network of safe houses. She'd hired military contractors. She'd procured planes from foreign governments in order to get women out. And so they were stuck in this position. And one of the women from Hillary's - one of the Hillary-affiliated NGOs was in Albania and working with the government. And in order to make the document convincing enough for the Taliban, they took a picture of a QR code off of a bag of potato chips, which they stuck into the PDF that they forwarded to the women in Afghanistan. So they were doing whatever they could in these desperate circumstances to try to just make it work so that these women got out.

GROSS: So the bar code looked like, yeah, visas have stuff like that. So...

FOER: Yeah. That looks very official.

GROSS: Yeah. I guess the Taliban didn't have a way of translating what the barcode said.

FOER: Right. Well, you have the Taliban, who are peasants who'd been fighting in the countryside who suddenly were in Kabul for the first time, having to make these decisions about who to get out. So something that was plausible-looking was probably going to work.

GROSS: I just want to say about Hillary Clinton - she no longer had an official government role or an official government responsibility to help women get out of Afghanistan. But she did remarkable things to get them out.

FOER: And she did it in ways that put her at cross purposes with the Biden administration. That national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who was a protege of Hillary Clinton's, called her to reprimand her for having called the Zelenskyy government in Ukraine to try to get a Ukrainian transport plane to take these women out of the country. And in the end, there were a thousand women in Albania who were able to escape the Taliban because of Hillary Clinton's work.

GROSS: Was this a public story before you wrote about it?

FOER: It wasn't. In the course of doing my reporting about Afghanistan, I would hear these stories about how the White House was talking about the Hillary Clinton groups. And I would hear people in the NGO world who would talk about how they'd called Hillary Clinton in order to get help. And so I just - I followed the scent there. And I think she was reluctant to talk about this or claim credit for it because I don't think that she wanted especially to embarrass the Biden administration.

GROSS: My guest is Franklin Foer, author of the new book "The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden's White House And The Struggle For America's Future." This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview that we recorded yesterday with Franklin Foer, author of the new book "The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden's White House And The Struggle For America's Future." He's a staff writer for The Atlantic.

During the Trump administration, you investigated ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. You wrote about the Mueller report, and before that, the Mueller investigation. And you wrote extensively about Paul Manafort, a former campaign manager for Trump who's now doing time in prison. The Mueller report didn't fundamentally change things within the Trump administration. Now, you might disagree with that, so say so if you disagree.

FOER: No, it didn't change anything within the Trump administration at all. So, no, I don't disagree.

GROSS: And now Trump is indicted in Georgia on conspiracy to overturn the election. He's indicted by Special Counsel Jack Smith for conspiring to subvert American democracy. I wonder what it's like to witness now, after the presidency, efforts to hold Trump to account.

FOER: I continue to think that this is the most important thing in American life, that there was lawlessness that happened at industrial scale. There was an attempt to fraudulently subvert an American election. I think that we can't afford to sweep these things under the rug or allow political calculation to cause us to avert our eyes from them. And right now, we're in an especially painful moment, I think, where Trump's numbers in the polls look really great because he, in effect, is running some version of the basement strategy from 2020. I mean, there's a way in which we're not being exposed to full bore Donald Trump right now because he's communicating with very fringe outlets. He's not on Twitter. He's not giving interviews to mainstream media.

And so it feels as if the country isn't fully internalizing exactly everything that we're learning in the course of all of these indictments. And it feels as if he's somehow profiting corruptly again from the fact that he's being held to account. But I think this is really a moment in time. And I don't know if I can predict politically what's going to happen here, how this is all going to turn. But I think that we're, in a way, in the most painful moment of it.

GROSS: Why do you consider it to be the most painful moment?

FOER: Because he seems to be getting away with it politically.

GROSS: You mean among his base and voters.

FOER: Among voters, right, that he - you know, I think that it's just an incredible fact that a guy who is being indicted for all of these things, and when the case against him is so crystalline in so many sort of ways, that he would be tied with Biden in national polls, with all of the caveats that we need to insert there about how it's still early in the election and it's state polls that matter and all these things that are kind of trite pieces of political wisdom. The fact is is that having been exposed to everything about Donald Trump and having the justice system start to actually formally hold him to account for these sorts of things, politically, he's still quite strong.

GROSS: Well, Franklin Foer, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR. It's always a pleasure to talk with you.

FOER: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Franklin Foer is a staff writer for The Atlantic and author of the new book "The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden's White House And The Struggle For America's Future." We recorded our interview yesterday. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with Bethann Hardison, who started modeling in the late '60s and describes herself as the first Black-Black-looking model, or casting director Allison Jones, who cast "Freaks And Geeks," "The Office," "Veep," "The 40-year-old Virgin," "Superbad" and many more films and TV shows, including the "Barbie" movie, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And don't forget about our newsletter. You can subscribe for free at whyy.org/freshair.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. FRESH AIR's co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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