RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Susan Rice, who has held some vital U.S. government jobs, once said no to one of them. Before she was a top adviser for President Obama, President Clinton's administration offered her work on issues relating to Africa.
SUSAN RICE: I feared that I might well get pigeonholed in Africa, that people in this predominantly white national security establishment would see me as black working on Africa and therefore not capable of or suited to do anything else.
MARTIN: As a result, Rice declined that particular job offer, wanting to prove herself in a different position first. She recounts her rise in a new memoir titled "Tough Love." The former national security adviser talked to Steve about that moment.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: That story shows you getting offered something that seems really nice by a powerful person. And you say no - which is a hard thing to do. Are you good at that?
RICE: (Laughter) I think my kids would tell you I'm good at saying no.
RICE: I don't know that I'm - yes, I guess when I need to say no, I'm certainly comfortable saying no. My dad had a mantra that comes from his experience growing up in the segregated South in the '20s and '30s and serving in a segregated Air Force at Tuskegee during World War II. He always told me and my brother, don't take crap off of anybody.
INSKEEP: Rice thrived in one Democratic administration. She became a senior figure in the next - first President Obama's U.N. ambassador, then national security adviser. She was eventually drawn into the partisan fights of Obama's time, and that included the crisis that emerged in the summer of 2016. She was in the White House when the CIA director first told her of Russia's interference in that year's presidential election.
What did you do?
RICE: Well, we ran right upstairs to the Oval Office and interrupted the president.
INSKEEP: And soon learned the challenges of responding in a politically divisive time - the Obama administration tried to warn all 50 states that their election systems could be hacked. Rice says some didn't want to hear it.
RICE: They didn't view our concern as being based on national security or apolitical. They viewed it as...
INSKEEP: You said...
INSKEEP: ...Republican-governed states...
RICE: Some of the red states...
INSKEEP: Some of the red states...
RICE: ...Not all of them. But they resisted...
INSKEEP: ...Essentially didn't trust you or didn't trust the president - didn't trust the administration.
RICE: Didn't trust the administration.
INSKEEP: Nor did Republicans in Congress. In Rice's telling, the president wanted a bipartisan warning of the threat. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell resisted. President Obama did issue a warning to Russia's Vladimir Putin to cut it out, but it was hard to do much more.
RICE: We worked behind the scenes to ready a series of punitive measures to retaliate against Russia should the president decide - or I should say, when the president decided it was necessary to do so.
INSKEEP: You didn't retaliate before the election.
RICE: We chose not to retaliate before the election because we had not seen further evidence of the Russians pursuing the kinds of behavior that we were most concerned about and that the president had warned Putin about - infiltrating the state election systems and manipulating the voter registration or the voter rolls. What we didn't want to do was to preemptively punish the Russians before the election if they hadn't done precisely what we were most concerned about because we feared it might prompt them to do it.
INSKEEP: In a way, the administration was deterred by Russia. You were fearful of a greater Russian interference in the election, and so you restrained yourselves from...
RICE: I wouldn't say we were fearful or deterred. We made a judgment that what was most important at that point was preserving the integrity of our electoral processes. But what we didn't want to do, Steve, was play into the Russian narrative and, frankly, what was then Donald Trump's narrative, which is that the election is rigged; this is not going to be fair.
INSKEEP: This becomes, in a way, a story about vulnerabilities of democracy. Doesn't it? I'm thinking about the way you write of how to tell the public about this issue. And of course, President Obama is the president. But the decision is made not to have him say it because it would seem too political if the president said it.
RICE: The decision was made that it would be better having it come from the leadership of our intelligence community because we didn't want to play into a narrative that somehow this was a political statement.
INSKEEP: Your description of Mitch McConnell gets to another thing. When you first found this information, it was so urgent you said you interrupted the president in a meeting. And then it took weeks and weeks and weeks to bring the rest of the government on board to the extent that you could.
RICE: Well, it took weeks for CIA Director John Brennan to be granted an audience with each of the so-called Gang of Eight...
INSKEEP: The top...
RICE: ...The top leadership...
INSKEEP: ...Congressional leaders, yeah.
RICE: ...Some of whom made themselves readily available. But a couple of them, including Majority Leader McConnell, would not make themselves available until after Labor Day.
INSKEEP: Mitch McConnell's people have defended him and said you don't really understand what happened in those private meetings; he was not as obstructive as people portray him. Are you certain that he was the major issue in getting bipartisan agreement, that this was happening and that this was a problem?
RICE: Steve, I recognize that it would be in the interest of his team to try to obscure that. I have no doubt he was the - what we used to call the long pole in the tent. He was the one who held up the statement and made it very difficult, ultimately, to achieve. And when we got it, he watered it down to something that was almost indecipherable.
INSKEEP: Would you do anything differently if you could go back to 2016?
RICE: Yes. What I regret is that after the election, when we chose to impose sanctions and other punitive measures against the Russians - and they were substantial in many different respects - economic, cyber, diplomatic and otherwise - we made a recommendation to the president - so this is really on the Cabinet principals that I chaired - not to impose the most painful sectoral economic sanctions on Russia. They would have hurt our European allies almost as much as they would have hurt the Russians.
INSKEEP: Because they're economically intertwined with Russia.
RICE: Yes. And secondly, we were mindful of the fact that just three or four weeks later, President-elect Trump was going to take office. We were very concerned that if we had imposed the harshest possible sanctions that a brand-new president would turn around and undo them and make us all look weak and feckless.
INSKEEP: But would you today, if you could go back...
RICE: Yes. And that's why...
INSKEEP: ...You would impose those stronger sanctions?
RICE: I would because I think we have seen, in subsequent months and years, that the Russians are essentially still undeterred.
INSKEEP: The memoir from Ambassador Susan Rice is called "Tough Love."
Thanks so much.
RICE: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEST PESSIMIST'S "IT'S ONLY WORDS")
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