David Remnick: Before he was elected president, Barack Obama was being interviewed by Charlie Gibson, and he said, "If you don't have enough self-awareness to see the element of megalomania involved in thinking you can be president, then you probably shouldn't be President. I think there's a slight madness to thinking that you should be the leader of the free world." That remark really stuck with me, and it was on my mind after I finished talking recently with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of an Attorney General, nephew of President John Kennedy. Kennedy has announced that he's running for the Democratic nomination for 2024.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I've come here today to announce my candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. My mission over the next 18 months of this campaign--
David Remnick: With no prominent elected Democrat challenging Joe Biden, Kennedy is polling around 8% to 21%, which is more than enough to cause at least some alarm for Biden, whose popularity ratings are low and whose age is what it is. Formerly a supporter of President Biden, Kennedy was motivated to run by a belief, this is what he told me, that the White House had directed social media platforms to ban him.
For many years now, Kennedy has been roiling with conspiracy theories. Vaccines cause autism. Drugs like Prozac might be causing the increase in school shootings. Toxic chemicals might contribute to children becoming transgender, and there's more. He wrote an entire book about Anthony Fauci accusing Fauci of helping, and I'm quoting here, "To orchestrate and execute 2020's historic coup d'état against Western democracy."
These are ideas that anybody can find on the Internet, and let's face it, many people do but Kennedy's pedigree makes him a particularly influential conduit for disinformation. Robert Kennedy Jr. is approaching 70. He has never held or run for public office. He had a career as a conservationist and as a litigator. I asked him what made him the ideal candidate for what is arguably the most consequential job on the planet.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: Well, I don't know that I'm the ideal candidate to replace him. It seems to me that the country is going in a very bad direction and that nobody else is really stepping up to change. In a way that is pretty clear to me that it needs to be changed. I think I'm qualified for the job because, to me, the fulcrum of the problem is this corrupt collusion between government and corporate power. The place where the rubber meets the road is in the public agencies and the regulatory agencies. I've spent my 40-year career litigating against those agencies, and I understand how they work. I understand how that dynamic occurred, and I understand I think I'm in better shape, probably than anybody else in the country to unravel it.
David Remnick: There are a lot of lawyers in the country. There are a lot of people who are concerned about corporate power and its relationship to government but you're running for president. The most complicated and powerful office even on the face of the Earth conceivably. It sounds to me like we'd be well served by hearing more specifics.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I've spent many, many years suing big polluters in the oil industry, the coal industry, and the chemical industry but probably about 20% of my cases were against EPA. In many cases, there were people who were running the key branches of the agency that had more of a loyalty to the industries that they were supposed to regulate than to the American public. They had become essentially sock puppets of the industries they're supposed to regulate. I spent 20 years doing agricultural law suing large food processors and meat factories like Smithfield Food, Tyson's Food, Perdue, Monsanto.
David Remnick: In your estimation, that experience as a litigator, as a lawyer, makes you qualified to essentially run all that's under the purview of the President of the United States, to be Commander in Chief of the armed forces, to direct foreign policy, to appoint the heads of all the major agencies? You're approaching 70 years old and you've never been in any kind of a major public office. How do you reconcile that?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I've been around government and studying government since I was a little boy. I went to the 1960 convention. I've been to most of the conventions since the election that you mentioned with my uncle, Edward Kennedy. I ran the Southern states for him in that election. I've been involved in almost every presidential election during the last 60 years. I began writing about foreign policy from when I was 19 years old. My first article was for The Atlantic, and I've written landmark articles during that time.
David Remnick: But experience in campaigns and being at conventions is not the same as either being involved in the making of policy either as an executive or as a legislator or as a governor. Are you saying that really that kind of experience is not necessary to be President of the United States? The one president that I can think of that hasn't had any experience at that level is Donald Trump.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: Well, there's nothing in the United States Constitution that says that you have to go to Congress first and then Senate second or be a governor before you're elected to the presidency of the United States.
David Remnick: Or even mayor of a small town, but you haven't done any of it. Do you think that that is irrelevant experience?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I think my life experience is absolutely relevant.
David Remnick: Mr. Kennedy, you're running as a Democrat for President, and I wonder who in the Democratic Party do you feel is kindred to you? Obviously not Joe Biden, but AOC or Joe Manchin or are you something new entirely? How would you define your ideology?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I'm something old, I'm a Kennedy Democrat. I believe in labor unions. I believe in a strong, robust middle class. I believe in racial justice, in policies that are going to actually help the people, the lowest people in the totem pole.
David Remnick: I don't think Joe Biden would disagree with any of that.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: Well, and why did he do the lockdowns? Lockdowns robbed $4 trillion from the middle class and the poor in this country and transferred it to the super-rich. We created 500 new billionaires, a billionaire a day, every day of the lockdown.
David Remnick: Do you think he did lockdowns or politicians did lockdowns in order directly to enrich billionaires? That was the goal?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I think that if they cared about the middle class in this country, they wouldn't have done it. They wouldn't have shut down businesses without due process, without just compensation.
David Remnick: They made mistakes, or they were carrying out some kind of perfidious plot.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: No, I think that they made mistakes which disqualifies them from continuing to do that job.
David Remnick: Something we should note here. While the Pandemic bailout did cost the US about $4 trillion. The figure he cites of nearly 500 people becoming billionaires, that's a global figure, not just Americans. The majority of those billionaires actually were in China. Kennedy's candidacy for the Democratic nomination is being welcomed by figures who aren't exactly friends of the Democratic Party.
Donald Trump has praised him, Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones have, too. Some of his talking points on the campaign trail would certainly appeal to a MAGA audience. He's said, for example, that cartels in Mexico are running US Immigration Policy. When I raised the subject of Donald Trump in particular, Kennedy changed the subject as quickly as possible.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: Listen, I think I am not a fan of Trump's. I saw his cowardice at the beginning of his administration when he appointed me to run a vaccine safety commission and then took a million dollars from Pfizer and killed the commission. I'm not a friend of President Trump's, but I think we can criticize people on policy.
David Remnick: Why do you think Donald Trump admires you?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I think because I'm [crosstalk].
David Remnick: Are you not suspicious of that?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: You know what, my job is not to drive people apart. I think what you guys have decided that you're going to do in the press, which is to create this polarization and to feed the anger and defeat the hatred and talk ad hominem attacks and name calling. I don't want to do that. We need to end that in this country. We need somebody who's going to bridge the gap between Americans.
David Remnick: Yes, polarization is a bad thing. I understand that but you're a critical--
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: You belong to a class of elite journalists who once were the guardians of the press and the protectors of American values and the American middle class and you now consider those people to be deplorable.
David Remnick: I don't consider anybody to be deplorable, that's somebody else's vocabulary. Let's talk about the word elite for a second. You come from a highly privileged background eclipsing mine by some order of magnitude. Isn't it a little rich for you to be calling people elites?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: When I use the word elite I'm talking about the people who are inside the Beltway defending the press figures who are supposed to be speaking truth to power and instead have become propagandists for the government and who view their job as quashing dissent and quashing political criticism of the government that they're supposed to be actually criticizing.
David Remnick: Do you really believe this or do you think it plays well?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: Of course, I believe it.
David Remnick: I'm finding it curious and maybe even disturbing that some of your early admirers include Trumpists like Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, Roger Stone. Do you welcome that or do you think maybe, just maybe, someone like that is delighted that a strong Democratic opponent will wound Joe Biden and in the long run help Donald Trump?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I'm trying to unite the country, David. I'm not going to do what you do which is to pick out people and say that they're evil, they should be canceled, or whatever. I think the kind of tribalism that you're advocating is poisonous to our country. I think it's toxic. It's created a polarization, a division in this country. It's more dangerous than at any time since the American Civil War.
David Remnick: Isn't there a difference between your disagreement [crosstalk]
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: What you're trying to get me to do now is to lash out against other Americans. What I'm saying is, I don't agree with what those people represent in many parts of their lives, I don't agree with it and I don't like it but I'm still going to talk to them, I'm not going to cancel them.
David Remnick: Now, my question wasn't whether Steve Bannon should be canceled, whatever that would mean in this context. I asked whether Kennedy welcomes his support in his own presidential race. Kennedy might be talking less about Bannon here or Alex Jones than about himself.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: If you ask me about something that Alex Jones did, I will tell you what he did with the Sandy Hook is reprehensible but I'm not going to permanently write him off as a human being. People are redeemable. I believe in redemption. I got an opportunity for redemption in my own life and there's plenty of people who had good excuse to write me off forever.
David Remnick: Tell me about that.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I believe in redemption.
David Remnick: Tell me about your own sense of redemption. I think you're probably referring to problems with addiction.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: Yes, I was a heroin addict for 14 years. I'm lucky to be alive and like I said, people have plenty of reason to write me off forever because of the way I conducted my life during that 14-year period.
David Remnick: What's been the effect? We all know people, friends, family who have suffered from addiction and it's a lifelong struggle. What's been the effect on your life to this day on? I think I heard you say recently that you go to nine meetings a week.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: Yes. The recovery program is an important part of my life. It's an important part of keeping me mentally and physically and spiritually fit. I've focused on all those things and it's important to me. In many ways, my addiction was a gift because it gave me a blueprint, the recovery from the addiction gave me a blueprint about how to live the rest of my life. You talk about you keep wanting to focus on why don't I hate on this guy more or why don't I hate on this person more. My program tells me not to do that. I'm not supposed to be doing that.
David Remnick: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is running for president as a Democrat. Our conversation continues in a moment. This is The New Yorker Radio Hour with more to come.
This is The New Yorker Radio Hour. I'm David Remnick. I'm speaking today with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Kennedy is best known as an anti-vaccine activist. He sees himself as a singular warrior against collusion between greedy corporations and corrupt government agencies. In Kennedy's case, his obsession with conspiracy, his tendency to see it just about everywhere might have an explanation rooted in his life story. I don't think it's a great leap of psychoanalysis to suppose that his thinking, his psyche was likely shaped from early on by unimaginable tragedy as well as enormous privilege.
He's certain that the CIA conspired to assassinate his uncle, John F. Kennedy and he believes that the CIA might have been behind the murder of his father, five years later.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I don't think anybody who has looked at my uncle's murder seriously believes that the Warren Commission was correct. The evidence today is-- Listen, I'm a trial lawyer, I've tried hundreds of cases, I can guarantee you looking at this case that I could prove that my uncle's death was caused by the CIA. I have enough evidence right now without any depositions to prove that my uncle's death was the result of a conspiracy and that the CIA was involved not only in the original conspiracy but in the 60-year cover-up and continues to maintain the cover-up.
David Remnick: What was the CIA's motivation?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: In my uncle's death, it depends. Most of the people who were involved like David Adly Phillips and Howard Hunt, people who-- Howard Hunt gave a confession to it and they were angry at my uncle. Their initial anger came when he failed to go into the Bay of Pigs, when he failed to invade and provide air cover for the Bay of Pigs, which they consider a bad betrayal. They trained those men, those men were dying on the beach and they at that point, believed that my uncle was a traitor to the United States.
When my uncle and my father halted the raids on Cuba after the missile crisis, they agreed as part of their agreement with Khrushchev during the missile crisis to halt the raids from Miami by Alpha 66 and the other groups that were going into Cuba to halt them. My uncle sent the Coast Guard down and the CIA and confiscated the boats.
David Remnick: The conversation about the assassinations went on for quite some time and it went into detail about ballistics and second shooters and the like. Of course, there's a huge body of literature disputing the accepted historical account of those events but Kennedy endorses other conspiracy theories that are scientifically wrong and politically, humanly dangerous. I'll be very honest with you, I don't want to engage you in the deep detail on the question of vaccinations.
Your belief stated in the past that vaccines are responsible for autism to some degree. I have to say I have a quite severely autistic child and while no one want to know the cause of autism more than I do, I frankly think with respect, that you've been slinging around a lot of theories over time that don't have any great credibility among science. I wonder what among scientists and do a lot of harm to a lot of people. I want to ask you this question, do you not have any second thoughts about this? You said that you would-- You seem to be altering your rhetoric about this very recently, that you just want to see vaccines tested. You seem to be shifting on this without quite saying so.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I've never shifted on it. I've said from the beginning that I got involved with this issue, that's what I wanted. I've always said I'm not anti-vaccine. I want good testing for the vaccines and I want good science. I don't necessarily believe all the scientists because I can read science myself. You say that scientists don't believe that. Well, the scientists-
David Remnick: No, they don't.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: -at one point, all believe that the COVID vaccine prevented transmission. When I said, no, they don't prevent transmission because I read the monkey studies in May of 2020. I saw that the amount of the concentration of the virus in the nasal pharynx of the vaccinated monkey was identical to the unvaccinated monkeys. I said, "These vaccines should be dead in the water. They won't prevent transmission."
I was de-platformed for spouting conspiracy theories, and because all the scientists said they're going to prevent transmission. I don't necessarily believe all the scientists because I can read science myself. That's what I do for a living. I read science critically. That's how I win cases. I've read the science on autism and I can tell you if you want to know--- One thing, David, you got to answer this question. If it didn't come to vaccines, then where is it coming from? Why isn't anybody telling us that?
David Remnick: Guns and school shootings in this country are rampant and they're a tragedy, and at a level like at no other time. Recently, you've suggested that SSRIs, and benzos, and other drugs that your phrase might be responsible for America's school shooting problem. Where are you getting that from? You told the Times recently that assault rifles clearly make the world more dangerous and we should figure out how to limit the impact, but then you said there's something else happening.
Why would that something else be of all the many things that have arrived in modern life, why would they be benzos, SSRIs, Prozac, and other drugs?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: Well, after the Columbine shooting, which was one of the first big shootings, there was a lawsuit in which I think five of the Columbine victims sued on the basis of the SSRIs, and those suits were ultimately settled in favor of the plaintiffs. This is an issue that people have been looking at for many, many years. Unfortunately, it's really hard to understand what the impact is because we don't have good data, and the reason we don't have good data is because of HIPAA.
For reporters who might be interested in following that trail, it's virtually impossible for them to find out if a shooter was taking benzos or was taking SSRIs. The reason that--
David Remnick: It's not something you have proof of, it's something that you're injecting into the conversation as it were.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: Excuse me.
David Remnick: It's not something you have evidence of, but rather that it's something that you want to bring up as a possibility.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: Well, I do think that we should figure out why this is happening because there's been guns all around me. When I was a kid, there were gun clubs at the schools, and kids were bringing rifles to schools every day, and nobody ever considered that a problem. People weren't going into classrooms and shooting kids. There's other nation--
David Remnick: I understand that, but I guess what I'm saying is that the presidency of the United States, it's very, very sensitive what comes out of a president's mouth about any issue, whether it's race or the economy. To just inject into the bloodstream, into the conversation of the United States that SSRIs, and benzos, and other drugs might be responsible for the rash of school shootings in this country, which is so tragic, isn't that problematic to just say stuff like that without any real evidence?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I've said there's a lot of things that should be investigated. We should look at video games. We should look at social media. We should do science on that. The NIH is supposed to be doing that kind of science. That is a $42 billion-a-year budget. Why don't we have the answer to those questions? They can penetrate HIPAA. They can figure this out and tell us the truth. Why aren't they doing that?
David Remnick: Why aren't they doing that? Well, one reason might be that for almost 20 years, NRA allies in Congress have blocked federal funding for research on gun violence, but that's just not Kennedy's way of thinking. That's a conspiracy that is just too out in the open, too political, too public. Robert Kennedy Jr. voted for Joe Biden in 2020. When I asked him why he decided to turn around and challenge him, he pointed first to the war in Ukraine.
Like some on the far left and also on the right, he believes that the West and NATO provoked Russia into the invasion in the first place. When I asked him what alternate sources of media he prefers, he immediately mentioned that he reads a blog by Douglas McGregor, a retired army colonel who is sympathetic to the Russian government view of the invasion of Ukraine.
Liz Cheney and others say that McGregor represents the Putin wing of the GOP. President Biden immediately put the US at the center of a NATO policy of helping to arm and protect Ukraine. If you had been president a year ago, February, would you have done the same or would you have let Putin act as he had hoped by arresting or killing Zelenskyy and installing a puppet regime? What would you have done as president if faced with an invasion of Ukraine?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I would do what Putin had asked very reasonably is that we give a pledge not to put NATO into the Ukraine and I don't believe there would've been a war.
David Remnick: I'm asking a different question. I'm asking if you had been president a year ago, February, setting aside the long prelude to this conflict, if he had invaded, what would you have done?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I don't think if I was the president, the invasion would've occurred because I would've made the assurance that Putin was asking for. It was absolutely irresponsible not to make that assurance. Putin has a legitimate national security interest in keeping the NATO out of Ukraine because he knows that we put Aegis missile systems in Romania and Poland as soon as we wrap them into the Ukraine.
He doesn't want missile systems 400 miles from Moscow any more than we would want missile systems 400 miles from Washington, DC, and we would invade Canada, or Cuba, or Mexico if anybody tried to do that. He has something that was eminently reasonable. We would pledge not to put NATO into the Ukraine. For generations, our diplomats have warned American leadership and warned the neocons who now run the White House, that if we move NATO into the Ukraine, it would force the Russians to have a violent response.
David Remnick: Force them to have a violent response.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I'm not saying that Putin didn't have any options, but the Russian leadership, not just Putin, but the Russian leadership since 1992 were warning us, do not do that. [crosstalk]
David Remnick: If you were president now, you would withdraw aid to Ukraine? As American president, would support the end of military funding for the defense of Ukraine to Zelenskyy?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I would end the war. I would negotiate a peace.
David Remnick: What would that peace look like?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: You never know that until you negotiate. We should be talking now.
David Remnick: I understand. Would you allow a peace that had much of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea remain in Russian hands?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I don't know what I would negotiate. I know that the Russians had come to two different peace agreements, both of which were eminently reasonable.
David Remnick: What I'm asking is what would be a reasonable peace?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: You know what? The answer to that question is strategic ambiguity. If I intend to be President of the United States, I'm not going to tell my adversary when my final negotiating position would be.
David Remnick: What about the voter?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I'm going to negotiate a treaty.
David Remnick: In other words, in Vietnam when there was a political campaign, your father said exactly what he would have done vis-a-vis the United States and Vietnam. As did Eugene McCarthy. He differed with Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson. Why is it unreasonable to you to--
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I'm telling you exactly what I would do. I'm telling you what I consider fair, which is I consider the terms of the Minsk Accords fair. That's what Russia already offered to sign. Now we have worsened our position on the debate clearly through these ill-advised policies of encouraging war, of refusing to negotiate, of refusing to even talk to our adversaries. My uncle, President Kennedy, again and again, told the country, "You've got to put yourself into the shoes of your adversary."
He did that with Khrushchev. He put in a hotline in our home in Massachusetts and in the White House so that he could pick up the phone and call Moscow because he was scared of provoking a nuclear response. Today, Russia has more nuclear weapons than we do. We are toying with Armageddon here. These leaders ought to be talking to each other, and they aren't and that is the fault of our administration.
David Remick: Robert Kennedy, I appreciate your time.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: Thanks, David.
David Remick: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is running for the presidential nomination as a Democrat.
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