'None of us predicted it... but there will be a life after Trump' - Former UN Ambassador Samantha Power talks Trump's impact one year in
The Final Year, a feature doc about Obama's final 12 months in office, is in cinemas now
Like 9/11 or the day Princess Diana died, people will always remember where they were and how they felt the moment they found out Donald Trump had been elected as President of the United States.
Feeling the full impact of that shock, at the epicentre of results night at the White House, was US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power.
A documentary film crew captured her reaction on camera as she cradled her sleeping daughter in a room full of 37 fellow female UN ambassadors, women she had personally invited to the White House in anticipation of celebrating the election of the first female president, Hillary Clinton, together.
She was bereft.
The moving footage comes in the final minutes of The Final Year, a film that follows President Obama and his foreign police team - Power, Secretary of State John Kerry, Deputy National Security Advisor and presidential confidant Ben Rhodes, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice - in their final 12 months at the White House as they attempt to lock in policies they believe will define the President’s legacy.
When filming began nobody anticipated Trump’s election or the impact the incoming administration could or would have on their diplomatic efforts, US interests or global interests. So, what started out as a tribute becomes something of a rallying call.
“People have different reactions to the film,” Power tells Independent.ie ahead of her visit to Dublin for special screenings of the film*.
“For some people it makes them feel very sad and they feel very nostalgic, like it’s a period piece or something. But when I see it, it’s a motivator, an activator and that’s really what I hope people take from it.”
Power, a mother of two, emigrated from Dublin's Castleknock to New York with her mother and brother when she was just nine years old. Being an immigrant is touched upon in the film as she wells up while giving an emotional speech at a citizenship ceremony for a group of immigrants, including her nanny Maria. Of the figures profiled in the film, we gain the most insight into Power's personal life, and what motivates and drives her.
As US Ambassador to the UN, she spent much the last four years of Obama’s presidency by his side at the National Security Council. She also spent time on the ground in areas of conflict, meeting those directly affected. A former journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner - for her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide - she says her approach to the UN was always about humanization and ‘show don’t tell’. In The Final Year she is seen meeting with the mothers of the girls taken by Boko Haram and bringing their personal stories back to the UN.
“[Humanization] was very much my hallmark,” she says. “I was going to come back to the Security Council and force my colleagues to listen to them so that Boko Haram was not just a terrorist group, another branch in this franchise of evil, which they were, but where each of the other ambassadors had to think, as a parent, what would it be like to have your kid taken and ripped out from the classroom and have no idea where they are and to fear they were being sexually enslaved? Without being moralistic, ever. As a former journalist, I’m ‘show don’t tell’. Tell a story in a very spare and simple way and it is more effective at breaking through.”
The most she could do, she says, was turn her UN colleagues into advocates on behalf of solutions. Most were not, like her, of ministerial rank, or members of their cabinets, or decision makers. They did not hold the purse strings or even, in many cases, have direct access to their heads of state.
“In order for the UN ever to work it’s about creating lots of advocates for rolling in one particular direction," she explains. "People often say to me, ‘Didn’t the UN fail on this?’ There is no UN, really it’s just a collection of countries and the countries are a collection of individuals so I viewed it very much as kind of a retail assignment where day-by-day diplomacy was about convincing people to take a different approach, and to invest more in peace keepers, sanction more people who were responsible for bad things to try to deter other bad things, or mobilise resources of a financial kind, medicines or whatever.
“It’s just about individuals flipping a switch, just like my switch was flipped when I heard in a refugee camp about something that had happened. That was my approach. It was very much based on what was happening to real people and trying to convey that and then always ask for something that’s prescriptive – 'okay, you can’t solve the whole problem, but here’s what you can do'.”
Recent reports of sexual harassment and abuse within the UN had not surfaced at the time of this interview, but Power speaks about being one of only 37 women among 190 ambassadors, and how her experience differed to that of many of her peers.
“It was extremely male, but I was America,” she said, “To be not only representing the superpower, but the superpower with President Barack Obama in charge, a leader who has generated so much respect and even affection around the world, who’s a kind of dream diplomatic president, a president who believes in multilateral solutions - not from an airy -fairy idealistic standpoint, but from a pragmatic standpoint - and how we deal with contemporary threats. Certainly, as a woman, even though I was vastly outnumbered in every setting I was in, there has never been a female Secretary General and all the rest, but in a way, being America I got to feel like what it was like to be a guy.”
At one point in The Final Year, Power is described as ‘Obama’s conscience’ but she insists he had his own conscience, and they did not always agree on how to proceed on certain matters.
“No other president has brought a human rights activist into his cabinet the way that he did, a war reporter, an activist like me. He did that because he wanted that voice in the room,” she says.
“Stuff has been reported in the press where, on Syria, I’m urging him to do something and trying to describe the conflict going on, and at one point he snaps and says, ‘I’ve read your book Samantha’. There are moments where, as I seek to bring in the kind of human consequences into the Situation Room, into the high level cabinet stage, that is not really the language that is generally used so it can sound a little tinny at times.
“And as the person with more power than anybody else in the world, but not a person with unlimited power, you can imagine what that weight is like to carry [for Obama]. So, when someone came in and tried to tug at him and he felt, fundamentally, that Congress wouldn’t support what he might have wanted to do, or what someone like me was advocating, that would lead inevitably to a difference in perspective.”
She adds, “We at least understood that these are very different roles. He wanted me to be there to be the advocate and he wanted me to know there would be times where he would say, ‘I can’t do that. I wish I could, but I can’t’."
Early in the film, Power makes what sounds like a very prophetic statement given she had no idea Trump would be elected at the time. She talks about not wanting to leave things hanging and leaving them “harder to dismantle” in the future.
“I see that scene and I have the same reaction to it where I’m like, ‘Oh, wasn’t I prophetic?’ but you see from the film we had no idea what was coming,” she admits.
“I wouldn’t have had an election night party with 37 women ambassadors if I knew how it was going to turn out! None of us predicted it. The President and his staff, they too thought Hillary was going to win, Trump thought Hillary was going to win, everyone thought Hillary was going to win.
“It’s testament to Obama and how disciplined he is that he stayed up throughout that year and acted as if [Hillary’s election] was in real doubt.”
Although it’s not explored in depth in the film, Power cites the Paris Agreement as the best example of Obama’s foresight in this regard.
“Kyoto, the precursor to the Paris Agreement a couple of decades ago, took nine years to bring into force. We, in the world, brought Paris into force by November, from December the previous year. To get that done was like sprinting a marathon, to get that number of countries to sign on. They had to ratify it in their parliament, which takes a long time, or do it through an executive action. That was the perfect example of ‘better safe than sorry’,” she says.
“In the 1pc chance, or the 20pc chance, or whatever it was that Trump won, we have to know that this agreement will exist without us. It’s a very positive example.”
By the same token there are regrets. In hindsight, had she known Trump would be elected, there are things she would have done differently.
“I think the thing I would have done differently if I had know Trump would win, if I were president, would have been to end any involvement in the Yemen war,” she reveals.
“We tried to leverage our involvement, we pulled back weapons delivery. It wasn’t like we weren’t alert to how much damage the Saudi-led campaign was doing in Yemen, or we weren’t totally alert also to the risk of famine and cholera and all the things that happened, but I think in retrospect, while it is probably true that Trump would have jumped right back into that coalition, and even increased assistance, because he doesn’t care about the inhuman toll that the war is taking, I think in retrospect we should have forced him to make that choice, instead of what he had inherited, which was a war from which we had dialled right back, we had a support role providing intelligence and weapons, but it made it easy for him to ramp back up, because that is the structure that was already in play.”
She adds, “I think we would have at minimum increased the cost for the next president for getting re-involved.”
The film does not shy away from the administration’s failures, most notably in Syria, but Power hopes it at least gives some insight into how they attempt to do what they do.
“It opens up and humanises what goes on every day, humanises the effort, even on something like Syria where we clearly don’t succeed - people think it’s for lack of trying. It’s not for lack of trying, it’s for lack of making the moons line up and getting it just right. But I think at a time when faith in institutions is at an all time low in this country and isn’t very high anywhere around the world, if this film could light people up and make them see what’s possible that would be wonderful.”
At the time of the interview Trump’s alleged ‘s***hole countries’ remarks had not yet surfaced. Power does comment, however, on Trump’s Presidency thus far.
“The truth is, as bad as we thought it would be, it’s way worse than we expected,” she says. “I don’t think you have to be a Utopian to believe that the office of the Presidency of the United States would tame some of Donald Trump’s instincts. That was not a wild-eyed fantasy. That is something that you would expect the home of Lincoln and Washington to do to people. And then the fact that you know Trump is instead trying to change the White House and not be changed one bit by the restraint and solemnity and austerity of the office is tragic.”
Power bemoans the mass exodus of foreign service officers - career civil servants - from the White House in the past year. Many had served under George W Bush and Barack Obama and were, she says, prepared to serve under Donald Trump.
“These were people who knew he said he didn’t believe in diplomacy, knew he threatened to pull out of the Paris Agreement, but who were still prepared to stay and offer their expertise on Russia, experts on the Middle East, real people who know things about the kinds of countries he’s dealing with. These experts have been treated with such contempt.”
Despite these negatives, Power is anxious to focus on some of the positive developments of the last year, not least the massive increase in the number of women interested in entering politics for the first time. Emily’s List reported more than 25,000 women had enquired about entering politics in the last year; “Emily’s List has existed for 32 years and their previous record was 920 women and this year it was 25,000. So you see the scale of the activation.”
She also cites opposition to the Muslim ban and the fact that courts rejected Trump’s move to expel transgender troops from the military. There is, she says, a “bright side”.
“I think there’s been much more of a rupture than I anticipated even though I was not enthusiastic about what was coming, but I think there has also been a huge amount of societal activation that I think has offset some of the worst damage,” she says.
The Final Year could simply be an exercise in nostalgia, although it now feels more like a call to action. As it heads towards the closing credits it attempts to create some sense of perspective. Obama is filmed walking among the monuments in Petra in Jordan, and outside the Parthenon in Athens as part of his final foreign tour before leaving office.
“What’s so powerful about those scenes,” says Power, “is that you sort of see the history and no matter how it feels now, things are actually, over time, improving for people. And [Obama] believes that.
“And I think that it’s a tribute to the filmmaker [Greg Barker] in a way, the way he kind of pulls the viewers back from the brink because a lot of people, when they watch that election night party, and they relive their own election night experience, whether it was 5 in the morning in Ireland or 11 o’clock at night in the States, that was a traumatising experience for people, people of colour in this country, the LGBT community, women, people with disabilities, our allies, so many people were disparaged by this person who suddenly had won.”
While it's easy to get bogged down in the day to day Twitter ramblings of Trump, giving that historical perspective forces us to consider the future and how we can work to shape it.
“I think you can get stuck down memory lane and park there or you can want to take the speed racer up the highway and find a way to extradite how we get to the next stage. There will be a life after Trump. Our job is to limit the damage now and get ready to do a huge amount of repair work on the back of it," says Power.
She's not just referring to what Americans can do. Irish people, she says, also want to know where we go from here, and how we get there.
"I really do think people in Ireland, not only because of their respect for Obama, but I think the way of doing things that is depicted in the film is similar to what makes Ireland a great country - that desire to be out in the world with a sort of decency, and just trying," she says.
"You don’t win them all, like the film depicts our failures in Syria pretty vividly, but it shows the tirelessness of the effort and my sense of that, at least my [Irish] family and my friends, is that it is a film that is going to land well in Ireland.
"The Irish I meet are all asking, ‘What do we do? As a small country what can we do to blunt the impact of this large country retreating from global leadership and from moral leadership’. One of the things I love about the film is it asks every individual - it’s not about what a country can do but what is the small act of kindness that one is motivated to do by seeing an effort at making things better."
The Final Year is out now.
Samantha Power is in Dublin tonight Saturday 20 (at Light House Cinema) for two (now SOLD OUT) special screenings of The Final Year. She will take part in Q&As following each screening.