Sep 26, 2023

One on One with Robert F. Kennedy Jr.,

Editor’s note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University and the host of the Audible podcast “In the Room With Peter Bergen,” also on Apple and Spotify. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN. CNN — Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has made a career out of challenging the status quo. For some of that work, like his time spent cleaning up the Hudson River as an environmental lawyer, he has received widespread praise. But in recent years, he has taken increasingly unorthodox positions, promoting conspiracy theories without any reliable evidence. He has suggested, for instance, that antidepressants may be to blame for school shootings, that vaccines cause autism, that HIV may not cause AIDS and that Wi-Fi causes “leaky brain” and cancer. Kennedy also accepts little of the scientific consensus about the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccinations, and he caused widespread consternation when at a Washington, DC, rally in January 2022, he appeared to liken pandemic safety protocols to measures that Nazis put in place when they were in power in Germany. Much condemnation followed that statement — including even from his wife, actor Cheryl Hines — and Kennedy apologized. Months later, he said that he was simply misunderstood. He said he was making a broader point that surveillance technology today is so advanced that any government can surveil its citizens to an unprecedented degree, telling CNN host Michael Smerconish in April that “… in the future totalitarian systems would be able to surveil us and intrude and control our lives in ways that had never happened in the past.” Of course, the level of surveillance that exists in our world is surely worrying to anyone concerned about privacy. Now, Kennedy is running against President Joe Biden in the Democratic primaries. A CNN poll released this month had sobering news for Biden; two-thirds of likely Democratic voters say the party should nominate someone other than Biden, and about half of them said that Biden’s age was their biggest concern. For a candidate such as Kennedy — who at 69 is a full decade younger than Biden and whose campaign has released footage of him doing push-ups on social media — that provides something of an opportunity. Yet in a CNN New Hampshire poll last week, Biden got the support of 78% of likely Democratic primary voters in that early primary state, compared with 9% for Kennedy. I sat down with Kennedy for a lengthy interview in Manhattan at the end of last month for the Audible podcast “In the Room With Peter Bergen.” When he enters a room, Kennedy is a commanding presence, tall and tanned with piercing blue eyes, his bodyguards discreetly in the background. During our interview, he made several assertions that made it clear he isn’t qualified to be commander in chief. Among them: He disputes that Covid-19 vaccines saved many lives, he has doubts about the official explanation of the cause of the 9/11 attacks, he promises that he could settle the war in Ukraine by simply negotiating with Russian President Vladimir Putin and he thinks the media works for the pharmaceutical industry. To boot, he would be only the second president (the first being Donald Trump) who has neither held prior political office nor had any military experience. RFK Jr. and the media During the interview, he made sweeping statements about the need for strong skepticism: “People should not trust the government now. It’s untrustworthy.” He also asserted that “the media habitually lies. … I don’t think you can survive in the mainstream media unless you’re willing to become a propagandist.” For me, that triggered a question about CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, whom Kennedy had falsely and bizarrely accused of being on the payroll of the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. In his response to me, Kennedy broadened this charge, saying that “technically, the entire news industry is working for the pharmaceutical companies.” I’ve worked in the news business in some shape or form for almost four decades, and this was definitely news to me. I told Kennedy that I had never seen any evidence for this claim to which he asked, “Are you telling me that you could have this conversation with me on CNN?” I asked him, “They haven’t booked you?” He replied, “No, of course not.” I pointed out that he had, in fact, done an interview on CNN with Smerconish in April. He conceded that was true, adding, “That’s the exception.” Kennedy’s portrayal of the mainstream media as propagandists in the pocket of pharmaceutical companies is nonsensical. It’s part of his overall impulse to paint a picture of some kind of large-scale conspiracy to silence him when in fact, he has been the subject of significant coverage in a host of media outlets. 9/11 Kennedy questions who was behind 9/11, even though few events have been more exhaustively examined. The FBI conducted its largest criminal investigation in history, chasing down more than 500,000 leads and interviewing over 167,000 witnesses. The bipartisan 9/11 commission also produced an authoritative report after two years of hearings. Its conclusions that al Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, carried out the 9/11 attacks were based on overwhelming evidence. Yet Kennedy told me, “I don’t know what happened on 9/11. I mean, I understand what the official explanation is; I understand that there is dissent. I have not looked into it.” He added some “strange things that happened,” such as that one of the buildings in the World Trade Center complex, Building 7, collapsed even though a plane didn’t directly hit it. The government’s official report of how Building 7 collapsed was that it was hit with debris from the massive north tower of the World Trade Center after one of the hijacked passenger jets had crashed into it, creating a giant fireball. The debris from the north tower landed on Building 7, causing fires, which led to Building 7’s collapse. There’s nothing “strange” about it. War in Ukraine Kennedy is positioning himself as an alternative to Biden, in part, because he says he is worried that the president is moving the US closer to nuclear war with the Russians. Kennedy said the Biden administration shares much of the blame for the current situation in Ukraine, pointing to “the neocons within the State Department and the White House. … They want a conflict with Russia.” Kennedy added, “Putin did not want to take over the country. He wants us back at the negotiating table. But we won’t help because we don’t want peace.” In fact, as is widely known, Putin brought the war on himself by unprovoked aggression, miscalculating that he would win a quick victory. Instead, the Ukrainians have resisted for a year and a half with help from the United States and other NATO countries. Kennedy said he is worried that “we’ve got Putin’s back to the wall. He’s already said that if it’s existential, he’s going to use a nuclear weapon. Once he uses it, we’re going to use all of ours, and that’s it.” He added that he had a plan to end the war in Ukraine and any chance of a nuclear exchange with Putin, asserting, “If I’m commander in chief, he’s not going to do that because he’s going to know he’s dealing with somebody who’s going to settle this war.” As for his assertion that Putin really wants to negotiate, it seems like wishful thinking, given the Russian leader’s long record of aggression. For instance: ordering the Russian invasion of Chechnya in 1999; invading Georgia in 2008; invading parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014; and sending considerable Russian air power to Syria in 2015 to prop up the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, not to mention the indiscriminate attacks on Ukrainian civilian targets over the past year and half. Covid-19 It was Kennedy’s criticisms of the US government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic that fueled his rise as the leader of an unlikely coalition. His supporters come from across the political spectrum, and their common denominator appears to be a deep mistrust of corporate and government institutions. Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. delivers a foreign policy speech at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, U.S., June 20, 2023. REUTERS/Brian Snyder RFK Jr.’s reign of error: Correcting the record about yet another false claim he just made During the height of the pandemic in 2021, Kennedy published “The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health,” a book that has sold more than 1 million copies, according to The New York Times. The audio version of the book is currently on the Times’ audio nonfiction bestseller list two years after it was first published. I asked Kennedy if he was surprised by how well the book had done, and he replied, “I was surprised in light of the fact that it was so heavily censored.” I asked, “If it sold a million copies, how was it censored?” Kennedy said: “There was no review in any mainstream paper. It was silenced.” As to his solution to preventing any future pandemics, Kennedy said: “I would begin (by) eliminating the most likely causes of epidemics, which is No. 1, ‘gain of function’ studies all over the world.” “Gain of function” research takes viruses and manipulates them. By tinkering with them, the result may be a pathogen that’s even more dangerous to humans. But on the plus side, vaccines can also be developed from this research. In his book about Dr. Anthony Fauci — the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who played a key role in managing the Covid-19 pandemic in the Trump and Biden administrations — Kennedy asserts that Fauci made “generous investments” in “gain of function” research and, as a result, “may have played a role in triggering the global contagion.” In 2021, Fauci told Yahoo News it was a “shame” that Kennedy’s book attacked his career and undermined confidence in the American public health system. “It’s very unfortunate because I don’t think he is inherently malicious,” Fauci said. “I just think he’s a very disturbed individual.” A recent unclassified US intelligence assessment of Covid-19’s origins released in June said that “almost all” of the US intelligence community assesses that the virus that causes Covid-19 “was not genetically engineered.” The same report also concluded that the virus originated either from a “natural exposure to an infected animal” or a “laboratory-associated” accidental leak. So, in short, there is no definitive answer about the origins of Covid-19. I asked Kennedy if he believed that Covid-19 vaccines killed more people than they saved. He said, “What I try to deal with is actual science and not speculation. What I would say to you is we cannot make that judgment.” Yet researchers at Brown and Harvard universities did make that judgment, finding that if Covid-19 vaccines had been available, between January 2021 and April 2022 they could have prevented at least 318,000 American deaths. And the notion that there is some real debate to be had around whether Covid-19 vaccines saved lives is preposterous. The independent Covid Crisis Group’s authoritative report released this year found that, during the Delta wave of Covid-19 in 2021 and the Omicron wave of 2022, “the vast majority of hospitalized patients were unvaccinated.” Ready to be commander in chief? I put it to Kennedy: “You would be the second American president with no political experience or military experience. The first was Donald Trump. So, what prepares you to be commander in chief?” Kennedy explained that he had been immersed in foreign policy and national security topics for more than five decades by writing about these issues, beginning with an article in The Atlantic on Chile in 1974 and more recently in Politico about the Syrian civil war. Writing some foreign policy articles seems like a flimsy rationale to be the next commander in chief. That said, during our interview, Kennedy came across as well-educated with an excellent command of American history and also of issues such as climate change, which is no surprise given his family background, his education at Harvard and his career as an environmental lawyer. Where he lost me was his skepticism about official explanations of much-investigated events such as 9/11 and his portrayal of the American media as handmaidens of the pharmaceutical industry. Of course, journalists get things wrong just as any other human beings do, but this doesn’t amount to a giant conspiracy to prop up Big Pharma, which is one of his key themes. This son of a storied American political dynasty is casting himself as an outsider running against the system, one that he believes he can lead. The key point that Kennedy wanted to make regarding his qualifications to be president appeared to be this: “I would say at this point in history, not being part of that system is actually probably a virtue.”