Karine Jean-Pierre of MSNBC: If we get another four years of Trump, "then it's on us"

MSNBC contributor on her own immigrant story, her new book and how diversity and passion can end the nightmare

By Dean Obeidallah
December 17, 2019 4:34PM (UTC)
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Karine Jean-Pierre ("Salon Talks")

The American dream means different things to different people. One thing I consistently find is that the closer a person is to the immigrant experience, the more they appreciate what America has to offer. These people, in turn, tend to be more protective of the promise of America.

That is certainly the case when it comes to Karine Jean-Pierre, an MSNBC contributor, veteran of the Obama White House and author of the new book, “Moving Forward: A Story of Hope, Hard Work, and the Promise of America.” Jean-Pierre, who joined me recently for "Salon Talks," is herself an immigrant who came to America at age five. Her story is truly the American dream come to life — at least for some. Her father drove a cab and her mother was a caregiver to the elderly. Jean-Pierre came to this country speaking no English and went on to graduate from an Ivy League school. Later, she worked for elected officials and various political campaigns, including Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and the Obama administration. Her success did not come easy. It demanded a dogged work ethic and even surviving a suicide attempt, which grew out of the emotional challenges of going public about being gay.

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Turning to the 2020 campaign, Jean-Pierre believes that it will take more than a candidate to defeat Donald Trump. Rather, it will “take a movement” consisting of a diverse coalition of people from communities of color to educated white women to people who tend not to vote.

When I asked her if there was such a candidate in the 2020 field, Jean-Pierre stated bluntly that she wasn't sure yet. But she's certain that for the Democratic 2020 ticket to be victorious, it needs to be “diverse.” That's one of reasons she is concerned that this week's Democratic debate in Los Angeles will only include one candidate of color, Andrew Yang.

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Jean-Pierre, whose book is part memoir and part guide to effective activism, had a message for voters who want to defeat Trump: “It is on us.” Her prescription for defeating Trumpism is based in hard work: knocking on doors, to bringing friends and family out to vote. She still believes in an American dream that can best be summed up by this formula: Hard work plus hope equals success.

Watch my "Salon Talks" interview with Karine Jean-Pierre here, or read an edited transcript below, trimmed slightly for length and clarity.

I've known you or a few years and you used to come on my radio show a lot, but I don't feel like I got to know you truly until I read your book, and about your life, your family, your vision for America. So my question is, when are you running for president?

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It's so funny. I've been doing the book tour and for first three weeks at every stop the one question that I get consistently is, “Are you running? I hope you run for office.” And it's so funny, I never thought of it that way. Then when you look at it in its totality, you're like, "Oh yeah, why wouldn't they think I'm running for office?" But no, I'm not running for office, not anytime soon.

We're going to talk about politics, of course, but I want to start with your story. When you came here at five, you did not speak English. You didn't learn to read or write until the third grade, and you've had remarkable success in politics. You are the American dream come to life, on some level. Does it feel like that to you?

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I think about my parents who still live check to check and are living here in New York. My dad is still a New York City cab driver, as I explained in my book, and my mom is a home health care aide. I look at them and they're not millionaires. They don't have that big house. They tell me that I am their American dream. The success of their children is their American dream. I think a lot of immigrants feel that way.

But going back to what you said, you opened up saying, "You know, we've known each other for a couple of years." You read the book, and you're like, "Oh, I did not know all these things about you." That’s the point of the book. It's part memoir, part call to action. I wanted to be raw. I wanted the people who have seen me on TV and know that I've worked in the White House and think, "Oh my gosh, it must have been so easy for her. Look how fabulous it is," I wanted them to read it and know that it wasn't easy for me.

I had a lot of ups and downs. Being an immigrant in this country is incredibly difficult. I also wanted to tell the immigrant story through a different lens because in the last three years, what have we gotten? We've gotten this awful anti-immigrant rhetoric, just awful, awful division. Look at what's going on in the border where children and babies are being separated from their families and literally dying and being put in cages. There are tons of orphans now from what Donald Trump has been doing in our name. I wanted to tell the story of why immigrants come here. They're looking for a better life. They're looking to be part of this country. They are patriots. And so that's a big reason of why I wanted to write it and have it out in this particular moment.

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People often say that the American dream is dead. But to me, as the child of an immigrant myself, my view of the American dream is vastly different from people who've been here for generations. What's your view of the American dream today?

I think it is very much elusive, right? I think about African Americans who came here on slave ships, not because they wanted to, they were stolen. And there are some hardships here in this country for many different groups. You know, my parents are from Haiti and my ancestors came on slave ships to Haiti. There are hardships for people that are really real. And there's that system, that racial inequality that exists within the system of this country. So the country is incredibly complicated and there are a lot of stains that exist. That's why it's always hard to answer that question.

There's part of it where, I'm glad that my parents were allowed to come here. I'm glad they were able to get jobs, but the system was rigged. Using a line from Bernie Sanders, it was indeed rigged because of the way they look, because of who they were. So there is this different experience for different people, and that's a reality that we just have to talk about.

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In your book you talk about your parents' work ethic and working long, long hours. How much did that impact you?

That impacts me all the time. People are always like, "You're always working. You have three jobs." Which I do, I have like three jobs. I think they've taught me what it means to work hard, respect your work, do really good work, and what it means to make sure you're able to take care of yourself and your family. Those are the qualities that I've learned from them that I see every day as an adult. And now I have my own family, so I'm constantly working.

Speaking to your point that it isn’t always easy, in your book you're very honest about you attempted suicide at one point in dealing with your own questions around sexuality. How did you get to that dark place? And what do you say to others who are struggling every day?

Yeah, it's a combination of things. I talk about growing up in an immigrant community, but it's also a lot of pressure. I was the oldest of three and there was tons of pressure on me to succeed. Growing up they said to me, "You're going to be one of three things, a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer." I was going to be the doctor. I spent my whole childhood, my college years, thinking that I was going to be a doctor. And when that didn't work out, it put all that pressure on me, which I think we do that in our communities. We don't talk about our depression, we don't talk about what's really hurting us emotionally, which can manifest in so many different ways. As a young person, I tried to commit suicide. And thank goodness, it didn't happen. The thinking was, "I'm such a disappointment to my parents. If I'm no longer around, they will be happier." It’s a false narrative that I think many people do. I wanted to tell that story.

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I also talk about coming out when I was 16 to my mom and that went really awful and I went back in the closet. I talk about that journey of my coming out and my sexuality. There were a lot of things going on in my young age. I talk about mental health and the importance of really dealing with that in a serious way. In my journey of going to therapy and being more open about how I feel, I'm in a much better place today.

When you didn't become a doctor as you originally wanted,  you got involved in politics. What drew you to politics?

That one was kind of out of left field. I had no idea that I was going to go into politics. As I mentioned, my parents are from Haiti. They grew up in a dictatorship, which is one of the reasons they wanted to leave the country. In their minds, politics, you're going to end up dead in the corner — it's corrupt, it's dangerous. No child of theirs was going to go into politics or be a politician. I had promised them I was going to go back to school because that was really important to them.

I went back to school and when I was there to do my graduate degree, I went to Columbia University School of International Public Affairs. And when I was there, I met David Dinkins who was the first African American mayor of New York City, and he became a mentor. I went to Haiti for the first time, and so that's when I started thinking, "Well, how can I really make change?" And they suggested, "You should consider going into politics, do legislation and policy, working in that space." And I did and the rest is history essentially.

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You worked for a city councilman in New York, all the way up to presidential campaigns and eventually the White House. Where were you the night it was announced that Donald Trump was announced to be the winner of the election?

I was at MSNBC in the green room waiting to go on, and everybody thought it was going to be a quick night. I never made it on because it was such a shocking, shocking result. And I was one of those people that was clearly very worried. At the time, my daughter was two years old and I thought, "Oh my gosh, what is this country going to look like?" It was scary. It was very scary. I think if you are a person of color, if you are gay, if you are of the Muslim faith, if you are anything that looks different than Donald Trump and who his supporters are, you are going to be afraid.

I automatically went into fight mode. A lot of people around me were like, "I need to go away. I need to go drinking, I need to get out of here." And I was like, "No, no, no, no." I remember talking to folks, "We need to fight. We need to fight, like this is it.” When the inauguration happened, that was incredibly depressing. I remember being on "PBS News Hour" doing that coverage. Then the next day was the Women's March. And that was hopeful, right? You saw that, and I was like, "OK, I think we might be OK."

And then there was the Muslim ban where people went to airports and protested. That was organic and people protested. It's like, "We might be OK." There were moments that I saw, the last three years, that gave me some hope. I was down, but hopeful, and wanting to fight.

When you think about that night, and you look to what Trump has done, has it been worse than you expected?

I think there was always this question, going into his administration, right? People were always like, "When he becomes president, when he reads the intelligence report, it's going to sober him, he's going to become presidential." And so I was hoping for that. Clearly that didn't happen. There were certain moments where I thought, "This is a lot worse,” like I mentioned the Muslim ban, transgender [military] ban, Charlottesville, separating babies and children from their parents — some have died. Things were a lot more horrific because he says the awful rhetoric and then he actually has the policies to back up the rhetoric. And that's what makes it dangerous.

Just this week, he went after 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg and mocked her on Twitter.

He goes after what he thinks that weakness is, and he really uses it to his awful advantage. It's just disgusting.

On some level though, it keeps us all engaged. He reminds us almost daily of how violent and despicable he is.

Also, it was jealousy. It was because she was on the cover of Time. I mean how old are you? He’s a 73-year-old going after a 16-year-old because he's jealous. And then he uses something to attack her. He is a quintessential bully, except the bad part is, he's in the White House.

Let's look a little bit about the 2020 race. Your book, in a way, talks about one of the leading candidates, Joe Biden. You've sat on Air Force Two with him. What did you learn about Joe in those conversations?

We’ve been talking about the American dream, so here I am, this Haitian American young kid who ended up working at the White House. I know Joe Biden well. I find him incredibly endearing. He was wonderful to travel with. I actually traveled with him more than I traveled with Obama. He is all heart. I write this in my book and talk about the first time I met him. I'm on Air Force Two and I'm not trying to drop anything, I met him on Air Force Two and he came and sat next to me, and he was talking about his progressive record. It was really endearing. He talked to me for 45 minutes, just meeting me. You see the compassion and the kindness, and it's very, very real and it's authentic. And I think that's why he's so beloved. I'm not endorsing him, I'm just saying that that's why I think he's so beloved.

We have the December debate coming up. The only person of color who qualified is Andrew Yang. None of the black or Latino candidates have qualified for the debate. Is that concerning to you?

Yes, absolutely. It's concerning to me because it does not represent the base of our party, and how diverse the party is. We are a big tent party and the core of that base is black women, Latinos and young people. It is very much a mosaic. One of the things that was really hard to see was Kamala Harris drop out. The reason why is because when she jumped in, she was seen as a potential tier one candidate that could get the nomination. And seeing her drop out, being one of the bigger ones to drop out first, it was disconcerting. A lot of it was money. There is some concern that when candidates of color run, they can't raise the money. It's a much more systematic issue that we have to deal with. And now the Democratic Party is going to have to deal with this, right? We started off with the most diverse, the most talented group, that we've ever had. And now, we're going into this debate and there's one person of color. It's problematic.

Do you think the DNC needs to change the rules to allow more people on the stage?

I think they need to talk about what is happening here, because it's on them. It's their debates and they need to figure it out. We need Julián Castro's voice, because he's been a phenomenal voice. He's been talking about things that nobody else talks about. We need Cory Booker's voice. We need more diversity in this conversation on stage. I mean, if you think about the last debate, we were able to talk about black women and we were able to talk with the black community. In other debates, we talked about reparations — whether you agree with it or not, we had the conversation. We talked about gun reform. We talked about climate change. We are talking about things in these debates that we have never touched on in the past. We have different ideological views, different kind of voices in gender and in race, and that's important.

You make a point that reminds me of what President Obama recently said this month. You said, "Believe in the mission, not the messenger." Obama recently said that he is suspicious of purity tests for candidates and urged Democrats to unite. What's your strategy for 2020?

Here's the way that I look at 2020: We need to win. I mean, we have to win. If we do not hold onto the House, try to take back the Senate and certainly take back the White House, can you imagine four more years of Donald Trump? It's a choice next year. It's a choice of what direction we want to take this country in. So that's what Democrats have to be really focused on. We need to take back this country from this crazy man that is now in 1600 Pennsylvania.

Whoever is the nominee has to be able to make a movement. We are going to need a movement. We've got to get people who don't normally vote. You got to get the people of color, you got to get white folks, you know, young educated white women, that's what Obama did. You have to really, really get young folks excited. You need that coalition. And we need it more, like that coalition times 10. It has to be about winning and how do we get there.

Do you think anyone in the field now could build that coalition?

I don't know. We'll see. I can't say. I can't say anything. I'll tell you this much: I think the ticket has to be diverse. I think it needs to be a diverse ticket for sure. I think that whoever is the nominee has to figure out how to do that and who it's going to be. Because you've got to excite that base, and so that's going to be very important.

So last thing, impeachment, it's going to happen. Donald Trump will be impeached by the full House very soon. The big question is, does it matter in any way that he will be impeached by the House, but not removed by the Senate?

I think that the fact that we're in this moment, impeaching and holding Donald Trump accountable, is important. You cannot set this precedent of a president acting or behaving or believing that they are above the law. Congress had their constitutional duty. I don't know what's going to happen in the Senate. I'm still trying to be hopeful. I'm hoping it's at least bipartisan, right?

I don't think they're going to be able to remove him, but I think it sends a message. There's no way we could have let him go through his first term and not hold him accountable for the crimes that he has committed, bribing and asking a foreign government to interfere in our free and fair elections, the cornerstone of our democracy. If you are going after the cornerstone in our democracy, then where's our democracy?

I think he's emboldened. He's going to be emboldened, because Republicans are not holding him accountable. Democrats will, but Republicans will not. So he's going to feel that he has carte blanche. He's going to commit another crime, and that's something that Congress is going to have to figure out.

Impeachment 2.0? Do you think he'd do it again?

You just said it. The Mueller report happens and then what does he do? He literally calls Zelensky and says, "I need you to do me a favor though."

Do you think in the big picture of 2020, whoever the candidate is, can help make the argument that, "Look, Democrats, we stood up for the Constitution. The Republicans have not even acknowledged Trump did something wrong."

I think when you think about independents in particular, that's a good argument to make. We held up our part of the deal, we held up our constitutional duty. We are true patriots. We are still a democracy. This is not a monarchy.

You close your book citing from Nancy Pelosi the idea of "organize, don't agonize." What are your words to people who are concerned about Donald Trump winning re-election, but don't think we have the power to win this election?

We have the power. And I'll lay it out. Look at the Kentucky governor's race. Democrats had no business winning that governor race. It is a red, red state. Trump won it by 30 points in 2016, and what happened? A coalition happened. Black voters came out, suburban voters came out, and they said, "No, enough is enough. We are not going to do this." Trump went to Kentucky and put impeachment on the table like it was a referendum. They did an ad, and it didn't work. Wo we have to remember, we do have the power. They're trying to take away our power with voter suppression, voting ID laws, making it very difficult for brown and black people to vote, poor people to vote. If anything, that should be a reason for you to vote even more.

It sits on us. If we don't go out and vote and we get Donald Trump for another four years — somebody who steps on our democracy and disrespects our Constitution— then it's on us. You can't even blame him anymore. It is on us. So we can change this, but we have to come out. We have to knock on doors, we have to make the phone calls. We have to lean in a little bit more, bring our family to the polls, bring our neighbors to the polls, bring the community. We have to put in the time.


Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to CNN.com Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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