tv Former White House Chiefs of Staff on Challenges of Job CSPAN December 31, 2021 6:02pm-7:06pm EST
♪ >> now, former white house chiefs of staff jack lew and joshua bolten discuss the challenges of the job and how they approached being the so-called gatekeepers of the presidents they served. american university hosted this virtual conversation. . this is about an hour. >> thanks for having me. i want to welcome everyone to this amazing event. it will be about an hour and we will take your questions at the end. we have secretary lew and joshua bolten. we will be talking about what it is like to be a chief of staff.
i guess we will get this started. i think we can all agree that being chief of staff of the president of the united states is probably one of the most stressful jobs in the world. every day is going to be different, right? what is it like? you want to start, secretary lew ? >> it is a good day to be with you, tara. the condition i had with my wife before i excepted it is i agreed to go to the gym every day because she needed a husband at the end of however long i spent in that job. i thought that was pretty good advice. you start early in the day and stop late at night and often get interrupted in the middle of the night. it is never anything good if you get interrupted in the middle of the night.
generally, my view of stressful jobs is you try to ratchet things down because everyone else is ratcheting things up and you make better decisions and hear out all of the views. you are doing it in an environment where things are coming at you from all sides. we will talk more about this as we go through the topics you want to cover. one of the real challenges is not the minute to minute, day to day distracting you over what you need to do over the year or multiple years over the term. they can swallow everything else up. the character of the job, working directly for the president, is extraordinary. i think every chief of staff has their own rhythm with the president. you start and end the day
touching base with the president of the united states and in the middle is emissary to the cabinet, the world at large because he or she cannot be everywhere. we will get into that in the conversation. tara: josh? mr. bolten: it is a fantastic job. some of our predecessors and successors have complained about it, about the job. i never heard you complain and i never complained because it is a fantastic privilege and place to be. both jack and i came to the job from the budget director job. which was also, subsequently held by president burwell. she knows the territory well. i have to say i found my whole
white house experience highly stressful. i tried to manage it in the way that jack said, which is everyone else is pretty stressed out, so it is wise for the chief to be as calm as possible. and in a way i found it less stressful to be chief of staff then being budget director. i remember somebody came up to me when i was announced as chief of staff in early 2006. i spent all of the preceding five years in the white house, first as deputy chief of staff and then budget director for three years. somebody came up and said, gosh, how can you do this job after all you've been through? a campaign and five years in the white house?
how can you do the hardest job in washington? i remember it flashed through my head, thank god i don't have to be the budget director anymore. just to close the thought, why did i find being chief of staff less stressful than budget director? it is not because the issues were less important. in most cases, whatever the chief of staff is dealing with is likely to be extremely important, but it was the ability to focus on what was important to the president either in that hour, that week, that month rather than having to deal with every problem in the entire budget, which is just about everything. tara: you are focusing on what the president wants, but also
thinking about what he is not thinking about. that can be stressful. also managing a staff. how is it managing a staff? what is your style of management? joshua: i will go first on that one. the premise of your question is right. the chief of staff is the gatekeeper to the president. jack, i know that you handled it the same way but did not view yourself as keeping people out, but rather providing access in some coherent way. you do have to keep a lot of stuff off of the president's plate. that is the central part of the chief of staff's role. help be the sword of what is a presidential issue and what is not. in my case, i was blessed with a great white house staff and
cabinet where if it wasn't -- if we determined it wasn't a presidential issue i could say, ok that goes over there. the chief of staff should not be handling the problems that are not presidential. the chief of staff should be working on making sure the sword is done correctly. that someone else is handling the nonpresidential issues. and then focus on making sure that, as chief of staff, you are making the president the best president that he -- so far only he -- can be. tara: you saying there's not a lot of room for micromanaging? you have to trust your staff? mr. bolten: absolutely. tara: what would you say about that? mr. lew: josh and i approached the office in a similar way. i was therefore a year that had a different character than other years because it was the last
year of the first term. even as i became chief of staff, one of the things the president spoke to me about was how he was going to do everything he needed to do while he was traveling as much as you do in the year you are running for reelection. my test was not so much controlling access to him, because his meetings with the staff went way down. he was only in the office half as much of the time. my challenge was figuring out how to make sure, whether he was in the office or not, that he knew all of the views the different people in the white house had. as josh said, saying to people this is an issue that doesn't need to go to him i will make sure he knows everyone's views and the public scheduled while he was in the white house. it was the prioritization at a higher level because it was the year of greatest physical action.
what i did, and i'm sure joss had a -- josh had a white house like mine. there were no egos in the west wing or anywhere else. the secret is not everyone like to express their views when they disagreed with the group. sometimes like to hold back and have a shot at expressing their view when they are with the president. that was the one thing that i knew i couldn't tolerate the year i was chief of staff. i don't want things coming to me from left field. i don't want anyone to feel like they are left out. i developed a practice on issues where i knew that there were likely to be held back views saying we will go around the table. if you have a thought and you don't say it here there is no pathway to the oval office. i needed the president to back me up. there were a couple of times when that smoked out disagreements that could have
easily lead to chaos. one thing you try to do as chief of staff is make sure -- it is not your job to make sure the president decides what views. you hope you would decide what you would decide. it is to make sure the president is aware of all of the information that should have been available, all of the views that were there, and have the opportunity and a thoughtful way to balance them and make a judgment of what the outcome should be. that takes the cooperation of the president. there are lots of occasions when people see the president. if you answer those become additional conversations -- or she, someday -- that makes it almost impossible for the chief of staff to operate. tara: in a way you're still sort
of the gatekeeper, me and -- managing a number of people and corralling them around the president, correct? mr. lew: i think they are diminishing the role. you do look at the schedule and decide who gets in. there is a gatekeeper role. if you just decided who got in but didn't have a process to decide when things got to the president and it was done in a thorough and orderly way you wouldn't be doing your job. gatekeeper -- the hardest part is making sure it is the full set of information and views presented. the gatekeeping function is part of that. tara: here's a curveball. what happens when the president likes to talk on the phone with his friends or others outside that you might not have control over? how do you deal with that? mr. bolten: first of all, that
never happens. [laughter] tara: come on. [laughter] mr. bolten: that was a huge challenge for jack and my successors in the trump administration, which i assume you are alluding to. tara: i was a member of the white house then, so, yes. mr. lew: and predecessors in the clinton administration. mr. bolten: yes, and predecessors in the clinton administration. it was less of a problem in the white house that i served in. i had a disciplined boss, jack lew had a disciplined boss who understood and appreciated the process of decision-making and understood that none of us was going to prevent the president from talking to whoever he wanted to talk to, but if the president appreciates
the process and knows not to make a decision without hearing from the properly presented points of view, which jack says is the chief of staff's view, there is no problem. you can have the president chat with whoever he wants. but when he is making a decision make sure he is hearing all of the correct points of view. in the bush administration we took away the president's phone on the day that he was inaugurated. tara: oh, wow. mr. bolten: no one would get away from that. -- get away with that. tara: you didn't have smartphones then. mr. bolten: they weren't smart. mr. lew: it didn't work by the time we were there. you would have to go she ate access to the phone.
tara: it was the famous obama blackberry, right? mr. bolten: the president could talk on the phone anytime he wanted, and he did. i worked for a guy, as often happens a cabinet officer or someone else tries to end run the system. i worked for a guy who would out whoever was doing the end running in front of their peers. he would be sitting with his national security team and some sensitive issue in which national security advisor rice disagreed with secretary of defense rumsfeld, he would say "condi, by the way don was in here trying to run around the system and get something here without your presence. here's what he was trying to say." he would do it in a light way
because he didn't want his team having secrets from each other. feeling like they had some kind of special access. he was glad to talk to them one-on-one, but when it came time for a decision he would do it with all of them around the table. mr. lew: he would either come to you directly and say here are the facts and what is the story? sometimes he would put a to-do list on your plate so you had to figure out why those facts and your facts did not sound the same. then you can unscramble whatever misunderstanding or ambiguities there were he wouldn't tolerate new information, new congestion, new outcome coming out of a process without getting back into the process. he did it also in a light way, but to make it clear that that wasn't how he worked, it wasn't
how he rolled. tara: the president really sets the tone in a lot of ways? mr. lew: absolutely. with president clinton, not to make it all personal on president trump, he had a well-known proclivity for talking. he talked on the phone until 2:00, 3:00 in the morning. it was not infrequent for new ideas to come in, but he talked about what you learned, he gave it to us, he put a lot of work on everyone's plate. where a lot of the work ends up, josh knows as well. i can tell you the dangers of working that way and administration i was a part of. we were having a negotiation with then speaker gingrich and the president was having phone calls which were one-on-one. the president undermined his own position with those calls, because he was so casual about it.
it didn't happen again, but he almost ended up with the worst outcome because of something that had not gone through a more disciplined process. i can't say that it happened frequently, but in a well-functioning white house if that happens once it does not happen again. tara: there is a lot at stake. there is the issue of these are still human beings, people who can feel isolated in the white house and move who want to have communication with people outside. maybe they are fearful of group things a little bit. i would also think that they have it on to me at the end of the day. -- they have autonomy at the end of the day. how do you manage a person who doesn't want to feel like they are being managed? mr. bolten: i managed -- i did not manage. i should stop myself they are. i worked for a guy who hated to be managed. but he respected the process.
i would never have tried to prevent him from talking to whoever he wanted to talk to on any issue he wanted to talk to them on. but he respected the process enough to know that he shouldn't be making a decision about something. he could come into the room with a bias, with the predilection. he would often start a meeting saying this is where i'm coming from on this issue. tell me who agrees and who disagrees and why you disagree. he was good at that. i did not have a lot of challenge with trying to run a good process, because i worked for a guy who respected it. tara: how important was polling when presenting options and
favorability ratings? how much did that way into the process of decision-making? mr. lew: every president has the wind at their back when their favorable numbers are high. i have to say that i became increasingly respectful of that. if you're trying to get policy done, it is easier to be successful when you work for president who has the wind at his/her back. and i would say in my experience it never entered into the micro design policy in terms of what you should actually do. there was an awareness. there would be symbolic things that you would do because you knew that they were popular. how do you write an executive order, how do you negotiate a budget agreement, how do you deal? i can't say that i ever had a meeting where survey research
was a driving consideration. mr. bolten: i think in the political world you understand what will create political problems. i will take it a step further and say in the white house that i worked in, if you were there for a policy meeting and you raised polling results, it was one of the few things that would make the president mad and maybe have him kick you out of the room. part of that was because he is a political creature. he grew up in a political family . he didn't feel like a bunch of policy nerds should be telling him anything about politics. if you wanted to talk politics he would get into a small room with karl rove and the two of them had the best political brains around. very rarely, if ever, in a policy conversation in the bush
white house did polling come up or be a significant factor. one other thing, president bush also was intentional about making sure that the perception was correct. that important policy decisions are not being made with the political lens. his emblem for that was his closest advisor, he banned him from national security council meetings. he wasn't allowed to come to the table. it wasn't because the president. he did not have something useful to contribute. he just did not want anyone thinking he was making important national security decisions based on what was popular. tara: got it. mr. bolten: we have the popularity ratings to prove it.
mr. lew: there might be an exception or two to the rule. in my experience the chief of staff has a partner who is really the political person. in josh's case it was karl rove and in my case it was david. he and i talked about everything because we were friends and i valued his judgment. he sometimes helped me understand how to explain what i wanted to explain better than i could explain it myself. he had a notion that if something might be becoming an existential threat to the enterprise. he never told me what to do but said i will tell you if something is an existential threat to the enterprise in my view. it never happened. i don't think that most of these considerations brought it to that level. if it rises to that level and you have to partner -- and you
have a partner and they don't warn you, they are not doing their job. if you make a decision based on that, you are not doing your job. tara: what kind of impacted the media have on your day to day work and on the president? mr. bolten: we all are creatures of the media. i have read through your form -- i have read three or four newspapers a day since i was 20 years old and now people get information while simultaneously doing other things. i think that the challenge in trying to make policy in this environment is how to shut that out while you're trying to think . in the security world people go into skiffs and they cannot take their blackberries or iphones with them because you cannot have electronic devices. i actually thought that that was
a good rule in general. people should not be distracted by the minute to minute tweeting of things that might be right and might be wrong. are you aware of the fact that there is constant instant news coverage? yes. when i was chief of staff i got into a car to go to the democratic caucus. while i was on my way to the caucus there was a tweet from a very reputable news source that mischaracterized with the president told me to do. i walked into the room and people were ready to kill me. you can't let it change. you knew what you were going to do. you don't do it blind to the fact that there is instant news coverage. i think that it's a mistake to think that you can make good decisions in a second to second, minute to minute world. you have to keep an eye on what
we are trying to accomplish, what is the path to getting there, and how in the end you will justify it. it has helped to have a president who says he did not pay attention. i'm not sure i believed it. tara: was obama on twitter, though? mr. lew: he sent me more articles -- granted, they were thoughtful longform pieces mostly -- than i sent him. he read constantly. it was important. he was saying i'm not reading what they are saying about me. it doesn't matter to me if there is a bad story today. it is easy to say when you are far away. it is hard in the minute to minute world where most of the people around you are hair on fire every times there is --
every time there is a paragraph or sentence they don't like. tara: we hear when that happens, sometimes from the chief of staff himself. what was it like in the bush white house with the media? mr. bolten: relationship between the bush white house and the media was usually tense. we tried to treat it respectively -- respectfully and we appreciated the role the media played. that was pre-twitter days. it was a very different and i think more benign environment because the news moved more slowly at the time and it was easier to do what jack was wise fully advising which is don't get distracted by the latest
"politico" piece. tara: i was going to say, you didn't have a little girl. -- you didn't have politico. mr. bolten: we did, but don't get distracted by that stuff. as far as the chief of staff was concerned i would never come as i probably demonstrated, was particularly good at doing on-screen or in person presentations. i didn't desire that. i didn't pink that it was important to my job. -- i didn't think that it was important to my job. i thought it was important to have a low profile because i needed to be the referee amongst a lot of other people with pretty high profiles and i didn't want any of them feeling like i was competing with them for public pension -- public attention.
i thought it was my job, often to the frustration of the white house press office, to keep a low profile and keep what i had to say between me and the president. when the cabinet officers heard from me they don't see josh, they see president bush's center accurately reflecting with the president wants them -- president bush's messenger actively reflecting with the president wants them to know. tara: you can see people liking tweets and re-tweeting all the time. -- mr. bolten: i don't. let me put it this way. i would never have done that. frankly, i don't know how he does it. how he keeps up with what he is supposed to be focused on, which i think that he is keeping up, and doing all of this public communicating at the same time.
an errant tweet can send a new cycle spinning off in a bad direction. so far i don't think he's done that. i am both impressed and unimpressed that he gives a significant amount of his time to that. tara: what about you? you were around during this twitter time. mr. lew: i don't know if i should be proud or embarrassed that i've never had a twitter account. i don't think that's a good way for public policy to be made and as a private citizen i did not feel a need. i'm sure that if i were back in public life today you can effectively communicate without offering material in the medium that people are looking to see it. i personally think senior officials should have mediated social media presences if they
have them at all and avoid getting into the back and forth. i will say having worked closely with ron for many years, ron is as good of a debater as you will find. he is prepared -- has prepared more successful presidential debate appearances than most human beings. he is good at the back and forth without making mistakes, but you don't get to make mistakes. it is not something i would have done. i can see that it is probably more in the future than not because that is how people communicate. but to me that is a regret, not a positive thing. it's not personal to whoever is there, it is a reflection of how people talk to each other. it is not a great thing that people talk to each other
through tweets in my view. tara: and even just liking a tweet can send a message in a way. do either of you -- did either of you give any advice to ron klein before he started? what was your advice? mr. lew: i will keep my advice private. tara: what about you, josh? mr. bolten: both dennis mcdonough -- jack, he was your successor as chief of staff, your immediate successor. you would serve the second term of the obama administration. i did it in december of 2008 for the incoming chief of staff rahm
emanuel. dennis did it in 2016 for the incoming chief of staff reince priebus. we both convened everyone in our office, the chief of staff's office. in my case in the 2008 case there were 21 living chief of staff's and 18 showed up to give advice. dennis got a similar turnout in january will stop i guess it would have been january of 2017. you will recall by the time dennis hosted much for reince priebus, when chatham house rules we went around the table and gave advice.
the real weight of the advice to rahm emanuel, who was an characteristically -- uncharacteristically quiet. you might remember -- mr. lew: i was not yet a former at that point. mr. bolten: that's right. you were not there. you were there in 2017 when rahm emanuel was -- in 2017. when rahm emanuel was hearing the advice he had a notepad taking notes. i was on a program with him where he retrieved those notes and repeated back what some people said. the real weight of advice, the most common advice from the 16 or 17 the roundtable was probably apt for rahm which is "remember, it's not about you." you are here to serve the boss
and make sure that the boss is successful. the one piece of advice that has been made public the person who said it was when we got around to the head of the table -- or the foot of the table. i placed the two most senior chiefs of staff on either end of the long table that we set up in the chiefs office. the most senior chief of staff was don rumsfeld, who had served as chief under president ford in 1974-75, i think. at the other end was vice president cheney, who had served as rumsfeld's successor 75-76. we got around and cheney, there had been serious thoughtful
advice, cheney pauses and says "watch out for the vice president." mr. lew: when we had the lunch for reince priebus it was in the same room. dennis had a large conference table when he was the chief of staff. it is a very long table. it was striking to me at that event that the advice that we gave is what you would've expected from each of us. listening to it in the context of the president he was about to serve, you had to scratch your head and say that this is not just about the chief of staff. it is as much about the president. mr. bolten: we were all given advice as though this was going to be a president like the one we served. in the back of our heads we knew that this advice is totally
irrelevant. we didn't really know what to tell him. tara: it was more like a therapy session. mr. lew: in fairness everyone treated him on the level regardless of their political views, but i don't think one of us left the room thinking that there was any chance it would work the way it did in any of our times even remotely. tara: how did rahm take the message it's not all about you? mr. bolten: quietly and he wrote it down. he did all right. you asked about ron klain. we hoped mark meadows might host something similar for ron klain. at the time that we had to put it together the white house was not acknowledging that president
biden had won. meadows was unable to participate. dennis and i hosted it virtually, like this, on zoom. we got all but three or four living chiefs on the zoom. the session that we had in 2020 was more like the session that we had in december of 2008 given that there was serious advice being given to someone who we expected to have a more normal experience. the one thing that i remember particularly is ron mcclain was very gracious and humble in
approaching this group. he underscored his humility by saying that he had actually worked for most of the democratic chiefs of staff on that call. like jack lew. mr. lew: we knew no one had walked into the chief of staff's office with more familiarity with the different approaches to handling the job. tara: did reince priebus and general kelly attend? mr. bolten: general kelly attended. reince said he could originally make it, but then discovered a conflict. tara: i know we have been talking about ron a lot, but he is the current chief of staff. if you could grade him, what would you give him? mr. bolten: you have to give him an incomplete. in fact, the only person who
ought to be graded on the chief of staff -- let me modify that. the first person who ought to be graded on the chief of staff is the president. the chief of staff's job is to make the president as effective as he possibly can be. make him the best version of that president. so, the real grading comes on not as ron klain, are his tweets popular, is he moving the needle in the political argument, but is he making biden as successful as he possibly can be? the other people grading it are the people who have access to the president, voices he should hear, and are they saying he has run a fair process and everyone had a good shot at the president
to hear the best advice and make sure that the president internalizes it and is making good decisions? on those measures we cannot know about the first one. on the second one i'm not sure that ron necessarily gets good marks. tara: what do you think? mr. lew: one thing i don't like about teaching and grading, i won't give him an incomplete. he is not even a year into the job. i think that he comes in at a very challenging time where congress is divided right down the middle. where the measure of success for the administration is going to be how successful the administration is hitting its legislative agenda through congress. taking a lot of the time and attention of the first year, as
it does in most administrations will stop everyone is aware that your chance of accomplishing your legislative goal degrades in the first year. i think in managing it, quite skillfully doesn't have all of the decisions that i would have made exactly the same way. you have to give him a fair bit of room. i understand the trade-offs where i sit. when you have no votes to lose, literally no votes to lose, to get your job done you sometimes have to do things in a way that you wouldn't have done it in other circumstances. i agree that time has degraded the administration. i am pretty confident that it will end in a way that will make it look like a successful first year.
in general, when the president has a good year, the chief of staff seems to have been a good chief of staff. if it was not a good year, whether it was your fault or not, you take responsibility. tara: is there anything would have done differently in terms of the withdrawal from afghanistan? mr. bolten: i suspect that the decision to withdraw was made in a way that involved all of the voices in the national security team, the president making the decision personally. his job was to make sure that the president could make decisions in a clear-headed way. it is hard for me to imagine the national security team did not offer that ability to the president to make decisions that way. that doesn't speak to whether or not i agree with everything that was done.
as chief of staff, that is your job. to make sure that the president has a clear set of facts and views and makes a decision. one of the things that you have to decide as chief of staff is, how much time will you spend? you can spend all of your time sitting through meetings and it could eat up your schedule as much as it does the secretary or secretary of state. i viewed -- as the secretary of defense or secretary of state. i viewed my job to make sure i was aware how people were going through decision-making, win a consensus was beginning to form or differences were getting developed, so that when the president came into the conversation his actions were not precluded by the process that preceded his involvement. i suspect ron would play a similar role, making sure
president biden had the ability to make these decisions. it is ultimately the decisions made by the president. tara: what do you think? mr. bolten: i think jack's sympathetic view towards ron's role is probably right. i was alluding to the decision-making on afghanistan, but i think it is entirely plausible that ron and jake sullivan of the national security council ran a good process that just did not lead, ultimately, to good decision-making by the president. that happens. by the way we ought not resist that too much. we ought to celebrate it. the only person in the national
security council room that was actually elected by the people to make a decision is the president. so i don't think -- it is probably unfair to hold the chief of staff responsible win in all like schwinn -- responsible when in all likelihood the good stuff and the bad stuff comes from the top . with the chief of staff is responsible for is making sure the process runs as smooth as possible and puts the president and the best position to make a decision. tara: i will take a question from our audience. a great one from bill anderson asking the issue of executive privilege is in the news again. president trump has claimed executive privilege, as well as
the staffers, for the events of january 6. it seems the d.c. bubble has one constant. every administration regardless of party reserves the sanctity of executive office communication. why do you think that is? mr. bolten: because it is important. tara: do you think that if you knew everything you did would be public, would it change your job? mr. lew: if you try to put yourself in the shoes of the president of the united states, what you want more than anything else is to make sure that you're getting unvarnished views of the people who are relying on facts. you want that process to permit the president to not worry about whether or not the conversations or briefings are in the public domain. you ask how presidents and
future staff think about public opinion polls. if you used the standard of put my memo to the president on the front page of the new york times, i daresay that presidents would make ill-informed decisions more often than not. executive privilege was properly invoked, it's very important. that is different from stretching executive privilege to things that it ought not to cover. i think that there is a difference between the appropriate uses of executive privilege and inappropriate. there is a long-standing tradition that administrations defer to their predecessors in questions of privilege related to communications that happened in their time in office. we certainly deferred things from the bush administration on that. what is going on right now is very different.
it is an investigation about an insurrection. an investigation about an attempt to undermin our democratic process. that is not something that executive privilege should prevent public examination of. you have to ask in context. if you want to have the president make the best foreign and domestic policy decision, i think you want to protect their ability to have that unfettered advice. tara: do you think that by then -- that biden created an exemption that can be used against himself? tara: he is dealing with an example -- mr. lew: he is dealing with an example that is once in history. tara: so you think he did the right thing? mr. lew: i don't know the documents well enough to have a deep personal view. i certainly suspect from context that what i said about the
situation is probably correct. mr. bolten: i agree with jack. the executive privilege is crucially important to the proper running of the executive branch and can be assaulted from all ends, but especially from your political enemies and the congress who can, without executive privilege, torment and administration and shut off the lines of communication within the white house into the president. i am a big supporter of executive privilege, but i also agree that it is not unlimited. i hope that this is the one and only case that there ever will be where the president has to consider waiving executive privilege because folks in the white house may have aided and abetted an insurrection. tara: you think that he did the
right thing? mr. bolten: like i said, i haven't seen the documents and have not weighed all of it. if ever there were a good case for an exception to executive privilege, this is it. tara: here is another question from our audience. what is the balance of what goes two or does not go to the president? what are some mistakes you remember making and how did you resolve them? she is from nairobi, kenya. mr. bolten: i had one instance where the president gave me a hard time. he didn't generally complain. the night of the shootings of the movie theater in aurora, colorado i got woken up in the middle of the night and made sure that the fbi, alcohol tobacco and firearms, and local
law enforcement fully coordinated. there was nothing else that could be done. we didn't have any more information then that, whatever it was, 4:00 in the morning on the east coast. in the morning the president nicely but quite firmly told me that that was a mistake. when something like that happens in the united states of america the president should know about it in time. sadly, it was a lesson that i had to go back to several times in my one year of chief of staff when there were mass shootings and interrupt him in real time to tell him what was going on. tara: how would you have woken him up? i'm wondering. mr. lew: telephone. you probably couldn't, but josh could have when he was chief of staff and i could have when i was chief of staff. tara: there is a phone in the
room where he is sleeping? mr. bolten: you call the white house operator. tara: and then they walk over to the room and knock on his door? mr. lew: all the time. mr. bolten: i also had to wake up the president a few times. he is a heavy sleeper. [laughter] he is really focused and intentional about his sleeping. he still goes to bed at 9:30 and is up at 5:15 without an alarm clock. so you did not do that lightly, but i did a few times. sometimes involving a disaster or national security situation. more times than any of us would like to admit it would have involved one of his daughters, or at the time, in college -- who were at the time in college. i didn't get grief from the
president about that kind of stuff. if a member of the congressional leadership or a cabinet officer said that they wanted to see the president and i didn't think that it was a good idea i would not debate it with the president . i would tell them. i don't think this is worthy of the president's time. i will put the request through if you insist, but i'm telling you now that i will tell the president that i recommended to you that you not take this to the president. especially with cabinet officers that worked pretty well. i say the president gets mad if you waste his time and he knows that i told you not to waste his time. that would usually -- i never wanted to be in a position of telling a cabinet officer they can't talk to the president. tara: they are in the cabinet.
were you in the cabinet at the time? mr. bolten: and that is important, by the way. i needed to speak to these people as peers. but i rarely had a cabinet officer who forced back. i will let the president know that you want to see him, but i will let him know that i advised you not to take this to the president will stop i found that that was a pretty good tech. mr. lew: the one place where i tried to filter things from the president was things like budget appeals will stop it would drive him into the weeds on things that he wouldn't have been able to resolve. even there you can't shut the door. if a cabinet member thinks that he is not being treated fairly they have a right to say that they want to make their case to the president. as josh said as a cabinet member
you are the only one going to the president and he knows that you have made all of the best decisions. do they really want to take it that far? mr. bolten: i just thought of one exception where i would absolutely screen the president if i could. it is a horribly vexing matter. that is parties. it is just extraordinary at the end of the administration what comes out of the woodwork. tara: how do they even get access to the president? mr. bolten: they are in a receiving line at a fundraiser or a kennedy center event or something, and somebody is having their photo taken with the president and they say, by
the way, i have a friend who -- and we did everything we could to keep those away from the president and try to avoid not just the fact about the appearance of any political influence in the process. those are nastiness. mr. lew: a cousin had pending litigation and i had a case where foreign leaders wanted to go to the president and argue that he should tell the justice department to stop prosecuting something, including very close allies. we could tell the chief of staff to prime minister that's not how the system works, but sometimes the prime minister will call the president, and he could say, hey . i had the experience sitting with the president no car when he took one of those calls. it was a university quality
civics lesson on why the president of the united states should have nothing to do with it. i don't think that he made a friend on the other end of the phone, but your job in a case like that, when you know you are a point of access, is make sure the president is apprised. if he had gotten the call, you only hear the facts from the other prime minister, you might say, i will see what i can do. even that would be a mistake. the way most of us think about the way that the presidents and the prosecution should work. tara: it might leak to the press that the president of the united states says that he would consider it. one last question, we literally have a minute. how do you think that your background in law prepared you for the chief of staff position? you are both lawyers with law degrees.
mr. lew: i thi lawyer imbues a certain amount of comfort being in a new situation, facts and rules, taking the ability to exercise judgment based on that. other people don't necessarily like that about lawyers, but it's a pretty contribute -- it is like beingknow how to ask ths to establish what are the facts and what's the situation, how do we take it through in a logical way it is not exactly legal analysis but it's a way of thinking that i've certainly found helpful. the white house counsel should be -- and it would not be serving the president well in that role. >> i certainly never try to be
the president's lawyer but i agree completely with jack i think a law degree is great training to be chief of staff for all the reasons jack just said, plus in my law school experience you developed an appreciation for neutral argumentation that you had to be prepared to argue the best case on any side of an issue, that's your job as a lawyer in the chief of staff, that's your job with the president is making sure the president hears the best arguments on every side of an issue so they can make the best decision they can. >> thank you so much for your time. this is a great conversation, i've learned a time. who knows, maybe we have someone listening and who will be the next chief of staff and the next reporter to bother you. thanks everyone in the audience,
i wish we could've gotten through all of them. >> thank you. >> next week on c-span, wednesday the senate rules committee holds a hearing on the u.s. capitol police since the january 6 attack. live coverage begins at 10:00 a.m. eastern. thursday beginning at 7:00 a.m., coverage throughout the date marking the one-year anniversary of the attack. friday, the supreme court hears oral arguments in two cases dealing with the biden vaccine mandate for health care workers and the vaccine mandate for larger private companies. live coverage beginning at 10:00 a.m.. both the house and senate return in january for the start of the second session of the 117th congress. the senate takes up the president's climate and social spending plan known as build back better, despite west virginia senator joe manchin's opposition to the bill.
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