Inside the classical limestone State Department headquarters, America’s diplomats learn statecraft, etiquette and strategy — and generally are discouraged from use of the middle finger as a negotiating tool.
Roughly two decades ago, Susan E. Rice, the youngest assistant secretary of state in history, used hers in a meeting with veteran U.S. diplomat and architect of the 1995 Bosnia peace accords Richard C. Holbrooke. According to various accounts, the dispute was a classic territorial battle between two volatile personalities.
The overachieving Ms. Rice regarded Mr. Holbrooke as a meddling elder. Mr. Holbrooke, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, reportedly didn’t flinch at the gesture and dismissed Ms. Rice as an upstart who lacked respect for her colleagues and the institution she served.
As history would have it, Ms. Rice went on to play a Zelig-like role in every Obama administration foreign policy controversy, including Benghazi, the Iran nuclear arms deal, the Bowe Bergdahl-Taliban prisoner trade and the deal to disarm Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. Now, once again, Ms. Rice finds herself front and center in America’s latest international crisis: allegations that Russia meddled in the presidential election campaign last year and the Obama White House leaked what it knew about the Trump campaign’s ties to the Kremlin.
To supporters, she is a smart, accomplished woman, a onetime Rhodes scholar who evolved into a fierce advocate for Mr. Obama, often recruited to handle some of her boss’ trickiest assignments. To critics, she is a lightning rod for controversy, an unapologetic partisan who somehow shows up to the scene of every policy crime, the “Typhoid Mary of the Obama administration foreign policy,” in the memorable recent characterization of Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican.
Last week, news broke that while serving as Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, she intentionally “unmasked” Trump campaign officials swept up in U.S. surveillance. Ms. Rice battled back against charges her actions were politically motivated or tied to any organized scheme to compile dirt on the Trump campaign.
But the damage was already done and, once again, the pugnacious Ms. Rice found herself front and center in a partisan cage match, a recurring role in the saga of her career that has left many across Washington power circles shaking their heads.
A fast rise
Born in 1964 to a Cornell University economics professor and a Brookings Institution policy analyst in Washington, Ms. Rice had maternal grandparents from Jamaica and displayed serious ambition from the earliest age, dreaming of becoming a senator and excelling as a three-sport athlete and high school valedictorian.
After studying at Stanford, she earned a doctorate from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and won acclaim for a dissertation exploring peacekeeping in Zimbabwe. She quickly leveraged her credentials into a political job, serving as a foreign policy aide to Michael Dukakis’ failed 1988 presidential campaign before latching onto Bill Clinton’s victorious 1992 bid.
At the Clinton White House, former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright mentored Ms. Rice until 1997, when President Clinton appointed her assistant secretary of state for African affairs. She was just 33.
Often the youngest high-level official in the room, Ms. Rice was noted for slashing through bureaucracy with bold ideas as the White House re-engaged with Africa. The Washington Post quoted colleagues calling her “Wonder Woman” and “brilliant.” But others noted a chip on her shoulder.
The Obama years
Despite having been given a huge boost by the Clintons, Ms. Rice backed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary, citing early opposition to the Iraq War by the one-term senator from Illinois. The Clinton camp saw her as a defector, but Mr. Obama appointed her United Nations ambassador and later his national security adviser. She became one of his closest aides, but her style attracted serious enemies, reportedly torpedoing Mr. Obama’s plans to name her as secretary of state when Mrs. Clinton stepped down in 2013.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, Libya exploded into civil war and Ms. Rice pushed for military intervention to end the Gadhafi regime. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon and Homeland Security Adviser — and later CIA director — John O. Brennan all opposed her. Ms. Rice won the battle, but her negotiating style was criticized as rude and overly blunt.
But her real public notoriety began on Sept. 11, 2012, the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, when al Qaeda operatives attacked a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, and killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
Ms. Rice was the face of the Obama administration’s response to the attack, appearing on five Sunday talk shows in one day to spread the later-debunked claim that it had been carried out not by hardened terrorists, but by a spontaneous mob angry about an anti-Islam video on the internet.
Critics say her claims fit with the Obama administration’s larger narrative that al Qaeda was “on the run,” a central theme to Mr. Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. In congressional hearings exploring the deadly incident, Republicans accused Ms. Rice of misleading the American people.
As accounts of her abrasive personality and weakened credibility mounted, Obama administration Middle East adviser Dennis Ross partially blamed her for ratcheting up the White House-Israel feud during the Iran nuclear arms deal. In a memoir, Mr. Ross wrote that Ms. Rice had a “combative mind-set” and “non-collaborative instincts.”
After the U.S. traded five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an Army soldier who was captured after leaving his post in Afghanistan, Ms. Rice hailed the deal and claimed Sgt. Bergdahl had “served with honor and distinction.”
A year later, the Army announced that Sgt. Bergdahl would be tried for desertion. On the campaign trail last year, Mr. Trump repeatedly denounced Mr. Bergdahl as a “dirty rotten traitor” and criticized the deal that brought him home.
By the end of the Obama administration, some say, Ms. Rice, who had once been a contender to replace Mrs. Clinton as secretary of state, had become a too-hot commodity within Washington diplomatic circles for more top jobs.
A president’s shield
Historians are fascinated with Rice-type characters, a shield or “tough guy” to protect the president from scandal or to absorb the attacks in political firestorms. President Kennedy had his brother, Robert, an enforcer unafraid of tackling the administration’s hardiest enemies. “Jack is too soft and forgiving,” their father, Joe Kennedy, once said. “You can trample all over him, and the next day he’ll be waiting for you with open arms. But when Bobby hates you, you stay hated.”
The 1993 New York Times obituary for H.R. Haldeman, an aide to President Nixon who served 18 months in prison for his involvement in covering up Watergate, noted that Mr. Haldeman “relished his role in the White House as what he once called “the president’s [SOB].”
Craig Shirley, author of four best-sellers on Ronald Reagan, told The Washington Times that Ms. Rice is seen less as an Obama-era enforcer and more as a liability as the administration faced mounting challenges around the globe in Mr. Obama’s second term. Ms. Rice’s ruthless streak finally undermined her career, Mr. Shirley argued.
“She’s finding out what many others have found out about Washington,” he said. “They love you, and then they stop loving you.”
Mr. Shirley added that in the age of “political correctness,” a female national security adviser gave her a certain protection from criticism, but even that has finally crumbled. “She was never an asset to Obama,” he said. “She was always a liability.”
Given the repeated pattern throughout her career, both supporters and critics say they are not surprised to find Ms. Rice front and center in the Obama administration’s final controversy, even as Mr. Obama, her boss, prepares his memoirs and appears wholly unconcerned with Mr. Trump’s charges that he personally ordered the tapping of Trump Tower.
Last week, Ms. Rice marched into Washington’s MSNBC studio and categorically denied that she committed any wrongdoing by seeking the redacted names of Trump campaign aides, as was reported by The Times and others.
Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, first announced the revelation and later stepped down from the probe.
At the time of Ms. Rice’s interview with host Andrea Mitchell, she seemed at times to imply that she had, indeed, requested the identities of blacked-out Trump team names in the intelligence reports, but that the requests were part of her job, and she needed to understand the gravity of the reports intelligence agencies were compiling about Russian interference in the U.S. electoral process.
“There were occasions when I would receive a report in which a U.S. person was referred to, name not provided,” Ms. Rice said. “Sometimes in that context, in order to understand the significance of the report and assess its significance, it was necessary to request the information as to who that person was.”
To protect national security, Ms. Rice said, her job often required her to learn the identity of masked U.S. officials.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, now conducting an investigation into the Russia election issue, has expressed an interest in hearing more from Ms. Rice; President Trump clearly does not think the matter is settled.
In comments to The New York Times, Mr. Trump argued that Ms. Rice’s role will turn out to be “the biggest story” in the Russian hacking scandal.
“I think the Susan Rice thing is a massive story. I think it’s a massive, massive story. All over the world,” the president said.
Asked if he thought Mr. Obama’s top security aide had committed a crime, Mr. Trump replied, “Do I think? Yes, I think.”
A spokesman for Ms. Rice responded with her trademark feistiness: “I’m not going to dignify the president’s ludicrous charge with a comment.”