Transcript for Robert F. Kennedy Jr: CIA, Power, Corruption, War, Freedom, and Meaning | Lex Fridman Podcast #388

This is a transcript of Lex Fridman Podcast #388 with Robert F Kennedy Jr. The timestamps in the transcript are clickable links that take you directly to that point in the main video. Please note that the transcript is human generated, and may have errors. Here are some useful links:

Table of Contents

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Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:00:00) It’s not our business to change the Russian government. And anybody who thinks it’s a good idea to do regime change in Russia, which has more nuclear weapons than we do, is I think irresponsible. And Vladimir Putin himself has had… We will not live in a world without Russia and it was clear when he said that, that he was talking about himself and he has his hand on a button that could bring Armageddon to the entire planet. So why are we messing with this? It’s not our job to change that regime, and we should be making friends with the Russians. We shouldn’t be treating him as an enemy. Now we’ve pushed him into the camp with China. That’s not a good thing for our country. And by the way, what we’re doing now does not appear to be weakening Putin at all.
Lex Fridman (00:00:56) The following is a conversation with Robert F. Kennedy Jr, candidate for the President of the United States, running as a Democrat. Robert is an activist, lawyer and author who has challenged some of the world’s most powerful corporations seeking to hold them accountable for the harm they may cause. I love science and engineering. These two pursuits are, to me the most beautiful and powerful in the history of human civilization. Science is our journey, our fight for uncovering the laws of nature and leveraging them to understand the universe and to lessen the amount of suffering in the world. Some of the greatest human beings I’ve ever met, including most of my good friends, are scientists and engineers. Again, I love science, but science cannot flourish without epistemic humility, without debate, both in the pages of academic journals and in the public square, in good faith, long form conversations.
(00:01:56) Agree or disagree, I believe Robert’s voice should be part of the debate. To call him a conspiracy theorist and arrogantly dismiss everything he says without addressing it diminishes the public’s trust in the scientific process. At the same time, dogmatic skepticism of all scientific output on controversial topics like the pandemic is equally, if not more dishonest and destructive. I recommend that people read and listen to Robert F. Kennedy Jr, his arguments and his ideas. But I also recommend, as I say in this conversation, that people read and listen to Vincent Racaniello from This Week in Virology, Dan Wilson from Debunk The Funk, and the Twitter and books of Paul Offit, Eric Topol, and others who are outspoken in their disagreement with Robert.
(00:02:50) It is disagreement, not conformity that bends the long arc of humanity toward truth and wisdom. In this process of disagreement, everybody has a lesson to teach you, but we must have the humility to hear it and to learn from it. This is The Lex Fridman podcast. To support it, please check out our sponsors in the description. And now, dear friends, here’s Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

US history

(00:03:18) It’s the 4th of July, Independence Day. So simple question, simple, big question. What do you love about this country, the United States of America?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:03:27) I would say there’s so many things that I love about the country, the landscapes and the waterways and the people, et cetera. But on the higher level, people argue about whether we’re an exemplary nation, and that term has been given a bad name, particularly by the neocons, the actions, the neocons in recent decades who have turned that phrase into a justification for forcing people to adopt American systems or values at the barrel of a gun. But my father and uncle used it in a very different way, and they were very proud of it. I grew up very proud of this country because we were the exemplary nation in the sense that we were an example of democracy all over the world. When we first launched our democracy in 1780, we were the only democracy on earth. And there was Civil war, by 1865, there were six democracies.
(00:04:35) Today there’s probably 190, and all of them in one way or another are modeled on the American experience. And it’s extraordinary because our first serious and sustained contact with the European culture and continent was in 1608 when John Winthrop came over with his Puritans in the sloop Arbella and Winthrop gave this famous speech where he said, “This is going to be a city on a hill. This is going to be an example for all the other nations in the world.” And he warned his fellow Puritans. They were sitting at this great expanse of land and he said, “We can’t be seduced by the lure of real estate or by the carnal opportunities of this land. We have to take this country as a gift from God and then turn it into an example for the rest of the world of God’s love, of God’s will and wisdom.” And 200 years later, 250 years later, a different generation, they’re mainly [inaudible 00:05:59], are people who had a belief in God, but not so much a love of particularly religious cosmologies.
(00:06:13) The Framers of the Constitution believe that we were creating something that would be replicated around the world, and that it was an example in democracy. There would be this kind of wisdom from the collective that… And the word wisdom means a knowledge of God’s will, and that somehow God would speak through the collective in a way that he or she could not speak through totalitarian regimes. And I think that that’s something that even though Winthrop was a white man and a Protestant, that every immigrant group who came after them adopted that belief. And I know my family, when my family came over, all of my grandparents came over in 1848 during the potato famine, and they saw this country as unique in history is something that was part of a broader spiritual mission. And so I’d say that from a 30,000-foot level, I grew up so proud of this country and believing that it was the greatest country in the world, and for those reasons.


Lex Fridman (00:07:34) Well, I immigrated to this country. And one of the things that really embodies America to me is the ideal of freedom. Hunter S. Thompson said, “Freedom is something that dies unless it’s used.” What does freedom mean to you?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:07:47) To me, freedom does not mean chaos, and it does not mean anarchy. It means that it has to be accompanied by restraint if it’s going to live up to its promise in self-restraint. What it means is the capacity for human beings to exercise and to fulfill their creative energies unrestrained as much as possible by government.
Lex Fridman (00:08:20) So this point that Hunter S. Thompson has made is, “Dies unless it’s used.” Do you agree with that?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:08:28) Yeah, I do agree with that, and he was not unique in saying that. Thomas Jefferson said that the Tree of Liberty had to be watered with the blood of each generation. And what he meant by that is that we can’t live off the laurels of the American Revolution. That we had a group, we had a generation where between 25,000 and 70,000 Americans died. They gave their lives, they gave their livelihoods, they gave their status, they gave their property, and they put it all on the line to give us our Bill of Rights and that, but those Bill of Rights, the moment that we signed them, there were forces within our society that began trying to chip away at them, and that happens in every generation. And it is the obligation of every generation to safeguard and protect those freedoms.


Lex Fridman (00:09:26) The blood of each generation. You mentioned your interest, your admiration of Al Albert Camus, of Stoicism, perhaps your interest in existentialism. Camus said, I believe in Myth of Sisyphus, “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” What do you think he means by that?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:09:49) I suppose the way that Camus viewed the world and the way that the Stoics did and a lot of the existentialists, it was that it was so absurd and that the problems and the tasks that were given just to live a life are so insurmountable that the only way that we can get back the gods for giving us this impossible task of living life was to embrace it and to enjoy it and to do our best at it. To me, I read Camus, and particularly in The Myth of Sisyphus as a parable that… And it’s the same lesson that I think he writes about in The Plague, where we’re all given these insurmountable tasks in our lives, but that by doing our duty, by being of service to others, we can bring meaning to a meaningless chaos and we can bring order to the universe.
(00:11:01) And Sisyphus was the iconic hero of the Stoics, and he was a man because he did something good. He delivered a gift to humanity. He angered the gods and they condemned him to push a rock up the hill every day, and then it would roll down. When he got to the top, it would roll down and he’d spend the night going back down the hill to collect it and then rolling it back up the hill again. And the task was absurd, it was insurmountable. He could never win, but the last line of that book is one of the great lines, which is something to the extent that I can picture as of his smiling, because Camus’ belief was that even though his task was insurmountable, that he was a happy man and he was a happy man because he put his shoulder to the stone.
(00:11:59) He took his duty, he embraced the task and the absurdity of life, and he pushed the stone up the hill. And that if we do that, and if we find ways of being service to others, that is the ultimate, that’s the key to the lock, that’s the solution to the puzzle.
Lex Fridman (00:12:21) Each individual person in that way can rebel against absurdity by discovering meaning to this whole messy thing.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:12:28) And we can bring meaning not only to our own lives, but we can bring meaning to the universe as well. We can bring some kind of order to life and the embrace of those tasks and the commitment to service resonates out from us to the rest of humanity in some way.

Hitler and WW2

Lex Fridman (00:12:51) So you mentioned The Plague by Camus. There’s a lot of different ways to read that book, but one of them, especially given how it was written, is that The Plague symbolizes Nazi Germany and the Hitler regime. What do you learn about human nature from a figure like Adolf Hitler, that he’s able to captivate the minds of millions, rise to power and take on, pull in the whole world into a global war?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:13:24) I was born nine years after the end of World War II, and I grew up in a generation with my parents who were fixated on that, on what happened, and my father. At that time, the resolution in the minds of most Americans, and I think people around the world, is that there had been something wrong with the German people, that the Germans had been particularly susceptible to this kind of demagoguery and to following a powerful leader and just industrializing cruelty and murder. And my father always differed with that. My father said, “This is not a German problem. This could happen to all of us. We’re all just inches away from barbarity.” And the thing that keeps us safe in this country are the institutions of our democracy, our constitution. It’s not our nature. Our nature has to be restrained, and that comes through self-restraint.
(00:14:38) But also, the beauty of our country is that we devise these institutions that are designed to allow us to flourish, but at the same time, not to give us enough freedom to flourish, but also create enough order to keep us from collapsing into barbarity. So one of the other things that my father talked about from when I was little, he would ask us this question, “If you were the family and Anne Frank came to your door and asked you to hide her, would you be one of the people who hid her, risk your own life, or would you be one of the people who turned her in?”
(00:15:24) And of course, we would all say, “Well, of course we would hide Anne Frank and take the risk,” but that’s been something kind of a lesson, a challenge that has always been near the forefront of my mind, that if a totalitarian system ever a occurs in the United States, which my father thought was quite possible, he was conscious about how fragile democracy actually is, that would I be one of the ones who would resist the totalitarianism or would I be one of the people who went along with it? Would I be one of the people who was at the train station in crack hour, or even Berlin and saw people being shipped off to camps and just put my head down and pretend I didn’t say it because talking about it would be destructive to my career and maybe my freedom and even my life? So that has been a challenge that my father gave to me and all of my brothers and sisters, and it’s something that I’ve never forgotten.
Lex Fridman (00:16:39) A lot of us would like to believe we would resist in that situation, but the reality is most of us wouldn’t, and that’s a good thing to think about, that human nature is such that we’re selfish even when there’s an atrocity going on all around us.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:16:57) And we also have the capacity to deceive ourselves, and all of us tend to judge ourselves by our intentions and our actions.
Lex Fridman (00:17:08) What have you learned about life from your father, Robert F. Kennedy?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:17:12) First of all, I’ll say this about my uncle because I’m going to apply that question to my uncle and my father. My uncle was asked when he first met Jackie Bouvier, who later became Jackie Kennedy. She was a reporter for a newspaper and she had a column where she’d do these pithy interviews with both famous people and man in the street interviews. And she was interviewing him and she asked him what he believed his best quality was, his strongest virtue? And she thought that he would say courage because he had been a war hero. He was the only president who… And this is when he was Senator, by the way, who received the Purple Heart. And he had a very famous story of him as a hero in World War II. And then he had come home and he had written a book on moral courage among American politicians and won the Pulitzer Prize, that book Profiles and Courage, which was a series of incidents where American political leaders made decisions to embrace principle even though their careers were at stake, and in most cases were destroyed by their choice.
(00:18:37) She thought he was going to say courage, but he didn’t. He said curiosity, and I think looking back at his life that the best, it was true, and that was the quality that allowed him to put himself in the shoes of his adversaries. And he always said that if the only way that we’re going to have peace is if we’re able to put ourselves in the shoes of our adversaries, understand their behavior and their contact, not context. And that’s why he was able to resist the intelligence apparatus and the military during the Bay of Pigs when they said, “You’ve got to send in the Essex, the aircraft carrier.” And he said, “No.” Even though he’d only been two months in office, he was able to stand up to them because he was able to put himself in the shoes of both Castro and Khrushchev and understand there’s got to be another solution to this.
(00:19:40) And then during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was able to endure it when the narrative was okay, Khrushchev acted in a way as an aggressor to put missiles in our hemisphere. How dare he do that? And Jack and my father were able to say, “Well, wait a minute. He’s doing that because we put missiles in Turkey and Italy, and the Turkish ones right on the Russian border.” And they then made a secret deal with Do Brennan, with Ambassador Do Brennan and with Khrushchev to remove the missiles in Turkey if he moved the Jupiter missiles from Turkey, so long as Khrushchev removed them from Cuba. There were 13 men on what they called the [inaudible 00:20:36] Committee, which was the group of people who were deciding what the action was, what they were going to do to end the Cuban Missile Crisis.
(00:20:45) And virtually, and of those men, 11 of them wanted to invade and wanted to bomb and invade, and it was Jack. And then later on, my father and Bob McNamara, who were the only people who were with him, because he was able to see the world from Khrushchev’s point of view of view, he believed that there was another solution. And then he also had the moral courage. So my father, to get back to your question, famously said that, “Moral courage is the most important quality and it’s more rare,” and courage on the football field or courage in battle than physical courage. It’s much more difficult to come by, but it’s the most important quality in a human being.
Lex Fridman (00:21:33) And you think that kind of empathy that you referred to, that requires moral courage?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:21:37) It certainly requires moral courage to act on it, and particularly in any time that a nation is at war, there’s a momentum or an inertia that says, “Okay, let’s not look at this from the other person’s point of view.” And that’s the time we really need to do that.

War in Ukraine

Lex Fridman (00:22:03) Well, if we’re can apply that style of empathy, style of curiosity to the current war in Ukraine, what is your understanding of why Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:22:16) Vladimir Putin could have avoided the war in the Ukraine. His invasion was illegal. It was unnecessary, and it was brutal, but I think it’s important for us to move beyond these kind of comic book depictions of this insane, avaricious Russian leader who wants to restore the Soviet Empire, and who made unprovoked invasion of the Ukraine. He was provoked and we were provoking him and we were provoking him since 1997. And it’s not just me that’s saying that. And before Putin never came in, we were provoking Russia, the Russians in this way unnecessarily. And to go back that time in 1992 when the Russians moved out of… When the Soviet Union was collapsing, the Russians moved out of East Germany and they did that, which was a huge concession to them.
(00:23:27) They had 400,000 troops in East Germany at that time, and they were facing NATO troops on the other side of the wall. Gorbachev made this huge concession where he said to George Bush, “I’m going to move all of our troops out, and you can then reunify Germany under NATO,” which was a hostile army to the Soviet… It was created with hostile intent toward the Soviet Union. And he said, “You can take Germany, but I want your promise that you will not move NATO to the east.” And James Baker, who was his Secretary of State famously said, “I will not move NATO. We will not move NATO one inch to the east.”
(00:24:07) So then five years later in 1997, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was the “father of the neocons,” who was a Democrat at that time, served in the Carter administration, he published a paper, a blueprint for moving NATO right up to the Russian border, a 1,000 miles to the east and taking over 14 nations. And at that time, George Kennan, who was the deity of American diplomats, he was arguably the most important diplomat in American history. He was the architect of the containment policy during World War II. And he said, “This is insane and it’s unnecessary. And if you do this, it’s going to provoke the Russians to a violent response. And we should be making friends with the Russians. They lost the Cold War. We should be treating them the way that we treated our adversaries after World War II, with a Marshall Plan to try to help them incorporate into Europe and to be part of the brotherhood of man and of western nations. We shouldn’t continue to be treating them as an enemy and particularly surrounding them at their borders.”
(00:25:26) William Perry, who was then the Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton, threatened to resign. He was so upset by this plan to move NATO to the east. And William Burns, who was then the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, who is now at this moment, the Head of the CIA, said at the time, the same thing. “If you do this, it is going to provoke the Russians toward a military response.” And we moved all around Russia. We moved to 14 nations, a 1,000 miles to the east, and we put ageist missile systems in two nations, in Romania and Poland. So we did what the Russians had done to us in 1962 that would’ve provoked an invasion of Cuba. We put those missile systems back there, and then we’d walk away, unilaterally, walk away from the two nuclear missile treaties, the intermediate nuclear missile treaties that we had with the Soviet, with Russia, and neither of us would put those missile systems on the borders.
(00:26:31) We walk away from that and we put ageist missile systems, which are nuclear capable. They can carry the Tomahawk missiles, which have nuclear warheads. So the last country that they didn’t take was the Ukraine. And the Russians said, and in fact, Bill Perry said this, or William Burns said it, now the Head of the CIA, “It is a red line. If we bring NATO into Ukraine, that is a red line for the Russians. They cannot live with it. They cannot live with it. Russia has been invaded three times through the Ukraine. The last time it was invaded, we killed, or the Germans killed one out of every seven Russians.”
(00:27:11) My uncle described what happened to Russia in his famous American university speech in 1963, 60 years ago this month, or or last month, 60 years ago in June, June 10th, 1963. That speech was telling the American people, “Put yourself in the shoes of the Russians. We need to do that if we’re going to make peace.” And he said, “All of us have been taught that we won the war, but we didn’t win the war. If anybody won the war against Hitler, it was the Russians. Their country was destroyed, all of their cities.” And he said, “Imagine if all of the cities from the East Coast to Chicago were reduced to rubble and all of the fields burns, all of the forests burns. That’s what happened to Russia. That’s what they gave so that we could get rid of Adolf Hitler.”
(00:28:08) And he had them put themselves in their position, and today there’s none of that happening. We have refused repeatedly to talk to the Russians. We’ve broken up, there’s two treaties, the Minsk Agreements, which the Russians were willing to sign, and they said, “We will stay out.” The Russians didn’t want the Ukraine. They showed that when the Donbas region voted 90 to 10 to leave and go to Russia. Putin said, “No, we want Ukraine to stay intact, but we want you to sign Minsk Accords.” The Russians were very worried because of the US involvement and the coup in Ukraine in 2014, and then the oppression and the killing of 14,000 ethnic Russians, and Russia hasn’t had the same way that if Mexico would ageist missile systems from China or Russia on our border and then killed 14,000 expats American, we would go in there.
(00:29:13) Oh, he does have a national security interest in the Ukraine. He has an interest in protecting the Russian-speaking people of the Ukraine, the ethnic Russians, and the Minsk Accords did that. It left Ukraine as part of Russia. It left them as a semi-autonomous region that continued to use their own language, which is essentially banned by the coup, by the government we put in 2014, and we sabotaged that agreement. And we now know in April of 2022, Zelenskyy and Putin had inked a deal already to another peace agreement, and that the United States and Boris Johnson, the neocons in the White House and Boris Johnson over to the Ukraine to sabotage that agreement.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:30:03) … Boris Johnson over to the Ukraine to sabotage that agreement. What do I think? I think this is a proxy war. I think this is a war that the neocons and the White House wanted. They’ve said for two decades they wanted this war and that they wanted to use Ukraine as a pawn in a proxy war between United States and Russia, the same as we used Afghanistan.
(00:30:26) And in fact, they say it, “This is the model. Let’s use the Afghanistan model.” That was said again and again. And to get the Russians to overextend their troops and then fight them using local fighters and US weapons.
(00:30:40) And when President Biden was asked, “Why are we in the Ukraine?” He was honest. He says, “To depose Vladimir Putin. Regime change for Vladimir Putin.” And when his defense secretary Lloyd Austin in April 2022 was asked, “Why are we there?” He said, “To degrade the Russians’ capacity to fight anywhere… To exhaust the Russian army and degrade its capacity to fight elsewhere in the world.”
(00:31:05) That’s not a humanitarian mission. That’s not what we were told. We were told this was an unprovoked invasion and that we’re there to bring humanitarian relief to the Ukrainians. But that is the opposite. That is a war of attrition that is designed to chew up and turn this little nation into an abattoir of death for the flower of Ukrainian youth in order to advance a geopolitical ambition of certain people within the White House. And I think that’s wrong.
(00:31:39) We should be talking to the Russians the way that Nixon talked to Brezhnev, the way that Bush talked to Gorbachev, the way that my uncle talked to Khrushchev. We need to be talking with the Russians, we should, and negotiating. And we need to be looking about how do we end this and preserve peace in Europe.
Lex Fridman (00:31:58) Would you as president sit down and have a conversation with Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy separately and together to negotiate peace?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:32:07) Absolutely. Absolutely.
Lex Fridman (00:32:09) What about Vladimir Putin? He’s been in power since 2000. So as the old adage goes, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Do you think he has been corrupted by being in power for so long, if you think of the man, if you look at his mind?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:32:27) Listen, I don’t know exactly. I can’t say because I don’t know enough about him or about… The evidence that I’ve seen is that he is homicidal. He kills his enemies or poisons them. And the reaction I’ve seen to that, to hit those accusations from him have not been to deny that but to kind of laugh it off.
(00:32:58) Oh, I think he’s a dangerous man and that, of course, there’s probably corruption in his regime. But having said that, it’s not our business to change the Russian government. And anybody who thinks it’s a good idea to do a regime change in Russia, which has more nuclear weapons than we do, is I think irresponsible.
(00:33:22) And Vladimir Putin himself has said, “We will not live in a world without Russia.” And it was clear when he said that he was talking about himself. And he has his hand on a button that could bring Armageddon to the entire planet.
(00:33:40) So why are we messing with this? It’s not our job to change that regime. We should be making friends with the Russians. We shouldn’t be treating him as an enemy. Now we’ve pushed him into the camp with China. That’s not a good thing for our country.
(00:33:55) And by the way, what we’re doing now does not appear to be weakening Putin at all. Putin now, if you believe the polls that are coming out of Russia, they show him… the most recent polls that I’ve seen show him with an 89% popularity that people in Russia support the war in Ukraine, and they support him as an individual.
(00:34:25) And I understand there’s problems with polling and you don’t know what to believe, but the polls consistently show that. And it’s not America’s business to be the policemen of the world and to be changing regimes in the world. That’s illegal.
(00:34:41) We shouldn’t be breaking international laws. We should actually be looking for ways to improve relationships with Russia, not to destroy Russia, not to destroy, and not to choose its leadership for them. That’s up to the Russian people, not us.
Lex Fridman (00:35:00) Step one is to sit down and empathize with the leaders of both nations to understand their history, their concerns, their hopes, just to open the door for conversation so they’re not back to the corner.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:35:12) Yeah. And I think the US can play a really important role, and a US president can play a really important role by reassuring the Russians that we’re not going to consider them an enemy anymore, that we want to be friends.
(00:35:26) And it doesn’t mean that you have to let down your guard completely. The way that you do it, which was the way President Kennedy did it, is you do it one step at a time. You take baby steps. We do a unilateral move, reduce our hostility and aggression, and see if the Russians reciprocate. And that’s the way that we should be doing it.
(00:35:50) And we should be easing our way into a positive relationship with Russia. We have a lot in common with Russia, and we should be friends with Russia and with the Russian people. Apparently, there’s been 350,000 Ukrainians who have died, at least, in this war. And there’s probably been 60,000 or 80,000 Russians. And that should not give us any joy. It should not give us any…
(00:36:21) I saw Lindsey Graham on TV saying something to the extent of, “Anything we can do to kill Russians is a good use of our money.” It is not. Those are somebody’s children. We should have compassion for them. This war is an unnecessary war. We should settle it through negotiation, through diplomacy, through state graft, and not through weapons.
Lex Fridman (00:36:50) Do you think this war can come to an end purely through military operations?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:36:55) No. I mean, I don’t think there’s any way in the world that the Ukrainians can beat the Russians. I don’t think there’s any appetite in Europe… I think Europe is now having severe problems. In Germany, Italy, France, you’re seeing these riots. There’s internal problems in those countries.
(00:37:12) There is no appetite in Europe for sending men to die in Ukraine. And the Ukrainians do not have anybody left. The Ukrainians are using press gangs to fill the ranks of their armies. Military-age men are trying as hard as they can to get out of the Ukraine right now to avoid going to the front.
(00:37:35) The Russians apparently have been killing Ukrainians in a 7:1 ratio. My son fought over there, and he told me… He had firefights with the Russians mainly at night, but he said most of the battles were artillery wars during the day. And the Russians now outgun the NATO forces 10:1 in artillery. They’re killing at a horrendous rate.
(00:38:06) Now, my interpretation of what’s happened so far is that Putin actually went in early on with a small force because he expected to meet somebody on the other end of a negotiating table once he went in. And when that didn’t happen, they did not have a large enough force to be able to mount an offensive.
(00:38:32) And so they’ve been building up that force up till now, and they now have that force. And even against the small original force, the Ukrainians have been helpless. All of their offenses have died. They’ve now killed the head of the Ukrainian special forces, which was probably, arguably, by many accounts, the best elite military unit in all of Europe.
(00:39:01) The commandant, the commander of that special forces group gave a speech about four months ago saying that 86% of his men are dead or wounded and cannot return to the front. He cannot rebuild that force. And the troops that are now filling the gaps of all those 350,000 men who’ve been lost are scantily trained, and they’re arriving green at the front.
(00:39:36) Many of them do not want to be there. Many of them are giving up and going over to the Russian side. We’ve seen this again and again and again, including platoon-sized groups that are defecting to the Russians.
(00:39:48) And I don’t think it’s possible to win. Of course, I’ve studied World War II history exhaustively, but I saw… There’s a new… I think it’s a Netflix series of documentaries that I highly recommend to people there. They’re colorized versions of the black-and-white films from the battles of World War II, but it’s all the battles of World War II.
(00:40:15) So I watched Stalingrad the other night. And the willingness of the Russians to fight on against any kind of odds and to make huge sacrifices of Russians, the Russians themselves who are making the sacrifice with their lives, the willingness of them to do that for their motherland is almost inexhaustible.
(00:40:40) It is incomprehensible to think that Ukraine can beat Russia in a war. It would be like Mexico beating the United States. It’s impossible to think that it can happen. And Russia has deployed a tiny, tiny fraction of its military so far. And now it has China with its mass production capacity supporting its war effort. It’s a hopeless situation.
(00:41:11) And we’ve been lied to. The press in our country and our government are just promoting this lie that the Ukrainians are about to win and that everything’s going great and that Putin’s on the run. And there’s all this wishful thinking because of the Wagner Group-
Lex Fridman (00:41:30) Prigozhin.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:41:30) … Prigozhin and the Wagner Group, that this was an internal coup, and it showed dissent and weakness of Putin. And none of that is true. That insurgency, which wasn’t even an insurgency…
(00:41:44) He only got 4,000 of his men to follow him out of 20,000. And they were quickly stopped. And nobody in the Russian military, the oligarchy, the political system, nobody supported it. But we’re being told, “Oh yeah, it’s the beginning of the end for Putin. He’s weakened. He’s wounded. He’s on his way out.” And all of these things are just lies that we are being fed.
Lex Fridman (00:42:07) To push back on a small aspect of this that you kind of implied, so I’ve traveled to Ukraine, and one thing that I should say, similar to the Battle of Stalingrad, it is not only the Russians that fight to the end. I think Ukrainians are very lucky to fight to the end.
(00:42:24) And the morale there is quite high. I’ve talked to nobody… This was a year ago in August with Kherson. Everybody was proud to fight and die for their country. And there’s some aspect where this war unified the people, gave them a reason and an understanding that this is what it means to be Ukrainian and, “I will fight to the death to defend this land.”
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:42:48) I would agree with that, and I should have said that myself at the beginning. That’s one of the reasons my son went over there to fight because he was inspired by the valor of the Ukrainian people and this extraordinary willingness of them.
(00:43:02) And I think Putin thought it would be much easier to sweep into Ukraine, and he found a stone wall of Ukrainians ready to put their lives and their bodies on the line. But that, to me, makes the whole episode even more tragic, is that I don’t believe… I think that the US’s role in this has been… There were many opportunities to settle this war, and the Ukrainians wanted to settle it.
(00:43:34) Volodymyr Zelenskyy, when he ran in 2019, here’s a guy who’s a comedian, he’s an actor. He had no political experience, and yet he won this election with 70% of the vote. Why? He won on a peace platform, and he won promising to sign the Minsk accords. And yet something happened when he got in there that made him suddenly pivot. And I think it’s a good guess what happened.
(00:44:02) I think he came under threat by ultra-nationalists within his own administration and the insistence of neocons like Victoria Nuland and the White House, that we don’t want peace with Putin. We want a war.
Lex Fridman (00:44:20) Do you worry about nuclear war?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:44:22) Yeah, I worry about it.
Lex Fridman (00:44:25) It seems like a silly question, but it’s not. It’s a serious question.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:44:29) Well, the reason it’s not is just because people seem to be in this kind of dream state that it’ll never happen, and yet it can happen very easily and it can happen at any time.
(00:44:48) And if we push the Russians too far, I don’t doubt that Putin, if he felt like his regime or his nation was in danger, that the United States was going to be able to place a quisling into the Kremlin, that he would use nuclear torpedoes and these strategic weapons that they have. And that could be it. Once you do that, nobody controls the trajectory.

JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis

(00:45:24) By the way, I have very strong memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis and of those 13 days when we came closer to nuclear war. And particularly, I think it was when the U-2 got shot down over Cuba. And nobody in this country… There’s a lot of people in Washington, D.C., who, at that point, thought that they very well may wake up dead, that the world may end at night.
(00:45:55) 30 million Americans killed 130 million Russians. This is what our military brass wanted. They saw a war with Russia, a nuclear exchange with Russia as not only inevitable but also desirable because they wanted to do it now while we still had superiority.
Lex Fridman (00:46:14) Can you actually go through the feelings you’ve had about the Cuban Missile Crisis? What are your memories of it? What are some interesting-
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:46:21) I was going to school in Washington, D.C. to Our Lady of Victory, which is in Washington, D.C. I lived in Virginia across the Potomac, and we would cross the bridge every day into D.C.
(00:46:38) And during the crisis, U.S. Marshals came to my house to take us, I think around day eight. My father was spending the night at the White House. He wasn’t coming home. He was staying with the EXCOM committee and sleeping there. And they were up 24 hours a day. They were debating and trying to figure out what was happening.
(00:47:00) But we had U.S. Marshals come to our house to take us down… They were going to take us down to White Sulphur Springs in Southern Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where there was an underground city, essentially, a bunker that was like a city. And apparently, it had McDonald’s in it and a lot of other… It was a full city for the U.S. Government and their families.
(00:47:29) U.S. Marshals came to our house to take us down there. And I was very excited about doing that. And this was at a time when we were doing the drills. We were doing the duck-and-cover drills once a week at our school, where they would tell you when the alarms go off, then you put your head under the table, you remove the sharps from your desk, put them inside your desk, you put your head under the table, and you wait.
(00:47:56) And the initial blast will take the windows out of the school. And then we all stand up and file in an orderly fashion into the basement where we’re going to be for the next six or eight months or whatever.
(00:48:08) But in the basement where we went occasionally, those corridors were lined with freeze-dried food canisters from floor to ceiling. We were all preparing for this. And it was Bob McNamara, who was a friend of mine, and was one of my father’s close friends, the Secretary of Defense, he later called it mass psychosis.
(00:48:34) And my father deeply regretted participating in the bomb shelter program because he said it was part of a psychological psyop trick to teach Americans that nuclear war was acceptable, that it was survivable. My father, anyway, when the Marshals came to our house to take me and my brother Joe away, we were the ones who were home at that time, my father called, and he talked to us on the phone.
(00:49:05) And he said, “I don’t want you going down there because if you disappear from school, people are going to panic. And I need you to be a good soldier and go to school.” And he said something to me during that period, which was that if a nuclear war happened, it would be better to be among the dead than the living, which I did not believe. Okay?
(00:49:31) I had already prepared myself for the dystopian future. And I knew… I spent every day in the woods. I knew that I could survive by catching crawfish and cooking mudpuppies and would do whatever I had to do. But I felt like, okay, I can handle this. And I really wanted to see this underground city. But anyway, that was part of it for me.
(00:50:01) My father was away the last days of it. My father got this idea because Khrushchev had sent two letters. He sent one letter that was conciliatory. And then he sent a letter that after his joint chiefs and the warmongers around him saw that letter and they disapproved of it, they sent another letter that was extremely belligerent.
(00:50:25) And my father had the idea, “Let’s just pretend we didn’t get the second letter and reply to the first one.” And then he went down to Dobrynin. He met Dobrynin in the Justice Department. And Dobrynin was the Soviet ambassador. And they proposed this settlement, which was a secret settlement, where Khrushchev would withdraw the missiles from Cuba.
(00:50:52) Khrushchev had put the missiles in Cuba because we had put missiles, nuclear missiles, in Turkey and Italy. And my uncle’s secret deal was that if Khrushchev removed the missiles from Cuba within six months, he would get rid of the Jupiter missiles in Turkey.
(00:51:10) But if Khrushchev told anybody about the deal, it was off. So if news got out about that secret deal, it was off. But that was the actual deal. And Khrushchev complied with it, and then my uncle complied with it.
Lex Fridman (00:51:25) How much of that part of human history turned on the decisions of one person?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (00:51:31) I think that’s one of the… Because that, of course, is the perennial question. Right? Is history on automatic pilot? And human decisions and the decisions of leaders really only have a marginal or incremental bearing on what is going to happen anyway. And historians argue about that all the time.
(00:51:57) I think that that is a really good example of a place in human history that, literally, the world could have ended if we had a different leader in the White House. And the reason for that is that there were, as I recall, 64 gun emplacements, missile emplacements. Each one of those missile emplacements had a crew of about 100 men, and they were Soviets.
(00:52:29) We didn’t know whether… We had a couple of questions that my uncle asked the CIA. And he asked… Dulles was already gone. But he asked the CIA. And he asked his military brass. Because they all wanted to go in. Everybody wanted to go in. And my uncle asked to see the aerial photos, and he examined those personally.
(00:52:53) And this is why it’s important to have a leader in the White House who can push back on their bureaucracies. And then he asked them, “Who’s manning those missile sites? And are they Russians? And if they’re Russians and we bomb them, isn’t it going to force Khrushchev to then go into Berlin?”
(00:53:20) And that would be the beginning of a cascade effect that would highly likely end in a nuclear confrontation. And the military brass said to my uncle, “Oh, we don’t think he’ll have the guts to do that.” My uncle was like, “That’s what you’re betting on?”
(00:53:42) And they all wanted him to go in. They wanted him to bomb the sites and then invade Cuba. And he said, “If we bomb those sites, we’re going to be killing Russians. And it’s going to force… it’s going to provoke Russia into some response. And the obvious response is for them to go into Berlin.”
(00:54:02) But the thing that we didn’t know then, that we didn’t find out until, I think it was a 30-year anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis in Havana, what we learned then from the Russians who came to that event… It was like a symposium where everybody on both sides talked about it. And we learned a lot of stuff that nobody knew before.
(00:54:30) One of the insane things, the most insane thing that we learned was that the weapons were already… the nuclear warheads were already in place, they were ready to fire, and that the authorization to fire was delegated to each of the gun crew commanders. So there were 60 people who all had authorization to fire if they felt themselves under attack.
(00:54:59) So you have to believe that at least one of them would’ve launched, and that would’ve been the beginning of the end. And if anybody had launched, we knew what would happen. My uncle knew what would happen. Because he asked again and again, “What’s going to happen?” And they said, “30 million Americans will be killed, but we will kill 130 million Russians, so we will win.” And that was a victory for them.
(00:55:28) And my uncle later said, he told Arthur Schlesinger and Kenny O’Donnell, he said, “Those guys…” He called them the salad brass, the guys with all of this stuff on their chest. And he said, “Those guys, they don’t care. Because they know that if it happens, they’re going to be in charge of everything. They’re the ones who are going to be running the world after that.”
(00:55:51) So for them, there was an incentive to kill 130 million Russians and 30 million Americans. But my uncle, he had this correspondence with Khrushchev. They were secretly corresponding with each other. And that is what saved the world, is that both of them had been men of war.
(00:56:10) Eisenhower famously said, “It will not be a man of war, it will not be a soldier who starts World War III. Because a guy who’s actually seen it knows how bad it is.” And my uncle had been in the heat of the South Pacific. His boat had been cut in two by a Japanese destroyer.
(00:56:30) Three of his crewmen had been killed, one of them badly burned. He pulled that guy with a lanyard and his teeth, six miles to an island in the middle of the night. And then they hid out there for 10 days. And he came back. Like I said, he was the only President of the United States that earned the Purple Heart.
(00:56:50) Meanwhile, Khrushchev had been at Stalingrad, which was the worst place to be on the planet, probably in the 20th century, other than in Auschwitz or one of the death camps. It was the most ferocious, horrific war with people starving, people committed cannibalism, eating the dogs, the cats, eating their shoe leather, easing to death by the thousands, etc.
(00:57:19) Khrushchev did not want… The last thing he wanted was a war. And the last thing my uncle wanted was a war. But the CIA did not know anything about Khrushchev. And the reason for that is there was a mole at Langley so that every time the CIA got a spy in the Kremlin, he would immediately be killed.
(00:57:43) So they had no eyes in the Kremlin. There were literally hundreds of Russian spies who had defected to the United States and were in the Kremlin who were killed during that period. They had no idea anything about Khrushchev, about how he saw the world. And they saw the Kremlin itself as a monolith.
(00:58:06) The same way that we look at Putin today, they have this ambition of world conquest and it’s driving them. And there’s nothing else they think about. They’re absolutely single-minded about it.
(00:58:18) But actually, there was a big division between Khrushchev and his joint chiefs and his intelligence apparatus. And they both, at one point, discovered they were both in the same situation. They were surrounded by spies and military personnel who were intent on going to war, and they were the two guys resisting it.
(00:58:39) My uncle had this idea of being the peace president from the beginning. He told Ben Bradlee, one of his best friends who was the publisher of The Washington Post or the editor-in-chief at that time. He said Ben Bradlee asked him, “What do you want on your gravestone?” And my uncle said, “He kept the peace.” He said, “The principal job of the President of the United States is to keep the country out of war.”
(00:59:11) So when he first became president, he actually agreed to meet Khrushchev in Geneva to do a summit. And by the way, Eisenhower had wanted to do the same thing. Eisenhower wanted peace, and he was going to meet in Vienna. But that peace summit was blown up. He was going to try to end the Cold War.
(00:59:37) Eisenhower was in the last year of his… in May of 1960. But that was torpedoed by the CIA during the U-2 crash. They sent a U-2 over the Soviet Union, it got shot down. And then Allen Dulles told Eisenhower to deny that we had a program. They didn’t know that the Russians had captured Gary Francis powers.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:00:00) …France’s powers. And that blew up the peace talks between Eisenhower and Khrushchev and there was a lot of tension. My uncle wanted to break that tension. He agreed to meet with Khrushchev in Vienna early on in his term. He went over there and Khrushchev snubbed him. Khrushchev lectured him imperiously about the terror of American imperialism, and rebuffed any… They did agree not to go into Laos. They made an agreement that kept the United States, kept my uncle, from sending troops to Laos, but it had been a disaster in Vienna.
(01:00:48) So then, we had a spy that used to come to our house all the time, a guy called Georgi Bolshakov, and he was this Russian spy my parents had met at the embassy. They had gone to a party or a reception at the Russian Embassy, and he had approached them and they knew he was a GRU agent and KGB, he was both, oh, he used to come to our house. They really liked him. He was very attractive. He was always laughing and joking. He would do rope climbing contests with my father. He would do pushup contests with my father. He could do the Russian dancing, the Cossack dancing, and he would do that for us and teach us that. And we knew he was a spy too, and this was at the time of the James Bond films were first coming out, so it was really exciting for us to have an actual Russian spy in our house. The State Department was horrified by it.
(01:01:44) But anyway, when Khrushchev, after Vienna, and after the Bay of Pigs, Khrushchev had second thoughts and he sent this long letter to my uncle, and he didn’t want to go through his state department or his embassy, he wanted to end run them. And he was friends with Bolshakov, so he gave Georgi the letter, and Georgi brought it and handed it to Pierre Salinger, folded in the New York Times. And he gave it to my uncle.
(01:02:21) And it was this beautiful letter, which he said, my uncle had talked to him about the children who had played, we played, 29 grandchildren who were playing in his yard. And he’s saying, what is our moral basis for making a decision that could kill these children? So they’ll never write a poem, they’ll never participate in election, they’ll never run for office. How can we morally, make a decision that is going to eliminate life for these beautiful kids?
(01:02:52) And he had said that to Khrushchev, and Khrushchev wrote them this letter back saying that he was now sitting as this dacha on the Black Sea, and that he was thinking about what my uncle Jack had said to him at Vienna. And he regretted very deeply not having taken the olive leaf that Jack had offered him. And then he said, it occurs to me now that we’re all on an arc and that there is not another one, and that the entire fate of the planet, and all of its creatures and all of the children are dependent on the decisions we make. And you and I have a moral obligation to go forward with each other as friends.
(01:03:34) And immediately after that, he sent that right after the Berlin crisis in 1962, General Curtis LeMay had tried to provoke a war with an incident at Checkpoint Charlie, which was the entrance and exit, through the Berlin Wall in Berlin. And the Russian tanks had come to the wall. The US tanks had come to the wall and there was a standoff. And my uncle had sent a message to Khrushchev then through Do Brennan saying, my back is at the wall. I have no place to back to, please back off, and then we will back off. And Khrushchev took his word, backed his tanks off first, and then my uncle ordered LeMay back. He had, LeMay had mounted bulldozer plows on the front of the tanks to plow down the Berlin wall, and the Russians had come, so it was these generals trying to provoke a war.
(01:04:44) But they started talking to each other then. And then after he wrote that letter, they agreed that they would install a hotline, so they could talk to each other and they wouldn’t have to go through intermediaries. And so at Jack’s house on the Cape, there was a red phone that we knew if we picked it up, Khrushchev would answer. And there was another one in the White House. But they knew it was important to talk to each other. And you just wish that we had that kind of leadership today, that just understands our job.
(01:05:21) Look, I know you know a lot about AI, and you know how dangerous it is, potentially to humanity, and what opportunities is it also offers, but it could kill us all. I mean, Elon said, first it’s going to steal our job, then it’s going to kill us. Right? And it’s probably not a hyperbole. Actually, if it follows the laws of biological evolution, which are just the laws of mathematics, that’s probably a good endpoint for it, a potential endpoint. It’s going to happen, but we need to make sure it’s regulated, and it’s regulated properly for safety, in every country. And that includes Russia and China and Iran. Right now, we should be putting all the weapons of war aside and sitting down with those guys and say, how are we going to do this? There’s much more important things to do. This stuff is going to kill us, if we don’t figure out how to regulate it. And leadership needs to look down the road at what is the real risk here. And the real risk is that AI will enslave us, for one thing, and then destroy us, and do all this other stuff.
(01:06:42) And how about biological weapons? We’re now all working on these biological weapons, and we’re doing biological weapons for Ebola, and Dengue Fever, and all of these other bad things. And we’re making ethnic bio-weapons, bio-weapons that can only kill Russians, bio-weapons that the Chinese are making that can kill people who don’t have Chinese genes. So all of this is now within reach. We’re actively doing it, and we need to stop it. And a biological weapons treaty is the easiest thing in the world to do. We can verify it, we can enforce it, and everybody wants to agree to it. Only insane people do not want to continue this kind of research, there’s no reason to do it.
(01:07:33) So there are these existential threats to all of humanity now out there, like AI and biological weapons. We need to stop fighting each other, start competing on economic game fields, playing fields, instead of military playing fields, which will be good for all of humanity. And we need to sit down with each other, and negotiate reasonable treaties on how we regulate AI and biological weapons. And nobody’s talking about this in this political race right now. Nobody’s talking about it in a government. They get fixated on these little wars, and these comic book depictions of good versus evil, and we all go, hoorah and go off to and give them the weapons and enrich the military industrial complex, but we’re on the road to perdition if we don’t end this.
Lex Fridman (01:08:29) And some of this requires to have this kind of phone that connects Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy that cuts through all the bureaucracy, to have this communication between heads of State, and in the case of AI, perhaps heads of tech companies where you can just pick up the phone and have a conversation.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:08:46) Yes.
Lex Fridman (01:08:46) Because a lot of it, a lot of the existential threats of artificial intelligence, perhaps even bio-weapons, is unintentional. It’s not even strategic-
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:08:56) Exactly.
Lex Fridman (01:08:56) -intentional effects, so you have to be transparent and honest about, especially with AI, that people might not know what’s the worst that’s going to happen once you release it out into the wild? And you have to have an honest communication about how to do it, so that companies are not terrified of regulation, overreach regulation. And then government is not terrified of tech companies, of manipulating them in some direct or indirect ways, so there’s a trust that builds versus a distrust. Basically, that old phone, where Khrushchev can call John F. Kennedy, is needed.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:09:35) And I don’t think there’s… Listen, I don’t understand AI. I do know, I can see from all this technology, how it’s this turnkey totalitarianism, that once you put these systems in place, they can be misused to enslave people, and they can be misused in wars, and to subjugate, to kill, to do all of these bad things. And I don’t think there’s anybody on Capitol Hill, who understands this. We need to bring in the tech community and say, tell us what these regulations need to look like, so that there can be freedom to innovate, so that we can milk AI for all of the good things, but not fall into these traps that pose existential threats to humanity.

JFK assassination conspiracy

Lex Fridman (01:10:31) It seems like John F. Kennedy is a singular figure, in that he was able to have the humility to reach out to Khrushchev, and also the strength and integrity to resist the, what did you call them, the salad brass and institutions like the CIA, so that makes it particularly tragic that he was killed. To what degree was CIA involved, or the various bureaucracy involved in his death?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:11:00) The evidence that the CIA was involved in my uncle’s murder, and that they were subsequently involved in the coverup, and continue to be involved in the coverup, I mean, there’s still 5,000 documents that they won’t release 60 years later, is I think, so insurmountable and so mountainous and overwhelming, that it’s beyond any reasonable doubt, including dozens of confessions of people who were involved in the assassination. But every kind of document, and I mean, it came as a surprise recently to most Americans, I think, the release of these documents in which the press, the American media, finally acknowledged that, yeah, Lee Harvey Oswald was the CIA asset, that he was recruited in 1957. He was a Marine working at the Atsugi Air Force Base, which was the CIA Air Force base with the U2 flights, which was a CIA program. And that he was recruited by James Jesus Angleton, who was the director of counterintelligence and then sent on a fake defection to Russia and then brought back to Dallas.
(01:12:34) And people didn’t know that, even though it’s been known for decades, it never percolated into the mainstream media, because they have such an allergy to anything that challenges the Warren Report. When Congress investigated my uncle’s murder in the 1970s, the Church committee did, and they did a two and a half year investigation, and they had many, many more documents, and much more testimony available to them than the Warren Commission had, and this was a decade after the Warren Commission. They came to the conclusion that my uncle was killed by a conspiracy. And there was a division where essentially one guy on that committee believed it was primarily the mafia, but Richard Schweitzer was the senator at head of the committee, said straight out, the CIA was involved in the murder of the President of the United States.
(01:13:42) I’ve talked to most of the staff on that committee, and they said, yeah, and the CIA was stonewalling us the whole way through. And the actual people that the CIA appointed, George Johanedees, who the CIA appointed as a liaison to the committee, they brought him out of retirement, he had been one of the masterminds of the assassination.
(01:14:06) I mean, it’s impossible to even talk about a tiny of the fraction of the evidence here. What I suggest to people, there are hundreds of books written about this, that assemble this evidence and mobilize the evidence. The best book to me, for people to read is James Douglass’s book, which is called, The Unspeakable. And he, Douglass does this extraordinary. He is an extraordinary scholar, and he does this just an amazing job of digesting and summarizing and mobilizing all of them, probably a million documents, and the evidence from all these confessions that have come out, into a coherent story. And it’s riveting to read. And I recommend people, do not take my word for it, and don’t take anybody else’s word for it, go ahead and do the research yourself. And one way to do that is probably the most efficient way, is to read Douglas’s book. He has all the references there.
Lex Fridman (01:15:08) So if it’s true that CIA had a hand in this assassination, how is it possible for them to amass so much power? How is it possible for them to become corrupt? And is it individuals, or is it the entire institution?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:15:22) No, it’s not the entire institution. My daughter-in-law, who’s helping to run my campaign was a CIA, in the clandestine for all her career. She was a spy in the Weapons of Mass Destruction program in the Middle East and in China. And there’s 22,000 people who work for the CIA, probably 20,000 of those are patriotic Americans and really good public servants, and they’re doing important work for our country. But the institution is corrupt, and because the higher up ranks the institution. And in fact, Mike Pompeo said something like this to me the other day. He was the director of the CIA. He said, “When I was there, I did not do a good job of cleaning up that agency.” And he said, “The entire upper bureaucracy of that agency, are people who do not believe in the institutions of democracy.” This is what he said to me. I don’t know if that’s true, but I know that that’s significant. He’s a smart person, and he ran the agency and he was the Secretary of State.
(01:16:32) But it’s no mystery how that happened. We know the history. The CIA was originally…First of all, there was great reluctance in 1947, that for the first time, we had a secret spy agency in this country during World War II, called the OSS. That was disbanded after the war, because Congress said, having a secret spy agency is incompatible with a democracy. The secret spy agency are things like the KGB, the STASI in East Germany, SAVAK in Iran, and PEEP, and Chile and whatever, all over the world, they’re all have to do with totalitarian governments. They’re not something that you can have that, it’s antithetical to democracy to have that. But in 1947, we created, Truman signed it in, but it was initially an espionage agency, which means information gathering, which is important. It’s to gather and consolidate information from many, many different sources from all over the world, and then put those in reports for the White House, so the president can make good decisions based upon valid information, evidence-based decision making.
(01:17:57) But Alan Dulles, who was essentially the first head of the agency, made a series of legislative imaginations and political imaginations, that gave additional powers to the agency, and opened up what they called then the plans division, which is the plans division is the dirty tricks, it’s the black ops, fixing elections, murdering, what they call executive action, which means killing foreign leaders, and making small wars, and bribing, and blackmailing, people stealing elections, and that kind of thing. And the reason, at that time, we were in the middle of the Cold War and Truman, and then Eisenhower did not want to go to war. They didn’t want to commit troops. And it seemed to them that this was a way of fighting the Cold War secretly, and doing it at minimal cost by changing events sort of invisibly. And so it was seductive to them.
(01:19:08) But everybody, Congress, when they first voted it in place, Congress, both political parties said, if we create this thing, it could turn into a monster and it could undermine our values. And today it’s so powerful, and then nobody knows what its budget is. Plus it has its own investment fund In-Q-Tel, which has invested, made I think, 2000 investments in Silicon Valley. So it has ownership of a lot of these tech companies, and a lot of the CEOs of those tech companies have signed state secrecy agreements with the CIA, which if they even reveal that they have signed that, they can go to jail for 20 years and have their assets removed, et cetera. The influence that the agency has, the capacity to influence events at every level in our country, is really frightening.

CIA influence

(01:20:03) And then for most of its life, the CIA was banned from propagandizing Americans, but we learned that they were doing it anyway. So in 1973, during the Church Committee hearings, we’ve learned that the CIA had a program called Operation Mockingbird, where they had at least 400 members, leading members of the United States press corps, on the New York Times, the Washington Post, ABC, CBS, NBC, et cetera, who were secretly working for the agency, and steering news coverage to support CIA priorities. And they agreed at that time to disband Operation Mockingbird in ’73. But there’s indications they didn’t do that.
(01:20:56) And they still, the CIA today, is the biggest funder of journalism around the world. The biggest funder is through USAID. The United States funds journalism in almost every country in the world. It owns newspapers, it has journalists on it, thousands and thousands of journalists, on its payroll. They’re not supposed to be doing that in the United States. But in 2016, president Obama changed the law to make it legal now for the CIA to propagandize Americans. And I think, we can’t look at the Ukraine War and how the narrative has been formed in the minds of Americans, and say that the CIA had nothing to do with that.
Lex Fridman (01:21:46) Well, what is the mechanism by which the CIA influences the narrative? Do you think it’s indirectly?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:21:51) Through the press.
Lex Fridman (01:21:52) Indirectly through the press, or directly by funding the press?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:21:55) Directly through. I mean, there’s certain press organs that have been linked to the agency, that the people who run those organs, things like the Daily Beast, now Rolling Stone, editor of Rolling Stone, Noah Shachtman, has deep relationships with the intelligence community, Salon, Daily Kos.
Lex Fridman (01:22:19) But I wonder why they would do it. From my perspective, it just seems like the job of a journalist is to have an integrity where your opinion cannot be influenced or bought.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:22:30) I agree with you, but I actually think that the entire field of journalism has really shamed itself in recent years, because it’s become, the principle newspapers in this country and the television stations, the legacy media, have abandoned their tradition of… When I was a kid, listen, my house was filled with the greatest journalists alive at that time, people like Ben Bradley, like Anthony Lewis, Mary McGrory, Pete Hamil, Jack Newfield, Jimmy Breslin, and many, many others. And after my father died, they started the RFK Journalism Awards to recognize integrity and courage, journalistic integrity and courage. And for that generation of journalism, they thought, they believed that the function of journalists, was to maintain this posture of fear-skepticism toward any aggregation of power, including government authority, that people in authority lie, and that they always have to be questioned, and that their job was to speak truth to power, and to be guardians of the First Amendment to free expression.
(01:23:57) But if you look what happened during the pandemic, was the inverse of that kind of journalism, where the major press organs in this country were, instead of speaking truth to power, they were doing the opposite. They were broadcasting propaganda. They became propaganda organs for the government agencies. And they were actually censoring the speech of dissent, anybody who dissent, of the powerless. And in fact, it was an organized conspiracy, and the name of it was the Trusted News Initiative. And some of the major press organs in our country signed onto it, and they agreed not to print stories or facts, that departed from government orthodoxy. So the Washington Post was the signature of the UPI, the AP, and then the four social media groups, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, and Google, all signed on to the Trusted News Initiative.
(01:24:59) It was started by the BBC, organized by them. And the purpose of it, was to make sure nobody could print anything about government that departed from governmental orthodox. And the way it worked is, the UPI, the AP, which are the news services that provide most of the news news around the country, and the Washington Post, would decide what news was permissible to print. And a lot of it was about COVID, but also Hunter Biden’s laptops, it was impermissible to suggest that those were real, or that they had stuff on there that was compromising.
(01:25:39) And by the way, what I’m telling you is all well documented, and I’m litigating on it right now, so I’m part of a lawsuit against the TNI, and so I know a lot about what happened, and I have all this documented and people can go to our website. There’s a letter on my sub-stack now, to Michael Scherer of the Washington Post that outlines all this, and gives all my sources, because Michael Scherer accused me of being a conspiracy theorist, when he was actually part of a conspiracy, a true conspiracy, to suppress anybody who is departing from government orthodoxies, by either censoring them completely, or labeling them conspiracy theorists.
Lex Fridman (01:26:26) I mean, you can understand the intention and the action, the difference between as we talked about, you can understand the intention of such a thing being good, that in a time of a catastrophe, in a time of a pandemic, there’s a lot of risk to saying untrue things. But that’s a slippery slope that leads into a place where the journalistic integrity that we talked about, is completely sacrificed, and then you can deviate from truth.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:26:54) If you read their internal memorandum, including the statements of the leader of the Trusted News Initiative, I think her name’s Jessica, Jennifer, Cecil and you can go on our website and see her statement. She says, the purpose of this is that we’re now… Actually, she says, when people look at the us, they think we’re competitors, but we’re not. The real competitors are coming from all these alternative news sources now all over the network, and they’re hurting public trust in us, and they’re hurting our economic model, and they have to be choked off and crushed. And the way that we’re going to do that, is to make an agreement with the social media sites, that if we say, if we label their information misinformation, the social media sites will de platform it, or they will throttle it, or they will shadow-ban it, which destroys the economic model of those alternative, competitive sources of information. So that that’s true.
(01:27:58) But the point you make, is an important point. That the journalists themselves, who probably didn’t know about the TNI agreement, certainly I’m sure they didn’t, they believe that they’re doing the right thing by suppressing information that may challenge government proclamations on COVID. But I mean, there’s a danger to that. And the danger is that, once you appoint yourself an arbiter of what’s true and what’s not true, then there’s really no end to the power that you have now assumed for yourself, because now your job is no longer to inform the public. Your job now is to manipulate the public. And if you end up manipulating the public in collusion with powerful entities, then you become the instrument of authoritarian rule, rather than the opponent of it. And it becomes the inverse of journalism and a democracy.

2024 elections

Lex Fridman (01:29:05) You’re running for president as a Democrat, what to you are the strongest values that represent the left-wing politics of this country?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:29:18) I would say protection of the environment, and the commons, the air, the water, wildlife, fisheries, public lands, those assets, they cannot be reduced to private property ownership, the landscapes, our purple mountain majesty, the protection of the most vulnerable people in our society, people which would include children and minorities, the restoration of the middle class, and protection of labor, dignity, and decent pay for labor, bodily autonomy, a woman’s right to-
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:30:03) … bodily autonomy, a woman’s right to choose or an individual’s right to endure unwanted medical procedures. Peace. The Democrats have always been anti-war. The refusal to use fear is a governing tool. FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” because he recognized that tyrants and dictators could use fear to disable critical thinking and overwhelm the desire for personal liberty. The freedom of government from untoward influenced by corrupt corporate power. The end of this corrupt merger of state and corporate power that is now I think, dominating our democracy. It’s what Eisenhower warned about when he warned against the emergence of the military industrial complex.
(01:31:07) And then I prefer to talk about the positive vision of what we should be doing in our country and globally, which is I see that the corporations are commoditizing us are poisoning our children, are strip mining the wealth from our middle class and treating America as if it were business in liquidation, converting assets to cash as quickly as possible and creating or exacerbating this huge disparity in wealth in our country, which is eliminating the middle class and creating a Latin American style futile model. There’s these huge aggregations of wealth above and widespread poverty below, and that’s a configuration that is too unstable to support democracy sustainably. And we’re supposed to be modeling democracy, but we’re losing it.
(01:32:11) And I think we have ought to have a foreign policy that restores our moral authority around the world. Restores America as the embodiment of moral authority, which it was when my uncle was president. And as a purveyor of peace rather than a war-like nation. My uncle said he didn’t want people in Africa and Latin America and Asia when they think of America to picture a man with a gun and a bayonet. He wanted them to think of a Peace Corps volunteer, and he refused to send combat soldiers abroad. He never sent a single soldier to his death abroad and into combat. He sent 16,000. He resisted in Berlin in ’62. He resisted in Laos in ’61. He resisted in Vietnam. Vietnam, they wanted him to put 250,000 troops. He only put 16,000 advisors, which was fewer troops.
(01:33:22) And he sent to get James Meredith into the universe to Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi. One black man, he sent 16,000. And month before he died, he ordered them all home. I think it was October 2nd, 1963, he heard that a Green Beret had died. And he asked his aid for a list of combat fatalities. And the aid came back and there was 75 men had died in Vietnam at that point. And he said, “That’s too many. We’re going to have no more.” And he signed a national security order, 263, and ordered all of those men, all Americans, home from Vietnam by 1965 with the first thousand coming home by December ’63.
(01:34:13) And then in November he, of course, just before that evacuation began, he was killed. And a week later, president Johnson remanded that order. And then a year after that, the Tonkin Gulf resolution, we sent 250,000, which is what they wanted my uncle to do, which he refused. And it became an American war. And then Nixon topped it off at 560,000. 56,000 Americans never came home, including my cousin George Skakel, who died at the Tet Offensive. And we killed a million Vietnamese and we got nothing for it.
Lex Fridman (01:34:51) So America should be the symbol of peace?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:34:57) My uncle really focused on putting America on the side of the poor, instead of our tradition of fortifying oligarchies that were anti-communism. That was our major criteria. If you said you were against communists, and of course the people were with the rich people, our aid was going to the rich people in those countries and they were going to the military juntas. Our weapons were going to the juntas to fight against the poor. And my uncle said, “No, America should be on the side of the porn.” And so he launched the Alliance for Progress and USAID, which were intended to bring aid to the poorest people and those, and build middle classes, and take ourselves away.
(01:35:42) In fact, his two favorite trips while he was president. His most favorite trip was to Ireland, this incredible, emotional homecoming for all of the people of Ireland. But his second favorite trip was when he went to Colombia, he went to Latin America, but Colombia was his favorite country. And I think there were 2 million people came into Bogota to see him, this vast crowd. And they were just delirious cheering for him. And the president of Columbia, Lleras Camargo, said to him, “Do you know why they love you?”
(01:36:22) And my uncle said, “Why?”
(01:36:24) And he said, “Because they think you’ve put America on the side of the poor against the oligarchs.” And my uncle, after he died, today, there are more avenues and boulevards and hospitals and schools and statues and parks commemorating John Kennedy in Africa and Latin America than any other president in the United States, and probably more than all the other presidents combined. And it’s because he put America on the side of the poor. And that’s what we ought to be doing.
(01:37:01) We ought to be projecting economic power abroad. The Chinese have essentially stolen his playbook and we’ve spent $8 trillion on the Iraq war and its aftermath. The wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan. And what do we get for that? We got nothing for that money. $8 trillion. We killed more Iraqis than Saddam Hussein. Iraq today is much worse off than it was when Saddam was there. It’s an incoherent, violent war between Shia and Sunni death squads. We pushed Iraq into the embrace of Iran, which now become essentially a proxy for Iran, which is exactly the outcome that we were trying to prevent for the past 20 or 30 years.
(01:37:53) We created ISIS, we sent 2 million refugees into Europe, destabilizing all of the nations in Europe for generations. And we’re now seeing these riots in France, and that’s a direct result from the Syrian war that we created and our creation of ISIS. Brexit is another result of that. So for $8 trillion, we wrecked the world. And during that same period that we spent $8.1 trillion bombing bridges, ports, schools, hospitals, the Chinese spent 8.1 trillion building schools, ports, hospitals, bridges, and universities.
(01:38:42) And now the Chinese are out-competing us everywhere in the world. Everybody wants to deal with the Chinese because they come in, they build nice things for you, and there’s no strings attached and they’re pleasant to deal with. And as a result of that, Brazil is switching the Chinese currency. Argentina is switching. Saudi Arabia, our greatest partner that we put trillions of dollars into protecting our oil pipelines there. And now they’re saying, “We don’t care what the United States think.” That’s what Mohammed bin Salman said.
(01:39:24) He dropped oil production in Saudi Arabia in the middle of a US inflation spiral. They’ve never done that to us before, to aggravate the inflation spiral. And then they signed a deal, a unilateral peace deal with Iran, which has been the enemy that we’ve been telling them to be a bulwark against for 20 years. And two weeks after that, he said, “We don’t care what the United States thinks anymore.” So that’s what we got for spending all those trillions of dollars there. We got short term friends. And we have not made ourselves safer. We’ve put Americans in more jeopardy all over the world. You have to wait in lines to get through the airport. The security state is now causing us $1.3 trillion, and America is unsafer and poorer than it’s ever been. So we should be doing what President Kennedy said we ought to do, and the policy that China has now adopted.

Jordan Peterson

Lex Fridman (01:40:37) So that’s a really eloquent and clear and powerful description of the way you see US should be doing geopolitics and the way you see US should be taking care of the poor in this country. Let me ask you a question from Jordan Peterson that he asked when I told him that I’m speaking with you. “Given everything you’ve said, when does the left go too far?” I suppose he’s referring to cultural issues, identity politics.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:41:10) Well, Jordan trying to get me to badmouth the left the whole time I was in, I really enjoyed my talk with him, but he seemed to have that agenda where he wanted me to say bad things about the left and that’s not what my campaign is about. I want to do the opposite. I’m not going to badmouth the left. I was on shows this week with David Remnick from the New Yorker, and he tried to get me to badmouth Donald Trump and Alex Jones and a lot of other people, and baiting me to do it. And of course there’s a lot of bad things I could say about all those people, but I’m trying to find values that hold us together and we can share in common, rather than to focus constantly on these disputes and these issues that drive us apart.
(01:42:07) So me sitting here badmouthing the left or badmouthing the right is not going to advance the ball. I really want to figure out ways that what do these groups hold in common that we can all have a shared vision of what we want this country to look like.

Anthony Fauci

Lex Fridman (01:42:25) Well, that’s music to my ears. But in that spirit, let me ask you a difficult question then. You wrote a book harshly criticizing Anthony Fauci. Let me ask you to steelman the case for the people who support him. What is the biggest positive thing you think Anthony Fauci did for the world? What is good that he has done for the world, especially during this pandemic?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:42:48) I don’t want to sit here and speak unfairly by saying the guy didn’t do anything, but I can’t think of anything. If you tell me something that you think he did, maybe there was a drug that got licensed while he was at NIH that benefited people, that’s certainly possible. He was there for 50 years. And in terms of his principle programs of the AIDS programs and his COVID programs, I think that the harm that he did vastly outweighed the benefits.
Lex Fridman (01:43:29) Do you think he believes he’s doing good for the world?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:43:31) I don’t know what he believes. In fact, in that book, which is I think 250,000 words, I never try to look inside of his head. I deal with facts. I deal with science and every factual assertion in that book is cited in source to government databases or peer reviewed publications. And I try not to speculate about things that I don’t know about or I can’t prove. And I cannot tell you what his motivations were. He’s done a lot of things that I think are really very, very bad things for humanity and very deceptive. But we all have this capacity for self-deception. As I said at the beginning of this podcast, we judge ourselves on our intentions rather than our actions. And we all have an almost infinite capacity to convince ourselves that what we’re doing is right. And not everybody lives an examined life. And it is examining their motivations and the way that the world might experience their professions of goodness.
Lex Fridman (01:44:45) Let me ask about the difficulty of the job he had. Do you think it’s possible to do that kind of job well or is it also a fundamental flaw of the job, of being the central centralized figure that’s supposed to have a scientific policy?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:44:58) No. No. I think he was a genuinely bad human being. And that there were many, many good people in that department over the years. Bernice Eddy is a really good example. John Anthony Morris. Many people whose careers he destroyed because they were trying to tell the truth. One after the other, the greatest scientists in the history of NIH were run out of that agency. But people listening to this, probably will, in hearing me say that, will think that I’m bitter or that I’m doctrinaire about him, but you should really go and read my book. And it’s hard to summarize. I try to be really methodical, to not call names, to just say what happened.

Big Pharma

Lex Fridman (01:45:57) The bigger picture of this is you’re an outspoken critic of pharmaceutical companies, big pharma. What is the biggest problem with big pharma and how can it be fixed?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:46:07) Well, the problem could be fixed with regulation. But the pharmaceutical industry is… I don’t want to say because this is going to seem extreme that a criminal enterprise, but if you look at the history, that is an applicable characterization, for example, the four biggest vaccine makers, Sanofi, Merck, Pfizer, and Glaxo, four companies that make all of the 72 vaccines that are now effectively mandated for American children. Collectively, those companies have paid $35 billion in criminal penalties and damages in the last decade. And I think since 2000, about 79 billion. So these are the most corrupt companies in the world.
(01:47:08) And the problem is that they’re serial felons. They do this again and again and again. So Merck did Vioxx, which, Vioxx, they killed people by falsifying science. And they did it. They lied to the public. They said, “This is a headache medicine and a arthritis painkiller.” But they didn’t tell people that it also gave you heart attacks.
(01:47:37) And they knew, we’ve found when we sued them, the memos from their bean counters saying, “We’re going to kill this many people, but we’re still going to make money.” So they make those calculations and those calculations are made very, very regularly. And then when they get caught, they pay a penalty. And I think they paid about $7 billion for Vioxx. But then they went right back that same year that they paid that penalty, they went back into the same thing again with Gardasil and with a whole lot of other drugs. So the way that the system is set up, the way that it’s sold to doctors, the way that nobody ever goes to jail, so there’s really no penalty that it all becomes part of the cost of doing business.
(01:48:32) And you can see other businesses that if there’s no penalty, if there’s no real… look, these are the companies that gave us the opioid epidemic. So they knew what was going to happen. And you go and see, there’s a documentary, I forget what the name of it is, but it shows exactly what happened. And they corrupted FDA. They knew that oxycodone was addictive. They got FDA to tell doctors that it wasn’t addictive. They pressured FDA to lie. And they got their way. And so far they got a whole generation addicted oxycodone. And now when they got caught, and we made it harder to get oxycodone, and now all those addicted kids are going to fentanyl and dying. And this year it killed 106,000. That’s twice as many people who were killed during the 20-year Vietnam War. But in one year, twice as many American kids. And they knew it was going to happen and they did it to make money. So I don’t know what you call that other than saying that’s a criminal enterprise.
Lex Fridman (01:49:47) Well, is it possible, within a capitalist system, to produce medication, to produce drugs at scale in a way that is not corrupt?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:49:57) Of course it is.
Lex Fridman (01:49:58) How?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:50:00) Through a solid regulatory regimen, where drugs are actually tested. The problem is not the capitalist system. The capitalist system, I have great admiration for and love for the capitalist system. It’s the greatest economic engine ever devised. But it has to be harnessed to a social purpose. Otherwise, it leads us down a trail of oligarchy, environmental destruction, and commoditizing poisoning and killing human beings. That’s what it will do. And in the end, you need a regulatory structure that is not corrupted by entanglements, financial entanglements with the industry. And we’ve set this up. The way that the system is set up today has created this system of regulatory capture on steroids.
(01:51:06) So almost 50% of FDA’s budget comes from pharmaceutical companies. The people who work at FDA are, their salaries are coming from pharma, half their salaries. So they know who their bosses are. And that means getting those drugs done, getting them out the door and approved as quickly as possible. It’s called fast track approval. 50% of FDA’s budget, about 45%, actually goes to fast track approval.
Lex Fridman (01:51:38) Do you think money can buy integrity?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:51:40) Oh yeah, of course it can. That’s not something that is controversial. Of course it will.
Lex Fridman (01:51:48) It’s slightly controversial to me. I would like to think that scientist that work at the FDA-
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:51:53) Well, it may not be able to buy your integrity. I’m talking about population wide, I’m not talking about the individual.
Lex Fridman (01:51:58) But I’d like to believe that in general, a career of a scientist is not a very high paying job. I’d like to believe that people that go into science, that work at FDA, that work at NIH are doing it for a reason that’s not even correlated with money, really.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:52:18) Yt. And I think probably that’s why they go in there. But scientists are corruptible. And the way that I can tell you that is that I’ve brought over 500 losses and almost all of them involve scientific controversies. And there are scientists on both sides in every one. And when we sued Monsanto, on the Monsanto side, there was a Yale scientist, a Stanford scientist, and a Harvard scientist. And on our side there was a Yale, Stanford and Harvard scientist. And they were saying exactly the opposite things. In fact, there’s a word for those kind of scientists who take money for their opinion, and the word is biostitutes. And they are very, very common. And I’ve been dealing them with them my whole career.
(01:53:05) I think it was Upton Sinclair, that it’s very difficult to persuade a man of a fact if the existence of that fact will diminish his salary. And I think that’s true for all of us. If we find a way of reconciling ourselves, to truths and worldviews that actually benefit our salaries. Now, NIH has probably the worst system, which is that scientists who work for NIH itself, which used to be the premier gold standard scientific agency in the world, everybody looked at NIH as that. Today, it’s just an incubator for pharmaceutical drugs. And that is that gravity of economic self-interest.
(01:53:58) Because if NIH itself collects royalties, they have margin rights for the patents on all the drugs that they work on. So with the Moderna vaccine, which they promoted incessantly and aggressively, NIH on 50% of that vaccine is making billions and billions of dollars on it. And there are at least four scientists that we know of, and probably at least six at NIH, who themselves have marching rights for those patents. So if you are a scientist who work at NIH, you work on a new drug, you then get marching rights and you’re entitled to royalties of $150,000 a year forever from that forever. Your children, your children’s children. As long as that product’s on the market, you can collect royalties.
(01:54:46) Moderna vaccine is paying for the top people at NIH. Some of the top regulators. It’s paying for their boats, it’s paying for their mortgages, it’s paying for their children’s education. And you have to expect that in those kind of situations, the regulatory function would be subsumed beneath the mercantile ambitions of the agency itself and the individuals who stand to profit enormously from getting a drug to market. Those guys are paid by us, the taxpayer, to find problems with those drugs before they get to market. But if you know that drug is going to pay for your mortgage, you may overlook a little problem or even a very big one. And that’s the problem.
Lex Fridman (01:55:38) You’ve talked about that the media slanders you by calling you an anti-vaxxer, and you’ve said that you’re not anti-vaccine, you’re pro safe vaccine. Difficult question, can you name any vaccines that you think are good?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:55:55) I think some of the live virus vaccines are probably averting more problems than they’re causing. There’s no vaccine that is safe and effective. In fact-
Lex Fridman (01:56:09) Those are big words.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:56:09) … Those are big words.
Lex Fridman (01:56:10) What about the polio? Let’s start with the-
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:56:11) Well, here’s the problem. Here’s the problem. Yeah, here’s the problem. The polio vaccine contained a virus called simian virus 40. SV40. It’s one of the most carcinogenic materials that is known to man. In fact, it’s used now by scientists around the world to induce tumors and rats and Guinea pigs in labs. But it was in that vaccine, 98 million people who got that vaccine. And my generation got it. And now you’ve had this explosion of soft tissue cancers in our generation that killed many, many, many more people than polio ever did. So if you say to me, “The polio vaccine, was it effective against polio?”
(01:56:55) I’m going to say, “Yes.”
(01:56:57) And if say to me, “Did it cause more death than avert?”
(01:57:02) I would say, “I don’t know, because we don’t have the data on that.”
Lex Fridman (01:57:06) But let’s talk. We have to narrow in on what is it effective against the thing it’s supposed to fight?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (01:57:12) Oh, well, a lot of them are, let me give you an example. The most popular vaccine in the world is the DTP vaccine. Diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. It was introduced in this country around 1980. That vaccine caused so many injuries that Wyeth, which was the manufacturer, said to the Reagan administration, “We are now paying $20 in downstream liabilities for every dollar that we’re making in profits, and we are getting out of the business unless you give us permanent immunity from liability.”
(01:57:45) And by the way, Reagan said at that time, “Why don’t you just make the vaccine safe?” And why is that? Because vaccines are inherently unsafe.
(01:57:58) They said, “Unavoidably unsafe, you cannot make them safe.”
(01:58:02) And so when Reagan wrote the bill and passed it, the bill says in its preambles, “Because vaccines are unavoidably unsafe.” And the Bruesewitz case, which was the Supreme Court case that upheld that bill uses that same language, vaccines cannot be made safe. They’re unavoidably unsafe. So this is what the law says.
(01:58:21) Now, I just want to finish this story because this illustrates very well your question. The DTP vaccine was discontinued in this country and it was discontinued in Europe because so many kids were being injured by it. However, the WHO and Bill Gates gives it to 161 million African children every year. And Bill Gates went to the Danish government and asked them to support this program saying, “We’ve saved 30 million kids from dying from diptheria, tetanus and pertussis.”
(01:58:59) The Danish government said, “Can you show us the data?” And he couldn’t. So the Danish government paid for a big study with Novo Nordisk, which is a Scandinavian vaccine company in West Africa. And they went to West Africa and they looked at the DTP vaccine for 30 years of data and they retained the best vaccine scientists in the world, these deities of African vaccine program. Peter Aaby, Sigrid Morganson, and a bunch of others. And they looked at 30 years of data for the DTP vaccine. And they came back and they were shocked by what they found.
(01:59:36) They found that the vaccine was preventing kids from getting diptheria, tetanus and pertussis. But the girls who got that vaccine were 10 times more likely to die over the next six months than children who didn’t. Why is that? And they weren’t dying from anything anybody ever associated with the vaccine. They were dying of anemia, bilharzia, malaria, sepsis, and mainly pulmonary and respiratory disease, pneumonia.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (02:00:02) Mainly pulmonary and respiratory disease, pneumonia. And it turns out that this is what research has found who were all pro-vaccine, by the way. They said that this vaccine is killing more children and than did their attendance and protected prior to the introduction of the vaccine and for 30 years nobody ever noticed it. The vaccine was providing protection against those target illnesses, but it had ruined the children’s immune systems. And they could not defend themselves against random infections that were harmless to most children.
Lex Fridman (02:00:36) But isn’t it nearly impossible to prove that link?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (02:00:39) You can’t prove the link, all you can do is for any particular interest, illness or death, you can’t prove the link. But you can show statistically that if you get that vaccine, you’re more likely to die over the next six months than if you don’t. And those studies unfortunately are not done for any other vaccines. So for every other medicine, in order to get approval from the FDA, you have to do a placebo controlled trial prior to licensure, where you look at health outcomes among an exposed group, a group that gets it and compare those to a similarly situated group that gets placebo. The only medical intervention that does not receive, that does not undergo placebo controlled trials prior to licensure are vaccines. Not one of the 72 vaccines that are now mandated for our children have ever undergone a placebo controlled trial prior to licensure.
Lex Fridman (02:01:38) So I should say on that point, I’ve heard from a bunch of folks that disagree with you.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (02:01:44) Okay.
Lex Fridman (02:01:44) Including polio. I mean, the testing is a really important point. Before licensure, placebo controlled randomized trials, polio received just that against the saline placebo control. So I’m confused why you say that they don’t go through that process. It seems like a lot of them do.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (02:02:10) Here’s the thing is that I was saying that for many years because we couldn’t find any. And then in 2016, in March, President Trump ordered Dr. Fauci to meet with me. Dr. Fauci and Francis Collins, and I said to them during that meeting, “You have been saying that I’m not telling the truth when I said not one of these has undergone a prior pre-licensure placebo control.” And the polio may have had one post licensing, most of them haven’t. The polio may have, I don’t know. But I said, “Our question was prior to licensure, do you ever test these? And for safety?” And by the way, I think the polio vaccine did undergo a saline placebo trial prior licensure, but not for safety, only for efficacy. So I’m talking about safety trials now. Fauci told me, he had a whole tray of files there. He said, “I can’t find one now, but I’ll send you one.”
(02:03:26) I said, “Just for any vaccines, send me one. Any of the 72 vaccines,” He never did. So we sued the HHS and after a year of stonewalling us, HHS came back and they gave us a letter saying we have no pre-licensing safety trial for any of the 72 vaccines. And that the letter from HHS, which settled our lawsuit against them because we had a FOIA lawsuit against them, is posted on CHD’s website. So anybody can go look at it. So if HHS had any study, I assume they would’ve given it to us and they can’t find one.
Lex Fridman (02:04:08) Well, let me zoom out because a lot of the details matter here, pre-licensure, what does placebo controlled mean? So this probably requires a rigorous analysis. And actually, at this point, it would be nice for me just to give the shout-out to other people much smarter than me that people should follow along with Robert F. Kennedy Jr, use their mind, learn and think. So one really awesome creator, I really recommend him is Dr. Dan Wilson. He hosts the Debunk the Funk Podcast. Vincent Racaniello, who hosts This Week in Virology. Brilliant guy, I’ve had him on the podcast. Somebody you’ve been battling with is Paul Offit, interesting Twitter, interesting books. People should, understand and read your books as well. And Eric Topol has a good Twitter and good books. And even Peter Hotez, I’ll ask you about him.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (02:05:03) And people should, because Paul Offit published a substack recently debunking, I think my discussion with Joe Rogan. And we have published a debunk of his debunking. So if you read his stuff, you should read-
Lex Fridman (02:05:29) Read both.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (02:05:30) Yes, you should read… And I would love to debate any of these guys.

Peter Hotez

Lex Fridman (02:05:37) So Joe Rogan proposed just such a debate, which is quite fascinating to see how much attention and how much funding it garnered the debate between you and Peter Hotez. Why do you think Peter rejected the offer?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (02:05:51) I think, again, I’m not going to look into his head, but what I will say is if you’re a scientist and you’re making public recommendations based upon what you say is evidence-based science, you ought to be able to defend that. You ought to be able to defend it in a public forum and you ought to be able to defend it against all comers. So if you’re a scientist, science is rooted in logic and reason. And if you can’t use logic and reason to defend your position, and by the way, I know almost all of the studies, I’ve written books on them and we’ve made a big effort to assemble all the studies on both sides. And so, I’m prepared to talk about those studies and I’m prepared to submit them in advance and for each of the points. And by the way, I’ve done that with Peter Hotez, actually because I had this kind of informal debate several years ago with him, with a referee at that time.
(02:07:02) And we were debating not only by phone but by email and on those emails, every point that he would make, I would cite science and he could never come back with science. He could never come back with publications. He would give publications that had nothing to do with, for example, thimerosal and vaccines, mercury based vaccines. He sent me one time, 16 studies to rebut something I’d said about thimerosal. And not one of those studies, they were all about the MMR vaccine, which doesn’t contain thimerosal. So it wasn’t like a real debate where you’re using reason and isolating points and having a rational discourse. I don’t blame him for not debating me because I don’t think he has the science.
Lex Fridman (02:07:53) Are there aspects of all the work you’ve done on vaccines, all the advocacy you’ve done, that you found out that you were not correct on, that you were wrong on, that you’ve changed your mind on?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (02:08:09) Yeah, there are many times over time that I found that I’ve made mistakes and we correct those mistakes. I run a big organization and I do a lot of tweets. I’m very careful. For example, my Instagram, I was taken down for misinformation, but there was no misinformation on my Instagram. Everything that I cited on Instagram was cited or sourced to a government database or to peer reviewed science. But for example, the Defender, which was our organization’s newsletter, we summarized scientific reports all the time. That’s one of the things, the services that we provide. So we watch the PubMed and we watch the peer reviewed publications and we summarize them when they come out, we have made mistakes. When we make mistake, we are rigorous about acknowledging it, apologizing for it, and changing it. That’s what we do. I think we have one of the most robust fact checking operations anywhere in journalism today.
(02:09:09) We actually do real science. And listen, I’ve put up on my Twitter account where there are numerous times that I’ve made mistakes on Twitter and I apologize for it. And people say to me, “Oh, that’s weird. I’ve never seen anybody apologize on Twitter.” But I think it’s really important at the only… Of course, human beings make mistakes. My book is 230 or 40, 50,000 words. There’s going to be a mistake in there. But you know what I say at the beginning of the book, “If you see a mistake in here, please notify me. I give away that people can notify me.” And if somebody points out a mistake, I’m going to change it. I’m not going to dig my feet in and say, “I’m not going to acknowledge this.”
Lex Fridman (02:09:57) So some of the things we’ve been talking about, you’ve been an outspoken contrarian on some very controversial topics. This has garnered some fame and recognition in part for being attacked and standing strong against those attacks. If I may say, for being a martyr, do you worry about this drug of martyrdom that might cloud your judgment?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (02:10:22) First of all, I don’t consider myself a martyr and I’ve never considered myself a victim. I make choices about my life and I’m content with those choices and peaceful with them. I’m not trying to be a martyr or a hero or anything else. I’m doing what I think is right because I want to be peaceful inside of myself, but the only guard I have is fact-based reality. If you show me a scientific study that shows that I’m wrong, for example, if you come back and say, “Look, Bobby, here’s a safety study on polio that was done pre-licensure and used a real saline solution.” I’m going to put that on my Twitter and I’m going to say, “I was wrong, there is one out there.” But that’s all I can do.

Exercise and diet

Lex Fridman (02:11:17) All right. I have to ask, you are in great shape. Can you go through your diet and exercise routine?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (02:11:28) I do intermittent fasting. So I start my first meal at around noon, and then I try to stop eating at six or seven. And then I hike every day.
Lex Fridman (02:11:46) Morning, evening?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (02:11:47) In the morning. I go to a meeting first thing in the morning, 12, I’m eating. And then I hike uphill for a mile and a half up and a mile half down with my dogs and I do my meditations. And then I go to the gym and I go to the gym for 35 minutes. I do it short time and I’ve been exercising for 50 years. And what I’ve found is it’s sustainable if I do just the short periods and I do four different routines at the gym. And I never relax at the gym, I go in there and I have a very intense exercise. I lift, I mean, I could tell you what my routine is, but I do backs just one day, legs and then a miscellaneous. And I do 12.
(02:12:36) My first set of everything is I try to reach failure at 12 reps. And then my fourth set of everything is a strip set. I take a lot of vitamins. I can’t even list them to you here because I couldn’t even remember them at all. But I take a ton of vitamins and nutrients, I’m on an anti-aging protocol from my doctor that includes testosterone replacement. But I don’t take any anabolic steroids or anything like that. And the DRT I use is bioidentical to what my body produced.
Lex Fridman (02:13:25) What are your thoughts on hormone therapy in general?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (02:13:29) I talk to a lot of doctors about that stuff because I’m interested in health and I’ve heard really good things about it, but I’m definitely not an expert on it.


Lex Fridman (02:13:42) About God. You wrote, “God talks to human beings through many vectors, wise people, organized religion, the great books of religions, through art, music and poetry. But nowhere with such detail and grace and joy as through creation. When we destroy nature, we diminish our capacity to sense the divine.” What is your relationship and what is your understanding of God? Who is God?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (02:14:09) Well, God is incomprehensible. I mean, I guess, most philosophers would say we’re inside the mind of God. And so, it would be impossible for us to understand what’s actually God’s form is. But I mean, for me, let’s say this, when I was raised in a very deeply religious setting, so we went to church in the summer, oftentimes twice a day, morning mass. And we definitely went every Sunday. And we prayed in the morning, we prayed before and after every meal, we prayed at night, we sent a rosary, sometimes three rosaries a night. And my father read us the Bible. Whenever he was a home, we’d all get in the bed and he’d read us the Bible stories. And I went to Catholic schools, I went to Jesuit schools, I went to the nuns and I went to a Quaker school at one point. I became a drug addict when I was about 15 years old, about a year after my dad died. And I was addicted to drugs for 14 years.
(02:15:32) During that time, when you’re an addict, you’re living against conscience. And when you’re living against… I was always trying to get off of drugs, never able to. But I never felt good about what I was doing. And when you’re living against conscious, you kind of push God to the periphery of your life. So I’ll call Him, he gets recedes and gets smaller. And then when I got sober, I knew that I had a couple of experiences. One is that I had a friend of my brothers, one of my brothers who died of this disease of addiction, had a good friend who used to take drugs with us and he became a Moonie. So he became a follower of Reverend Sun Myung Moon. And at that point, he had the same kind of compulsion that I had and yet it was completely removed from him.
(02:16:41) And he used to come and hang out with us, but he would not want to take drugs. Even if I was taking them right in front of him, he was immune to it. He’d become impervious to that impulse. And when I first got sober, I knew that I did not want to be the kind of person who was waking up every day in white knuckling sobriety and just trying to resist through willpower. And by the way, I had iron willpower as a kid. I gave up candy for lent when I was 12 and I didn’t need it again until I was in college. I gave up desserts the next year for lent. And I didn’t ever eat another dessert till I was in college. And I was trying to bulk up for rugby and for sports. So I felt like I could do anything with my willpower. But somehow this particular thing, the addiction was completely impervious to it. And it was cunning, baffling, incomprehensible. I could not understand why I couldn’t just say no and then never do it again like I did with everything else.
(02:17:57) And so, I was living against conscience and I thought about this guy and reflecting my own prejudices at that time in my life, I said to myself, I didn’t want to be like a drug addict who was wanting a drug all the time and just not being able to do it. I wanted to completely realign myself so that I was somebody who got up every day and just didn’t want to take drugs, never thought of them, kissed the wife and children and went to work and never thought about drugs the whole day. And I knew that people throughout history had done that. I’d read the lives of the saints. I knew St. Augustine had met a very dissolute youth and had this spiritual realignment transformation. I knew the same thing had happened to St. Paul at Damascus. The same thing had happened to St. Francis.
(02:18:55) St. Francis also had a dissolute and fun-loving youth and had this deep spiritual realignment. And I knew that that happened to people throughout history. And I thought that’s what I needed, something like that. I had the example of this friend of mine and I used to think about him and I would think this again reflects the bias and probably the meanness of myself at that time. But I said, “I’d rather be dead than be a Moonie.” But I wish I somehow could distill that power that he got without becoming a religious nuisance. And at that time, I picked up a book by Carl Yung called Synchronicity and Yung, he was a psychiatrist, he was contemporary of Freud’s. Freud was his mentor, and Freud wanted him to be his replacement. But Freud was now out atheist and Yung was a deeply spiritual man.
(02:19:58) He had these very intense and genuine spiritual experiences from when he was a little boy, from when he was three years old that he remembers biography is fascinating about him because he remembers them with such a detail. And he was interesting to me because he was very faithful scientist and I considered myself a science-based person from when I was little. And yet he had this spiritual dimension to him, which infused all of his thinking and really I think made him, branded his form of recovery or of treatment. And he thought that he had this experiment experience that he describes in this book where he ran one of the biggest sanitariums in Europe in Zurich. And he was sitting up on the third floor of this building and he’s talking to a patient who was describing her dream to him.
(02:21:01) And the fulcrum of that dream was a scarab beetle, which was an insect that is very uncommon if at all in Northern Europe, but it’s a common figure in the iconography of Egypt and the hieroglyphics on the walls of the pyramids, etc. And while he was talking to her, he heard this bing, bing, bing on the window behind him and he didn’t want to turn around to take his attention off her. But finally, he does it in exasperation. He turns around, he throws up the window and a scarab beetle flies in and lands in his head and he shows it to the woman. And he says, “Is this what you was thinking of, this is what you were dreaming about.” And he was struck by that experience which was similar to other experiences he’s had like that. And that’s what synchronicity means, it’s an incident, not a coincidence.
(02:21:56) And if you’re talking with somebody about somebody that you haven’t thought about in 20 years and that person calls on the phone, that’s synchronicity. And he believed it was a way that God intervened in our lives that broke all the rules of nature, that he had set up the rules of physics, the rules of mathematics, or to reach in and sort of tap us on the shoulder and say, “I’m here.” And so, he tried to reproduce that in a clinical setting and he would put one guy in one room and another guy in another room and have them flip cards and guess what the other guy had flipped. And he believed that if he could beat the laws of chance, laws of mathematics, that he would approve the existence of an unnatural law, a supernatural law. And that was the first step to proving the existence of a God.
(02:22:48) He never succeeds in doing it. But he says in the book, “Even though I can’t prove using an empirical and scientific tools, the existence of a God, I can show through anecdotal evidence having seen thousands of patients come through with this institution, that people who believe in God get better faster and that the recovery is more enduring than people who don’t.” And for me, hearing that was more impactful than if he had claimed that he had proved the existence of God because I wouldn’t have believed that. But I was already at a mindset where I would’ve done anything I could to improve my chances of never having to take drugs again by even 1%. And if believing in God was going to help me, whether there’s a God up there or not, believing in one a self had the power to help me, I was going to do that.
(02:23:40) So then the question is how do you start believing in something that you can’t see or smell or hear or touch or taste or acquire with your senses? And Yung provides the formula for that. And he says, “Act as if you fake it till you make it.” And so, that’s what I started doing. I just started pretending there was a God watching me all the time. And kind of life was a series of tests. And there was a bunch of moral decisions that I had to make every day. And these were all just little things that I did. But each one now for me had a moral dimension. Like when the alarm goes off, do I lay in bed for an extra 10 minutes with my indolent thoughts or do I jump right out of bed? Do I make my bed? Most important decision of the day.
(02:24:28) Do I hang up the towels? When I go into the closet and pull out my blue jeans and a bunch of those wire hangers fall on the ground, do I shut the door and say, “I’m too important to do that. That’s somebody else’s job or not?” And so, do put the water in the ice tray before I put it in the freezer? Do I put the shopping cart back in the place that it’s supposed to go in the parking lot of the Safeway? And if I make a whole bunch of those choices that I maintain myself in a posture of surrender, which keeps me open to my higher power to my God. And when I do those things right, so much about addiction is about abuse of power, abuse of all of us have some power, whether it’s our good looks or whether it’s connections or education or family or whatever.
(02:25:33) And there’s always a temptation to use those to fulfill self will. And the challenge is how do you use those always to serve instead God’s of will and the good of our community? And that to me, is kind of the struggle. But when I do that, I feel God’s power coming through me and that I can do things. I’m much more effective as a human being. That gnawing anxiety that I lived with for so many years and God, it’s gone and that I can put down the oars and hoist the sail and the wind takes me and I can see the evidence of it in my life. And the big thing, temptation for me is that when all these good things start happening in my life and the cash and prizes start flowing in, how do I maintain that posture of surrender? How do I stay surrender then when my inclination is to say to God, “Thanks God, I got it from here.” And drive the car off the cliff again.
(02:26:49) And so, I had a spiritual awakening and my desire for drugs and alcohol was lifted miraculously. And to me, it was as much a miracle as if I’d been able to walk on water because I had tried everything earnestly, sincerely and honestly for a decade to try to stop and I could not do it under my own power. And then all of a sudden, it was lifted effortlessly. So I saw that early evidence of God in my life and of the power, and I see it now every day of my life.
Lex Fridman (02:27:29) So adding that moral dimension to all of your actions is how you were able to win that Kambu battle against the absurd.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (02:27:38) Exactly.
Lex Fridman (02:27:38) Sisyphus with the Boulder.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (02:27:39) It’s all the same thing. It’s the battle to just do the right thing.
Lex Fridman (02:27:44) Now Sisyphus was able to find somehow happiness. Yeah. Well, Bobby, thank you for the stroll through some of the most important moments in recent human history and for running for president. And thank you for talking today.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr (02:27:59) Thank you, Lex.
Lex Fridman (02:28:01) Thanks for listening to this conversation with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. To support this podcast, please check out our sponsors in the description. And now, let me leave you with some words from John F. Kennedy. “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Instead, let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.