On Tuesday, April 19, 2022 Fox News Chief Political Anchor Bret Baier interviewed Ambassador Robert C. O’Brien and Sean Penn at the Nixon Library to discuss the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Baier kicked off the interview by asking how the unlikely friendship was formed between the actor and former National Security Advisor giving audience members insight into Penn’s international humanitarian work that led to him connecting with then Hostage Envoy O’Brien.
Penn was recently in Ukraine making a documentary when Russia invaded the country. He was in touch with O’Brien throughout his time in Ukraine as Russian troops massed on the border. Penn fled to Poland after the invasion but has since returned in recently weeks to interview Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“We met with [Zelensky], a man in a suit, and the next morning the Russians invaded. We went back. We were with President Zelensky and waited for him at a meeting point. And the next time I saw him, he was in camos and the world had changed,” Penn said.
Penn and O’Brien shared about their respective experiences in Ukraine and their thoughts on the current crisis.
This event had many students in the audience, including students from Chapman University’s Presidency Center.
You can watch the full interview here:
A full transcript of this interview is below
Jim Byron: Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. I’d like to welcome a few special guests as we start this afternoon’s program beginning with Dr. James Cavanaugh, the chairman of the board of the Richard Nixon Foundation, and his fellow board members Christopher Nixon Cox, Gavin Herbert, Sandy Quinn and Charlie Zhang. Thank you all for coming to the library this afternoon to discuss the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. The recent hostilities began on February 24, and sadly took an even more brutal shift this morning with the new Russian offensive in the Donbass. Our panelists today will tell what they know of the war today, from military strategy to amazing stories of Ukrainian resolve, as well as the terrible toll of casualty destruction and human suffering. And our panel will evaluate the response to the Western world and discuss a path forward that is in America’s national interest. Our panelists today are Ambassador Robert C. O’Brien, America’s 28th national security adviser and before that served as Special Envoy for hostage affairs and as a US Representative to the UN General Assembly. Ambassador O’Brien is also co-chair of the Nixon seminar, the Nixon Foundation’s ongoing monthly educational foreign policy series. Sean Penn is an Academy Award winning film performer who recently returned from Ukraine and who has been filming a documentary about the Russian invasion. Mr. Penn visited the front lines and met with Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky before evacuating to the Polish border. Mr Penn is also known for his humanitarian efforts as the founder of C.O.R.E, the community organized relief effort, which has provided resources to the most vulnerable communities for COVID testing and vaccinations. C.O.R.E.’’s latest efforts include setting up operations in Poland to support Ukrainian refugees. And finally our friend Bret Baier, the Fox News Chief Political anchor and host of Special Report with Bret Baier, which is the top rated cable news program in its time slot. Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome our distinguished panel.
Bret Baier: It is great to be here, to be back here in the East Room. It’s always wonderful to be back in The Nixon Presidential Library and I’m really fortunate to be kind of a moderator to let you all hear these amazing stories about what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine, about what’s happening around the world. And even what’s happening with a certain project that Sean’s working on a little bit later. Thank you very much for being here. We kind of put this together and thought that we could illuminate some of what’s happening inside Ukraine. You all see it on your television screens every day. But you don’t really see it like this and Sean’s been doing some amazing stuff on the ground with this documentary that will be coming out soon. But first, I want to ask you both, you know, National Security Adviser—actor, activist and humanitarian, what’s the connection between you two?
Robert C. O’Brien: Friends. So a lot of you know, before I began as the National Security Adviser, I served as a Special Presidential Envoy for hostage affairs. And one of the things that President Trump was known for was bringing Americans who were held hostage, or wrongfully detained in terrible countries and places all over the world and bringing them back. And one of the people that I was focused on was a young American journalist, Austin Tice, a great young American, Georgetown Law student, former Marine and he’d gotten to be a war correspondent in Syria, and had been taken hostage back in 2012. And I had to fight my way through the bureaucracy in Washington to get permission to go to Syria to try and meet Bashar Al Assad to plead and negotiate to try and get Austin home and I’m one point I finally got the approval in the US and I went to the Middle East and we sent the letter through channels and the Syrians wouldn’t see him and then I got a call from Sean and Sean had filmed a documentary in Syria. He’d heard about Austin’s case and said, Hey, raised his hand and said, let me go to Syria and see what I can do to try to get Austin home. And my approach on it on hostage cases was all of the above and I’ve been a fan of Sean’s of course as an actor and we had met and he was willing to take personal risks to go into Syria at that time and try to find Austin. He didn’t end up going but it was I thought was a really impressive gesture as part of a humanitarian and we gave it a shot. That’s where it started.
Sean Penn: Yeah, I mean, there has been many, a few other incidents of this where my first stop would be to talk to somebody in the state department and make sure I wasn’t trampling on an existing strategy when it came to hostage release. And there would have been one in particular Bolivia, where the State Department felt that that every time we exerted any pressure on the Bolivian government the Bolivans responded by being an unpowered, David to our Goliath and that it wasn’t going to be valuable to continue that way. So then they said, go ahead and try it. We were able to get that American growth back. So you get kind of excited, when we are playing a small role in something like that. And so it became something that I was looking to do and then in the case of Austin Tice, the people I talked to said, you know how you’re gonna have to talk to our boss, would you talk to our boss and that’s when the boss and I got together and become friends.
Bret Baier: Your organization, C.O.R.E, community organized relief effort, does stuff in the US but obviously around the world. How did that all come to be?
Sean Penn: Total accident. I had a son who had had a traumatic brain injury and had to have emergency based surgeries. He is completely recovered today. And I had been a single parent for a period of time and then this awful thing happened. Right after shortly after he handed me a decision to spend some time with his mother. And so I was going to be I had planned out two years to be getting him through high school and now, I was suddenly on my own and four days after that the earthquake in Haiti happened. What’s significant about the brain trauma, was that I had seen the relief he got post-op from morphine in the hospital. And then when they when I turned on the news the day of the earthquake in Haiti, the first reports were about active patients on children without any injuries, pain medication. And so because I had an existing relationship with a Hugo Chavez, and because actors in Hollywood know where to find narcotics, but not bulk narcotics I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to call anybody in the United States with all the regulations and such and I said, you know, Paul Farmer tells me, may he rest in peace, the incredible Paul Farmer, tells me you need 350,000 vials of morphines And if you’ll get it down to your embassy, I’ll get some friends with some pickup trucks and the delivery for the trauma centers and so on. And that and that happened. And he said, I remember going to a lieutenant colonel of the 82nd Airborne, whom we were in bed with at that time, we put on a press and I said, is it going to be a problem for you? I’ve got a bunch of boxes and morphine and I can’t label a gift from the people of Venezuela. And he said we’ll make our apologies later. And that’s what started C.O.R.E. We started to do.
Bret Baier: Your organization saves lives, strengthens communities, affected by or vulnerable to crisis. Obviously, Ukraine is in that position. Robert, I want to talk to you about your past connection with Ukraine and obviously as national security adviser and before that, and how you looked at that country before this latest crisis.
Robert C. O’Brien: So my first experience with Ukraine was going in 2014 as an election observer for the International Republican Institute, the IRI, and as I recall, this is right after the main protest when the Ukrainians finally throw off the yoke and be able to Russian oligarchs and, and the Russian influence government and for the first time in the democratic elections for parliament, and I went with a group of former US officials that were Democrats, Republicans, former members of Congress and diplomats. And we went to observe to make sure that the elections were free and fair. And I remember one incident when I was there, checking the ballot boxes, making sure the seals were sealed off and that sort of thing. And there was a lady that came to vote, and she had her daughter with her and daughter had a Ukrainian flag and I said is there no childcare today or why did you bring your daughter and she said, No, no. I wanted to bring her so she could see that you can vote for your own leaders, and for her to see what democracy looks like. You see I lived my whole life under Soviet rule, or under corrupt rule. And this is the first time we got a chance to have a democracy. I really developed a love for the Ukrainian people. They’re wonderful folks. And now we’re seeing their spirit and their boldness and daring as they as they find a much bigger neighbor, or for their own freedom.
Bret Baier: But as National Security Adviser, you also dealt with that region and dealt with Putin when you sat just down on the table for in, in the Libya talks in Berlin, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, you know, looking at what Putin is doing now, you know, your assessment of him and his mental state and where you saw him and where he is now.
Robert C. O’Brien: So he’s a very cordial guy and a soft spoken guy. But he believes the biggest geopolitical disaster of his lifetime was the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Russia. And when he thinks the Soviet Union, he’s thinking, kind of Imperial Russia, where Russia controlled all the stans where they control Georgia where they control the Kremlin and control the Baltics and his goal, just like they did in the past, then we thought we’d move past the 1930s, the 1940s but just like dictators of old he wants to rebuild the Russian Empire. He wants to be a czar and he would like to take back Ukraine. He’s got troops in Georgia where I’ve been and has taken, you know, almost half from Georgia. He’s taken parts of Moldova, in 2014, invaded occupied Crimea. And at the time I said, this is something we haven’t seen since the Anschluss with Germany and Austria. And then the Munich Accord when Germany was given at the time Nazi Germany was given Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. And the idea was if you just give up a if you appease these dictators a little bit, if you just give them a little bit of land, give them a little bit of what they want, that will save them, and then they’ll stop with their aggression. And then we know that that doesn’t work. It actually increases your appetite. And that’s what happened, which is something we were born with, and we’re very concerned about, and it’s one of the reasons why we got the Javelin anti tank missiles to the Ukraine during the Trump administration. We worked very hard to get those and there were a lot of folks in the Pentagon and the State Department otherwise said we can’t give the Ukrainians missiles to defend themselves because that will provoke Putin, that’ll encourage him one day. And I felt, and the President felt just the opposite. If we them missiles to defend themselves, that could deter Vladimir Putin. And in fact, it was the Javelin missiles in the early days of the crisis when Sean was in the ground and maybe praying it was those Javelin anti tank missiles made here in America and given to Ukraine by you, the American taxpayers, that allowed the Ukraine to blunt the three prong axis armored attack of the Russians and one that attack and buy themselves some time to to fight for independence and freedom.
Bret Baier: I mean, it’s amazing to see the Ukrainians and the resilience and their fight. I think it surprised the world and maybe we can surprise them up and let’s talk about your ethnic the first time you go in and what the purpose was and tell me about that decision.
Sean Penn: So it not long ago, remember a time when most Americans knew Ukraine from a comic actor who became a president and a single phone call with our president and then he goes around the body of the Senate and all politicking and whatever. Yeah. And we had thought what a interesting story his would be and so at that time we started. We have a contact that begins to touch with President Zelensky. We made our case that we thought we could tell a story that was anchored in hands that would illuminate his country to the Americans… So we began consuming conversations and then we were recorded kind of effectively shut down. During COVID We weren’t able one was able to travel to the other and so on. So that’s what put it off and we picked it back up. And we went initially in November, traveled through the country. I mentioned it evolved because we were also going to involve what was an existing border conflict and, and an occupation in Crimea. And then, and then that time, that being a virus was going on, related to the aircraft that had been down. And so the President was not able to see us. So we covered musicians and cultural things and so on and then came back to the States and we’re looking for the right time to come back then, of course, by that time, tensions well the tensions had begun to build up in November we had known this was starting to be an issue. Then clearly, somebody the, you know, as the tensions that we’ve all been aware of, we’re building to the point where they’re at today. I started getting phone calls from my partners in crime, saying, you know, we gotta get back now because it’s going to be there. You know, the intelligence agencies, we hear on the news saying it’s going to happen tomorrow. It’s going to happen on the 16th it’s gonna happen. Yeah, we got to be there. And I had, I guess I felt like for maybe I lucked out to the side of experience with feeling like you, you know what’s going to happen tomorrow. You’ve got to get on a plane and go and then being somewhere for 10 days. Nothing happens. You get on a plane. And when you land you find out that happened when you’re on the plane. So I decided to stay to my schedule my plans with my kids this that. This is the day will go it’ll be fine. Whatever is happening, we’ll accomplish we’re not here to create or invent the war for the fireworks of this documentary. So the timing was such that we went in there about five six days.
Bret Baier: How do you get in? Was it safe?
Sean Penn: It’s been very tense. Robert will confirm to you that our government is extremely good at caution. You know, when when many people are on the fringe of the fringe Right? to separate them from people in this room. On the fringe, right might want to have one or two taken off my head. I was called an enemy of the state, anytime, anything I had done publicly. You know, created any level of threat. I always had the FBI knocking on my door and letting me know it’s all it’s a very, there’s a lot of room to get great responsibilities and system functions very well for American citizens. At the same time, this level of caution said at that time when we went back, don’t go just because the American diplomat had been pulled out of another foreign service officers pulled out of Kiev,don’t go there’s nobody there. There’ll be no cavalry and so on. And, and I was thinking to Robert the whole time yeah, he knows the region much better than I do. And I maybe we created kind of calculated that it would be fine. Whatever happened. And sure enough, within about five six is the very first time that I met President Zelensky that we met with President Zelensky was the one we agreed to a moment for him to go eyeball to eyeball with us and decide if he was going to open his doors to us as a documentary with our crew.. So we said we will cover that account when the first time you size this. Tell us if this is finalized and when they did. So we had that meeting. And here he was, all of the elements were in place for initial invasion by the Russians. He certainly was prepared for that.
But I don’t think anybody wanted to give up a level of denial that it would happen because that would be giving up hope. So we met again, a man in a suit, and the next morning, the Russians invaded. We went back we were when the President Zelensky waiting for him at a meeting point. And the next time I saw him, he was in camp and the world changed.
Bret Baier: At that time, you know the buildups happening you know, the danger, you’re talking to people and you’re having communications?
Robert C. O’Brien: Yes, the problem was Sean is that when you tell him not to go you know he’s going to go. So now you see that was the problem I was having. I was talking to our colleagues in Washington, and they said, Look, tell your friend not to go. So I told him not to go so he called me that next day and said I’m going. And I said, Okay, we’ll stay in close touch. And fortunately, the guy who replaced me Ambassador Roger Carstens is a terrific, terrific guy, Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. And so I know it would be Roger’s job to get Sean out if the Russians got a hold of him, but I counseled him not to go he went anyway so that they can demonstrate his personal bravery and I think it’s the people of the Ukraine and and, and then he had, he was able to kind of get the foundation of the legend and it’s something Bret, you and I had some talk about earlier. What we’re watching with President Zellensky is something very different. We’re watching a legend born. And we don’t know how it’s going to play out. But we’re watching in real time with social media with documentaries with your interviews with President Zelensky and we’re watching someone who was urged just like I urged Sean not to go to Ukraine, the United States that offered President Zelensky safe passage out of Kiev. They had offered to send a helicopter to keep that to pick them up and take him to Poland or to the UK to London and again, the government in exile, very akin to what happened with World War II. And President Zelensky said no, I’m staying and my family is staying and so we’re watching a legend being created in front of our eyes and he’s communicated very effectively with the world. And he’s really laid out what this is, is that this is good versus evil. This is a people who want their freedom in their own country that don’t want to be bullied or don’t want to be taken over. That don’t want a puppet government that is ruled by an authoritarian neighbor. And they’re willing to fight for freedom. And President Zellensky is willing to go out the front lines with his people and this is not a guy who’s leading from behind. This is a guy who was at the front and I made the mistake of announcing that this is kind of like Davy Crockett at the Alamo or, or Hector at Troy. And I really didn’t really work out very well for Hector or Davy Crockett so I’ve trying to come up with a better analogy and then as I’ve been going with Charles de Gaulle now, the embodiment of France and Free France during the war. Zellensky’s there and he’s fighting and he’s really inspiring people I think around the world and I think it’s one of the reasons why Sean’s and my politics couldn’t be more different but we’re good friends and that’s that’s the great thing about America and how it used to be. We all grew up with uncles and aunts and friends and neighbors were Democrats or Republicans but we’re all Americans, and we’re all trying to do the right thing for our country and for freedom. And that’s the kind of friendship that Sean and I have even though our politics don’t align. But what’s interesting in this crisis for that, and I think you’re seeing it as well. I spend a lot of time you know, out on the stump so to speak for congressional candidates for Republicans who want to back the House in the Fall with Kevin McCarthy, a fellow Californian, as leader in the House. That’s something Sean doesn’t want to happen, but not when I go out to these events. Everybody is inspired and fighting for and pulling for the Ukrainians. And we’re not talking about sending US troops to Ukraine, they were asking for the tools. They want us to be the arsenal of democracy again, and to help the Ukrainian people and I think Sean’’s seen it on the progressive side, on the Democrat side. This is something that’s uniting the American people because they’re Washington folks, just like us, fighting for their lives fighting for their kids fighting for the homes right for freedom against some really bad actors who want nothing more than that, because they’ve got more strength and because they’ve got a bigger country and they’re more mite, or at least it looked better on paper the Ukrainians punched them back in the nose. Who were just gonna come and invade their country and take it over because it could and that’s not how we do things in the world anymore and the Ukrainians are I think, you know, real examples.
Bret Baier: I want to get back to that unity in that mission. But I want to take you back to that room where you see Zelensky in those early days, we’re finally getting the decision whether you have to stay or go. Is it starting to heat up right?
Sean Penn: I will probably circle back to that and just continue unity. Because exactly as Robert was saying, this that we find everywhere and I would wager in this room is an incredible amount of unity on the issue of Ukraine. And I believe that what we owe Ukraine is unity that goes beyond that. And which and I think that in many cases is the more sophisticated people who invest more in cynical notion that there’s nothing to be gained by trying to reach across the aisle I haved engaged in that feeling. I think we’re at the breaking point of that. And if there’s anything that we can do, that is supportive and not a betrayal of Ukraine, that is taking the opportunity of their inspiration. It’s to stop being cynical about the possibility that we can can understand each other’s ideas in so many cases. It’s the profiling of the ideas that makes it a semantic schism, and that there are so many, you know, as they say, things that we can, we can do as a country together. We’ve become so divided and going to Ukraine, more than anything else, was the impact of what we’ve been missing. People who have every bit of diversity and polarization all sorts of ideology, who are able to work together and fight together and have a common courage and it’s something to realize what we’ve been missing in our everyday feeling about life that they have while under this threat.
Bret Baier: There are elements of both parties, Democrats and Republicans who say, listen, why is this in our national interest? Why should we push this envelope? Why should we possibly face World War III with a nuclear-armed Russia? There are elements of both sides progressives and conservatives who do say that, what do you say to them?
Sean Penn: Well, a lot of this is, you know, what if Ukraine loses and look at how they have lost out of the children, killed and women raped and mutilated and all the brave soldiers, men, women and children who are fighting for the same dream that we share. I think the better question is, what if Russia wins and so this avoidance nuclear war, if we maintain it, for that reason, God knows. There could be nothing more hard. And yet, those weapons exist. They’re in the Russian hands. They’re in our hands. They’re in the Chinese hands. They’re in the Pakistani hands. They’re in many hands. And we have two problems. One is if we want to get them out of anybody’s hands they’re gonna look at the Budapest Memorandum. And they’re gonna say, well, the Ukrainians gave up the nuclear weapons on the agreement that the Russians would never invade. Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin were standing there as it was signed. And what happened? The Russians are invading and nobody’s helping. I don’t mean, nobody’s helping like a lot of our tax dollars aren’t going in to javelins and stingers and other aspects of this, but without the United States’s direct presence with these aviation assets that we all recognize the value of the Ukrainians win this war, but for the possibility of nuclear war. That’s what a nuclear war off to another day that’s going to happen. That’s putting it off to another battle that’s putting it off to my kids. And so, I think that we have to operate on forcing on believing as much as we can that within the Russian leadership, there is more than one finger that’s got to push a button and that there is suddenly some recognition of what that means. And if it if we stop it today, we won’t stop it tomorrow, and we’ve got to get in there and do the right thing and not be in a nation that succumbs to intimidation and fear.
Robert C. O’Brien: Sean makes some a great points there but what I would say if look, one of the great things that happened over our lifetime is the end of the Cold War, and the creation of states in Eastern Europe- Poland, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, the Baltic states, the captive nations that we all learned about in school growing up. If Putin is successful in Ukraine he’s going to go after the Baltics next he’s already said, he’s already fingered Sweden and Finland, which is why the two those two nations are probably going to join NATO and that would be one of the great. One of the good outcomes of this crisis is that we’re going to strengthen NATO. Putin was attempting to weaken NATO drive a wedge in NATO through the invasion of Ukraine. Hoping that the Germans and and Italians that are dependent on oil and gas would cave and said he’s gonna end up with a NATO that not only is unified, but will include Sweden and Finland, which are both very capable countries and their capable militaries are on the Russian border of the planet the Arctic so so you know, it’s I think that’s one of the the positive outcomes with all those nations would be relevant. But right keep in mind, the number one person who is watching this war- he is sitting in Beijing. His name is Xi Jinping. The chairman of the Congress Party of China, the general secretary, because he wants Taiwan and if we lose Taiwan, Taiwan is a geopolitical cork in the champagne bottle. In the Pacific if that port comes out the PLA Navy the PLA army runs rampant across the Pacific just like we saw in World War II. That’s the highway for them to threaten Hawaii, the Aleutian Islands, Guam, all of our allies. To split the Pacific to split South Korea and Japan our treaty allies from Australia and New Zealand and Thailand and the Philippines, our free allies in the South and Xi Jinping wants Taiwan desperately for his own glory for that for the geopolitical advantage that it serves for the people for the Chinese Communist Party. And he’s watching Ukraine, and if he sees the Russian succeeding in Ukraine, he’s gonna go off to Taiwan. He’s going to go after Taiwan quickly. Now, the good news is I was watching the West coalesce and become united in support of the Ukrainian people. He’s watching military equipment get funneled into Ukraine and most importantly he’s watching the Ukrainian people fight like heck to keep their freedom. And he got to be thinking is this what the Taiwanese people are going to do if I try and invade. And so this crisis has implications far beyond important implications in Europe and Eastern Europe. But it goes far beyond Europe. And it goes into the Indo Pacific, where we have our tremendous national interest. And so if we can unite and unite the West, if we can cut Putin off and his economy not these half- sanctions we’ve got in place now but fully decouple the Russian economy from the free world. That’s something China can’t afford. China doesn’t want to be soft. It doesn’t have a whole market that’s big enough to accept all the manufacturing it does. If China can’t export to the US, Australia, Japan, Europe, India, China’s in real trouble. So if Xi Jinping sees the free world unite against the Russians, put in tough economic sanctions, support Ukrainian people with the materials and weapons that they need to defend themselves, that’s a massive deterrent to him invading Taiwan, which would be a real political disaster for the United States of America so it’s not just what’s happening in Europe. You know, others are watching you know, the Iranians are keeping their eyes on this as well. There are second-level consequences to how we respond to this invasion that’s critical for our country.
Brett Baier: Telling the room here. We were hoping to get President Zelensky on Skype to come in. He’s still meeting with some dignitaries he may pop in so we’ll interrupt the discussion, obviously, if he pops up and has a message for you all, but he because of the respect of both of these men and just interacted with Sean, he wanted to get to be a part of this. So we’re still efforting that. Bear with me. Going back to that room, and you’re making the decision, whether you’re going or not going and it’s tense. You’ve met with Zelensky, he’s obviously impressed you. You impressed him. It’s moving forward, but you have to make a call.
Sean Penn: You mean in terms of leaving? Oh, so once the invasion has started what happened with my colleagues and I, Eric Coughlin co-director is here. I refer to it as where we met with him. I think it’s probably a public secret at this stage, but I’m going to continue to refer to that where we met with him was in such a place where we did not know if when day turned into night, we would not know if certain other organic sounds might instead be the vibrations of rockets above. And so we got in in daylight and when we came out, we came out to city under complete curfew. Blackout. The recommendation was that we not take our car back to near where we were staying, I don’t know about a two mile walk. And so it was it was a great way to process the conversation and the day. The city was under air raid. We knew for sure that rockets hit at the airport when they came in, the Russians.
Bret Baier: Just outside Kiev, about 20 miles.
Sean Pean: Yeah. And so what we were trying to sort all of you know, the man we’d just met, what it meant, what the world meant now in this night, we took this long walk back to the hotel quietly, slowly. We got back to the hotel. The hotel was a blackout. Everybody was in a makeshift bomb shelter in the parking garage.
We went down there. You know, as much as it wasn’t as easy to get a vodka tonic and hang out. We needed these journalists to talk about what was happening. There were many people on cots. And so we sat together and and sort of tried to measure what our plan of action was. It had never been our intention to do you know, as I said, a war documentary, per se, meaning that archivally that is always going to be today so much more being collected by people this way. And I had this measured sense of what my calendar was. And there was a question whether was not so much one wouldn’t have gotten ahead of themselves according to Russian occupation and what that could mean personally and for the people around you. But the encirclement of the city seemed inevitable. Within hours, that was what the information on the ground was. And so I was, Robert, is back here in the States and saying what do you think?
Bret Baier: All right, we’ve got, we’ve got a clip from that moment. You’re on the phone or just off the phone.
Sean Penn: Yes, it was the day after it happened.
Bret Baier: Ok, take a listen.
Video clip plays
Bret Baier: So you talked to him. The bleep was ours by the way. You talked to him, you were hearing people say…
Robert C. O’Brien: For all my friends in Utah….
Bret Baier: Lost in translation.
Sean Penn: My interpretation.
Robert C. O’Brien: So look, we knew Sean was on the ground and they’re just some wonderful people in our State Department with the device security division and the hostage office. That sort of thing is nonpartisan work and I stay in touch with them and I kind of let them know what was happening and they said, Look, he’s got to get out of this. He’s got to get out know because at the time the Russian plan was decapitation strike, they were trying to get paratroopers through this local airport. That was about 20 miles outside or 20 kilometers outside Kiev and race those paratroopers the presidential palace surrounding the Kiev ministry buildings and take out the government put in a puppet very quickly. And at least early on this plan was going as Russia hoped it would and we knew Sean was in the center of the city, somewhere close to President Zelensky and everyone said tell him to get out and I had told Sean before my advice was to keep a full tank gas and we’re going to work to get him from there. There’s nothing like having a full tank of gas, water and a wad of cash and I used to keep cash gas water and I called him I said now was the time. We got to get yourself right now. While you can still drive over the border in the fall and you’re driving to Lviv, about 60 miles, 60 kilometers from the Polish border and I said you’ve gotta go, you’ve got to go now.
Sean Penn: The people that we got here and had real time conversations with others, some of whom for various reasons, also had to make sure they didn’t get stuck for six weeks hunkered down, had obligations elsewhere or where they thought they could be more value added to the effort elsewhere. And so your information shared with the information that we’ve gotten, we thought was very good information, which again, as I said before, you can think about worst case scenarios and think, Well, if there’s a certain amount, a certainty we’ll be stuck here for this much time. So it could be somebody who is in leadership and and needs to be at a frontline with the battle command and needs to get out of the encircled area. It could be someone like me saying okay, I’ve come on go back on the processes. So did I want to be able to get some real time you know, way I can help get right on with it. It could be it for any reason. And I think I hadn’t probably the most credible information at the time and what we get is right next day through that clip. Aaron and I are talking and we had security consultant there and saying, you know, our impression is this and he thinks that the best time to leave is 10 minutes ago. So you said okay. You know, is there a is there a weapon where’s the weapon the security consultant that there is no weapon I think and I thought I was only hoping that he had a weapon all this time. Okay. I think we’re gonna go. Had we left 45 minutes, an hour later, the very same people that we had told, well, they went, believing what we were saying, to pack their things and get a range in their car. They left one hour after us and in the same time, what it took us from Kiev towards Lviv one hour in the first part of drive to get to an hour later it took 11 hours for the others to get to and what’s normally a seven hour drive city to city was for us a 25 hour drive because you we we came first the Russians were engaged on the main road. So we knew we had to go around the back and then the bridge we were gonna go over got blown out. So then we had to go around and now you don’t know which gas station you’re plotting to get to and, as he says, fuel is very important. And so it became, you know, it’s an odyssey. But again, going back this incredible experience of what these people represent the spirit and a dedication. Now I went back to Ukraine a couple of weeks ago, because now C.O.R.E. is operating inside and outside of Ukraine and Romania, Poland, and Ukraine. We took the documentary team and hope that all will add up to something of value to tell this story.
Brett Baier: Now Zelensky, as you know, you both talked about him as this figure who stepped up for the day. A few weeks ago, I interviewed President Zelensky and one of the questions that asked him was you’ve done really well engaging the world to try to get help, talking to parliaments, talking to people around the world. Is he fearful about the world forgetting about this moment and Ukraine? Take a listen.
Clip plays featuring Baier’s interview with President Zelensky
Brett Baier: He said that in English. He said if you don’t stop them now, they’re going to continue. Just got word he is still meeting with those dignitaries and sends his regrets but this is a leader who is pretty remarkable to think in this moment.
Sean Penn: Absolutely. Imagine responding to that and circling back to a bit earlier, a lot of what Robert was saying, you know, be it the if only hindsight being a lesson for us now.
Certainly there is a great, great case to be made that had we exercised absolute sanctions early we’ve saved a lot of lives. We’re still not exercising them on in the energy sector in ways that we could. The initial and logical thought was that if Putin invaded it would be to take advantage of the winter months and help people’s dependence on them energy or heat would break the back of the Ukrainians and others. Well, now we’re in the warmer days and this is the moment to grab to to ask of our allies and to offer in any way necessary energy so that we can you know,
maybe we ride a bike and their kids get to live for these next months. For them, I think a real shutdown of Germany’s principle and this is one of the first things I talked to Robert about when I was just asking or inquiring on his knowledge about it. Before I went and and I think it’s the case today, and what’s happened is that Putin is now in a position of being humiliated. And then we could have saved him that by the sanctions, I believe would have had an enormous impact and probably stop this from happening.
Bret Baier: There’s a lot of back and forth about domestic oil production here and what we could be doing differently. Obviously, I could have done a political road in a party song about it. But what people really don’t understand is the sanctions regime and how this is not affecting Russia, how they’re still the gas and oil companies making more money now, or course gas is up, oil is up,than they did at the beginning of the war. Why aren’t these sanctions binding and stopping Putin?
Robert C. O’Brien: So we put sanctions on Russia, on what’s called the SWIFT system, which is the way that banks communicate with each other and kick the Russian banks off the SWIFT system. We also put sanctions on the Russian Central Bank, the Russian Federation Central Bank, which would prohibit them from operating in dollars in oil or gas sales. Now, when we do those sanctions, we exempted oil and gasses. And so when you think about sanctioning the Russian economy, when’s the last time anyone here, raise your hand, and went to Amazon and said I’ve got to get that latest thing from Russia. Never, they don’t have them.
And I suppose also that the only thing Russia sells is oil and gas, making cultural products is something of an extraction industry. That was all exempted. And so we got this odd situation that as Putin continues along, as the price of oil goes up per barrel, every dollar it’s billions of dollars in his pocket. Putin and his cronies, these oligarchs and the guys who run Gazprom, by the way, one of them was a former chancellor of Germany, Chancellor Schroeder. Those guys all mkae a ton of money. So he’s making more money now after sanctions with this war going on that he was making before. So unless we’re gonna cut off the oil and gas sales, you know, this is not going to end because there’s plenty of money to fund the war machine. We need our allies to contribute to get involved in this. We could cut it off ourselves but it is better if we had our allies. Most of our allies are on board. Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the UK is on board. President Macron in France is on board. Others are. Unfortunately the Germans, yeah, this is a problem. They’re the ones that have Nord Stream 2. They’re the ones that refuse to submit a 2% of their GDP for the military for NATO. They’re the ones that have this very cozy relationship with Russian oil and gas. It’s very hard for the Germans and it basically of that. They have been very critical of Germans over the past couple of years even their national security adviser. They have made some good steps that they promised to start rebuilding their defenses, they’ve promised to engage with the United States or European allies on sanctions, but they’re still buying a bunch of gas and until the Germans shut off the flow of euros and dollars, Vladimir Putin he’s going to have plenty of money. Not only for this war, but for Syria, Libya, then on in….He’s going to continue to have all the resources he needs to create trouble and mischief around the world and we’ve got to cut off with oil and gas to keep this from happening. These half-measure sanctions no longer work. I understand that people wanted to get a ladder for Putin to climb down. But he’s showing as this invasion continues and intensifies today he stopped taking the off ramp so since he didn’t take the off ramp, we got to close the off ramp and give the Ukrainians a fighting chance.
Bret Baier: The Ukrainians are fighting and fighting hard. Do you think Ukraine could win this?
Sean Penn: I would go further. You know when we do something like this and where there are cameras. And you know, we’ve all lived long enough to recognize that the there’s a legacy to the tape. I wager everything that when that tape is played that I’ll be right, the Ukrainians are going to win. And what we’re going to be doing is saying how many lives did we we let them loose of their families to be able to win that fight for us? And that’s that’s that’s the calculation right now.
Bret Baier: Why do you think it’s this that unifies the progressive side, progressives and conservatives, I talked about the differences in people who push back in each party but there’s also a lot of unity as you all have talked about this. Why do you think it’s this one, there have been places around the world?
Sean Penn: I think as we talked earlier, that it is fairly commonly considered that there is very little ambiguity to this conflict. The other thing that is significant is that their skin is not brown, and their skin is not black. The shape of their eyes is not different from ours. And what can be significant and powerful about that is because of the lack of ambiguity of the mission the mission for democracy for him in the fight for the freedom to dream. This can be the example that we can apply to so many other places that we’ve never been able to break that wall on our own. Unfamiliarity, or the sense that we’re different in some way from people because they look different from us, because there are many other kinds of dangerous battles being fought and people suffering. And if this one is won clearly and if we accept that part of the reason that might happen, meaning that others may help is because it’s easier to recognize people that look like us, make that a good thing and make it a good thing only immediately. It parlays into the change in our culture about that we’ve failed consistently with all the best efforts and with great leadership and so many sides in so many countries. They need to say why. And too many time the answer is because they’re black, they’re brown. They don’t feel like us, they don’t see like us and we let them down. Ukraine can be the Trojan horse for so many things. And Ukraine can also be the wall against anything if we let it fail.
Bret Baier: Last thing on the set, I want to point out that we put your organization C.O.R.E. on the screen. Do you want to get involved with people who we get a ton of people who said what can we do? What can we do?
Robert C. O’Brien: So there are a ton of organizations out there from the Salvation Army, The Red Cross to Samaritan’s Purse, Franklin Graham’s organization to Sean’s organization C.O.R.E. that have done many amazing things for the Ukrainian people. American spirit is trying to get some military equipment to the Ukrainians so there’s a lot that can be done. I just wanted to add one thing is what Sean was saying. I think on the conservative side why there was such support for the Ukrainian people it’s not just big countries going in and being and taking over the market. But liberty and freedom and democracy sovereignty. It’s the Ukrainians unlike the other we’ve been involved in, the American people are weary. They’re tired of sending their sons and daughters and I’ve gone to Dover many times with the President and to represent the President, to welcome back the fallen heroes. The Ukrainians aren’t asking for American soldiers. They’re not asking for American airmen or Marines or sailors. They want to defend themselves. They’re defending their own country, and they’re asking from us the tools necessary to do that, they’re asking us to be that traditional American arsenal of democracy. So if we can support them or provide them with what they need, they’ll fight for themselves because they are committed to their own liberty. They are committed to their own freedom. And I think that sparks, that they aren’t saying hey, you need to come and defend us from Russians. They’re saying we need to get the tools to defend ourselves from Russia. I think that across you know, folks are normally anti war on the left. And folks, on the right. Many of us together past 20-30 years. There’s a recognition that this is something different. This is something special about these people that have a spirit of the courage to fight for themselves, for their own freedom. And we need to learn lend a helping hand which was what Franklin Roosevelt said that when your neighbor’s house is burning down you give them the garden hose, you don’t try to sell it to them. We can give the Ukrainans the garden house to deal with the fire in their house and help them fight for themselves.
Bret Baier: President Zelensky’s people pass on their best. He has that same message. Still looking for help and he’s dealing with it on the ground with dignitaries.
You do have a day job. And you’re in the process of this new series called Gaslit, which we’re sitting in the East Room of the Nixon White House, which it deals with, you play John Mitchell the attorney general, and we have a clip. The episodes, the first seven launched April 24.
Bret Baier: All right. John Mitchell That does not look like you at all. How about that transformation? Talk about this program.
Sean Penn: Well it was presented to me originally, Julia Roberts had worked with a filmmaker who to sent us a project called Homecoming and they come up to this project about Watergate. It started as a podcast called Slow Burn. What was fascinating about it, I as a kid I don’t even remember why but I was eating up the Watergate years. It was fascinating. And so when you all the stories and you know who the personalities were, but not much about what was going on behind the scenes or their lives deepened at the time of Watergate. And so this is fascinating. It was you know, but for you know, if not for the crisis that have been for the country and some new ways it was hysterical. I mean the kind of political incompetence of the the powers. Not that it is anything that we haven’t seen out loud, with so many extreme characters and extreme flaw, pulling the chains, and we have also people who like us, love their spouse, were concerned about their personal lives. And so it was a really accessible way to take to the young people in particular, because I think every time you’re going to see anything you think what can we offer them that we might previously failed to offer them and it’s a great way to step into that historical lesson. It was incredibly timely as it turned out because a lot of things related to what that the United States is what is going on today. So, Julia, and I had had several times where we could have tried to or wanted to work together and various things and in this one it all worked out. And so we all went out and did it.
Bret Baier: I was thinking how long did it take to get in that makeup?
Sean Penn: Yeah, I think the first couple of times, it was about seven hours in the chair. And then we have like pit crew and they get to know you. It got down to about four hours every morning. That will tax the mind.
Brett Baier: Listen, thank you so much for doing this today. When does the documentary come? Do you know?
Sean Penn: Yeah, so the documentary itself is a pretty fluid thing. What we are doing is certainly, we represented this to President Zelensky and the rest of his leaders that we are leaving in Ukraine and if we feel we have to be supportive somehow you know furthers this is this is what was a moment I don’t know if we’re gonna put it this the biggest scene, there was a moment when I was talking to the president and I said and people will, you know, criticize me as making a proper new Pro Ukrainian propaganda film. I just found myself looking into the camera and saying I hope so because this is not, we’re not about bias. We are clear about the position that supposed to take. But I think we’d like to tell a very full story, but we’ll release things that there will be somewhat of a magic piece of something that we can help the mission we’ll release. In the meantime we plod away, right Aaron?
Brett Baier: And what’s next for you?
Robert C. O’Brien: Well, let’s see what happens in November. Let’s see the significant progress with the Speaker and McConnell as leader. Meanwhile, I’m back in the private sector, enjoying time with Lo-Mari, the family, kids, and I’ve got a lot of clients and so.
Sean Penn: I agree with the second half of what you just said.
Bret Baier: Ladies and Gentlemen, Sean Penn and Robert C. O’Brien. I’m Bret Baier. Thank you so much.