Joe Sestak speaking at Carnegie Mellon University in 2010 while campaigning for US Senate in Pennsylvania. Photo credit: Patrick Gage Kelley / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak has jumped into the Democratic presidential primaries and is making a strong case against war with Iran.

Former Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Sestak recently announced he’s running for president, joining more than 20 Democrats who are vying to take on President Donald Trump in 2020. 

In this WhoWhatWhy podcast, Sestak, who won a congressional seat in a red district, explains why he’s running, focusing on military and foreign policy. He doesn’t embrace a military solution to the tensions with Iran, and questions why Trump breached the six-nation nuclear agreement. He details the consequences of an attack on Iran, noting that “militaries never fix a problem.” He also comments on Trump’s efforts to force regime change in Venezuela, another place where Sestak opposes a military intervention.  

Sestak also shares his views on healthcare, impeachment, and why he thinks he can beat Trump. 

Joe Sestak is a retired Navy admiral who served two terms in Congress from Pennsylvania. He was director of defense policy on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. In his career in the US Navy, he reached the rank of 3-star admiral. His website is

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Full Text Transcript:

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Peter B. Collins: Welcome to another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. In San Francisco, I’m Peter B. Collins. And today I welcome Democratic presidential candidate Joe Sestak, who has jumped into the 20-plus race of candidates to challenge Donald Trump next year. I’ve known Joe Sestak for more than 10 years. He served two terms in Congress from Pennsylvania and on the way to the House he defeated entrenched Republican Curt Weldon, who’d been there more than 20 years. Joe went on to challenge Arlen Specter who had rebranded as a Democrat and garnered support from President Obama and the Democratic establishment in 2010, and Joe Sestak beat Arlen Specter in the primary but did not prevail in the general election. He also ran for the Senate in 2016 in Pennsylvania. Before his political service, Joe was on the National Security Council during the Bill Clinton administration and he served with distinction in the United States Navy, rising to the rank of three-star admiral. Joe Sestak, thanks for joining us today.

Joe Sestak: Now Peter, thank you and it’s great to be back with you.

Peter B. Collins: Well, it’s nice to talk with you. Now, many of my listeners have never heard of Joe Sestak. So give us a quick thumbnail of why you have announced you’re running for president.

Joe Sestak: Well, I, wore the cloth of our nation for 31 years, as you know, Peter, in war and peace. I worked for President Clinton in the White House, as you mentioned, developed the national security strategy for the nation. So first, I believe that our nation really needs something that’s absent right now, and particularly on the democratic stage is that we need someone who understands the world, has a breadth and depth of experience and is able to do a convening of the world that helps us protect our American dream at home.

Joe Sestak: This is important whether you believe in climate change, because 85% of the greenhouse emissions come from overseas, or whether it’s in the liberal world order China that’s beginning to impose its values of might makes right. Second, this nation most needs what you brought up, Peter, someone who’s willing to be accountable to people above party, willing to run against, as I did, including the president of my party, when they endorsed Arlen Specter, who had attempted to humiliate Anita Hill, and I think that shouldn’t have stood.

Joe Sestak: And so I went against my party, at a cost, and beat him, but at a cost. But I think that’s what we need most because third, if you are accountable to people, then you can begin to unite this nation. Because if we don’t have a president who is trusted by the people, even when disagreeing well, we’ll never be able to move forward on policies that are needed here at home, like training for a lifetime for our laborers who most need it, because they work with hands and their minds, and we are ignoring them. And so that’s why I’m running for president.

Peter B. Collins: And Joe Sestak, I’m deeply concerned that John Bolton’s schemes to get us into a military conflict with Iran will be somehow approved by this mercurial president who could tweet us into a war, before we even know it. And with Boris Johnson, just today, being installed as the new prime minister of Britain. And I’ll note that minority rule produced that less than 1% of the British electorate was involved in the choice of Boris Johnson over Jeremy Hunt. But he is truly a wild card in many ways, less predictable than Trump, and right now we have this conflict where Britain grabbed an Iranian oil tanker, so Iran grabbed a British oil tanker and the efforts to diffuse the situation, and prevent a conflict, are now compounded by the unpredictability of both Trump and Boris Johnson.

Joe Sestak: Peter, you hit on a major of the three reasons I am running for president. We need leaders who understand that military’s … You never fix a problem. They might stop a problem for a while, but they never fix it. Take Iraq, we unleash Shiite against Sunni, which, with our invasion eventually metastasized into Isis. We didn’t fix Iraq, we had fixed Iran by diplomacy that had brought China and Russia and other nations together for economic sanctions that removed the nuclear weapons-making capability in Iran, removed it. They were within 30 days of having a nuclear bomb, Peter, as you know, and now we broke our word. When they were following it and said, “We are not going to stand by the deal we made.” And so you get this escalation of tensions that’s happening, and people don’t understand, Peter, that if we were ever to have to, because Iran begins to rebuild their nuclear infrastructure, have to strike it, it is under 300 feet of rock.

Joe Sestak: We would have to remove our aircraft carriers out of the Persian Gulf because we can’t survive there. We can’t find their mini submarines, they have 19 of them, because our sonar doesn’t work in shallow water. And once we’re outside the Strait of Hormuz, they’ll close it with thousands of mines. 20% of the oil of the world has to come through that Strait of Hormuz. And then we’ll begin our strike. And as we do it, thousands of missiles, excuse me, hundreds of missiles will rain down on Israel from Iran and our regional bases. Now we’ll finally destroy a lot of that infrastructure, but if this becomes a full-scale conflict, four years later, they can rebuild it. Militaries can stop a problem, in this case a very messy one, stopping, but they never fix it because they will rebuild it again. And so we had fixed it. Why did we break that agreement? That’s the problem with unpredictabilities of leaders like you just mentioned, they don’t understand our military or how to fix problems.

Peter B. Collins: And Joe, I really appreciate your awareness of the consequences of an engagement with Iran, because Trump and Bolton and Pompeo seem just so blasé that we can attack, just like we did with a coalition in Libya, the covert operations in Syria that went sideways. You’ve already referenced Iraq. Our support for the Saudi war in Yemen continues, despite the efforts of Congress to assert its war powers authorities. And I really believe that Trump is oblivious to the potential consequences, and to people like John Bolton, that lead him by the nose.

Joe Sestak: I have to agree that we are like, scattershotting of how we are trying to approach challenges in the world, and with little understanding of what militaries can and can’t do. And here’s what else he’s missing, Peter, as an example. When I arrived in the Arabian Sea with my aircraft carrier battle group to do the strikes against Afghanistan after we had been struck at 9/11, and the Taliban refused, and we tried to get them just to kick out Al-Qaeda, they refused. So we were going to strike, as you remember. When I arrived there, there was an international armada waiting for us. Italian ships were there, so were Japanese – I had not been outside the Sea of Japan since World War II –Germans and others to join. They outnumbered us. My [inaudible] to join the American battle group, because the [Italian?inaudible] Minister of Defense has said: “America has been attacked, and we will be there for them.”

Joe Sestak: My point is this, if you want to convene the world against the danger or harm, or to prevent it like we did by convening the world to do away with the nuclear weapons [inaudible] of Iran by bringing together nations, to join us together, to disarmament, not by war, but by other methods, we better have a leader who understands that we don’t kick allies and leave them bruised behind and come home, behind walls thinking we’ll become great again. What we have to do is ensure that we work with allies and friends of common values so that together we are able to deter, or together we’ll be able to compel, against injustices in the world to protect our American dream here. And there is no concept of this as we’re retreating from the world. That doesn’t mean with our military. That means like our forefathers did after World War II and our military stopped Germany at World War II, but there was the Marshall plan that fixed fascism so it became a democratic state. That’s how we can be in the world.

Peter B. Collins: Joe Sestak, in this hemisphere, there has been a lot of pressure on the Maduro government in Venezuela. The US sanctions are crippling the country and people are dying as a result. What is your position on regime change in Caracas?

Joe Sestak: I think we should be working with the Organization of American States. Again, those nations that, together, do not want a president in there who has actually ignored, and rigged elections, and is harming his people with a GDP that is … Actually the economy is the worst in the world for a nation that is not at war, and a GDP that’s plummeted since 20 … In the last few years, one-third, and inflation just out of sight. And so we need to compel them, not by our military, but by the pressure that we have there, by making sure that … They have the world’s largest oil reserves, for example, but they are importing enough for food and medicine, we have to let that happen, but we should be targeting those individuals that include cronies of the government officials, where there are cartels there that are looting the country.

Joe Sestak: And then we can do that with our monetary capability because who we … Because the dollar is the common currency throughout the world, to stop that. Force them to understand that they are suffering also. And so, my take is that this is one where we need to stand for the right values. But in concert of those of the hemisphere, the Organization of American States, and compel them through the proper economic, or monetary, sanctions to the cronies that are robbing their people there that eventually this will not stand. And let that change happen down there among the populous movements in a democratic way that is occurring.

Peter B. Collins: And Joe, I understand your points. I don’t share your view that the Maduro election was rigged. I’ve interviewed international observers who were there who say that the Trump election in 2016 was much less credible than the Maduro re-election in 2018. That said, it is a government that has failed, and I think that it needs support and not sanctions to try to move forward. And I think it’s been targeted because it’s a socialist government that is an easy and ripe target for the American right. But turning to domestic issues…

Joe Sestak: [crosstalk] that’s an interesting point. I had taken my facts on that rigged election from the economists back in August of 2018, but you may have better information than they did about the rigged elections that have occurred under Maduro.

Peter B. Collins: Yeah, [crosstalk] I’m not an apologist for Maduro. I just don’t believe that the US has any role in intervening in Venezuela. And I think it would be a mistake to get involved in another long slog.

Joe Sestak: Yes, but you’re talking … I agree with you, militarily, but are you saying that we should not be trying to, we should not be letting this president, and others, robbing their people and transferring money out of the country?

Peter B. Collins: Well I think that has to be-

Joe Sestak: That’s what I’m talking about.

Peter B. Collins: I think that has to be established by some international authority, and at this point it’s a lot of competing talking points.

Joe Sestak: I think you’re good, but that’s why I … Excuse me, I’m going to stop with this, but that’s why I said it’s not us unilaterally. It’s doing it with the Organization of American States, and I have to agree with you, we do not want any slogs. I was talking about the kind of intervening in the money, because a lot of this, as you well know, is coming from drug cartels that support the cronies in the government, and that therefore we should be impeding their money transfer to banks in Switzerland and all. That’s what I meant by the sanctions on those people there, that we should not let that illicit money … and start to hurt those people, not the people underneath it. But I understand your viewpoint. That’s what I was trying to say, probably less clearly than I should have.

Peter B. Collins: I get it, Joe. Let me turn to the critical domestic issue for the Democratic Party. Many moderates in the party say that Medicare for All is extreme and that it will lead to political defeat, and you have really built your political issues around trying to provide healthcare for Americans that’s comparable to the critical care that your daughter has gotten in repeated bouts with cancer. So give us a clear statement of where you stand on Medicare for All, Joe.

Joe Sestak: Yes. I believe first we need to fix the Affordable Care Act, and in doing so, have what I voted for in Congress, in the House side before was removed, Peter, as you know, in the Senate side, the public option. And the White House and the Senate took it out because of the pressure of the health insurance industry. I supported it because it would be a choice, not a mandate, a choice to where people could see if the public option did provide better accessibility at lower costs, quality care. And it would be in the basket of choices that you could pick in the Affordable Care Act. So I call it a transition of choice for Americans, that if it’s working, more and more move into it, and eventually it could move off into being something, perhaps like the VHA is. But I do not believe that 255 million Americans who take health care have some form of private health care today.

Joe Sestak: That includes one third of those on Medicare, who, for example on Medicare Advantage, down to those who are even on Medicaid managed systems. Or like me when my daughter’s brain cancer came back last year, that all of a sudden there’s going to be a mandate that you have to change your health care in two to four years, or something. How you treat people in trying to care for them is important. And if anybody tried to say my same doctor who saved my daughter once couldn’t save her again because they were going to change is wrong. So I believe that rather than mandating, you work best if you incentivize them and show that this is a transition of choice. I think there’s a possibility it could work. Strong, but it needs to be that way. That’s where I sit in the overarching issue.

Peter B. Collins: All right. And Joe, your time is tight, so I need to limit myself to a couple of more questions. Do you support impeachment for President Trump at this time?

Joe Sestak: At this particular time? No, what I do support, however, is that there has been a report by a fine public servant, Mr. Mueller, and now he has said he could not rule out that he was innocent of obstruction of justice. So I think that Congress has a responsibility, if they think, and there’s enough preponderance of some evidence, that there should be a honorable investigation that is not one where people are stating, even beforehand, they know that someone is guilty and should be impeached. I say that because I honestly believe, running for accountability, that accountability means answering for oneself. It also means that you have a responsibility and accountability to see, per the Constitution, if anything that has been brought forward is of merit to be considered a crime or not.

Joe Sestak: People may not like it, but I believe that that …  an investigation should be done, it should be in one committee. It should be composed of those individuals, hopefully that have not gone on the record to say, yes too many have, he’s definitely guilty. And it should be a, just like a jury, to see if there is evidence enough to go into impeachment. Look, we have an accident in the military, you actually have an investigation to find out who. No and’s, if’s or but’s about it, you have an investigation if it’s done. And if I’m running on accountability, I think public servants should be willing to say, let’s have a transparent, but fair, not partisan-type of investigation, to see if it moves us to impeachment.

Peter B. Collins: Joe-

Joe Sestak: [crosstalk] should be impeached today in what we see? After you haven’t done investigation by the body that’s charged to do it, I think is not the correct process.

Peter B. Collins: Joe, I believe that the obstruction of justice issues are pretty clear and do deserve further investigation, whether it’s by the judiciary committee or an impeachment committee, but the Michael Cohen plea deal and the recent release of some of the underlying documents and testimony from that investigation, to me there’s a slam dunk there that the president committed campaign finance crimes, that he conspired with others to cover that up, and that it may have had an impact on the outcome of the election. How much do we really need before the Democrats recognize what I think is a duty to follow the terms of the constitution and impeach a president?

Joe Sestak: Well, let me … Excellent point, Peter. I am not saying this should be … I do think they have to go through an investigation rather than going to an immediate … Taking what are reports and evidence that’s sitting out there, I think they need to do their due diligence, but I am not arguing that this takes you beyond the election, like some would like to put this off forever so there’s not the political consequences of it. I think there is a duty for them to do it and it needs to be done in a timely manner, but I do believe that they should bring everything together and coherently, I think, for the public to see, here’s why within our own deliberative party, who are the ones who have to bring impeachment charges, that we have looked at it, ourselves, through all the evidence in a timely way.

Joe Sestak: It’s the consequences of one, how it impacts the Democratic Party, or Republican Party, is so secondary to the Constitution duty to do this. And I would say it should be done. If it can be, it should be done before the election because I think they can do that. Because I do know that some believe you shouldn’t do it because it could hurt the chance of the Democratic Party to be reelected. Well I don’t even think that should be a consideration. It’s, what you should do but do it properly. And I think that the body should do a quick … Excuse me, a judicious but relatively rapid, because the information is, a lot of it’s out there. Bring it together and get this done in a timely way. And then if it does require impeachment charges, do so.

Peter B. Collins: And finally Joe Sestak, why do you think that you could beat Donald Trump? I referenced your victories over Republicans, but I also am compelled to share with my listeners that you were not successful in winning either of the Senate races in Pennsylvania. So that puts you even behind Beto O’Rourke as a candidate coming off a pair of losses. What do you believe is different about your candidacy that would permit you to prevail over this very challenging opponent.

Joe Sestak: Well, it doesn’t put me behind a much better man than Abe Lincoln, who lost two Senate races before he lost the vice president nomination, and had lost three congressional races before he became president. But it also doesn’t put me behind, as you well know, because I was able to beat, by 30 points down, a 22 term incumbent Republican, or as you pointed out nicely at the beginning of this, against my own party’s opposition, being able to beat a Republican-turned-Democrat when I was 40 points down. And then in my last race, my party put more money in TV ads from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee against me, than they put in for TV ads against Mitch McConnell. So, why can I? I am a person, you might call it a public servant, who always served all people, which is why I got reelected in a nearly two-to-one Republican district. That district, where I was the second Democratic congressman since the civil war, by 20 points without spending one penny on any media ad, because they came to know I was accountable with them.

Joe Sestak: Even though I had 100% voting record by NARAL Pro-Choice, 100% by Human Rights Campaign, 100% by NOW, an F by NRA, they reelected me by 20 points without my having to spend it, because they knew I was accountable to them. It is why I beat Senator Specter, and yes, my party put in a lot of money to defeat me because they did not appreciate my independence when I ran against them.

Joe Sestak: That said, that, I think, is what is actually this country most wants. And that, more than anything else, is why. Not just because I was a Navy admiral, served my country wearing the cloth of our nation for 31 years. It’s that accountability that has been demonstrated, I will be for people above party, people above myself, having turned down the same lobbying jobs, six and seven figures, that 450 senators and congressmen have taken since 1998. I believe this nation yearns, more than anything else, for someone to be accountable to them. I’m not running just against Donald Trump. I am running for people, and that is how the Navy trained me to be. And that’s how I was as a politician, public servant, not a politician. Thank you.

Peter B. Collins: Well Joe, I certainly wish you the best. I welcome you to this very highly populated race. And in the past, I have never made contributions to political candidates who I interview or cover, but this year because of the way the Democratic primaries are structured, I’ve made exceptions and you will become the sixth candidate to whom I am donating one dollar. And my purpose is pretty obvious, I want to see your voice on the debate stage. I want to see your views reflected in the debate among the Democratic candidates. And I do believe that you bring qualities and perspectives that, with a few exceptions, other candidates really don’t have. So I think you’re very clear on the challenge that you’re facing, the work that lies ahead of you, but you’ve never been afraid to take on a big challenge. You walked the entire state of Pennsylvania, you visited every county there, and I want to see how you’re going to scale that up to a national race, Joe.

Joe Sestak: Peter, thank you. And just having me on has helped me down that step a bit more. Thanks very much having me back on board.

Peter B. Collins: “Thanks for listening to this Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast with presidential candidate Joe Sestak.  Send you comments to and please make a contribution to support the investigative journalism here at WhoWhatWhy.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from US Congress / Wikimedia.


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