What it took to negotiate a nuclear arms treaty with Russia
Arms reductions agreements have long helped protect the world from nuclear confrontation among global superpowers. Even with Russian president Vladimir Putin currently threatening to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, the country still abides by a 2010 agreement known as the New START treaty. When New START—the last nuclear arms control treaty between the United States and Russia—was about to expire in 2009, newly elected US president Barack Obama was eager to get a new deal in place.
Rose Gottemoeller was the chief US negotiator of New START, and in an interview with Foreign Policy senior producer Laura Rosbrow-Telem, she talks about the treaty’s grueling negotiations, her role in the denuclearization of Ukraine and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
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JENN WILLIAMS, HOST:
From Doha Debates and Foreign Policy, welcome to The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams.
This week on the show, we’re going to hear about the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, referred to as New START. It’s the last remaining nuclear arms agreement between Russia and the United States. Our guest, Rose Gottemoeller, led the negotiations that culminated in the signing of that treaty in 2010.
NEWSCLIP WITH AMERICAN MAN SPEAKING:
It’s the first big nuclear arms treaty in two decades. And President Barack Obama signed it with a flourish alongside Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev.
NEWSCLIP WITH HILLARY CLINTON SPEAKING:
We are here today because we share a strong belief that the New START treaty will make our country more secure. And we urge the Senate to ratify it expeditiously.
JENN: During the Cold War, arms treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union helped save the world from a nuclear confrontation. And even now, as Russian President Vladimir Putin threatens to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Russia continues to abide by that same New START deal.
Gottemoeller told us about those negotiations in really rich detail. She sat down at her office in Stanford, California with our senior producer, Laura Rosbrow-Telem. So for the rest of the episode, you’ll hear the story straight from her. But a couple of things to know before we begin. Nuclear treaties are really complicated. So we’re going to try to simplify matters as much as we can. The goal of the New START treaty was to set limits on the number of nuclear warheads that each country could deploy, as well as on the missiles and the bombers that deliver them. Here’s more on that from Rose Gottemoeller.
So from 1994 to when the New START treaty reductions were completed in 2018, we’ve come down from 12,000 deployed warheads on each side to 1,550 deployed warheads. So it’s a considerable reduction, and that is the importance of these strategic arms treaties—that they’ve helped us to reduce these terrible weapons of mass destruction that pose an existential threat to the United States.
JENN: The old START treaty from 1994 was set to expire in late 2009. So there was a certain urgency to the New START negotiations. And you’ll hear a lot in the episode about missile defenses. These are missiles that are used to knock out incoming missiles. Now, those are not included in the START negotiations. But for Russia, that was actually a key point of contention. OK. So Gottemoeller begins her story in December 2008, just a few weeks after Barack Obama was elected president in the United States. She’s finishing up a job in Russia, where she served as the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. We’ll let her take it from here.
ROSE: I’ll never forget, I was wrapping up in Moscow in 2008 December. I was in an equivalent of an Airbnb temporary apartment; all my stuff had already gone back. I was living out of a suitcase, just finishing up the last couple of weeks of work there, and I got a call on my American mobile phone, and I raced across the apartment to grab it. And when I got there, the call was already over and I could see somebody had left a message. But in those days, it was impossible to listen to voicemail messages in Moscow. It’s weird what the technology was, but I just couldn’t do it. I was like, “Oh man, it could have been the White House calling, or it could have been—actually, it could have been the Obama campaign calling and, and maybe I’ve lost my chance.” So I was really anxious and nervous. And as soon as I landed in Washington Dulles and got on my phone on the American network, I called up the voicemail. And sure enough, it was a call from Hillary Clinton’s office. And her assistant had called and said, would I be interested in coming up and talking to Secretary-designate Clinton about the job of assistant secretary responsible for arms control issues? Well, would I ever. I got right on the phone even before I collected my luggage and said I would be very glad to come and interview with her.
I rode up on the train to New York, extremely nervous, and tramped uptown to this beautiful apartment that she had borrowed high above Central Park with the idea that she would be using it as her base as she was interviewing people. So sure enough, I walk in and there is Hillary Clinton, along with one of her deputies and the other of her deputies.
So the three of them, a phalanx, all three of them grilled me on the future of nuclear deterrence; the future of the US strategic nuclear forces; what I thought about negotiating with the Russians; what should be going into the next strategic arms reduction treaty. It was an exhausting hour or hour and a half. I just remember sitting there thinking, “Oh, this is going terribly.” So I walked downstairs. I was starving, so I went to a nearby bar and got a giant hamburger and a giant tankard of beer and ate those. And I was just convinced I hadn’t done very well.
The next day at home, I got a call from the assistant who said that Hillary Clinton would like to talk with me. Would I be willing to take the call? I said, “Of course, of course.”
[LAURA ROSBROW-TELEM LAUGHS]
And she got on the phone and said that she would like to select me, to put me forward to the White House, to be the—not only the assistant secretary responsible for arms control matters, but also the chief negotiator for the next Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Would I be interested? And I said immediately, “Yes, ma’am.” [ROSE CHUCKLES]
I was fascinated, even as a small child, with the Soviet Sputnik launch in the late 1950s. My father took me out into the front yard of our house in Columbus, Ohio, and pointed up to this little dot of light across the sky, speeding across the sky. And he said, “The Russians just put up a satellite, and isn’t that interesting? This is a very exciting scientific development.”
I went on, then, to study Russian, which was offered in high schools across Ohio and across the Midwest, and really enjoyed it. I decided I wanted to be a Russian major, went to Georgetown University, and was a major in language and linguistics. All for the purpose, I thought, of being a conference interpreter at the United Nations. But within a very short time, I decided two things. First of all, I was never going to be good enough. I was never going to be a native Russian speaker. And I really want to be involved in the policy. And so that is when I went to work at RAND Corporation, working on Soviet military doctrine and strategy, and particularly nuclear doctrine and strategy. And that really gave me my entree to working in this precise field.
I entered into the government in the transition, and that’s what happens in the US government. You’re confirmed by the Senate, and that sometimes takes a couple of months. So I watched as the two presidents, President Obama and then-President Dmitri Medvedev, got together in London in April of 2009. And Obama came with a proposal that was, I think, very succinct in its instructions to the negotiators. The first item was that we needed to replace the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, START I, which was going out of force in December of 2009. So we needed to replace it within those eight months. The second point was that the new treaty needed to have reductions in the existing strategic nuclear force levels below the level of the START treaty. And the third instruction was that it was to be about strategic offensive forces, intercontinental ballistic missiles, sea-launched ballistic missiles, bombers. It was not to be about missile defenses. And Medvedev and Obama agreed to them. So that was a very, very good, I would say, basis upon which to launch the negotiations. Our initial marching orders were very, very clear. I could then begin to dive right in and prepare for the first encounter with Anatoly Antonov, who was, at that time, the head of the department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow that was responsible for arms control. It was already clear that he was going to be my counterpart.
I knew Antonov as an official who represented the Russian Federation at various international conferences. Antonov has a well-deserved reputation of being a tough guy, and frankly, he’s known among certain people in Washington as a pretty nasty guy, as well. He was very, very knowledgeable. And to his credit, he often would come to the seminar series that I was holding at the Carnegie Moscow Center. I invited him to speak several times. Sometimes he would stalk out when he didn’t approve of what the discussion was and didn’t like what he was hearing. He would get up and stalk out in that very demonstrative way that Soviet and Russian diplomats can do. But we had, I would say, a kind of wary mutual respect that developed. From time to time, we’d get together and have lunch and talk issues over in a more informal way. And the fact that we got to know each other in Moscow as professionals, I think that was an important confidence-builder as we began the negotiating process.
There was some criticism in Moscow, apparently, because the Americans selected a woman to be the chief negotiator, and the Russians are famous misogynists. So there were critiques that came out, even into the press, saying, you know, “Oh, a woman negotiator!” and “Antonov has to stand up to a woman negotiator.” Even one article said, “Oh, he’ll never get the better of her, because she’s such a tough negotiator.” And I thought, “Oh, that’s not directed at me. That’s directed at Antonov.”
So I knew that he was under some pressure to show that he could be tough with this lady negotiator. So at the beginning of the negotiations, he played a couple of games that were not very pleasant. For example, showing up late to my invitation to lunch, about 50 minutes late. I think he expected me to storm out, but I didn’t. I was just very calm and said, “Well, you’re late getting here. Let’s get ourselves some lunch so we can get through the business we need to get through.” And I think my calm response on that occasion, and on other occasions, it was helpful in getting through that games-playing period.
I knew that the Russians were misogynists and had a hard time with having a woman in the chair as the chief negotiator. What I didn’t expect is that my own team had some problems with it as well. They did not, of course, articulate those difficulties; that’s not done in the US system. But I kept getting these critiques of my negotiating style that—”You’re not tough enough. You never get angry. You never pound the table.” I have a very even-tempered style, and I think women will recognize that if you do become angry too often, you’re criticized as being too shrill. So I was very mindful that I needed to have this even-tempered approach. I needed to be very serious and knowledgeable and well-prepared and all of those things. But what my delegation wanted to see was some temper.
So one day I decided to give it to them. And as usual, the Russians brought up in our plenary session that they wanted to place some limits on missile defenses. So this was strictly street theatre; it had nothing to do with how my normal response would be. But I brought my hand down sharply on the table and shouted, really, “This negotiation is not about missile defenses! It’s about strategic offensive forces! And our presidents gave us that instruction!” And the Russians were really surprised. They were very taken aback by this. And quickly, we moved on to other issues and got through the plenary all right. So it was fine. But we got back to the delegation space and were in our post-negotiation meeting, and my own—the men on my delegation were just jubilant. They were like, “Oh, that was great! You turned bright red; you pounded on the table! That was fantastic.” So I just smiled to myself, because it had been strictly street theatre; it was not something I had to do. But they never really demanded that I lose my temper again.
The biggest difference between the US and the Russian Federation, as it turned out, was that Russia—having agreed that the treaty would be about strategic offensive forces only—when they came to Geneva, began insisting that they actually did want limits on missile defenses. Luckily, I had the clear statement of President Obama and also President Medvedev of the Russian Federation that this agreement should be only about strategic offensive force reductions. So I was able to say again and again, “Our presidents agreed at the beginning that missile defenses would not be included in this treaty.” And I argued that regularly; in fact, sometimes even got angry arguing about it, because the Russians kept coming back to that issue again and again and again.
In December, I understood from talking to—both to Anatoly, but watching what was going on in the different working groups where issues were being handled, that we were beginning to make progress, that the Russians were beginning to move on some issues where they had not been able to compromise. And so I was very hopeful that we could actually get the main body of the treaty finished by the time START went out of force in the first week of December 2009.
So we were working steadily, and I heard that there was a National Security Council meeting going to happen in Moscow to make some decisions about some final agreements that the Russians needed to reach. And so I was eagerly awaiting the outcome of that. And then one Saturday, I got a call from Anatoly that they wanted to hold a plenary meeting, a special plenary meeting, on Saturday to report the results of this National Security Council meeting in Moscow.
Well, one agreement after another was taken off the table, things that we had agreed with the Russian side that just had to go back to Moscow for approval, they were just taken off the table one by one by one.
And that is when I got angry and I said, “This is not tenable. We cannot work this way. If Moscow cannot agree on these things, we are not going to be able to get this treaty done, and we are certainly not going to get it done in December.” And I remember Anatoly was very good. He bridled and he bristled and he said, “You seem to be calling into question my president.” And I said, “Well, we expected progress out of this meeting in Moscow, and instead you are tearing apart everything that we have accomplished.”
As it turned out, it was Prime Minister Putin who had taken all the issues off the table during that disastrous National Security Council meeting in Moscow at the end of November. Medvedev and Putin had changed jobs, so to say, in 2007, and Putin had become the prime minister. Medvedev, as president, was responsible for foreign policy. So in theory, he was in charge. But it was Putin, I heard later, who had taken all the issues off the table.
So to my mind, it was clear we had to go back to Washington, we had to regroup, we had to think about how we were going to work through the issues and get the Russians back to where we could reach some solution. I remember being on a telephone call, a video call, with the then-Deputy National Security Adviser, Thomas Donilon. And I mentioned that we were planning to come back to Washington to regroup and to get some new instructions. And he really got angry, and he said, “Who gave you permission to come back to Washington?” And I said, “Well, it’s natural. We’re at a break in the negotiations. The Russians are going back, anyway.” I didn’t know I was raising the wrong point, but I said, “And by the way, the holidays are coming up. People want to be home with their families for the Christmas holidays, and the Russians want to be back with their families for the New Year’s holidays in Moscow.” Wow. Donilon got extremely angry and said, “You need to stay there and keep negotiating, holidays or not.” And I said, “Well, the Russians are going home. I can’t stop them. I can’t hold them here.” And he said, “Well, then you need to stay there just to show them.” In the end of the day, we were able to come home. But that was a very, very difficult period in the negotiations.
JENN: You’re listening to The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams. We’ll be right back.
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JENN: Welcome back to The Negotiators, a partnership between Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. I’m Jenn Williams. Before the break, Gottemoeller described a crisis in the talks. The two sides had made some progress, but Vladimir Putin, who was Russia’s prime minister at the time, rejected the compromises. And Gottemoeller and her team returned to Washington. Now she’s back in Geneva, trying to find a solution to the most vexing issue: Russia’s demand to include US defensive missiles in the deal. Back to Gottemoeller.
ROSE: There was a huge snowstorm in Washington. It was called Snowmageddon. And Washington was completely shut down for a week in February of 2010. And oddly, people didn’t have classified computers at home. They didn’t have classified telephones. So I was not getting any instructions. But we were still wrestling with this issue of how to handle missile defenses in conjunction with the treaty. We didn’t want to put missile defense limits into the treaty, because that would have been the death knell for the treaty in the US Senate. But we wanted to satisfy the Russian concern that, somehow, there be an expression of Russian concerns about US national missile defenses.
So I hit on a very old-fashioned way of handling these issues; that is, to have a kind of side letter or a side statement—not part of the legally binding language of the treaty, but a side statement where Russia could express their views and get them on the record in a very serious way, but not make it a legally binding constraint or a limit. And so I said, “Well, let’s do a joint statement on that basis, just as a draft, just as a think piece, and send it back to our capitals and see what happens. See what people think about this.”
Well, somehow this piece of paper, during Snowmageddon, got back to Washington and landed on Obama’s desk. It never should have landed on his desk. It was a think piece to really get Washington’s reaction and see, you know, perhaps we can work on this basis of a side statement or a side letter. Obama got furious and thought that I was freelancing unhelpfully and somehow undermining the negotiations by trying to limit missile defenses. And oh, it was very difficult for me. I did not, of course, hear from the president himself. But having the President of the United States angry directly at you is not a pleasant experience.
So luckily on this occasion, an individual named Jim Timbie—who was a long-time top adviser to the Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security, then my boss—he helped calm everybody down and said, “This is a normal approach. Let’s not do a joint statement with the Russians. Let’s have two separate letters: one from the Russian Federation expressing its opinion, and one from the United States acknowledging that Russian opinion. They will not be legally binding in any way. They won’t be part of the treaty. They will not set limits on missile defenses.” So that calmed everybody down. And that’s exactly where we ended up.
By the time March rolled around, we could see the momentum was building toward a final resolution. We did, by the end of the month, essentially have the treaty complete. It was signed in Prague in the first 10 days of April of 2009, and that was a very, very important moment.
So I was very mindful that to get a ratification process done in the US Senate for the New START treaty with two-thirds—which is what is required for ratification—it would be really, really difficult. The senators had three key concerns, I would say. The first was related to missile defense. They wanted to ensure that there weren’t any kind of hidden limits on missile defense buried in the treaty, and they were very, very concerned about that. The second was, “Why is this treaty not identical to the START treaty? Why couldn’t we just do things the same way?” And we spent a lot of time explaining to them that, as a matter of fact, because we had refurbished how we did on-site inspection in New START, we were going to end up with a better inspection regime. We were going to end up with an inspection regime where we were directly monitoring and confirming the number of warheads on the top of Russian missiles. That was better than the kind of estimate approach we were using in the START treaty. We were going to get more accurate confirmations. I give the senators credit that they wanted to dig deep and understand these, these technical issues, but that was important. The third major issue was not related to the treaty itself, but to the modernization of the US strategic nuclear arsenal. It was a kind of quid pro quo for the treaty. If they would vote for the treaty, they got nuclear modernization, and President Obama was willing to agree to that.
President Obama and Vice President Biden wanted to ensure that we had the support of top-level leaders and former leaders on both sides of the aisle. And so they picked out several who they thought would be extremely influential, and one was Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, of course, but also former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And they invited him to a meeting at the White House, hopeful that he would make a public statement supporting the treaty.
But then they asked me to meet with Colin Powell privately to answer any questions he had about the ins and outs of the negotiations. So we met for about a half an hour in a small office just off the operations room—the Situation Room, rather, in the White House, and talked through some of the most important technical details of the treaty, especially related to on-site inspection and, again, why the treaty was different from the New START treaty. Colin Powell really wanted to understand those technical details, and it was a tough conversation. He did not show his cards. He did not give me any indication whether he would support the treaty or not, but just really peppered me with technical questions; went away after about half an hour. But within a very short time, Powell called up Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and said that he would be willing to support the treaty and do so publicly.
We thought McCain would be a natural to support the treaty, because Senator McCain had supported strategic arms reduction in the past, and he was very knowledgeable; very, actually, experienced also, as a top member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, chairman at various times of the Senate Armed Services Committee. So we felt that we should be able to get his vote. So we organized a meeting. Senator Kerry, then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had an office right off the floor of the Senate available. And so when Senator McCain came off the floor one evening, we met with him in Senator Kerry’s office. And we went through the value of the treaty and everything. And at—just at some point, McCain interrupted us and said, “I am angry at President Obama’s position on gays in the military, and I don’t want to have anything to do with this treaty. I’m not going to vote in favor of it.” And he stormed out of the room. And John Kerry said to me, “Well, when he gets angry like that, it doesn’t matter how valuable the New START treaty is. This other issue is really the one that is—that is stopping him from being willing to agree to anything else at this moment.” So he said, “Let him go.” I think they are unrelated issues, but he was very angry at the one issue, so he could not see his way clear to supporting the treaty. Washington is not always rational.
The very last days before the vote on the treaty in December of 2010, we had many, many long hours on Capitol Hill. And senators do like to try to mess with the treaty through the resolution of ratification by inserting language that interprets the treaty in certain ways, or in some cases, perhaps trying to change its legal meaning.
So on the last day before the vote was coming up, Secretary Clinton arrived on Capitol Hill to try to help with some final discussions. And she was in a meeting room with me. And I got the word that Vice President Biden and Chairman Kerry were coming to discuss a matter with me. And they came in, and Secretary Kerry handed me this paper and said, “What if we put this language in the resolution of ratification?” And I looked at him, and I looked at the vice president, and I said, “Senator, if you do that, then the Russians will never ratify the treaty. It changes the meaning of the treaty as far as they are concerned.” And so he said, “All right. Well, in that case, we’ll just leave it the way it is.” And he and the vice president walked out again, along with Secretary Clinton. The three of them walked out. I was sweating bullets. And it’s one—I would say it is the most difficult professional moment of my career, having the vice president and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asking me to make this change, and I had to say no to them. That was a very, very difficult moment.
We did not go up for the vote until we knew, through the whip count process, that we had the votes to pass the treaty. I had lost count; I was so busy running around the halls of Congress, the halls of the Senate, talking to senators and staffers and everybody I could grab to talk about the treaty. But on the morning of the 22nd of December, a fellow named Brian McKeon, who is a lawyer—also very experienced on Capitol Hill, had worked for Biden for many years on Capitol Hill, knew the process inside and out, so—he said to me, “Well, there’s going to be the vote this afternoon. Why don’t you gather your delegation members and ask them to come up to be here for the vote?” And I was so pleased, because he thought about the delegation and the hard work that they had done.
So the sergeant-at-arms issued passes for everybody. And I got the word out very quickly across the interagency. And by the middle of the afternoon, they all gathered on the balcony above the Senate chamber to wait for the vote. And it was just so good to see everybody, because the 70+ members of the delegation, we hadn’t seen for months. It was like a big family reunion.
And then the vote began. And yes, we knew who wasn’t going to vote, and who was going to vote in favor. It was so interesting, because the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, knew when the 68th vote was coming up, and he strode down the aisle in a very demonstrative way, voted “aye” for the 68th vote. He was the one who cast the vote that got the treaty across the finish line. It was great when they brought the gavel down and said that the vote had been adopted with a necessary two-thirds majority. The whole balcony erupted in cheers, and it wasn’t only my delegation. There were tourists there who had no idea that there was a vote of this kind going on. But it was just such an exciting moment that it brought everybody along with it.
One thing I like to say about negotiations is: this is not some magic circle, negotiators. These are not magic people who somehow learned their skills in a particular way that is not accessible to everyone else. Every human being is a negotiator. If you have a three-year-old child, you’re negotiating with that child to make sure they get to bed on time. If you have a teenager, you’re negotiating with a teenager about when the car keys need to be back home on a Friday night.
We cannot always try to change things by the use of force. You also have to be convincing. You have to be able to talk to the other person about what their interests are, and trying to get them to a point where they share your interests and, therefore, are ready to do whatever you want them to do. Like putting shoes on a three-year-old.
JENN: That was Rose Gottemoeller. She was the chief US negotiator for the New START treaty, the last remaining nuclear arms agreement between Russia and the United States. She describes the rest of the story in her book, Negotiating the New START Treaty.
We also wanted to get Rose’s perspective on the current moment with Russia.
ROSE: Do I have any current advice for dealing with the Russians? I think you have to ask, “Which Russians?” For Vladimir Putin and his cohort around him—they have really isolated themselves, I would say, from what I would consider to be normal interaction. And they are shutting themselves away from the world, in a way, and really blockading themselves behind a wall of disinformation that is very, very difficult to permeate.
JENN: There’s one last thing you should know about Rose Gottemoeller. From 1993 to 1994, she served on the National Security Council in the White House as director for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasian affairs. One of her responsibilities was denuclearizing Ukraine. So we were curious if she still thought that that was the right decision.
ROSE: The Ukrainians were tempted at the time, because they did have a number of people who were retired strategic rocket forces officers, for example, living in Ukraine. I think they felt they had the expertise, if they needed to, to actually take over the weapons. But it would have involved guillotining those weapons systems from the command-and-control system that was centralized in Moscow. And therefore, I think that process could have led to an early conflict with Moscow, between Russia and Ukraine, an early conflict that could have even had a nuclear aspect to it. So it was a dangerous, very dangerous period. Instead, what we ended up with was nearly 30 years of a stability that was—had its ups and downs, clearly, but it gave Ukraine the opportunity to develop its own sovereignty and independence, become the nation state it is today, and really be capable of fighting the Russians, as we’ve seen them fighting to preserve their sovereignty and independence. So I think that we would have ended up with an earlier conflict. We bought the Ukrainians 30 years, and they have clearly established themselves as a sovereign independent state.
JENN: The Negotiators is a partnership between Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. Our production team includes Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Claudia Teti, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Mehta, Amjad Atallah and Dan Ephron. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show’s senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton and James Wolley for helping create the show. Foreign Policy is a magazine of news and ideas from around the world, and we encourage you to subscribe. Just go to foreignpolicy.com/subscribe. Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation, where the most urgent issues of our time are discussed and debated. Tune in at dohadebates.com.
On the next episode, we look at efforts to negotiate a new constitution in Chile, and why they ultimately failed.
[SOUND OF CHILEAN WOMAN SPEAKING SPANISH]
Every time they voted, they would exclude you and approve whatever they wanted.
JENN: That episode coming up on The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams.