The first contestant in Donald Trump’s reality administration has left the West Wing. This week on Intercepted, Glenn Greenwald offers some provocative pushback on the Russia fearmongering surrounding Gen. Michael Flynn’s resignation (or firing). Naomi Klein walks the dark aisles of the Trump family department store. Former Rep. Liz Holtzman, a key figure in the impeachment of Richard Nixon, explains how impeachment actually works, and how the smoke around Trump could fuel a fire aimed at unseating him. Hina Shamsi of the ACLU recounts her interrogation at the border — which echoes the treatment her clients have received. And underground hip-hop legend Vinnie Paz of Jedi Mind Tricks sends in some verses.
[Music interlude from “A Few Good Men”]
Capt. Jack Ross: So raise your right hand, please. Do you solemnly swear that the testimony you will give this general court marshal will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
Donald J. Trump (played by Anthony Atamanuik): You bet. Believe me, so many truths.
CJR: Have a seat please, sir. Would you state your full name and occupation for the record?
DJT: President Donald J. Trump: president, CEO, and host of America. Big ratings. The best.
Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (played by Matt W. Cody): You understand the role of judges in the U.S., sir? A judge halted your Muslim ban, ruling parts of it unconstitutional, right?
DJT: You snotty little bastard.
CJR: Your honor, I’d like to ask for a recess.
LDK: I’d like an answer to the question, Judge.
Judge Julius Alexander Randolph: The court will wait for an answer.
LDK: A federal judge ruled against your Muslim ban, and you attacked the judge on Twitter as a “so-called judge,” and tweeted that people should blame the judge and the court system if something happens. If you issued a ban, and your bans are always followed, then why would a judge rule it unconstitutional?
JJAR: You don’t have to answer that question!
LDK: President Trump, you ordered a Muslim ban, and then said it wasn’t a ban, and then said it was a ban. Did you order a Muslim ban?
DJT: You want answers?
LDK: I think I’m entitled to them.
DJT: You want answers?
LDK: I want the truth!
DJT: You can’t handle the tweets!
[Music interlude from A Few Good Men]
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City, and this is episode four of Intercepted. I gotta be honest, it is becoming very difficult to keep up with this shitstorm. We had the late-night resignation this week of National Security Adviser Gen. Michael Flynn.
Newscaster: The president’s national security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn, suddenly resigned late last night. This follows questions about his conversations with Russian officials.
JS: Mike Flynn is an open Islamophobe. He worked on the assassination program under Bush and Cheney. He, more recently, was the front man for coming very close to threatening war with Iran.
Gen. Flynn: As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice. Thank you.
JS: There are all sorts of reasons why Mike Flynn should not have been the national security adviser, but that’s not why he’s going down.
Keith Scott: But times were just as tough halfway across the drawing in the former Soviet satellite of Pottsylvania, where Rocky and Bullwinkle’s archrivals, Boris and Natasha, and their fearless leader, Fearless Leader, were cooking up their latest scheme for taking over the world when their plans were crushed by the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Boris: What’s going on?
JS: He’s going down because of the phone calls that he had with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. during the transition period from Obama to Trump. And what’s becoming clear is that the White House is sort of transforming into a backstabber’s alley.
Michael Corleone: I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart.
JS: The Trump administration is now claiming — well, Mike Flynn lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of those Russia calls.
Mike Pence: I talked to Gen. Flynn about that.
JS: And left out the part about discussing an easing of sanctions against Russia and other things that could potentially have been problematic.
MP: They did not have a discussion, contemporaneous.
JS: Trump, for his part, amazingly claimed just days before they gave Flynn the boot or Flynn resigned, depending on how you look at it, “I have no idea what any of this is about, but I’m gonna look into it.”
Donald J. Trump (the real one): I don’t know about it. I haven’t seen it. What report is this?
Reporter: The Washington Post is reporting . . .
JS: Well, we know understand that Sally Yates — you remember her. Trump fired her as the acting attorney general when she stood up to his Muslim ban. Sally Yates apparently, back in January, had raised the Flynn phone calls with the White House and said that there were discrepancies between what Mike Flynn was saying in public about what he discussed with Russia’s ambassador and what intelligence intercepts of those calls had documented. Now the New York Times is reporting that the FBI interviewed Mike Flynn just days into his time as Trump’s national security adviser. Now, if Flynn lied to the FBI, he could be hit with felony charges. All of this should be investigated, no doubt. But something else seems to be at play.
Senate Republican leaders are now increasingly joining in with the Democrats in saying, “We need to investigate this Mike Flynn scandal.” And the White House now is starting to pile on with the narrative that, oh, this was all naughty Mike Flynn. And they seem to be in the beginning stages of a campaign to dump all the Russia shit onto the U.S.S. Mike Flynn and sink it once and for all. Now, that’s not likely to succeed, especially given the state of commentary in the U.S. media, the hysterical posturing of the Democrats and their cheerleaders in the media on this Russia story.
Joe Scarborough: A storm is coming, and it’s coming fast, and it’s coming hard. And they’d better be ready for it.
Thomas Friedman: At the very beginning, Russia hacked our election. That was a 9/11-scale event. They attacked the core of our very democracy. That was a Pearl Harbor-scale event.
Chris Matthews: This is Lenin stuff. This is Leninism. Anything that advances the cause of the Communist Party is what we do.
JS: Okay. Joining me now is my colleague Glenn Greenwald, fellow cofounder of The Intercept and professional Twitter fighter. Glenn, what is your thinking on all of this Flynn shit?
Glenn Greenwald: I think there’re several interesting points. Obviously, if somebody gets caught lying to the public on a material matter, as Gen. Flynn just did, they ought to be fired. I wish that standard had been applied during the last two administrations. The last significant case was when James Clapper got caught lying to the public about a very significant matter called the NSA domestic spying program.
Sen. Ron Wyden: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?
James Clapper: No, sir.
GG: And yet kept his job through the end of the administration. And so I’m glad to see that there’s now accountability for lying to the public. I also think it’s extremely interesting and important to note that the reason we found out that Flynn lied was because somebody inside the U.S. government committed a very serious felony in order to make sure that Gen. Flynn didn’t get away with lying, and that namely is somebody who leaked the contents of intercepted telephone calls from the NSA when they were spying on the conversations of Russian diplomats. For the past eight years, anybody who leaked information against the law was regarded as a criminal or a traitor, somebody who deserved to be punished. For some reason, the person who exposed Gen. Flynn is now being celebrated as a hero, which I think it s correct. And it underscores that sometimes people who break the law in order to leak information are acting justifiably and nobly, and we ought to celebrate them when they expose corruption on the part of government leaders.
I think what this does not do is vindicate a lot of the hysteria about Russia. It doesn’t show that Gen. Flynn was some sort of Russian spy. It doesn’t show that the Kremlin has blackmail leverage over Trump or any of those sorts of things. But it does show that Flynn lied, and therefore lost his job, justifiably.
JS: And we also have this reality that’s playing out on the cable networks and in the papers and on Twitter where you have this sort of authoritarian Trump tweeting, “The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on North Korea,” etc. And then you have the Democrats celebrating what they perceive as the intelligence community standing up to Donald Trump. And you had this article by the former NSA something or another, John Schindler, asserting that the NSA is withholding intelligence from the Trump administration because Trump has an open spigot to the Kremlin from the National Security Council. But I find it particularly ironic that the Democrats are celebrating these leaks.
Barack Obama: Leaks related to national security can put people at risk.
JS: Given the President Obama shattered the combined records of every one of his predecessors for prosecuting whistleblowers under the Espionage Act.
GG: Yeah. I mean, you are at the center of really, one of the most important leaks of the last — of the war on terror — which was the Drone Papers. And I was at the center of another extremely significant leak, which was the Snowden NSA reporting. And so both of us constantly heard from Democrats that anybody who leaked classified information is a criminal and potentially a traitor, and ought to be imprisoned. MSNBC continually justified and even cheered for the Obama assault on leakers and whistleblowers by saying that anybody who leaks classified information without authorization deserves to go to prison. And yet, now they just do a 180, as partisan hacks always do, and they start cheering for it because this leak undercuts not a Democratic president, but a Republican one. And suddenly, they find it heroic and noble. I mean, this is just craven partisan dishonesty of the worst kind that we’re seeing as visibly as we can possibly see it.
Sean Hannity: Well, Julian Assange, fascinating. I do hope you get free one day. I wish you the best. Thank you for being with us.
Julian Assange: Thank you, Sean.
GG: And we see it on the other side of the equation too. People like Laura Ingraham and people at Fox News support Trump, were very supportive of WikiLeaks through the campaign. They were supportive of the Snowden story. And now suddenly, they’re indignant over the fact that someone leaked information because it hurt the Trump administration. These are the kinds of hideously dishonest partisans that basically ruin any integrity or value in political discourse. We all know who they are and have seen them over and over. But I guess at the end of the day, you have to just take your allies where you can get them. And even if the motives are really lowly and warped and malignant, it is true that whoever did this leaking did the right thing, and we ought to be thankful for them, regardless of what the motive was of that leaker, whether it was to destroy Gen. Flynn because he’s a threat to the deep state, or whether it was because they want to harm the Trump administration because they’re viewed as threatening of the CIA’s agenda. Whatever the motive was, the outcome was justifiable.
JS: Right. And then — and of course, you know, the official organ of “the resistance,” MSNBC and the NBC network, they did another thinly sourced, anonymous official’s story saying that —
Newscaster: The Russian government is considering offering fugitive Edward Snowden as a gift to President Trump.
Newscaster: But at the end of the day, it creates complications for the new administration.
Newscaster: Complications that might arise during a Snowden trial, like re-opening the debate about American surveillance and civil liberties. Good for the Russians. Last year, Mike Pompeo, now CIA director, said prison was not enough for Snowden.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo: And I think the proper outcome would be that he would be given a death sentence.
GG: Yeah. I mean, that’s another perfect example. If you evaluate that story with even minimal amounts of critical faculties, what you instantly see is that this storyline about how Trump should get Putin to trade Snowden as a gift actually originated not from the Kremlin, but from the factions of the CIA who were squarely behind Hilary Clinton, in particular, former acting CIA chief under Obama turned Hilary Clinton surrogate Mike Morell, who a month ago wrote an article saying Trump should convince Putin to hand over Snowden as a gift. And then lo and behold, magically, this storyline appears a month later, planted in NBC by of course an unnamed official, claiming that in telephone conversations that they tapped or email communications that they read, they heard Kremlin officials plotting to hand Snowden over.
Now, maybe that’s true. Maybe the Russians just happened to be planning exactly the thing that Mike Morell, a month ago, advocated. But given that there’s no name on the story, given that it’s coming from the intelligence community, which is created to disseminate misinformation; given that the intelligence community despises Edward Snowden and could easily be using this leak to pressure Trump or to put it in his brain, so many potential alternatives, to just instantly treated as true, to just blindly believe that there are now telephone transcripts showing Kremlin officials plotting to hand over Snowden as a gift, all because some unnamed person in the intelligence community said that to NBC news is just gullibility and idiocy of the highest order. And yet that has happened over and over, especially where Russia’s concerned.
Whenever there’s an anonymous leak, everybody instantly believes it to be true. No evidence needed to be presented, as long as it’s pleasing, as long as it bolsters people’s desires and makes them feel good, then it just — anything goes. And we see it over and over. And those are two great examples.
JS: Let me ask you, I mean, about this issue of anonymous sources. We at the Intercept, we spent quite a bit of time determining what our policy would be on anonymous sources. And I see often on Twitter, when you make this point, you get attacked, and people say, “Oh, well, you guys use anonymous sources.” And we do in fact, at times, use anonymous sources. We published a massive dump of FBI files. We published the Drone Papers, which was based on a source within the intelligence community that we granted anonymity to. So what is your view of the difference between the varying forms of granting of anonymity that you’re talking about?
GG: Well, first of all, there’s a fundamental, glaring difference between publishing an assertion from an anonymous source, some person saying that something happened. But you can’t see any evidence for it. You can’t touch anything concrete. There’s no way to critically evaluate whether it’s true. It’s just some woman or some guy who refuses to attach their name to it, making a claim versus publishing actual authenticated documents, things that you can touch and feel and read, so you know that they’re real. And what matters in those cases is not where it came from, who provided it, but what the documents themselves actually reveal. For example, had Edward Snowden remained anonymous, his documents would have been just as informative, right? The FISA court order showing that the U.S. government was collecting millions of calls every day from Americans would have been just as newsworthy. And in fact, Snowden was anonymous at the time that document was made public. So there’s a huge difference between anonymous assertions and documents, concrete evidence provided by an anonymous source.
Beyond that, I would say there are times when anonymity is justified. If the source is providing information that’s genuinely in the public interest and would face serious punishment and recrimination in the form of prison, or being fired, or having their reputation ruined, or other kinds of dangers. I’m not saying anonymity is never justified. But whenever, as a news consumer, you see a media outlet publishing an assertion from an anonymous source that’s unaccompanied by documented evidence, you ought to be very skeptical about whether that claim is true because the whole nature of anonymity is that the person is protected, which means if they lie, if they propagandize, if they deceive, they’re protected from all consequences, which is the reason, beyond the fact that you don’t see any evidence for it, that you ought to always be skeptical of anonymous sources, including ours.
JS: Right. And I just wanted to back up to the Flynn thing a second and remind people, one of the great scandals of the post-World War II era on this issue of communications and transitions happened when Ronald Reagan was competing against Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election, and you had dozens of American hostages being held by the Iranians in Tehran as a result of the Islamic Revolution. And the Reagan people were concerned that Jimmy Carter was gonna pull what they called an October surprise and make a deal that would free the hostages, that would result in tilting the election in his favor. And the story goes that the Reagan team made a secret deal with the Iranians that would result in Reagan being able to take credit for freeing the hostages. And in fact, 20 minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn into office —
Ronald Reagan: Some 30 minutes ago, the planes burying our prisoners left Iranian airspace and are now free of Iran. [Audience clapping]
JS: Now, Reagan did a ton of dirty criminal shit. And the point here isn’t that this is the model or that it’s okay. It’s that all of the pearl clutching in Washington about Mike Flynn is really sort of political theater, on one level.
GG: This idea that people should not interfere in foreign policy — I remember in 2007, when Nancy Pelosi went to visit Bashar al-Assad in Damascus at the time the Bush administration was imposing sanctions on and was trying to isolate the Syrian regime, the big scandal on the right was that Nancy Pelosi ought to be prosecuted under the Logan Act for interfering in the Bush administration’s foreign policy. The reality is, the Logan Act is a really troubling and oppressive statute that has never been used to prosecute anyone precisely because of how troubling it is. It basically is oppressing one’s freedom of speech, and freedom of petition, and freedom of movement to be able to express one’s views or to engage in political activism. And especially in this case, where Flynn is literally weeks away from becoming the national security adviser, and the Trump administration is about to take over, the idea that they would communicate with other countries to signal what their intentions are — again, maybe it’s a breach of protocol because there’s only one president at a time or whatever, but it’s hardly anything cataclysmic.
I do agree that if Mike Flynn lied to the public, he ought to be fired. We shouldn’t have public officials lying to the public about critical matters. But beyond the lying, I really am not bothered by any of it.
JS: Now, we should say that it’s not clear if Flynn resigned or if he was actually fired. Did he just lie to Mike Pence, who then passed on that false information to the American public, or did Flynn actually lie to the FBI when they reportedly questioned him about this? Stay tuned. Glenn, we gotta leave it there. Thanks for being with us.
GG: All right, Jeremy. Good talking to you.
JS: Glenn Greenwald is my fellow co-founder of The Intercept.
JS: Well, Mike Flynn may have been kicked off Trump Island, but this frightening little man is very much still in the game.
Stephen Miller: Our opponents, the media, and the whole world will soon see, as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.
JS: This past weekend, millions of Americans and others across the globe were introduced to Stephen Miller. He’s one of the radical right-wing ideologues that’s currently in control of some of the most sensitive operations and policy direction of the United States government. This 31-year-old propagandist has been slithering around right-wing circles for a number of years, but he really broke through and made a name for himself as Donald Trump’s warm-up act during the campaign for president.
SM: What kind of political establishment allows its own children to be slaughtered in the streets because we won’t enforce our immigration laws?
JS: And Stephen Miller is now helping to draft executive orders. He’s reportedly even chaired a meeting of the National Security Council, along with Steve Bannon, the white nationalist former head of Breitbart. Trump likes to call them his “two Steves.” These two hateful characters are now in the driver’s seat of a tremendously dangerous car.
Hina Shamsi: Well, I think the concern can be, in some sense very simple put, which is that what were once fringe, anti-Muslim, extreme views are now in the White House, and are poised to impact policies in ways that I think will be hugely detrimental to people’s rights and to our national security.
JS: That’s Hina Shamsi, the head of the ACLU’s National Security Project. I’ve known Hina for many years. I’ve interviewed her for stories about the watchlist, about targeted assassinations, about Guantánamo. And before the ACLU was raking in tens of millions of dollars in donations to help their battle against Trump’s Muslim ban, Hina was fighting day and night against the Obama administration’s policies, the massive watchlisting matrix, her fight to close Guantanamo, representing the families of people killed in drone strikes during the Obama era. And I think that, like me, Hina is very heartened to see this tremendous groundswell of awareness and action on this issue of the targeting of Muslims and others, but also horrified at why this is necessary right now.
And among the cases that Hina is currently working on is a lawsuit that was brought by victims of the CIA torture program during the Bush/Cheney era. It’s a suit against two agency contractors who were central to building up this apparatus of torture that was kicked into gear soon after 9/11. Well, a couple weeks ago, Hina was flying back to the U.S. from meeting with her clients abroad, and she found herself in the crosshairs of the very system of being detained and interrogated by the Customs and Border Protection Agency at an airport. She has fought on behalf of people on the watchlist or no fly list, and actually was subjected to the kind of so-called secondary screening that her clients often are.
HS: I want through immigration, and it seemed like an immediate red flag went up. And a Customs and Border Protection agent came and took me to a separate section of the airport behind the luggage carousels and started asking a series of really extraordinary questions. They asked where I’d been and what I was doing, and I explained that I am a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, and that I’d been traveling, as I said, for my work. And the questions then began, a series of them, with, how is it that someone working for an organization with American in its name would have my passport, which is Pakistani. I’m a legal permanent resident and have been for over 10 years.
How is it that someone working for an organization, this organization, with American in its name would be representing people who are not citizens, or would be traveling abroad so much, especially if I’m focused on the U.S. Constitution? And it was a series of very intrusive questions related, not in any way that I could see, to establishing my identity or any issue of status or legal ability to enter or not. And it went far beyond, as I said, anything that I’ve ever experienced before.
JS: Hina Shamsi of the ACLU. Coming up, we’ll talk with a legendary congresswoman who was one of the key figures in the impeachment effort against President Richard Nixon. I’ll ask her what she makes of the mounting calls for President Trump to be impeached. What she has to say may surprise you. We’re also going to hear from the newest journalist to join the staff of The Intercept, Naomi Klein. She’ll be talking about brand Donald Trump.
Jedi Mind Tricks: So who’s the next to get it? I’ll take the life of anybody trying to change what’s left.
JS: Before we go to break, let’s hear from the underground independent hip-hop artist Vinnie Paz.
Vinnie Paz: This is Vinnie Paz, Philadelphia, PA.
I see a blackout of reason, a misunderstanding of values, a lessening of respect. My empathy is not as burdensome as the weight of their guilt, and it is not as heavy as the stain of their injustice. I am a man, and I seek no validation in empty slogans.
I see human corruption reaching out to ensnare and vile tendrils of ungodly greed. And I live holy days trying to avoid its influence. I’ve been force-fed lies my entire life. I’ve watched gluttonous men take blood from stone and spin it into gold. Their nobility is infrequent as their compassion.
I’ve watched as those charged with ensuring the virtuous ideas of justice and protection have perverted everything about their sacred task. I’ve watched the obscenity of lies gain legitimacy in the mouths of the incoherent. I’ve seen those same lies grow with the doctrine and be sold for profit.
It is the arrogance of man, a history of mindless repetition and a learned fallacy of power. The desire for domination over any dominion is an assured sign of weakness, a coward’s call and a hollow echo. It’s not my language. It’s not in my heart to abide these godless mouthpieces of weakness and fear.
I am a man, and my anger is righteous. I will not participate in this cancer, this viral fear massed behind walls of hatred. I will not wear the blood of women and children as a badge of potency. I will not assume history’s curse, and I will not further their will. I will not allow this poison infection of misanthropy and callous indifference to manipulate me. I am a man, and I stand in defiance.
We’re smarter than this. We are better than they all imagine and all that they worship. Why our people with honor, and we protect the weak among us. We are the swarm of voices that will coax blood from their heirs. Assalamualaikum.
JS: Vinnie Paz is the lead MC of the hip-hop group Jedi Mind Tricks. This is Intercepted. Stay with us.
Jedi Mind Tricks: Get to know your god.
DJT (played by Anthony Atamanuik): Son, we live in a world that needs a lot of walls. Tremendous walls that Mexico will pay for, okay? Those walls must be guarded by men with guns. And who’s gonna do it? You? The ACLU? George Soros’s professional protestors? Rosie O’Donnell? Pig. I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. Believe me, tremendous responsibilities. Huge. You weep for the Constitution and you curse Steve Bannon. You have that luxury. Incredible luxury. And my Twitter feed, while grotesque to you, saves lives. You don’t want the tweets because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want my tweets. You need my tweets. We use words like bigly, easy D, fake news, bad hombres, sad! We use them as the backbone of our lives. You use them as a punch line. I have neither the time nor inclination to explain myself. I would rather you just said thank you and went on your way, or just pick up a gun and head to the nearest Nordstrom’s. And don’t go to a Nordstrom’s Rack. Totally cheap. But either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you’re entitled to.
LDK (played by Matt W. Cody): Did you tweet about Ivanka’s clothing line being pulled from Nordstrom’s during a national security briefing?
DJT: I did what I needed to do.
Male Speaker: Did you tweet at a department store during a classified national security briefing?
DJT: You’re goddamn right I did!
JS: Alright. Welcome back to Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill. I want to encourage people to check out all of the investigative journalism on theintercept.com. Now, for a lot of people, Donald Trump’s administration is already a horror show. The Muslim ban, the Yemen raid, the suggestion he may resume cluster bomb sales to Saudi Arabia, Steve Bannon’s presence in the administration, not to mention on the National Security Council, the ICE raids, Donald Trump’s failure to know that Frederick Douglass is not a living person who’s doing great things.
DJT: Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job that is being recognized more and more, I notice.
JS: And on and on and on. And that’s not even getting into Trump’s own personal conflicts of interest. We haven’t even seen the guy’s tax returns. He’s still basically running his Trump empire in between tweets attacking federal judges and the “failing” New York Times. The word impeachment, though, is blowing in the air, and I think those winds are blowing a lot stronger, particularly in light of the Flynn situation. Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, she says it’s not quite on the table, impeachment, but she does seem curious about the issue. Richard Nixon’s White House council, John Dean, said recently, “I don’t think Richard Nixon even comes close to the level of corruption we already know about Trump.”
Richard Nixon: Because people have got to know whether or not their president’s a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.
JS: Well, this is a topic that’s going to increasingly pop up in the weeks and months ahead. But is it really a feasible thing? To break all of this down, I’m joined by Liz Holtzman. She is a former congressmember from New York City. She was the youngest member of the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Richard Nixon. Liz, welcome to Intercepted.
Former Rep. Liz Holtzman: Thanks, Jeremy, for having me.
JS: The bookies in the U.K. are putting the odds at two to one that Donald Trump is impeached in his first term. You’ve got almost a million signatures on a petition being circulated by this group Roots Action calling for the impeachment of Donald Trump. Rep. Jerrold Nadler is starting to kind of poke around the issue, looking for an inquiry. But I think that the word impeachment is being thrown around a lot lately, and sometimes in a way that doesn’t seem to have a grasp of what it even means. Explain what impeachment actually is in the context of the president of the United States.
LH: Actually, when we were confronted with the misdeeds of Richard Nixon in 1973, the only impeachment effort that had taken place had taken place almost a hundred years before against Andrew Johnson, President Andrew Johnson. And that had been attacked by historians for the hundred years afterwards. It was very partisan, and it was a failure. So all of us had to go and start reading the Constitution, and reading English history books, and all of that. Impeachment is not something that was taught in law school, at least when I went to law school. But it’s a practice that derives from ancient British history.
Let me tell you why this is in the Constitution. The framers wanted a Democratic society. And so, we had election of the president. Of course, it wasn’t direct. You have the Electoral College. But people got to vote. Not everybody, property holders, no slaves, so forth, women. But the framers also did not want a parliamentary system. They didn’t want a system where a president could be removed from office. And on the other hand, they knew that presidents could do very bad things while they were in office. They knew that presidents might, because they were human, steal, cheat, take bribery, connive with foreign governments, do all kinds of bad things. And since they had an election every four years for president, what would happen to the country if you had a president who committed treason, or engaged in bribery, or did very bad things in the middle of his term? You’d have to go on for another two years, another three years, another four years, even, with such a president.
So they knew they had to have a system to remove a president from office who was engaging in bad, bad, bad acts. But on the other hand, they didn’t want to make it easy to remove a president ’cause they didn’t want a parliamentary system, and they wanted a strong president. So they had to kind of balance it. As a result, they made impeachment a very cumbersome and difficult process, which is why there’ve only been three times in the history of this country where impeachment has been attempted, and only once where it succeeded.
How does impeachment work? It’s a process that starts in the House of Representatives, which acts like a grand jury — issues what’s similar to an indictment. Here’s what the president did that was bad. And then it has to go to the Senate, where there’s a trial. The chief justice of the Supreme Court sits on the trial. And you need two-thirds of the Senate to convict. In other words, it’s very tough, under any circumstances, to get a president removed from office. First of all, people are reluctant to throw out a president, so you have to get a majority in the House of Representatives, and you’ve got to get two-thirds of the Senate to agree. And the Constitution’s very specific about the grounds for impeachment. You cannot remove a president from office through impeachment because you don’t like his policies, or because his behavior is bizarre, or because you disagree with him, or because his actions are despicable. Those are not grounds for impeachment. The only grounds are treason, which is defined in the Constitution; bribery, which everybody knows what that term means; and the third term is other high crimes and misdemeanors.
That’s a very mysterious term because we don’t know what a high crime is, much less a high misdemeanor. We don’t use that language. That language derives from ancient British law, ancient British practice, where they could impeach executive officials. A high crime and misdemeanor, in my opinion and in the opinion of my colleagues on the Judiciary Committee, is basically a political crime, a serious, grave abuse of power that threatens the basic workings of our government. In other words, it’s a president who does something not trivial, but something serious that affects people’s rights or the operation of our laws, and that’s not authorized or is an abuse of his power.
JS: What rose to the level of high crimes when you worked on the impeachment of Richard Nixon?
LH: What triggered the impeachment inquiry, and that’s a very important thing to understand, was the American people. It wasn’t what happened with Bill Clinton, where the Republicans in Congress said, “We’re gonna go after the president,” stimulated by the special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, who had no business recommending that impeachment action take place. That’s how that started. It started out by the recommendation of a special prosecutor, and then the Republicans said, aha, now let’s go get Clinton. And in the end, the American people never bought that. They said, “Hm, well, we don’t think that whatever he did, as bad it was, was serious enough to warrant impeachment.” It didn’t involve an abuse of the powers of his office. He lied under oath about his relationship, sexual relationship, with an intern. It didn’t involve the abuse of the powers of his office. He never used the powers of his office. And it didn’t really threaten the functioning of our government, of people’s liberties.
What happened with regard to Nixon was that it was discovered that there was a taping system in the White House. Richard Nixon wanted to keep track of his conversations, so he set up a taping system. And of course, the special prosecutor who had been appointed after the burglars had said there were higher ups involved in Watergate, Archibald Cox a Harvard Law School professor, said, “I’m going to go and try to get those tapes.” Well, Nixon knew what was going to happen, and he ordered Cox to be fired. Well —
John Chancellor: Good evening. The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious constitutional crisis in its history. The president has fired the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox, and he has sent FBI agents to the office of the special prosecution staff and to the attorney general and the deputy attorney general and the president has ordered the FBI to seal off those offices. That’s a stunning development, and nothing even remotely like it has happened in all of our history.
LH: The American people said, “Uh-uh. This is not America. We’re not a banana republic. Prosecutor has to be able to search for the truth, no matter where.” And so, Congress was flooded with phone calls, telegrams, letters, people screaming and yelling. The American people said, “Enough of this. Congress, you have to do something about this president.” And the evidence included, ultimately, the tape recordings of President Nixon’s White House conversations. And they show beyond any doubt that he was involved in both criminal activities and serious abuses of power. But what happened was, one of the tapes was called the “smoking gun tape.” And that tape showed that Richard Nixon orchestrated and directed the cover-up. What he said on that tape was he ordered his top aid, Haldeman, to call the CIA and tell the CIA to stop the FBI investigation into Watergate, into the break-in.
So that was both a kind of a crime because it was an obstruction of justice, obstructing the effort of the FBI. It’s also a serious abuse of power. It’s misusing the power to order the CIA to do something that it had no business doing, that was solely — not for the wellbeing of the country, but solely to protect Richard Nixon from being prosecuted and found out in terms of his criminal activity. So you had the standard for high crime and misdemeanor.
JS: We’re not even a month into the Trump administration. What do you make of these calls for impeaching Donald Trump at this point?
LH: First of all, the impeachment would be extremely difficult. Remember, you need a majority in the House of Representatives. For them to vote against the president is going to be extremely difficult because they’re going to have to explain to their constituents, most of whom voted for Donald Trump, why they did this. It will only happen if the evidence, as it was with Nixon, is so overwhelming that the American people say, enough. But if impeachment is political, as it was with regard to Bill Clinton, it was totally partisan. That was not the impeachment effort that went into the removal of President Richard Nixon. That was bipartisan from the beginning.
The chair of the House Judiciary Committee and the members of the House Committee understood that Nixon’s conduct was really threatening the republic, our democracy, the rule of law, the constitutional system that we had. So if we wanted him removed from office, we had to make sure that the process was fair, was totally legal, was backed by full evidence, and that we had Republican support, because the American people were not going to buy overturning an election by Democrats, even though we controlled the House. We had the votes.
JS: Right. Is there anything that is in the public realm right now that you can see as indication that there would be the kind of crimes being committed by Trump or his administration that would rise to the level of impeachment?
LH: I think there’re some very troubling signs. I don’t see any impeachable offenses at this moment, but I see that there’s a possibility that we could have them in the future. Why do I say that? What caused Nixon’s downfall was his arrogance about being president. He thought he was above the law. Once you put yourself above the law, then you are asking for trouble. He thought he could cover up, he thought he could abuse agencies. He thought he could use — break-in to people’s homes, wiretap without warrants, pay no attention to what the law required. That was his downfall. We see signs of that with regard to Donald Trump. For example, the denigration of the judiciary, trying to bully them, trying to denigrate them, shows a real contempt.
JS: “So-called judge.”
LH: Yeah. “So-called judge” — political. They need to do their job. They haven’t done their job. That kind of thing. It’s not an impeachable offense to denigrate a judge, but it’s a sign that he thinks he’s above the law. That can get him into trouble. Similarly, when he fired —
JS: Sally Yates?
LH: Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, because she was doubtful that the executive order on refugees was lawful, he didn’t say, “Hey, what are her concerns? I mean, do we have an unlawful statute? I want to get it to work. Let’s try to find out what her concerns are.” Nope. He ignored them. Again, a sign of contempt for obedience to the law. I’m not saying that it was illegal or an abuse of power to fire her. I think he had the right to do that. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I don’t think it’s an impeachable offense. But it’s this kind of a mindset, I’m the top dog, and the whole system has the kowtow to me, and I don’t have to make my laws lawful because people have to obey them. I’m the president. That’s a very bad sign at the beginning.
One other thing are his financial entanglements. One of the grounds for impeachment is bribery, treason, other high crimes and misdemeanors. Bribery could mean taking money from somebody knowing that they’re trying to influence you. It doesn’t mean you have to act on it, but simply taking that money might be engaging in bribery. Well, if you haven’t separated yourself from your hotels, and you’ve got people staying at the hotels, for example, who are doing so in order to get you to change position on the pipeline, is that bribery? And so, you may start getting issues of bribery with respect to who’s paying money to the hotels. And then all that money that goes into the hotels goes into his pocket.
Does he know who’s staying in his hotels? Does he — does he understand that this is really buying influence? It’s similar to campaign contributions, but those are exempted. This is not exempted. So could we be having large-scale efforts at bribing Donald Trump? And his participation by not walling himself off from this could create really serious problems. It’s not a conflict of interest issue. It’s not an ethics issue. I mean, it could be those things. But seriously, from my point of view, it could be bribery, and then we are getting into constitutional impeachment grounds.
JS: I’ve been hearing rumblings that there are powerful neoconservative figures that are in Dick Cheney’s circle of influence that have started discussing the 25th Amendment to the Constitution and the idea that maybe Mike Pence could end up ascending to the throne before Trump’s first term is over. What scenario could lead to Mike Pence becoming president?
LH: Well, I’ve looked at the 25th Amendment, and it was adopted in order to fill the vacancy of the vice president. But it also allows for the president, if he’s suffering from some illness, or has to go the hospital, or has some heart attack and is under anesthesia, or something like that, to relinquish the powers of his office temporarily, and then regain them. That’s been done. It was done by Ronald Reagan and maybe other presidents as well. And we’ve filled vacancies in the vice presidency using the 25th Amendment. The 25th Amendment, however, has a provision for the involuntary removal of the President of the United States. But it requires consent by the vice president and the heads of executive departments. So you can’t just have Mike Pence saying, “I want to be president,” and saying that Donald Trump is unqualified to be president in order to be removed.
JS: Well, what if Donald Trump decides he’s bored with this? It’s not like running my company, and I’m just gonna — I’m gonna go back to hosting “The Apprentice” and running the Trump organization.
LH: He can always resign. Richard Nixon resigned, and then, of course, the vice president becomes president. But if, for example, people felt that the president’s behavior were really a sign of instability or mental instability, and enough of the cabinet members agreed with that, there could possibly be a way of removing him. However, the 25th Amendment is very badly drafted, and the president could say, “Well, I’m really fine, so I’m gonna take back the powers of my office. Then it would go to the House of Representatives for a vote. So it’s a very, very cumbersome process. I guess Pence — if the president really behaved in an even more extreme and eccentric and bizarre way than he’s behaving now — many people think he’s unstable now.
JS: Do you think that’s possible?
LH: Yeah, it’s possible, but I think —
JS: That he could be more erratic and —
LH: Yeah, I think it’s possible. But I do think that the procedures are not spelled out. And would Pence take advantage of them because he’s the one who’s going to benefit from it? It would look very, very troublesome, I think. And how would he be able to say that Trump is not mentally balanced when he can’t have an examination? So you’d have to get Trump basically to agree to be examined by a psychiatrist. Is that going to happen? So I’m not sure that that mechanism is gonna work. It’s worth exploring because I think there really are issues of stability, but how you’d make it work is another issue.
JS: What do you think people should be looking at right now, or your sort of final thoughts about where we are as a country in this moment with Trump in power?
LH: The bizarre behavior of Donald Trump already reflects, I think, one area where he has actually abused his powers, his office, in a serious way, affecting the liberties of the people of the people in the United States. And that his attack on Nordstrom. Nordstrom is a private business, and it’s allowed to sell to whomever it wants to without discrimination. And it’s allowed to carry whatever kind of clothing and sell whatever clothing and advertisers it wants within the law. Donald Trump using the powers of his office as president cannot attack that business. It’s an abuse of power. He used the presidential Twitter operation to attack Nordstrom. We can’t have a president basically threatening a private business, attacking a private business. That becomes — it’s an abuse — it’s a misuse of the powers of office for private purposes. This is to, you know, ensure that his daughter is making money. Well, that’s fine and good. He wants to do that? He can’t do it as president.
And there’re some things that he has to give up as president, and that is to use — to try to defend members of his family by using the power of the presidency. That is a very serious thing that he’s done. Even one of the Republicans said that he finds this over the line. And if he continues this kind of behavior, attacking private businesses or private individuals using the power of his office for personal gain or personal gain of his family, those could be impeachable offenses. It’s completely wrong. I hope the situation will get worse for Donald Trump in the sense that the American people will come to their senses about him.
JS: All right. Thank you very much, Liz.
LH: Thank you.
JS: Last weekend, Donald Trump was chillin’ at Mar-a-Lago, the “Winter White House,” as Sean Spicer likes to call it. It was the culmination of the live tweeting of his maxin’ and relaxin’ with Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, with whom Trump shared yet another awkward as hell handshake to kick off their weird bro comedy.
DJT: I said, “Come on, Shinzo. Let’s go over and say hello.” [Crowd laughing]
JS: Mar-a-Lago ain’t Camp David, and you are not welcome there. But for $200,000, you too can go and watch Trump meet with foreign leaders. In fact, this weekend, elite club members were able to capture a bunch of pictures of what would normally be secret meetings between two heads of state. Trump was Instagrammed, tweeted, Facebooked, as he went over details, we understand, of North Korea’s surprise missile test. While he was sitting there with Prime Minister Abe of Japan, waiters were removing dishes and cleaning the tables, and they’re looking at classified documents.
KFC Television Commercial: You’re going at it all wrong, son. You’ve got to go to Kentucky Fried Chicken if you want to catch America’s favorite chicken.
JS: And Trump’s genius clique of advisers were actually filmed using their own mobile phone flashlights to help Trump and Abe see these classified documents. Now, Trump and his advisers may not know this, but at least one app for smartphones for a flashlight has actually been used by Chinese spies to spy. One of the pictures taken by someone in the club that night also suggests that Trump is still using his old, insecure Android phone to take calls and post tweets. Now, that is an easily hackable device.
DJT: And I know a lot about hacking. And hacking is a very hard thing to prove.
JS: Well, Trump is brazen in his disregard for both the ridiculous formalities of being commander in chief, as well as those that are probably in place for a good reason. His main mission seems to be to promote brand Trump through the White House and to cash in. I’m joined now by Naomi Klein, and very excited to announce that she is joining us here at The Intercept as a senior journalist. And she’s gonna be covering the Trump administration. Naomi, we’re all very excited to have you on board. Welcome to the crew.
Naomi Klein: Thanks, Jeremy. I’m excited too.
JS: What do you make of the kind of mini scandal right now of Melania Trump and Ivanka Trump and their product lines, and Trump attacking Nordstrom’s, and Kellyanne Conway pitching for people to buy Ivanka’s clothing on Fox & Friends while she was in the Brady Room at the White House?
NK: This week has definitely made it clear that the United States doesn’t have a first family; it has a first family of brands. And there is a series of stories — I mean really, this has been clear from that first photograph, but well before inauguration, when Ivanka was seen meeting with her father in a Japanese delegation, and afterwards, it was tweeted out that people could buy the bracelet that she was wearing from the Ivanka line. And Melania’s bio on the White House website originally plugged her accessory line that you could buy on the Home Shopping Network. But yeah, there’s been a lot of news just in the past week related to this entanglement, this family of brands.
There was the story that U.S. taxpayers will be picking up the tab, $100,000 in hotel bills for Secret Service and other government staff to be part of Eric Trump’s entourage when he went to Uruguay to promote the Trump brand. Then of course, there was Trump lashing out at Nordstrom’s for dumping Ivanka’s brand — unfairly, according to him; because it wasn’t selling according to the company. And other stores have done the same. You have the broader grab your wallet campaign targeting Trump’s businesses. And Trump’s tweet about Nordstrom was soon upstaged, and some have suggested purposely upstaged in order to deflect attention, by Kellyanne Conway.
Kellyanne Conway: This is just — it’s a wonderful line. I own some of it. I fully—I’m gonna just give it — I’m gonna give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody you can find it online.
NK: And the general consensus was that this was kind of as blatant as ethics violation as they come. So it’s clear that Donald Trump doesn’t actually have children or family members; he has brand spinoffs or sub-brands. And Ivanka’s brand seems to be a softer female version of the ruthless boss-man brand that Trump himself as developed.
Ivanka Trump: Hi, everyone. I’m Ivanka Trump, and thank you for tuning in. I’m incredibly excited because I want to share with you today some of my favorite styles from fall. And while it’s very —
NK: You know, it was, I think, telling that in his infamous tweet about Nordstrom, he said, “Ivanka is a great person, always pushing me to do the right thing.” So that, I think, says something about her brand, her brand identity, to which the world can only reply in unison, “Push harder, Ivanka.”
JS: And final thing to get your thought on: There are reports that Donald Trump is very flustered at the fact that he can’t run the U.S. government like he ran his businesses. But what’s your overall perspective on Trump as commander in chief, Trump as president?
NK: I think if he did run the U.S. government, the way he ran his brand, it would be — it would represent a complete hollowing out of the U.S. government. Which I think is what we can expect from them, which is a continuation of trends over the past 40 years, and certainly, trends that you’ve covered, Jeremy, with the outsourcing of the military. What’s important to understand about Trump is that he is really a hollow brand in the sense that the Trump brand, which is — they say is equated with luxury and quality, but really, his brand is the embodiment of the boss, the embodiment of wealth and power. There are lots of brands that embody quality and luxury much better than Trump. His brand is this very garish expression of pure wealth, of pure capitalism, right? And this is why it’s so gaudy, with the sort of gold everywhere.
DJT: Then it’s a deal?
IT: Yes, we eat our pizza the wrong way.
DJT: Crust first.
DJT: So what do you think of my Trump Home Mattress collection by Serta? Finally, the same luxury and comfort I demand in my hotels.
DJT: Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Donald Trump. We’re all cut from the same cloth.
DJT: I’m really big on dressing for success. Impeccable attention to detail.
DJT: Trump Steaks are the world’s greatest steaks, and I mean that in every sense of the word.
NK: And what’s important to understand about that is that, yes, he does own a few centerpiece properties, but the business model that he has is to lease this brand, whose value he increases through publicity. The huge boost for the Trump brand was The Apprentice, which was incredibly high profile, free — not just free marketing. He was paid for the marketing of his brand and the consolidation of his image as the ultimate boss who can do whatever he wants. The presidential campaign further solidified that. But any sense that you can disentangle the Trump brand and what is good for the Trump brand for the U.S. presidency is completely absurd.
If you look at this trip to Uruguay, the scandal to me is not simply that the U.S. taxpayers are paying for the Secret Service. The issue is that what Eric Trump was doing in Uruguay was selling the Trump brand to developers for many millions of dollars, and that’s the main business that the Trumps engage in, is selling that brand to developers, leasing the value of that brand. And the value of that brand is increased every day by Trump embodying the ultimate powerful position of the U.S. presidency. And we’ve already seen them leveraging that, increasing membership fees at Mar-a-Lago and so on. So the whole presidency itself is a conflict of interest. And the idea that there is any possibility of disentangling this misses the whole point. The point is the conflicts of interest. We are living inside of Trump’s reality TV show now, which is projecting, broadcasting live from the Oval Office. We might think of it as President Apprentice.
And when I call it a reality TV show, I’m not belittling the fact that there are massive stakes and people will die in this reality TV show. But I would just point out that people dying in reality TV shows is one of the most common sci-fi tropes that we have. I mean, if you think about The Hunger Games, the whole concept is a massive, all-encompassing reality TV show in which the stakes of the game is that everybody dies except for one person. So I think it’s not — it’s a pretty helpful model for understanding that we are all in Trump’s Hunger Games now.
JS: Okay, well, Naomi Klein, we really look forward to your reporting, your investigations, your commentary joining us at The Intercept. And thanks for being here on Intercepted.
NK: Thanks, Jeremy. Keep up the great work.
“The Hanging Tree,” sung by Jennifer Lawrence in Hunger Games:
We met at midnight
In the hanging tree
Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where I told you to run
So we’d both be free
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree.
JS: Naomi Klein is now a senior journalist at The Intercept. Her books include “This Changes Everything,” “The Shock Doctrine,” and “No Logo.” As our editor-in-chief, Betsy Reed, wrote, “As one of the world’s foremost journalists and thinkers about power and injustice, Klein is uniquely suited to the task of dissecting the extraordinary political moment ushered in by Donald Trump’s election.” I agree completely.
JS: That does it for this episode of the show. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We’re distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro, and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Our music was composed by DJ Spooky. Special thanks to Anthony Atamanuik and Matt W. Cody, our voice actors for “A Few Good Tweets.” Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.
JS: Happy Valentine’s Day, Glenn.
GG: Oh, thank you, Jeremy. Happy Valentine’s Day to you, too.
JS: What are you doing to celebrate?
GG: Um, throwing darts at your face on the wall.