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Donald Trump is spectacularly bad at being president. Maybe the most extreme allegations about him are true: he is a Russian asset, compromised, taking orders from Moscow. He definitely is hiding all sorts of information about his finances. Regardless, it is clear he is wildly incompetent with no interest in even trying to understand his current job or the rules that govern it. Or maybe, Donald Trump is just an idiot. This week on Intercepted, investigative journalist Marcy Wheeler and The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald analyze the latest insanity emanating from the White House. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tim Weiner and Intercept writer Trevor Aaronson discuss the firing of James Comey and debate his FBI legacy. And Palestinian author and journalist Rula Jebreal explains why President Trump is going to Saudi Arabia and Israel on his first international trip.
President Donald J. Trump: What I did is — I was going to fire Comey. My decision. It was not —
Lester Holt: You had made the decision before they came in the room?
DJT: I — I was going to fire Comey. There’s no good time to do it, by the way.
Dorothy Gale: Are you doing that on purpose, or can’t you make up your mind?
The Scarecrow: That’s the trouble. I can’t make up my mind. I haven’t got a brain. Only straw.
DG: How can you talk if you haven’t got a brain?
The Scarecrow: I don’t know. But some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?
DG: Yes, I guess you’re right.
DJT (edited): I talk all the time. Just spoke with the head of the FBI. We had a very nice dinner. I said, “If it’s possible, would you let me know?” And at that time, he told me, “I’ll tell you this: no, I’m not doing that. I think that…well, I think that looking into me and the campaign — there’s so many investigations, I want to get to the bottom.” I said to him myself, I said, “You know…”
The Scarecrow: Then perhaps I’ll deserve you and be even worthy of you
if I only had a brain.
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 15 of Intercepted.
DJT: I probably maybe will confuse people. Maybe I’ll expand that. You know, I’ll lengthen the time, because it should be over with. It should, in my opinion, it should have been over with a long time ago. Because all it is is an excuse. But I said to myself, I might even lengthen out the investigation. But I have to do the right thing for the American people.
JS: I think we’ve come to a point in the Trump presidency where we need to take very seriously the strong possibility that when it comes to the most basic elements of being president, Donald Trump is a bona fide idiot. It truly appears that he’s not even trying to figure out how to be president. He’s just a failure by almost every possible measure. Now, I’m not saying that there is no possibility that there are dark secrets in need of exposing about Donald Trump. I mean, certainly, there are. His financial dealings remain totally shrouded in secrecy. The firing of the FBI Director James Comey is undoubtedly an ominous development. You have senior members of Trump’s campaign team and some that are still in his administration that have a lot to answer for, particularly when it comes to their dealings with various Russian officials. Now, maybe there is some lurid or scandalous truth about Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin that will one day be revealed. Maybe. But what we know, because it’s sitting there in plain sight in front of all of us, is that this guy is not in control. Or rather, he is in control, and it’s a complete and total train-wreck. He doesn’t read his intelligence briefings. He needs the world explained to him with basically cartoons that have to fit on one page, or he’s gonna lose attention. He seems to genuinely not understand how government works, or what the Constitution actually says. Donald Trump’s behavior around world leaders is buffoonish, and it’s embarrassing.
So, by all means, let’s have aggressive investigations of Trump from all angles. But it’s long past due that we recognize the obvious — that when it comes to just basic issues of competency, Trump is a clown. The latest scandal revolves around this bizarre meeting that Trump had with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Moscow’s ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak. Trump had that meeting the day after he fired FBI Director Comey. Now, just on a basic level, the timing of that meeting was unforgivably dumb, just on the level of optics, on the most basic level. But then, Trump bars the U.S. press from coming into that meeting, even to take the little pictures at the beginning of it. But he does allow in a Russian photographer. And it’s because of the pictures that the Russian photographer released that we even knew that Ambassador Kislyak was in the meeting. Trump was not going to tell us that. His administration was not going to release that fact. And Kislyak is one of the main figures at the center of this whole Russia affair. Now, maybe this was a nefarious, super secret meeting, where Trump was going to spill state secrets to the Russians because they have him compromised. They have the pee tape. He has secret financial dealings in Russia. Maybe.
But set all of that aside for a second and consider the obvious. Trump is arrogant. Trump likes to brag. And Trump has proven to be a buffoon as president of the United States. The man has diarrhea of the brain. Whatever pops into his head is gonna come shooting out of his mouth. Or he’s gonna just tweet it. What’s way more likely than Trump intentionally divulging anything classified to the Russians because he’s compromised or actively working with Moscow to undermine the United States is that he is as he seems. He’s the village idiot who somehow ended up as president. And this is not actually a funny situation. In fact, it’s a quite dangerous situation, given the views, the publicly espoused views of Trump and his team on a wide range of foreign and domestic issues: their view of poor people; their view of immigrants, both documented and undocumented; their views of Islam and Muslims; their views of foreign policy; their views of healthcare. What we already know and can prove is frightening enough. And I’m far more worried about the damage they can do with whatever time they have in the White House than I am about what the Russians are going to do.
When the story of Trump divulging sensitive information to the Russians in the Oval Office broke, the White House response was, in typical Trump administration fashion, a complete shit show of contradictions, denials, and then next-day tweets that make everyone in this country wonder what the hell we’re witnessing. To try to make even a shred of sense of this, I’m joined by two people. Marcy Wheeler, who runs the excellent website emptywheel.net, and Glenn Greenwald, who is my fellow cofounder of The Intercept. Marcy, Glenn, welcome back to Intercepted.
Glenn Greenwald: Thank you for having me.
Marcy Wheeler: Great to be back.
JS: So, Marcy, let’s begin with you. What is your analysis of the most recent sort of scandal, what have you, that we’re hearing now about Trump?
MW: Three things. I mean, one, yet again, he’s running his mouth. He is, according to the people leaking this, doing highly inappropriate things. And again, it involves Russians. Big surprise. The second thing is, frankly, maybe we’ll get to the bottom of what this laptop threat is that has DHS threatening to take our laptops away from us and putting them down under the plane, where they can search them until we get them back at baggage claim. Because it seems like another one of those threats emanating from the Middle East where we all run around going, “Ahhh!” And no one wants to talk about it. So, maybe this will lead to some illumination on that.
And then the third thing, the key about that story, is they’re like, “Oh my gosh, Trump told Kislyak and Lavrov what city this threat emanated from, what city it came from,” and that’s the horrible thing, because —
JS: In ISIS-controlled territory.
MW: In ISIS-controlled territory, and there’s only, what, like three cities left that they control? So, you know, process of elimination. But it was about sharing the city, because the ally that shared that information with us would be horrified to learn that he shared that city. And if you look at the original Washington Post story on it, they make it clear that the sources leaking to them shared the city. And then they went and made a story out of the fact that both Trump shared the city and these U.S. officials, which of course, you know, could mean anything, then shared the city with the Washington Post. And it’s like, you know, let’s go beat up Trump. I’m really happy to do that. But at the same time, let’s also be aware of the fact that the leakers behind this story did precisely what they’re accusing Trump of. And as the Washington Post makes clear: for them it’s illegal.
JS: Now, the New York Times is reporting that — and they’re basing this on a current and a former American official familiar with how the United States obtained the information — New York Times is saying that the classified intelligence that Trump supposedly disclosed in this meeting with the Russians was intelligence provided by Israel. Is there any significance to that in your view?
MW: It would have been one of the obvious choices. I’m a little bit less worried that Israel’s really gonna stop sharing intelligence with the United States. I mean, come on, right? But I — it also might explain the leaks from all of these people to journalists in the United States feeling like it was cool to leak the same information, the city, whereas it wasn’t cool for Trump to leak intelligence to the Russians — that, you know, you could explain that. And there’s also the focus on, well, maybe Iran will get that. It makes a lot more sense if this is Israel.
JS: You know, for all of the kind of hooting and hollering about Trump giving classified information to the Russians, when you actually look at the details as they’re reported right now, I wouldn’t say that it’s a nothing burger, but it does seem like the reaction is disproportionate to what we understand Trump actually said or supposedly revealed to the Russians. What do you make of the timing of this leak, given that this meeting happened a day after James Comey was fired as FBI Director?
MW: Yeah, it makes it look a lot more like retaliation for the Comey firing, particularly given, what, the week between the meeting to when it was dropped on all these newspapers. And maybe that’s just explained by the fact that the IC had to go brief U.S. officials in Congress, who then ran to the press to leak it. But the other thing to explain the timing, I think, is this will make it harder to do what Trump seems intent on doing this week, which is naming an FBI director candidate before Comey actually testifies. So, it’s really hard to separate those two things. It does seem like retaliation. The response, the way in which this orchestrated six different outlets reporting the story in quick succession definitely seems like a response to the Comey firing.
JS: Well, and if it was a hit, it’s a pretty successful hit, assisted, no doubt, by Trump’s total and complete incompetence.
MW: Yeah, he’s an idiot. I mean, there’s no question he did something inappropriate, and there is no question that he doesn’t even know what he did ‘cause he’s an idiot. He doesn’t know how to deal with this information. It doesn’t excuse that he did it. That’s part of the reason why he’s problematic. But he sort of fell into their — into their — not trap, because you don’t need a trap to capture Trump, but it just seems all neat.
JS: Glenn, what is your initial analysis of what’s happening here? Because you were tweeting about this and looking at Trump’s tweets about Edward Snowden and saying, “when is that human piece of garbage going to be returned to the United States, and that he was leaking America’s secrets.” But your initial take on this?
GG: Right. So obviously, Trump did something reckless and impetuous, and a byproduct of his complete ignorance, and that’s obviously not a surprise to anyone. And there’s hypocrisy involved, given what you just referenced. But there are several things bothering me. Number one is that we don’t actually know what it is that he revealed, and therefore can’t really assess how serious or damaging it actually is. You could imagine plausible examples of things he might have said that were classified, but that I can’t understand why it would be so damaging, such as, we learned that ISIS in a particular city is planning on taking down planes using laptops, something that was already publicly known, even if the details of it weren’t. Secondly, it continues to really, you know, bother me, and it makes me very wary that so many of our stories are shaped by anonymous intelligence sources whose word is just taken as gold, even though no evidence is offered, even though they have all kinds of axes to grind. Story after story involves people in the intelligence community running to the Washington Post or CNN in order to disclose stories that are harmful to Trump that we don’t really know any corroboration for.
And then thirdly, and I think the thing bothering me most, is that we continue to accept this premise that the U.S. and Russia are intractable, overarching enemies, almost like it’s the worst part of the Cold War, when the reality is, as Obama himself continually acknowledged, the U.S. and Russia have a lot of common interests, especially in the counterterrorism realm, and especially when it comes to fighting ISIS. I mean ISIS actually probably took down a Russian plane in retaliation for Russian bombing in Syria. It makes sense that the two countries would want to cooperate when it comes to sharing intelligence about ISIS threats. So, it’s not like he’s sharing information in a realm where they actually have adverse interests or where we’re truly enemies. It seems to be a very dumb and poorly thought through decision, but one that I don’t think we have any evidence to believe is really so cataclysmic.
JS: Marcy, in the immediate aftermath of this story initially breaking in the Washington Post, and then all of these other media outlets then, you know, say that they confirmed various elements of it, particularly the core element, you had Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statement, released by the White House, not the State Department. And then you had the national security adviser, McMaster, come out onto the lawn at the White House.
H.R. McMaster: The story that came out tonight as reported is false. The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time — at no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed.
JS: There was a lot of parsing of his words in the news coverage of this, saying, you know, he said no sources or methods were revealed, but that’s not what the reporting on this said. But in fact, McMaster said the story as reported is totally false. What’s going on there?
MW: You know it’s not clear that revealing the city would be a source and method. Presumably, it wouldn’t, because — I didn’t realize CNN had it too. But CNN, Washington Post, and how many of the other 15 journalists who have gotten this story dumped onto their lap have been told the city, right? Somewhere between the White House version and the version of the sources all leaking this, there’s a lot of flux about whether Trump shared information that would make it obvious to the Russians what the real story is. And I think that’s a really interesting question, because we are making a great big deal out of this, and there’s enough flux in the story, right, and this whole thing — oh, it’s about the city. That’s not a source and method. Let’s name the three cities it could be, right? That’s not that hard to do.
JS: Glenn, I wanted to get your response to something that Alan Dershowitz said on CNN about this story.
Alan Dershowitz: This is the most serious charge ever made against a sitting president of the United States. Let’s not underestimate it.
JS: Your response?
GG: I mean that’s nothing more than an obvious joke. You know, the — I mean, it’s possible that what Trump did here, if you use your very active imagination, could fulfill that description. If he purposely gave the names of spies inside Moscow to Russia in order for the Russians to apprehend and then kill them, that would actually be treason. But there’s zero evidence this was anything like that. No one thinks that. So, you have presidents who have launched secret wars and killed millions of people, implemented worldwide torture regimes, engaged in genocide, interred American citizens with no due process for years. The list of extreme presidential crimes goes on and on and on and on. To call this this most serious accusation ever made against a sitting president is an inherent joke, and I think the kind of hysteria that constantly is now acceptable whenever the topic is Trump and Russia.
JS: And Marcy, you know, we also know that McMaster said the day after this story came out —
HRM: That the President wasn’t even aware, you know, of where this information came from. He wasn’t briefed on the source or method of the information either.
JS: I want to sort of fly up to 30,000 feet here and ask you about the overall unfolding or unraveling of the Trump presidency. What is really going to bring all of this to a head? Because my sense is that Trump’s own conduct since he became president is far more of a threat to his presidency than anything that they’re going to uncover about him, or that we have any sense they’re going to uncover about him, related to Russia. I mean, barring some pee tape or, you know, some violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, isn’t it the case that Trump has basically created his own scandal that could lead to his downfall?
MW: I mean I would separate the Comey scandal from this scandal. And I would caution people that — I’d be happy to see the rear end of Trump as much as anybody, but there are many ways he can be brought down. One is the way the intelligence community would like to, which is this leak. The other one is an extreme abuse of power with the Comey firing, which, you know, I sort of regard this leak campaign as a response to that. But the other is that he’s unfit, that he has all of these compromises. His son, Jared Kushner, I think has even bigger compromises. He kept Mike Flynn when it was clear he shouldn’t be around. And so, it’s worthwhile for people to keep those different strands in mind and think very seriously about what they want to be the undoing of a president, and whether they want the IC to set the terms for that, or whether they want gross corruption to set the terms for that.
JS: It seems to me as though the Democrats and a lot of media figures have really latched onto any part of this that has the word Russia and Trump in it, and they go to town, even if there really isn’t evidence to back up the allegations. And my concern is that the actual truth is far less salacious or incendiary than the allegations. Is there any long-term consequence to the way the Trump investigations are unfolding and being talked about in the broader culture of U.S. media?
GG: Yeah. I mean there’s supposed to be legal and constitutional means for removing a president under certain prescribed circumstances. And I think what people are finding, is that at least as of yet, they can’t demonstrate that Trump falls within the scope of that, but nonetheless believe that he’s such a threat to Democratic institutions or the stability of the United States that anything and everything is justified in order to remove him, in order to take him down. And that’s ultimately going to become — I think a critical question is, is it more damaging to leave Trump in office, or is it more — until those constitutional or legal standards can be fulfilled? Or is it more damaging to just say, let’s have the media and the intelligence community, the Deep State, as it were, work together to just destroy him, even though he won the election, because they believe that leaving him in office is more damaging than whatever the long-term damages are for them kind of going outside the rules to remove a president who won? And I think that’s the dilemma that we face, and that’s a really serious question, no matter how much you hate Trump. And I don’t think there’s an easy answer to it.
JS: Marcy, ten seconds. Does Trump finish one term as president of the United States?
MW: I doubt it.
JS: The most likely way that he goes?
MW: I have no idea. I mean, I think he’s not having any fun either. And he is increasingly not competent to do the job, so there’s always the 25th Amendment. I think the big question is how — whether his approval ratings among Republicans stand, because I think as soon as those start to fall apart, that’s when the Republicans will move.
JS: Dr. Marcy Wheeler, thank you very much for being with us on Intercepted.
MW: Awesome to be here.
JS: Glenn, thank you very much for joining us as well.
GG: It’s always an honor.
JS: Coming up on the show, just when you think it can’t get any crazier, you learn more about Donald Trump, the FBI, James Comey, and General Flynn. This is Intercepted. Stay with us.
JS: Okay, we are back here on Intercepted. And I have to say; it is almost impossible to keep up with the developments in the Trump presidency. It feels like we’ve been doing this for years, when in reality, it’s been just four months. It was literally just last week, last Tuesday, that Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. And then this Tuesday, the New York Times reported that the day after General Michael Flynn resigned as national security adviser, Donald Trump asked Comey to shut down the federal investigation of General Flynn. The Times said it had been read portions of a memo that Comey purportedly wrote after his conversation with Donald Trump. The president reportedly said to Comey, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” Now, the White House immediately denied that report, calling it “not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey.”
Now, in testimony last week, in front of the U.S. Senate, the acting FBI Director, Andrew McCabe, said bluntly that there had been no attempts by the White House or Trump to impede the FBI investigation into the Russian affair. So, who is to be believed? The Comey memo, or Andrew McCabe?
Andrew McCabe: The work of the men and women of the FBI continues despite any changes in circumstance, any decisions. So, there has been no effort to impede our investigation to date. Simply put, sir, you cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing, protecting the American people, and upholding the Constitution.
JS: Now, perhaps this is the beginning of the revenge of Comey and his allies. Maybe this is being leaked in retaliation to Trump’s firing of James Comey. Or maybe it’s being leaked because there are people within the FBI that believe that the story of alleged interference in this investigation has not been told, and that it must be told. We don’t know. The Democrats certainly want James Comey to testify before the U.S. Congress. But lost in all of this discussion about Trump firing James Comey and whose side Comey is on are the deeper questions about the FBI’s actual role in our society. This situation with Comey and Trump has created its own series of contradictions. The Democrats, or I should say many Democrats, who once called for Comey’s firing after his intervention in the presidential election was perceived as a hit against Hillary Clinton, they are now angrily denouncing Comey’s removal by Trump. And every new detail that comes out, including this report that Trump had tried to get Comey to back off of the General Flynn investigation, it is welcome fuel to dump onto the Trump fire. And that is, in many ways, predictable Washington partisan business, it makes sense that the Democrats would be doing this.
But what I find disturbing is this emerging — and it’s been fast emerging — characterization of Jim Comey as this great independent protector of the republic, and the idea that the FBI is an independent actor that always has the nation’s best interests at heart. The FBI is not a political entity.
To dig into all of this, I’m joined by two people. Tim Weiner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He was a long-time correspondent for the New York Times. He is the author of several books, including “Enemies: A History of the FBI,” and “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.” He also wrote a book about Richard Nixon. And I’m joined by Trevor Aaronson. He covers the FBI for The Intercept. He’s also the executive director of the nonprofit Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. Trevor has done a tremendous amount of work on FBI entrapment of Muslims in the United States, and he’s the author of ‘The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism.” Tim, Trevor, welcome to Intercepted.
Tim Weiner: Hi, Jeremy.
Trevor Aaronson: Thanks, Jeremy.
JS: Part of the narrative that we’re hearing from opponents of the Trump administration, and particularly from Democrats and liberal pundits, is that James Comey is an independent-minded figure who would have conducted a fair and reasoned investigation into the Russian affair, so to speak, and that Trump canned him because he was continuing on with that investigation. What’s your analysis of this? Is that true, etc.?
TW: For the president to fire the director of the FBI when the FBI is investigating the president and the White House is obstruction of justice. And Trump confirmed it. The tape that could bring him down is an NBC news videotape. It’s not some secret recording in a suitcase.
Lester Holt: Did you ask for a recommendation?
DJT: What I did is, I was going to fire Comey. My decision. It was not —
LH: You had made the decision before they came in the room.
DJT: I — I was going to fire Comey. There’s no good time to do it, by the way. They —
LH: Because in your letter, you said, I, I accepted their recommendation, so you had already made the decision.
DJT: Oh, I was gonna fire regardless of recommendation.
TW: Trump committed what someday may be construed as an obstruction of justice and an impeachable offense in a court of law or in Congress.
JS: And it seems to me that we don’t have any direct evidence linking Trump to Vladimir Putin or the Russians. There is a tremendous amount of evidence suggesting that some of his underlings on the campaign, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, then it gets to a different level when we’re talking about General Flynn. And my sense is, even if there is nothing that would directly link Trump — there very well may be — the way he has handled this could be more important to his future or lack of a future as president of the United States than any potential details of an investigation into Trump and Russia.
TW: What he did is extraordinary. He basically said, “Yeah, I fired the son of a bitch because he was investigating me. This Trump Russia story’s a hoax.” It’s not a hoax. It is the biggest and most politically charged counterintelligence investigation the FBI has done since the Soviets stole the secrets of the atomic bomb. And what Trump did, I think, will only redouble the efforts of the FBI to get to the bottom of this case, wherever it may lead. And if it leads up to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they will be knocking on the door and serving subpoenas.
JS: Trevor Aaronson, you’ve covered the FBI under Comey, and I think sometimes this gets lost in the mix of the discussion because Trump is so over the top in how he responds to even the slightest chiseling at his ego. What has been the legacy of James Comey from your perspective, Trevor, and the issues that you cover?
TA: Well, I think one of the things that Comey has done that started under his predecessor, Bob Mueller, is really have an aggressive counterterrorism approach that uses informants and undercover agents. And what we’ve seen is that instead of stopping attacks before they occur, such as the Orlando shooting involving Omar Mateen at the nightclub, or the San Bernardino shooting, they end up finding people who are easy to catch because they’re vulnerable or they’re mentally ill, or they’re people that an undercover agent or informant can lure into a terrorism plot. And so, what we’ve seen under Comey is dozens and dozens of people, most of whom have no connections to international terrorist groups, getting involved in plots that the government alleges are terrorist plots, and then prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Comey has also gone to tremendous extents to investigate people while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of what the FBI normally would do.
An example of that is the FBI busted a dark web child porn website, and instead of immediately shutting it down, as was the previous policy, you know, they kept it open for two weeks so that they could surreptitiously install tracking devices on people who used the website, while at the same time, you know, making child pornography available through FBI servers while they were doing it. And then, of course, another example is that the FBI has gone as far, recently, as impersonating journalists to get close to criminal suspects, as we saw in the fake documentary that was used to investigate Cliven Bundy, the rancher who had an arms stand in Nevada.
Ryan Bundy: You have had the questions asked, is this just a mole project to garner information that will then be given to the Feds or whomever, whatever for incriminating purposes? Is this an interview and a documentary, or is this an interrogation? That was basically our question and consent.
FBI Agent: I understand that. And the only thing that I ask from you, very simple. I’ll ask you a question. I ask you to tell me the truth. ‘Cause I, I want a truthful documentary. ‘Cause that’s what I’ve said. I want to put the truth out there. I can’t make that up because you know what? I wasn’t there.
FBI: All righty. Let’s proceed.
JS: Tim Weiner, is any of this relevant in your view? I mean, you’ve written a very in-depth book about the history of the FBI. I saw you sort of shaking your head. Are you of the mindset that Comey’s record on some of these issues is totally irrelevant to discussing his departure by way of being fired by Trump?
TW: It is now, ‘cause he’s the ex-director of the FBI because the President of the United States fired him. I mean does the FBI run sting operations that are morally abhorrent? Yeah, they’ve been doing it since the 1930s. Does the FBI entrap people? You know, break the law in the name of the law? Yeah, they’ve been doing that, you know, since the Red Scare in the ’20s. It’s very hard to run a secret intelligence service, and the FBI is a secret intelligence service as well as a law enforcement agency. It is very hard to run a secret intelligence service in an open democratic society. You’re always going to have conflict, a tug-of-war between the power of secrecy and the openness of democracy. And what we are seeing now is an epic struggle in which it’s going to appall a lot of your audience. But the FBI’s on the right side here. Mike Hayden, who used to run the CIA and the NSA, not your — you know, the number one member of your fan club or mine, just said what the President did makes the United States look like Nicaragua under the Samosa dictatorships. And Jim Clapper, not your number one fan either or mine, the former director of National Intelligence, just said that what Trump has done is pounding at the foundations of American democracy. So, we’re living in Trump world now. And the old alliances are being realigned, okay? Where people who love democracy and cherish an open society are finding themselves on the same page as some of the, you know, members of the national security state in the 21st century.
JS: Well, I mean, to just push back a little bit on that, the issues that Trevor is raising are in fact very real.
JS: And my — no, and I know — I know you’re not disputing that. My issue with this in part, and we saw this at the very beginning when Trump went to the CIA, you know, and had compared the CIA —
TW: He called them Nazis.
JS: Yeah. To, to Nazis.
DJT: I think it was disgraceful, disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake — out. I think it’s a disgrace. And I say that — and I say that. And that’s something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do. I think it’s a disgrace.
JS: One trend that I’ve seen that I think could potentially be very dangerous, though — I think a lot of Democrats — and if you watch, you know, some of the more liberal news commentators, because of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” mentality, there seems to be this really fast flipping into “the FBI is on our side.”
TW: Is your best friend, right.
JS: The FBI’s your best friend. And that’s why, you know — Trevor, I want you to respond to what Tim was saying, but also, I do disagree a bit with Tim on this, because I, and I don’t think is Tim’s perspective, but I think a lot of people are now, “oh, FBI versus Trump? FBI: good.” And I think that’s a problematic analysis.
TA: Yeah, I definitely think there has been this lionization of James Comey as a result of this, in part because I think people are searching for some sort of check on Trump’s power, and Congress is showing very little willingness to be that check. And at the same time, in telling these stories, I think it’s sometimes easy to sink to archetypes and want to show Comey or whoever it might be as the loyal man to the republic who is standing up to protect it against the forces within that are trying to destroy it. That’s an oversimplication of what’s happening here. And it’s too easy to say, okay, yes, the FBI is the force of good because they’re the ones investigating Trump. And by saying that, I think you’re also forgetting that, as Tim knows, there’s a very long history of the FBI not being on the right side of justice and not being on the right side of history. You know, certainly, it’s a worthy investigation and should be pursued by the FBI and Congressional committees. But that doesn’t mean that, you know, the FBI is the faultless organization that was here to protect us if not for Trump removing the director here. And I think that’s something we need to be careful about in telling this story, because I think the history of the FBI and the story of the FBI now is not that simple. But when you hear people talk about it today, and then the outrage of firing James Comey, I think no one is really talking about some of the abuses of power that we saw under James Comey.
As one example, I would say, you know, one of the things that Trump has said is that the story is not Russia. It’s not Russia. It’s really about surveillance. And what he means is his wiretap or supposed wiretap by Barack Obama.
DJT: You saw what happened with surveillance, and I think that was inappropriate.
John Dickerson: What does that mean, sir?
DJT: You can figure that out yourself.
JD: Well, the return I ask is you said he was — you called him sick and bad.
DJT: Look, you can figure it out yourself. He was very nice to me with words, but — and when I was with him, but after that, there has been no relationship.
TA: But in some ways, even though he doesn’t mean this exactly, the story is about surveillance. I mean, one of the things that we saw under James Comey is a clear expansion of powers to investigate people even when there was no reason to believe they were at all involved in crime. You know, through the current assessment process, you know, the FBI needs very little authority from above within the FBI to investigate just about anybody: you, me, one of your listeners. You know, no reason to believe that they are involved in crime. You know, just having, for example, a belief that that person would be a good informant gives the FBI unprecedented power to investigate people for 72 hours. And so, what’s interesting is Trump is saying the story’s not me, it’s not me, it’s surveillance. And in some ways, that’s true. That’s also a story. And I think it’s something we shouldn’t forget in trying to boil down the story of Trump versus the FBI or FBI versus Trump.
JS: Tim Weiner?
TW: There is no question that the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover was a malevolent force in this society. And Hoover ran it for 48 years, from 1924 to 1972. But there’s also no question, we’re living in bizarro world, folks. We’re living in Trumpland now. And you have to be able to hold two opposing ideas in your head at the same time in order to stay sane. And we have to remember that it was the FBI that took down Richard Nixon, with all due respect to Woodward and Bernstein. It was the FBI that investigated Ronald Reagan’s national security team. Whether we like it or not, the FBI is the only force we’ve got that can investigate the president of the United States and serve subpoenas at the White House, and take down a president if that president is corrupt, okay? Congress can impeach, but they’re gonna be working off evidence gathered by the FBI. It’s not gonna be handed over to them by, you know, couriers from the White House.
JS: Well, but absent from your history here, and I know you’ve written an excellent history book on the FBI, is — I could also say, well, it was the FBI that was running COINTELPRO, and was —
TW: COINTELPRO, sure.
JS: And was infiltrating antiwar groups.
TW: It did all of that.
JS: And more recently was engaging in entrapment under James Comey. I mean, you said we have to be able to think of two minds. You just presented one part of it, which is the force for good has been in its history.
TW: Right. And we all know the other half. There’s always gonna be a tug of war in this country between secrecy and democracy, between the abuse of power and the use of power to promote a free and democratic society. And I think Jim Comey is not the second coming of J. Edgar Hoover. I think that Jim Comey is a fairly upright guy, and I think that given who Trump is probably going to install as the head of the FBI, we are going to miss him.
JS: Trevor, on that note, I mean, one of the great concerns, and I think this is what Tim is alluding to, if Trump does put someone in place at the FBI who is much more of a Trump loyalist or a rabid partisan, or is wholly unqualified to be in that position, you could have the kind of relationship to intelligence and blackmailing, etc., that we saw under J. Edgar Hoover.
TA: I wouldn’t call Comey’s FBI a malevolent force, right? I think it’s far more complicated than that. But I would say that it’s an agency that has been both a force for good and a force for bad — for evil, in a sense. And what I would say is an example of that is that we live in this time where I think part of Trump’s political platform has been able to establish by a growing sense of Islamophobia and a fear that terrorism threats are more than they currently are, particularly from Muslims in the United States and abroad. Part of the reason that people believe this is the case is that you see a very aggressive FBI over the last decade, including the four years that Comey was director, pursuing terrorism cases that almost exclusively involved Muslims, and involved Muslims who did not have the capacity on their own to get involved in terrorism. But because an FBI informant or an undercover agent made that possible, we see hundreds and hundreds of prosecutions of terrorism-related cases in federal court. And when those busts are made, they make the front page of the newspaper. They make cable news. And it exaggerates the feeling that terrorism, while real, is this imminent threat that could happen to anyone, anywhere, and would most likely be perpetrated by a Muslim in the United States. As well meaning as that policy in trying to prevent the next attack has been, it has created a perception of Muslims as a threat that I think Trump and a lot of the Republicans have been able to capitalize on. And so, while not malevolent in intention, it ended up being kind of malevolent in the end in that way.
TW: There is no question that the FBI has used and always has used methods of entrapment, okay? That can pass muster in a court of law. That is using plants, using people posing as terrorists or criminals, or communists, if you want to go back to the Cold War, to entrap and ensnare people into committing crimes. There is no question about that. What we are talking about here is a different order of magnitude. People need to understand that. The FBI is going up against the president of the United States, who does not believe in democracy, who does not believe in the rule of law, who has never read the Constitution that Khizr Khan was trying to wave in his face last year. And if he gets some hack, some political stooge, in charge of the FBI, we are in for a world of pain.
JS: What if he did put someone in who was more of a political appointee, meaning on the same page as Trump politically, whatever that means. What could you see happening worse than we’ve seen in the post J. Edgar Hoover era?
TW: Well, one thing I’ve learned over my 30-odd years as a journalist is to never say things can’t get any worse, because they can. First of all, no director of the FBI since Hoover died six weeks before the Watergate break in 1972 has been a political appointee, has been someone who has been appointed or nominated because he’s a political person, okay? There have been judges. There have been former FBI agents. There have been people of high moral character and not so high moral character. But there has never been someone who was nominated because he’s a congressman or senator.
JS: Trevor, I mean, I know you’re not so much covering the broader politics of the firing of James Comey, but as someone who has done a lot of investigating of specific FBI actions, I’m curious what your reaction was when you read Trump’s very brief letter firing James Comey that apparently was not even given to Comey before Jim Comey saw on the news and thought that it was a joke that was being played on him that he had been removed. And specifically the line, you know, that I think a lot of people are focusing on, “While I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau.” What was your response when you saw that news?
TA: It was extraordinary. It was — to use what Tim said, it was kind of feeling like living in bizarro world, right? Like, this seemed to me an obvious attempt by Trump to put something in the document that he could later point back to and say, “Look, see? I’m not under investigation. It was in my letter, you know, firing Comey.” You know, certainly, as has been reported and is widely known, it is not the FBI policy to confirm or deny someone being under investigation, absent them receiving a specific target letter. And so, it would have been extraordinarily hard to believe, or is extraordinarily hard to believe that James Comey sitting at dinner with Trump, as he claimed during the NBC interview, or talking to him on the phone, would have said, you know, “Yes, sir, Mr. President, you’re not under investigation.”
DJT: I said, “If it’s possible, would you let me know, am I under investigation?” He said, “You are not under investigation.”
TA: I mean, it was just an obvious lie, and it certainly wasn’t the president’s first obvious lie. What the Trump administration has done is proven itself kind of highly incompetent. And if your goal is to replace the FBI director while keeping a certain amount of productivity in the FBI and morale in the FBI — I mean, the way he did it, in such a disrespectful manner — I mean, with FBI agents I’ve talked to, both current and former, I mean, their biggest complaint is the disrespectful way in which he fired him, right? I mean, it was kind of fitting in some ways that Comey, who was known as this guy who would get around and talk to agents perhaps more than previous directors had done, was talking to agents in LA when this all happened, and in such a thuggish way that the letter from Trump was delivered by his bodyguard. I mean, I think that’s something that’s going to stick with FBI agents who might not even be particularly loyal to Comey for a long, long time.
JS: As we wrap up here, what is the legacy of James Comey in your view?
TA: I think the most troubling legacy for James Comey is that he’s really expanded the human intelligence apparatus that the FBI has. I mean they have an unprecedented number of informants. They use off the books informants known as hip pockets who aren’t necessarily registered, but are providing information to the FBI. And I think one of the things that Americans should realize is that, you know, the FBI, as Tim describes, has always been this force that has been surveilling Americans and looking into Americans’ private lives, but through technology now and through an unprecedented army of informants, you know, the FBI has very extraordinary powers. And this was something that was not curbed under Comey, and in fact has expanded even further. And I would expect these powers and these surveillance tools to increase under, you know, whoever it is that Trump’s appointed as the FBI director.
TW: Jim Comey is gonna come forward at some point, sooner rather than later, and address Congress, and talk to the people of the United States to the extent he can about what just happened here, okay? And I think it will be the hottest ticket since John Dean went before the Senate Watergate Committee in the summer of 1973.
John Dean: The Watergate matter was an inevitable outgrowth of a climate of excessive concern over the political impact of demonstrators, excessive concern over leaks, and insatiable appetite for political intelligence, all coupled with a do it yourself White House staff, regardless of the law.
TW: I think that we are at the beginning of a very long process that may take months and years to get the bottom of this case. And whoever Trump comes up with, and whoever the Senate confirms as FBI director will not hold a candle to Jim Comey in terms of his, I would say forthrightness. I would say honesty. The power of the FBI, the power of the prosecutor, the power to subpoena people, the power to haul them before a grand jury, is an awesome power. It is a terrifying power. No other agency in the United States has that kind of power. And if that power is put in the hands of an attorney general like Sessions and a political operative selected by Donald Trump and confirmed by the Senate, we are in a — we’re going to be in a world of pain like we have not experienced since Richard Nixon tried to run this country off a cliff more than 40 years ago.
JS: I’m gonna give you five scenarios, and I want you to tell me what you think are the most likely. But I’m gonna give you these five scenarios in the order that I think is most likely, all right? How does Donald Trump end being President of the United States? Number one, I believe, he just quits. He decides, I don’t want to do this, gives a speech where he says, you know, you guys have all misunderstood me, and he wants to go back to hosting The Apprentice. Number two, dies of a heart attack. The guy’s gaining weight like crazy. He’s eating KFC and Big Macs, etc. Number three, removal under the 25th Amendment, that they’re gonna say, this guy is completely incapable of holding office. Number four, impeachment, and number five — and I don’t even think this is that realistic, but I’m putting it in there for the crowd — finishes an actual term as President of the United States. Tim, go ahead.
TW: One term?
JS: One term.
TW: I think he stumbles through until the November 2018 elections. I think if the people of the United States get off their rear ends and vote — and I don’t care if they vote for, you know, a redheaded dog — for someone who’s not a Trump stooge, and they flip the Congress, they flip the House, and they flip the Senate, Trump is impeached.
JS: Trevor, what’s the most likely way that Trump stops being president?
TA: You know, if I had to guess, I would say it would be coming up on the midterm elections, like seeing really terrible poll numbers, and knowing that if they flip the Congress, he’s likely impeached, he’ll quit in spectacular fashion, and — rather than be blamed for the loss in Congress.
JS: All right. Well, we’ll have you both back on to see that I was right, and that he quits or he dies of a heart attack.
TW: What do we win? [Laughs]
JS: Ooh. You know, the best steaks. We’ve got the best Intercepted steaks, you know.
TW: Oh, man.
JS: Tim Weiner, Trevor Aaronson, thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.
TW: You bet, Jeremy.
TA: Thanks, Jeremy.
JS: Tim Weiner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and he is the author of many books, including “Enemies: A History of the FBI,” as well as “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.” And Trevor Aaronson covers the FBI for The Intercept. He’s also the author of “The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism.”
JS: On Friday, Donald Trump is embarking on his first international trip as president. And his first stop is Saudi Arabia. He is then going to go to Israel before heading on to Rome, where he’s going to meet with Pope Francis. This is how National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster spun the significance of Trump’s itinerary.
HRM: Well, he’s going to the Western Wall mainly in connection with the theme to connect with three of the world’s great religions, and to advance — to pay homage at each of these religious sites that he’s visiting, but also to highlight the theme that we all have to be united against what are really the enemies of all civilized people, and that we have to be joined together with an agenda of tolerance of tolerance and moderation.
JS: That was National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. I’m joined now on the phone by Rula Jebreal. She’s a Palestinian author, journalist, and foreign policy analyst, and she’s currently a visiting professor at the American University in Rome. Rula, welcome to Intercepted.
Rula Jebreal: Thank you for having me.
JS: So, Rula, we know that on Donald Trump’s first international trip, stop number one is Saudi Arabia. What do you make of the significance of Trump starting off his international presidency traveling by going to Saudi Arabia?
RJ: It’s a disaster. But it’s in concert with who the man is. He’s traveling to an abusive country that is, in this moment as we speak, is bombing women, children, families in Yemen, a country that gifted us al Qaeda and every radical group. 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. Women are still banned from every — you know, from appearing in public with their — without covering their face and all of their body. They cannot vote. They cannot drive. And even the guy that’s considered a reformist, Al Hamad Bin Salman, the crown prince, is a guy that a year ago said, “Well, we’re not ready to have equal women rights.” I mean it’s preposterous. It’s ridiculous.
JS: Right. And of course, ahead of that trip, Trump was meeting with officials in Washington of the United Arab Emirates.
RJ: Yeah. That’s another country that is pushing a certain agenda in the region. And the agenda is clear: security above all. This is a country that support and finance Sisi in Egypt, a dictator that put in jail 40,000 prisoners, and is using special laws to go after every opposition leader, every critic, every journalist. They want to go on as if the Arab Spring never happened, as if people don’t still demand — they don’t want freedom or democracy, dignity, or a better life. It’s not a coincidence that in his travel ban, the first executive order, these two countries were not on the list. Donald Trump is happy to travel to Saudi Arabia and kiss the ring of the king in order to get the money of out them. So basically, we’re bending American foreign policy towards the checkbooks of these thugs.
JS: And of course, Trump is not only going to Saudi Arabia, he is then going on to Jerusalem and then to Rome. And the way that he sort of presented it, you know, all neatly tied up with a bow, is that he’s going to the birthplaces of the world’s three major religions.
RJ: Well, you know, yeah. I mean, the hypocrisy of this approach. We ban Muslims from entering the U.S., but then let’s go and visit what suddenly they call itself the leader of the Muslim world. And basically, the only countries that embraced the Muslim ban were the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. So, that tells you everything you need to know. They don’t care about Muslims. They never did. And when it comes to Israel, it’s the most effective form of lobbying, where basically, I think Washington works for Israel. It’s not the other way around. Donald Trump is going to Israel not because of religious reasons, but because it’s good for the appearances. It looks good to distract people from what he’s doing at home. He wants to visit Israel because he promised Bibi that he will visit him. But these are the people that he, you know — he can see himself with. When Donald Trump talked about Mexicans being rapists, this is what Bibi Netanyahu said publicly when he talked about the democratic threat about people who were born with different ethnic backgrounds that basically are a threat to democracy. Both of them, Donald Trump, this is a shared value. And coming here to Rome, it’s a deflection. He criticized the pope himself. You know, this pope has been the most progressive pope, who spoke kindly about immigrants, refugees, and who spoke kindly even about homosexuality. Donald Trump attacked him. Let’s remember that. That’s the same Donald Trump that now wants to meet with the pope. It’s a joke.
DJT: So, the Mexican government fed the pope a tremendous amount of stuff about “Trump is not a good person,” and the pope just made a statement — I mean, can you imagine? I just got a call. As I’m walking up here, they said, “Mr. Trump, the Pope made a statement about you.” I said, “The Pope?” [Crowd laughs] “What did the Pope say? I like the Pope. I mean, was it good or bad? Because if it’s good, I like the Pope. If it’s bad, I don’t like the Pope.”
JS: What is your analysis of Trump’s approach, as far as we can see it, to Palestine an Israel?
RJ: You know, the idea that only Trump can do things in the Middle East, we are used to these strong guys, these tyrants who tell us, “Only I can achieve this.” I heard this in my lifetime. Qaddafi said that multiple times. Saddam Hussein. So, this kind of rhetoric is normal somehow in the Middle East. However, the idea that only Donald Trump can achieve something and can get something out of the Israelis — I mean, Kushner himself never met, I think, a Palestinian until last week.
DJT: He is so great. If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can. Okay? All my life, I’ve been hearing, that’s the toughest deal in the world to make. And I’ve seen it. But I have a feeling that Jared is gonna do a great job. I have a feeling he’s gonna do a great job.
RJ: They want to move the embassy to Israel, financed by Sheldon Adelson, who paid five million dollars to be seated next to the president during the inauguration. These are only big sentences, big words. Look, I lived in Italy for too long not to remember Berlusconi, who used to make these grand announcements, big announcements, and nothing would follow. So, I don’t think anybody in the Middle East, especially Palestinians or Israelis, thinks that Donald Trump will achieve anything.
DJT: So, I’m looking at two state and one state, and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I could live with either one. I thought for a while the two state looked like it may be the easier of the two, but honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best…
RJ: But we know that it’s a one state reality already. And our struggle as Palestinians and the struggle of the Israeli left, if there is any, is equal rights. It’s a one country, one state, and if it’s really a democracy and not an ethnocracy, then we all have the right to vote, otherwise it’s an apartheid state, and what we are endorsing and sponsoring and enabling in Israel is an apartheid state.
JS: Trump made this statement —
DJT: In Palestinian society, the heroes are those who murder Jews. We can’t let this continue. We can’t let this happen any longer. You — [Crowd claps] We will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem. [Crowd cheers]
JS: If that does come to fruition, and you have the U.S. set up shop in Jerusalem and really promote this as an overt embrace of the most radical rightwing components of Zionism, what does that represent, and what will happen as a result of that?
RJ: I am from Jerusalem. My father worked in the Aqsa Mosque for almost three decades. The Muslim world will erupt. They will never accept that the third holiest place for Islam is totally dominated by the most extreme rightwing version of the Jewish community. So, if we — if a man can move the embassy, one billion point six hundred million Muslims will view this as basically, this is an aggression. You want to take away from us their sacred place. If you ask any Muslim individual, and you ask them, “What do you feel about Jerusalem?” first they think they tell you that they feel that Jerusalem was — it’s under occupation. And they feel if you touch the mosque, you’re basically touching them. They’re touching something that’s very dear to them. And I am sure that this will be viewed as a war, a declaration of war on the Muslim world.
JS: All right, Rula Jebreal, we gotta leave it there. But thank you very much for joining us.
RJ: Thank you for having me. Thank you, Jeremy.
JS: Rula Jebreal is a Palestinian author, journalist, and foreign policy analyst. She was speaking to us from Rome.
And that does it for this week’s show. Join us on Twitter. Our handle is @Intercepted. We are only two episodes into our second session of this show, and we’d love to hear from you about who you would like to hear on the broadcast this season. Also make sure to check out all of the journalism at theintercept.com. 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. We had production assistance from Elise Swain. Our music was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.
Jim Bakker: These people mocking the President, the words they use, the speech they use, that’s the spirit of Antichrist!
Male Speaker: Absolutely