Intercepted Podcast: Donald Trump and His League of Extraordinary Despots

Donald Trump stood in a sea of tyrants, thugs, and dictators and joined in a bizarre group petting of a glowing white orb in Saudi Arabia. And he fit in just perfectly.

Photo Illustration: Elise Swain for the Intercept. Paramount Pictures/Getty Images

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Donald Trump stood in a sea of tyrants, thugs, and dictators and joined in a bizarre group petting of a glowing white orb in Saudi Arabia. And he fit in just perfectly. This week on Intercepted: Professor As’ad Abukhalil dissects Trump’s summit in Saudi Arabia, the ongoing massacre in Yemen, and the plight of the Palestinians. ISIS has taken credit for the terror attack in Manchester, but what role do Trump’s friends in the Middle East play in fueling such horrors? The Intercept’s new D.C. Bureau Chief Ryan Grim and national security reporter Matthew Cole discuss Gen. Michael Flynn, Erik Prince, and whether anyone in the Trump administration realizes how insane their boss actually is. And singer Steve Earle premieres a new song and discusses his activism against the death penalty.

WWE Anchor: The recognized symbol of excellence in sports entertainment.

News Anchor: So, if you’re just tuning in right now, this is the President arriving at the Royal Palace Court there, where he’s about to receive a metal.

[Donald Trump’s WWE entrance theme song, “Money In the Bank”]

Money! Money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money —

WWE: Uh-oh, wait a second here. The Donald is here, live! Look at this sight: they are two of the most powerful businessmen in the world, two billionaires!

President Donald J. Trump: Yesterday, we signed historic agreements with the kingdom of a $110 billion-dollar Saudi-funded defense purchase, and we will be sure to help killings and destruction in this wave of fanatical violence.

WWE: Here he comes, the Iron Sheik! Right over the top of us and into the ring!

Iron Sheik: Remember you punk. I called you a punk.

DJT: You want some? You want some? Come on up here.

WWE: Oh my!

DJT: You want some? Let’s go.

Iron Sheik: American boys, American girls, they’re gonna support you. They’re gonna say, USA, USA! But that doesn’t gonna help you after I give you that suplex. I put you in the camel clutch, and all America, they’re gonna say, the Iron Sheik always best and still gonna be the best.

WWE: Wait a minute, this is a personal challenge now. Are Trump and —

DJT: Come on up. Come on.

WWE: Here he comes! Donald Trump is gonna fight right here tonight. Watch this! Watch this!

WWE: Oh, well executed by the Sheik!

WWE: The Iron Sheikh wins it! The Iron Sheik wins it! I told you! I told you!

WWE: The Iron Sheik!

WWE: Well, you are gonna pick up a buck or two from me. Unbelievable!

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

[Music interlude]

JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City, and this is episode 16 of Intercepted.


DJT: That’s beautiful.

Melania Trump: Beautiful.

Male Speaker: This is the war dance.

DJT: I can see that.

JS: Donald Trump stood in a sea of tyrants, thugs, and dictators, and he joined in a bizarre group petting of a glowing white orb in Saudi Arabia. Trump stood there next to the Saudi king, who believes that beheading people is an appropriate punishment for a nation state to administer in the year 2017. Trump stood there with General Abdel Fattah el Sisi, the dictator of Egypt. And by the way, Trump loved Sisi’s shoes. Talked all about it. Trump stood at the center of a sea filled with some of the most reprehensible despots on the planet. Saudi Arabia was Trump’s first destination on his very first international trip as the commander in chief of the United States. And Trump felt right at home.

DJT: I stand before you as a representative of the American people to deliver a message of friendship and hope and love. That is why I chose to make my first foreign visit a trip to the heart of the Muslim world.

JS: At the beginning of his time in Saudi Arabia, Trump read a speech that we understand was largely prepared by his little Islamophobic minion, Stephen Miller. And Trump was absolutely jubilant over the deal that he signed with the Saudis to buy $110 billion-dollars’ worth of weapons from the United States.

DJT: This landmark agreement includes the announcement of a $110 billion-dollar Saudi-funded defense purchase. And we will be sure to help our Saudi friends to get a good deal from our great American defense companies, the greatest anywhere in the world.

JS: With no sense of irony or the obvious contradictions, Trump joined the Saudi king, King Salman, for the grand opening of the Global Center for Combatting Extremist Ideology. Trump, at that ceremony — in fact, not on his entire trip in Saudi Arabia — Trump did not mention the Saudi connection to the 9/11 attacks, nor did he mention the Saudi campaign to support radical extremism across the globe.

DJT: Later today, we will make history again with the opening of the new Global Center for Combatting Extremist Ideology, located right here in this central part of the Islamic world.

JS: Now, as has happened any time Trump reads a speech without, like, spitting out whatever thoughts pop into his head, Trump was again praised in the media by some for what they described as his softer tone, or his presidential demeanor.

Bob Schieffer: Today, you saw a very different President Trump. He actually sounded presidential. You may agree or disagree with what he said, but he sounded like a president.

JS: Trump was a great hit in Saudi Arabia. He heaped praise on the brutal scorched earth massacre in Yemen that the U.S. and the Saudis are waging jointly. Iran, which just held a democratic election, was portrayed by Trump and his despotic allies as the one true dictatorship in the region. After flying from Saudi Arabia to Tel Aviv, it didn’t take long for the buffoonery to kick back into high gear. On the tarmac when they got off the plane, Melania Trump was caught on camera batting away Donald’s outstretched hand. Trump then proceeded, with cameras rolling, to make clear that he didn’t really know that Israel and Palestine are in the Middle East. And that happened to some of the visible embarrassment of some of the officials gathered in the room with Trump and his buddy Bibi Netanyahu. Trump was like a kid caught in mom’s wallet when he promised Bibi that he never mentioned Israel to the Russians in the Oval Office. “I promise, Bibi, it didn’t happen.”

When Trump returns to the U.S., he will return to the reality that the fired FBI Director James Comey, is apparently preparing to speak publicly in front of the U.S. Congress. Trump is going to return to a Republican Party that is nervous at how Trump’s antics and the scandals are gonna impact their electoral future. And Trump is going to return to record low approval ratings. Later in the show, we’re gonna dig into the latest developments with Trump and General Flynn taking the Fifth, and various investigations underway. But first, I’m joined by Professor As’ad AbuKhalil. He is Professor of Political Science at California State University at Stanislaus, and he’s also the force behind the Angry Arab News Service blog. As’ad, welcome to Intercepted.

As’ad AbuKhalil: Thank you.

JS: Let’s begin with the evolving story coming out in the U.K., which is, as we understand it right now, that ISIS has claimed responsibility. I’m not gonna ask you about the kind of particular of, you know, who did this and why they did it. I wanted to ask you, in a broader sense, your analysis of what happens every time we hear about one of these attacks in a Western country, whether it’s the U.K., Germany, France, or the United States.

AA: Several observations about that. The first one is, I heard the claim of responsibility, and what struck me is that those who were talking in Arabic couldn’t even say the word “Allahu Akbar” correctly. That struck me as an example of the kind of petty criminals in Western capitals who get drawn into this kooky idea of ISIS and so on, and then get involved in these terrorists’ dastardly attacks. The other segment of it is that this is yet another example of the fallacies of Western policies in the Middle East. On the one hand, they make these grandiose statements about the need to confront the terrorist attacks of ISIS and al Qaeda and the rest. And yet on the other hand, they are the ones who are arming to the teeth the kind of governments and tyrannies who gave rise not only to these movements, but inspired them ideologically. I mean the irony of establishing a center for confronting terrorism in Riyadh is very much like having a center to combat anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. And of course, Western policies have tried that before — declaration of policies and dissenters, dialogue between religions, combatting extremists. And yet, Western policies are pinning their hope to combat extremism on the very extremist fanatical government that gave rise to al Qaeda and ISIS. I mean, we are unfortunately witnessing the repercussions of U.S. and Western policies in the Gulf as well as in Syria.

JS: What about this first international trip that Donald Trump took and his decision for stop number one to be the kingdom of Saudi Arabia?

AA: On the surface, it was quite a spectacle, you know, to have the Trump of Arabia going in there, engaging in these theatrics with Gulf tyrants. And of course, he assigned them the significant task of combatting fanaticism and extremism. But aside from the spectacle and the theatrics, you have to realize there’s gonna be failed expectations on both sides. What Trump wants is basically to transfer the cash reserves of Gulf regimes, especially Saudi Arabia, something to the tune of 500 billion dollars, to the United States. And of course, they made all these pledges, not only to buy tens of billions of dollars of weapons over the next ten years, but also to invest in the infrastructure of the United States. But that’s not gonna happen for many reasons. One, it is based on an unpredictable price of oil, which it fluctuates. The Saudis won’t be able to fulfill their promises. And second, the Saudis are notorious for making financial commitments that they never fulfill. And thirdly, how are they going to reconcile the exorbitant expenditure on arms and U.S. pleasure, and at the same time, keeping their population content to the minimum level that would prevent an uprising or mutiny by the people who are living under the most austere and severe political conditions imaginable?
On the other hand, the Saudis also wants the United States to do for them things that the United States won’t be able to do. I mean, they want the United States to basically overthrow the Iranian regime, overthrow the Yemeni regime, overthrow the Syrian regime, and deliver for them peace and normalization with Israel by fulfilling the very minimum demands of the Palestinian collaborationist authority, something the Israeli government is not willing to do. But this, Jeremy, is not the first time we’ve seen that. In the beginning of every U.S. administration, the Gulf regimes are excited and euphoric, expecting that they will deliver the moon for them. And by the end of the administration, they always wind up disappointed for not delivering what they want them to deliver.

JS: The fact is that in visiting Saudi Arabia, Trump was very much among his people, despots, strongmen, dictators — you had that bizarre scene where they were all touching that glowing orb. What the hell was that about, by the way?

AA: Well, I thought it was some pagan rituals, the secrets of which we still do not know. But whatever it was, it was an indication of the absurdity of the theatrics. I mean, this was the inauguration of the Center for the Combat of Extremism. We have basically assigned the Saudi Wahhabi regime the important mission of delivering moderation to the Islamic world. And of course, we have discovered that aside from the rhetoric of Trump and his company throughout the campaign, his association with famous, bigoted, anti-Islam advocates on the ultra right, they have a problem with Islam, but they have no problem with the most extremist, fanatical, anti-Semitic, misogynistic schism within Islam, and that’s Wahhabi. So, they are at peace with Wahhabi and at war with Islam. That’s Trump’s policies towards the Islamic world.

JS: Well, and of course, you had Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

Wilbur Ross: There was not a single hint of a protestor anywhere there during the whole time we were there. Not one guy with a bad placard.

JS: Clearly, Wilbur Ross doesn’t understand that that country is on full-blown lockdown all the time when it comes to freedom of expression. How do we know what actually is happening on any given day in Saudi Arabia? Because there really is no independent reporting from inside the country. It’s really like the old Iron Curtain countries like, you know, Enver Hoxha or Ceau?escu where, like, the world doesn’t actually know what’s happening inside of Saudi Arabia. Is that your sense?

AA: You’re absolutely right. But we know what’s happening by the record of imprisonment and beheading by the regime. There are many brave Saudis, men and women who oppose the regime. We also know from direct contact, not only with Saudis who live abroad, many of whom are active against the government and on behalf of Palestine, but also, Saudis, especially young Saudis, are extremely technically savvy. And some of them, you’ll be surprised, read The Intercept. For that reason, they have been following the recommendation of The Intercept about using for their communication the Signal application for the phone to avoid the interferences and the surveillance by the government. And from these communication — I get them daily, for example — we get direct, firsthand reportage that many of the people who write for the Washington Post, the New York Times, they don’t want to report what is contrary to the dominant Western narrative about what’s happening. But let us not make any mistake about that. The way the liberal media has been claiming, the policies of endorsing and sponsoring and arming tyrants is a longstanding American policy. I mean it is not that Obama used to hector and lecture Gulf tyrants about human rights. He never did. These tyrants have been sponsored and coddled by successive Western governments, from the socialist government of France to Jimmy Carter, the human rights president, all the way to Obama, and now Trump.

JS: Of course, you know, Trump goes to Saudi Arabia, and in his normal buffoonish way, is praising this $100 billion-dollar weapons deal with Saudi Arabia that of course his son-in-law Jared Kushner was involved with, like it’s an episode of, you know, The Gulf Apprentice. But at the same time, you have defense stocks just skyrocketing to record highs as a result of this weapons deal that was announced between Trump’s company, the United States, and the Saudi monarchy’s company, Saudi Arabia.

AA: Well, you will witness, I think sometime in the future, near future, the stock prices going down steeply at the first sign of instability in the region, or at the first sign of a drop in the price of oil. Look, I mean, the country of Lebanon all too well knows the record of failed promises of the Saudi royal family. Five years ago, they promised to support the Lebanese Army to the tune of three billion dollars. To this day, not a penny has arrived, and they later cancelled it. You may say, “But they won’t do that to the American.” Well, if it’s in their interest not to deliver, they won’t. And they have done that in the past. I mean, do you know how many billions have been pledged by the Saudi royal family and other Gulf tyrants to the people of Afghanistan, to the people of Syria? All in conferences using the name of the friends of Afghanistan, the friends of Syria, and so on. And now we have a deputy crown prince who is as reckless as we’ve ever seen, and he may be the guy we can hope will deliver the overthrow of the regime sometime in the future, hopefully.

JS: I want to remind people that as we speak, the poorest country in the Arab world, Yemen, is being mercilessly and totally destroyed right now by the Saudis with the backing, arming, logistical, intelligence support of the United States. And at the same time, we now learn that Trump authorized yet another ground raid in Yemen that they claim killed seven or so members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And of course, the United States at times is killing the same people that al Qaeda wants killed, and at other times, they’re fighting on the side of the Iranians in certain places in Iraq. And the whole thing is a huge mess. But I wanted to ask you, what do you believe is behind the Saudi and American destruction of Yemen?

AA: The United States is far more opposed throughout the Middle East to the enemies of al Qaeda and ISIS than they are to al Qaeda and ISIS themselves. We find that the United States and its cronies throughout the region basically delivering strikes against the enemies of these terrorist groups. And I also want to point out on the situation in Yemen, Saudi Arabia never in its long history allowed Yemen to be even mildly independent. They always wanted to dominate it and control it. And people should realize, Saudi Arabia does not want any deviation from its total hegemonic oppressive tyranny throughout Arabia.

JS: I wanted to transition to Trump then moving on to Israel, where he very swiftly made a fool of himself, saying that he had just left the Middle East when he flew from Saudi Arabia to Israel.

DJT: — Done an incredible job. We just got back from the Middle East. We just got back from Saudi Arabia, and —

JS: It seems to me that the Israelis are playing Trump pretty masterfully here, with great support from the people Trump has put in charge of his Israel policy.

AA: Right. But also, we have to bear in mind that Trump has proven that despite his campaign rhetoric, he is very aware that he is at the head of an empire. When Trump was elected, many of students in the international relations class were asking about what direction foreign policy will take under Trump. And I’ve always emphasized to them, which is that when you’re speaking about an empire, the ability of one man, be him Trump or Obama or anybody else, to make changes in the foreign policy direction of that empire is extremely small. They can only make stylistic changes here and there. For that reason, he reversed many of the campaign promises he made. He said he would scrap the Iran nuclear deal. He didn’t. He said he was gonna move the embassy. He changed his mind. He didn’t speak about settlements. Later he said that he is opposed to settlement. For that reason, I don’t think we can expect much changes from Bush, to Obama, to Trump. The only thing we can perhaps expect is intensification of war, which is something that Obama has done. And this one will continue as well. As for the Arab-Israeli conflict, I mean, there are no more concessions that the Palestinians and Arabs can give without basically compromising their own survival ability.

JS: All right, we’re gonna leave it there, As’ad. Thank you so much for joining us on Intercepted.

AA: Thank you.

JS: As’ad AbuKhalil is a professor of political science at California State University at Stanislaus. You can read his thoughts at The Angry Arab News Service blog.

[Music interlude]

JS: This is Intercepted, and when we come back, we’re gonna get an update on all things scandal in Trumpland. And later, we’re gonna talk to the singer songwriter Steve Earle. We have a sneak peek performance from his forthcoming album. Stay with us.

[Music interlude]

JS: Okay, we are back here on Intercepted. And before we go on with the show, I wanted to flag for you a story that we just published at I wrote it along with my colleagues, Alex Emmons, and Ryan Grim. And what the story is, is we obtained a transcript of the phone call that President Donald Trump had last month with the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. And for people who don’t follow what’s happening in the Philippines, Duterte is a murderous thug who has openly called for the extrajudicial murder of anyone involved with drugs in the Philippines. And thousands and thousands of people have been killed. And Duterte has said he would give immunity or pardon people who are involved with these killings. According to the transcript that we obtained of the phone call between Trump and Duterte, Trump heaped praise on him specifically for the way that he is waging his so-called war on drugs. He also called Duterte a good man, and participated in what is one of Duterte’s favorite topics, bashing Barack Obama.
Trump acknowledges that Obama had criticized the tactics Duterte used in the war on drugs, and said that he, unlike Obama, actually understands it and supports it. And just for context, Duterte repeatedly called Obama, “a son of a whore” or “a son of a bitch.” He also said he could go to hell, and he threatened to divorce the United States and tilt his influence toward China or Russia. So, all of that is in the story at We also have another part of the story that details Trump’s views on North Korea. And Trump speaks very flippantly about the possibility that the U.S. would bomb North Korea. It’s pretty sobering to read those words from a man who is the commander in chief of the United States Armed Forces. Check out that journalism at

[Music interlude]

JS: Now, on Tuesday, former CIA director John Brennan became the latest in what has — in what’s becoming a long line of former U.S. officials, intelligence officials, to testify about Trump and Russia. And, you know, as expected, and as we have seen over and over, Brennan spoke in somber tones about the grave threats posed by Russian attempts to influence the U.S. elections. Brennan also said that he had no evidence of collusion between Trump and the Russian government.

John Brennan: I don’t know whether or not such collusion — and that’s your term — such collusion existed. I don’t know.

JS: Now, as of now, it seems that the former Trump administration or campaign official that’s in the hottest water, so to speak, is Trump’s former national security advisor, General Michael Flynn. Flynn, we learned this week, had received a subpoena from the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, and then promptly said that he was going to assert his Fifth Amendment rights in refusing to testify, or in handing over documents. Now, Flynn could be held in contempt of Congress for all of that, and that in turn could lead to criminal charges against him. In a statement explaining his decision to plead the Fifth, Flynn’s lawyer said the following: “He is the target, on a nearly daily basis, of outrageous allegations, often attributed to anonymous sources in Congress or elsewhere in the United States government, which, however fanciful on their face and unsubstantiated by evidence, feed the escalating public frenzy against him.”
On Monday, Congressman Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, released a letter alleging that Flynn misled Pentagon officials when he applied for a renewal of his Top Secret security clearances last year. You know, there’s this whole controversy where Trump’s people say, “Oh, it was the Obama administration that gave Flynn his renewed security credentials.” Well, now Elijah Cummings is saying Flynn actually misled Department of Defense officials when he applied for that renewal. And at issue is the money that Flynn was paid when he went to that gala in Russia, and he was paid $45,000 or so by the state-owned network RT. It also was focused on work that Flynn did for Turkey. Flynn apparently did not register in the appropriate way as a foreign agent at that time. And depending on how the facts of that case fill out, that could be a felony. To discuss all of these ongoing questions and investigations, I am joined now by two people. We’re honored to present the debut on Intercepted of The Intercept’s new Washington, D.C. bureau chief, Ryan Grim. Ryan comes to us from the Huffington Post, and he is a true journalistic force unto himself. Ryan, welcome to Intercepted.

Ryan Grim: Longtime listener, first-time caller.

JS: [Laughs] And we’re also joined now by investigative reporter Matthew Cole, who reports on national security for The Intercept. Matthew, welcome back to Intercepted.

Matthew Cole: Glad to be here.

JS: How do you see this particular moment, where Trump seems to just say, all of this stuff is bullshit. It’s a fabricated conspiracy. You then have the Democrats clinging onto even the tiniest thread of truth in a bigger story to say, this is the equivalent of Watergate, and this guy needs to be impeached, which you’re increasingly hearing. How do you explain to people kind of the context that we’re in right now on Capitol Hill and with the White House?

RG: To me, there are two realities happening at the same time. You know, the one is, what did actually happen? We don’t quite know. You know, we even have people like Dianne Feinstein saying there’s no evidence yet that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. And that investigation is ongoing in different venues, and increasingly more venues are looking into that. But there is a second reality that is almost more important, and that is the distraction that it’s causing the Trump administration. His ability to repeal Obamacare, or slash taxes, or get any type of energy legislation, or infrastructure plan through Congress depends on him not having a clown show of an administration. And so, the more that this pressure comes on him because of all the Russia scandal, you know, the less he’s able to get done. And that is a reality, even if the other thing is entirely made up.

JS: Mm-hmm. Matthew Cole, you’ve been covering the national security aspects of the Trump administration, as you did with the Obama administration before. What is your sense of the role of General Flynn right now, who of course was the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency? We understand he’s saying that he’s gonna plead the Fifth and not cooperate with the subpoena from the Senate for both documents and his testimony. Is there a “there” there with General Flynn? Does he pose a threat to either Trump or others in the administration?

MC: I mean it depends on what the “there” there is. He may very well pose a threat. My question about all of the Russia collusion is whether — the indications that I’ve had from sources inside the intelligence community, and it’s been reflected a little bit in James Clapper’s public testimony up to now, which is that at least initially, in the U.S. intelligence community, there was a lot of smoke, but there wasn’t actually any fire. And the question becomes whether the FBI, in what is now an ongoing but clearly an increased investigation, finds new evidence, whether they can flip someone, whether they can find a witness or someone who will testify that there was something direct going on between people close to and high up in the Trump administration, or the president himself. With the Russian government, there thus far is nothing that indicates that that’s the case. The question I have is whether in the process, what we’re gonna find is that parts of or all of this administration from the day he won was for sale. The policy was for sale.

And when you look at General Flynn from that vantage point, it’s much less interesting that he had a conversation with the Russian ambassador the day before the sanctions, although that’s not without its own intrigue and being questionable. But whether or not he had the permission, for instance, to sign a contract with a Turkish group and essentially lobby for a policy shift or policy changes in the first weeks of the administration. And that really is something that I think fits much more of the MO of someone who looks like a real estate developer from — and by the way, a third borough real estate developer — which is that nothing is not for sale. And if he can find a good deal and thinks that he can get paid, why not have his subordinates around him also paid? And to that end, Flynn, I think, very well could be the undoing of this administration, not because Trump is a secret spy or has been secretly colluding, but because they are crooked and they are incompetent.

And John Oliver put it best, he called this “stupid Watergate.” And no matter how much I go through this, I keep seeing the same thing, which is that Trump is moving forward making everything worse, making huge mistakes strategically, politically. I don’t know that it’s because he’s trying to hide from the American public that the Russians worked out a deal with him to get him elected, but rather because, you know, he’s just not that competent.

JS: Ryan Grim, I wanted to ask you about this issue of what the fuck actually is happening with Trump, because I’m really starting to lean more in the direction of he’s just an idiot when it comes to just a basic level of competency with managing anything, you know, not to mention the United States government. When he was in Israel with Bibi, he arrives there and immediately says publicly —

DJT: I never mentioned the word or the name “Israel.” Never mentioned it during that conversation. They were all saying I did. So, you had another story wrong. Never mentioned the word Israel.

JS: “Look, when I was meeting with the Russians, I didn’t mention Israel at all.” I mean it’s the kind of thing that you’re just astonished that he keeps doing this. Who’s in charge of this administration right now? I mean you had the Jared Kushner camp, Steve Bannon. Is Trump playing some 38th dimensional chess here, like the alt-right thinks, or is it something else, and who’s actually running this administration?

RG: My sense is that nobody is in charge right now. And I think you’re right, that it really is just incompetence. I mean, for Trump to say to the Russians, “You would not believe the great intel I get,” shows that he has been incompetent his entire life. He is the president of the United States, and he is surprised that he gets good intel. And then feels like nobody else would know that, and that he needs to impress them by sharing this intelligence with these visitors to the Oval Office. He’s just not good at presidenting, you know?

JS: [Laughs]

RG: It’s over his head. What he is good at is creating chaos and disarray because he — and that’s what he’s thrived on his entire career — if you want to call it that. And so, that’s why there’s nobody running the White House. So, Paul Ryan is running the House of Representatives to the best extent of his abilities. Mitch McConnell is running the Senate. But it’s not as if either of them are running Trump, and Trump is certainly not running either of those guys. And so, that means that nobody really is in charge right now.

JS: But when you talk to people in that administration not publicly, not for an interview, do you ever get a sense from them that they realize how insane everything looks?

RG: Oh yes, yes, absolutely. And the game is to try to figure out how to work it to the advantage of your issuer or yourself. And so, there are all of these different, you know, increasingly sophisticated ways that people have of trying to gain advantage or get there. You know, they work to plant articles and then have those printed out and put in front of him, or try to work it through Fox. You know, they know that he’s probably gonna be watching Fox. They know he reads his mentions, which is hilarious if you read his mentions and know that he’s coming across some of this stuff as well. So, there are all these different ways that people are trying to jockey for position. And because he’s not a very complicated guy, it’s just about kind of repetition and luck. Like, how do you get your article that you planted somewhere in front of him? And so, you have to know who the different channels are that are able to get that. A lot of it goes through Kushner and Ivanka. They have a direct line.

JS: It’s interesting you bring up people printing out their articles and putting it, you know, on the desk in front of Trump. I was wondering last week when I got a heads up moments before the Blackwater founder, Erik Prince, was gonna be on primetime on Fox with Tucker Carlson, who of course took over from Bill O’Reilly. And the two main points that Erik Prince was really pushing on Fox News — the first was Trump is being very smart about Russia, that the left used to be in love with the Soviet Union.

Erik Prince: Look, the Russians suffer from Islamic terrorism as well. This rush to judgment by the left, I guess, is kind of perfect for the Democratic Party, the party of lynch mobs and Jim Crow laws. Rushing to judgment without much fact.

JS: And the other one was, you know, of course, Prince’s life’s work, which is, let’s send in a mercenary force to Afghanistan to essentially wipe ‘em all out.

EP: If you look back in history, the way the English operated in India for 250 years, they had a army that was largely run by companies and no English soldiers. So, very cheap, very low cost, very simple, very — very adaptable.

JS: What do you think is the actual role being played by Erik Prince, and who is he close to in the administration that seems to keep him in play?

MC: Well, we know he’s close to Steve Bannon. I just spoke to someone last week who reiterated again that he was important in the transition because he offered — for instance, the first choice for the National Security Council’s director for Africa was Erik Prince’s choice, who — he had worked with Erik in Africa. That gentleman eventually was fired because the CIA refused to give him security clearances. But it also suggested that he had sway with Flynn. And it turns out that Erik Prince and Michael Flynn have gone back years. So, they knew each other fairly well, and they both reside on the side of viewing Islam as a religion of war and violence, and an existential threat, essentially, to the United States. Bannon still keeps him close. And actually, I was struck while Ryan was talking about, you know, sort of describing the audience of one, which everyone in Washington is currently playing for, that Prince’s interview on Fox News certainly was probably meant for Donald Trump’s ears, because what he prescribed for the Afghanistan policy — first of all, part of it was sensible, which was, “hey, you know, we’ve been at war for 15 or 16 years. We’ve gone through 15 or 16 different generals to lead the war, and we are no closer to a solution now than we were when we began,” which is absolutely true.

His solution to it, though, is providing — that he will sweep in and bring about the changes necessary without having to cost the government very much. And lo and behold, it’ll be his men. Essentially, it’ll be his contractors. I can’t help but think that he’s trying — that was his pitch. He was just sitting there pitching it to the President, that why bother with DOD? We will buttress the Afghan forces and give them what they need, logistics, everything else, and you don’t even need to ship tanks. We’ll provide that for you. And I think there isn’t an opportunity for war that Erik Prince wouldn’t try to sell, especially if it allows him to kill Muslims, regardless of the part of the world. And in this case, because he’s not a stupid man, and he cited, hey, let’s not forget that what Afghanistan has are a trillion dollars in reserves of mineral and lapis, and all sorts of natural resources, that because the country is underdeveloped and because it’s been so violent and unstable, no one has really been able to pull out of the earth yet, and that the United States could get in exchange for providing peace.

JS: As we wrap up, Ryan Grim, I want to play with you a game that we started playing recently, which is, how does Trump’s presidency end? Is it impeachment, imprisonment, death from KFC and McDonald’s, or he just says, “Fuck it, I quit”?

RG: I’d like to answer it on Friday, after the Rob Quist Montana election. If Rob Quist wins, then Republicans start fleeing, and then Democrats take the house. Like, I don’t see how he survives much past that. Well, but then again, what’s the advantage at that point of throwing him out of office? I think that he stumbles into 2020.

JS: You think he makes it through a full first term?

RG: Yeah. I think that it is quite possible. Or has a heart attack from the stress of actually having to work for the first time in his life and just keels over.

MC: Well, having never worked out, by his own theory, he’s saved all of that —

RG: That’s true. He has, yes.

MC: Inherent energy that he was, so he’s got —

RG: He’s got arrested heart, fresh heart.

MC: He’s stored up. I mean, I —

JS: I don’t know. Melania did bat his hand away, you know, on the tarmac there. That could really hurt the old ego and the heart. Matthew Cole, how does Trump stop being president? What happens?

MC: I think he quits. But I do think that the Democrats are way too gleeful and way too optimistic about everything that’s transpired in the last couple weeks. People forget that even in Watergate, it was three years between the break-in and the —

RG: Although Democrats are very subtly in Washington putting the breaks on some of the enthusiasm because they don’t want him to quit before 2018.

MC: Right.

JS: [Laughs]

RG: Yes, yes, absolutely leave office after we pick 25 seats.

MC: That’s a whole other — I just — I don’t think impeachment is any time soon. I don’t know that we’ll ever see anything like that even before 2018. You’d need a new House to come in and basically swing to send impeachment to the Senate, so I don’t think that’s likely. I don’t think he wants to be president. I think he wants the title. I think that being president is hard. I think that’s probably the descriptions so far on his trip about being exhausted.

RG: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s day two of his trip.

MC: Yeah. And I just think he’s not up for it. You know, my guess is that it just gets — it gets so shitty that he just —

RG: Right. He has said it’s harder than he thought it was gonna be.

MC: Yeah, it’s a bummer, and, you know, he just wants to go back to playing golf.

JS: Okay, we’re gonna leave it there. Matthew Cole, who reports on national security for the Intercept, thank you very much for being with us.

MC: Thank you.

JS: And Ryan Grim, on behalf of the whole staff of The Intercept, I want to welcome you onboard. We’re really excited to see what you’re gonna do as the D.C. bureau chief for The Intercept. Thanks for being with us on Intercepted.

RG: Ah, good to be here.

[Music interlude]

JS: Now, earlier in the show, I mentioned that Trump’s royal friends in Saudi Arabia are big fans of beheading people. But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that we have the death penalty in the U.S. as well. As of today, the United States has officially executed 1,453 people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Last year, the United States ranked number five in the world in executions, right behind Saudi Arabia. Now, of course, the state-sanctioned murder in the U.S. doesn’t happen in public streets, and it doesn’t come in the form of masked men decapitating people. No, in the U.S., most executions are staged to look like something resembling an operation, where a lethal cocktail of chemicals are injected into the bodies of the condemned. I was thinking about all of this in the context of Trump hanging out with the Saudis. And then I saw the news that the country music singer Toby Keith was doing a male only concert in Saudi Arabia while Trump was there. The concert was free and open to the male public. Now, Trump, we understand, reportedly caught a little bit of that concert on a closed circuit TV as he whizzed past it. He and Melania were in a golf cart riding around before their dinner with King Salman.

Anyway, all of this got me thinking we should talk to Steve Earle. Steve is the, of course, legendary singer and songwriter, but he’s also spent time in prison himself, and he is a very outspoken opponent of the death penalty. Steve Earle’s catalogue of songs and albums is vast, and he’s an incredibly versatile performer. I love Steve Earle’s music, and I have deep respect for the stands he’s taken, both in his music and in his activism. Steve has a new album that is coming out next month. It’s called “So You Wanna Be An Outlaw.” Steve Earle, it’s our pleasure to welcome you to Intercepted.

Steve Earle: It’s good to be here. How you doing?

JS: What is it like to be you, to be an artist, to be a political artist, when someone like Donald Trump is president?

SE: It’s interesting ‘cause I just made a record that everybody — a lot of people are gonna be disappointed ‘cause it’s probably the least political record I’ve ever made. Maybe not. I mean, nothing I do is completely apolitical ‘cause I’m just kind of a political person, but I was — I’d made a record. I’d written it all, and I recorded it in December, so we knew what the outcome was. And I thought about, well, this record is about a musical statement about where I come from. It’s called “So You Wanna Be An Outlaw,” and it’s sonically based on a Waylon Jennings record called “Honky Tonk Heroes” that was made in 1972 and released in ’73. And that’s the moment I arrived in Nashville and, you know, I’m writing a memoir, and I’m like – you know, I’m getting older, and you start looking back and trying to figure out, you know, why you ended up where you ended up. And that requires looking at where you’ve been. So, I was sort of musically doing that. And I’ve got the best band I’ve ever had. And that’s what the songs are about. And then this happens. And I thought about doing — trying to put something together to make it more political, and I just thought, no. I’m gonna put this record out, and then I’m gonna — I’ve got this band that’s the best I’ve ever had, and I made the country-est record I’ve made in a long time. I’m getting ready to travel around the country for the next year, and Europe, and Australia, and New Zealand, — but pay attention to what’s going on. And making the next record, I imagine, will be just as country, but way more political when it gets right down to it.

JS: Okay, so you’re gonna play a track for us off that forthcoming album. It’s called “The Firebreak Line.”

SE: This song, I almost made this into a political, you know, screed about a certain issue, but I decided to make it — leave it. I mean, the song’s about what it’s about. It’s about hotshots. And — but a lot of what they do is protect rich asshole’s homes that are built in places that they shouldn’t be. That’s where the resources go, unfortunately. This is on the new record. This may take me a couple tries. I’ve never played this, like — I haven’t played it —

[“The Firebreak Line,” Steve Earle]

Well I’m cutting out a firebreak line
Cutting out a firebreak line
Digging down deep to the clay and lime
Cutting out a firebreak line
Well I’m a wildfire fightin’ fool
On the Yellow Mountain hotshot crew
I can swamp and fell
I can walk through hell
I’m an EMT and a torch man too
When the winds blowin’ hot and dry
And the sparks in the sand just fly
I’ll make my stand with 20 good men
A better band of brothers you’ll never find
Got their back and they got mine
When we’re cutting out a firebreak line
Whoa, we’re a cutting out a firebreak line
Cutting out a firebreak line
Digging down deep to the clay and lime
Cutting out a firebreak line
Ed Pulaski is a friend of mine
When I’m cutting out a firebreak line
He invented this thing like an ax I swing
And he never left a member of his crew behind
When the fire jump across the line
Took him down on the phantom line
And then he drew his gun,
Said he’d shoot the first one
That got it in his head to try and step outside
Got everybody out alive
Cutting out a firebreak line
Now I’m cutting out a firebreak line
Cutting out a firebreak line
Digging down deep to the clay and lime
Cutting out a firebreak line
Cutting out a firebreak line
Cutting out a firebreak line
Digging down deep to the clay and lime
Cutting out a firebreak line
Gotta pray that the wind’ll die
And it rains down from on high
And let’s raise a glass to the hotshots passed
In hotshot heaven up above the sky
They’re looking down on me when I’m
Cutting out a firebreak line
Well, I’m cutting out a firebreak line
Cutting out a firebreak line
Digging down deep to the clay and lime
Cutting out a firebreak line

JS: When your music really first started to play a role in my work life — and I have a set number of albums that if I’m really working on something serious, I listen to. And for some reason, I fell in love with your work in 1998 when I was in Texas covering the trial of the men who killed James Byrd, Jr., African American man who was dragged from the back of a truck.

Amy Goodman: Well, Jeremy, why don’t you start off by updating us on what the prosecution said yesterday.

Jeremy Scahill: The prosecution kicked off the day by calling forensic pathologist Dr. Tommy Brown to the stand. He was the doctor who performed the autopsy on the body of James Byrd, Jr. And he said that the 49-year-old disabled African American was alive when his head, neck, and right arm were ripped apart from the rest of his body. And this was very significant for the prosecution case because they’re trying to prove kidnapped. They’re trying to prove that James Byrd, Jr. was alive when they tortured him, when they dragged him two miles through a primarily African American rural community of Jasper, Texas on pavement.

JS: What sort of stood out to me in kind of the things you hold onto and remember was the family of James Byrd, Jr. said that they opposed the death penalty for the white supremacist who had unrepentantly murdered their loved one.

SE: Right.

JS: And I didn’t know anything about you personally at the time, but soon after that, I learned that you had been very outspoken on the death penalty, and that you in fact had spent time in prison. And I wanted to ask you about sort of which came first for your political development. Was it your exposure on a personal level to the criminal justice system in the U.S., or were you predisposed to be that critical as you now are known as?

SE: The first political activism against the death penalty I ever saw was my father writing a letter to John Connally, who was governor of Texas at the time. And not long before he got shot at the same time John Kennedy was shot, asking him to free — I mean, not to free, but to spare — commute the sentence of a kid called Ralph Carl Powers who had been 17 when he was convicted. And he was a high school dropout, carload of guys, and they ran into a carload – another carload of kids in a supermarket parking lot in South San Antonio. And the gun belonged to a kid named Dicky Renfro. Came from a very good family, but he was kind of a punk. And he and a bunch of his friends, they had the gun. They had the nicer car. But in the scuffle that ensued, somehow Dicky Renfro ended up getting shot with his own gun. And probably by Ralph Powers. It’s entirely possible. But he was a kid, and he didn’t bring a gun. He didn’t – he wasn’t out riding around with a gun. And it just seemed like, you know, one of those cases where not what the death penalty was intended for. But Dicky Renfro’s parents had a lot of money, and the law in Texas at the time allowed for people that had the means to hire a private prosecutor to prosecute a case when they had a vested interest. And Dick Renfro’s family did that, and the DA in San Antonio stood aside and got — one of the best criminal attorneys in the state prosecuted the case. And naturally, Ralph Powers was convicted, and he was sentenced to death. He had nobody to help him in the appeals, and my dad wrote a letter, ‘cause he just didn’t consider that to be fair. And I watched my dad writing this letter, and I asked him why. I was eight, and I asked him, and my dad explained it to me. And it stuck with me. Not too long after that, a few years, ’67, when I was, you know, 12, the film version of “In Cold Blood” came out.

Trailer for “In Cold Blood”: In Cold Blood. An appalling and apparently senseless crime. Two apparently heartless young criminals. What is the reality behind the appearance?

SE: In the film when I first saw it, it was Robert Blake is Perry Smith, and he’s getting ready to be executed, and he asks if he can be taken out of the harness so he can go to the bathroom one more time. And he’s told, “Oh, they all do that. They all mess themselves.” And I just thought, God, this dehumanizes us. And I was 12 years old. That was obvious to me. And it’s a lot of — this act of the state executing people in a democracy hurts us, each and every one of us. It makes — it made me feel bad. Opposition to the death penalty came before anything in shaping my politics.

JS: Hm. What was it about Karla Faye Tucker’s case that captured your —

SE: Karla Faye Tucker was the first woman executed in the state of Texas since the Civil War, because we sort of have a — our chivalry even extends to felons in the South, and so, we just don’t tend to sentence them to death for some reason. During all of the years that we’ve practiced this barbaric thing, we, for some reason, went easy on the women that were convicted of the same crimes. It’s just interesting. Karla was guilty of a brutal crime. She and her boyfriend were — I mean, they were just cranked to the gills on methamphetamine. Had been up for days. And they went over — they had a grudge against this guy, and they went over to steal motorcycle parts, but mainly to settle a score. And her contribution to the death of these two people was she put several holes in them with a pickax. And she was the pickax murderer. And it was the kind of case that everybody thought the death penalty was made for. And people I knew knew her, and knew that she had changed drastically during the time she was in jail. She became a fund — kind of a fundamentalist Christian.

Jay Schadler: Practically everyone on death row does say they’ve changed. Practically everyone says they’ve found religion. Why are you to be believed?

Karla Faye Tucker: I wasn’t born a bad person, and I don’t — I’m not — I don’t have to always be a bad person. I mean, people can change.

JS: And eventually, Karla Faye Tucker was executed.

SE: She was executed, after being — they had a dynamic in that election when George Bush was elected the first time. He was on television.

George W. Bush: I have sought guidance through prayer. I have concluded judgments about the heart and soul of an individual on death row are best left to a higher authority. Karla Faye Tucker has acknowledged she is guilty of a horrible crime. The courts, including the United States Supreme Court, have reviewed the legal issues in this case, and therefore, I will not grant a 30-day stay. May God bless Karla Faye Tucker, and God bless her victims and their families.

SE: People that probably supported the death penalty were not comfortable with that. So, basically, the state of Texas did not execute another single person until George Bush was safely elected president of the United States. That’s why over yonder, one of those people that he signed a warrant on was a guy named Jonathan Nobles who was one of my death row guys that I visited, and he was finally executed, and I witnessed his execution. And it was just because he asked me to, and he didn’t have anybody else to do it, and he wanted somebody to do it. And I’m still a little pissed off at him about it because it changed me a lot. I mean it changed the way I do this work, this activism. I don’t get personally involved with inmates anymore. I just can’t afford it. I can’t afford to go through that again.

[“Over Yonder,” Steve Earle]

Tonight we’ll cross the yard together
Then they can’t hurt me anymore
‘Cause I’m going over yonder
Where no ghost can follow me

JS: So, he invited you to be a witness to his execution. And at that time, how was Texas executing people?

SE: Lethal injection. Seemed pretty violent to me. He was singing “Silent Night.” That was the signal. He just told them that — they always usually arrive at a signal so that they can, you know — so that they don’t have to — it isn’t so dramatic. Something is agreed between the warden and the inmates, what they’d started doing in Texas by that time. And I wasn’t privy to this. I wasn’t in on that conversation. I went in with the other witnesses, and I stood there. He apologized to them, and then he said, “Steve, I can’t believe I had to go through all this to see you in a suit.” And I was just, you know — just the best joke he could come up with. And then he quoted a Bible verse, and then he suddenly started singing “Silent Night.” And that was the signal that they’d agreed on, and on the line “Mother and child,” I’ll never forget it, he suddenly stopped, and his head pitched violently forward — violently enough that his glasses — big, heavy, prison issues glasses — fell off of his head and onto his chest. And, you know, then he started to turn blue. And, you know, I don’t – at first, when it was over with, I went, oh no, I closed my eyes. I didn’t do what I came here to do. And then I realized later on that I’d seen every second of it. I was just in shock, and it took a while for that part of my memory to fill back in again. It was bizarre.

JS: Wow. I had done a lot of activism around the case of Troy Anthony Davis —

SE: Right.

JS: Who was executed in Georgia, and I remember later hearing the description of his execution from the people that had witnessed it. I can’t fathom being in a room for that. I mean I’ve seen people killed in wars.

SE: Yeah.

JS: It seems like it’s on a totally different level, where you have this clinical way of murdering people.

SE: I’ve never seen that. I know you’ve seen a lot of stuff like that. And that’s horrific in it’s own way; there’s not any doubt about it. But it is — there’s something — we’re doing it, number one. We can’t opt out of it. My opposition to the death penalty’s based on — I still believe that we’re at least in, you know, a nominal democracy, and that if the government executes people, then I’m executing people. My opposition to the death penalty is about I object to the damage that it does to my spirit if the democracy that I participate in executes people.

JS: I wanted to ask you, ‘cause I also think that the way that you responded to 9/11, I found really moving, particularly after John Walker Lindh, this young kid from California, was picked up in Afghanistan, and he’s, you know, known in kind of lore now, the American Taliban. But he was this kid, and he got taken by U.S. forces, was brought back to the U.S., and was sort of railroaded in his case, where he ended up having to take —

SE: Still in jail.

JS: And he’s still in jail. But talk about why you decided to write the ballad of John Walker Lindh, and —

SE: I saw John Walker Lindh for the first time the same place that everybody else did. He was 20 years old, and he was duct taped to a board, you know, in Afghanistan before they even flew him out of there. They shot that footage of him. And it didn’t air until several days later. But I think back — I think he was already in the States or on his way back to the States by the time we saw the footage from Afghanistan. But —

JS: And for people that remember, a CIA agent had been killed in Afghanistan and was believed to have been killed in a battle where John Walker Lindh was there, so that elevated the stakes —

SE: Right.

JS: In the media of the way it was portrayed.

SE: Basically what happened was the CIA agent was in this compound — this fort, as they called it. It wasn’t quite that. It was a fort, about as much a fort as the Alamo was. And he was the only guy there, and as far as anybody could tell. And when the place kind of blew up, he just — God knows what happened to him. Nobody knows who killed him. And John Walker Lindh was there. And he went to fight. He — John Walker Lindh was from Marin County. He converted to Islam there. He traveled, you know, to the Mideast to study the Koran, and left with a bunch of other jihadis to go – when the war broke out in Afghanistan, he was with a bunch of other people at one of those schools, and he took off and traveled with them. And who knows – nobody knows that he ever picked up a gun, you know? Nobody’s ever proven that. He hasn’t ever been convicted of anything. He accepted a plea deal for 20 years in prison because they, you know – guess he knew what would happen if he went to any prison and he ever got into the general population. The only thing, worse thing he could be, you know, than a sex offender who preyed on children at that point in our history would have been somebody that had been, you know, convicted of — and they called him a traitor.
He was called a traitor over, and over, and over again. He was never even charged with treason. And the reason they didn’t — trust me, if they thought they could have made a case for treason, they would have charged him, but they didn’t. I saw a skinny 20-year-old kid taped — duct taped to a board, and I have a child that’s exactly the same age, and his name’s Justin Townes Earle, and he was 20 at the time. And my first reaction to it was, “Oh my God, he’s got parents.” So, that’s why I reacted to it. That’s why I wrote the song. It really isn’t a political song. It’s one of the most personal things I’ve ever written.

JS: Okay, so you’re gonna perform for us, then, “John Walker’s Blues.”

[“John Walker’s Blues,” Steve Earle]

I’m just an American boy, raised on MTV
And I’ve seen all the kids in the soda pop ads
But none of ’em look like me.
So I started lookin’ around for a light out of the dim
And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word
Of Mohammed, peace be upon him
A shadu la ilaha illa Allah
There is no God but God
If my daddy could see me now
Chains around my feet
He don’t understand that sometimes a man’s
Got to fight for what he believes
And I believe God is great, all praise due to him
And if I should die, I’ll rise up to the sky
Just like Jesus, peace be upon him
A shadu la ilaha illa Allah

There’s no God but God
We came to fight the Jihad, and our hearts were pure and strong.
And when death filled the air, we all offered up prayers
And prepared for our martyrdom.
But Allah had some other plan, some secret not revealed
Now they’re draggin’ me back with my head in a sack
To the land of the infidel.
A shadu la ilaha illa Allah
A shadu la ilaha illa Allah
A shadu la ilaha illa Allah

JS: Steve Earle, thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.

SE: Good to see you, man.

JS: Steve Earle’s new album comes out on June 17th. It’s called “So You Wanna Be An Outlaw.”

[Music interlude]

JS: That does it for this week’s show. But before we go, I wanted to ask you, our listeners, to support the work that we do at The Intercept. We just launched a membership campaign where you can pledge financial support — either a one-time donation; we are a nonprofit — or become a sustainer of our work. If you’re not in a position to give financially, that’s totally cool too. Tell your friends about the site and about this podcast. That’s some of the most important work you can do to help our journalism grow. We also encourage you to check us out on Twitter, where our handle is simply @Intercepted. And let us know who you want to hear from on this show in the future. 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. Josh Rogosin mixed the show. We had production assistance from Elise Swain. Our music was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.

[Music interlude]

Wibur Ross: The security guards from the Saudi side who’d been helping us over the weekend all wanted to pose for a big photo op. And then they gave me two gigantic bushels of dates.

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