Special prosecutor Robert Mueller has delivered the opening salvo against Trump cronies in his secretive investigation into Russia, the election, and the Trump campaign. This week on Intercepted: The most nuanced discussion you will hear on what we know, what we don’t know, and the challenge of criminally prosecuting anyone for actually conspiring with Russia to interfere in the election. New York Times reporter Charlie Savage and former federal prosecutor-turned-defense attorney Ken White of Popehat break down the recent indictment and plea deal and what it may mean for Trump. Savage also lays out the secret authorities Trump recently signed giving the military and CIA wider latitude to conduct drone strikes and night raids across the world. In the aftermath of the ambush and killing of four U.S. special forces soldiers in Niger and the terrorist attack that killed more than 300 people in Somalia, we take an in-depth look at U.S. militarism in Africa. Investigative journalist Nick Turse and Kenya scholar Samar Al-Bulushi take us into the world of the secret drone bases popping up on the continent, U.S. commandos and Washington-backed African forces operating under the guise of the war on terror. And musician Roberto Lange of Helado Negro performs and talks about the re-release of their album “Private Energy,” growing up in South Florida, and young people staying hopeful in the Trump era.
Chris Hayes: Today former Trump campaign chairman manager Paul Manafort was indicted and we learned that former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos who pled guilty to lying to the FBI has been cooperating with the Mueller investigation.
And former foreign policy adviser of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign Carter Page joins me now. How are you, Carter?
Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia): You want to talk about stress, you want to talk about stress, okay?
CH: Congratulations for not being indicted.
CD: I’ve stumbled onto a major conspiracy, Mac, how about that for stress? Now, let’s talk about the mail, can we talk about the mail, please, Mac. I’ve been dying to talk about the mail with you all day, okay?
CH: So, you and Papadopoulos, you probably were on email chains, together, right? Those probably included discussions of Russia.
CD: Pepe Silvia, this name keeps coming up over and over again, every day, Pepe’s mail’s getting sent back to me. Pepe Silvia, Pepe Silvia, I look in the mail — this whole box is Pepe Silvia.
CH: You went to Russia. You have cooperated with the FBI. And you gave five hours of testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee. But you told them what you did and who you talked to.
CD: So, I say to myself, I got to find this guy, I gotta go up to his office. I gotta put his mail in the guy’s goddamn hands, otherwise he’s never going to get it and he’s going to keep coming back down here.
CH: Well, I mean — One of them just got pitched. You’re another one of them.
CD: And … there’s no Pepe Silvia.
CH: The candidate doesn’t say the name of a person randomly. Right? Now you travel over the summer ‘—
CD: Alright so I start marching my way down to Carol in HR and I knock on her door and I say, “Carol, Carol, I gotta talk to you about Pepe.” And when I open the door, what do I find? There’s not a single goddamn desk in that office. There is no Carol in HR. So what did I do? I mailed it halfway to Siberia.
CH: Do you have legal representation?
CD: You don’t seem to — oh, shit.
CH: I genuinely hope, Carter, that you are innocent of everything.
CD: Well calm down because here’s one thing that’s not going to happen: we’re not going to get fired. Because we’ve already been fired.
CH: It’s ether admirably bold or reckless. But, Carter Page.
[Everybody’s Talkin’ – Harry Nilsson]
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 34 of Intercepted.
Norah O’Donnell: So to be clear, Mr. Trump has no financial relationships with any Russian oligarchs.
Paul Manafort: That’s what he said, that’s what I said — that’s obviously what our position is.
JS: This week special prosecutor Robert Mueller revealed the opening blows in his investigation into potential collusion between members of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and operatives working for, or on behalf, of Russia.
On Monday, things kicked off with Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort turning himself into the Justice Department after being indicted on twelve counts surrounding his financial dealings, including with pro-Russian, Ukrainian entities. While the indictment alleges a wide range of criminal activity, it does not cite anything directly related to the Trump campaign and Russia. In fact, the indictment overwhelmingly deals with shady business that Manafort allegedly was conducting over an extended period of years before joining the Trump campaign.
But that of course does not mean that Manafort may not be implicated in potential attempts by Trump or Trump officials to work with Russian sources to obtain information critical of Hillary Clinton, or the Democratic National Committee, or other unknown offers from Russia to help Trump. We haven’t seen the direct evidence of that, but it may well exist. Perhaps more significant than Manafort’s actual charges is the fact that Robert Mueller revealed to the public that a Trump foreign policy adviser named George Papadopoulos had pled guilty to lying to the FBI in an interview about his contacts with Russians that he believed to be closely connected to the Kremlin or Vladimir Putin.
Papadopoulos, by the way, seems like a first-class imbecile on multiple fronts. First someone clearly told Papadopoulos that he was going to be hooking up with Russians closely connected to Vladimir Putin, including someone that Papadopoulos believed was a relative of Putin. Turns out that part was bullshit. It’s clear from the indictment and Papadopoulos’ guilty plea about lying that he thought he could get dirt on Hillary Clinton in the form of stolen e-mails in the possession of his Russian sources.
Now, maybe he did have good connections and maybe he didn’t. We don’t know.
Now, it’s possible that Papadopoulos was also trying to make himself seem more connected, and, in turn, more valuable to Trump and his senior campaign officials than he actually was, and that maybe he inflated both his connections and who these people were that he was supposedly dealing with that were connected to Russia or Vladimir Putin.
Papadopoulos has a track record of lying about his resume and some of his past work. He hardly seems to be the criminal mastermind of some grand plot to get the Russians to hack the elections — but still, it is significant. Papadopoulos’ guilty plea and the fact that he’s cooperating in this investigation could mean serious trouble for actual senior members of the Trump campaign, including, but not limited to: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., Sam Clovis, Paul Manafort, and possibly President Trump himself.
The key question in all of this is what Trump and his senior officials believed Russia had to offer, what they tried to do to get it, and what they did with it, if they did get it, and on, and on, and on. But both Papadopoulos and Manafort could also provide testimony that alleges that Trump and others lied about a whole range of issues, including what they knew and when they knew it.
For someone like Jeff Sessions who testified under oath about his knowledge of or involvement in dealings with Russia, this could be extremely bad news.
Senator Al Franken: If there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government, in the course of this campaign, what will you do?
Attorney General Jeff Sessions: Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians. And I’m unable to comment.
AF: Very well.
JS: Was Jeff Sessions being truthful when he made the statements under oath? He better hope so. And Papadopoulos and Manafort could testify that he was lying so that could be a big deal.
Trump may have lied about a whole series of things, he lies about what he had for dinner last night. But he may have lied about what was discussed when his son, and his son-in-law, and Paul Manafort were doing when they met with a Russian that they believed was connected to Putin. Remember that was this Russian lawyer?
Trump said, “Oh, it was just about international adoption, the Magnitsky Act.” Manafort was at that meeting, and he could testify that what Donald Trump said and what Don Trump Jr. said and what Jared Kushner said, that that was all false and that the aim of the meeting was actually to get dirt on Hillary Clinton.
We don’t know if that’s the case but Manafort sure could say that. But Trump didn’t say any of these things that could potentially be lies under oath, so Trump can just call it fake news, fake news, fake news — no legal consequences.
What is clear at this point though is that Robert Mueller is just getting started. Papadopoulos’ plea agreement and the Manafort indictment should cause serious concern for Trump. Just based on what they know, and the fact that they are under tremendous high stakes legal pressure from an aggressive prosecutor who has threatened, in the case of Paul Manafort, to make his life a living hell. But neither Papadopoulos nor Manafort have pled guilty to or been charged with conspiracy or espionage related to Russian election interference.
All of this matters because the only relevant legal point on any of this was the following: Did Trump or his campaign break laws? By the way, collusion has no real widely accepted legal definition. Details about such collusion, as we’re now calling it, could come out that make it very clear that there was a plot here. But it might just be condemned in public opinion but not the courts. So that’s what a lot of this boils down to criminal conduct, or what many people seem to believe should be criminal conduct but isn’t under the law. And Trump, in his particular fashion, actually said things like this in public around the time his team was made aware of the possibility of obtaining info from Russians on Hillary Clinton that seems potentially relevant to either scenario.
Donald J. Trump: Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you are able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. JS: There will almost certainly be more indictments coming down the pike, and other cooperating witnesses. We know that there are some sealed indictments filed in sequential order with the Manafort and Papadopoulos filings. It will be interesting to see what they say and who the defendants are. And remember we have General Flynn floating around. He definitely knows where some of the bodies are buried. Is he cooperating? Wearing a wire? Or is he going to be charged with a crime. Same questions go for his son, Mike Flynn Jr.
Lying to the FBI and being a corrupt businessman are not what this investigation is really about. It’s a probe into possible links between the Trump camp and Russia in an effort to influence the election. The government may never prove that there was criminal activity by Trump’s people related to this election, but rather that they engaged in activity many Americans find offensive, or immoral, or unpatriotic, but to prove it is criminal is a totally different beast. And that has been why I’ve been pushing for evidence since all of this broke. Let’s get to evidence of criminal activity.
Many investigations into a major question in the public realm often produce indictments that have little or no relation to the bigger probe they were uncovered during the course of the probe. Catching people in lies can lead to bigger things. And that’s why Papadopoulos ultimately matters.
But it also matters what senior people, including possibly Trump himself, thought they were getting or could get and what they did about it. What passes as fact in the court of public opinion doesn’t necessarily hold up in the court of law. And none of us can simply will something to be true: that’s what the courts are supposed to do. Including in cases involving cartoonish villains like Donald Trump and his cronies.
Now, maybe this will lead to indictments showing a criminal conspiracy between Trump and Vladimir Putin, or maybe it will simply uncover non-criminal activities that are deeply offensive to a lot of Americans. Time and evidence will tell. To break all of this down we’re joined by two people: Ken White is a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles and a former assistant U.S. attorney. He’s the main force behind the blog Popehat.
And Charlie Savage is an investigative reporter at the New York Times. He’s also the author of two really great books: “Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency,” it was about the Bush era, and “Power Wars” which covered the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policy.
JS: Ken White, Charlie Savage, welcome to Intercepted.
Ken White: Thank you. Happy to be here.
Charlie Savage: Thank you.
JS: What is the strategy that Robert Mueller is engaging in here with this indictment and also the plea agreement of Papadopoulos.
CS: Of course Mueller is not talking to me, although if he’s out there listening, I’m happy to talk to you. But I would speculate that what he’s trying to do very hard is persuade Paul Manafort to flip and start cooperating and provide information about the Trump campaigns’ interactions with the Russian government in exchange for leniency on these otherwise unrelated charges he was indicted with yesterday regarding his failure to register as a foreign agent, as lobbyist for Ukraine, and money laundering, and various other financial crimes related to that matter.
It looks like he’s putting a lot of pressure on Manafort, saying “Now is the time to flip, like Papadopoulos did, and you may get yourself, if not out of hot water into more tepid water in exchange for cooperation.”
JS: What would make what people keep referring to as collusion illegal or a criminal conspiracy and not just trying to get opposition research in a way that many Americans certainly would find distasteful, maybe even immoral. But like what would they need to find in order to prove that there was actual criminal activity regarding working with Russian agents or people connected to Russia regarding the election.
KW: It depends, I mean, they could use sort of generic statutes to the extent that anyone involved in communications with Russia made false statements to the United States government, made false statements to them in the course of the investigation. And you see those elements in both the Manafort indictment and Papadopoulos plea. And, to the extent they engaged in transactions that were concealing the nature of their relationship with the government, that could be it. But there’s no sort of general, broad definition of collusion. It would have to be — it’s not enough they just work with the Russians. They would have to demonstrate that they were affirmatively engaging with them and assisting them in making donations of something of value to a United States campaign.
JS: Charlie, if a political campaign, such as the Trump campaign learns that there are e-mails or communications that have been hacked or illicitly obtained by a foreign government and they’re aware that that is how this information was obtained, is it a crime for them to take possession of it and use it in their campaign to try to damage or score points against their political opponent?
CS: I mean all this is a very unprecedented territory, right? And so, I think a lot of legal commentators who have been trying to analyze where Mueller may be going or what certain facts would then lead to, if those facts turn out to be true, have been trying to reason by analogy without a lot of prior precedents to look to for guidance about what would fly in a courtroom, what wouldn’t.
And so, for example the theory that this could be a conspiracy to violate the law against foreign contributions to a domestic political campaign is definitely one of the ones that has been around. You see Bob Bauer, the former White House counsel to Obama who’s an election law specialist has been I think the principal proponent of that. What you’re getting at is another variant that you’ve heard kicked around out there which is — “Well, stealing of these e-mails is unlawful.” If the theft appears to have taken place before Trump campaign people were told that the Russians had e-mails related to Hillary Clinton but also, they seem to have learned that before the e-mails were disseminated via Wiki Leaks. And so, if they coordinated that in some way or took some sort of step to conceal it, could that implicate Americans involved in the Trump campaign in the crimes of the Russians? There’s not a super easy way to see that.
One theory though that people have explored is there certain privacy violation crimes that are completed only at the point in which the public is shown private information. Perhaps then the crime was ongoing up to the point in which the, you know, the private e-mails were disseminated. But the whole thing is really sort of sui generis and, which means to say, we don’t have a lot of guidance from historical events to say “Clearly it would fit into this box neatly which has been tested over time.”
JS: Now, Ken, you currently are a defense attorney. You, at one other point in your career were an assistant United States attorney. I’m wondering your read on what was made public about the Papadopoulos guilty plea and the plea agreement in the fact that he’s cooperating. Was there anything in the documents that were made public this week on his case that indicate to you any other criminal activity outside of lying to the FBI.
KW: Well there was lying to the FBI and there was also deleting his Facebook account in what might have been a very clumsy effort to conceal its contents from the FBI. But no, there wasn’t anything in there that I think yet crossed the line into any other crimes. But bear in mind that what we’re seeing both in the complaint and in the statement of facts supporting the plea was what the special counsel warned to put in there and they didn’t necessarily put gratuitous things in there.
So, it’s possible they have more. But this move by the special counsel’s office to go out and roust people and then wind up charging them not with a substantive crime but with lying during the rousting is classic for a federal grand jury investigation. And actually, I misspoke. It was the FBI that did the initial rousting before the special counsel was even appointed. But this sort of demonstrates, as does the Manafort indictment, just how broad and flexible federal criminal law is and how often prosecutors can give in something that they don’t like, stretch and find something that makes it a crime.
JS: As a defense attorney if you were sort of tasked with working on the defense in this case from the White House. Let’s say that it is proven that they had these meetings with Russians and that they knew that they were potentially going to be taking custody of stolen e-mails, whether they were actually stolen or not, we don’t know. But let’s say that that’s what they believe that they were — is there a criminal defense to justify taking that information and using it in your political campaign?
KW: The first element of the defense would be to get your clients to shut up.
JS: [Laughs.] Good luck with that one.
KW: I mean because this is again a classic example of how people get themselves in trouble by lying to the FBI rather than by the underlying crime. Until you know what theory that the special counsel is going to go after, it’s a little difficult to say. I think that you would be watching for any indication that nothing of value was given by foreign nationals, which is one of the elements of the prohibition against foreign donations to a domestic campaign. I think you would be looking very carefully and policing all statements that have been made to any federal government entity in the course of the campaign to make sure that there were no false statements made that could be the hook for the criminal prosecution.
JS: Is there’s something inherently criminal about taking possession of illicitly obtained e-mails, like we believe happened with the Russia hack and Hillary Clinton or the DNC?
KW: Under federal law, probably not. Inherently just taking possession of them. There’s not like a “receiving stolen property” that’s generic to federal law like there is for many states.
However, you know, you could spin at some point a theory that they joined a conspiracy, a hacking conspiracy, under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act which is extremely broad and flexible. It really depends on what they say in the communication to the foreign nationals and what the communications demonstrate their intent is. But it’s certainly not a slam dunk, just because they knew it was stolen, that they took it. It really depends on what you can show their intent was and what they did with it, and especially if they did anything like encourage them to go back to the well and get more.
JS: Well, you did have Donald Trump openly calling on the Russians to find Hillary Clinton’s 30,000 deleted emails.
DJT: And that’s why if it is Russia, nobody even knows, it’s probably China, or it could be somebody sitting in his bed.
JS: That was political theater but I mean the timing of that, Charlie, was quite fascinating that you have Trump — it seems like he was aware that there was some degree of back channel communications or at least people very close to him, including his family members. And then he’s openly saying: Hey, Russia if you can find the 30,000 deleted e-mails, that would be great.
CS: Well, so what we don’t know yet is what he was aware of, versus what people around him were aware of, and may or may not have conveyed to him. Seems like that should be knowable information, but that’s also probably the sort of thing exactly that Bob Mueller’s hoping Paul Manafort for will flip and then provide, because he would be the one that in the best position to fill in those blanks. Part of what you’re talking about is the timeline here, that sort of we’re having more and more data points filled in of this very interesting period from sort of the spring of 2016 through the late summer of 2016, where now we know there is the Papadopoulos flirtation and offer, or at least a suggestion, that they had all these e-mails long before we had previously known people on the American side knew that.
Earlier that month we had the now-famous Trump Tower meeting on, I think, June 9th, a couple days after that is when Julian Assange first reveals that he has just come into possession of Hillary related e-mails that he finds fantastic. So, these things line up in a suspicious way, but Mueller is going to do more than just say, “Here’s some dots, why don’t we connect them with our intuitions.”
JS: And of course, Ken, Donald Trump is not under oath when he’s tweeting or when he’s speaking to the media, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions has testified under oath and has repeatedly said:
Jeff Sessions: Well, let me just say this without hesitation that I conducted no improper discussions with Russians at any time regarding a campaign or any other item facing this country.
JS: At least in one case it shows that Sessions was in a meeting on March 31st, 2016 at which Papadopoulos reportedly explained, “He had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and President Putin.”
Marcy Wheeler writing that it “shows that Papadopoulos kept a number of campaign officials in the loop on his efforts to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin, though they secretly determine that the meeting should be one low-level person in the campaign so as not to send any signal.” This issue of Sessions potentially being contradicted by Papadopoulos about what he knew and when he knew it.
KW: Well, sure, again, you’re off to the races. You’ve got false statements to the federal government and you’ve got potentially perjury. I think it would be at that point a difficult case depending on Sessions’ exact language in his testimony since it’s a little cloudy what collusion means. I mean collusion is sort of like the term we’re using to talk about this whole affair. It’s not really, in itself, a thing. There’s no federal law of “collusion” or something like that.
So, the trick would be to determine how precise Sessions’ language was and how precisely he said something that you can definitely contradict and, you know, prove that he knowingly told a lie.
JS: How would you describe to someone who knows nothing about this and is coming into it what has actually been proven about the relationship between Trump campaign officials and individuals connected to the Kremlin or working on behalf of the Kremlin?
CS: I mean it seems fairly clear and beyond reasonable dispute that there was an organized Russian effort to interfere with the 2016 election to help Trump, and hurt Clinton, through a variety of means and — ranging from these Facebook ads and so forth that were bought in rubles, to pretending to be, you know, Black Lives Matter, organizing rallies and so forth, or just sort of taking existing tensions that might have the effect of suppressing leftwing turnout and ratcheting them up to the apparent theft of the emails and dissemination of them through WikiLeaks.
Your question is aimed more at sussing out what we know and don’t know about Trump campaign knowledge of, and coordination with, or lack there of. At this point the biggest indication of that in the public domain had been the Don Jr. emails that led to the Trump Tower meeting in June of 2016 where he was told that the meeting was about the Russian government’s efforts to help his father and he didn’t express surprise that there were such efforts, it’s always been sort of puzzling.
Now we learn that other elements of the campaign had already been in dialogue with people they believed at least were aligned to the Russian government, both in terms of setting up a meeting which doesn’t sound like collusion, that sounds like diplomacy or laying the grounds for diplomacy, but also that they knew that there was dirt and e-mails related to Clinton as early as April.
That still doesn’t get you to active participant in something, rather than passive beneficiary to something. But we don’t know what Mueller’s going to find, we don’t know what he’s already found. He keeps getting closer to that, but certainly this is a story that’s unfolding not a story that’s over.
JS: What is the evidence that is publicly available that you’ve seen as someone paying close attention to this that would stand up in a court of law and what does it show so far?
KW: I have to agree with Charlie. I think there’s evidence that people in the Trump campaign believed they were communicating with the Russians and believed that they were offering information about Hillary Clinton including e-mails. I don’t think that the evidence of coordination or of higher up in the Trump campaign is there yet, but it’s certainly enough for them to pursue. In terms of, you know, what I think is coming, I would only say that I am begrudgingly impressed with the competence of the special counsel’s office here. It’s quite a feat to keep that Papadopoulos arrest and plea confidential for the amount of time he did without it leaking.
And, he’s definitely going very methodically. I mean, everything that’s being done is the way that competent federal prosecutors roll up a case, just accelerated. He’s going at a much faster than usual pace. He’s being very aggressive in the things he’s asking for. So, for instance there was news he had successfully convinced a federal judge to force Manafort’s prior lawyer to testify before the grand jury on the basis of a finding that he could probably prove that Manafort consulted the lawyer for the purposes of fraud. That’s huge! It’s a very aggressive stance for a prosecutor to take and it’s unusual for a judge to agree to it. And it just shows how willing they are to use all the tools available to them and that the tools available to a federal prosecutor are formidable and all the avenues they are willing to go. My expectation is that we’re still going to see things dominated by sort of the throw off from the investigation rather than the investigation itself. In other words, we’re going to continue to see people getting tagged, not for something underlying they did that was against the law, but for something they did in reaction to the investigation.
JS: Right, I mean the cliché statement, you know, that the cover up is worse than the crime may be literally true here in terms of the consequences that people pay in their attempts to cover up activity that may not have even been illegal, but would have been wildly unpopular in the United States, because it showed that they were essentially working with foreign powers to try to influence a domestic presidential election.
KW: It’s a cliché because it’s perfectly true. It’s the primary way I would say that high-profile people get taken down by the feds.
CS: Remember that Mueller’s mandate is not just find whether there was a crime and you know prosecute it if there were, which might raise eyebrows about these, sort of, tangential crimes that then spin off that would not have happened but for the investigation. He’s also conducting an intelligence investigation to find out what happened, whether, or not, there was a crime. It’s sort of a counterespionage activity as much as it is a criminal prosecution and so he’s using these tools of perjury and lying to federal investigators and so forth in unrelated financial crimes that come to light because he’s scrutinizing these people so carefully, not just as an end to itself, but to try to get at the essence of what happened in 2016 and to what extent was that election tilted by a foreign power, which is something worth knowing, whether or not you can say it fits neatly within a standard federal criminal statute.
JS: General Michael Flynn, who, you know, we haven’t been hearing much about him lately. There’s questions swirling around whether he is cooperating already, whether there’s some kind of a sealed indictment against him, or if that’s yet to come. What are you hearing about General Flynn these days, Charlie?
CS: He’s gone awfully quiet and he was in a lot of hot water over a variety of things related to false statements on forms and his strange interactions with the Turkish government in his case, or that the parallel to a Manafort’s interactions with the Ukrainian government. People wonder what’s up with him and whether he’s cooperating or not and I’m sure the Trump White House would like to know as well.
KW: He’s got to be at a minimum extremely worried after yesterday though because the aggressiveness of the case theory in the Manafort indictment regarding registration as a foreign agent is something that if you moved it over to Flynn, I think would very easily support an indictment on a similar theory. I mean, it’s pretty clear that Flynn didn’t register as an agent for Turkey when he should have. He did it belatedly and often that would prevent prosecutors from charging based on it, but a prosecutor this aggressive, as aggressive as reflected in the Manafort indictment? I mean, I could see very easily them going after him, again, on a series of crimes arising out of the theory that he deliberately didn’t register when he should have.
JS: I mean it sounds like both of you are saying that one possible scenario here is that a number of people end up getting caught for crimes that they committed that are not necessarily about dealings with the Russian government, but maybe about their lobbying practices, their own financial dealings and that it doesn’t actually lead to a criminal charge regarding their involvement with Russia, but rather a series of criminal charges having to with a cover up, or other issues that were uncovered by the special prosecutor’s investigation. Is that accurate?
KW: Absolutely. And I think the important thing to note is that it’s not an exception, it’s the rule. So, you look, you know even as relatively recently as the Ken Starr investigation of then-President Clinton. The main action wound up being something that was completely collateral to what he was originally tasked to investigate. And, again, this is very typical of federal criminal investigations. Often the thing that they wind up getting people on, particularly in politics, particularly high profile people, are spinoffs from the investigation, not the original subject of the investigation.
CS: A difference between Ken Starr setting out to discover whether there was financial misdeeds in the Whitewater investigation and ending up with a perjury case related to a sexual affair is that there was no real connection between the two of substance at the end. It’s not like he was pressuring Bill Clinton to come clean about Whitewater. Here, I think you have to understand Mueller’s strategy as clearly being about putting pressure on Manafort, and maybe Flynn, and others, to tell him what they know about the Russia case, in exchange for leniency on these other apparent crimes he’s uncovered. There is an end goal to the effort.
JS: Charlie, Ken — thanks so much for joining us.
CS: My pleasure.
KW: Thank you for the opportunity.
JS: Ken White is a criminal defense lawyer and a former federal prosecutor, and his writing can be found at Popehat. Charlie Savage is a New York Times reporter and the author of the books “Takeover” and “Power Wars.”
JS: At some point over the past month, we don’t know the exact day, President Trump signed a secret authorization giving the CIA and the U.S. military, broader latitude to conduct counterterrorism strikes, through drones, raids, other covert operations. Trump gave them more freedom than they were permitted under President Obama. Among the changes is that the CIA and the military will no longer need to go through a high-level vetting of the targets of proposed strikes, or to find that the individuals that the United States wants to kill actually pose a specific threat to Americans. Instead, Trump’s order authorizes a “persistent campaign of direct action” — that’s a euphemism for killing people either through raids or strikes — in a variety of countries against any suspected member of a group deemed as a terror organization by the authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, that was passed by Congress in the days following 9/11 in 2001.
Charlie Savage, who we just talked to, of the New York Times, broke that story as well and I asked him to lay out its significance.
CS: So, the new rules keep the basic notion that there’s going to be a different set of standards for a conventional battlefield like Afghanistan or Iraq. And a, sort of other place, like a Somalia, Yemen, Libya — sort of a chaotic anarchic zone where there’s not just an ordinary war happening on a day to day basis. But they eliminate that need for a high-level individualized vetting and they eliminate the need for the target to pose a threat as an individual to Americans specifically. The way the system is going to work now is that the national security staff will come up with a plan for a particular country that would involve an ability to carry out a sustained campaign of offensive drone strikes or raids and that if approved, then there doesn’t need to be a case by case analysis, they can just go forward until the plan expires in 12 months.
And the permitted targets of those kinds of strikes can be any member of a group the government has decided is covered by the 9/11 war authorization, just ordinary foot soldiers if they want. Not just high level individual leaders. They kept, however, the standard that there had to be near-certainty that no civilians would be killed, which is not a rule that exists on conventional battlefields.
A definite theme of this Administration’s first year on these matters has been to devolve more authority to the operators, whether they be in the Pentagon or the CIA, to get rid of what they saw as bureaucracy and micromanaging by the White House in the Obama years, which the DOD and the CIA didn’t like, thought was sclerotic, and got in the way of them doing what they thought they needed to do.
There’s a risk to them though that also comes with this because a piece of this — to the extent that the White House hasn’t signed off or didn’t have specific knowledge of this particular strike or that particular operation before it happened, if something goes wrong, and periodically things of course always go wrong, they’re going to be left out to dry. There was a bad raid in Yemen in late January shortly after Trump took office that he had signed off on in which a SEAL was killed and a bunch of civilians were killed and a $75 million dollar aircraft was destroyed. And Trump didn’t say, “buck stops with me, I signed off on it.” He said, “Uh, the generals wanted to do that.” And after these four American army troops were killed in an ambush in Niger earlier in October, Trump said, “Well, you know, the generals decided to put those people there.”
DJT: I have generals that are great generals, these are great fighters, these are warriors, and I gave them authority to do what’s right so that we win. I want to win.
CS: So, you can see that the blame avoidance is going to be at once give more leash but also not take the hit to Pentagon leaders or intelligence agency leaders when bad things occasionally happen as a result of, in particular, this broader latitude they’ve been given.
JS: The Trump Administration’s position similar to that of President Obama’s is that the 2001 AUMF is all that’s really needed to conduct multiple wars in strikes across the globe. And there’s been momentum building in Congress, under both Obama and certainly now under Trump, to revisit and to re-implement a sort of updated version of that authorization. And some in Congress want to place limits on how long it would be valid for and where it could be used. Both Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Senate this week that they would oppose any such limits from the Congress.
Sec. of State Rex Tillerson: A new AUMF must not be geographically restricted. As is the case under the current AUMF, the administration would need to retain the statutory authority to use military force against an enemy that does not respect or limit itself based on geographic boundaries.
JS: This whole debate about the authorization for the use of military force comes as a bipartisan coalition on Capitol Hill is trying to pass legislation that would cut off U.S. military aid and weapons sales to Saudi Arabia for its genocidal war in Yemen. It also takes place as Congress members and the media are asking questions about why the U.S. has 800 military troops deployed to the African nation of Niger.
Now, on October 4th, four U.S. Special Forces soldiers were ambushed and killed in Niger and much of the media coverage and reaction on Capitol Hill to the Niger deaths has implied that it’s a mystery why the U.S. has troops in Niger and that this somehow is a new development under Trump, which of course it is not.
In fact, President Obama greatly expanded U.S. counterterrorism and drone operations throughout the African continent. So much of how U.S. counterterrorism policy is covered in the U.S. media is linked to when things go wrong, and soldiers or diplomats are killed, or when an act of terrorism hits. Like the recent hotel bombing in Somalia reportedly carried out by the militant group al Shabaab that killed more than 300 people.
So, today we’re going to take a comprehensive look at U.S. militarism and counterterrorism in Africa. And also the role that the forces of U.S. allies in Africa play in their own countries, as well as so-called peacekeepers from the military coalition known as AMISOM.
I’m joined now by two people. Nick Turse is an investigative journalist specializing in Africa, particularly the growing presence of U.S. drone bases and special operations activity.
Nick is a contributing writer at The Intercept and he’s the author of several really important books, including, “Next Time They’ll Count the Dead.” And, “Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa.” And I’m joined by Samar Al-Bulushi. She’s a security researcher who has spent extensive time on the ground in Kenya investigating the role of U.S. and Kenyan counterterrorism operations. Samar is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California at Irvine.
Nick Turse, Samar Al-Bulushi, welcome to Intercepted.
Nick Turse: Thanks for having me on.
Samar Al-Bulushi: Thanks for having me.
JS: Nick let’s start with you. When I first saw the news come out about these US troops being killed in Niger, I wasn’t surprised and part of the reason why I wasn’t surprised is because I’ve been following your work for years. I want to dig deep into the broader role that US military forces and the CIA drones, et cetera have played in Africa. But let’s, let’s begin with Niger as an example. When did we get to a point where, in the modern context, where the U.S. didn’t just have like a handful of military advisers working out of its embassy or attached to some other counterterrorism forces. But actually when did we start to see larger numbers of U.S. troops on the ground in Niger?
NT: This really dates to 2013 when President Obama dispatched about 100 U.S. forces to conduct what they call ISR, intelligence surveillance reconnaissance operations in Niger. So basically flying drones to give over watch over Niger and other neighboring countries in West Africa.
JS: What specific groups were they targeting when Obama first deployed these troops?
NT: Well, at that time we’re looking al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, these were also used for a Boko Haram who was, at that point, really in Nigeria but beginning to expand out. So those were the two main groups and since then we’ve seen a splintering and proliferation of other groups in the area.
JS: I mean there’s a difference between operating a base where you’re conducting drone surveillance or drone strikes and actually having your troops out in the field where they can be ambushed and killed as we saw in this hit on October 4th. What do we know about previous or current U.S. counterterrorism operations that are not just drone strikes or supporting drone strikes?
NT: Just after 9/11, talking around 2002 or so, the United States started dispatching small teams, special operations forces, generally Green Berets to work alongside local forces, all across West Africa under the trans-Sahara counterterrorism partnership. Niger was a key component of this. So, U.S. troops have been coming in and out all throughout that time. Small teams, out in the field, a lot of times working in very remote areas doing desert patrolling, that sort of thing. And with greater numbers of terror groups and militants out there, there’s always escalating chance of this happening. Now, recently we’ve heard from the last commander of U.S. special operations forces in Africa, General Donald Bolduc that actually, U.S. troops have been involved in firefights over the last few years.
So, you know, that could have happened it almost any time it seems within the last few years. It just happened in October where we had fatalities from it.
JS: Samar Al-Bulushi, you have been doing research into Kenya’s role in the broader so-called war on terrorism. Kenya, of course, has been a key U.S. staging ground for operations in Somalia but also elsewhere throughout East Africa and, at times, West Africa. You spent the better part of the past five years either on the ground in Kenya investigating this or researching it from elsewhere. I wanted to start by asking you about the way that we talk about the wars that the United States is increasingly involved in Africa and sort of the term “shadow war.”
What’s your read on how we even talk about what the United States is doing on a counterterrorism level in Africa?
SA: It may be true that the U.S. military has been operating in the shadows from the perspective of the average American, but for many Africans there’s no hiding the brutal every-day reality of counterterrorism policies that are sanctioned and often funded by the U.S. government. So, although, people may not necessarily be talking about AFRICOM or the U.S., they’re actually talking about their own police and militaries because this is who they see on the ground.
AFRICOM Promo: Deterring and defeating transnational threats, preventing future conflicts, supporting humanitarian disaster relief efforts, and protecting U.S. security interests: That’s the mission of U.S. Africa Command. But it’s a mission we can’t do alone. Working with our African, US, and international partners, AFRICOM is moving forward. Together.
SA: In the past few years what we’ve seen is the African continent has seen the largest relative rise in military spending of any region in the world, amounting to over $50 billion, it’s roughly corresponded to about an 81 percent cumulative increase in spending. So, what we’re witnessing is a growing investment in war across the region and of course this is, it’s no coincidence that this coincides with the emergence of AFRICOM.
If we take Kenya as an example, in fiscal year 2016, military spending in Kenya rose to a new high of $933 million, and this is a figure that stands at more than double the military spending of Ethiopia and Uganda combined for 2016.
Now, as we know each of these governments have deployed troops to Somalia, so it’s logical to make the connection between these troops deployments and the higher spending. But there tends to be less consideration of what impact the spending has for the populations back home on the streets of Nairobi and Kampala for example.
So, if we take, you may recall in April 2014, the Kenyan government launched what they called Operation Sanitize Eastleigh, when more than 6,000 members of the security apparatus were deployed to city streets and rounded up over 1,000 people in a sports stadium in Nairobi.
Yet, even this operation I think is in many ways just a spectacular form of what’s going on in an everyday basis in a place like Kenya.
JS: I was on the ground in Somalia investigating the kind of expanding operations that the U.S. was engaged in during the presidency of Barack Obama. And it seemed to me as though when Obama was president you had this attempt to even further Africanize U.S. counterterrorism operations using other countries’ forces. And so, Obama would say, “Well, we’re no longer doing these extraordinary renditions.” But they would have the Kenyan government, for instance, snatch someone and then fly them to Somalia where they would be interrogated by quote-unquote Somalis and you’d have like U.S. personnel just kind of getting debriefed on it. That was the way it was portrayed. Is that an accurate portrayal of what happened under Obama?
SA: Yes, I would agree with that, but I would take it one step further if we’re to return to this this idea of shadows. Right? Because what you just described still makes reference to the idea of a prison that’s kind of tucked away out of view from Americans, out of view from the rest of the world, when in fact what’s also happening is people who are being swept off the streets in broad daylight, and either killed outright, or held in regular prisons across the continent.
And I mentioned regular presence, you know, we can take the Kampala 2010 bombings and the suspects who were rounded up then, and who since then have been held in one of Uganda’s maximum security prisons. So, it’s significant here — is that U.S.- sanctioned bad things don’t only happen in secret prisons that are tucked away out of sight, they happen inside supposedly legitimate bodies and institutions as well.
JS: You know one of the things I really appreciate about your work is how you focus on these domestic forces that largely are snatching, and in some cases torturing or extra-judicially handling their own people or immigrants in their own country. But they’re also financially supported in doing so by the United States.
JS: Nick, to turn to the bigger picture of some of the work that you’ve done, what I think is particularly fascinating is you have not just been kind of taken with the idea of the drone being the story, but rather the policies that these drone strikes are used to support or further, and the role of U.S. boots on the ground. Paint a picture for the expansion of U.S. facilities and operations that you’ve tracked over the past decade in North, East, and West Africa.
NT: I noticed, you know, the better part of ten years ago that the United States is putting a logistics network in place. When I asked about this at AFRICOM, they told me it was only about humanitarian operations: digging wells, building orphanages, that type of thing. But I could tell that they were putting in something much larger.
What you generally see are, you know, smallish outposts generally either on existing military bases for the local forces’ use and then the United States has a compound there or they will take an older airstrip sort of rehab it and become a U.S. base.
I should say that U.S.-Africa Command continues to say as they have from the beginning that they only operate one base on the continent: that is Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, which is an old French Foreign Legion base that they have built up, and up, and up. It’s become a really sprawling, hardened compound right at Djibouti’s main international airport.
And, in fact, they outgrew that base so much that they had to move their drone operations off to a place called Chabelley Airfield, a satellite base. That base sort of exemplifies what the United States has done. They took an old French airstrip and they just put in first tents, more pavement, so that they could store more drones there, and then have kept building it up, and building it up. It’s become integral to operations on the continent, also drone operations that are flown to the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen, and then used for the Islamic State, the war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
JS: Where do we know of that the U.S. has drone bases or areas that can be used to launch so-called counterterrorism strikes, either by drone or by U.S. forces embedding with local forces. What countries have you been able to document?
NT: Come in and out of existence, but, over time, you know, the U.S. has had bases in Kenya, several in Somalia, also Chad, Ethiopia, Niger, they had a small facility in Mali for a time. I mentioned Djibouti.
JS: People get the sense though and you can see a lot of Nick’s work at theintercept.com and other places where he has obtained documents that show kind of the landscape of this, and I should point out that while Nick has at times reported on documents provided by whistleblowers or confidential sources, a lot of the journalism that Nick Turse does is aggressive freedom of information reporting and scouring the open public record. In fact, it reminds me of how IF Stone, the great journalist conducted himself. He wasn’t getting information from whistleblowers, he was taking the government’s own information and putting it into a context so that people could understand what it was their government was doing in their name.
NT: Yeah, there’s a lot out there and a lot of it is scattered around through military publications, on various military websites and if you can take the time and search through that, search through contracts, you can start to put together a broad outline of what the United States is doing in Africa.
JS: Samar, I want to ask you about this recent horrifying bombing that happened in Mogadishu and then there was there have been a series of, of other really deadly attacks since then. You had 300-plus people were killed in the bombing of the Safari Hotel and we know that under President Donald Trump, there seem to be or at least we’re aware of more U.S. personnel engaging in on the ground operations. The Somali government, its security forces are sponsored by a series of Western, European, and American government, and other African nations, in addition to the African peacekeeping forces that have been in Somalia now for, for years.
What’s your read on what’s happening right now in Somalia and the context of this massive bombing that killed so many people that got very little attention when you contrast it with how the lives of white people or Europeans are covered when it’s an act of terrorism in Germany, or France, or Spain, or the United States?
SA: I think I’ll start with that last point, the last question you raised about life, the value of life, because what I noticed in the response to this latest horrific attack in which over 300 were killed was that people across the Internet were using the hashtag #AfricanLivesMatter, #BlackLivesMatter, #StandWithSomalia, to capture the hypocrisy within the international community, right? In terms of the ways in which we make sense of these kinds of tragedies and the levels of attention that are attributed to Somalia versus Europe for example. Now, what struck me there is that in making these appeals to a common humanity, there is a risk that we actually obscure the ways in which African lives are quite different in fact than European lives, than white lives, right? And this is what the argument that’s been made by Black Lives Matter in the United States, I think the entire movement rests on an understanding of difference and on highlighting difference. And, what, kind of a contradictory move that ends up being made in calling for us to stand with Somalia is that it obscures that difference that obscures the ways in which African life is consistently devalued.
Now the second point that’s interesting is that why is it that we’re calling for an equal valuation of African life only in the aftermath of terror attacks. And I think the sad reality is that Africans have now realized that it’s only in the context of a terror attack that the rest of the world actually will pay attention to what’s going on, when in fact you have structural forms of violence there taking place every day that are taking so many, you know, just as many lives.
If we come back to the question of what’s actually unfolding on the ground, I think another point that was raised on social media is the need for more action on the part of the international community to help crack down on al Shabaab to stabilize Somalia. Now, the question for me is: What has the international community already been doing that in fact has exacerbated the situation rather than help to solve it? And I think the African Union mission in the form of 22,000 troops on the ground for ten years — this has, this is essentially amount to a military occupation. The UN has documented all kinds of abuse by these AMISON forces, the UN has documented the black market sale of arms that end up in the hands of al Shabaab, and people are not prepared to kind of grapple with those contradictions. And I think until we’re prepared to do that, then we won’t see an end to the instability in Somalia.
JS: And, in fact, in 2006, the Bush Administration openly endorsed an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia.
News reporter: Channel Four News has obtained an exclusive document revealing America’s role in the planning and execution of last month’s Ethiopian invasion of Somalia.
JS: That was marked by horrifying war crimes: rape, murder, extrajudicial killings, and it might be unpopular to say it, but I think people who really understood the history of Somalia would agree that what the Bush administration supported in this Ethiopian invasion was overthrowing perhaps the only fragile coalition that could have potentially ended massive killing inside of Somalia. And they did it because they were called the Islamic Courts Union, the fact that Islamic was in the title of their, of their movement, even though they represented people from across Somali society and Somalia is an almost entirely 100 percent Muslim country, that was a no-no. And so, Ethiopia got the support of the United States in conducting this brutal invasion and subsequent occupation that ultimately led to the AMISOM occupation that you’re now describing.
SA: Yeah and I think it’s important to highlight, you know, the contradictions of the UN and African Union here too, because what you’re describing was an illegal military invasion both by Ethiopia in 2006, by Kenya in 2011, and in both occasions, not only did the UN fail to condemn these, but they actually sanctioned their continued presence, they essentially legitimized their presence by converting it into a peacekeeping operation.
JS: I want to ask both you this, but I’ll start with you Nick: Have you seen any tangible shift in U.S. policy in Africa when it comes to military intelligence operations under Donald Trump over these past ten months?
NT: It’s tough to discern whether there’s been a real increase, but it at least gives the appearance to me that we’re seeing, one, a loosening of the bonds of what the U.S. military can do on the ground and I think that commanders on the ground know they have freer rein. They can make more decisions. Now Trump is always trusting in his generals, as he says. I think we’re seeing that in Africa.
JS: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I think one of the stories we’re going to look back on and realize a lot of people missed is that the military and the CIA are entering a real golden era because of Trump’s unique combination of not wanting to know all of the facts and deference to anybody with a uniform and shiny medals on their chest. Samar, your analysis of Africa policy under Trump?
SA: What has been curious to me is to look at the kind of the State Department side of things. In the case of Kenya for example, the current ambassador to Kenya has remained in place in the transition period from Obama to Trump. And, it’s fascinating because none of the language changes, none of the approach seems to change. So, on the soft power side of things, you have continued huge amounts of money that are pouring in towards so-called countering violent extremism programs and it’s such that the public sphere now in a place like Kenya and increasingly across the continent has been colonized by this discourse of countering violent extremism and the impact of this is that people who would otherwise be speaking out, mobilizing against military operations, mobilizing against counterinsurgency operations that are unfolding on their streets in which people disappear in broad daylight, the conversation shifts instead to your neighbor, to your family member as a potential problem, rather than thinking about the ways in which the police is being is being militarized and is, it’s actually the problem, right?
And connected to that is the forms of capacity building which I know Nick has talked about as well that take place, in which people are encouraged to put their trust in the police and the military, rather than question the ways in which they’re increasingly — their powers are being expanded.
JS: I wanted to ask you more of a historical question. You had this immense spread of colonialism that was brutal and murderous and then you had movements that rose-up to oppose colonialism and to declare independence in a number of African nations. And I’m wondering your analysis now that we see Western powers increasingly fighting once again over natural resources throughout Africa, deploying not only their own forces but supporting the most brutal internal security and military forces in these countries, has anything really fundamentally changed since colonialism was quote-unquote defeated in many African nations?
SA: Perhaps, you know, this is a good opportunity to highlight the ways in which some of the people who I spent time with in Kenya have tried to call out these forms of neocolonialism that are that are unfolding and more specifically to call out the counterterror abuses that are sanctioned by the United States. Because that is happening, it’s not as though, again, to come back to the idea of shadows, it’s not as though all of this is happening behind the scenes without anyone taking notice. People are. And in the aftermath of the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia you had hundreds of people pouring across the border, over 100 people were then disappeared into black sites and it was Kenyan human rights activists who did all of the on-the-ground work to try to find out where these people had gone. And they went literally prison to prison, guard to guard documenting this information.
So it’s just worth noting that there are forms of resistance to U.S. empire in Africa today. But that at the same time, the U.S. then responds to these forms of resistance and this is where the colonization of civil space that I was referring to earlier is significant because on the one hand, it’s, on a financial basis, it’s becoming harder for you to survive as an activist today, unless you buy into the lingo that’s authorized by the U.S. government and, on the other hand, people are actually being told in no uncertain terms that their own lives are in danger if and when they dare decide to question. And some of the people who were apprehended in the aftermath of the Kampala 2010 bombings themselves had been activists, the people who then went to represent them in Kampala were then thrown in jail, they were activists. And, more recently, the human rights groups that I spent time with in Mombasa, on the coast were placed on a list of supposed supporters of al Shabaab, not because that is in fact the case but in fact because they had been the ones to most directly challenge the Kenyan government and the U.S. and U.K. governments for their role in the war on terror.
JS: How many countries in the world right now does U.S. Special Operations Command have deployed?
NT: It’s somewhere north of 130 countries around the world, about 70 percent of the nations on the planet had a U.S. Special Operations deployment over the last year.
JS: Right, and for people listening to this show, if you have U.S. special operations forces in 130 countries around the world, you better start looking into what potentially is going to happen in those 130 countries that you only hear about when something goes wrong or when the US wants to brag about some extraordinary victory.
NT: Any one of them could be the next Niger.
JS: Does the fact that Trump is in power, does it bring any new layer or different nuance that we need to apply as we analyze the role of the U.S. in the world.
SA: Well, okay, I’ll speak to the African continent, because what I’ve noticed and I don’t know if Nick has seen this as well, is that there’s a surprising degree of interest/support for Trump in Africa. I think there’s kind of an intrigue in this figure. And that should tell us something about the publics in Africa and the ways in which they understand power and checks on power or lack thereof.
The thing that’s been striking to me in the Kenyan case is not that people have been speaking out directly against the War on Terror, but in fact the opposite. If we take the general public, right, there seems to be support for Kenyan military operations in Somalia. And that’s one of the things that I’ve been trying to unpack is how and why that’s the case and how it is that people are socialized to support militarism. Right? Well and I would imagine part of it is the same reason why you see this sort of overt xenophobia in the United States and that being flamed by those in power, i.e. Trump because you want to put people in position where they’re kind of punching down or are afraid of the other, and in Kenya where you have a growing population of Somalis, you have a growing population of Muslims in Kenya, the Kenyan authorities have done their best to sort of say “well they’re the real, the real Kenyans should be very afraid of the outsiders and we need to kill them all.” I mean, I see in the coverage of Kenya and in the Kenyan media a very similar pattern to what we see with Trump and his Muslim ban and his talk about the Mexico border.
NT: Well, I was just going to say that when I was in South Sudan earlier this year, there were a lot of people that were cautiously optimistic about Trump. And then, you know, a few times I heard tongue in cheek, you know, “You finally have an African strongman in the White House, and now you know what it’s like.”
JS: All right we’re going to leave it there. Nick Turse, thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.
NT: Thanks for having me on.
JS: And Samar Al-Bulushi, than you as well for joining us on Intercepted.
NT: Thanks, Jeremy.
JS: Nick Turse is a contributing writer at The Intercept and Samar Al-Bulushi is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California-Irvine.
JS: And we end today’s show with some music. Roberto Lange is the mastermind behind the one man musical project Helado Negro. His fifth LP, Private Energy was just re-released this year.
Though the songs were written in 2014, tracks such as “Young, Latin, and Proud” and, “It’s my Brown Skin,” took on a life of their own during Trump’s presidential campaign and they were embraced as anthemic declarations of pride and self-love. Our producer Jack D’Isidoro adoring spoke to Roberto about his music, growing up in south Florida and young people staying hopeful in the Trump era.
Roberto Lange: I’m Roberto Lange, also known as Helado Negro. My parents were both born in Ecuador, they moved to New York, and then I was born in Florida. They moved to Florida, they honeymooned and stayed.
I think they surrounded themselves immediately with people from Ecuador first. So that was like what was in the household, it was like our house was mostly people that were just either Ecuadorian or from Latin American countries and that’s not hard in Miami.
So, no one played instruments in the family, but my parents would have a lot of parties or there would be a lot of parties. There would be like tons of musicians that would be playing and so they would be at our house, they would cover and sing a lot of Latin pop jams from like the 60s and 70s and I would do the same, I would just sing some of those jams like via a karaoke machine.
One of the people we would, I would cover at least was Leo Dan, and Leo Dan had a song called “Celia.”
[“Celia” by Leo Dan plays]
RL: And I remember singing it and I remember my mom brought me back one of these little like, tablature for a guitar books, and it had like all these Leo Dan songs, all these Raphael songs, all these like Roberto Carlo songs, like all these people who are like pop artists in Latin America. And I would just learn them and then sing them. Like in 2010, I made a little covers EP of just the songs I would jam when I was little.
RL: At the time in Miami, I would say it was really unique in the 80s and 90s because on the radio there was like a lot of Miami bass. And on the radio at night there was like a lot of like Italo disco and a kind of like a very specific scene, because I think it was such a party-oriented kind of culture on the beach. So there was always all this kind of fun music that was always like different.
Donald J Trump: When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best, they’re not sending you, they’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs —
RL: So, when Young, Latin, and Proud” came out, it was in 2015, it wasn’t this premeditated thing. Donald Trump hadn’t spoken about Mexicans being rapists, criminals, and so we had already decided when we were going to release this song. And we’re like, “Oh we’re going to release it, blah, blah, blah, whichever day, and then that happened.” And then the song was released.
[“Young, Latin, and Proud” by Helado Negro]
RL: “Young, Latin, and Proud” ended up being something that people took for themselves, like younger latinx people who were feeling the specific feeling. It’s amazing in the fact that people have been able to find a way to use a song as a tool of empowerment. That is more exciting to me than anyone else who’s tried to like corral people into the specific thing with it.
What’s happening more so now the president Trump is our president — it’s the same as it ever was, and I think the only thing that’s different now is that more white people are offended. And I think that’s the only difference. You know, people of color have always been affected by all of these things all the time. And I think more people are like, “Oh man, this is crazy! This is like not how I feel.” That’s great.
I see people using the word ally a lot and I think the word ally is pretty snooze-y. I feel like it’s kind of like giving people an out. I like to build like accomplices, people who are kind of like in it and they know that when they’re in it, they’re just as accountable as you are. You know, I feel like an ally somebody is like, “Well, we’re here, we’re over here, we’re kind of on the other side of this fence,” where, an accomplice is like, they’re kind of sewn onto you, you know? And we’re kind of rolling around together.
And I feel like that’s always been my interest, is like people who are kind of like another part of you and you’re part of them.
[“It’s My Brown Skin,” by Roberto Lange]
RL: The song it’s my brown skin ends up being internal and external, in a really fluid way where you’re kind of talking to yourself, this organism the biggest organ on your body. Like, how it’s the one thing that’s representative of you, you know it’s like if you had your heart outside your body, people would maybe divide each other by the shapes and colors of your heart, you know? So, it’s really weird in that respect that that’s always been this kind of line of demarcation where our mind is like, “Well, stay away,” or “Come towards me.” And so, it’s really just this whole like love theme of just like just being in love with yourself and that’s, that’s nice. That’s just saying, like, look at yourself. It’s all good.
[“It’s My Brown Skin,” by Roberto Lange]
RL: There’s a part of the lyric that says, “There’s friends of different shades, different ways, who feel the same way, don’t ever forget them.” In that moment there was a lot of Syrian refugees trying to get over to the United States, trying to get over to different parts of Europe, just trying to get the hell out, you know? And I feel like a lot of the Muslim community was affected by this general stance of just being over generalized, you know, as like, “Well you’re all terrible people, because if you’re brown and you’re Muslim then you’re — you’ve got to be bad.”
[“It’s My Brown Skin,” by Roberto Lange]
RL: A message for somebody who’s out there who’s feeling like it’s — it doesn’t make sense or that there’s no hope. For sure, one thing I think a goal is freedom and freedom means that you can do what you want, and if you think about that first and foremost, how you can get to that point in your life, I think that’s how you want to strive to be, you want to be free doing the things that you want to do. And none of these people will live longer than you. All these older people who are definitely going to get older. As time passes things change so much that in four years things change, in five years, and ten years. And that’s my experience is how much things change over time and the people that are around you start to change their perspectives. So, time is always on your side especially if you’re younger than most people, I think and so I think freedom is attainable for you to feel and be who you want to be, knowing that you have the time to do all these things right now.
JS: Roberto Lange is best known as Helado Negro.
JS: And that does it for this week’s show. Intercept that 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. Laura Flynn is associate producer. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Elise Swain is our production assistant and graphic designer. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.
“Spaceballs” Skroob: Do something.
“Spaceballs” Helmet: Do something.
“Spaceballs” Sandurz: Do something!