Donald Trump’s latest position on the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi: It is the “worst cover-up in the history of cover-ups.” This week on Intercepted: Trump offered analysis of the brutal Saudi murder by critiquing the “bad original concept” that was “carried out poorly.” Trump’s defense of Mohammed bin Salman and his callous remarks make for bad optics, but in reality, Trump is defending the long, bipartisan tradition of U.S. president’s coddling the Saudi royals. Journalist Rula Jebreal, who conducted one of the last interviews with Khashoggi before he was executed, discusses possible motives for his murder and shares audio from the interview. Sam Husseini, a journalist who once asked a top Saudi official to defend the legitimacy of his regime, joins for a roundtable on the history of U.S. support for Saudi Arabia, the intentional amnesia of the politicians demanding action, and the slaughter in Yemen. Renowned playwright Naomi Wallace has a new one-person play about Yemen and Intercepted has adapted it into a radio drama performed by Ismail Khalidi. Native peoples in the United States continue to face colonialist policies and repression, yet the most significant discussion in years on Native Americans has centered around Trump’s racist battle with Elizabeth Warren over her alleged ancestry. Indigenous historian Nick Estes discusses the ongoing attacks on Native people, voter disenfranchisement, the Red Power movement, and the latest on the fight against major oil and gas pipelines. Plus, Van Jones and Jared Kushner were just, you know, hanging out as two guys do.
Announcer: Welcome to our first ever political conference, Citizen by CNN, and with that please welcome Jared Kushner and Van Jones.
[“Opposites Attract” by Paula Abdul plays.]
Van Jones: We got walk-on music and everything. Dope. How did you get this job?
Jared Kushner: I did not plan my life.
Jones: Yeah, we noticed.
Kushner: Uh yeah, CNN definitely noticed.
Jones: I mean —
Kushner: My father-in-law —
Jones: Trump. Tell me, do you believe the Saudi’s account of what happened to that journalist?
Jones: That’s good. I think theres just like an incredulity. Tell me something about MbS. How does the relationship feel to you and its growth?
Kushner: So I can definitely say that there’s a — he’s a very special person and I think he knows that if I wasn’t so attracted, just be my best friend. And we were always involved in each other’s business and knew what was going on but working together has given me an even greater appreciation for just how our strategy in the Middle East relies on Saudi Arabia’s aggression. And so, the goal was really to come up with a win-win, you know, how do we go to war again?
Jones: You know you guys are weird. [Laughter.] Jared Kushner! [Applause.]
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City. And this is episode 71 of Intercepted.
Donald J. Trump: You know they have a word. It sort of became old-fashioned, it’s called a “nationalist.” And I say, “really we’re not supposed to use that word.” You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, OK? I’m a nationalist —
JS: Well, I have said it before and I will say it again, Donald Trump is 100% a creation of the bipartisan corporate and political U.S. machine. He’s not some wild anomaly. Trump is also a living reflection, a living symbol, of the violent truths about the American Empire. Trump says he’s a nationalist.
DJT: With all that being said though, we have $450 billion, $110 billion of which is a military order, but this is equipment and various things ordered from Saudi Arabia. $450 billion — I think it’s over a million jobs. That’s not helpful for us to cancel an order like that.
DJT: I don’t want to lose all of that investment that’s being made in our country. I don’t want to lose a million jobs. I don’t want to lose $110 billion in terms of investment, but it’s really 450 billion if you include other than military. So that’s very important. But we’re gonna get to the bottom of it –
JS: Now what is heinous about the optics here is that Trump is saying all of this after we heard reports, after reports, about how a 15-man hit squad was dispatched from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to Turkey where they allegedly butchered, murdered, executed a journalist for the Washington Post.
On Tuesday Donald Trump adopted a slightly different tone telling reporters in the Oval Office —
DJT: And the cover-up was one of the worst in the history of cover-ups.
JS: Trump then went on to, apparently, critique the way that Khashoggi was murdered. Analyzing it like a bad business plan pitched to him on the apprentice.
DJT: Very bad original concept. It was carried out poorly.
JS: Now, maybe Trump will shift. Maybe he is going to stop playing this macabre defense for Mohammed bin Salman, but that’s not what we’re seeing at all. In fact, Trump’s latest statement critiquing the plan of the murder, it amounted to a strategic or tactical analysis, after which, Trump fires someone.
DJT: You’re fired.
JS: Now over the past week, Trump’s grotesque posture on this murder has been rightly condemned. Republicans even are scurrying to the microphones, Democrats are issuing statement after statement, congressional leaders are saying that if Trump doesn’t respond forcefully lawmakers will. But here’s the cold hard fact: Trump’s position on Saudi Arabia right now is absolutely consistent with U.S. policy and posture toward Saudi Arabia for decades under Republican administrations and Democratic administrations, going all the way back to FDR.
Newscaster: The 70-year-old Ibn Saud goes aboard the cruiser to meet Mr. Roosevelt
Michael Klare: The basis of the discussion was that henceforth the United States would provide the royal family with protection in return for an exclusive American right to develop Saudi Arabia’s oil.
Newscaster: Next day the scene is Washington, after his majesty makes a flight in the president’s personal plane. The king is the first state visitor of the year and the first chief of state ever to be met at the airport by President Eisenhower.
Dwight D. Eisenhower: Your Majesty, on behalf of the American people I welcome you to this country.
Newscaster: President Kennedy pays a courtesy call on the leader of the oil-rich country to wish him a speedy recovery.
Henry Kissinger: When I see his majesty, I plan in addition to discuss strengthening the already close and cordial relations that exists between Saudi Arabia and the United States. On behalf of President Nixon, I want to express the great stress we place on strengthening the ties that exist between our two countries.
Jimmy Carter: It’s with the greatest degree of pleasure and pride that on behalf of the people of the United States, I welcome to our country, a good friend who represents a nation that has through the years grown closer and closer to us.
Ronald Reagan: Well, I want to express my gratitude to the members of the United States Senate for their approval of the sale of the AWACS defense system to Saudi Arabia.
George H.W. Bush: Let me be clear. The sovereign independence of Saudi Arabia is a vital interest to the United States.
Bill Clinton: The United States and Saudi Arabia have long enjoyed close relations. We have especially strong commercial relations in the field of civil aviation. With today’s announcement this proud tradition will continue well into the next century. Close economic ties complement the important political and strategic relationship that we have and that we value greatly with Saudi Arabia.
JS: Let’s also remember that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia. 3,000 Americans died. Yet this is how, then Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld responded when that information about the Saudi hijackers first came to light. Instead of threatening Saudi Arabia or sanctioning Saudi Arabia, attacked whoever it was that leaked the fact that 15 of the hijackers were Saudis.
Donald Rumsfeld: I think that something like that ending up out is kind of undoubtedly by somebody who wanted to make themselves feel important that they knew what was going on and that, therefore, they would tell someone else and no lives are lost. On the other hand, when classified information is released — that could affect the lives of men and women in uniform, that could inhibit and make more difficult the task of the United States of America in tracking down terrorists and, in fact, actively assist terrorists in figuring out what it is we’re thinking and doing — I think it is criminal.
JS: Now under the Bush administration the house of Saud and the house of Bush, they were as close as could be. Bush holding his hands with Saudi officials, one of whom was actually nicknamed Bandar Bush because of how close the Saudi royals are to the Bush family. And this support, this relationship continued under Barack Obama’s administration, but Obama took it even further. His White House expanded to record levels the commitments of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Barack Obama: The United States and Saudi Arabia have an extraordinary friendship and relationship that dates back to Franklin Roosevelt and King Faisal and we are continuing to build that relationship during a very challenging time.
JS: The history of U.S. policy in Saudi Arabia is one based on oil. It’s based on the politics of U.S. empire and militarism. It’s based on massive contracts for U.S. defense corporations. It’s based on military bases, on wars of aggression. It’s based on the long-standing American love affair with anti-democratic despots who can be used to crush dissent. This has never been a relationship based on respect for human rights. It’s never been a relationship based on peace. So when Donald Trump says plainly, bluntly that he wants to be careful not to be too hard on the Saudis for butchering a journalist for a major U.S. newspaper because of a fictitious number of U.S. jobs that are going to be created by Saudi defense or arms purchases. Trump isn’t somehow the horrible skunk at the peaceful empire party. No. He’s one of the many U.S. presidential co-hosts of this multidecade Saudipalooza.
Trump states in clear terms, a U.S. policy that Democratic and Republican administrations have adopted but that his predecessors rarely if ever wanted uttered in public and that is that no matter how heinous the Saudis are on anything related to human rights there will be no actual consequences. At the same time this isn’t a one-way street. The Saudi royals have regularly played Washington in oil politics, in regional crises and wars, in bad or fabricated or politically motivated so-called intelligence sharing. Saudi Arabia is vitally important to U.S. nationalists, to American exceptionalists, to Democratic and Republican administrations. At the same time, it is a good thing that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is being examined. It’s good that politicians who have a track record filled with gushing love for the Saudis appear to be changing their tune, but is it real? I hope so, but history cautions against such hope.
And let us not forget as we feel the horror of the torture and brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi that the Saudis have also learned from the U.S. The U.S. has killed journalists. The U.S. has run global torture programs. The U.S. has used its embassies and consulates to run black operations. The U.S. has supported the imprisonment and targeting of journalists in the Middle East. That includes, by the way, President Obama, who actually intervened in Yemen to make sure that a Yemeni journalist, who exposed Obama’s first bombing in Yemen in December 2009, was kept in prison. That journalist’s crime was revealing that U.S. missiles — cluster bombs — had killed three dozen women and children in an operation directly authorized by Barack Obama.
And Obama’s former CIA director, John Brennan — he’s now an NBC and MSNBC commentator — for decades Brennan was one of the closest American officials to the Saudi Royal Family. He played a major role in forging and expanding the U.S. operations with the Saudis. He worked hand in glove with the Saudis as he expanded Obama’s drone wars. John Brennan has been part of the problem. He’s not some objective expert or human rights advocate. And as Brennan has been speaking on cable TV, he always somehow fails to mention his own horse in this race. Some of the very people, including Mohammed bin Nayef — who was one of John Brennan’s closest friends in Saudi Arabia — were essentially overthrown by Trump’s new friend Mohammed bin Salman. You have to understand this context to get what Brennan is actually saying when he appears these days on TV.
John Brennan: It’s really going to be up to the congressional intelligence committees to demand immediate briefings from CIA and others about what we know and what MbS’s role was in that. So I don’t think in fact MbS is going to get out of this predicament, in fact in many respects, I think the Saudi government has to decide between Mohammed bin Salman and the U.S.-Saudi relationship. And the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been fundamental to the kingdom for the past 85 years, since its founding –
Nicole Wallace: Got them through 9/11.
JB: It did.
JS: Here is a haunting question that we should all be asking: How many other Jamal Khashoggi have there been, but they haven’t made it into the news? How many dirty, murderous deeds have the Saudis and other U.S. client states committed with the full knowledge of the CIA. This is a scandal right now because we know about it and because it happened inside of a consulate. But how many murders have been covered up by the Saudis and what did John Brennan or other officials know about those or others within the CIA or elite political circles? So yes, bring out the outrage, bring out the calls for action against the Saudi royals and Mohammed bin Salman. But let us not mistake political rage at Trump, or selective opposition to this president, for actually caring about human rights or the crimes of the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia. Or even actually wanting the Saudis to face consequences. Unless those who have fawned over the Saudis for decades – who coddled them arm them, whitewash their crimes, use their intelligence, use their territory to wage wars, sold them countless weapons – until those people acknowledged the role that they played in propping up the autocratic Saudi regime then, these denunciations, this analysis, the threats, the calls for action those are as meaningless as the Saudi cover story on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Trump is not clean in any of this. He’s dirty. He is filthy. He’s also a terrible, refreshing, undeniable public manifestation of what the U.S.-Saudi relationship has always been. And for a man who lies constantly, in the big picture here about the relationship with Saudi Arabia, Trump is sometimes bluntly honest about it.
JS: This is a story that is developing rapidly. And there are a lot of unsubstantiated portrayals about what exactly happened in the Saudi consulate. Sky News has reported that the body of Jamal Khashoggi was cut to pieces, his face slashed, and his remains buried in the yard of the Saudi consul general’s home in Istanbul.
The Reuters News service meanwhile reports that Saud al-Qahtani, one of Mohammed bin Salman’s closest advisors, was actually beamed in via Skype to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul during the interrogation of Khashoggi. A Turkish intelligence source told Reuters that at one point Qahtani told his men to dispose of Khashoggi ordering them, “bring me the head of the dog.”
Now one theory about this is that Mohammed bin Salman is going to pin the entire operation on Qahtani. Again, we need to take in these reports with caution and care. None of this is beyond the possible, but we do need facts. Turkey claims to have recordings of the murder. Let’s see.
When Jared Kushner — close friend of Mohammed bin Salman, his WhatsApp buddy — appeared on CNN this week, it was in a pathetic commercial masquerading as an interview with Van Jones. And listen to what Jared Kushner said about the investigations into Jamal Khashoggi’s death.
Jared Kushner: Yeah, like I said, I mean we’re getting facts in from multiple places and then once those facts come in, the Secretary of State will, will work with our national security team to help us determine what we want to believe and what we think is credible and what we think is not credible.
JS: Let’s repeat that last line from Jared Kushner, “to help us determine what we want to believe.” Unreal. This week Newsweek magazine published one of the last interviews that Jamal Khashoggi gave before he walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. It was conducted by journalist and author Rula Jebreal.
Jamal Khashoggi [speaking to Rula Jabreal]: Why Mohammed bin Salman doesn’t see that part of reform? Because it will limit his, his authoritarian rule. And he doesn’t want that. He doesn’t see there’s a need for that. So sometimes I feel that he, he want to enjoy the fruits of first world — modernity and Silicon Valley and Cinema that everything — but at the same time he wants also to rule like how his grandfather ruled Saudi Arabia.
Rula Jebreal: Yeah, well that doesn’t work, you can’t have it both ways.
JK: He wants to have it both ways.
RJ: Well, okay, this is what we’re trying, this is what I’m trying to understand with my article. Can you have it both ways? Can you call yourself — can you?
JK: I don’t think he can, but, but there is no one. First of all, there is no political movement in Saudi Arabia that could pressure him, number one. And the world is happy with him.
JS: That was Jamal Khashoggi speaking to Rula Jebreal. Rula joins me now. Welcome back to Intercepted.
Rula Jebreal: Thank you for having me.
JS: And we are also joined by Sam Husseini. He is a journalist and the communications director for the Institute for Public Accuracy. For decades, Sam Husseini has asked tough questions of powerful people and he’s been regularly dragged out of official events for doing so. You may recall him being violently ejected from the Trump Putin Helsinki conference in July, when he tried to ask a question about nuclear weapons. Sam, welcome to Intercepted.
Sam Husseini: Great to be here.
JS: Rula, let’s begin with you. Give the context for the last time you spoke with Jamal Khashoggi. Where he was and what you discussed.
RJ: He was in Washington D.C. He was going to Oslo Freedom Forum, and he was going to Europe, and he was after that going to Istanbul. He was preparing to get married. And we discussed Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon and how the international community basically, especially president Macron and Angela Merkel were the only one who pushed back and forced Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince, to give up Hariri — to release Hariri from his detention in Saudi Arabia after he was lured, summoned, and kidnapped.
So my question to Jamal was so do you think the international community could exert pressure on MbS?
RJ to JK: — international community can somehow exercise —
JK: Very much —
RJ: And he said yes.
JK: Yes. That is our only hope.
RJ: That’s our only hope. So in the aftermath of his disappearance and murder, you know, I remember his words these words where he’s saying to the international community that the only hope for the Saudis, the only hope for journalists, critics, and the only hope for justice for Jamal is the international community and the pressure that they can apply on the Saudis.
JS: Talk about the complexity of Jamal Khashoggi’s relationship with the Saudi royals because it’s not accurate to simply say he was a dissident journalist.
RJ: This is a despicable accusation, a terrible, and has nothing to do with facts. Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi journalist who was a prominent journalist who worked for al-Watan, which is a Saudi newspaper. And then he advised the royal family — members of the royal family. He was one of their advisers. And then he was banned from writing exactly a year ago. He was asked not to tweet, not to write articles, because his last article was titled: I’m Saudi, but I am different. And he was asking, demanding from his fellow Saudi citizens to basically to disagree and was demanding from the authorities not to criminalize everybody, and target them, and call them extremists especially minority groups — Shia, intellectuals, and others. So he was very, very, very within the system. He was [a] member of the system.
Then he realized that this Crown Prince was reckless, was violent, and was [an[ egomaniac. So when they banned him from writing he came to the U.S. because he really wanted to continue to write. There’s one detail. A little bit before the Persian Saudi Arabia where they rounded up the elite, one of his colleagues — who took his place al-Watan newspaper — asked him when the crisis with Qatar hit, they asked him to write something about Qatar — to bash Qatar and embrace and celebrate Mohammed bin Salman, which they do very frequently, where they ask people, pay the government, to praise Mohammed bin Salman publicly. He I think realized that it was a trap. So he came to Washington. And he started writing for the Washington Post. And he start[ed] writing that Mohammed bin Salman was like Putin, saying that “it’s never been so bad. It’s been always oppressive, but never like this.” Then he starts writing about Al-Waleed bin Talal, who was his friend, was one of the princes who was arrested and, tortured probably in the Ritz-Carlton. Al-Waleed bin Talal sent him a letter, where he said, “Come back. Come back and we will build together this Saudi new state.” Within 24 hours he was arrested. So Jamal understood the limits of the reforms and understood that this new tyrant in Saudi Arabia wanted to go after every critic. And he understood that they wanted to stop him from writing at any cost.
JS: How do you see Mohammed bin Salman right now Sam in the context of American so-called interests in the broader Middle East?
SH: I mean, he’s a more brazen form of Saudi thuggish-ness that’s been with us for a long time. And in that respects, he’s sort of similar to Trump in a sense. I mean this goes way back, at least as far as FDR and has gone through every administration since then. So I very much want to see a rupture between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. I am questioning whether that’s actually going to happen here or whether it’ll just going to be a facelift of some sort.
But I think that we need to be clear-eyed as to the role played by U.S. officials during the Obama Administration. You see all these Obama administration officials now posing as if they’re critics of Saudi Arabia, critics of the Yemen war that they helped build and facilitate and arm Saudi Arabia – what is an illegal and quite arguably genocidal war. And you see the same pattern, you know, vis-à-vis Israel, where they pose as you know, Obama doesn’t like Netanyahu while you know, feeding him. So I think we can walk and chew gum here at the same time. We can both try to use this rupture of the sheer brazenness of what MbS and Trump are doing without in any way deluding ourselves about what Obama and the Saudi legacy has been. And we need to be clear about what that Saudi legacy is. It’s an imperial, not really a legacy, it’s an imperial component and it has served U.S. interest over and over again — from the Mujahideen to making sure that the Soviet Union collapsed, to the two wars against Iraq, and most recently in the horrors following the Arab uprisings.
JS: Right. And in 2011, Sam, when you were questioning the Saudi Ambassador Turki al-Faisal al-Saud you actually asked him to defend the legitimacy of the Saudi regime. A question I’m sure he had never been asked before.
SH in 2011: There’s been a lot of talk about the legitimacy of the Syrian regime, I want to know what legitimacy your regime has, sir. You come before us, representative of one of the most autocratic, misogynistic regimes on the face of the earth. Human Rights Watch and other reports of torture detention of activist. You squelched the democratic uprising in Bahrain. You tried to overturn the democratic uprising in Egypt and indeed you continue to oppress your own people. What legitimacy does your regime have — other than billions of dollars and weapons?
Peter Hickman in 2011: Sam, let him answer.
SH: Yeah, and I got expelled for a time from the Press Club as a result of that.
Turki al-Faisal al-Saud in 2011: Anyway, ladies and gentlemen, I advise anybody who has these questions to come to the kingdom and see for themselves. I don’t need to justify my country’s legitimacy. We are participants in all of the international organizations and we contribute —
SH: You know, it’s hilarious now to me in the Press Club that they now have Khashoggi stuff on the screens and everything there. So I think we should use this moment. But there is a pervasive impulse to defend Saudi Arabia that has been with us. And I think we need to make sure that it continues and then this doesn’t get blown over as I fear it will.
JS: On Tuesday, Jamal Khashoggi’s son, Salah, was seemingly forced to appear in a photo op with Mohammed bin Salman shaking his hand. And let’s remind people that Salah Khashoggi is banned from leaving Saudi Arabia —
RJ: He’s a hostage. His son Salah Jamal Khashoggi is still a hostage in Saudi Arabia. He’s banned from leaving. They forced him first to give a statement in the aftermath of the murder to distance himself from his fiancée in Turkey, Hatice. And say, “we don’t know anything about her.” And they release it on the Saudi website, Al Arabiya, and if you see the pictures and you know Jamal and you know the pain that this family is going through, you can understand that this Crown Prince still think he can get away with murder, and he can spin it, and he can use people — son of a victim as a PR and — I mean this is disgusting and beyond outrageous. He must answer to his crime. I mean, also the idea that you are not allowed to leave, but you should show up and shake hands and kiss his hand, it shows you how this person thinks. He’s thinking like the mafia. He thinks like he’s a mafia boss: If you don’t agree with him, then he will kidnap your kids and then he will murder your parents. Somehow he feels that he can get away with it because of this man in the White House — who has no morals whatsoever, who’s willing, because they buy apartments from him — he thinks he can buy off the U.S. basically policies and so far he managed to succeed in that because when he said that Jared Kushner was in his pockets, I want to see how deep these pockets are. I would love to see tax returns of these two individuals — Donald Trump and Jared Kushner — to understand the extent of the corruption.
JS: What Rula is referencing there about Jared Kushner being in the pocket of Mohammed bin Salman that was reporting by my colleague Ryan Grim at The Intercept who broke that story. Rula, we also had on Fox News — and it’s interesting that the Saudis choose Fox News, it makes sense given their position right now — but Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir who is the Saudi foreign minister rarely, does any kind of impromptu interview with U.S. media outlets — he prefers to just give declarations or speeches at think tanks, but he appeared on Fox News.
Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir: Well Bret, first of all were not an authoritarian government were a monarchy. We have our checks and balances we have our systems.
RJ: Fox News is what we use to see in the Middle East. It’s no different from the news we used to see under Saddam Hussein in Iraq or under Gaddafi in Libya. This is [a] propaganda organ. This is not a news organization. This is something else.
JS: Right and the Saudi position, we understand there are reports that Mohammed bin Salman was like shocked that this was the reaction to the murder of a journalist that they seemingly thought: Oh, we’re so cozy with Washington that this isn’t going to cause any kind of a big flare up. But let’s remind people of what has been reported so far. We had president Erdogan of Turkey early on Tuesday morning giving a speech in which he didn’t really offer anything new. He sort of summarized a lot of the assertions that have been made in the media via anonymous Turkish intelligence sources.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Translated): The information and the evidence that we have so far collected indicate that Jamal Khashoggi was slain in a vicious violent murder —
JS: He didn’t mention anything about audio or video recordings inside of the embassy, but we have had these reports that you had this top forensic pathologist flown in with as part of a 15-member, I guess we could say hit team, that included top intelligence officials, generals, and others. We had the video released this week by the Turks showing what appears to be an attempt at a body double wearing at least seemingly part of Jamal Khashoggi’s outfit that he wore into the consulate that day. And we have the reports that they brought with them from Saudi Arabia a bone saw.
Contrast that with the official Saudi position and the U.S. position and it really is a sick display. But Rula given the relationship that Khashoggi had with very powerful Saudis and his public positions — where he was, yes critical, but always defending sort of the integrity of Saudi Arabia — why would Mohammed bin Salman want Jamal Khashoggi killed?
RJ: I think we need to understand better who Mohammed bin Salman is? And I think Mohammed bin Salman thought he managed to manipulate the public opinion because he had articles in the New York Times where people like Tom Friedman calling him a reformer, and people in Hollywood and Silicon Valley receiving him, even the owner of the Washington Post and everybody was taking [a] picture with this man. He really thought that America was in his pocket, not only Jared Kushner. And he thought also that the only disruption of that kind of fantasy — that kind of Disney tale — he was telling the American people was people who are Saudis who live abroad, and he didn’t want anybody to reveal who he was. Who he was clear from the moment he became a defense minister and start[ed] bombing neighboring country Yemen to oblivion — bombing schools, buses, hospitals basically not allowing even medications and medicine to enter the country, starving them to death. We have the outbreak of cholera and disease that they disappeared. However, nobody cared. So he thought: Well, if I can get away with this, I can get away with everything and I can go to America shake hands, wear jeans, smile to Opera Winfrey and the people will embrace me.
However, to have somebody in the Washington Post writing in English and in Arabic that he was de facto a thug and a tyrant and compared to Putin that’s what pissed him off. He wants people to treat him like an untouchable king. Jamal used to say that he wants to enjoy the fruits of two worlds. He wants to be treated like a royalty and a star in America and govern like his grandfather, like an authoritarian thug.
JS: Sam you heard Rula mention Thomas Friedman there and I want to remind people that on November 23rd, 2017, this is at the peak of this violent anti-democratic purge that Mohammed bin Salman was engaged in, Thomas of Arabia lands in Riyadh. And I just want to quote from his story, which was just gushing with praise of Mohammed bin Salman. The title of the story was “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring at Last.” And Friedman wrote, “We met at night at his family’s ornate adobe-walled palace in Ouja, north of Riyadh. MbS spoke in English, while his brother, Prince Khalid, the new Saudi ambassador to the U.S., and several senior ministers shared different lamb dishes and spiced the conversation. After nearly four hours together, I surrendered at 1:15 a.m. to MbS’s, youth, pointing out that I was exactly twice his age. It’s been a long, long time, though, since any Arab leader wore me out with a fire hose of new ideas about transforming his country.”
Now, Thomas Friedman, Sam, can be a very easy target for anyone with a brain or anyone who knows anything about the regions where Thomas Friedman is, mostly hang out with despots and interviewing hotel concierges and taxi drivers, but it’s not just the kind of clown presence of Thomas Friedman. John Brennan — who was Obama’s CIA director, who spent years in Saudi Arabia as a top CIA official and was very very close to extremely authoritarian human rights abusing murderous thugs in Saudi Arabia — all of a sudden is speaking out against this one Saudi episode. Let’s remember though that Obama — there’s all this talk about Trump bringing a half a million jobs, and he’s got a $110 billion arm sale — it was Obama who shattered the records for arm sales at the end of his presidency with offers up to $115 billion in weapons to the Saudis. Sam this hypocrisy that’s on display with both Democratic and Republican politicians and the kind of you know, elite of the media like Thomas Friedman, about the death of Jamal Khashoggi versus their posture on every other crime committed by the Saudi regime with the support and encouragement funding and arming of the United States.
SH: Pointing out the hypocrisy isn’t just simply a historic critical thing to know about. It’s where do we go from here? Is this liberal class going to sell out any movement towards actual progress at a time and place of their choosing? MbS sort of reminds me in a weird way of Saddam Hussein in that his meeting with April Glaspie where he basically seem to think that he got an OK to move into Kuwait. And then the, you know, then the U.S. establishment turned on him.
JS: What you’re referring to is April Glaspie was the acting U.S. Ambassador in Iraq on the eve of the so-called Gulf War and the reporting from historical sources that we understand about that meeting is that April Glaspie told Saddam Hussein that the United States did not have a position on Arab-Arab disputes. And that Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi government took that as a green light for them to invade Kuwait.
Alan Cranston: Did you say we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts like your border disagreement with Kuwait?
April Glaspie: Yes, that was one part of my sentence. The other part of my sentence was, but we insist that you settle your disputes with Kuwait non-violently.
SH: And I’ve always wondered, you know given how the U.S. dispenses its clients like Saddam Hussein, like Noriega going way back, you know, will they do that to the Saudis at some juncture? Will they have served their purpose at some point and the U.S. turn on them in some manner? And it was interesting that you know, it’s coming out of Turkey right now is really targeting MbS. Erdogan was appealing to the Saudi King, but in the way that it’s being discussed in the political class in the United States we need to be wary that it’s not portrayed as if Saudi Arabia is the bad actor here, in the same way that you know with the whole Russia-gate obsession over the last two years that Putin and Russia are the bad actors or North Korea. The greatest bad actor is the United States, and the U.S. establishment, and the U.S. government. So to the extent that Saudi Arabia and the United States have bombed Yemen — have devastated much of the region — we can’t allow ourselves to pretend in any way that the U.S. is simply a benevolent player or that Trump has just simply, you know, messed up what were good and dear principles that the U.S. had upheld up until this point.
JS: What I see Trump doing is essentially saying and kind of the language of the street what the U.S. Policy has always been and remains –– no matter what the Saudis do as long as that oil is flowing, as long as the intel is flowing, as long as they are our so-called strategic partners in the war that so many of these people want against Iran — they can basically do anything. They can chop heads off in the streets. They can ban people from leaving the country. They can commit systematic human rights abuses, but nothing will ever happen of consequence. The point I’m getting at is, it’s easy to go after Trump because he walks into the speedball all the time, but let’s be clear Trump is pretty much down to the sort of sentiment representing what U.S. policy has always been. He’s a nationalist as he told us.
RJ: He could have added white nationalist and it would have been perfect. America cares about human rights violation only when the when they perceive the enemy commits them. But allies, allies can commit whatever they want. I mean they even forget that the Saudi gave us Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, 15 of the 19 hijackers of 9/11 that they are now tied to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen there. America is the Air Force for Al Qaeda in Yemen. This is de facto what’s going on in that war. We are working with Al Qaeda and America’s air forces are bombing the other side, while on the ground Al Qaeda is doing the dirty job for them. Our relationship with Saudi Arabia — the addiction to cheap oil, and to contracts of military hardware, to Washington lobbyist, legal and financial services, petrol dollar that the Saudis are showering on America — we are addicted to that. We’re addicted. America is addicted to their money. And they bought consensus. They bought impunity — total impunity to go and murder and chop whoever they. They’re behaving exactly like ISIS. How is different, what ISIS is doing in Raqqa and what this Mohammed bin Salman has orchestrated in the consulate in Istanbul? It’s not different. It’s the same thing.
JS: And Rula, I just want to clarify for people, when Rula talks about the United States effectively being the air force for Al Qaeda in Yemen. One of the complexities that never is discussed in the broader corporate or big power media in the United States is that Al Qaeda on the ground in Yemen — their number one enemy right now are the Houthis who control Sana’a and other parts of the country. And we know from U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks from the Bush era that George W. Bush’s top counterterrorism officials, people like Fran Townsend, were writing cables saying, Iran is actually not giving any meaningful military assistance to the Houthis and the then dictator of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was trying to convince the United States to allow him to use the military aid given to fight Al Qaeda to fight against al-Houthi.
So you have the United States as it often is throughout history on multiple sides of a war where it is simultaneously doing drone strikes against so-called Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leaders, while simultaneously involving itself in a scorched earth campaign with the stated principle of defeating Al Qaeda sworn enemy in Yemen.
RJ: You know, it’s so weird to be in this position where our only hope for the truth to come out is somebody like Erdo?an. I mean I’m finding myself thinking that you know Turkey, which is a number one jailer of journalists, and I’m saying this as somebody who covered extensively the Middle East, Turkey, if you are listening release those tapes. If you are listening — I’ll use the same words at Donald Trump did in his campaign when he said, “Russia, if you’re listening now,” — Erdogan, Mr. Erdogan, if you’re listening: Release those tapes. It’s time to stop the Saudi’s spin and deflections and fabrications and to embarrass President Trump and this administration because this is the only way that we can get any justice for Jamal and some kind of checks and balances on this reckless Saddam Hussein combined Gaddafi on steroids.
JS: Sam, the United States, of course, there is this willful embrace of intentional amnesia when it comes to U.S. foreign policy and wars and human rights abuses. And when you raise historical facts, that what’s in vogue now is to say, you’re engaged in whataboutism. But I believe that history matters, and facts matter, and context matters. When we’re talking about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the United States has regularly killed journalists, has regularly killed civilians, ran a network of torture sites. You know, it seems as though Jamal Khashoggi was killed in an operation that a short time ago could have been run by the CIA or Gina Haspel. When you watch what is on display right now and this kind of moment where now it’s okay to question the U.S.-Saudi relationship in the Senate or in the House, how do you not go nuts after, after so many years? I mean, I’m talking, I’ve known Sam since the 90s going back decades, this has been your one major function is to go after these powerful people and ask them questions that irritate the other journalists in the room and that the powerful don’t want to ask. How do you keep it together watching the naked hypocrisy and the total lack of historical context that permeates every foreign policy discussion in powerful media in the United States?
SH: Well, I mean a good part of how this happens is the whole phenomenon of Trump-washing that you can have Trump brand himself as a populist while he’s trying to pull the plug on critical things like Medicare and Medicaid and so on. And that the establishment media can pretend to be in pursuit of truth and that they are scrutinizing Trump in power and they are facts-first — CNN and all the rest of them. And that there’s this mutual logrolling that’s actually going on where they can pose as if they’re doing journalism by just simply saying Trump is bad over and over again, and I guess for the last two weeks saying MbS is bad over and over again without actually getting at the root causes of so many ills, from U.S. militarism around the world to economic inequality and core policies that are devastating millions of people’s lives. And I think that you have to always be mindful of the world out there. There is a reality beyond the continuous spin that exists in the State Department briefing room and in the White House, and so on and so forth. And that reality has to assert itself. The Saudis have gotten this impunity for their actions, but the impunity has gone both ways. The Saudis gave the U.S. impunity to attack Iraq over and over again. We can’t just pretend. It ends up feeding a racist notion that somehow the Arab world is dysfunctional because of some inherent bizarreness in Arab culture and so on. That the Arab world is in the state that it’s in because the U.S. and Israel with Saudi assistance have systematically picked apart anything that try to do some good — all of these things were crushed with Saudi assistance by the U.S. and Israel.
JS: I want to encourage people to do some searching on Sam Husseini and go back through time and watch some of his confrontations of the powerful are quite epic and Sam does really great work at The Institute for Public Accuracy. And Rula Jebreal always one of the most incisive people we have on the show. Thank you so much for your important work and we will continue to monitor your investigation as you travel to Turkey.
Rula Jebreal, thank you so much for being with us on Intercepted.
RJ: Thank you both. Thank you, Sam.
JS: Thanks, Sam.
SH: Thank you.
JS: Sam Husseini is a journalist and communications director for the Institute for Public Accuracy.
And Rula Jebreal is an author and journalist based in Rome. You can read Rula’s cover story in Newsweek. It’s titled, Jamal Khashoggi Secret Interview: The Saudi Journalist’s Views of Islam, America And The ‘Reformist’ Prince Implicated in His Murder”
JS: As more information continues to emerge on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the genocidal war in Yemen rages on. It is often referred to as a Saudi war or a U.S.-backed Saudi war. But this is very much a U.S.-made war. In fact, the first U.S. drone strike outside of Afghanistan was conducted in November of 2002 under George W. Bush that strike killed six people, including a U.S. citizen. But it was under Barack Obama that the U.S. opened a full-scale air war on Yemen under the guise of fighting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It began in December of 2009 when President Obama authorized a secret bombing campaign that kicked off with a cruise missile attack that killed scores of women and children in the Yemeni village of Al-Majalah. Obama then authorized the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command to conduct regular, at times, daily drone strikes in Yemen. We still don’t know how many people were killed in these operations, but we do know that many civilians died, including people in wedding parties, including an American teenager, including two other U.S. citizens. These operations were often conducted based on intelligence fed to the CIA, fed to Washington by Saudi Arabia. Under Obama, the U.S. broke all sorts of records for arms sales with commitments to sell upwards of $115 billion to the kingdom. Under Trump, the weapons sales have increased, continued, the bloodshed in Yemen has only grown worse, and the bodies are piling up.
Earlier this year, nine playwrights wrote original short plays for an evening at Signature Theater called Imagine: Yemen, produced by New York Rep, Kia Corthron, Kevin Hourigan, Naomi Wallace, and Theater Three Collaborative. We are very honored to be presenting one of those plays on the show today. It was written by the brilliant and tenacious playwright Naomi Wallace and is called “The Book of Mima.”
The play is in one voice, performed by Ismail Khalidi. It is set in the present time in the imagined country of Yemen and its landscapes.
The play begins, flying high over Yemen…
Ismail Khalidi as The Missile: Below me: the landscape where everything is still. Dawn breaks like only dawn can break within its colossal sun. I am flying across the Ba al-Mandab straits and the Ramlat al Sabatayn desert, where in the golden age the caravans rolled on their incense routes past the city walls of Baraqish and the great Marib dam rose up, irrigating even the air.
When you fly over terrain, it becomes yours. Deserts, valleys, coastlines, and heaving mountains. Yes, this is the land that was home to the Queen of Sheba, the place Herodotus mapped in his mind, that Pliny and Strabo praised. I cut across stone terraces, raising the once green earth to the sky, cities built of stone and mud, cities that seem baked not built, of iced gingerbread.* It looks like nowhere else on earth. A place to reveal the mysteries of life. And there, the ancient alabaster windows of Sana’a—so lucid they are more human than gypsum. This is my first flight.
I drop a little lower where the air is warmer; now I must be vigilant again. I can see it all, every detail, every intricacy of the little clock villages ticking beneath me. In one, I can make out a woman. A woman with a basket. Eggs. She is setting out at dawn to sell eggs. Perhaps one of the secrets to this mystery is here: a basket of boiled eggs like fat sweaty pearls, still warm from their shells. Her hair shines like glass in the rising sun and three boys, also early risers like myself, are playing and shouting each other’s names: Amer, Baraa, and. Though I dip to the left and to the right, I cannot catch the third. I loiter. Is it — Saleh? I do not know.
A girl. A girl of maybe seven or eight, is reading a book in front of her door. She taps her ear as she reads as though she were reading to her ear especially. I shout to her, “Hey, little girl! It’s too early to read! Mornings are for flying!” But she does not look up, so intent she is on her book of bright pictures and words.
I could read the words on the page—that precise is my vision—but her slender arm is hiding the words from my view. Her arm is small like something the wind left behind. When she lifts her hand for just a moment, I can almost read what’s written there — But no. Though I can see the number of the page. Five. What is she reading? What I fly over is mine. Her book is mine. I circle over her and the boys and the basket of boiled eggs and the school like a shoe box and the little homes of morning heat. Heat. I was born in heat. I was born with hands all over me and that is to be born in love. I can do a figure eight in the air. I can “wait.” What bird can wait in the air like I can? Not even the skillful hummingbird.
The boys still ring out their names below me. The third boy’s name, I almost hear it then, but no. Three of the boiled eggs are passed from one hand to another as the girl turns a page. And this time, when she does, I catch a glimpse of what’s on it: a little green house and a wide blue sky and in the sky a bird. A bird? But that’s me! She’s reading about me! I am in her sky and we are together and I am flying through the book, her book of sky and I am soaring and swelling with sun, up in the air and up in this book, this girl and I!
I sweep down lower over the landscape, taking one last glance before I head home for I have grown sleepy absorbing so much beauty and like a sweet syrupy fuel, it weighs me down.
Finally now I am turning. I am turning to go home as she is closing her book. I can see she’s written her name on the inside cover. What is it? A light hits the cover of her book. It’s a beam, and now there is something that I almost remember. But what? What is it? A beam. Am I a beam rider? No. But I can hover like a hummingbird. Yes! Yes I can. I am a twenty foot high-grade hummingbird, twenty-one inches in diameter. That’s it, yes. My core, five hundred and fifty pounds of solid rocket booster, weight: three thousand, two hundred pounds. At launch I shed my booster as wings, tail fins and air inlet unfold and my turbofan takes over. Cruising speed: five hundred and fifty miles per hour!
I can swim, I can fly, I am a high-end five-star unmanned motherfuckin’ kick-ass accurate Tomahawk, son of a bitchin’s most audacious advanced cruise missile, launched at dawn from the USS Nitze destroyer!
“I was born in a small town
And I live in a small town”
Oh yeah! First words I ever heard were when someone patted me on my ass-fin and said, “Born to fly, baby.”
And this is my first flight and now, leaving in my wake shimmering tunnels of air, I am turning to go home. I am turning, yes. But I am not turning. I strain to the left and to the right. But no. Yes. Why I am not turning? Why am I not—In my brain is an on-board 3-D database of the terrain I am flying over. Is this why I cannot turn? My Tercom system matches the terrain to the 3-D map stored in my memory. But I have no memory because this is my first flight. How can I remember what I’ve never seen? And where is her book —
Where is her book in my map? Where is the basket in my — ?
Have I always known this? That I was not made to fly? I am turning around but I am not turning. I am locked on, in, up; the sky is tilting around me.
I was born to fly. No. Yes. I was born in the United States of Alabaster. I was made by love. Yes. No. The girl is opening the book on her knees again and now I can see what she’s written there: Mima. That is her name. From Jemima. It means dove. Little dove. In the old testament, one of the three beautiful daughters. I was not. Daughters of Job. My job. This? No. Yes.
But her name, Mima. One of three beautiful daughters of. Is this my only flight? I am not in the sky of her book; I am right above her!
She is reading page seven now. “Mima! Daughter of—! Move!”
Move your arm that the wind forgot. Move away from the page you are reading so I can understand the answer to the mystery of life which must be in the Book of Mima, your book, open on your knees in the open dawn. I am not life. Though in these last seconds as I come down over you I can see your life and those around you, life stirring inside of life, fueled by the counter-clockwise tempo of love, of which I am not made. Of which my origins are not made.
Somebody, please. I was not made by love.
Somebody. Stop me.
JS: And that was “The Book Of Mima.” It’s a play written by Naomi Wallace. The collection of plays on Yemen that I mentioned earlier will soon be posted on New York Rep’s website and they will be available for anyone, free of charge, to download and to use to produce events or readings. Deep gratitude to Ismail Khalidi for performing this play for Intercepted. Ismail is not only an actor, but he is a writer and director himself. And, if you happen to be in New York, you can check out his latest play which has a limited run in November. It is called “Dead Are My People.”
Ismail Khalidi thank you so much for doing the voice work on that piece by the brilliant Naomi Wallace and thank you for joining us on Intercepted.
Ismail Khalidi: It’s my pleasure, Jeremy.
JS: So, you have a new play that’s going to be in a limited run in New York City, it’s called, “Dead Are My People.” It’s at the New York Theater Workshop –– the next door space — it’s going to run from November 4th to 11th. What is the play about?
IK: Yeah, so it is a play with music — working with a brilliant Lebanese composer — and basically it’s about Syrian immigrants moving to the United States around WWI and specifically about Arab immigrants in the deep south. So it’s basically about encountering whiteness in American racism through, you know, the lens of Arab immigrants in the Jim Crow south about 100 years ago.
Ismail Khalidi’s play “Dead Are My People” will be running from November 4th through the 11th at New York Theater Workshop. You can get more information and grab tickets at nytw.org.
JS: I think it’s safe to say that we are all sick of hearing about the Elizabeth Warren/Donald Trump battle over her claims to Native American ancestry. But bear with me for a moment. There are some important issues, both current and historical that this made for TV episode raises. More than anything, it highlights the enduring colonialist mentality that reigns in the U.S., including even from progressive high-profile Democrat, like Elizabeth Warren. It also has shown the racist sentiments that have dominated the U.S. government’s relationship with Native peoples continues unabated. Trump has long expressed contempt and has held racist views towards Native Americans. And he began calling Warren, “Pocahontas,” as a slur against the Senator. Trump famously taunted Elizabeth Warren daring her to take a DNA test to prove that she wasn’t lying about claims to indigenous ancestry.
DJT: And we will say I will give you a million dollars to your favorite charity, paid for by Trump, if you take the test and it shows you’re an Indian ––
JS: Now of course, that demand from Trump was absurd and insulting, but not to Elizabeth Warren primarily. It was insulting to Native communities that have been massacred, persecuted, erased, systematically marginalized by white colonialist political leaders in this country since its foundation. And it’s because of this historical revisionism and trivialization and commodification of Native culture that we are having this obscene political moment of a president of the United States using Pocahontas as a slur, and you have sitting Senators, Warren, and Lindsay Graham, rushing to take DNA tests in a charade that further buries the real existential threats faced by tribes in this country. But this is all political theater.
There are real, urgent, life or death issues facing Native people. There is a war on the earth being that’s being led by the United States government. When Donald Trump came into office, he steamrolled the embattled activists at Standing Rock, green-lighting the Keystone XL pipeline and other pipeline projects, that will leak, that will spill, and are going to poison the enormous freshwater aquifer that irrigates much of the central U.S. Donald Trump is encouraging as much drilling for oil as possible — opening millions of acres offshore. The same time he is rolling back the already weak emission standards. He’s opening protected land, like Bears Ears National Monument, for mining. He’s embracing coal which scientists have recently warned we need to unequivocally end using immediately.
DJT: We have ended the war on beautiful clean coal and we are putting our great coal miners back to work.
JS: In North Dakota recently, thousands of Native people have been disenfranchised from voting by a new voter ID law that will specifically threaten Native people because they don’t have specific addresses listed on their Nation’s documentation.
Yet instead of climate change, instead of voter disenfranchisement, instead of these existential threats and real issues facing Native communities, we are discussing Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test on whether or not, as Trump says, “she’s an Indian.”
In a recent article for The Intercept, our next guest argues, “Indianness isn’t defined by DNA. It’s a legal, social, cultural, and historical construct, where Indigenous nations self-define the parameters of belonging. Put simply, it’s not about who you claim, it’s about who claims you.”
The author of that piece is Nick Estes. He is an indigenous historian, writer, and assistant professor at the University of New Mexico. He is also the co-founder of The Red Nation and his last piece for The Intercept was titled, “Native American Sovereignty Is Under Attack. Here’s How Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Test Hurt Our Struggle.” He is a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and of the Oceti Sakowin Oyate.
Nick Estes, welcome to Intercepted.
Nick Estes: Thanks for having me, Jeremy.
JS: Just talk a bit about how Trump has used Native Americans, indigenous people in his public pronouncements before and as president.
NE: Right. So earlier when Trump was building casinos out in the Northeast he publicly baited tribes who were seeking federal recognition at a U.S. Senate hearing and basically said you don’t look like Indians to me —
DJT: They don’t look like Indians to me and they don’t look like the Indians — now maybe we say politically correct or not politically correct — they don’t look like Indians to me and they don’t look like Indians to Indians and a lot of people are laughing at it —
NE: And so Trump has used indigeneity as a sort of a weapon against, not just indigenous peoples, but anyone that he sees as a political opponent. And so leading up to him using and mobilizing Pocahontas as a slur against Elizabeth Warren, he has a track record as baiting people based on race but also using indigeneity as a slur as something that he and people like him can define based on appearance or based on a DNA test. So it’s part of a longer sort of tradition of just Trump trolling women, trolling Mexicans, trolling immigrants to this country and using them as political fodder to, you know, antagonize racial animosity.
JS: And what about his use of the term Pocahontas and that name, as frequently as he does, to the point where he even used it in a derisive manner when he was honoring Navajo code talkers.
DJT: Although we have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago — they call her Pocahontas, but you know what I like you –
NE: That was a really interesting moment in time. First of all, you had Navajo code talkers who served during World War II and, you know, arguably helped the United States win that war and they were sitting in front of a picture of Andrew Jackson who is a notorious Indian fighter. He implemented the Indian Removal policies that targeted the so called Five Civilized Tribes: the Cherokee, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, the Creek, and the Muscogee. And he’s held up as a hero, not just to Trump, but also other sitting American presidents. And before Andrew Jackson you have presidents such as, you know, George Washington who was called by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy “town destroyer” for his extrication of Iroquois villages in what is presently New York and the total war campaign that he waged against indigenous peoples during and after the Revolutionary War.
So Trump upholding this brutal anti-Indian figure isn’t anything new and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to this day calls every sitting president “town destroyer” in recognition that the United States is a foreign colonizing and occupying power. So when you have indigenous people such as the Navajo code talkers who have served their country, who are just being humiliated by Trump, you know, in front of this picture of Andrew Jackson — it’s quintessential Americana in the sense that it’s a purposeful forgetting. It’s a purposeful distortion of what Native American identity is It’s a purposeful distortion of history and an actual historical figure. Pocahontas was a captive. She was sex trafficked. So to mobilize somebody who otherwise had a tragic life as a racial slur against your political opponent is, you know, it cuts really deep to the bone of what this country is about.
JS: You wrote this really provocative and I thought strong story for The Intercept. The title was, “Native American Sovereignty Is Under Attack. Here’s How Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Test Hurt Our Struggle.” And in it you write, “Like many Native people, I am jealous of Warren and white people like her. Native plebeians, such as myself, a poor Indian kid born on the wrong side of the tracks in Podunk, South Dakota, lack her pedigree and life story. She might as well have rare Romanov ancestry, a secret but ill-fated royal bloodline, when compared to my proletarian biography.” Expand on that Nick.
NE: When I saw Elizabeth Warren’s video that was released and seeing sort of this mythical, you know, very Americana portrayal of her life story — that, you know, everyone has an indigenous ancestor in their tree —
Elizabeth Warren: My mother was born in the eastern Oklahoma. It had been Indian Territory until just a few years earlier when it had become a state. My daddy always said he fell head over heels in love with my mother the first time he saw her, but my daddy’s parents, the Herrings, were bitterly opposed to their marrying because my mother’s family, the Reeds, was part Native American. This sort of discrimination —
NE: It was a kind of a tongue-in-cheek comment, but I don’t think some people were laughing as hard as I was just because it’s absurd. And the quote that I begin with from Vine Deloria about the assertion of an indigenous identity as, you know, something that’s mythical has been, you know, a common framework of American settler colonialism or U.S. settler colonialism in that it purposely distorts Native American identity that could be lay claim to just as land could be lay claim to. So like our bodies, you know, our DNA — because DNA is part of our body — is up for grabs just like our land and so are our identities. And that’s the way that the United States has treated indigenous peoples and our land, but it also trivializes what our otherwise complicated questions of identity because there are people out there, there are people in my own family who are out there who have been lost to us in the sense that they’ve be adopted out, they’ve been disappeared at boarding schools, they’ve been sterilized by the Indian Health Service and we’re still trying to find those people. This is a very serious matter and it really glosses over this really complicated very violent history of settler colonialism that is still ongoing. I don’t know any other race of people who are, you know, racialized with DNA the way that Native people are and, you know, even Lindsey Graham has come out and said —
Lindsey Graham: But you’re going to find out in a couple of weeks, because I’m gonna take this test. I’m taking it and the results gonna be revealed here. This is my Trump moment —
Ainsley Earhardt: Why do you want to take —
LG: I’m dying to know. I didn’t really think much about it but she’s less than 1/10 of 1% — I think I can beat her, I think I can beat her.
Brian Kilmeade: Right, and if you do beat her will you ask for a million dollars from the president too?
LG: No, I want a casino and a million bucks.
NE: And that shows the level of disregard and disrespect that you know U.S. politicians, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, have for Native sovereignty. And I would ask, you know, Elizabeth Warren, I doubt she’s listening to this program: Why wouldn’t you hold a rally, or, you know, a march or some kind of press conference and use your visibility, instead of responding for a tit-for-tat to Trump, but actually mobilize your base around issues such as the Texas courts striking down the Indian Child Welfare Act or the disenfranchisement of North Dakota Native American voters? What it reveals to me is that the release of this information of her so-called Native American ancestry through a DNA test was pure political opportunism. It makes us seem like a football that either Trump or, you know, Elizabeth Warren, or now Lindsey Graham can kick around to their benefit when Native people themselves are facing serious challenges to their sovereignty. It trivializes those questions and it trivializes our issues.
JS: You know, I think a lot of people that listen to this show followed very closely the struggles of the Water Protectors and their allies in these battles against the pipelines, Dakota Access Standing Rock being probably the most high-profile. Give people a sense of what is happening across the country in these battles against, because it’s not just the Dakota Access Pipeline, there are several other frontline battles that are being waged right now against these corporations and, in fact, the U.S. government.
NE: There’s this kind of like winner-takes-all mentality in the United States. And what most people didn’t really follow or understand is that a lot of the people who showed up at Standing Rock were already part of movements. The indigenous peoples who were organizing on the ground in the Oceti Sakowin — the Great Sioux Nation — they were already, you know, organized to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline first came through. Or you had people from Minnesota the Ojibwe people who were already organized against Line Three. Or you had people that came from so-called Canada, the First Nations people, who were already organized against Enbridge what we now know as Trudeau’s pipelines. So the sort of convergence that happened at Standing Rock really signaled, in my mind, a sort of transformation taking place in indigenous country is a political sort of like call to consciousness around the issues that are facing indigenous people but also the way that we interact with larger settler society.
Unfortunately, settler society can selectively engage us however they choose to. So for example, why is it that Elizabeth Warren is the topic that we’re invited to talk shows on, or we’re invited to give comment on, but we’re not invited to talk about the fact that Native people are killed at the highest rate by police in this country? Or that we face rates of incarceration in poverty that far exceed any demographic? Or that we’re facing existential threats to our water our land and even just keeping our children in their own homes? And people say those are very complicated issues that’s not a sound bite and so the corporate media, you know, it’s there to produce and commodify our stories so that they can be easily digestible. But I think it’s such a cynical view of our country in the sense that we can’t hold complicated ideas in our head to say that Elizabeth Warren’s claim to Native ancestry or Lindsey Graham’s claim to Native ancestry or Trump’s use of Native people as a political football, can also be talked about in the context of the current pipeline struggles that are happening around Bayou Bridge in Louisiana, or Line Three up in Minnesota, or Keystone XL in Montana and South Dakota and in Nebraska. These are all things that can be talked about. I implore Native people who are listening to this podcast and elsewhere to think about the ways in which our issues are being framed in the media and if we’re constantly fighting just for representation and for these political elites to acknowledge us, for political elites to recognize our humanity, then we’ve already lost. The only reason why we had the Indian Self-determination Act of 1975 was because we had the militant Red Power movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s that took Alcatraz
Activist Speaking at Alcatraz from the AP Archive: — for the purpose of taking the island for all Indian people where we can Indian land.
NE: It took Wounded Knee in 1973, but then also launched that campaign on the world stage in 1977 gaining international recognition for indigenous peoples across the world. Those were historic gains that were made by everyday grassroots people. Nobody was looking to you know the Elizabeth Warrens or the Trumps of the world to sit down and say, “you know what we recognize your humanity.” They weren’t asking for permission. They were taking it and they were organizing their own communities towards their own needs, but now we’re listening to the radio and we’re listening to these candidates and they’re silent on the issue of war. They’re silent on the issue of backing up these imperialist powers but also their own imperialism. And that’s the thing about imperialism — we never get to vote on imperialism. We didn’t get a vote on the Iraq War, but yet we allocate three-quarters of a trillion dollars of our defense budget every year to these things. And we know that Native American poverty and land claims could be solved tomorrow because the U.S. has those resources and I don’t think it’s a lack of will on the part of every day American in the United States, whether they’re Native, black or white, that they can sympathize with Native issues and that they do recognize that these issues are something that confronts every American.
JS: You know, Nick, as you as you talk about the Red Power movement and the activism and the resistance of the 60s and 70s, it also spurs me to remember that Leonard Peltier is one of the longest-serving political prisoners in U.S. history. Bill Clinton refused to pardon him. Barack Obama refused to pardon him. And Leonard will probably die in prison. And I encourage people to look into his case. I’ve done a lot of research and actual and activism on his case — I believe 100% that Leonard Peltier is innocent of the charge of killing two FBI agents — but his name is almost never mentioned anymore in the political discourse even when we’re talking about political prisoners or people who were fighting the fight and then they just sort of have been left in the dust behind.
NE: Absolutely. I worked on his lobby campaign for clemency in Washington D.C. the December before Trump took office and it was kind of our last effort to convince senators and Congress people about his clemency campaign. And Leonard Peltier is a real human being. He symbolizes a lot for Native people and all people. And I was told, you know, during that lobby campaign by a good friend of mine he said to me, said you know, “Leonard Peltier is the embodiment of Native people in this country. We can never be free until Leonard Peltier is free.” And so, when in 2016, in the summer when youth runners from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation went to Obama and brought a petition, he didn’t listen. He, in my opinion, broke his promise to Native youth in this country. He was such, I don’t know, I know he meant a lot to the African American community, but he meant so much to the Native community. And I’m at this point now where it’s like, well actually the Democratic Party has turned its back on Native people.
JS: How much does it matter when you have someone like Obama in office versus someone like Trump who says his hero is Andrew Jackson and is, you know, constantly making racist remarks about all sorts people but really harping on, you know, it’s in a way it’s attacking Elizabeth Warren, but I interpret it much more as attacking and trivializing indigenous people in this country?
NE: Absolutely, and I think that’s kind of the cynical response in our politics today: Is that you either — and this is this is some of the response that I got to my own article on Elizabeth Warren — it’s like, you either vote for her or you get somebody like Trump. So I would say in this moment of, you know, what seems like what is [a] right-wing clash against generations of social gains that have been made on behalf of working and poor people, also you have the mobilization of a new kind of movement. And I’m really excited for that because it’s made up of young people and I think that that’s a good sign for our country. It’s something that I’m looking forward to as we come up, beyond midterms, but also for the next presidential candidate — not to see like who’s running, but to see how the movements are responding, but how they’re responding to movements or not responding.
JS: Well Nick, we’re going leave it there. Thank you so much for sharing your insight and analysis with us here on Intercepted.
NE: All right, thanks so much, Jeremy.
JS: Nick Estes is an indigenous historian, writer, assistant professor at the University of New Mexico. He is also a doctor of American Studies and is an activist, writer and educator who runs the blog oldwars.wordpress.com. He is cofounder of The Red Nation. His latest piece again for the Intercept is, “Native American Sovereignty Is Under Attack. Here’s How Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Test Hurt Our Struggle.”
And that does it for this week’s show. If you are not yet a sustaining member of Intercepted, log on to theintercept.com/join. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept We are distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Laura Flynn is associate producer. Elise Swain is our assistant producer and graphic designer. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.