If William Barr is not a complete idiot and liar, the Mueller report is a devastating rejection of the Democrats’ major conspiracy theory on Donald Trump and Russia. This week on Intercepted: Naomi Klein analyzes the epic media failure on Trump-Russia and discusses the agenda for change and resistance that should have been. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi details how the media failed to do its job on Trump-Russia. Ali Abunimah, of the Electronic Intifada, lays out the scandal in plain sight: Israeli collusion with Trump and the broader U.S. political power structure. The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz tells the bizarre tale of China’s illegal influence over the presidential campaign of Jeb Bush. And Alison Klayman talks about her film “The Brink,” a look at the past year of Steve Bannon’s project to bring his white nationalist agenda global.
Rachel Maddow: [“Russia” repeated in the background.]
Morgan Freeman as Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding: Andy crawled to freedom through five hundred yards of shit-smelling foulness I can’t even imagine. Or maybe I just don’t want to.
Five hundred yards. That’s the length of five football fields, just shy of half a mile.
It always makes me laugh. Crawl through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side.
Tucker Carlson: Internet [sic] founder Glenn Greenwald was, when last we checked, a liberal, probably wouldn’t vote for Trump at gunpoint. He has just been vindicated.
You, a liberal, were denounced as a Russian agent by other liberals. What was that like?
Glenn Greenwald: I mean, it was exactly what you would expect it to be.
Tucker Carlson: Congratulations for doing your job as you’re supposed to be doing it. I appreciate it. Good to see you.
Glenn Greenwald: Thanks, Tucker.
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 88 of Intercepted.
Donald J. Trump: This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
[Cheering and applause.]
JS: On January 20th, 2017, Donald J. Trump took power as president of the United States. He had openly campaigned on carnage. He ran for president promising to give the rich more, to bring back torture, to wage a war against immigrants, and to build his wall. He was gleeful in pledging to make America’s healthcare system even worse. He promised to bring back torture, to fill Guantanamo back up, to kill the families of suspected terrorists. He said he would ban Muslims from entering the United States. He encouraged police to be more brutal, has given aid and comfort to Nazis and white supremacists. He openly promised to wage war against women and their bodies, to pummel the environment, to benefit the already ultra-rich. He is corrupt to the bone, has been for a very long time, and he’s proud of it. He brought into his inner circle a dangerous cabal of neo-fascists, white supremacists and, more recently, neoconservatives.
Michael R. Pompeo: Among the worst violators of the U.N. Charter and U.N. Security Council resolutions — perhaps indeed the worst violator. It is truly an outlaw regime.
John Bolton: If you cross us — our allies or our partners — you harm our citizens, If you continue to lie, cheat, and deceive; yes, there will indeed be hell to pay.
JS: And on Russia? For all the talk of Russia collusion and Trump being an asset, Donald Trump has dramatically ratcheted up official hostilities with Russia. Look at the ongoing attempted coup against a key Russian ally in Venezuela, the Trump administration’s arming of Ukrainian forces with lethal aid, Trump’s open threats to massively retaliate against Moscow if they interfered with Trump’s bombing of Russian ally Bashar al Assad. Trump hectored Angela Merkel and Germany over their purchase of natural gas from Russia, Trump has imposed sanctions, expelled diplomats, on and on. Trump has been pretty damn hawkish on Russia, despite all the absolutely questionable behavior and constant lies about his discussions with Russian figures or people attached to the Kremlin and his public comments about Putin and his meetings without notes. But as commander in chief, Donald Trump has been as hawkish—if not more so on some issues—than his predecessors.
Barack Obama: I don’t have a bad personal relationship with Putin. When we have conversations, they’re candid, they’re blunt, oftentimes they’re constructive.
JS: And now we come to this whole Russiagate matter. We do not yet have Robert Mueller’s report and Attorney General William Barr is a shady character. He was a key player in covering up the Iran-Contra scandal and getting pardons for some of the key criminals involved with it. But, it would be an unthinkably brazen move—even within Trump world—for William Barr to just whole cloth misquote Robert Mueller when he says that Mueller determined that there was no collusion, no criminal activity by Trump and Russia to interfere in the 2016 elections. So now we have this saga dragging on, and the Democratic chairs of several key House committees seem intent on continuing this investigation regardless of what the Mueller report says.
Adam Schiff: They can’t indict the President. That’s their policy. And therefore, there could be overwhelming evidence on the obstruction issue, and I don’t know that that’s the case.
Jerrold Nadler: But we know there was collusion. Why there’s been no indictments, we don’t know. Let me say further, we know a number of things. We know what I just said. We know that the president pressured the FBI to go easy, to stop investigating the —
JS: This much is clear: This has been an utterly colossal media failure and it reveals how little things have actually changed with the broader press since the Iraq War lies. The overall tone of much of the reporting on this Trump-Russia story has started from the position that the intelligence community was being truthful about Trump and Russia. The reporting then sought to further confirm those assertions. It was confirmation bias to the nth degree.
The starting point should be, to quote I.F. Stone, all governments lie. That is the biggest common denominator between the Iraq war media failures and the ones we have seen here with Russiagate. Also, the fact that Trump is a cartoonish buffoonish villain contributed to an atmosphere where the attitude was that anything Trump was accused of—no matter how insane it sounded—was totally plausible, if not likely, if not certain to have happened. Trump was not supposed to win. It was Hillary Clinton’s turn.
Hillary Rodham Clinton: And tomorrow, let’s make history together. I’m Hillary Clinton, and one last time: I approve this message.
JS: Instead of unpacking why Clinton lost to this reality TV host and known corrupt crook, a narrative was promoted by the most powerful political and media actors in our society. This was a Russian plot. Putin stole the election. Trump is a Kremlin agent or asset. It resulted in neocons hugging it out with Democratic strategists and CNN and MSNBC hosts. George W. Bush is now our buddy, the friendly little painter. And isn’t it cute how he passes mints to Michelle Obama?
Michelle Obama: So we’re together all the time, and I love him to death. He’s a wonderful man. He’s a funny man. And it was a simple gesture.
JS: This whole circus also included scores of former CIA, FBI, NSA, DNI, other alphabet soup veterans openly waging information warfare on cable news and as unnamed sources in print stories. But, we were told, this time—this time—the CIA is on our side. The CIA is telling the truth. Robert Mueller is going to save the Republic from the orange menace. No, those institutions are and remain what they have always been, and it was a grave media sin to believe otherwise. Every time former CIA director John Brennan appeared on cable news, it looked to me like information warfare, like an actual CIA propaganda campaign filled with mysterious references about how he has secret knowledge of what Mueller was really going to do.
John Brennan: And I don’t think Robert Mueller will want to have that dramatic flare of the Ides of March when he is going to be delivering what I think are going to be his indictments, the final indictments, as well as the report that he gives the attorney general.
JS: We have been subjected to more than two years of nonstop, fact-free assertions and wild theories masquerading as fact, masquerading as insightful analysis. We have been repeatedly told that it was the beginning of the end for Trump. And there were tens upon tens of millions of dollars spent on this spectacle. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of hours of Congressional time and energy was poured into proving the conspiracy theory that Trump is a secret Bolshevik operative being run by Putin.
Rachel Maddow: Right, we’re told that President Trump has tried to arrange this summit so that at one point in the summit it will be him and President Putin in a room with no other Americans. There won’t, as far as we understand—maybe not even an American translator there. So, if President Putin were hypothetically in some sort of position where he could give orders to an American President behind closed doors, no other American would know what those orders were.
JS: And this is how major news organizations and powerful connected Democrats and former spies and government agents chose to spend the past two-plus years?
Nancy Pelosi On Monday, the entire world witnessed President Trump cower in the presence of Putin. I sadly besiege President Trump to apologize to the American people for his disgraceful, dangerous, and damaging behavior with Putin.
JS: What is perhaps most remarkable is that, while telling us that Trump is the most serious threat to U.S. democracy ever, many Democrats have supported some of the worst aspects of the Trump presidency. They’ve given him unchecked mass surveillance authorities, supported his bloated war budget, backed his criminal policies on Israel, supported his ongoing attempted coup in Venezuela and on and on.
DJT: At some point, I would imagine, things will change. But we really haven’t done the really tough sanctions yet. We can do the tough sanctions. And all options are open. So we may be doing that. But we haven’t done the toughest of sanctions, as you know. We’ve done —
JS: If the Mueller report says what William Barr says it does regarding no collusion with Russia, it will amount to a massive gift for Donald Trump. It might actually help Trump win again in 2020. That is unconscionable and anyone who views Trump as a threat to their existence should be furious at the Democrats, the so-called “intelligence community,” and many of the most high profile journalists in this country. This is going to be celebrated among the MAGA crowd like it’s the second coming of D-Day. Statues are gonna be erected. We are gonna see Civil War reenactment-style performances about the great hoax against Trump that failed.
DJT: The Mueller report was great. It could not have been better. It said, no obstruction, no collusion. It could not have been better.
JS: Who is gonna pay a price for putting all of us in this position? Who is going to pay a price for aiding and abetting Trump by pushing this conspiracy theory? If history is any indication, probably no one. And that’s a devastating commentary on the political class and the broader media in this country.
[“Ra Ra RasPutin” plays.]
JS: We have a jam-packed show today. Coming up, we are going to be talking to journalist Matt Taibbi who has been calling bullshit on the broader Trump-Russia narrative from the beginning, as well as Ali Abunimah of ElectronicIntifada.net about the undeniable, rock solid case that Trump and his inner circle did in fact collude with a foreign power, Israel. Why don’t we talk about that? Well, maybe the fact that many top Democrats are right now worshipping at the altar of AIPAC and support this collusion openly and gleefully.
Nancy Pelosi: Thank you AIPAC. I’m going to pay my respects. Thank you for the honor of joining you this morning. Thank you for your leadership. May God bless Israel.
JS: We are also going to take a look at what Steve Bannon has been up to, as well as the foreign election influence scandal you may not have heard of. It involves a member of the Bush family dynasty and China. But first, I wanted to check in with my Intercept colleague Naomi Klein. She is, of course, the author of “The Shock Doctrine,” “No Logo,” “This Changes Everything.” More recently, she wrote the book “No Is Not Enough” about resistance in the Trump era. Naomi Klein, welcome back to Intercepted.
The Intercept’s Naomi Klein Talks About the Epic Media Failure on Trump-Russia
Naomi Klein: Thanks, Jeremy.
JS: What’s your reaction to the way that this Russiagate story has been covered?
NK: My first reaction was, that this is what happens when you have cable news decide to react to the first reality show president by turning themselves into a reality TV show. You know, if there’s one thing that we have to give Trump credit for, it’s that he understands how to get ratings using a reality TV formula. That is a gift that he has. Immediately after the election, this narrative that he was a stooge of Russia and that there was this cloak and dagger, Tom Clancy style mystery to uncover was so good for ratings, especially if you plugged it into this reality TV show formula of constantly teasing the reveal after the commercial break, that millions of people got addicted to it.
It represents a massive abdication of responsibility to cover stories that were in front of us, that were glaring, that required huge amounts of digging about corruption, about conflicts of interest with this very dangerous presidency. And, I just couldn’t help imagining what would happen if these news networks practiced real journalism. The responsibility for that failure is something that is really incalculable, like in terms of what it’s going to cost us—what we don’t know in terms of how this has benefitted Trump, who was vulnerable on so many fronts that were right in front of us, that we didn’t need the conspiracy theories for. If we could have just waited and let the investigation do its work and then report on the findings, they could have built a stronger case for impeachment just based on corruption.
JS: I was wondering what it would look like if we drew a Venn diagram of journalists who got it right about Iraq and WMDs and journalists who got it right in terms of real serious skepticism to the claims of powerful Democrats, the intelligence committee, Hillary Clinton, and these cable news hosts, because it seems like there are two camps if you break this down in a very generic way. There were the people that hyped and swore that the overarching story is true and that Mueller is just on the verge of, you know, indicting Donald Trump for treason. Then there was another track of this where there were reporters, many of them independent journalists, that were really critically analyzing every incident that took place, every new action, every new court filing, and rejecting through fact the overarching allegation that Trump is a bought and paid for Russian asset. And even Michael Isikoff, who was part of promoting the Steele dossier’s findings at the beginning of this story, in the past few months has really started to take shots at the way that this is panning out and the way that it’s being covered, whether it’s by Buzzfeed or other large news organizations.
NK: Right. I think that we have to talk about the business model at play here. What were the incentives in place that prevented journalists at these cable news outlets and other outlets from exercising real integrity? But the idea that you would invest everything in this one overarching story that’s what I think we have to really probe. And it’s come at such a tremendous cost, including the fact that we know that Trump is a bought and paid for asset of the Trump organization. And that there were so many stories that were one-day flashes in the pan that deserved to be amplified on cable news. And they just weren’t. Because they didn’t fit into this sexier and more addictive story that was also the story of salvation, right. The story that you were going to get saved by this report off in the distance, that there was just some kind of escape hatch, which meant that you didn’t have to do the more labor-intensive work of actually trying to speak to the people who voted for Trump and make the case for why he was a complete fraud, why he had betrayed his base.
And, you know, there was this moment of sort of mea culpa after the election where people, you know, at news networks said, look, you know, “we made a mistake. We were too attracted to the ratings, we couldn’t take our eye off Trump, and we handed him the presidency,” right. And that was supposed to be some sort of a wake-up call. And far from being a wake-up call, the business incentives at these news organizations are such that they just doubled down, right. And they decided to throw in with the Trump reality show, who’s getting voted off this week, right. Who’s getting indicted this week? It followed exactly the reality show formula. And it was incredible for ratings in the same way that The Apprentice was incredible for ratings. It just wasn’t news.
JS: Right, and it occurs to me that the Democrats, after that humiliating defeat where the chosen one Hillary Clinton did not assume power, that they have now added insult to injury by completely mishandling the first two years of this incredibly dangerous administration and handing Trump an incalculably valuable propaganda asset that he’s going to use on the 2020 campaign trail. And I think some of these Democrats, if Trump wins again, really need to be confronted with the role that they played in making a second term for this guy possible.
NK: That is what is so scary about this moment. If you want to talk about it being a stolen election, talk about the electoral college. Talk about all of the much more significant systemic rigging that is going on. These are things that are actually in the political realm. Unlike this strategy, which is just so flat out dumb, to put all your eggs in the basket of an investigation that you just have no control over. It represented this synergy between a corrupt political party that didn’t want to look at its own complicity in betraying its base to the extent that people stayed home, did not have enthusiasm for their candidates, and in some cases went over to vote for this dangerous clown Donald Trump, and, a news media that could not give up the incredible addiction to Donald Trump ratings.
And when we have seen aberrations from this formula, like when we’ve seen Chris Hayes decide to, you know, go to the border and practice real journalism and show the American people what is happening with family separations, we see the real political change that, that can lead to. But it needs to be sustained. It needs to be sustained. It needs to be on the news every single night. It can’t be an aberration where once in a while you go out and practice journalism and the rest of the time it’s this talking heads reality show. You just can’t.
In my view, it isn’t too late. We are fortunate that there’s a new generation of politicians in Congress who—while they believe in holding Trump accountable and putting impeachment on the table for crimes that we know about that don’t require any conspiracy theories that are in plain sight that violate the Constitution because of the emoluments clause and the blatant self-enrichment—you know, more importantly, they’re also advancing an alternative political vision of Medicare For All, of the Green New Deal, which is making an offer to people, right. Because we always knew that this could not be another election that was just an anti-Trump election. And that underlies as well the logic of, you know, investing so much in Robert Mueller.
JS: Naomi Klein, thanks so much for being with us.
NK: Thanks, Jeremy.
JS: Naomi Klein is my colleague at The Intercept. She’s the author of many books including most recently “No Is Not Enough.”
Journalists Matt Taibbi and Ali Abunimah Analyze the Mueller Report Findings and Media Failures
JS: The timing of Robert Mueller’s delivery of his findings to Attorney General William Barr is quite interesting. As Barr reports that Mueller did not find any evidence of the overarching allegation against Trump regarding Russia, another major foreign influence campaign is being openly celebrated. Not just by Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, but by some of the most powerful Democrats in Congress. I am talking about Israeli collusion. Now, what is clear to anyone with eyes to see is that the U.S. government openly colludes with Israel all the time. It’s a bipartisan staple in Washington. And that is what we are seeing this week at AIPAC.
Nancy Pelosi: We are joined this week by leaders on both sides of the aisle, on both sides of the capitol, because support for Israel in America is bipartisan and bicameral, relentlessly bipartisan.
JS: But, more directly relevant to the Trump-Russia scandal is that there is an abundance of evidence that Donald Trump’s campaign and some of his closest allies and advisors were actively colluding with Israel to push for war against Iran. There were secret Trump Tower meetings in 2016 with Israeli hackers, Blackwater founder Erik Prince, envoys to the Emirati royals. There was General Flynn and his conversations with Sergei Kislyak that amounted to colluding with Russia, but that collusion was in support of Israel’s position and an effort to undermine Barack Obama.
We are going to get into all of this and more with my next guests. Ali Abunimah is a founder of ElectronicIntifada.net. They have been reporting for months on an Al Jazeera undercover documentary looking at the Israeli lobby and its connections to U.S. organizations and individuals. This film was targeted by the Israeli lobby before it ever came out and they reportedly pressured the Qatari government not to allow it to be aired. The parts of this film that dealt with the United States and organizations in the U.S. was indeed never broadcast by Al Jazeera. Now Al Jazeera denies this pressure played a role in the decision not to air this investigative documentary. Electronic Intifada obtained excerpts of this banned film, posted them on their site, and they have since posted the entire film online. Ali Abunimah joins us now, welcome back to Intercepted.
Ali Abunimah: Thank you very much.
JS: And we’re also joined by Matt Taibbi, the journalist for Rolling Stone and author of several books, including “I Can’t Breathe” about the killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island by the NYPD and his latest book, which he’s publishing in an interesting way, sort of on a rolling basis. It’s called “Hate, Inc.” The latest chapter in that book is called “It’s Official: Russiagate Is This Generation’s WMD.” Matt Taibbi, welcome back to Intercepted.
Matt Taibbi: Thank you, Jeremy.
JS: Matt, let’s start with you. What we’ve been witnessing since Barr released his summary of the Mueller investigation is Trump declaring that he’s completely vindicated. We have the question of this obstruction and how that’s going to be handled, the question of obstruction. But, on the specific thing that Trump has most been passionate about—you know, no collusion, no conspiracy—it does seem as though Robert Mueller said, yeah, actually Trump was right about this. And then at the same time, you have people continuing to push like theories that there is still some secret indictment or that Mueller still is going to save us. But talk about what you think were the biggest media failures in this whole saga.
MT: The big thing, the key moment was the first couple of weeks of January in 2017. There was a sequence of events in which we hear that the intelligence chiefs—Comey, James Clapper, John Brennan, Admiral Rogers—they all meet with both President-elect Trump and Barack Obama. They hand them the Steele report and then almost instantaneously every news agency in Washington—I’m sure you heard the rumors about this almost right away, right—every reporter who’s in the business suddenly heard about this thing that happened. And, as a result of that, it gave everybody a hook to write about this piece of private unconfirmed research.
Jake Tapper: CNN has learned that the nation’s top intelligence officials provided information to President-elect Donald Trump and to President Barack Obama last week about claims of Russian efforts to compromise President-elect Trump. The information was provided as part of last week’s classified intelligence briefings regarding Russian efforts to undermine the U.S. elections. I’ve been working on this story —
MT: Now any good investigative reporter, you have to be concerned about there’s some red flags there. Like, why was this effort made to disseminate the information in this particular way? Why did they have to create a news event to get this into our hands? I was highly suspicious of that. One of the reasons was because I knew some people on the Senate Judiciary Committee who had investigated some Wall Street characters for releasing information in a similar way. And we spoke about that. And I said that this reminds me of that. The whole rollout of Steele and the mania that followed to me was the beginning of that entire mess because it was the implied context for years of stories.
JS: Ali, one of the things that I think is going to be really interesting, if the Mueller report is, you know, made public in whole, which I hope it is, I’m really curious what Mueller has to say in that report, if anything, about the August 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Israelis, Erik Prince, George Nader, people from the Emirates, where they were talking about Iran. You know, all of these people that were at that meeting and in one way or another desire regime change in Iran or war with Iran. And that’s like almost never talked about anymore, but it really does seem as though some of the most criminal activities or the actual collusion centered around trying to go to war with Iran or support Israel’s agenda.
AA: I think you’re referring to a meeting that included the CEO of a now-defunct Israeli private intelligence firm called Psy-Group —
AA: —that has been revealed to have, you know, been engaged in spying on and intimidating Americans who are critical of Israel. And, this company had been brought to Donald Trump Jr. that they could help his father win the election.
Nicolle Wallace: The scope of work the Trump campaign considered included the creation of fake online identities to help the Trump campaign manipulate voter sentiments during the GOP primary against Ted Cruz, and ultimately against Trump’s general election opponent Hillary Clinton.
AA: It’s unknown if this was implemented. I think it’s known that the Trump campaign did not agree to go along with this, but it’s unknown if this was carried out, you know, secretly on behalf of Trump. And so yes, it will be very interesting to see if there’s anything about that in the Mueller report. But see this is an example of the kind of activity, secret activity that is also documented in the Al Jazeera film.
JS: You’re talking about this Al Jazeera documentary about the Israeli lobby and influence campaign in the United States, correct?
AA: Correct. This is a documentary, an undercover documentary, that was made by Al Jazeera during 2016. It was completed in 2017. And, Al Jazeera actually got an undercover reporter hired as an intern at The Israel Project. And he was able to record video and audio from meetings with some top Israel lobbyists and got them to admit on camera or on audio that they were coordinating activities to spy on, smear, and sabotage the lawful First Amendment activities of Americans who were critical of Israel and support Palestinian rights.
[Clip from The Lobby – USA]: Tony read The Israel Project’s [TIP] annual report, which described TIP’s mission as building an echo chamber for pro-Israel information. That means using the media to amplify and repeat TIP’s messages as well as what the report describes as neutralizing undesirable narratives.
AA: But what happened with the Al Jazeera film—it’s called Lobby USA—is after it was completed, it was simply buried. Al Jazeera never broadcast it. It turns out what happened was that this very same Israel lobby put immense pressure on Qatar, which of course funds Al Jazeera, to suppress the film. Imagine if this had been a film on supposed Russian interference or Chinese interference or Canadian interference in U.S. politics at this level.
JS: Matt, what we’ve seen, and this isn’t new, I mean this really became in vogue post-911, to have former generals and former CIA, former intelligence people just constantly on the airwaves. I mean this has been going on, you know, all the way back through network news, where you would have on your military analyst who was a general or Colonel. But then it explodes, becomes an industry unto itself after 911. The Pentagon starts having all these generals and military analysts come in for secret briefings with Donald Rumsfeld and others where they’re giving them talking points that they can then use without disclosing that or disclosing that they’re on the boards of weapons companies making all the money and they’re constantly on the airwaves. But in this particular case, it sort of graduated to a different level, where you had people like John Brennan who was just the CIA director like right before this all happened. James Clapper, a whole slew of CIA people, the generals are still there. But all of these people who are career spies, have spent their entire careers working in the world of America’s secrets and you know, we’re doing the things abroad that you will never know about so that your children can sleep safely. The role though that they’ve played in this, having someone who was the former director of the CIA stating on television that he has information —
John Brennan: I thought at the time that there was going to be individuals who were going to have issues with the Department of Justice. Yes, and I think we’ve already seen a number of individuals who have been indicted, either have plead guilty or have been convicted now.
JS: It felt like we were on the receiving end of a psychological operation. That’s what it feels like to watch cable news when these guys are on.
MT: It was definitely remarkable and especially the situation with Clapper and Brennan. Because these two people occupied a very important role in this story. And they transitioned from being sources to being basically regular guests and analysts on these networks.
JS: But also Trump took away their cushy little security clearances, which I supported. You know, I think Trump sometimes does the right thing for the wrong reasons. But they also, they became combatants in this story and they were using the veneer of being independent analysts who had worked their whole careers in intelligence. They were combatants in this, and they were using their paid positions as contributors to do it.
Erica Hill: The decision to revoke his security clearance is, in Brennan’s words, an attempt to scare and silence others who may dare to challenge him. Reference to the president there. With that in mind, the White House has released a list of nine other former or current officials in the intelligence community and the Department of Justice whose security clearance, we’re told, is now under review.
John Berman: One of those people is James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, current CNN National Security Analyst. And former Director Clapper joins us right now. Thank you so much for being with us.
MT: And the idea of kind of getting into bed with these people and treating them as, you know, sort of on our team is a complete anathema in my mind to what this profession is all about, right. We should always be at arm’s-length. And, one of the things that happened with this story was we completely closed off one whole avenue of inquiry which was about the origin of Russagate. Why did it start? There were hints here and there. The New Yorker did this story about how Robert Hannigan and the GCHQ in Britain—he comes to Brennan with a stream, what they call, a stream of illicit communications and Brennan is so shocked by this that he delivers it to the FBI and that’s what kickstarts the investigation. They never tell us what those communications are. They never specify exactly what is going on there. And it’s all very mysterious, right? Like, nobody’s really nailed down the origin story and part of that I think is because Brennan and Clapper and all these ex-officials have become significant sources for all the main news organizations. I mean, I happen to know a couple of sort of big front page stories where one or the other was the main source. So, none of the reporters are going to cross these people. So, yeah, that’s a very troubling aspect of this whole thing. Like, the lines have been blurred between sort of the watchers and the watched at this point.
JS: You know, Margaret Sullivan wrote a column in the Washington Post on Monday where she was sort of defending print journalists in particular. Is there a distinction worth drawing though when we talk about the way cable news covered this? And I’m thinking particularly of Rachel Maddow, obviously, is probably exhibit A in sort of hyping this constantly, or you know Glenn says “lying” every night to millions of people. Chris Hayes though had on Jonathan Chait.
Chris Hayes: Chait lays out what could be considered the worst case scenario for Trump-Russia collusion that Donald Trump has been a Russian intelligence asset since 1987.
JS: That ridiculous story saying that Trump has been a Russian asset since, you know, 1987.
MT: Which he got from a Lyndon LaRouche leaflet published in 1987.
JS: Rest in peace, buddy.
MT: Yeah, exactly, yeah.
JS: But on that issue. Do you think, I’ll start with you Matt, is it fair to say, yeah, there was actually a lot of really good reporting on this story and there continues to be really good reporting and that cable news is just like on another ridiculous level?
MT: See, I don’t buy that, because if you’re artificially narrowing your scope of inquiry and the parameters are, Trump is guilty of something, let’s find out what it is, right. Let’s not publish any information that’s dispositive to that. So, if we do an investigation and we find that there’s no evidence that there was a link between Trump and this Russian group or that Russian group, we’ll publish it if we do find it, we won’t publish it if we don’t find it, right. That happened multiple times in this story. But also, again, getting back to the other thing, the whole idea of how did the investigation start? There’s other things. The whole idea of the Steele report being in the FISA warrant, the Steele report being in there with the Michael Isikoff story that used Steele as a source. Like, that’s to me is serious impropriety. Nobody picked that up, except the Washington Post to debunk it. I get what they’re saying. They weren’t as ridiculous and they weren’t hyping up the fear factor the same way that the cable stations were. But they had a real duty of care here to look at the entire picture and, you know, test everybody’s hypotheses about this whole thing. And they didn’t do it. They only looked at one sort of, one side of the story, one narrow side of the story. And that was a major, I thought, you know dereliction of duty itself.
JS: Ali, what about that? What do you think for instance of the New York Times coverage of this story from the beginning? Was it responsible? There are some really serious good reporters that have worked on this story for the New York Times. Is it fair to sort of say all of the major news organizations got this epically wrong?
AA: I think it is fair to say that with the caveat that there were occasionally good stories or from time to time a journalist who did a reasonable story that you could point to. But the big picture is actually I think the role of the establishment or supposedly respectable media, like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and NPR, has been to launder bullshit and make it look respectable. NPR is one of the worst. They take stuff that is totally unproven or has even been shown to be false and they assert it time and again as if it’s just uncontested fact. So, the thing that you will hear almost every day on NPR is that Russia interfered in our election, Russia interfered in our election. And there’s never any questioning of what that supposed interference amounted to, who was really behind it, when did it happen, did it happen before the election or after, and did it have any impact? They never questioned that. They just assert it.
The New York Times is doing these big flowcharts showing, you know, how many Russian citizens met with Americans. I mean, just complete garbage all being used to manipulate people. Max Blumenthal has called it a PSYOP, and that’s what I think it is: Psychological warfare to keep telling people there’s something there, there’s something there. And, well if the New York Times is saying it, if the Washington Post is saying it, if NPR is saying it, it must be true. What we know is that it was just a few internet troll farms that amounted to nothing, really nothing. Not a single vote was affected. But the big picture narrative that I think millions of people across the country still believe is that Donald Trump is in the White House and Hillary isn’t because of Russian election interference. That big picture narrative, which is totally false, is still intact, and that’s thanks to the so-called establishment media.
MT: I totally agree. And I just sort of wanted to point out, the New York Times did a story last year, Scott Shane I think did the story, about New Knowledge, this group that turns out they were faking Russian influence operations in Alabama. The New York Times has done a series of stories about, you know, supposed Russian troll activity getting involved in things like the Parkland shooting, where one of their sources was New Knowledge. Those stories still exist. They’re still up in the New York Times. In other words, the Times, even the Times knows they’ve done a story on these people. They know that there’s a factual issue there. And rather than take the logical next step and ask, “whoa, what the hell is going on here? Why are people faking Russian troll activity and why are these people being commissioned by the Senate? You know, why does the Senate still have a relationship with these people after it’s been discovered that this went on?”
The whole idea of reporting, you know, on Hamilton 68, which was this group that, this sort of shadowy group that was created by the Alliance for Securing Democracy—Glenn has written about this, it’s sort of a neocon Democrat alliance right—and they create this dashboard that supposedly tells us in real time what Russian trolls want us to be freaking out about. Well, if you called them up, they won’t tell you what their methodology is. They won’t tell you what sites they’re monitoring exactly, right, or how they’re doing their computations. And yet, they became the source for front page stories on these major newspapers of record. And the aim of these stories were exactly what Ali was talking about. It was to legitimize the most insane, the most crazy parts of the manias that went on during this period.
JS: We’ve have Robert Mueller portrayed particularly by Democrats and liberal media as this man of impeccable character. And he’s just like, completely ruined their Christmas by apparently saying there was no collusion. But the long-term consequences of the way that the broader intelligence community, the FBI, Robert Mueller, have sort of been lionized or placed on a pedestal by many, many political actors in our society.
AA: Well, the long term consequences of that and this whole Russiagate diversion was that we’ve lost two-plus years to build a real principled opposition to Trump. Trump should be opposed for the correct reasons, not because of totally bogus claims that he’s a Russian puppet. Someone else commented about this that all that energy that we saw in the first days of the Trump administration where thousands of people spontaneously went to the airports to protest the Muslim ban—I was among them. I was at home in bed and I was seeing on Twitter, people are gathering at O’Hare airport and I got up, got out of bed, and drove to O’Hare airport to be with people and it was incredible.
[Chanting at O’Hare airport.]
AA: That was happening across the country. People were hungry to be motivated, to be galvanized, to be given a mission, a principled mission to fight for the country they wanted to live in and instead the Democratic leadership took them on this wild goose chase. And how do you get back from that now as we head into the 2020 election, where the Democrats seem incapable of learning? At least, I’m talking about the leadership and the establishment and where the money comes from. Because, the alternative to this failed approach would be to give people real policies: to say health care for all, housing, paying jobs, a real progressive agenda that meets people’s needs, but of course Democrats can’t and won’t do that because that’s not where the money is for them. And so they retreat to this flag-waving nationalism to out-Republican the Republicans. So, I wish I could be more optimistic.
JS: Ali Abunimah, thanks for joining us.
AA: Thank you.
JS: Matt Taibbi, thanks for being here.
MT: Thank you.
JS: Matt Taibbi is a journalist with Rolling Stone. His latest book, which is being published on a rolling basis, is called “Hate Inc.” like Hate Incorporated. The latest chapter is titled “It’s Official: Russiagate Is This Generation’s WMD.” And Ali Abunimah, he’s co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, that’s an independent online news publication focusing on Palestine. He’s also the author of “The Battle for Justice in Palestine” and “One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.”
The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz on the Investigation That Led to the Third-Largest Financial Penalty the FEC Ever Issued
JS: Earlier this month, the Federal Election Commission issued a historic fine and cited The Intercept’s 2016 investigative series called “Foreign Influence.” That series was written by Jon Schwarz and Lee Fang, and through dogged reporting, they managed to expose a major violation of campaign finance law’s strict prohibition against foreign money being used in U.S. federal elections. Their reporting was so critical that the FEC, which rarely catches these sorts of violations, actually punished both the Chinese-owned company which donated the money, and the Super PAC which received it, fining them a combined total of $940,000. Before Citizens United in 2010, corporations couldn’t spend money to directly advocate for federal candidates. After Citizens United and related court decisions, corporations that were formed in the U.S.—even ones that are completely owned and controlled by foreigners—could send money to super PACs in unlimited amounts. Enter Jeb Bush in 2016. That’s right, Jeb.
Jeb Bush: I think the next president needs to be a lot quieter but send a signal that we’re prepared to act in the national security interests of this country, to get back in the business of creating a more peaceful world. Please clap.
JS: Jeb’s sad campaign was backed by a super PAC called “Right to Rise USA.” They received over a million dollars in donations from a California corporation called American Pacific International Capital, or APIC. That company, APIC, was controlled completely by two Chinese citizens living in Singapore. So remember, it’s illegal for foreign nationals to contribute money in connection to U.S. elections. But APIC and Jeb Bush’s “Right to Rise USA,” tried to get away with using the loophole created by Citizens United. Because APIC was incorporated in California, it was technically not foreign. And the financial contribution would have been fine if they had not egregiously violated one part of the law still on the books. That part of the law limits this sort of foreign influence. When foreign-owned corporations make political donations, only U.S. citizens are supposed to make the decision. My colleagues at The Intercept, along with reporter Elaine Yu in Hong Kong, got Gordon Tang, the Chinese national at the head of APIC, to admit that he helped make the decision to donate to Jeb Bush. And that was very illegal. Here is The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz to walk us through this bizarre tale.
Jon Schwarz: So, in 2010, the Supreme Court famously decides in Citizens United, that U.S. campaign finance law was wrong. Before Citizens United, you could only contribute money for U.S. political campaigns in limited amounts. It had to come from individual citizens. After Citizens United, corporations, unions could put unlimited amounts of money. It could go to super PACs for instance, and as long as they were theoretically not coordinating with individual candidates, they could take this unlimited amount of money and then spend it however they wanted, promoting anything. Very soon after the Citizens United decision in 2010 was Obama’s State of the Union Address, and in it, he said —
Barack Obama: With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections.
JSz: What is the significance of that? If you look at the law, what is says is this: Foreign nationals are forbidden from putting money into U.S. elections. A foreign national is a foreign individual, it is a foreign government, and it is a foreign corporation. What happens if there is a U.S. corporation that is a wholly owned subsidiary of a foreign corporation? Well, according to U.S. law, that corporation counts as a U.S. national, meaning that a completely foreign-owned corporation could now, post-Citizens United, put as much money as they wanted into U.S. politics.
BO: I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests; or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I’d urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps correct some of these problems.
JSz: So six years later, Ellen Weintraub, then on the Federal Election Commission, now the chairman of the FEC, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about this issue about: Are foreign-owned corporations going to able to spend without limit in U.S. elections?
JSz: Lee Fang and I thought this is an interesting question. We decided to look into it, see what corporations were giving money to U.S. super PACs, and find out whether there was foreign ownership of any of them. And within 10 minutes of trying to find this out, we saw something that looked tremendously suspicious, which was a corporation called American Pacific International Capital located in San Francisco.
Just a little bit of Googling found information that suggested this was in fact 100 percent foreign owned and it had given $1.3 million to the “Right to Rise USA” super PAC, which was supporting Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential candidacy.
Jeb Bush: We’re 17 months from the time for choosing. The stakes for America’s future are about as great as they come. Our prosperity and our security are in the balance. So is opportunity in this nation where every life matters and everyone has the right to rise.
JSz: What we found out after speaking to Charlie Spies, who was the treasurer of “Right to Rise USA” and one of the most prominent campaign finance lawyers in the United States, was that Spies had actually written a memo explaining step-by-step how you could put foreign money into U.S. elections and have it be legal. We also spoke to Gordon Tang, who was the Chinese businessman behind APIC.
[Audio: Gordon Tang, speaking in Cantonese, tells reporter Elaine Yu why the company gave over $1 million to Right to Rise USA, the main Super PAC supporting Jeb Bush.]
JSz: And to our great shock, he essentially unknowingly confessed to having broken U.S. campaign finance law. There are still some remaining weak prohibitions that you should be able to abide by that really can’t be easily enforced that will only create problems for you if reporters call you and you accidentally confess.
JSz: If Gordon Tang had just kept his mouth shut, if he hadn’t told us, oh yes, you know, I said this seems like a good idea to me, then they would have been fine. They would have been able to, as Obama said, spend without limit in U.S. elections and there really should not have been any legal consequences. They just got sloppy. What’s crucial here is this fact: there’s sort of the law as written and the law as possible to be enforced. The law as written says: Yes, foreign-owned corporations can participate now in U.S. elections, but foreign nationals can’t participate in the decision making in terms of putting the money into the U.S. electoral process.
Now, we were expecting that when this article came out, it would make huge news. You know, foreign interference in U.S. elections. It’s proven now. Obama called it, here it is. Essentially, nothing happened. No one paid any attention. It was the summer of 2016. It was around the time of the U.S. Democratic and Republican conventions. What we thought was an enormous story went nowhere.
Now what happened then was: The Campaign Legal Center, which is sort of an election law watchdog in Washington, picked up our article, used the information in it to say, hey, this seems like a clear violation of very significant U.S. campaign finance law. They filed a complaint with the FEC. And then, no one heard anything for two and a half years. The FEC generally does not enforce U.S. campaign finance law. The Republican Party pretty much as policy now believes that campaign finance law is illegitimate and they simply at the FEC block it from being enforced. So we thought nothing was going to happen. And then, to our surprise, something did.
Rachel Maddow: You don’t hear news like this all that often. You hardly ever hear about it on this scale. But a super PAC from the 2016 campaign, a super PAC that supported Jeb Bush for president, has just been hit by federal officials with a huge fine for accepting donations from foreigners.
JSz: It became public that the FEC was issuing the third largest fine in its history, the largest fine since Citizens United, almost $1 million. Both APIC, the foreign-owned corporation, and “Right to Rise,” the Jeb Bush super PAC, had to pay fines. Now, what it suggests is not just the fact that this was going on, that this happened for sure in 2016. But that with people who are more careful, it is probably going on in ways that can’t be detected.
The reality is, foreign countries, foreign corporations, foreign individuals have very, very good reasons to try to influence U.S. politics. If I were a foreigner, I would try to influence U.S. politics. Of course, you have to. We’re the most powerful country on earth. You would be a fool not to try to do this. And as I say, people who are more sophisticated about it should be able to pull this off without detection.
So, what does this mean right now? What it means is that post-Citizens United this absolutely can happen. It means that we don’t know what is happening. I would also encourage people to think about the fact that there is foreign influence on U.S. politics in all kinds of ways that was already legal before Citizens United. There’s tons of money that flows into think tanks in Washington. There’s tons of money that flows into lobbying organizations in Washington in ways that are perfectly legal but involve foreign influence on U.S. politics.
I hope that other reporters will look at this and realize that this was just out there in the open for anybody to find. Like, this information is probably there for other corporations, we just don’t know it yet. And this is actually something that anybody could do. Like, anybody can go look through the campaign finance filings. They’re on the FEC’s website. They’re at the Center for Responsive Politics. If you are interested in this issue, even if you’re not a journalist, go comb through this and send it to reporters. I guarantee you that they’ll be interested to hear about anything you find.
JS: That was my colleague at The Intercept, Jon Schwarz. You can check out that series at theintercept.com. It was called “Foreign Influence.” Jon spoke to our assistant producer, Elise Swain.
Alison Klayman Talks About Her Film “The Brink”
DJT: I’m not a globalist. I’m a nationalist, and they say, oh, that’s terrible.
I’m proud of this country, and I call that nationalism. I call it being a nationalist.
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. Nationalist. Use that word. Use that word.
[Crowd chants, “USA, USA.”]
JS: Whether or not Donald Trump understands the meaning or historical significance of the words that he uses, like nationalist or globalist, that’s debatable. For Trump, the positive response he receives from his base when invoking this language supersedes any need to fully comprehend any definitions. And while Trump is fully capable of constructing his own dog whistles—about African Americans, about women, about immigrants, about Muslims—this specific kind of weaponization of words like nationalist or globalist did not appear a priori in his really-big big-boy brain.
DJT: Donald Trump’s very, very large brain.
JS: It’s most likely that Trump coopted these phrases from his former advisor Steve Bannon, whose entire existence as a filmmaker is that of a revisionist historian, assembling words and signifiers and manipulating them towards his own ideological ends. If you’re curious about Bannon’s grotesque nonsensical “documentaries”—that word in bold air quotes—I encourage you to watch the Field of Vision film, “American Carnage” that explores Bannon’s filmography.
Steve Bannon: I believe the world and particularly the Judeo-Christian West is in a crisis.
JS: Well, the camera has recently been turned towards Bannon in the form of a new cinéma vérité style documentary from the director Alison Klayman. That film is called “The Brink” and it follows Steve Bannon for an entire year as he peddles his idea of an organized, transnational so-called populist movement to various right wing leaders throughout Europe and the United States.
Steve Bannon: Every populist party or nationalist party that looks viable, right, I’m trying to help. This is what I’ve done for 40 years. This is no different than in the 1980s when I was at Goldman Sachs sitting down with entrepreneurs and tech companies or media companies, or in the 90s when I had my own firm. It’s literally just a different conference room, right. It’s the same thing.
JS: But again, Bannon actually understands the potency of language. At many points in the film, it seems like Bannon’s “movement” is little more than a rebranding tour for white supremacy under the guise of fighting for economic equality. To discuss this intimate look into the life of Steve Bannon, I’m joined now by the director of the film The Brink, Alison Klayman. Alison, welcome to Intercepted.
Alison Klayman: Thank you so much.
JS: What was your impression of Steve Bannon before you got involved with this crazy ride?
AK: I mean my impression really was probably the most simplistic based on a media diet in America, you know: He’s Darth Vader, he’s kind of physically disgusting, his ideas are disgusting. You know, when I first met him, September 2017, a few weeks before we ended up starting filming, I didn’t know who was going to walk in the door and what he was like. And it was a little bit like a casting session too. I didn’t know if he could carry a movie, I mean, let alone what was going to happen in this first year out of the White House for him. But when he walked in the room, it was, I mean, the person you see in the film. And he was like charismatic and couldn’t stop talking and I feel like in 10 seconds I was like, oh, this guy’s going to say some shit.
JS: You know, one of the things with the big picture that really struck me about the film is that Bannon, the way he seems to conduct himself with people, he comes off as an affable guy who has a self-deprecating sense of humor. Did you get a sense from spending this year following him, I mean, is he a likable guy? On a personal level? I mean, his ideas are reprehensible to me but like, he comes off as like, yeah, you know, he gets it. He knows you think he’s a fascist but that’s okay.
AK: Like, all the things you just said I agree. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I was personally charmed but I could see that he was charming. I think self-deprecating humor also kind of shows that you have some level of self-awareness. I thought what struck me the whole year was this real duality of like, having self-awareness and having these moments also where I felt like he was revealing himself and must not be aware of it as he’s doing it. But that instinct of his. He’s really good at like retail politics. And he’s trying to charm people, especially journalists. And I felt like it was important to show, not only because that’s what I found and I’m not making propaganda in like a slanted portrait, but that’s one of the tools in his toolkit for getting where he is. And I think if you only imagine him as this sort of, you know, creature of the night, like you’re missing the point of how he’s doing what he’s doing.
JS: One of the scenes, you have a Guardian journalist who’s there. You have a handful of European political allies of Bannon’s as he starts to spread the movement in Europe. And there’s a very pointed exchange that you captured where the Guardian journalist and Bannon are standing at the door, the journalist is leaving, and Bannon is essentially trying to get him to admit that this isn’t really fascist.
Steve Bannon: You can’t possibly believe those are dog whistles. You can’t possibly believe those are dog whistles.
Paul Lewis: You know, I think you, I genuinely don’t think you could not believe that they are.
SB: Oh my god, come on.
PL: And I don’t sort of think it’s a trivial sort of jokey thing. And I do wish you’d stop smirking. It’s sort of uncomfortable for me. Because it’s serious. It’s a serious offense, a dog whistle.
SB: No, I think you’re totally wrong about that. You know you’re wrong. But we can talk about it.
AK: Bannon has a persona, you know, he gets what the game is, right. When he’s going toe-to-toe with Paul Lewis at The Guardian who came very prepared —
PL: Some of the people you’re doing business with in Europe are far right, sometimes quite extreme, sometimes have got links to —
SB: Like Orbán? Or who?
PL: Like, Filip Dewinter, who you had a meeting with in London?
SB: No, no. He just came to, he just came to, that was a general dinner.
PL: Does it concern you that Filip Dewinter has like commerated former SS collaborators —
SB: No, no. Like I said, that kind of stuff is not going to be tolerated in the movement. We are very upfront with that, right. He just came to, he just came to the dinner. That was a general dinner. We had a number of people there.
AK: And so I think afterwards Bannon is trying to do what he always does which is sort of be like, yuk yuk, that was like good fun, right. You know like, as if just as much as he is doing it for show, the journalist must be doing it for show too. And Paul kind of stuck to his guns and didn’t take off the interview mask and said, you try to make this a joke and you smirk and it makes me very uncomfortable. I think this is very serious stuff.
JS: Do you see him as an ideologically driven person?
AK: I think he does have ideologies that shape his world view. I think it’s not necessarily what’s the substance of his stump speech, right. I don’t think his ideology is being for the little guy and trying to change the global order when it comes to money. I think he only cares about the global order when it comes to movement of people.
SB: This agenda is what America needs now, is what America needs to rebuild its future. Now, what I mean by this agenda: We talk about economic nationalism. And what they’re trying to do is smear the Trump deplorables, and that was Hillary Clinton’s speech. She was smearing them as nativist and racist, right. Nothing could be further from the truth. Economic nationalism is what binds us together. It doesn’t matter what your race is, what your religion is, or what your gender is, or what your sexual preference is. You know what he cares about? You’re a citizen of the United States of America. That’s what he cares about
AK: When you see who he works with, when you see the policies that he actually has ever coherently articulated or even successfully passed—for example, when he’s in the White House, the Muslim travel ban being basically his only accomplishment—it all comes down to anti-Islam, anti-immigrant. He uses a lot of language that is right out of the New Zealand shooter’s manifesto, but you know, that kind of white nationalist ideology. And I personally believe that that is part of his world view, no question. Because you get him in a room with other leaders and ostensibly he’s trying to frame everything as, quote, “economic nationalism,” but who talks about birth rates? So I think he has a world view. But whether like what he’s doing everyday is about being ideologically driven and ideas driven versus just loving strategy, loving power, loving fame and notoriety—I think that that is as much what motivates him.
JS: Let’s talk about the first scene, the opening scene of the film where you are right there with Steve Bannon talking about his recent visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau. What was going on there and explain what Steve Bannon was talking about?
AK: So, he launches into a discussion of a movie he made in 2017.
SB: I had a great film, the Phil Robertson movie.
Maybe my craziest film. What was the title of it?
SB: Torch —The Torchbearer or Torchbearer? The Torchbearer.
S: No, Torchbearer
AK: So, he made this movie with Phil Robertson and he talks about how they traveled all over. They went to Rome or Athens. He’s listing all these places and he says, Auschwitz, Birkenau.
SB: Auschwitz, Birkenau.
SB: My shit in Auschwitz rocked.
AK: That is the moment where my eyes got big, because I was like, what? What is he talking about? My grandparents are Holocaust survivors. I was obsessed with the question of like banality of evil. I mean, at first as a kid I was obsessed with how scary it would be to be a victim, but then I think as I got older, I started to think like how could a society become this way? What were the individual and societal conditions that lead to the Holocaust?
SB: We leave for Birkenau. Right, and this gets to the punchline of the story. I look around and I turn the chair and I go, man, I said, this is the most haunting place I think I’ve ever been. It’s just something about this. This is actually the feeling I thought I was going to feel in Auschwitz. And he goes, “oh, everybody says that.” And I go, “what are you talking about?” He goes, “oh, no, no, no.” He says, maybe I didn’t explain it. He said, “Auschwitz was a Polish cavalry college. The Germans just requisitioned it immediately. And that was like the beta site test. This was made from scratch.”
AK: And again, he’s not denying the Holocaust. He’s not saying it’s a good thing, which is also fun to put in the front of the movie because I think it plays with the audience’s expectations too. Because you’re like, where is he going with this? Maybe you expect that he’s going to say something more directly virulently anti-Semitic, or you know, something like that. But what is does is he marvels at the way he found Birkenau much more chilling and it’s because that was the camp that was built from scratch based on what they learned at Auschwitz.
SB: German industrial design. He says, “the whole thing’s perfect.” And I’m walking around going, oh my god. It’s precision engineering to the nth degree by Mercedes and Krupp and Hugo Boss and all. It is a institutionalized industrial compound for mass murder.
AK: I was like cold inside because I just felt like, again, there was a lot of self-awareness in that story he was telling, him knowing who I was and probably liking to provoke. He loves also just telling, he thinks, you know, he likes getting into telling the story. You see how engaging, you see his physicality as he’s telling the story. But I was like, wow, there’s something going on that here he doesn’t know, which is like, he is really laying out the thematic thesis for me and this is crazy. Because I didn’t lead him there, I didn’t ask him to talk about, you know, Auschwitz. It came completely naturally.
SB: This thing was so planned and so engineered, down to perfection. You could see the conference meetings. You could see all the cups of coffee and all the meetings and all the argument. There were people that actually sat and thought through this whole thing and totally detached themselves from, you know, the moral horror of it. That’s when you realize, oh my god, humans can actually do this. Humans that are not devils, right? But humans that are just humans.
JS: You know, and also you captured so many really fascinating moments about this guy. He’s on a plane and he’s sitting next to Sam Nunberg. And Sam Nunberg makes reference to the idea that he and Trump became friends a long time ago. And Bannon says, you know, uh uh, you know.
SB: You know, when you’re at that level, you don’t, you don’t have friends among “grundoons.” That’s a problem. Guys like you and Corey and Stone—you all think you’re buddies with him. You’re not.
AK: And you’re not either?
SB: Not what? Friend of Trump? No. Never. The pressure he’s under, he doesn’t need people crowding his space.
JS: Do you think Bannon really believes that and were his feelings hurt when Trump dumped him and started calling him Sloppy Steve?
AK: Yeah, I mean, I think that Bannon likes to play off that nothing gets at him. But when you watch the movie, is that what you think? Do you think he’s someone who really moves through the world and nothing phases him?
JS: I don’t get that sense. That’s why I genuinely, I wouldn’t say I was on the edge of my seat, but I was genuinely asking, when you asked that question, like, how is he going to answer this, because I could have seen Bannon saying, oh yeah, Trump and I will always be friends. But instead, it was just like, uh uh, this is business, never personal kind of an attitude.
AK: And another thing too is like, unfortunately, that I hope comes through in the film or I at least want to say, that also makes it seem like Bannon is the extreme or the fringe versus like a mainstream Republican viewpoint or a centrist viewpoint. And I really feel like it’s important to recognize that Bannon is the mainstream of the Republican Party. And that whole year, I mean, he is in touch with Senate leadership while obviously, while Jeff Sessions is in the cabinet, he was definitely in touch with him. He would be on the phone with Lindsey Graham. He’d be on the phone, I mean, with many members of the administration once they left but still it was clear that there was a lot of conversation. And so, in that same way, whether or not all these people are friends, and that goes back sorry to the question that you posed about him and Trump, I mean, like, he was very careful I thought the whole year that I was following him to never bad mouth Trump. But he also wasn’t playing like they were buddies, as like the answer to that question. And I did feel like it was about, you know, what was brilliant about Trump was just what he was able to do, media wise and connecting to people. And I didn’t feel like, it wasn’t like he went on and on about any other aspect of him, if that makes sense.
JS: It was a very brief moment in the film, but one of the moments that I personally found most interesting was that Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, brother of Betsy DeVos, major funder of Trump’s election campaign, and a guy who’s constantly pitching ideas even as we speak to the Trump administration. What’s the relationship between Bannon and Erik Prince that you observed?
AK: They are by my observation like close in a buddy sense. Like that moment is like them joking. It’s actually not really one of substance, but it was kind of to show the chumminess.
Steve Bannon: It’s a beautiful thing. I love fucking with her like this.
Erik Prince: Well, nothing like—wait a minute, this is on camera, so I’ll be careful.
AK: Erik Prince I think is very interested in and it’s been reported, you know, that he wants Trump to hire him and his —
JS: He wants to privatize the war in Afghanistan.
AK: — mercenaries to do that. I also would challenge Bannon. You know, Bannon’s very hawkish on China. And I was like, how do you square this relationship with Erik Prince considering he is training the CCPs army? And eventually I got him to the point he said, I disagree with Erik on that.
JS: What you’re saying here is actually really I think politically important for people to understand right now. That you, first of all, Steve Bannon and Erik Prince go way back. They’re also connected through the Mercers. When Erik Prince did start publicly speaking, when Obama was in power, Prince was living in Abu Dhabi and was calling into Bannon’s radio show. And they did these series of radio interviews.
Erik Prince: A Phoenix-led program. OK, remember, the Phoenix program was a root canal done —
SB: You mean Phoenix, this is the Phoenix, hang on, this is the Phoenix program in Vietnam?
EP: It was a vicious but very effect kill/capture program in Vietnam that destroyed the Viet Cong as a military force. That’s what needs to be done to the funders of Islamic terror. And that would be, even the —
JS: But if you take that, what you’re just mentioning now about Erik Prince, and then you look at Miles Kwok. 2014/2015, Miles Kwok leaves China, he’s an extremely wealthy individual, but explain who he is and what he’s doing around Steve Bannon.
AK: Bannon, you know, went to kiss the ring with Miles Kwok very, very regularly. When he would come through town to New York, often Kwok was the first person he would go see. He’s a billionaire who used to be very connected in the CCP.
JS: China Communist Party.
AK: He made his money as a developer and there are many charges out against him for fraud and other things. And so, he does not return to Beijing or to China and he’s in the U.S.. He owns a very luxurious apartment overlooking Central Park. The U.S. does not have an extradition relationship with China. What Bannon told me was that once Trump was elected, there were so many prominent American businesspeople and bankers, people who do lots of business in China, who were coming to Bannon and to the administration, asking as a favor so that they would look good to have Kwok extradited to China. This is what Bannon says. That this really impressed him. That clearly this guy must be such a big deal, because all these businesspeople, bankers this is what they want to do to look good for their Chinese partners. And so, that’s when Bannon said Kwok really came on his radar in 2016. The amount of time that he was spending with him, and in particular, after his relationship with the Mercers ended, but you know, this was all after.
JS: And yet you say to Bannon, is Miles Kwok supporting this effort financially, and Bannon says:
SB: Did who?
SB: What do you mean support?
AK: Like, financially.
SB: Oh, no, no. I don’t take any money from him.
JS: But, I don’t want to spoil part of the ending here, right now, Bannon is the manager of a project that is funded to the tune of a $100 million by Miles Kwok.
AK: Yeah, exactly. And not every shot of Bannon on a private plane is Miles Kwok’s plane, but some of them are.
JS: We meet Nigel Farage in your film where he and Bannon are having this conversation. And Bannon is sort of pitching him the idea that Bannon can fund this project that has as its goal kind of the spread of economic nationalist populist movements.
SB: If you’re interested, what I’d like to do is set up something, and I’ll fund it somehow, that I think, and I think you’re the perfect guy. We help knit together this populist nationalist movement throughout the world. Because guys in Egypt are coming to me. The Modis guys in India, Duterte, you know, and we get Orbán, and even think, and we are somehow, some sort of convening authority.
JS: Bannon views that as like the new coalition of the willing whatevers [sic], but explain what the idea of the movement is and what Bannon’s sort of goal was at the time, as you witnessed it.
AK: Yeah, and I think there’s sort of The Movement, capital T, capital M, and there’s also just the movement, meaning, you know, something that I do think Bannon is notable for is this articulation of a global and internationally connected far right. Even when he’s like, failing to do some of the specific things that he maybe sets out to do in this film, like which will be that capital T, capital M, specific organization called The Movement. But I still think that there’s something to be wary of when there’s this, again, in articulation of this idea, because I think that words and ideas do matter.
JS: What is that idea?
AK: That nationalism doesn’t just mean, you know, countries acting alone, and that these different countries frankly with most of them with authoritarian leaders or fascist parties on the rise, that the vision of nationalism is something that can cross borders.
JS: Yeah, the film at one point, weaves this story together where you have the rhetoric that Steve Bannon is using and that people around Steve Bannon are using and then the specific issues that they really want to kind of fan the flames of anger. And they openly embrace this in your film, it’s really interesting. And then, Cesar Sayoc’s plots are uncovered. And then you have the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue massacre. Is Bannon responsible for those things in your view in any way?
AK: Is he happy that those things happened? You know, I don’t really think so. Does he like, is he communicating with any of those specific perpetrators? No. But 100 percent, he should be held responsible. Again, not as the solitary source of the responsibility. And again, because you see, that is something that he really, I don’t give him a pass. And I don’t find it useful to just, you know, interview him and ask him what he thinks about it and let that be the answer. Because I think you have to look at the words, deeds, actions, and I don’t buy that. I just don’t buy that. And I think he should be held responsible.
JS: Well, there’s a lot more that I would have liked to ask you about, but I really hope people watch this film. It gives you really a creepy, eerie but accurate sense of part of this guy that you never really see in the print press about him or in interviews that he does. So, I congratulate you on being able to capture all of this with this guy. Alison Klayman, thank you so much.
AK: Thank you.
JS: Alison KIayman is the director of “The Brink.” She made her directorial debut with her film “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.” That’s about the Chinese artist and dissident. Her other films include “The 100 Years Show,” “Take Your Pills,” and the upcoming short “Flower Punk” about the Japanese artist Azuma Makoto.
And that does it for this week’s show.
If you are not yet a sustaining member of Intercepted, you can log onto TheIntercept.com/join. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. 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. Transcription is done by Nuria Marquez Martinez. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.
Correction: March 28, 2019
In a previous version of this episode, Jeremy Scahill incorrectly identified Naomi Klein as the chair of the women’s studies department at Rutgers. Her title is Gloria Steinem Chair of Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies. The reference has been removed in the audio and transcript of this episode.