Donald Trump is often portrayed as an aberration of U.S. history, an outsider who seized power and is intent on destroying democracy as we know it. In the premiere episode of “American Mythology,” we examine the ways that Trump has proven to be a particularly dangerous autocrat who doesn’t believe in any semblance of a democratic process. But that story cannot be told without also exploring how various U.S. systems and the policies of Trump’s predecessors carved the way for many of his most dangerous actions. Featuring interviews with lawmakers, journalists, activists and dissidents, world renowned historians, and constitutional scholars and lawyers on the front lines of scores of battles against the Trump administration, this episode offers an overview of how the Republican Party has embraced Trump as a Trojan horse to ram through its most extreme — and long-standing — policy agendas. It also probes the role of Democratic Party leaders in facilitating some of Trump and the GOP’s most dangerous policies and lays out the stakes of the 2020 presidential election, which Trump is already calling illegitimate.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill coming to you from New York City and this is part one of an Intercepted special, “American Mythology: The Presidency of Donald Trump.”
JS: Where does the story of the presidency of Donald Trump begin?
Shepard Smith: Pennsylvania goes to Donald Trump. Donald Trump is the president of the United States.
Bret Baier: In an Electoral College victory that virtually no one saw coming a year ago, a few months ago.
SS: A week ago.
BB: Even yesterday.
Joe Scarborough: A complete earthquake. This was an earthquake unlike any earthquake I’ve really seen since Ronald Reagan in 1980. It just came out of nowhere. Nobody expected — I mean —
JS: Technically, the Trump presidency began on a dreary, cold day, January 20, 2017, when Trump gave his infamous American Carnage speech in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Donald Trump: This American Carnage stops right here and stops right now.
JS: But the story of this presidency doesn’t begin on that day or even with the 2016 campaign.
DJT: You know you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.
DJT: He’s a war hero ’cause he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, OK? I hate to tell you.
DJT: Uh, I don’t know what I said. Uh, I don’t remember!
DJT: Database is OK. And watch list is OK. And surveillance is OK. If you don’t mind, I want to be — I want to surveil — I want surveillance.
JS: The story does not begin with Trump’s offhand threats to run for president over the decades.
Rona Barrett: If you lost your fortune today, what would you do tomorrow?
DJT: Maybe I’d run for president. I don’t know.
DJT: Somebody has to help this country. And if they don’t, the country, and the world, are in big trouble.
Oprah Winfrey: This sounds like political, presidential talk to me. And I know people have talked to you about whether or not you want to run. Would you ever?
Larry King: Donald Trump, the multimillionaire real estate developer is sounding more like a politician these days than America’s most grandiose and controversial builder.
DJT: I just want to tell you —
David Letterman: You act like you’re running for something.
DL: We’ll do a commercial. We’ll let him think some of these over and try and get…
JS: There is value to exploring the specifics of Donald J. Trump’s personal path to unprecedented power. There is no doubt that his journey to the White House, amidst claims of outside interference and aid, was an extraordinary achievement with far reaching implications.
John Roberts: I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear.
DJT: I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear.
JR: That I will faithfully execute.
DJT: That I will faithfully execute.
JR: The office of President of the United States.
JS: Beyond his inflammatory rhetoric, his systematic lying and crude nature, Trump is most relevant to this story because of what he facilitated and the incredible opportunities he gave to some of the most radical right wing forces in U.S. politics, as Naomi Klein predicted in the early days of his administration.
Naomi Klein: I think here’s a worrying message of kind of like, it’s so outrageous. The hypocrisies are so intense that obviously people are going to see this. You know, Trump ran as champion of the working man, and he’s going to stand up to the corruption and billionaires in Washington. And then just fills, you know, his administration with them. And there’s — like some people seem to be expecting that there’s going to be sort of a spontaneous revolt of Trump’s base. And what scares me is that as the economic facade falls away, the racism, the sort of weaponizing of race, and the weaponizing of gender becomes all the more important because that’s all they have to offer. The economic stuff was obviously a sham. But they’re going to feed that to their base to make sure they don’t lose them. What we need to understand is how misogyny and racism are used to advance this agenda.
Protesters: This is what a feminist looks like.
Lead protester: Tell me what a feminist looks like!
Protesters: This is what a feminist looks like.
JS: The policies the administration began fast tracking from the first moments in power had long been high on the wish list of the leaders of the Republican Party, and Trump — more than any of his predecessors — dared to shout the quiet parts out loud, broadcast them on Twitter, and proudly embrace them at virtually every opportunity. Princeton University professor Eddie Glaude Jr.:
Eddie Glaude Jr.: Think of this moment as the decline of the empire, that something is dying while something is trying to be born. Donald Trump represents an exaggerated version of the rot that’s at the heart of the country, that he’s a reflection of something that’s here. In some ways, all of the contradictions of a particular economic order, of the kind of exploitation of white fear, combined with a deepening sense of precarity made Trump possible.
JS: In assessing the Trump presidency, there are two significant tracks we will explore. First: The ways in which Trump is, in fact, a particularly dangerous autocrat who doesn’t believe in any semblance of a democratic process. And second: The ways in which various U.S. systems and the policies of Trump’s predecessors carved the way for many of his most dangerous actions.
NYU Professor Nikhil Pal Singh argued early on in Trump’s presidency that understanding these dynamics was essential to confronting what was to come.
Nikhil Pal Singh: But the idea that sort of we somehow just kind of flipped a switch and got Trump in this kind of weird way that doesn’t try to think about a longer story that takes us through some of the failure of reckoning of the Obama years, and, of course, the pathway that the Iraq war put the country on. And even before the Iraq war, the pathway that the Clinton-era mass incarceration project put us on, you know, I think makes it really difficult for us to make sense of what’s happening right now and to make sense of the forces that Trump has been able to mobilize.
JS: You cannot separate the past from the present. How Trump is specifically dangerous is, in significant ways, a direct product of the system and nation that produced him. History and context matter. As journalist and writer Chris Hedges pointed out, Trump did not come as a surprise apparition in the night.
Chris Hedges: We’ve personalized the problem in Trump without realizing that Trump is the product of a failed democracy. Trump is what rises up from the bowels of a decayed and degenerate system. And you can get rid of Trump, but you’re not going to get rid of what the sociologist Émile Durkheim called that “anomie” that propels societies to engage in deeply self-destructive behavior.
JS: Upon taking office, the Trump administration immediately dispensed with any great effort to make serious legal or moral arguments when issuing policy edicts. It was clear that Trump and his team intended to assert sweeping executive powers while at the same time ferociously subverting Congressional oversight. Not just on national security matters, but in virtually every tangible way. Employing this strategy, Trump has proven remarkably effective at ramming through an extremist agenda–one that had been developed for generations by powerful factions within the Republican party.
Mitch McConnell: What we need is a president who, after getting sworn into the office, sworn in, goes into the Oval Office and starts undoing as many of these executive orders and regulations as he possibly can as rapidly as you can, thereby taking the foot off the break and putting it on the accelerator. That’s what the country needs.
JS: Yet, from the beginning of Trump’s presidential run, many establishment Republicans laughed at him, denounced him, and failed to take his prospects for winning the nomination of their party seriously.
Lindsey Graham: Well, I want to talk to the Trump supporters for a minute. I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know why you like this guy. I think what you like about him, he appears to be strong when the rest of us are weak. He’s a very successful business man and he’s going to make everything great. He’s going to take all the problems of the world and put them in a box and make your life better. That’s what he’s selling. Here’s what you’re buying. He’s a race baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot. He doesn’t represent my party. He’s the ISIL man of the year, by the way.
JS: Trump defeated the establishment elite of the Republican Party, from the dynasty candidate Jeb Bush, to popular Republican governors and senators.
DJT: The RNC told us we have all donors in the audience and the reason they’re not loving me — [audience boos.] The reason they’re not — Excuse me. The reason they’re not loving me is I don’t want their money. I’m going to do the right thing for the American public. I don’t want their money. I don’t need their money. And I’m the only one up here that can say that. Eminent domain, the keystone policy —
Allan Nairn: Trump was constantly denouncing the rigging of the system. His basic message was the system’s rigged. Our system is a killer system and it’s corrupt. All of which is true, except the rigging took place in the opposite direction, which he portrayed. But it’s uncomfortable for the establishment types to hear that, especially coming out of the mouth of their own candidate.
JS: Journalist Allan Nairn pointed out that Trump almost had to force the institutional Republican Party to recognize the incredible gift he would be giving them by seizing power.
AN: Trump dragged a rightist revolution into power. It’s the Paul Ryan agenda which could never have gotten elected in its own right because it’s anathema to most Americans. But Trump, with his genius for unleashing the beast in white America, touching these deep chords of racism, succeeded in turning a crucial number of previous white Obama voters into Trump voters, and this is a Republican Party that is one of the most radical mainstream political parties in all of American history, perhaps with the exception of the, you know, pro-secessionist Democrats at the time of the Civil War.
And they’ve been in there, they’ve been implementing a rightist revolution, doing the massive transfer of wealth in part via the tax bill, but also an important part by systematically, agency by agency, trying to gut the constraints on large corporations and the oligarchs, regarding the environment, their treatment of labor, their ability to discriminate, their ability to commit fraud without fear of being sued by the public, increasing the rights of rich individuals to intervene in politics, decreasing the rights of collectives of working people to intervene in politics, like the Gorsuch-led Supreme Court decision. And, now, as the Republican Party has evolved to the most radical extreme, they happen to have control of Congress and the Supreme Court.
And they’ve been going around rigging the system so that a diminishing minority can hold power and continue to govern, just as Trump was elected with a minority of the votes, they’re trying to set it up so that through a long list of tactics, including purging of voter rolls, voter suppression shortly before Election Day, gerrymandering, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, smaller and smaller numbers of people can win elections and retain power.
JS: It is probable that none of the GOP’s preferred or even more establishment candidates could have beaten Hillary Clinton in 2016. Clinton won the popular vote by three million ballots and narrowly lost a handful of states tipping the Electoral College in Trump’s favor. So sure were Democrats, media pundits — and even top Clinton campaign operatives — of Clinton’s victory that many laughed at the idea Trump could win, and only a few took the idea seriously.
Keith Ellison: All I want to say is that anybody from the Democratic side of the fence who thinks that — who is terrified of the possibility of President Trump better vote, better get active, better get involved because this man has got some momentum. And we better be ready for the fact that he might be leading the Republican ticket.
George Stephanopoulos: I know you don’t believe that, but I want to go on —
Maggie Haberman: Sorry to laugh.
KE: You know, George, we had Jesse Ventura in Minnesota win the governorship. Nobody thought he was going to win. I’m telling you, stranger things has happened.
JS: For the Republican power brokers, Trump was a messiah that they chided and scorned when he first appeared.
Ted Cruz: Donald Trump alleges that my dad was involved in assassinating JFK. Now, let’s be clear. This is nuts. This man is a pathological liar. He doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth. Everything in Donald’s world is about Donald. But the man is utterly amoral.
JS: Now most Republicans, including not so few who once laughed at him, prostrate themselves before him every minute of every day.
TC: I like Donald Trump. I think he’s terrific. I think he’s brash. I think he speaks the truth. He has a way of speaking that gets attention and I credit him for focusing on an issue that needs to be focused on. I’m not interested in Republican on Republican —
JS: It didn’t take long for the GOP to pivot to Trump. And from the beginning, he has functioned as a fixer for the most corrupt, extreme, and dangerous forces in U.S. society while personally profiting off of the presidency. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a scholar on authoritarianism, described this dynamic.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: One thing I find interesting, which recurs in the past, is Trump this charismatic figure. And they come along every so often. You’ve mentioned some of them. And they seem to coalesce the kind of anxieties and frustrations of a given historical moment, but the conservative elites — in this case, GOP — back them and not other people, because they believe that they can use them as a vehicle to do the things they’ve been wanting to do for a long time — the racists, the voter suppression, all the things that the GOP has been trying to activate and was very frustrated it couldn’t do under Obama, right? This is a kind of mutual using of the authoritarian and his backers, right? And so, many of the repressive, authoritarian-minded things going on, right now, are being introduced by the GOP.
JS: The most devastating dimension of Trump’s time in office, on a policy level, is how the Republican establishment utilized Trump as a Trojan horse for its extreme agenda. Like many of his buildings around the world, Trump did not create the agenda, but his name is emblazoned everywhere. This Trump-branded GOP quickly became a clearing house for realizing the wildest dreams of the right-wing hitmen in Washington.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: People ask me all the time, “Trump is such an embarrassment. Why do the Republicans put up with this?”
JS: Princeton University scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor:
KYT: If you look beyond the chaos that is generated from his Twitter account, it’s easy to see why the Republicans put up with this. Whether it’s the historic tax cut, the rapid and utterly frightening transformation of the judiciary, the tinkering with the machinery of the state is creating the kinds of changes that will far exceed the tenure of the Trump Administration. We’re witnessing a virtual coup within the confines of the Supreme Court in the ultimate validation of the strategy of dealing with the chaos, the lack of civility, the inattention to political norms, all of the things that people have said that this administration represents while missing what is actually happening under the hood.
JS: Trump has had his signature moments, often through edicts or executive orders, but much of his agenda has been outsourced to craftier and more sophisticated lobbyists, special interest groups and lawmakers. And the president has often been content to serve as the carnival barker for the masses obsessively checking his ratings and Twitter feed in between golf outings and watching the FOX News morning and evening lineups. While Trump overtly appeared incompetent and boorish, consumer advocate and former independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader warned that it was a mistake to underestimate the combination of Trump’s strengths working in concert with the radical GOP agenda.
Ralph Nader: People who think Trump is stupid may be right in terms of his understanding reality and history and the things that we would like presidents to be alert and smart about, but when it comes to street smarts and timing and the jugular? You can’t find anybody more proficient.
JS: It is difficult to overstate what has been accomplished during this presidency. The consequences of the sweeping re-molding of the federal courts with hundreds of lifetime appointments and the extreme right-wing stacking of the U.S. Supreme Court under Trump will reverberate for generations to come.
Mitch McConnell: And working together we’re changing the federal courts forever! Nobody’s done more to change the court system in the history of our country than Donald Trump. And Mr. President, we’re going to keep on doing it. My motto is leave no vacancy behind.
JS: It will also place crucial human rights in the crosshairs and potentially play a decisive role in what Trump is virtually declaring will be an attempted theft of a presidential election.
DJT: This scam that the Democrats are pulling — it’s a scam. The scam will be before the United States Supreme Court and I think having a four-four situation is not a good situation if you get that. I don’t know that you get that. I think it should be eight-nothing or nine-nothing. But just in case it would be more political than it should be, I think it’s very important to have a ninth justice.
JS: At this moment, the most lethal aspect of Trump’s presidency has been his colossal mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
DJT: Now the virus that we’re talking about having to do — you know a lot of people think that goes away in April, with the heat. It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear. It will go away. You know, you know it is going away. I think that at some point that’s going to sort of just disappear, I hope.
JS: Beyond the mounting COVID death toll, what Trump did in these four years in power will inflict incalculable damage on tens of millions of people across the U.S. Trump’s administration has attacked workers’ rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, civil liberties and freedom of speech. He has proudly waged war on the climate and often waxed on about how proud he is of increasing the use of the most destructive sources of fuel, production, and energy.
Wade Crowfoot: If we ignore that science and sort of put out head in the sand and think it’s all about vegetation management, we’re not going to succeed together protecting Californians.
DJT: OK. It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.
WC: I wish science agreed with you.
DJT: Well, I don’t think science knows, actually. Tom, please —
JS: Trump’s financial policies and tax cuts have showered money and profits on powerful corporate interests and the wealthy, while the already abysmal U.S. healthcare system has been further gutted and simultaneously oiled up for record profits, while millions suffer from inadequate or no health coverage and massive health-related debt. In an interview in 2018 on Intercepted, famed dissident and linguist Noam Chomsky highlighted Trump’s ability to simultaneously please radical factions within the GOP and corporations while convincing his voter base that he’s their protector from the elites.
Noam Chomsky: On the domestic scene, Trump is very effectively managing both of his constituencies. There’s an authentic constituency of corporate power and private wealth and they’re being served magnificently by the executive orders, legislative programs that are being pushed through which represent the more savage wing of the traditional Republican policies — catering to private interests, private wealth, and dismissing the rest as irrelevant and easily disposed of.
At the same time, he’s managing to maintain the voting constituency by pretending, very effectively, to be the one person in the world who stands up for them against the hated elites. And this is quite an impressive con job. How long he can carry it off, I don’t know.
JS: Rutgers University professor and journalist Juan Gonzalez said that Trump had kindled a movement that was already developing within the country before his election.
Juan Gonzalez: I look at Trump as one of the biggest small businessmen in America. Because the right-wing populism always comes out of the small business community. It doesn’t come out of the globalized public corporations that understand that they need a world in which trade and goods are flowing freely without barriers.
And Trump as a protectionist represents the small business groups within the society, but except that he is a billionaire small businessman really. He was always an outcast among the capitalist class of the United States. In that sense, though, he’s tapped into the tremendous insecurity that exists among the great sectors of the American population over the impact of unfettered globalism on their lives.
So, he has wracked his form of populism and his “America first” policies, and in that sense, he’s been able to use patriotism as a way to further ensnare some sectors of the not only small business people who are obviously benefiting tremendously through his policies, but also the more well-to-do sectors of the American working class. Because there has always been a sector of the American working class that benefits from the existence of the imperial power of the country. So they have rallied to his call.
JS: But on a raw level, it is clear that a significant sector of Trump’s base was inspired by the nativist rhetoric and causes that Trump claimed to be championing, replete with all the greatest hits from locking up Hillary Clinton to the birther conspiracy to old fashioned racism. He offered a prognosis that saw America as a place that the undocumented immigrants, the Muslims, the liberals, the Black people have all ruined. Trump promised them he would end all of that and “Make America Great Again.”
DJT: The number of new illegal immigrant families who have crossed the border so far this year already exceeds the entire total from 2015. They are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources.
Audience: Build the wall! Build the wall!
JS: On the campaign trail, even before becoming president, Trump used his substantial platform to embolden and encourage racists and xenophobes, while encouraging police and military forces to act extrajudicially.
DJT: In the good old days, this doesn’t happen because they used to treat them very, very rough. And when they protested once, you know, they would not do it again so easily. In the old days, they didn’t come back. I can tell you that. They were gone. They were taken out. They were gone.
DJT: And they — I don’t know, rough up — he should have been, maybe he should have been roughed up.
DJT: I don’t know if I’ll do the fighting myself or if other people will.
DJT: We’re not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.
DJT: Knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. Ok. Just knock the hell — I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees, I promise. I promise.
DJT: I said, “Please don’t be too nice.” Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, the way you put their hand over? Like, don’t hit their head, and they’ve just killed somebody. Don’t hit their head. I said you can take the hand away, OK?
JS: Yale historian and fascism scholar Jason Stanley said Trump’s embrace of the police and “law enforcement” as a class, while also cultivating support among militia-type groups, is a common tactic in authoritarian political movements.
Jason Stanley: The fascist state’s refusal to condemn the extrajudicial violence has a particular linguistic role because the state licenses it by not explicitly condemning it. But at the same time, the state uses its extrajudicial nature to say, “Look, we’re not the extremists. Look, you can see the extremists — they’re out there.”
It’s important to the white nationalist movement to have the people in ties and suits in government. And they need the extrajudicial violence on the street to say, “That’s not us. Look, just look at how we’re dressed versus how they’re dressed.” But you can tell the links between them, not just because of the clear overlap in language — minus a few words. Instead of white nationalist, you just use nationalist.
Instead of adding Jew to globalist, instead of saying, you know, “It’s the Jews that control the press. It’s the Jews that are behind lax immigration laws,” you say it’s the globalists. And then you don’t denounce the extrajudicial violence. You know, you denounce it in certain extreme cases where you just have to, but you leave it crucially ambiguous at times. And then that has this licensing effect.
JS: Trump’s administration has taken a chainsaw to the very concept of rule of law. Under Jeff Sessions, and more so under William Barr, the Justice Department has simultaneously served as Trump’s private law firm and has been wielded as a judicial howitzer whose fire is aimed at weakening and ultimately destroying the notion of checks and balances that are at the core of constitutional democracy. This is how Rep. Barbara Lee described the threats when I spoke to her just days into Trump’s administration:
Barbara Lee: I’m very terrified with regard to what we see taking place. And the signs are there. When you talk about shutting down the media, putting out their alternative facts, banning dissent and opposition, criticizing people who are exercising their First Amendment rights; trying to get people to believe, really, the distortions that they’re putting out there. That, to me, is very scary. It’s very dangerous. And you see also the corporate and military consolidation of the public sector. You see efforts to privatize schools. When you just look at the nominees, you see very few people with experience in the public sector. And so when you have the corporate sector merging with the military sectors, and when you have cabinet officials who have historically said they want to dismantle the cabinets and the agencies that they’re running, that I’m very terrified that we are beginning to see an erosion of our democratic values and an erosion of the public sector.
DJT: I’m going to continue to attack the press. Look, I find the press to be extremely dishonest. I find the political press to be unbelievably dishonest. I will say that. OK, thank you all very much.
JS: Donald Trump’s war against journalism began on the 2016 campaign trail, as he railed against fake news and sought to stir up anger and potentially violence aimed at journalists.
DJT: A lot of these guys — look at all the cameras back there. A lot of the people back there are totally dishonest people. Probably libelist stories, or certainly close. In the newspapers, and the people know the stories are false.
DJT: The media, totally, totally, totally dishonest. But they don’t do that because these newspapers and the media are totally dishonest people, folks. Remember that. Totally dishonest.
DJT: They too are part of a rigged system. The media is totally dishonest. They’re a rigged system trying to deny people the positive change that they’re looking for and they deserve.
DJT: Such lies. Such lies. Such fabrication. Such made-up stories. Now the Times is going out of business pretty soon, that’s the good news. But such made-up stories. Such vicious, made-up stories.
DJT: I would never kill them. But I do hate them. Some of them are such lying, disgusting people. It’s true. It’s true.
JS: Trump’s rhetoric was a dangerous escalation. At the same time, there was a tendency in media coverage of these attacks on the press, to ignore the records of Trump’s predecessors.
James Risen: The Obama administration was by far the most anti-press administration we’ve had since at least Nixon. They — as you know, they conducted more leak investigations and did more leak prosecutions — more than all the previous administrations combined. And they targeted journalists in ways that no other administration ever has.
JS: Pulitzer Prize winning journalist James Risen fought a multi-year battle with the Bush and Obama Justice Departments as they sought to force him to testify against an alleged source. As Risen predicted, Trump would soon do his own weaponizing of the Espionage Act and prosecute leakers and whistleblowers with a vengeance.
JR: What Obama did makes it much easier for Trump to do what he wants on leaks. They have created an environment and have left it for Trump that makes it very easy to subpoena a reporter and then force him to testify. The only alternative right now is for a reporter to go to jail to protect their sources. When the Democrats are in power, they hate leaks; when the Republicans are in power, they hate leaks. I think Trump has just taken that language to new heights.
DJT: It’s so important to the public to get an honest press. The press — the public doesn’t believe you people anymore. Now maybe I had something to do with that, I don’t know.
JS: On questions of war and national security, Trump has often spoken in contradictory directions: On the one hand, he lambasted the Iraq war and the unending nature of the so-called war on terror.
DJT: The Iraq war was a disaster. It was a mistake. We spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives, thousands of lives, wounded warriors who we love all over the place. What do we have? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Iran is taking over Iraq as sure as you’re sitting there, and that’s the way it is. We get nothing.
JS: On the other, Trump vowed to bring back torture, murder the families of suspected terrorists, steal natural resources and to ignore international law.
DJT: Bomb the oil, take the oil. Bomb the oil, take the oil. Just take it, right?
DJT: We should have kept the oil. Keep the oil. Keep the oil. Keep the oil. Don’t let somebody else get it.
JS: When he took power, Trump had inherited a multi-decade, at times bipartisan, campaign to undermine Congressional oversight of the executive branch while expanding the unilateral powers of the presidency. This was one of the major career missions of people like Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Henry Kissinger. It is also true for the current attorney general, William Barr. They are extremist disciples of the theory of the unitary executive.
Charlie Savage: Out of those notions of a presidency that’s beyond the reach of Congress to regulate come things like the torture program, like the warrantless wiretapping program.
JS: Charlie Savage reports on executive power for the New York Times.
CS: And not just the notion that these steps were necessary as a matter of policy to deal with the threat that became apparent on 9/11, but how they chose to put those policies into place, which is to say in secret without going to Congress to ask them to change the law to make torture legal, to make warrantless wiretapping legal. But to just say the president, as commander-in-chief and head of the unitary executive, is not bound by laws that prohibit things like that and he can just secretly ignore them.
JS: Building on the programs of his predecessors, Trump soon gave the U.S. military and CIA expanded and secretive lethal authorities across the globe, while loosening or removing the minimal restraints that existed over such forces, including in the killing of civilians. And he placed at the helm of the CIA Gina Haspel, a key player in the CIA’s secret black site torture program.
Kamala Harris: Do you believe that the previous interrogation techniques were immoral?
Gina Haspel: Senator, I believe that CIA officers to whom you refer —
KH: It’s a yes or no answer. Do you believe the previous interrogation techniques were immoral? I’m not asking: Do you believe they were legal? I’m asking: Do you believe they were immoral?
GH: Senator, I believe that CIA did extraordinary work to prevent another attack on this country given the legal tools that we were authorizing.
KH: Please answer “yes” or “no.” Do you believe in hindsight that those techniques were immoral?
GH: Senator, what I believe sitting here today is that I support the higher moral standard we have decided to hold ourselves to.
KH: Can you please answer the question?
GH: Senator, I think I’ve answered the question.
KH: No, you’ve not. Do you believe the previous techniques, now armed with hindsight, do you believe they were immoral? Yes, or no?
GH: Senator, I believe that we should hold ourselves to the moral standard outlined in the Army Field Manual.
KH: OK. So, I understand that you — you’ve not answered the question, but I’m going to move on.
JS: Donald Trump largely telegraphed the type of autocratic and corrupt administration that he intended to run. No one who watched his endlessly televised campaign speeches could claim to be taken by surprise.
Amy Goodman: And then you have the media part of this right, where you have the unending Trump TV? Not the new Trump TV but all the networks Trump TV when it came to Donald Trump they showed more footage of his empty podium waiting for him to speak than they ever played of the words —
JS: In assessing Trump’s impact and path to power, it is also important to look at the nature of political opposition to his candidacy and, ultimately, his administration. And for the institutional elite of the Democratic Party, that picture does not look good.
Nancy Pelosi: One of my prayers is that the Republicans will take back their party. The country needs a strong Republican Party. It’s done so much for our country. And to have it be hijacked as a cult at this time is really a sad thing.
JS: Democrats have voted to give Trump sweeping powers of war and surveillance while simultaneously calling Trump the most dangerous president in history, accusing him of being a Russian asset and claiming he is destroying democracy as we know it. They have repeatedly engaged in performative resistance to Trump on cable news.
Chuck Schumer: What could possibly cause President Trump to put the interests of Russia over those of the United States. Millions of Americans will continue to wonder if the only possible explanation for this dangerous behavior is the possibility that President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump.
JS: For most of Trump’s time in office, Democrats prioritized the Trump-Russia investigation over almost all else. And the New Yorker journalist Masha Gessen consistently warned that this strategy was distracting from other dangers and would likely backfire.
Masha Gessen: My basic problem with the Russia conspiracy theory remains the same, which is that it’s like the one size fits all theory that tells us how we got Trump, which is that he’s a Russian agent, and that gets us out of the really frightening and complicated task of understanding how Americans voted for Trump, right? And it also creates this idea of how we’re gonna get rid of Trump, which is that magically — again and I keep using the word “magically” quite consciously because there is no straight line from any amount of Russia revelations to an impeachment. Not to mention that there’s no straight line from impeachment to actually getting rid of Trump. But magically, people believe that if the Russia collusion or the Russia conspiracy is proven, then that will somehow get rid of Trump, and the national nightmare will be over.
JS: The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives under Nancy Pelosi ultimately did impeach Donald Trump. But only on a narrow set of charges related to Ukraine. Her tenure as Speaker of the House under Trump ultimately led Shahid Buttar, a progressive constitutional law advocate and attorney, to challenge her for her Congressional seat.
Shahid Buttar: Nancy Pelosi affirmatively took off the table all of the strongest charges against the president. The impeachment absolutely did not address his human rights abuses, or his incitements to violence, or his lies to the public and policy makers; or his documented, unprecedented corruption, and theft from the American people — his self-enrichment at public expense. It is constitutionally prohibited and the reason Nancy Pelosi, I think, did not allow that charge to proceed is that it is a bipartisan offense.
JS: Ralph Nader is widely and often blamed by Democrats for George W. Bush’s victory in 2000. The same happened with Green Party Candidate Jill Stein in 2016. Nader, who has emerged as a tenacious critic of Trump, argues that the Democrats must also be held responsible for Trump’s ascent.
Ralph Nader: And the Democratic Party could not landslide the worst Republican Party in history since 1854? The most ignorant, the most corporate indentured, the most warlike, the most corporate welfare supportive, the most bailout-prone Republican Party, anti-worker, anti-consumer, anti-environment? Why don’t they look in the mirror? The Democratic Party is the main scapegoater in American politics. It’s never their fault. It’s never Hillary’s fault. It’s always a Green Party fault. It’s always an independent candidate fault. They’ve lost two presidential elections since 2000, even though they won the popular vote, because the Electoral College took it away from them. There’s a major national citizen effort to have an interstate compact to neutralize the Electoral College.
The Democratic Party is not supporting of that. The Democratic Party doesn’t want to get rid of the Electoral College. They’ve lost twice to the Republicans. And that meant George W. Bush, and that meant Donald J. Trump.
So this scapegoating is nothing more than a sickness of the Democratic Party that cannot unleash new energy. It’s a sick, decrepit party that cannot defend the United States of America against the worst Republican Party in history.
JS: It is easy, and these days accepted as common sense, to view Trump as an aberration of U.S. history. An uninvited guest who somehow cheated everyone to take power from the real adults. But it’s a mistake to divorce the ascent of Trump and the policies of his administration from the corporate dominated electoral process in the U.S. and the myths of American exceptionalism. Here is Pulitzer Prize winning historian Greg Grandin.
Greg Grandin: Well, in the history of U.S. administrations, he is exceptional. And that’s one of the things that I was also trying to get at: The argument that Donald Trump either revealed a deep racism, a deep settler colonial barbarism, or he represented something completely unique and exceptional to the United States. He is unique in the sense that he is presiding over the end of the frontier, the end of expansion, the end of the invocation of endless growth as a solution for domestic problems. I would say there is no other example that is equitable, that is comparable. A lot of people like to talk about Andrew Jackson —
DJT: Had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was — he was a very tough person, but he had a big heart, and he was really angry that — he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, there’s no reason for this. People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War. Think about it. Why? People don’t ask that question. But why was there the Civil War? Why could, why could that one not have been worked out?
GG: Trump talks about Jackson as his favorite politician, and certainly Trump represents a settler colonial racism. By that I mean an embrace or trumpeting of the notion of freedom as freedom from restraint. But Trump is presiding over a country turned inward. Andrew Jackson came to power as the United States was moving out into the world, and that moving out into the world took place on the back of Indian removal, the expansion of chattel slavery, war with Spain and Mexico, and an enormous amount of violence. Trump is presiding over, in some ways, the end of the project.
Trump, in some ways, is the worst of both worlds, right? He represents the racism of settler colonialism in its most extreme form. At the same time, he rejects out of hand because of the political coalition that he represents, any kind of public policy that might lead to a more solidaristic and humane policy options. So we have a really kind of a perfect storm of some of the worst trend lines in U.S. history.
JS: If we are being honest — and we must be — this presidency has its roots in the unvarnished story of the United States empire. It is, in fact, the product of that history.
As election day draws near, Trump has taken his attacks on the democratic process to unprecedented levels. He’s already calling the election results a fraud. He’s waging a voter disenfranchisement campaign and is openly encouraging violence from neo-Nazi and white supremacist paramilitaries and official law enforcement alike.
DJT: Do you want to call them — what do you want to call them? Give me a name. Give me a name.
Chris Wallace: White supremacist —
Joe Biden: Proud Boys.
DJT: Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you what. Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem.
DJT: Antifa is a domestic terrorist organization. I proudly received the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Association of Police Organizations, the National Troopers Coalition, the International Union of Police Associations, and law enforcement organizations and departments in Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada —
JS: Donald Trump has openly threatened to remain in office even if he loses the election. He refuses to guarantee a peaceful transition and has suggested he might even serve a third term.
DJT: And we’re going to win four more years in the White House. And then after that we’ll negotiate, right? Cause we’re probably, based on the way we were treated, we’re probably entitled to another four after that.
JS: The dire threats to the democratic process were not invented by Trump or merely the results of Russian interference. As constitutional law expert Shahid Buttar said, the groundwork for this had been laid over many years.
SB: The near-term consequence of a president refusing to leave the White House, he can steer the rest of the events to support that narrative, even if there isn’t a legal basis for him to stay in office. Another way to say this is that the coup undermining the legitimacy of our elections happened a long time ago. You don’t need a computer to hack an election. You don’t need a Russian state intelligence agency to hack an election. You can hack an election when a right-wing Supreme Court invites right-wing state legislatures around the country to start attacking voting rights and that happened years ago. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the crucial enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which were its teeth before. And in the wake of that measure being struck down, it basically opened a floodgate by right-wing state legislatures to restrict voting rights and undermine democracy and the opportunities for their constituents to participate in elections.
DJT: In 78 days we’re going to stop the radical left. We’re going to win the state of Wisconsin. And we’re going to win four more years. And then after that we’ll go for another four years because, you know what, they spied on my campaign. We should get a re-do of four years.
DJT: And after we win four more years, we’ll ask for maybe another four or so. You know, whenever I say that, I watch — look at all that news back there. Look at all that fake news. When I say that their heads explode.
JS: The threats posed by this history and Trump’s presidency cannot be overstated. It is a truly perilous situation that Trump is presiding over. We have produced this series in an effort to examine how we got here and to aid the effort to ensure that it never happens again.
This has been part one of an Intercepted limited documentary series, American Mythology: The Presidency of Donald Trump. Over the next week we will be releasing an episode each weekday focusing on a different aspect of the Trump presidency and digging into the history and context of the actions of this administration. Make sure to tune in tomorrow to part two of this series where we’ll be taking an in-depth look at Donald Trump’s policies on immigration.
American Mythology: The Presidency of Donald Trump is an Intercepted limited documentary series. You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Lucie Kroening. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Make sure to tell your friends and foes about this series and tune in for episode two, tomorrow. Until then, I’m Jeremy Scahill.