On matters of war, Donald Trump has consistently spoken and acted in contradictory and unorthodox ways. He campaigned in 2016 with a mixed message of attacking the legacy of the Iraq War and U.S. military adventurism, while simultaneously pledging to commit war crimes and promote imperialism as a matter of policy. On part four of “American Mythology,” we take an in-depth look at Trump’s war and national security policies. He escalated drone strikes in Somalia and Afghanistan, authorized troop surges and massive bombings in Iraq, launched cruise missile strikes in Syria, and threatened to “totally destroy North Korea.” On the other hand, he signed a deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces, attempted to end the Korean War, and claims to have fired John Bolton to avoid being in “World War 6.” In assessing Trump’s war policies, we seek to navigate past the rhetoric from Trump and his critics and examine his place in the history of U.S. presidents. In many ways, Trump has represented a continuity of U.S. policy with largely tactical differences from his predecessors. Overall, Trump built on some of the worst excesses of the Bush/Cheney administration and took advantage of the weak guardrails left behind by the Obama administration.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
I’m Jeremy Scahill coming to you from New York City and this is part four of an Intercepted special, American Mythology: The Presidency of Donald Trump.
Donald Trump: But we’re fighting a very politically correct war. The other thing is with the terrorists, you have to take out their families. When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. They say they don’t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.
JS: Donald Trump campaigned in 2016 with a mixed message of attacking the legacy of the Iraq war and U.S. military adventurism, while simultaneously pledging to commit war crimes and promote imperialism as a matter of policy.
DJT: When we went over there, I said “Hey! I assume we’re taking the oil. Are we taking the oil?” You know in the old days you had a war — you ever hear the expression, “to the victor belongs the spoils?” I said, “If we’d leave, take the oil! At least pay us back.” And I come out, front-page news, “Oh, Trump is a horrible human being. He wants to take the oil from a sovereign country.” Sovereign, give me a break. You see the people ripping off — sovereign. Ay.
JS: From the beginning of his campaign and throughout his presidency, Trump’s rhetoric on war would weave between denouncing past U.S. military operations and vowing to end wars with an occasional tweet threatening nuclear war or the wiping out of a country’s cultural heritage sites.
Mohammad Javad Zarif: He is showing to the international community that he has no respect for international law, that he is prepared to commit war crimes, because attacking cultural sites is a war crime, and disproportionate response is a war crime.
JS: Even as Trump authorized the expansion of some wars and the continuation of others, as president he suggested that he was weighing the toll of the nation’s foreign wars.
DJT: Nearly 16 years after September 11th attacks, after the extraordinary sacrifice of blood and treasure, the American people are weary of war without victory. Nowhere is this more evident than with the war in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history — 17 years. I share the American people’s frustration. I also share their frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money, and most importantly, lives trying to rebuild countries in our own image instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations.
JS: But he also hedged his positions, saying things like this:
DJT: My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts. But all my life, I have heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the oval office. In other words, when you’re president of the United States.
JS: Trump often hammered his opponents who supported the Iraq war. Or, in the case of Jeb Bush, whose brother started the war.
DJT: The war in Iraq was a big fat mistake, alright? Now, you can take it any way you want. And it took Jeb Bush — if you remember at the beginning of his announcement, when he announced for president, it took him five days. He went back. It was a mistake, it wasn’t a mistake. Took him five days before his people told him what to say. And he ultimately said it was a mistake. The war in Iraq: we spent two trillion dollars, thousands of lives, we don’t even have it. Iran is taking over Iraq with the second-largest oil reserves in the world. Obviously it was a mistake. George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.
JS: And less than a month into his presidency, Donald Trump stated a truth about the nature of the American Empire. And he did it on Fox News in an interview with Bill O’Reilly before the Super Bowl.
DJT: Will I get along with him? I have no idea.
Bill O’Reilly: He’s a killer though. Putin’s a killer.
DJT: There are a lot of killers. We got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?
JS: While what Trump said is indisputably true, he had just taken the helm of that U.S. killing machine.
Brian Williams: We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen, “I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.” And they are beautiful pictures.
JS: Just three months into his presidency, Trump launched 59 cruise missiles at Syria, in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack that reportedly killed more than 70 civilians. Like Pavlov’s dogs, the bipartisan war machine responded accordingly.
Fareed Zakaria: I think Donald Trump became president of the United States. I think this was actually a big moment.
Thomas Friedman: I would be doing everything I could on every front to increase our leverage. Because in the Middle East, if you’re trying to do diplomacy without leverage, you’re playing baseball without a bat.
John McCain: It’s the beginning of a departure from the failed policies of the last eight years.
Lindsey Graham: The only constitutional requirement that exists regarding war is for Congress to put the nation in a declared state of war.
JS: That same month, Donald Trump authorized a massive strike in Afghanistan using a 20,000-pound munition known as the Mother of All Bombs. That strike was supposedly aimed at Islamic State fighters, but mostly it seemed like Trump wanted to show off some of his war toys.
DJT: And what I do is I authorize my military. We have the greatest military in the world and they’ve done a job, as usual, so we have given them total authorization. And that’s what they’re doing.
JS: A few months after that bombing, in August of 2017, Trump announced a new strategy for ending the war in Afghanistan: escalate the killing.
DJT: Finally, my administration will ensure that you, the brave defenders of the American people, will have the necessary tools and rules of engagement to make this strategy work, and work effectively and work quickly. I have already lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our war-fighters that prevented the secretary of defense and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy.
JS: In 2018, documented civilian casualties in Afghanistan continued to top over 10,000 for a fifth year in a row. That’s according to the United Nations. More than 3,000 deaths and 7,000 injured were reported. 2018 saw the largest increase in airstrikes since the U.N. began documenting civilian deaths in 2009 and was attributed to “international military forces” — that is largely the U.S. Again in 2019, airstrikes represented about 10% of civilian casualties.
DJT: We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.
JS: While Trump expanded air-strikes in Afghanistan and the civilian death toll skyrocketed, the administration simultaneously opened direct negotiations with the Taliban. And on February 29, the Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban to begin withdrawing significant numbers of U.S. troops from the country.
Osama Bin Javaid: In February the U.S. government agreed to pull out its troops from Afghanistan, provided the Taliban guaranteed to halt attacks against the U.S. and its allies.
JS: Earlier this month, as Trump returned to the White House after his hospitalization at Walter Reed following his coronavirus diagnosis, Trump tweeted that he would be bringing almost all U.S. troops from Afghanistan home by Christmas. The announcement seemed to take even his own military advisors by surprise, including the chair of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Mark Milley. He appeared on NPR soon after Trump’s tweet was posted.
Mark Milley: I’m not going to engage in speculation. I’m going to engage in the rigorous analysis of the situation based on the conditions and the plans that I am aware of and my conversations with the president.
JS: In other wars started by his predecessors, Trump authorized a series of both covert and overt military operations that would endure throughout his presidential term. Among the first was the deadly military raid in Yemen just nine days into Trump’s presidency. That resulted in the deaths of several dozen people, among them ten children and a U.S. Navy SEAL. Trump portrayed it as a leftover operation from Obama’s presidency.
DJT: Well, this was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something that was, you know, just, they wanted to do. And they came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected. My generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I would — I believe. And they lost Ryan. And I was at the airport when the casket came in, the body came in. And it was very sad — with the family — and it’s a great family. Incredible wife and children.
JS: As was often the case under President Obama, it’s not possible to tally the number of drone strikes carried out by the CIA under Trump, but one drone war specialist told us Agency strikes have been significant. In terms of military operations, Trump expanded drone strikes in both Somalia and Afghanistan.
Amy Goodman: A U.S. drone strike killed five people after it struck a car that was rushing a mother to the hospital after she experienced complications from a home birth. The strike killed the 25-year-old mother Malana, three of her relative’s and the car’s driver in southeastern Afghanistan.
JS: In Iraq and Syria, Trump authorized scorched earth bombing runs and troop surges in the name of defeating ISIS. When Trump entered office, there were already sizable numbers of U.S. Special Operations Forces on the ground battling ISIS in Mosul and other cities. War reporter Mike Giglio said that by the time Trump took the oath of office, half of Mosul was already under the control of Iraqi forces backed by U.S. Special Operations teams.
Mike Giglio: Trump really sort of followed the blueprint that the Obama administration set out for him. The signature change that I think people need to keep in mind with Trump is that he loosened rules and restrictions that had been intended to prevent civilian casualties. And for that reason and other reasons, including the fact that western Mosul is a much denser terrain, and that it always was going to be a more difficult fight because it had traditionally been more of a stronghold for ISIS and for al-Qaeda, in western Mosul, it was a hellscape. They were pulling the bodies out of the rubble for months and months after victory had been declared. And the rebuilding efforts there have been much more halting. And so, I think when we look at Trump’s imprint on the war, to me the most obvious one is just the level of destruction that came with it.
JS: The Trump administration took the flexible justifications for military action that existed under Bush, and then to an extent under Obama, and made them even wider. Among the most important was the notion that the mere possibility of threats to U.S. forces or even interests could now warrant military force or even assassination. Hina Shamsi of the ACLU spent eight years fighting the Obama administration over its drone strikes and excessive secrecy.
Hina Shamsi: We’ve talked about this period of time and it’s no longer in the front pages the way that it used to be and really should be. The lethal strikes, the killing is happening under Trump without even the kind of weak safeguards that Obama put in place at the end of his administration, with ever greater secrecy
JS: In an interview with Intercepted in late 2017, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy said that he was concerned that the expansion of the executive branch justifications for lethal operations was now entering a new phase with Trump.
Chris Murphy: The way in which this administration has broadened out its authority to conduct military activity in the Middle East suggests that it thinks it has the legal ability to go after anyone and any actor and any country in the region that potentially poses a threat to U.S. forces. Iran is on that list and so the broad jurisdiction that the administration has granted itself regarding military activity could conceivably convince them to launch an attack against the Iranians without congressional approval. Now, I don’t have any information that they are planning on doing that. I just worry that they have given themselves a carte blanche in the region that seems to have no end.
JS: Donald Trump has consistently spoken threateningly about Iran, but in the beginning, it was often used in a conspiratorial manner, including to state falsely that Obama had bribed Iran with $150 billion of US taxpayer money.
DJT: Iran’s hostilities substantially increased after the foolish Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2013 and they were given $150 billion, not to mention $1.8 billion in cash.
JS: Like some of Trump’s other unhinged theories, the saber-rattling with Iran was potentially incendiary. Pandering to the neoconservative bloodlust on Iran, Trump proudly pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, a pledge he obsessively discussed on the campaign trail.
DJT: So you say to yourself, “Why didn’t they make the right deal?” This is one of the worst deals ever made by any country in history. The deal with Iran will lead to nuclear problems. All they have to do is sit back 10 years and they don’t have to do much.
Lester Holt: Your two minutes has expired.
DJT: And they’re going to end up getting nuclear. I met with Bibi Netanyahu the other day. Believe me, he is not a happy camper.
JS: But beyond the rhetoric, in terms of policy, Trump essentially picked up the mantle of the neocons from the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when George W. Bush accused Iran of being in a terrorist partnership with Iraq and North Korea.
George W. Bush: States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world by seeking weapons of mass destruction. These regimes pose a grave and growing danger.
JS: It’s important to remember that, while there were voices within the Bush administration pushing aggressively for war with Iran, after 9/11 the U.S. largely maintained a bi-partisan posture of deadly economic sanctions and occasional covert action.
Barack Obama: Today, after two years of negotiations, the United States, together with our international partners, has achieved something that decades of animosity has not: a comprehensive, long-term deal with Iran that will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
JS: The Obama-era nuclear deal represented the most significant steps toward normalizing relations with Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, a fact that enraged neocons and other hawks who advocated regime change.
Just days into Trump’s presidency, his National Security Advisor, General Mike Flynn, who had been fired from a previous post by Obama, significantly escalated the threats toward Iran, accusing it of facilitating attacks against US-backed forces in the Persian Gulf.
Michael Flynn: The Obama administration failed to respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions, including weapons transfers, support for terrorism, and other violations of international norms. The Trump administration condemns such actions by Iran that undermine security, prosperity, and stability throughout and beyond the Middle East and place, which places American lives at risk. President Trump has severely criticized the various agreements reached between Iran and the Obama administration, as well as the United Nations, as being weak and ineffective. Instead of being thankful to the United States in these agreements, Iran is now feeling emboldened. As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice. Thank you.
JS: But Trump’s preferred National Security Advisor would be forced to resign just a month into his tenure. That came after Flynn lied to the FBI and Vice President Pence about his contacts with Russian officials. A year later, in March of 2018, Trump named one of the most belligerent figures in U.S. politics to the post: John Bolton.
Tucker Carlson: You’ve called for regime change in Iraq, Libya, Iran, and Syria. In the first two countries, we’ve had regime change, and obviously, it’s been — I’d say a disaster, I think we can all agree.
John Bolton: No, no, I don’t agree with that. And let me —
TC: You don’t think it’s been a disaster?
JS: Two months after Bolton joined the administration, Trump officially pulled out of the Iran deal. As Iranian author and analyst Hooman Majd pointed out, it had an immediate impact on the civilian population of Iran.
Hooman Majd: Not only did we leave the JCPOA, did the Trump administration leave the JCPOA, it also went on this maximum pressure campaign to basically cut Iran off from the rest of the world economically — cut its oil exports down to zero, which it relies on to feed its people, basically, and medicine imports, everything —I mean, really almost as close to an embargo, without actually calling it an embargo.
JS: Once the nuclear deal was trashed and John Bolton entered the Trump administration as National Security Advisor in 2018, the aggressive push for Trump to go all-in against Iran increased, as The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain described:
Murtaza Hussain: I really see the present behavior by the U.S. as a form of unfinished business from the 2003 Bush era. Now, you have people like Bolton back in power. You have people like Erik Prince in the orbit of the Trump administration, many of the same voices who very much wanted to see confrontation happening over a decade ago are now back near the helm of power. And all the same ideas and all the same ideologies and all the same desires for U.S. policy in the Middle East, they’re back and they have Trump.
And I’m not saying that Trump himself is somebody who campaigned on a war with Iran, but in many ways, he’s a cipher for these extremist elements in the United States and with him, they see an open door to achieving the dreams that were unfulfilled many years ago. And the Obama era was sort of [an] obstruction to that and things like the Iran nuclear deal need to be pulled apart in order to achieve their goals, but they’re working at that in earnest now. And if we see a second Trump administration, I think that the odds of confrontation with Iran militarily are very high.
JS: In September of 2019, Bolton was ousted from his post, reportedly because he was too much of a warmonger, even for Trump, who said if he had listened to Bolton, “We would be in World War 6 by now.” Former foreign policy official under Presidents Clinton and Obama, Wendy Sherman agreed.
Wendy Sherman: As I have said before, John Bolton never saw a war he didn’t want to wage. President Trump wanted to get Americans out of conflict, wanted to take Americans out of Afghanistan, out of the Middle East, didn’t want to go to war, wanted to negotiate directly at high levels with leaders of countries, and John Bolton had a different approach.
JS: Even with Bolton gone, by late 2019, it seemed as though the Iran hawks may actually get their war. One of Trump’s single most dangerous acts as commander in chief came on January 3, 2020, when he authorized the assassination of top Iranian general, Qassim Suleimani, in Baghdad, Iraq.
DJT: Last week, we took decisive action to stop a ruthless terrorist from threatening American lives. At my direction, the United States military eliminated the world’s top terrorist, Qassim Suleimani.
JS: The strike against Suleimani had reportedly been authorized months earlier when John Bolton was still Trump’s National Security Advisor. And Bolton cheered on the strike from the sidelines, calling it “the first step toward regime change in Iran.”
But legal scholars had a different label for the strike: war crime. Law professor Marjorie Cohn said authorizing a state-sponsored murder of a high-ranking official of another country is a crime under both U.S. and international law.
Marjorie Cohn: It’s called the War Crimes Act. It’s a federal statute. And this is a war crime. What Trump did was to mount a crime of aggression, as defined by the International Criminal Court. There are two different ways that someone can commit the crime of aggression: first, bombardment by the armed forces of a state against the territory of another state. And the other way that an individual can commit aggression under the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court is the use of armed forces of one state which are within the territory of another state with the agreement of the receiving state in contravention of the conditions provided for in the agreement.
Well, Iraq and the United States have a joint military agreement that governs the stationing of U.S. troops in Iraq. And Iraq’s acting prime minister called the U.S. bombing a flagrant violation of the conditions of that agreement. And in fact, the Iraqi parliament voted that the U.S. forces must leave. Well, the U.S. forces said, “We’re not going to leave. We’re going to stay here.” And that, in my book, is an illegal occupation. So, if Congress wanted to do its job and use the war crimes statute, and guess how many times the war crimes statute has been used. Zero, zero times.
JS: If history and longstanding U.S. policy is any indication, Trump is not going to end up on trial at the Hague. In Washington, the Sulemani assassination was met with widespread support, if not celebration, among prominent Republicans.
Mike Pompeo: President Trump’s decision to remove Qassim Suleimani from the battlefield saved American lives. There’s no doubt about that.
Lindsey Graham: We killed the most powerful man in Iran short of the Ayatollah.
JS: The Democratic reaction was a mixed bag. For his part, Sen. Bernie Sanders immediately labeled the strike an “assassination.”
Bernie Sanders: President Trump ordered the assassination of a top Iranian general, Qassim Suleimani, in Iraq, along with…
JS: Other Democrats took a position that they didn’t like the strike but that they were glad that Suleimani was gone.
Robert Menendez: We’re not going to lament his death. But the question is — that has to be answered by the administration next week when Congress comes back into session is: What brought us to this moment? We have had other moments in which we could have taken Suleimani out. We did not.
JS: The open assassination of a foreign military official on the territory of a third country was, without question, a major escalation in the expansion of presidential authority. While many pundits and politicians rightly condemned the action, they overwhelmingly did so without acknowledging the precedent. It was analyzed in a vacuum, as though Trump had crossed the rubicon. The fact is, all presidents assassinate, but they invent different terms to describe the killings: high-value target strikes, leadership strikes, targeted killings. None of this takes away from the grave danger that Trump’s assassination of Suleimani presented, but historical context matters.
So much of the analysis of Trump’s most dangerous policies and actions has been portrayed as being uniquely Trumpian. And while some of them may be, failing to recognize the frightening and deadly powers built into the presidency by both Democrats and Republicans is not only dishonest. It once again leaves the door open for even greater abuses by future U.S. presidents.
[Traditional Saudi Arabian sword dance]
JS: Trump’s first foreign trip as head of state was to Saudi Arabia.
DJT: That’s beautiful.
Melania Trump: Beautiful.
DJT: That’s so beautiful.
Unknown Speaker: This is the war dance.
DJT: I can see that.
JS: And who could forget that strange ceremony around the glowing orb that celebrated the marriage between Trump and the Saudi Royals?
Donald Trump stood in a sea of tyrants, thugs, and dictators including the Saudi king, who believes that beheading people is an appropriate punishment for a nation-state to administer, and General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the dictator of Egypt. Trump’s trip actually started with a speech celebrating a deal that he signed with the Saudis to purchase $110 billion worth of weapons from the United States. That’s despite the Saudi connection to the 9/11 attacks and the Saudi campaign to support radical extremism across the globe.
DJT: This landmark agreement includes the announcement of a $110 billion Saudi-funded defense purchase. And we will be sure to help our Saudi friends to get a good deal from our great American defense companies, the greatest anywhere in the world.
JS: Much of that military aid to the Saudis would go to facilitating the scorched earth bombing of Yemen. That U.S.-sponsored war started under President Obama and it was the product of decades of bipartisan U.S. support for the Saudi regime. Although the Obama administration took some action in its closing time in power to reduce support for the Saudi bombings, the fact remained that the war in Yemen was, for years, overwhelmingly fueled by Washington with the backing of both U.S. political parties. An investigation by CNN last year found that Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners have overwhelmingly depended on U.S. weapons for their murderous campaign in Yemen.
As’ad AbuKhalil: These tyrants have been sponsored and coddled by successive Western governments, from the socialist government of France to Jimmy Carter, the human rights president, all the way to Obama, and now Trump.
JS: As’ad AbuKhalil is professor of political science at the University of California-Stanislaus. He said that while Trump is more overt about his relationships with despots, it is a mistake to focus on that at the expense of historical context and the multi-decade continuity of U.S. policy.
As’ad AbuKhalil: When Trump was elected, many of my students in the international relations class were asking about what direction foreign policy will take under Trump. And I’ve always emphasized to them, which is that when you’re speaking about an empire, the ability of one man — be him Trump or Obama or anybody else — to make changes in the foreign policy direction of that empire is extremely small. They can only make stylistic changes here and there.
Newscaster: A year after the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman continues to deny ordering the hit. But in a new interview with Norah O’Donnell on 60 Minutes…
JS: Only after the brutal murder of Wahington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consul in Turkey and Trump’s refusal to acknowledge or condemn the role of the Saudi government or Mohammed bin Salman directly, did a popular mobilization against Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen gain momentum in the U.S. Congress. Not even U.S. intelligence reports on official Saudi involvement with 9/11 or the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers hailed from the Kingdom could crack the U.S.-Saudi alliance. Nor could the horrendous genocidal war the Saudis waged in Yemen with support from both the Obama and Trump administrations. Again, Sen. Chris Murphy:
Chris Murphy: I make a very tough argument, but I think it’s a fair one: that every single death inside Yemen today has a U.S. imprint on it. And when I talk to Yemenis — as I remind my colleagues all the time — they tell me that inside Yemen, this is not seen as a Saudi bombing campaign. This is seen as a U.S.-Saudi bombing campaign. And so the long-term effect of this is that we are radicalizing potentially millions of Yemenis against the United States.
JS: That it took the high-profile butchering of a U.S. resident and Washington Post journalist inside a Saudi diplomatic facility to spur actual congressional action was a clear indication of how entrenched the support for the Saudis had been for decades.
Rula Jebreal: America cares about human rights violations only when they perceive the enemy commits them. But allies, allies can commit whatever they want.
JS: Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal was a friend of Khashoggi.
RJ: Our relationship with Saudi Arabia — the addiction to cheap oil, and to contracts of military hardware, to Washington lobbyists, legal and financial services, petrol dollar that the Saudis are showering on America — we are addicted to that. We’re addicted. America is addicted to their money. And they bought consensus. They bought impunity — total impunity — to go and murder and chopped whoever they. They’re behaving exactly like ISIS. How is different, what ISIS is doing in Raqqa and what this Mohammed bin Salman has orchestrated in the consulate in Istanbul? It’s not different. It’s the same thing.
JS: The effort to cut the Saudis off was spearheaded in the House by Rep. Ro Khanna of California. He’s a Democrat who had long advocated ending U.S. military sales and support for the Saudi regime. Prior to Khashoggi’s murder, powerful Democrats like Pelosi’s top deputy Steny Hoyer were joining Republicans in trying to stop Khanna and his allies. After the murder, it became an untenable position for most Democrats and a surprising number of Republicans. Here is Rep. Khanna:
Ro Khanna: I don’t think the Saudis’ human rights record or their record in military conflicts are consistent with our values. I don’t think that we should be engaged in interventionism in the Middle East. I guess my view is we should have a policy of first, doing no harm. As you know arming Saddam Hussein to check Iran ended up hurting us. Our overthrow of Mossadegh back in ‘53 ended up hurting us. Our arming the Mujahideen ended up hurting us. So, we have this record of interventionism that has not made us any safer. And I view our pragmatic, or expedient, alliance with Saudi Arabia in the same way.
JS: In the end, legislation to cut off some military sales to Saudi Arabia passed the Senate in March of 2019. Donald Trump rejected it.
Newsy: President Donald Trump has vetoed three congressional resolutions to block the administration’s controversial weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In messages to the Senate on Wednesday, Trump said he vetoed the bipartisan bills because they would weaken America’s global competitiveness and damage the important relationships we share with our allies and our partners. He also said…
JS: Trump has remained a defiant, close ally of Mohammed Bin Salman, as has his son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Newscaster: We have breaking news in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul back in October. Well, according to the New York Times, White House adviser and son-in-law of the president, Jared Kushner, offered advice to Mohammed bin Salman about how the Saudi prince could weather the storm after international condemnation of the Khashoggi death. Now, this week, the CIA director…
JS: Of all of the characters to serve in Trump’s administration, perhaps Jared Kushner was the one most unqualified and ill-equipped for the jobs he was given. It’s definitely stiff competition. But Trump put Kushner — a real estate developer born into wealth — in charge of the entire peace process between Israel and Palestine.
DJT: I love deals. And I used to hear the toughest of all deals is peace with Israel and the Palestinians. They say that’s the toughest of all deals. But if Jared Kushner can’t do it, it can’t be done. Thank you, Jared.
JS: To be blunt, there is almost nothing Donald Trump could have done regarding Israel that would have brought condemnation from powerful Democrats. Many of them celebrated Trump moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem because it was a long-term bipartisan project.
George W. Bush: As soon as I take office, I will begin the process of moving the United States ambassador to the city Israel has chosen as its capital.
Barack Obama: I continue to say that Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel and I have said that before and I will say it again.
DJT: Last month, I also took an action, endorsed unanimously by the U.S. Senate just months before. I recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
JS: As Israel continued to expand settlements and massacre Palestinians with impunity throughout Trump’s presidency, both Republicans and Democrats continued to blame the Palestinians for their own deaths at the hands of the US-backed Israeli military.
CBC News: Soldiers opened fire, killing more than 50 Palestinians, including eight children. [Siren] About 2,500 Palestinians were wounded, according to their health authority — half reportedly by live fire. It was the highest one-day death toll since protests began six weeks ago and, indeed, since the 2014 Gaza war.
JS: While the Trump White House did announce what it called a major peace deal between Israel and some Gulf monarchies in 2020, it did not involve the Palestinians. Instead, what Trump called a deal was essentially a business conference with crooked Gulf monarchies who share the U.S. and Israeli hate for Iran.
Jared Kushner: I think what you’re seeing is a new Middle East that’s being formed. And President Trump, again, he laid out his vision for it on his first foreign trip in Riyadh. We’ve executed that vision ever since. And I think that you have leaders that are tired of the way things have been done. Quite frankly, also, we put out our vision for peace — you saw the Palestinian leadership reject it before it even came out, before they knew what was in it. So, people are getting a little tired with the tactics played by the Palestinian leaders. They want to help the Palestinian people but they’re not going to allow them to hold back the national interests of all these different countries.
Wolf Blitzer: Are you having any conversations at all with the Palestinians.
JS: For all of the discussion of foreign collusion these past three-plus years, the open collusion with Israel was never portrayed as a major scandal, despite the Trump Tower meetings and the unending deference to Benjamin Netanyahu. Remember, some of Mike Flynn’s much-discussed calls with the Russian ambassador were part of a major push to try to get Russia to do Israel’s bidding.
Ali Abunimah: All of this got reported in, you know, the mainstream U.S. media, what I call regime media, and that includes MSNBC, you know, very breathlessly as more evidence of collusion with, between the Trump people and the Russians.
JS: Palestinian writer and analyst Ali Abunimah:
AA: In fact, what the Flynn plea deal showed and what the proffer and the documents that were filed in federal court showed, was not Flynn’s collusion with Russia in order to serve Russian interests, but rather an attempt to serve Israeli interests.
And, in short, what happened: Benjamin Netanyahu asked Jared Kushner to do everything possible to undermine the Obama administration’s policy. This was during the transition, so Obama was still president but the Trump transition team was asked by Netanyahu to contact all these governments, including Russia, to try to sabotage the vote that was taking place in the U.N. in December 2016, condemning Israel’s settlements in occupied Palestinian land.
The effort failed. The vote passed. The Obama administration abstained. But what was actually happening was the Trump team was colluding with a foreign power to undermine U.S. policy, but that foreign power was Israel, not Russia.
JS: For her part, Nancy Pelosi has always made clear that commitment to Israel goes beyond partisanship, even under Donald Trump, as she did in 2019 at a conference organized by the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC:
Nancy Pelosi: Israel and America are connected now and forever. We will never allow anyone to make Israel a wedge issue. That pledge is proudly honored in this Congress, where support for Israel remains ironclad and bipartisan.
DJT: Yes, I agree, the rhetoric was unbelievably harsh at the beginning. But we have a very good relationship. We were going to war with North Korea. That was what was going to happen. And then we fell in love, OK? No, really. He wrote me beautiful letters and they’re great letters. We fell in love. But you know what? Now, they’ll say, “Donald Trump said they fell in love. How horrible! How horrible is that? So unpresidential.”
JS: One of the most revealing aspects of how Donald Trump’s national security policies unfolded was watching the reaction from establishment politicians and pundits. When Trump seemed to want to move away from belligerence — as in the case of North Korea — he was derided as naive and dangerous.
Amy Klobuchar: He keeps having these summits and meetings that really don’t produce anything. There’s been a number of them now and this time, you know, you just can’t look at this as going over and talking to your dictator next door and bringing them a hot dish over the fence.
Julian Castro: I’m not quite sure why this president is so bent on elevating the profile of a dictator like Kim Jong Un when Kim Jong Un has not lived up to his promise from the first summit.
JS: Journalist Allan Nairn said that the goading of Trump on North Korea, particularly from Democrats, was not only dangerous but ultimately undermined the potential security benefits of ending the Korean War — not just for the people of Korea but for the people of the U.S. and the world.
Allan Nairn: The U.S. system, for decades upon decades, has been evil in its willingness to kill civilians for political purposes, otherwise known as terrorism. But now here you have Trump with that unique personality being willing to cast aside various principles of the old establishment. So, he’s willing to say to the North Koreans: Yeah, we’ll end the Korean War.
How many Americans know that the Korean War is not over yet? I mean, of course, it’s a reasonable concession to say: Yeah, we’ll end the Korean War. Obama would never have considered it. Bush Jr. would never have considered it. These things are out of bounds. He’s willing to contemplate these things all to seize the photo op, all for the glorification of his own ego. It’s nuts in terms of the motivation, but it’s actually the right thing to do if you’re interested in averting a nuclear holocaust, if you’re interested in peace on the Korean peninsula. And what is the reaction of many of the Democrats and liberals? It’s grudging. It’s nitpicking. It’s rejecting it. It’s saying, “Oh no, you can’t do that, you can’t do this.” You can’t be partisan about these things. If the monster stumbles into something good, say, “OK, that’s a good thing.” It doesn’t automatically become a bad thing just because the monster did it.
It’s totally unnecessary for the Democrats and liberals to take that position, but they are. And it’s yet another example of how their approach is inadvertently strengthening Trump and the radical rightist Republicans, and creating even more peril for the working people of this country and for the entire world who are being devastated by this regime.
JS: While Trump would be attacked by establishment politicians for any apparent moves toward resolving war, when he’d act aggressively, the punditocracy often rewarded him with praise. It started with Trump’s first State of the Union address when he engaged in that bizarre pseudo-religious memorial to the Navy SEAL killed in the Yemen raid while the SEAL’s widow received sustained applause.
DJT: We are blessed to be joined tonight by Carryn Owens, the widow of U.S. Navy Special Operator, Senior Chief William Ryan Owens. Ryan died as he lived, a warrior and a hero, battling against terrorism and securing our nation. [Applause] And Ryan is looking down right now, you know that. And he’s very happy because I think he just broke a record.
JS: This is how Van Jones, the liberal commentator and former Obama administration official, reacted to that speech on CNN:
Van Jones: He became president of the United States in that moment. Period. There are a lot of people who have a lot of reason to be frustrated with him, to be fearful of him, to be mad at him. But that was one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics. Period.
JS: But while Trump received praise from liberals for his militarism, there was scant mention of how disastrous that Yemen raid actually was and the fact that it resulted in the slaughter of civilians, including children. Journalist Iona Craig visited the scene of the raid for The Intercept and I spoke to her soon after.
JS: Let’s remind people. This was the raid that Donald Trump authorized when he was having dinner with, you know, the rabid right-wing character, Steve Bannon, his son-in-law Jared Kushner as well. And he’s, you know, chomping on his Trump steaks, and is like, “Oh yeah, let’s green-light this on the ground commando raid inside of Yemen.” So this thing happens. What did local people tell you?
Iona Craig: Well, they were totally confused when this first happened. It happened, obviously, in the middle of the night. As we know, they chose a deliberately moonless night, so it was dark. And because of the war, they’d been fighting the Houthi-Saleh forces in that area since the end of 2014. They assumed their village was being raided by the Houthi-Saleh forces. So every man with a gun within hearing distance of a gunshot, or then later, the helicopters that joined in, came in to defend the village, totally unaware that it was Americans they were going up against. And so, what happened was, you’ve got a predominantly civilian population in a very remote village on the side of a mountain in Yemen, and the Navy SEALS got pinned down. And when they got pinned down, of course, they called in air support, and they strafed the entire village. So you had women and children quite literally running for their lives, who were then gunned down by helicopter gunship fire. You had airstrikes and drone strikes being carried out.
JS: This January, after Donald Trump threatened to bomb Iranian cultural heritage sites if Iran retaliated to the assassination of Gen. Suleimani, former Democratic presidential candidate and retired U.S. General Wesley Clark praised Trump.
S.E. Cupp: President Trump just tweeted warning Iran that the United States has identified 52 Iranian sites and, “will be hit very fast and very hard if Iran retaliates.” What’s your reaction to that?
Wesley Clark: It’s probably a good statement by the president. I mean, I think, I think the administration understands that there’s a serious risk of consequences here.
JS: Comments like these from prominent Democratic foreign policy elites put a fine point on a hard truth: Despite the claims of Trump’s exceptional nature, throughout his time in office he would carry out the very types of military policies his predecessors championed.
John Roberts: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear…
Barack Obama: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear…
JS: When Barack Obama took office in 2009, he did so after a campaign in which he promised hope and change. He pledged to reverse course on the Bush/Cheney borderless wars, close Guantanamo and end excessive secrecy.
Barack Obama: We all know what Iraq has cost us abroad. But these last few years we’ve seen an unacceptable abuse of power at home. We face real threats. Any president needs the latitude to confront them swiftly and surely. But we’ve paid a heavy price for having a president whose priority is expanding his own power. The Constitution is treated like a nuisance. Matters of war and peace are used as political tools to bludgeon the other side. We get subjected to endless spin to keep our troops at war, but we don’t get to see the flag-draped coffins of our heroes coming home. We get secret task forces, secret budgeting, slanted intelligence, and the shameful smearing of people who speak out against the president’s policies.
JS: But upon taking office, Obama developed strategies to undermine meaningful oversight. He refused to hold CIA officers and other officials who ran torture programs and secret prisons to account, perhaps the best way to ensure that such actions never happen again.
Barack Obama: And obviously we’re going to be looking at past practices, and I don’t believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backward. And part of my job is to make sure that, for example, at the CIA you’ve got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don’t want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders.
George Stephanopoulos: So no 9/11 commission with independent subpoena power?
Barack Obama: We have not made final decisions, but my instinct is for us to focus on: How do we make sure that moving forward, we are doing the right thing?
JS: Not a single CIA officer was charged for their role in the kidnap and torture program during Obama’s presidency. Under President Obama, the CIA even spied on senate investigations into the CIA torture program and consistently stifled efforts at oversight and accountability.
John Brennan: As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into, you know, Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn’t do that. I mean, that’s, that’s — that’s just beyond the scope of reason.
Bob Orr: But the CIA’s own inspector general determined the Agency did spy on senate investigators.
JS: Aside from his refusal to hold anyone accountable for the Bush/Cheney abuses and crimes, Obama’s embrace of executive power was most dramatic with his targeted assassination program. Obama authorized thousands of drone strikes across the globe, from Yemen to Somalia to Afghanistan and beyond. He also developed a secretive process for placing people on kill lists, including American citizens. They had regular meetings to determine who would die on any given day.
Barack Obama: I would argue we’ve gotten it about right, although I’m the first one to admit that we didn’t get it all right on day one. There were times where, for example, with respect to drones, that I had to kind of stop the system for a second and say, “You know what? We’re getting too comfortable with our ability to take kinetic strikes around the world without having enough process to avoid, consistently, the kinds of civilian casualties that can end up actually hurting us in the war against radicalization.”
JS: Despite some internal rules and so-called guardrails that Obama implemented toward the end of his administration, none of them were laws or written in stone. And he left office with the precedent of utilizing a deadly and dangerous parallel, secret judicial system.
Barack Obama: I had a chance to talk to President-elect Trump last night — about 3:30 in the morning I think it was — to congratulate him on winning the election and I had a chance to invite him to come to the White House tomorrow to talk about making sure that there is a successful transition between our presidencies. Now, it is not secret that the president-elect and I have some pretty significant differences. But remember, eight years ago, President Bush and I had some pretty significant differences. But President Bush’s team could not have been more professional or more gracious in making sure we had a smooth transition so that we could hit the ground running.
JS: Much like Obama railed against the excesses of the Bush/Cheney era on the campaign trail, Donald Trump consistently blasted the “deep state,” accusing the CIA, FBI, and eventually the Obama administration of spying on him and seeking to organize a coup.
ABC News: We begin tonight with that breaking news: President Trump’s striking allegations against former President Barack Obama. President Trump, in a Twitter tirade, accusing the former president of spying on him at Trump Tower by wiretapping phones, but offering no evidence or even what prompted those allegations.
JS: Trump regularly lambasted the intelligence community over leaks regarding the investigation into allegations of Russian aid to his campaign in the 2016 election. He even gave a speech just days before he was sworn in as president in which he compared the CIA to Nazis.
DJT: I think it was disgraceful — disgraceful — that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake-out. I think it’s a disgrace. And I say that, and I say that. And that’s something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do. I think it’s a disgrace.
JS: But once in office, Trump would give the CIA wide latitude and he placed Gina Haspel, a longtime officer who was a key player in building and operating the post-9/11 torture program, in charge of the agency.
DJT: Our enemies will take note. Gina is tough. She is strong. And when it comes to defending America, Gina will never ever back down. I know her. I spent a lot of time with Gina.
JS: Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean told me that the combination of aggressive, pro-torture figures at the helm of CIA combined with Trump’s lack of desire for oversight was a dangerous cocktail that would mostly benefit the Agency.
John Dean: People are opening drawers and pulling out plans that they thought they’d never be able to do anything with, and now they’ve got a chief executive in the White House that really doesn’t have a clue what’s going on in the executive branch, and they’re likely to do anything. We’ve seen the lack of caliber of people that Trump has put in the top jobs, leaving so many vacancies in so many departments and agencies. That’s theoretically the management team that watches.
JS: Trump’s national security team has had a rolling cast of characters, plagued by firings, resignations, and scandals. As Trump’s first term comes to a close, almost all of the people who pundits assured us would be the “adults in the room” are gone. But there are some indications that Trump did, at times, push back against the militarism of figures like John Bolton and Gen. James Mattis. Rep. Ro Khanna, who introduced legislation to stop war with Iran said he was most concerned with a scenario where the most hawkish figures in the Trump orbit would prevail.
Ro Khanna: I in fact think the president’s instincts of not getting us into war are better than his advisers when it comes to Bolton and Pompeo. That’s not a high bar. But I think his interest is not in getting us into another war.
Mike Pompeo: President Trump has done everything he can to avoid war. We don’t want war. We’ve done what we can to deter this.
RK: What I worry about is that he has people in his administration who are trying to create the conditions that could lead to an escalation, that could lead to a conflict that spirals out of control and that, in some sense, forces the president’s hand. I think that’s exactly their strategy, to push the envelope as far as they can, knowing that this president campaigned on and doesn’t want to get into another war in the Middle East.
JS: But that would remain a point of contention for Trump and the war hawks in his administration. Investigative journalist and military historian Gareth Porter described Gen. Mattis’s departure in late 2018.
Gareth Porter: Mattis along with the other key people in the Pentagon, Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wanted to keep troops in Syria. And that was the cause of this clash which led to a split that finally caused Mattis to decide to resign. I think that the Pentagon is committed to a long-term strategy of having as many military permanent or semi-permanent military bases in the greater Middle East as possible. Trump wanted out. The Pentagon was unwilling to entertain that and it was a matter of — a very unusual case where Mattis was ready to resign. I think that there’s no other case quite like it in history.
JS: While there has been a tendency in the mass media to express horror at some of Trump’s belligerence and militarism, many Democrats have consistently voted to give Trump massive military budgets and sweeping surveillance powers even as they warn he is a dangerous and crazed tyrant.
Adam Schiff: That makes him dangerous to us. To our country. And you know you can’t trust this president to do what’s right for this country. You can trust he will do what’s right for Donald Trump.
JS: In late 2019, more than 180 House Democrats voted with their Republican colleagues in favor of a $738 billion military spending bill. That represented a $22 billion increase for the Pentagon in 2020. It also stripped out amendments to stop fueling the war in Yemen. Democrat Ro Khanna was one of only 48 lawmakers to vote against it.
Ro Khanna: I rise in strong opposition to this defense authorization. There are many things that you can call the bill but it’s Orwellian to call it progressive. Let’s speak in facts.
JS: Journalist Allan Nairn argued that on matters of war, the differences between Trump and his predecessors has largely been tactical.
Allan Nairn: The Trump people say, go in, invade wherever you want, but do it absolutely without restraint, with no rules, no limits on how many civilians you can kill. One of the big criticisms from the Trump types was that during the Obama administration, you know, to stage an operation, you had to go through lawyers at the National Security Council who had to sign off. And that was actually true. There was a process of sorting and monitoring, and certain operations, certain bombing runs or drone runs or special forces actions or whatever could be vetoed if they exceeded the permitted — there was a permitted number of civilian casualties, but if they went over that, lawyers could actually veto them. And that’s kind of been the establishment approach in recent years. The Bush Jr. White House also did that.
When Trump came in, he said “Screw that, throw all the rules out the window. When you go in, you the Pentagon and CIA people on the ground, you have the authority to kill as many people as you feel you need to, as many people as you want. Go ahead, but get it over with quickly. Get it over with quickly and then let’s try to get out.” So it’s one, go in without restraint, kill as many as you want, but get it over with quickly. That’s the Trumper approach.
JS: In terms of Donald Trump’s military pursuits, he has proven less murderous than George W. Bush and more of a war criminal than Jimmy Carter. So far. That could certainly change with a second term.
DJT: They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening, beyond a normal statement. And as I said, they will be met with fire, fury, and frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before. Thank you.
JS: Perhaps the gravest threat posed by Trump’s presidency is that of the use of a first-strike nuclear weapon. It has never been beyond the pale to imagine an apocalyptic scenario that begins with a tweet from a foreign leader Trump hates.
Daniel Ellsberg: Right now, Trump is making threats of nuclear weapons, which is not a first with him. All of our presidents actually have used our nuclear weapons the way you use a gun when you point it at someone’s head in an encounter. And if you get your way without pulling the trigger, it’s the best use of the gun, that’s why people have them a lot.
JS: Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg published a book in late 2017. It revealed for the first time additional documents he had obtained that laid out U.S. nuclear war strategy. It was called “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.” In an interview, Ellsberg placed the nuclear threat under Trump in historical context.
Daniel Ellsberg: Really what he says about it is not very new. When he says they should always be on the table, I would never —
DJT: I would never take any of my cards off the table.
Chris Matthews: How about Europe? We won’t use them in Europe?
DJT: I’m not going to take it off the table.
CM: You might use it in Europe?
DJT: No, I don’t think so, but —
CM: How about just say it, “I would never use a nuclear weapon in Europe.”
DJT: I, I am not taking cards off the table. I’m not going to use nukes…
DE: That’s what every president has said. Of course, Trump is worrisome because he seems so erratic, impulsive, thin-skinned. I’m not sure that he’s crazier than a number of other presidents. In fact, to tell the truth, I have come to believe that he’s not crazy, he’s just an asshole, and that he’s catering to that in a certain segment of the population who admires him for precisely that.
I think that Trump’s apparent look of craziness has attracted people’s attention to dangers that really were always there, and the system that he has command of, all together, the strategic system which he is rebuilding at the cost over thirty years of more than a trillion dollars, a program that was, after all, launched under Barack Obama and he’s continuing it and claims to be even increasing it — if that were actually set into motion, not just rhetorically and by making the kind of use he is making now of pointing the gun but actually pulling the trigger, that would kill nearly everyone on earth.
Now, no one person, whether it’s Trump or anyone else, should have that power, and strictly speaking — very literally speaking — no nation should have that power.
JS: Donald Trump has been a militaristic president who has presided over the killing of civilians and has proudly celebrated — at times exonerated — war criminals. His reckless public threats and open coddling of dictators and thugs is no doubt disturbing. But to pretend that Trump is some presidential anomaly in U.S. war-making history is simply not true. The U.S. is the only nation on earth to use a nuclear weapon, and it did it twice. It has waged wars that have killed millions of civilians across the world, backed genocidal death squads, and armed and funded ruthless human rights abusers and murderers. It has engaged in coups and regime change the world over. It has assassinated its own citizens, run secret prisons, and tortured detainees. These haven’t been Democratic or Republican policies. They have been the American way for a long time. And that has also been true under Donald Trump.
This has been part four of an Intercepted limited documentary series, American Mythology: The Presidency of Donald Trump. Over the past few days, we’ve been 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 five of this series, where we’ll be taking an in-depth look at Donald Trump’s policies on the federal judiciary and the U.S. Supreme Court.
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 even your foes about this series and tune in for episode five tomorrow. Until then, I’m Jeremy Scahill.