Mehdi Hasan’s debates tend to go viral, like those against John Bolton, Erik Prince, or a Saudi ambassador. Hasan wipes the floor during debates and interviews. But it’s not an easy process; as Hasan says, it requires a lot of preparation. In “Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking,” Hasan outlines the best ways to win debates against all sorts of opponents. This week on Deconstructed, Ryan Grim is joined by Hasan, where they discuss some of his greatest viral debate clips, along with helpful tips to win debates.
[Deconstructed intro music.]
Ryan Grim: I’m Ryan Grim. And this is Deconstructed.
But if you’ve been listening to it for more than the last couple years, you know this wasn’t originally my podcast. That title belongs to Mehdi Hasan who has since moved on to his own cable show on MSNBC called “The Mehdi Hasan Show.”
He’s now out with a new book called “Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking,” which is, in many ways, the book he was born to write.
Mehdi, welcome back to your show.
Mehdi Hasan: [Laughs.] Thank you, Ryan. And it’s funny you should say that because a fair few people have said that not always in a positive way.
RG: [Laughs.] Well, they are probably still a little bit sore from the last time you out-argued them.
MH: I try. I try.
RG: So you and I first met back when you were interviewing to join HuffPost U.K.
RG: And it was the most quintessential Arianna Huffington moment ever.
MH: [Laughs.] It was.
RG: The interview happened in a chauffeured car on the way to the airport with a random extra dude along for the ride — which, in this case, was me. Did you have any warning that that’s how this interview was gonna go down?
MH: Absolutely none. And I’m not someone — I’ve been blessed with the fact that I’ve not had to do a traditional job, interviews of jobs I’ve had over the years. The media, as you know, Ryan, is a weird place. The way we get jobs, we sometimes fall into them.
RG: Right. Because everybody knows you already, because of your work.
MH: Or it’s word of mouth, or it’s a connection; it’s a coffee, whatever — formal job interviews don’t really happen in our line of work that often. And I remember that I was living in the U.K., and I came to visit D.C. for another reason. And while I was there, the HuffPost folks who were trying to hire me in the U.K. said: Hey, why don’t you meet Arianna? She’s in D.C. that weekend, too.
So I said: OK! [They said:] Hey, meet her at this hotel.
So I go to the hotel thinking that we were going to meet in a restaurant, or in a bar, or in the lobby. No — apparently, she’s giving a speech at a conference in the hotel, you’re there as the D.C. Bureau Chief at the HuffPost to, I don’t know what — collect her? Hold her hand?
RG: Who knows what.
MH: And she comes out and says: I don’t have time to talk to you because I have a flight to catch. Why — I’m not going to do the impression — why don’t you just jump in the car with me and come with me to Reagan Airport?
I’ve got nothing else to do. I said: Alright! And we sat in the backseat of the car. You were in the front. And she interviewed me while on two phones. So she was talking to me, you, the driver, and texting and emailing on two BlackBerries at the same time. This is 2012, I want to say?
And she told me that she would hire me, but I would go beyond left and right, Ryan, and you and I are well known for being beyond left and right.
RG: There you go. And I remember us both praying that her flight was not in Dulles.
MH: Or not delayed.
RG: We were just hoping like —
MH: And you had an interview lined up for her at the airport with some guy, some former cop, or some criminal justice —
RG: Oh, that’s right.
MH: I was like, wow, that’s a lot of conversations going on — she, yeah, I mean, I’ve had some fun conversations over the years. I’d forgotten about that. It wasn’t, per se, an argument, so it doesn’t make it into the book. I do tell a lot of stories about fun debates and conversations and arguments I’ve had in this book, but all of the ones I’ve had with Arianna are memorable. You’re right.
RG: That was right. We were doing actual journalism. We were meeting a source out at the airport —
MH: You were.
RG: — before her flight, now that I remember that.
I had my own perfectly-Arianna Huffington interview in 2008. It was scheduled at the Four Seasons in Washington, one of the nicest, most glamorous hotels in Washington. I show up and, randomly, Jose Antonio Vargas is there —
RG: — at the time, a Washington Post reporter. Luckily, I knew him. But just classic that there’s just going to be a random other person, just —
MH: Always multitasking with the meetings.
But I owe Arianna a lot, because without her I wouldn’t have got to the U.S.
Because, ironically, I came to the U.S. with Al Jazeera, but originally I had said to Arianna: My wife’s American; I’m interested in covering the American election.
She said: Done! Move! I’ll make it happen.
And then when Al Jazeera English found out, they said: Well, why don’t you just come to D.C. and we’ll give you a weekly show. We got a new studio there.
So I ended up being in D.C. But it all started with the kind of conversation with her.
And here I am, eight years later — eight years ago this month, Ryan.
MH: Stepped foot on U.S. soil.
RG: And at the time that you came to the Huffington Post, you were already pretty well known in the U.K. for your debating style. So like, when did you first realize that you were particularly good at arguing?
MH: As I say in the book, I think I realized around the dinner table with my parents and my sister. I come from a very disputatious household. The Hasan family likes to argue, perhaps argue too much, many of our visitors and guests might say. But it did give me some skills in life; as annoying as it made me, it did remind me of the importance of being able to argue your way out of a situation, debate any topic, see more than one side to an issue. And I think that is something I say in the introduction to the book, that I will always thank my dad for, this idea that you kind of take on issues and you do it in an intellectually honest way.
And I tell the story in the book that my dad was, in the late ’80s, when people were burning copies of “Satanic Verses,” Salman Rushdie’s novel, Muslims were burning it in the streets of Bradford and were horrified by this book, my dad buys the book, reads it, and puts it on his bookshelf next to the dining table. So anytime any guests come over, they’re like, shocked: Why do you have this book?
And my dad’s like: Well, you can’t condemn it unless you’ve read it.
And this was the point. And that was kind of instilled in me from a very early age — read the other side’s newspapers and publications. If I’m on the left, read the right; if you’re on the right, read the left. Open your mind to all sorts of arguments. And I realized early on that I enjoyed doing that; I had a skill for it, a knack for it.
I turned up at Oxford University in 1997. And it’s a perfect place for someone like me to be because they have the Oxford Union debating society, the most famous debating society on planet Earth. And I kind of threw myself into debates there and loved it. And when I graduated from university, I knew I had no skills in life, other than having a big mouth.
MH: So the media is where I ended up.
RG: And I was hoping that the book would kind of be an easy how-to, like: Here’s four easy steps to become just like Mehdi Hasan, but I was kind of demoralized by how much you talk about how extensive preparation is the key to everything.
RG: And I was like: Just show me where the club is, so I can beat somebody up.
RG: But no, that’s not what it’s gonna be — which means, I guess, that you can’t eat anybody else’s lunch for free would be the way to put that.
MH: I think yes or no. So I’d say yes, in the sense that it has annoyed me over the years that people think you can just wing this stuff.
MH: They assume that what those of us who do it are doing is winging it, which we’re not. And they assume that they can do it by winging it and cutting corners, which they can’t, and then they end up making a fool of themselves. And I’ve seen that over the years — as a producer in television, as a host of a TV show, and before that I was a TV producer. Booking guests, you’d see people — you’ve seen them, Ryan — on TV crash and burn. They might be great. They might be great intellectuals. You might be like: Oh this guy’s gonna be great. You put them on TV — because they haven’t prepared, their skills as a professor, or as a doctor, or as an actor, whatever it is, when it comes to the medium of what we work in, a combative interview, it doesn’t work, it falls apart.
So I would say yes, you need to prepare. It’s a major theme of this book. And I devote the last third of the book, the last four of the last five chapters to building your confidence, staying calm, how to do research, and how to actually prepare your delivery. That’s almost a third of the book at the end. I start with the key principles to rhetoric debate, public speaking.
I then do — this is where I would say no, you can occasionally wing parts of it — have a middle section of the book which is all about the tricks of the trade. What are the techniques you can use to get yourself out of a hole? What are the quick fixes you can use when you’re in trouble; when you’re being beaten up rhetorically?
And I talked about how to deal with the Gish galloper; the Trump-type person who comes with bullshit, to overwhelm you with bullshit. How do you deal with that? I talked about: How do you structure your speech? How do you do a quick fix when it comes to confidence? How do you fake it? Fake it to make it — all of these things in the book! How to use booby traps, to trip people up in an argument, or a debate, or an interview — a very important skill that some people think is unfair, but I don’t.
So there’s a lot of practical stuff in the book.
I actually devote a chapter in the book to ad hominem arguments, and why I think they’re totally justifiable, and legitimate, and why you should actually use them. Because we live in a world where, oh, you don’t go ad hom! Ad hom is a logical fallacy! Ad hom is rude! Ad hom is bad! But no, actually, there’s a very good argument for why you should actually be questioning the credibility, qualifications, and expertise of your opponent.
RG: And so when you started this podcast, I remember you saying that you wanted to do something deeper and more thoughtful. That you were tired of being pigeonholed only as the guy who was going to own your opponent, crossfire style. And it made me realize — I want to get your take on this — that in some ways, and you allude to this in the book, too — that in some ways, being an innately gifted speaker can be something of an intellectual curse.
And you could think about it as similar to how inheriting a ton of money might be great, but might also make you lazy; it’d be kind of the same thing as how a superstar athlete might train a little bit less, they might practice a little bit less, because they’re still going to be able to beat their opponents on the field.
And the intellectual corollary would be something like if you’re an incredibly gifted debater, in some ways, you have to think a little bit less and interrogate your own belief system less, because you’ll always be able to kind of convince yourself and convince others that you’re right even if you’re not right. And you talk in the book about how debating should never be a substitute for learning or for actually being right. But as somebody who is like, without a doubt, the best debater I’ve ever met — and maybe the best one out there — how do you combat that tendency and make sure your mind always stays crisp.
MH: Well, first of all, that’s very kind of you — the check’s in the mail.
MH: Second of all — look, I talk about, in the book, confirmation bias, right? We’re all guilty of that; we’re all susceptible to it: This idea of, as you say, you convince yourself that you’re right, and then find the arguments to justify it. And you know, if I didn’t get into this in the book, but you know, go back to ancient times, and you have the sophists — and the word that we get today, sophistry — this argument you’re just arguing for arguing’s sake, you’re trying to win an argument without any substance. And some people have responded on social media to the title of the book — “Win Every Argument” — with the kind of snarky: Well, why would you want to win every argument? Sometimes you should lose an argument!
Well, obviously, duh, it’s a title. I know that. And I’ve enjoyed losing some arguments and learning something. And to come back to Deconstructed, I think that was about being known in the U.S. as an interrogator, as the Erik Prince guy, as the guy who’s debated at the Oxford Union. And I’m a big fan of that style of debate. I do it, obviously; I’ve just written a book about it. But also, yeah, nobody wants to get pigeonholed in the world. And I like to do a lot of different things: On my cable show, I do something different; I think if you look at my journalism over the years, Ryan, as someone who’s known me for the last decade, I’ve done a lot of different things. In the HuffPost, my journalism style was different; in Al Jazeera it’s been different; for The Intercept, it’s been different; and for MSNBC it has been different.
Now, underlying all of that is one common theme with which I do like to interrogate ideas. I don’t like to take things at face value. And you can do that in different ways. You can do that in a grand debating style onstage at the Oxford Union in front of a live audience where you’re trying to pick apart Erik Prince’s position on mercenaries. All you can do that, as I did on Deconstructed, in long form interviews with interesting thinkers, as you and I have done over the years, trying to understand an argument from all sides and going really deep into the detail — which, unfortunately, in our media industry, which is time-poor, gets lost.
And that is something I miss. I’m very open about this. I miss a lot of that from The Intercept days, from Al Jazeera English days; and that cable news has a lot of pros, but one of the big cons is your time-poor. You’re trying to cram a lot of stuff into an hour with ad breaks.
And some of us try to go longer. Rachel Maddow is known for her very long A blocks, her very long form explainers. I’ve tried to do a lot of those. We’ve tried to do some deep dives; on my Peacock streaming show right now, we do big, long essays at the top of the show, podcast-style almost, to try and break down an issue; whether it’s the debt ceiling, whether it’s Nikki Haley’s career arc and flip flops — whatever it is, we do that.
But underlying it is the same premise, which is — just to go through some of the chapter headings in my book: focus on feelings, not just facts; appeal to people’s hearts, not just their heads; bring your receipts — one of the mottos of my entire life and career — always have your evidence. Be able to listen as well; people think speaking is just about speaking, it’s not it’s also about listening. All of those qualities — the ad hominem argument in the sense of questioning the credibility of the person you’re speaking to — all of those skills — the art of the zinger, which is very good, as you know, for kind of viral moments — all those things that are in the book, as chapter headings, as chapters are things I’ve brought to my journalism wherever I am, whether I was at The Intercept, whether I was at Al Jazeera English, whether I’m at MSNBC.
And the point of writing this book, I have many reasons for writing this book, but one of them is for my colleagues, for fellow journalists in the media industry. I’m very critical of the media on both sides of the Atlantic as to where we have fallen short. And I think there are certain things we could improve, and one of those is holding power to account in a much better and [more] focused way.
RG: So for this episode, I want to go through some of your greatest hits and draw out some of the lessons that we can take from them. And what I liked about your book is this is kind of how you structure it: Like, here’s generally how you do something, here’s a tip, and then here’s an example of how I did it — and then it helps it land.
So tell me if you agree with this [that] your most viral debate ever has to be that one at the Oxford Union where the debate was about: Is Islam a peaceful religion?
Do you think that’s right?
MH: I think so. I think so. I think in terms of actual pure debating, I mean, there have been interview clips that have gone equally viral. But that one had more than 10 million views —
MH: — and went crazy in the Muslim world in particular. I still get free cab rides and free dinners from Arab and Pakistani friends I bump into, and Arab and Pakistani friends I make because people say, even though they don’t know my name: You’re that guy from the YouTube video!
So it’s always been fun. That was one that went really global. A lot of Americans got to know me before I moved to the U.S. from this debate. And just for your listeners, it was 2013. It was 10 years ago.
MH: I can’t believe it was 10 years ago, and it was the day after a terrorist attack in the U.K., just ironically and tragically, which killed a British soldier. And the Oxford Union hosts this debate. This House believes Islam is a religion of peace. And I’m the final speaker for the propositions on making that case.
MH: Daniel talked about my article in The New Statesman, which got me a lot of flack, where I talked about the anti-semitism that is prevalent in some parts of the Muslim community, which indeed it is. Of course, I didn’t say in that piece that it was caused by the religion of Islam. In fact, modern anti-semitism in the Middle East was imported from — finish the sentence — Christian, Judeo-Christian Europe, where I believe some certain bad things happen to the Jewish people.
In fact, Tom Friedman, Jewish-American columnist in the New York Times, told me in this very chamber last week that he believed, had Muslims been running Europe in the 1940s, six million extra Jews would still be alive today. So I’m not going to take lessons in anti-semitism from someone who’s here to defend the Judeo-Christian values of a continent that murdered six million Jews.
Moving swiftly on.
[Someone makes an indistinct point.]
Female Voice: Absolutely.
MH: Well, I’m about to at that point. No, no, no — I’m about to make the point! You’re right! [A flurry of applause erupts in the room.] I agree with you. I agree with you. I agree with you 110 percent. That is my point. I don’t think Europe is evil or bad. I’m a very proud European, I don’t want to judge Europe on the basis — but if we’re going to play this gutter game, where we pull out the Bali bombing, and we pull out examples of anti-semitism in the Islamic community, then of course, I’m going to come back and say: Well, hold on.
RG: And can you give us a little bit of the backstory on that one? Was this a kind of rip-the-speech-up moment?
MH: It’s a really good question. Because I prepared the speech. And I say in the book, different people prepare their speeches in different ways. You can memorize it. That’s the hardest way — Ancient Greece-style or David Cameron-style. You can do cue cards, which is a common form; bullet points, just have your key bits; or you write out the whole thing, but you don’t read from it, you know it well enough that it’s just there. And that’s my own personal preference. I tell people: Try it out, try out all three, everyone’s different.
So I had written out an entire speech on the train, on the way to Oxford. I was a journalist at the HuffPost at the time, and I go to the Oxford Union to do this debate, knowing there’s a lot of pressure because there’s been this terrorist attack the day before, surely we’re going to lose. No one’s gonna say Islam as a religion of peace a day after two Islamist terrorists have just murdered a British soldier in broad daylight on a London street.
So I go there — but the opposition speakers who all speak before me are so bigoted, are so ignorant, that yeah, I get really mad. And you see I get mad. And I talk about it in the book where I do tear up — not physically — but I do kind of ignore a lot of my speech. And I spend a lot of time just rebutting them, mocking them, taking their arguments apart. I went over my time, you can hear the bell go “ding, ding, ding,” and I keep going.
But it was important — because as I said in the book, you have to bring some passion and authenticity to your presentations. If you’re doing a debate on Islam, and you’re a Muslim, and you’re facing bigotry, a bit of how dare you, sir goes a long way. And also, I had my receipts; I had my polling, and my statistics, and my research, and my reports and my studies, and I deployed them all. But yeah, it was a lot of: I have to be able to stand up to this thing. And we won that debate. I was shocked that we won that debate, but we won by more than 100 votes.
RG: And people should just go Google that one. It’s well worth watching in full — I don’t want to play the whole thing here. I want to move to a couple of clips. Let’s start with — and you talk about it in Chapter 11— this is a Trump adviser. And this is an example of the thing that is called the Gish-gallop. It’s a guy named Steve Rogers.
José, can you play that first one?
MH: When he says we’re the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and that baby is essentially a citizen of the United States, is that true or false?
Steve Rogers: No, it’s false. It’s a misstatement. That doesn’t mean it’s a lie.
MH: A misstatement. OK.
He said there were riots going on in California against illegal immigration in so-called sanctuary cities. Were there any riots in California?
SR: Oh, yes. There were a lot of civil servants.
MH: Where? Where were the riots? Can you tell me where they were?
SR: In California, there were street skirmishes in Los Angeles. That’s a fact.
MH: No, hold on. The spokesman for the California Police Chiefs Association says there was no there were no riots taking place as a result of sanctuary city policy. There were no riots! He just made it up! When he was asked to say where they were. He said: Go look for them!
I can give you many more. He said during the campaign that there are six to seven steel facilities that are going to be opened up. There are no — U.S. Steel has not announced any facilities. Why did he say they’ve announced new facilities? That’s a lie, isn’t it?
SR: No, it isn’t. Because there are a lot of companies opening up. There are steel facilities that are going to be opening up or I think actually one opened up —
MH: No, Steve, that’s not what he said. I know it’s difficult for you. I know you want to try and defend him.
SR: No, it isn’t difficult for me. [Laughs.]
MH: Well, OK, let me read the quote to you: “U.S. Steel just announced that they’re building six new steel mills.” That’s a very specific claim. U.S. Steel has not announced six new steel mills. They have said they have not announced six new steel mills. There’s no evidence of six new steel mills. He just made it up! And he repeated it. He didn’t just say it once.
SR: Look, I don’t know in what context these statements were made. But I can tell you this: The President of the United States has been very responsive to the American people and the American people are doing well. Look —
MH: That’s fine. The American people can be doing well and the president can be a liar. There’s no contradiction between those two statements.
SR: I am not going to say the President of the United States is a liar.
MH: No, I know you are not, but I’ve just put to you multiple lies and you’ve not been able to respond to any of them. Let me ask you this:
SR: I did respond to them. What didn’t happen is you didn’t hear what you wanted to hear.
MH: What did I want to hear? I wanted to hear that there are no steel mills, he just made them up.
SR: You wanted to hear me say — well, let’s go on.
RG: Mehdi, what you’re particularly good at is just not letting people off the hook. How did you prep for that? Because it seems like a difficult thing to grapple with.
MH: Yeah, it was. And it was interesting — this was post the 2018 midterms. This is less than two years into the Trump presidency. People are still grappling with: How do you cover this guy?
And we were all grappling with it — I was at Al Jazeera English at the time and you thinking if you get a Trump person on, you know what they’re going to do: They’re going to b.s., they’re gonna ramble, they’re going to flood the zone with nonsense. What do you do in that situation? And my team and I decided we need a theme; the theme of the interview is that Trump’s a liar. The Washington Post had already documented at that point more than 10,000 lies. And we thought: What do we do? We pick a handful and pick one we really want to focus on — the steel facilities, you mentioned. A brazen lie! There’s no kind of it’s a half-truth, it’s a misstatement. No, it’s that he just made it up.
RG: There are no — the steel mills don’t exist.
MH: They don’t exist. The company says they don’t exist. He plucked it out of thin air. And yeah: So I talked about it in the book, this tactic that Trump and his acolytes do – not just Trump, people would argue Vladimir Putin, a lot of fascists use this tactic, which is called the Gish-gallop. And it actually comes from the creationist world, from the world of creationist debating, a lot of creationist Christians love to debate evolutionary biologists.
And there was a famous guy called Duane Gish. And what he used to do is he would just trot out non-stop, one line after another, pseudo-scientific, seemingly legitimate sounding things that you couldn’t rebut — that no sane normal person could rebut all of it in the space of 5, 10, 15 minutes. So it became known as the Gish-gallop — overwhelming your opponent, burying them in a deluge of distortions, deflections, and distractions. Trump does it so well, and so do his minions.
So what we wanted to do and what I say in the book is that this is a three-step process for stopping that. And this is advice I would give to listeners involved in debates — people who just argue with someone in a bar, or a pub, or at the Thanksgiving table, or interviewing Trump’s spokesperson — you’ve got to do a three-step process.
First of all, you’ve got to pick your battles. You can’t rebut every lie, it’s just not possible. They want to distract you with sheer quantity. You’ve got to pick one or two things you want to focus on. Number two, you gotta not budge. Once you’ve picked on it, don’t budge. And number three, call it out. And I do that in that Steve Rogers interview. We came, we prepared, we got our receipts, we had our facts, we had our quotes. And then when he does what you just heard him do, I pick my battles. I said: No, look, steel, you want to talk about other things, you want about manufacturing — no, steel. What about the steel facilities? Don’t let it go. Don’t budge.
A lot of interviewers, unfortunately, just move on to the next question, which is gold for an interviewee who’s trying to dodge answering it? My position is: No, less is more. I’d rather do fewer questions, but stick to the topic until I get an answer or a non-answer.
And then third of all, call it out. You heard the bit at the end, he says: Let’s move on. And I say after that: Of course, you want to move on because you have no answers. You’ve got to call out what’s going on. You’ve got to identify the tactic to expose to the audience: this is all B.S. from your adversary or opponent or interviewee. So yeah — for me that chapter on the Gish-gallop is a crucial chapter because we live in an age where there isn’t much good-faith debate, like I’m a believer in good-faith argument, good-faith debate.
Ryan, you know very well: Today’s Republican Party, today’s conservative movement isn’t interested in good-faith debate. A lot of it is just pure B.S., just trying to grind you down. And journalists have had this debate: Who do you platform? Who do you not platform?
I have a personal rule on my show that I won’t platform an election denier; I won’t platform a climate denier; just like I wouldn’t platform a Holocaust denier. Other people will have election deniers on, even within my own network — each to their own, I say, but that’s my position. And you have to draw a line and say: What do you define as good-faith debate?
For me, personally, that was 2018 when I debated Steve Rogers on that Al Jazeera show; today, Steve Rogers — I’m guessing, I don’t know the man personally — I would assume he’s an election denier, if he’s still a loyal Trumpist. Would I have him on again? Probably not. Because I’ve now made a decision that debating the election, debating the big lie, is pointless. It helps no one but the big liars. So something that’s not in the book, maybe for a sequel to this book, if everyone buys it, it becomes a success, is when to walk away from a debate because that’s an important discussion as well, when do you not have the argument because it’s actually pointless?
RG: Let’s do John Bolton next.
RG: But first, I think a lot of people are probably wondering how you keep getting people to come onto your show.
MH: That’s a great question.
RG: A normal person would look at the track record and say: you know what, speaking of knowing when not to debate, I think I’m gonna pass on this request.
I have my own theory for why you’ve continued to be able to get people to come on your show, but I’m curious [about it] from your perspective.
MH: I think it’s a mixture of things. When I was at Al Jazeera English during the show at the Oxford Union, I do think it was partly the prestige of being able to come to the Oxford Union, especially for a lot of Americans, especially for someone like Erik Prince. People say why did Erik Prince agree to do an interview? I’m like: I don’t know! I wouldn’t have done the interview with me if I was him.
But he did it. And I think it was partly — and I don’t say this in a bad way — but ego.
MH: People in public life, they’re in public life because they like being on camera, on TV, they have a high opinion of themselves.
I think a lot of the right-wingers — and John Bolton is a great example of this — I think people like John Bolton are intellectually arrogant. And again, I don’t say that in a bad way. I mean, John Bolton is a smart guy. The guy was a Yale Political Union debater, the guy has basically bested most of the interviewers who have tried to take him down. As much as I loathe his politics and what he’s done. He’s clearly very good at rhetoric. He’s very good at argument and debate, and he knows his stuff. So someone like that thinks it’s the prestige of somewhere like the Oxford Union or cable TV primetime. It’s the intellectual arrogance of: Well, nothing’s gonna happen to me. I’m really good at what I do.
MH: And then it’s just a lack of preparation. To come back to the point, Ryan, you made earlier, I say in the book: Don’t go into any debate or argument without having prepared everything. Steel-manned your arguments, prepared all your arguments, have all your receipts, check out the other side of the argument — know both sides, as John Stuart Mill would say.
And do research on your opponent. A lot of people don’t research me. I’ve benefited from the fact —
RG: Mhmm. [Laughs.]
MH: — that I flew under the radar for a while. When I moved to the U.S., I was a new unknown quantity. Even in the U.K. for Al Jazeera English, it’s a global show that I did there.
I won’t say the name of this person, but a very, very prominent government official from a foreign country did an interview with me on Al Jazeera English show “UpFront,” and the mic was up before the interview began, and they turned to their assistant and they said: Who is this person again?
RG: Oh, good lord.
MH: Which I loved! I loved the fact that they turned up for the interview not even knowing my name. I was like: OK, well, here we go. And that same person then complained to the Qatari Government afterwards on behalf of their government saying I was unfair to them.
So yeah, I think it’s a lack of preparation as well. But yes, let’s not jinx it, because I love having people on.
MH: I’ve got people on by all sorts of roundabout ways. Dan Crenshaw, Congressman from Texas and I, had an argument on Twitter and I just said to him: Well, why don’t you come to my show and continue this? And he agreed, and it was a great bit of TV, which I talk about in the book.
RG: Alright, let’s roll this John Bolton, speaking of the Yale debater:
MH: Let me ask you this. Can I ask — how much of your antipathy and your criticism towards Iran, you’ve been very critical of Iran —?
John Bolton: — for over 15 minutes now.
MH: The 15 minutes are nearly up, let me ask you this. How much of your antipathy towards Iran has to do with geopolitics? How much of it has to do with the fact that you’ve had a long association with a group called the MEK, which was once a terrorist group banned by the State Department while you worked there?
JB: — it —
MH: You don’t mention it in your book. I looked in your book, there’s no mention of the MEK. I think you took tens of thousands of dollars for several speeches, just wondering how much that influences your policy on Iran.
JB: You know that I took tens of thousands of dollars for speeches at liberal universities in the United States. This is really about as low as it gets. The fact is that Hillary Clinton, perhaps someone you support, took the MEK off the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. How about that? I speak what I believe —
MH: She took them off in 2012. You were speaking with them in 2010, when they were still a banned group.
JB: Yeah. Now look, you’re simply wrong on your facts on this.
MH: No, you were there in Paris in 2010, speaking at the MEK rally, when they were still a banned terrorist group, according to the State Department.
JB: — nobody buys my opinion. And you could ignore that if you want. I’m very comfortable. I’ve never said anything other than what I believe. And we are now sir. 20 minutes into this interview, which you said was for 15.
MH: I believe it’s 15 minutes. I’ve got a timer going off in my ear. So —
JB: So tell us about that one.
MH: So I love that clip, because it has everything. It has everything.
So it has John Bolton, a guy who is a deeply odious figure who has never really been held to account for his odious policies over the years. And there’s another clip that people can watch where I pushed him on the Iraq War and whether he sleeps at night. And obviously, no one actually ever asked him a basic moral question, how he feels about all the dead people that he helped bring about.
But that exchange on the MEK I love because he’d never been asked about that. This guy has spoken at this group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization, the MEK. A lot of American politicians, a lot of Democrats, have also spoken at that group. But Bolton has been there for a while. And what I love about that is: We did our homework. I went, I watched YouTube; I transcribed it myself. This was for MSNBC — Peacock at the time — I’d left Al Jazeera English now. And I said: Look, I’m still gonna bring the same style, the same research.
We did our homework — I have a whole chapter on homework — we do our homework. So when you do your homework, and when you plan out the interview, something I talked about in the book is roleplay. Roleplay anything you’re going to do. Try to think about: they’re gonna say this, you’re gonna say this. Get a friend, get a colleague to talk you through what’s going to happen.
So when you do that, you know what’s coming. So when I say: you spoke in 2010. I know that he’s gonna say: Well, Hillary Clinton delisted it.
Well, no, she didn’t. That was 2010 — I’m ready with my comeback. Everything is planned out. You’re not winging it. It’s all there: I have a structure. I have a plan. And it’s going fine. Because he’s walking into all the traps that have been set for him. I know exactly where he’s gonna go. I know exactly what he’s going to say. I didn’t know that he was going to hide behind the clock and say: Well, the time’s up, which it wasn’t.
MH: That was a great moment because we were nowhere near 15 minutes, but it clearly showed that he wanted to end the interview without kind of walking out dramatically.
And it’s just a great moment. It’s a great moment to be able to put down your receipts which are undeniable, unbeatable, unquestionable receipts — the facts; see someone say, Well, you’re wrong on the facts, and say, well, actually no, the facts are on my side; and then have them hide behind the clock. So it does a lot of things, that clip, in terms of preparation, in terms of research, in terms of role-playing, in terms of bringing your receipts, in terms of having the follow-up, so not just moving on to the next topic.
RG: It also shows the value of a book tour —
MH: Yes. Very true.
RG: Because I’ve noticed that I’m able to get people that wouldn’t want to talk to me otherwise when they have a book out.
MH: That’s such a good point, to go back to the earlier question as to why people come on. They’re promoting books, as I am right now.
RG: There you go. That’s right.
So you mentioned Erik Prince being unable to resist the allure of the Oxford Union. So let’s play that famous clip.
MH: You’re a big supporter of Donald Trump. You’ve been questioned by Special Counsel Robert Mueller over the Russiagate investigation — he’s looked at your laptop and your phones, I believe. You’ve also testified to Congress. In November 2017, you told Congress under oath that you played, “no official or really unofficial role in the Trump campaign.”
What you didn’t tell Congress is on August 3, 2016, you were at a meeting during the campaign at Trump Tower with Don Jr., Trump’s son; with Stephen Miller, then a campaign adviser to Trump; with George Nader, a former Blackwater colleague of yours who acts as a backchannel to the Saudis, the Emiratis — he also happens to be a convicted pedophile; and also Joel Zamel, an Israeli expert on social media manipulation.
How come you didn’t mention that meeting to Congress, given it’s so relevant to their investigation?
Erik Prince: Uh, I did. As part of the investigations. I certainly disclosed any meetings —
MH: Not in the Congressional testimony you gave to the House, we went through it. You didn’t mention anything about the August 2016 meeting in Trump Tower. They specifically asked you what contact you’d had. And you didn’t answer that.
EP: I don’t believe I was asked that question.
MH: You were asked: Were there any formal communications or contact with the campaign? You said: “Apart from writing papers, putting up yard signs, no.” That’s what you said. I’ve got the transcript of the conversation here.
EP: Sure, I might have been. I think it was at Trump headquarters or the campaign headquarters.
MH: Trump Tower. August 3, 2016.
MH: You; an Israeli dude; a back channel to the Emiratis and the Saudis; Don Jr.; and Stephen Miller.
EP: We were there to talk about Iran policy.
MH: You were there to talk about Iran policy?
MH: Don’t you think that’s something important to disclose to the House Intelligence Committee while you’re under oath?
EP: I did.
MH: You didn’t. We just went through the testimony. [Audience laughs.] There’s no mention of the Trump Tower meeting in August 2016? Why not?
EP: I don’t know if they got the transcript wrong. [Audience laughs and murmurs.]
MH: Oh! They got the transcript wrong. So we go —
EP: I don’t know, I remember, certainly discussing —
MH: I mean, this is a problem for you. Because we know that Robert Muller, he hasn’t been able to establish collusion yet. But he has gotten a lot of guys for lying to the authorities and not telling the whole truth. Is that a problem now? That even if you accidentally didn’t tell them, that could come back and haunt you?
EP: I fully cooperated? I haven’t heard anybody — I haven’t heard from anybody in more than nine months.
MH: I mean, members of Congress after they discovered this meeting, have talked about certain witnesses not telling the truth. But you believe you told Congress about this meeting, even though it’s not in the transcript, just to be clear?
EP: I believe so. Yeah.
RG: Oy. Brutal! [Laughs.] What were the actual — what was the fallout from that?
MH: It’s a good question. Because obviously, Erik Prince remains a free man. The fallout, the short-term fallout, I mean, it was a Trump DOJ. But Adam Schiff, who was the House Intelligence Committee chair, took my interview clip. It was played to him that Sunday on “Meet the Press,” and I was like — oh, wow, this is good, this is getting big. It had already gone viral. It had millions of views online. And he referred it to the DOJ as an example of: Was it untruthful testimony?
That investigation in the end, I don’t know what happened to that. It is a great question. I should go back and check into it. But what was interesting about that was that Prince had been on multiple interviews up until that point — he wasn’t on a book tour, but he was doing a media tour promoting his idea of a mercenary army in Afghanistan. That’s why he had agreed to come on the show. He was promoting something at the time.
And it was amazing that no one had actually — my team and I sat and went through the transcript. I printed it out and brought it with me into the Oxford Union chamber and waved it in my hand. By the way, a prop is always very useful to have in a debate or argument; can’t beat actual physical receipts in your hand. Also always great to have a live audience. I say in the first chapter of the book, that it is all about the audience, how to use an audience. In that clip, just listening back to it 10 years later, the audience laughing is almost like a force multiplier.
MH: In that, if it’s just me and him in a room on our own with a cameraman, he can get out of more stuff than he can when he’s on stage and hundreds of people are laughing at the ridiculousness of his responses. And there is an example of where we’ve gone through the transcript — a lot of interviewers aren’t able to do that. When he says: Well, I said it, it was in the transcript, they’ll just move on to the next question.
I’m able to say: But you didn’t say in the transcript because we went through it. Not only do we go through it, we have it here in our hands. So it was a powerful moment. And I think it helped me get my current job. When I was interviewed at MSNBC, the bosses made it clear that they knew me from the Erik Prince clip. That’s how they knew this British dude who had worked at The Intercept and Al Jazeera at that point.
It certainly made me well-known in American media circles. And again, it was because, like with John Bolton, you have this kind of right-wing odious figure who’s done awful things, but has never really been challenged on them. And despite doing multiple interviews, it’s not like Prince or Bolton run away from cameras. They do loads of interviews; they just never seem to get caught in any of them. And I made it my goal to make sure that I hold them to account whether it’s on Iraq and the MEK with John Bolton, or whether it was on the Trump Tower meeting, and many other issues with Erik Prince — I urge people to go watch that interview. We talk about a lot of stuff where we catch him on, for example, his reference to Iraqis as barbarians, which he tried to deny, but I had his book and the quotes ready to go.
So for me, that was a great interview for me in my career. But I also think, as you said, it had an impact; it had members of Congress discussing it, sending it to the DOJ. It reminds you of the value of an interview. Some people think: Well there’s no point in doing interviews, you’re probably not going to get anywhere in this day of spin and spin doctors and media training. But no, there are moments that can still make a difference. And that’s why I’m a great believer in the interview; I’m a great believer in the power of debate.
RG: And I think it really does show the value of that physical receipt.
And I think with the Bolton interview, mentioning that his speech was in Paris at a rally was somewhat tantamount to a physical receipt, because it had so many details.
MH: The specificity.
RG: If you’d have just said: No, no, you spoke in 2010.
And he’d say: Well, no, I didn’t.
Then it’s like, you’re kind of going back and forth. It’s a he said, she said!
MH: Well I have the clip!
MH: I was gonna play the clip. Remember, but he was saying: your time’s up, your time’s up.
RG: He would have been gone by the time the clip was playing.
MH: I had the clip.
RG: Right. And so then when you have the physical paper — like, here’s the transcript — then the only thing that’s left to him is to say: Well, somebody typed it wrong. Which then, as you said, draws the laughter.
MH: It draws ridicule. The only option I said in the book was: What was he supposed to do, run out of the hall? Joey Tribbiani-style in Friends, does he just run out when he’s caught embarrassed?
And what was funny is of all the guests I’ve interviewed on that show, which was called “Head to Head” on Al Jazeera English, the only two guests that basically left without speaking to me after the show, just completely silent in the green room afterward. And one was Erik Prince.
RG: [Laughs.] Unsurprising.
MH: Who had a very firm handshake, you’ll be shocked to know.
So for the last one. You’ve got kind of a fun clip here with the Saudi ambassador, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, let’s play that one. This is from “UpFront.”
MH: Many people might say that’s a good thing: There should be democracy in Syria, and there should be an elected government in Syria. But they might also wonder: Why are you OK with an elected government in Syria, but not an elected government in Saudi Arabia? If the people of Syria get to choose their own rulers or head of state? Why can’t the people of Saudi Arabia, choose their own heads of state?
Abdallah al-Mouallimi: Go and ask the people of Saudi Arabia, are you happy with —
MH: Can I?
AM: Of course you can.
MH: No, it’s illegal in Saudi Arabia to offer a change in the government, to call for the king to come out of office.
AM: I didn’t, I didn’t say go and call for a change of government. I said: Go and call and ask the Saudi people whether they are happy with their system of government.
MH: How do I do that? What’s the process?
AM: In any way you want. In any way you want.
MH: Opinion polls.
AM: Opinion polls. Anything.
MH: What about an election?
AM: And you will find, well, we will have elections at some point in time. We’ve started with municipal elections. But “elections” is not the panacea for everything.
MH: No, I agree. But you said you want elections in Syria? I’m saying why not have elections in Saudi as well?
AM: Well, just because there are elections in Syria doesn’t mean there have to be elections somewhere else. I said the elections, and you agreed, is not a panacea for everything.
The key question is, is the population content and happy and satisfied with the form of government that they have? And I would like to claim that if you went to Saudi Arabia, and if you conducted a survey in Saudi Arabia in any way — official, formal, or otherwise — you will find a high degree of support for the system of government in Saudi Arabia.
MH: Isn’t that partly because if they do say they don’t want this government, they want another —
MH: — government, they’ll go to jail?
AM: No. No.
MH: — it’s against the law in Saudi Arabia to call for a change in the system of government.
AM: But that’s not the issue.
MH: That is the issue!
AM: No, no, it’s not.
MH: How can I as a Saudi say: I want a different system of government — if it’s illegal for me to say that?
AM: I’m saying that if there was a way by which you can ask the common people in the street, anonymously, privately, anyway.
MH: There is. It’s called voting.
AM: Well, voting along the lines of Western democracy —
MH: No, along the lines of whatever you want in Syria.
AM: OK. Well, I mean, even that is not the solution for a system of government. What is important is the pact between the governed and the governor, the mutual acceptance. I can tell you that mutual acceptance is much higher in Saudi Arabia than in almost any other country in the world.
RG: Yeah. Beyond how painful that is, what lessons should people draw from that one?
MH: Well, the lesson is don’t do what I did and go into a Saudi consulate as a journalist because that was pre-Jamal Khashoggi days, but I was able to leave alive from the Saudi consulate at the U.N. — that’s where Ambassador Abdallah al-Mouallimi serves — and that interview.
And actually, let me just make — without wanting to bang my own drum too much — all the clips you played, make one important, overall point, which is: You have a Trump supporter, Steve Rogers; you have Erik Prince; you have John Bolton; you have a Saudi ambassador. What do they all have in common? They’re not people who are shy of the media. They’re all people who do a lot of interviews. Why did those four clips, all of them, go viral, like millions and millions of views? Because what I did was I asked them questions and did things with them and held them to it in a way that they hadn’t been held before.
And that is what I say to people — to be honest, it’s one of the reasons I wrote the book. Which is to try and do what I do — what I do is not that hard. I’m not coming here to say, I’m amazing, look, how unique I am. No, I’m saying, anyone else could have done what I did prior to what I did, but they didn’t. And I’m saying you can do it, it can be done. Let me show you how.
And some of the different lessons in the book, you take that Saudi clip, in particular, the Saudi ambassador is a guy who does lots of interviews with Western media. And I came along with one goal in mind, which is: I want to talk about democracy, the lack of democracy in Saudi Arabia. And everything leads to that goal. I have a clear goal. And that’s where I want to get to; that’s the end route of the journey I’m on.
And I deploy multiple different things. So there’s a chapter in the book on bringing your receipts.
I have my receipts. When he says: Well, you know, it’s not a panacea.
“Well, what about Syria? You just said, Syria” — that’s my receipt. I’m quoting him back to him.
When I say, for example, there’s a chapter on booby traps. In the media, politicians like to call it the gotcha question, right? I’m sure someone has accused you once of asking me a gotcha question.
MH: Gotcha questions are fine! I mean, politicians use the phrase gotcha to try and dismiss a totally legitimate question. What a gotcha question is doing is showing you that you’ve got yourself trapped, nothing wrong with showing someone that — I don’t think there’s anything untoward with that. I do a chapter on booby traps, this idea that you unbalance your opponent by trapping them in their own words, in their own contradictions.
And with the Saudi ambassador, I led him to that point, I led him into that booby trap. The reason I brought up Syria when I asked him: Do you support elections in Syria?
I knew that he’s gonna say yes, and the only reason I brought up elections in Syria is because I was gonna say: So what about Saudi Arabia, then?
You should have seen his face! He just walked into that trap. He knew now he was on uncomfortable terrain. He doesn’t want to talk about democracy in Saudi Arabia.
And then there’s the art of the zinger, the one-liner, do you have one good line, one good put-down, that just stops everything in their tracks. And my line there, as you heard was, if you can find one way to ask the people — I’m like, yeah, it’s called voting.
RG: Mhmm. [Laughs.]
MH: Boom, he doesn’t really have a comeback to that. If you have that one line that shuts everything down —
RG: That’s when he stammers.
MH: You can call it a mic-drop, I call it a zinger — whatever you want to call it, that one-liner. So that clip shows you a mix of different things. It shows the planning and preparation of what the interview is about, it shows you the importance of bringing receipts, it shows you the importance of setting your little traps; it shows the importance of having the one-liner, the zinger. And he wasn’t expecting any of that. And I was just glad to leave with the tapes.
RG: Right, you can see how you walk him into that amazing line of him saying: If you could find a confidential way that people could express their preferences on public policy, then you would be able to find out what people —
And I think that’s a good place to end it. Because if you go back to the Oxford Union debate over whether or not Islam is a peaceful religion, I think pretty much everybody listening to this can say well: That’s incredibly impressive, but not something that I could see myself being able to actually do.
But these other clips actually are, I think, within the capacity of most people to do, if they just do their work ahead of time, and focus on the interview, and don’t let it go.
And so that’s where I think this book is so valuable. And I really encourage anybody who — I can’t think of anybody actually, who wouldn’t benefit from this. Who in this world at some point doesn’t need to argue with somebody?
MH: Well, that’s that’s the point I make. I make the point in the introduction that people like Dale Carnegie and others are like: Arguments are bad, run away from them. And my point is, I like to run towards arguments, partly out of my personal preference, but also, whether we like it or not, everyone at some point or another — every man, woman, or child wants to win an argument, needs to win an argument, and I believe can win an argument. We’re all capable of doing it; having that debate. And I say in this book, here are some of the tricks and techniques. Here are some of the tried and tested principles going back 2,000 years, like much greater minds than me have developed a lot of this stuff. I don’t claim to be original on a lot of the stuff. I’m bringing tried and tested methods from ancient Greeks, Ancient Romans; from Churchill, JFK, and MLK; and I’m throwing in my own experiences as well. And I’m saying here’s how you learn it. Here’s how you develop it. Here’s how you teach it.
RG: And the book is called: “Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking.”
Mehdi, thanks so much for joining me.
MH: Thanks so much, Ryan. It was great to be back on Deconstructed.
[End credits music.]
RG: And that was Mehdi Hasan, and that’s our show. This is the outro that he wrote years ago:
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is José Olivares. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. The show was mixed by William Stanton. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief of The Intercept. If you’d like to support our work, go to theintercept.com/give.
And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. And please go and leave us a rating or a review — it helps people find the show. If you want to give us additional feedback, email us at [email protected] Thanks so much!
And Mehdi, could you have done that outro by heart?
MH: I could! As you said it, I was like: Wow, it’s been a few years, although every name in that has changed.
RG: It’s true.
MH: Except for Bart Warshaw, who did fantastic music.
RG: That’s right. That name will never change.
MH: But it brought back some great memories. And I love this Deconstructed audience. Thank you for listening.
RG: All right. Thank you. See you soon.