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  February 14, 2017

Flynn's Resignation Won't Stop Trump Admin. From Targeting Iran


Ben Norton, reporter for Alternet's Grayzone Project, discusses the fallout from the resignation of Trump's National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Three-Part Interview
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Ben Norton is a reporter for AlterNet's Grayzone Project, where he writes primarily about U.S. foreign policy and the Middle East. He was previously a staff writer at Salon. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.


transcript

Flynn's Resignation Won't Stop Trump Admin. From Targeting IranJAISAL NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network. We are live on Facebook and in just a moment, we'll be joined by Ben Norton, a reporter for Alternet’s Grayzone Project to discuss one of the most dramatic moments yet for Trump's America; a raging controversy over contact with Russian officials claiming the scalp of National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn late on Monday. His resignation letter saying, "I inadvertently briefed the Vice President-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador."

It all comes down to claims that Flynn held discussions with Moscow the week before Trump took office about the possibility of the U.S. lifting sanctions against Russia, as first exposed by “The Washington Post”.

U.S. officials say that could both be illegal and leave Washington vulnerable to blackmail. Mike Pence, the Vice President was dragged into this mess when Flynn assured him the claims were untrue, leaving the Vice President to step in and defend him live on TV. But then Flynn came out saying sanctions may have come up with talks with Russia. He just couldn't remember 100%.

According to Washington, intercepted coms with Russia show Flynn didn't make any promises about lifting Russian sanctions. Though he did suggest any trade restrictions brought in under President Obama wouldn't necessarily carry over into the new administration. Retired General Keith Kellogg has been named Acting National Security Advisor while Trump decides who will fill the position.

Well, we're now joined by Ben Norton. Thank you so much for joining us, Ben.

BEN NORTON: Glad to be here, thanks for having me.

JAISAL NOOR: So, Ben, you know, Donald Trump has tweeted that the real story here is that there have been so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington: “Will these leaks be happening as I deal with North Korea?”

Others might say the real story might be how this is exposing rifts within the Trump administration. Trump has backed closer ties with Russia and we also have the neo-con wing, Mike Pence as an example, that have been verantly anti-Russia, drawing back unto the Cold War. Can you give us your response?

BEN NORTON: Absolutely. I mean, I think what you're… You hit the nail on the head there. What this demonstrates is there is this internal contradiction within the Trump administration already on foreign policy. You know, it's been there for a while.

Flynn was himself one of the people who were pushing for rapprochement with Russia. You know, there are many alleged ties. He perhaps spoke, or at least attended a dinner, and sat next to Putin that was organized by “Russia Today”, the Russian state media. And in some ways, I wouldn't necessarily say that's a negative thing. We should all… anyone who's concerned about peace be looking for rapprochement, be concerned about potential escalation and even military conflict against Russia.

I mean, Russia has the most nuclear weapons in the world and has a very large army. So, I'm not necessarily saying this is a negative thing. However, at the same time, we should recognize that although there's an internal rift on Russia, there is not an internal rift on Iran. And when it comes to the Middle East and especially when it comes to the issue of Islam, Flynn is incredibly extreme. You know, he's a verantly anti-Muslim bigot frankly. He's claimed openly that Islam, the religion of 1.7 billion people is actually not a religion. It's a political ideology. He likened it to a cancer. Flynn has this pathological hatred of Iran and again, so do many of the neo-cons.

So, while it's true that when it comes to Russia they may have some distinctions and in many ways, you know, that's clearly what was at the heart of what's happening here. I don't think we should necessarily consider this a huge loss, especially for those of us who are interested in peace because, again, I mean Flynn when it comes to issues like Russia, he might not have been as bad as some neoconservatives. He could have even been worse in other ways.

Flynn is also notorious for, I mean, not only having this pathological hatred, but letting this hatred guide his own reason. You know, he has a penchant for extreme conspiracy theories. He's claimed without any evidence, absurdly, that there are Arabic signs on the U.S.-Mexico border that guide jihadists from Mexico into the U.S. and tell them where to go.

He's also claimed in one of the most outlandish conspiracies of all that Iran, which he sees, in a book that he wrote, he sees Iran as the heart of evil in the world. And conspiratorially, he claims that it's actually in cahoots with ISIS, even though ISIS is an extreme Sunni group. It's a genocidal, extremist Sunni fundamentalist group and Iran is a Shi’a majority country; one of the few Shi’a majority countries. He claims they're secretly in cahoots with each other; that Iran is supporting ISIS, etc. So, in some ways...

JAISAL NOOR: So, it's sort of demonstrating his lack of basic understanding over the religion of Islam. It seems like the hatred has sort of clouded his judgment or his logic, as you were saying.

BEN NORTON: Yeah, I mean, one could put it that way. One could also put it in a way that he doesn't really even care about, you know, logic or reason. His worldview, kind of like Steve Bannon, sees the West as in fundamental contradiction with the so-called East.

You know, Steve Bannon is Trump's Chief Strategist and in many ways on foreign policy he is like people like Mike Flynn. And again, just because they oppose the neoconservatives, which is true, doesn't necessarily mean they're progressive, right? Bannon in 2014 gave a speech at a Christian conference in which he insisted the so-called Christian enlightened West is at war, he said in “a very bloody conflict” with Islam, secular Islam, atheism, etc. And Flynn is similar in some ways. I mean, certainly it clouds his reason but it actually informs his entire worldview where he really does think that, you know, we're at war with Islam and he sees Iran as the embodiment of that. And he thought that Russia could be a potential ally in that war. So, I mean, it's good and we should support rapprochement with Russia. We should absolutely oppose any kind of escalation of conflict and that's one of the few positive things we've seen, very few. I mean there are so many horrible things about the Trump administration but it's good to see that it doesn't look like war with Russia, at least right now, is on the table because that would be catastrophic.

However, we should recognize that just because someone wants rapprochement with Russia and doesn't want to declare war against it, doesn't mean they're progressive and doesn't mean that they're necessarily an ally politically.

JAISAL NOOR: And I wanted to get your response as some developments on Capitol Hill. Democrats have called for an investigation. The Republican Chairman of the Oversight Committee says there will be none in the House. Meanwhile, “The Hill” is reporting that Republican Senator Roy Blunt on Tuesday said there should be an exhaustive investigation to ties between Russia and the Trump administration. He says, "I think everybody needs that investigation to happen." He told KTRS Radio, as reported by CNN.

What's your reaction to some of the political fallout we're seeing over this growing controversy?

BEN NORTON: Well, of course, I think it's incredibly hypocritical like many things in Capitol Hill. You know, there's this deep-seeded, almost McCarthy-like hatred of Russia. And the irony is, I mean, Russia is nothing at all like it was 25 years ago. It hasn't been socialist for decades. Its government is right-wing frankly, but you know, it doesn't kowtow to the U.S. It doesn't toe the party line when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, you know, in Syria and in other conflicts and Ukraine. You know, it has different positions and it's seen as this evil boogeyman and no one will tolerate any interaction with it.

I mean, it's true that Flynn violated protocol. You know, perhaps resignation was the most appropriate response, but at the same time, if we look at what he was doing, he was discussing the lifting of sanctions. Perhaps he discussed other things as well but that's the crux of the issue we're talking about here. And yeah, that's a violation of policy. But the lifting of sanctions is something that we should encourage. I mean, if we're interested in peace, if we're interested in rapprochement, you know, if you want to pursue diplomacy instead of just harming other countries economically and politically, that's not a big deal, right?

And when you look at the underlying hypocrisy when it comes to other countries as well, it's almost baffling. So, yes, Flynn may have had these ties to Russia, but what about the ties that other politicians have to countries like Saudi Arabia?

Certainly the Russian government is repressive in some ways, but nothing compared to countries like Saudi Arabia or Qatar, or even Turkey. And many politicians in the US have extreme ties, you know, very close ties to these countries. In fact, the Trump administration has already been moving even closer to Saudi Arabia. It had multiple phone calls with Saudi King Salman and the deputy crown prince. You know, where is the controversy on Capitol Hill? Where are the investigations into links to this extremist regime that supports extremism throughout the world, that subjugates women, etc.? I mean clearly, you know, there's this kind of Cold War boogeyman that Russia has been presented as. And, you know, I think perhaps people should investigate Flynn. That's fine but are we going to investigate other forms of links to other countries that have repressive regimes as well?

JAISAL NOOR: This wraps up Part One of our discussion with Ben Norton. To watch the full discussion, go to TheRealNews.com.

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PART 2

JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News. We're continuing our discussion with Ben Norton. He's a reporter for Alternet Grayzone Project.

So, Ben, on the issue of leaks specifically, we talked to a former intelligence officer and he said he was shocked Flynn didn't know that a phone call with the Russian ambassador on an open line would be recorded. What's your response to that? What does that show us about sort of the carelessness of people in this administration?

BEN NORTON: I think it says it all, right? Flynn was known in the intelligence community for having his own kind of intelligence, if you will. I mean, they disparagingly spoke of his penchant for conspiracy theories. He clearly did not understand protocol very well. So, there's certainly a degree of incompetence there. And when you look at the Trump administration there is certainly no dearth of incompetence. But at the same time, I don't think we should necessarily hyper-focus on that. It is certainly an important issue we should be looking at. But it reminds me of how many people on the left would just endlessly make fun of George Bush and his administration. Bush said many stupid things. He was incredibly ignorant. But he also did a lot of damage and we shouldn't let people's incompetence delude us into thinking that they can't cause a lot of harm.

JAISAL NOOR: And I wanted to quote “The Guardian” here talking about Keith Kellogg, who is the temporary replacement to Mike Flynn: “Kellogg came to national prominence when he served as Chief Operating Officer for Baghdad's Provisional Government through 2004, just after the Iraq invasion. A year of mistakes. Two thousand and four was a year of mistakes by the transitional administration that haunted Iraq through the next decade of war.” And later he went on to work for defense contractors.

We know he's only a temporary replacement but how do you respond to that?

BEN NORTON: You know, when you look at the trio that's being considered right now, we're in a situation that's kind of like, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” right?

Flynn was, I would say in some ways, uniquely extreme especially when it came to his virulent hatred of Islam and Muslims. But he was also a hawk, right? And then the other three people who are being considered are also hawks. So, Keith Kellogg he's a lieutenant general. He's in many ways kind of in the same vein as people like James Mattis. He is kind of a more traditional hawk. Like they're anti-Russia, they're also anti-Iran. They may be more similar to the neo-conservative wing.

And if you look at the other two choices, they're actually pretty similar as well. In fact, one of the most egregious choices they're even considering right now is David Petraeus, you know, the disgraced former CIA director who was enmeshed in scandal because he leaked classified intelligence to his biographer, who happened also to be his mistress. Although the Obama White House after that was continuing counsel with him anyway. But this is pretty ironic.

Petraeus is also this kind of neo-conservative figure. He endorsed Clinton for president. He himself, like Kellogg, he oversaw U.S. so-called counter terrorism and counter-insurgency operations. Petraeus is known for overseeing death squads and the use of torture in Iraq. He played a big role in the military surge. He called for "unleashing America's airpower” in Afghanistan. And the last who's being considered who's actually the front-runner is Robert Harward. And he, like Kellogg and Petraeus, again they're pretty similar. They're kind of run-of-the-mill military hawks. Harward was Deputy Commander of Cent Com [Central Command] under Mattis. And Mattis is now the Defense Secretary. He's known affectionately by the nickname "Mad Dog Mattis”.

So, these people are seen as like military moderates, right. They're not necessarily the kind of virulent-foam-at-their-mouths kind of hawks like someone like Flynn. But at the same time they're certainly no doves. They're certainly pro-war, they're certainly not altruistic.

And at the end of the day, we might see a shift on countries like Russia and maybe a few other issues, but I don't think there will be an enormous difference from what Flynn was doing.

JAISAL NOOR: And back to the issue of the leaks, because it's sort of been unprecedented how many leaks have been coming out. “The New York Times” and “The Washington Post” especially have documented the numerous officials in the administration who are confused. Remember this one line about how they couldn't figure out how to turn on the lights in the Oval Office. They were sitting in the dark trying to do memos. Trump seems to be ruling through ego. He doesn't want to make complicated decisions, he has to seem like he's in control. And the backlash that has come out of that has led to this resignation of Flynn, for example.

But what are your thoughts on how this could continue in the coming weeks and months? And what efforts Trump could do to clamp down on these leaks? We already know Obama took unprecedented efforts against whistleblowers and leakers in his administration. So, Trump would be following this precedent set by Obama.

BEN NORTON: Absolutely. It's very clear that internally the Trump administration is incredibly opposed to transparency, not only externally. I mean, it's very clear the F.B.I. has stopped taking email FOIA requests. This is just the beginning of the administration. The Obama administration claimed, falsely, to be the most transparent administration in history but it was very un-transparent. The Trump administration is not even making such false pretenses. They do not in any way claim to be transparent. And internally we see the same thing.

Trump is incredibly concerned about any kinds of leaks. In fact, “The Washington Post” has described how internally people inside his administration don't really understand what's going on sometimes. He just keeps writing executive orders, or rather Banning and his other aids keep writing executive orders, and he signs them, largely without a lot of input from his administration.

So, this is a very top-down strategy and there's not much discussion of what would be going on. And “The Washington Post” had reported on how because people don't really know what's going on, they're trying to communicate with each other internally and ask each other what's happening. But they're also afraid of Trump and other people in the administration finding out that they're discussing these issues.

So, even people who are Trump's allies and are working with him are afraid of stepping on any toes. Are afraid of being caught and accused of leaking or spying or whatever. So, there's clearly this very intense draconian atmosphere and it echoes, of course, what's happening externally. Trump makes decisions from the top-down, he and his close advisors.

And Bannon, again I mean, when we're talking about Trump, we should always be talking about Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, his right-hand man in the Oval Office. Whenever he signs an executive order you look at photos and Bannon's standing right next to him. Bannon is a very extreme figure. He is far right, as I mentioned earlier. He has a clash of civilizations worldview.

In fact, a recent article in “The Huffington Post” by a kind of secular activist who organized an event featuring cartoons of Mohammad, the prophet of Islam, even he said that Bannon is way too anti-Islam for him. And he said he recalled having a conversation with Bannon in which Bannon said that "We're at war with Islam" and this is the man who is really helping to guide a lot of Trump's decisions. And the two of them, and maybe a handful of other people, are making a lot of these decisions in the dark, proverbially and literally, as you mentioned, with the story of them being unable to turn on the lights. And I think that really is metaphorical for how un-transparent the entire administration is already.

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PART 3

JAISAL NOOR: This is the third and final part of our conversation with Ben Norton. He's a reporter for Altnernet's Grayzone Project.

There have been reports that the Trump administration is going to do another massive arms deal like has been done by previous administrations to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. What is your response to that? It seems like the Trump administration is still going to continue the traditional ties with the regional powers, including Saudi Arabia, which of course is not one of the countries on Trump's Muslim ban but has been directly linked to 9/11.

BEN NORTON: Absolutely, and if you look in 2009, Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, signed a State Department memo acknowledging that Saudi Arabia is the world's largest supporter of extremist Sunni groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban. You know, like you mentioned, the declassified 29 pages of the Congressional Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks shows links to Saudi Arabia. I mean, you can go down the list. I mean, Saudi Arabia is an extreme theocracy. It's in many ways similar to ISIS. It's actually been described as, you know, the white ISIS. You know, ISIS is the black ISIS. Saudi Arabia is the white ISIS. And when you look at the Trump administration's policies, it's a continuation of status-quo-anti.

So, Mike Pompeo, Trump's CIA Director, recently awarded a crown prince of the Saudi monarchy who oversees so-called “counter-terrorism policy.” And the head of Trump's CIA awarded this Saudi minister for fighting terrorism. You know, this is a beyond farcical. I mean, Saudi Arabia is the hotbed of terrorism not only in terms of material support but in ideological support. Saudi Arabia is a Wahhabi state based on an extreme fundamentalist form of Islam that is very similar to that preached by Al Qaeda and ISIS. And you can to down the list. I mean, the Obama administration in its eight years offered more than $115 billion of arms deals to Saudi Arabia and we've seen no indication that things will stop.

And in the first week, the Trump administration allowed another arms deal to go through that had previously been made. And again, when it comes to Middle East policy a lot of this is because the Trump administration, not under just Flynn but even under the neoconservative wing, really is focusing again on Iran as the new boogeyman. You know, Iran was previously definitely a target under the Obama administration but they certainly did not reach out with an olive branch. They imposed sanctions on Iran, etc. But the nuclear deal was a sign that they were looking for some kind of diplomacy and the Trump administration has infamously, of course, pledged to tear up the Iran deal. They've moved away from that pledge now. But Mattis, who's seen as a moderate in the cabinet, Defense Secretary Mattis, who's very close to Robert Harward, who is the front-runner to be the next national security advisor. We know that Mattis actually was considering having the U.S. Navy intercept and board an Iranian vessel. Like, this is an actual Iranian vessel. This would be a provocation that could even amount to an act of war in international waters. But Mattis decided that they might not want to do it because it would violate international law very likely.

So, again, there's this deep-seated hatred of Iran. They see Iran as the heart of all evil and the root of all their problems. And Saudi Arabia is a staunch ally in that fight. Trump already had an extended phone call with Saudi King Salman. Mattis already had an extended phone call with Mohammed bin Salman, his deputy crown prince, who will likely be King Salman's successor.

So, I anticipate when you look at the conflict in Yemen where the Trump administration continues to ramp up tension and create more intense military action, I certainly anticipate that both regimes will remain close U.S. allies in this unified fight against Iran.

JAISAL NOOR: And finally, Ben, the Trump administration is reeling. There have been massive protests. The courts have weighed in on his Muslim ban and blocked that, at least temporarily. There have been protests against his deportations. They are not quite at the level under the Obama administration, but it seems like that there is mass mobilization, the likes we haven't seen of since the Bush years really. Where is this going to lead? It seems like the Democrats are doing all they can without… they would say without having real power on Capitol Hill right now.

Where do you see the leadership coming for the Trump resistance? Is it in the streets? Or is it with the Democrats?

BEN NORTON: It's certainly in the streets. I mean, the Democrats might say that they're offering some kind of resistance but I see very little. I mean, some of them actually voted for members of Trump's cabinet. Even Elizabeth Warren and she's seen as this staunch progressive although on many issues she's certainly not progressive, especially foreign policy. But even she supported Ben Carson to lead HUD. You know, there's a lot of hypocrisy going on and it's been amazing to see this enormous grassroots activism against the opportunism, frankly, of the Democratic Party, even Bernie Sanders who's not a Democrat but even he has in some ways conceded. And the people who were really pushing the politicians from the left are the thousands of protestors going out in the streets.

Here in New York, on every Tuesday now, there are weekly protests. It's called “Resist Trump Tuesday” and two weeks ago more than 3,000 people gathered outside the apartment of Chuck Schumer, the senator here who's a notoriously right-wing Democrat. He supported the Iraq war, etc., opposed the Iran deal. Schumer has in many ways... he's seen as this resistance figure. He's seen as a leader of the Democratic Party in the Senate. But he has not really taken much staunch action and thousands of protestors were outside his apartment chanting, "Resist or resign! Resist or resign!" And you know, people are calling for what would amount to forms of civil disobedience, right, not just on the streets but even in Congress. People are calling for filibusters. People are calling for delays. Whatever they can do to actually echo what the Republicans were doing for the past eight years. You know, for maybe not all eight years, but especially when they regained the majorities in Congress, Republicans were trying to stymie anything the Obama administration could do. But now that there's a majority Republican contingent in Congress, Democrats are not pursuing the same strategy. They still have this, you know, bipartisan consensus mentality that Obama was the embodiment of. And we saw how that did not work in any way.

Republicans understand how power functions much better and they also know what they want much more. The Democratic Party is, of course, supposedly a left-wing party, but it's bankrolled by Wall Street. It's chock full of hawks. And that leaves this kind of mealy-mouthed politics where people will say one thing and then they won't really follow up on it. And thanks to these massive protests, we're seeing some resistance. But, you know, if the protests don't continue, I don't anticipate Democrats continuing this supposed resistance either. I mean, they keep saying, "Don't normalize Trump." And we should not normalize Trump. He is a very far-right president. He's already pushed through a lot of extreme policies. But unfortunately, the Democratic Party is really helping to normalize his administration already.

JAISAL NOOR: All right, Ben Norton, thank you so much for joining us.

BEN NORTON: Glad to be here, thanks for having me.

JAISAL NOOR: And thanks for all our viewers who were watching on Facebook. You can check out all of our coverage at TheRealNews.com. Thank you so much for joining us.

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