Will Trump Cave to Republican Pressure to be More Aggressive on Russia?
The Intercept’s Zaid Jilani responds to Trump’s press conference and says we still don’t really know his positions on NATO, Ukraine, Syria, and nuclear weapons
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
President-elect Trump, held his first press conference on Wednesday. Much of it was dominated by statements and questions about the release of a dossier about President-elect Trump published in BuzzFeed. Let’s have a look at what President-elect Trump had to say about that.
DONALD TRUMP: That information that was false and fake and never happened got released to the public. As far as BuzzFeed which is a failing pile of garbage writing it, I think they’re going to suffer the consequences. They already are. And as far as CNN going out of their way to build it up… And by the way we just found out as I was coming down, Michael Cohen… Michael Cohen is a very talented lawyer. He’s a good lawyer in my firm. It was just reported that it wasn’t this Michael Cohen they were talking about. So, all night long, it’s Michael Cohen. I said–
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SHARMINI PERIES: We’re going to talk about that and much more with Zaid Jilani. He’s a journalist with The Intercept. Thanks for joining us, Zaid.
ZAID JILANI: It’s great to be here.
SHARMINI PERIES: So, let’s begin with the BuzzFeed, its release of this dossier, and just giving us a lineage of how BuzzFeed came in contact with this dossier. From what I understand, Senator McCain had actually given this dossier to James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence and that’s how it got to the Intelligence Services in the first place. But there was lots of controversy about that and so, let’s start with you giving us, Zaid, some background to how this document came to be published by BuzzFeed.
ZAID JILANI: Yeah, well, it’s interesting, actually. Well, so this document was compiled by a former MI6 official who now runs sort of a private investigation firm. First, he was hired by some of the Republican opponents of Trump. Next, he was hired I believe by maybe perhaps some Democrats in the general election. And he had actually released this document to a number of people prior to the election, including Mother Jones, which wrote a short story dealing with some of the accusations in it but not really going into detail. Interestingly, so this has been around maybe since October. And it’s interesting that it pops up again because what happened was CNN reported that some intelligence… and his intelligence briefing, Trump was informed about some of these accusations that were in this document and that therefore that was leaked to CNN. Typically, the content of intelligence briefings are not given to the public but this was leaked to CNN. CNN reported that and then BuzzFeed responded by taking the full content of what was in the document that was what the intelligence … based their comments on and posting that on their website so the public could review them. So, that is really what lead to Trump, at the very end of the day, denouncing both CNN and BuzzFeed.
REPORTER: …our news organization… can you give us a chance?
DONALD TRUMP: Your organization is terrible.
REPORTER: You’re attacking our news organization. Can you give us a chance to ask a question, sir?
DONALD TRUMP: Go ahead.
REPORTER: Sir, can you state–
DONALD TRUMP: Quiet. Quiet.
REPORTER: Mr. President-elect, can you state categorically–
DONALD TRUMP: Just ask any question. Don’t be rude.
REPORTER: Mr. President-elect, can you give us a quote–
DONALD TRUMP: Don’t be rude–
REPORTER: …you’re attacking us. Can you give us a question?
DONALD TRUMP: Don’t be rude.
REPORTER: Can you give us a question?
DONALD TRUMP: No, I’m not going to give you a question. I’m not going to give you a question.
REPORTER: Can you state cat–
DONALD TRUMP: You are fake news.
DONALD TRUMP: Go ahead.
REPORTER: Can you state categorically that nobody–
REPORTER: No. Mr. President-elect, That’s not appropriate.
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SHARMINI PERIES: Zaid, much of the conversation at the press conference was focused on the Russian hack, whether the President-elect believed that they had hacked. And his response and many journalists actually referred to the steps taken by President Obama, whether he felt that it was sufficient in terms of sanctions against Russia. Or whether he’d be taking any further steps? Let’s see how he responded to some of that.
DONALD TRUMP: Within 90 days we will coming up with a major report on hacking defense. How do we stop this new phenomenon, fairly new phenomenon? Because the United States is hacked by everybody. That includes Russia and China and everybody. Russia will have much greater respect for our country when I’m leading it than when other people have lead it. You will see that. Russia will respect our country more. He shouldn’t have done it. I don’t believe he’ll be doing it more now.
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SHARMINI PERIES: Okay, Zaid, let’s take a dive into how he handled this very controversial issue as the hearings are going on for the confirmation of Tillerson, and many questions are being asked about how he would respond to the Russian hacking and the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia and so forth — whether the Trump administration would have a different approach. How do you think he handled it, and was it adequate enough in terms of a response?
ZAID JILANI: Well, it seems he has been trying to show skepticism about the hacking reports. He certainly has been doing that the past couple of months. I think with respect to today and today’s press conference, he basically said that okay he’s basically accepting the theory that someone tied to the Russian government did these hacks. And I think now he’s sort of moving into the response phase in terms of how is he going to position himself with respect to the Russian relationship. I mean, certainly the past two Presidents came into office trying to smooth things over with the Russian leadership. But I think both of them ended office with being a little bit more antagonistic and that’s sort of a typical cycle.
However, you know a lot of folks also have brought up allegations of people in his team talking to the Russians during the campaign, for example. And you know you add that to the hacks, people have a lot of skepticism about sort of where he is on the issue. And I think that right now it’s kind of unclear what sort of posture he’ll take with respect to issues like Syria, Ukraine, NATO, nuclear weapons. The New Stark Treaty was a big part of the Obama administration’s priorities with Russia which was joint reduction of nuclear weapons.
And I think there’s definitely, a lot of folks out there who wanted to see him take a more antagonistic position with Russia simply because that’s what they’ve always wanted. I think people like John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio have all wanted whoever was the next President to be more antagonistic to Russia than the Obama administration was. So, I think that’s also kind of being lumped in with legitimate questions, just sort of trying to understand the relationship is people who want him to use the hacks as a justification for taking a more hawkish view with Russia. And I think, in general, he and his team are trying to chart a course that’s different than that. But again, it’s very unclear given that he hasn’t really spoken at length about what our response to hacking would look like or what even a general policy position with respect to the areas where Russia and the United States’ foreign policy overlap would look like.
SHARMINI PERIES: And I must say, the other big issue and the reason why this press conference was even set up in the first place before the BuzzFeed dossier distracted the whole objective and agenda of the press conference, the press conference was set up in order to deal with President-elect’s conflict of interests and how he was going to devolve or put into trust his ownership of Trump industries, Trump businesses. And so, there was his lawyer who tried to address some of the issues that he’s been accused of in terms of conflict of interest guidelines for the President.
DONALD TRUMP: As a President, I could run the Trump Organization, great, great company, and I could run the country. I do a very good job but I don’t want to do that. People have learned a lot about my company and now they realize my company is much bigger, much more powerful than they ever thought. We’re in many, many countries and I’m very proud of it. And what I’m going to be doing is my two sons who are right here, Don and Eric, are going to be running the company. They are going to be running it in a very professional manner. They’re not going to discuss it with me. Again, I don’t have to do this. These papers are just some of the many documents that I’ve signed turning over complete and total control to my sons.
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SHARMINI PERIES: How do you think he dealt with that and are we now to be assured that this new Trump Trust, he’s going to be establishing, is going to take care of all of these concerns that people have?
ZAID JILANI: Well, there are a few interesting things here, you know. I think that, and I’m sure there’s some disagreement about this, but most people that work on ethics on this issue have asked for him to place everything he has into a blind trust, which would distinguish himself from kind of knowing what’s going on with his business and also, hopefully, from potential conflicts of interest. With respect to what they’re doing today, I believe you know something that was sort of curious, as someone pointed out to me, was that I believe in the past he had said something like the Trump Organization would not be engaging in new deals while he was President. But today he actually named some individuals who he said would be handling the deals while he was President. So, that seems like a significant shift and not necessarily a shift in the right direction, right? That would be a shift in the wrong direction for the Trump Organization to be continually active. I mean, one of the challenges here is that regardless of whether he’s involved with day-to-day operations in the Trump organization, there are buildings and other properties across the world that have his name emblazoned on them, right?
So, that sort of exists as a looming conflict of interest whether or not he’s personally involved. I mean, he’ll know what’s happening with buildings with his name on them and foreign leaders certainly will be expected to be influencing him in that way. One thing that a number of foreign countries, for example the Kingdom of Bahrain, I believe Azerbaijan, have done events at the Trump hotel in DC which used to be an old DC post office building, but Trump bought it and made it into a hotel. And they’ve been hosting events, you know, which would involve renting out space, involve bringing in diplomats and dignitaries. I mean it really is a way to curry favor with the President.
And Trump said today that you know, what he would do to handle that, was not to bar them from using his hotel space but rather to take the payments, the cash payments and give them to the Treasury, which is sort of curious because it’s almost a way for foreign governments to now just give money to the US government. I understand that some people may see that as assuaging some conflicts of interest but honestly, the proper way to handle this would just be to disallow Trump Properties to do contracting with foreign governments of any sort, whether it be a Trump hotel in DC or to be making deals in foreign countries. And unfortunately, Trump has not taken those steps.
SHARMINI PERIES: Let’s get to some of the more substantive matters that were dealt with in the press conference. In fact, Zaid, you wrote a little article in The Intercept already titled, “Pharma and Lockheed Martin Stocks Tumble after Trump Criticizes Overpayments”. Now give us a sense of what you felt were the most important things coming out of this press conference.
ZAID JILANI: Well, it’s very curious, most of the questions were actually about this CNN and BuzzFeed issue and about Russia relations with that. But Trump began his own remarks talking about a number of issues he’s been working on, you know. One of them was he was talking about he is, you know, upset about the F-35 which is a fighter jet program that has certainly been behind schedule and over budget. I mean, it’s something that’s been sort of a target for many members of congress and many in the press have investigated this. And there is general agreement that the F-35 has been a very costly program and he was talking about how he would like to reform that.
And he also talked about how you know we’re just paying too much for pharmaceutical drugs in the United States. A lot of the companies aren’t producing those products here in the US and the US government through Medicare does not negotiate for those prices. So, right now we’re just overpaying, you know, we’re not even negotiating for the prices we pay through that program which is different than let’s say Medicaid or the V.A. — both of which do negotiate prices. I mean, this is basically an obscure part of the law that Congress passed a few years back, that it seems like Trump wants to overturn. So, you know, those were both substantive issues.
It’s unclear whether Trump will actually make progress on those things or whether he intends to pursue them further other than just talking about them right now. But it’s interesting that we actually saw stocks tumble both from Lockheed Martin which produces the F-35 and sort of the Bio Technology Index which has a lot of drug makers and NASDAQ. So, whether or not Trump is very serious about this, whether or not he can accomplish it, I mean, he certainly can’t make a change to the drug negotiation alone, without Congress, unless he does something very extraordinarily unheard of with an Executive Order. Regardless of whether or not he’s able to make good on these things, certainly industries are responding because he’s the President and he’s talking about these issues.
And a lot of these issues, honestly, Presidents don’t talk a lot about when they take office. I mean, for example, the drug pricing issue is something that Barack Obama campaigned on but he never made any good on that particular promise. He decided to put it aside to work on the sort of the health insurance reform. So, it’s interesting that he continues to talk about these things and the industries certainly do respond, when they see a President doing that, whether or not, you know, we’ll actually see it accomplished.
SHARMINI PERIES: Zaid, one of the other issues that came up was of course the wall between Mexico and the United States and he referred to Vice President Pence, taking control of that project. And the controversy was mainly over who was going to pay for it and Trump referred to the fact that Mexico will pay for it in some form or another.
DONALD TRUMP: On the fence, it’s not a fence, it’s a wall. You just misreported it. We’re going to build a wall. I could wait about a year and a half until we finish our negotiations with Mexico which will start immediately after we get to office. But I don’t want to wait. Mike Pence is leading an effort to get final approvals through various agencies and through Congress for the wall to begin. I don’t feel like waiting a year or a year and a half. We’re going to start building. Mexico in some form, and there are many different forms, will reimburse us and they will reimburse us for the cost of the wall.
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ZAID JILANI: I think you know, that this really is a debate that’s going and I think that Trump to his credit could say that he perhaps made Mexico pay for a wall, or increase fencing by using increased tariffs at the border. You know, he could say they round about paid for it. Alternatively, US taxpayers would pay for it. But I think, you know, that’s sort of a debate that is sort of missing the crucial issue. And the crucial issue and I think the crux of all this is — is it actually a good idea to use fencing or a border wall to physically keep people out?
I actually reported a piece several months ago talking to someone who worked for a company that helped secure Israel’s border which Trump keeps talking about as a model. “You know, Israel did it so we should do it.” And he was saying that actually it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to use fencing or walls in parts of the border that just aren’t populated, because you’re not really going to have anyone there to see whether anyone’s crossing anyway. It makes a lot more sense just to use surveillance equipment.
And the big difference between some place like Mexico and a place like Israel and the Sinai and Gaza is that large portions of our border just don’t even have any population. So, building, you know, increased fencing… we already have some fencing, or building an actual physical wall, you know, it would do next to nothing to actually deter people from coming over because you wouldn’t really have anyone in a lot of these places to even see if anyone’s crossing your wall. I mean, you’d have to enforce your wall, right?
So, I think that’s sort of the bigger question here — is this really a wise thing for the United States to do? I mean, we have seen a decrease in illegal immigration to the United States, for example, during the Great Recession, because we knew it’s very much tied to the economy, very much tied to jobs. So, it seems like talking about economic situation or talking about the big picture is much more important in terms of talking about how we should run our immigration system than trying to physically keep people out. Particularly by a method that I don’t think… you know, I don’t think a whole lot of folks would tell you, would actually be that effective.
We all know it was a big campaign pledge for Trump. He brought it up probably in every speech but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea to do it. And I think that’s a lot more important than talking about who’s going to pay for it. Given that, you know, while expensive for what we get for it, you know, U.S. Treasury could usually pay for something like that with the use of tariffs, easily pay for something like that, but it may just be a waste of money, no matter how much it costs.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Zaid Jilani, I thank you so much for joining us today and look forward to having you back real soon.
ZAID JILANI: Thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.