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Desperate men do desperate things; two leaders facing corruption charges may more aggressively push their Iran regime change agenda – Larry Wilkerson joins Paul Jay

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

The testimony of Michael Cohen to the House Oversight Committee was a very revealing look into the state of America’s political culture. One could talk about it for a long time, but it was perhaps at the very end of the hearing, when Cohen does his final statement, the most chilling contribution was made. First here’s how he started things off. I know everyone’s heard this so many times by now. But here’s a little bit from his opening statement.

MICHAEL COHEN: I am ashamed that I chose to take part in concealing Mr. Trump’s illicit acts rather than listening to my own conscience.

I am ashamed because I know what Mr. Trump is. He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat.

PAUL JAY: Cohen, under questioning and in his opening statement, laid out some specific things that lead one to conclude that Donald Trump broke the law. They seem to have President Trump on bank fraud and various kinds of tax evasion. There is an argument that goes that a president can’t be indicted while he’s in office. Well, here’s what Cohen suggested–that if Trump loses the election in 2020, perhaps he won’t leave office.

MICHAEL COHEN: Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 that there will never be a peaceful transition of power.

PAUL JAY: Now joining me to talk about that, and other parts, other things that fall out of the Cohen testimony, is Colonel Larry Wilkerson. Larry is a retired United States Army soldier and former chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell. Thanks for joining us again, Larry.

LARRY WILKERSON: Good to be with you, Paul.

PAUL JAY: So what do you make of that? He’s talking about what, that there’ll be an election. He loses the election, or there will be something staged, perhaps, that might lead to not having an election. What do you make of what Cohen says?

LARRY WILKERSON: This was not a surprise to me because about a year ago in the Senate when I was working on the preliminary lobbying efforts to get the United States out of the war in Yemen, I encountered a senator who–a long-serving senator of the Republican Party–who asked everyone to leave his office. He asked me to ask my people to leave. And he asked his people to leave, including his chief of staff. And he said, I have a question for Col. Wilkerson. It calls on his military professional expertise.

So they all left, and we were alone in the office. And he looked at me and he said–looked at his watch, and he said, I’ve got to go vote in a few minutes. But I want to give you a scenario and ask you a question. The scenario is this. Let’s say that we come on the midterms and lose one or both the Houses. And let’s say that after that, the articles of impeachment that even now are being crafted in the House by, largely, the Democrats, if not exclusively Democrats, they become something that Republicans, my party, is interested in. And all of a sudden we move towards that. And here’s the scenario. We go over to the White House with the leaders of Congress, both parties, just as they did, basically, with Richard Nixon after Watergate. And we say to the president “You have two choices, Mr. President. You can suffer these very powerful articles of impeachment. We guarantee you you’ll be removed from office, and after that we’ll prosecute you and your family to the full extent of the law, which is perfectly legal. Or here’s your alternative, Mr. President. You can resign, as Richard Nixon did, and we won’t prosecute you or your family. You have a choice.”

I said, OK. That doesn’t sound like all that implausible a scenario to me. And the senator said, yeah, but here’s my question to you. Trump won’t leave, and he calls to the streets his legions. And as you know, his legions are the most well-armed legions in America. In fact, his base owns probably 75 to 90 percent of the guns in America. And the FBI will tell you that. What’s the military going to do? the senator asked me. My response I won’t share with you, but it was a very, very serious response. And it vouchsafe to talk about the military, the constitutional crisis, and other things.

PAUL JAY: Well, that was, that was actually my next question: What would the military do? Because it’s not just about people in the streets, because if the police and military play any normal role, I don’t think Trump has that kind of force in terms of, you know, people with guns and such. But if he uses, you know, quasi-legal constitutional means, what does that mean? That there’s a staged event like some kind of terrorist attack, or some other kind of national emergency that’s used as an excuse not to have the elections, or not to implement the results of the elections. What would the military do? And it seems to me if Trump is in any way entertaining these kinds of ideas, he better make sure that the leaders of the military are his people. So my question is: Are they?

LARRY WILKERSON: Now, this is the dilemma. And what you’ve just painted is not really, I think, a part of reality. The reality would be that others would see through a declaration of a national emergency, or even a declaration of war; even if it were to order the military to deploy to places like Iran, or North Korea, or whatever. Because I think the leadership would refuse. The leadership of the military has a bifurcated loyalty, if you will. Not just mentioning the Constitution, which is the ultimate loyalty, but they’re loyal to the legislative branch, which is basically that branch which commissions them and approves their stars, and the executive branch.

So when you’re talking about the leadership under a scenario like this, a declaration of a national emergency clearly aimed at deflecting attention from the president, or keeping the president around longer than the statute legislation says for the elections and so forth, is in my view nonsense, because the military would never adhere to that. They’d never follow that. They’d go straight to the Congress. And the Congress would turn it over, I hope. Even my Republican idiots like Mitch McConnell in the Senate would see the dire necessity to take action there, and wouldn’t allow their lust for power and money to overcome totally their desire to keep the Republican tack. I hope. Notice I say “I hope.”

PAUL JAY: Well, that was my next question. Because when you look at those hearings with Cohen, at least the Republicans on that committee, and some we’ve heard who weren’t on the committee that are agreeing with them, the, I don’t know, complete overt, banal partisan defense of Trump, and attempting to destroy the character of Cohen, which one understands to some extent, but zero interest in what seems like rather overt corruption, that these guys seem to be–have decided they’re either they’re going for bust with Trump, that they’re so worried about being primaried by Trump forces and that Trump seems so powerful within the Republican Party. I mean, CPAC is on now, and every speaker, virtually, is a love letter to Trump, including Lindsey Graham, who used to be a big critic of Trump.

Like, if we can have these conversations, and obviously a year ago a Republican senator was already thinking this through, well, obviously they’re thinking it through, and coming to the conclusion that they’re not even giving themselves some plausible deniability to distance themselves from Trump.

LARRY WILKERSON: But there’s political space here, Paul. There’s still political space. I wish there weren’t, but there is. And let’s face it, Cohen destroyed himself. The Democrats and others attacking him, Republicans or Democrats, or whatever, they didn’t hurt Cohen. Cohen destroyed himself. And his credibility is suspect here. The reason that we can say we believe most of what he said, I don’t think it’s based on Cohen’s character. It’s based on, I think, a growing and sure knowledge of Trump’s character. The man has lied over 8,000 times from the bully pulpit of the presidency of the United States. This is a foul character we have in the White House. There’s no question about that. There are people in his base who understand that, but cling to him because he promises them things like the reversal of Roe v. Wade, like a homophobia unprecedented. He promises them these things, and so they cling to him in some desperation, now.

When all this comes to a head, when he calls, as it were, someone to the streets, armed or unarmed, when he tries to linger, I think the institutional architecture of this country is going to rip his guts out, and he will no longer be president. If it doesn’t, I’m moving to New Zealand forthwith.

PAUL JAY: You better do it quickly, because the New Zealanders have already made it illegal for foreigners to buy property because so many billionaires are buying up property in New Zealand.

LARRY WILKERSON: Got my tickets. I have some contacts in the MFAT in New Zealand from my days at the State Department.

PAUL JAY: So what do you make of this supposed precedent or legal thinking that a president can’t be indicted while in office? I mean, let’s go back to the hearings, first of all. Here’s Ro Khanna about–where it appears Trump is really cornered. Let’s play that clip.

RO KHANNA: I just want the American public to understand the explosive nature of your testimony in this document. Are you telling us, Mr. Cohen, that the President directed transactions in conspiracy with Allen Weisselberg, and his son Donald Trump Jr., as part of a criminal conspiracy of financial fraud? Is that your testimony today?


PAUL JAY: So if that’s correct, and apparently in these hearings they’re going to build this argument out even more, they have him on, essentially, bank fraud; lying to Deutsche Bank to get some big loan to buy the Buffalo Bills. And here’s AOC, where there’s the potential issue of avoiding real estate taxes.

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: According to an August 21, 2016 report by the Washington Post, the President claimed in financial disclosure forms that Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida was worth more than $50 million. He had reported otherwise to local tax authorities, that the course was worth “No more than $5 million.” Mr. Cohen, do you know whether this specific report is accurate?

MICHAEL COHEN: It’s identical to what he did at Trump National Golf Club at Briarcliff Manor.

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: To your knowledge, was the President interested in reducing his local real estate bills? Tax bills?


ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: And how did he do that?

MICHAEL COHEN: What you do is you deflate the value of the asset. And then you put in a request to the tax department for the deduction.


PAUL JAY: So all these things, I believe, are being pursued by the prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, which is not under the control, directly, of the White House or the DOJ. They can’t really stop that prosecution. Where does it come that he can’t be indicted for this? That’s kind of bizarre, given the whole American revolution was supposed to be about not having a king.

LARRY WILKERSON: Specifically in this case I think if you look at the real world, and particularly the real political world, the world of the United States being, if you will, the world’s security and foreign policy financial and economic leader, you say to yourself, well, if you could indict a sitting president that would be a horrible precedent, because politics being what it is, particularly today, you’d be doing that all the time. And the president would have no time to run this vast empire that we put together. And that’s a real world argument that I would entertain.

At the same time, I think it’s a 50/50 purely legal, now–just purely legal–it’s a 50/50 case as to whether or not this can be done. And ultimately the Supreme Court would have to be the 51, put it on the side of the majority and say yes, it can be done, or it can’t be done. And I think that’s remotely–a remote reality here with Trump. I think what we’re going to see is we’re going to see him removed from office through constitutional means before 2020, or we’re going to see him removed by the election in 2020. I don’t know which it will be. I suspect the latter. But it’s going to be that way. And then the crunch comes. Does he depart peacefully? Does he leave and go back to his television, and so forth? One wonders. Because you just pointed out why he might not leave, in a very, very realistic sense. He’s going to jail for the rest of his natural life. New York will see to that.

You know, Paul, I have never met a New Yorker to this day–and I spent some time in New York–who likes Donald Trump. They hate him. They hate his guts. The taxi drivers. The sedan drivers. The restaurant owners. The bar owners. The people in New York, they hate Donald Trump. That ought to tell you something about Donald Trump.

PAUL JAY: Let me add one thing to this, because I don’t think we can look at this just from the point of view of Trump and his own vulnerability here. But Netanyahu in Israel is in the midst of his own scandal up to his eyeballs. The thing that might save him from going to jail is if somehow he can win the next election and create the same kind of scenario, that are you really going to put a sitting prime minister in jail? So there’s a convergence here. And add to that the John Bolton factor and the forces he represents who want regime change in Iran, and have wanted it for more than a decade. Will they give up this chance, the Trump presidency, of a moment in history where they may get the play out this very aggressive agenda which they’ve not been able to implement before on Iran?

So Trump’s in such a predicament. Netanyahu, the Bolton agenda, which is also very much the Netanyahu agenda, to try to have regime change in Iran, it seems to me you put it all together and we’re in a hell of a dangerous period over this next two years. And again, at the very beginning of our conversation, I think a lot of this is going to come down to how does the leadership of the American military respond to all this? And two, does he start to significantly change who is the leadership of the American military?

LARRY WILKERSON: That would be a dire sign, if that were to take place. I mean, beyond Jim Mattis, for example. But your scenario is one that concerns me. I think it is the most likely adverse scenario to develop. And you’re right to point at both capitals, Jerusalem and Washington. That Netanyahu would do something, even before the election, or after the election’s taken place and the results are adverse, to make it appear to the Israeli public that he’s essential, like starting a war with Iran. And dragging the United States into it, dragging John Bolton into it, as you’ve intimated, willingly, and several other neoconservatives in the administration, or close to it. That worries me. That a wag the dog–you know, the tail wagging the dog scenario, that does present, to me, a possibility. Not a probability, but a possibility. And that’s worrisome.

PAUL JAY: All right. Thanks for joining us, Larry.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.

PAUL JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.