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David Cay Johnston: Trump is Determined to Provoke War to Draw Focus from Racist & Erratic Behavior

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The New York Times reports that the Pentagon is proposing widening the permissible use of nuclear weapons to include responding to cyberattacks and other non-nuclear attacks to U.S. infrastructure. The Pentagon has already outlined this expanded nuclear strategy in a draft document sent to President Trump for approval. It comes amid a series of moves by the Pentagon and President Trump that have escalated the threat of nuclear war. The Wall Street Journal reports the Pentagon is planning to develop two new sea-based nuclear weapons. The New York Times also reports the Pentagon is conducting a series of war games to prepare for a potential war with North Korea. We speak to Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter David Cay Johnston, who has been covering Donald Trump for nearly 30 years. His latest book is just out, titled “It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Uninformed. That was the word White House Chief of Staff John Kelly used to describe his boss, President Trump, on Thursday. According to The Washington Post, Kelly told members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that some of Trump’s hardline immigration policies, including his call to build a wall along the entire southern border, were “uninformed.” Kelly said, quote, “Certain things are said during the campaign that are uninformed.” During the same meeting, Kelly reportedly said, quote, “The president is committed to a permanent solution to DACA,” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

But the president has struck a different tone. On Twitter this morning, Trump wrote, quote, “The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it.” In an interview with Reuters, Trump also criticized a proposed bipartisan deal on immigration and border security as, quote, “horrible” and, quote, “very, very weak.” This comes as the government could shut down on Friday if a funding deal cannot be reached.

AMY GOODMAN: The possible government shutdown comes as President Trump is preparing to mark his first year in office on Saturday. On that same day, anti-Trump protests will he held in scores of cities across the country to mark the first anniversary of the historic Women’s March.

Well, today we spend the hour looking at Trump’s first year in office with a journalist who has been covering Donald Trump since 1988. We’re talking about the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston, the founder of DCReport.org. Last year, Johnston made international headlines when he obtained two pages of President Trump’s 2005 tax return. Johnston’s reporting on Trump’s taxes led the president to say this about him.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I know the reporter is a—he’s a weird dude who’s covered me for—he’s been following me for 25 years, so obviously he hasn’t done so well. He’s been following me in a negative fashion for 25 years, always a hit. And I’m president, so I guess he hasn’t done a very good job.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, David Cay Johnston, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, joins us here in our studio, out this week with his new book. It’s called It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, David. You have been covering Donald Trump for over 30 years. You heard what he had to say about it: Look where you are, and look where he is today. But you’ve also been covering President Trump through this first year. Can you talk about, as we move into the first anniversary of his inauguration, what has surprised you most, since this is a man you have known back to his early days as a developer going bankrupt in New York?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, Donald hasn’t, frankly, done anything that’s surprised me. And I said, and there’s lots of video of me saying, before the election, he would be increasingly erratic, his racism would come out, that he would try to find an excuse to use nuclear weapons, because during the campaign, he said, “I’m very good at war. I know more about ISIS than the generals. And of course we’re going to use nukes.” And, lo and behold, last week, the news breaks that they are loosening up the rules on the use of tactical nuclear weapons—that is, a nuclear weapon that will take out a block, not a city—and possibly even authorizing their use for a cyberattack. He’s looking for—

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is amazing. I mean, just to reiterate this—


AMY GOODMAN: —using nuclear weapon attack for a cyberattack.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Right. And hopefully, the military will not follow an order to do this. But clearly, he is determined, if he can figure out how to do it, to provoke a war. After all, what helps strengthen your position if you’re a dictator-in-waiting, which is what Donald is, but some kind of incident that will stir the public and focus people away from his crazy, racist, uninformed, ignorant behavior?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, why do you think that he needs to strengthen his position? Do you think he feels he needs to strengthen his position because his position is weak?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Oh, yeah, Donald—the Donald is aware that he has a large audience out there that is not supporting him and that it’s growing. And his own base, he’s certainly seen the data that it’s eroded. And remember, Donald is a man who is this empty vessel. I mean, he’s an unhappy human being. Be glad you are not Donald Trump, who will never know a day of joy and contentment in his life. And, you know, he wants us to all recognize Donald Trump is the greatest human being of all times. He wants people like Orrin Hatch—the greatest president of all times. That’s what he’s about: adoration.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I mean, you say, in fact, that what distinguishes him from all previous U.S. presidents is that his presidency is about Trump, period, full stop.


AMY GOODMAN: This issue of use of nuclear weapons, you know, going back to the reported meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff as he’s briefed on nuclear weapons: “If we have them, why don’t we use them?” And The Wall Street Journal reporting, just in the last days, this issue of the Pentagon planning to develop two new sea-based nuclear weapons. The New York Times also reporting the Pentagon conducting a series of war games to prepare for a potential war with North Korea. I mean, this is very interesting. As North and South Korea come closer together, will have a unified team at the Olympics, President Trump is trying to amp up the opposition to and war with North Korea.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Right. And one of the very interesting things about this is, there have been surveys of military officers, and they show that the officer corps of the United States military is very troubled about Trump. You know, good military officers are diplomats who want to avoid war. And they’re not supporting him. So that one good piece of news out of this is, I don’t think Donald Trump can get the military behind him to take over the country.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But do you think he can get the military behind him sufficiently to carry out a tactical nuclear strike?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, that’s the troubling part. What if, for example, somehow we’re provoked into something? And he’s clearly trying to provoke—you know, things like “My button is bigger than your button.” And understand, Donald Trump—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But what would constitute a provocation for him, though?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Oh, I don’t—I mean, that, I don’t know. It would have to be enough that he could get the military behind him to do something, something we wouldn’t expect. But remember, the whole point of nuclear weapons is they’re defensive. Nobody invades a country that has nuclear weapons. We would never have invaded Iraq if it actually had had nuclear weapons. And Donald thinks that their purpose is to use them. He doesn’t even understand their purpose, that they’re defensive.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to a break, and then we’re going to come back to David Cay Johnston, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, previously with The New York Times, now founder and editor of DCReport.org. Johnston’s biography of Donald Trump was The Making of Donald Trump. His new book, It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America.

And when we come back, what exactly is happening? While the tax bill—and that’s certainly something that Donald—that David Cay Johnston is an expert about—has been touted as the one main piece of legislation that Trump has actually successfully gotten passed, what actually did happen in the last year? Tremendous amount when it comes to deregulating the agencies of this country that protect the nation’s land, air, sea and people. Stay with us.

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“It’s Even Worse Than You Think”: David Cay Johnston on Trump’s First Year in Office

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