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Jeremy Scahill: “Trump Is Not the Root of the Problem, He Is a Product of American Imperial History”

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Donald Trump ran for president in 2016 with a mixed message of attacking the legacy of the Iraq War and U.S. military adventurism, while simultaneously pledging to commit war crimes and promote imperialism. As we look back at Trump’s record, Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of The Intercept, says his flouting of international norms and bullying of other countries is in keeping with how U.S. presidents have long behaved. “Donald Trump is not the root of the problem. Donald Trump is a product of American imperial history,” Scahill notes.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re spending the hour with Intercept co-founder Jeremy Scahill. His podcast Intercepted has just released the fourth chapter in a seven-part audio documentary series titled American Mythology: The Presidency of Donald Trump. This latest installment focuses on war and looks at how Donald Trump ran for president in 2016 with a mixed message of attacking the legacy of the Iraq War and U.S. military adventurism, while simultaneously pledging to commit war crimes and promote imperialism. This is Trump denouncing the Iraqi War, and used it to attack his Republican opponents during a presidential debate in the lead-up to the 2016 election.

DONALD TRUMP: Obviously, the War in Iraq was a big, fat mistake. All right? Now, you can take it any way you want. And it took Jeb — it took Jeb Bush — if you remember, at the beginning of his announcement, when he announced for president, took him five days. He went back: “It was a mistake. It wasn’t a mistake.” Took him five days before his people told him what to say. And he ultimately said it was a mistake. The War in Iraq, we spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives. We don’t even have it. Iran is taking over Iraq, with the second-largest oil reserves in the world. Obviously it was a mistake. George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: In that case, he was debating, among others, Jeb Bush, President George W. Bush’s brother. But even as he attacked the Iraq War, Donald Trump repeatedly called — said the U.S. should kill the families of terrorists. This is what he said during a 2015 interview on Fox News.

DONALD TRUMP: One of the problems that we have and one of the reasons we’re so ineffective is, you know, they’re trying to — they’re using them as shields.


DONALD TRUMP: It’s a horrible thing. They’re using them as shields.

STEVE DOOCY: Unfortunately.

DONALD TRUMP: But we’re fighting a very politically correct war.


AINSLEY EARHARDT: Well, we see that happening in Ramadi.

DONALD TRUMP: And the other thing is, with the terrorists, you have to take out their families. When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself.


DONALD TRUMP: But they say they don’t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.

AMY GOODMAN: So, by April 2017, just three months into his presidency, Trump launched a Tomahawk missile attack on Syria in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack on civilians. Jeremy, you say in your series, “Like Pavlov’s dogs, the bipartisan war machine responded accordingly.” Let’s go to some of the media coverage of Trump’s attack on Syria. This is MSNBC anchor Brian Williams referring to a Pentagon video of U.S. missiles fired at Syria as “beautiful” three times in 30 seconds.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Go into greater detail. We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: “I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.” And they are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them a brief flight over to this airfield. What did they hit?

AMY GOODMAN: That was MSNBC’s Brian Williams. And this is CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.

FAREED ZAKARIA: I think Donald Trump became president of the United States. I think this was actually a big moment, because candidate Trump had said that he would never get involved in the Syrian civil war. He told President Obama, “You cannot do this without the authorization of Congress.” He seemed unconcerned with global norms. President Trump recognized that the president of the United States does have to act to enforce international norms, does have to have this broader moral and political purpose.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, from “Trump became president” that night to the beauty of the weapons, the bombs falling on Syria. Jeremy Scahill?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, Amy, I’ll just point to, at the end of 2019, you had more than 180 House Democrats vote for a record-shattering military budget for Donald Trump. Only 40-something Democrats opposed it. And that record-shattering, more than $22 billion, greater than any Obama-era military budget was a bipartisan product. Nothing brings the Democrats and the Republicans together more than a cruise missile strike or policy on — U.S. policy on Israel.

And so, on foreign policy, the most sort of intense attacks, when it comes to war or national security, on Donald Trump from the Democrats have come when he’s tried to move away from war. You know, when Trump was trying to actually end the Korean War — and yes, he was doing it in an insane way, and I don’t co-sign any of Trump’s rhetoric, but wouldn’t it be — as Allan Nairn points out in our documentary, wouldn’t it be a great thing for the Korean people if the Korean War ended? And yet you had Democrats goading Trump and essentially trying to push him into doing something really insane. You know, on the one hand, Trump wanted to broker this deal with Kim Jong-un and North Korea. On the other hand, he would threaten to wipe North Korea off the map entirely.

And the Democrats repeatedly played with fire, particularly when Trump said, “Let’s get out of these foreign wars.” You know, Donald Trump — by all indications, it seems like one of the reasons why John Bolton was ousted as the national security adviser was because he was too belligerent even for Donald Trump. And Trump said that if he hadn’t gotten rid of John Bolton, that we would be in World War VI by now.

But, Amy, I think it’s important to sort of back up and look at this in the bigger picture. Donald Trump is the kind of guy who says, “We need to murder the families of terrorists.” Barack Obama actually did kill family members of suspected terrorists, including American citizens who were children. They repeatedly double-tap drone striked, where they would bomb funerals. They hit weddings. So, you know, yes, it’s shocking to hear an American president say the things that Donald Trump says, but let’s not pretend here like the Democrats are doves. Bill Clinton initiated the longest sustained bombing since Vietnam in Iraq, bombing Iraq on average once every three days at times. Barack Obama engaged in regime change, deadly economic sanctions, dramatically expanded drone strike operations, surged troops around the world. I sort of — in really carefully analyzing Donald Trump’s war policy, I would say that he, thus far, has proven less murderous than George W. Bush and more of a war criminal than Jimmy Carter.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain. And explain what this portends for the future, what you feel a possible Biden win could mean. And what would it mean if Trump remains as president?

JEREMY SCAHILL: You know, when it comes to sort of the current and ongoing wars, Joe Biden — what we know about his time as vice president and as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden and Trump actually have some similar ideas about how U.S. war should be waged. Joe Biden was against — reportedly against the troop surge that Obama did early on in his presidency, and Biden favored using CIA operators and Special Forces teams to do so-called targeted strikes, the kind of anti-terrorist operations where you’re going in and taking out high-value targets, or you’re working with local forces on the ground, but with special operations forces going in and then getting out. So, I would say that there are some overlaps between the way that Trump has approached his Afghanistan strategy, for instance, which has been to essentially pull out conventional forces and escalate the mass murder, escalate the killing. Joe Biden, though, is much more of a kind of global — globally oriented neoliberal, who is a major fan of using very, very brutal economic sanctions mixed with covert operations. Joe Biden is a very hawkish political figure. And I think he and Donald Trump, on a foreign policy level, when it comes to war strategy, tactics, I think they have much more in common than the press will let on.

You know, Donald Trump has not been an exceptional president when it comes to war policy. Almost every single act that people have sort of gasped, “Oh my god, Trump did that!” you can point to historical analogs. He assassinates General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in an airstrike. Multiple U.S. presidents have attempted to assassinate foreign leaders. Bill Clinton repeatedly struck presidential palaces in Iraq. Ronald Reagan attempted to kill Muammar Gaddafi. And, you know, on and on. You can go back through history, through the coups and CIA.

So, the reason that I bring all of this up is that my great fear is, if we defeat Donald Trump and he’s no longer the president and we pretend that all of these bad things happened as a result of Donald Trump, then we really haven’t moved forward. Yes, we’ve stanched the bleeding. This is a horrifying administration. But unless we’re willing to take on the fact that our electoral system is bought and paid for by corporations, that the United States is constantly ceding its politics to despotic regimes like Saudi Arabia, unquestioning support of Israel, the belief that we have the right to kill anyone anywhere on the flimsiest of justifications, if we pretend that it was just lawlessness began with Donald Trump, it’s sort of like when Obama said we need to look forward, not backward, and refused to hold any CIA torturers accountable. It’s the number one way to ensure that torture will happen again. It’s the number one way to ensure that U.S. militarism and the killing of civilians will continue, if you don’t recognize the root of the problem. Donald Trump is not the root of the problem. Donald Trump is a product of American imperial history.

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