Tasnim – An American investigative journalist denounced US President Donald Trump’s ban on travel from six Muslim countries as an offense to the American Constitution, saying his xenophobia is hurting the US economy and damaging human relations.
In an interview with the Tasnim News Agency, David Cay Johnston hammered Trump for his lack of leadership, his clueless about politics and the Middle East affairs, and for his costly policies.
He also denounced Trump for his order banning entries to the US from six Muslim-majority nations, including Iran, noting that the US president “has no idea of the history of Iran, of how sophisticated its people are, of its long history of cultural and intellectual achievements”, and of the reasons making Iran the “dominant regional power.”
Mr. Johnston is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter who has broken many major stories over the past 50 years about corruption, spying and official misconduct. He has known Donald Trump for 29 years, revealed in 1990 that he was no billionaire and in 2016 wrote the worldwide bestseller ‘The Making of Donald Trump’, which documents Trump’s decades of deep entanglements with mobsters, a major drug trafficker and various swindlers.
The Washington Monthly magazine calls Johnston one of America’s most important journalists.
A long-time reporter for the New York Times and the former president of the Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE), Johnston has also won the IRE Medal and a George Polk Award for his investigative reporting. He used to teach business regulation, property and tax law of the ancient world at Syracuse University College of Law.
The following is the full text of his interview with Tasnim:
Tasnim: As you know, Trump sealed a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia on his maiden foreign trip as the US president in May. The deal came with other investments that could total up to $350 billion. During his first official overseas trip, Trump also assured the king of Bahrain that Washington-Manama ties would be free of ‘strain’. Thereafter, there was a sudden escalation of military crackdown on civil protests both in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia (in its Shiite-populated eastern regions.) In a recent speech in Berlin, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif talked about the situation when foreign policy becomes a ‘commodity for sale’. Do you see any sign of trading in such US policies, considering Trump’s intense interest in making money?
Johnston: There is a lot to unpack here, much of it smoke and mirrors, not substance.
First, the $110 billion for immediate arms sales and $350 billion over a decade is, to use Trumpian language, fake news.
No agreements were signed. And such arms sales require approval from the American Congress.
Second, about $24 billion of the total were deals approved during the Obama Administration, the American Defense Security Cooperation Agency and the State Department quietly explained in fact sheets that few journalists bothered to read. That money is for four coastal combat ships with 500 missiles; 3,100 other missiles and bombs; 133 tanks and armored vehicles; some aerial surveillance blimps and $500 million for ammunition. The other $86 billion is basically hot air, at least for now.
Third, Trump is clueless about the incredibly complicated politics, religious strains and other Middle East issues. Trump doesn’t know a Sunni from a Shia and, more importantly, why it matters. His ignorance is so breathtaking that his presidential campaign published a photo of Sikh with the caption “Muslim.”
On his return from Saudi Arabia, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross gave a television interview in which he marveled that there were no protestors. Ross said:
“The other thing that was fascinating to me was here was not a single hint of a protester anywhere there during the whole time that we were there. Not one guy with a bad placard.” Becky Quick, the CNBC host, broke in to note that Saudi Arabia does not allow demonstrations and that “they control people and do not let them express their feelings.”
Ross, in the Trumpian tradition of never acknowledging error but instead just making stuff up, blaming someone else or doubling down, replied to Quick that “in theory, that could be true but, boy, there was certainly no sign of it. There was not a single effort at any incursion. There wasn’t anything. The mood was a genuinely good mood.”
Fourth, Trump has no idea of the history of Iran, of how sophisticated its people are, of its long history of cultural and intellectual achievements and certainly not the reasons that it is arguably the dominant regional power. And Trump doesn’t care, either, wallowing in his ignorance. Remember, he has said repeatedly that he does not need advisers because the best advisers in the world reside in his head.
Trump’s statements while in Saudi Arabia criticizing governments which support what he calls “radical Islamic terrorism” and others might call desperate acts of violence by people powerless to do much more than suicide bombings and similar stunts of no military significance showed that he has no idea that the Saudis run schools which teach hatred of the West and especially of America or who the Saudis finance. Trump’s subsequent attacks on Qatar suggest he has no idea about where the most crucial American military base in the Middle East is located. What he knows is that because of 1979 a lot of Americans equate Iran with evil – period, full stop. But that is what you get when you elect a man who is not very smart, does not read books (while claiming otherwise) and speaks at the level of a 12-year-old, and at that a not very studious sixth grader.
Finally, to use “policy” and Trump in the same sentence is an offense to the word policy. Trump’s own policy is the glorification of the genetically superior leader. He will denigrate his country, his office and anything else (including in the past his family) in his vain attempt to win adoration and recognition of his imagined greatness.
Tasnim: How would you explain the US government’s proclaimed support for the human rights, while it has remained silent on Saudi Arabia’s continuous bombardment of Yemeni residential areas and civilians with US-made fighter jets and ammunition for some 27 months?
Johnston: Don’t confuse the man temporarily imbued with power as the American government’s executive with American policy.
The American government finds itself, as all governments do, in situations where domestic conflicts pose nothing but horrors for outsiders. And there is no willingness to withdraw and let others decide what happens because attacks on ordinary citizens in Europe and America are not going to be tolerated by voters or their elected political leaders. Whatever you think of bombing trains and nightclubs and shooting up people on the streets, the more they happen the more violent the response will be. And, yes, this is madness.
A convenient way to deal with Middle East conflicts, many of which seem to trace back to the flow of non-government information via Al Jazeera satellites, these has turned out to be bomb strikes and the use of unmanned drones. Last year America dropped more than 26,000 bombs, the Council on Foreign Relations calculated. The bombs fell mostly in Iraq and Syria, but also in Yemen and some other places. That’s three bombs per hour around the clock during Obama’s last year in office. Under Obama, American special forces were more than doubled and are now in 138 countries.
Many in America believe these military actions are illegal. The American Constitution gives Congress the sole power to declare war. That was last done on Dec. 9, 1941, and the state of war ended with the surrender in Tokyo Harbor on Sept. 2, 1945.
Sadly, thousands of American junior high schools and high schools have stopped teaching civics. Many Americans have no idea what our Constitution says, including Trump. What many (but for sure not all) do have is a fear of Iran and a fear of Islam, which they perceive as a religion that fosters violence. To note how much violence the United States commits is to invite attacks by Americans who think bombing Yemeni rebels is patriotic even if they have no idea who the Houthis are or where Yemen is located.
Ignorance breeds violence, a truism everywhere in the world.
Tasnim: Earlier in June, Saudi Arabia and a number of its regional allies severed ties with Qatar, accusing Doha of sponsoring terrorism. In the meantime, Donald Trump has also repeated the accusations that Qatar supports terrorism, but his Defense and State Departments have tried to remain somehow neutral. Amid such diplomatic row, Qatar signed a $12 billion deal to buy US F-15 fighter jets. What is your assessment of the conditions inside the US that have shaped such paradoxical policy?
Johnston: Again, Trump knows nothing, as I document in my book The Making of Donald Trump relying entirely on his own public statements and his testimony under oath to confirm what I have known since Donald and I first met in 1988.
What Trump does know is that one Saudi prince helped bail him out in 1990 by taking the Plaza Hotel in New York City off his hands. Trump also raked in gambling table profits from other Saudis before his casinos went bust. In 2015 Trump told my former newspaper, The New York Times:
Saudi Arabia — and I get along great with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.
While we simply don’t know what prompted Trump’s bizarre attacks on Qatar, where he has Trump branded golf courses, a good bet is that it has to do with Al Jazeera. The Saudis and their friends want total state control of information and the Qatari satellite television news operation has opened the minds of many to a world where views and facts flow much more freely. (Disclosure: For more than two years in 2013-2016 I wrote a weekly economics column for Al Jazeera America.)
Tasnim: On Friday, Trump’s travel ban which was mandated by an executive order went into partial effect, putting tighter restrictions on travel to the US from six Muslim-majority nations, including Iran. The administration says it is all about national security. Keeping in mind the fact that many American businesses are staffed by successful Iranians and Muslims from other countries, do you think that such curbs could hurt the US economy in some way?
Johnston: The travel ban is an offense to the American Constitution’s First Amendment, which ensures freedom of religion (and freedom from religion). Trump said during the campaign he would institute a ban on all travel by Muslims, setting a standard that offends American values and our Constitution. The proposed ban also ignored the fact that most of the acts of violence in America after 9/11 were committed by American-born Muslims.
Trump’s xenophobia is already hurting the United States, not just in the short run, but for decades to come. Beijing has been especially adept at exploiting this, all the while flattering Trump who is manipulated as easily as moist clay.
This damage is not just to human relations and the ideal of the American system of ennobling the human spirit, but to scientific research, commerce and investment.
Air travel to and from the United States has fallen since Trump took office. Universities, research laboratories and commercial businesses have all experienced costly delays in moving talented people in and out of the United States and, no doubt, some talented young people who would have come to America now study in England or Japan or Tehran. Tourism revenues are likely to be down in 2017 compared to 2016. Emirates went from two daily flights to one between Seattle, a major American high technology region, to Dubai.
There is no good news in this travel ban, partial or not.
Keep in mind that the American constitution was written to create a durable government, slow to change and with checks-and-balances on the exercise of power. The nation will survive Trump. So, will the world. Let’s hope that it does so with the least possible damage and that all peoples think about how to get along because the violence of war is felt most by the poor and powerless.