“The Mafia White House”: My no-holds-barred interview on The Rick Smith Show

On February 28, I did an extremely angry, no-holds-barred interview with The Rick Smith Show about the Trump administration and the investigation into Russian interference. You can listen to the interview here. The interview went viral, and I received many requests for a transcript. A Twitter follower, @myhilarious, kindly did a transcription and sent it to me. It is published below:

Rick Smith: Ah yes, the walls appear to be tumbling down around Trump and all of this stuff with Mueller, the investigation, Hope Hicks out the door, and now today you have Paul Manafort back in court, pleading not guilty to money-laundering, conspiracy and fraud charges, his trial will begin on September the 17th, which should be, you know, “popcorn moments”. Maybe put it on Pay-Per-View, we could solve some of our debt problems that way.

Anyway, we’re here to talk about the day’s events!  Our good friend Sarah Kendzior, writer and journalist doing some fantastic work on this. Sarah, thanks for taking the time for us.

Sarah Kendzior: Thanks for having me.

RS: So let’s start with Hope Hicks — surprised by the resignation?

SK: No, not really. Not after the inquiry yesterday, not after her ties to Kushner and Ivanka, rumors about people she’s had relationships with in the White House — but mostly because she is linked to what appears to be an international criminal conspiracy.  I’m not surprised that she got out of there, and I think as the focus becomes more and more on Kushner – it’s important to point out she is someone who’s been in Ivanka and Jared’s circle way before she joined the campaign; this is like a friend of about a decade.  Once he got in trouble, Hicks is going be implicated, and so I think she just wanted to extract herself from the situation before things got even worse.

RS: But she only told ‘little white lies’ Sarah!  There were just little white ones!

SK: [laughing] It’s always ‘white’ lies, it’s always ‘white’ with this particular group – um, yeah I think her departure, obviously it matters, but I think people may be reading too much into it.  We’ve had many departures in this administration, I think a record number—last time I checked it was something like a 34% turnover rate, and I guess now it’s higher.  And each time someone leaves, everyone says ‘Oh, this is it, this is the end’, especially when it was somebody with a lot of impact, like Bannon.

And then life goes on. People get indicted, the charges get dropped, people flagrantly break the law, they retain power. We’ve known about the things that are coming out with Kushner this week, I and others reported on them a year ago.  People have been talking about them on TV for a year. There have been books about Trump and Russia that came out in 2016.  None of these things are revelations.

My question remains, since so much of this information that we built our articles on was in the public domain, is why the hell didn’t anyone do anything? When Manafort took over Trump’s campaign, when Trump had this obvious record of terrible financial conflicts of interest, ties with the mafia, bankruptcies. The way that this campaign played out, the more Mueller clamps down now, the more angry I am that nothing happened before. Because we were told over and over that we were crazy, that we were paranoid, and there was this sense of ‘If I really am right about this, if my instincts are correct, that I’ve gotta be wrong because clearly somebody would do something about this.’  It’s almost like it’s so obvious it can’t be true. But we were right.

And now they have entrenched themselves in the White House. There is classified information that is accessible to a large number of people who should have never had it in the first place. Those secrets can be sold on the market.  We have climate change regulations that can’t be undone, we have damage that can’t be undone. We have courts packed with conservatives. We have corruption on a scale that we never could have imagined. It’s basically a Mafia White House.  So good luck fixing that!

And if people had freaking been on the ball, back in not even 2016 or 2015 but, like, in 2002, and the entire time Manafort and Trump were getting into all this shit —  I mean, Jesus Christ, where the hell were people?  Why did nobody speak up in a forthright and honest way? And why were those of us who spoke up castigated repeatedly for a year?  I know I sound pissed, but it’s because I am.  It is so frustrating.  It is not out of personal pride or anything like that. It’s because I have to raise my children in this country.  I have to see people get deported in this country.  I have to see a permanent breakdown of an already flailing society because people simply would not tell the truth.

RS:Yeah I mean (stuttering) I’m actually just going, ‘Applause! Yes!’  Uh, where do I go–

SK: [crosstalk] Sorry I just (laughing)…

RS: …from there?

SK: (laughing) I was a little riled up…

RS: [crosstalk] We all should be!

SK: …because I’m mad.  I’m mad.

RS: And you’re absolutely right, this is all stuff that, had we a media in this country that bothered to do their job and not just rake in the cash from the ratings that they were getting, had they actually vetted this stuff—as you point out—that we all knew in 2015 and 2016, we might not be in this mess, we might not have a Supreme Court that’s going to screw workers over like we’re going to see.  We may not have all of this horrible stuff that’s happening actually happen.

SK:  Yeah and it’s not just the media. It’s also the government, the intelligence community.  This is a non-partisan thing: I blame everybody. I blame the GOP. I do blame the Obama administration for just having way too much faith that Hillary would win, for not being on the ball with this.  But I’m just kind of flabbergasted that with all of this in the public domain, that they didn’t make their move, that they didn’t speak up, that they underestimated the threat, that they took a risk like that.  It’s possible that there were some sort of external constraints that we don’t know about that caused them not to act, but it’s obvious that this plan was many years in the making.

And it’s just, it’s very frustrating.  And I don’t want to sound like Trump.  You know, Trump’s little line nowadays is ‘Oh, you know, it was Obama who was President when all this was happening, so it’s his fault.’  And I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re the criminal.  We’re complaining that he didn’t catch you fast enough.’  There is obviously a scale of problematic behavior here, and Trump is on the high end and Obama is on the low end.  But nonetheless, the actions of that administration and previous ones, the Bush administration too, should be examined. It’s very frustrating.  A lot of people have let our country down.

RS: No absolutely, on all sides of the aisle and you’re right.  It’s a non-partisan issue.  If you truly believe in this experiment of self-rule, if you truly believe in this constitutionally limited republic, then standing up now and demanding this investigation to go forward is a must!  But I look at today, you’ve got Trump going off on Jeff Sessions again.  And Jeffy having dinner with (Rod) Rosenstein and the other guy.  Does Jeffy get fired?  Do we see a bloodbath there?  Lots of questions.

SK: Well, the picture is interesting.  People have been floating this ‘Jeff Sessions is gonna get fired’ rumor for a full year.  And I’ve never believed it because Jeff Sessions is of course implicated in this. He was Trump’s foreign policy advisor on the campaign, he was somebody who cultivated a lot of these Russian ties. He never actually recused himself from the investigation and then he went on to commit perjury multiple times when testifying about it.  This is actually a really great thing for Trump.

Sessions has been a foot-soldier.  He’s a loyalist.  He’s gonna do what Trump wants and he also has a lot at stake himself because he’s implicated.  So I’ve been skeptical that he really is the object of Trump’s wrath.  I feel like Trump is just freaking out and enjoys taking it out on Sessions because he knows that Sessions is a loyalist.  You blow up at the people who you know will take it.  They’ll take that humiliation, and Trump gets off on humiliating people, and he likes to humiliate Sessions.

But the picture with Rosenstein, that’s interesting.  That might really get under [Trump’s] skin, because I think with Rosenstein, I think he does want to fire him. Because the person he wants to fire the most is Mueller, and firing Rosenstein is the pathway to doing that.  That’s something that I think he may go for.  If that happens, I don’t know where we’ll go from there.  The thing that’s been frustrating is that so much of this took place blatantly, it’s in the public domain. We know about an enormous number of crimes that have been committed.  Trump confesses to them multiple times—he’s confessed to obstruction of justice—and nothing is done.  The fact that they’re still there is extremely damning.

And so while everyone is like ‘Oh, if he fires Muller it’ll be this big moment, people will rise up’ or ‘The GOP won’t take it anymore’, I’m like, which GOP are you talking about?!  The ones who have been sitting on their asses while we get hijacked by extremists both in our country and from Russia?  The ones who did nothing when Trump didn’t enact sanctions that were voted on 98-to-2 in the Senate?  They’re not doing jack shit!  So I’m kinda skeptical that suddenly they’re going to grow a pair and fight for our country.  I don’t know, we’ll see.

RS: No, I’m with you.  Look, I’m seeing all of this stuff coming out, these reports about what Mueller’s looking into next: Mueller’s looking into the money from Russia, Mueller’s looking into…if Trump knew about the emails that were hacked before the Democratic convention.  All of these things that, you go ‘Of course he knew!’ And why are you just looking into this NOW?

SK: I’m praying to God that he’s not just looking at it now.  I’m hoping that this is just poor reporting on the part of CNN and other outlets, poor framing of the material, cuz one would hope that Mueller is of course investigating this. It would be dereliction of duty if he’s not.  This is the most obvious shit.  This is the stuff that we all knew, the stuff that I’ve written articles about, the stuff that you and I have done interviews and had conversations about for a full year.  So yeah, I would hope they’re looking at that.

I mean, I assume of course that they have a lot of other information that we don’t know, and that’s been proven when they bring these surprise indictments.  They brought out George Papadopoulos, or the thirteen Russian internet trolls…there’s an indictment out for them.  People didn’t see that coming.  There are all these people on Twitter that claim to have inside info, but they’re just trying to sell you stuff, they’re just trying to make money off of your fear. Mueller has a pretty leak-free investigation.

As so I think when they’re kind of breathlessly reporting like ‘Mueller is investigating obvious shit that we’ve all been talking about’, I’m like ‘Well, good, because if he wasn’t that would be really terrible.’  But it doesn’t particularly make me think this is coming to a conclusion, it doesn’t give me a lot of hope. I’m obviously glad he’s doing it — that’s his job, –but there are thing that are going on that I’m also concerned about.

One of those is the treatment of Manafort and Gates, who have been given the most lax treatment for two people who’ve committed conspiracy against the United States.  We know that Gates is complying, that he’s helping with the investigation, we’re guessing in good faith that he gave up a lot of information in order to get those charges dropped.  But, you know, they’re letting him travel around for spring break, and they just let Manafort out to attend a funeral. Back in December, they let Manafort off of house arrest entirely, including with no GPS tracking. This is a guy who has three passports and is hooked up with like every mobster in the world—and they just let him out, like he’s not going to immediately do something awful, and of course he did, and then they had to put him back on house arrest.

And I look at all this like, ‘This is just extreme naivete or incompetence,’ and either one of those makes me very uncomfortable.  Maybe there’s some long game that I’m just not seeing, but you don’t let a guy like Manafort out.  Not just because he deserves to be punished, but because he’s going to hurt people.  He’s full of compromising information.  He’s full of murderous intent. This is a guy with blood on his hands.  So why are they being so cavalier?  Why would he give these guys rights?  And I have to say this—I live in St Louis, where people go to jail over a parking ticket and stay there for months because they can’t pay it.  That part of me is very angry about it as well.

RS: Well I mean this is about power and money, at the end of it, and there’s also a part of me that goes, to both Manafort and Gates: “Don’t walk near any open windows.”

SK: Oh absolutely!  That’s one of the things that’s really weird, is that they’re both assassination targets. They’re both flight risks. I could easily see especially Manafort just hitting the road or honestly probably getting into a boat and cruising on out to uncharted waters. But both of them are potential assassination targets, especially Gates, because he’s said to be cooperating.  And if I were, not just Russia—everyone’s like ‘Russia’s going to go and kill him’—it could be Trump’s goon squad, it could be people in the United States who want this shut down.

Gates is in a very vulnerable position.  And they go and announce the exact week of when he’s going to be out and about and the city that he’s going to—he’s going to Boston—and I’m like ‘Why? Why would you tell anyone that?’ It’s one thing if he had some, I don’t know, special thing he had to do and for whatever godforsaken reason they’re going to allow him to do it, but why do you announce that to the world? You’re basically almost putting a hit on him. I can’t stand this guy, but I don’t want him to die, in part because he’s one of the most useful witnesses we have.  Can you imagine if he gets killed?  The kind of conspiracy theories that are going to sprout up in our environment, what Trump, what all his people would do — it would just be a disaster.  So I hope they’ve got their eye on the ball here, because if they don’t, we’re in a lot of trouble.

RS: I hope you’re right—but one of the things, as I keep looking at the news, especially surrounding Kushner: here’s a guy who now evidently has almost no security clearance, but he was ‘top secret’ clearance, and we have no idea what he did with classified information.  And I pose this to some of my conservative acquaintances—they were just losing their mind over Hillary Clinton and the damn emails—and I go ‘Well what about this administration, with all of these people having access to classified information that haven’t gone through the background checks, that can’t pass a background check.

SK: (knowingly) Mmm-hmm.  Yeah. I just wrote an article about this for Fast Company and it came out two weeks ago—before all this information about Kushner in particular came out. I wrote it about Rob Porter when he left because he didn’t have the clearance, and about the problem in general.

Because what you have is a bunch of former Trump employees who are just roaming free, loaded with classified information that they shouldn’t have had access to to begin with. They don’t have loyalty to country, they need to make money, and there is a rich marketplace out there for selling state secrets. And I don’t know why they wouldn’t do it.   These are exactly the kind of people who would do it, because they’re the kind of people who are willing to work for Donald Trump while aware that he’s compromised by the Kremlin.  So we’re in a very dangerous situation, because even if people leave the White House, that kind of information and that kind of jeopardization of national security is going to have effects for years, if not decades.

And with Kushner – I wouldn’t be surprised if we find out he’s already been selling this information.  He asked for more classified information, like high-level information, than anyone else in the White House, and he doesn’t have an honest-to-god job.  He has this sort of bullshit task of ‘fixing the Middle East’.  But what that really means is that his family has investments in Israel, he’s been making all sorts of weird deals with Saudi Arabia, with China, with Russia, he’s been setting up back channels, he has a private email server, which, as you mentioned, was a big thing for Hilary Clinton but apparently not a problem for Jared.

This is a guy who is acting as if he’s selling state secrets for profit.  And I think in the end we may find out that that is what he’s been doing in order to – Jared also has a massive amount of debt, that’s important to point out if you’re looking for motive, and that debt is due right now.  So he’s in a lot of trouble in a number of aspects.

And again, I’m just kind of stymied that people didn’t see this coming, because it’s very obvious that Trump was going to insert his family into the administration.  That’s what every autocratic leader does, that’s what every kleptocratic leader does, and it was obvious that Trump was a leader in that vein. I wrote an article that’s now two years old saying ‘If Trump gets elected, he’s going to govern like a Central Asian autocrat’. You install your family members because that makes it easier to commit crimes, it makes it easier to hide the money.

And that’s what he’s been doing. And I’m like ‘How the hell did people not see this?! How the hell did people just allow this?’ And now they’re in a position where Trump calls the shots, Trump’s the one who’s going to allegedly to get rid of Kushner’s clearance, allegedly he doesn’t have it, but Kushner can just go and ask Trump.  And I’m thinking, ‘If Trump gives out state secrets to the Russians in the Oval Office, he’s going to tell Jared whatever the hell Jared wants to know while they’re eating dinner.’  There’s no filter there.  There’s no sense of propriety or protocol.  So, yeah, we’re in a lot of trouble.  People’s jubilation over this — I don’t get it.  I just see it as, we have a fairly intractable problem, and I’m curious to see, if it gets solved, how exactly it’s going to get solved.

RS: Let me as you as kind of a last line of questioning, then, because there had been talk almost immediately that the intelligence community wasn’t going to give Trump the real information.  Do you think he’s getting the real classified stuff?  Or are they giving him cartoon drawings of it?

SK: I think that’s a nice fantasy, and if that turns out to be true, then great. But we already have proof that it’s not.  Because Trump gave compromising material to the Russians last May in the Oval Office that ended up jeopardizing Israeli security.  It caused an international crisis.  And that was just one incident that we know about.

I think there’s been so much false expectation of checks and balances, of pivoting to be presidential, and these are bureaucrats that he’s been working with. Originally, he started out with a staff of a lot of life-long bureaucrats who had previously worked for competent administrations, and who had a baseline level of trust: when you give classified information to the president, that’s your job, you just have to do it, whether you like the president or not. You have to trust that the president is loyal to your own country. That used to be not such a leap of faith.  And so I do think that a lot of that classified information got passed on.

And now a lot of staffers have left—something like 60% of the top-ranking officials at the State Department are gone for example—and I think they’re gone in part because they know their work is being used for nefarious purposes and they don’t want to be a part of that anymore.  I know that’s why certain members of the ethics committee resigned — they don’t want to have their hands dirty.  They know this is wrong and they’re not going to help him.  But that means you’re left with people who will.  And so I think it’s very likely that he is getting high-level classified information.

RS: Yeah but here’s the thing: he’s just an amateur so we have to cut him a little slack.

SK: Oh my God, I’m going to (laughing), I swear to God I want to kill everybody who says that (off-mic laughing), ‘This little political neophyte, he’s an amateur’, okay, he hasn’t been the president before, but he’s been immersed in organized crime, in scams, in PR, in lying, in all of this stuff for forty years!

And more to the point, he has a team of backers who are far more savvy than he is, and he has learned to step back.  Everyone thinks Trump needs to be the only guy, he needs to be in the spotlight all the time. And while that’s true on a kind of cult of personality level, Trump has always surrounded himself with extremely ruthless, very savvy people, usually lawyers, people like Roy Cohn or Michael Cohen, who are just brutal.  They understand the system, they understand how to manipulate it.

This is also true of his circle of oligarchs, though in that case Trump has debt, and so I think he doesn’t quite hold the strings in that relationship.  That’s why he’s so relentlessly deferential to Putin, to the Kremlin, to this circle of oligarchs.  So that changes things a little bit, but yeah, Trump knows what he’s doing.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say he knows what he’s doing is wrong, because I don’t think he has a conception of right or wrong, but I think he knows what he’s doing is illegal, and that’s why he’s trying to manipulate the justice system in any way that he can—no matter what kind of laws he’s re-writing, no matter what kind of illicit schemes he’s doing—in order to get out of this mess and in order to consolidate power.  That’s unfortunately where we are.

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