The crisis that has befallen America under Donald Trump's presidency is not ripped from the pages of a John le Carré or Jason Matthews spy novel. It is all too real.
The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee has unanimously endorsed the intelligence community's conclusion that the Russian government interfered with the 2016 presidential election, with the goal of electing Donald Trump and undermining American democracy.
Former CIA director John Brennan agrees that Vladimir Putin commanded his spies and other agents to assist Donald Trump so that he would defeat Hillary Clinton. Brennan also believes that Putin may be blackmailing Trump as a means of forcing the president to do his bidding.
Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller has indicted numerous people in connection with Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election and related criminal behavior.
Trump openly encouraged Putin and his agents to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Trump continues to publicly praise Putin and make excuses for his apparent efforts to subvert American democracy. Trump now plans to meet privately with Putin later this month. It has been reported that no American advisers or other observers will attend these meetings.
If what now seems apparent is indeed true, Putin has successfully conducted one of the greatest covert operations in modern history. He and his agents have undermined the United States' standing in the world and apparently now control a president, the Republican Party, and tens of millions of Americans who have embraced authoritarianism and betrayed their own country's democratic values and institutions.
How was Russia able to accomplish this? Is Donald Trump actively working for Vladimir Putin and Russia, or is he just a "useful idiot"? What social cleavages did Russia exploit in order to do so much damage to the United States? How does Russia's support of Trump and American fascism fit into a much larger global plan?
In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Malcolm Nance, a career intelligence and counterterrorism officer for the United States government. In his more than three decades working in that capacity, Nance served with U.S. Special Operations forces, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies. He has worked in the Middle East, North Africa, the Balkans, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. A frequent guest contributor on MSNBC, Nance has authored several books, including the bestselling "The Plot to Hack America: How Putin's Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election."
Nance's new book is "The Plot to Destroy Democracy: How Putin and His Spies Are Undermining America and Dismantling the West." This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. A longer version can be heard on my podcast.
It has been about a year since we last spoke about President Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 election. At this point, are matters better, worse or about what you expected in terms of how Trump is behaving and his impact on the country?
Things are happening as expected. But who would have thought that Donald Trump would be feeling so much pressure about being caught working with the Russians that he would feel the need to start paying them off so greatly? Trump is now warning that he may eliminate or downgrade NATO.
It’s just insane. We created NATO. It was a United States invention for the collective security of Europe. It has been a Russian desire since 1947 to break up NATO. Trump also wants to remove the United States from the World Trade Organization. He is doing this all before his summit meeting with Putin.
But in some ways Donald Trump is way worse than I thought he would be at this point. He is acting like a guy who has to rob a bank to pay off the Colombian drug lord. Every day that he wakes up alive is like a blessing. This is the level of debt and peril that I think Donald Trump is in -- that he would literally take a sledgehammer to everything the United States has built in an effort to save himself.
Donald Trump is acting like Putin's vassal. The public evidence that Trump and his inner circle colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 presidential election is overwhelming. Yet Trump's voters, the Republican Party and the right-wing news media keep denying the facts.
Putin is his handler. There are too many people who keep saying that they are "sick of hearing about Russia." These people refuse to acknowledge the evidence. There is a national counterintelligence investigation targeting the White House. The president and all of his staff are implicated.
We have Michael Flynn, the [former] national security adviser to the president, pleading guilty to lying to the FBI because he covered up secret contacts with a foreign government and lied about it when confronted with the facts. The evidence is now in the realm of the Justice Department, and they’re not going to just come out and give it to you. This is what all these Republican congressmen are trying to do. For example, Devin Nunes and Trey Gowdy. They’re trying to get the evidence so that they can use it to try to exonerate Donald Trump.
This is obstruction of justice on a grand scale. I suspect that when it’s all said and done and the sum total of the evidence comes out, it’ll be overwhelming and undeniable. As I told you last year, we’re entering a Benedict Arnold moment in American history. Robert Mueller is not playing games here. He cannot accelerate things because Donald Trump is taking a sledgehammer to government, although I’m certain he will accelerate things in order to make sure that justice is served. There will be more indictments, some of them very high profile. For example, Jared Kushner lied when he was asked about using Russian secret communications in an effort to hide his communications with Russia from the NSA and CIA.
Where is the mass protest and outrage among the American people? There should be massive protests and marches that disrupt day-to-day life. Is this passivity and perhaps exhaustion also part of Russia and Putin's psy-op against the American people?
I think they chose their asset well. Donald Trump knows how to play this game. He understands that his only salvation is to manipulate the public. He doesn’t care if he destroys the fundamental infrastructure of the FBI. He has Rudy Giuliani telling him the good guys are the average field officers and the leadership needs to be completely redone because Trump wants to control the Justice Department. This is Trump's way of obstructing justice and expanding his power.
Republicans are so taken by and loyal to Trump that they will believe and do anything he says. A good example of that is the Harley-Davidson factory and the nail factory that were shut down or may go away due to his tariffs. There have been interviews with people who said, “Well, we know it’s going to affect us firstly, but if Donald Trump says it’s for the best, then OK.” That’s cultism. Lo and behold, they actually say, “Well, Donald Trump didn’t do that. That’s the Europeans or that’s the liberals or that’s the Democrats that made me lose my job."
We’re entering a very dangerous period in American history. It is terrifying. I was rereading my book last weekend, and I really had no idea that putting all of this together in one solid package would lead to the conclusion that there is, in fact, a plot. The Russians have a plan and a strategy. They have been executing the strategy for 15 years, by finding Donald Trump and building him up as a character and fostering his betrayal of the United States of America. They clearly set out to destroy American democracy and Donald Trump is the man to do it. We are, as of this November, on the cusp of possibly losing the American constitutional republic forever.
The Russians have been doing this in Europe with ultra-right-wing groups, fascist groups and others that have their origins with the Nazis. The Russians aren’t Communist anymore. They are ultra-conservative Christian nationalists.
Their goal is to use democracy to destroy democracy. You want to get rid of democracy, have an election. But this is an election where they vote away your rights. This is an election where you lose to voter suppression and aid from a foreign power. But at the end of that loss, these enemies of real democracy then say, “Oh, no. It was all fair and square.” The Republicans want an autocracy where the rights of minorities and others are not protected. Vladimir Putin, with Donald Trump and with the European conservative movements, are building an axis of autocracies, and the United States is on the relatively quick road to becoming an autocracy and no longer a constitutional republic.
Were American conservatives particularly vulnerable to being manipulated because they are anti-intellectual and already predisposed towards authoritarianism? Or was the Russian plan just that masterful and devious?
The Russians watch very carefully. We have to recognize their president is a former career KGB officer. The goals of Russia since 1917 have been to destroy capitalism, discredit democracy and show that Communist collectivism was the greatest social and political system in the world.
The Russians realized that the American right wing, with its hatred of Barack Obama, was a natural ally. So the Russians went about co-opting these right-wingers. I call them the "American beachhead." Since 2005, the Russians have been hammering almost every conservative political movement in Europe -- they are now funded by Moscow, particularly the neo-Nazi and the fascist ones.
The Russians really invest in these organizations because their goal is to create autocracies. To re-engineer the world away from a Washington-centric European alliance to a Moscow-centric, autocratic one.
Steve Bannon was just in Europe speaking to right-wing and fascist groups, telling them to be proud of being called racists. Trump's former adviser Sebastian Gorka actually wore a literal medal that was awarded by a Hungarian group allied with the Nazis.
In my book I call Steve Bannon "the American Goebbels." He is the evangelist of the American "alt-right." In Europe there are groups such as Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West), which is the rabid anti-foreigner movement in Germany who got power through the AFD (Alternative für Deutschland), and went from something like 3 percent of the polls last year to now being the second-largest party in Germany with 30 percent of the vote.
Trump is pretty much riding a high wave with 40 or so percent support. Hitler won with 37 percent. Bannon was just in Europe meeting with the Hungarian government and the Jobbik Party. Bannon also went to meet with the Five Star Movement in Italy whose foreign minister, Matteo Salvini, just threatened to deport and put on trains all of the Roma people -- the "gypsies" -- in Italy. The last guy who put the Roma out of a country and rounded them up on trains was Adolf Hitler, and he sent them straight to Auschwitz.
So this is really dangerous talk that’s going on in Europe. We may be one or two elections in Europe from seeing the complete collapse of the European order that we established at the end of World War II.
In effect, Trump's immigration policy amounted to putting the families of black and brown refugees in concentration camps. The United States has withdrawn from the United Nations' Human Rights Council. How do these images of crying babies and broken families help Vladimir Putin's plot against America?
This all works out for the Russians. First, note how the Russians have now shifted. Remember, last year they were starting to criticize Trump by saying that he had been consumed by the swamp. Now it is all completely reversed. Trump is a strong leader. Trump is closing his borders. Middle East and African immigration into Europe is the No. 1 platform for European conservatives. Trump is the Johnny-come-lately to the story. So Trump saying the same is a double thumbs-up for the Russians and their strategy of inciting nativism and racism and chaos.
Trump has been on Fox News and elsewhere joking about Putin and Russia's interference in the 2016 election. Is he a "useful idiot" for Putin's spies? Or is Trump actually afraid of being caught by Robert Mueller and his behavior reflects that? Either way, he is acting like a guilty person.
[I've] certainly been pretty vocal on this point. "Useful idiot" is a technical term. It’s a person who is an unwilling dupe, who through their own actions helps your cause. I think Trump started out as a useful idiot when it came to selling apartments and getting money from Russians who were liquidating their assets from the Soviet Union. I think he then became a willing asset when they started using him when he wanted to run for president. Trump knows everything is being done in his benefit. He is one step from being an agent. We may find out with Donald Trump that is the case. Who knows?
There are multiple examples of Trump and his confidants meeting with Russian representatives in private without American translators or media present. Trump will meet with Putin again in a few weeks. Again, this conversation will be private. How unusual is this?
It’s extremely unusual, and people that should know better, like Gen. [John] Kelly, are not alarmed. They think this is just Trump’s way of doing things. But Trump meeting Putin in private is like him going in for his quarterly evaluation. I would not doubt if it actually comes out to effectively be that. As I said, I think this nation is in a Benedict Arnold moment.
Moreover, I think that there will be multiple Benedict Arnolds in the story. No other president would ever do this. No other president would be allowed to do this. Trump is getting away with this behavior because he has cowed the Republican Party with fear that they’ll be put out of office by his cult members. There is nothing Trump cannot do at this point.
Matters are very dire. I think this “blue wave” in the midterms is much exaggerated. Trump will win in 2020 -- if he runs again -- for a variety of reasons. What will America look like if Trump continues to get his way in terms of serving Putin's and Russia’s interests, rather than those of the United States and the American people?
You will not recognize the United States. The country will vote itself into an autocracy. Trump and the Republican Party will suspend parts of America's representative democracy. They will amend the Constitution. And America will see 65 percent of its people living under subjugation. Now, I don’t say that lightly. That’s an intelligence analysis based on the empirical data. I say that with experience honed with humility. Donald Trump makes no secret of his desires in that regard. His biggest problem has been democracy. I disagree with you, however, on one point. I do believe there will be a "blue wave."
The problem with the progressives and liberals right now is that they are still treating this situation like we are in a state of normalcy.
Vladimir Putin actually warned that if Trump wins, he has to be careful of an American backlash like the one that swept the pro-Moscow government out of power in the Ukraine. He’s terrified of democracy. He’s terrified of people power. That’s my message. We have got to mobilize.
It has to be made clear that American democracy may go away this November, because if the Democrats don’t win the House of Representatives, it’s done. Trump will get whatever he wants. I don’t think he will win in 2020, because at that point I hope a hero will emerge.
Michael Moore recently said that the American people must be prepared to die to stop Trump's authoritarian and fascist movement. Do you think Moore is just being hyperbolic? Or is he correct?
I think he's a little hyperbolic. Look, when the "alt-right" killed Heather Heyer, the response from law enforcement has essentially run the "alt-right" underground. They had no idea that punching Nazis is a pretty deep-seated American value.
What would you tell people who are terrified or afraid of Trump and what he is doing to America? What advice would you give them?
I get those types of questions every day. The first thing I tell people is: "Stand fast. We will win this." You have to understand that we are not up against one man. We are up against 40 percent of the American public who don’t understand what’s going on because they only believe Donald Trump. What we must do now is commit ourselves to the American democratic experiment and the best spirit of the founding.
If we turn out this year like it was a presidential election year, then we will win in a phenomenal landslide. You must vote like your life depends on it, because it could, if you’re a woman that might need an abortion. It could, if you’re a Latino. It could, if you’re a young black man where shootings can now essentially be written off with a rubber stamp.
When this nation was built out of my city, Philadelphia, the odds were simple. They win or they hang. And now it’s simple again. We win or we lose American democracy. We lose it forever, and I don’t think we’ll come back from autocracy.