Lucid Interview: Tim Weiner
"We came very, very close a few months ago to destroying this beautiful democratic experiment"
Hello, this week’s Q&A/live chat will take place on Friday, July 2 at 1-2p,ET. Log-in info for the Zoom call will be sent on Friday morning. The next evening Q&A will be July 7 at 8-9pmET.
Lucid Interview: Tim Weiner
I am pleased to bring you this interview with Tim Weiner, who is the author of six books, including LEGACY OF ASHES, his National Book Award-winning history of the CIA. As a reporter for The New York Times, he covered national security and reported from 18 nations, including Afghanistan, Sudan, Haiti, Cuba, and Mexico. His latest book is THE FOLLY AND THE GLORY: America, Russia, and Political Warfare, 1945-2020. This interview, conducted on June 25, 2021, was edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): You are the author of books on the CIA and the FBI. I'm curious to get your view on the impact of the Trump administration on these agencies, especially the use of "deep state" propaganda to discredit them.
Tim Weiner (TW): Donald Trump's war on intelligence was fought on several fronts. In addition to being a sociopath, he is an ideologue, and ideology is the enemy of intelligence in both senses of the word. If your mind is made up, you don't need to be confused with facts reported by your intelligence, and anything that disturbs your view of the world is unwanted noise. Both the FBI and the CIA were aware of Russian influence in the 2016 election and particularly the relationship of Trump’s first campaign manager, Paul Manafort, with Russian intelligence and Russian oligarchs. They were aware of the Russian hack of the DNC.
And Trump was fully aware that these questions raised a lot of anxiety about the legitimacy of his election. So, he attacked the FBI and the CIA and likened them to storm troopers and Nazis. And then, on the first full day of his presidency, he went to CIA headquarters and acted like a strongman, telling them that only he could fix what was wrong with America, bragging about his crowd size [at the inauguration]…and doing other foolish and egomaniacal things that made it a disastrously uncomfortable moment.
RBG: The Trump administration brought huge changes to federal agencies like the Department of Justice and the State Department, where zealotry replaced expertise. How much of that happened at intelligence agencies?
TW: The problem began when Trump installed Mike Pompeo as Director of the CIA. Here was this hyper conservative Congressman from Kansas with no real qualifications, and he came in and tried to use the agency as a political launching pad for himself. He continued to do that when, even more disastrously, Trump made him secretary of state.
RBG: Yes, Pompeo fits perfectly with the authoritarian phenomenon of the government becoming populated with "little Mussolinis" — officials who compete to be like the leader. Pompeo was a "little Trump" who bullied those he worked with and boasted incessantly (he called it "swagger").
TW: Both Trump and Pompeo perfected the jaw jutting style of Mussolini.
RBG: Exactly! I wonder what the fallout was for CIA employees.
TW: The CIA derives its power in great part from its access to the president. The president listens to what it says and reads its daily briefing which is delivered to the White House. Well, Trump didn't bother to read that, and even if he had, it would not have changed his mind on anything. So that relegated the CIA to third-tier status within the power structure. Intelligence is about gathering and analyzing information that can be used to guide American foreign policy. If the president isn't listening, and the secretary of state is a bullying ideologue like Pompeo, then what good is an intelligence service?
RBG: The toll on morale must be considerable.
TW: It's the analysts that bear the brunt of the president's idiocy. The officers who do clandestine work, trying to suborn people into committing treason, and gathering intelligence and running operations, they're far away from Washington D.C.. But the damage that has been wrought goes far beyond the morale of the CIA or State Department. Since the end of World War Two, the role of America in the world has been to stand for a few basic values, like opposition to totalitarian and authoritarian regimes --even if we ourselves have violated these values in our operations abroad.
Under Trump, we as a nation veered perilously toward an authoritarian mode of government. We came close in January to losing what we have as a Republic and ending our 240 plus year experiment in democracy. We came as close as we have ever come in American history to going down that dark road.
RBG: January 6th really was a radicalizing event for the GOP. The party had a chance on January 7th to disavow Trump, but instead they've doubled down on their lawlessness.
TW: The Trump era is not over, and it won't be unless he is indicted, tried, and convicted on any one of a number of counts of criminal conduct. There's the whole Trump organization, which is run rather along the lines of a crime family or racketeering organization. We won't be rid of him until he's doing time - this is also due to the malign influence of his cult of personality. As you have observed, there are all the baby Trumps running around in Congress.
I suspect that the FBI will find that what happened on January 6th was a well-financed conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States, led, if not entirely directed, by the president of the United States.
I mean, a lot of clear-thinking people went to bed on January 5th thinking well, tomorrow is going to be, to use a term of art, a shitshow. We saw what and who he was, that he was aiming for an autogolpe, as they call it in Latin America, when the government overthrows the constitutional order to perpetuate itself.
RBG: Where do you see this going?
TW: War is being waged on the collective mind of America, not just by Russia and China, but by the infotainment complex that includes Fox News, lesser right-wing outlets and an army of trolls, which has convinced 30 to 40% of the American electorate that Donald Trump is the legitimate president of the United States. The American Republic did live under the constant threat, remote as it may have been, of nuclear annihilation for many years, but we've now gotten to the point that the only thing that can destroy this country is ourselves.
RBG: That's a really important point.
TW: We came very, very close only a few months ago, on January 6, to destroying this beautiful democratic experiment. It will happen again if we let it.