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A Few Minutes with… Lee Smith

Author Lee Smith on bureaucrats plotting to thwart the president


ee Smith has written an astonishing new book in which he claims that the Obama administration, in concert with the Clinton campaign, used fake intelligence in an attempt to take down a newly elected president.

The coup was launched in early 2016, when the Clinton campaign began to leak parts of the “Steele Dossier,” a now-discredited document that claimed Donald Trump was in the snares of the Russian government. A sympathetic FBI and Department of Justice then used that information to spy on Trump campaign operatives — US citizens — with the ultimate goal of defeating Trump on election day. That information was spread by a willing press corps. When that failed, the investigators changed tactics. Spurred on by an outgoing Obama White House, FBI director James Comey and others set in motion what would become the Mueller Report, which created the interminable cloud hanging over the White House.

What once sounded like a conspiracy theory was detailed in a report compiled by Congressman Devin Nunes in February 2018. Titled “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Abuses at the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” the memo detailed how federal investigators used false information to obtain FISA warrants to spy on US citizens. Smith writes that their ultimate goal was a coup, an attempt by the bureaucracy to accomplish what the election could not.

Raised in New York, Lee Smith has worked as a journalist for 30 years. He is a former reporter at the Village Voice, Talk magazine, and the Weekly Standard, and he is currently a columnist for the online magazine Tablet, where he writes about the Middle East. A former resident of Egypt and Lebanon, Smith is the author of three books, among them The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.

His new book, The Plot Against the President: The True Story of How Congressman Devin Nunes Uncovered the Biggest Political Scandal in U.S. History is currently number one on the Amazon Charts. I reached him in Washington.

Why did you decide to write this book?

I thought it was important to tell the story of the people who stood up and did the right thing, like Congressman Nunes and his staff. We have a pretty good idea now about what the bad guys did, what Obama intelligence officials and Clinton operatives did. But we didn’t have a good idea of what good people had done to stand up.

You make a convincing case, yet there aren’t hundreds of books on the subject. Why?

As I explain in the book, the press is part of what’s happening here. They are very well not going to report on the role they played in this operation. This is not about a press that is liberal. We would expect them to be more critical of Trump than Obama, and of Reagan than they were of Clinton. The issue here is not about partisanship. One of the indices is the number of people who identify as Republicans who have been part of this. Up until a few months ago it was conspiratorial and nutty to talk about a Deep State. Now, New York Times columnist James Stewart says there is a Deep State and it’s a good thing. Former deputy director of the CIA John McLaughlin told a panel in Washington two weeks ago, “Thank G-d for the Deep State.” I don’t know if McLaughlin identifies as a Republican or Democrat, but there is a network of interests that transcends party lines.

What role did the Obama administration play in this? Did the president know what was happening?

The president knew what was happening. The evidence is provided by his national security advisor, Susan Rice, and her [outgoing] January 2017 memo. Once you strip away the language, basically what [Obama’s] saying is “collect information on the Trump team related to the Russian investigation underway.” That’s what he’s saying. Right now, that’s about as far as we can go.

Politicians collect information on their rivals all the time. What makes [Rice’s memo] astonishing is that Obama is taking about collecting intelligence related to the FBI’s counter-intelligence investigation that is open on the Trump team. That’s a different sort of thing.

Should people go to jail over their actions? If so, who?

That’s why United States Attorney John Durham is doing [a criminal investigation into the Justice Department handling of the investigation]. If he believes there are serious criminal charges to be made, I assume there will made charges made. Congressman Nunes made eight criminal referrals. He believes crimes were committed. He and his staff see evidence that crimes were committed. He didn’t tell me who the people were.

In the book, you describe something called an “obstruction of justice” trap. Can you describe how the intelligence agencies used that to ensnare Trump and others?

At a certain point, James Comey and the top officials of the FBI and DOJ who were involved in the operation against Trump realized they had nothing on collusion. Nonetheless they were keen to remove Trump from office. The way they thought they could do that was by bringing obstruction of justice charges against the president. If they couldn’t remove the president, they could hand it off to a Democratic Congress, and that would be the basis for impeachment charges.

One fascinating aspect of the book is the enmity you describe people feeling for Trump. With most politicians, there are positives and negatives. What motivated these people to go to such lengths to destroy him?

I think it’s a breakdown of a number of different institutions. This is not personal enmity for Trump. I think it has structurally to do with a number of institutions like the press, the FBI under James Comey, and the power that Trump rightly described as “the swamp.” The power of unelected bureaucrats to make policy, that’s what the Beltway is. This has always been a problem for new administrations, especially for Republicans. There has always been pushback from the permanent bureaucracy — the State Department, the Pentagon, including officers. They believe they are governing the country, and they are really the ones who are entitled to determine the policy of the US — and not the president and the political appointees he brings in.

[Former Trump national security advisor] Michael Flynn said, “This is not how we’re going to run things: The people in the swamp need to be held accountable for the money they are spending.” Flynn is a very important part of the story because Flynn threatened their budgets.

You are seeing how they are pushing back now, even from places like the National Security Council. That’s where the whistle blower [in the Ukraine case], Alexander Vindman, comes from. That’s where Fiona Hill [who testified in the impeachment inquiry against Trump] comes from.

These are people from the bureaucracy who are actually in the White House. It’s not like they are across town. They are actually in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building that adjoins the White House. These are people who work for Trump, he’s their boss, yet this is where the impeachment is coming out of. That just shows you the power of the bureaucracy. And that’s what the fight is about.

The press has other currents and other interests. The press has turned into a gathering of political operatives. The press is financially bankrupt, so it has collapsed ethically and professionally as well. We don’t have a press like we did 20 years ago. There is a place called the New York Times and there is a place called the Washington Post, but these are not the institutions we had 20 years ago.

Since you mentioned Ukraine… You don’t deal with that subject in your book, but what is your assessment of what happened on the phone call [between Trump and Ukrainian president Zelensky] and the attempt to impeach the president?

The president makes foreign policy. It’s that simple, and [now] there’s a bureaucratic insurgency. It’s preposterous. The president makes policy. Who is Alexander Vindman? He is a lieutenant colonel in the US Army. I’m sure we are all obliged to him for serving in uniform, but it’s the president who makes foreign policy.

So it’s not your judgment that he was misusing his office to serve his political goals?

Joe Biden’s son Hunter had been hired by a foreign company in Ukraine, a country with a notoriously corrupt political system. That company was under investigation by a foreign country, Ukraine, where their prosecutors also have different issues. Without going into unnecessary detail, we’re not talking here about Switzerland. We’re talking about a sandbox for oligarchs. It’s a very corrupt system.

Anyway, the son of the vice president of the United States of America was working at a foreign company under investigation by a foreign government. This in itself is a scenario for at least a dozen imaginable ways in which the national security of the United States might have been compromised. You can imagine what [the phone calls might sound like]: “We can make things awfully hard on your son, Mr. Vice President.” “We can make things awfully hard on you and the president you serve.” It is Trump’s duty as commander in chief to get to the bottom of what Hunter Biden was doing.

What we’ve seen is, this has been going on for four years now; thanks to the press, they have managed to turn things upside down. Joe Biden, in public, describes a quid pro quo [with the Ukrainian government], which was: Fire that prosecutor or you don’t get a billion dollars. But now the impeachment inquiry is based on the possibility that Trump might have demanded a quid pro quo? I mean, it’s absurd. But that’s why I say the press is not a free press. This is very obvious. I’m not a genius or a lawyer. We’re just going on what is in public here.

That statement is scary: The press is not a free press. That’s terrifying.

It’s really terrifying. And what makes it worse is once you compound the nature of the communications wing with intelligence officials, it’s really dangerous. All that had to happen for this thing to break open is for people to ask basic questions. But instead the press built up an enormous echo chamber to reinforce what political operatives were saying.

Let me put it another way. What happened was before the election in 2016, Clinton operatives started leaking a smear campaign against Trump, and his alleged ties to Russian figures. After the election, that turned into the basis of an operation against Trump, that he was somehow a Russian spy and it was Vladimir Putin who elected him. That’s a conspiracy theory. Once you have inserted a conspiracy theory into the public sphere, it’s over, there’s no going back.

Because they have to keep defending it?

It’s not just that. It’s actual real political power. Once you can get people to believe a political conspiracy, once it becomes part of the way people understand the world... This is how Americans tragically understand the governance of our country, that it’s at the behest of Putin or that Trump is a Russian spy. There are millions of Americans who now believe this. That is real power. Once you can make people believe a lie this large, you can make them believe anything. So there’s no way they’re going to abandon this conspiracy theory, because it’s just too much power.

How does this end? Let’s say for the sake of argument that Trump wins the next election. Is this just four more years of the same thing? And if he doesn’t win?

If he doesn’t win, they will try to put him and every member of his family in jail. If he wins, I don’t know. There has to be accountability for people who break the law. That will change some things. Will people continue to believe that Trump is a Russian spy? That will continue until those people die. There will be tens of millions of Americans who will believe that Trump is a spy. We can’t do anything about that.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 785)

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