The Trump-Russia collusion hoax, the Mueller investigation, the impeachment inquiry, the “weaponization of the coronavirus,” and now the riots raging in major U.S. cities are all intrinsically linked, says investigative journalist Lee Smith.
According to him, these were operations with a common purpose: to remove from office the man who obstructed plans to radically transform America.
His new book is titled “The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President.”
Smith says the “coup” isn’t just about President Trump, and it will outlast the 2020 election, regardless of who is elected president. It is a battle over the future of America.
This is American Thought Leaders, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Lee Smith, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Lee Smith: Thank you, Jan. It’s great to be with you once again. Thanks very much for inviting me to spend this time with you.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve written this fascinating book I’ve been reading over the past few days, chapter after chapter riveting. I’ll recommend it at the outset. But tell me a little bit about this “permanent coup.” What do you mean by “permanent coup?”
Mr. Smith: There are two different things that I meant by it. First, you and I have spoken actually a number of times now about the Trump-Russia collusion, “Russiagate,” however we want to discuss it. This was the first operation that was targeting first candidate Trump and then President Trump, and then it turned into the Mueller investigation from that. That rolled into the impeachment inquiry [and] the impeachment process. That then rolled into the weaponization of the coronavirus to target the Trump administration. After that, we’ve seen riots in the streets of virtually every major American city.
So in part, the “permanent coup” refers to the number of operations that have been targeting the president and his supporters for the last four years. The other thing it refers to when I say the “permanent coup,” there’s a purpose behind the coup. It wasn’t just a deep state phenomenon, some sort of organism arising here out of Washington.
The purpose of it was they were very frustrated, they were furious, when Hillary Clinton was not elected president and when Trump was elected. That meant that they were not able to implement, finalize, complete Barack Obama’s policies, impose his worldview. So this is what we’ve seen in the last four years: A struggle to hold down Trump in order to have someone come in after, to finalize, again, to complete Obama’s policies. Remember, he was talking about the total transformation of America.
This is the struggle that we’ve seen unfolding the last four years between a very traditional view of America protecting and promoting individual liberties, the sanctity of life, the importance [and] the centrality of a family and community—a standard but important view of America—versus a very different view of what America should be. And this is a fight that will continue regardless of what happens this November, whether Donald Trump is reelected or whether Joe Biden is elected instead.
It really is a contest which has turned very vicious and very ugly for what America should look like and will look like. And so I talked in part in the book also about some of the people who have been invested in that struggle. Of course, Congressman Devin Nunes, whom I’ve written about before.
Someone else who’s a very important part of the book [is Michael Flynn]. The book details exactly the different things that have been done to General Flynn, the different ways they’ve tried to destroy him, and so I have an interview with the general which concludes the book—very interesting and important insights from the general. But these are people who are heavily involved, who are invested, in this fight for what our country is going to look like and what the future of our country is going to be.
Mr. Jekielek: This is really fascinating. Of course, General Flynn is constantly, lately in the news because of this, you could call it, “never-ending case.” We thought it might be closed when the DOJ [Department of Justice] decided to drop the charges, but that isn’t how it turned out. And now we’re at the point of an en banc review of the D.C. Circuit. Why don’t you tell us just where things are at right now in your mind, and what does your book have to say about this case?
Mr. Smith: Again, my book describes why General Flynn was targeted by various figures, including the FBI, the CIA, the outgoing White House as well, and then it explains how the special counsel investigation set up General Flynn. There’s a chapter in the book which is called, “The Scope.” It’s chapter seven which describes what the special counsel team did when they came in.
And when you look at it in a particular way, they were hurting sons to get at the fathers. So they did this with General Flynn. They went after General Flynn’s son to go after him. A lot of people forget this. They also went after Donald Trump Jr. to try to get at the president. Another story I tell in there is about a Turkish businessman who had partnered with General Flynn and they wanted him to turn on Flynn.
So if you look at what the special counsel did, strictly in human terms, it’s appalling. They tried to hurt fathers through their sons. They tried to get friends, business associates, to turn against each other. It’s extremely destructive. It’s not just un-American or anti-American; it’s really inhuman. What they did and how they tried to hurt people on a human scale.
To come back to where we are with General Flynn’s case at present, many people—we spoke briefly before about how many people are listening now to the proceedings when they’ve been able to hear them on C-SPAN. The amount of people who are listening to this case, it’s quite a few people who are heavily invested in it, and they’re heavily invested in the outcome of what happens to General Flynn.
And of course, it largely has to do with General Flynn’s story—a man who served his country for over three decades in uniform, he served in very high-level positions including head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, he was President Trump’s first national security adviser. So of course it’s people looking at that and wondering, “If they can do this to General Flynn, they can basically do this to anyone.” And this is a very important part of why people are following this because a lot of people, I think, are getting the very clear sense that what we’re watching unfold in this case is a two-tier system of justice, and I think it’s very astonishing.
It’s very astonishing for people to watch this. People get treated unfairly in our justice system all the time. It happens. It’s a very sad fact, and we want to correct and change that as much as possible. But to watch an active operation to damage General Flynn when the Department of Justice has filed a motion to drop the case and the one branch of our government, the judiciary, will not let it go, it’s very disturbing and very surprising and says very worrying things about the future of our justice system.
Mr. Jekielek: Based on everything that you know, and you certainly know a lot looking through your book and the previous book of course, “The Plot Against the President,” where do you expect things to go now?
Mr. Smith: I believe, I’m very confident, we’ve seen some developments now in the investigation [by] Mr. John Durham. Attorney General Barr appointed him in May 2019 to start investigating, to start investing in the case. I’m optimistic. I’m sure you’ve been following one of the lawyers at the FBI, a high-level lawyer, a gentleman who’s part of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation and was also rolled over to the special counsel team, a man named Kevin Clinesmith, has pled guilty to making false statements.
And it looks from some of the different news reports and from what experienced legal hands, former prosecutors and whatnot have explained to me, it appears pretty clear that Mr. Clinesmith has made an agreement to cooperate with the investigation. Along with many people, I’m optimistic, finally, that Mr. Durham will get to the bottom, and there will be indictments for people having committed crimes, starting in 2016, targeting the Trump campaign. So again, I’m optimistic about that.
Mr. Jekielek: So of course, Kevin Clinesmith is the one who altered an email that basically made it look like Carter Page was not a CIA asset, sensibly allowed for these FISA applications to go through. One of the things I keep hearing is that this is just some low-level guy, actually, from all sides of the spectrum. You said he’s a high-level guy. What are you thinking?
Mr. Smith: What I mean is that someone who has that level of input over that is someone who is in a position that commands a certain amount of authority. So he is accountable for what he did wrong. He was not bringing coffee to the senior agents of the Crossfire Hurricane team. He’s not the guy in the mailroom. That said, I think it is also quite clear that he is not the one who gave the order and who said, “I think it’s a good idea. Let’s get a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant on Carter Page so we can spy on the Trump campaign.”
I think it’s very clear to all involved that this was not simply a mistake, that this was an operation that involves many people. And again, from reports and from what people who have a very good understanding of how these cases and prosecutions run, it appears that Mr. Clinesmith is likely cooperating, which will involve pointing to other people, both people on his level and presumably people above him as well, who were involved in targeting the Trump campaign.
Mr. Jekielek: I found it really fascinating how you described three vantage points, basically, that were meant to show there was Russia collusion: you had Alfa Bank, you had Sergei Millian who, frankly, a lot of people haven’t heard much about, and Carter Page, who a lot of people have heard a lot about.
Mr. Smith: What happened was that I started to look more into the story of Sergei Millian, which I’d never really looked at before. And once I started to understand what had happened, what they’d done to him, how he had been set up by Fusion GPS and the FBI, [and] how they sicked the press on him, I started looking more and more to his story, and it’s terrible what they did to him.
They tried to identify him—they did. They identified him as a dossier source; they identified him as a Russian spy. They started a counterintelligence investigation on him in October. They were really looking to destroy him. Many of the other people who have been hurt— He’s an American. He’s a naturalized American citizen. He’s been living outside the country now for a couple of years, I guess, and it’s terrible what they did.
As I started looking more and more at the story, I knew Carter’s story pretty well. The Alpha Bank story, I knew less well. But I started to recognize that all these stories were intended to converge at a particular time before the 2016 election.
I went back at a certain time, and I saw Christopher Steele’s interview with Kathleen Kavalec, a State Department official. This was in October 2016, and he actually described it that way. He said [that] there were three different Trump-Russia channels, and he said, “Carter Page, Sergei Millian, and the Alpha Bank,” so I was very happy to see that I was following a correct lead.
What was supposed to happen was these were all supposed to come together on October 31, 2016. If you look at the number of stories that dropped, there was a Financial Times story on Sergei—again, just a smear campaign. There was a David Corn story going after Carter Page, October 31. October 31, there was Franklin Foer’s Slate story about Alpha Bank. The big story was supposed to be a New York Times story, putting it all together, saying that, yes, this was the heart of collusion.
This was supposed to be the October surprise that was going to utterly destroy the Trump campaign. Remember, they all expected that Hillary Clinton was going to win, but this was going to be the coup de grâce. This was going to be the end of the Trump campaign.
Well, it didn’t work out that well. It didn’t work out that way because someone at the FBI walked the Russia collusion investigation back. In my book, in the book here, “The Permanent Coup,” I explained that this appears to have been intra-FBI, intra-intelligence service wrangling.
But it was all supposed to blow up in this New York Times story and Fusion GPS, as they explained in their own book, they were furious at the Times. They thought that the Times had blown the story. What they meant by that is the Times have blown the operation which was supposed to destroy Donald Trump as well as the damage that had already [been] done to Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. The further damage was supposed to do to Carter Page and Sergei Millian, and of course now we’ve seen the directors of Alpha Bank have taken Christopher Steele to court in London, so it’s very important.
One of the things that I’ve tried to do in both of these books is discuss the human cost. How many people have been hurt by this, including, of course, President Trump, which has come out oftentimes in many of his own statements, but General Flynn, Carter Page, Sergei Millian is another person, [and] George Papadopoulos. [There are] a number of people who’ve been terrifically hurt by this, by political dirty tricks, an operation that was using the resources of the federal government for political purposes.
They didn’t care whose lives they destroyed, they didn’t care who they hurt, they didn’t care who they bankrupted, they didn’t care who they put in jail, and it’s a terrible chapter. It’s a terrible chapter in our history. The point of calling it “The Permanent Coup” though is we see this attitude continuing. We see right now—do people care?
We talk so much about racial justice; we’ve spoken so much about these things. Do people care about the number of Americans whose businesses were destroyed? Or the people who were hurt during these riots? Do people care? We’ve talked so much about the coronavirus. Americans obviously understood, it wasn’t just a two-tier system of justice. There’s a two-tier system of relevance, a two-tier system of meaning.
The people who wanted to go to church, the people who want to bury their fathers [or] their mothers, the people who want to celebrate their marriage in public—these people were not important. These people stay home. If you want to open your business and you want to protest it, “Go to hell. Stay home. Put on a mask.” That’s how part of the population was treated.
The other part of the population, if you feel that you want to go to the streets of Washington D.C. right here, and you want to set fire to a church, and you want to try to destroy a hotel, and if you phrase it in terms of “peaceful protesting” and “systemic racism,” help yourself. Help yourself. So again, two-tier system of justice and two-tier system of citizenship, of relevance.
It’s a terrible thing that happened. And again, that’s because they treated people like Carter Page and Sergei Millian, Svetlana Lokhova is another person, Michael Flynn, they treated these people like garbage, and that’s where we are right now. Large parts of this country regard their neighbors, fellow Americans, fellow citizens, as garbage. Their lives just aren’t worth that much. It’s terrible. It’s terrible where we are right now.
Mr. Jekielek: What about the human cost to you for covering all this stuff? Those of us who have decided to cover Russiagate—
Mr. Smith: I’ve been so fortunate. Really, I’ve been blessed. I’ve gotten to write books. I’ve gotten people read them; people have bought them, amazingly. And seriously, I’ve been extremely lucky, and getting to cover this. Seriously, getting to meet people like you, getting to speak with you, I’ve terrific colleagues who are interested in this stuff. Getting to meet Congressman Nunes, his team Kash Patel, Jack Langer.
And to get to write about something so important about which way our country is going, how are we going to live as Americans. Will we embrace each other with all of our differences, our debates, and our competing interests? Will we find a way to live together or are things going to get worse? So getting to write about that and getting to engage with people about this, it’s an enormous blessing. I feel that the things that have, whatever has been a pain, whatever has been a nuisance, well worth it.
Mr. Jekielek: Have you lost friends?
Mr. Smith: Yes. But I mean writers lose friends all the time. If you’re writing, and if you have strong opinions, you should lose friends. It just happens. That also means maybe that friendship wasn’t that serious or wasn’t grounded in the important and respectful place where writers, people who are exchanging ideas, should be grounded. It’s OK. I take you as a serious person. I know you’re a serious person. If you think this, I’ll listen to you for at least a little while, and then I’ll make an argument with you. If you lose those connections, they weren’t worth it to begin with.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s interesting because you did mention earlier, and this is at the professional level, but I’m thinking at the personal level, I’ve been following all sorts of stories of families not talking to each other because they have, as you’re suggesting, very, very different visions of the future. There’s media that are misleading people as to realities. Some people believe those things and these things cause rifts among even people as close as families. I’ve heard of people [with] deep friendships of 30 years that ended—real, real stories that I’m aware of like this. That’s kind of what I’m trying to get at.
Mr. Smith: No, no, I don’t mean to be Pollyannaish, but it’s really been such a huge blessing, and I think we’ve talked about this before. We’ve talked about the problems with the press; we’ve talked about the problems with the media, but one of the real great things about this time is—I know a lot of people have different issues with social media, rightly so—but the number of people who are out there on Twitter, on Facebook, on Parler, who not only want information, but who are producing and providing information. So that’s fantastic.
Yet some of the people, some of the relationships that I may have lost or are no longer as strong as they were in the past, [are balanced by] the number of people I’ve gotten to meet since then, the number of people I’ve corresponded with on Twitter, it’s fantastic.
There was a time when my wife thought I only had imaginary friends on Twitter. She saw me sitting there and corresponding with different people who were using pseudonyms, and she said, “These are all your fictional friends on Twitter.” No, they’re real. But really to get information from them, to learn from them. And I do also feel in a larger way, not just me, I do feel that even though it’s partly a dire moment for the country, I feel that lots of people have also come together, right?
I feel that lots of people have come together and said, “Yeah, we realize this is a tough time. How do we stick together? What kind of community do we build out of this, out of the problems that we’re having when we see these things melting down, or when we see these things being—someone burning them down? How have different people come together?” So again, I’m not just looking at it through rose-tinted lenses, but I’ve felt especially blessed with what I’ve gotten to do and the people I’ve gotten to meet and the work I’ve gotten to do.
Mr. Jekielek: Lee, you’re one of the few journalists out there who has been following Crossfire Hurricane, the whole Russia collusion story, for some time and helping everyone understand.
Mr. Smith: Thanks, yeah.
Mr. Jekielek: But this is just a part of your book. I mean, you dedicate multiple chapters to it. What is your kind of idea behind this piece? What are you trying to achieve with the book?
Mr. Smith: The American political system is set up so that you have competing forces, right? We have different people within a certain framework who have different worldviews, right. We have two parties. It’s a two-party system, which actually has worked very well for this country for quite a long time. I know that many people think that we should fragment and we should have a number of different European style parties, but the two party system works very well for us.
What we’ve seen happen here the last four years is we’ve seen not just unconstitutional and illegal actions, we’ve seen actions that have gone outside of how our political system, how our political process is supposed to work. We’ve really seen the adoption, the co-optation of third world norms. And this is one of the reasons why this story has been extremely important to me from the beginning, having covered the Middle East and looking at this, watching different things unfold, different features that one normally associates with third world polities. So to see this happening inside the United States is a huge concern.
And of course, it went from Russiagate to a weaponized investigation, the Mueller investigation, then it turned into a nonsensical impeachment process, which was patterned—again, I explained in the book—which is patterned precisely after what they did with the Steele dossier. So to see these things unfold again and again, and to see the press offer itself up as a platform for these operations, I think that all Americans should be extremely concerned to see what’s unfolding here.
And I think a lot of Americans would be very concerned, whether these are centrist or whether these are Democrats, if they were getting the news and the information they’re supposed to be getting. But what we’ve had instead is we’ve had a media that is—not partisan [exactly]. I’ve worked in the press for a long time. My father was a journalist. My grandfather, great grandfather were all journalists. I’m familiar with the fact and comfortable with the fact that the press tends to lean toward the left. That’s not what we’ve been seeing here the last several years. What we’ve been seeing—something’s entirely different.
To offer itself up as an information operation is not right or left. This is what we see in hard security regimes in the Middle East. This is what we see with authoritarian and totalitarian regimes around the world. So it’s not a right or left issue. So of course, this media is not providing the information, telling American viewers, American media consumers, what has actually been happening here because they are participants.
They are the essential ingredient in this operation, targeting not just President Donald Trump, but our republic, targeting our political processes, our traditions, our mores. The Constitution is an extremely important document. It is our founding document. However, without the mores that bind us together as Americans, without the respect that we’re supposed to have for each other as Americans, the Constitution isn’t worth much.
There has to be a fundamental level of respect between other Americans for our neighbors, fellow citizens, people who live all the way across the country. We’re seeing this threatened right now, the fabric that is supposed to keep us together. This is one of the things that we’ve seen unfold over the last several months with the riots ravaging American cities.
Mr. Jekielek: So, you mentioned you used to cover the Middle East.
Mr. Smith: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: Frankly, you wrote predominantly, from what I saw, looking at the Middle East. So the level of importance of this situation is what got you to shift into reporting on this whole Crossfire Hurricane? No, I guess early on it was unmasking.
Mr. Smith: I recognized unfortunately, a lot of similarities. For instance, the coordination between the intelligence services and the press. This is how the Middle East works. This is how typical operations work there. I’ve said this before, but the two major ministries in hard security regimes are the Ministry of the Interior, which covers the intelligence services, and the Ministry of Information, which covers what goes by “the press” in third world regimes.
And these are the two outfits that coordinate to wage operations, internal domestic operations, against political enemies, against the regime’s adversaries. And this, what we’ve seen here, it predates Crossfire Hurricane, it predates Russiagate. I started noticing this when the Obama administration started to market the Iran deal, how they were using the press to target domestic enemies there. So yes, this is one of the things that concerned me greatly, that I saw different third world norms becoming naturalized in the American political system.
Mr. Jekielek: Very curiously, you’re talking about taking things back before Crossfire Hurricane and into basically generating support for the Iran deal. But actually, in the book, you go quite a bit further back, and you have a whole chapter dedicated to China, which is of course one of my favorite topics. And you take us way back into the ’90s, where the process of normalization, of stronger relations with the Chinese Communist Party and so forth. So tell me a little bit about this. I read that chapter with rapt fascination.
Mr. Smith: Thanks, thanks.
Mr. Jekielek: You pointed out some very, very interesting things, even a few that I wasn’t entirely aware of.
Mr. Smith: Okay, I’m very proud of that. That’s good.
Mr. Jekielek: How does the whole China piece fit into this puzzle? I think that’s something that not a lot of the viewers are going to be necessarily expecting.
Mr. Smith: Right. China has become something since even before the ’90s, since about the ’70s, with Henry Kissinger’s and the president he served, Richard M. Nixon’s, outreach to China, which was a strategic gambit to advance the interests of the United States against the Soviet Union, a more dangerous communist country at the time in the ’70s. Since then, American policymakers, people in Washington, have not sufficiently revisited our opinions about China.
There were different outliers. There were different voices of reason, people who were saying things. And I point to Kissinger to say that this is not a Democratic problem; it’s not a Republican problem. It’s a Washington problem. Some people on both sides of the aisle, it’s people who come here to do work to sell influence and to buy influence.
In the ’80s, the congressman from Missouri, Richard Gephardt, who was also a 1988 presidential candidate, sounded a message very similar to Donald Trump’s once he started worrying about American jobs. He started worrying about people who were shipping jobs off. At the time he was worried about South Korea and Japan as well, but then China became a very big concern for him.
And the way that people targeted Gephardt, the press, opponents, targeted Gephardt was eerily similar to the way they’re going after Donald Trump now. Any idea of saying, “Wait a minute, let’s look at what’s happening here. Let’s find out what’s happening to American jobs. And why are we selling out American jobs to foreign adversaries?” Donald Trump, the way they’ve shut him up is by calling him a racist, right? This is the instrument that they’ve used to go after Trump.
Well, strangely or not strangely, this is one of the same tactics they used to keep Gephardt down as well. They called him a xenophobe. They called him a racist. Gephardt also had a description for the swamp that sounded very similar to Donald Trump’s. He talked about policymakers. He talked about thought leaders. He talked about the authors of opinion editorials, academics, and this is the same message that Trump sends out as well.
Why do you have all these people who are agreeing on this one thing? Why are they all here in Washington? Why do they all agree about the centrality and the significance of the Chinese Communist Party? And when you have someone who comes in and says, “Wait a minute, this is a problem, actually, for a number of different reasons.”
It’s a problem in terms of the American workforce. It’s also a problem in terms of American national security. And Trump has found allies on China, most of them right now on the Republican side, though, historically, there have been Democrats who have been very good on China. You don’t have to go all the way back to 1988 and find Gephardt. Even more recently, there have been senators who have been very good on China.
Why more of them aren’t standing up now and joining Donald Trump is bad. It’s understandable in terms of partisan politics. But it’s a terrible thing for the country, especially right now. This is a country that has taken a number of body blows. One of them has in particular come from China, referring to [what] we were speaking about before: they say the Chinese Communist Party flu, right. This is a very serious thing. So it would be important for American officials, American policymakers to join together on this, that this is a problem. We’re not there yet.
Mr. Jekielek: So Lee, what is the Chinese Communist Party’s role in this permanent coup?
Mr. Smith: Right. When I talk about in the subtitle, it’s our “Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President.” One of the important things to understand here is that it’s what we Americans have done to ourselves, right? We have brought in foreign powers to take sides.
If you look at what Washington is, Washington is a place oftentimes where foreigners come here and try to get us as Americans to intervene on their behalf, against their own rivals in their own countries, in their own communities. What’s happened here in many different ways is we have dragged in foreign powers—and this is part of the story I tell about Ukraine as well—it is we who have invited in foreign powers to play a part in our political process.
There is no reason that China has to have that large a say. There was nothing in that, I know this part of Chinese Communist Party information operations. But there’s nothing inevitable about the rise of China. There is nothing that says that China will come to dominate not just the United States but must come to dominate the entire world. It’s we who not only collaborated on that, but we who have made that happen. It’s we who’ve made that inevitable.
And so when I talk about how this is part of the book, [it’s] because again, it’s not just an operation against Donald Trump. It’s not just going after Donald Trump, or even his supporters. It’s going after an American way of life, our own traditional way of life, how Americans live, how Americans work, how they raise families, and certainly the threat by shipping over jobs to China, American jobs.
Moving American jobs to China, this is a very big deal. This weakens an enormous part of our workforce. This has been hurting our neighbors. This has been destroying our neighbors, fellow Americans. So again, insofar as the permanent coup is going after, again, not just Trump, but regular Americans, yes, what Washington [is doing], the different arrangements that policymakers have been working up here with China, is an attack on America.
That chapter on China describes the role that Senator Dianne Feinstein has played regarding China and regarding American policy. Look, in many ways in the 1970s, it was exciting for people to reach out to China, a very hopeful time in different ways. And in some ways this policy started as a time of hope. “Let’s see if we can drag the Chinese Communist Party out of communism and bring them into the community of nations.”
Well, that is not what has happened, and this policy, this idea has failed. So why are people still involved? Why is Dianne Feinstein, why does she continue to defend the Chinese Communist Party? And I’m not just talking about what the party does inside of China. I’m not just talking about what it’s done in Hong Kong, what it’s done to the Uyghurs, but also what is happening here in the United States. What is the role of the Chinese Communist Party? Isn’t it right for American policymakers to represent their constituents at home? Instead, they are defending foreign powers who are hurting her constituents, who are hurting other Americans.
Mr. Jekielek: You describe Senator Feinstein’s relationships with very, very high-level leaders, for example with Jiang Zemin, who basically rose to power through what they called pacifying Tiananmen Square in 1989, really ultimately perpetrating the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
Mr. Smith: Right, right. And her explanation for that—she boasts about having been a friend of Jiang’s for a long time, and she talked, she gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal shortly after Tiananmen Square [and] said, “Well, my friend Jiang told me that there was no police there, so all they really had was the army, and I think it’s time for us to put all this behind us.” I’m not saying that she is singly responsible for holding Jiang’s feet to the fire of Tiananmen. That is not singly her responsibility. But I mean, at this point, it’s just obscene.
The amount of time that has gone by and the people who continue to defend. Many people in the book, Senator Cotton, Representative Mike Gallagher, these are people who’ve been very good, very good on China. And they’re pointing to the different problems that Beijing poses for American national interest. We’ve seen different fights over Huawei and ZTE, and look at the number of Americans who are representing those interests. We have Democrats, we have Republicans who are representing the interests of adversarial powers.
The thing about Donald Trump is he is the one president who has brought this to light. And he has been engaged in this fight. And I do believe that one of the reasons that he has met so much resistance in Washington from many people has been what he’s been saying about China. This has been a problem. This has been a problem with a number of different policymakers and people across the board, Democrats and Republicans, that he’s taken on this fight, just as it was a problem for Dick Gephardt back in the ’80s.
Mr. Jekielek: Is China somehow involved in trying to influence US politics as we speak?
Mr. Smith: The coronavirus may be the most profound influence operation in American politics in American history. I mean, we don’t know yet or I don’t know. I don’t think either of us know whether or not it was intentional. But we see the different things they did.
They closed off internal travel from Wuhan, and they kept external travel going. In a sense, they directed death outwards. They certainly could have warned the United States and the rest of the world. If you look right now at the tally, the tally is astonishing: how many dead, how many American dead, how many dead around the world, [and] how many Americans out of work. It’s hard to imagine.
It would be hard to imagine a Soviet strike during the heart of the Cold War, with 200,000 dead and many tens of millions out of work. They would have been quite pleased with such a strike. I don’t think that we should respond to it as a nuclear attack, but it’s a very serious thing that happened.
And I think actually, I think that President Trump deserves a lot of credit to try to keep it on a low burn right now. We have lots of other concerns. I don’t think that he should be—you can see that he’s frustrated about this and he’s angry, but it’s a very good thing that picking a fight with China over this is not at the top of his list. I think it’s good to keep calm, but we need to look at this quite clearly and seriously and see what happened. It’s astonishing.
Oh, yes, it’s affecting this election. It’s affecting how we Americans have lived since, certainly since March. It will continue to affect how we live for at least many months to come, if not many years to come.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, let’s talk a little bit about your work. I was pretty fascinated to discover that you were actually the editor of “The Village Voice” literary supplement back in the day, and I thought, “Wait a sec, there was a “Village Voice,” wasn’t there?”
Mr. Smith: Yes! Most of the magazines that I’ve worked at in my career no longer exist. “The Village Voice” is one of them. “The Weekly Standard” is another. I think there are others and of course, “The Village Voice” and “The Weekly Standard” are on different sides of the political spectrum. So I worked at “The Village Voice” in the ’90s, and I was the editor of the literary supplement, “The Village Voice” literary supplement, which was a huge, another [great job].
That was a great job. I got to meet terrific people. I worked with a lot of novelists, people like David Foster Wallace, Jeff Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, terrific writers, great novelists. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about in terms of novels in the 1990s and what’s happened with Spygate is if you look, the big novelist of the moment since the post World War II period, people like Don DeLillo, people like Robert Stone, people like William Gaddis, they’ve written these extraordinarily large, expansive, somewhat paranoid novels in part, novels of suspicion, novels about worried about what’s going on here in Washington. What’s going on, “Libra II” is about the assassination— “Libra;” I’m thinking “Mao II”—”Libra” is about Lee Harvey Oswald and the assassination of Kennedy. So it talks about the CIA.
If you look at these different things that novelists have been concerned about in the post World War II period, the dangers of the state, the dangers of the intelligence services, what is the United States doing abroad? And we spoke about China before. What are America’s entanglements abroad? All of these have very much been in the air.
People ask me why I found what’s happening with the collusion story, or Spygate, whatever you want to, however we want to describe it. Well, I’m surprised that more people who spent their formative years reading these books, reading these novelists don’t recognize more easily what’s going on. Yes, what Don DeLillo has been writing about, parts of what David Foster Wallace wrote about, these things are actually going on.
Stop imagining that they would only take place in a particular corner of the public sphere, in a partisan corner that you’d prefer they appear in so it doesn’t have to make you think about what’s happening over here. They are happening. So yes, I think that working at “The Village Voice” at that time and that particular period absolutely prepared me to see what was happening here in Washington. The press, the intelligence services, and political figures, teaming to go after their adversaries.
Mr. Jekielek: Who should read the book?
Mr. Smith: What I’ve been trying to do with this book, with my articles, with the plot against the president is trying to explain the things. Yes, there are different parts where I will intervene editorially and point to different things that happened. The most important thing that I think that I’m doing here though is I’m filling out what’s happening in time, the chronology, to explain to people how these things unfolded, what these operations [are], to understand what’s happened here, alright?
You need to knock them down to their foundations. By foundations, I mean timelines and actual quotations, what people have said. If you look at how prestigious press organizations have covered these things, what they’ve done is the way they fill in, the way they tell these stories is, the mortar is the way that they build these narratives, as they call them. The mortar is the nonsense.
That’s the information operation. That’s how they’re trying to target people. “Well, George Papadopoulos did this and that. Sergei Millian is a Russian spy,” right? That’s the information operation part of what they’re doing.
What I’ve done is I’ve knocked down these structures to look at the essential story, to try to give people a sense of where we are. Many Americans across the country understand precisely what’s happened here. They know what this story is about. They know who the bad guys are. They know who the good guys are. I’ve tried to explain this story, so that they can show, they can have some support for their friends, their family members to explain, “No, this is really what happened.” I’ve tried to document this so that people can understand it a little better themselves and so that it will help them explain it a little better themselves. Does that make sense?
Mr. Jekielek: It does. And indeed, to your point, Lee, at the beginning of the book, there’s this kind of massive timeline that you’ve put together that basically starts the book and sets the tone for what we’re about to read, which I frankly, appreciated a lot. Bringing a whole lot of different, let’s call it, operations, as you call them, or different areas of inquiry together into one timeline is very interesting.
Mr. Smith: I think it’s very important. Again, I think that people have a pretty good idea why it’s called, one reason anyway, why it’s called the “Permanent Coup.” If you look at the timeline, you see these things falling. For instance, Robert Mueller, on July 24, 2019, came in and gave his testimony before House committees. That was the end of the special counsel investigation. Yes. Have nothing. No collusion. Nothing. Within less than 24 hours is when they started the Ukrainegate impeachment operation.
So you see how it’s been constant. They’ve continued to turn the spigot for the last four years. It’s astonishing, really, what the country has gone through. I mean, he deserves a lot of credit to see what the president has managed to accomplish, in spite of the different operations intended to destroy him the last four years.
Mr. Jekielek: What are some of those accomplishments in your view? Aside from the UAE-Israel Abraham Accords.
Mr. Smith: What do you mean aside from? I mean that in itself is a very big deal. That’s enormous, yeah.
Mr. Jekielek: I think it’s hard to imagine. I imagine a lot of people think it’s positive.
Mr. Smith: Oh, yes, I think it’s a very big deal. Look, people have spent so much time looking at the Palestinians and the Israelis. Sadly, Palestinians are a sub-state entity, run part by an aging sclerotic, kleptocracy, Fatah, and a terrorist group, Hamas. The Israelis now have an agreement with a major oil producer, with billions of dollars to invest in tech and the hyper-advanced Israeli tech industry. These are exciting things. And with luck, more of the regional actors will make peace with Israel. And at a certain point, the Palestinians will say, “What are we going to do? I guess we should make peace too, get on with our lives, move forward.” That’s an excellent thing.
Let’s come back to China for a second. I think the fact that the President has recognized there’s a problem with China, the fact that he’s trying to, he is, addressing this issue, [and] that he’s talking forthrightly about our concerns with China right now, these are all very big deals.
I think one of the most important things that Trump has done, though, is I think he’s given a lot of people hope. Right? First of all, by fighting and then second of all, by giving, by listening to people. I think people really did feel that here in Washington, people don’t pay attention, that people aren’t listening. Donald Trump showed that he was listening to people and that their fight is his fight. And this is a very important thing. I think it’s a very important thing for people. It’s astonishing when you think about it.
We talked before about how Gephardt was criticized for trying to take on unfair trade practices. Again, the unfair trade problem is Washington, as Trump has said. See, I don’t blame the Chinese for it. That was Americans who made these bad deals. But the fact that a lot of people feel that here in Washington, policymakers, no one is listening to them. Or they’re insulted, chastised for “What do you mean you care about American jobs? What do you mean you think American jobs are important? That’s why you want to close the border. Well, that’s why you want to put tariffs on China so we can preserve American jobs. What kind of racist are you?” I mean, where does that come from?
An American president, it’s his responsibility to take care of Americans, and all of a sudden that’s turned around and he’s racist. This sounds like Chinese Communist Party messaging. Well, if you take any position against the Chinese Communist Party, you must be a racist. How is that? He’s the American president hired to advance the interests of Americans at home and abroad.
Mr. Jekielek: So Lee, we mentioned the Iran deal a little bit earlier. In the book, you make the case basically, that the previous administration’s focus on making the Iran deal happen actually figures significantly into all these operations, as you describe them, that are happening today.
Mr. Smith: It was the centerpiece or it was the premier foreign policy initiative of the Obama administration. It was very important for them to sell it. And that’s when their surveillance of domestic opponents first came to my attention. They started targeting Congress and their opponents on the Hill, and they were also going after pro-Israel activists as well. And that rolled into—after they managed to push the deal through in July 2015 in Vienna—that rolled into their surveillance of the Trump campaign, in particular, their surveillance and their targeting of General Flynn.
Remember, General Flynn had served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and he saw precisely what the Iranians were up to. He saw how many American deaths they’d caused, how much American blood they’d shed. So for him the idea of legitimising, legalizing their nuclear weapons program—which is what the Iran deal did—it seemed to him insane. Michael Flynn, like the president he served, was determined to undo the Iran deal, and that’s why the White House targeted Michael Flynn.
Mr. Jekielek: Lee, who did you write this book for?
Mr. Smith: Well, I’m very flattered and honored that I have, that there are a lot of people who read the first book and who read my work, and they said such nice things about it, and they bought the book. I think most of the time though, and certainly with this book, I was thinking about my father as the ideal reader.
My father is a retired journalist [who] worked for many publications. And I think that he is very surprised to find that the press has been lying about so many different things. I think that he’s coming to that recognition now. And so I wanted to be able to explain to him and other people, decent, honest Americans with whom you may have political differences and debates.
We might not agree about everything, but this is supposed to be the place where we have real information to make decisions, important decisions about how we live with each other at home and how we advance our shared interest abroad. And right now, the lies that are put forth in the press, it’s not just to advance political candidates. It’s not just to advance certain interests. They are intentionally divisive. They’re intentionally harmful, driving us toward conflict.
And the idea that somehow they’ve injected these insane conspiracy theories into the American public sphere, like Russiagate, the power of that conspiracy theory. It will be at least a generation if not more, before most of this country understands that was just an obscene conspiracy theory. But how dangerous that is for America, for all of us, even people who don’t like Donald Trump, how dangerous and divisive that is, so I wanted to write for decent people who I think need to understand the truth, need to understand what happened. I tried to explain it as clearly as possible and as fairly as possible.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.