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Last week I had the privilege of talking with David Cay Johnston about the state of the union under Donald Trump. As "breaking news" has taken on a completely new definition in the age of Trump, gyrating wildly on what sometimes appears to be an hourly basis, it is too easy to be distracted by issues without examining the larger picture.

David Cay Johnston

This volatility has spawned several books, including an effort by David Cay Johnston entitled It's Even Worse Than You Think, What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America, which has rocketed up the New York Times bestseller charts. The book surgically dissects an administration in search of a vision.

Johnston is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who has been following Trump for three decades and is arguably more familiar with the man than most if not all reporters. He shines a light on the political termites who have infested our government…destroying it from within.

David was in Los Angeles last week and I had occasion to interview him as he tours the country promoting his latest book, hoping that he would provide insights not found within its covers. He did not disappoint. The breadth of his analyses on issues from the economy to jobs to international affairs to climate change and immigration, just to mention a few, display a knowledge base that is seemingly endless.

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A recap of the interview provides a snapshot of his views on what lies ahead:

Lance Simmens: What are the prospects for impeachment?

David Cay Johnston: Zero and none as long as the Republicans control the House and Senate. They are avoiding their duty of checks and balances and barring something completely unexpected there is no prospect for impeachment. House Republicans are preparing to release this memo that essentially allows the President the right to pick his prosecutor.

LS: Are there realistic checks on the President should he decide to engage the U.S. in a nuclear confrontation?

DCJ: The military has thought through what would happen if there were an illegal order to launch a nuclear missile. I was really worried about this at first but my expectation is that any decision would be run by Secretary Mattis and unless it is response to an attack against us a launch would not take place without a full Congressional leadership briefing and therefore they would be complicit in it.

LS: While progressives like myself opposed NAFTA and TPP, I am open to renovation to both yet I fear that the Great Negotiator might actually make things worse. Your thoughts?

DCJ: Yes, I am positive he would make things worse. Trump doesn't know anything about negotiating and he does not know anything about trade. Remember what he said about making Mexico pay for the Wall by slapping a tariff on imported goods from Mexico. That means Americans would pay and that he does not know this is indicative of what a con he is. TPP needs to be fixed but not killed. China has now advanced a competing plan and are telling countries if you want a prosperous future pivot away from an America in decline and work with us.

LS: In your estimation, is there a "deep state"?

DCJ: There is a permanent bureaucracy, but so what. All viable governments have a permanent bureaucracy, you need to control it, hold hearings on it, but operating without it is absurd.

LS: What are the long-term prospects of lack of confidence in the institutions of representative democratic government and what are the consequences of denigration of the concept of public service?

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DCJ: This has been going on since before Trump but he has raised it to a much higher level. Think about the change since when JFK talked about public service and the Peace Corps, studying to become American diplomats via the Foreign Service. Today if you are a public servant you must be terrible, you must not know what you are doing. If you go around saying that government is corrupt, people are going to be corrupt. I mean there were no major scandals under Barack Obama.

LS: We are constantly bombarded with calls for leadership and hardly ever are presented with the notion of statesmanship, which entails vision and wisdom. Is statesmanship dead in the U.S.?

DCJ: No, but it is seriously damaged as long as Trump is President, he is manifestly unqualified to be President, he has not idea what he is doing.

LS: In your book yo mention that Trump's relationship to Russia and Putin is that he is either a fool or a knowing Kremlin agent. Which is it?

I think [Trump] is an agent of the Kremlin. He behaves and talks about Putin the same way mobsters talk who don't know they are being recorded.

DCJ: I think he is an agent of the Kremlin. He behaves and talks about Putin the same way mobsters talk who don't know they are being recorded. He is not a loyal American, he denigrates American intelligence agencies and praises the Kremlin. Putin believes democracy is a joke, and is the head of the biggest criminal organization in the world, the Russian oligarchs, who have repeatedly tried to raid the wealth of the West, tried to undermine banking, tax frauds.

LS: Has Trump forfeited the power of the pardon?

DCJ: No, he can pardon anybody except to prevent an act of impeachment. There is an argument that if he should pardon himself it would be invalidated by Federal judges. I would hope so. But if you pardon someone they no longer have 5th Amendment rights, plus many of the crimes may also be subject to New York state and we know the Special Prosecutor has worked closely with the New York State Attorney General so they are still subject to state prosecution. Hopefully, if the President uses it indiscriminately the people will wake up and realize the President is a criminal.

LS: It is often lamented that with respect to military power that we are always peopling to fight the last war. With ambivalence on the part of the Trump Presidency as regards cyber warfare, are we foolishly unprepared for the 21st century?

DCJ: Yes, so much has been written about how unprepared we are. Everybody does cyberwarfare. It is the nature of the world. We decided not to spend the money to deal with it.

LS: Is there bipartisan consensus on a vibrant infrastructure program?

DCJ: No, not at all. The rest of the world puts us to shame—highways, rail systems, airports, bridges. We have engaged in decades of malign neglect. There is no support for it here. Used to be bipartisan but government is bad now.

LS: We are due for a recession. Will the recently passed tax giveaway accelerate and worsen the impacts of the coming downturn?

DCJ: In the short run probably not. But the economy is slowing down. The number of new private sector jobs in Trump's first year is about 20 percent below the average of Obama's after the loss of jobs came to an end in 2010. The way they designed this tax bill there may be a short-term stimulus but interest rates are going up, that means the share of of federal spending to pay interest is going up, squeezing out other things.

Final thoughts: Don't be cynical. If you don't know facts, you cannot have a hope of persuading other folks to change their minds.


Lance Simmens