Trump, Terrorism, and the Politics of Witch Hunts

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(Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Five hundred years ago, a popular test to flush out witches was called “ordeal by water.” Dunk an alleged witch into a lake. If she sinks, she’s innocent. If she floats, her guilt is plain for all to see and she can be safely burned at the stake.

By this ancient form of waterboarding, witch hunters thought that they could identify the emissaries of the devil. The objects of suspicion were usually people living on the margins of society – spinsters, practitioners of herbalism, Roma, former slaves, Native Americans. It was a convenient way of cleansing communities of the unconventional.

Today’s witch hunters have different prey in mind. They are anxious to flush out terrorists, also purportedly the emissaries of the devil, also bent on upending the status quo, and also often on the margins of society.

The modern “ordeal by water” — the waterboarding that U.S. investigators infamously used in the aftermath of September 11 — is meant to force them to confess not only to their own supposed crimes, but also to the nefarious activities of the hidden network to which they belong.

Given this history, it’s odd that the most powerful person in the world has alleged that he is the subject of a witch hunt.

President Donald Trump tweeted this week about the investigation of Russiagate by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller: “A total WITCH HUNT with massive conflicts of interest!” he called it.

It’s not the first time that Trump has used “witch hunt” in self-defense. It’s not even the first time that he’s capitalized the expression. But in his recent tweet storm, the president went after Mueller by name, which seemed an ominous escalation.

It’s also curious that Trump is talking about witch hunts just after nominating Gina Haspel to head up the CIA. Haspel famously ran a CIA black site in Thailand where she oversaw the waterboarding of suspects and then urged the shredding of evidence of the use of this technique.

So, as Trump proclaims “witch hunt” in bold letters, he’s pushing an authentic, modern-day witch-hunter to one of the very top positions in his administration. The fact that the president has supported the return of waterboarding because he wants to “fight fire with fire” only underscores the dangerous nature of the nomination.

It is but the latest example of Trump grabbing the grenades thrown at him and lobbing them back in the direction of his opponents. Accused of “massive conflicts of interest,” Trump tries to pin the same label on Mueller and the FBI. Derided as one the stupidest men to ever occupy the White House, Trump loves to declare his opponents “low intelligence.”

And the man who cries “witch hunt” is resurrecting an industrial-strength witch hunt of his own.

Trump’s Terrifying Counter-Terrorism

As a candidate, Trump spoke of terrorism as if it were a huge wave about to engulf the United States and the world. He promised to fight “Radical Islam” with “military, cyber, and financial warfare” alongside an ideological campaign. There’d be a new immigration policy. There’d be beefed up law enforcement. It would all represent a radical break from the policies of the Obama administration and what Hillary Clinton had to offer.

As president, however, Trump has largely followed the approach of his predecessor. As Joshua Geltzer and Stephen Tankel explain in The Atlantic:

Under Trump, the conduct of actual counterterrorism appears largely consistent with that of Barack Obama’s two terms and George W. Bush’s second term. Those common elements include working with partners wherever possible, beefing up intelligence cooperation, relying on distinctive U.S. capabilities, including armed drones, and utilizing the criminal justice system to prosecute those arrested in the United States on suspicion of terrorist activities. 

Of course, Trump has also introduced some new twists of his own that suggest that he has an animus toward Muslims in general, is indifferent to the suffering of innocent Muslim victims of U.S. air wars, and couldn’t care less about how U.S. allies crack down on their own Muslim populations.

Thus, Trump’s attempted Muslim travel ban managed to piss off all of the “moderate Muslims” that he talked so much of partnering with against “Radical Islam.” The ever-closer partnership with Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen, its blockade of Qatar, and its gathering conflict with Iran all suggest that Trump is taking sides in the complicated political and confessional struggles in the Middle East. Civilian casualties skyrocketed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria under Trump — and those victims have largely been Muslim. And his buddy-buddy relations with dictators in the Arab world, like Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, reinforce the belief among many Muslims that the United States doesn’t care about their human rights.

At the same time, Trump has proudly kept open the U.S. facility at Guantanamo, a symbol for many around the world of U.S. enhanced interrogation techniques. And UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer argues that torture is still going on there. Mike Pompeo, about to transition from head of the CIA to secretary of state, has defended the use of waterboarding, criticized the Obama administration for closing “black sites,” and is willing to revisit the question of interrogation techniques even after a bipartisan effort removed torture from the toolbox.

It took some time before the torture and black sites of the Bush administration came to light. How long will it take before the real counter-terrorism policies of the Trump administration are exposed?

The Other Investigation

Let’s turn now from the real news to the fake news.

Donald Trump has declared that Russiagate is a witch hunt. His use of the phrase suggests three things:

  • It’s an investigation into nothing since witches don’t exist.
  • It’s a campaign against someone with unpopular views.
  • It’s an example of mass hysteria.

Let’s examine the evidence. In the first case, well, the “witches” do exist. A number of members of the coven to which Donald Trump belongs have already admitted to practicing black magic.

Indictments have been handed down to former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, former campaign advisor George Papadopoulos, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, and former deputy campaign manager Rick Gates. Flynn lied to investigators and stood liable for much greater penalties for his unregistered foreign lobbying. George Papadopoulos also lied about his foreign contacts. Manafort and Gates were involved in multi-million dollar financial crimes.

All four had substantial dealings with Russian contacts. Manafort had a plan to influence the U.S. elections in Russia’s favor all the way back in 2005 and brought all of his contacts with oligarchs and Russian officials into the Trump campaign when he signed up on March 29, 2016. Papadopoulos worked on establishing a back channel with Moscow for the campaign and revealed for the first time, to an Australian diplomat, that Russia had Democratic Party emails that could help Trump. Flynn, who talked with Russian officials during the campaign, was on the lookout for ways to monetize his new status.

“None of the charges, so far, directly address whether the Trump campaign knowingly colluded with the Russians, or whether the President himself obstructed justice,” writes Amy Davidson Sorkin in The New Yorker. “The list of people who are cooperating, however, suggests that Mueller may be getting close on both points.”

Then there’s that other coven of witches on the other side of the world. Mueller has handed down indictments for 13 Russians for attempting to subvert the 2016 elections in Trump’s favor. The indictment notes that this Russian involvement began in 2014, which coincides with when Dutch intelligence informed U.S. officials that it had evidence of Russian hacking into Democratic Party computers (which the officials inexplicably ignored). The indictments reveal a disturbing pattern of identity theft, Internet trolling, and the organization of pro-Trump rallies.

Did the two covens conspire? They talked. They certainly met on several occasions. They offered the promise of useful cooperation. Criminal conspiracy beyond the election — in the form of money laundering — is also a possibility. Mueller has not come to the end of the investigation.

In the meantime, however, let’s dispense with the notion that those pursuing the truth of the Russiagate scandals are engaging in a witch hunt comparable to the search for Communists under every bed during the McCarthy era.

Those who have been indicted committed actionable offenses (not ideological ones). Those who are associated with Trump and haven’t been indicted are on no black list that prevents them from working (campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, for example, was at Harvard this fall). And those who challenge the Russiagate narrative have not been cast to the margins: They can be heard every day on the wildly popular Fox News. These are not marginal people with unpopular views forced to work under pseudonyms to scrape by.

Finally, is Russiagate an example of mass hysteria? Certainly the media has engaged in a feeding frenzy. But that’s to be expected for a news story involving the president, a foreign power, money, and intrigue. Certainly the Democrats are trying to make political hay out of the scandal. They’d be stupid not to, though Russiagate has not figured prominently in recent Democratic victories in Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Otherwise, Russiagate hasn’t produced a set of investigations at all levels of American society a la the Red Scare of the 1950s. Mueller has been rather narrow in its focus on Trump and his team, and the investigation has been quite sober in its rhetoric.

So far, Mueller has yet to talk to Trump himself. If the president doesn’t ultimately refuse, expect a rather respectful colloquy punctuated by some pointed questions.

Ah, but wouldn’t it be poetic justice if Mueller were authorized to subject the president to a real ordeal by water? Let’s see how Trump reacts to the waterboarding that he so cavalierly wishes upon others.

That would be a true, Trumpian example of fighting fire with fire.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and the author of dystopian novel Splinterlands.