Priebus, Bannon go back to Washington after visit to Saudi Arabia

White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Stephen Bannon went back to Washington after President Trump concluded his visit to Saudi Arabia on Sunday.

“He was planning to come for the first stop and then head back for the budget roll out,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said about Priebus, according to CNN.

White House officials told CNN that Bannon’s departure was also planned.

A Trump adviser said Priebus wanted time to get ready for Trump’s return to the U.S.

The Justice Department also appointed a special counsel to investigate Russia’s involvement in last year’s presidential election.

In Saudi Arabia, the first stop on the president’s trip, he delivered a speech in which he urged Muslim nations to form a new coalition to defeat extremism and struck a more accommodating tone toward Islam, a religion he repeatedly targeted during his presidential campaign.

On Monday, Trump arrived in Israel. In comments upon his arrival, he said a “rare opportunity” exists for peace in the Middle East.

Trump: ‘Rare opportunity’ exists for peace in Middle East

Donald Trump walks on his arrival accompanied by the Israeli President Rueben Rivlin, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Monday. (AP Photo)

US President Donald Trump walks on his arrival accompanied by the Israeli President Rueben Rivlin, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Monday. (AP Photo) | AP

President Donald Trump says peace in the Middle East can be achieved only by working together. He says, “there is no other way.”

Trump spoke during a brief airport ceremony after he arrived in Israel on his first visit as president.

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Since taking office in January, Trump has been bullish about wanting to help Israelis and Palestinians achieve a peace that so far has been elusive. Trump meets later in the day with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

On Tuesday, Trump sits down with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

At the airport, Trump urged both sides to take advantage of the “rare opportunity” that he says currently exists under his administration to bring security, stability and peace to the region and its people.

Meanwhile, Israel’s prime minister has praised Trump’s “clarity and conviction” in his speech in Saudi Arabia on Sunday.

In the speech, Trump laid out a call to combat Islamic radicalism.

At an airport greeting ceremony, Netanyahu says Israel has been at the front line of the fight against terrorism for decades.

At the same time, he says Israel welcomes Trump’s push for peace, and its hand is extended in peace “to all neighbors, including the Palestinians.”

Walking along a red carpet before the national anthems were played, Trump asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “What is the protocol?”

Throwing up his hands, Netanyahu replied: “Who knows?”

Associated Press

Iran’s President Isn’t a Reformer. He’s an Enabler.


AP Photo

Washington and the World

Don’t be fooled by Hassan Rouhani. He’s deeply complicit in an evil system.

Hassan Rouhani, the newly re-elected president of Iran, is a creature of the Islamic Republic’s establishment, an apparatchik with much guile and little imagination. And yet Rouhani’s subversive political campaign may do lasting damage to the Islamic Republic. In the process of reclaiming his office, he shed light on the regime’s dark past and made fantastic promises that he has neither the ability nor the intention of keeping. Rouhani’s campaign alienated the regime’s powerbrokers and his tenure will inevitably disillusion his constituents. The Rouhani presidency will once more remind the Iranian people that the theocratic state cannot reform itself.

In one of his rallies, Rouhani assailed his conservative rival Ibrahim Raisi by stressing that “the people will say no to those who over the course of 38 years only executed and jailed.” Here Rouhani was obliquely referring to one of the regime’s most contentious acts. In the summer of 1988, the aging founding leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in one last act of vengeance against his secular detractors, ordered the mass execution of political prisoners. The judiciary was to discharge its obligations and established a panel of judges soon knows as the “Death Commission” to carry out the killings. Raisi first came to national attention as member of that commission, which put to death thousands of prisoners in short order. Most of the executed were denied a proper burial and had their bodies dumped in mass and undisclosed graves. In the Islamic Republic’s cruel lexicon, these were called “cemeteries for the dammed.”

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This was Raisi’s justice, but the burden was not his alone. The prison genocide was overseen by two officials—the then-president of Iran, Ali Khamenei, and the speaker of the parliament, the late Hashemi Rafsanjani. As a member of parliament at that time, Rouhani was well aware of what was taking place in the prisons. He chose silence. For the past three decades, the regime has sought to whitewash its past by making it taboo to publicly discuss this episode. Still, rumors abound, and that demented summer is enshrined in the collective memory. By invoking that episode, Rouhani challenged the core legitimacy of a theocratic state that insists on its religious pedigree and its concern for dispensing justice. Khamenei and the ruling elite who are implicated in that massacre are unlikely to easily forgive their newly reelected president for his opportunism. Not only must Rouhani have been aware of that episode, but his political ally and current minister of justice, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, was one of the more aggressive judges on the Death Commission.

Throughout his campaign, Rouhani cleverly played to the crowds by criticizing the regime’s security organs and warning, “Those of you who cut out tongues and sewed mouths shut. Those of you who over the past years only issued the word bane, banned the pen and banned the pictures. Please don’t even breathe the word freedom for it shames freedom.” The president on occasion also warned the Revolutionary Guards not to interfere with the election process. This was an act of political genius—as an insider of more than 30 years, Rouhani suddenly appropriated the language of dissent and seemingly presented himself as a critic of the system. And now the system is ready to strike back. Unlike the United States, Iran really has a “deep state”—and it remains intact, as Khamenei still controls all the relevant institutions and the Guards hold sway over much of Iran’s economy. It is hard to see how even Rouhani’s most modest policy ambitions can be implemented.

Still, Rouhani holds some advantages for the regime. As a politician who spent decades as the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, he has been intimately involved with the regime’s terror apparatus. He built up much credit with the guardians of the state by remaining quiet in summer of 2009 as the Green Movement leaders were dispatched to prison on fantastic charges. And his presidency was devoted not to human rights and economic reform but beguiling the United States into an arms control agreement that put Iran on a steady and legal path to the bomb. These are not inconsiderable achievements, but in the vengeful politics of the Islamic Republic, they may not be sufficient to redeem him.

And then there are Rouhani’s pledges to the public. The president’s rallies, as indeed with most commemorative occasions in Iran, were transformed into protests against the state with the chanting of Green Movement slogans. Rouhani cleverly encouraged this, offered vague promises of restoring freedom and even hinted at the rehabilitation of those languishing in prison and exile. He was to stand against the forces of repression, despite the fact that he has a history of indifference to human rights. Rouhani was never part of the reform movement that exhilarated the Iranians in the 1990s with its claim to harmonize religion and pluralism, and he stood with the regime when the Green Movement shook the foundations of the state. The Islamic Republic cannot use its own constitutional provisions to broaden its parameters. Aggrieved Iranians will learn once more that they can gain no political relief from another Islamist president.

So it would be inaccurate to call Rouhani a reformist. He has always been part of a pragmatic cohort of Iranian leaders attracted to the so-called China model of offering citizens economic rewards in exchange for political passivity. During his campaign, he hinted at better times to come by claiming that he would succeed in lifting all the remaining sanctions on Iran. This is impossible, given Iran’s penchant toward terrorism, its human rights abuses and its imperial ravaging of the Middle East. The fact is that Iran has never been able to emulate China’s economic trajectory. A state drowning in corruption, with a history of mismanagement, Iran has always been plagued by the twin forces of inflation and unemployment. It is hard to see how the regime can meet the basic financial demands of its people as it insists on spending vast sums sustaining the Assad dynasty in Syria and menacing Sunni monarchy.

Rouhani has reclaimed the presidency with his usual mixture of cunning and cynicism. He will now confront Khamenei and other hardliners disturbed at his indictments of their regime and its history. All of Iran’s reelected presidents have limited room for maneuver given the imbalance of power between elected and non-elected institutions. But Rouhani even less so. Perhaps more problematic for the president and his republic is a disillusioned citizenry that will gain neither political freedom nor financial relief.

Iran is today what it has been since the outbreak of the Green Revolution in 2009, a regime marching steadily toward its demise. The bonds between state and society have long been severed and cannot be healed by another Rouhani presidency. Iran today resembles the Soviet Union of the 1970s, where appearances of strength concealed the reality of institutional decay and popular disenchantment. In one of the ironies of Iran, a president widely celebrated in the West has only further divided the elite and is bound to disappoint the public.

During his speech in Saudi Arabia, President Donald Trump spoke of the need to confront and “isolate” Iran. But the Iran challenge confronting Trump is more intricate and perplexing than the one faced by his predecessors. This is no longer about imposing interim restraints on Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium, but how to erode the unsteady foundations of the Islamic Republic. This will require disciplined application of both American power and rhetoric. The task at hand is to shrink Iran’s imperial frontiers while stressing its economy. The Trump team must reconstitute the shattered sanctions architecture while making human rights and the plight of dissidents one of its foremost priorities. In Riyadh, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered the first salvo in what needs to be a systematic campaign of delegitimizing the theocratic regime. America’s declarations have always mattered, none more so than in Iran, a country whose history has demonstrated an unusual degree of sensitivity to our words.

The Islamic Republic was an ideological experiment born in a century that witnessed so many attempts to bend human will to whims of vanguards of history. The revolution has now exhausted itself, and cannot meet either the material needs or the political aspirations of its constituents. The theocratic regime insists on marching toward the dustbin of history and the only question remains whether America can hasten that march.

Ray Takeyh is the Hasib Sabbagh senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Israeli Officers to Trump: You’re Doing ISIS Wrong

ASSANIA MOUNTAIN, ON THE ISRAEL-SYRIAN BORDER—The Israeli military is not too impressed with President Donald Trump’s escalation against the Islamic State.

That, at least, is the distinct impression I got on a recent trip to Israel, including a visit to the Israeli-occupied side of the Golan Heights that offered a unique vantage point on the hopelessly entangled anarchy that is the Syrian civil war, now in its sixth year.

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From atop a network of underground bunkers dating to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, my Israeli Army escort pointed northeast to Al Quneitra, the largely abandoned Syrian city in the distance where forces of President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah are trading mortar fire with rebel fighters who control two nearby villages.

A short drive south, past cherry and apple orchards, an abandoned United Nations outpost just over the fortified border now flies the flag of the Al Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda. Further south, past a remote Israeli drone base, nestled atop a craggy slope across the valley below is a training base for the Islamic State, which is making new inroads far from its capital of Raqqa, more than 300 miles across the desert.

“If going north or west in not an option,” explained one Israel Defense Force official, pointing toward the small ISIS training camp situated through a thatch of trees where southern Syria juts between Israel and Jordan, “they are going to go somewhere else.”

“Some are already coming here. And Jordan is very concerned about the Islamic State.”

My trip came several weeks before Trump was due to arrive in Israel on a maiden foreign trip that is focused heavily on the Islamic State, which he has vowed “demolish and destroy.” But the assessment he receives from a close U.S. ally that has confronted Islamic militants for generations—and recently uncovered critical intelligence about an ISIS plot to use laptops to blow up airplanes—may not be what he wants to hear.

In the view of the Israeli military and intelligence units I visited over several days in late April, the U.S. strategy in Iraq and Syria may only be making the situation worse. We’re radicalizing the local population and spreading the hardest-core militants to sow havoc in neighboring Lebanon—which the officers I spoke with fear may already be on the verge on collapse—and Jordan. Still others are escaping the onslaught to Europe and possibly America.

“I am not sure it will be easy to defeat ISIS, as you are claiming to do,” Army Brig. Gen. Ram Yavne, the head of the IDF’s Strategic Division, told me in Tel Aviv, expressing a level of puzzlement shared by a number of other top commanders about the U.S. military obsession with a group that they do not consider a major strategic threat.

Several officials pointed out that even the largest estimates of the number of ISIS’s fiercest adherents are on par with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip.

But Trump sees it differently. He has authorized his military commanders to step up U.S. military involvement in both Iraq and Syria, including granting the Pentagon more authority to go after ISIS targets and to insert hundreds of additional American forces into Syria. As recently as Friday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis vowed to “destroy” ISIS, first by taking Raqqa and then supporting the campaign by local Arab and Kurdish forces to clear other Syrian cities along the Euphrates River, where the group has a significant presence. “We’re there to drive ISIS to its knees,” he told reporters, saying the more aggressive U.S. strategy seeks the group’s “annihilation.”

But some Israeli commanders, who agreed to share their assessments of the Syria conflict on the condition they not be identified, went as far as saying that the American actions in Syria and Iraq, where U.S.-backed Iraqi forces recently liberated the city of Mosul, could be turning ISIS and its affiliates elsewhere in the region into an even bigger threat to the West.

“The worst is yet to come,” one intelligence official said.

Several stressed that unlike Al Qaeda, another Sunni terrorist group that attacked the United States on 9/11, the Islamic State predicated itself not on attacking the West but revolutionizing Islam in its most rigid, violent form.

“What ISIS has been saying since the beginning – the concept of the Caliphate – was ‘we need to put our house in order first and then we have time to fight’ the outside powers,” an intelligence officer at the IDF’s Northern Command base, outside the city of Safed, told me as he pored over a map of the Syrian frontier. He believes the United States has failed to understand the competing interests and constantly shifting alliances among what the IDF estimates are between 400 and 500 different groups fighting in the Syrian civil war—including underestimating the level of local support ISIS actually has.

“Take Mosul, or example. Mosul is a million-citizen city and the largest estimate said [there were] 8,000 militants. You can’t control a million-people city with 8,000 people if you don’t have some support within the population.”

In Eastern Syria, where ISIS is believed to be strongest, “the population is relatively favorable to the Islamic cause—the tribes and so forth,” he added. “When you bring a Western logic into an eastern Arab mentality it doesn’t usually work out. A Western mind doesn’t really understand the nuances of Arab tribal society anywhere in the Middle East.”

During the campaign, Trump promised to “bomb the shit out of ISIS.” But the American-led military campaign against the group—like the brutal attacks committed by Assad’s forces and its Russian military allies—may simply be radicalizing a new generation of terrorists bent on attacking Western countries.

“The bombing sometimes is causing more damage than it helps,” the military intelligence officer said. “You are also perceived as one of those guys blowing things up.”

The U.S. may live to regret it.

“ISIS is much like cancer,” the intelligence officer at the IDF’s Northern Command said. “It is easy to cut the tumors off. But how do you prevent the small cancer cells from expanding? I think the Caliphate is already thinking ‘OK, what are we going to do next?’ What was ISIS doing the minute the Americans and Iraqis went into Mosul? It started exploding everything up in Iraq—about 1,000 suicide attacks in a number of months. Raqqa is probably going to fall. The same thing will happen. All the cancerous cells throughout Syria … are going to do the same and start blowing things up.”

The United States has mishandled the situation in other ways, in the view of the Israelis I spoke with. For example, U.S. efforts to train rebel fighters inside Syria to fight ISIS are widely seen as counterproductive. “The CIA [training] program goes against Assad and the Pentagon program only goes for rebels against ISIS,” the intelligence officer complained. “So what is the U.S. stance is not really clear here.”

Israeli analysts laid out several possible scenarios ahead for the Syrian civil war, including that Assad regains control of his country (not likely) and the regime grants some rebels group autonomy and economic incentives in return for coexistence (already well underway).

What they agree on is that Assad is now unquestionably winning. And he owes Hezbollah, the radical Shia Muslim proxy of Iran, “big time” for it.

The so-called “Army of God,” which has gone to war with Israel twice and constitutes a state within a state in neighboring Lebanon, has lost an estimated 1,700 fighters bleeding for the Syrian dictator and as payback is now seeking to expand its new base of operations in Syria—which also means a new sphere of influence for the mullahs in Tehran.

“If Assad wins,” one IDF official in the Golan Heights told me, “we will have Hezbollah not on two borders but one.”

Yavne, the brigadier general, similarly described the Iranian influence as significantly more worrisome than ISIS or other Sunni Muslim terror groups:

“If I can be frank, the radical axis headed by Iran is more risky than the global jihad one,” said Yavne, the brigadier general. “It is much more knowledgeable, stronger, with a bigger arsenal.”

As far as these Israeli officers are concerned, the ideal strategy is to sit back and let both types of groups duke it out—and work to contain the conflict rather than trying to end it with military force. As the IDF intelligence officer put it, “the battle for deterrence is easier than the battle for influence.”

But does that mean the United States and its allies should simply allow ISIS to retain its so-called Caliphate in parts of eastern Syria and eastern Iraq?

“Why not?” the officer shot back. “When they asked the late [Israeli] Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the Iraq-Iran War in the 80s, who does Israel stand for, Iraq or Iran, he said, ‘I wish luck to both parties. They can go at it, killing each other.’ The same thing is here. You have ISIS killing Al Qaeda by the thousands, Al Qaeda killing ISIS by the thousands. And they are both killing Hezbollah and Assad.”

I asked an IDF official peering out into the Syrian frontier a similar question—about the consequences of America’s war against ISIS in the region.

“There is no lack of Islamic militants group here,” he said, clutching a machine gun in one hand and a pineapple popsicle in another. “You just haven’t heard of them yet.”

John Podesta Unloads on Trump

Donald Trump is “unfit for office,” a president whose actions are often “absolutely crazy” and whose White House has “a complete disregard for the truth.” His firing of James Comey as the FBI director was overseeing an investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and whether Trump’s advisers colluded with it amounts to “close to an obstruction case” against the president.

But, says John Podesta—the sharp-tongued campaign chairman for Hillary Clinton whose 60,000 hacked emails are at the heart of that FBI investigation into the team of the man who defeated them—don’t expect impeachment proceedings anytime soon.

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Republican congressional leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have chosen to “Velcro their own political fate” to Trump’s and won’t pursue allegations against the president of their own party unless forced to do so by a 2018 midterm election debacle or further revelations. “It is clear to me that Republicans on Capitol Hill are not going to begin to turn on him at this point,” Podesta says.

His scathing comments about a presidency in crisis—and the Republicans who “enable” Trump—came in an exclusive new interview for The Global Politico about Clinton’s shocking election defeat and the still-unfolding investigations swirling around Russia’s role in it. The wide-ranging conversation covered everything from infighting on last year’s Clinton campaign (“if those 70,000 votes had gone differently in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, … we would have all been geniuses”) to Watergate comparisons (unlike Trump, “Nixon, for all his flaws… was a serious person”) to why Clinton lost and whether her new PAC means she’s running for president again (“quite frankly, she’s done with that”).

But most of the hour-long interview consisted of Podesta’s most extensive comments yet on the last two dramatic weeks in Washington that began with Trump’s firing of Comey and ended with Trump departing for his first foreign trip even as a special counsel, former FBI director Robert Mueller, was named to oversee the widening probe.

In the immediate hours after the firing, the White House claimed Comey was forced out because he had mishandled the investigation last year of Clinton’s private email server. But Trump himself soon undercut that explanation, telling a TV interviewer that in fact he had removed Comey with thoughts of the ongoing Russia collusion investigation in mind and even, according to the New York Times, repeating that directly to the Russian foreign minister in an Oval Office conversation where he also called Comey “a nut job.”

Podesta was still incredulous about all this when we talked this Saturday at his Northwest Washington home.

“It’s laughable, really laughable that Donald Trump would fire Jim Comey because of his interference which damaged Hillary Clinton. I mean, it was laughable from the very beginning,” Podesta says. “Just a complete misreading of reality.”

Like Clinton, Podesta remains adamant that Comey’s late intervention in last year’s campaign—he reopened the closed probe of Clinton’s private email server just 11 days before the voting—likely cost her the presidency. But he thinks Trump mistook their criticism of Comey for a blank check to fire the director amid the current Trump-related probe. “I still think what Jim Comey did last fall was wrong,” Podesta says, “but he shouldn’t have been fired, given the circumstances that he was leading this investigation.”

Podesta, who served as White House chief of staff during the impeachment of Bill Clinton and then became a top Obama White House counselor at the end of his presidency, has years of experience with the different varieties of executive branch dysfunction, and he sees Comey’s firing as a symptom of a Trump White House that is broken. He wrote a Washington Post op-ed last week saying the president should fire top advisers like current chief of staff Reince Priebus who are unable to confront Trump with unpleasant realities.

“The problem in the Trump White House is they have no one who really stands up to him,” Podesta says. “He’s impetuous, he’s impulsive, he fires things off and if anything, they enable him rather than trying to contain what are moves that in any other context would seem, you know, absolutely crazy. … If they’re going to try to right this place and be able to be effective, I think they need a much stronger team who can resist his impulses and tell him that he’s wrong.”

I asked Podesta if Bill Clinton had lied to him during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, as aides have said Clinton did to hide his affair with the former intern—and what he would say to Trump’s increasingly beleaguered advisers now, as they are sent out to offer cover stories that the president himself soon discards or release information quickly proven to be incorrect.

“Look,” Podesta responded, “you need to probe that, and I think that you need to be sure that the information that you are providing is contextualized, and you’re not exaggerating the problem. And I think one of the things that we’ve seen in this White House is that they have a sort of complete disregard for the truth. So, they’ll say one thing one day, Trump will tweet something the next day, and they’re onto a different story.” The White House, he argued, has a responsibility “to basically put out straight information, and in order to do that, I think you’ve got to ensure that you’re getting straight information, and they seem to have little regard for that.”

Ultimately it’s Trump’s fault and not the staff’s, Podesta says, arguing the last couple weeks have proven that Trump is “incapable of doing the job.” Podesta says he believes the new revelations, with Trump linking the firing to the Russia case, amount to “close to an obstruction case, either in the political context of impeachment, or in the context of a criminal grand jury investigation to indict somebody for obstruction.”

As a matter of politics, however, Podesta says congressional leaders seem determined to stick with Trump, making impeachment unlikely for now, and a removal from office under Article 25 of the Constitution, by the president’s own Cabinet and vice president, even unlikelier. “You know, Betsy DeVos signing her name to throw Donald Trump out of office is kind of hard for me to imagine right now,” he says.

As for Ryan and McConnell on Capitol Hill, “I think they have concluded that their only chance of getting, you know, tax reform or repealing Obamacare, is to stick with Trump,” Podesta says. “And they’ll take the consequences. But I think they’re empowering him in their decision to Velcro their own political fate to his, and it could mean that in the midterm elections, they pay a healthy price for that.”

But Podesta, who may be the closest thing the Democratic Party has to a wise man right now even after the ignominious 2016 election defeat, isn’t ready to call 2018 just yet. “If the Democrats were to be so successful as to take back control of the House, then I think, you know, all bets are off,” he says. “I think you’d see a much more serious congressional investigation going on.”


Inevitably, much of the conversation with Podesta returns to the 2016 campaign, and the stunning events of last fall and even to one day in particular, Friday, October 7.

At one point that day, the main news looked to be a statement from senior officials in the Obama administration confirming that the Russians were indeed responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee’s emails in an effort to affect the U.S. presidential election. Then, just after 4 p.m. the Washington Post broke the news of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Donald Trump could be heard bragging about sexually assaulting women. That revelation seemed so politically damaging to the Republican presidential nominee that an event just minutes later was almost lost in comparison: the release by WikiLeaks of the first of what would eventually be thousands of hacked emails from Podesta’s email account.

Podesta had no idea until that night that his email had been completely compromised—an action he says that resulted when one of his assistants followed the advice of a campaign technology aide and clicked inadvertently on a link (“you can’t come back and blame the victim,” he says)—and that he and others at the time did not fully understand the effect the Russian hacking, along with the spread of Russian-pushed fake news, was having in a “subterranean” way on the campaign.

Then came that explosive Comey letter 11 days before the balloting. And we’ve been arguing ever since about not only Comey’s action, but whether and how it might have resulted in the election of Donald Trump.

Clinton has taken a lot of heat for attributing her loss to Comey and appearing to minimize other factors—like her own decisions. In our interview, however, Podesta took much the same approach.

First, though, he acknowledged the loss was on them. “We bear responsibility and it’s a great burden and I feel it every day. I mean, we lost this election; we won the popular vote by 3 million votes, but we lost the Electoral College and lost the election to Donald Trump. So, we have a burden of his having the keys to the White House, and you know, codes to the nuclear football,” he says.

But he insists Comey did matter. “We had a lead, and that lead really substantially narrowed after Comey’s letter,” he says, though he acknowledges the criticism that the campaign had not campaigned aggressively enough in the three states that ultimately swung the election and appeared to confirm accounts he had disagreed with campaign manager Robby Mook about the distribution of resources to one of those states, Wisconsin: “We probably should have done more in Wisconsin; we didn’t advertise there until the very end. But you know, at the end of the day, we lost Pennsylvania anyway, and we had thrown everything we could at Pennsylvania. So, it is what it is.”

And he came back to Comey in arguing that’s where the late “swing” to Trump mattered among a group of voters who thought “it was just OK to blow up the system because the system wasn’t working for them, and they would take a flyer on someone they viewed as unfit to be president,” pointing out that “when we set out to prove that he was temperamentally unfit, and unqualified to be president, we convinced 60 percent of the American public of that. Unfortunately, 20 percent of his voters believed that and still voted for him, and I think that was part of it.”

But if Comey was part of it and voters “taking a flyer” was part of it and Vladimir Putin was another part of it (he had a “grudge” against Clinton, Podesta argues, going back to her days as secretary of state), another big factor, he acknowledges, was Trump himself. “He does create a vortex and a kind of trap for his opponents, which is he says, you know, something outrageous, and if it’s not outrageous enough to dominate the news, he just amps it up,” Podesta says. “And it’s easy to fall into the trap of always being kind of in his story.”


So how does Trump’s story, the one we are all now endlessly caught up in, end, I asked? Will we see a repeat of the Watergate era, when Podesta and the Clintons first entered politics, and “impeachment” was first broached in the modern era?

“It’s hard to imagine how this keeps going for an entire presidential term,” Podesta replied, noting that unlike Nixon, Trump benefits from the protective cocoon of a Republican Congress. “Right now, there’s nothing that compels him to leave. So, we’ll just, you know, it’ll unfold as it unfolds. But every day, there’s kind of new fodder for thinking that he can’t do this job.”

Susan B. Glasser is POLITICO’s chief international affairs columnist. Her new podcast, The Global Politico, comes out Mondays. Subscribe here. Follow her on Twitter @sbg1.