The interview was recorded in the fall of 2018 when Ronald Kessler visited Lithuania in support of Ambassador Vygaudas Ušackas' ambition to formally stand for the office of President of the country in 2019.
So, I have read your book, “The Trump White House” and realized that you are a very modest person. Throughout the book I noticed you had no ambition to show yourself as an influential guy. Nevertheless, you actually have quite an exclusive access to high profile officials. How did you manage to achieve it?
When we went down with Trump for the book I was writing on in Palm Beach two decades ago, we spent the weekend at Mar-a-Lago and just hit it off. I think he likes people who are just direct and candid and he liked my way of playing a lot. He liked the results in my book about Palm Beach.
Yes, which is very different from what I usually write about the FBI, the CIA, secret service. I call it my mid-life crisis. I had to drink more champagne and go to more parties. But there was a big section in the book about him and he later told me that he thought it was a very factual account that he appreciated because he was being attacked in the media. He was having financial problems at that time and he never forgot that. So we continued to be friends and I would go to Mar-a-Lago with him, go to the same parties, and stay in touch with him. I was one of the few journalists who predicted that he would be President. In 2011, I wrote a column headlined, "Don't Underestimate Trump for President". And in January 2016, I wrote an article predicting that he would be President (that was before the primaries) and how he would operate as President. That's pretty much the history of our relationship.
Certainly, he comments that make people cringe and escalated. He always would make these sometimes outrageous comments to get attention for his brand. That was a calculated strategy, and still is, for his presidency. If he's the center of attention every day, that gives him power. It would gravitate towards him and they fear him so that certainly is different. But in terms of the results, they're much more impressive than what I expected and I'm glad to see that. If you look at the economy, if you look at the foreign affairs, it's just endless results. People here are unhappy with his comments about Russia — so are many Americans — after meeting with Putin in which he seemed to have sided equally with Russia versus the United States. But I think what people overlooked is the actual actions and they are so strongly anti-Russian.
President Trump said he took the toughest measures in the latest case on Russia. But let’s talk more about his personality and the type of person that he is, because that's also very interesting and important. Would you agree that he is a business-type of guy? What are his limitations as a politician with a business background? Does this give him more advantages? We don’t have many businessmen entering politics, especially on that scale.
It's a tremendous advantage because it means that he's focused on results as opposed to a lot of hot air that politicians engage in. Also, he is very focused on making deals, which is what businessmen do. When he issues these flattering comments about Putin or about the North Korean leader, a lot of people think that’s crazy but it actually is a way a CEO operates. If a CEO is about to acquire another company, or wants to acquire another company, he doesn't begin by denouncing the CEO of another company. He flatters him and that's what Trump does.
I guess the governor of Florida, Rick Scott, is one example. We haven't seen that in Presidents at all.
The critics of President Trump at home target him quite often. They say that he lacks empathy and compassion. From your book, one can learn that Mr. Trump is eager to show his gratitude by handing out $100 bills, but not so much to expose empathy to another person. Since you know him better, do you think this a correct impression of him?
He does have empathy and compassion but he doesn't like to show it. He likes to have this tough-guy image. That's why when I interviewed him and I brought up the fact the he gives out $100 bills to janitors for moving furniture, he became very defensive. He didn't really want to acknowledge it but he finally did. That was typical of the way he operates. You can say that some of his comments certainly show a lack of compassion but it's all calculated as part of his strategy, of being the center of attention, being a strong figure. That is not only his strategy, but that is his personality.
First of all, I think he wants to be loved for his results, which are incredible lowest lack of unemployment rate since 1972, booming stock market, tax cuts. Secondly, on the way down from Palm Beach he was talking about the blue bloods in Palm Beach who, to this day, condemn him for admitting blacks and Jews to his club, Mar-a-Lago. He said, "At that point, I want to be loved and I enjoy sticking it to them", and he is making comments about them. That sort of sums up the way he thinks. He does want to be loved but he also enjoys sticking it to anybody who gets in his way. So those two things co-exist.
I think we have a situation here where people compare the President of the United States, the most powerful person in the world, to other leaders such as Pope Francis or Dalai Lama who are able to demonstrate softness and compassion. An audience often tends to prefer such qualities over a tough, cold, and rational argument.
I wish that sometimes he would shut his mouth and not make some of these comments but I think most of his supporters feel that way as well. But it's hard to argue with success and all of his quirks seem to work. That's to me the most important thing.
I heard different people privately in a conversation defining President Trump a dumb person. But after reading your book, I’ve got the impression that he is quite intellectual and emotional. One proof of that is that he likes to ask questions. Does he listen to answers?
He does. That's another surprising thing about him behind the scenes. He listens every intently, he's not full of bravado when he's meeting with people as opposed to being on TV, when he's trying to make a show. People are always amazed when they meet with him and they find that he's actually very deliberative and thoughtful. When he makes a major decision, he consults a wide array of people, not only his own advisors, but his billionaire friends, janitors, secret service agents, even me sometimes. That’s the way he operates which, again, is totally the opposite of the impression that people have.
People scribe decisions to his aides and focus on different quarrels among the aides. In the end, it is Trump who is calling the shots. He is his own Chief of Staff.
I don't know anything about that.
Let’s talk about our upcoming presidential elections in May of next year. We have had successful cases of businessmen entering lower-level local politics, like becoming Mayors of major towns. What would be your assessment? Who would make a better candidate for Lithuanian president a person with a business background or one with a good experience in International Relations or other fields of politics?
I think it depends on the person. I know Vygaudas Ušackas. I have become friends with him ever since he was ambassador to the US. I am very impressed by him. I think especially he would hit it off with Trump and they would bond because they're both very direct people. That's something that Trump values a tremendous amount. Anybody who is friends with him is someone who is candid, direct, doesn't beat around the bush and that's the way Vygaudas is. So combine that with his experience and his attractive wife, I think he would be a good bet to be President.
I do. [Laughs]
I've written two books about the Secret Service and I broke the prostitution scandal where the agents were hiring prostitutes in Columbia when Obama visited. I think I'm definitely an expert.
Based on the materials you published, I’ve got the impression that secret services play a very important role in the US democracy yet they are still being regulated and kept under control by the government and society. I suspect the situation may be quite different in other weaker democracies or autocracies. Do you see any threat when powerful secret services become dangerous gangs fighting each other on a world scale?
Again, depends on the country and whether it's a democracy or an autocracy. Certainly, if you have a dictator he will use the secret service or other agencies towards his own ends. But in the United States, as you say, the secret service is under the control of the President, the government and the courts.
The US may be a good exception here, but in the recent weeks one could observe a clash between two powers Russian and British services on a British land. What is your assessment after the poisoning of a double-agent in the UK? Is this the case where a Russian secret service crosses foreign border?
Well, that's the way Russia operates versus the way we operate. I don't see any surprise there at all.
But the result has been tremendous reprisals by the countries of the world against Russia, expelling hundreds of Russian diplomats or usually intelligence officers. So I think they'll think twice about doing that again.
Talking more conceptually, in your latest book, you mention high technologies in a possession of the US militaries and special agents. Those advanced weapons potentially can be used against crazy leaders like one in North Korea. There are probably more special services that may possess similar technologies, so if they multiply, it could be a challenge for the global order. Do you see that?
Not more than the fact that different countries have armies, law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Any of those could be used in any way by any country so I don't see why that could be a concern.
A military operation on a land involving thousands of soldiers becomes uncommon in a civilized world. Even if people here are worried about Russia only a few imagine a situation when Russian armies cross the border and slaughter half of Lithuanian inhabitants or deport them to Siberia, as what happened 80 years ago. By using highly advanced technologies one can target another person or a group to spread panic and fear. It seems a common practice of some powers. In the conflict within the Middle East, Israel and its’ enemies fight not only on the level of national governments, but often act on a narrow scale. My question is do we need to consider not just national governments but also secret services as potential agents in international conflicts?
The secret services are always an instrument of the President or the dictator and I just don’t see any reason to think of them any differently. They don't operate independently; they operate as they're ordered to do by the head of the country.
I love it. It's very friendly. The people are smart. I like the food, I like the spirit that values freedom the way we do in the United States. So I feel very at home here.
We pretty much met because of Vygaudas Ušackas. I was at the Tipping Point conference in Palanga . That was sort of separate but I met a lot of people there, too.
I think the The Trump Book .
Of course, we see a lot of focus on the latest stories and in-house intrigues. In all that noise, I found the book quite educational. It may refresh an attitude towards Trump’s America. Overall, we must admit that any certain image influenced by the critical media will benefit from another fresh look provided by your book.
It's probably a unique journalistic look at Trump because it's favorable even though it has all the missteps. In the end, it says he will be seen as one of the greatest presidents based on the results. That is pretty much unique conclusion in journalism today.
Actually, once I tried to tease Democrat supporters in America, telling them, “You will be happier with President Trump in his next term.” One answered, "Hell, he will not get a next term!" Probably today more and more people begin to accept such a development.
Sure. These results are just totally impersonating and that's what people care about in the end. There is tremendous bias in the media against Trump. But I think people are going to start to see through that and look at the results.
When it comes to Russia, so often people here or elsewhere express concern about whether he's too close to Putin. I just think it's important to keep in mind all the things he's done against Russia, sent missiles into Syria, increase our oil output which reduces their profits on oil, expelling the diplomats, very severe sanctions including against Putin’s own friends, oligarchs. Last week, he signed an order to authorize retaliation against cyber-attacks which is unheard of because under Obama the attitude was that if we retaliate, they would retaliate again. That was an invitation to target us because there would be no consequences. That alone was a major change. Not to mention authorizing a missile system for Poland, which Obama not only would not do, but he actually ordered the removal of some missiles from the border of Russia because Russia was complaining about them. Trump has sent lethal weapons to the Ukraine again against Russian interests. It's just endless and yet it's something that you rarely see in the media.
People's speculation beforehand is always wrong. I wouldn't be able to guess at all. But I was right about Trump so that looks good.
First of all, I think I've always had a knack for this sort of seeing around corners and seeing things that other journalists don't see because they follow the crowd, they follow the herd. I'm not afraid to take a position that may result in criticism from other journalists. Secondly, knowing Trump all this time, knowing what he's like behind the scenes. I was very impressed by his political-savvy. He's much more sophisticated behind the scenes than he appears to be on TV. Those things combined, I'm not afraid to take a position that others may laugh at like they did at that time when I predicted that he would win.
Finally, aside from the results that he's already brought in, what he's promising to deliver, what of your suggested arguments would help intellectuals in the US and in Lithuania to love President Trump?
I will just list the results. Namely, unprecedented unemployment claims, surging stock markets — all of this is related to the fact that he has been deregulating businesses and that he is a booster of America, whereas, Obama would demonize businesses. That has a psychological impact, the fact that he's cheerleader for American business. It means that businesses feel free to expand and hire more workers because they feel that they're not going to be overregulated, reducing their costs. When it comes to GDP, people try to claim that it's not that different from Obama. That is not true. If you look at the GDP growth, there was big spurt after Trump. Under Obama, it never exceeded 3% a year, which is unheard of. Every president has succeeded 3% growth per year. Then on the foreign affairs side — getting rid of the ISIS counterfeit, getting Saudi Arabia to go after radical Islamic ideology, meeting with the North Korean leader to make progress toward denuclearization — any one of those achievements is spectacular. Eventually people are going to get it.
OK. It is probably settling down a bit now but many observers notice that this tough approach divides society. I remember a futuristic novel written by a contemporary Russian writer Viktor Pelevin , where he fictionally predicts that America will eventually split into two states one will be the United Safe Spaces of America; and the other one will be held by Redneck Republicans. Do you feel a concern regarding the division of the society and the nation?
On the one hand, it's certainly disconcerting to have these major disagreements. You feel like you don’t want to express your own opinion about Trump or anti-Trump because of getting into some very divisive arguments. But on the other hand, it’s all pretty much peaceful. It's not the way it actually was during the Vietnam War and also during the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King where buildings were burnt down and people were shot. I lived through that. So in that sense, it's actually much better than it was. I have faith in the American system that does allow for all these disagreements. Let's just hope for the best.
I appreciate it all. Good questions.