Sarah Kendzior

Democratic Insecurity in America

Air Date: February 22, 2021

“Hiding in Plain Sight” author Sarah Kendzior discusses how to reverse U.S. authoritarianism and prosecute treason.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome one of the most perspicacious and insightful guests on The Open Mind in recent years, Sarah Kendzior. She is author, of course, of “Hiding in Plain Sight.” Thanks for joining me again, Sarah.


KENDZIOR: Thank you for having me


HEFFNER: Sarah. So far as you evaluate President Biden’s actions as Commander in Chief, how would you assess the restoration of our democracy?


KENDZIOR: Well, it’s only been two and a half weeks, so he has a long way to go. He’s dealing with gutted agencies, broken institutions, institutions that were weak before Trump came in and then Trump came in with the overt attention, with the overt intention of dismantling them. And he did a tremendous amount of damage over the last four years. So, I don’t expect things to instantly change. I’m glad that he reversed a lot of Trump’s worst Executive Orders. I’m glad that he has issued new ones. I’m worried about the confirmation process because this is really obviously a group effort. It’s going to take the whole Biden Administration as well as Democrats in Congress to try to mitigate the damage that the Trump Administration has done.


HEFFNER: When you think about the long-term trajectory of this seditious element or domestic terroristic element in our politics, what do you think are some of the most important decisive actions that the new administration should be taking?


KENDZIOR: I mean, it’s a tough call. First of all, they have to deal with the pandemic. They have to deal with it as a public health issue, as a public safety issue. They also need to do a full-fledged investigation of how the Trump Administration handled the pandemic to get justice for the victims. Because a lot of people died who shouldn’t have or wouldn’t have under a different administration and to set a precedent to make sure that this never happens again. So that needs to be an issue unto itself, the shakedowns of governors, the hoarding of medical equipment, lies about the virus and so forth. They also have to deal with the long-standing issue of potential treason and certainly of widespread corruption, complicity and elicit engagement with hostile foreign states most notably Russia and the Kremlin and the Russian mafia, but also illicit dealings with Saudi Arabia, Israel. What Trump did along with has been his administration is create an access of autocrats. It created a new kind of foreign policy in contradiction to everything that had stood before. At the same time, he alienated allies in the EU, in NATO our neighbors to the North and South, Canada and Mexico, all of those relationships need to be repaired and the corruption that he has done worldwide needs to be rooted out. And I mean, my God, there there’s so many other things, I guess just the third thing that I just don’t want people to forget about is the abuse and torture of migrant families at the border and the separation of children from their parents. Those children need to be found; the families each be reunited compensated. And again, this is an issue so severe that it merits an investigatory body you know, prosecutions which merits Nurnberg style trials these are crimes against humanity, and you can’t just forget them and move on.

HEFFNER: There’s the criminal investigation into pandemic negligence malicious actions that we discussed over the course of the campaign and the 2020 year, which is deliberately withholding aid to cities or states on the basis of who governs them. And then there is the culmination of the big lie, the fraudulent claims about fraud that culminated in the insurrection and there isn’t an impeachment trial underway now, and it’s probably still occurring as our viewers watch this. Even though it’s just started while we’re recording, the, the offense is a single one, the article is inciting insurrection, but the disinformation and lies that generated the insurrection are being conveyed as part of the case. Do you think that the Democrats, as their opening act of accountability are performing competently, they’re doing it right by the American people?


KENDZIOR: It depends on which Democrats you know, I’m very impressed with some of the impeachment managers, in particular, Jamie Raskin who has just been such a profound moral force and incredibly brave given that he’s coping with a family tragedy at the same time. I’ve been less impressed by the leadership and the fact that again, they seem to be limiting the scope and rushing the process. You know, this is Trump’s second impeachment trial. He’s the only president in American history to warrant a second impatient trial. But honestly, we could have an impeachment trial, like every week for a century and we still wouldn’t get through all of the crimes. And one of the things that bothered me about the 2019 trial is that there were so many other abuses that were left out, things that, you know, came into play later, like abuse of the pardon power. That was already happening back then he could have been impeached on that, and then maybe these other pardons of his accomplices you know, who helped him in the Capitol coup by the way, people like Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon maybe that wouldn’t have happened. Maybe he would have run into some issues there. Well, one of the things that also bothered me about that first impeachment is the fact that they left out the broader context of Trump’s long criminal history, you know, decades long you know, out alliances with the Russian mafia, with American criminal operatives,’ alliances with the Kremlin, they left out why he did the things he did, why he has the connections that he has. And this information is in the public domain. I wrote about it in my book “Hiding in Plain Sight” and that book is just chalk full of footnotes that describe Trump’s long history of criminality. Mueller investigated some of it in his probe. He left quite a lot out, but there were charges like obstruction of justice, for example, that they could’ve impeached him on. I think Mueller expected Congress to do that. Nancy Pelosi did not want to do it. They seem to be doing this again, you know, limiting it to the violent attack on the Capitol itself. I mean this is such a significant event that I think it is very important, obviously, that they go through you know, bit by bit and encapsulate everything that led to the capital attack and all of the victims of that attack and everything that happened that day. But again, it exists in this broader context of elite criminal impunity of entrenched corruption, you know, those are issues that we need to deal with, and the Biden Administration needs to deal with because they’re not going to magically go away even though Trump is out of office,


HEFFNER: I think those are questions of criminality and the Biden Department of Justice ultimately with the new Attorney General will be responsible for commencing those investigations. With respect to the impeachment, the question centrally is about disqualification, ensuring that President Trump, former President Trump is unable to run for office again. And that seems to be the focus because if you can disqualify him from future office and benefits of presiding in that office formerly, then I think you do have a stronger case to make that he should be responsible for lesser criminal offenses. I mean, if you want to talk about the insurrection is treason, which is spare to do, then that is a high crime misdemeanor, but it’s going to be punishable by disqualification, not by a jail sentence. So, don’t you think ultimately for both public opinion and kind of the trajectory of this accountability movement, he has to be disqualified from serving in future office?


KENDZIOR: Yes, he absolutely has to be. He wants to return; he needs to be disqualified and those who have been his accomplices for decades on end, people like Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, and many others who he pardoned, you know, they need to be investigated, as you said, this would likely happen, you know, under the DOJ. But part of the advantage of having the impeachment hearings is that they’re not just for the audience of the Senate, they’re the court of public opinion. They’re to educate the American public. And part of how we got into this, this situation is information silos and people being bombarded with propaganda and lies. So, you know, they have an opportunity here to set the record straight on a lot of things, not just about the attack on the Capitol, but about Trump’s whole history, how he got into this position, why he was never prosecuted in the past, you know, why he chose somebody like Paul Manafort, a Kremlin you know, agent, basically, to run his campaign. There are so many questions about motivation, and you know, how he benefited, and you know, why he even wanted to be in this position that are just really essential for Americans to know, and the government skirts around them because they deal with organized crime and they deal with the infiltration of our institutions by organized crime. And I think they think that’s too frightening for the American public to tolerate, but I’ll just say, you know, the American public has now seen a half a million people die of coronavirus. Our economy has collapsed. We’ve had a pathological liar, you know, stirring people into violence. We watched our own Capitol be attacked, you know, and five people die from that. We’ve been through a lot and what we deserve is the truth and we deserve accountability. And you can’t have accountability without the full truth. So, no matter how painful or frightening it seems, I think that our representatives owe us that. They owe us an explanation and investigation and prosecutions where merited.


HEFFNER: Don’t you think if he’s not convicted and disqualified, that the leadership will have even less of an incentive to move forward with the kind of comprehensive accountability that you’re describing?


KENDZIOR: I think that a lot of them want to put this behind us, but they need to look at what happens in American history when you do that, you know what happened you know, when they didn’t prosecute Nixon, what happened when Bill Barr gave Iran Contra a pass? What, when the 9/11 Commission, you know, failed to fully investigate that crisis and the illegal wars that followed. What happened when none of the bankers from 2008 from the financial collapse were held accountable for their corruption? What happened when we had an election in 2016 with, you know, a large number of irregularities, you know, one of the main ones being Trump’s relationship with Russia and with organized crime and no one wanted to follow through on that. And those who kind of attempted to do so, like Mueller we’re threatened. We have had a mafia culture in this country for the past four years in a very overt way, but it proceeded it. It’s why none of these offenders were held accountable in the past. And when you don’t hold them accountable, they just come back again and again, and again. That’s why we see people like Roger Stone and Paul Manafort and Trump acting in these kinds of positions for 40 years within the GOP. And at this point, the GOP is completely contaminated. You know, the representatives in the GOP are either cowardly or they’re complicit, but they’re not able to represent the public. They’re not able to serve our country. You know, without fear or currying favor from bad actors, that’s incredibly dangerous for democracy. That situation is not going to go away unless they tackle it head on. So, no matter how uncomfortable it is, they need to do that, whatever else they have on their agenda. And there are a lot of important things like climate change, public schools, reinvigorating the economy and obviously ending the pandemic. That is all going to be much more difficult if you have transnational, organized crime, white supremacists and everything else that Trump represents, lurking in the background, not held accountable and running free. That’s how we got in this situation to begin with


HEFFNER: Sarah, you ate your Wheaties this morning. I can say that. But for the cause of justice, we’re talking about kleptocracy and authoritarianism. And I think that you differentiate the kleptocracy in the sense that that’s been a bipartisan problem years in the making, the refusal to hold accountable, the banks the refusal to do the investigation of 9/11 and call out our enemies foreign and domestic. When you look at the path for govern, you know, free and fair elections and democracy, do we have to separate the kleptocratic elements and the authoritarian elements? I know you see them very much as interconnected, but how you push back against them, for instance, with anti-corruption legislation or with further, enfranchisement anti-disenfranchisement legislation it’s, there are two different problems, but their interests interconnected.


KENDZIOR: Yeah. Not as worried about authoritarianism under Joe Biden. I think that that was something specific mostly to the GOP and to Trump’s agenda. Trump wanted it to be an autocrat. He was very clear about that. I think we have an incredibly deep problem of corruption in politics of dark money and dirty money. And yes, it’s both sides. It’s the Democrats and it’s the Republicans. It’s, you know, the result of Citizens United and all of this money coming in from various places. I live in a state, Missouri, that’s one of the worst examples of that. As a result, we have a legislature that doesn’t fully represent us. So, you know, this needs to be tackled you know, head-on for everybody. And in terms of kleptocracy, you know, that’s something you see more at executive level, it’s the abuse of executive power to enhance one’s personal wealth. And I’m not very worried that Joe Biden is going to do that. I think if he does try to go down these roads, these violations of emoluments and so forth, he needs to be treated just the way I wanted Trump to be treated. He would need to be held accountable. You would need, you know, they would need to pursue that. I’m not seeing as much of a tendency of that, but I am seeing the same old American problems that got us into this situation to begin with that have plagued every administration. And also, just the kind of, you know, pay to play system of politics, where it’s difficult to run for office without a lot of money, where it’s difficult to get jobs in policy, unless you come from a wealthy family and you can, you know, intern or get a very expensive degree. Like there are so many things in our system that lock people out and that just reward, you know, the most privileged and wealthy members of our society, whether they’re qualified and talented or not. So, there’s a lot of things that need to fix. And I hope that he looks at some of the you know, economic agendas of those pushing for campaign finance, reform, those pushing for a higher minimum wage or the ratio of college debt. And so on.


HEFFNER: I am still concerned about the kleptocracy and the authoritarian, about the kleptocracy and the authoritarianism. I know you are too, but, but because of the ringleader of sedition in your home state, Josh Hawley, and the denial of the certification process and the incitement of violence to intimidate those who would perform their constitutional duty, I think that the, the plain reality is if Democrats lose elections in the future, Republicans could have the majorities in both chambers to overturn the result of an election, of an Electoral College outcome. So, the question is, is the systemic reforms are important. One of the major sources of, of change since the insurrections support for candidates, the seditionists, the ones who refuse to acknowledge the accurate election results, the ones who wanted to deny the franchise to millions of Americans. So, one of the things that’s been cited is that, you know, many corporations have withheld campaign financing or contributions to this sedition caucus. I suggest that that is a positive sign, but not enough. How do you reflect on it?


KENDZIOR: I feel the same way. It’s a step in the right direction. It’s good that the corruption and the sedition of these legislators is being directly acknowledged, and that there’s some form of leverage and trying to, you know, target corporations, but honestly, you know, we have such a problem with inequality of wealth with dark money, with people being able to take anonymous donations, that it is hard to challenge representatives in this way. And yes, you know, the threat of autocracy still looms. I don’t think it’s as pronounced under our current situation for the next two years with a Democratic House, Senate, and Presidency. And let me be clear, I see plenty of problems with the Democratic Party. All I’m saying is that the Democratic Party is not an authoritarian death cult, which is what the GOP is. So, we have, you know, two years of breathing room to try to figure this out. I think, you know, one of the things that they should concentrate on doing is bringing back the Voting Rights Act and trying to get rid of some of these you know, anti-voting laws, these voter ID laws, and other repressive measures to balance out the fact that we have this incredibly skewed system in terms of corporate donations and dark money. That’s how Biden won this time around. It was from grassroots organizing and people just overwhelming a very corrupt and dirty system with an extremely large turnout and waiting and waiting and waiting for hours in lines they never should have had to wait in. You know, on one hand, it’s inspiring to see people, you know, voting to see people’s respect for our democracy, but it shouldn’t be that hard. You know, there are plenty of initiatives that Congress can take to make voting easier. And we already saw some success with Voting by Mail that unfortunately, you know, had to be done because of a pandemic. But you know, we’ve seen ways that this process can improve. And if you could improve that process, then you’re much more likely to have free and fair elections. And I think in those cases, you’re more likely to see the Democrats succeed. And, you know, I hope the Republicans change their minds, like I don’t want to sound completely partisan here, but I, you know, I have to be real like the last four years, we’ve just seen them all fall in line. You know, we’re watching this today. Like we had an actual seditious violent attack on the Capitol in which a police officer was beaten to death, and we still don’t see the Republican Party being willing to convict Trump for that. And so that gives me the impression that, you know, this is a cultish party. They’re not, excuse me, they’re not thinking for them. I’m sorry. Excuse me. They’re not thinking for themselves. And there’s very little that they won’t put up with or accept, and that makes them dangerous in my view. And that’s why I encourage people to support the Democrats, whether they like them or not.


HEFFNER: We saw the result of the big lie campaign in Georgia. And I do think the influence of that big lie, the disinformation, even prior to the events of January 6th, really persuaded a number of voters on the fence to support the Democrats, the Democratic Senate candidates, perhaps for the first time in their lives. What’s been the reaction outside of the editorial boards that have condemned Senator Hawley, to the best of your knowledge in Missouri, where you are, what is the attitude towards Hawley, you know, since he led that revolt?


KENDZIOR: I mean, honestly, I’m not sure that many people liked Hawley to begin with. It was more that they didn’t like Claire McCaskill or that they didn’t trust the Democratic Party. You know, a lot of people saw Hawley as a potential successor to Trump. You know, I feel like those in Missouri who liked Trump, see Hawley as a nerd, they see him as a wannabe. They see them as a phony. So, I don’t even think he had like the cult of personality to begin with. And that’s among Republican voters in Missouri, the Democrats are doing stuff like painting giant signs that say resign Hawley on the street, you know, putting them over highways, basically no one likes the guy except for dark money donors, giant corporations, the NRA and you know, Republican party propagandists who realized that this is a malleable actor. Like there’s no, there, there for Hawley, he’s an empty vessel that they can fill with, you know, absolutely anything they want. And this time around, they filled them up with seditious intent, and I think he should pay the price for that. I think that he and Ted Cruz and others who encourage this attack need to go. But you know, Missouri is a complicated state. I’m represented simultaneously by Josh Hawley and Corey Bush. And that tells you what you need to know about what it’s like to live in St. Louis. And I think given what Hawley did, a lot of folks you know, they don’t like to see a police officer be into death and your senator encouraging that kind of behavior, that violent murderous behavior, and then letting the people who instigated it off the hook. I think even, you know, Republican voters in Missouri, they’re not a fan of that kind of behavior. And so I hope he’s on his way out.


HEFFNER: You hope that he’s on his way out. Ultimately time will tell. But when you said before you had a problem with Democratic leadership, do you also that they should be proceeding simultaneously with the impeachment hearings and votes to expel members and in any environment in which the political party with the power in this case the Democrats, by one vote wanting to truly hold accountable the insurrectionists there would be such votes. I know it’s currently pending in front of the ethics committee, but to your mind, is there any reason why the Democrats could not have simultaneously been pursuing the impeachment while also holding votes in their new majority on whether or not to expel or censure members?


KENDZIOR: Yeah, I think they should absolutely be moving to expel or censure members who have committed sedition and encouraged a violent insurrection. You know, that’s a very major offense. This is a very unusual situation. And so, an unusual remedy may be in order. And I’ll just say, you know, someone who lives in St. Louis, Missouri, I have now in the last couple of years, seen my governor have to resign after he was indicted, my county executive had to resign after he was indicted. So, if Josh Hawley ends up being indicted and then resigning, it’s just the third one, you know, in, in a matter of three years, so it’s not that new to us. It’s not like we haven’t seen this happen before. And that’s because corruption is so rampant here. And you know, he would most likely be replaced by another Republican, but I just think this is an unforgivable offense. You know, this is an anti-American offense, and it was violent and horrible, and they shouldn’t be there, like you forgo your right to be there. And I also am concerned with the threats that they pose to other members of Congress. You know, we’ve heard from many representatives who feel unsafe being in that building with people who were backing those calling for their assassination. Again, you know, this is not an exaggeration. People came there equipped with, you know, military gear, you know, singling out certain representatives for assassination. That that’s a huge deal.


HEFFNER: Final question, Sarah, despite what you’re saying and the evidence of corruption, not only the evidence, but the continuity and exacerbation of corruption, what is one thing that President Biden, this Biden Administration can do to win over some hearts and minds in Missouri or Missouri? What’s one thing he can do successfully that Democrats like President Obama and Chuck Schumer don’t necessarily get. What’s something Biden can do?


KENDZIOR: Just talk straight, just, you know, we’re the show me state, show me state, just talk straight, show people, the evidence, you know, don’t BS people, that goes a long way. You know, Missouri’s a fluid state, people flip back and forth between the Democratic and Republican Party most of the time and you know, or, or their independents. I meant to say, most of the time. So, these, you know, kind of identities that people give us, like deep red state, they’re not really there. And people just appreciate at this point, honesty, transparency, and getting rid of corruption, getting rid of big, dirty money in government. That’s something Joe Biden can do for Missouri and for the country as a whole, that I think would go a long way.


HEFFNER: Sarah Kendzior, political thinker and author of the bestselling “Hiding in Plain Sight.” Thank you so much for your time today.


KENDZIOR: Thank you for having me.


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