Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
While the White House pursues options to reinstate President Trump’s travel ban, new sanctions may be coming from the Trump administration against Iran. Tonight, then, first a conversation with a leading Middle Eastern policy expert and president of the National Iranian American Council, Trita Parsi.
Then we’ll pivot to a conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Ron Suskind. Over the years, Ron and I have discussed politics on this program, but tonight we’ll get personal and meet his son, Owen, whose silent struggle with autism is an inspirational story and it’s documented in the Oscar-nominated film, “Life Animated”.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. All of that in just a moment.
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Tavis: Donald Trump tweeted “See you in court” after the Ninth Circuit Federal Appeals Court rejected his administration’s arguments and maintained a temporary halt on his executive order that banned travelers from seven majority Muslim countries from entering ours. What might happen next?
Joining us now is Trita Parsi, president of the nonpartisan, nonprofit National Iranian American Council. Trita, good to have you back on the program.
Trita Parsi: Thank you so much for having me.
Tavis: I don’t even know where to start. So what do you make of all this [laugh]? It’s moving like the speed of light, man.
Parsi: It is moving very fast. It’s characterized by a tremendous amount of incompetence when you look at it on the surface. But when you actually start digging, you’re starting to see much, much more insidious intent behind what is happening.
What most people have seen is what’s been going on on TV, which is that they first issued an executive order that retroactively ended all of the visas that had been issued to nationalists from these seven countries.
As people were starting to go back to the U S., to go back to their lives, they were deported or stopped at the airport. This includes people with green cards who’ve been living here for 20 years. What was not reported is that simultaneously the Trump administration instructed the USCIS to stop processing applications for green cards from nationals of these seven countries.
If you combine these two things together, the first one stops new people from coming in. The second one ensures that those who are here and that are not already permanent won’t become permanent because, within a couple of years, their visas will run out and they will be forced to leave the country.
You combine that with the fact that there’s also this other effort to sort of harassing green card holders and broadening the grounds on which they can be deported with the fact that you have senior administration officials saying that the United States cannot become like France and Germany, countries that have sizable Muslim minorities.
That’s when you see that this actually is intended to be a Muslim ban. It is intended to depopulate the United States from American Muslims.
Tavis: I’ve been in any number of conversations over the last week or so, last couple of weeks since this all started, about whether or not this is just semantics or whether there is real meaning behind this “Is it a ban? Is it not a ban? Is it a ban? Is it not a ban?”
Saturday Night Live has had a field day with this, as have others. Funny stuff, by the way. But is it just semantics for you, whether it’s a ban or not a ban? Or is there something deeper here that needs to be…
Parsi: It is not semantics. When you have people who, for instance, this one woman’s been living in the United States for seven years. Her life is here. She goes on a business trip, comes back, she gets deported. She puts on Facebook, “What am I supposed to do with my car? It’s still at the parking lot at the airport. Who’s going to take care of my dog, my house?”
This is not semantics. Now they will say, look, it cannot possibly be a Muslim ban because it’s not targeting all Muslim countries. Well, it is the Muslim ban that they could get, not necessarily the one that they wanted, the one that geopolitics permitted.
Because the United States cannot impose this type of a ban on Egypt, on Saudi Arabia, countries that it has extensive, economic, intelligence and military ties to. But it can do so against Sudan, against Somalia, against Iran because the United States doesn’t have great relations with those countries.
Tavis: What’s fascinating about that country you mentioned, Iran, is that Trump on various occasions has said that he wants to partner with Iran in the fight against ISIS. But now we’re about to put, as they’ve already said, we’re putting Iran on notice. So what am I to make of that?
Parsi: I don’t recall him saying that he wants to partner with Iran, but he has said that he’s willing to work with almost anyone who’s fighting ISIS, and he has made it clear that the Iranians are fighting ISIS.
Tavis: Sure. That’s what I meant. Not a direct quote. My point was he has suggested anyone who’s fighting ISIS, he wants to partner with.
Tavis: There is evidence that Iran has done that, but now you want to put Iran on notice. So now what?
Parsi: Yeah. So what I think you’re seeing is that this is an administration with no clear ideological cohesion. Ideological contradictions are immense and there’s a tremendous amount of discord inside his administration on what they actually want to do.
What we’re seeing is movement towards those who are arguing that the United States needs to have a much more strong military presence in the region and that it needs to push back against what they believe is Iran’s growing influence in the region without, in my view, necessarily explaining what is the strategic benefit for the United States to go back deeper into the Middle East.
With all of the problems that exist over there right now, all of the difficulties to be able to stabilize that country, what is the actual strategic benefit of doing this? The Obama administration had a very clear idea about this. They believed that the Middle East had lost strategic significance and that the United States needed to move its resources and its focus towards Asia.
Because that’s where this century is going to be written in Asia, not in the Middle East, that peer competitor to the United States is going to emerge out of Asia, not out of the Middle East. So to me, it’s not clear. What is the purpose of being able to go strongly back in and be the new Hegemon of the Middle East again?
I understand that some of them have a sense of desire for revenge against [inaudible] mindful of how the Iranians and Shiite militias fought with the U.S. in Afghanistan and in Iraq. But if we have a foreign policy that is predicated on a desire for revenge, I think we’re going to be in for a very, very rough few years.
Tavis: What’s your sense — I mean, anything can happen between literally this moment and the time that this program airs. But what’s your sense of what the president has as options for fighting this in the court system? I ask that because, again, there’ve been all kind of jokes that have been put forth about his saying, “I’ll meet you in court.”
No, you just lost in court [laugh]. We were in court. But as a matter of fact, I wrote this down. There’s a quote from one of his top advisers. Stephen Miller came out over the weekend and said, and I quote, “The powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”
So what do you make of the fact that they believe — the White House administration, the Trump administration believes — that we’re now treading on the powers of the president to keep the country safe?
Parsi: There’s a couple of points there. First of all, the president does have certain powers, but he does not have the power to be above the Constitution. And mindful of the fact that he himself has declared numerous times on Twitter during the campaign that he wanted to have a Muslim ban, that is unconstitutional and he’s not above that law.
He does not have the power to override the Constitution. Now you mentioned something important. Making America safe and secure. Well, zero nationals from these seven countries have committed acts of terror in the United States where they have actually killed an American. Zero, not a single one.
Now there are countries that the United States have strong relations with, such as Saudi Arabia. UAE, Egypt. They actually count for 94.1% of the American deaths in terror acts on U.S. soil. I’m not arguing that there should be a ban against them at all because I don’t believe a blanket ban in any way, shape or form makes the United States safer.
But it is really difficult to see how one can make the argument that this is making American safer when you’re targeting countries based on the fact that that you don’t have relations with them, but not that they actually have conducted any terrorist act on U.S. soil.
I think the reason why originally this may have had a degree of support amongst those who supported Donald Trump is because, after months and months in which he has whipped up this fear, this idea that there’s hordes of ISIS sympathizers coming into the United States — which is completely false — where after so many people have fallen for that lie, he’s now offering them an illusion of security and they’re falling for it.
But once they realize that this actually doesn’t do anything to U.S. security, in fact, one could argue that it will make it less safe, I think it’s going to not only lose the moral argument, but he’s also going to lose the security argument.
Tavis: But it raises a pretty elemental question which has been asked 1,000 times. But for those who might not have yet heard the answer that satisfies them or explains this to them, given all that you’ve just said, so why these seven countries then?
Parsi: Because these are the seven countries that you can enforce such a ban on because there isn’t such a relationship. It’s not costly to do so. The biggest country of all of these is Iran. 48% of the visas that were issued to the nationals of these seven countries went to Iran.
It’s just the most sizable one, and it’s a country that the United States doesn’t have much of a relationship with. And as a result, it’s doable, but you have countries that actually do pose a threat in the sense that they are citizens…
Tavis: So this is all just smoke and mirrors?
Parsi: Absolutely. It’s even worse than that. This is not making the United States safer. If we truly wanted to target Islam Jihadism and the very radicals — and that is a very real danger that has caused massive deaths in Paris, in Nice, in Brussels, in San Bernardino, in New York — we would be targeting how certain American allies such as Saudi Arabia are allowing so much funding from their citizenship to go to these movements.
The previous administration said it publicly. The seed money to ISIS came from Saudi Arabia. So if you want to be serious about security, we should be talking about these things.
Tavis: If your argument is, at it has been three times tonight, that this makes us less safe, I hear you loud and clear. How does it make us less safe?
Parsi: Well, because we’re focusing on what is not an actual threat that’s taking our attention away from what actually could be a threat and the things that we need to do. And in that sense, it’s diverging our attention and our resources towards the wrong things.
Tavis: Trita, thank you for your work. Good to have you back on this program.
Parsi: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
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