Radio host Hugh Hewitt, who is perhaps considered the best interviewer in conservative media, conducted an interview with Donald Trump on Thursday that extensively covered a subject Trump has generally avoided: foreign policy. It is, as best as I can tell, Trump's most comprehensive foreign policy interview yet, or perhaps his first major interview as a presidential candidate on the subject. And it is a doozy. What follows is a complete transcript of the interview, with my annotations added to explain, extrapolate, or provide context where I can. Click each number to expand the associated annotation.
My takeaway is that this included all of the wacky Trumpisms you would expect ("I will be so good at the military, your head will spin") and a number of pretty embarrassing factual flubs, but also articulated some unusual though at least conceptually noteworthy foreign policy views.
One of them is that the US should rely less on its allies and should provide them less support (this means seemingly all allies, including South Korea and Saudi Arabia, except for Israel and "the Kurds"). Like so many Trump positions, this is one that is considered absolutely toxic by the policy establishment, in particular among Republicans, but has a popular constituency that feels underserved by mainstream American politics. Trump's ideas are not exactly internally consistent, and he seems even proud of policy ignorance, but it does make for pretty interesting reading.
On Iranian Quds Force (not Kurds force) commander Qassem Suleimani
HH: Joined now by Donald Trump. Donald Trump, welcome back to The Hugh Hewitt Show, it's always a pleasure to talk to you.
DT: Thank you, Hugh.
HH: I thought that today, this is our sixth interview, I'd turn to some of the commander-in-chief questions. Are you ready for that?
DT: Okay, fine.
HH: Are you familiar with General Suleimani?
DT: Yes, but go ahead, give me a little, go ahead, tell me.
HH: He runs the Quds Forces.
DT: Yes, okay, right.
HH: Do you expect his behavior...
DT: The Kurds, by the way, have been horribly mistreated by ...
HH: No, not the Kurds, the Quds Forces, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Forces.
DT: Yes, yes.
HH: ...is the bad guys.
HH: Do you expect his behavior to change as a result...
DT: Oh, I thought you said Kurds, Kurds.
HH: No, Quds.
DT: Oh, I'm sorry, I thought you said Kurds, because I think the Kurds have been poorly treated by us, Hugh. Go ahead.1
US policy has in fact been quite favorite to both Syrian and especially Iraqi Kurds, but many conservatives have argued that the US should increase its support further, using them as a proxy to intervene more forcefully against ISIS.
HH: Agreed. So Suleimani runs the Quds Forces. Do you expect his behavior is going to change as a result of this deal with Iran?
DT: I think that Iran right now is in the driver's seat to do whatever they want to do. I think what's happening with Iran is, I think it's one of the, and I covered it very well. I assume you saw the news conference. I think Iran is, it's one of the great deals ever made for them. I think it's one of the most incompetent contracts I've even seen. I'm not just talking about defense. I'm not talking about a contract with another country. I've never seen more of a one-sided deal, I think, in my life, absolutely.2
You can see that Trump is dodging; Hewitt picks up pretty quickly that Trump doesn't know who Qassem Suleimani is and gamely tries to lead his subject to the correct answer.
HH: Well, Suleimani is to terrorism sort of what Trump is to real estate.
HH: Many people would say he's the most dangerous man in the world, and he runs the Quds Forces, which is their Navy SEALs.
DT: Is he the gentleman that was going back and forth with Russia and meeting with Putin? I read something, and that seems to be also where he's at.3
In August Suleimani traveled to Russia, in violation of a travel ban (this was a Russian and not Iranian violation, since Iran never consented to the travel ban). But he was not reported to have met with Putin.
HH: That's the guy.
DT: He's going back and forth meeting with other countries, etc., etc.
HH: That's the guy.
DT: Not good.
HH: And so do you think...
DT: Not good for us. And what it shows is a total lack of respect, I mean, that the other countries would even be entertaining him, and they're entertaining him big league, big league.4
I love the idea that this was an affront because Russia "entertained him big league," as if the real geopolitical significance were the quality of Soleimani's dinner reservation and comped hotel room in Moscow. But you can see a trend emerging here: Trump's foreign policy often comes to a question of whether other countries are showing the US enough respect. This sort of preoccupation with mobster-style shows of respect isn't very helpful in formulating actual foreign policy, but you can see how it would resonate with people, and indeed Democrats ran in 2008 on the not dissimilar idea that they would restore America's global standing.
Buildings and walls and terrorist leaders
HH: So when you went before the Senate, and I always tell people my favorite testimony of all time is when Donald Trump just schooled the Senate on the construction of the UN remodel.5
Here is the 2005 Senate testimony in which Trump bragged about his apartment building near the UN (the "tallest apartment house in the world," he reminded them several times) and about how little he pays his architects. He argued he could oversee the UN building renovation for a third of the planned cost.
HH: You know that stuff. You know every developer in Manhattan. You know everything about building buildings. You could build the wall. I have no doubt about that.
DT: Right. By the way, and nobody knows how easy that would be. And I mean, it would be, it would be tall, it would be powerful, we would make it very good-looking.6 It would be as good as a wall's got to be, and people will not be climbing over that wall, believe me. Go ahead.
It would be a very classy wall, and isn't that what really matters for enforcing Trump's radical, zero-tolerance anti-immigration policies?
HH: You know, I'd buy that, because you're a builder. But on the front of Islamist terrorism, I'm looking for the next commander-in-chief, to know who Hassan Nasrallah7 is, and Zawahiri8, and al-Julani9, and al-Baghdadi10. Do you know the players without a scorecard, yet, Donald Trump?
Hassan Nasrallah is commander of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, or "Party of God," which has long terrorized Israel and is currently fighting in Syria on behalf of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Is it sponsored by Iran.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is Egyptian, is a co-founder of al-Qaeda, which he has led since Osama bin Laden was killed.
Abu Mohammad al-Julani is the head of Jabhat al-Nusra, or "the Support Front," al-Qaeda's faction based in Syria. Nusra is certainly an important group, but Julani himself does not typically get a lot of media coverage, in Trump's defense.
The Iraqi-born Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the head of ISIS. (Will McCants recently published a fascinating and comprehensive profile of the mysterious Baghdadi.)
DT: No, you know, I'll tell you honestly, I think by the time we get to office, they'll all be changed. They'll be all gone. I knew you were going to ask me things like this, and there's no reason, because number one, I'll find, I will hopefully find General Douglas MacArthur in the pack.11 I will find whoever it is that I'll find, and we'll, but they're all changing, Hugh.
I honestly have no idea what Douglas MacArthur, who helped lead American forces in the Pacific during World War II and then oversaw the occupation of Japan, has to do with any of this. I also am not sure I share Trump's belief that these four major terrorist leaders will be gone by January 2017, but his apparent faith in Obama's counterterrorism is surprising. Maybe he misspoke?
DT: You know, those are like history questions. Do you know this one, do you know that one. I will tell you, I thought you used the word Kurd before. I will tell you that I think the Kurds are the most underutilized and are being totally mistreated by us. And nobody understands why.12 But as far as the individual players, of course I don't know them. I've never met them. I haven't been, you know, in a position to meet them. If, if they're still there, which is unlikely in many cases, but if they're still there, I will know them better than I know you.
Again, the idea that the US needs to upgrade its current efforts in support of Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish groups is a popular one in conservative circles. You can see Trump returning to this one talking point as a way to dodge Hewitt's actual question, though.
HH: That's what I'm getting at, because the Islamist extremism is metastasizing. Nasrallah's been there a long time, and al-Baghdadi's running ISIS. And so I wonder if you're going to throw yourself into the details of this during the campaign the way you did into the UN deal, because you knew that stuff cold.
DT: Well, you know, and unfortunately, I said I'd build it for $500 million. They were at $3 billion. And it ended up costing $6 billion, and I told them that would happen. And it was a disgrace. Frankly, that whole UN situation was a disgrace. They ended up spending $5-6 billion to renovate a building that I would have done for $500 million, and I told them I would have done it, and it would have been better. Now as far as what you're talking about now, I will know every detail, and I will have the right plan, not a plan like this where we're probably going backward based on everything that I'm hearing, but we're probably going backward, zero respect.13 We have, we are not a respected country, and certainly as it relates to ISIS and what's going on, and Iran.
This moment is being treated as an embarrassing one for Trump — and indeed, it is painful to watch him hem and haw to try to avoid Hewitt's question, even as Hewitt tries to help Trump tee up an answer — but it's also revealing. Trump's argument, again and again, is that the US is insufficiently respected abroad. Because Trump is saying this in the language of real estate deals and New York City street toughs, it comes across as silly. But while it is reductive and not very helpful in policy terms, it's worth remembering that presidential candidates often run on foreign policy platforms of restoring American credibility and respect abroad.
HH: Now, I don't believe in gotcha questions. And I'm not trying to quiz you on who the worst guy in the world is.
DT: Well, that is a gotcha question, though. I mean, you know, when you're asking me about who's running this, this this, that's not, that is not, I will be so good at the military, your head will spin.14 But obviously, I'm not meeting these people. I'm not seeing these people. Now, it probably will be a lot of changes, Hugh, as you go along. They'll be, by the time we get there, which is still a pretty long period of time, you know, you start, let's say you figure out nominations, and who is going to represent the Republicans in, let's say, February, March, April, you'll start to get pretty good ideas, maybe sooner than that, actually. But that will be a whole new group of people. I think what is really important is to pick out, and this is something I'm so good at, to pick out who is going to be the best person to represent us militarily15, because we have some great people, militarily. I don't know that we're using them.
I don't have any interesting context to add here, I just think this is an amazing quote and wanted to encourage you to savor it a bit.
This is an idea Trump returns to a few times: It's fine he doesn't know the details, because once he becomes president he'll have access to classified intelligence and briefers who will educate him then. As with many Trump comments, this is both refreshingly honest and a bit scarily glib. It is indeed common for candidates with little foreign policy experience to recruit experts to help them along — Scott Walker just put himself through a foreign policy boot camp — but typically they do this before the election, not after.
On Israel and America's alliances in the Middle East
HH: All right, well, let me expand it, because you know, it's not gotcha. I'm trying not to do that. But I wanted to see if you...
DT: Well, it sounded like gotcha. You're asking me names that, I think it's somewhat ridiculous, but that's okay. Go ahead, let's go.
HH: All right, good. Now have you ever been to Israel? And how often?16
DT: Yes, I've been to Israel once.
HH: And if Israel acts unilaterally against Iran because they view this deal as so bad, will you unequivocally stand by the action of the Netanyahu government?
DT: Of course I will.17 In fact, he's a friend of mine. I did commercials for his reelection. And according to what he said, I'm the only celebrity, he's used the word celebrity, this was a while ago, that did commercials, that he asked to do commercials. But he's a good man, and I would absolutely stand with him. But you know, we have a problem, because according to the deal, and this is hard to believe, but we're supposed to be protecting Iran against any invader.18 And if Israel invades, nobody knows exactly what's going to happen, because if Israel invades Iran19, I don't know if you know, but we have a clause in that agreement that the way I read it, it's almost like we have to go, and by the way, I can guarantee you that clause, first of all, should have never been there, maybe they had it taken out, but we didn't win anything. But do you know there's a clause in there that in theory, we're supposed to help them fight Israel?20
This question is a proxy for what has been an important GOP litmus test since the Reagan era: Do you have that special affinity, in your heart, for Israel? That test is important to two important constituencies: neoconservative foreign policy hawks, who see strong support for Israel as a central pillar of any good Middle East strategy, and evangelical Christians who support pro-Israel politics for religious reasons. Visiting frequently is a way of demonstrating not just a foreign policy commitment to Israel but a personal, emotional fealty.
I'm not sure if Trump understands what he just committed himself to: supporting a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran. Even George W. Bush's administration famously refused to do this, and indeed such a policy would be nonsensical. If Trump wants to see Iran bombed, it would make more sense for the US to do this itself, since it would be far more capable.
Trump has been making this claim for a while, and it is absolutely false. He is basing this on a provision of the Iran deal that requires Iran to implement basic safety and security measures for its nuclear facilities so that, say, they're not leaving uranium sitting out unprotected. The deal allows Western countries to oversee this to make sure that Iran is implementing proper safety procedures. Trump has twisted this, bizarrely, to argue that the US is somehow committed to militarily defend Iranian sites. It is a bonkers, bananagrams claim, and I'm a little disappointed to see Hewitt let it stand.
Israel is not going to invade Iran. The most extreme option on the table is that Israel would bomb Iran, but Israeli government leaks have suggested for years that the country's military establishment has refused to do this, believing its capacity is insufficient, which is why Israeli policy is to push the US toward bombing Iran.
I just want to reiterate that this is a Looney Tunes conspiracy theory that has no basis in fact.
HH: Yup. Yeah, it's in Annex Three. We agree to cooperate in the security of their nuclear installations. It's remarkable, and I'm glad you know about it. And I'm glad you'll stand with Israel. Let me ask you about Saudi Arabia and Egypt. I don't know if you've been able to get to those countries, yet, have you?
DT: I have, yes.
HH: And so do you...
DT: Well, I think the biggest, you know, I think it's terrible, first of all, with Egypt, and with Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia in particular, was making a billion dollars a day, one billion dollars a day. Now let's say they make half of that number because oil prices have been so depressed. But Saudi Arabia was making a half a billion dollars. It was a billion dollars a day. Why aren't they helping us out?20 When they asked, and you may not like this, but I like it, because when we owe now $19, we're up to $19 trillion dollars, I certainly like it, and I like protecting ... why aren't they helping us with the costs? We get virtually nothing from Saudi Arabia. Every time somebody raises a rifle in the air and points it in the direction of Saudi Arabia, or, by the way, South Korea and other places, every single time that happens, and I mean without exception, we start loading up and getting ready and sending ships and sending all sorts of things. We get nothing.21 And you know, maybe you'll explain why, but we get nothing. And I don't like that.
In fact Saudi Arabia has contributed to the anti-ISIS coalition, and has been arming Syrian rebels, many of them extremists, for years. It is certainly worth asking whether this contribution is really helping, but it is a contribution. Still, Trump is onto something: While US national security practitioners often insist that Saudi Arabia is a crucial ally in the region, particularly when it comes to providing intelligence support, they will also joke that Saudi leaders are "willing to fight ISIS to the last Iraqi" or "ready to fight Iran to the last American."
Trump, sort of amazingly, is here picking up the libertarian foreign policy mantle that was abandoned by the increasingly hawkish Rand Paul. He is arguing that the US should be more willing to leave its allies to fend for themselves. This is not a policy position that is popular among neoconservatives, nor indeed among Democrats — it is part of the Washington foreign policy consensus that supporting friendly allies is crucial to keeping America as the leading global power. So, depending on your point of view, either Trump is taking a bold and brave stand against the Washington consensus, or he is revealing that he does not understand the most basic basics of foreign policy.
HH: I'm curious, though, if we need them, in your opinion, as strategic allies — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan. Do we need them even if they're not paying us money for their defense?
DT: Well, you need, I think Egypt and Israel get along, and they're starting to get along pretty well. Mubarak should have been frankly, probably, taken care of better than he was.22 That sent a bad signal around. But I think in terms of Israel, Egypt starts getting very important. Maybe we don't need the oil to the same extent as we did, and pretty soon, if we allowed, if we allowed what we have, technologically, to go forward, we wouldn't need them at all.23 You know, we have potentially the greatest oil reserves in the world right here, and we wouldn't need them at all. You know, we used to need Saudi Arabia for oil, and that part of the world. It all started with the oil, and it sort of ends with the oil.24 But now, we're at a point where we're going to be doing ten million barrels. It's very interesting. We're probably, very soon, if we allow our people to get going, we're probably not going to need them for the oil. So we don't need Saudi Arabia nearly to the extent that we needed them in the past.
This represents growing conservative orthodoxy: that the US should have helped prop up Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, rather than supporting the protesters who pushed him out in Egypt's 2011 revolution.
This is a weird flub: Egypt is not a major oil exporter, and the US typically imports no oil from that country, or imports very, very little. The US does rely on Egypt, but it is for cooperation against terrorism and cooperation with Israel, not for oil.
Trump is correct that the US is growing less reliant on Middle Eastern oil and that this has real ramifications for US policy there — something that the Saudis and others fear.
Trump on Asia: strategic ambiguity
HH: Okay, looking to Asia, if China were to either accidentally or intentionally sink a Filipino or Japanese ship, what would Commander-In-Chief Donald Trump do in response?
DT: I wouldn't want to tell you, because frankly, they have to, you know, somebody wrote a very good story about me recently, and they said there's a certain unpredictable, and it was actually another businessman, said there's a certain unpredictability about Trump that's great, and it's what made him a lot of money and a lot of success. You don't want to put, and you don't want to let people know what you're going to do with respect to certain things that happen.25 You don't want the other side to know. I don't want to give you an answer to that. If I win, and I'm leading in every single poll, if I win, I don't want people to know exactly what I'm going to be doing.
This is known as strategic ambiguity, it's a real thing, and it's how any candidate would answer (although perhaps less brashly). The idea is that were Trump to signal exactly how he would respond, he would be locking himself into an inflexible policy, which is bad, and he would also be communicating what China could get away with while avoiding certain American responses. Ambiguity is helpful! That said, this is usually the place where a candidate will find something to say about her or his broader strategic aims for countering Chinese influence: multilateral organizations, say, or military exercises, or trust-building efforts with China.
HH: Fair response. Good response.
DT: Part of the problem with Obama, he says we're going to do this, we're going to do that, we're going to attack here, we're going to do this. Every time they capture somebody, they make a big deal out of it, and all of the other people, like for instance, they hit somebody with a drone, and they start making a big deal over the fact that they took out a mid-level accounting person, and now everybody else goes and runs, and it makes it harder.26 I don't want to explain, and I think it's a very bad thing. I think we do too much talking, and not enough, do you understand what I'm saying in this, Hugh?
HH: Oh, it's a great point. It's a very good answer.
DT: We do too much talking. General Douglas MacArthur, I was watching as President Obama was talking about, I won't go into great detail, was talking about attacking at a certain time in a certain place, and I'm saying can you imagine General Douglas MacArthur, General Patton, they must be spinning in their graves when they hear it. So when you tell me a ship is attacked, I don't want to tell you exactly what I'm going to do. I don't want people to know my thinking on that, and I do have very spoken ... thinking on it.
HH: Fair play.
DT: But I don't want people to know my thinking.
Just want to pause to appreciate the irony of Trump arguing that too much bragging is bad for foreign policy. Also, it is not really the case, as Trump is alleging, that the Obama administration announces its drone strikes before they are launched. If anything, Obama has been harshly criticized for having too much secrecy in his program, particularly when it comes to how he decides whom to strike, whether it is necessary or productive to kill those people, as well as questions of due process when it comes to drone strikes against Americans.
[There was a long section here I've cut because it focused not on foreign policy but rather on domestic issues and personal questions.]
Hewitt tries again on terrorism issues
HH: all right, last question, I want to go back to the beginning, because I really do disagree with you on the gotcha question thing, Donald Trump. At the debate, I may bring up Nasrallah being with Hezbollah, and al-Julani being with al-Nusra, and al-Masri being with Hamas. Do you think if I ask people to talk about those three things, and the differences, that that's a gotcha question?
DT: Yes, I do. I totally do. I think it's ridiculous.
HH: That's interesting. I just disagree with that. I kind of figured that...
DT: All right, I think it's ridiculous. I'll have, I'm a delegator. I find great people. I find absolutely great people, and I'll find them in our armed services, and I find absolutely great people.27 And now on the bigger picture, like the fact that our Kurds are being treated so poorly, and would really is the one group that really would be out there fighting for us, I think, and fighting for themselves, maybe more importantly to them, I understand that.28 But when you start throwing around names of people and where they live and give me their address, I think it's ridiculous, and I think it's totally worthless.
HH: Well, I wouldn't do that. That's crazy. I agree.
DT: Well, and by the way, the names you just mentioned, they probably won't even be there in six months or a year29.
HH: I don't know. Nasrallah's got such staying power.
DT: Well, let's see what happens.
HH: And so I think the difference...
DT: And you know what? In that case, first day in office, or before then, right at the day after the election, I'll know more about it than you will ever know. That I can tell you.
See annotation #15 above for an explanation of why this deflection, like so many Trump comments, is both worrying and, in a sense, at least refreshingly honest.
It's pretty clear that "we have mistreated the Kurds" is Trump's main, or perhaps only, Middle East talking point. What's bizarre is that no matter how many times he references this, he never explains what he would change, nor does he seem to acknowledge the distinction between Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, much less the Kurdish groups in Iran or Turkey.
Even Hewitt can't help but express bafflement at Trump again asserting that these terrorist group leaders will all be gone by early 2017. Nasrallah has been running Hezbollah for 23 years. The US has been hunting Zawahiri for well over a decade. Baghdadi is famously hard for Western or regional intelligence agencies to pin down. I also just do not see the political rationale for this claim, which seems to not only flatter Obama, but to flatter him to tremendous and undue excess.
HH: Oh, I hope so. Last question, so the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas does not matter to you yet, but it will?
DT: It will when it's appropriate.30 I will know more about it than you know, and believe me, it won't take me long.
HH: All right, that, I believe.
DT: But right now, right now, I think it's just something that, and you know what, if you ask these candidates, nobody's going to be able to give you an answer. I mean, there may be one that studied it because they're expecting a fresh question from you. But believe me, it won't matter. I will know far more than you know within 24 hours after I get the job.
HH: Donald Trump, congratulations on taking the pledge today. Your numbers are going to go up as a result of that.
DT: Well, let's see what happens. I mean, I'm not sure that that's true. I think my numbers are very high now. But I'm not really sure that that's true, but I know you feel that. I hope you're right. I mean, let's see what happens.
HH: Donald Trump, thank you, always a pleasure.
DT: Thank you very much.
Hamas is a Palestinian group that governs Gaza and commits acts of terrorism against Israel. Hezbollah is a Lebanese militant group that also participates in Lebanese politics. I would call the distinction extremely important, and Trump doesn't seem to contest that, but rather just to argue that his ignorance on this question is irrelevant.