Michael Anton joined me this morning. He is Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications at the NSC:
HH: Joined by Michael Anton, deputy assistant to President Trump for Strategic Communications at the United States National Security Council. He is, of course, holding down the old Ben Rhodes job, but I don’t believe he is a failed novelist. I have met Michael before when I interviewed General McMaster at the EOB a few months ago. Michael Anton, welcome. You’re not a failed novelist, are you?
MA: I hate to say it, but I kind of am.
HH: Oh no, not two in a row.
MA: Yeah, yeah, failed in the sense that I never even finished one, so, but they’re sitting on my hard drive, I guess, waiting for me to start up again someday when I have time and inclination.
HH: Well, I hope you can distinguish yourself.
MA: I was going to write a book about Berkeley, kind of a Tom Wolfeian spoof of Berkeley, and I never finished it.
HH: I will welcome that, but I hope you distinguish yourself from Mr. Rhodes by candor and transparency in our conversation this morning, because A) that you’re here is in fact a good start. Let me start with the most serious thing, and this terrible week of Las Vegas, the Sheriff there made a reference to the monster who executed so many people as perhaps having been radicalized. Do you have any knowledge of that, Michael Anton? Any reports?
MA: I do not. I’ve been tracking it, not as closely as some of the others on the Homeland Security side, who are following it very, very closely, and we just, all of the reports I’ve seen, we haven’t seen anything that suggests that that is the case, but nothing that necessarily rules it out, either. So I think we’re still in an investigation mode as a government.
HH: ISIS went all in to claim that he was one of theirs. They don’t ordinarily do that, though sometimes, they have. Does that send up any kind of a warning signal to you?
MA: No, I think the trends that we have seen in recent days is, and in recent months maybe is better to say, that as ISIS has been losing on the ground in Northern Iraq and Syria and the Euphrates Valley, they are more eager to claim credit for attacks that maybe they had nothing to do with. And I, you know, assume that’s a way that they think bolsters their prestige, to say hey, we’re, you know, pay no attention to our losses in the so-called caliphate. You know, look at all of these stunning successes we’re having overseas, whether or not they actually had anything to do with it.
HH: Okay, that makes sense. Now let’s turn to the winner in that region, which is Iran. As ISIS loses, Iran is advancing through Syria to connect with its proxy, Hezbollah, maybe even establishing navy bases. I talked about that with General McMaster when I was there for MSNBC. What is the situation on the ground in Syria and Lebanon, vis-à-vis the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and their advance into those areas?
MA: This is something that we’re, you know, extremely concerned about. And the President directed early in the administration, a complete review of America’s Iran policy. I think one of the things he was very concerned about, and his advisors were concerned about, is that the previous administration telescoped Iran policy to the nuclear deal if not to the exclusion of all other considerations. Certainly, they downplayed and neglected other considerations. And you know, this president said look at the whole picture. And that includes a range of bad activities that the Iranians are up to, and really have been up to, to varying degrees, since 1979. Let’s not forget, I mean, this is a hostile regime, an enemy of the United States, and has been for almost four decades since the hostage crisis. So one of the things we’re very concerned about is Iran gaining permanent foothold in Syria trying to create a land bridge to the Mediterranean, you know, parking proxies on Israel’s border and threatening Israel’s security. And it’s one of the things the President directed his team to look at and to come up with ways to combat and counter.
HH: Now yesterday, Secretary Mattis was in front of the Senate, and Senator Angus King asked whether he thought we ought to hold onto that Iran and nuclear pact as being in the interest of the national security of the United States. General Mattis, according to the New York Times, paused before replying yes, Senator, I do. Does General McMaster agree with that? Do you, Michael Anton?
MA: I think the principals are aligned on this question. They all agree, and the President, you know, that it’s a bad deal. None of them would have signed up for the deal as it exists had they been at the negotiating table throughout the negotiating period leading up to the 2015 agreement. And I think they also agree that the question now is what’s the best way forward to deny Iran all paths to a nuclear weapon, and that includes a number of tactical questions of how do you address the deal? And what the President has said is it’s a bad deal. I wouldn’t have signed up for it. If it’s possible to address the most serious flaws in the deal, and the three that he’s identified are number one, the sunset clause, number two, the insufficient inspections provisions, and number three, the deal’s lack of coverage of all of the other Iranian bad behavior to, you know, just to the exclusion of the nuclear deal. He said if you can address those, it might be in the United States’ long term interest to stay in the deal. And in the meantime, we will stay in the deal while we evaluate those prospects. So I think what Secretary Mattis said is completely consistent with that view, the view held by the other principals and held by the President.
HH: All right, there is a story this morning, Michael Anton, that Secretary of State Tillerson referred to the President as a moron. Have you seen that story, yet?
MA: I have seen that story, and I will just say, you know, without going into how the sausage is made on the public affairs side, this is something that a lot of people in the administration, you know, in press shops at the State Department, and here at the White House, work hard on with the reporters. I know that Secretary Tillerson, through his spokesman, denied that absolutely. There were other things in the story that we pushed back on pretty hard. And in the end, it’s a give and take. And when reporters feel that they are, you know, so sometimes you just can’t fix things, even though you know they’re wrong, and the reporters went with it. So now, we’re dealing with it.
HH: Do you think the story is wrong?
MA: I think the story is wrong on so many levels. I mean, there were so many things that they had that they came to us with that we were able to fix or get taken out, and other things that I’m still sure are wrong that we weren’t able to fix and get taken out. But that’s the nature of the beast, that it’s not the first time that it’s happened, and it won’t be the last.
HH: Can you confirm or deny if the President was called a moron by the Secretary of State?
MA: Well, the alleged comment happened at a meeting that, you know, I wasn’t present for, and that, you know, a lot of people weren’t present for. I just, I will say I absolutely take the Secretary at his word when he denies he said it. Every time I have been in his presence, he has been extremely gracious. He doesn’t use that kind of language. He doesn’t really raise his voice or get angry. So I certainly don’t believe it.
HH: Okay, that’s enough of that. Let’s move on to something much more important – North Korea. The sanctions are in place. The United Nations has voted the toughest sanctions ever. What effects of those sanctions do you see, especially in terms of the banking system in North Korea, Michael Anton?
MA: It’s a bit early to say that we’re seeing direct effects. I mean, we are seeing the cumulative effects on a lot of sanctions. Remember, this administration started introducing new sanctions on North Korea almost from the beginning. I would say we do see economic pressure biting the regime. You know, there are signs that the economy, I mean, well, we’ve seen it both ways. There have been some reports well, the economy is growing. We see other signs that their resources are taxes and, you know, that they’re not being able to import, and other indications. On the other hand, what we haven’t really seen, yet, is moderation of the North Korean regime’s behavior. In fact, its behavior has consistently gotten worse throughout 2017 with missile tests and nuclear tests and rhetoric that is over the top even by North Korean standards, which, you know, practices pretty much the most belligerent rhetoric of any regime in the world and has for a couple of decades. So it’s, this is a question of over the long term will these sanctions really bite, and the hope is that they’re fundamentally do two things. One is just put pressure on the regime so that it won’t be able to import the resources it needs to fuel these programs, particularly the missile and the nuclear program, and two, that the economic pressure, you know, we hope, will convince to have a change of heart and think, conclude that continuing on the path to developing nuclear weapons and destabilizing Northeast Asia is not conducive to the regime’s security. It’s actually conducive to regime insecurity, and maybe they’ll change their mind and turn in a different direction.
HH: Is China doing everything it can, Michael Anton, to assist the United States in changing the regime’s direction?
MA: I think China is doing more than previous administrations have been able to get the Chinese to do. This president has established a very good relationship with President Xi Jinping. He’ll be going to the region, President Trump, that is, will be going to the region in November, stopping in Japan, in Seoul and in Beijing. And we will, you know, keep these diplomatic efforts open. I think the real issue here is that everybody, just about every country in the world, could do more. And we carry that message into every forum in which we talk to other countries. That was the message the President brought to the United Nations. He was quite forceful from the podium in his speech, and it was the message he carried into you know, almost all of his bilateral engagements while at the U.N.
HH: Two more questions, Michael Anton, deputy assistant to the President for Strategic Communications at the NSC. Number one, is Venezuela stable? Have they consolidated their authority? Or is that regime teetering on collapse?
MA: I think it’s too difficult to say from the outside. We certainly hope they have not consolidated their authority. There’s been extraordinary pressure placed on them not just by the United States, but we’re really heartened by our Latin American partners stepping up to this effort. I mean, this is more a problem and issue for them than it is for us. The President had a dinner with Latin American leaders at the U.N., and is looking to maybe bring Latin leaders together again on this issue. I mean, we remain hopeful that consistent pressure not just from the U.S., but from Latin American leaders and European leaders, I mean, you know, the government of Spain, for instance, has a lot of leverage in that region, that that pressure will convince the Maduro regime to backtrack and move back toward democratic constitutionalism.
HH: And last question, will you be recommending General McMaster that he sit down with me again within the month?
MA: I certainly will, absolutely.
HH: All right. Michael Anton, great to talk to you. Look forward to that repeat sitting down with General McMaster, got that commitment out of him. I like that. On with the novel as well.
End of interview.