PBS Roundtable: Just How ‘Authoritarian’ Is Trump, Anyway? Let’s Ask Jonathan Karl

Jonathan Karl is chief Washington correspondent for ABC News and author of Tired of Winning: Donald Trump and the End of the Grand Old Party. It’s his third expose of Trump’s one-term presidency, and he even admitted to writing this one as a warning to voters. Naturally, on Friday, PBS’s tax-supported political roundtable Washington Week with The Atlantic invited Karl on to plug his book.

Host Jeffrey Goldberg praised the “extraordinary book” and with snide help from his panelists, Atlantic journalist Franklin Foer and Washington Post journalist Anne Applebaum, throwing around “authoritarian” accusations, Karl made his case for the prosecution against Trump’s re-election in November.

The insults begin with Karl chuckling that Trump suffered from “straight-up admiration for Vladimir Putin.”

Whatever odd fondness Trump may have expressed toward Russia’s dictator, his administration was pretty tough on Russia.

Goldberg insulted Israeli’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in an existential war with Hamas terrorists, before moving on to Netanyahu’s fellow “autocrat” Trump: “Both men, Trump and Netanyahu, have autocratic tendencies. You`ve written about this. It`s somewhat surprising that they don`t get along better.”

Goldberg encouraged Karl to tell “the Merkel story” from the book, a third-hand account of a weird comment about Adolf Hitler’s rallies purportedly made by Trump (Click “expand):

KARL: Yes. This is a story that he told one very senior member of Congress told me this, that it happened twice with Trump. There was a lot of stories that Merkel had nothing but contempt for Trump. So, Trump told this member of Congress, you know, she actually — she can’t believe the size of the crowds I get. She says, in fact, there’s been only one leader in history that’s ever got crowds as big as mine. And the leader is thinking, you know who she’s talking about, right? You know the chancellor of Germany is talking about.

Goldberg: Did he understand, based on your reporting?

KARL: I mean, that is the great — I think he understood.

GOLDBERG: You think he understood?

KARL: I think he understood exactly.

GOLDBERG: You think he understood. I mean, based on your own reporting, do you feel that we’re talking about a true authoritarian?

KARL: I mean look, he is campaigning right now on the idea that literally the president United States is above the law. He is talking about undermining the Constitution, suspending certain provisions of the Constitution if necessary. I think. it’s not necessarily in the pursuit of any grander ideology or any policy proposal. It’s in pursuit of his own elevation and is exalting himself, proving that he never lost. But I think he’s got all of those authoritarian tendencies.

Karl had made similar claims about Trump’s authoritarian instincts and lack of any political agenda before. So, why did Karl feel the need to write a third anti-Trump tome? As he explained on CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in November:

A transcript is below. Click “expand” to read:

PBS Washington Week with The Atlantic

3/22/24

Jeffrey Goldberg: Ukraine. Since you brought up Ukraine, let me bring in the world’s leading expert on Ukraine, Anne Applebaum. But is this — you’re not only an expert on Ukraine, you actually understand Republican and conservative politics very, very well. What portion of the Republican Party does Marjorie Taylor Greene represent in her position on Ukraine?

Anne Applebaum, Staff Writer, The Atlantic: It’s very hard to tell, because some of the people who are opposed to aid for Ukraine seem to have real motives. I mean, it’s too much money or America first or something like that, and that might be genuine. Some of them seem to be acting performatively on behalf of Donald Trump. And I think Mike Johnson might be one of those.

Trump has decided that he doesn’t want money to go to Ukraine, and he wants Ukraine to be weaker. There’s a lot of different speculation about why that would be. Maybe he has some deal in his head that he’s going to do if he wins. Maybe he imagines some kind of partition. I mean, there’s a lot of — I don’t want to scare everybody with the details, but he’s been very, very clear that he doesn’t want the House to pass this money. And there are enough people in the House who either support him or are afraid for their own seats, they’re afraid of being primaried, that they have gone along with it. And I think that, more than anything else, explains where we are. I mean, it’s really an extraordinary moment. And we have an out-of-power ex-president who is, in effect, dictating American foreign policy on behalf of a foreign dictator or with the interests of a foreign dictator in mind. And I don’t think we’ve been through this before.

Jonathan Karl: And I have to say, I mean, I think that it’s getting close to half of the House Republicans that are actually in this America first quasi-isolationist camp of not wanting to give any more money to Ukraine.

Mike Johnson is not in that camp. Mike Johnson tells people that Vladimir Putin must be stopped or he’ll move through Europe. He sounds a lot like Lindsey Graham, who is also in this position of trying to find a way to placate the real leader of the Republican Party, who wants to pull the plug entirely and turn Ukraine over to Putin.

So, that’s why you have them with some of these ideas like we’re going to do it as a loan. We’re going to try to do it in some way. But, I mean, the real problem here is exactly what Anne said, it’s Donald Trump.

Nikole Killion: And he did put out a statement today saying, you know, going into the recesses, you know, Congress will be out for the next two weeks, that he will move forward with a supplemental. But to Jon’s point, it may look a little different than what we saw on the Senate side.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Frank, what do you think is Trump’s ultimate motivation on Ukraine?

Franklin Foer, Staff Writer, The Atlantic: I think that there’s so many grudges, so many layers of grudges that are left over from his first impeachment trial. I think he’s always had this innate sympathy to Vladimir Putin, who he’s admired as a strong man. And then I think there are things that go back to his commercial history in Russia, that he always was attracted to Russians. He was always enticed by the idea of doing business in Russia.

Michael Cohen in the middle of —

Jeffrey Goldberg: His former lawyer.

Franklin Foer: He had talked about how — even during the first campaign in 2016, they were they were trying to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

And so in Trump’s mind, all of these things, the grudges, the commercial interests, the political interests, they all get the narcissism and the ego all swirled together into this motivation that is sometimes quite obtuse to those of us on the outside.

Jonathan Karl: And straight up admiration for Vladimir Putin.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Yes. Well, this is about — this is a broader issue about an attraction to authoritarians, and we’re going to get to that when I pivot elegantly to the Middle East in a minute.

But I just want to stay with this Ukraine question just for one more second with Anne, because you alluded to a kind of bargain possibly that Trump and Trumpists have imagined that if Trump comes back to power, obviously, we understand that China and Russia would prefer Trump as president to Biden, I mean, I think that’s a fair statement, that somehow Trump will force a settlement that looks good from Putin’s perspective.

Anne Applebaum: He said that in this somewhat incoherent way, right? He said, when I take power, the war will be over in one day. You know, there will be a deal. And people around him have talked a little bit more in detail about a deal.

And, of course, I don’t want to speculate about things that we don’t really know and might never happen, but, you know, there is some idea that we would have like a new Yalta. We would divide Europe, maybe. I mean, there is something like that that’s in the air. He has some idea about it affecting oil prices and you get oil prices going down. I mean, I don’t — you know, I can’t prove that.

But I mean, it’s certainly not that farfetched. I mean, he is someone who thinks like that. He thinks transactionally. He doesn’t think in terms of what’s good for Europe or what’s good for America. I mean, the loss of Ukraine, for Ukraine to have been seen as a failure, if we give away Ukraine, if Kyiv becomes a Russian satrapy, you know, the United States will be seen as a receding power and that will have all kinds of economic and political consequences that we haven’t even imagined yet in terms of arms sales and energy supply sales and an America’s position in trade talks and all kinds of — the idea that America is the security guarantor for Europe is very, very important and fundamental to how America is perceived in Europe and around the world. Trump is not interested in that at all. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t know why it matters.

Franklin Foer: Meanwhile, this is not just a Washington story. This is a Ukraine story, and I think Anne could speak to this better. But each delay that we go through has real consequences for the Ukrainian army and for the Ukrainian society, which is thoroughly demoralized by the way that Washington has treated the cause, our ally.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. Let me turn to the Middle East, stay with you, Frank, for one second. You know, we — all of us around this table have covered the relationship since Benjamin Netanyahu has been prime minister of Israel longer than anybody in Israeli history. We’ve seen him with different presidents at different times.

I’ll start by making this observation. It’s very hard for an Israeli prime minister to anger Joe Biden, who loves Israel, and yet it seems as if we’re there that somehow Netanyahu and Biden are so crossways right now, that the relationship is almost ruptured.

Put this in context, and I’ll ask other people to jump in as well. Put this in historic context. We all remember the Obama-Netanyahu relationship. Is this gotten worse?

Franklin Foer: Yes, of course it has. And if you flash back to the rupture during the Obama administration, Joe Biden was always the person who stepped in and tried to find a way to make it better. Biden’s relationship with the state of Israel and his telling goes back to his father. And he’s been a million times.

When the war started, he wrapped his arms around Israel. When Benjamin Netanyahu was missing on the scene, he stepped in. It was essentially prime minister of Israel, so much so that when he went to visit, I think, 10 or 11 days after October 7th, he sat in the Israeli war cabinet, asking them the questions that a prime minister should be asking about strategic objectives.

And the questions that he’s asking of Benjamin Netanyahu are actually reasonable questions. What is your long-term plan? What is going to happen on the day after the war? If you go into Rafah, which, by the way, I don’t think is imminent for many reasons, including the fact that Israel would need to call up and re-mobilize a good number of its troops in order to invade Rafah in a way, but these are questions that are reasonable to ask about what would happen to the million people who live in Rafah.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. So, Jon, we were just talking about Ukraine being a domestic political issue. Israel is the ultimate example, often, of a foreign country becoming a domestic, political hot potato. Is Israel becoming a partisan issue in a way that has never been before?

Jonathan Karl: I mean, look, you’ve just had the Republican presumptive nominee say that if you vote Democratic and you’re Jewish, it means you hate your religion. I mean, he’s doing everything in his power to make it a partisan issue, and it’s becoming a partisan issue.

You look at the response when Chuck Schumer came on the Senate floor and effectively called for new elections in Israel, effectively called for a regime change in Israel, new elections in Israel. And the way it was denounced by Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader and Republicans across the board, I mean, it is becoming more of a partisan issue.

And let’s face it, you have a growing group within the Democratic Party that is emphatically not pro-Israel. And so this is definitely contributing to it.

Jeffrey Goldberg: So, I want to — you mentioned this extraordinary statement that Donald Trump made about American Jews. I want you to listen to that for a minute, and I want to get Frank’s comment on it after we listen.

Donald Trump (R), Former U.S. President, 2024 Presidential Candidate: Any Jewish person that votes for Democrats hates their religion. They hate everything about Israel, and they should be ashamed of themselves.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Well, Frank, I’m not going to ask you to speak on behalf of the Jews, and please don’t ask me to speak on the behalf of the Jews, but that’s a fairly extraordinary statement. It’s not extraordinary in the context of Trump’s discourse, but it’s an extraordinary thing to put out there.

I mean, what is the reaction, I mean, to the extent that you’ve gauged it among American Jews, the majority of whom traditionally vote Democratic, the vast majority of them?

Franklin Foer: First, it should be said that there is a long tradition of leaders, especially authoritarian-minded leaders, of dividing Jews into good Jews who are loyal to state and bad Jews are not loyal to the state. And, historically, when those distinctions get made, the Jews were deemed to be the not good Jews end up being targeted in some sort of way.

And it’s somewhat scary, I think, for American Jewry, because of the way in which Trump tends to talk about the people he demonizes, and it comes in this larger context where we’re seeing an incredible surge of anti-Semitism, not just from the right, but also from the left. And to hear a potential president of the United States talk in a sort of way, even if he’s talked in a way before, is very triggering.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. Nikole, there — I don’t know the degree to which this is going to become a reality. Maybe you could enlighten us. But Speaker Johnson is thinking about bringing Netanyahu to the Hill. What would that look like?

You know, we remember years ago a number of Democrats sat out, boycotted when Netanyahu came and spoke the last time, mainly around the subject of Iran. I’m feeling like this is going to be a whole other level of carnival.

Nikole Killion: Yes. Well, you’re already seeing a pretty significant divide, not only between Republicans and Democrats on this, but within the Democratic Party itself, where many Democrats have suggested they may boycott, others say they may go.

You know, we have leader Hakeem Jeffries, who tried to put some distance there, saying, look, Speaker Johnson hasn’t even asked me about this. So, until he does, I am not going comment. I mean, we did also hear from Leader Schumer this week on the issue, saying, you know, despite his comments last week, that he would welcome the opportunity so long as it’s done in a bipartisan fashion.

And we did see some Democrats boycott when President Herzog addressed a joint session of Congress about a year or so ago. But that being said, it is. It’s starting to become a wedge issue, the political hot potato, and I think one that could potentially be inflamed if the prime minister does come to visit. But the speaker has made clear this is something that he would like to do. He would like to extend that invitation, so I think we’ll have to see how it plays out.

Jonathan Karl: I don’t think it’s actually going to happen. It may — I mean, Netanyahu did this exact same playbook with Obama when he came in 2015, and the issue there was the Iran nuclear program. He wanted to go over Obama’s head effectively and make the case to Congress against the deal. I don’t anticipate it playing out this time.

But it’s remarkable that Netanyahu wants to effectively play to Trump because he’s hit a wall with Biden. But, I mean, Trump hates Netanyahu. He’s toyed with him. He resented the fact that Netanyahu came out and congratulated Biden just days after the 2020 election.

Jeffrey Goldberg: It was kind of a pro forma congratulations.

Jonathan Karl: It was, but he absolutely resented it.

And it wasn’t just that. If you remember, Netanyahu visited Washington, came to the White House while he was campaigning for his own re-election, and Trump saw him as a showboat. And, you know, that’s a terrible thing in Trump world.

Jeffrey Goldberg: When Trump thinks you’re a showboat.

Jonathan Karl: Yes, yes. I mean, because he came in and he was using Trump’s stage to make the case. He spoke longer than Trump. He’s spoke more emphatically than Trump and he also blindsided the Trump administration with a new announcement on settlements.

So, it’s risky strategy, but Netanyahu needs to stay in power to stay —

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. One thing they have in common, they’re both under indictment in their own countries, Trump and Netanyahu.

Jonathan Karl: They both want to be in power to avoid potentially going to jail.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right, which, bottom line, might be what’s going on here at the deepest level.

I want to get to the — Frank, I’ll come back to you in a second, but I want to get to something else that might be operating at the deepest level. Both men, Trump and Netanyahu, have autocratic tendencies. You’ve written about this. It’s somewhat surprising that they don’t get along better.

Anne Applebaum: I mean, they’re very similar in some ways. I think some of the root of the discomfort with Netanyahu in the Democratic Party, and maybe even more broadly, there was a sense that we support Israel because it’s a little democracy in a region where there aren’t a lot of democracies. And we have something in common with them, that means we have a special bond, and so on. I think a lot of Democrats, I’m sure that’s what Joe Biden thinks about Israel. He remembers its founding and the role that we played.

Jeffrey Goldberg: The older the Democrat, the more likely they are —

Anne Applebaum: The more likely they are to think that.

Netanyahu has systematically chipped away at that image, both by putting extremists into his government, by using kind of authoritarian propaganda to run election campaigns, most recently, over the last year, before the war, by passing or trying to pass a series of judicial reforms that would have politicized the judiciary in Israel, much very following a similar pattern that’s been used elsewhere in Hungary and Turkey.

So, he lost the image of the Democrat, and he therefore won a lot of enmity in the Democratic Party and actually won a lot of admirers on the right, including in the anti-Semitic right. I mean, Viktor Orban, who made George Soros as a kind of Jewish billionaire into a hate figure in Hungarian politics, feels very close to Netanyahu. They seem very similar. They have similar ideas about how to undermine institutions. So, I mean, maybe Trump doesn’t like him personally, but the Republican Party likes him a lot.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. That’s right. Jon, let me ask you, in the couple of minutes that we have left, to talk about your extraordinary book. There’s one story I need you to tell everyone, which is the Merkel story, which relates directly to this. Can you give us the 20 second version of that?

Jonathan Karl: Yes. This is a story that he told one very senior member of Congress told me this, that it happened twice with Trump. There was a lot of stories that Merkel had nothing but contempt for Trump. So, Trump told this member of Congress, you know, she actually — she can’t believe the size of the crowds I get. She says, in fact, there’s been only one leader in history that’s ever got crowds as big as mine.

And the leader is thinking, you know who she’s talking about, right? You know the chancellor of Germany is talking.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Did he understand, based on your reporting?

Jonathan Karl: I mean, that is the great — I think he understood.

Jeffrey Goldberg: You think he understood?

Jonathan Karl: I think he understood exactly.

Jeffrey Goldberg: You think he understood.

I mean, based on your own reporting, do you feel that we’re talking about a true authoritarian?

Jonathan Karl: I mean look, he is campaigning right now on the idea that literally the president United States is above the law. He is talking about undermining the Constitution, suspending certain provisions of the Constitution if necessary.

I think it’s not necessarily in the pursuit of any grander ideology or any policy proposal. It’s in pursuit of his own elevation and is exalting himself, proving that he never lost. But I think he’s got all of those authoritarian tendencies.

Jeffrey Goldberg: So, Nikole, I will give you the last word on this. I have been in a search for an understanding of Republican foreign policy. But is Republican foreign policy just whatever — at this point, whatever Trump feels at a given moment, even though he isn’t even in office right now?

Nikole Killion: Well, certainly we’ve seen many take that America first isolationist approach, and we know that the former president continues to have a lot of sway over congressional Republicans. But at the end of the day, you know, they also have their own minds, too.

So, again, I think, as we move forward with some of these key issues, it continues to be something to watch. And these very issues that we’re talking about that were once bipartisan, you know, is there the prospect for that to be the case again or will we see that further partisan divide, particularly as this election cycle goes on? So, to be continued.

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