"These indictments are critical to our history": MSNBC's Ali Velshi talks Donald Trump

Popular MSNBC host says that Trump's crimes and GOP book bans will ultimately make America stronger — he hopes

Published November 17, 2023 12:00PM (EST)

Ali Velshi (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ali Velshi (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

MSNBC host Ali Velshi really wants you to read the 91 criminal counts in the four indictments against Donald Trump. In fact, he has edited and introduced an entire book about them, with the straightforward title, “The Trump Indictments: The 91 Criminal Counts Against the Former President of the United States.”

Full disclosure: Velshi is a longtime friend, and we recently had a conversation for "Salon Talks" where he made a compelling argument aimed at every American: “Take a few hours out of your life” to read the Trump indictments so you can fully “understand the narrative, the granularity and the number of people involved.” Obviously Velshi understands that some people won't read his book or the underlying court documents — Trump's core supporters, first and foremost — but he hopes that ultimately even some of them will begin to grasp the scope of the charges against their hero, even if they don’t agree with any of them.

Velshi and I also discussed the role the media will, and should, play in the 2024 election. We are all aware of the role played by mainstream media, and cable news in particular, in lavishing attention on Trump in 2016. Velshi says his philosophy, with regard to his own MSNBC show, is that it's irresponsible to ignore Trump entirely, but “you have to curate” video clips from Trump's interminable speeches so that the multiply-indicted former president doesn't just get free air time to spew his talking points. Velshi says he's committed to spotlighting the moments when Trump “says something that sounds like Mussolini." And he's doing that, as we both agree, more and more. 

Velshi has been among the most consistent media voices highlighting the GOP’s efforts to ban books in various states and localities — or at least to remove them from school libraries and curricula — with a reoccurring segment dedicated to this subject. One silver lining to the GOP’s efforts to restrict academic freedom, he says, is that many citizens have been inspired to get involved in school board elections, largely in order to stop the efforts of Moms for Liberty and other groups that seek to impose their right-wing belief system on public education and the entire society.

Returning to the subject of his book, Velshi told me that “no matter what the outcome of these Trump trials will be, America should be stronger at the end.” If you have your doubts about that, he feels those too: “Not all of me believes that," he said, "but some of me believes that.” As with the outcomes of Donald Trump’s various criminal and civil trials, we won’t know the outcome for some time. Watch my "Salon Talks" interview with Ali Velshi here or read a transcript of our conversation below, edited for length and clarity.

I should note that this interview took place shortly before the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel, which is why we didn't discuss that event or the current war in Gaza.

You wrote the introduction to a new book that describes the indictments of Donald Trump in various jurisdictions. What compelled you to do this?

When the first indictment came out, the Manhattan indictment, one of my colleagues suggested that we read it as a podcast, as part of the "Prosecuting Donald Trump" series we have. I certainly didn't think it was going to become a thing, and it really became a thing. There are a lot of people in this country who use podcasts and audio to get their information, so if they're driving or running or whatever, they wanted to hear it. As the other three indictments came down, I started reading them the same way. They did very well. 

We realized that people need a reference point. There are four criminal trials at the moment, 91 indictments, and you're going to want to see what they are as these things go along. So it's a guidebook. It's a roadmap. 

"This wasn't Rudy Giuliani booking the wrong place for a press conference with hair dye streaming down his face, looking like they all got out of a clown car. This was much more serious."

I am not one to think most people need to read legal documents, but these days I am. I think these indictments are critical to our history. Whatever the outcome is, it will affect our history. I even read the Constitution, by the way, for my "Banned Books" podcast. Because while the Constitution isn't banned, Donald Trump, you will recall, suggested suspending it. 

My general view is: Just read these documents. It'll take a few hours out of your life, but at least you will understand what is charged, you'll understand the narrative, you'll understand the granularity, you'll understand the number of people involved and you'll come away understanding that this wasn't Rudy Giuliani booking the wrong place for a press conference with hair dye streaming down his face, looking like they all got out of a clown car, because that's the impression you might have. This was much more serious. This was a real effort to undermine democracy and not count votes and make votes not matter. The underpinning of our democracy was actually threatened by the people who have been charged. That's why I wanted to put my name on this and have it out there.

Do you think Trump supporters will ever read this?

I don't know. I hope so. I mean, in the introduction I certainly didn't write anything that should offend anybody. No matter your sensibilities or who you think is right or wrong, these are just indictments. There has not been a trial. There have not been jurors selected. The trial may go in Donald Trump's favor. He is to be presumed innocent until tried by a jury of his peers, and I'm worried, on a daily basis, that the prosecution or the judge will have a misstep that will allow people to say, this isn't fair. If you are going to try the former president of your country who wants to be the president again, this needs to be super, super fair. 

So many people lose faith in the idea that it's a terrible thing for America that we've had to do this. This means our democracy is coming apart. Actually, in countries that have tried leaders, presidents, political leaders or former leaders, studies have indicated that they've come out stronger in the end for having tested the justice system and the political system, for having demonstrated that people will be held to account. No matter what the outcome of these trials will be, America should be stronger at the end. Not all of me believes that, but some of me believes that.

You write in your introduction that America is the gold standard in terms of democracy.

Or at least there are many people in the world who believe that to be true, including Americans. This is the test of whether that's actually going to be true.

Do you think the fact that Donald Trump has been charged with attempting a coup makes people around the world go, “OK, they take this seriously”? Because before that, what was the message to the world?

I think there are two views of this. You've got Vladimir Putin, who is sort of saying America is the laughing stock, but most people who watched the Trump years wondered about accountability. I would go to the Arab world where people would say, “This business about making your daughter this and your son-in-law that, that happens all the time here. We didn't think it happened for you.” 

"This is nowhere close to accountability for a lot of the bad things that Donald Trump did. These were the 91 counts that sophisticated prosecutors were able to say, we can probably win in court. That's it."

Remember, this is nowhere close to accountability for a lot of bad things that Donald Trump did. These were the 91 counts that sophisticated prosecutors were able to say, we can probably win in court. That's it. When you read these things, you'll realize there's stuff he's not charged with. There's also one very important thing he's not charged with, and it's on the second page of Jack Smith's indictment in the Jan. 6 case. He says that Donald Trump had every right to deny the outcome of the election. He had every right to lie about the outcome of that election. He had every right to challenge it in court, to ask for recounts, to have audits done, and he did all those things. Then it became something else. Then it became an effort to undermine democracy. This went from a “I'm protecting my rights as a candidate” into something entirely different, and only in reading these documents will that transition be clear.

You make a point that I think is so important. At first, on the right, people were defending him by saying, “Well, he was just talking about stuff.” But it became clear that this had nothing to do with words, it had to do with actions.

If he was just talking about this, there wouldn't be indictments.

You’ve also talked about section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which would disqualify anyone who's engaged in an insurrection from holding federal or state office. You've harped on a lot for a while. You've had a lot of different experts on your show to talk about it. What interested you in that?

I'm still talking about it, because I think at this point we have to exhaust all avenues for determining whether people who are involved in an insurrection can hold office. There's an interesting qualifier in the 14th Amendment, section 3, and that is if you have sworn an oath to the country, to the Constitution — and by the way, if you're American-born and were not in the military and don't have a government job, you may have never sworn an oath, so this might not apply to you. I am a naturalized citizen, so I swore an oath and I guess it applies to me.

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The trick here is that it can only be enforced by someone who makes the decision to put your name on the ballot or not, which in most states is the secretary of state. Most secretaries of state with whom we've spoken have said, “I'm clearly not going to be the last word on how this goes down.” So it's going to go to court. It'll probably end up at the Supreme Court. There are a lot of people in this country who do not have faith that this Supreme Court will act in the best interests of this nation.

"We do not require people to go to the front and die for the preservation of their democracy. We only require people to know what's going on and vote, or help somebody else register to vote."

It is my view that we should dispense with this sooner than later. If this is going to be a thing, I don't want it being a thing next September or October as the election's coming up. I'd rather it be a thing before the first primary takes place. That's part of why I'm in on it, and I'm getting people like you and Judge Michael Luttig and Lawrence Tribe, who are all opining about where and how these things should happen. I think that it's not worth assuming that this is all going to work out in the courts and that someone's going to read the Constitution and say that Donald Trump is disqualified, or assuming that he runs and he loses.

I think all those things are pipe dreams. I think they're Democratic fever dreams. We have a tool that the Ukrainians do not have. We do not require Patriot missiles for incoming missiles. We do not require people to go to the front and die for the preservation of their democracy. We only require people to know what's going on and vote, or help somebody else register to vote. We need little things to be done, and I think everybody has to understand that it's battle stations on all fronts for democracy: voting, organizing to vote, understanding what's going on, reading the indictments.

You've just got to be smart about this. Every one of us knows somebody who thinks this is a witch hunt against Donald Trump, and you are not going to be equipped to argue with them unless you know about this. And you're right, I did mention the 14th Amendment because it's going to turn out to be an important discussion. Will Donald Trump be able to run for president? If he runs for president and wins, will he be able to assume office? It's a big, open question that still has to be determined.

On the 14th Amendment, people are going to say, "Well, let's not enforce it now." Then what happens with the 22nd Amendment, which says he can't do another term? Because that's not self-executing either.

Right. That is correct.

No one has ever litigated that. It's going to be a fight if he gets back in. Nothing in my being says he'll leave peacefully in 2029. He didn't leave peacefully in 2020.

He's told you about the things he's going to do. He has talked about doing away with the Constitution. He has talked about the things that he would do, including suggesting that Gen. Mark Milley, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is a witness in one of these cases,  because he was in the room where it happened, is guilty of treason and should be executed. Without any trial, he has decided that someone's guilty of treason and decided what the penalty for that should be, despite the fact that there have been people convicted of sedition who worked for him on Jan. 6.

Donald Trump's cognitive dissonance is amazing, but the rest of us shouldn't have it. The rest of us should not imagine that this is the year that it all changes, that Donald Trump, who has avoided accountability for all his life, is suddenly going to face the music on several fronts.

Let me ask you some questions about the media, because you and I are part of it. A lot of my listeners, and as you have mentioned, some of your viewers, don't want to hear about Donald Trump. For the longest time, I adhered to that. I didn't want to hear him either. But I don't think wishing him away, or wishing away any social ill, will cure it. At this point, how do you see your obligation or responsibility to your viewers?

I think you have to curate it. I play it every time Donald Trump says something that sounds like Mussolini. Where he says, “I am your retribution.” Mussolini said, “I am your avenger.” When he talks, he used to say, “Lock her up,” which I thought was well out of bounds in talking about somebody who hadn't been charged with a crime. “Lock her up” is almost quaint now. He talked about Milley getting capital punishment for treason. He talks about suspending the Constitution. He talks about the fact that there shouldn't be a speaker of the House who's unwilling to stop all funding for Ukraine, an ally fighting our greatest adversary. 

"Trump used to say, 'Lock her up,' which I thought was well out of bounds in talking about somebody who hadn't been charged with a crime. That's almost quaint now. He talks about Gen. Milley getting capital punishment for treason. He talks about suspending the Constitution." 

Donald Trump is saying all these things. "Draining the swamp" used to mean the deep state, the people who he claims existed in the civil service to serve their own interests. That was a lot of BS. Now it means something else. Now it means going after critics, people who are not sufficiently loyal, opposition members and the media and pretty soon everybody else.

It always starts this way. It starts with high-profile people. Rahul Gandhi, who is running against Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, has been charged with some financial crime. In most of these countries, it's a tax thing. Maria Ressa, Nobel Prize winner, tax crimes. It's all tax crimes. That's how it goes. Because the average person doesn't know: If they charge me with a tax crime, well, maybe he didn't do his taxes right, maybe he did something wrong. That's how it starts. It's stochastic. It's the idea that you don't have to get the government to take Dean Obeidallah out. You just tell enough people where Dean Obeidallah lives and how he's not sufficiently patriotic and maybe he's an Arab and a Muslim and whatever. You just throw it all out there and let people do your dirty work. 

We have seen, in America, that people will do that dirty work. It's not an American thing, by the way. This happened everywhere. It happened in Italy under Mussolini. It happened in Germany under Hitler. It happened in Rwanda. It happened in the Balkans. You let people form their own opinions and make sure they have weaponry and they'll take care of it.

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I had very personal attacks when Trump was in office. I wrote an article criticizing his failure to denounce white supremacist terrorism in Charlottesville, and neo-Nazis fabricated tweets and said, “Go get him,” suggesting that I was involved in a terrorist attack in England because I'm Muslim, that kind of stuff. I sued them, because that's what you do to Nazis.

Well, you're good at that, you don't get scared by it. But the problem is people who see that may say, “I don't want to go through what Dean's gone through,” so people who have views protected by the First Amendment in this country, critical of Trump or supportive of Trump or whatever, who are going to make decisions to not run for office, to not be a journalist, to not ask questions, to not bring things up, to not write things, to not say them, to not tweet them. That's where democracy dies.

Is there a way that the average person can have an impact on media content and how issues are framed? 

There are lots of ways to frame an issue, and it might not be the one you use every time. I often refer to Donald Trump as the “twice-impeached, quadruply-indicted, failed former president of the United States.”

Understanding that is important, because reminding people that he's out on bail would make the penny drop when his staff seemed to be bragging about how he bought a gun. I don't know that many of my viewers or most people watching or reading this have been arrested or are on bail, but we watch “Chicago PD” or “Law & Order,” and you know that you probably can't buy a gun while you are under indictment, which is a fact. So you do have to curate and not normalize craziness. 

"You can't tune somebody out who is deliberately pushing the norms of your society, to the extent that it would have undermined democracy. You actually have to know that it's happening and say that it's happening."

That's the same thing with what's going on in Congress right now. With Donald Trump, you have to find ways because he's numbing. We're all numb to it. Nobody cares. I said to people, “Did you see that Donald Trump bought a gun or tried to buy a gun or said he bought a gun?” Most people hadn't because they've tuned Donald Trump out. You can't tune somebody out who is deliberately pushing the norms of your society, to the extent that it would have undermined democracy. You actually have to know that it's happening and say that it's happening. My view is, Donald Trump doesn't need to be on TV all the time. I get it: He grates on people. But he could be the next president of the United States, and at the moment he's becoming a martyr. We have to ensure that people understand the vitriol that comes out of his mouth, what it means and what he could do with it if he actually had power once again. I say power once again, but he seems to be the boss of Congress at the moment, right?

He almost seems to be president when you watch media coverage to be blunt, because Joe Biden is on, like, a little bit and then it's Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump. And then back to Biden, like, a story about him being old. 

People often say to me, “You should do more on Biden.” Now here's the thing: It's not the media's job to carry water for anybody. I am very clear on the fact that for the moment, there appear to be two people running for president. There's a whole bunch of Republicans and some independents, but basically it's Donald Trump and Joe Biden. It's not 340 million Americans. This is not a "choose your own adventure." It's one person who seems to be doing his presidential duties, and if we want to examine that, we can examine all the ways in which he seems to be doing them quite well, and another guy who doesn't seem to believe in democracy. That is entirely a binary choice. That's it.

You can talk about who you'd like for president. Those do not appear to be your options right now, so that's what you've got. I don't need to do PR for Joe Biden for you to understand that one of these guys is for democracy and the other one's not. That should be enough for an American to make their mind up. I'm not sure it will be, but it should be.

Do you think, in this day and age that the old ways for a president to get media coverage have faded because of the world we live in?

Yeah. Sure.

We've been changed by Trump. A president holding a press conference, like in the old days, doesn't get much press.

No, it's like the old days. That never got press. It only got press during Donald Trump's time because he was going to fire his secretary of state in that press conference accidentally or ban transgender people in the military. Donald Trump couldn't stay on message for anything. When he launched "infrastructure week," I don't know, three or four times, and we would cover it thinking that he was going to talk about infrastructure week, but then Kanye West would be involved. You never knew what was going to happen. With Joe Biden, you fully know how it's going to go.

So does Biden have to be more creative? Do Democrats in general have to be more creative in trying to get media coverage in this landscape?

I think Democrats have got to acknowledge the elephant in the room, and that is that Joe Biden's having trouble despite what he's doing. I can outline a lot of important things that he's doing on the economy and specifically with respect to Ukraine and dealing with international alliances and walking a tightrope with Israel and Saudi Arabia and India, three countries where I think we should be taking very strong lines, but he is smarter than I am and more experienced than I am, so he's doing it a different way.

"Joe Biden is an older gentleman who comes across to some people as older than he is. He's just a few years older than Donald Trump, but I think we can't ignore it. We have got to discuss what that means."

The elephant in the room is that he's an older gentleman who comes across to some people as older than he is. He's just a few years older than Donald Trump, but I think we can't ignore it. We have got to discuss it. We've got to discuss what that means and what the implications are. I think the choice remains binary, but it would behoove Democrats to figure out what a good answer is to that because I keep on meeting people who definitely don't want Donald Trump to be president, but say things like, "I'm worried about Joe Biden." Now, my general view is that Joe Biden comes across that way mostly when he is reading a prompter. When Joe Biden's talking one-on-one about things he knows about, he says what he believes.

Often the White House tries to walk hat back because he sometimes seems to say too much, but he's usually right when he talks about Putin being a war criminal, when he talks about what Xi Jinping is going to face, when he talks about Modi. So I would sooner see a little bit more Joe Biden unplugged because the most unplugged he's ever going to be is never going to be a problem when you're dealing with somebody like Donald Trump. I also think it doesn't pay for Joe Biden to get involved in any Donald Trumpy stuff. Trump will shoot himself in the foot or not, all by himself.

Right. It does seem like Biden is going to make the threat to democracy posed by MAGA his central theme in 2024. That's important.

He believes that. That's in his bones. That's not about Donald Trump specifically. Donald Trump is a piece of that, but the threat to democracy, I believe, is central. I think if he leans into that, that's important.

The MAGA movement, or the Republican Party in general, is doing something we haven't seen before, and that's banning books. You've been covering it on your show week after week, you have a podcast on that topic. First of all, can you believe where we are now? And how do you amplify this so people get that this is not normal?

Yeah, no. It is 1933 Germany, and I think people need to remember history, that when you start making people ignorant, you are shepherding them towards something dangerous. You know, my family's from South Africa. My father, when he first saw my banned book club — he texts me after every show — he said, growing up in South Africa, he didn't even know there were public libraries, because for nonwhite people, there simply weren't. They didn't bother to ban books. You just didn't get a library at all. You got what they told you you could read at school, and that was the beginning and the end of it. 

I will say this: Thank you to anybody from Moms for Liberty who is listening to this, because you have ignited people. You have caused regular people to understand their responsibilities as citizens, which is not all that complicated. As I said: Vote, register to vote. Show up at your parent-teacher meetings, show up at your school board meetings, run for school board, see who's running for school board and maybe give them 25 bucks or 50 bucks so someone else will know their name.

That's where it begins. They got smart by banning books at the very local level, and now people are getting smart by fighting banning books at the local level. I think the book-banners don't win this one.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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