Journalist: Fear Is A 'Very Powerful Tool' In Trump's Approach To Immigration

Aug 9, 2018
Originally published on August 24, 2018 10:56 am

The Pew Research Center estimates that there are about 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States — and that approximately two-thirds of them have been here for more than a decade.

Journalist Frank Foer says that for many years, there was a tacit agreement among politicians of both parties that there would be a pathway to citizenship for many of the long-term undocumented immigrants.

"They rooted themselves within our communities. ... They raise children who are U.S. citizens," Foer says. "There had been this consensus that they could stay."

But shortly after President Trump was sworn into office, he passed an executive order that criminalized anyone in the country illegally — opening the door for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) to deport any undocumented immigrant.

Foer says that the policy was unprecedented: "Never before have we had such a large, dedicated police force whose mission is to remove undocumented immigrants from the communities in which they're rooted."

Foer's new Atlantic cover story, "How Trump Radicalized ICE," reveals that immigration enforcement has been handed over to a small group of militant, anti-immigration hawks, who cultivate fear to accomplish their goal of driving out undocumented immigrants.

In the past, Foer says, ICE was forbidden from operating in places like schools, churches and hospitals, which are known as "sensitive locations." Now, he says, "there's growing anecdotal evidence that ICE hasn't overturned the policy of sensitive locations, but they've given themselves ever greater latitude to operate in those places where they'd once been forbidden."


Interview Highlights

On the Trump administration's tactic of cultivating fear among undocumented immigrants 

The Trump administration knows that it can't round up 11 million undocumented immigrants, even with our profound investments in immigration enforcement over the decades, there's still not the bandwidth or the infrastructure to do that. So if you're trying to seriously and quickly diminish the number of immigrants in this country you have one very, very powerful tool at your disposal — which is that you have the power of the state to cultivate fear. And so Trump himself has propagated the sense of fear with his rhetoric. The executive orders that have been proposed — and in some cases rescinded because they were so overly broad — had the effect of succeeding even when they were failing, because the theatrics of those policies helped cultivate a sense of fear.

On how ICE's reach into "sensitive locations," such as hospital emergency rooms, has affected undocumented immigrants

In places like Los Angeles and Houston and other jurisdictions there's now a lot of empirical evidence that undocumented women are afraid to call in cases of domestic abuse because when they call in those cases they're afraid that their partners are going to get picked up and deported, and they're afraid that they themselves may end up on the radar of ICE by calling in a report of abuse. So asking the police for protection could perversely result in the destruction of their lives.

On the belief that immigrants would self-deport if life became uncomfortable enough

[Kansas Secretary of State Kris] Kobach had a theory that also goes by a more clinical name "attrition through enforcement," and the idea was that you could make life profoundly uncomfortable for immigrants. You could deprive them of benefits. You could increase a sense of fear. You can make it harder for them to get jobs — and all this pressure would add up.

And at a certain point, [Kobach] argued that immigrants are rational, that their decision to come to this country and stay in this country is premised on an understanding of their own self-interest, and if the state was able to apply its powers properly, then it could induce a state of panic and terror that would cause immigrants to pack up their bags and leave on their own accord.

On Attorney General Jeff Sessions' role in immigration policy

One thing that I was told constantly is that Jeff Sessions is the de facto secretary of homeland security — that he's the person in the administration who just lives, breathes immigration policy. It's the thing that he cares about most in the world. It's really the reason that he's suffered some of the indignities that he suffered at the hands of his own boss, who seems to imply that he wants him to resign constantly, and for Sessions it's worth soldiering on, because he's implementing massive policy changes in the demand that matters to him most. ...

Sessions comes from small town Alabama and he shares with Trump this hostility to free trade, to globalization, and I think his views on immigration are of a piece with that. I also think that he has a cultural and racial hostility to immigration and the transformation of America — a fear of what multiculturalism will do to the country.

On how both parties have increased expenditures to immigration enforcement

Since the 1990s, you've had both political parties racing to prove their bonafides on immigration enforcement. From Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, Democrats have willingly participated in the process of legislating ever greater expenditures to ICE and the Department of Homeland Security, and the system has just started to bloat and grow.

By the time Barack Obama started his second term we were spending more money on immigration enforcement — on ICE and border patrol — than on the DEA, FBI, ATF, U.S. Marshals Service combined. We were spending $18 billion on immigration enforcement, as opposed to the $14 billion that we were spending on all those other criminal law enforcement agencies. Half of all federal prosecutions were for immigration-related crimes. So everybody, every political party, nearly every politician on Capitol Hill, also played their part in creating this system.

Amy Salit and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.


Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Trump administration has instituted a zero tolerance policy on immigration. My guest Franklin Foer writes that immigration enforcement has been handed over to a small group of militant anti-immigration hawks who have been cultivating fear to accomplish their goal of driving out undocumented immigrants. Foer's new article "How ICE Went Rogue" about how ICE has been radicalized under President Trump is the cover story of the new issue of The Atlantic. Foer is a national correspondent for the magazine.

ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is the agency within the Department of Homeland Security tasked with enforcing U.S. immigration law in the U.S. Foer's article is also about the private corporations that own and operate the detention centers that hold undocumented immigrants rounded up by ICE and how the profit motive figures into the larger story of zero tolerance. Foer also joined us earlier this year to talk about his article on Paul Manafort. Foer was one of the first people to write extensively about Trump's former campaign manager. A little later, we'll talk about the Manafort trial, which is now underway in Virginia.

Franklin Foer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So you write that ICE represents a profound deviation in the long history of American immigration. How?

FRANKLIN FOER: In the history of American immigration, we frequently turned away people at the border who were deserving perhaps of asylum in the United States, who had incredibly compelling stories, who would make for excellent citizens. But it's very, very rare in our history that we've gone through the interior of the country as opposed to the border and tried to remove immigrants in great numbers.

We've done it in a few isolated examples, and they stand out in our history. During the Eisenhower administration, we removed over a million Mexicans in what's called Operation Wetback. But never before have we had such a large, dedicated police force whose mission is to remove undocumented immigrants from the communities in which they're rooted.

GROSS: Were immigrants who had settled here and had raised family, including children who were born as citizens of the U.S. - were they kind of given a pass for many years?

FOER: Well, they were. So it's - in 1986, Ronald Reagan passed an amnesty. There had been millions of undocumented immigrants in the country, and he gave them a pathway to citizenship. And since 1986, both political parties have professed faith in their belief in something called comprehensive immigration reform where they would enter into a grand bargain where they would trade tougher immigration enforcement in exchange for amnesty of the large and growing population of undocumented immigrants in the country. But despite that consensus, our political system has been broken. And it has been unable to pass comprehensive immigration reform. And so the number of undocumented immigrants just built up over time.

The Congress basically expressed its hope that they would become citizens by passing these measures but never getting them to the president's desk for signature. And we just kind of let this population drift. Some of them had orders for deportation. Some of them never went through an immigration court. But we gave them our tacit approval. And so now you have 11 million undocumented people in this country. Two-thirds of them have been here for over a decade.

And so, yes, we've given them tacit permission, and that's what makes the Trump administration so disturbing. There had been this consensus that they could stay. They rooted themselves within our communities. They made long-term investments in becoming Americans. They opened up businesses. They bought houses. They amassed 401(k)s. They raised children who are U.S. citizens. And so they felt like they were Americans. By all measures, they were Americans. They are Americans.

GROSS: And now they're outlaws.

FOER: And now they're outlaws because when Trump came to power, one - in the first month of the administration, he passed an executive order which said that any undocumented immigrant ICE comes into contact with is now fair game for deportation. And that, too, represents a deviation because during the Obama administration, there was an concerted effort to impose constraints on ICE and to limit deportations to people who had committed serious crimes. And it took the Obama administration a long time to get to that policy.

But when Trump came to power, the number of deportations had been shrunk. And we'd arrived at a position where the people we were deporting were people who you could probably find broad consensus even among immigration activists that they were worthy of deportation.

GROSS: Because of criminal violations.

FOER: Because they'd committed serious crimes.

GROSS: So other changes under the Trump administration - there used to be a policy of sensitive locations. That no longer exists. Would you explain this change?

FOER: So one of the things that ICE had done in the past was that they were forbidden from operating in places like schools, churches, hospitals because we didn't want ICE to get in the way of an immigrant receiving health care. We didn't want them to feel a sense of fear as they walked their child to school. And so there's growing anecdotal evidence that ICE hasn't overturned the policy of sensitive locations, but they've given themselves ever-greater latitude to operate in those places where they'd once been forbidden.

And there are examples of how this policy has exacerbated a sense of fear among immigrants. To take one example, in places like Los Angeles and Houston and other jurisdictions, there's a lot of now empirical evidence that women - undocumented women are afraid to call in cases of domestic abuse because when they call in those cases, they're afraid that their partners are going to get picked up and deported. And they're afraid that they themselves may end up on the radar of ICE by calling in a report of abuse. And so asking the police for protection could perversely result in the destruction of their lives.

GROSS: And now there's a proposed policy - it's expected to be proposed by the Trump administration - that would revoke the residential status of legal immigrants who have used public programs like food stamps, public housing, Medicaid. Would you explain this?

FOER: Well, I think we need to step back just a little bit and look at what the broad intent of Trump administration policy is. There are 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, and there's a much larger group who have green cards, who are on pathways to citizenship. And the Trump administration knows that it can't round up 11 million undocumented immigrants. Even with our profound investments in immigration enforcement over the decades, there's still not the bandwidth or the infrastructure to do that.

And so if you're trying to seriously and quickly diminish the number of immigrants in this country, you have one very, very powerful tool at your disposal, which is that you have the power of the state to cultivate fear. And so Trump himself has propagated this sense of fear with his rhetoric. The executive orders that have been proposed and in some cases rescinded because they were so overly-broad had the effect of succeeding even when they were failing because the theatrics of those policies helped cultivate a sense of fear.

And so the policy changes that you're talking about may or may not happen. Maybe the government won't restrict citizenship possibilities to people who are on welfare. We don't know how that's going to shake out. The policy itself hasn't actually even been announced, but it's been ominously leaked. And the fact of its ominous leaking is consistent with everything that I'm saying because these press reports have the effect of cultivating fear.

And I've seen this in immigrant communities where I've been with citizens who come from Africa. And they get emails warning them about these policy changes. And they're afraid that the Trump administration is going to begin a program of denaturalizing people who already have been - who've already raised their hand and sworn allegiance to the United States. And they're increasing the pressure on immigrants. They're increasing sense of paranoia.

And the result that the administration hopes to achieve is that some portion of these immigrants will just say, you know, enough. I can't take this anymore. I can't take the possibility of getting deported back to my home country. I'm just going to pack up my bags and leave.

GROSS: Do you get a sense that that's actually happening?

FOER: I've seen it. I've - for my article, I spent time in Columbus, Ohio, with a group of West Africans from the country of Mauritania, a country where they had been tortured and ethnically cleansed. And the prospect of returning to Mauritania is something that gives them nightmares. And so each time I would go back to Columbus, I would see examples of Mauritanians who'd fled to Canada or who had decided to go to New York City, where it's much easier to disappear into the shadows rather than check in with ICE. And so they have no idea whether they're going to actually be detained and deported by ICE, but the prospect of that happening has led them to self-deport.

GROSS: So the person who came up with the idea of self-deportation, Kris Kobach, who's been Kansas secretary of state, he served as vice chair of President Trump's voter fraud commission which has since been disbanded. And he's running for the Republican primary for governor of Kansas. But, as we record this, it's still in a dead heat. So what was Kris Kobach's original concept of self-deportation?

FOER: Kobach had a theory that also goes by a more clinical name, attrition through enforcement. And the idea was that you could make life profoundly uncomfortable for immigrants. You could deprive them of benefits. You could increase a sense of fear. You can make it harder for them to get jobs. And all this pressure would add up. And at a certain point, he argued, that immigrants are rational, that their decision to come to this country and stay in this country is premised on an understanding of their own self-interest. And if the state was able to apply its powers properly then it could induce a state of panic and terror that would cause immigrants to pack up their bags and leave on their own accord.

GROSS: So panic and terror is an implicit part of the policy?

FOER: It's not just implicit. I think it's actually explicit. It's spelled out in the law review articles that he wrote where he first articulated the policy of self-deportation.

GROSS: Is the separation of parents and children at the border a variation on that theme?

FOER: Without a doubt. It's called a zero tolerance policy, and it's all done in the name of deterrence. When the administration explicitly explains it, I think the people that they talk about deterring are the people on the other side of the border. But they also understand that every statement that they make about immigration has a domestic, interior audience, as well. And it's all of a piece in their minds. And so when they separate families at the border, when they implement a Muslim ban, it resonates with this other audience that they hope to hear their message of zero tolerance.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Franklin Foer. His new article, "How ICE Went Rogue," is the cover story of the new edition of The Atlantic magazine, where Foer is a national correspondent. We're going to take a short break then be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "4 ON 6")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Franklin Foer. His new article "How ICE Went Rogue," which is about how ICE was radicalized under President Trump, is the cover story of the new edition of The Atlantic, where Foer is a national correspondent.

So in your article, you write that President Trump has installed a group of committed ideologues to oversee immigration, people with a deep understanding of the extensive law-enforcement machinery that they now control. Let's talk about them. Let's start with L. Francis Cissna, who heads the Office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Tell us about him.

FOER: He is the son of a Peruvian immigrant and a lifetime bureaucrat at the Department of Homeland Security. During the Obama administration, Cissna really didn't like the direction that Obama was driving immigration policy, and he became something of a dissident. And he was able to get himself detailed to the office of Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley. And from that perch, he became this massive source of annoyance to the Obama administration. He was known as the letter writer.

And so he would send missives on behalf of Grassley to the Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson asking him for incredibly detailed information about cases, about policy, with the intention of gumming up the system, of just overwhelming the Department with these requests. And also, he styled himself something of a whistleblower. And so he wanted to show the ways in which Obama Homeland Security officials were overstepping their powers. And now from his perch in the Trump administration, he's really taken an adversarial position to people who are applying for citizenship.

Within the immigration bureaucracy, you have these two wings. You have an enforcement wing, and then you have something that's called the benefits wing. But over time, we've divided those two functions. And Cissna really treats this idea of citizenship as part of an enforcement apparatus. And so he's created a task force that is opening up the cases of people who've already received citizenship to try to hunt down cases of fraud.

And really, I think the thing that he's done that's most symbolically profound is that he's changed the mission statement for his organization. Before he started, the mission statement for his organization declared that the United States was a nation of immigrants. And he's struck that phrase from the mission statement. And in a way, that's all you really need to know about the way that he views his mandate.

GROSS: Another immigration hard-liner in the Trump administration is Gene Hamilton. Tell us about him.

FOER: So one theme that you see among the people who are controlling the immigration bureaucracy is that they started within that bureaucracy almost as soon as they graduated from college and that they've ricocheted back and forth between ICE and the Hill and now the administration. And Gene Hamilton, during law school, got an internship with ICE. And he rose up through the ranks of ICE as an assistant general counsel for ICE in the state of Georgia, where he was prosecuting immigration cases. And then he went to work for Jeff Sessions, who was then the senator from Alabama and the most vociferous and committed immigration hawk on Capitol Hill.

And Sessions is really the mother hen for all of the immigration restrictionists - that everybody in the administration who's running policy got to know one another on the Hill. And they were not central players in the debate over immigration because Sessions was a bomb thrower off to the side. Most - really, up until very, very recently, most Republican senators wanted to support some form of immigration reform. And so these guys on Sessions' staff, these guys on Grassley's staff who are now running the show were regarded even by extremely conservative Republicans just as troublemakers, as guerrilla fighters, as bomb throwers. They weren't people who were taken seriously except for their ability to obstruct.

And so somebody like Hamilton or Stephen Miller, who is one of the president's domestic policy advisers who also worked for Sessions - were people who were on the sidelines then but are now running the show. And they're young, and these are people who understand the intricacies of the immigration system. They know its pressure points. They know the ways in which they can just pull one simple lever, or they can have their boss sign one order. And it makes the whole system run much more efficiently.

GROSS: And Gene Hamilton who you've just been describing is now an adviser to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

FOER: Right. He'd worked with Kris Kobach running the Trump administration's transition on immigration. So they had something that was called a day one book where they concocted all the policies that they wanted to quickly unroll as soon as Trump came to power, which were the very early executive orders - the Muslim ban, the executive order that overthrew Obama-era priorities for ICE.

And Hamilton started off in the Department of Homeland Security working with the first secretary of homeland security, John Kelly. And then once they implemented their important priorities at Homeland Security, he shifted over to work with Jeff Sessions, orchestrating, coordinating immigration policy from the Justice Department. And one thing that I was told constantly is that Jeff Sessions is the de facto secretary of homeland security, that he's the person in the administration who just lives, breathes immigration policy.

It's the thing that he cares about most in the world. It's really the reason that he has suffered some of the indignities that he suffered at the hands of his own boss, who seems to imply that he wants him to resign constantly. And for Sessions, it's worth soldiering on because he's implementing massive policy changes in the domain that matters to him most.

GROSS: So you say it's Attorney General and former Senator Jeff Sessions who's really driving the Trump administration anti-immigration policy. Do you have any idea how he became so anti-immigration?

FOER: So Sessions comes from small-town Alabama, and he shares with Trump this hostility to free trade, to globalization. And I think his views on immigration are of a piece with that. I also think that he has a cultural almost racial hostility to immigration and the transformation of America, a fear of what multiculturalism will do to the country.

GROSS: My guest is Franklin Foer. His article "How ICE Went Rogue" is the cover story of the new issue of The Atlantic. We'll talk more after a break. And linguist Geoff Nunberg will talk about the origin of an expression we're hearing a lot lately - the deep state. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTONIO SANCHEZ'S "FAMILY TIES")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Franklin Foer. His article "How ICE Went Rogue" is the cover story of the new issue of The Atlantic. It's about how the Trump administration radicalized ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency within the Department of Homeland Security responsible for enforcing immigration policy in the U.S., including the removal of undocumented immigrants. Franklin Foer is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.

You say that one of ICE's goals is to run its detention facilities at maximum capacity. Are there actual mandates for how many cells or beds have to be filled at any one time?

FOER: So there has been a quota for the number of beds that ICE has to maintain on a nightly basis. It was stuck into an amendment to an appropriations bill by Senator Robert Byrd, the late Democratic senator from West Virginia. And the Congress had been appropriating vast sums of money to ICE to build up its detention capacity. And the Congress wanted to make sure that ICE was not just maintaining those beds but actually filling them. And during the Obama administration, the Department of Homeland Security made every effort it could to run at maximum capacity because they didn't want to subject themselves to the Congressional criticism that would come if the numbers started to slip. And as it happens, in the last year, that quota has been removed from Homeland Security appropriations, but it's basically become a superfluous requirement given the Trump administration's enforcement agenda.

GROSS: So ICE's detention facilities are run by private corporations. Is there a financial incentive to keep those detention facilities filled?

FOER: The Department of Homeland Security has more contractors than it has employees. There are two big groups. One is called the GEO Group. The other is called CoreCivic. And they spend vast sums lobbying Congress, lobbying the Department of Homeland Security to increase the department's reliance on private detention. And one of the things that I find so disturbing about private detention is that the incentives are all wrong, that these are companies that are trying to maximize profit, and so they have every incentive to cut costs.

And when you hear the stories about these facilities, it really boggles the mind. For starters, the facilities are placed in locales that are cheap, where labor is cheap, where land is cheap, which means that they're often located in really distant places. One of the most important ICE facilities in the South is in the town of Lumpkin, Ga., which is nestled on the border of Alabama. And it's quite a ways from Atlanta. It's quite a ways from other places in the South. And lawyers are just deterred from taking on cases in Lumpkin because it's just - it would require such tremendous time to travel there.

There's one lawyer who's actually moved to town called Marty Rosenbluth. He moved from North Carolina. And he's tried to turn his home into an Airbnb so that he can attract other lawyers to come to Lumpkin, Ga. But the sad fact is - is that there's scant legal representation in the place. I think it's 6 percent of detainees in the Lumpkin facility have lawyers.

And then you look at things like health care or even sanitary conditions. And when NGOs toured the private facilities, they found food to be raw and full of maggots. They found water that tastes like bleach. They found suicide prevention programs that are laughable. In one facility that they toured in New Jersey where you had a lot of cases of severe depression among the detainees whose lives have just been torn asunder, the primary therapy treatment for them is something called bibliotherapy, where detainees were assigned self-help books rather than given the medical attention that they so desperately needed.

GROSS: So these companies that operate for profit, the ICE detention facilities, do they also use their profits to lobby and support political candidates?

FOER: They do. They were major benefactors, for instance, of Donald Trump's inauguration. They've supported legislation at the state level to jack up immigration enforcement. They were primary benefactors of SB 1070 in Arizona, which is really the forerunner piece of legislation really giving the police tremendous power to detain undocumented immigrants.

And, you know, they push for tougher enforcement because tougher enforcement means more, quote, unquote, "inventory" for their facilities. And I use the term inventory because I've talked to people who've heard ICE refer to undocumented immigrants who are headed into detention as inventory. And that just seems to me the logical conclusion of this market-based approach to detaining the undocumented.

GROSS: So what you've described basically is this coming together of extremist, anti-immigrant ideology with corporate profit motive to create the system that we have now.

FOER: It's exactly that, but it's also the self-maximizing nature of bureaucracy, and it's the politics of immigration in our era. Since the 1990s, you've had both political parties racing to prove their bona fides on immigration enforcement. From Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, democrats have willingly participated in the process of legislating ever-greater expenditures to ICE and the Department of Homeland Security. And the system has just started to bloat and grow.

By the time Barack Obama started his second term, we were spending more money on immigration enforcement, on ICE and Border Patrol than on the DEA, FBI, ATF, U.S. Marshals Service combined. We were spending $18 billion on immigration enforcement as opposed to the 14 billion that we were spending on all those other criminal law enforcement agencies. Half of all federal prosecutions were for immigration-related crimes. So everybody - every political party, nearly every politician on Capitol Hill also played their part in creating this system.

GROSS: So there's a movement now to abolish ICE. Since you've done so much research on the history of ICE and how it's functioning now, how it's been radicalized under President Trump and you write that ICE has emerged as a shorthand for what critics say is wrong with Trump's immigration agenda - but you add, ICE doesn't have to be smashed, but the policy needs to be returned to the not-so-distant past. Can you elaborate on that?

FOER: So we need an immigration policy that is much more holistic. As I mentioned, before there was ICE, there was the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and we didn't just think of immigrants as a law enforcement or national security problem. We thought of them as potential citizens. But within ICE, we've isolated immigrants. We've spent all this money treating them as if they're just a problem.

I think it should be said that we need to have some apparatus, some bureaucratic machinery for deporting immigrants because even if immigrants commit crimes at a significantly lower percentage than the rest of the population, there will still be murderers or gang members among that group. And if they don't have citizenship, I don't see why we should have any sort of obligation to keep them here. And so we need to have some apparatus like that.

There are two fundamental problems. One is that our political system has not passed any sort of amnesty. And so you have this massive number of people who are vulnerable who should not be vulnerable. And then the second problem is the problem of bloat, that we've just allowed the system to build to a scale that is so far out of proportion with the problem that it exists to solve.

And so you get something like mission creep. You see this with the Border Patrol or the other massive part of the immigration apparatus where they're so well-funded, they've done such a good job of sealing off the border with Mexico that they've begun to expand their mission to include everything within a hundred miles of the border. So you have them setting up checkpoints on I-95 in Maine or boarding buses in Las Vegas or Orlando, Fla., asking people for their papers. And the bureaucracy that we've erected has relatively unchecked powers. And we haven't given it the narrow, clear mission that it properly deserves.

GROSS: I want to take a short break here and then come back and talk with you about the Paul Manafort trial because you wrote what I think many people consider to be the definitive background piece about Paul Manafort, and you've been closely following the trial. So let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Franklin Foer. He is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. And his article "How Trump Radicalized ICE" is the cover story of the new edition of The Atlantic. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBINO'S "AZAMANE (MY BROTHERS UNITED)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Franklin Foer, a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine. His article "How Ice Went Rogue," which is about how President Trump radicalized ICE, is the cover story of the new issue of The Atlantic.

I want to talk to you about the Paul Manafort trial because you wrote what I think many people consider to be the definitive background piece about Paul Manafort. And I know you've been closely following the trial. I want to start by saying we're recording this on Wednesday and broadcasting it on Thursday, so we're missing a day of trial as we talk about this. But there's still a lot of pieces of the puzzle that we can fill in here.

So Manafort has been alleged to have committed witness tampering, lying to federal prosecutors, bank and tax fraud, failure to register as an agent of a foreign government. Is there something so far as we record this on Wednesday that you think is the most revealing piece of the puzzle that has been revealed during the trial?

FOER: He existed in such a moral cesspool. The amount of money that he was moving around, that he was transporting back into the United States from Ukraine through banks in Cyprus is really astounding. And it's - the thing that I think is so hard to comprehend is that it was done in a totally brazen sort of way where he was the maestro orchestrating that conspiracy to money - to launder money and to lie about his taxes.

But he had so many collaborators. One of the most interesting of course is his primary deputy, a guy called Rick Gates, who he had this almost filial relationship with. They were incredibly close, confidence with one another. They'd been together for decades. Gates started off as an intern in the firm. And Gates was indicted by Mueller. And he's cut his plea deal with Mueller, which has turned him into the primary witness.

GROSS: You tweeted that anyone who dismisses Rick Gates' testimony is not paying attention. He's conducting a master class on the mechanics of money laundering. Now, you've written about Manafort's money laundering in the past. Have you learned anything new and revelatory?

FOER: It's just the way in which it's all explicitly spelled out, that - we learned the reasons why they had to set up accounts in Cyprus because Cyprus was the place where the Ukrainian oligarchs had their own accounts, and so it was much easier for them to shift money around within Cyprus, that there was one guy in Cyprus who Manafort relied on who is referred to in the trial as Dr. K, who set up this raft of shell companies for Manafort. And then we saw the relative ease with which he could move that money from Cyprus into the United States, into his Hamptons properties and the landscaping, the audio, visual equipment that he was buying or the suits.

And I think it's just an important moment of education for the country itself because money laundering is this global scourge. And there's this widespread assumption that the United States is somehow immune from it. But that dirty money wants to be in the United States, and even though our banking system is pretty solid when it comes to money laundering, vast, vast, vast sums end up getting parked in American real estate. And it's just - it's a scourge that we need to pay attention to because it's something where our system has become complicit. And really, you look at the Trump campaign, and you can see the ways in which there's so much about Donald Trump's orbit and his own world where laundered money has found its way.

GROSS: Is this what you mean when you say that this is so much bigger than Paul Manafort; America is reckoning with its very serious kleptocracy problems?

FOER: Exactly right. That's part of the reason why Russia is at the center of this story - is that the Russians - Russian foreign policy, Russian elites have a tremendous interest in effecting policy in the West because they can't afford sanctions. They can't afford for all the capital that they have rooted in places like London and New York to be profoundly disturbed by whoever's in power.

GROSS: You've used the word oligarch a lot in your writing. As somebody who's used the word oligarch, what do you think of the fact that Judge Ellis in the Manafort trial has said that no one is allowed to use the word oligarch in the trial because of its negative connotations.

FOER: I understand where he's coming from. He's trying to keep this case tightly wrapped around the facts. But when he was making - when he was explaining this to the lawyers in the courtroom, he said, you know, these guys are just akin to George Soros or the Koch brothers. That's really not the case. You know, these are people who became rich by looting the state. They took over state enterprises, often in very, very bloody struggles. And they've had to relocate their capital in other countries in order to protect it from being seized back again by political opponents. And so I actually think it's a very precise and useful term to describe them.

GROSS: So one of the things you've done at the Manafort trial is spend a lot of time just staring at Paul Manafort.

FOER: Yeah.

GROSS: What have you gotten out of that?

FOER: Right. So this is a guy who I've spent a lot of time studying. But I've rarely had the opportunity to just sit and observe him. And so when I was in court, I tried to position myself at precisely the right angle where I could just watch him as he moved about. And he's the maestro of his own efforts. He sits there. He huddles with his lawyers. He's giving them directions, passing them notes. But he's also an image guy. That's how he made his money initially. That's how he came to fame and...

GROSS: Reforming the images of strong men.

FOER: Exactly. And now it's his own image that he needs to save. And so I could see him mugging for the jury - that he understands there's just - you know, there are 12 people he needs to convince. And so he sits there. And he flashes them smiles. But he also is trying to style himself as somebody who has gravitas. And so like a senator, he's picked up all these kind of mannerisms with the way that he raises a finger to his mouth, or he tucks his hand into a pocket, or he puts his arm around and adviser. And it's as if he's at a hearing. And you can almost - you can see him whispering with his aides.

And the thing that you know about Manafort - and this is the prosecutor's theory of the case - is that he's somebody who's always acted with impunity. He's always believed that he could get away with it. And as I watched him, I thought to myself, you know, this guy thinks he can win. Despite all the evidence against him, he thinks he can get away with it again.

GROSS: Well, Franklin Foer, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much for your reporting and for being on our show.

FOER: Pleasure.

GROSS: Franklin Foer's article "How ICE Went Rogue" is the cover story of the new issue of The Atlantic. He's a national correspondent for the magazine. After a break, linguist Geoff Nunberg talks about the origin of the expression the deep state and how it started to be used in America. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALFREDO RODRIGUEZ'S "VEINTE ANOS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.