- Interview by
- Luke Savage
If you’ve spent any time on Twitter, there’s a good chance you’ve come across Ken Klippenstein. From getting into a fight with Elon Musk to tricking GOP congressman Steve King into retweeting the words “Steve King is a white supremacist” to his own followers, the former Young Turk and reporter for the Nation has helped to elevate the humiliation of awful people into an art form.
His legendary trolling notwithstanding, Klippenstein has also emerged as one of the Trump era’s most intrepid reporters — regularly delivering scoops on the inner machinations of federal agencies, the administration’s efforts to crack down on activists, and the far right.
Klippenstein spoke to Jacobin about his work, his somewhat heterodox investigative method — and, as we can exclusively report, his forthcoming move to a new role at the Intercept.
I want to begin by talking about a piece you wrote in September, which feels emblematic of your beat and the overall approach your investigative work has taken during the Trump era. Last fall, President Donald Trump refused to condemn far-right group the Proud Boys, remarking, “Almost everything I see is from the left wing, not the right wing.”
But on the same day, as you discovered, the FBI issued an intelligence report warning of an imminent “violent extremist threat” posed by far-right groups and white supremacists. Perhaps you could talk a bit about that piece and how it and others like it partly characterize the approach you’ve taken during the Trump era.
My approach is to talk to the people doing the work — the rank-and-file career people as opposed to the political appointees that staff the White House. Unfortunately, a lot of the major press (like the New York Times) use them as a crutch. The dirty secret of a paper like the Times — not everyone who works there, but many of them — is that they rely on folks in the White House. And I think it’s clear to people that if you’re getting your stuff from the White House . . . what picture is that going to tend to reflect, even if you’re coming at it with a critical lens? Even if the White House is being straight with you about stuff, it’s still the White House! Not only are they political, but they’re way up high in the tower and not doing the actual work.
So I like to talk to the intelligence analysts, the people maybe not in the Washington field office of the FBI, but in different field offices throughout the country, who are doing the work. And what I often find is that maybe I don’t agree with them politically about a lot of things — a whole lot of them are conservatives or centrists — but there is a quiet civil war raging in these agencies in which they are pushing back against what the president is doing and saying. And it’s not exactly from a political point of view, because often they agree with the frameworks of the war on terror or they have a very law-and-order picture of the world. But what the White House has been saying is so remote from the reality on the ground that they can’t do their day-to-day jobs without asserting that simple fact. So what I’ve become is a kind of dissent channel for these folks inside who aren’t able to get what they know out through the major outlets — often because of an overreliance in the media on the cabinet, political appointees, or the White House. They’re often willing to talk, but nobody reaches out to them because they don’t have the prestige of, say, a four-star general or senior executive service member who’s very close to the White House.
A lot of your work involves use of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to probe the inner workings of state bureaucracies, something that’s enabled you to obtain some pretty disturbing findings. In October, for example, you reported that a former White House adviser was involved in surveillance efforts directed at activists and protestors in Portland, Oregon. More recently, you’ve written about the ways in which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) extends the term “terrorism” so that it can apply to almost anything and how it blurs jurisdictional boundaries — something that’s been condemned quite harshly by the ACLU. What would you say is the most sinister thing you’ve found during investigations like these?
I would say what’s happening in Portland, and that’s not just my view. That’s also a view shared by a lot of guys inside who are not leftist by any means. Many of them believe in a law-and-order framework, but they are seeing how insane everything is becoming, to the point that even they’re horrified by it. I got an intelligence product from the Department of Homeland Security that showed that they were tracking people that they thought might be in Antifa in ways that they’re not supposed to do. And you have the president going out and saying that he wants to designate Antifa a terror group, which has no precedent when it comes to a domestic group that doesn’t have foreign funding.
So all of this is extremely concerning, but the major media tends to focus elsewhere. Trump may say these kinds of things, but they’re not going to go and talk to the rank-and-file folks in Homeland Security to find out how they’re being applied. The reality is that the application of the things he’s saying is often much different than the content of what he’s saying. He may not even realize what’s happening on the ground level. So you talk to a lot of these folks, and you find that there are people inside these agencies that are using this as a sort of power grab to push through the types of surveillance methods that they use to monitor people that they wouldn’t have been able to under another administration. And they’re using Trump’s words as a sort of pretext for it, even if they may not share the views. This is a whole parallel scandal that’s happening, that Trump may not even be aware of, and if you only talk to Trump, or you only talk to people in the White House, you might not be aware of it either. So, what I’ve tried to do is cover what gets left behind in the media dogpile that tends to follow from whatever Trump says. I’m more interested in what his administration is doing, which is often distinct from what he’s saying.
Back in October, you remarked that “The big untold story about this administration, I think, is that there is a civil war going on in a lot of the agencies.” In the Trump era, it has often been easy to see federal agencies as direct extensions of the administration. And not without good reason — as you reported in October, ICE has become quite visibly and disturbingly aligned with Trump and his allies, its union even endorsing his reelection bid. But you’ve discovered that there’s actually been some conflict within these giant bureaucracies, especially between partisan appointees and career members of various departments, a schism that’s given you a lot of material to work with. I’m curious how you’d characterize these conflicts within agencies like ICE or DHS, both of which existed before the Trump presidency but have obviously taken on a particularly sinister valence during it.
There’s this unfortunate tendency to view these agencies as monolithic. They’re really not. That’s like saying that Jeff Bezos is going to have the same attitude as someone working in an Amazon factory. Maybe you don’t agree with the guy in the Amazon factory, but he’s going to have a wildly different picture of the world than Bezos. Now, in the same fashion, you’re going to get a much different picture of the world from a four-star general than from a junior officer. I’m not saying don’t talk to the guys at the top, I’m saying don’t only talk to the guys at the top. When you talk to folks — not even low-level ones, still quite high ones, but maybe just not the ones at the very top — again, maybe I don’t agree with them on most political issues, but they are at least somewhere on planet Earth in terms of how they think about what’s admissible in a society that’s supposed to have due process and be free.
When you can at least agree on that basic groundwork of what a civilized society looks like, then they’re willing to talk to you about things. And what I find is that a lot of them feel bad about what’s happening. Nobody signs up to work for ICE who’s on the far left. But, as it’s been described to me, some thought they were signing up to track drug cartels and not to break up families. So, whether or not you agree with the criminal justice framework they might have, there’s a difference in how they’ve been prosecuting these sorts of cases under this administration compared to previous ones. That’s registering in these folks, but unfortunately, it’s not registering in the press because they don’t talk to these guys.
And there are a bunch of different reasons for that. Life is easier if you talk to the guys at the top — you probably went to the same school as the guys at the top if you’re at an elite paper, and you probably come from a similar sort of class background, so you’re able to interact with them more easily. But none of those advantages redound to the benefit of the public who want to know what the hell is going on. So that’s why I wish that people would talk to folks other than those at the executive level.
This week, you’re announcing some pretty major professional news — a move over to the Intercept. What can you tell us about your new role there? Are there any new beats you’ll be taking on? And, since it will almost exactly coincide with the swearing in of a new administration, how do you think the nature of your work will change (if at all) with a Democratic administration in power?
The work won’t change at all. In fact, that’s why I took the job. I’m very protective of my independence. I’ve known Ryan Grim, the DC Bureau chief where I’ll be working, for a long time, and I trust that he’ll continue to respect that independence. The other folks who work there have a similar focus as I do in terms of looking at national security issues through a critical lens. So, what you can expect is more of what I’ve been doing, but with a lot more resources — they have a legal team, for example, and they have other reporters that I can pool sources with. It’s very hard to have to rustle up enough sources for a story on your own. So, one difference is you’ll start seeing stories with shared bylines, where we join forces. I think we’re going to have a lot more firepower, but in terms of the sort of quality or nature of the stories I’m looking at, it’s going to be the same thing I’ve always been doing.
In addition to your investigative work, you’ve also managed to embarrass quite a number of awful people. What’s your all-time favorite or finest troll?
You know, as much as I’d like to be known for my reporting, the reality is that I’m known for this stuff. I guess it’s better than being known as the third Krassenstein brother! I have to say it was Steve King. That was quite funny — not just that he didn’t recognize one of the most iconic scenes in American film, a scene that has Jack Nicholson (an actor you may have heard of) and his speech about how the public can’t handle the truth — but the fact that he didn’t just retweet but quote tweet it and mention the guy’s name. I was careful to use the name from the movie to give him every indication, every way out of this, that he possibly could have, and he still didn’t recognize it! And this guy is a white nationalist who supposedly thinks we need to have one culture, and he doesn’t identify one of the most essential cultural touchstones of the last hundred years. It’s incredible. I thought he was supposed to be Mr America! “I love the culture,” but apparently he’s unfamiliar with it.
I have several ways of getting sources, but one of the big ones is just people being like: “Oh, you’re the guy who trolled Steve King. I remember you!”