'Into The Hands Of The Soldiers' Explores How The U.S. Contributed To Chaos In Egypt

Aug 7, 2018
Originally published on August 24, 2018 9:54 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I want to preface today's interview by mentioning I have a cold, so some croaking may occur during the course of today's show. OK - on to the interview, which was, by the way, recorded yesterday when I sounded a little bit better.

The first time President Trump met Egypt's autocratic president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Trump called him a fantastic guy. Sissi took over in a military coup, overthrowing Mohammed Morsi, who had become the first democratically elected president of Egypt in 2011 following the uprising during the Arab Spring that forced out strongman President Hosni Mubarak. My guest David Kirkpatrick covered all of these changes when he served as the New York Times Cairo bureau chief from 2011 to 2015.

He's written a new book about the Egyptian revolution and the subsequent coup called "Into The Hands Of The Soldiers: Freedom And Chaos In Egypt And The Middle East." It's also about the conflicts within the Obama administration over how to handle these historic events. A little later, we'll talk about Kirkpatrick's recent article about Trump's billionaire friend who helped connect Trump to Arab princes. Kirkpatrick is now an international correspondent for The New York Times. He's based in London.

David Kirkpatrick, welcome back to FRESH AIR. When you were reporting from Egypt during the revolution and then during the military coup, how aware were you of what was happening in the Obama administration and their conflicts over what position to take on the revolution and then the coup?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Well, I was curious more than anything. As the events were unfolding in Egypt, I was again and again asking myself, what could they be thinking? And writing this book was an opportunity for me to find out. So one of the stories within this book is my sort of investigation of just what was going on behind the scenes in the White House.

GROSS: You write that Trump's hard-line approach to extremism, embracing the hawks of the Gulf region and in Israel in the Persian Gulf - that actually started under President Obama. What do you mean?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, there's always been a debate within American policymaking circles between those who think, look; reform, democratic improvements in society, reaching hearts and minds is the way to combat violent extremism and is the way to a more stable Middle East, versus others who say, there are just some bad people out there, and we've got to crush them all, and the sooner we do it, the better. And the military coup in Egypt in 2013 was a foreshadowing of what we now see fully embraced by the Trump administration and a kind of empowerment within the administration of the hawks, of the forces who say, just crush them all - you know, the - all Islamists are a problem, and the only way to deal with them is brute force, really.

GROSS: Who were the hawks in the Obama administration that took that point of view?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, some of them have turned up in the Trump administration. If you count General James Mattis, who's now Secretary of Defense James Mattis, he represented that view within the uniformed military. Brennan, the former CIA chief, is associated with that view. And I think it was sort of percolating around broadly. There was - from the moment that the first uprising against Hosni Mubarak started, there was a lot of doubts about what sweeping democratic change in Egypt might mean for American interests.

GROSS: So during the Obama administration, General James Mattis was the head of CENTCOM. Mattis became Trump's first secretary of defense. General Michael Flynn was the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency during part of the Obama administration. Obama eventually forced him out. And Flynn, of course, became Trump's first national security adviser and stayed in that position just a short amount of time. So what were their roles? What were Flynn's and Mattis' roles in taking sides in the coup? Like, what role did they play?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, I don't know exactly what they said to their Egyptian counterparts during the events that led up to the coup. I do know - and I learned during the reporting of this book for the first time - that General Flynn made a visit to Cairo to meet with the head of Egyptian defense intelligence and the other generals in the runup to the coup, and I know that Mattis met with Sissi. And in general the American military was in constant and deep contact with their Egyptian counterparts because the two militaries worked so closely together.

And as soon as the coup happened, both of those figures were adamantly for it. Mattis went through a period between when he left the uniformed military and when he joined the Trump administration, and in that time, he gave a few speeches that offer us a kind of window into his thinking and I think more broadly, the thinking a lot - of a lot of the military brass. And the position he articulated is that the problem with the Egyptian government - the elected government of President Mohammed Morsi - was basically President Mohamed Morsi. He was an Islamist from the Muslim Brotherhood. And according to Mattis' speeches during that time, he argued that Morsi was too bossy, basically, that his imperious leadership was too much for the Egyptian people, and his removal was all for the best.

Now, his successor, President Sissi, President Abdel-Fattah Sissi, formerly General Abdel-Fattah Sissi, is clearly much more of a strongman and much more of a tyrant than Morsi ever could have been. And all that Mattis has to say about that is, terrific; backing General Sissi is our only hope to try to foster democracy and a civil society in Egypt.

GROSS: You met with Michael Flynn in 2016 in his office, and he warned you that the Muslim Brotherhood, the party that Mohammed Morsi was associated with, had infiltrated Washington, D.C., and that President Obama and his ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, were dangerously close to the Islamists. What did you make of that?

KIRKPATRICK: I thought it was breathtaking. It's really kind of crazy conspiracy thinking. I had some dealings with Ambassador Patterson, the ambassador in Cairo when I worked there. I've talked to many, many people in the Obama administration close to the president. Neither of them had any sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood, per se. And this was a sort of myth on the far right, that by virtue of the fact that the United States government under President Obama recognized the democratic election in Egypt of a president who happened to come from an Islamist party, that somehow President Obama, you know, or Ambassador Patterson were soft on the Muslim Brotherhood or close to the Muslim Brotherhood. And you'll probably remember some of the truly outlandish speculation during President Obama's first campaign for office that he was himself a Muslim.

GROSS: And...

KIRKPATRICK: So all of that, keep in mind.

GROSS: And Donald Trump was one of the people who supported that theory.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. He fanned the flames of that one a little bit.

GROSS: It took him years to give that one up.

KIRKPATRICK: Yes, that's right. So anyway, when I heard all this coming from General Flynn, who had been the head of Defense Intelligence, I thought, my gosh, what's going on here?

GROSS: So John Kerry, who was the second secretary of state under President Obama, called Mohammed Morsi, the first democratically elected president of Egypt who was part of the Muslim Brotherhood - Kerry called him the dumbest cluck I ever met. He said, these guys are wacko. So what did Kerry see?

KIRKPATRICK: From Kerry's point of view - he arrived in Cairo for his first foreign trip as secretary of state, and on his mind was pushing Egypt towards free market-oriented economic reforms, an International Monetary Fund package of reforms. And he wanted President Morsi to make some tough decisions, to cut back on subsidies, to raise taxes, to do a lot of things that were going to be really unpopular. Morsi didn't want to do those things, especially when he hadn't been allowed to see a parliament elected so he could share the responsibility. And further, Morsi had some other ideas about the Egyptian economy that he'd gleaned from other Western economists. The two of them did not see eye to eye at all, and that first meeting was the beginning of a terrible relationship with them.

Against the background of that meeting, we have to keep in mind that Secretary Kerry had never been a fan of the Muslim Brotherhood. He'd always been very suspicious of the movement. And in fact he was quite close for many, many years with many of the Persian Gulf leaders who were the driving - who became the driving force behind the military takeover and really, really, really dreaded the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power.

GROSS: Do you know if President Obama knew what Mattis and Flynn were saying and advocating and how Flynn believed that the brothers had infiltrated Washington and that Obama and Ambassador Anne Patterson were dangerously close to the Islamists?

KIRKPATRICK: I have to say that one of the things that was most striking to me when I began to investigate what was going on in the Obama administration is the degree of discord between the thinking and statements of those around the president and the president himself. At the top of that list are probably former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, former Secretary of State John Kerry, certainly Mike Morell, who had been acting head of the CIA for much of this period. All of them were really quite out of step with what the president himself was thinking and saying. And I don't really understand what's going on there.

People - some people say, well, that's just how an administration is. Other people say President Obama really was fairly detached and didn't want to try to put pressure on people to keep them in line. But I think that's something that future historians are really going to want to look harder at in terms of how President Obama and the administration operated more broadly.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kirkpatrick, who was the New York Times Cairo bureau chief from 2011 to 2015 and is now an international correspondent for the Times, based in London. His new book is called "Into The Hands Of The Soldiers: Freedom And Chaos In Egypt And The Middle East." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE GROUP'S "TELEGRAM")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kirkpatrick. He was the New York Times Cairo bureau chief during the Egyptian revolution and the coup that overthrew the first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi. His new book about the coup and what happened behind the scenes in the Obama administration is called "Into The Hands Of The Soldiers: Freedom And Chaos In Egypt And The Middle East." Kirkpatrick is now an international correspondent for the Times and is based in London.

You know, we're calling Sissi's coming to power as a coup, a military coup, and the military and Sissi overthrew Mohammed Morsi. But the Obama administration didn't call it a coup. Why is the word coup important? Why was it important in terms of the Obama administration and policy?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, the United States has a law on the books that requires the government to stop sending military aid to any military that perpetrates a coup that removes an elected government. The Egyptian military receives $1.3 billion a year in American military aid, and it has for decades - more military aid than any country other than Israel. And that is the bedrock of the American relationship with Egypt and a kind of cornerstone of the American-backed regional order, if you will.

So come the coup, the Obama administration faced a difficult choice, which is, do you call it a coup and then thereby force the cutoff of all that aid, or not? Do you say this isn't a coup? And what do you do about that? And the Obama administration decided not to disclose any decision, basically. They found a way out by just saying, we won't say it's a coup; we won't say it's not a coup. If you were in Egypt, that read like an endorsement of the military takeover.

GROSS: Well, Kerry, when he was secretary of state, actually argued that Morsi's removal wasn't a coup. It was el-Sissi bowing to the public to save Egypt.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, that's remarkable. And you know what's even more remarkable? Not only did he argue that in 2013 when it happened, he told me in 2016 that that's what he argued in 2013, and that's what he still believed and that that...

GROSS: Why is that remarkable?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, it's remarkable because at the time of the military takeover, General Sissi, who carried out the takeover, said, I am really just doing this to protect the aims of the revolution; we're going to have elections; we're going be back on track to democracy. There was at least a promise - maybe not a credible promise, but a promise. Now we know none of that happened. Sissi arranged to have himself elected with 98 percent of the vote, and they did it again four years later. And now he changed the constitution in all likelihood so he can stay in power longer. This is one-man rule. This is a more authoritarian system than we had under Hosni Mubarak.

So whatever pretense of possible democracy there was at the moment of the takeover in 2013 had completely vanished by 2016. And yet, Kerry was still trying to convince me that this was a movement to restore democracy. And while we're at it, as long as we're talking about Secretary Kerry and restoring democracy, one of the moments in this story that was the most uncomfortable for me is between the military takeover and the events at Rabaah Square on August 14, 2013, five years ago - there was a demonstration against the takeover. There were tens of thousands of people camped out. The American government tried its best to work out some sort of accommodation so that the new military leadership around Sissi wouldn't just kill all those people in the square. It wouldn't just crush them all.

And American diplomats were working hard to try to work this out. Secretary of State Kerry, on a trip to Pakistan, was going to be interviewed by television there. And Susan Rice, the national security adviser, called him and said, look; whatever you do, you've got to stay with our talking points here; we cannot say this is a defense of democracy; this is a military takeover. Secretary Kerry went on the air and said, the generals were acting to restore democracy, thereby furthering the Egyptian perception that America had recognized if not endorsed the military takeover and, I have to believe, undermining the efforts to forestall some sort of bloodbath at Rabaah Square.

GROSS: In Rabaah Square, as many as a thousand people were killed. And you covered that. What did you witness?

KIRKPATRICK: It's not an easy question to answer. It was an extremely bloody day, and it was a hard day to live through, a hard day to process as it's happening and hard to think about even now. I've just - I will never forget standing in the lobby of a hospital adjacent to the square where the sit-in had taken place and just watching body after body carried in on a stretcher, the puddles of blood on the floor, the blood darkening the hems of the abayas of the women who were trying to take care of the injured and one woman, sitting cross-legged in the corner with a baby in her arms with only one shoe on, dialing her mobile phone again and again and again, trying to find her husband who of course didn't make it. It's a - I sound sentimental, but it's very, very difficult to wrap your mind around that kind of killing. It's very, very difficult to try to describe it in a newspaper story. It was difficult on every level.

GROSS: Now, you describe how not only did Sissi become a strongman right after he was elected, and rather than saving Egypt, he holds a firm grip over Egypt, but you write that even his clothing changed after he became the ruler of Egypt.

KIRKPATRICK: Well, certainly, his style changed. There's a memorable speech, a speech that every Egyptian knows as the mandate speech. You know, Sissi when he first came out - I'm dropping back now to the day of the coup - he wore a short-sleeve shirt and a beret. He looked almost boyish when he announced, almost with an apology, you know, I'm sorry; I've had to remove the president. And a few weeks later, he's back, and he's got the epaulets. He's got dark glasses. He's got the hard-brimmed cap. And he gives a speech that they remember as the mandate speech, where he said, in climax, you know, I need a mandate to fight terrorism; I want everyone to turn out in the streets one more time to show that they are behind me, that they will support me in my war against terrorism. Everyone knew that what he meant was he wanted their support to crush the protesters at Rabaah with all the force that that required.

GROSS: Is there some kind of, like, special strongman clothing store where all the strongmen kind of buy their outfits?

KIRKPATRICK: (Laughter) You know, I don't know the answer to that. But the change in his wardrobe was just the most superficial part of really sweeping changes in the whole persona of then-general, now-President Sissi. And as I went back to examine those events, that's another one of the things that was really surprising to me to look at closely. Before the coup, you know, when he was serving as the defense minister underneath President Morsi, nominally appointed by President Morsi, he told lots of people - his Egyptian friends, also American officials - that he was happy to serve under an Islamist president who'd been elected.

After the military takeover, he started saying to Ambassador Patterson - Anne Patterson - look, Anne; I always told you these people could never be trusted; they were going to be a disaster to rule Egypt, which of course he had never said, and she cabled that back to Washington. And over time, he's become increasingly convinced, in public and apparently to himself, that he is really the only one who could save Egypt, that it's either him or chaos.

And what's remarkable is now, five years later, he's become even more sure of that. He's still making the same arguments he made on the day of the takeover, that the point of his government, his only agenda, is to preserve the state, to re-establish order, that chaos is around the corner, that he's the only one Egyptians can trust and that it all comes down to him.

GROSS: My guest is David Kirkpatrick, an international correspondent for The New York Times. He was the Cairo bureau chief from 2011 to 2015. His new book is called, "Into The Hands Of The Soldiers: Freedom And Chaos In Egypt And The Middle East." After a break, we'll talk more about the coup, and we'll talk about President Trump's billionaire friend who helped Trump become celebrated in the royal courts of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in spite of Trump's hostility to Muslims. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANO DOMINGUEZ'S "NARDIS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with David Kirkpatrick, an international correspondent for The New York Times who served as the Times' Cairo bureau chief from 2011 to 2015. His new book, "Into The Hands Of The Soldiers: Freedom And Chaos In Egypt And The Middle East," is about covering the Egyptian revolution during the Arab Spring and the subsequent military coup that overthrew democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi. The book also includes Kirkpatrick's new reporting about divisions within the Obama administration about how to respond to the revolution and the subsequent coup.

You haven't been able to speak to Obama - have you? - about how the Egyptian revolution and the coup went down and any regrets he has about how his administration handled it.

KIRKPATRICK: I have not been able to speak to Obama. But I was able to obtain a very detailed record of his final conversation with President Morsi, the Islamist who had been elected president of Egypt, just about 48 hours before the military takeover. And it's that conversation that makes me so confident that Obama personally still held out some hope that Morsi could turn it around and serve out his remaining years in office. I mean, I think...

GROSS: This is the Nelson Mandela talk, right?

KIRKPATRICK: This is the Nelson Mandela talk where...

GROSS: Do you want to describe what Obama said?

KIRKPATRICK: Obama starts with his prepared talking points, which are, Mr. Morsi, you need to try to reach out to your civilian opponents and bring them in so that it's almost a unity government. And that will help you have more credibility and stabilize things. This is a message that the Obama administration had been trying to give to President Morsi for a long time. And Morsi kind of nodded along but didn't seem to get it. And the president - President Obama - puts aside his talking points. At that time, he'd been traveling in Southern Africa, and he had visited Nelson Mandela who was sick in the hospital. We all thought he was going to die at that time. And President Obama says - he puts aside his talking points, and he brings up Nelson Mandela.

And he says, look, President Morsi, you know, take this example. Mandela - after he came to power in the first post-apartheid government in South Africa, he even brought his former jailer into the government to be head of security. And that is how he convinced people that this was really a government they could all be part of. And so that's a fairly earnest comment, especially coming from the first African-American president of the United States of America. And Morsi seems to get it. You know, he's saying, you know, this is really good advice from a sincere friend of me and of Egypt, and I appreciate it.

And looking back, both of them were not getting it at all because by that time, the Egyptian military was already sending its F-16s to paint hearts in the sky with their contrails over downtown Cairo. So they were firmly backing the protests calling for Morsi's ouster, and really the coup was already in motion.

GROSS: But it sounds like some of the people in the Obama administration knew that the coup was going to happen. They had advanced warning of it. Are you saying that the president didn't?

KIRKPATRICK: You know, I am not sure how the information traveled within the White House. I know that months before it happened, Ambassador Patterson was saying to Washington there is very likely to be at least a coup attempt. I don't know at what point people in Washington began to think that it was more than an attempt or that the outcome was preordained. Judging from that last phone call, President Obama clearly did not realize that the military was already in motion.

GROSS: You had a few close calls while you were covering the revolution in Egypt and the coup, and there was one time that I want you to talk about. You were with your translator who was Coptic Christian, and there was a lot of friction between the Islamists and the Christians. And you were both arrested, and you had no idea what was in store. And at some point, he whispers to you, I have a gun. Save yourself. What was he trying to tell you?

KIRKPATRICK: (Laughter) He was trying to tell me just that - to get out. It was - that was really an exceptional day. The thing you have to remember about this particular translator is not only was he a Coptic Christian with a cross tattooed on his wrist. He also had adopted the kind of hipster affectation of a long, fluffy beard, which in the Egyptian context made him look like an Islamist. So he could sort of pass back-and-forth.

So we had been out covering an Islamist march, and he was just blending in with the crowd. And somebody from his neighborhood recognized him, and suddenly the mob started attacking both of us. That went on for a while (laughter). Then they were interrogating us. Then they handed us over to the police, and the police were no longer worried about my translator. Then they were worried about me. They were concerned if I was a spy. So they marched us up to the police chief's office, and they sat us down on the couch. And at that point, I thought, OK, we're safe 'cause this, frankly, happened to me fairly often - that I would be turned over to the police. And they would wonder if I was a spy. The state media operation would vouch for me, and we would go on our way.

And there we were sitting in the police chief's office surrounded by police, and he leans over to me. The translator leans over to me to whisper in my ear that he, in fact, had been carrying a concealed weapon the whole time without a license. Now, as you know, in the United States, that's illegal. In Egypt, it's super illegal. So if that were known, we were both going to jail for a while. And it was a frightening moment for me, and I don't know how he expected me to try to get out and save myself. But it certainly - I certainly didn't see any way to do that. So I just kept smiling and sipping tea and talking about what a wonderful translator he is. And thank God none of the Islamists bothered to search us, and neither did the Egyptian police. And we were able to go on our way.

And the thing that is - one of the many things about that day that is memorable to me is as we're walking down the stairs out of the police chief's office, the Islamist who had turned us over, who was still with us, by that time, had begun to feel very friendly with my Coptic translator. They were passing back-and-forth phone numbers. They were vowing to stay in touch. And they were both giving me the usual speech about how Egypt, really, at heart was a very tolerant country where Muslims and Christians always lived together in peace.

GROSS: What did you say to your translator when that episode was over about the gun?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, I try to say very politely that we would no longer be able to employ him as an interpreter for The New York Times.

GROSS: Yeah. Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kirkpatrick, and he was the Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times from 2011 to 2015. He's now an international correspondent for the Times based in London. He has a new book called "Into The Hands Of The Soldiers: Freedom And Chaos In Egypt And The Middle East." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN SONG, "GBEDE TEMIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kirkpatrick. He was the New York Times Cairo bureau chief from 2011 to 2015 and is now an international correspondent for the Times based in London. His new book is called "Into The Hands Of The Soldiers: Freedom And Chaos In Egypt And The Middle East." Kirkpatrick is now an international correspondent for the Times and is based in London.

OK, so let's skip ahead to President Trump and talk about President Trump's relationship with General Sissi, who is now the strongman of Egypt. Trump called Sissi a fantastic guy when they first met in September of 2016. And Trump said he took control of Egypt, and he really took control of it. What do you know about their relationship? And if it's a transactional relationship, what's in it for each of them right now?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, for Sissi, what's in it is clear. The recognition from Trump confers on him some legitimacy. The Obama administration for a while had suspended - didn't cut off, but it suspended the economic - the military aid to Egypt. Trump is certainly not going to do that. From Trump's point of view, Sissi really represents Trump's preferred approach to the problems of the region, which is basically to crack down and crack down hard.

Sissi makes no distinction between the kind of Islamists who prefer elections or at least say they prefer elections and other Islamists who try to fly bombs into tall buildings, and neither does President Trump. So they have a real meeting-of-the-minds on that. And I think when we take a further step back, we see that the Persian Gulf states that strongly backed Sissi in the military takeover and after the military takeover are also very close to President Trump as well.

GROSS: You had an article on June 13 that was headlined "Who Is Behind Trump’s Links To Arab Princes? A Billionaire Friend." And the billionaire friend who you wrote about in that article is the financier Tom Barrack. And you credit him with helping Trump's improbable transformation from a candidate who campaigned against Muslims to a president celebrated in the royal courts of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the UAE. Who is Tom Barrack, and what was his role in the Trump campaign?

KIRKPATRICK: So Tom Barrack is a real estate financier who's been enormously successful. He is a Lebanese American who became a quite successful private equity investor. He's a billionaire, and he's been friends with President Trump for decades. One of the ways that he has made his money in private equity is by courting really strong relationships with a lot of the wealthy Persian Gulf princes. And when President Trump was running for president, Tom Barrack stepped in to try to build bridges there. And I can only imagine that he thought he was going to get his commission on both sides, as you might say, that this would be good for his business with the Persian Gulf. It would also be good for his relationship with President Trump. So it was a win-win.

But he early on - and I was able to obtain some emails that he had sent to the Emirati ambassador to Washington, Yousef Otaiba. And you can see from those emails that quite early on when - the Arab leaders, including the Persian Gulf leaders, were very suspicious of President Trump because President Trump, during his campaign, had been quite outspokenly and broadly critical of really all Muslims and of Islam itself. During that time, Tom Barrack was working hard to personally vouch for the president to try to set up some communications behind the scenes so that he could reassure them that Trump was on their side and basically that Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner saw the world the way that the Persian Gulf saw the world, which is really that there are two main enemies - political Islam, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and Iran and that a new coalition could be put together around that.

You know, we're - hovering over all of this, of course, is the oddity of these Arab leaders, who often posture as though they are themselves defenders of Islam, becoming close friends with an American politician who seemed to be quite anti-Muslim or anti-Islam during his political career. And it's worth noting that if you're a sort of liberal Arab intellectual, your answer to this is of course.

What these two sets of people have in common is neither one believes that Arabs and Muslims are ready to govern themselves, that, you know, for years, these Arab autocrats have been selling themselves to the West by saying, it's us or it's chaos because you can't trust the people we rule. They can't govern themselves. It's all going to slide to radicalism if you don't stick with us - the kings, the strongmen, the generals, the president. And that is close to the view that President Trump appears to have embraced.

GROSS: So Tom Barrack - the billionaire, friend and supporter of Trump's - tried to set up a meeting between the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and Paul Manafort back when Manafort was Trump's campaign manager. What happened with that?

KIRKPATRICK: I'm told that meeting never took place. That for one reason or another, it didn't come off. But the email traffic shows elaborate efforts to set up a quiet meeting in a hotel someplace that the press wouldn't know about. It's interesting. This was a meeting orchestrated by the Emiratis who, at that time, were promoting then Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman as the future crown prince and the sort of upcoming ruler of Saudi Arabia. And they were trying to make inroads for crown prince - then Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman with the Trump administration even at the highest level. So it's under the rubric of trying to build these early, behind-the-scenes ties between these Persian Gulf leaders and the Trump campaign before it became the Trump administration.

GROSS: Tell us more about what the Saudis and the Emiratis have gotten out of their close relationship with President Trump.

KIRKPATRICK: Well, the biggest thing is Trump turning away from the Iran nuclear deal, the deal that President Obama worked out to try to relax sanctions on Iran in exchange for Iran limiting its nuclear program to civilian uses. That agreement, which was valuable to Obama because he was concerned about Iranian nuclear weapons, is anathema to the Persian Gulf leaders because they're just concerned about Iran - Iranian conventional weapons, Iranian mischief around the region, Iran. So they didn't like the legitimization that that deal appeared to confer. Trump has torn that up. That is a great delight to the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Getting rid of former Secretary of State Tillerson was another objective of theirs. So in that sense, Trump has been very appealing to them. And in general, you know, his first foreign trip I think was to Riyadh, where he stood shoulder to shoulder with the monarchs of the UAE and Saudi Arabia and expressed solidarity with them. And he's really reorganized American policy in the region around the concerns that those Gulf leaders share, which is facing off against Iran and opposition to political Islam.

GROSS: Do you think that the Saudis and Emiratis actually influenced President Trump's decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal? Or do you think that President Trump's, like, position just happened to coincide with the position of the Emiratis and the Saudis?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, I certainly can't read the mind of President Trump. But I will say that the Saudis and the Emiratis were not the only ones pushing for that outcome. Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel also was pushing for that outcome for similar reasons - that he considers all of Iran and Iranian policy to be a problem not just the Iranian nuclear weapons. And so if we were to say, well, the Emiratis and the Saudis deserve credit for that, I think Prime Minister Netanyahu would demand an apology because he thinks that he deserves credit for that change from the Trump administration.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kirkpatrick, who was the New York Times Cairo bureau chief from 2011 to 2015 and is now an international correspondent for The Times based in London. His new book is called "Into The Hands Of The Soldiers: Freedom And Chaos In Egypt And The Middle East." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUY MINTUS TRIO'S "OUR JOURNEY TOGETHER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is David Kirkpatrick, who was the New York Times Cairo bureau chief during the Egyptian revolution and the coup that overthrew the first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi. Kirkpatrick's new book about the coup and what happened behind the scenes in the Obama administration is called "Into The Hands Of The Soldiers: Freedom And Chaos In Egypt And The Middle East." Kirkpatrick is now an international correspondent for The Times and is based in London.

So what has President Trump gotten in return for his alliance with the Saudis and the Emiratis?

KIRKPATRICK: You know, that's a very good question. And I guess that it would be an omission not to note that the special prosecutor Robert Mueller appears to be looking into that as well. You know, as we've discussed on this program before, the Emiratis in particular sent an emissary to the Trump campaign during the election on August 3 of 2016 offering help of some kind electing Trump. And that emissary George Nader represented himself as speaking on behalf of both Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and the Emirati leaders. What became of that is still a question. But it's a question that the special prosecutor is also asking.

GROSS: One of the benefits you say for the Trump administration of the alliance with the Saudis and the Emiratis is that when the president decided to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, the Emiratis and the Saudis only gave like pro forma opposition. They didn't really make a thing out of it.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, that's right. And I was able to obtain some leaked audio recordings of a Egyptian intelligence officer actually coaching Egyptian talk show hosts and other media personalities on how to convince the Egyptian public that really it wasn't that big a deal. So while the Egyptian government was making very pro forma gestures of protest against the administration recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, instead of letting it wait for a Palestinian peace agreement, it appears that Egyptian intelligence was quietly putting out the word to opinion shapers that - you know what? - this is not that big a deal. Let's look at the long term - blah, blah, blah. You know, is Jerusalem that much different than Ramallah - which is really quite a striking turn for Egypt and quite a striking dichotomy between their private statements and their public statements.

GROSS: And Tom Barrack, the billionaire friend of Trump's who has been a kind of intermediary between the Saudis, Emiratis and Donald Trump, he's been questioned in the Mueller probe - what? - about Manafort and Gates?

KIRKPATRICK: My understanding is that he was questioned only about Manafort and Gates. Tom Barrack seems to have ties with everybody here, doesn't he? He has long-standing ties with Gates or at least with Manafort going back years. He worked with Gates on the presidential inaugural committee, and then his company, Colony NorthStar, hired Gates after the election. Gates was let go once he was indicted. But there's certainly many other things that the special prosecutor could've asked Tom Barrack about, and my understanding on good authority is that he was not asked about any of the Gulf electoral questions.

GROSS: So it's money, basically, that he's being asked about.

KIRKPATRICK: I think Barrack is - I don't know what exactly Barrack was asked about, but it had to do with Manafort and Gates. I don't think it had to do with what the Emiratis or the Saudis...

GROSS: Right.

KIRKPATRICK: ...May have done to help Trump during the election.

GROSS: You write that since Trump won the nomination that Barrack's company got more than $7 billion in investments, and 24 percent of those came from the Gulf - from the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia.

KIRKPATRICK: That's right. I'm relying on people inside the company for those numbers. But no matter how you slice it, those are big numbers, and a lot of it is coming from the UAE and Saudi Arabia. They're real mainstays of Tom Barrack's private equity business.

GROSS: So you're living in London now, still working for The New York Times. And I'm wondering, like, if you think the lens through which you're seeing London has been affected from your years in Cairo.

KIRKPATRICK: My time in Cairo and covering the Arab Spring has made me much more sensitive than I was previously to what I guess I should just call anti-Muslim bigotry. I find that when I move in sophisticated liberal circles in the U.S. or the U.K., the only group that you can make sort of pejorative generalizations about today in respectable circles is Arabs and Muslims.

You know, I was at dinner just the other night with a bunch of journalists in London, and we were talking about the Arab Spring. And one of them said to me, yeah, so what really went wrong there? Was it Islam? And I was really struck because I can't - you know, you can't substitute any other religion in that sentence and get away with saying it in polite company. And I wasn't nearly as sensitive to that as I was when I - once I got back from having covered Egypt.

You know, liberal intellectuals in the Arab world will all tell you that Westerners can't really support Arab authoritarianism. Westerners who are happy with their own democratic governments at home - they can't really support Arab authoritarianism without a kind of bigotry, to put it bluntly, that you have to believe that Arabs and Muslims are somehow fundamentally different in order to believe that those kinds of governments are justified in that part of the world and they're not justified at home.

GROSS: Well, David Kirkpatrick, I want to thank you so much. It's always good to talk with you. Thank you, and congratulations on your book.

KIRKPATRICK: It's a pleasure. Thanks for having me back.

GROSS: David Kirkpatrick is an international correspondent for The New York Times. He covered the Egyptian revolution and subsequent coup when he was the Times' Cairo bureau chief. His new book is called "Into The Hands Of The Soldiers: Freedom And Chaos In Egypt And The Middle East."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Jennifer Fox, the writer and director of the Emmy-nominated HBO film "The Tale," a fictional memoir based on her experience being sexually abused at age 13 by her running coach. It took her years to realize that the story she told herself then, that this was a relationship based on love, was really a story of child sexual abuse. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON GOLDBERG AND GUILLERMO KLEIN'S "AIRPORT FUGUE")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON GOLDBERG AND GUILLERMO KLEIN'S "AIRPORT FUGUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.