WhattheHELLis Going On?



WhattheHELL is this?

The American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka and Marc Thiessen address the questions we’re all asking in their podcast, “What the Hell Is Going On?” In conversational, informative and irreverent episodes, Pletka and Thiessen interview policymakers and experts, asking tough, probing questions about the most important foreign policy and security challenges facing the world today.

whotheHELL is Dany?

Danielle Pletka

is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Until January 2020, Dany was the senior vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at AEI. A former senior professional staff member on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, she now writes regularly on national security matters with a special focus on Iran, Syria, Israel, and South Asia.

Written work

Dany is a contributor, coeditor, and coauthor of several books. She is the coeditor of “Dissent and Reform in the Arab World: Empowering Democrats” (2008), the coauthor of “Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran” (2011), and the coauthor of “Iranian influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan” (2012). She contributed the chapter “America in Decline” to the 2016 edited volume, “Debating the Obama Presidency.”


A regular guest on television, Dany appears frequently on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Her broadcast appearances also include CBS News, CNN, C-Span, and MSNBC. She is also a frequent contributor to mainstream outlets, and has been published in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Atlantic, among other outlets.

whotheHELL is Marc?

Marc A. Thiessen

is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist at The Washington Post, where he writes twice a week on politics, foreign affairs, and domestic policy. In 2018, the Post syndicated his column nationally and it was picked up by 178 newspapers, the most successful launch of a new syndicated column in Washington Post history.


Marc served as a member of the White House senior staff under President George W. Bush, where he was chief speechwriter to the president and lead writer on two State of the Union addresses. Before that, Marc served as chief speechwriter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. His inside account of the CIA’s terrorist interrogation program, “Courting Disaster,” was a top-ten New York Times bestseller.


Marc is a Fox News contributor and appears several times a week on programs including “The Story with Marth McCallum” and “Special Report with Bret Baier.” At AEI, Marc studies and writes about American presidential leadership, US foreign and defense policy issues, and contributes frequently to the AEIdeas blog.

HowtheHELL do I listen?

Just weeks before the election, polls show President Trump trailing former Vice President Biden by a substantial margin. However, 2016 polls predicated a significant Clinton victory, failing to account for a number of Trump voters who turned up on election day. Does Trump still have a chance? Or is this election a runaway for Biden?

What’s going on in the White House? Three weeks out from the 2020 election, has President Trump fully recovered from COVID? Does he have a strategy beyond his base? What would a second term hold?

With the presidential election less than a month away, how worried should Americans be about foreign interference? Is there any truth behind accusations of politicization at the Justice Department? And will John Durham’s report on the origins of the Russia collusion investigation be complete before the election?

WTH is going on with peace in the Middle East II?
Ambassadors of UAE and Bahrain on their new peace with Israel

Danielle Pletka, Marc A. Thiessen, Yousef Al Otaiba, and Shaikh Abdullah bin Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa

In part 2 of Dany and Marc’s podcasts on the new Middle East peace, Emirati ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba and Bahraini ambassador Shaikh Abdullah bin Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa joined the show to talk about the Abraham Accords, the Palestinian cause, Iran and much more. Are more agreements ahead? Will Iran and Salafi jihadis target these ground-breaking Gulf leaders? What does peace with Israel mean?

Earlier this month, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain made history by normalizing relations with Israel. The Trump administration has since suggested that additional Arab countries are considering following suit.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s court vacancy has already caused quite a stir in Washington, with Republicans arguing that President Trump should immediately fill the vacancy and Democrats countering (with arguments lifted from 2016) that the choice should fall to the next president given the closeness of the election. With just over a month until the polls, what will happen?

After supporting and using the filibuster for years, Joe Biden announced in July that, if elected president, he would support eliminating the legislative maneuver. As more Senate Democrats come out in support of abolishing the filibuster, what could this mean for American democracy?

How did the United States become the world’s top oil producer? What will the upcoming presidential election mean for US energy dominance? How will COVID impact global energy consumption moving forward? And when will self-driving cars become the norm?

With less than two months until the 2020 presidential election, the Trump and Biden campaigns are working tirelessly to convince undecided voters to choose their candidate. But with ongoing racial unrest, the coronavirus, and increasingly radical political agendas, what’s really at stake in this year’s election?

On May 15, President Trump announced Operation Warp Speed, an unprecedented effort to develop a coronavirus vaccine as quickly as possible. With a number of vaccines already in Phase 3 clinical trials, the administration is hoping for results by January 2021.

The Supreme Court recently ruled against the Trump administration’s attempt to abolish DACA, the Obama-era program protecting DREAMers from deportation. However, the Court’s opinion may have unforeseen consequences for the Constitution and balance of powers.

Following the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests, Sen. Tim Scott introduced the JUSTICE Act, which aimed to address police abuses and systemic issues affecting at risk communities. Despite Republicans’ offer to allow votes on as many amendments as Democrats wanted, Senate Democrats voted to block the bill.

During an Oval Office interview with Marc last week, President Trump acknowledged for the first time that, in 2018, he authorized a covert cyberattack against Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the troll farm that spearheaded Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and was doing the same in the 2018 midterm elections.

The New York Times reported that the Russian government was paying Taliban fighters to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan. As the story unfolded, questions about the veracity of the intelligence, Putin’s motives, and the Trump administration’s knowledge of the incident muddied the waters.

Protesters are tearing down statues across America in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and ongoing Black Lives Matter demonstrations. While some statues, such as those dedicated to Confederate soldiers, deserve reconsideration, statues of Union general Ulysses S. Grant, President Abraham Lincoln, and founding father George Washington have also come under fire.

The May US jobs report blockbuster was a shock to many who expected more bad news. But there’s additional data that shows positive signs, indicating that the economy might rebound from the coronavirus lockdown faster than initially expected.

Is the United States going to defund the police? As protests against the murder of George Floyd continued this week, demonstrators took to the streets to demand that politicians address systemic racism by defunding America’s police forces.

What should Congress be doing to push back on China in the wake of the coronavirus? And what will the pandemic, widespread protests for racial equality, and growing political polarization mean for 2020 elections?

Edward Snowden leaked thousands of classified NSA documents to three journalists in 2013, exposing innumerable national security secrets, including information about a surveillance program with the ability to track metadata from calls within the United States.

The United States was overwhelmed by protests this week, as thousands took to the streets to demonstrate against the unjust killing of George Floyd. Unfortunately, some protests turned violent, with organized groups such as Antifa exploiting outrage over racism and police brutality to sow further unrest.

How does the Trump administration plan to counter China’s growing aggression? Following Beijing’s announcement that it would impose a new national security law threatening Hong Kong’s freedom, the administration said it would begin the process of rolling back America’s special relationship with the city.

The Justice Department recently dropped its charges against Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security advisor. The decision has reignited the debate over Flynn’s alleged collusion with the Russian government, the Obama administration’s role, and whether, in light of new evidence, Flynn has been exonerated.

Is democracy in decline? Despite historic protests in Hong Kong, Lebanon, Chile, and more, Freedom House found that 2019 was the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. What explains this trend? And what hope does democracy have moving forward?

There were 158,000 “deaths of despair” in the US in 2018. Think of it as three fully loaded Boeing 737 MAX jets falling out of the sky every day for a year. In their new book, “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism,” Anne Case and Angus Deaton talk about the other epidemic decimating American communities, now exacerbated by the coronavirus.

A congressional China task force lost its Democratic members earlier this year. But the GOP is sticking with the House China task force. It’s designed to set priorities, coordinate legislation, and reorient Congress’s approach toward Beijing in the wake of the coronavirus.

The international community has recognized Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela for over a year, yet Nicolás Maduro’s regime remains in power in Caracas. Last week, a group of ex-Venezuelan soldiers and American mercenaries tried to oust Maduro, only to be quickly defeated by forces loyal to the regime.

Last year, protests dominated Hong Kong after Beijing introduced a controversial extradition bill that would allow citizens to face trial in mainland China. Since then, millions of protesters have taken to the streets to demonstrate against Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party.

As Americans began the coronavirus quarantine in mid-March, alarming social media posts and widely circulated texts warned of military-imposed lockdowns and travel bans within the US. New reports suggest that Chinese agents may have played a role in propagating those messages to deliberately sow discord throughout the country.

As states debate whether and how to reopen in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, local and federal officials are starting to realize that we may have to reopen without reaching the public health milestones outlined by medical professionals.

The coronavirus has cost the US thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. As it becomes increasingly apparent that the Chinese government’s negligence exacerbated the virus’ spread, legal scholars, politicians, and citizens alike have questioned whether America should hold Beijing financially liable.

When the coronavirus first surfaced, conventional wisdom and the Chinese government suggested it emerged from a wet market in Wuhan. However, newly uncovered State Department cables give credence to the theory that the virus may have leaked from a research facility just down the road.

Weeks into the coronavirus lockdown, it’s still nearly impossible to find toilet paper at local stores. Americans are getting desperate, and everyone’s asking the same question: When will the hoarding stop?

Taiwan, an island just 81 miles off the coast of China, should have seen the second-largest outbreak of coronavirus in the world. Yet, despite lies from Beijing and exclusion from the World Health Organization, Taiwan has emerged as a model for pandemic management. How did Taiwan do it?

As the coronavirus continues to disrupt everyday life in the US, many have questioned whether American officials should have seen the virus coming. Is it possible that, as with 9/11, experts’ strategic warnings were overlooked until it was too late?

Millions of Americans have filed for unemployment benefits as the timeline of the coronavirus lockdown remains unclear. In light of rising economic uncertainty, Congress authorized a $2 trillion relief bill, including $350 billion to support small- and mid-sized businesses. But will that be enough?

With the world on coronavirus lockdown, there’s one question on everyone’s mind: When will things go back to normal? As US cities start to hit peak COVID numbers, states must prepare for a gradual recovery while also looking toward preventing the next pandemic.

After a six-week delay from when the US had its first coronavirus case, America is finally starting to catch up to South Korea’s testing capacity. What went wrong inside the FDA, and why was our government so far behind?

The Senate just passed a $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill, the largest economic rescue package in US history. Will it be enough to save the economy from collapse? And what will the bailout package mean for the US deficit in the longterm?

The US economy continued to plummet this week as the country remained on lockdown because of the coronavirus. With businesses closing and workers being laid off, what will the virus mean for 2020 and President Trump’s re-election prospects?

As businesses and schools across the country close because of the coronavirus, Americans are starting to realize just how economically dependent we are on China. With a vast majority of our essential and generic drugs running through the country, it’s time for Americans to reevaluate the US-China trade relationship.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), enacted in 1978 as part of the Watergate reforms, oversees and approves surveillance warrants against foreign spies and terrorists in the US. The secretive FISA Court bypasses normal warrant requirements and allows the government to conduct surveillance using classified information.

In 1986, Soviet leaders deliberately lied to the world about the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Putting millions at risk, the government prioritized regime stability over a public health emergency. As the death toll from the coronavirus continues to rise, we likewise see authoritarian systems suppressing information, ultimately facilitating the disease’s spread.

In their new bestselling book, “A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America,” Pulitzer Prize winning authors Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker provide detailed reporting on President Donald Trump’s character, his leadership, and his personal and political style.

After visiting Moscow in 1988, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders praised the Soviet system and established a sister city relationship with his hometown of Burlington, Vermont. Throughout his time in office, Sanders regularly hobnobbed with and supported Communist, anti-American and anti-Israel leaders.

The UK recently announced that it would allow the Chinese telecom company Huawei to build portions of its new 5G network. The British decision shocked many US government officials, including President Trump, who had been advising against Huawei’s involvement due to national security concerns.

Last night, President Donald Trump delivered his third State of the Union address, touching on his administration’s foreign policy and domestic successes. Making history as the first speech delivered by a president who is about to be acquitted in an impeachment trial, Democrats responded contemptuously with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ending the night by publicly tearing up a copy of Trump’s speech.

Chinese officials have confirmed thousands of cases of the coronavirus as foreign governments continue to evacuate their citizens from the city of Wuhan, thought to be the disease’s point of origin. With multiple cases identified in America and stock prices plummeting, how worried should we be about the virus’s spread?

The Washington Post recently published the Afghanistan Papers, drawing parallels to the Vietnam War’s Pentagon Papers. Throughout the report, the Post alleges that the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations all lied to the public about America’s progress in the war in Afghanistan.

In a major rebuke to China, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen won a landslide victory in the country’s presidential election. Despite trailing in the polls mere months ago, record numbers came out to support Tsai in an effort to save the country’s democracy from becoming a second Hong Kong.

Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani was killed by a US air strike in Baghdad last week, escalating tensions in the region and sparking an Iranian strike on two military bases in Iraq. Following the attack, President Trump announced new economic sanctions and said that America would no longer tolerate Iran’s campaign of terror.

Despite various domestic and foreign policy achievements, President Trump made a number of grave mistakes in 2019. He asked the president of Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden, used his emergency authority to circumvent Congress on the border wall, invited the Taliban to Camp David, and gave Turkey a greenlight to invade Syria and attack our Kurdish allies.

In his third year in office, President Donald Trump continued to deliver an extraordinary list of both domestic and foreign policy accomplishments. He delivered for the forgotten Americans, got NATO allies to cough up more money, stood with the people of Hong Kong, and ordered the operation that killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

What does the Trump administration see as the largest foreign policy priority for the upcoming year? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joined Dany and Marc to discuss national security challenges – and the Trump administration’s successes.

Last Thursday, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party dominated the UK elections, earning a critical victory that will finally pave the way for Brexit. Breaking through the impermeable “Red Wall,” Johnson’s party emerged with 365 parliamentary seats—the largest Conservative win since 1987.

In 2018, US-backed forces in Syria annihilated a Russian platoon of mercenaries, killing hundreds after the Kremlin-supported private army tried to take an American position in Deir al-Zour. The Russian government denied knowledge of the shadowy group, which has been spotted sowing discord in Ukraine, Libya, and the Central African Republic, among other countries.

Iran is currently experiencing its deadliest political unrest since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago. The regime in Tehran has already killed hundreds of civilians and arrested 7,000 people as anti-government protesters take to the streets to demonstrate against corruption and the country’s faltering economy.

The former President of Poland and founding Chairman of Solidarity Lech Walesa joined the podcast to discuss his experience with anti-government protests and offer advice to the people of Hong Kong. Promising to stand with demonstrators, Walesa states that he would be willing to go to Hong Kong and fight for the democratic ideals that […]

World leaders gathered in Germany last week to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. But three decades after that momentous occasion, we are once again seeing the rise of socialism, a system of governance that put people in chains both politically and economically. […]

November 4th marked the 40-year anniversary of the Iranian hostage crisis, when a group of Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans captive for 444 days. Four decades later, has the Islamic Republic of Iran changed its ways? And what role does the hostage nightmare continue to play in US-Iran relations?

Over the weekend, President Trump announced that the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed during a raid by US commandos in Syria’s Idlib province. And while Baghdadi’s death is a clear victory in the war on terror, eliminating the leader of ISIS will not eliminate the threat nor defeat the larger Salafi-jihadi movement. […]

WTH is going on with quid pro quos?
This for…what?

Danielle Pletka, Marc A. Thiessen, Lester Munson

Everyone in Washington set their hair on fire following White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s apparent admission of a quid pro quo for his assistance to Ukraine in his news conference last week. But are quid pro quos really that bad? (Depends on the quo.) Has the US government used them before? And shouldn’t foreign aid always be dependent on getting something that’s good for America in return?

President Trump recently withdrew US forces from northeastern Syria, greenlighting a Turkish offensive against Washington’s erstwhile Kurdish allies. Trump’s decision surprised many in Washington, including members of his own administration, who point out that pulling American troops not only undermines US alliance credibility, helps Russia, ISIS, and Iran, but also leaves the Kurds, a group that has been integral to the fight against ISIS, out to dry.

What the hell is going on with impeachment? Is President Trump about to be removed from office? Or will this backfire on the Democrats? As the impeachment inquiry drags on, new questions about Trump’s conversations with foreign leaders, the Bidens’ involvement in Ukraine, and the future of American politics continue to emerge.

Dany and Marc interviewed Congressman Michael Waltz to hear his unique perspective on the collapse of the US-Taliban talks, how the US can succeed in Afghanistan, and what Congress and the president are getting wrong about America’s fight in the region.

What the hell is going on in cyberspace? Could the United States defend itself from a Russian, Chinese, or Iranian cyberattack? As the world becomes increasingly dependent on technology, the US faces new cyber threats that could have catastrophic consequences for the global economy and US national security.

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for strikes against two of Saudi Arabia’s largest oil facilities on September 14, but the US has said there is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen, instead blaming Iran. So who’s really responsible? And should the US respond?

As the Trump administration and Taliban officials wrap up negotiations, many fear that a US withdrawal could return Afghanistan to the terrorist safe haven it was before the 9/11 attacks. General David Petraeus joined the show to discuss his time in the region and the importance of keeping troops on the ground.

Antisemitism is on the rise both in the US and abroad. What explains this renewed phenomenon? Dany and Marc interviewed the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum to discuss the rise of antisemitism today and the importance of remembering those who lost their lives in the Holocaust.

US Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams joined Dany and Marc to explain the Trump administration’s strategy in Venezuela. The three also discuss how the country got to where it is today, the Chinese, Iranian, and Russian roles in the conflict, and the likelihood for success in the Norwegian-led negotiations.

WTH is going on in Hong Kong?
Is this the next Tiananmen?

Danielle Pletka, Marc A. Thiessen, Gordon Chang

How long will Beijing tolerate democratic rumblings from Hong Kong without a major crackdown? Could this be the next Tiananmen? Hong Kong expert Gordon Chang joined Dany and Marc to explain what’s going on.

What’s going on with the US-China trade war? And how is China’s manipulation of the global trading system hurting working-class Americans? Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) joins the show to discuss.

WTH is going on in the world?
With General Jack Keane

Danielle Pletka, Marc A. Thiessen, General Jack Keane

Numerous news outlets reported that President Trump called off a military strike on Iran because he saw General Jack Keane point out on television that it was possible that the country’s strike was a fluke. On this episode of the show, Gen. Keane discusses recent Iranian provocations and US cyber strategy.

What the hell is going on with Mexico? After threatening to impose tariffs, President Trump recently announced that he and the Mexican government reached an agreement to avert a US-Mexico trade war. On this episode, AEI’s Roger Noriega reviews the details of the new immigration deal.

What the hell is going on in North Korea? AEI’s Nicholas Eberstadt discusses what might happen to someone who falls out of favor with the North Korean regime, the future of US–North Korea nuclear talks, and the likelihood of North Korean denuclearization.

WTH is going on in Iran?
Is the US headed for war?

Danielle Pletka, Marc A. Thiessen, Frederick W. Kagan

What the hell is going on in Iran? Fred Kagan joined the podcast to discuss current US-Iran tensions and recent attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.