National Security Council Shouldn't Be Politicized, Ret. Adm. Mullen Says Steve Inskeep discusses what to expect from Donald Trump's defense department with retired U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen, who formerly served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

National Security Council Shouldn't Be Politicized, Ret. Adm. Mullen Says

National Security Council Shouldn't Be Politicized, Ret. Adm. Mullen Says

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Steve Inskeep discusses what to expect from Donald Trump's defense department with retired U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen, who formerly served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.


During his presidential campaign, President Trump once mused that he liked the generals. He's proven that to be true. He's named several former generals to top posts. And when General Michael Flynn, the national security adviser, lost his job over false statements about his ties to Russia, another general took his place. H. R. McMaster faces the task of standing up the National Security Council.

So it's a moment, one month in, for the administration to take another look at its strategic priorities around the world. We've been talking through the situation with an admiral. Retired Admiral Mike Mullen was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top military adviser to both Presidents Bush and Obama, which means he sat on the National Security Council and saw three national security advisers at work.

So put yourself in H. R. McMasters' shoes for a moment as the new national security adviser looking out on the world, and let's focus on one country, one issue. How would you think about Russia?

MICHAEL MULLEN: Personally, for me, I think the Russian issues are at the top of the agenda right now. I think we've had - over the last couple of decades, you know, we've had a real challenge figuring Russia out and how to deal with them. Certainly, there was a challenge in President Bush's administration. There was a different approach and an equal challenge in President Obama's administration. And certainly, what's happened in the last six months or a year with respect to Russia presents an enormous challenge...

INSKEEP: The interference in the U.S. election and everything else...

MULLEN: Well, the interference in the U.S. election, what's - the complete disagreement on how we were going to handle Syria. The whole issue of cyber, I mean, that's a - obviously the interference in the election is a part of that. And then the, you know, the unknowns that have sort of haunted, if you will, the Trump campaign and the Trump administration - what is the relationship with Russia? What was Manafort's relationship...

INSKEEP: Paul Manafort, former campaign chairman.

MULLEN: Right. What is the president's relationship or what was it historically? And President Putin isn't going to go away. Russia's not going to go away. We're going to have to figure out how to deal with Russia. And I think we've got to deal with him from a position of strength. And we've walked away from him over the last decade or so.

And he's taken advantage of that, whether it's in the cyber world or what he's done in Ukraine or what he did in Crimea. You know, he's literally broken international law, and he's done it with impunity. So I think we have to deal with him from a position of strength. And I don't believe he'll even start to talk to us until we show that strength.

INSKEEP: We're on a third straight president who's wanted to improve relations with Russia. But Senator John McCain has argued recently, that's a fool's errand because Russia sees the United States as its enemy, as its adversary and even argues Russia needs the United States as an enemy. Is that true?

MULLEN: I don't disagree with that. I'm not sure I'd agree that it's a fool's errand. I think because Putin is a player, we have to have a relationship with him. And you could argue whether it would be improved. But we have to stay engaged with him politically, engaged with him diplomatically, certainly engaged from a military standpoint, from a position of strength, not walk away from him in that regard.

And I think he's pretty well - pretty much had his way with us. I don't think we're ever going to be best buddies. I mean, we represent everything that Putin doesn't believe in - I mean, whether it's democracy, it's freedom, it's freedom of the press, it's lack of oppression.

INSKEEP: Help me understand who you think is the gravest threat to the United States. The reason I ask that is the last national security adviser, Michael Flynn, seemed to think that the gravest danger was radical Islamic terrorism, as the administration calls it, which, if you decide that's an existential threat, then you're desperate. You go for any ally you can. Russia's a great ally if you can try to get Russia to be an ally. There are other people who might see Russia as a graver threat. Which is the greatest threat the United States faces?

MULLEN: What I worry about with Russia is, - and I spent a lot of time negotiating the New START treaty, which was the reduction of the strategic nuclear arsenals of both the United States and Russia. And I worry about somehow - and I can't see this right now, but it's something I wouldn't have even thought possible two or three years ago - that somehow, in our relationship with him and with where President Putin is even inside his own country, that he's cornered in a way where he has to bring these strategic nuclear weapons back into play.

And if that's the case, that is existential to the United States of America. These are the weapons of mass destruction that we had in great numbers throughout the Cold War. And it was the whole issue of mutually assured destruction that kept us away from the triggers. So to me, as far as existential threats are concerned, Russia's up there right now because of those weapons. And I want to be assured that there's no possibility they could ever be brought back into play. That's first.

INSKEEP: You have to think about that above all, no matter what else is happening...

MULLEN: I think you have to. Until it's proven to the contrary, beyond just assertion, that that's not a possibility, then I think we have to think about that.

INSKEEP: So now that we've surveyed the world a little bit, if H. R. McMaster, the new national security adviser, were to call you up and just say, hey, Admiral Mullen, you've been around. You've seen a lot of things. What's the first thing you'd have me do? What would your answer be?

MULLEN: Well, I wrote an op-ed in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago expressing grave concern with having Mr. Bannon as a member of the National Security Council.

INSKEEP: Steve Bannon, the president's strategist.

MULLEN: Having nothing to do with Mr. Bannon personally, at this point, that is a nonpolitical body. There aren't many non-politicized entities left in Washington. Given the gravity of the issues that the National Security Council deals with, it is vital that that body not be politicized. And Bannon's presence, as a member of that body, politicizes it instantly.

I've been at the table. I know the discussions. It's not one that you can ignore when you have a voting member, if you will, who's a political sitting at the table. If I had one bit of advice, I'd say, go to the president. Talk to the president about that, and see if there's a way to move Bannon off that council. And then certainly Mr. Bannon can give his political advice to the president...

INSKEEP: Some other time, some other way...

MULLEN: ...Any other way. Yeah.

INSKEEP: But make this as non-political as possible. That would be your advice...

MULLEN: It has to be. It has to be. The other thing it does is now that we've had - if it's sustained, it now creates a precedent, which is really bad for the future as well because we've done it once. Now in future administrations, they could do the same thing.

INSKEEP: Admiral Mullen, thanks for coming by.

MULLEN: Thanks, Steve.


INSKEEP: That's retired Admiral Mike Mullen, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.