Former U.S. Ambassador To Russia Weighs In On Trump-Putin Summit
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Helsinki, right out the backdoor of the presidential palace where the press conference with the two presidents unfolded today. I've just crossed the street. I'm now in Senate Square because I asked Michael McFaul to meet me here. He was the U.S. ambassador to Moscow under the Obama administration. And he's been in the room when President Obama sat down with Putin.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Yes. Several times, yeah.
KELLY: Welcome. Good to have you, ambassador. If I asked you to describe in a word today's press conference, what would that word be?
MCFAUL: Shocking, to be honest.
MCFAUL: I've participated in many of these obviously in the Obama administration. I've witnessed and written about these kind of meetings for decades. I honestly did not expect even with the bar so low that President Trump would just stand next to Vladimir Putin and take his word over our intelligence agencies, our intelligence community and his intelligence - his director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats. And more generally, he just...
KELLY: You're talking about the moment when he was asked, point blank, who do you believe, your U.S. intelligence agencies or Vladimir Putin?
MCFAUL: Yes, right there.
KELLY: And he seemed to tip toward the latter.
MCFAUL: And he wavered back and forth. And then he said, Putin's convincing. I just could not believe that, to be honest.
KELLY: Although you heard. It was a forceful denial from Vladimir Putin saying, we didn't do it. As someone who's been in that room and knows Putin is not going to back down, I mean, the argument the White House makes is it's time to look forward. Where else is this conversation going to go?
MCFAUL: Well, what I would have said and what I would advise the president to have said - when Putin said, show us some facts - President Trump should have said, well, actually Mr. Mueller just released a bunch of facts on Friday. You wanted facts. Look at those facts. And then when President Putin said, well, let's have a trial, let's have - you know, he made that gesture, right? We shouldn't decide this. Let's have the courts decide it. He should have said, that's a great idea. Let's have a trial. Why don't you send those intelligence officers to the United States? But it was clear that President Trump wanted to get along with Vladimir Putin. And there was nothing that anybody was going to say in that press conference and I suspect behind closed doors that was going to get him off that path. Sergey Lavrov, who I know well - I used to work with him a lot...
KELLY: The Russian foreign minister.
MCFAUL: The Russian foreign minister - he just said to his press corps, it was better than super - the proceedings. That means in my book it was complete capitulation on our side.
KELLY: But clearly played well in the Kremlin.
KELLY: I want to play for you...
MCFAUL: Couldn't be better (laughter) from the Kremlin's point of view.
KELLY: ...One of the many extraordinary moments from this press conference. It came when AP, Associated Press, reporter Jon Lemire put a question to Vladimir Putin [see POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION below].
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
JEFF MASON: President Putin, did you want President Trump to win the election? And did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).
KELLY: "Yes, I did want him to be elected because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal." So Ambassador McFaul, he kind of dodged the second half of that question - did you direct any of your officials to help?
KELLY: But remarkable saying for the first time on the record, yes, I wanted Trump to win.
MCFAUL: Yes, yes. Well, many of us have been saying that for a long time, sometimes ridiculed by our opponents. But that he said it so bluntly, so forcefully I thought was extraordinary - and, again, wanting to signal to Trump that, I want to get along with you. And when he says normalize relations, remember what he means by that. He means, let's forget about my annexation of Crimea. Let's forget about my support of, who I consider to be the worst dictator in the world today, Mr. Assad. And let's forget about what I did in your 2016 presidential elections. That's what normalization means for him. And President Trump never pushed back on that definition.
KELLY: So big takeaway for the U.S. - what will the impact going forward be on U.S.-Russia relations?
MCFAUL: I think it's been a pretty bad week because on the one hand, we had our president beating up on our allies, sowing division between NATO, calling the European Union our foe. And then today we saw him lavishing praise on Vladimir Putin. This is not about his personal relationships with leaders. It is about advancing America's national interests. And I can't think of one thing that we're better off today than we were yesterday. Did we get a New START treaty today reducing nuclear weapons - no. Did we get an agreement for Iran to leave Syria - no. Did we get Vladimir Putin's endorsement and support for our negotiations with the North Koreans - no. What we got was a lot of platitudes, a lot of happy talk about how we should cooperate. But tangible, concrete objectives - I didn't hear one come out of the summit.
KELLY: So in your view - not a successful summit.
MCFAUL: Worse than that, I think it's a setback. I think we're worse off today than we were yesterday. And I hope we don't have too many more summits, (laughter) to be honest. I'm not sure what tangible benefit they are for the United States of America.
KELLY: Ambassador McFaul, thank you.
MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.
KELLY: That's Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, now a Stanford professor.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we mistakenly say that Jon Lemire of The Associated Press asked President Putin if he wanted Donald Trump to win the 2016 election. In fact, it was Jeff Mason of Reuters who asked that question.]
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.
Correction July 17, 2018
In this report, we mistakenly say that Jon Lemire of The Associated Press asked President Putin if he wanted Donald Trump to win the 2016 election. In fact, it was Jeff Mason of Reuters who asked that question.