MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
President Trump has gone on record to say he takes Russian President Vladimir Putin at his word. I was there in Helsinki when Trump was pressed about Putin's claims not to have intervened in the 2016 election.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.
KELLY: That was last summer. Now comes a new claim from former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. He was fired from the Trump administration. He's now on book tour. His claim is that President Trump takes the same approach, elevating Putin's word above that of his own intelligence chiefs in closed-door meetings at the White House. McCabe told NPR this presents a challenge for the intelligence officials who serve the president.
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ANDREW MCCABE: How do we impart wisdom and knowledge and the best of our intelligence assessments to someone who chooses to believe our adversaries over our intelligence professionals?
KELLY: I want to bring in someone with long experience of delivering intelligence assessments to presidents of both parties. John McLaughlin is former acting director of the CIA. Welcome.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Thanks, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So the context of that quote we just heard from Andrew McCabe was a briefing for the president about Russian intelligence operations in the U.S. And McCabe told us it went off the rails, that the president changed the subject to North Korea and said he did not believe reports of missiles recently launched by North Korea. And when asked why, the president said it was because Putin told U.S. intelligence was wrong. Now, McCabe says that when he heard about this conversation, his head spun. Does yours, John McLaughlin? How plausible do you find this account?
MCLAUGHLIN: Well, if it is as described, it's of course disturbing. It's a complicated issue, to be sure.
MCLAUGHLIN: And it's certainly fair for a president to question American intelligence assessments because that typically makes them better when you have a back and forth and so forth. But I'm not aware of any instance in which an American president has said, basically, I trust our adversary more than I trust what I'm hearing from you.
KELLY: On the Russia question, more than two years into the Trump presidency, are we any closer in your view to understanding why President Trump defers to Putin?
MCLAUGHLIN: It remains a puzzle. I have thought about the words he used that you heard in Helsinki when he said that President Putin was very strong in his denial. It sounds to me just based on those words - like, Putin is a former case officer. He's a skilled intelligence officer. He's been trained and has had a lot of practice in persuading someone who is easily persuaded. I don't know how else to read it.
KELLY: You're saying President Trump is being briefed by an intelligence officer just not one who works for the U.S. government.
KELLY: This is reminding me of another situation that played out in public view last month, the annual threat assessment testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. The heads of the FBI and the CIA and the director of National Intelligence all got up and delivered assessments of all kinds of threats - North Korea, Iran, Syria and so on - assessments that are at odds with public comments the president has made. However, they never came out and directly said, hey, Mr. President, you're wrong. Are we at a point where, in your view, they should?
MCLAUGHLIN: I don't think I would put it that way. I'm actually very proud of the way they handled themselves. They have a duty to do exactly what they did, and that is to say as clearly and unequivocally what they believed to be true and factually supported. I don't think it's their job to publicly correct him. It's their job to publicly say what they believed to be true.
KELLY: But when the president is saying something that is not supported by the facts, you don't think they have a responsibility greater than to the president, to the American public.
MCLAUGHLIN: You know, I've been in that position myself.
KELLY: I know. That's why I'm asking you.
MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah. And I think it's very important, and I believe they do this - that it's important that they say to the president privately - that they say he's wrong. And I'm pretty confident they do that.
KELLY: John McLaughlin - he is former acting director of the CIA. Thank you.
MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you, Mary Louise.
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