JUDY WOODRUFF: In this morning’s Washington Post, some tough words for President Trump and his administration led the opinion pages.
We spoke earlier this evening with former Obama White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice, the author of that piece. It was her first interview since leaving the White House.
I began by asking about the allegations leveled today by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes that Trump transition officials, including the president, may have been swept up in surveillance of foreigners at the end of the Obama administration.
SUSAN RICE, Former U.S. National Security Adviser: I know nothing about this. I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that count today.
And let’s back up and recall where we have been. The president of the United States accused his predecessor, President Obama, of wiretapping Trump Tower during the campaign. Nothing of the sort occurred, and we have heard that confirmed by the director of the FBI, who also pointed out that no president, no White House can order the surveillance of another American citizen.
That can only come from the Justice Department, with the approval of a FISA court. So, today, I really don’t know to what Chairman Nunes was referring, but he said that whatever he was referring to was a legal, lawful surveillance, and that it was potentially incidental collection on American citizens.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.
SUSAN RICE: And I think it’s important for people to understand what incidental means. That means that the target was either a foreign entity or somebody under criminal investigation, and that the Americans who were talking to those targets may have been picked up.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I wanted to ask you about this, because, as you also know, in the last few weeks, The New York Times has reported that, in the final days of the Obama administration, individuals went out of their way to spread information throughout the government about what they knew about intelligence that the Russians had interfered in the election last year, and that there may have been a connection with Trump campaign officials.
So, that story has now been out there for several weeks. Could there be a connection here?
SUSAN RICE: I’m not aware of any connection.
I read The New York Times story. I must say, Judy, as one of the most senior White House officials and the most senior responsible for national security, I found that report a bit perplexing. I wasn’t aware of any orders given to disseminate that kind of information.
SUSAN RICE: So, I have no idea whether that was the case.
But the fact is that the president did request back in December that the intelligence community compile all of the information that it had on what had transpired during the campaign with respect to the Russians involving themselves in the presidential campaign.
And that report was provided to the American people in unclassified form and to Congress in classified form in early January.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And was there a concern, though, inside the Obama administration, inside the White House that the new Trump administration might not follow up on that intelligence that had been gathered?
SUSAN RICE: I don’t think that was the concern, because, to the extent that there was any need to follow up, it wouldn’t be done necessarily by the White House, but by the intelligence community, and by the Justice Department, if appropriate.
I think our interest was, and the president’s direction was, let us make sure that we have compiled and put together in one place all the information that we have, so that it is there for the new administration, it’s there for the American people, and there for Congress to utilize as they see fit.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s — that brings us to the opinion piece that you wrote that appeared today in The Washington Post, Ambassador Rice, in which you — what you describe as a pattern of false statements from this president could jeopardize the national security of this country.
That’s a serious charge. What did you mean by that?
SUSAN RICE: Well, let me explain, Judy.
I think the American people know that, over the last weeks of the administration, it’s now been almost — almost exactly two months — we have heard a number of striking and actually patently misleading statements from not only the president, but also from his principal spokespersons.
And those statements are heard and digested by the rest of the world, whether they are our friends or our adversaries. The Wall Street Journal made a very similar point today on its editorial page.
And the point is this: The United States of America is the leading power in the world. Our friends and our adversaries respect us in large measure because they know that we are steady. We are fact-based. We are serious.
And when we have the White House of the United States putting out information that everybody can see to be inaccurate, if not deliberately false, it shakes the credibility and the confidence of our allies, and it lends doubt to our adversaries who may miscalculate. And it undermines the confidence of the American people in what comes out of the White House, which is very detrimental in the event we have a national crisis and we need to rally around the flag.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But, just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, how do you or how does anyone else know, though, that this is just not the rough beginning, rocky beginning of a new administration, and that other countries can see through mistakes, whatever you want to call them, statements, and they’re looking at the overall picture and U.S. national security is not really in jeopardy?
SUSAN RICE: Well, Judy, I think if it were one or two such statements, and then the — they were corrected when the facts were plain, that would be one thing.
But we have had statements ranging from the allegation that three million to five million illegal immigrants voted in our elections, which has been debunked on a bipartisan basis by members of Congress, to this allegation that we have already discussed, which was quite shocking, that the president’s predecessor, President Obama, had illegally wiretapped his office building during the campaign.
And we have heard from bipartisan leaders of Congress, as well as from the director of the FBI, that there’s no information to support that allegation. And yet there’s been no correction, no apology.
And I think the world is not impervious to what happens here in the United States. And, on the contrary, they watch it very, very carefully. And they wonder and worry, what does this mean? Can we trust the word of the White House?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, in the meantime, different subject.
Today, the Trump administration convened a meet hearing in Washington of the leaders from 68 countries to talk about the fight against ISIS, the path forward.
And, among other things, officials of this administration are saying the reason ISIS is still the threat that it is to the world is in part because of the failed policies of the Obama administration.
SUSAN RICE: Well, I think the facts don’t bear that out.
The strategy that the Trump administration is pursuing, at the behest of the very same military leaders who advised the Obama administration, is virtually unchanged.
The fundamentals of the strategy, which are to work with partners, in the case of Iraq, the Iraqi government, in the case of Syria, with the Syrian democratic forces, a mixture of Kurds and Arabs, to take back territory, remains the thrust of our strategies, as it should be.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The last thing I want to ask you about is a decision that was announced or that appears to have been made by this administration to shift more authority over military operations to the Pentagon, in the context of criticism that under President Obama there was too micromanaging out of the White House about everything that happened that the military did.
SUSAN RICE: Well, I think that criticism is a well-trodden line. I have heard it many times. And I think the fact is this. President Obama took very, very seriously his role as commander in chief.
Now, you know, when things go wrong, as, unfortunately, tragically, they did in Yemen recently during the first military raid of this administration, or when we’re trying to figure out what just happened in Syria with respect to a bombing that caused a number of civilian casualties — some say it was a mosque — we say it wasn’t — it’s very important that the commander in chief own responsibility for decisions such as that and is willing to say to the men and women in uniform, that was my choice, and not blame it on others, whether the commanders or people below him.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Former National Security Adviser to President Obama Susan Rice, thank you very much.
SUSAN RICE: Good to be with you, Judy.