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Michael McFaul: Calling Putin ‘sincere’ suggests White House equating Americans with criminals

President Trump called it an "incredible offer" from Vladimir Putin: The U.S. could question 12 Russians indicted for 2016 election interference in exchange for specific Americans being interrogated by Moscow. Now White House officials say they reject the idea. Judy Woodruff talks with former Ambassador Michael McFaul, one of Russia’s targets, and former Acting Director of the CIA John McLaughlin.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to what President Trump called an incredible offer on Monday, when President Putin offered to let the U.S. question 12 Russians indicted for interfering in the 2016 election, in exchange for a few U.S. officials being interrogated by Moscow.

    After first saying they were considering this, the White House today said they reject the idea.

    Just one of a swirl of events around President Trump and Russia in the past few days.

    For reaction and analysis, I'm joined by former Ambassador Michael McFaul, who served as envoy to Moscow from 2012 to 2014. He was named as one of the American officials wanted by Russia in that potential exchange. He is currently at Stanford University. And John McLaughlin, he served as acting director of the CIA during the George W. Bush administration and as the agency's deputy director. He's now at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

    And, gentlemen, welcome to both of you.

    Let me start with you, Ambassador McFaul.

    Do you feel you have gotten a reprieve? Yesterday, the White House was saying they were seriously considering this proposal by Vladimir Putin. Today, they said they're not.

  • Michael McFaul:

    Well, Judy, yes and no.

    I mean, as one of the people named, I guess it's nice that they finally have said the obvious. But I want to point out that statement wasn't a definitive statement by the White House, and this is their third try.

    They said that Putin was sincere in this proposal. And, by saying that, they're suggesting that the Americans on that list, including me, were somehow criminals that needed to be investigated.

    And the fact that the president, after three different times, twice from the podium in the White House, and, most amazingly, in Helsinki, could not just say, this is outrageous, this is crazy, absolutely no uncertain terms, we're not going to do this, and we're not going to accept the false equivalency between a genuine indictment that Mr. Mueller released, with lots of evidence that these 11 intelligence officers, 12 intelligence officers, military intelligence officers, violated our sovereignty, cockamamie, crazy story that Vladimir Putin spun in that one-on-one meeting.

    So, it's better than the first time, but it still is not as good as I would like it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    John McLaughlin, was that ever a feasible idea? Have you ever seen anything like that happen?

  • John McLaughlin:

    No, that was never a feasible idea, Judy.

    And it's alarming it would even have been considered for a second or that it took 24 hours to get this partial — and the ambassador is right — it's really a partial clarification.

    And I think, in that statement, the last one I saw, they also said that — something to the effect that not only was Putin sincere, but perhaps he will actually send these 12 people to the United States to be questioned. That itself is absurd. Putin is never going to do that.

    And just based on my own dealings with Russians over the years, I think it shows a degree of naivete on the part of the president and anyone else who permitted this idea to get into the public realm.

    So, no, it was never a feasible idea. And it should have been rejected instantly out of hand.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ambassador McFaul, we now have the news today that President Trump is asking John Bolton, his national security adviser, to invite President Putin to Washington this fall.

    What do you make of that, given the events of Helsinki?

  • Michael McFaul:

    I was quite surprised by that announcement.

    This summit, I think, was a complete disaster. It advanced no U.S. national security interests. And that's what you're supposed to do in diplomacy. You're not supposed to lavish praise on your interlocutor, especially as adversary like Vladimir Putin.

    And maybe there were some secret deals, as you were alluding to earlier in your show. The only thing we know concretely that was discussed was this crazy swap idea.

    But if you got it bad — so bad that time, why do you want to tee up another meeting that I think just will not advance America's interest, but actually go in reverse?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, John McLaughlin, what about that, and the White House argument, well, these are the world's two most powerful nations with nuclear weapons pointed toward each other, their leaders need to at least be on a talking basis?

    What about that?

  • John McLaughlin:

    Well, I think we can all agree that there's merit in seeking a more constructive relationship with Russia.

    But they're going about it in entirely the wrong way. When you go into a meeting with Russians, either of the intelligence variety or of the diplomatic variety, the one thing you can be absolutely sure of is that they will know very precisely what they want, and they will have a strategy for getting it from you.

    And if you don't go in with a very clear idea of your interests and what you're looking for, they will get what they want from you.

    What surprised me most today, I think — I'm at the Aspen Security Forum — was Director Coats' surprise at the announcement of this summit, the next one. And it made me think, this is not a normal government, because, in any normal government, this would have been discussed among principals at a meeting in the White House.

    The director of national intelligence would have been there. His advice would have been sought. The pros and cons would have been weighed.

    For example, one thing that occurred to me is, if Putin were to come in the fall, and we think the Russians are attempting to interfere in our election, did anyone ask, did anyone think about whether that could be going on at the same time?

    One way to invite him would be to say, you dare touch our elections, and this summit is canceled publicly.

    Have they done that? No one knows. So it doesn't have a good feel to me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There are so many strands to this story, Ambassador McFaul.

    The other — one other thing I do definitely want to ask you both about is a report in The New York Times today that, when the — when U.S. officials, intelligence officials briefed then president-elect Donald Trump in January of 2017, they shared with him that they not only knew Vladimir Putin was directing the attempts to interfere in the election, but that they had a human intelligence source close in to Mr. Putin's circle.

    What does that tell you, first of all, that that information is out there, and, second of all, that it was then followed by the president's endless denials that Russia was behind the interference?

  • Michael McFaul:

    Well, to me it shows a couple of things.

    One, I think it's important to note what you just said, Judy. That this has now been leaked out tells you that there are many people in the current government, in the Trump administration, who are deeply concerned about the way the president talks about his relationship with Russia.

    He's been briefed 100 times about this, what had happened in 2016. His advisers, many whom I have talked to myself, have tried to get this message through. He obviously doesn't want to hear the facts when it comes to that.

    The second thing, though, is also really disturbing, something that John said. And I just want to underscore it, that you have two policies towards Russia right now. The entire Trump administration, to the best of my knowledge, agrees that you need to push back.

    We heard reporters talking to people who were at the summit and who are aware of the summit that there was a plan to push back. And, by the way, summits sometimes are times to push back, and not just to praise Russian leaders.

    And yet the president himself seems to disagree with his entire administration's policy towards Russia. And that just doesn't make for good outcomes for American national interests.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    John McLaughlin, as someone who comes out of the intelligence community, what do you make of the fact that that information was shared with a reporter, that there's a human source inside, close inside the Vladimir Putin circle, that that's now out there?

  • John McLaughlin:

    That's a very bad thing. It's a very bad thing, if it's true. And, of course, we don't know whether it is literally true.

    But if it is true, it is precisely the kind of information that, in the intelligence world, you guard. It's the crown jewels. You guard that with your life. And the fact that someone would put that out there, while I admire the work the press has done in bringing many things to light that we would otherwise not know, I do regret seeing that particular information in print, assuming it is true.

    And I don't know what would — whoever leaked it had to be powerfully motivated by disagreement with the president's policy, although sometimes these leaks come about through secondary sources who've just heard about it and have no discipline in talking to anyone.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you're saying…

  • John McLaughlin:

    So, I find it very distressing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, you're saying if it came from someone in the intelligence community, they were expressing their disagreement with the president.

  • John McLaughlin:

    No, no, I wouldn't — let me make clear, I cannot believe that someone in the intelligence community would leak that.

    That would have to — the leak would, I'm confident, come from someone other — who read the material or saw the material provided by the intelligence community. No one in the intelligence community would leak a source like that. Remember, all of those people take polygraphs.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So much to unpack here, gentlemen.

    We thank you both, John McLaughlin, Ambassador Michael McFaul. Thank you.

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