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‘Plenty’ is still unknown about Trump’s interactions with Putin, says former NSC staffer

Questions remain about President Trump's meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as about Trump's broader ties to Russia. To analyze why the corresponding counterintelligence investigations are 'unprecedented,' Judy Woodruff sits down with Andrew Weiss, a former National Security Council staffer, and David Kris, previously the Justice Department's top national security official.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    To explore how these investigations work and foreign policy implications, I'm joined by two men who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations.

    Andrew Weiss was a staffer on the National Security Council, where he focused on Russia. He's now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And David Kris served as the Department of Justice top national security official.

    And, gentlemen, we welcome you both to the "NewsHour."

    I'm going to start with you, Andrew Weiss.

    How unprecedented is it to have these kinds of revelations that we have seen about the president and Russian leaders?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    It's unprecedented.

    When I was at the White House, there were plenty of opportunities where we would stage-manage a one-on-one encounter between then President Clinton and Vladimir Putin or Boris Yeltsin.

    What was part and parcel of those interactions, though, was the idea that it fit in some broader set of diplomatic goals for the United States. In this case, there's no readout on the meeting. There's no sharing of what happened with staff. It doesn't look like Donald Trump was doing national security business. It looks like he was doing something else.

    But, at this point, we're just guessing, because we don't — we have his word. He said that he talked about the Russian ban on adoptions of U.S. children as his main topic in this undisclosed second meeting with Vladimir Putin. That's something that doesn't seem like a top priority for your first encounter with one of your most important foreign counterparts.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So what exactly is missing from what we know?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    Plenty.

    That meeting, if people — just to sort of wind the tape back, was much-anticipated. It was the first bilateral encounter in person between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. The focus at that time was on the Russian interference in our election.

    Apparently, Donald Trump, based on what was reported by Greg Miller in The Washington Post over the weekend, said to Vladimir Putin, "I believe you," when Putin disavowed any Russia role in the U.S. election.

    And then Trump went even further and said, let's set up a cyber-task force which we will sort of work together to deal with these threats, which looks incredibly credulous and trusting with a foreign adversarial government.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, David Kris, from the standpoint of the Justice Department, the FBI looking at or knowing about this, what does it look like? And what did it take to trigger what we understand was an investigation by the — by our government of our president?

  • David Kris:

    Well, the FBI had a counterintelligence investigation open that was centered on Russian election interference.

    We know that from former FBI Director Jim Comey's testimony in Congress. And that investigation then also came to embrace links between the Russian efforts and the Trump campaign. And that's memorialized in the order appointing special counsel Bob Mueller.

    And what appears to be going on here, as reported in the Times story and other media, is that they focused even closer to the center, not just on the campaign, but on the president himself.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I asked this question of Andrew Weiss. How unprecedented?

  • David Kris:

    That is very, very, very unusual. I mean, you have to go back to the Nixon administration to get anything close to that kind of FBI scrutiny of the president.

    And there, we were in a domestic context. This has a foreign context and counterintelligence aspect to it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's what I want to ask you about, because we know there is, in many regards, what was going on already was a criminal investigation. This added counterintelligence. What's the threshold for that?

  • David Kris:

    Well, so, in the olden days — that is, before 2002 — the FBI segregated its criminal and counterintelligence investigations quite carefully, and they had to do that largely for legal reasons.

    After 2002, those different lines of authority were able to be brought together. And this investigation, as I said, has always been, as described in early 2017, a counterintelligence investigation, but with criminal aspects, that is, looking at whether crimes were committed as well.

    So, I think from the FBI's perspective, it didn't so much signal a change in the type of the investigation, but more in its emphasis and focus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the emphasis being on counterintelligence, as well as…

  • David Kris:

    Yes, and on the president individually, I think — it appears, from what we're seeing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In addition to the people around him.

    Back to you, Andrew Weiss.

    So, from the — from the viewpoint of someone who works on Russia, works on foreign policy, was it warranted for the Justice Department to look at this, based on what was happening in these bilateral meetings?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    I'm a bit old-fashioned. I remember the good old days when these two worlds were sort of distinct and separate, where national security, foreign policy were the writ of the president. The president has a tremendous amount of latitude and discretion. And then there's the law enforcement domain.

    And I think, as David was just saying, that sort of changed after 9/11. But, to me, that's a law enforcement decision. It's not something that is in the realm of foreign policy.

    And it seems, in this case, that people in the Justice Department had any number of indications — we have seen this in the reporting — of weird connections between the Trump entourage and people who seem to be connected to the Russian government, that stuff was going on that didn't look normal and seemed to have some sort of either foreign intelligence value to an adversarial government or potentially was about undermining our democratic processes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, speaking of that and speaking of national security of the United States, what is — what is at stake here? I mean, if there were conversations — and we don't know the content of those conversations — what's at stake, not knowing and having to conduct this investigation, and waiting to find out what transpired?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    Well, let's step back for a second.

    Russia is a very important player in the world. Russia clearly sees the United States as a hostile threat to the survival of the Putin regime. And they have been very aggressive in trying to basically take out the United States as a threat and to neutralize our threat.

    So we're in the middle of this horrible domestic political crisis. They're succeeding well beyond their wildest expectations. If you are running a foreign policy in the United States — which, in this case, I'm referring to President Trump — you want to be able to manage that threat successfully and effectively.

    But if you run around having secret meetings, where you don't let your staff to know what you're talking about, you don't organize your government effectively to manage that threat, basically, you're giving the Russians a freebie and you're doing their work for them.

    So I think that's the disadvantage all of this crisis is creating. Not only are we looking internally now very intensely, but our government is really disorganized and incoherently responding to the Russian challenge.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David Kris, again, as somebody who's worked inside the Justice Department on similar, if not exactly issues like this, what do you think the chances are that investigators are going to get to the bottom of this?

  • David Kris:

    I think there is no better investigator and investigative team than Bob Mueller and his group here. They are tremendously capable. They're very dogged. They're working very hard.

    And they're motivated to leave no stone unturned. I mean, the one thing a special counsel or special prosecutor, investigator doesn't want is for something to pop up six months from now that shows that they missed something.

    So I think they have got every incentive to get to the bottom of it. And I think they will.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Even if it takes more time?

  • David Kris:

    Even if it takes more time.

    They will follow the evidence where it leads, and that will dictate where they go.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David Kris, Andrew Weiss, we thank you both very much.

  • Andrew Weiss:

    Thank you.

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