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Russia ‘turned’ election for Trump, Clapper believes

Russians not only affected the outcome of the 2016 presidential election — they decided it, says James Clapper, who served as the director of national intelligence in the Obama administration, and during the 2016 vote.

“To me, it just exceeds logic and credulity that they didn’t affect the election, and it’s my belief they actually turned it,” he told the PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff on Wednesday.

Clapper, who chronicles his life and career in his new book, “Facts and Fears: Hard Truths From a Life in Intelligence,” said Russians are “are bent on undermining our fundamental system here. And when a foreign nation, particularly an adversary nation, gets involved as much as they did in our political process, that’s a real danger to this country.”

His comments come amid reports that the FBI used an informant while the bureau investigated possible ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign.

“That would be one of the biggest insults that anyone’s ever seen,” Trump told reporters Tuesday, calling the reports ‘spygate’ on Twitter. The president demanded an investigation earlier this week into whether the FBI or Department of Justice infiltrated or surveilled his campaign.

Clapper called those accusations “distorted.” He said there is a “a big gulf between a spy in the traditional sense — employing spycraft or tradecraft — and an informant who is open about … who he was and what the questions he was asking.”

“The important thing was not to spy on the campaign but rather to determine what the Russians were up to. Were they trying to penetrate to campaign, gain access, gain leverage, gain influence, and that was the concern that the FBI had? … I think they were just doing their job and trying to protect our political system.”

Other highlights from the interview:

  • On Trump’s criticism of the Department of Justice and the FBI: “I absolutely am concerned about the morale impacts on those two organizations.”
  • On why he’s speaking out now: “I think educating the public is probably the toughest thing to do. And I felt I needed to do that, because I think our institutions are under assail here, those which I have spent about 50 years of my life trying to defend.”

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

     And with me now is former Director of National Intelligence and retired Air Force Lieutenant General James Clapper.

    General Clapper, welcome to the program.

  • James Clapper:

    Thanks for having me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, I want to ask you about the book, but I also want to start with the news of the day, because you’re right in the middle of it, as we just mentioned.

    President Trump said this morning, regarding allegation that the FBI used an informant during the 2016 campaign, he said, “I hope it’s not so, but if it is, there’s never been anything like it in the history of our country.”

    He went on to say, “If you look at Clapper, he sort of admitted that they had spies in the campaign, inadvertently. I hope it’s not true, but it looks like it is.”

  • James Clapper:

    Well, I think he’s kind of distorted what I was trying to say, which was — actually took aversion to the term spy, which I don’t like anyway, but particularly it’s inappropriate in this context.

    A big gulf between a spy in the traditional sense employing spycraft or tradecraft, and an informant, who’s open about what — who he was and the questions he was asking. The intent, though, is the important thing, wasn’t to spy on the campaign, but rather to determine what the Russians were up to.

    Were they trying to penetrate the campaign, gain access, gain leverage, gain influence? And that was the concern that the FBI had. And I think they were just doing their job and trying to protect our political system.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The president, as you know, has been just constantly critical of the intelligence community since he’s been in office.

    Today, among other things, he’s saying elements of the Justice Department are part of the, “Criminal deep state caught in a major spy scandal.”

    Now, we know Secretary of State Pompeo somewhat contradicted the president today, said he doesn’t think there’s a deep state.

    But what is the effect of these cumulative comments by the president?

  • James Clapper:

    Well, right now, the heat is kind of off the intelligence community, I think. The focus for him, of course, has, of course, been the Department of Justice and the FBI.

    And I absolutely am concerned about the morale impacts on those two organizations. And I’m also concerned from the standpoint of standards and norms of our country that have been followed for decades, whereby the independence of those two, of the Department of Justice and the FBI, are respected and, in fact, enforced by presidents.

    And this one is very different. And so, when he starts directing investigations and making these kind of allegations, it’s — for me, it’s not good for the country.

    And I said this some time ago, that, you know, there’s an assault on our institutions, both internally — from both internal and external sources. The external source is Russia. The internal source is our President, is attacking these institutions that have served this country long and well.

    And, you know, there’s not a whole lot of — these are actually fragile, and if they’re not protected and nurtured over time, we risk losing them, and not all that much different between where we are today and being a banana republic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You write in the book about your decades-long career working in intelligence. You cover the raid on Osama bin Laden, the Benghazi attacks in Libya, and then the 2016 election.

    And, at one point, you note, James Clapper, “The public history of U.S. intelligence traditionally reads as a narrative of failures and shortcomings, certainly dating back to Vietnam. When we get it right, though, we almost never discuss it publicly.”

    I guess my question is, is the college community destined to be undermined, misunderstood, not appreciated?

  • James Clapper:

    Well, it appears that, you know, we have had our ups and downs and we have had our failures.

    I think the important thing about that is that the intelligence community is a learning organization, so when we have made mistakes, we have tried to apply — learn from them and apply lessons learned, so they don’t repeat themselves.

    But intelligence is one of the things that makes it interesting. It’s also very challenging, in that you are attempting to reduce uncertainty with less than a full deck of information, and that’s all — almost always the case with intelligence.

    Without it, I think the nation is less safe and secure. And one of the points or themes I try to make in the book, that it’s my belief, not surprisingly, that intelligence is a noble calling, a noble profession that’s important, vital to the safety and security of this country and its people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You ask some very tough questions about the nature of intelligence, whether the intelligence community has gone too far in some of its tactics and methods. What did you conclude?

  • James Clapper:

    Well, this is a function of the current conditions, and it’s also — it underlines the importance of enlightened oversight.

    It’s one of the features that I lived through, Church, Pike in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. That was my war. And I was in the intelligence community then, and I was around when the two Oversight Committees were established.

    They have a special burden, in my mind, the members of those two committees, because they have to represent the rest of our citizens, who, by — understandably, can’t know all the details of intelligence, particularly with respect to sensitive sources and methods.

    So the members on those committees have to represent our citizens to make sure that what the intelligence community is doing is legal, ethical and moral. And we have had cases where, depending on the situation, post-9/11, for example, where our intelligence community did things that, after the fact, people objected to.

    And that sort of thing happens, and it’s one of the challenges of serving in the intelligence community.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of the things you write very — or have spoken about, I should say, in addition to writing about it very candidly is how you have concluded after what happened in 2016 that the Russians not only affected — tried to affect the election, but you said they actually did affect the outcome.

  • James Clapper:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What did you mean?

  • James Clapper:

    Well, first, I need to make clear that, when we did our formal intelligence community assessment in January of 2017, we didn’t make any call at all about whether the Russians affected the outcome of the election. We didn’t have the authority, charter or capability to do that.

    Since I left the government, though, as a private citizen, it’s what I would call my informed opinion that, given the massive effort the Russians made, and the number of citizens that they touched, and the variety and the multidimensional aspects of what they did to influence opinion and affect the election, and given the fact that it turned on less than 80,000 votes in three states, to me, it just exceeds logic and credulity that they didn’t affect the election, and it’s my belief they actually turned it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That’s a stunning conclusion, isn’t it?

    I mean, and what does that say about where we are as we head into these midterm elections and the next election?

  • James Clapper:

    Well, one of the motivations for my speaking out and writing this book was to do my small part in trying to educate the public on what the Russians are up to.

    They are bent on undermining our fundamental system here. And when a foreign nation, particularly an adversary nation, gets involved as much as they did in our political process, that’s a real danger to this country.

    And I think educating the public is probably the toughest thing to do. And I felt I needed to do that, because I think our institutions are under assail here, those which I have spent about 50 years of my life trying to defend.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You are, when all is said and done, quite critical of President Trump.

    You write toward the end of the book, “He set a new low bar for ethics and morality. He’s caused damage to our societal and political fabric that will be difficult to repair.”

    And you go on.

    Are you concerned, James Clapper, that by taking him on so directly that you may cause people to think, well, the intelligence community just has it in for Donald Trump anyway, therefore, why should we have confidence in any investigation, in any — the special counsel investigation?

  • James Clapper:

    Well, that’s a good question, and it’s one I have thought about.

    I mean, the alternative that — and some people feel that I just should dance offstage quietly into the night. And I thought a lot about that, and I thought about potential blowback on the active intelligence community, which I am no longer a part of. I’m now a private citizen, and I have my First Amendment rights, like everyone else.

    But I decided that, because I am so concerned about the health and strength of our institutions and our values that I spent a lot of time defending, that I had to speak out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you are comfortable with what you have written?

  • James Clapper:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    James Clapper.

  • The book is “Facts and Fears:

    Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence.”

    Thank you very much.

  • James Clapper:

    Thanks for having me.

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