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Trump playing into Putin’s plan ‘either on purpose or by accident,’ Albright says

Russian President Vladimir Putin has a plan to divide the U.S. from its allies, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Tuesday, and President Donald Trump is “playing into that plan either on purpose or by accident.”

In an interview with PBS NewsHour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff, Albright said that “President Putin is a KGB agent and he’s very smart and he has played a weak hand well.”

“There are a number of things that were said that I think really make us wonder what [Trump’s] role is with the Russians and frankly what the Russians expect out of him,” Albright said. To Putin, she added, “Trump is the gift that keeps on giving.”

Albright criticized the way Trump treated U.S. allies last week at a NATO summit and the praise he gave Putin after their meeting in Helsinki. Albright spoke with Woodruff hours after Trump claimed that he misspoke when he said at a Monday news conference with Putin that he didn’t see any reason why Russia would meddle in the 2016 presidential election, despite the assessment of multiple U.S. intelligence agencies and statements from other Trump administration officials that it did.

Trump said Tuesday back at the White House that he meant to say that he didn’t see any reason why Russia “wouldn’t” interfere.

The president framed his remarks as a clarification, but Albright said she is still unclear on how he feels about Russia or whether he believes Putin.

“I think he must think we’re genuinely stupid because if one watched what he was doing in his press conference, he made it quite clear that he was believing Putin much more than his own people,” Albright said.

“I think that Russia is his friend and [he] only cares about collusion because he’s so uncertain about his own victory,” she added.

Albright said Trump’s remarks, combined with his criticism of NATO allies last week, “adds up to total confusion about what the role of the United States is.”

“I think he’s so unclear and is only interested in superlatives,” said Albright, who worked on the National Security Council and as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. before becoming secretary of state. “I think he may in fact get his wish and go down in history as the least democratic president we’ve had.”

Other highlights from the interview

On other countries’ NATO spending: Albright said she thinks it’s important that U.S. allies increase their NATO spending, something other presidents before Trump have also requested. But she took issue with the president’s tone, saying Trump bullied other countries into something and then took credit for it. It “underlines the fact that people don’t know what he’s saying or why he’s saying it.”

On the United States’ relationship with its allies: “I am concerned about lasting damage” from Trump’s remarks at NATO, Albright said. Allies are concerned and confused, said Albright, who said she just spent several weeks in Europe. “I am nervous that the longer this goes on that it’s harder to fix and that the allies will take different roads and will decide that we are not dependable.” “They’re all trying to figure out what their next steps are,” she added.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We take a closer look now at President Trump's meeting with Vladimir Putin with a woman who has extensive experience dealing with the Russian government.

    Madeleine Albright served as U.S. secretary of state during the Clinton administration. Her latest book, "Fascism: A Warning," is on The New York Times bestseller list.

    We spoke a short time ago. And I started by asking if she understands Mr. Trump's position toward Russia, given the clarification he said he was making today.

  • Madeleine Albright:

    No, I'm definitely not clear, because I think that he tried to explain that this was just leaving out an N-apostrophe-T.

    But I think, basically, it's unclear about how he believes — how he feels about Russia, period, in terms of how to deal with them, how he distinguishes the fact that the NATO allies are foes and that Trump believes, I think, that Russia is his friend, and only cares about collusion, because he's so uncertain about his own victory.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, on the question of collusion — and there is no proof that there was yet — but we know the intelligence community has concluded that Russians interfered.

    The president also said today he now has full faith and support in U.S. intelligence agencies, after casting doubt on their work.

    I mean, this is — appears to be another reversal. What do you make of that?

  • Madeleine Albright:

    Well, I think he must think we're genuinely stupid, because, if one watched what he was doing in his press conference, he made it quite clear that he was believing Putin much more than his own people, that he had a — he was unclear about what his agenda was, period, and then just trying to persuade us that there was just a couple of letters missing.

    I just find it very strange that he has so little understanding of the fact of how he is coming across to the people of the United States and to people in other countries, because he believes that he's so persuasive.

    And I think that he's so unclear and is only interested in superlatives. That's all he ever speaks in, are superlatives. And I think he may, in fact, get his wish and go down in history as the least democratic president we have had.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, that's strong language.

    So, if you take, altogether, Secretary Albright, what the president said today with what we have heard over the last few days, the NATO meeting, the trip to Britain, the meetings with Theresa May, and then the meeting with Vladimir Putin, what does it add up to?

  • Madeleine Albright:

    I think it adds up to total confusion about what the role of the United States is in this part of the 21st century, what our relationship is with our allies — and we're the most powerful military alliance in the history of the world — how we feel about what is going on with Russia, and what we think is the international system at this point.

    And I think — I have just been in Europe for quite a long time, a couple of weeks, and our allies and friends are completely confused and want to know what those of us who aren't in the government anymore can explain to them about what's going on. And it's very, very hard to explain, frankly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What are the practical effects of this, though? We know the attitudes are negative. There's a lot of criticism of the president. But what does that translate into for ordinary Americans who are watching all of this?

  • Madeleine Albright:

    Well, for ordinary Americans, I think that it really puts to doubt as to how — what the strength of America is.

    Is it our — I have always believed that our strength is not only our value system and our diversity, but also the multiplier effect of having more allies than anybody. And so that brings that question into mind.

    Then I also think that what it has done in terms of our allies — frankly, this super political president has forgotten that those countries also have political issues, and that they have to try to explain why they are paying at all into an alliance which it is unclear what America's role is.

    And so they're looking for other ways to have a defense system and how to operate. So, I can tell you, they're all trying to figure out what their next steps are.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But he is — the president is taking credit for getting them to put billions of dollars more into their own military, into their own defense.

    Does that not add up to at least a fairer equation for the support, the military support of NATO?

  • Madeleine Albright:

    Well, I think other presidents have talked about it, and I think it's very important for our NATO allies to pay up.

    But just the tone of it, you know, he had kind of bullied them into something, then he takes credit for it. And, later, President Macron of France kind of indicated that the move wasn't exactly the way that Trump described it.

    So I think it's just put doubt in his words. And the fact that today he had to clarify one word just really underlines the fact that people don't know what he's saying and why he's saying it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meanwhile, the Russian military leadership, the Defense Ministry there is now — is saying that they're ready to, what they say, augment, improve contacts with the U.S. over cooperation with Syria, number one, and number two, extending the START strategic arms negotiations.

    Could — is it possible that those things could bear fruit, which would make all of this at least have some silver lining, something positive come out of it?

  • Madeleine Albright:

    Well, first of all, we don't really know what happened in that hour or two hours almost that the leaders met without anybody.

    But I do think — I hope that there are talks now about nuclear issues. That has been missing. And I think it's very important. And, meanwhile, both countries are building up their nuclear arsenals, when they should be trying to figure out how to control them.

    I do think, also, that Syria is one of the great tragedies. And if something can be done for humanitarian reasons and stability, I hope that is done.

    But you can't just say that the other things that happened have no importance. I mean, there are a number of things that were said that I think really make us wonder what his role is with the Russians and, frankly, what the Russians expect out of him.

    I have said now that Trump is the gift that keeps on giving to Putin.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you mean by that, when you say that?

  • Madeleine Albright:

    Well, I think that what I believe is that President Putin has a plan to separate us from our allies and to undermine democracy and to regain influence in the Middle East.

    And, frankly, the way that President Trump deals with him is, he is fulfilling some of President Putin's plans to divide us from our allies.

    And so we can't tell, when they talk about, are they going to do more on nuclear or are they going to do more on Syria, what really lies behind that relationship of who is giving what to whom.

    President Putin is a KGB agent, and he's very smart. And he has played a weak hand well. And I believe that President Trump is playing into that plan, either on purpose or by accident. But he is helping Putin get further in his plan to divide us from our allies.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I have known you, Secretary Albright, for a number of years. You have worked in the government going back to the Carter administration.

    And over that time, you have seen the ups and downs of America's role in the world, American diplomacy. Do you see what's going on right now as something that can be fixed, that there's no doubt in your mind that the U.S. comes out of this and comes out of it stronger? Or are you worried that permanent, that lasting damage has been done?

  • Madeleine Albright:

    I am concerned about lasting damage.

    I do think that it's important for those of us that continue to have informal contacts and the formal ones that members of Congress have can show that America does in fact want to have a some kind of functioning international system.

    We don't have to boss everybody around. I think that what we believe is that we are better off with partners. But I am nervous that, the longer this goes on, that it's harder to fix, and that the allies will take different roads and will decide that we are not dependable.

    That's kind of what some of them said, is they weren't sure they could count on the U.S. anymore. And that's the basis of the relationship that we have had since the end of World War II.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, we thank you.

  • Madeleine Albright:

    Thank you, Judy.

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