AMY WALTER: The U.S. retaliates against Russia over election cyberattacks, a war of words over Middle East peace, and a ceasefire in Syria. I’m Amy Walter. We ring in 2017 with a look at the global issues facing the president and his successor, tonight on Washington Week.
CROWD: (From video.) Five, four, three, two, one. (Cheers.)
MS. WALTER: As the clock ticks down toward a new year, the White House tackles some unfinished business, sparking tensions between the outgoing president and the president-elect. President Obama made good on a promise to punish Russia for hacking the U.S. election, an action the soon-to-be president dismissed as a distraction, insisting there is no conclusive evidence the Kremlin was behind the cyber espionage.
PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I think we ought to get on with our lives. The whole, you know, age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on.
MS. WALTER: But most Republican and Democratic lawmakers disagree, vowing to take action against Russian president Vladimir Putin.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): (From video.) There are a hundred United States senators. I would say that 99 of us believe the Russians did this. And we’re going to do something about it.
MS. WALTER: And with less than a month left in office, Secretary of State John Kerry warned Israel not to be an obstacle to Middle East peace by expanding settlements.
SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: (From video.) Friends need to tell each other the hard truths.
ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (From video.) Israelis do not need to be lectured about the importance of peace by foreign leaders.
MS. WALTER: Donald Trump weighed in, tweeting: “We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect.”
We examine how foreign policy may be setting up a confrontation between the outgoing and incoming administrations with Indira Lakshmanan of The Boston Globe, Yochi Dreazen of Vox, Eliana Johnson of POLITICO, and Philip Rucker of The Washington Post.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, Amy Walter.
MS. WALTER: Good evening. The Obama administration has delivered punishment and proof that Russia was behind the widespread hacking of the presidential election. A joint report by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security detailed how Russian civilian and military intelligence invaded government, political and private agencies ahead of last month’s election. President-elect Trump released a statement in response to the Obama administration sanctions. And it said this: “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things. Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with the leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.”
Yochi, the U.S. government has known about this hacking for months. What took the government so long to make these sanctions?
YOCHI DREAZEN: I think there were two things happening. One was, the White House didn’t want to appear like it was weighing in on the election, which I think for many Democrats was a catastrophic misjudgment. And two, they were trying to figure out just how far to go with sanctions. There were some who were saying: Go after Putin personally. Find out how much money he has. It’s estimated to be somewhere between $10 and $30 billion. Go after that. There’s some saying go after his friends.
In the end, what the White House did was pretty minimal. These are less than what they did when Putin invaded Ukraine. Some of the stuff they did is almost comical. There’s a travel ban on the heads of the Russian intel services, who are not coming to the U.S. anytime soon anyway. It was minor. And given the run up, given the impact this may have had on the election, I was surprised that it was as small as it was.
MS. WALTER: So you don’t think there could be much impact, then, overall from these sanctions, or do you expect that this is maybe just round one?
MR. DREAZEN: It’s round one. The problem is that Donald Trump determines round two. Because the next things that may happen are covert. Obama has said, we’ll do things they won’t know about, we won’t publicize, at the time of our choosing. The problem is it’s not the time of his choosing, it’s the time of Trump’s choosing. So if there’s more to come, Donald Trump will determine what it is, if it is, when it is. So Obama may promise more, but it’s not his promise to keep.
MS. WALTER: Indira, I want to talk about the Russian response to this. So last night, the foreign minister comes out and says: We’re going to retaliate. You banned 35 of our diplomats. We’re going to kick 35 of your diplomats out of Russia. But then today Putin says, nah, we’re not going to do that. What is going on?
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: Well, whether it was coordinated between Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister, and Vladimir Putin or not, either way the net effect is to make it look as if Putin is taking the high road. He’s saying, oh, no. I’m going to be a statesman. So much so, that the Russian embassy in the U.K. – we were talking about this earlier – actually tweeted out a picture of Churchill, and tried to compare Putin’s reaction to Winston Churchill’s – that, you know, he was above the fray in time of victory. So the idea is that the Russians are victorious in this, they’re taking the high road.
We know that Trump, like many other – we know that Vladimir Putin, like many other leaders, is simply waiting for the clock to run down on the Obama presidency and he thinks he’s going to get a better deal from Donald Trump. And so in a way, although, you know, Sergey Lavrov said we’re going to – we should expel 31 of your diplomats, by Putin saying no, we’re not going to do that, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have other things up his sleeve.
And I want to say, in response to what Yochi was saying, absolutely true that the actual sanctions of expelling 35 diplomats and freezing the assets of security forces, suspected spies, et cetera, may not seem like a big deal, but we can’t see everything that the Obama administration is doing. And they’ve made a big point of saying this, that you’re not going to see all of the retaliatory, you know, efforts that we’re going to make. You’re not going to see everything. Just like the Americans never admitted to doing the Stuxnet virus against the Iranians, they’re not going to admit to all the retaliation they’re going to take over this, you know, perceived cyber hacking and influencing of the election.
MS. WALTER: Right. Well, we also have some top Republican lawmakers – including Speaker Paul Ryan, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham – they are convinced of Russia’s involvement. Paul Ryan released this statement. This was from yesterday. He said: “While today’s action by the administration is overdue, it is an appropriate way to end eight years of failed policy with Russia.
So, Eliana, are Republican lawmakers now gearing up for a fight? You have – with the president-elect – or, who will soon be the president – Trump saying: I don’t see any proof that the Russians did this, a whole bunch of Republicans saying we do, and we think maybe we should get even tougher on Russia.
ELIANA JOHNSON: You know, I have a somewhat counterintuitive take about how – whether Trump will butt heads with congressional Republicans in terms of his relationship with Russia as a whole. You know, he chafes at pushing back on Russia about this in particular, because he views the pushback on Russia about hacking of the election as an attack on his victory.
I think the question is, what is his response to the next Russian aggression that has nothing to do with their hacking of the campaign? I know that Republican hawks in Congress expect him either to follow their lead or to remain silent. And I think much more important than what Trump does on this particular issue is how he responds to the next Russian aggression and whether he works in concert with Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
MS. WALTER: And there’s somebody in particular that’s coming up with relation to Russia, and that’s the potential Cabinet secretary, Rex Tillerson, the head of Exxon, who also has close ties to Russia. Is there going to be some rough going in terms of his confirmation hearing based on whether there’s real frustration in Congress or not from Republicans, certainly from Democrats, who say: Do we have an administration that’s too close to Russia?
PHILIP RUCKER: I think so. Rex Tillerson is the nominee for secretary of state, and his confirmation hearings could become a proxy battle for this Russia question. Certainly Democrats in the Senate, but also some Republicans are really going to want to probe what is the extent of his relationship with Russia, what is his relationship with Vladimir Putin, and what are his views on a number of these positions, including the issue of the hacking.
How much daylight emerges between Tillerson and Donald Trump, for example, will be really telling and really important. And this is the person who is going to be – Tillerson, if he’s confirmed and becomes secretary of state – he’ll be on the front lines dealing with Putin and with the Russian government on all of these issues to come.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: I mean, Phil is exactly right about this. And something about Rex Tillerson that is important is that when he was the head of Exxon, as he still is at the moment, he signed a $500 billion deal with Russia. Think about that, half a trillion dollars, a lot of which was essentially put to the side and frozen because of U.S. sanctions on Russia over Ukraine back in 2014. He was not happy about that. He opposed U.S. sanctions all along. I think he will continue to oppose U.S. sanctions on Russia. It’s bad for business.
But I think at the same time you have to think about, you know, here is a man who although he’s had these ties with Russia, he’s going to be in a completely different position now. And I think that when people are talking about congressional inquiries into the Russian actions on intel, there’s also a question of should there be an independent inquiry that isn’t run by people in the intel committees who are loyalists to Trump.
MS. WALTER: Right. Well, Putin was also a player in the latest ceasefire in the six-year-long Syrian conflict. The Russian government – the Russian government brokered the truce between the Syrian government and the rebels, with the help of Turkey, which supports ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad. Yochi, it was pretty noticeable the U.S. was not sitting at the negotiation table in this peace – in this peace process – in the ceasefire. Why not?
MR. DREAZEN: Well, the U.S. wasn’t sitting there and, frankly, neither were most of the rebels. There were reports that some of the rebel groups didn’t even know this thing was happening. They didn’t know there was a meeting. They didn’t know there was a deal. They didn’t particularly care, because the fighting continues. It’s a sign that the U.S. functionally has become less and less relevant to what’s happening. The White House has said there’s no plan B. They said: We’re committed to diplomacy. We’re committed to trying to negotiate our own ceasefire. It didn’t work.
Vladimir Putin intervened militarily in a way the Obama administration refused to do. And he carpet bombed. He committed what are probably war crimes. But he also helped Bashar al-Assad win, at least in Aleppo. So what you’ve seen is the U.S. get less relevant, Russia get more relevant and more powerful. And if you’re Donald Trump, if you’re Republicans on the Hill, you say this is what we’ve been warning about for eight years. We’ve warned that the U.S. under Barack Obama has gotten weaker and less involved in the Middle East. You’re seeing it now in Syria.
MS. WALTER: So that there’s a vacuum, Putin’s going to be able to fill this.
MR. DREAZEN: Exactly. Yeah.
MS. WALTER: And do – does what we talked about earlier with the sanctions have any impact on the Syrian process, in particular this idea that we need Russia to help us fight ISIS?
MR. DREAZEN: Right. And to Eliana’s point from before, that’s part of what Trump says that also throws people. Trump says: Let Russia fight ISIS, let Russia handle Syria, as if Vladimir Putin is this great American ally who would do just as we want him to do, which is nonsense. Vladimir Putin bombs in Syria not for fighting ISIS on behalf of the U.S., but fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad. And there’s some of a simplicity and a naivete to the way Donald Trump talks about Putin, which is really jarring. I mean, more than anything else, that’s what throws me. He seems to just not know what kind of person Vladimir Putin is, in the same way George W. Bush looked into Putin’s soul and saw something good when –
MS. WALTER: Well, he saw something good when there really wasn’t. (Laughs.)
MR. DREAZEN: Exactly, where there may not have been a soul.
MS. WALTER: And ISIS is not part of this ceasefire, right? They’re not at the table at all.
MR. DREAZEN: No. No, Russia defines it as terrorist groups, which could be basically, by their definition, almost anybody.
MS. WALTER: Indira, we know that there have been plenty of these ceasefires. They’ve all fallen apart. How confident are you that this one is going to stick?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Look, this took effect last night and already this morning there are reports of breaches to the ceasefire, particularly in the area right around Damascus, where there are some rebel groups who hold the water supply. So I don’t have great hopes for this sticking. But I totally agree with Yochi, that what’s almost more striking is who’s not involved in this ceasefire. You know, there are a thousand rebel groups. Some of them are really small. But ISIS is not part of this. Jabhat al-Nusra is not part of this. The U.S. is not part of this. I mean, you know, the Kurds are not part of this, who have been solidifying their hold over the north.
So truly I think it’s – you know, we – it’s not likely that it’s going to hold. But what’s more significant is that Turkey seems to have almost switched sides. Turkey was backing the so-called moderate rebels, and now they’re sitting – a NATO ally, without the U.S. – sitting at the table with Russia determining the future, seeming to be telling the rebels we’re done with you. You know, we’re done with this. And that’s really striking, that the U.S. may not get to form the future of what’s happening.
MS. WALTER: But the – the incoming president, Trump, his relationship with the Turkish president seems to be pretty good. Is that fair – a fair assessment? And will that be – will that have any impact on what Indira just pointed out in terms of Turkey’s switching sides, essentially?
MR. DREAZEN: I think so. I mean, President Erdogan of Turkey doesn’t go shirtless the way Vladimir Putin does – (laughter) – but he’s a macho man, all the same. And what we’ve seen with Donald Trump is he likes tough guys. He likes guys whether they’re actually tough or appear to be tough. President Erdogan appears to be tough. He doesn’t care much for democracy. I mean, there are other similarities between him and Donald Trump, the biggest of which is President Erdogan has basically destroyed what was once a very vibrant press, media within Turkey. Newspapers have been shuttered, TV stations have been shuttered. Trump has explicitly said there are parts of that that he thinks should happen here. So Erdogan is exactly the kind of leader that Trump loves.
MS. JOHNSON: I think the question is, what begins to happen when those leaders turn on Trump and begin to push him around, because he’s somebody who does not react well to insults or bullying when they are directed his way. So I do think it’s one thing. He likes it when those leaders say nice things about him and flatter him. I think it may be something quite different when he’s sitting face-to-face with them at a negotiating table and feels undermined or taken advantage of by them. We don’t know that for a fact, but it’s something that may play out quite differently when he’s in office, as opposed to a candidate on the campaign trail, dealing with them, you know, from afar.
MS. WALTER: Yeah. Well, tensions between the U.S. and Israel got more complicated this week after Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traded blame over the stalled Middle East peace process.
SEC. KERRY: (From video.) The Israeli prime minister publicly supports a two-state solution. But his current coalition is the most right-wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by the most extreme elements.
PRIME MIN. NETANYAHU: (From video.) Secretary Kerry said that the United States cannot vote against its own policy. But that’s exactly what it did at the U.N.
MS. WALTER: And President-elect Donald Trump, vacationing in Florida, injected himself into the debate, with tweets slamming the Obama administration. Here’s one quote: “We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but” – dot, dot, dot – “not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this. Stay strong, Israel. January 20th is fast approaching.”
Indira, why did John Kerry make this speech with, what do we have, 30-something days left in the Obama administration?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: (Laughs.) Well, there’s an old saying: There’s no time like the present. And for somebody who’s only got three weeks left in his job, there is literally no time like the present. But I will say, on John Kerry and Middle East peace, in his first year in office John Kerry made no less than 11 trips to the Middle East, and a number more trips to European capitals, all for the purpose of trying to negotiate – sort of shuttle diplomacy, proximity talks – between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I was along with him on many of those trips, and I can say he really worked his tail off trying very hard. Obviously, it failed.
I think that the larger question here is U.S. – the U.S. approach to the Middle East peace. And for 20 years, the U.S. has been trying to get sort of the big deal, the homerun, solve everything at once, you know, come to agreement on everything – refugees, status of Jerusalem, on absolutely everything, peace and security. And it hasn’t worked. And the principles that John Kerry laid out are not that different – they’re more similar than they’re different from Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s. And none of that worked.
And so I think that – you know, I talked to David Makovsky, who had been a Middle East peace negotiator under John Kerry, and he made the point that when you try to go for the homerun sometimes you strike out. And I think at this point, you know, John Kerry is trying to lay the groundwork for what could be, maybe, ideas built into this January 15th Middle East peace conference that is coming up in Paris that – this is a bad omen – Israel has said it’s going to boycott. So we don’t know how well that’s going to go. But this could be the sort of framework for maybe a new U.N. resolution. I mean, my advice to the future administration, if they’d even listen, would be try for some singles. Try for some doubles. Try to, like, make incremental progress.
MS. WALTER: But, Phil, it seems pretty clear that the Trump administration has very different ideas about how it wants a U.S. relationship with Israel, specifically thinking about Trump’s pick for the ambassador, David Friedman. He is well-known as somebody who doesn’t support the two-state solution, which is what John Kerry talked about in that speech, and also an increase in the settlements. He supports the settlements. So what is this –
MR. RUCKER: And he’s helped finance some of the settlement projects in Israel.
MS. WALTER: So what does this tell us about exactly what Indira’s pointing out, about what kind of framework we should expect?
MR. RUCKER: Well, it tells us that Trump is going to do basically what Israel wants to do. And you hear Netanyahu saying we’re going to – we’re going to basically ride this out and wait until Trump becomes president. He has a lot of – Trump, that is – has a lot of forces in his ear. He’s got Jared Kushner, his son in law, who’s talking regularly with a lot of sort of the hard-right people in Israel and in the United States. And he’s seeing a lot of political benefit at home to doing this.
He’s not only winning over some support from some Jewish people, but I think more importantly this whole conversation is helping solidify the support of Evangelical Christians, who feel very strongly about Israel. And Trump sees this playing to his base. And I think, you know, he – a year ago he didn’t really have a very clear position on Israel, and he’s just moving more and more and more into the sort of hard-right Israel camp as he begins to take office.
MS. JOHNSON: Well, if you widen the aperture a little bit, you know, looking – Indira, you mentioned that this is not a departure from what U.S. policy has been in the past – but if you look a little bit more broadly I do think it’s significant that the U.S. is playing no role in the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria, and then Kerry delivers a 75-minute speech on Israel. And it does suggest the Obama administration’s worldview, which I think is a return to the view of the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the central conflict of the Middle East and the locus of a lot of the problems in the Middle East.
I think the Iraq War, which revealed, you know, the Sunni-Shia conflict and a lot of Muslim-on-Muslim violence happening in the Middle East, that was a departure from the previous view. And the Obama administration is, and Kerry’s speech, were sort of a return to an earlier era that located the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the central conflict of the region.
MR. DREAZEN: Yeah. I think that’s exactly right. I mean, what struck me about this speech was this wasn’t a game plan. If this speech was given in 2009 this would be, aha, this is what President Obama will do over the next eight years. This was a eulogy. The two-state solution was dead before this, in terms of facts on the ground. Donald Trump, whatever little bit of life it has, will stamp it out.
I mean, Netanyahu is seen here as this hard-right politician. By Israeli standards, he’s a moderate. And frankly, as Phil said, the ambassador pick that Trump has made is further right than the prime minister of Israel. It’s an extraordinary thing. The prime minister of Israel, whether we trust him or not, is at least publicly committed to the two-state solution. Trump’s pick for the ambassador to Israel rejects it.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: And that’s another important point, which is that Netanyahu, although he says he’s embracing Trump and waiting for him to come and excited, in a way it’s not entirely good for him to have an American position that is saying: Do whatever you want. Build whatever settlements you want. Go to town. Because it doesn’t save Netanyahu from his right flank which, as you know, you know, Naftali Bennett, the head of one of these far-right settler parties, it’s going to be a real problem. It means Netanyahu now has no excuse to say, oh, I can’t do that because the Americans will be on my case about it.
MS. WALTER: So his own politics – protecting his own politics, as opposed to what his relationship with Israel is.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Exactly. Exactly.
MS. WALTER: All right, I want to turn a little bit to politics here, and talk about the Trump transition. Earlier in the week the president-elect tweeted that things weren’t going as smoothly as he had hoped and accused President Obama of creating roadblocks. But a few days later, after the president called Trump in Florida, he told reporters that he was happy with the cooperation between his transition team and the White House. Eliana, what do we know about the – how rocky or not rocky this relationship is between the president and the incoming president?
MS. JOHNSON: I actually think these two – Obama and Trump – both recognize that they have a vested interest in having a positive relationship. And that, for Trump, he is going to hit back when he perceives that he’s been hit. But that, to him, is not mutually exclusive with having some sort of constructive relationship, which we saw this week, and that Obama in particular knows that Trump is a relationship kind of guy, and that for him he has a strategic interest in maintaining a relationship with Trump, because he wants to preserve his legacy.
And Trump is not an ideological conservative. And to the extent that Obama can keep the lines of communication open with Trump, weigh in on issues that he cares about, he increases the chance that his, you know, legislative initiatives that he really cares about – like Obamacare and some others – will be preserved under a Trump administration.
MS. WALTER: And we know that both sides are gearing up for what’s going to happen in the next week and a half, which is Cabinet hearings. What do you know, Phil, for how contentious this could possibly be?
MR. RUCKER: They could be quite contentious. The Democrats in the Senate have vowed to fight every one of these nominees, and to give them a thorough vetting. And what we have not had in the Trump transition so far is a thorough vetting by the transition team. Trump has tended to select his Cabinet picks based on kind of a meeting here and a gut instinct and advice from people. They’re not scouring the record. They’re not demanding the full scrubbing of tax returns and so forth. So we’re going to see some of that come up in the Senate. I don’t know that it will derail any nominees, but there are always surprises when this happens.
MS. WALTER: That’s what I was going to say, you think that there’s some surprise that could come up?
MR. RUCKER: I mean, you look back in 1992 when Bill Clinton became president, he cycled through two candidates for attorney general.
MS. WALTER: Right. And we may see something like that come up?
MR. RUCKER: Yeah, very well.
MS. WALTER: Yeah. All right.
Well, thank you, everyone. Thank you, everyone, for watching as well. Our conversation continues online on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll discuss President Obama’s priorities after he leaves the Oval Office and what retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid had to say about the Democrats’ 2020 prospects. While you’re online, test your knowledge of current events on the Washington Week-ly News Quiz. From everyone here at Washington Week, best wishes for a healthy and happy new year. I’m Amy Walter. Good night.