This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore conducted on June 22, 2017. It has been edited in parts for clarity and length.
The Reset and Arab Spring: Putin as Prime Minister
Let’s start with the reset moment. You're actually over there for that actual event?
Tell us a little bit of the story of what took place, why it was done in that way, what the thought behind the reset was.
Secretary Clinton met with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia in Geneva, on neutral ground in Switzerland, in early 2009. The goal of that meeting was actually to establish this thing called the reset. It was actually Vice President Biden who first used the word "reset" in his speech at the Munich Security Conference a few weeks earlier, but it was left to Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Lavrov to work out what exactly that meant.
The fundamental idea behind it was that the United States and Russia should look for areas where they could cooperate together to advance shared interests in nuclear disarmament, in sanctions on Iran and North Korea, and help Russia could give us in the war in Afghanistan, etc. The concept was where we have common interests, we should work together, and where we don’t, where our interests diverge, we would continue to stand up for our principles and values.
Secretary Clinton showed up in Geneva, and one of her staff members had the idea to actually memorialize the reset with physical handing over of a reset button, the idea being that this would be somewhat humorous, but also would indicate to people that we were taking a different kind of approach and making a real effort to figure out whether there was a common agenda we could work with the Russians on.
And the whole misspelling thing? Just tell the rest of that story. What happens?
In order for this reset button to really end up having an impact, of course, it's got to say "reset" in Russian, not in English. So our staffer, who was working on trying to both procure the actual physical red reset button and get it labeled appropriately, went to one of the people traveling with us to ask, “How do you actually say "reset" in Russian?” They came up with a word; they put it on there. Secretary Clinton presented the button to Foreign Minister Lavrov, and he looked at it and said, “That doesn't say "reset"; that says "overcharge," at which point everybody sort of chuckled, but of course this was not an optimal outcome for this moment, which wasn’t ever meant to be deadly serious. It was meant to be a bit of a humorous frame around a sober effort, a sober policy effort, but to give it a little bit of lightheartedness to show that we were making a genuine effort with the Russians to figure out how we could move forward together.
…What's the thinking, and what are the hopes? Is there some naivete, or is there just a feeling that there's a potential here that might not have been available during the Bush years?
Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S.-Russia relationship has always involved a mix of three things: cooperation on shared interests; tension and push and pull on divergent interests; and then the United States standing up for the Russian people in their effort to pursue a stronger civil society and a stronger democracy.
The issue is, depending on different points in time and different administrations, what is the balance among those three elements? The idea behind the reset was to put more emphasis on the first, on the cooperation part, because we felt, first, there was low-hanging fruit. There [were] a number of areas where we could actually extract Russian cooperation on issues that mattered to the American national interests.
Second, you had a president in Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, who was more willing to be engaged with the United States than his predecessor and successor, Vladimir Putin, who during this time was the prime minister. When you put those factors together, we felt that this was an appropriate moment to pursue and enhance the level of cooperation with the Russians. I believe, actually, that the results speak for themselves.
Did we have a good understanding of the relationship between Putin and Medvedev?
It was difficult for us to know exactly what the dynamic was between Medvedev and Putin. We knew that Putin was the ultimate shot caller in the Russian Federation. [He] had been since he had assumed the presidency after Boris Yeltsin. But we also knew that he was giving Medvedev a lot of latitude to pursue a more constructive relationship with the United States; that he was not going to stand in the way of that. The real question was, how much of that was passive permission, and how much of it was active encouragement? I don't think to this day we know the answer to that question. But the bottom line was Medvedev had scope to pursue a more cooperative relationship with the United States.
… What was the first meeting with Clinton and Putin that you were involved with?
… The first time that I was in a meeting with Secretary Clinton and then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was in 2010 in the run-up to the effort to get a U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran to impose further sanctions on them for their nuclear program. Secretary Clinton met with Prime Minister Putin at his dacha outside of Moscow, and not only did they have a substantive engagement, but during that meeting, Putin took Hillary down along the corridor and into a back office to show her a big map that included the location of a variety of different endangered animals inside Russia, which is something that he was passionate about that she also cared deeply about and continued to work on throughout her time in government.
They ended up having a tough meeting on the issue of Iran sanctions, but then also this much more personal moment where they swapped stories about things like endangered tigers and what the United States and Russia could do together to work on that.
… But at this point, was there a tenseness between the two? Did they seem not to mesh well, or was that not obvious at this point?
The first meeting that I saw between the two of them in 2010 involved a lot of wariness on both sides, but also you could see beneath that a certain level of respect for the other’s, I guess I would say, skill and steel as representatives of their respective countries. The meeting had real weight to it because they were jousting over important issues like Iran sanctions, like Russia's potential accession to the World Trade Organization. But it wasn’t negative or nasty. It was generally constructive without being warm.
Describe Putin for us, your impressions of him at that point.
Putin conveys a huge amount through body language. He tries to show you that he’s the alpha male in the room through the way he spreads his legs, through the way he slouches a bit in his chair, through the way that he will look at people and kind of give them a dismissive hand wave. That's the first thing that really strikes you when you're in the room with him.
He also is somebody who’s got a debater’s mindset. He likes scoring points, even if it’s not particularly relevant to the conversation. You raise something that you think Russia should be doing or that Russia is doing that you think is wrong, and he’ll come up with two or three examples of how America's done just the same thing, or hasn’t done the thing that you're asking them to do. A lot of it is not particularly useful, but it has a certain counterpuncher’s quality to it that is definitely a core part of Putin's rhetoric.
Once you push through all of that, though, he’s not an impractical guy. He’s someone you can have a real conversation with without a whole lot of theater and histrionics. But it takes work to get past the debater of Vladimir Putin to the guy who’s actually trying to make a deal.
… What was your impression of the Munich speech? Was that something that guided you guys in how you dealt with him?
We knew that there was never going to be a point at which the United States and Russia were going to have a completely common strategic picture for Europe or for the world. The reset was never about arriving at some larger U.S.-Russia condominium for the management of the globe. It was about increasing the degree to which we could cooperate on certain issues and reducing and cabining to the maximum extent possible the areas where we disagreed.
We were sober about how Putin saw the United States and how he saw Russia's role in the world, but we also believed that there [were] areas on which he was prepared to work with the United States to advance common interests. We didn't think that the speech he gave in Munich in 2007 closed the door on that.
How did he see America? What were his motivations, seemingly, and how much of it was real, and how much of it was debating demeanor?
I think that Putin has had varying degrees of intensity over time in his core view that the United States needs to be stopped in terms of its global hegemony, but that strand has always been there in his thinking. In 2009, it was not the dominant mode for him. He wasn't thinking everything Russia should do is just to block and check the United States. He felt Russia could actually be a useful partner to the United States on certain issues.
But it never entirely disappeared, even at the height of the cooperative period of the reset in 2009, 2010, and we were aware of that. We knew that there was a shelf life on how much cooperation we could extract from the Russians, and there was the looming possibility, especially if he came back into the presidency, that we would end up in a more competitive or adversarial posture.
So in 2011, Arab Spring happens. … What did you guys see in how he reacted to Arab Spring, Libya and the U.S. at this point?
The reporting that we were getting from our embassy in Moscow and the engagements we had with senior Russian officials like Sergey Lavrov, who Hillary was seeing all of the time at that point, was that Putin was personalizing the Arab Spring; that he was seeing it through the prism of what could possibly happen to him in Russia. And this had a distorting effect on Putin's perception about what the United States was up to.
That was true across the board. It was true in Egypt; it was true in Syria and some of the other countries in the Levant; and it was true in Libya. And it came home to roost in the most extreme way in Libya, because Putin came to believe that the United States had taken Russia for a ride in the U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized the use of force in Libya.
He thought what he was authorizing, or he came to believe, I think, post hoc what he was authorizing, was a purely defensive mission, essentially to protect the eastern part of Libya from Qaddafi’s advance. And that mission ultimately turned into a nationwide effort that led to Qaddafi’s fall and led to the rebels taking over the capital of Tripoli. Putin felt that was going far beyond what the Security Council resolution approved.
Now, on the actual language of the resolution, it’s plain as day that Putin was wrong about that. Whether it was sincere or he constructed a narrative about what he had agreed to, he came to believe that he had been misled or potentially manipulated by the United States in terms of Russia's acquiescence in the U.N. Security Council action in Libya.
Were there attempts to talk to him at some point by either the president or secretary of state or others, the ambassador, about his attitudes toward what our goals were? … I mean, he had a very paranoid point of view about us. How did we deal with it?
Both Secretary Clinton and President Obama spent time with Putin talking to him about the U.S. attitude toward NATO, toward Russia, toward the rules-based international order in which they saw Russia playing an important role over time, all in an effort to dispel Putin's paranoia. This was done privately in their meetings; it was done in public speeches that both Secretary Clinton and President Obama gave. It was clear to us that an effort at reassurance was needed because of this aspect of Putin's worldview and his deep belief that the United States was up to something. But over time, it also became clear that those efforts at reassurance weren't particularly fruitful.
… I guess the best way to put it is the very effort of reassuring Putin that the United States was not up to something nefarious vis-à-vis Russia merely reinforced his view, because he saw it as a form of subterfuge to cover actions that he viewed as antithetical to Russian interests. So we were caught in a catch-22. Trying to reassure Putin in a way became to Putin its own form of an operation to mislead or misguide Russia in this broader effort by the United States to gain dominance over Russia, and that left us throwing up our hands to a certain extent without real tools to be able to reshape his thinking on these issues.
Vladimir Putin's Early Life
How relevant is his background as a KGB agent and such to a better understanding of how he saw the United States, how he saw the world?
Putin's position as a KGB agent in the waning days of the Cold War is relevant in two important respects. The first is that it has completely shaped his view about history and his conclusion that the fall of the Soviet Union was a great historical catastrophe. That has lingering effects to this day.
The second is to do with mentality and specifically his zero-sum view about the United States and Russia, [the view] that increasing American influence in a way necessarily detracts from Russian influence and Russian security. That zero-sum mindset and mentality at times was overcome by a post-Cold War view that maybe there was a cooperative arrangement to be had, but it was always there. And today I would say it’s there in spades.
Both in terms of how he views history and his mentality about the relationship between the U.S. and Russia stems, in my view, directly from his experience as a KGB officer.
Putin Returns to the Presidency, Sparking Protests and a Crackdown
So 2011, the parliamentary elections take place and demonstrations break out in Moscow and in many other cities across Russia. … Just take us to those demonstrations and how it changed the dynamics between the United States and Russia.
The Russian parliamentary elections unfolded in late 2011. It was clear on the evidence available to the international community that there was funny business going on in those elections, and it was clear to the Russian people as well, which is why tens of thousands of them poured into the streets for demonstrations, not just in Moscow but in many cities across Russia.
During this time, Hillary Clinton was actually in Lithuania for a meeting of what's called the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE. That was an organization that was created in part to advance the idea of human security of democracy and human rights across Europe. So there she is in Lithuania as this is unfolding, at a meeting involving democracy and human rights in Europe. She had little choice but to respond to these events in Russia by saying the United States stands for certain core principles. We support transparency and fairness and clean democracy, and we are concerned about what we're seeing in Russia.
That was the bare minimum of what a U.S. secretary of state could say in that setting at that time given those circumstances. And Putin took that as some kind of conspiracy where Hillary Clinton was in league with the demonstrators in Russia and was, in fact, the cause of them being out in the streets.
On any reasonable calculus, on any objective evidence, that is just simply nonsense, but that's what Putin told himself. Whether he actually believed it or not, I'm skeptical. But it’s what he told himself, and it’s what he told his broader security establishment. So that became the defining narrative from Putin's perspective as to what happened with those elections.
When you say you question whether he believed it or not, how might it have worked for him domestically? …
Putin was under enormous pressure at home at this point. People were unhappy. They wanted to express their displeasure at the ballot box. That forced him to manipulate aspects of those elections. That turned people out into the streets once they saw that their democracy was being undermined. Putin was feeling the heat in a big way. What do you do when you're feeling the heat? You've got to find some tool to be able to manage public opinion in a way to de-escalate the situation and solidify your hold on power.
Hillary Clinton became that tool for Vladimir Putin. Being able to blame her, an outside interference, not only worked to be able to tell Russians, “We all have to rally against an outside adversary”; it also allowed him to discredit the protest movement as being effectively a functionary of the United States and of Hillary Clinton and not a dynamic homegrown movement.
Putin then wins his election in 2012, so he now comes back into the presidency. Who is this Putin at this point? How has he evolved? How does he seem to reorganize and take on more power? And what are our thoughts and fears about what he is representing at that point?
Those of us at the State Department who were working for Hillary Clinton when Putin came back into office feared that it essentially meant the end of the reset. The reset was running on fumes at that point anyway because we had plucked the low-hanging fruit, to mix metaphors, and we had essentially done the major cooperative initiatives that were available to us in the first term. But when Putin came back into power, it was clear to us, it was clear to Hillary Clinton and those around her, that we were going to be in for a much rougher ride.
That is because Putin naturally was going to be reasserting his own personal influence over Russia's national security policy. But two factors were going to push him even further: one, his own domestic insecurity coming out of the election processes, both the parliamentary election and the presidential election, which had exposed a level of discontent at home; and two, the Arab Spring, which had increased his paranoia about America's role in fomenting revolution abroad. Those factors combined to make Putin far more skeptical and suspicious of the United States and a much more difficult partner for us.
Putin Consolidates Power in his Second Term
And then it goes back also to the 2003, 2004 color revolutions. Everybody always talks about how we understood even back then that that paranoia had started more at that point.
From early on in the Bush administration, but particularly advancing in the period where you saw revolutions in Ukraine, revolutions in Georgia, the Freedom Agenda of the Bush administration in its second term, Putin started to worry increasingly that the entire design and focus of U.S. foreign policy was at the end of the day about unseating him in Russia and about undermining Russian security more broadly in the region.
This view, Putin's view about America's role in fomenting revolution abroad, ebbed and flowed in terms of how prominent it was in his thinking about U.S. foreign policy. It was always there, but it became much more acute after the Arab Spring and after his own election and the parliamentary elections in Russia that left him feeling weaker and less stable at home.
Putin Asserts Himself on the World Stage in his Third Term
Let's jump to Ukraine: 2014, the demonstrations break out. What's our policy toward Ukraine? …
The United States’ policy toward the Ukraine during this period was to essentially say it’s up to Ukraine. If Ukraine wants to pursue an association agreement with the European Union and get on the path to Euro-Atlantic integration, that's their right. If Ukraine decides they don't want to do that, that’s their right, too. Our view was that the U.S. shouldn’t be at the center of that negotiation. That really should be a negotiation, first of all, among the Ukrainian people and their government, and then secondly between Ukraine and Europe, not between Ukraine and the United States.
Throughout 2013, it was really the Europeans and the Ukrainians who were sitting down and wrangling over whether or not Ukraine would actually pursue this EU path, and it was Ukraine and Russia who, at the same time, were discussing what the implications of that would be.
By late 2013, it became clear that [Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovych was going to turn away from the EU path and pursue an economic deal with the Russians. Now, the United States obviously was concerned to the extent that that just meant essentially Russian blackmail that was defying the wishes of the Ukrainian people, but it wasn’t up to the United States ultimately to drive decision making as far as that was concerned.
So really, the next thing that happened was thousands, tens of thousands of people, poured out into the street in the movement that became known as the Maidan movement to protest Yanukovych’s decision not to pursue a path that would lead to Ukraine's integration into the European Union.
The United States took the view people have a right to peaceful protest; they have a right to assert their view about Ukraine's future, and the government's going to have to work it out with this protest movement.
… And then this very strange hybrid sort of warfare is taking place in Crimea, “little green men” and everything else, that we don’t quite understand what's going on. What are we doing at that point? How are we viewing that? What can we do? And do we understand what's taking place?
We had strong suspicion from the moment that masked men with guns and uniforms, even if they didn't have the insignia on them showed up in Crimea, that they were Russian. But this was not something that we’d ever seen before, an invasion out in the open that was, in effect, being conducted by stealth, by subterfuge, so it took us some time to really figure out, how do you effectively respond to that? How do you call it out? How do you push back against it? … We weren't falling for the notion that this was some kind of homegrown movement or that these guys just spontaneously showed up there without any direction from the government of Russia. We didn't know for sure what you do in a circumstance like this because we’d never seen anything quite like it.
Ultimately, our response was to begin to impose a series of sanctions on individuals and entities linked to Crimea and to begin to open a dialogue with the Russian government that basically said we're going to have to increase the pressure and increase the amount of sanctions if you're not prepared, essentially, to find an exit ramp from this situation and de-escalate and ultimately pull your forces back.
… Is there a conversation in the White House about what we're seeing over time, conversations with diplomats from other administrations in the past about what they saw in Estonia, or are we caught really unawares about what he’s doing and why he’s doing it?
We came to understand pretty early on that this set of asymmetric tools, this hybrid warfare, was going to be an important factor in Russia's effort to exert influence and expand its dominion in its near abroad in Eastern Europe. However, understanding that that was going to happen did not give us the answer about how to respond to it. The biggest challenge that we had was, we didn't have a clear answer to the question of how do you deter behavior when the other side is basically denying that it’s even taking place? And then how do you de-escalate or use diplomacy to try to resolve a situation when the other side is saying, “I don’t even know what you're talking about; we're not involved”?
President Obama would speak regularly with President Putin about the situation in Ukraine and say, “Look, we've got to figure out a way for you to pull your forces back.” And Putin would say, “We don't have any forces there.” And President Obama would say, “Look, let's just cut the nonsense and figure out a solution here.” And Putin would say, “I don't know what you're talking about.” How do you actually arrive at either a strategy of deterrence or a strategy of diplomacy in the face of that kind of problem? So that was one big challenge.
The second big challenge, from my perspective, with dealing with hybrid warfare was in their near abroad, the Russians believed that they had the escalation advantage, which is to say they were prepared to go further in destabilizing the situation than any other country, including the United States, was prepared to go to raise over the top of them. They felt that operating in this gray zone, in this hybrid warfare zone, allowed them to control escalation. I don't think to this day the United States has fully worked out a strategy for responding to that.
The question of use of armaments and this debate that was going on in the White House and elsewhere in Washington about some voices saying that it’s important that we provide the Ukraine with better weapons to defend themselves, and President Obama's attitude that this would just cause more problems and that sanctions were the route, can you take us into that debate a little bit?
The debate over the use of defensive weapons, primarily anti-tank weapons, the deployment of those to Ukrainian forces essentially came down to a basic question: If we do that, are we more likely to deter further Russian escalation or more likely to invite further Russian escalation by doing that?
Those of us who argued deter basically said what the Russians need to feel is some resolve on the other side that will lead them to de-escalate. What the invite side said was if we pour more weapons in, the Russians are simply going to raise us. They're not just going to call us; they're going to raise us, and they're going to pour even more men, money and material into Ukraine. That was President Obama's view ultimately, and it was the reason that we didn’t proceed.
I think it's a close call. I ultimately supported the provision of defensive weapons to Ukraine, but I understood the counterargument. I think this debate over whether the United States should or should not have provided lethal weapons to the Ukrainians crystallizes this core challenge about escalation. Is the United States ultimately prepared to go as far as the Russians are prepared to go in a country like Ukraine? And if the answer to that question is no, then that has a big impact on our policy.
… The argument that some people make that we weren't harsh enough in how we showed there was a line that he couldn’t cross eventually led to him hacking into our elections. What's your take on that argument?
I do subscribe to the view that Putin will keep probing and pushing until he feels he’s hitting a hard wall and that he did not feel that hard wall from the United States. On the other hand, I don’t agree that American behavior and policy in one theater totally shapes Putin's decision making in another theater.
I'm not sure that a different strategy in Ukraine would have stopped President Putin from deciding to intervene in the American election. I think he is able to compartmentalize and to decide that he can proceed further in one space than he does in another space. So I don’t buy into this unified theory that says if we had just stood up to him in Syria or if we had just stood up to him in Ukraine then his whole strategy of destabilizing democracy in Europe and the United States would have shifted. [It] could have easily intensified. He could have decided, “That's really where I want to put all of my money.” So I think the right way to look at the issue of deterring Putin from intervening in the U.S. election was how we directly responded to that issue, not how we responded on other issues.
Putin Returns to the Presidency, Sparking Protests and a Crackdown
And that's what we’ll talk about next. Let me ask you one small question before we talk about the elections. The [Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs] Victoria Nuland telephone hacking and the fact that the Russians released that, which is fascinating in itself, and then used it as propaganda to define the fact that we were finagling with Ukrainian elections and also her statement about Europe, which was embarrassing: What was the [thinking] about the Nuland hacking and how that went down?
It was a new step in this method of hybrid warfare. This was an information operation. This was fundamentally about shaping the information and political landscape in Europe and in Russia and in Ukraine. Instead of just eavesdropping on a call, gaining some intelligence from it, the Russians actually released the audio of that call in order to basically make the case that it was the United States that was pulling the strings in Ukraine, and that the United States was denigrating Europe and we don’t like Europe.
Now, I don't think that it was a highly successful undertaking at the end of the day, but it was a precursor of things to come.
Intervention in the U.S. Election
… When you hear of the DNC hacking and the belief at that point that Russians are involved, how do you hear, and what are you guys thinking?
We first heard about the hacking of the DNC, and potentially of the Clinton campaign as well, in the late spring of 2016. At that point, we felt this was pretty standard fare. Foreign powers had hacked the Obama campaign, the McCain campaign, other campaigns over time, and the normal tradecraft was to try to learn about potential future presidents and their policies. So it didn't come as a huge surprise to us that foreign powers, including hostile foreign powers, would be hacking into political parties and political campaigns in the United States.
At that point, the game hadn't shifted to public dissemination. At that point, it was simply they were inside the system and probing around. So that was our initial reaction. … OK. So then days before the convention, WikiLeaks releases all this information. What are you thinking then? As soon as the DNC material landed on WikiLeaks, we were convinced inside the campaign that this was the Russians taking the game to a whole new level. They had gone into the DNC, gotten this material, and now were disseminating it with the express purpose of harming Hillary Clinton and by doing so helping Donald Trump.
How freaked are you? How serious do you consider this?
This was a game changer. This was a moment where we realized that the Russians had decided that they were going to actively interfere in the U.S. election; they were going to intensively work to undermine the pillars of U.S. democracy; and that they were going to try to defeat Hillary Clinton. So I would say freaked out would be the technical term for how the campaign felt at that point about what was going on. And we immediately sounded the alarm.
So you sound the alarm, and there's a story on how you and Jen Palmieri try to get into a golf cart, and you're going from site to site at the convention to talk to the press. Take me to that moment and how the message that you're giving and how it’s being received and what the thoughts of the campaign are at that point.
… After the Russian leak on WikiLeaks, the documents from the DNC splashed across the front pages of newspapers everywhere, we arrived at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, and Jennifer Palmieri, who was the campaign’s communications director, and I went to each of the major networks, all five of them, and went from network to network who each had tents around the center where the convention was taking place.
We rode in a golf cart from tent to tent, and we spent an hour with each of the networks laying out in a sober and systematic way our view that this was a Russian intelligence operation and that our democracy was under attack and that this was not a political issue but a national security issue and should be treated as such.
And how were you received? What was the reception?
The networks all looked at Jen and I as serious, credible people who might just have gone a little far in peddling conspiracy theories. I think they were skeptical at that point of what we were saying and listened to us politely but fundamentally did not buy into the gravity, the scope or the impact of what the Russians were up to.
And how do you guys react to that, the fact that you understand what will be proven later to be a very serious situation, but you can't get the message through?
It was a very frustrating period, both during the Democratic National Convention, when we were first trying to explain what we believed was happening, and then in the weeks that followed, when we continued to sound the alarm through statements, through public speeches, through organized press telephone calls. Some members of the press began to come around, but there was general skepticism of the campaign’s line on what was happening here with the Russians throughout most of the summer and fall.
We just tried to shout louder and marshal more evidence and push the story any which way we could, but we were having a really hard time getting traction.
Are you getting to see the depth of what was going on? It's the hacking; it’s the release of information. There's also these fake news stories taking place. I mean, there's stories that all of a sudden take flight of Hillary being seriously ill, and then they come from somewhere, and then they end up on conservative radio shows, and then they end up on Fox, and then they become believed by a huge amount of people. Are you seeing all of the depth of what is going on?
We were watching material and arguments and stories about Hillary Clinton appearing on Russian propaganda websites like Russia Today and Sputnik and then somehow ending up in very similar form, ending up in the right-wing media ecosystem of the United States, Breitbart and Infowars, even Fox News. And watching this swirl, where Russian propaganda and right-wing media in the United States were essentially driving similar storylines, and then social media was elevating these storylines on both Twitter and Facebook, we didn't know exactly what the extent of it was or the mechanism for how this was happening, but we were watching it unfold in real time, and it was a source of huge concern to us.
One of the things we were trying to explain to the press was this isn't just about hacking and leaking emails; this is about a larger information effort by the Russians, which is a playbook that they had developed over the course of years in Europe in elections closer to home, but that they were now using in the United States of America.
Are you worried that this could affect the election at that point?
You know, it's hard to say in hindsight now, knowing all that we know, how we felt exactly about its impact on the election at the time. What we knew was that the cumulative effect of WikiLeaks and all of these stories, particularly the fake news stories and the stories that might have had a kernel of truth but then were completely twisted around, was that this was helping dominate the political discourse in the closing days of the campaign. We knew it was going to have an impact, and we were worried about what that impact would be.
Take us to one fake news story that you thought was very important and how it took flight, whether it's the illness or the pizza parlor thing.
… One story was that the Clinton Foundation had used donors’ money to pay for Chelsea Clinton's wedding. This story took flight on right-wing media and on social media and was swirling around in this Russian propaganda network as well. We couldn’t figure out the genesis of it or why it was gaining the traction that it could, but it was utter nonsense.
A positive story about Donald Trump was that the pope had endorsed him, that Donald Trump had been endorsed by Pope Francis, which to anyone who has followed the dynamic between Pope Francis and Donald Trump would know that's completely crazy. But it was a story that also took flight and that generated a huge amount of traction online, particularly in social media.
… What's the feeling within the campaign?
It felt at various points like we had entered the twilight zone. The intelligence community of the United States was telling Donald Trump that the Russians were interfering in our election, and he was going out publicly and saying: “We have no idea who’s doing this. Maybe it’s not Russia. Maybe it’s a 400-pound hacker sitting on his bed.”
He was also at this point touting policy positions that were beyond what Vladimir Putin could have dreamed an American presidential candidate would tell: NATO is obsolete. We should think about lifting sanctions on Russia. We should think about letting Russia have Ukraine. We shouldn’t care that Russia kills journalists. The list went on and on. It involved changing the Republican national platform to take out what they believed to be anti-Russian material. It involved Donald Trump saying Vladimir Putin deserves an A for leadership and is just a great and fabulous guy.
We were watching all of this unfold, Donald Trump reading from Vladimir Putin's wish list of policy positions at the same time that he was encouraging Russia to continue to interfere in our election, that he was making common cause with this Russian effort, and, perhaps most importantly, that he was trying to take maximum advantage of it.
Donald Trump mentioned WikiLeaks more than 150 times in the closing weeks of the election knowing full well that the entire WikiLeaks dump was a Russian intelligence operation.
Putin and Trump
Why do you think—what was going on? What did Putin see in Trump? …
Vladimir Putin saw in Donald Trump somebody who had an affinity for Russia and Russian dictators, somebody who thought that the core principles of American foreign policy, allies and values and a rules-based international order, just weren't that important. So he liked what he heard from Donald Trump in terms of his worldview. He also didn't like Hillary Clinton. I think in part he didn't like Hillary Clinton because of their personal history, but also in part because he felt that she was going to exert American power and influence in the world in a way that was against Russian interests, and he didn't think that Donald Trump would do that.
And Trump's view toward Putin? Do we have any understanding of what was motivating that?
What we know is that Donald Trump has a bizarre fascination with strongmen and dictators. And we've seen this play out over and over again. He’s even said nice things about Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, and Saddam Hussein, not to mention the president of Egypt, the king of Saudi Arabia, the president of Turkey and Vladimir Putin. So it’s all of a piece with that.
But beyond that, I think that Trump has had an affinity for Russia and Russian oligarchs and Russian leaders for quite some time that relates to his business interests, that relates to his general attitude toward values and democracy. And all of that came together in this unholy alliance. Whether it was witting or unwitting, whether there was active collusion or passive collusion, it all came together during this campaign.
… What's the campaign’s point of view toward the White House's inaction in dealing with what's taking place?
We were hoping that the White House and the administration in general would come out earlier and stronger in asserting this is what the Russians were up to and then taking steps to deter them from any further action. But of course we weren't inside, and it wouldn’t have been appropriate, of course, for a political campaign to be engaged in intensive discussions with the national security establishment of the government on this. So it was hard for us to know what the considerations were or the trade-offs were in thinking about how to come out publicly and what they were doing behind the scenes. But we were hoping to see more and stronger from the administration over the weeks and months leading up to Nov. 8.
Is there an understanding at this point that there's an investigation into the Trump campaign at all? …
We heard very late in the day, very late in the process, with just days to go before the election, that there might be some kind of investigation into the Trump campaign involving the FBI, and we flagged what we were hearing from a variety of reporters who were all told no, that's not true; it’s not happening. We know now in fact it was true, and it was happening, but nobody was able to establish it in the closing days of the campaign.
Intervention in the U.S. Election
And the frustrations over that due to the fact that the investigations into Hillary Clinton's emails were such an important aspect of the campaign?
Jim Comey has gone out publicly and said that it was not appropriate to identify the fact that there was an ongoing investigation, FBI investigation, into Donald Trump because it might have an impact on the election. That was the opposite of the logic that he applied when it came to notifying the public about an investigation into Hillary Clinton. That was not something that we could wrap our heads around, I guess would be the polite way of putting it.
Oct. 7, WikiLeaks releases the [John] Podesta emails, and from that point on, it’s a drip, drip, drip, daily information coming out. … How is the campaign dealing with it all?
The day the Access Hollywood tape came out, that it was first reported, was the same day that the first WikiLeaks dump of John Podesta’s emails also came out. So the tape drops, and a few hours later, the WikiLeaks Podesta emails drop. That is pretty crazy timing. From that point forward, the way that the Russians and, frankly, the Trump campaign as well wanted to play the Podesta leaks was, as Trump was dealing with this difficult Access Hollywood story and the allegations of sexual assault by a number of women, there would have to also be a story on the evening news or in the newspaper about Hillary Clinton and emails and the John Podesta leaks.
So they saw this effectively as their primary means of combating the storyline about the Access Hollywood tape and how the Russians thought that through working with WikiLeaks and how the Trump campaign took advantage of that, we have to get to the bottom of that. But that was the dynamic for the closing three weeks of the campaign.
Do you feel in your heart of hearts that the Russians delivered this election to Trump?
I believe there were a lot of factors that ultimately determined the outcome, but when you lose by 70,000 votes across three states, and you look at the scale and scope of the Russian intelligence operation, I don't think it’s reasonable to say that it did not have at least that big an impact on the election.
The U.S. Response to Russian Measures
… Did you think any of the stuff that the White House was doing would have any effect whatsoever in slowing down their use of these tactics?
I was hoping that the White House, the intelligence community, other aspects of our national security establishment were doing things we didn't know about to slow down or stop what the Russians were doing. I was just hoping that they were using all means available, and most of the things that would be effective would be stuff I wouldn’t know about on the outside. I was hoping that was happening. It turns out in the end not much of that was happening. But no, I did not believe that simply saying to Vladimir Putin, “Please stop,” was going to be effective.
Putin and Trump
… The lifting of sanctions. What's your overview of that story?
What became apparent once Trump won was that he intended in the early period to actually make good on all these things he said in the campaign about Russia, including lifting sanctions on Russia for its behavior in Ukraine. In fact, the White House directed the State Department to essentially draw up a game plan for the lifting of sanctions. State Department pushed back hard because that was completely antithetical to American national security interests, but it was a good example of how this wasn’t just empty talk from Trump. He actually intended to carry forward a set of policies that were consistent with this pro-Russia view. …
And your impressions of those photographs of him meeting in the Oval Office with Lavrov and [Sergey] Kislyak?
It was an utterly bizarre turn of events that, first of all, they brought essentially the state arm of Russian media into the White House to take pictures of Trump yakking it up with Ambassador Kislyak and Foreign Minister Lavrov; second, that Trump would use that meeting to call Jim Comey names and to tell these guys, “Don’t worry, we're trying to get rid of this investigation”; and then third, of course, that he would reveal for them the type of intelligence information that he did, putting one of our partners at risk.
That constellation of things all happening within one short Oval Office meeting maybe is the best summation of Trump's approach to the Russia issue and to this FBI investigation that we have yet seen, and all of it is deeply disturbing.
Putin Asserts Himself on the World Stage in his Third Term
And lastly—we're going back here; I forgot to ask it before—the Crimea speech that he gives on March 18 where he lays out, number one, that Crimea is theirs, that it was Russian troops, but beyond that, it’s like a boosted speech about how he views the United States. When you guys, you were still in the White House at that point, how did you view that speech?
That was peak Putin, and anyone who wants to deal with Vladimir Putin in policy, in academia, just reading the newspaper, you've got to read that speech, because that speech essentially encapsulates Vladimir Putin's worldview about how the United States mistreats the rest of the world and how it’s up to him, Vladimir Putin, to reassert a multipolar world against the hegemonic American superpower. He weaves a whole series of arguments that cannot be immediately dismissed; that need to be contended with and pushed back on. So I don't think that there's a more important statement that he has made to reveal and reflect his worldview.
Putin and Trump
… What lessons should this new administration understand, learn from what has taken place with previous administrations?
The Trump administration has to come to understand that on some fundamental levels, the United States and Russia, under Vladimir Putin, have divergent interests, and we've got to be clear-eyed about that. Believing that somehow Russia and the United States can be great partners in a global project and see eye-to-eye on some of the major issues of the day is only going to end up in disappointment. Or, to the extent we're acquiescing in the Russian point of view on these issues, it’s going to result in a weaker United States, less capable of protecting our own national interests.
Trump is either going to learn that the easier way because he’s constrained from doing what he wants to do on Russia, or he’s going to end up learning it the hard way.