During his time as a staffer on the National Security Council and as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul found himself in meetings with Russian Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin. Needless to say, Sasha or Malia didn’t show up to grab some face time with those guys (although they did get a tour of the Kremlin in 2009).
This weekend, the current president’s daughter Ivanka Trump was all over the world stage, awkwardly inserting herself into a G-20 chat with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May in Osaka, Japan, and at her father’s side during his meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. On Twitter, the former diplomat McFaul wrote, “I hope Americans will not forget how absolutely bizarre it is to have the daughter of a president (1) work at the WH (2) attend G20 summits and bilat meetings with world leaders.”
It wasn’t just Ivanka’s position that was bizarre. In Osaka, President Donald Trump jokingly told Putin not to interfere in future elections, ha-ha, and then both discussed their shared interest in trying to “get rid” of reporters. Later, Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to step into North Korean territory.
I spoke about the entire spectacle with McFaul—now a professor at Stanford and the author, most recently, of From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia—by phone on Monday morning. We talked about Ivanka’s big weekend, the difference between how Trump and Obama approached high-profile international meetings, and the value of bonhomie with dictators. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Matthew Zetlin: As someone who has planned summits like this before, what was your initial reaction to seeing the prominent role Ivanka Trump played in Osaka and North Korea?
Michael McFaul: Well, a number of things. The summits I planned and the ones I was in charge of were with President Medvedev and President Putin and President Obama. There’s always a major contest about how many people will be in these meetings. It’s called “plus one,” “plus three,” “plus five”—there’s a big negotiation over that. In our administration, we would determine who would be in the room depending on who is involved with the policy that we were discussing. Obviously, that is not the case of the president’s daughter. I’ve been away for a while, so correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think she works on foreign policy, I don’t think she’s a member of the National Security Council. And so that just seemed rather odd to me that she would be in those meetings, even in the strained circumstances that she works in the White House—and I want to underscore that I personally think that’s an odd arrangement in and of itself—but even within that arrangement in the last two years, it’s not her portfolio to work on national security issues. I just thought it was inappropriate.
With this trip into the DMZ, one thing that a lot of former diplomats and people who study this stuff say is that just giving Chairman Kim this meeting in this symbolically freighted place is a win for him; it’s giving something away. But as a nondiplomat, I’ve always had a little trouble understanding that argument. What is so important about these types of high-profile meetings between leaders and why do people see it as a concession or win for one side?
Different administrations see this in different ways. When I was in the Obama administration, we used summits between leaders to be action-focused events. We wanted to hold out the meeting between President Putin or President Medvedev to force our governments to get something done before they met. And so, for instance, in negotiations over the New START Treaty, we’d try to prepare work and then get it done so the presidents could bless that work. That happened when we went to Russia in July 2009. It was the event of us going that forced the two governments to come to terms on the parameters of that treaty. This is typically called “deliverables” at the State Department.
Obviously, President Trump has a different view. He has a different strategy. He believes that these summits—and he’s already on his third meeting with Kim Jong-un, by the way—are going to produce the deliverables later on. That he has to change the atmospherics and that will get him to the deal that he seeks to achieve. I want to keep an open mind. And if these kinds of meetings produce complete, verifiable denuclearization in North Korea, then I’ll applaud it. But so far we’ve had three meetings and they’ve achieved, I’d say, very limited tangible progress towards that stated goal. And I want to underscore: That’s President Trump’s goal. I’m not assigning that goal to his diplomacy. That’s the one he has has said multiple times.
Just for the record, as someone who was involved in the Obama administration’s foreign policy, was the administration ever “begging” for a meeting with Kim Jong-un that they couldn’t arrange, as Trump has said?
No, that’s just not true. It’s false. I really do not understand why the president of the United States has so little regard for facts. I don’t understand why he feels compelled to say that. In my eyes it makes him look silly. In the eyes of other people, including his interlocutors by the way, I’ve got to believe they have the same reaction to that.
And, by the way, that’s another part to your first question, I would just add, he’s the president of the United States, he can decide who’s in the meetings, he can decide who gets to do that. But remember, that sends a signal to the rest of the administration of whom he values in that meeting and whom he doesn’t. And that means somebody else is not in that meeting as a result of having his daughter there. And it also sends a signal to the other people in those bilateral meetings and it sends a signal that’s not serious. She’s a spectator for what I think are very serious things on issues of national security.
To move on to a related topic, compared to the Helsinki summit, Trump and Putin seemed much more comfortable with each other this time, talking back-and-forth about election meddling and their dislike of journalists. Do you think the Mueller report and its partial exoneration has loosened Trump up to be as Putin-friendly as he wants to be?
First, I want to be clear I don’t think the Russian intervention in the 2016 election is a laughing matter. I think it’s a serious national security issue. I’m deeply disappointed that President Trump doesn’t see it that way. Not only because he is the commander in chief and his job is to protect the sovereignty of Americans and the sovereignty of our votes. It also means he’s done absolutely nothing or near nothing to prevent this from happening in the future. It sends the wrong signal to be joking about that.
I think it’s also not a laughing or joking matter to talk about the so-called fake news. I do not consider American journalists doing their job to be quote-unquote part of the fake news. I think it is undermining to our democracy to have a president speak in those terms, and I find it especially offensive for him to do it standing next to President Putin, when I have friends, and former friends, who were journalists that have been killed, that have been censored and no longer have jobs because they have tried to work in Russia.
So, on the substance, that kind of behavior I just find offensive, and I don’t think it serves America’s national security objectives. I think it makes President Trump look weak in the eyes of President Putin, not strong.
But then the second bigger thing: I would relate this to what we talked about with Kim Jong-un. Trump has tried to befriend Vladimir Putin for 2½ years. Every time they meet it’s all about “my great friend Putin, my great relationship.” I cannot think of a single tangible, concrete outcome from all of that friendly rapport that advances American national security interests or American economic interests. Let’s not even talk about values. He doesn’t even talk about them. It seems to me that President Trump oftentimes assigns to the meeting—a cordial meeting—as being the goal of diplomacy. That’s just not the way it works.
It’s easy to have a good meeting if you just say nice things about somebody and don’t try to get anything done. That’s easy, that’s not hard. It’s not hard to have a jolly meeting with Putin or Kim Jong-un. What’s hard is to advance our security interests, and in the bilateral relationship with Russia I literally can’t think of one thing that he’s achieved as a result of this rapport that he developed with Putin.
Just to make it clear, if as a result of befriending Putin he convinced Vladimir Putin to exit eastern Ukraine, I would applaud that. If he got him to not ever interfere with elections again, that’s a trade one could consider. But so far I can’t see anything tangible that’s been achieved as a result of all this happy talk.
It seems like the best understanding of what is even attempted to be achieved in these meetings with Putin and with Kim, and having his family members there, is to have them on television in the presence of other powerful people.
That is an achievement for these autocratic leaders. It’s very important to understand that. By being jolly and friendly with Putin, he is legitimating Putin—he is forgetting about these past violations of international law that Putin did. Putin annexed Crimea. We haven’t had annexation in Europe since World War II, and, oh by the way, we fought World War II in part because of annexation. For Trump to just forget about it, he is legitimating Vladimir Putin.
And I would make the same argument for Kim Jong-un. By going to North Korea, he went to him, he asked for permission to step into his country. That is giving him the international stage for nothing. It’s not just free, if you will. It actually puts him on the same status and stage as the president of the United States of America.
If he gets denuclearization as a result of that, I’ll write a letter to the Nobel Committee saying he should get the Peace Prize. But so far he’s given up a lot in terms of this symbolism that if you’re Kim Jong-un, you’re delighted by that. The president of the United States came to your country to say nice things about you.
Towards the end of the Obama administration, it seemed like Putin and Obama had a personally frosty relationship. Is that a correct impression, and is there any chance that being friendlier would have resulted in better tangible results for the U.S.-Russia relationship?
I don’t see it that way, as someone who was there for all those meetings for five years including when they got worse. They didn’t start with a frosty relationship. Their first meeting in 2009, it wasn’t frosty—it was cordial. And that meeting was about very concrete issues of national security. We focused on the START Treaty; we then completed the START treaty. We were focused on a discussion about Iran; we eventually got the most comprehensive multilateral sanctions against Iran ever, and that was discussed in the Putin meeting. We discussed a number of other things and we achieved very tangible outcomes as a result of our diplomacy with Russia that were, in my view, good for the United States.
What changed was not their personal relationship. What changed was Putin’s paranoia about first the Arab Spring and then protests in his country, which he blamed President Obama for, he blamed Secretary Clinton for, and he eventually even blamed me for fomenting.
No amount of goodwill or happy talk would have reversed those reactions from Putin in 2012, and then obviously when you had mass mobilization in Ukraine in 2013, Putin blamed us for that. He said we were fomenting revolution against his ally there. When President [Viktor] Yanukovych fled, he blamed us, and that’s when he decided to go into Crimea.
I think at the margins, personal rapport with adversarial countries can help, but I think there’s a tendency for those that haven’t witnessed it to exaggerate its importance. Vladimir Putin is not going to do any favors for anybody. He’s going to define his interests the way he sees fit and he’s going to pursue them. I would say that about most leaders, even of democratic countries. It’s not a game of doing things for your friends.