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Former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin Weighs In On Redacted Mueller Report


All right. To help us understand the consequences of the Russian campaign to influence U.S. elections, as well as attempts by Russian operatives to engage with the Trump campaign, we turn now to John McLaughlin, former acting CIA director. Welcome.


CHANG: So John, we had you on the program after the attorney general's summary of the special counsel report was released. You had said back then you wanted to know why people in the Trump campaign were so open to Russian contacts. Those interactions were documented at length in the redacted report released today. Did you get your answer?

MCLAUGHLIN: I think I did. It's pretty clearly stated in the report - that I'm still going through, of course - that the campaign knew Russia was trying to help them, and they welcomed that. So I think the reason was that they thought they would benefit from it. Apparently, that did not rise, for whatever legal reason, to the level of conspiracy crime in the Mueller report, but it's pretty clear that they welcomed the support.

CHANG: Even though it didn't give rise to conspiracy charges, does it trouble you as a former intelligence officer to see that kind of receptiveness to offers of assistance?

MCLAUGHLIN: Yes, I think the minimum thing that needs to come out of this is that Congress needs to make a law. If the law does not - it does not currently, I assume, prohibit such contacts. And it should, at very minimum, require those who receive such contacts in the future to report them to the FBI, which, in this case, did not happen.

CHANG: Let's talk about the actual Russian strategy. What new things have you learned reading through at least portions of this report that strike you as important about how Russia interfered with our elections?

MCLAUGHLIN: You know, I think the main impression that comes through to me, Ailsa, is how open we were to this, how vulnerable we were. We were an open target. The fact that Russians could come here in 2014, do this research and get away with it unnoticed is astonishing. The other thing that comes through is the astonishing detail of what they did - everything from engaging social media to actually engaging certain Americans, unwitting, posing as Americans and getting away with it and getting them to do things for them, including staged rallies, a number of things like that.

So, you know, we should've had, after we discovered this, a 9/11 Commission-type report to figure out what went on here and what we need to do about it. The Mueller report is the closest thing we're going to get to that. And I think that may be, ultimately, the most important part of this report - that it gives us the data now to think about how to avoid this in 2020.

CHANG: I mean, how successful, ultimately, do you think the Russians were in their attempts to undermine the 2016 election?

MCLAUGHLIN: We don't know that yet. People are doing research on it. But here's what I think they were successful in. They were successful in creating or exacerbating enormous partisan divisions in our country. Just think about it. The two parties are at each other's throats. The president is immobilized on a number of foreign policy issues. Even the media, to a degree, is polarized about this issue. And the United States looks pretty bad in the eyes of the world. I think the Russians actually succeeded well beyond what they imagined they could here. And that's the other big impression that comes out of this - is how fragile we were. We thought our democracy and our cohesiveness as a nation - I did - were stronger than they turned out to be in the face of this.

CHANG: So in the last 30 seconds we have left, what are the most important lessons that we have learned from this report today going forward towards the 2020 election? What better way can we safeguard that election?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, I think local election officials, one, have to be very careful about how they deal with not only email, but primarily with the registration systems. It's very hard for Russians to get into our actual voting booth because we're so decentralized and, frankly, so chaotic. But our system of registration is much more uniform across the United States. I would worry about that.

CHANG: John McLaughlin is a former acting CIA director. Thank you very much for joining us.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.