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Former U.S. Ambassador To Russia Discusses Findings Of Mueller Report


The original aim of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation was to look into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The investigation did not find enough evidence to charge any of President Trump's associates with conspiring with Russia. But it did find the Russian government interfered in the election in, quote, "sweeping and systematic fashion;" it also found numerous contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives. Michael McFaul was a U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Thanks for having me, Audie.

CORNISH: So in the context of the Russian social media campaign using fake Russian trolls, you are also mentioned in the report as one of the high-profile people interacting with a Russian troll account. Can you - unsettling? Can you give us a response to this?

MCFAUL: It's not really unsettling; I've actually been dealing with Russian trolls and Russian real people on social media since I was ambassador in 2012, and I think it just underscores how sophisticated this operation was by Russia. I still fear that a lot of Americans have underestimated both their capacity to interfere in our elections and their will to do it. And I applaud Mr. Mueller and his team for providing a fantastic rendering of what they did in the first volume. But they only really looked at two parts of that, and I think there are many other parts that we need to also explore, and then we need to move to prescriptions for how to prevent this in the future.

CORNISH: I want to come back to that in a moment. But first, while there is no conspiracy charge, the report does document a number of meetings between Trump associates and Russian operatives during a time when Russia wanted to undermine the 2016 election. What's your take on the details that were revealed here?

MCFAUL: Well, one, I don't understand why they had all those meetings (laughter). I mean, I - still, it's not clear to me. Usually campaigns are focused on American voters and not Russian officials during the campaigns. I worked for President Obama during his campaign, and we weren't spending much time with Russians. But number two, I - you know, again, I want to applaud the report; I think it's fantastic. But I still want to know more about Russian intentions - were these counterintelligence operations, or were these operations to try to influence what these people were doing?

And then, three, I want to make sure that we have a discussion about what should we do during campaigns? So maybe it wasn't illegal, maybe it wasn't a conspiracy, but it sure seems wrong to me to reach out to the Russians to say, if you've got compromising material on my opponent, I want it. It sure seems wrong to me to say, if you can steal data from my opponent, please do so and publish it. And I also think we need some new norms about conflict of interest with respect to foreign companies and governments with business while you're running for president; at least transparency about that would be a good first step.

CORNISH: There are already sanctions in place over the 2016 interference. Do you think more should be done to hold Russia accountable?

MCFAUL: Yes, I do. I applaud those sanctions, and I support the Trump administration for having extended those sanctions beyond what the Obama administration did. But I think now President Trump needs to become involved. You know, all the way through all of this, he just calls it a hoax. He says it's not serious. He stood next to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki at a summit last summer and sided with Putin over our intelligence community. Now we have this Mueller report fantastically documented for what the Russians did. He needs to speak out vocally and underscore that he knows what they did, and he's not going to stand for it in the future.

CORNISH: You know, despite those sanctions, as you talked about, you do have the president, as you describe, kind of questioning the findings of his intelligence agencies about Moscow. What effect might this have on the ability of the U.S. to have a strong response going forward?

MCFAUL: Well, all along Vladimir Putin and his associates have been hoping that they'll be able to work directly with President Trump to achieve their objectives and, again, to not have to be strapped by what they call the deep state preventing that from happening.

And when President Trump doesn't align himself with his own administration - and now he can do it forcefully with Mueller report. Like, why hasn't he come out and said, this is outrageous, what the Russians did? That would be a great first step for him to do that today because, when he doesn't do it, then that causes the Kremlin to believe that, if we can just get Mr. Trump in the room with Putin, he'll be able to pull him in the directions that I think are in Russia's national interest and not ours.

CORNISH: In our time left, what have you been seeing online as you've been going back and forth on social media, given your contacts with Russia?

MCFAUL: Well, one, there is, like, this - see, we told you so. There's nothing there - that's one argument. Two, there is a hope that maybe we can - we, them, I mean - can move on. Now that Mueller's done, maybe we can get on to the business of improving U.S.-Russian relations. And then, three, just a general kind of perplexity about America. And you know, they are reacting to the polarization we have, and they like to see that polarization.

CORNISH: Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, currently a professor of political science at Stanford University. Thank you.

MCFAUL: Yeah. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.