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Former Defense Secretary Hagel On Helsinki Meeting


President Trump is meeting with Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, in Helsinki this morning. Right before going into their one-on-one meeting, the two leaders spoke to the press.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think we have great opportunities together as two countries that, frankly - we have not been getting along very well for the last number of years. I've been here not too long, but it's getting close to two years. But I think we will end up having an extraordinary relationship.

KING: Now, just a few hours ago, President Trump on Twitter blamed bad relations between the U.S. and Russia on the Obama administration, as well as on what he called U.S. foolishness. Chuck Hagel served as the secretary of defense during the Obama administration. Before that, he was a Republican senator from Nebraska. And he's with me now.

Good morning, sir.

CHUCK HAGEL: Good morning.

KING: All right. I want to ask you, Mr. Hagel, about the president's accusation that the Obama administration should've taken a more aggressive approach to Russian interference in the U.S. elections. Do you think that he has a point?

HAGEL: No. I do not. And I'll tell you why. I think President Obama, because he was the president of the United States and had responsibility for our interests, handled it exactly right. He could not at all come across in any way, in any optic that he was trying to assist the Democratic candidate, Mrs. Clinton, or be against the Republican candidate, Mr. Trump. And so therefore, he let his Justice Department, the FBI, the appropriate agencies who have responsibility for these issues play that out and take, as they should have, the responsibility for investigating and enforcing our laws. It was, I think, a very delicate, difficult situation for President Obama, but I don't see where the criticism comes in. I know President Trump has talked about Mr. Mueller's special investigation is a witch hunt and so on. I don't think so.

You know, let me just end this way, Noel, on this point. When you've got 16 - all 16 of our independent intelligence agencies saying the same thing about interference of the Russians and what they were trying to do - and it will come out more and more, as it already is - certainly, with the indictments of the 12 Russians here on Friday - just how deep and wide this went. But President Obama couldn't come out and talk about this until he had facts and the realities of what was or was not going on.

KING: Well...

HAGEL: So I don't think that there was any point of this.

KING: All right. Mr. Hagel, let me take you back to this summit. I don't want to distract us too much. Let me play you first a bit of tape. Here's Senator Mark Warner on CNN yesterday talking about Mr. Putin's meeting one-on-one with President Trump.


MARK WARNER: Frankly, I think he'll take advantage of this president, who we know doesn't do much prep work before these meetings. We need other individuals from his administration in the room so we know that at least someone will press the Russians on making sure they don't interfere in future U.S. elections.

KING: Do you think that there's anything to worry about regarding a one-on-one meeting between these two leaders?

HAGEL: Well, the way I would say it is this way. I think, always, when you have leaders sitting down, talking, that representing great powers like the United States and Russia, there needs to be others in the room, if for no other reason than to record everything that was said and agreed to and committed to in that room. Certainly, your chief diplomat, Secretary of State Pompeo, should be in that room. I think, also, Warner - Senator Warner's point is correct here, especially in preparation for these kinds of meetings.

Now, I don't know how much preparation went into this for President Trump, but there's always got to be a strategic purpose to this. Engagement is tremendous. I'm for engagement, always have been, but there's got to be a strategic purpose behind it. Certainly, President Putin has a strategic purpose behind why he is sitting down with President Trump, what he wants out of this. And I think the last point I would make - when - you can't just leave it to two leaders to sit down and decide the interests of a nation. The interests of a nation are far bigger than any one individual leader. That means consultation with the Congress, past administrations, people who have dealt with the Russians and Putin. But more to the point, the bottom line is, what is our strategic interest here? What is the purpose?

KING: Well, let me ask you...

HAGEL: What do we want the follow-up to be?

KING: Let me ask you to that end, Mr. Hagel - President Trump has been criticized for not being harsh enough on Russia, on Putin publicly, but his administration has expelled dozens of Russian diplomats. They've put sanctions on hundreds more. They shut down two Russian consulates. They approved weapons sales to Ukraine in its fight against Russian forces. Even if President Trump is not speaking out loudly against Russia, is there an argument that his administration's actions actually speak louder than words?

HAGEL: Well, if you isolate on those actions that he has taken that you have just recited, yes.

KING: It's a fairly long list.

HAGEL: Yes, but this - it's bigger than that. Let's go back to the point we were just talking about. This president, President Trump, has still - has never, ever agreed with his 16 independent agencies about the clear interference of the Russians in our elections in 2016. What about the invasion of Ukraine and Crimea in 2014?

KING: President Trump did sign a joint declaration...

HAGEL: So my...

KING: ...At NATO last week criticizing Russia for its annexation of Crimea - worth noting.

HAGEL: I'm sorry? I'm sorry, Noel. What'd you say?

KING: President Trump did sign on to this joint declaration at the NATO summit last week, which criticized Russia for its annexation of Crimea. That seems worth noting.

HAGEL: Well, it is. It is worth noting. But at the same time, he made the comment when asked the question - who is the biggest foe of the United States? - he said the European Union. He has belittled and derided the - not only the European Union, but our most indispensable collective security agreement, NATO, over the years, right up until last week. And so I think you've got to look at it in balance, the entire bottom line here. And we'll see what comes out of this conversation he has, but I would hope - and I hope there's some record of this - that President Trump has addressed these kinds of issues - Ukraine, intelligence gathering, the cyberattacks on the United States, involvement of the Russians, 12 indictments against Russians in our election - meddling in our election last year. And his own national director of intelligence, Dan Coats, said on Friday that the red light was blinking, that the Russians are back at it again. So these - you can say what you want. You can put sanctions on people, but let's get to the real issue here.

KING: Let's get to...

HAGEL: And I hope he gets to that.

KING: ...What comes out of the summit. Yeah, it's worth noting, a lot remains to be seen. Chuck Hagel served as secretary of defense in the Obama administration. Sir, thank you so much for joining us.

HAGEL: Thanks, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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