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Breaking Diplomatic Protocol In Russia


The Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki broke with tradition in many ways, as we've already noted. An American president standing next to the Russian leader and seeming to take his word over his own intelligence agencies about Russia's conduct during the U.S. election was extraordinary. And then there was the format itself. Presidents Trump and Putin were alone for more than two hours with only their interpreters present. There were not note takers in the room.

We wanted to know why this is unusual and why it matters, so we've called Nancy McEldowney. She has served in many posts, including as U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria. And we should note that she resigned after President Trump was elected and appointed Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.

Ambassador, welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

NANCY MCELDOWNEY: My pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: First of all, Ambassador, how unusual is it for a U.S. leader and a Russian leader to speak alone, one-on-one, for more than two hours? There were not even any note takers in the room.

MCELDOWNEY: It's highly unusual for this sort of high-level, high-stakes meeting to take place in that very limited format and for good reason. Because without a note taker, without an official record of what has happened in the exchange, we are vulnerable to misunderstanding and, frankly, to manipulation. And we're already seeing that type of manipulation take place with the Russian government putting out information about what they assert was agreed to in the meeting while very senior members of our own government, to include the director of National Intelligence, has no idea.

MARTIN: As summits go, when two leaders meet with their advisers present, would the advisers have participated? Or would they just listen? And the reason I'm asking is that President Putin is an old hand at this, and President Trump is new to this particular form of negotiation.

MCELDOWNEY: Under normal circumstances, when you're headed up to a summit-level meeting, there is both extensive preparation with interagency meetings so that the expertise across U.S. government agencies can be brought to bear, and then there's also extensive briefings of the president to make sure that he not only understands the issues but is ready for a range of contingencies that may arise. Then, in the course of the meeting, senior officials accompany the president not just to create a record but also to be able to answer questions, to weigh in when certain issues are raised, and the president may not either have the expertise or the history about a particular issue.

MARTIN: As you noted earlier, since the summit, President Putin and other Russian officials have actually given us more information about what was discussed in Helsinki - at least, what they say was discussed - than President Trump and his team have offered. And, days after the meeting, how should we understand this?

MCELDOWNEY: Well, I think the only way to understand it is that it's deeply troubling, and it's very problematic - not just on a political level but from a national security standpoint. We're in a circumstance where the Russian Ministry of Defense is asserting that it's ready to, quote, "implement the agreed provisions from the meeting." Our Pentagon does not know what those are. Our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs doesn't know what those are.

MARTIN: Since the meeting, there have been calls by some members of Congress to question President Trump's interpreter, Marina Gross, who was, as we've noted, the only other American in the room. What's your take on that?

MCELDOWNEY: This is an extraordinary circumstance, and I share the concern about what may have occurred. There are, however, some very significant difficulties, some impediments to this. The first is a legal issue. Trump can invoke executive privilege. Second, from a diplomatic standpoint, we do want our chief executive to be able to have private conversations with other heads of state.

And, finally, there's a procedural issue, which is that most interpreters only take very cursory shorthand notes on what the U.S. speaker says. The fashion with secrecy by this administration and their willingness to go to extreme lengths to ensure that secrecy raises more questions and creates the kind of difficulties and confusion that we're dealing with now.

MARTIN: That's Ambassador Nancy McEldowney. She is retired after a long career in U.S. diplomacy.

Ambassador, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MCELDOWNEY: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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