Revelations about the Trump campaign's contacts with Russian officials came on the heels of the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn over lying about his own contacts with Russia's U.S. ambassador. Democrats are demanding an investigation, and conspiracy theorists see a threat to our democracy. Should we panic? Is this the kind of foreign meddling that could undo an administration? We wanted to talk to someone who could set us straight on what these stories really mean.
Tommy Vietor worked with Barack Obama from his 2004 Senate campaign through 2013, and was the spokesman for the National Security Council from 2011 to 2013. Today, he’s a co-host (with three other Obama alumni) of "Pod Save America," and hosts his own foreign-policy-centered podcast, "Pod Save the World." He also talks like a real person.
MTV News: Just a basic question: Why is talking to Russia bad?
Vietor: I don't think talking to Russia is bad. I think we should have more conversations with the Russians, we should try to improve relations, we should try to have regular people create better ties with your average Russian citizen. But, you know, the Russian Intelligence Service is an incredibly vicious, effective group of people who are trying to advance Russian interests and they're trying to harm the United States.
And more to the point, they're trying to advance Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin's interests.
Vietor: They're executing on whatever Putin's will is and they're accused of killing his opponents and killing journalists. Blackmailing people and spying on them and locking them up. It's a nasty group. And it's a big deal.
Should we be worried about these reported contacts between General Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador?
Vietor: It doesn't appear to be illegal. It's not even clear if it's inappropriate for Flynn to have had a courtesy call with the Russian ambassador to the United States. He's trying to build a relationship for the Trump White House, he's trying to schedule future interactions. That's standard operating procedure. It is very unusual and very inappropriate if he was in fact trying to tell the Russian government, “Don't overreact to sanction and other actions the Obama admin is going to take, we're going to make it easy on you when we get in office.”
That's inappropriate because there can only be one president at a time. You have a three-month period between an election and an inauguration where the former president is still in charge while the new president is building his or her administration and preparing to take over. That new president has to respect the fact that they're not in office yet. And you can't send mixed messages to allies or adversaries alike because then they can play you off each other. It's a huge breach of protocol, and it's frankly a dangerous way to proceed.
Now, where this becomes a bigger deal for Flynn personally is if he was asked about this issue by the FBI and other investigators and he lied. Because in Washington, D.C., it's the cover-up, not the crime, that gets people every single time. [Note: Lying to the FBI is a felony, but the FBI has said they will not pursue charges on that — though there is an ongoing investigation of Flynn and his Russia ties.]
You seem to be alarmed not necessarily by the details of this incident, but the general chaos of the White House's foreign policy apparatus.
Vietor: Yeah. I mean, the National Security Council is an entity that was created to convene all the parts of the government that manage foreign policy in the White House. The State Department, Defense Department, the intelligence community, they all come together literally at a table in the White House Situation Room and make decisions. It doesn't sound like that's happening with any regularity or in a systematic way that is driving policy.
It sounds like a minor thing, but after meetings, there's something that's circulated called the Summary of Conclusions that sort of makes a record of what was discussed and what was decided at any given meeting. And people take it very seriously — you know, edit it — and it goes out for approval. There were reports that that wasn't even happening. It's like, not only is it unclear that any sort of policy making is occurring, but it seems like [the meetings are] kind of being whitewashed.
You have to have [this] process in place to figure out diplomatic overtures to fix problems that might exist; you have a system in place to ensure those [overtures] are happening, to coordinate them, and check your work to make sure they're effective down the road. It doesn't seem like that's happening. In a crisis like that North Korean missile test, these guys are running around like a bunch of chickens with their heads cut off in the middle of a Mar-a-Lago ballroom [dining patio]. One, it's totally inappropriate to discuss those things in a public setting. Two, the resulting statement from Trump was totally inadequate and did nothing to make our allies reassured. And by the way, the North Korean missile program and their nuclear program is one of the biggest threats Trump will face. And I hope they're having a series of top secret meetings in the Situation Room where they're outlining a strategy for how they're going to mitigate that threat. Because if they don't have a plan, one day an ICBM nuclear-tip warhead is going to be upon us, and then everything has changed, you know? And that's the scary shit.
Because if they don't have a plan, one day an ICBM nuclear-tip warhead is going to be upon us, and then everything has changed, you know? And that's the scary shit.
Listening to you talking about his statement on North Korea’s missile and having just watched his press conference this morning, I noticed Trump has not condemned anything, has he? He didn't condemn North Korea, he didn't condemn anti-Semitism, he hasn't condemned Russia ... he just hasn't condemned anything.
Vietor: Exactly. Our allies listen for these messages. It seems silly that every time there's a horrible terrorist attack, the White House is like, "We condemn this." Well, that means our allies are listening, and they want to hear that, and they want to hear that we're on their side. And it's bizarre that he wouldn't condemn something so easily condemnable like anti-Semitism. Or, like, North Korea's provocative act, because it can be used for a war. It's like, these are the basics. And they can't seem to execute on that little stuff.
What about the reports that not just campaign people, but also people in his business, were in contact with Russian intelligence and Russian government officials during the campaign? Do you think that's meaningful?
Vietor: I mean, listen, whether or not these were witting contacts, it is stunning to me that these individuals had regular contact with Russian intelligence officials. It should make you question whether those people were being played. Were [Russian officials] supporting them in some way? No one knows the answer. I don't want to try Paul Manafort or anybody else in the court of public opinion — that's why I think you really need some sort of bipartisan investigation of this. This could either be a blockbuster thing and one of the most extraordinary security hacks that we've ever seen, or it could be a bunch of buffoons who were talking to the wrong people. We just don't know the answer.
It also just came out that Russia broke a standing nuclear treaty. Is that a big deal?
Vietor: I think so. I don't know all the specifics of this missile, I think the mid-range cruise missile that they deployed near Ukraine is pretty threatening to all of Europe.
I love that that's the last thing we get to ... "Oh yeah, that's pretty threatening to all of Europe." What else is especially troubling about the Trump administration to you right now?
Vietor: What makes me the most afraid is how incompetent this team seems. These are the people that need to be ready to deal with any national security crises that might come our way, and they don't have the basic infrastructure in place to do anything. And their team is in total upheaval, you have people getting fired, people leaking constantly. They are not ready for prime time. It's not just hyper-partisanship that's the problem, it's like basic competence of that Trump team in the building. They need to make changes quickly or else we're going to be even further behind and something very bad is gonna happen. And that's what's freaking me out.