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Former U.S. Ambassador To Russia Talks Trump And Putin47:01

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Former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, warns Americans not to let their leaders go down the path of Vladimir Putin. He joins us.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks with winners of the 2016 Presidential prize for young scientists after an award ceremony in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. (Alexei Nikolsky/AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks with winners of the 2016 Presidential prize for young scientists after an award ceremony in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. (Alexei Nikolsky/AP)

Before the Super Bowl, America watched as Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly told President Donald Trump, Vladimir “Putin’s a killer.” Trump turned that right around. “You think our country’s so innocent?” he asked. Retired Army General Barry McCaffery called that “the most anti-American statement ever made” by a US president. Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul is watching it all. He’s with us.  This hour on Point, Ambassador Michael McFaul on Donald Trump, Putin and the world. -- Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Amb. Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia. Senior fellow at the Stanford University Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Hoover Institution. Author of "Russia's Unfinished Revolution." (@mcfaul)

Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. (@MatthewRojansky)

Interview Highlights

By now, President Donald Trump's words from a Sunday interview with FOX News' Bill O'Reilly have morphed into shorthand for America's growing unease about the new President's views toward Russia.

“You think our country’s so innocent?" the President asked, after O'Reilly called Russian President Vladimir Putin a "killer."

Today, On Point host Tom Ashbrook spoke with former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, to sort out the parallels between Putin's early years and President Trump's first few weeks in office. McFaul, who served as ambassador under former President Barack Obama, outlined several areas in which Trump has aligned with Putin, but also pointed out this country's unique, robust democratic structures that function, in a stark contrast to Russia's more autocratic system.

"I was shocked, if you want to know the truth," McFaul said in reaction to Trump's exchange with O'Reilly. He said it highlighted Trump's empirically incorrect understanding of our military involvements abroad.

"It is true that we do killings in Iraq. But the person who orders that is the Commander-in-Chief, it's not soldiers, it's not killers, it's government," McFaul said, adding that Trump's statements are disrespectful to veterans and to the office of Commander-in-Chief alike.

"Do we use force? Have we gone to war and do we make mistakes and kill innocent people? That is true, too. That is absolutely true and that is a tragic truth," McFaul said.

But the way we fight terrorism, McFaul argues, is greatly different than the way Russia does.

"If you look at what happened in Aleppo, many people have called that a crime against humanity, that there were war crimes conducted there because [the Russians] were just bombing the city to smithereens," McFaul said.

McFaul also mentioned Russia's ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has slaughtered hundreds of thousands of his own people in the aggressive and ongoing civil war in that country.

Put simply, McFaul said, we don't do that. We don't fight that way.

Those differences aside, McFaul does see striking similarities between Trump and Putin.

He pointed out that Putin, like Trump, was elected as a political outsider during a time of national economic uncertainty. Putin promised a strong rule of law and an economic resurgence on his arrival in office.

"To his credit, President Putin did put in place economic policies, but it came at a terrible loss, that is the loss of democracy," McFaul said.

It also didn't take Putin long, McFaul says, to do just what many see Trump attempting to do in his first few weeks: "Over time, incrementally, he rolled back the independence of the Russian media," McFaul said.

So is the U.S. headed down Putin's well-worn path to autocracy? Probably not, McFaul said. While Trump's demonization of the press and admiration of Putin are troubling, the U.S. today is democratically stronger than the Russia of 2000. It's incumbent on the average American, McFaul cautioned, to be vigilant and defend our political system.

From Tom’s Reading List

Washington Post: We can’t let Trump go down Putin’s path — "For reasons still mysterious to me, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to praise and defend Russian President Vladimir Putin. Just this week, in an interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox, President Trump affirmed his respect for Putin. When O’Reilly challenged Trump by calling the Russian president a 'killer,' Trump defended Putin, whom he has never met, by criticizing the United States: 'We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?'"

USA Today: Trump: I don't know Putin, have no dealings with Russia — "President Trump denied any special connection to Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, and he contrasted his approach to Russia to predecessor Barack Obama's dealings with Iran."

New York Times: Diplomatic Isolation of Russia Is Counterproductive — "The current U.S. approach to Russia has failed. Moscow is ostensibly isolated and subject to sanctions. Yet it has not appreciably changed its course on Ukraine or Syria; instead it is escalating and broadening the conflict via nuclear saber rattling, cyber attacks and information warfare. Meanwhile it has re-established considerable influence throughout the Middle East, the former Soviet region, and even East Asia and Latin America. What is to be done?"

This program aired on February 9, 2017.

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