Former U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul on Trump Diplomacy, Ukraine and Palo Alto Kids

President Trump's norm-busting diplomatic style has been a hallmark of his administration's foreign policy from day one. Now, those practices are at the heart of House Democrats' move to impeach him. President Donald Trump's July phone call with the President of Ukraine was only the latest in a series of unusual approaches to foreign policy in the region, including, of course, allegations of collusion with Russia and a too-cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has some thoughts on all that.

A lecturer, author and diplomat who worked in Moscow starting in the early 1990s, McFaul served five years in the Obama White House including as the ambassador to Russia from 2014 to 2016. A staunch ally of pro-democracy Russians, McFaul is only the second U.S. ambassador to be declared persona non grata by the Russian government (the first was Cold War era diplomat George Kennan). Putin even suggested to Trump he would like to have McFaul sent to Russia for questioning about interference in Russian affairs. Trump's former press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, declined to rule it out.

McFaul talked to Nina Burleigh of Newsweek as the federal government arrested two Soviet-born businessmen with ties to a Trump re-election PAC as they were trying to leave the country, and charged them with campaign finance violations, and as reports surfaced that authorities are also investigating former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani related to his private work for Trump in the Ukraine. Needless to say, he is not a fan of the current administration.

Edited excerpts:

Newsweek: What is it about Ukraine that has attracted American operatives from all sides? The short list includes incarcerated felons Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort, accused but acquitted former Obama White House lawyer Greg Craig and now Rudy Giuliani, reportedly under investigation related to investigating the Bidens.

McFaul: I'm not sure I can answer that question, to be honest. I think most of this starts with Mr. Manafort who used to work in Ukraine for a long, long time. He had a very important client that then got elected to be president, Mr. [Viktor] Yanukovych. Then he worked with his party, and for many years he was an adviser working for Mr. Yanukovych and his political party. And I think most people would have never heard of Ukraine and corruption and all these things had Mr. Manafort not become the campaign manager for Donald Trump in 2016, so I think it all starts with that. When that corruption was exposed, as it was between Mr. Manafort and his Ukrainian associates, others started to get more involved trying to allegedly uncover or discover that this was a plot to help Hillary Clinton. Then they went a step further to - with the President himself being involved in this conspiracy - to try to pressure the Ukrainian government to help expose alleged crimes that were committed. And I want to emphasize, no evidence has been shown to that effect, alleged corruption, let me put it that way, by the Vice President and his son. So I think it all starts with Manafort's work in Ukraine going back several years.

NW: So, it's not that it's just particularly corrupt in context of that part of the world? It's not a particularly attractive place for a lot of American operators to go and return with bags of money?

McFaul: I don't think there's anything particular about Ukrainian corruption. I mean, it's been a problem and for many years, if not decades. The Western world, including the lenders of money to Ukraine, at the top of the list would be the International Monetary Fund—they're the main donor to Ukraine—have been trying to pressure the government to clean up its act. In fact, the very first speech that Vice President [Joe] Biden gave in Ukraine in 2009, and I know because I was there and I helped write it, he also mentioned corruption.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul
Michael McFaul (R), former U.S. ambassador to Russia, arrives for a House Select Committee on Intelligence hearing concerning 2016 Russian interference tactics in the U.S. elections, in the Rayburn House Office Building, March 28, 2019 in Washington, DC. McFaul spoke to Newsweek about Trump's impeachment drama and 2020 election interference. Drew Angerer/Getty

NW: On to Russia. Trump has reportedly gone to extreme lengths to hide his talks with Putin. What do you think he has talked to him about?

McFaul: Well, I don't know the exact answer. And I really do want to underscore, I'm guessing: Most of the administration, maybe everybody in the administration, believes that there needs to be a pushback on Putin and his belligerent behavior, so they support sanctions on the Russians. They support more military assistance to NATO, and they support more economic and military assistance to Ukraine. There's this one guy that disagrees with that policy, and that's the President. That may therefore be a reason why he doesn't want other people in his administration to know what he's saying to Putin.

NW: Can you describe what it is that you think Trump has done for the Russians in the last three years?

McFaul: The general contours of the [U.S.] policy have not changed since the Obama administration. I think that's something not well understood. But what I see aspirationally is Trump wants to change the policy. He's made it clear that it doesn't really seem to care that much about Ukraine. He wants to lift sanctions. He put those in place reluctantly. And he wants to have "better relations" with Putin and Russia. So rhetorically those things are there. The policy hasn't changed that much. I think the bigger thing that President Trump has given Putin is just weakening America's role as a leader in the world as a whole and especially a leader in the free world. So by withdrawing from the TPP [Trans Pacific Partnership] and the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Accords and now the most recent tragic withdrawal from Syria, that creates power vacuums that are good for Vladimir Putin. Every single one of those moves that I just mentioned, in my view, strengthens Putin and weakens the United States.

NW: Speaking of strategy, everyone's ignoring the arms control issue. Can you say anything about Russian nukes, these treaties that have expired and should we fear what's happening with the arms control issue with nobody having their eye on the ball?

McFaul: Yes. I think the Trump administration is making a huge mistake in pulling out of arms control agreements generally, but specifically with Russia today. So they recently pulled out of the INF [Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty. I think that was a mistake, but the bigger mistake is the threat that they're now talking about withdrawing from the New START treaty that was signed by President Obama and President [Dmitry] Medvedev from 2010, then ratified by the U.S. Senate at the end of 2010.

I worked on that treaty, that treaty reduced nuclear weapons by 30 percent, arsenals of both countries. It had in place a very comprehensive inspections regime. I think by withdrawing from that treaty we lose our ability to understand, as best we can, what Russia is doing with its modernization of its nuclear forces. That I think is highly destabilizing.

Ronald Reagan said very famously when he was negotiating with the Soviets, he said, "Trust, but verify." When I was in the government, I used to always say, "Don't trust, only verify." And if you don't have that treaty in place, you have no ability to verify. So I just think it's a huge mistake, and I hope, you know, if Trump claims that he wants to do something cooperative with Putin, well, to me this is a really obvious low hanging fruit. Just extend the new START treaty for five more years.

NW: You are an expert on Russia, you've been there since the '90s, you watched all of this happening in terms of the flight capital, the money, the mafia, the privatization of all this public wealth, then it moving overseas. Do you find investigative journalists' allegations about money laundering in the Trump organization, credible?

McFaul: I'm not going to speculate about legal things. Yes, I know a lot and yes I know a lot of these actors, but to claim illegal activity, that demands legal experts, and I'm not a legal expert. I'm not a prosecutor. Was there a lot of capital flight out of Russia for the last three decades? Absolutely. Was a portion of it illegal? I have no doubt. But to say specifically what one person did with the Trump organization, I was hoping that Mr. Mueller would connect those dots. I most certainly am not qualified to.

NW: Can you talk a little bit about Trump's style of meeting with world leaders in person and by phone?

McFaul: I know how we did it when I worked with President [Barack] Obama. A typical phone call to somebody like Putin or President Medvedev would first involve an inter-agency policy meeting that typically I would have chaired and we would have discussed policy agenda items that we were seeking to advance in a phone call or a meeting. Standard protocol would be that the NSC [National Security Council] team would prepare a call package, that's what it's called, filled with background information on the agenda items for the call. We would then write the talking points. The next step would be then what's called the pre-brief. You would go into the Oval Office and brief the President on the most important items of the call. Then he would call Medvedev or Putin, and we, or I most certainly, would sit in the room and listen on the other line and take notes and when appropriate would advise the President in real time about things that Medvedev or Putin might be saying.

As far as I can tell, they don't prepare call packages for the [current] President, and if they do, it's not clear that he is reading any talking points. Certainly that call to President [Volodymyr] Zelensky didn't look like he was disciplining himself to focus on advancing U.S. national security interests. Then, just little things. He made the call from his residence, and that means that there are fewer people. I mean, we don't know to this day who was with him in the residence when he made that call. I worked at the White House three years. I never once was on a phone call from the residence.

Then the final obvious thing: after a call, we would then send a distribution list of the constructed transcript to senior officials and the government and other people within the White House on a need-to-know basis. We most certainly never stored those transcripts on a server in the Directorate of Intelligence. That was where the most highly classified information was held. We did not do that either.

NW: Have you ever given any advice to Trump's Russia Ambassador Jon Huntsman or has he ever reached out to you?

McFaul: No.

NW: What words would you use to describe how Trump has changed American diplomacy, if you think that he has?

McFaul: Well, I think he's undermined diplomacy. They're not developing policy. It's just ad hoc-ery. And I see that with the call to Zelensky. I see that with his call with Erdoğan where he just makes a major foreign policy decision, what appears to be just on a whim without talking to his generals, without talking to the Secretary of Defense or even his national security adviser. It's not apparent to me that anybody was part of that. So just the making of policy has broken down and it's become very ad hoc and little order.

Then two, in terms of the implementation, it's hard to implement a policy when you don't know what it is, so nobody really knows what the policy is on many countries in the world today because that process is broken down. In addition, you have two other things that are just highly unusual and I think the damaging to American national interests, one, the privatization of diplomacy. So, Mr. Giuliani, who answers to no one and was never confirmed by the U.S. Senate, is suddenly involved in some of the most sensitive issues in U.S.-Ukrainian relations. Then the other part is just the personalization of foreign policy. President Trump seems like he just wants to be his own State Department.

NW: What do you expect Putin to do in 2020?

McFaul: I don't really know. I do think the Putin playbook is likely to be replicated by other actors, Ukrainians, Chinese, Palo Alto high school kids who have now understood how you can do this and to play this role. So I worry about that on the social media front.

I guess my biggest worry from any of these actors is not necessarily the tremendously sophisticated, comprehensive intervention that Mr. Putin did in 2016. I think that'll be hard to pull off again, but I do worry about something happening on election day that might call into question the validity of the vote. And it might even be just a small handful of votes, but if that happens and somebody can say, "This vote was not free and fair," that could be very de-legitimizing for our electoral process. And I guess more than anything, that's what I worry about, from either Putin or some other belligerent actor.