Former Ambassador To Russia Looks Ahead To Trump's Summit With Putin

Jul 3, 2018
Originally published on July 5, 2018 1:15 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Michael McFaul, can't predict what the outcome will be of the summit between President Trump and President Putin planned for July 16, but he has some thoughts about what to expect from Putin. McFaul was in the room during meetings between Putin and President Obama as well as meetings between Putin and Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Kerry.

McFaul was Obama's ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014 and was the architect of Reset, the plan to reset the post-Cold War relationship and pursue common goals with Russia. From 2009 to 2012, he served as special assistant to President Obama on the National Security Council. When he was serving in Russia, he was the target of fake news campaigns. Putin blamed him and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the protests surrounding Putin's election to his third term as president. McFaul is now banned from returning to Russia. He's now a professor at Stanford University, where he directs the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. He's written a new memoir called "From Cold War To Hot Peace: An American Ambassador In Putin's Russia."

Michael McFaul, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So I just want to start with the fact that the U.S. Ambassador to Estonia resigned on Friday. And Estonia is one of the former Soviet bloc countries that got admitted to NATO after the fall of the Soviet Union. And he tweeted - the ambassador who stepped down tweeted, (reading) having served under six presidents and 11 secretaries of state, I never really thought it would reach that point for me. I truly believe and have said many times, national interests don't change from one administration to the next. For the president to say the EU was set up to take advantage of the U.S., to attack our piggy bank or that NATO is as bad as NAFTA is not only factually wrong but proves to me that it's time to go. It takes no courage on my part to do so, and I can't hold a candle to my friends who have honorably resigned without the benefit of the full pension I have waiting for me.

As a former ambassador, have you asked yourself if you would resign if you were serving in a diplomatic position under Trump and what you think the right thing is to do as someone who strongly disagrees with Trump policies when you're serving in his administration - try to uphold the values you believe in or resign in protest?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Well, first of all, I deeply admire the ambassador for making that statement and deciding to resign. That is a powerful idea. I know lots of people in the State Department and the U.S. government that feel the same but haven't made that move. Whether I would or not, it's a difficult question because, of course, Donald Trump would never invite me to work for him.

But I do ask the question of people that I know personally that work for him. When the president of the United States says things that are categorically false, like the ambassador pointed out in that tweet, how can you serve him? When the president of the United States says he will look into recognizing Crimea, as he just did a couple of days ago, that everyone I know at the highest levels of the Trump administration disagrees with and thinks that is not in the national interest - if you stay on and you just endorse that, you are enabling what I think is not in America's national interest.

And remember, all of those people - because I took the oath, too - they take an oath to serve the United States of America. They don't take an oath to serve President Trump. So I think it's a pretty precarious time and especially with all these concessions that the president has laid out and hinted at that he seems to be willing to give up to President Putin - by the way, in return for nothing so far. I hope that his senior national security team will push back on those, what I think are really bad ideas.

GROSS: So President Trump is scheduled to meet with President Putin July 16. You've met with Putin. You were in the room twice when Putin met with President Obama. You were there about four other times when Putin was with the vice president and national security adviser. So what is it like to negotiate with Putin?

MCFAUL: Well, the first thing to remember about Vladimir Putin is he's been president for a long time, so he's been dealing with other heads of state for a long time. He's very experienced. He is now on his fourth president. He's met with President Clinton, President George W. Bush, President Obama and now President Trump. They've already met. Remember? This is their second meeting.

No. 2, he comes prepared. A meeting just for the sake of a meeting is not the way Putin approaches this. He wants to achieve certain objectives in these meetings. And so he prepares for them, and he seeks to advance what he defines as Russian national interests. That would be good advice for our president, by the way - to think of the meeting as a way to advance American national interest and not just to have a good meeting.

And No. 3, he does this kind of psychological research. Remember, he's a former KGB counterintelligence officer. He does research and makes it known to his interlocutors that he's done that research about their history, their background. And every now and then, he'll play with that and kind of put people on notice that he knows these things about their past history. I don't know if he'll do that with President Trump, but I've seen him do that before.

And on occasion, he'll surprise people when the cameras are on. So one time, for instance, I was in a meeting with him and Vice President Biden for a two- or three-hour meeting. The cameras came in. And Putin, out of the blue, said kind of jokingly but also to put Biden on the spot - oh, we had just agreed to visa-free travel between our two countries. Isn't that right, Mr. Vice President? And then in front of the public and on the record, the vice president has to respond. So those are the kinds of things he might be tempted to do as well.

GROSS: Thinking that maybe the vice president didn't know whether we had or had not agreed to that?

MCFAUL: Correct, and just kind of putting him on the spot and seeing how he responds. And to that end, remember, you know, the - President Putin knows these issues really well. And he knows his own interpretation of these issues really well, the history behind it. And he will, as he did with President Pu (ph) - President Obama, excuse me, in Los Cabos in 2012, give you a long history lesson. Back then, it was about the Arab Spring and the history of the Middle East. And what I fear, when he sits down with President Trump, is he might be tempted to do the same - give a long history lesson, for instance, about Crimea. And if you don't know the facts, you might be tempted to nod along with a guy as formidable as Vladimir Putin.

GROSS: My impression from your book is that you found the lecture that you and President Obama got from Putin really annoying (laughter). I mean, you called it a lecture, not a discussion.

MCFAUL: Yeah. I mean, Los Cabos especially was very tense because we had very - two different interpretations of how to deal with the Arab Spring more generally and Syria in particular. President Obama said to then, you know, newly elected President Putin - remember, he had not been president for four years. So this was our...

GROSS: He had been...

MCFAUL: ...First meeting.

GROSS: ...Prime minister.

MCFAUL: He had been prime minister and deliberately did not deal with foreign policy. We dealt with President Medvedev before then. And Obama said, look, we did not start the Arab Spring. We had no intention of fomenting regime change, but we now see this process underway. And his basic argument was, we can push now for peaceful change, and moderates might come to power. But if we do nothing, it'll become more violent, more extremists will show up, and it'll become violent revolutionary change.

And Putin pushed back on that and said, I disagree. I think your theories are wrong. And my idea is to double down on the dictators that are there. And he talked about Assad. But he also said, you know, you guys made a mistake in throwing under the bus your autocratic friend in Egypt, Mr. Mubarak at the time.

And I think, you know, in retrospect, that President Obama's analysis was correct because that's exactly what happened in Syria. But as we all know, Mr. Putin went from being analyst to player and intervened militarily in 2015 to prop up that ruthless dictator, Mr. Assad.

GROSS: So you're saying that Putin is good at having psychological background on the person he's negotiating with and using that to his advantage. Do you have an example of that from meetings you were at?

MCFAUL: Well, the most famous one - it was not a meeting I was at, but when he met with Chancellor Merkel several years ago. Everybody knows that she has a fear of dogs, and he deliberately had his big dog - I think the dog's name is Konni - come bouncing into the room and jumped up on her lap. That wasn't by accident. Those are the kinds of things he does.

With meetings I saw, you know, I would say generally this notion of - especially with President Obama, the second meeting, you know, poking at his misunderstanding of history, his naivete, you know, this notion that the Middle East can be democratic and, you know, somehow presuming that he understands the world in a way that we Americans do not. That was a message I heard many times listening to Vladimir Putin speak with senior American government officials.

GROSS: Why don't we take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more? If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael McFaul who served as President Obama's ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014 and was on Obama's National Security Council before that. He's written a new memoir called "From Cold War To Hot Peace." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO LA TENGO'S "HOW SOME JELLYFISH ARE BORN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Michael McFaul, who served as President Trump's ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014. He's written a memoir called "From Cold War To Hot Peace." And we're talking about his experiences and how they relate to what he's seeing now with the Trump administration and President Trump himself in their positions on Russia. I'd like your impressions of what you think the best and worst outcomes of the Putin-Trump summit might be. Let's start with the best outcomes.

MCFAUL: The best outcome, in my opinion, would be for President Trump to meet with Putin, to not use any flowery language about what a great leader he is and what a great meeting they have. Just put that all aside - doesn't need to say any of that to advance American national security interests; and then, second, to have him reaffirm what is U.S. policy right now, so to reaffirm that we will never under any circumstances recognize Crimea as part of Russia, that he would reaffirm our commitment to NATO, that he would reaffirm our commitment to advancing and helping a democratic Ukraine - and down the road, right? In other words, don't move on the positions that are right now official U.S. government policy.

The paradox of our time right now is that the Trump administration's policy towards Russia I think is pretty good. I support almost all aspects of it. It's just that the president doesn't seem to agree with it. So if he just supported the status quo of his own government's policy, I think that would be a great outcome.

GROSS: So when you separate the president from the policy of his own administration, who are you talking about and what is the policy when you describe, quote, "the administration?"

MCFAUL: Well, just over the weekend, his national security adviser, John Bolton, went on several television programs and said several times it is United States policy not to recognize Crimea as part of Russia. That was a decision taken by the Obama administration not to do that - by the way, fairly easy decision to make. The rest of the world has not recognized Crimea as part of Russia, too, just to be clear about that. And what he was doing in those interviews, Bolton, I think, was affirming U.S. policy. But then at the end, he would say, well, at the end of the day, the president gets to make policy, which I found to be a bit of a cop-out, by the way, because his title is national security adviser. He's supposed to advise the president about what's in America's national security interests.

But that's what I mean, that right now it is the stated position of the United States and every single one of our allies in the world not to recognize Crimea. For some reason, President Trump on Air Force One a few days ago hinted that he would look into it again. And I hope that he would retreat from what I think was a very silly thing to hint at.

GROSS: And just for people who have forgotten, Russia annexed Crimea by force, which is why we're not recognizing it.

MCFAUL: Correct. They annexed by force. It's a part of Ukraine, recognized as part of Ukraine by everybody, including by Vladimir Putin, by the way, for several decades until he took that action of annexation.

GROSS: OK. So what do you think the worst outcomes of the summit might be?

MCFAUL: The worst outcome, minimum to maximum, so the first bad outcome is for President Trump to repeat what he did in his Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un and just go out of his way to lavish praise on Putin. There's no reason to do that. And this idea that somehow if I praise him, Putin's going to do me some favors, as the president, President Trump, has hinted from time to time, is naive. I don't think anybody does anybody any favors, by the way, in international diplomacy. That's not the way it works. But Vladimir Putin is most certainly not going to do anything - any favors for President Trump just because he said some nice words about him. So that would be the first bad outcome. The worst outcome would be that if he actually, you know, delivered on some of these concessions that he's hinted at, whether it's about Crimea, whether it's about lifting sanctions on Russia or pulling troops out of Germany that is - was reported just a few days ago that he's looking into. Those would be disastrous outcomes in my view.

GROSS: And you're considered to be the architect of reset, which was the relationship that the Obama administration started with Russia. The idea was to put the Cold War relationship behind us and work together with Russia to find common interests and then work toward those interests together. So for the reset working paper, it was stated improved relations with Russia should not be the goal of U.S. policy but a possible strategy for achieving American security and economic objectives in dealing with Russia.

MCFAUL: Thank you, Terry, for quoting that paper because I had to argue about that hundreds of times with people that analyzed the reset. But, you know, historical documents are historical documents. It was always my view, and I did play a senior role in developing the policy, that it was not about, quote, unquote, "getting - developing better relations with Russia." That was never the goal. The goals were very concrete things. The goal, for instance, was a new START treaty to reduce the number of nuclear weapons that Russia and the United States deployed. We achieved that in 2010; by the way, verifiable arms control agreement ratified by the U.S. Senate. The goal was new sanctions on Iran - the most comprehensive sanctions against Iran ever. We achieved that also in 2010. And that was a precursor to getting the Iran nuclear deal, a deal that I think was in America's national interest.

Another goal, for instance, was supplying our troops in Afghanistan through what we called the Northern Distribution Network, which included Russia and other countries in Central Asia. And the idea there was to reduce our dependency on Pakistan so that we could go after terrorists in Pakistan, including very dramatically one night in 2011 when we violated Pakistani sovereignty and killed Osama bin Laden. We couldn't have done that without 90 percent of our supplies - at the time that we took over, 90 percent of our supplies went through Pakistan. We reduced it by 50 with Russia's help. So all of those are very concrete goals that I would say are in America's national interest.

GROSS: So you write that respect was very important to Vladimir Putin and to Russia. So Obama, you know, acknowledged the, you know, Russians' help in the defeat of Hitler. Why is respect so important, and what does that mean? What translates to respect?

MCFAUL: Well, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that was a very humiliating event for leaders like Putin. And then throughout the '90s, there's a theory propagated by the Kremlin that we were just pushing them around and we were not respecting their place in the world. And so in 2009, President Obama went out of his way to acknowledge the great things that Russia and the Soviet Union had done. In his speech in 2009, he said - and it was a very controversial thing to say - the United States wants a strong Russia; we think that a strong Russia could be a good partner for the United States. And that was a way to send a signal that we want to work with you as partners, not in this asymmetric power relationship where we're the strong state and you are the weak state.

GROSS: So Trump likes to flatter people he is negotiating with. Is flattery and respect the same thing?

MCFAUL: No, I don't think so. I think flattery is cheap talk and, most certainly, Vladimir Putin understands that. By the way, Vladimir Putin's pretty good at flattery, too, so President Trump should be ready for that. I would radically distinguish between those two things. And, remember; flattery is about an individual. Respect is about a country. And I really think President Trump needs to start remembering that diplomacy is not about his personal relationships with other leaders, but it's about America's relationship with countries like Russia.

GROSS: Are you concerned about further Russian interference in our next election, in the mid-term elections?

MCFAUL: Yes and no. Do they have the capacity to intervene again? The answer to that is yes. We have not taken what I think are kind of elementary new policies about resilience with our cybersecurity to stop that. And with respect to how we monitor or stop Russian propaganda inside our country, we also don't have agreement about new policies on that. And I worry about that. At the same time, I don't see the stakes and the obvious play is clear in the 2018 congressional elections as they were back in 2016. In 2016, it was very clear to me that Putin preferred Trump over Clinton, and it was in Russia's national interest to see President Trump win. And therefore, the incentive to do what he did was there. And by the way, I think that he's achieved some of his objectives. When you have a president talking about all these concessions that we've been talking about, Terry, that seems like a pretty good investment of your time considering that Putin really has not been punished for what he did in 2016.

But in 2018, it's a messier map. How do you do it in various places? I don't think the strategy is clear-cut. And I could see them deliberately not doing anything so that the president later could come back - President Trump could come back and say, see; we've taken care of this issue, leaving - keeping their powder dry for something they might do in 2020.

GROSS: My guest is Michael McFaul, author of the new memoir "From Cold War To Hot Peace: An American Ambassador In Putin's Russia." After we take a short break, we'll talk about the fake news campaigns against him while he was serving as America's ambassador in Russia during the Obama administration. And Maureen Corrigan will review Deborah Levy's new memoir about getting divorced at age 50. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIK FRIEDLANDER'S "OSCALYPSO")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Michael McFaul. We're talking about President Trump, Russia and McFaul's experiences in Russia. He served as President Obama's ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014 and was the architect of reset, the plan to reset the post-Cold War relationship and pursue common goals with Russia. From 2009 to 2012, McFaul was special assistant to President Obama on the National Security Council. He's written a new memoir called "From Cold War To Hot Peace: An American Ambassador In Putin's Russia." When he was serving in Russia, he was the target of fake news campaigns.

Let's talk about some things that happened to you. Vladimir Putin personally blamed you and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the protests surrounding his election to his third term as president. And so you were really attacked by fake news...

MCFAUL: Yes.

GROSS: ...After those protests. And talk a little bit about the fake Twitter account that was set up in your name because it strikes me as a very clever approach that they took.

MCFAUL: Well, yeah. I mean, long before Americans had thought about fake news, we were experiencing it in real time in 2012. And it was unlike anything previous embassies had encountered. You know, I had some really experienced people on my team, on their third and fourth tours there, and we'd never seen anything like it. The worst moment was when a video was circulated suggesting that I was a pedophile. And, of course, that wasn't put out by the Kremlin. But it obviously was circulated in a way that that was designed to cast doubt about me. How do you respond to that, Terry? What do you say? You get on Twitter. And you start arguing, I'm not a pedophile.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

MCFAUL: And, you know, we - because of my relationship with Google - actually personal relationship, we actually got him to take it down from YouTube for a while. But then it appeared everywhere. And if you go on Yandex today, which is their leading search engine company, you'll still see several million hits if you put the word pedophile and McFaul in your search. And that says something about disinformation and fake news - how difficult it is to deal with it.

To your question about the Twitter handle, that was really shocking too. It was on election night - President Putin's election night when he won re-election. And a fake account was put out - @McFaul - M, C, F, A, U, L is my name - saying all sorts of outrageous things about the election was not free and fair. And then the Russian - the Kremlin was responding to this. And, you know, this diplomat has gone crazy. Why is he saying all these outrageous things? I, for several hours, could not figure out what was going on. We thought my account was hacked, but we couldn't figure it out. You know, we were all looking at it. And it turned out that it was a simpler tactic. The handle was not @McFaul - M, C, F, A, U, L. The handle was @ M, C, F, A, U, capital I, which looks exactly like McFaul unless you are typing it in.

GROSS: Right because, like, a capital I and a small L look almost the same - especially in small print on Twitter.

MCFAUL: Exactly. And, you know, the president's spokesperson was even denouncing me publicly until we figured that out. So you know, that was a daily occurrence. I mean - and videos, you know, suggesting that I was shipped in because I'm an expert on revolution to overthrow Putin. You know, that would appear on a fairly regular basis on Russian national television.

GROSS: So what damage do you think that that fake Twitter account created?

MCFAUL: It just undermined my, you know, legitimacy in the eyes of many Russians. And remember. It's against the backdrop of a very sophisticated strategy against Obama, the United States of America, Secretary Clinton and me to really, you know, underscore this idea that we were there to foment regime change. You know, I was going to - I was the usurper. I was going to help by giving money to the opposition and coordinating their efforts to overthrow Putin. And they use that to rally Putin's electoral base and to make us the enemy once again. And remember. It's only a couple of decades since the end of the Cold War. So that kind of messaging could reverberate especially with an older generation.

GROSS: Did Putin personally attack you?

MCFAUL: His channels that he controls did every day - even before my first day in office at the embassy, by the way, Terry. The night before I showed up - it was Martin Luther King weekend, so we had an extra day to kind of, you know, get over our jetlag. And we're walking around this incredible house - Spaso house where we lived. It was like living in a museum, right? Kissinger's on the walls and Gromyko. And that night - I remember it vividly. It was the first night they did a hit job on me on Channel 1 - the main Russian state-controlled channel - saying McFaul is here to foment revolution. That does not happen without the Kremlin's blessing.

And on occasion, in meetings, you know - two in particular I remember - meetings I was in. Vladimir Putin turned to me. It was just me and one other American in the meeting - Secretary Kerry one time and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon the other. He looked straight at me in the eye. And he said, we know what you're doing. We know that you're, you know, trying to support the opposition. And we're going to stop you. And just to be clear, that is not true. That was not my mission to Moscow. I was not sent by Barack Obama to foment revolution against Russia. You know, I actually got on the plane as Mr. Reset. And I landed in Moscow as Mr. Revolution.

GROSS: Yeah because your arrival coincided with the election - with the campaign.

MCFAUL: Exactly. And you don't get to choose those events, yeah.

GROSS: You know, in writing about fake news and manipulation and scare tactics that have been used in Russia against people who it wants to discredit, you write about the use of honey traps - the use of beautiful young women who, I think, offer large sums of money and/or maybe sex as well. And, of course, I'm wondering if this was ever a technique used to bait you.

MCFAUL: To me? No, not me.

GROSS: No.

(LAUGHTER)

MCFAUL: To the best of my knowledge.

GROSS: It would have been a good story, right?

MCFAUL: But I'll tell you. It is a technique used and, you know, encountered in intelligence operations. That's true. With me, I was monitored. Everything I did in Russia was monitored - every phone call I made that was not on a secure line, every email I sent that was not on our secure system, every movement I made in my own house was monitored. And that takes some getting used to in terms of what you say and what you do. You know, we lived in Spaso House in downtown Moscow, one of the most expensive cities in the world. Around us were these apartment buildings. And they all had for-sale signs in them. And nobody ever moved in. For the entire time I was there, nobody ever moved in. They were staring down in our rooms in our house.

But to your point, it did mean I had to be careful about, you know, who I interacted with and where I was filmed and photos were taken. I remember. One time I went to the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, which is the big forum that Putin puts on every year. And, you know, back then we attended. And I went to one - it was a contrasts in oligarchs. One hour, I went to this very staid party at the Hermitage - right? - their most famous museum. Igor Sechin, the CEO of Rosneft, was the host. And everybody was in tuxedoes and formal.

And then I went over to another party that another oligarch, Mr. Prokhorov - a businessman I should call him - had. And it was a pretty wild scene with scantily clad women dancing all over the place to some '70s rock band. And my bodyguards were really excited. Let's - you know, this is going to be a much more interesting party. And I was like no, no, no. We got to get out of here. No photos. We cannot be photographed here with - at this party. And we were there for about 12 seconds.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael McFaul. And he served on President Obama's National Security Council and then as ambassador to Russia. He's now written a new memoir which is called "From Cold War To Hot Peace." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Michael McFaul. He served as President Obama's special assistant for Russian affairs and as ambassador to Russia. And he's now the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University where he's also a professor. He's written a new memoir about his time in Russia - his many years in Russia 'cause he was a student in Russia long before he served the Obama administration there. And his memoir is called "From Cold War To Hot Peace."

One of the things you had to face when you were America's ambassador to Russia was death threats against you.

MCFAUL: Yes.

GROSS: And this was largely because Vladimir Putin thought that you helped orchestrate the protests against him when he was elected. How did you deal with those death threats in, you know, a foreign country where a lot of people believed what state media was saying about you, which was that, like, you were the enemy?

MCFAUL: I don't want to joke about it. It was not pleasant, and, you know, I'm sure that Vladimir Putin didn't say put out a death threat against Ambassador McFaul. But what he does do is create these permissive conditions where it's OK to go after enemies of the state, including - very tragically, a good friend of mine - Boris Nemtsov who was murdered just a few steps from the Kremlin in 2015. And how do you deal with it?

I mean, one, thankfully I had security. And so the security gets increased, and you're more careful about it. Sometimes with some of the threats - I want to thank the Russian government because they helped us track down those people. And then others just kind of lingered, and there's nothing pleasant about it. I don't want to joke about it. And, remember, the first year I was ambassador was the year that Ambassador Stevens was killed in Libya. And so we were very sensitive to these kinds of threats given what had just happened tragically to Ambassador Stevens.

GROSS: Did any of those threats carry over when you moved back to the United States after you left your term as ambassador?

MCFAUL: Well, there definitely have been instances of monitoring that we have discovered from the Russians, both on my - you know, my email accounts. And that continues to happen, and we continue to battle it all the time. You know, tragically, Terry, I wouldn't - I don't know - death threats on Twitter - yeah, that happens all the time with Russian bots and trolls. I mean, those people are paid to harass me, and they still do that. But in the run-up to the election in 2016, what was really disturbing were the threats against me from Americans because of the things I was saying that you and I have been talking about, including from time to time on the phone where people would call me up and say, you know, you're - the things you're saying about Donald Trump are - you know, people have to pay consequences for things like that. You know, that kind of language. So that was really tragic for me to see what I associated with techniques and harassment from Russia and Russians, you know, tragically has become part of our discourse here in America.

GROSS: Well, you said that you thought Putin created an environment where it was OK to go after people who were perceived as enemies of the state and...

MCFAUL: Yes.

GROSS: ...Threaten them. Do you fear that something similar is happening in the United States when Trump, you know, declares who his enemies are?

MCFAUL: I do. I just think it leads to a kind of discourse that is polarizing, filled with hate. I mean, I see it on social media every night. Follow me, folks - @McFaul. You can witness it yourself. We're - I try really hard. I - as an American citizen, as a professor, as somebody engaged in public policy - try to engage everywhere I can. And I try to be respectful of everybody. Not just, you know, people - very senior people but anybody. I try to - that was my strategy as ambassador, and I've continued that strategy. And what I just find disheartening is, you know, the vile stuff that happens - the hatred that happens. I don't have any tolerance for that on social media.

But I think it's created an environment where that kind of thing is permissible today that just, you know, wasn't permissible back just 10 years ago. And I think we all need to think about that in the things that we say because I do think it has negative consequences, both for rational discourse about public policy but also the kind of unintended consequences of encouraging psychologically unsound people to do things. And that's what happens from time to time. And we all need to think a lot harder about how to stop that.

GROSS: As a longtime Russian expert and a former ambassador to Russia, which part of the Mueller investigation into possible collaboration between the Trump campaign and Russia interests you the most?

MCFAUL: The money. So what I know, having followed and written about Russia for a long time and Vladimir Putin for a long time - by the way, I first met him in the spring of 1991. So I've known Vladimir Putin for a long time. Not exactly like we're Facebook friends right now, but I've followed his career for a long time. What he does as a leader is, he creates leverage with money. Inside his country, first and foremost - that's where I know about it the best - but also with other governments and other people. You know, he gives you money. And then you say, well, what do I owe in return? And he says, we'll get back to that at a later time. And by doing that, he's created leverage with you.

Another instance, when I was ambassador, that I remember vividly - at one point he said, all Russian government officials who have assets abroad need to divest and move that money back home. And several of these people have lots of money parked abroad, probably some of them measured in the millions. So that's official policy. And then individually, Vladimir Putin cuts a deal with everybody. OK. I'll let you keep your house in that country. I'll let you keep your villa in that place. And then once you've done that, he's created leverage over you. You are beholden to him for ever more.

And I don't know the facts. I want to be clear. I don't want to get ahead of my skis. I want Mr. Mueller to tell us what the facts are. But that kind of using influence, using money for influence, is a very familiar tactic that the Kremlin uses. And, you know, I want to know, did they do that with the Trump Organization?

GROSS: Michael McFaul, thank you so much for talking with us.

MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Michael McFaul's new memoir is called "From Cold War To Hot Peace: An American Ambassador In Putin's Russia." He's now a professor at Stanford University, where he directs the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review Deborah Levy's new memoir about midlife, called, "The Cost Of Living." This is FRESH AIR.

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