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What To Expect When Trump Meets Putin


One man is a former KGB spymaster who's led his country, either as president or prime minister, for 17 years. The other man is a real estate mogul who's held political office for not quite six months. Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are meeting now on the sidelines of a G-20 summit in Germany. And the world is watching.

Tom Graham was the top Russia adviser on George W. Bush's National Security Council. He told me there is one issue the new U.S. leader must raise.

THOMAS GRAHAM: I think President Trump, whether he's going to do this or not, needs to make a point about the political interference in our presidential election.

KELLY: That absolutely has to come up, you think.

GRAHAM: He has to raise that issue. He needs to make the point to President Putin that there is widespread outrage in the United States, that the United States is confident that it knows what happened in broad terms, if not in every minor detail. And then he needs to make the point that the United States is prepared to protect and defend, with all appropriate measures, the integrity of its democratic processes.

KELLY: What is the actual agenda that the U.S. is bringing into this? And I ask because of this - Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, was asked a few days ago what his boss hoped to get out of the meeting. And he said - and I'm quoting - "there's no specific agenda. It's really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about."

GRAHAM: Well, we don't know whether the president has an agenda or not. The question is what he thinks that agenda is. Now, my recommendation would be the political interference. Then, there are two or three other issues. He needs to talk about Syria. He needs to talk about North Korea. It's clearly on his mind at this point. He probably needs to talk about Ukraine.

But what I think he wants to get out of this meeting, what be good for the United States, is simply an agreement on what the agenda for U.S.-Russian relations going forward is. What is the range of issues on which the United States and Russia need to engage?

KELLY: Does President Trump have a strong hand going into these talks?

GRAHAM: You know, I think that in many ways, he does. The Russians do want to normalize relations with the United States at this point. I mean, we need to remember that President Putin is moving into an electoral cycle. The presidential election is in March of 2018 in Russia. And while I think there's no doubt that if Putin runs, that he's going to win, this is much more complicated.

It's about how he positions himself, what type of successes he can claim for his foreign policy. Rebuilding the relationship with the United States would be, I think, in many ways, a feather in his cap.

KELLY: That said, how does it complicate President Trump's hand that there, as he is meeting with Putin in Hamburg, there is this slew of investigations underway back home in Washington, investigations that are focused on ties between Trump associates and Russia?

GRAHAM: That's the reason that he needs to raise the political interference. He needs to...

KELLY: Just get it on the table, right.

GRAHAM: He needs to get it on the table. He needs to demonstrate that he's not pulling his punches with President Putin.

KELLY: You're saying he needs to do this. Are you confident that he will?

GRAHAM: The short answer to that is no. But if indeed he wants to build a more constructive relationship with the Russians, that issue has to be out there. War is only going to raise the temperature back in Washington. And we know there are a host of things that the Congress is prepared to do, sanctions for example. The investigations will go on. And they'll only have further reason to look more closely at the types of ties that might have existed between the Kremlin and the current White House.

KELLY: You know, this prompts the question of how much we in the public may ever learn of what's said between these leaders. This Trump White House has not been exactly forthcoming in every readout after phone calls and meetings with foreign heads of state.

GRAHAM: You know, that's a problem. I - there need to be both stories out there, and the White House needs to get out its story of what happened. You know, one of the things that presidents do in situations like this is, during the meeting, actually agree on how they're going to characterize the meeting afterwards. I would recommend that - at least an effort at that in this case. The United States and Russia, at this point, need to say they basically had the same meeting.

KELLY: Well, let me ask you, as someone who's had the experience of leaning into a president's ear and whispering advice - if you could lean down and whisper one word of advice into President Trump's ear, what would it be?

GRAHAM: It would be, don't be too eager. Be calm. Be forceful in your presentation of American interests.

KELLY: And raise Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

GRAHAM: And you have to raise the meddling issue.

KELLY: That's Tom Graham, former diplomat, now managing director at Kissinger Associates. Tom Graham, thanks very much.

GRAHAM: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.