Tom Nichols, professor at the U.S. Naval War College and the Harvard Extension School & author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, joined Fox News Radio's Guy Benson and Marie Harf to discuss the stories that came out over the weekend about Donald Trump and the Russian investigation.
In his latest piece for USA Today Nichols writes,"While Trump is not an "agent" of the Russian Federation (too many people use this kind of language without knowing what it means to counterintelligence officials), it seems at this point beyond argument that the president personally fears Russian President Vladimir Putin for reasons that can only suggest the existence of compromising information."
Professor Nichols walk Guy & Marie through the piece.
[00:00:10] Welcome back to.
Marie Harf: [00:00:12] Making our way through this Tuesday edition of the show. Day 25 of the government shutdown. For those keeping score at home.
MArie Harf: [00:00:19] Thank you for joining us today lots of news to get to and lots of news happening overseas in foreign policy we don't always have as much time to talk about it as either of us would like because there's so much political news but we are lucky enough to be joined by Tom Nichols. He's a professor at the Naval War College and the Harvard Extension School. He's the author of The Death of expertise. You can find him on Twitter at Radio Free Tom and I say this every time you're on Tom I only read a few Twitter accounts every day because I'm not on Twitter myself but yours is one of them. So people should check you out. And I will do the caveat disclaimer it's your Disclaimer these are your views and not the views of theU.S. Government. So there's your intro.
Tom Nichols: [00:01:02] Thank you on both counts Marie I appreciate it.
Marie Harf: [00:01:04] I remembered say thank you so much for joining this show. So let me start you have a new piece out in USA Today talking about these stories we got over the weekend about Donald Trump and the Russia investigation and new pieces of his relationship with Vladimir Putin. A lot of new information this weekend your piece is titled All signs point the same way Vladimir Putin has compromising information on Donald Trump. You write Trump's behavior towards Russia has always been a security concern and the FBI had no choice but to open a counterterrorism excuse me counter-intelligence operation. Walk us through your argument in this piece. People should check it out at USA Today.
Tom Nichols: [00:01:45] Sure. Well I think first of all anybody who in a senior position the U.S. government who had that much contact with the Russians over that much time and so many entanglements was always going to be a security concern. That's just a normal thing. I mean if you or I you know we had reported those kinds of contacts with not much contact with Russia that much mingling of our finances and things like that you know we get asked a lot of questions. We would like to say the least. I think when the president then fires the head of the FBI and goes in and brags about it to Russians you know it raises the question of what exactly does it take before the FBI has to consider the question of whether there is some kind of Russian influence or compromise involved. Now of course as you know as all of us who are writers no we don't pick our own headline. So I can't no one can say for certain what the Russians have or don't have. But to me and I've been saying this for a few years the president acts like someone who is pro actively trying to prevent the Russians from harming him like he's concerned about what they may know. I have never been one of the people who say I think too many people are kind of the resistance and of things are saying that you know he's the Manchurian candidate for president. I don't think it works that way. I think rather there's just a lot of entanglement between his family and the Russians. I think he knows that they know that he's concerned about that information coming out and he goes way out of his way to avoid antagonizing Vladimir Putin. Now that to me says the FBI I mean if you're not paying them to investigate foreign threats and penetration of then what are we paying them for. And I think it's been really unfortunate that people defending the president have decided to do that by attacking the FBI. To me as someone as a longtime Russia hand you know 30 years experience I just can't imagine what else the FBI was supposed to do here.
Guy Benson: [00:03:55] Tom so one of the things that we were talking about yesterday in response to all of this is Trump's sort of fanatical adherence to praising people who praise him and attacking people who attack him. And Putin I think made the calculation early on to talk about Trump is this sort of powerful tough guy leader. That's how Trump sees himself. That's how Trump sort of sees Putin and Duterte and Erdogan as some other sort of nasty characters on the global scene. But I guess a lot of people like me who are willing to follow the evidence where it leads. There are alternate explanations for why the president might in fact do the things say the things in particular that he does about someone that has figured out how to make Donald Trump like them which is to say nice things about Donald Trump like isn't that a fair point.
Tom Nichols: [00:04:52] Yes but let me take exception to the notion that this is just Trump returning saying nice things about him. I mean what's what Trump projects at least to me in watching him particularly at Helsinki. I mean I I think your argument could have been a strong argument right up until the Helsinki summit Helsinki was bad no argument he was bad.
Tom Nichols: [00:05:14] And it's not just that he was returning the kind of affectionate you know sort of admiration.
Tom Nichols: [00:05:22] He seemed genuinely afraid. I mean the president seems to genuinely personally kind of fear Putin and to take a very subordinate role when Putin is in the room he goes out of his way there were there were taped from when they were at a dinner together I think it was for want of the international meetings and I want to say Paris but I care more. You see the president you know constantly trying to catch his eye kind of wave it to be you know overly solicitous. There's a difference between saying well you know Erdogan likes me. I like Erdogan we're both tough guys. This is different. I mean he seems genuine. And again I'm you know trying to read his reactions when Putin is raised here in the room or when he's raised to have an issue. The president seems genuinely afraid of him. I mean he seems genuinely afraid to criticize him even to the point of saying I believe him over my own intelligence services. There are things you can say that are complimentary to Putin without having to say I believe the president of Russia over my own intelligence community.
Marie Harf: [00:06:28] Yeah Tom and. As Guy mentioned we had this conversation yesterday and I said to Guy in response to that yes there are certain things that could maybe be explained by other explanations but at some point there are so many of them that it would just keep requiring these huge leaps of logic right to think that everything was just a coincidence and there was no nothing there under the surface and of course we have to wait for Bob Mueller's report to see a lot of those details. I want to change subjects with you a little bit and ask you about a speech the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave last week. I think that was last week in Cairo where he tried to he basically spent most of it criticizing the Obama administration quite frankly and he got a lot of criticism for some of the ideas he put forward in it. What did you make of that speech by the secretary of state who hasn't given a lot of these kinds of speeches.
Tom Nichols: [00:07:23] It was very strange and you're right it was kind of criticism of Obama. It almost reminded me of that Monty Python bit. You know the person who just apologized apologizes for the love that get fired has fired the person who was you know it was like an apology for the apology tour.
Marie Harf: [00:07:40] Right.
Tom Nichols: [00:07:41] And it struck me as very unusual and I couldn't figure out either you know why it was being given or who the target audience was. And I think with this administration I always begin from the explanation of domestic politics here in the United States I always begin from. You know what what part of the base are they trying to talk to. And I also think that there's a larger problem here which is that in terms of general coherence of policy I'm not sure that if you ask me what our policy is toward the Middle East or Egypt specifically I mean the answer is I don't know and I'm not sure that Mike Pompeo knows. So maybe you've gotten this kind of scrambled eggs speech because that's about the level of coherence of the policy as well. I think you're seeing that other Cabinet departments you know if you ask us what our policy toward NATO what's our policy toward Japan. Who knows.
Marie Harf: [00:08:39] And there may be a policy and administration policy and then Donald Trump's own thoughts on it too which is really striking it right. I mean there are there are things the president says and then there are things that kind of the bureaucracy and the day to day kind of administrative structures do because they don't they don't know how to take direction from the president because the president isn't really giving them any direction and hasn't really set any consistent policy so that it may just be that simple. But yeah the speech is really kind of mystifying.
Guy Benson: [00:09:08] Well I think it also applies to Russia as well because as we've talked about numerous times on this program the administration's policy on Russia on a number of fronts has been pretty hawkish and pretty strong. There are exceptions significant ones to that rule as well but there does seem to be a disconnect between sometimes the president's rhetoric in the moment versus the actual policies pursued by the apparatus of his administration including the secretary of state the U.N. ambassador at the time Nikki Haley. So on and so forth. Tom Nichols is our guest here. I do want to I want to circle
Tom Nichols: [00:09:47] On the Russia issue I think you're absolutely right. And I think what's really striking is that the biggest enemy of the Trump administration's hawkish policy on Russia is Donald Trump. It does seem to be that there are people definitely trying to kind of rein in the Russians deal with things like the aggression in Ukraine. Keep the in place and the only person who doesn't seem really on board with that is the president and himself. Except when he wants to kind of rhetorically defer to saying you know I've been very tough on Russia and then of course he always has to go too far and say I've been tougher on Russia than anybody else which of course is just nonsense.
Guy Benson: [00:10:25] He says that you know that type of thing all the time about a variety of subjects. I guess I'm I am and I always have been skeptical of the idea that Trump himself is deeply compromised by the Russians are an asset of the Kremlin in some way. I look at his area various elements of his character and the way that he does business and a lot of his treatment of Putin seems to align with that. And I think when because he knows Russia is such a flash point and it's an issue of such consternation and frustration to him I think he doesn't want to give an inch because he's kind of a stubborn guy he doesn't want to give an inch to the critics who are upset with Russia. So when he's asked about stuff he doesn't want to say the things quote unquote that he should because to him that would be a rhetorical surrender and some sort of admission that he shouldn't have done the other stuff. So you know I don't want to sit here and play pop psychologist. I just want to see what Muller comes up with. I think that there are alternate explanations that are perhaps less nefarious than the worst case scenario could be. The other argument Tom that I've heard from Trump defenders and I wonder what you how much truth you ascribe to this the idea that the Russia issue was in large measure litigated during the 2016 campaign. President was called a puppet of Putin on the debate stage by Hillary Clinton. There were all sorts of swirling questions and rumors and real estate deals and finances and all of that stuff was part of the give and take the ebb and flow of the 2016 campaign. And Trump won anyway. What is your response to two people who would make that argument.
Tom Nichols: [00:12:03] All right well as to your first point I disagree strongly because you know the president has shown he'll do a 180. He will turn and turn on a dime about any number of policies he will change his mind at the drop of a hat. There isn't a single person in the world who has an insult that at some point except for Vladimir Putin. And I think to take Marie's point from earlier you really end up having to stretch logic to the breaking point to find more innocent explanations for it. But that he I mean it's amazing that the least consistent politician in America has one bright amazing shining consistent policy and that is to never say anything bad about plot. So I just don't buy that argument that well he just doesn't want to give it to his critics because he gives them eks something called time. I mean he's this is not an unusual habit.
Guy Benson: [00:12:55] This is a particularly tough issue for him because I think it goes in his mind and he's said this out loud. I think it goes in his mind to the perception of illegitimacy of his presidency which is like the biggest thing. That's why he talks about the crowd. That's why he talks about the biggest electoral college whenever even though that's not true. You know he has to I think if you're going to question one thing about Donald Trump and really set him off it's that.
Tom Nichols: [00:13:20] That doesn't explain the palpable fear that he seems to show prudence. I think there are I think any one of these arguments might stand on its own when you take the totality of the package when you take the fact that he attacks that he defects from his own administration on basic issues of policy when it comes to Russia. The fear that he seems to have of Putin. I think you know you could make that argument in any one discrete area but take taken together I think there's something else there. As for the 2016 election I don't believe that the issue was litigated at all in part because the American people had no idea how deeply involved he was with Russia. Remember that we went from no one on my campaign knows anything about Russia we never talked to anybody this is a dumb thing. And Hillary Clinton calls me a puppet who believes Hillary Clinton. Now we've gone too well well if we collude it's not technically illegal. I mean the president's campaign manager is in jail for meaning for lying about meeting with a Russian oligarch who we think is connected to Russian intelligence to share polling data with him.
Guy Benson: [00:14:28] Well he's in jail for a lot of reasons.
Tom Nichols: [00:14:33] But these are things that the American public simply had no idea about. Now I think the president's base doesn't care and it wouldn't have mattered to them in the election. I'm not sure that you know I'm I have never agreed with the people who have argued that somehow Trump was you know was going to lose that over any one discrete issue. I think that 2016 was a perfect storm. I think Hillary Clinton was the worst candidate the Democrats could have run. And there's a lot of reasons he won. But to say that we litigated the Russia issue in 2016 I think is ridiculous because we simply could not have known.
Guy Benson: [00:15:10] I think it was partially to say it was fully litigated but it was partially litigated and so.
Marie Harf: [00:15:15] But the point that we've learned so much more since. I mean you might think Mike Flynn. Right. Like think about all these people we have learned Don Jr. Trump Tower meeting. We didn't know about that.
Guy Benson: [00:15:27] I totally understand all of that. The idea that we knew nothing. I mean he was he was accused of being a puppet of the Kremlin on that national debate stage.
Marie Harf: [00:15:34] And then accused her of being a puppet.
Guy Benson: [00:15:36] Right exactly.
Tom Nichols: [00:15:37] So you got your being in your circular argument here. Well we litigated it and I'm saying what we didn't know any of that. Now we know it. Basically the argument is it wouldn't have mattered. We can't we can't make that judgment. I mean we can't rerun the election knowing what we know now. But I think the one thing you can say is that we ran the election without knowing tonsof things that we know are startling.
Guy Benson: [00:16:03] That's obviously true and I'm not arguing that we litigated this totally in the 2016 election. Obviously we did not. I'm just making that point. And Tom I don't think you and I are necessarily that far off. I don't think I necessarily see the same visceral fear that you see for example from the president but I'm very eager to see what Bob Mueller comes up with. I was going to say I think Bob Muller knows this.
Tom Nichols: [00:16:25] So say we all. Yes exactly.
Marie Harf: [00:16:28] Tom we're up on a break. People should also check out your write up in the Atlantic. You're part of a special issue on the first two years of Donald Trump's presidency. You have a piece called In Trump's world. Reality is negotiable. You may not have written that headline either but people should check it out. Tom Nichols our friend. Thank you for joining the show again tonight. Thanks for having me. Thanks Tom. We're going to take a break. Close out today's show right after this. You're listening to Bensen.& Harf