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Katrina vanden Heuvel: Now is Time for Trump & Putin to Negotiate, Not Escalate Tensions

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President Donald Trump is scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. Their first official meeting comes as thousands of people have filled the streets around the G20 summit to demonstrate against globalization and Trump’s policies. Issues likely to be raised during their meeting include the war in Syria, North Korea, U.S. economic sanctions against Russia and nuclear weapons. Democrats are pushing Trump to confront Putin directly about the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. But during a press conference on Thursday from Poland, Trump cast doubt on whether he believes Russia interfered in the 2016 election. We speak with Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor at The Nation, America’s oldest weekly magazine. She reported from Moscow for more than three decades. She is also a columnist for The Washington Post.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump is having his first official meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin today at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are the only ones who will be in the room with them. This comes as thousands of people have filled the streets around the G20 summit to demonstrate against globalization, as well as Donald Trump’s policies.

While National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster said last week there’s no specific agenda for the meeting, the topics of conversation could include the war in Syria, North Korea, U.S. economic sanctions against Russia and nuclear weapons. Democrats are also pushing for Trump to confront Putin directly about the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. On Thursday, five Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, sent a letter to Trump calling on him to, quote, “make absolutely clear that Russian interference in our democracy will in no way be tolerated,” unquote. But during a news conference Thursday from Poland, Trump cast doubt on whether he believes Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

HALLIE JACKSON: Will you, once and for all, yes or no, definitively say that Russia interfered in the 2016 election?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I think it was Russia, and I think it could have been other people and other countries. Could have been a lot of people interfered.

HALLIE JACKSON: You seem to—

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I’ve said it very—I said it very simply. I think it could very well have been Russia, but I think it could well have been other countries. And I won’t be specific, but I think a lot of people interfere. I think it’s been happening for a long time. It’s been happening for many, many years. Now, the thing I have to mention is that Barack Obama, when he was president, found out about this, in terms of if it were Russia, found out about it in August. Now, the election was in November. That’s a lot of time. He did nothing about it.

HALLIE JACKSON: So, the follow-up is for you on that, Mr. President. You again say you think it was Russia. Your intelligence agencies have been far more definitive. They say it was Russia. Why won’t you agree with them and say it was?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I’ll tell you. Let me just start off by saying I heard it was 17 agencies. I said, “Boy, that’s a lot. Do we even have that many intelligence agencies? Right? Let’s check it.” And we did some very heavy research. It turned out to be three or four. It wasn’t 17. And many of your compatriots had to change their reporting, and they had to apologize, and they had to correct. Now, with that being said, mistakes have been made. I agree, I think it was Russia. But I think it was probably other people and/or countries, and I see nothing wrong with that statement. Nobody really knows.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Trump being questioned by NBC White House correspondent Hallie Jackson. But Trump took a more adversarial position against Russia, speaking later in the day in Warsaw’s Krasinski Square, in a speech in which he also claimed the future of Western civilization was at risk.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We urge Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere and its support for hostile regimes, including Syria and Iran, and to instead join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself. … The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders?

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation magazine, America’s oldest weekly magazine. Katrina vanden Heuvel is also columnist for TheWashingtonPost.com, her latest article there headlined “Patriotism in the Trump era.”

So, they are meeting today. It’s Trump and Putin.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Putin.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s Lavrov—

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Lavrov.

AMY GOODMAN: —and Tillerson. Even that is an enormous deal, clearly keeping this circle very close. How do we even know what they will have talked about? Who’s going to say? And do you believe those who say it?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, I think one has to step back, Amy, and just set the scene. I mean, we are facing the greatest nuclear catastrophe since the first Cold War. And I think urgent, practical steps need to be taken to reduce the risks of military nuclear confrontation and to stop the cycle downward of distrust. I think you can despise Putin, you can despise Trump, but it’s simply sober realism to acknowledge that there are serious—there’s serious interest in a working relationship with Russia to resolve the crisis in Syria, which is destabilizing those European leaders sitting in Hamburg through the humanitarian crisis of refugee flows, to halt the nuclear escalation, to deal with nuclear nonproliferation, to deal with cyber issues. By the way, I mean, we focus a lot on cyber issues in this country, and foreign interference in elections is unacceptable. There must be an independent, fair investigation. But there are reports out this morning, I think, of possible cyberhacks of nuclear utilities. I think cyberhacks—as Senator Nunn said in a very important open letter people should read—Sam Nunn, the former senator from Georgia, released a letter June 27th—the danger of cyberhacks of strategic arsenals or command-and-control systems is something we need to face, pay attention to.

Fact that this is a small circle, it’s happened before, more hopefully in 1986, when Soviet leader Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan met in Reykjavík, and Reagan’s aides had to pull him out of a meeting where he and Gorbachev were going to abolish nuclear weapons, something the U.N. treaty, which is underway, I think, or signed today, is a good step toward reducing nuclear arsenals. But I think it’s an important meeting. And I step back again and say, as thousands of Americans who signed a petition by RootsAction over July 4th weekend, negotiate, don’t escalate. And it is neither pro—you know, it’s not—I mean, Trump sounds like warmed-over, fourth-rate Reagan in Poland. So, it’s not in support of that. It’s stepping back and saying both countries have real interests in trying to work together.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaking Wednesday, ahead of their meeting with the president of Russia and the foreign minister.

SECRETARY OF STATE REX TILLERSON: I think the important aspect of this is that this is where we’ve begun an effort to begin to rebuild confidence between ourselves and Russia, at the military level, but also at the diplomatic level. So I think it is an effort that serves both of our interests, as well as the broader interest of the international community. We hope that this is going to be the beginning of other important areas that need to be addressed in order to strengthen our relationship. But we’re at the very beginning. And I would say, at this point, it’s difficult to say exactly what the Russia’s—what Russia’s intentions are in this relationship. And I think that’s the most important part of this meeting, is to have a good exchange between President Trump and President Putin over what they both see as the nature of this relationship between our two countries.

AMY GOODMAN: So you have among the things that we think are going to be addressed, North Korea. You have Ukraine. You have Syria.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: You have Syria. You have nuclear issues.

AMY GOODMAN: On—

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: You have also—yeah, and NATO issues. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: On Ukraine, what, clearly, Putin wants is a lifting of the sanctions. The question is: What will the United States demand? It’s very interesting to have Rex Tillerson there, because, as former CEO of Exxon, he also wants sanctions lifted against Russia.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah, I mean, what’s interesting and underreported in this country is that there are several European countries who want sanctions lifted, because they’re facing domestic issues at home, from farmers, for example, who want exports to go.

But, Amy, step back again, if I might. Ukraine. Ukraine could be settled. There was something called the Minsk accords, Minsk accords II, on the table. You could have an internationally negotiated settlement, with U.N. mandates to secure that. Ukraine becomes a nonaligned country. It becomes part of the EU. It becomes part—I mean, a bridge between east and west. Ten thousand—more than 10,000 people in Ukraine have died. There needs to be a long-term way to resolve a crisis.

It really also is history. You go back—NATO expansion, let’s not forget. NATO is a military alliance. It was designed to counter the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union ended, there were promises made by George H.W. Bush to Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand one inch east. Those promises were broken, as the U.S. expanded NATO. NATO has become a fateful geographical paradox. It exists to manage the risks it creates. So I think you can’t put—you can’t ignore NATO expansion when you look at Ukraine.

But the key thing for the sake of millions of people, lives, the possibility of a democratic Ukraine, is to find a settlement, a negotiation. The sanctions regime—I mean, the vote in the Senate was also about Iranian sanctions. I mean, you have a reformist election in Iran, and they’re going to clamp down sanctions to undermine an Iranian nuclear deal, which is, by the way, the pattern, the template, for what should be done with North Korea, which demands negotiations, and you need China and Russia involved in those the negotiations. So, I would just say—

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the vote in the Congress, even if—

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: The vote in the Congress was 98 to 2.

AMY GOODMAN: —even if Trump wanted to lift it.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Was 98 to 2. And I think—I speak with a lament, because, listen, I think cold wars are bad for the left, are bad for progressives. They empower the military-industrial complex. They empower the worst forces on both sides. They close space for dissent. I am for dissent in both countries. You had a video of Alexei Navalny’s arrest prior to this. I worked for the independent leading newspaper in Moscow called Novaya Gazeta, which is under serious threat, where journalists are killed. Journalists, independent citizens, those philosophers Horvat were talking about suffer when there are cold wars.

So I think we need to think beyond Putin and Trump, and find a way to, you know, move beyond the forces on the—Russia’s borders, the possibility of military conflict in Syria. We need deconfliction again. We need to take nuclear weapons off of hair-trigger alert. We need to build down our nuclear arsenals. If there were sane, sober people—which is a different discussion—we would have a very different agenda. And then citizens around the world should weigh in and be part of that, and not just Tillerson, Trump, Lavrov and Putin in that tiny little circle. But we’re not there yet, because the escalation. And, if I might, a lament—the Democratic Party. They should be working to de-escalate nuclear tensions. They should not be holding out the possibility that anything that comes out of this summit is toxic or a giveaway. And I think that is a real issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me turn to one of those Democratic congressmembers. Speaking on CNN, Democratic Congressman Adam Smith of Washington state said he wished Trump treated Vladimir Putin more like he treats CNN, which Trump has often called fake news.

REP. ADAM SMITH: Putin takes advantage of weakness. And it’s very ironic that for someone with as much bluster as Donald Trump throws around every day, certainly, I guess—I guess I wish he treated Vladimir Putin more like he treats CNN, was more willing to stand up to a world leader who is threatening democracy and undermining countries all across the globe, because it’s not just the U.S. elections that the Russians have hacked into and influenced and manipulated. They’ve been doing it for quite some time. They run disinformation campaigns.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Washington state Congressman Adam Smith. Your response to what he has to say?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Again, I step back, and I look at this gathering, this summit, and it’s not about Trump or Putin. It’s about each country’s interests moving forward. And there is an investigation underway. It must be taken to its final end. Maybe it’s obstruction of justice. Maybe it’s collusion. But as another Democratic representative, Senator Chris Murphy, said just a few weeks ago, it is increasingly—the focus, the obsession, almost, with Russia and hacking has distracted Democrats from looking more seriously at some of the fundamental issues that are a problem in this country. And I think it’s hurting Democrats in that context.

I also think—again, to come back to the cyberhacking—instead of the continuing escalation about sowing distrust and undermining our democratic institutions—which, by the way, I believe we are a great, resilient country. We’ve survived World War I, II. You know, let us focus on a cyber treaty, which the Obama administration didn’t participate in. There was one on offer. And I come back, Sam Nunn’s letter, which people should read, of June 27th. He talks about the need to lay down some cyber rules of the road. And, I mean, I hate to get into tit for tat, but there was a very interesting Carnegie Mellon study out just the other week showing the United States has interfered in over 80 foreign elections between 1946 and 2000. That doesn’t mean the Russian interference—it is inappropriate. But let us not—you know, let us not police the world, either militarily or morally, because we need to get our own house in order. And I think we’d be a better democracy for that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much—

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: —Katrina vanden Heuvel, for joining us, editor and publisher of The Nation, America’s oldest weekly magazine. She had been reporting from Moscow for more than three decades. Vanden Heuvel also is a columnist for the WashingtonPost.com, and we’ll link to The Nation and to her piece, “Patriotism in the Trump era.”

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go south. We go to La Esperanza, Honduras, where Bertita Zúniga Cáceres, the daughter of the murdered indigenous environmentalist Berta Cáceres, had an assassination attempt against her this past weekend. We’ll talk to her. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Lila Downs, performing her song “Demagogue,” here in Democracy Now!'s studios. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman.

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