The Wednesday edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe kicked off with a conspiratorial and unsophisticated look at President Trump's policies towards Russia. After the heads of U.S. intelligence agencies contradicted Trump on multiple fronts on Tuesday in front of a Senate committee, Morning Joe was not content to criticize Trump, but said on multiple occasions that such a disconnect between the President and the intelligence community was evidence that Vladimir Putin had something on Trump.
The panel ignored recent developments in Venezuela, Trump's two strikes of Syrian targets after Assad used chemical weapons, canceling of the Iranian nuclear deal, and selling anti-tank missiles to Ukraine as examples where Trump has taken a stance very much contrary to that of Putin.
Still, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, the panel said that Trump's foreign policy was "far closer with Vladimir Putin's" than it is with his own intel chiefs. They cited a story from the Financial Times that Trump and Putin had a longer and more in-depth one-on-one conversation and without a note taker at the G-20 in Argentina than was initially reported. The panel was outraged and flabbergasted that Trump would meet Putin with a note taker or his national security team.
Axios co-founder and CEO Jim VandeHei breathlessly proclaimed, "I can't remember a single time in history one of our leaders has met with an adversary multiple times where there's nobody on the American side taking any notes or to tell people in the government what actually transpired."
Apparently VandeHei did not do very thorough research, in addition to missing Obama's infamous 2012 hot mic moment telling Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more flexibility on missile defense after the election, it is not true that U.S. leaders have never met with adversaries where note takers have not been present. In 1985 in Geneva, Ronald Reagan met with Mikhail Gorbachev with only their translators present.
National-Affairs Analyst John Heilemann wondered "What is it Vladimir Putin that has on Donald Trump that compels him to allow for Vladimir Putin to call the shots on how these meetings are set up and why does Donald Trump capitulate over and over again. What's there?"
For VandeHei and co-host Joe Scarborough the most recent evidence of capitulation and that Trump is pursuing a "Russia First policy" was Trump's decision to withdraw from Syria: "Who wants us to get out of Syria precipitously? Vladimir Putin. That's about it." When citing push back from Congressional Republicans on his Syria policy and looking for an explanation, VandeHei was not content to say that Trump was merely bucking conventional wisdom or simply wrong but, asked "Why? Go back, what does Vladimir Putin have over Trump?"
Scarboroguh followed by saying "Again, on what Vladimir Putin wants the most, taking over the Middle East, getting the United States out of Syria, Donald Trump is the only person in Washington D.C. -- other than Rand Paul, and he doesn't really count, does he? --that wants us out of Syria."
Scarborough's comments illustrate the problems that often arise when political commentators try to talk about complicated foreign policy matters in a simple way.
Here is a transcript of the January 30 panel:
MSNBC's Morning Joe
January 30, 2019
6:02 a.m. Eastern
JOE SCARBOROUGH: But, it is -- Willie, what's so fascinating is what Donald Trump said is more in line with what Vladimir Putin said and what he would say on all of those issues opposed to what the head of America's FBI, America's CIA, America's DNI, all of America's military. American leaders have one view of the world. Vladimir Putin has another view of the world and if you look at those issues yesterday, Donald Trump's lineup far closer with Vladimir Putin's…
MIKA BRZEZINSKI: Oof
SCARBOROUGH: …than they do with the head of the FBI, the CIA, the Director of National Intelligence….
BREZINSKI: People protecting America.
BRZEZINSKI: You're talking about Trump aligning with Putin a lot more?
SCARBOROUGH: Yep, he does.
BRZEZINSKI: The White House acknowledged President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin informally met in Buenos Aires at November’s G-20 Summit, but a new report alleges their conversation was longer, more substantive and included no American personnel. In November, Trump pointedly cancelled his scheduled meeting with Putin.
SCARBOROUGH: Almost like a trend here, almost like a fear that the President of the United States ever has an American listening to his conversations with Vladimir Putin.
BRZEZINSKI: With Putin.
SCARBOROUGH Okay. It happens all the time.
BRZEZINSKI: So, in November he cancelled his meeting with Putin due to Russia's provocative capture of Ukrainian ships and sailors. Trump tweeted, “I look forward to a meaningful meeting again as soon as this situation is resolved.” But according to the Financial Times the leaders huddled for several minutes at the end of an evening event with no translator or note taker from the U.S. Side to record what was said.
SCARBOROUGH: Susan, here's another thing. Why is it that the translator's never from the American side? Why is it that if it is always to be one translator, always a translator for Vladimir Putin but never a translator for the American side?
SUSAN DEL PERCIO: Because President Trump does not trust the Intel community, he does not trust his own staff. I mean this goes back to Jared Kushner wanting to back channel with the Russians right after the election. This is something he’s always wanted to have is an open line of communication and he has now said, I will find it and he doesn't care if he's not updating his security team or Intel team and that's also what's good about yesterday's hearing, those members of the Intel community said we are going to be honest, we are going to be straightforward with the American public and we are not afraid of Donald Trump.
SCARBOROUGH: They have lied time and time again. I remember, I mean, the guy, I said this before, March of 2017, asking Mark Halperin, off set quietly while we’re all around, because this is when the whole Russian thing first started to percolate, I said “Who’s in trouble” he said, “Don Jr. for one”, and we all said, “Don Jr, what? Does he not have a hunting license in Idaho?” But of course you and Mark and some others did extraordinary reporting about all these contacts with Russians that Donald Trump and the whole team have been lying about now for two years.
JOHN HEILEMANN: It's pretty amazing, just the extent of it and the reporting recently just cataloging how much it's been. To back to Susan's point a second ago, I put a slightly darker spin on this, Donald Trump obviously doesn't trust his community, I think more precisely Donald Trump does not want anybody on the American side to know what he’s talking about with Vladimir Putin, there is a reason why American Presidents even in one-on-ones in the past, do one-on-ones with other presidents and other heads of state, always have someone on their side there because rest of government needs to know what's said in that meeting and to keep later accounts of it honest from the other side, but Trump, for whatever reason, whatever he's talking to with Vladimir Putin is stuff he does not want any American to know about. That raises all kind of -- a slightly chilling thing this happens every time he meets with Putin, it’s not reported initially or read out to the press and he has no one from the American government ever present. That pattern is truly unsettling and disturbing.
SCARBOROUGH: Jim VandeHei, that pattern has been with us a long time, you remember when he invited in the Russian foreign minister and Russian ambassador of the United States to brag about the fact he fired Jim Comey and they didn't have anything to worry about anymore and the pressure had been taken off the Russian investigation, he excluded American reporters from that meeting but allowed Russians in.
JIM VANDEHEI: Yeah. I've got a lot of friends and family members who are like, wait, other presidents have done this. Didn't Obama do this with Putin? No is the answer. I can't remember a single time in history one of our leaders has met with an adversary multiple times where there's nobody on the American side taking any notes or there to tell other people in the government what actually transpired. It's just plain weird. You juxtapose that with what you were talking about the top of the show. This idea of the intelligence community or apparatus or federal government saying the opposite what their boss says about ISIS or Russia. That doesn't happen.
It's never happened with this level of consistency where they break, based on data and intelligence from what the president says rhetorically in public. Those two things, they might not be impeachable and they might not be enough to move Trump voters, but they are just plain weird and they break from historical precedent.
WILLIE GEIST: 15 minutes in a meeting pales to what we have seen before, two hours at Helsinki, two hours together, these two men with only translators, no national security of advisor or Secretary of State to be next to Donald Trump. Think of those two narrators in that meeting coming out of it Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin trying to explain exactly what happened and no account what happened in that room. Imagine you were President Trump, imagine you were a person under investigation for working with Russia; having your campaign worked with Russia. What would you do, just as a P.R. matter? Wouldn't you have as many people in a room as you could? If you were out in public sitting in a room, wouldn't you have translators and advisors?
BRZEZINSKI: Respect for your country to not be flip.
GEIST: Of course I don't have a strange, private relationship with Vladimir Putin, it's all out in the open. He's doing the exact opposite.
DEL PERCIO: Not only that, the story sourced by a Russian official. This wasn't coming from U.S. Sources. This is Russia saying, “We are going to interfere even more with this president by doing this.”
SCARBOROUGH: John Heilemann, what this shows us is, again, the Russians, at every one of these meetings, have all the read-outs. They know what goes on in these meetings so they can prepare for the future. I love what Jim VandeHei says, this never happens. No, Never happens repeatedly like this, especially it keeps happening. Usually, a President is not allowed to talk to anybody without having somebody there, without getting the full notes back to the State Department, back to the national security advisor so they can plan their strategy towards a country that sees the United States of America as an enemy. We may see the Russians as an adversary, Vladamir Putin sees the United States as an enemy.
HEILEMANN: So, there for another reason, think about the Russians reading out their versions of events, Donald Trump is in no position to dispute anything that the Russian side says, the Russian side can claim anything it wants to claim and Trump says, “That didn't happen in the meeting.” Now, he's never done that. If he ever did, found himself in a situation where the Russian side spun in a meeting a certain way, a President would say, ”That I don't happen” he has no recourse from any other person who was there, he can’t say “I have notes from the meeting, I have my national security advisor who was there, of course I never said this” he's in a position now he's vulnerable to Russian spin, to Russian misinformation and puts himself willingly in a situation he can be publically and privately manipulated by Vladimir Putin and he does it over and over again and brings us back to the large questions here, what is it that Vladimir Putin has on Donald Trump that compels him to allow -- for Vladimir Putin to call the shots on how these meetings are set up and why does Donald Trump capitulate over and over again. What’s there?
SCARBOROUGH: And what is there that has him going up to lecterns in Helsinki as we’re seeing right here where Donald Trump says, “I take the word of an ex-KGB agent over my own hand-picked FBI director, over my own hand-picked CIA Director…
BRZEZINSKI: Over America
SCARBOROUGH: … over Director of National Intelligence against, over my own hand-picked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, over my own hand-picked national security establishment. My own hand-picked Secretary of State-- you can go down the list –
VANDEHEI: They should be. You could watch the first 15 minutes and say, “Geez, you guys are all very conspiratorial.” There’s nothing that we’ve talked about that’s not a fact so far.
VANDEHEI: Another fact would be, look on Capitol Hill yesterday, you have Republicans saying it would be dangerous to do what Donald Trump said in Syria. Who wants us to get out of Syria precipitously? Vladimir Putin. That's about it. It may be Turkey, may be a few others that want us out precipitously. His own national security team is saying, “Wait a second, you shouldn't do that.” Republicans on the hill who tend to back him on anything, no, we don't agree to that either. You have to pay attention. Yes, they're not all linked but all counter to how we've done business in Washington and government, so you have to zero in on it and start to ask those questions. Why? Go back, what does Vladimir Putin have over Trump? That used to be very conspiratorial when you say it. We now know if you listen to Rudy Giuliani and people in this White House, there was potential activity going on, a potential business deal throughout the campaign for Trump to have a large property in Moscow, there coordination between Michael Cohen, his right hand person and Moscow. Moscow knew that. Putin knew that. Putin knows every single thing that happens in Russia, contact that happens with him sand that is one thing you would have dangling over him.
SCARBOROUGH: Again, on what Vladimir Putin wants the most, taking over the Middle East. Getting the United States out of Syria. Donald Trump is the only person in Washington, D.C. Other than Rand Paul, he doesn't really count, does he that wants us out of Syria.
DEL PERCIO: The only thing I keep coming back to, it's not an America first policy, a Donald Trump First policy.
SCARBOROUGH: It's a Russia first policy.
DEL PERCIO: It is always about Donald Trump. It always comes back to that. Any time you want to know why does he have a secret one-on-one with Vladimir Putin or does any of the things he does, he does it because it is in his best interests and hopefully we will learn more about what those interests are.