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Former Defense Secretary Hagel On Risks, Rewards Of Helsinki Meeting


President Trump is meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Just before going into their one-on-one meeting, the two leaders spoke to the press.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think we have great opportunities together as two countries that, frankly, we have not been getting along very well for the last number of years. I've been here not too long. But it's getting close to two years. But I think we will end up having an extraordinary relationship.

KING: Now, just a couple hours ago on Twitter, President Trump blamed bad relations between the U.S. and Russia on the Obama administration as well as U.S., quote, "foolishness." Chuck Hagel served as secretary of defense during the Obama administration. Before that, he was a Republican senator from Nebraska. And he is with me now. Good morning, sir.

CHUCK HAGEL: Good morning.

KING: I want to ask you about the president's accusation that the Obama administration should have taken a more aggressive approach to Russian interference in the U.S. elections. Does he have a point?

HAGEL: First, I think this is a typical kind of response that we have been seeing from President Trump the last year and a half - blame someone else, not my fault kind of approach. Now, to your question, the fact is these relationships between major powers are not uncomplicated. The fact is when you are President of the United States, and you have options to respond to initiatives - aggressive initiatives, like what we saw in 2014 in Ukraine by the Russians, the obvious tampering and very specific tampering with our elections in 2016 - all of our 16 independent intelligence agencies have verified that - you look at different ways to respond.

And I think because it was a presidential election in 2016, President Obama had to - because he is president of the United States - had to be very judicious in how he handled that. Let the Justice Department - let the FBI play it out, play it through. So I don't think it merits any criticism of President Obama's handling of what happened in 2016. I think it was exactly the right way to handle it. The fact is we are in a situation today where President Trump - he asked for the job, wanted the job, said he can fix the problems and, as he goes through his process, blames President Obama and past presidents and other administrations for the problems we have. That's not the way to lead.

KING: Mr. Hagel, let me ask you specifically about the summit. I want to play you a bit of tape - Senator Mark Warner on CNN yesterday talking about Vladimir Putin meeting one-on-one with President Trump.


MARK WARNER: Frankly, I think he'll take advantage of this president, who we know doesn't do much prep work before these meetings. We need other individuals from his administration in the room, so we know that at least someone will press the Russians are making sure they don't interfere in future U.S. elections.

KING: Briefly, do you think there's anything to worry about with a one-on-one meeting between Putin and Trump?

HAGEL: Well, sure there is because - first, let's understand something - that the interests of any nation are far bigger than any one leader. The interests of America are not the interests that President Trump defines them to be or he decides that they are of the priority or specific interests that he thinks they are or says they are. The fact is engagement - and I'm all for engagement, by the way. I always have been with great powers. But engagement is all about a strategic purpose. What is the point? Is this just a golf date with another leader? This is not a transactional issue, like a real estate deal, or an "Apprentice"-like show business appearance. There has to be preparation. There has to be consultation. Did he reach out, for example - I don't know. Maybe he did - with Congress.

KING: Briefly, sir, what would you like the point to be? And we only have a couple seconds. What would you like to see come out of this?

HAGEL: Well, I don't know what has gone into it, to start with. I mean, what was the point, the strategic purpose of going into it? He went into it very weakened because of a divided alliance that he actually perpetuated as well as a divided country. I would like to see come out of this a process to begin to have Russia...

KING: Process to begin - yeah, I know. We got a lot to say. Chuck Hagel, secretary of defense during the Obama administration. We've got to leave it there.

HAGEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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