Global Ethics Weekly: The Mueller Report & U.S. Foreign Policy, with Jonathan Cristol

May 21, 2019

A lot of the talk about the Mueller Report has focused on its political and legal implications, but how will it affect U.S. foreign policy? Adelphi College's Jonathan Cristol discusses the reactions of allies and adversaries to Trump's passivity in the face of massive Russian interference in the U.S. election and congressional inaction and public apathy concerning presidential corruption. Plus, he details recent U.S. policy moves on Iran and the significance of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg's speech to U.S. Congress.

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to Global Ethics Weekly. I'm Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council in New York City.

This week I'm speaking with Jonathan Cristol. Jonathan is a research fellow in the Levermore Global Scholars program at Adelphi University and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. He's the author of The United States and the Taliban before and after 9/11 and is a former Carnegie New Leader.

Jonathan and I have done several podcasts over the last six months about Afghanistan and the Taliban and most recently Trump's decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). You can find those on

Today we're going to talk about the Mueller Report, which was released in redacted form last week, and its possible implications on foreign policy. We might also touch on some of Jonathan's recent articles for CNN on Iran, NATO, and Yemen and the War Powers Resolution.

Thanks for coming in today, Jonathan.

JONATHAN CRISTOL: Thanks for having me.

ALEX WOODSON: You've read the Mueller Report. I've read a lot of it. What are your general thoughts as to how this report will affect U.S. foreign policy?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: It would be very nice to think that it would have a dramatic impact on U.S. foreign policy, that there would be a wholesale examination of Russian interference beyond what Mueller did, but an examination that leads to actual policy shifts.

But what we actually have seen is that the former secretary of Homeland Security tried to bring Russian interference to the attention of the president and was told by the acting chief of staff not to mention this to him. We have seen the lead folks on cyber defense effectively be demoted—not in title, but in terms of their access and importance—within the National Security Council.

What we should have seen was a tremendous bolstering of cyber defense and offense. Now, there may be offensive tactics being taken against Russia, like there were at the midterms; there may be.

But I think that this really needs to come from the president warning Russia that if they continue to intervene, not only in the United States but in American allies both in NATO and our non-NATO allies, that there will be actual consequences maybe beyond just expelling Russian "diplomats," maybe beyond sanctions.

But what it seems to be is that there is no real impact, at least on U.S. action. Congress is of course very interested in this. But the president has no real interest in countering Russian offensive cyber operations against the United States because it benefits him. I think he sees it as undercutting his own legitimacy. Not to mention the fact that he has his weird infatuation with Vladimir Putin and will do seemingly almost whatever he wants to do.

So I think that the picture it paints for the world is in some ways damning. It shows our allies that, at the White House at least, we don't seem to care that much about what Russia does. I think it certainly shows that we can't necessarily be counted on, at the highest levels at least, to help them in their counter-Russian operations.

And in terms of our adversaries, I don't necessarily think it changes anything because I don't think Russia has ceased its operations. For countries like China or Iran, they have always engaged in sort of tactics against us.

But there is a difference because President Trump has a weird sort of love-hate relationship with Xi Jinping and China. He talks about how much he loves Xi Jinping, but then he also goes after China in a lot of ways. And of course, there's no love between the United States and Iran.

So I don't think it's necessarily that it's open season on the United States because we're not going to do anything. It's fairly unique to the Russia situation.

The Mueller Report both is and isn't new. I mean it details a lot of things that we already knew; it makes a very clear case in terms of what the president attempted to do in terms of obstruction; but it really lays out the Russian operation against us—but we knew there was a Russian operation against us.

ALEX WOODSON: Was there anything that you gained from reading it? What news did you take from it?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: What I think it really did for one thing was remove any doubt about the reporting by The New York Times and Washington Post, especially also by Politico and other outlets, that all of these reports about all of the contacts between the Russian government and the Trump campaign were all accurate.

When you see how many people across the Trump campaign were at worst ambivalent and at best super-excited about Russia's interest and what Russia might offer—you know, if you're in this field and you are a professional in international affairs, that's the reddest of red flags. You don't welcome it; you contact the authorities.

Now, their excuse might be, "Well, this isn't our field. We don't know what we're doing." Well, I'm not sure a presidential campaign full of people who don't know what they're doing when it comes to foreign policy and international affairs is such a good thing either.

But at a certain point after being briefed and being briefed by the Obama administration, it is sort of astounding to me the sustained effort by Russia—not just in the cyber and hacked emails, but in terms of attempting to contact and meet in person with the Trump campaign—is a much wider operation than I think we were aware.

If the Trump campaign was not aware that this was a coordinated effort, then they're even dumber than I imagined. It's possible but I don't think it's probable.

ALEX WOODSON: Yeah. I kind of took away that the Trump campaign was just completely overwhelmed by these Russian contacts, whether they wanted it or not. In some instances they shied away from it. In some instances Donald Trump Jr.'s emails showed they welcomed it.

You said that as far as our adversaries it doesn't really change things too much. But I'm sure that really smart people in the Chinese or Iranian government, whatever adversarial government you look at—I would think that they could look at this report and it gives them new ideas. It gives them—I think Mueller's words were "systemic attempts to infiltrate the campaign."

Do you think that's accurate? Do you think that their intelligence operators are looking at this and thinking Oh wow, look at this, look at this, and just coming up with a new game plan?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: Well, you know, I think it would depend on the country. I think that our adversaries and our allies are aware that in some ways the Trump campaign was fairly uniquely susceptible to this kind of interference.

Now, obviously, the Clinton campaign did not have—being "spearphished" is something that my kids know to avoid.

Obviously, every campaign needs to really up its cyber defense campaign. And certainly China or Iran, and not only those two, I'm sure were pretty excited about the fact that Oh, major American officials on both sides don't know not to click on a link in their email from an unknown source. So I think that probably makes everyone pretty happy.

Now, both China and Iran have engaged in cyber operations against us, as has North Korea. I don't necessarily think that this changes that.

I also think that those countries have different views maybe of who they want in power. I don't think that the Trump administration would have been the favorite campaign of Iran, for that matter.

But the thing that also is surprising to me from the Mueller Report is not necessarily Russia's capability, which we knew; not necessarily the Trump campaign's willingness to sort of go along with it either formally or informally, which we also knew. What I think is the biggest surprise is, first of all, the sharing of polling data by Trump campaign members with Russians and Russia's ability to take advantage of that information to target specific areas and specific voters. We also learn that they had gained access to certain voting apparatus in Illinois. And who knows what's in the redacted sections? If we know that Russia has gained access to the machinery of voting in the United States and you have a campaign—and now a government or an administration—that's willing to share their internal polling data, that is perhaps the most disturbing part of this.

I speak to a lot of foreign audiences. At first, when I started to speak to foreign audiences, I was surprised at how little they knew about our political system. Now, that's arrogant on my part, but the sort of stereotypical American arrogance—I assume everybody knows all about our system but I don't know all about their system. That's sort of me being a negative stereotype.

But that has been my experience. So I was surprised to see how well Russia got us, that they actually knew what to exploit, they knew where to exploit it. They did have help from the Trump people, but I don't think everyone could do that; I don't think a lot of other powers would really have the awareness of it.

In a certain way we're protected a little bit from this because we don't have a federal voting system. All of these different municipalities even, let alone states, have their own systems. In some places the people working the polls know everyone coming in because it's a small town and you know them, so if you saw in a district that had gone 90 percent Democrat for 30 years all of a sudden goes 95 percent for the Republican, it would raise some red flags.

I think that even though maybe our cyber defense needs work, in some ways I think it is very hard to literally change the results. But exploiting American stupidity, for lack of a better word, I think the Russian example has shown others that that sort of thing is possible if you put in the time and energy.

ALEX WOODSON: I want to speak a little bit more specifically about our allies and what they're thinking when they're reading this report—countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia—countries that we share our intelligence with.

What are they supposed to do right now? You have the president who is not interested in protecting the 2020 election from Russian interference. Does someone in the U.K. Foreign Office have to find someone else to talk to in the government? Where do they go from here, with this White House for at least the next two years just turning a blind eye to this?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: I think it's very difficult for the U.S. allies in this regard. I think that they are in a situation very similar to the situation in our own government, where trying to share intelligence at the top is not the ideal situation.

If the president's own Homeland Security secretary can't bring up the possibility of Russian interference, what is a foreign leader supposed to say? Foreign leaders who need the United States oftentimes more than we need them are forced to ingratiate themselves to a degree with Trump—as they might with any president but more so with Trump, I would say, if we're talking about ingratiating—and so it's very hard for them to bring it up.

What I've been told traveling to a lot of different countries and talking with people within the U.S. government at the lower levels, at the working levels, that the relationships avoid politics and have sort of continued as they were in the Obama administration and as they probably will in the future. If you have that type of coordination on the lower level, I think that the relationship can be sustained through major political changes.

And we're not the only ones with major political changes of course. Who knows what's going to happen in the United Kingdom? Other allies as well have their own issues.

So the relationship part I think is okay. The problem is that—we learned a lot about this, we see this in the Mueller Report—we were made aware of these attempts to infiltrate the Trump campaign by Australian intelligence and other allied intelligence services. If they share that information and then we don't do anything about it, does that make them more reluctant to share information with us in the future?

Well, they might be more reluctant to share their methods or sources—like you have in the Israeli case of President Trump sharing Israeli intelligence on ISIS in the Oval Office to the Russian government—but I'm not sure why they would hesitate to share the information because the worst case for them is the president does nothing.

What I suspect is happening, but have no evidence, is that rather than do that they're sharing it with their colleagues who they've met with at conferences and working group meetings and hoping that people can influence this behind the scenes.

That's what will ultimately protect us. It will be people trying to take measures against the Russian government's attempt to disrupt the 2020 election without telling President Trump. That's what we have to hope for because if they tell Trump, he's not going to do anything and might try to stop them from actually making our elections more secure.

ALEX WOODSON: We've been talking about Volume 1 of the Mueller Report which looks into the specific Russian interference. Volume 2 is about obstruction of justice that Trump committed, I think we can say, to try to stop the investigation.

It seems pretty clear that there's a good case for impeachment. I'm not saying that as a political statement. It's just the president seems to have broken the laws to protect himself, which is very clearly a problem.

How could a country like South Korea—I don't know that case terrifically well, but from what I've seen there was a corrupt president there and the people just protested on a mass scale, and the president was impeached and removed from office. South Korea is one of our closest allies, a clear democracy. What message does this send to a country like South Korea or any of our other allies that Republicans are protecting Trump and Democrats are afraid to impeach him because of politics? What does it say that what should be the shining light of democracy in the world can't do anything about this terribly corrupt president?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: This is a really good question.

First of all, there is a good reason why no country that has become a democracy since the United States became a democracy, which is virtually every current democracy, has adopted the American system. We have a unique system. It has its pros and it has its cons, but I think it has some flaws as well.

On top of that we have an American public that considers its system, I think, to be the epitome of democracy and a sort of almost flawless system, and a fetishization of a founding document—or close to founding document—that people don't quite understand. I think that breeds a certain level both of apathy and some level of confidence that things will sort itself out, or that there can't possibly be this sort of corruption.

Combined with a U.S. system that is extraordinarily polarized, in part because of the current climate but in part because we have a "winner take all" legislature where the party with the majority controls the entire process in each house. So there is little incentive to compromise and it is near impossible for another party to emerge, which then leads to paralysis. That's a bit of a simplification.

In the South Korean case Park Geun-hye, the previous president, was basically consulting with a shaman. It's just a totally unique and odd case. It basically involved selling access and making decisions on the judgment of a shaman. It's more complicated than that, but that's the one-minute version.

The Korean public went out into the streets protesting every weekend for months, hundreds of thousands, then millions of people, in Seoul. I was there at that time—though I was not there during the weekend protest, but during the week at the time you could get a feeling in the air about it then—and you had millions of people calling for her to step down and for her to be impeached and removed from office. At a certain point the government could not ignore that, the legislature couldn't ignore it, and she couldn't ignore it. She was removed. If she's not literally now in prison—I'm not sure—she will be in prison soon enough. [Editor's note: Park was sentenced to 25 years in prison in August 2018.]

The question is, why couldn't something like that happen here? Well, I do think that if you had millions of people marching on Washington every week, I do think something like that could happen.

Now, what would it be that would happen? It would be the U.S. process that we actually have in place working itself out. You'd have pressure on the Republicans in the Senate to actually say, "We might support conviction; we might remove this person from office." I think that our political system could work in that regard.

So it's really, I think, about the American public. We have an American public where if President Trump consulted with a shaman to make half of his decisions and for the other half he called Vladimir Putin on an open phone line and allowed everyone to listen in, that 38 percent of the American public would think that he was a genius for doing so and why wouldn't everyone consult a shaman and Vladimir Putin.

You have another subset of the population that is more apathetic, isn't aware of the possibility of what they could do as a population.

Plus we also have a giant, physically large country. It's much easier in South Korea to get to Seoul to participate in these massive protests than for people who might be in Phoenix, Arizona, or Tacoma, Washington, who might be extremely upset about things but can't show up in Washington; they can't show up in Kentucky at Mitch McConnell's office.

So our geography makes that sort of thing difficult, our apathy makes that sort of thing difficult, our polarization makes it difficult, and our ignorance makes it difficult. So I think, in part, because we can't imagine such a thing happening, is part of why it won't happen.

And it's not just about gerrymandering. I didn't mention that before. What we really need is the Senate to take action. As you mentioned, I think the case for impeachment on its face is absolutely clear-cut. I am sympathetic to the argument that it's not worth doing if you know there's a 0.0 percent chance that the Senate will remove him. I see the argument both ways. I'm sort of in the middle.

But what you really need is that calculus in the Senate to change. And yes, I think that what happened in South Korea could happen here, but I don't think it will happen here.


Part of the reason I think he should be impeached—this is speaking as someone who works for an organization with ethics in its name—I think you want to go on record and say, "This went too far. We might not be able to remove him, but we're impeaching him, we're making this point in Congress that you can't do this as president."

If we don't do that in the next two years, I don't know what kind of precedent that sets for the future.

JONATHAN CRISTOL: I don't disagree with that at all, and I do think that on an ethical level it is absolutely the right thing to do and the necessary thing to do. My only concern is that if we do that, it will motivate Trump's base so much that if there's even a 5 percent chance it would move the election in his favor, then I don't necessarily think it's worth it. I think the damage that he has done now pales in comparison to the damage that he could do in a second term.

To go back to your question about Korea, our democratic allies looking at the United States and wondering What's happened? Why haven't things changed?—I think that that will be much worse if he wins a second term.

But I think that the very sad thing about this is that we know from Paul Kennedy that great powers rise and fall. I think that Trump is sort of pushing us over that edge. Whether he's doing that intentionally or not, it certainly plays into Russia's hands, it's certainly doing what Russia would want us to do.

But on a lot of the issues that he has pushed you see that. In the Iran deal withdrawal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), you have the European Union basically creating an alternative currency to avoid using the U.S. dollar to continue to do business with Iran. I don't blame them for that. That makes sense. I think that that is sort of the beginning of the end of the dollar as the reserve currency.

I think that a lot of Trump's actions are sort of "the canary in the coal mine." We may have peaked and we may be past that peak. I think we should be trying to slow our decline as much as possible, and Trump seems pretty well set on speeding it up.

ALEX WOODSON: I want to move on to Iran. You wrote recently for CNN an article. This goes back to Trump's decision to designate Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization. You write that this sets a dangerous precedent. Why is this a dangerous precedent?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: There is debate about this among scholars, but I don't think that states can commit terrorist acts themselves. They can sponsor terrorism for sure. They can support terrorism for sure. They can love all sorts of terrorist acts for sure.

But if a state does it, my own view is that it isn't terrorism. A state can commit war crimes. A state can commit crimes against humanity. A state can do all sorts of things that are criminal. But I think that terrorism is ultimately a non-state phenomenon.

What the Trump administration has done by designating an Iranian armed force—because Iran effectively has two parallel militaries, but the IRGC has an army, a navy, and an air force with distinct responsibilities from the mainstream, the regular army, navy, and air force—by designating it as a terrorist organization we already see that Iran has designated U.S. Central Command as a terrorist organization—I just think that, like so many of the Trump decisions, we have virtually nothing to gain from it and much to lose.

I don't want American soldiers to be criminally charged with violating Security Council resolutions against terrorism. Look, I want any soldier charged if they commit actual crimes. But if you start to say that a state organization is a terrorist group, then anyone in it becomes a terrorist and anyone who has any connection with it could be providing material support for terrorism. I don't think that we should open that door.

What happens if Russia and China declare some aspect of the U.S. government to be a terrorist organization and they sanction that? Then anyone who does business with them—some U.S. soldier gets off a plane off-duty in China or Russia or somewhere and then is arrested for the equivalent of material support for terrorism. That sort of "tit for tat" can happen, and the opening of this Pandora's box of labeling states as terrorist I think is a mistake.

A very interesting thing to me, which I didn't include in the article, is that the Trump administration has adopted an Iranian tactic. In Iran you can't criticize the supreme leader, but you can say anything you want negatively about the government or things like that. But if you do, maybe you'll get picked up for some other reason and they may try to find you guilty of some other sort of crime. You can do that by making everything illegal. Possession of alcohol is illegal. Homosexuality is illegal.

It's true they do execute people for homosexuality. Often, though, they're not necessarily doing raids, which we've seen in Egypt and other places. But when someone for some political reason gets arrested, the political reason isn't actually a crime necessarily, but, because everything is a crime, you find some sort of crime and then get them for that.

Now, that's what Trump is doing. We're saying that the IRGC is a terrorist organization. So if you're random Iranian X who comes to the United States or wherever, it's pretty easy to make a case that you did business with the IRGC because the IRGC and its associated foundations own tons of stuff. They literally own shopping malls, they own bazaars, they own construction firms, they own much of the oil industry infrastructure. It's very hard to not actually do business with them.

So what you're saying is, "Well, okay, maybe we're not going to arrest everyone, but now we need an excuse to just pick up anyone who has even traveled to Iran." Well, we could find that excuse and arrest them.

I tweeted this. My own example: I've given interviews to IRGC media. I won't do, in general, English-language outward-facing propaganda for any country, but I've done Farsi-language IRGC media that goes internal and they have translated me accurately. Well, what happens if I do that now? Is that on its face material support for a terrorist organization? If they monetize the link to that, is that material support for a terrorist organization? My argument would be it is not.

But by doing this and casting the net so widely, obviously they are not going to arrest or charge millions of people, which would be the number you'd have to, but you open the door to any time you want to go after someone for some political reason now you have a legal case.

I think that is extraordinarily dangerous in general—dangerous for our own freedoms here, let alone for the rest of the world.

ALEX WOODSON: What has been the international reaction to the Trump decision to designate the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: The biggest reaction of course was in Iraq, where Iraq has no choice but to deal with the IRGC in terms of helping provide its own security. Qasem Soleimani, the general in charge of the Quds Force, which is I guess the tip of the spear, let's say, of the IRGC, openly visits Baghdad. IRGC officials openly visit Baghdad. There is no choice but for Iraq to coordinate.

The United States will be gone from there at some point. Iran will not be. That's a fact of geography more than politics, but it's also true politically. So they were understandably very concerned.

The United States within the last couple of days has sort of issued waivers on that. We've told the Iraqi government that we're not going to prosecute them for this, that they can continue to coordinate in that regard.

Our own Defense and State Department officials were opposed to this because they also have to coordinate defense. We don't necessarily coordinate directly with IRGC, but we use intermediaries because we do have some shared interests both in stability in Iraq and also in terms of countering ISIS, who are an enemy of Iran and the United States and Iraq.

I think that it's one of these things where there is virtually no support among anyone in the world, with the exception of Israel, that this is a good idea. Now, for most countries it's not that big a deal; it doesn't necessarily impact them so much. I think countries are much more concerned about the sanctions, particularly that in the last couple of days President Trump said that we would no longer give sanctions waivers to India, particularly in terms of buying Iranian oil. I think that the sanctions are much more impactful on our allies and friends and frenemies than this designation.

It's again one of these things with the Trump administration—there's just so many terrible things everywhere.

And no one really wants to go on record defending the IRGC. I'm not defending the IRGC at all. The IRGC does all sorts of terrible things all over. It's just that it's not terrorism, that doesn't mean it's not bad, but you can't criminalize an entire population. There are conscripts in the IRGC—we're going to start calling them terrorists?

I mean I just don't understand the logic, unless the logic is maximum pressure on Iran in an attempt to, either by force or not by force, force a regime change. That, frankly, isn't going to happen.

ALEX WOODSON: You wrote an article also recently on CNN about NATO, specifically about NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg's speech to Congress earlier in April. He specifically called out Russian aggression. This was before the redacted Mueller Report came out. He did mention specifically election interference, I believe, cyber-attacks.

I didn't see that the speech got a ton of press really—there's a lot else going on—but I think it's a very important statement that he made.

Can you discuss the importance of this speech to the Congress?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: I think it's important for two reasons.

First, this was the first and so far, the only time that the NATO secretary general has been invited to address a joint session of Congress. The invitation was issued by Nancy Pelosi and Mr. McConnell. I think that was important internally, in the United States, to show President Trump that both parties and both houses of Congress stand by NATO as an institution and, in particular, as an institution whose original purpose actually does sort of stand—now, we said it differently for a time in the 1990s—but that this is once again an institution that is defending Europe and "the West" from Russian aggression.

I think that it was sending three messages.

One was internally to the U.S. administration that the president needs to—I think the bar is pretty low here—not withdraw from NATO, not denigrate NATO, not say he's not going to defend NATO from attack. I think that's message 1.

I think message 2 was showing the members of NATO who have questioned the U.S. commitment—there could be a point at which our reliability becomes so tenuous or so much of a question that if you have no choice but to bandwagon with someone, maybe you start switching your position and become closer to Russia. You see that a bit with Turkey—for different reasons—but you see that that's possible even within the NATO structure.

I think this is showing: Look, the United States is still behind NATO; the NATO allies don't have to be as concerned because we still have massive support; and this too shall pass.

Of course the third message is to Russia: Don't count the United States out, even if the president is somehow either literally in your pocket or ideologically sympathetic or an unwitting agent of Russia; that our system, the U.S. system, is not like the Russian system; that, despite what President Trump thinks about this, there are checks on his power; that the American government and the representatives of the American people are behind NATO and will defend our allies against Russian aggression, whatever that may be—be it cyber-attacks, be it GPS jamming, be it kidnapping of border guards in Estonia, whatever the case may be; be it buzzing aircraft, be it the Arctic; that this is something that we are all unified on, with the exception of the U.S. president, but that the rest of us are all unified on and all agree that this requires a coordinated strategy.

I think it was very important in that regard. It may not have gotten as much news here because it happened at, I think, 11:00 in the morning. But let's point out 11:00 in the morning is basically like prime news time in Russia and the early evening news in Western Europe. That is well-timed for, I think, the primary audience that it is meant for: you may attempt to split NATO, but we still remain connected.

I think it was a very effective speech and I think Jens Stoltenberg has done a very good job of balancing that kind of rhetoric with the—I think depressing—language of flattery that he has to use when dealing with President Trump, and maintaining that relationship, behaving sort of like a supplicant, which I think is something that is probably very hard to do but sort of necessary; behaving in one way while maintaining the firm rhetoric when it comes to everyone but Trump.

I think he has really done a very good job, which I think is why he has such good support among the NATO allies and leaders.


Those articles are on I'll put links to them on as well.

Jonathan Cristol, thank you so much for coming in.

JONATHAN CRISTOL: Thanks. Always a pleasure.


Thanks for listening to Global Ethics Weekly.

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