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Will Russia Probes Affect Trump's Bargaining Position With World Leaders?


President Trump heads into a week hosting important foreign leaders under a cloud of investigations into whether his campaign colluded in some way with Russia to influence the presidential election. Let's talk about how those events might be related with Mary Beth Long. She served President George W. Bush in the Defense Department. She's now with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Welcome to the program once again.

MARY BETH LONG: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Glad you could come by. How does it affect a president when he goes abroad while under investigation at home?

LONG: I think that a lot of our interlocutors abroad view this investigation as largely a domestic political matter. But it does make some of our allies seem hesitant as to whether or not these kinds of investigations are a distraction to what the foreign policy planning and policy direction of an administration may be. So we're distracted.

INSKEEP: They're wondering if the administration will have its eye on the ball, in other words.

LONG: Absolutely. I don't think that many of them honestly believe that there'll be some kind of smoking-gun evidence of collusion. If you ask them - does it come as a surprise that Russia tried to meddle in our domestic elections? Absolutely not. Most of them have been complaining about that for years, particularly in Europe.

Is it a surprise to them that an incoming administration would have conversations and preliminary discussions with the Russians? Absolutely not. I think they'd be more surprised that an incoming administration would have no contact with such a major interlocutor. Would it come as a surprise that there was some kind of knowing, complicit actions on the part of either of the parties? Absolutely. I think they'd be as shocked as we are. But there's really been no real evidence of that.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask a related question here because the president is going to meet with the president of China at Mar-a-Lago in Florida this week. The president has been accused, if that's the word, of trying to be nice or reset the relationship with Russia. One of the reasons advanced for that would be to use Russia in some way against China. Those are your two great rivals on the world stage, and you try to use one against the other if you can. Does that make sense - to do that?

LONG: It makes sense to use them as leverage against one another. I think one of the reasons why you will see the president of China here first is the very pressing need to get some kind of action to either forestall or persuade North Korea from its nuclear and missile activities, number one.

Number two, I think the administration wisely chose to delay a state visit or a high-level visit with Russia, particularly here on U.S. soil, in order to mitigate concerns that the administration was leaning way too forward in its skis when it comes to dealing with Russia.

INSKEEP: OK. But is the administration leaning way too forward in its skis when it comes to dealing with China? And I ask that because while the president has talked tough about China on trade, the secretary of state went to China, repeated Chinese talking points about China's role in the world. Do you understand where the administration is heading with China?

LONG: I don't think we've had a lot of articulation of what our China policy is. I think we've had a number of statements. Nikki Haley, I think, has said several things in the United Nations. We've had...

INSKEEP: Oh, the U.N. ambassador, right.

LONG: Yes, of course. And over the weekend, we had Tillerson, our secretary of state, talk about the need - in fact, the president has talked about the need for China to engage effectively with the North Koreans. I think as far as our foreign policy is concerned, we may not see a huge differentiation between the former administration and this President Trump. Where we will see it mostly with China will likely be in trade and economic and perhaps climate issues.

INSKEEP: Not a big - in a few seconds, not a big change on North Korea?

LONG: A huge change on North Korea. And thats where this trip with - the visit is very important.

INSKEEP: OK. Mary Beth Long, thanks for coming by once again.

LONG: Thank you.

INSKEEP: She's now with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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