CNN's Jim Sciutto: Vladimir Putin has seduced Trump — now the world sees America as weak

CNN foreign policy expert on the Trump disaster: He swooned for Putin, nearly blundered into war with North Korea

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 15, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

President Donald Trump (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) attend their bilateral meeting at the G20 Osaka Summit, in Osaka, Japan, June,28,2019. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) attend their bilateral meeting at the G20 Osaka Summit, in Osaka, Japan, June,28,2019. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

The president of the United States takes the following oath at his or her inauguration: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Donald Trump has repeatedly betrayed this promise, and should long since have been removed from office for doing so.

The Constitution deems that the president is commander in chief of the military. As revealed by the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, Donald Trump believes that members of the U.S. military who have been wounded or killed in battle are "suckers" and "losers" for not being as selfish and cowardly as he is. Trump also believes that disabled veterans should not be seen in public because they somehow shame or embarrass the country.

Trump also has no respect for the United States military's role as defender of the country's democracy from threats both foreign and domestic. To that end, he attempted to order military commanders to attack Americans who were (and are) exercising their constitutionally-guaranteed civil rights by protesting against his regime in response to the police killing of George Floyd, as well as in support of social justice more generally.

Fortunately, military commanders put the institutional legitimacy of the armed forces ahead of the president's whims by deflecting his orders. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has also apologized for appearing alongside Trump on the streets of Washington. 

Trump has repeatedly suggested that he is likely ignore the results of the 2020 election, and may seek to use the military to quell protests or other acts of resistance, perhaps by invoking the Insurrection Act.

Trump has also pardoned accused or convicted war criminals because he idolizes cruelty and lawlessness. Trump and his regime, in fact, views war criminals as useful tools in his authoritarian campaign against American democracy.

Many of the United States' most senior retired military personnel, members of the intelligence community and diplomats, as well as other elites in the national defense community, have publicly condemned Donald Trump as an extreme threat to the country's safety, security and democracy.

Overall, Donald Trump has made the United States less safe, less respected, less powerful, less influential, and less respected as a world power. In the Age of Trump and the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. has become a pariah nation, shamed before the world.

Is there any strategic logic to Trump's decision-making about the United States and its role in the world? How do Trump's ignorance, selfishness and authoritarian beliefs, combined with his conviction that his own personal interests are identical to the nation's, imperil our safety and security? Does the Trump regime's contempt for the truth and empirical reality endanger the long-term future of our nation?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Jim Sciutto, CNN's chief national security correspondent and co-anchor of "CNN Newsroom." Sciutto previously served as ABC News' senior foreign correspondent and during his extensive career has reported from more than 50 countries, including Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. His new book is "The Madman Theory: Trump Takes on the World."

At the end of this conversation Sciutto warns that the consensus among many of the country's senior defense and intelligence professionals is that Donald Trump idolizes Vladimir Putin, and is somehow personally bound to him. If this is true, Trump's fealty to a foreign leader has fatally compromised his ability to make decisions in the best interests of the United States and the American people.

You can also listen to my conversation with Jim Sciutto on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How are you feeling, given all that is happening and has happened with Donald Trump and his administration?

I'm feeling stress for my country. That is not a political sentiment. I love my country. I've spent a lot of time outside of it for professional reasons. As a foreign correspondent, you end up loving America more because you live in places where they do not have our freedoms or institutions, many of which we take for granted. When I see those institutions being undermined here in the United States and people losing confidence in their own country, I am very concerned. I am still an optimist, but there is much to be concerned about here in the United States because of Donald Trump and all that has happened.

How does America look from abroad?

There is not a lot of respect right now for the United States. I do not want to overstate that because, frankly, there are many countries in the world with much bigger problems than this country right now.

For example, the COVID outbreak. The U.S. has certainly been one of the worst in terms of responding to it. That is not a political statement. It is based on the data. Europe is doing much better for example than the United States with the pandemic and its deadly consequences and other problems.

The state of the country's political discourse is also not good. Is the United States able to solve problems in the way it did not too long ago? Pew polling shows that the world's opinion of the United States has greatly diminished. The world is viewed much worse than it was during another low point, which was during George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq.

How are career diplomats and other public servants reacting to the Trump regime and its assaults on norms and values? These are government professionals who have served in multiple administrations. How are they making sense of this tumult?

Here is what is different. There have always been disagreements about policy and how best to accomplish those goals. What is different now is that there is an assault on the truth. There is not an agreed-upon set of facts. At first, I thought that maybe having to confront a pandemic would do that. Another example would be Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election. There was a bipartisan judgment that Russia interfered, and that the Russians did so to help Trump win.

It came out of committees, as well as the intelligence agencies. Trump attacked those findings and took them personally. That was a consensus not just of a bipartisan committee but the country's intelligence community as well. Intelligence findings can be attacked more easily because it is still a matter of interpretation.

But in the middle of a pandemic, there are hard facts. People are dying. You can count the number of people dying. You can count and document the positive infection rates.

You can count the number of infections. One can easily disprove Donald Trump's claims that cases are only rising because there is more testing, because the percentage of people testing positive is also going up. But not in this environment where even the facts are disputed. Conspiracy theories existed well before Donald Trump, but he has super-turbocharged them to the point where they are leaking more and more into mainstream conversation. Democracy cannot operate without an agreed-upon set of facts and the country is miles down that rabbit hole right now.

Does Donald Trump have an ideology? Is his administration guided by some overriding principle that orients its approach to the world?

He has an approach and a view of the world. It is an open question as to whether he has a strategy — and that is a question raised by people who worked for him. For my new book, I spoke only to people who worked for Trump and were appointed by him at the highest levels.

When I asked those officials to describe Trump's view of the world it was described as transactional: "What can you do for me? I scratch your back. You scratch mine." Trump has done that equally with adversaries and allies. Trump has no worldview beyond that. There is no understanding of the ancillary benefit of friendships and alliances.

[Former national security adviser] H.R. McMaster told me how much trouble he had convincing Trump that there was more to alliances than just some sort of quid pro quo bottom line. These include shared history, shared values, a shared interest in the rule of law, sharing of intelligence to fight terrorism and other understandings. Trump does not see the world and alliances in that way.  As such, Donald Trump will just as easily upend a friendship as he will antagonize a competitor. The United States is on a path of confrontation with China. But the United States also has highly antagonistic relationships now with our closest allies in Europe. With South Korea, the president is demanding they quintuple their contribution to the deployment of U.S. forces there and is threatening to take those forces away in the midst of the worsening standoff with North Korea.

Or even consider Canada, arguably one of our closest allies. Trump has used national security powers to impose economic sanctions on them including tariffs. In essence, Donald Trump has labeled Canada a national security threat.

Donald Trump does not read. He is proudly ignorant. He is a malignant narcissist. How is it even possible to have a coherent foreign policy with such a president?

Trump's national security advisers knew and realized that he was not reading any of the briefing notes. So early on, McMaster's team came up with the idea of boiling the briefings down to note cards with just three bullet points, thinking that would get through to Trump.

They tried it, and discovered pretty quickly that Trump was only reading the first two of the three bullet points. That is as much as Trump would read.

Then the national security advisers started concentrating the most important information in the first two bullet points and the third became a throwaway line.

Then they figured out Trump was not even reading the note cards. Trump does not process the material. He does not take the time to read it. Even worse, Trump will just reject it. He'll contradict it and say, "I know better," in effect. Trump does that not just with opinions but with facts and analysis.

And not just opinions, analysis, but even facts. Sue Gordon briefed Trump a number of times when she was on track to be the country's highest-ranking intelligence official, until he forced her out. Gordon communicated how the most alarming times were when Trump rejected things that the intelligence community knew to be true, which they could show definitively. Trump would reject those facts because they did not fit his worldview or were somehow inconvenient for him.

Trump's advisers told me that his personal interests were often indistinguishable from the nation's interests in his mind. He mixed the two together. In Trump's mind, his re-election is a goal in itself that is as important as the country's national interests. That is what happened with Trump and Ukraine. Trump denied an ally military aid during a war to get political dirt on Joe Biden. Right now, Donald Trump is refusing to hold Russia accountable for interfering in the presidential election again, to help him.

How do you explain Donald Trump's public deference to Vladimir Putin and Russia?

I asked everyone I interviewed for the book to explain it. The best explanation they could come up with, and this was a consistent belief held by more than one person, was that Donald Trump has an inexplicable admiration for Vladimir Putin.

Another former senior adviser said that Vladimir Putin is Donald Trump's honey trap. A honey trap is the beautiful woman the other side sends to try to influence you, to bring you over to the enemy or rival.

There were concerns within the intelligence community that what Russia was doing, and is still doing, with Trump is running an influence operation on him. The Russians are trying to influence Trump's view of the world to make it more in line with their national interests. There are examples of this, such as the way Trump is parroting Vladimir Putin's view of Europe and countries such as Germany. Trump has also parroted Putin's comments about Russia's role in World War II and how it was supposedly always America's friend. To hear such things about Trump and Putin's relationship from people who worked with Trump at the highest levels is very alarming.

Given Trump's behavior and escalating authoritarian policies and personal threats, it appears that he is actually being mentored or somehow guided by Putin and other authoritarians.

Some of Trump's comments can be readily dismissed. But Trump's admiration for Putin's power is real. That is something that his advisers spoke about openly to me, and many of them did so on the record.

We also see that admiration in Trump's public statements and his tactics. Repeatedly declaring the press to be "the enemy of the people" is intentional. Trump has made these threats so often during his time in office that it has created open hostility toward the news media, to the point where there has been violence, such as those exploding letters that were sent to CNN. We had to have security at Trump's rallies because he would point to the press and say, "Enemy of the people." Trump's behavior is right out of the authoritarian's playbook.

Why don't we see mass resignations by the professional public servants? Why do they stay, given what Trump is doing?

There are still a lot of people in government who believe in what they do. They love their country and they believe that they are doing good work. They also believe that they have a role to play. We still see that. Members of the Postal Service raised the alarm about what was happening there, with slowing down the processing and delivery of the mail during election season. Many of these people who still believe in what they are doing and are fighting to do their best in public service have paid a hefty price for that decision.

I'm in touch with Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the whistleblower who exposed what Trump was doing with Ukraine, who made a decision to leave the military because he was told that his career was basically over. Many good public servants stay as long as they can, even with Trump. There are still true believers in this country's government and public service.

What happened to the story about Russian bounties on U.S. troops? That would have ended another presidency. Why wasn't there been daily coverage of it by the mainstream news media?

Two years prior, Donald Trump also rejected the fact that the Russians were supplying arms to the Taliban. The lives of U.S. troops were threatened and Trump did not treat it as a big deal. It is hard for the news media and others to stay focused on the Russian bounty scandal because there is something new every day from the Trump administration. We need to do our best to keep asking questions about the Russian bounties and other such issues, even though they quickly fade out of the spotlight. I try to connect the dots on these issues. But it is hard because there is a portion of the country right now that will just ignore whatever wrongs are done by the Trump administration.

Your book is called "The Madman Theory." How do you make sense of Trump's strategic approach to foreign policy?

Donald Trump has put his own spin on it. If we go back to the origins of the "madman theory," it was Richard Nixon who came up with that. Nixon deliberately had his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, communicate to North Vietnam that he was just mad enough to launch a nuclear strike. The intention there was to gain leverage in negotiations with North Vietnam on ending the war. It did not work.

Fifty years later, there is a president in the form of Donald Trump who for years in his business dealings bragged about keeping the other side off balance, surprising them at the last minute, making big demands and then making a concession or the other way around, etc. But in practice, Trump's madman theory is one where the victories that do occur are because of accident and not intentional strategy. Trump uses his madman approach both with allies and enemies. Trump also does that to his own staff. I was repeatedly told by Trump's staffers of many examples where they would be surprised by the president and then have to explain to America's allies what had just happened.

If you're unleashing the madman on everyone, including the people on your side, that's just chaos. It is not a viable plan. On issues from North Korea to Iran and China, Trump has left those situations worse than before he became president. By and large, his madman approach has failed.

I discuss the North Korea situation a great deal in the new book. I walk readers through the "fire and fury" period of Trump's approach to North Korea, and then Trump's love-affair approach to Kim Jong-un.

The bottom line on North Korea is that both approaches failed. Four years later, North Korea has more, not fewer, nukes. They've got a more advanced ballistic missile program, not a less advanced ballistic program.

Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon, not further, with Trump having withdrawn the United States from the nuclear deal. One can argue about whether Iran has been cowed or deterred by the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani. If seeking a less aggressive Iran was Trump's goal, such an approach failed because Iran is now more aggressive, not less.  

How do you explain to the public how perilous the situation with North Korea was in 2017?

The crisis with North Korea was so close to war that Donald Trump's own military advisers hesitated to give him military options. During the worst, most tense period in late 2017, his own military advisers were concerned that Trump was going to put the two countries on a path to war. The advisers were so concerned that they communicated to their North Korean counterparts that they did not know what President Trump was going to do next. They described him as "unpredictable" because they were concerned the two sides would get on an unstoppable path toward war if Trump had his way.

In total, North Korea was an example where Trump's own advisers were so concerned about the madman that they held back. It's a remarkable judgment on his decision-making.

What happens when there is an imminent threat to the United States and Trump's national security advisers tell him, "Mr. President, we must act now!" and Trump just says "Who cares?"

We've seen it happen. It's not even a hypothetical. Trump was briefed on Russia paying bounties to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and he just said, "I don't want to believe it." Yes, it was not a high-confidence assessment, but the president went so far as to say it was another Russia hoax.

That was not the first time that Trump had done such a thing. In 2018, we knew that the Russians sold weapons to the Taliban. So we've already seen the president deny the best advice and ignore clear U.S. national security interests. What is more important than protecting U.S. soldiers abroad? Donald Trump will not do it.

What is a more important institution for American democracy than a free and fair election? Four years after Russia interfered in 2016 to benefit Donald Trump, the Russians are doing it again. Again, Donald Trump will not accept that intelligence assessment. He won't warn Vladimir Putin and Russia to stop interfering in America's presidential elections.  

We are seeing your dire scenario play out in real life, right before our eyes.

What do America's enemies and rivals see in Donald Trump?

Donald Trump projects a false image of strength. Vladimir Putin sees weakness in the NATO alliance and a leader, Donald Trump, that he can exploit and influence.

Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, saw a leader in Trump whom he could, on private phone calls, convince to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria because that was in Turkey's interest.

This false idea that Trump is somehow kicking ass and taking names is not the way that Putin and other leaders view him. With Trump the United States is a paper tiger. It's not the real deal. A senior intelligence official told me that adversaries, our enemies, know that the United States with Trump as president does not know the next play.

They know we don't know it. They know that Trump is unpredictable. They know that he keeps his own staff and policymaking institutions off balance. America's enemies and adversaries know that the United States does not know what is coming next and they seek to take advantage of that.

It is a weakness. America's enemies perceive weakness in Donald Trump. They do not see that as some great strength or the "art of the deal." They see a country, arguably the most powerful country in the world, lurching around with no idea of what is coming next. The country is just being led by the whims of the moment from the commander in chief. That's a pretty damning assessment.

Foreign policy is complicated. Most Americans are very ignorant about it. How would you explain why Donald Trump's approach to international relations should matter to them?

Because their country's national security is at stake. The threats facing the United States have gotten bigger during his term. North Korea's nuclear program, Iran's nuclear program, Russia's threat to Europe and the West have all gotten bigger, not smaller, during Trump's term. In our lifetimes we benefited from a peaceful world where the United States has been largely secure from those kinds of threats. With Trump, the United States is less safe. 

Beyond that, what is your view of your own country? Do you see the United States as not just standing for something different as compared to many other countries, but also operating differently, where people here can rely on their democratic institutions? The rule of law? Fair elections? All those things are being undermined by Donald Trump and his administration. People have to know exactly what is happening with Trump and America before they vote on Election Day.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega