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Ambassador Michael McFaul Interviewed by Stuart Lander | Upfront Summit 2020

Michael McFaul
Director, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Affairs at Stanford University
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Upfront Summit 2020
January 30 2020, Pasadena, CA, United States
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Ambassador Michael McFaul Interviewed by Stuart Lander | Upfront Summit 2020
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Michael McFaul is the Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Affairs, professor of political science, and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, all at Stanford University. He also works as an analyst for NBC News, and writes a monthly column for The Washington Post. He served five years in the Obama administration, first as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council at the White House (2009-2012), and then as U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation (2012-2014). He has authored several books including Advancing Democracy Abroad: Why We Should, How We Can; Power and Purpose: American Policy toward Russia after the Cold War (with James Goldgeier) and Russia’s Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin. His current research projects include U.S. relations with China, Russia, and Iran; comparative populisms; and the relationship between development and democracy. Dr. McFaul was born and raised in Montana. He received his B.A. in International Relations and Slavic Languages and his M.A. in Soviet and East European Studies from Stanford University in 1986. As a Rhodes Scholar, he completed his D. Phil. in International Relations at Oxford University in 1991.

About the talk

Topic: Business

Former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul speaks with Upfront Ventures partner Stuart Lander on his experience in Russia, the genesis and purpose of disinformation and fake news, what Vladimir Putin is really like and how he uses kompromat, and why he's cautiously optimistic about the U.S. democracy.

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Hello, good afternoon, everyone. I'm still at Lanza and I'm delighted to have on stage with me now for the next 25 or so minutes 00:00 Ambassador, Michael mcfaul, many of you will know I'm positive. I'm at the US Embassy of the Russian Federation between 00:09 2012 to 2014 since leaving his Pena. You've been put on the sanctions list by Russia allowed to travel 00:18 there any more correct? Thank you and I think the news. Some GPS 00:28 criminal activities alleged activity, please. 00:38

Okay what people might know less about you is for the three years before you work 00:43 in the Obama Administration you a special advisor to President Obama and you was senior director for Russian. You're right. Size of the National 00:52 Security Council by The Architects of what we know as the reset a. Of extremely collaborative relations 01:01 with Russia where your Chief the bunch of amazing things like the new start treaty. I think you've reduced significantly nuclear missile 01:10

launchers in the world and one of the things that struck me from your. At. Someone that has worked in business for the last 20 years 01:20 and doesn't really always think about what it's like to work in government which how grueling a time that was for you guys were three years for the 01:29 hours you put into my new shoe feature Allen to phone calls and meetings. Can you tell Stewart's read? My book is not impressive. And you know, I 01:39 think off the three years you're pretty spend right until I actually probably physically as well you are packed your bags ready to go back to Sanford 01:48

where your professor today, but the boss is Eco him President Obama had other ideas for you. He wanted you to be ambassador to Russia how difficult 01:56 decision was that for you? I will put your thanks for having me here. Last time I was at the Rose Bowl Stanford beat, Wisconsin. I don't know if 02:06 anybody was at that game in 2013. So it's good to be back kind of dumb thing to be an ambassador Professor with this lineup that you have here. So 02:15 thanks for having me. But to answer your question. It was a hard decision and a couple of reasons why a lot of people don't understand that Outsiders 02:25

like me when we come in as political appointees. That's what we're called to work at the White House. And by the way, it was a fantastic job to work 02:35 for Barack Obama. Do you ever get the chance take it? He was a fantastic boss in so many ways will come back to him maybe later but I worked on his 02:44 campaign, you know, we won he was sworn in on January 20th, and I started the White House on January 21st, and we had a great run and 02:52 as you point out back then a lot of people forget. We're getting a lot done in u.s. Russia relations, but I You always send to my family 2 years, but 03:02

the normal Professor spends about 18 months in the government. And after 2 years, you have to start partitioning your University to stay they didn't 03:11 want to move Washington fine, but it's no Palo Alto. I was gone most nights right? I barely saw my family. So is always a deal we're going back in the 03:20 summer of 2011 and then one day I heard from my immediate boss, then come down one said hey, you can't leave now Mike we're doing all this great work 03:30 in the boss doesn't want you to leave and I went home and I don't I'm not going to call her the boss. She hates that but my wife said you promised us 03:39

two years man and the negotiations between those two spaces. Well, what about staying on the team? But you are more family-friendly 03:49 job and that's when they decided Obama decided. Why don't you go to Moscow? And by the way, by the way athletes, it wasn't more family-friendly 03:59 job. I'm not I'm not kidding Washington doesn't wake up till 5 p.m. Write an in Moscow. I'm the boss. Right? There's nobody above me 04:09 there White House office staff was really kind of an accident that negotiated you left 04:18

Washington you and Miss Theresa, hugely Cooperative relations with many senior Russian officials 04:28 almost immediately got off the plane you missed a revolution and you encounter hostility. Probably like no other US ambassador 04:37 has ever received before why you and what kind of harassment will you actually under? Well, I'm glad you said that because it really felt like 04:47 we left Washington. We are all getting on my kids are coming. We're going to live in this big mansion and for this you pay your taxes. Thank you for 04:57

that. And the first couple days of were really exciting where they're looking at all the photos in this house and its Kissinger and Ronald Reagan and 05:04 cruise Jeff and everything is going to be really exciting and I remember was Martin Luther King weekend. So we had one more day and that Sunday night. 05:14 I turned on the TV cuz I wanted to get my Russian going again. I'd lived in Russia and many many times right? I'd live there first time was 1983. So 05:22 this wasn't my first rodeo in Russia, but first time is Ambassador, and that was my first experience with what we now call disinformation about me 05:30

and was a hit job is about 18 minutes long was explaining to the Russian people kind of the equivalent of 60 Minutes television 05:39 program. Very popular that Barack Obama had sent me to Russia to foment. Ocean against Vladimir Putin that was the day before 05:48 I even had reported to the Embassy and for the rest of my time there, you know, I was the poster child for that propaganda against now you ask why me 05:58 and party was just that I was the US ambassador. There was at the time massive demonstrations against Vladimir Putin there. Been a parliamentary 06:08

election a few weeks before I arrived it was falsified going to normal five 6%. No big deal, but this time around because of the contact day and 06:18 Facebook and Twitter and smartphones people captured it and they said we don't want to take this anymore. Right? One of the Chance by the way was no 06:27 more taxation without representation. Remember that that one you're not going to steal our money unless we have a say in our government and white is 06:35 all that was going on. I arrived as Ambassador and Putin needed an argument to to explain why these people were protesting against them to 06:44

mobilize. Space and the marginalized the opposition but there's one more piece of it because some of those leaders of the opposition were actually 06:53 people that I met when I lived in the Soviet Union and the year the Soviet Union collapsed 1991. I was living in Moscow and a lot of those people were 07:03 my friends and so that made it an easier narrative for him to spend about me. All the propaganda was horrible because you know in this is 07:12 related to our times right now as we deal with this information in our politics, how do you prove that you're not giving money to 07:22

the opposition? Right? How do you prove something that doesn't exist? So one of their arguments was I was there to hand out money to the opposition 07:32 and they would have little photos of them coming to see me one day. I was at a anniversary celebration of a newspaper and opposition figure 07:40 walked in. His name is Alexei navalny. We shook hands for seven seconds. And then there's a secret deal down there and it's actually pretty hard to 07:49 fight a false narrative when they make up things about you all the more so because Putin has all the television shows that works. All the media is in 07:59

his hand and I just got my little Twitter account, right? So there was an asymmetry there and I want to let you know we tried we did a lot of 08:08 experimental things. We try just to talk a lot about Beck's be open about everything but I came away from that experience. Pretty bitter, you know in 08:15 the Cold War days. We used to study propaganda and we used to fight propaganda. We got to have it after the end of the Cold War and I came back after 08:25 that experience thinking, you know, this information Works propaganda works and now we're seeing that here in the United States. We will know that 08:34

this information exists today we hear about it we hear about fake news. No one's ever sure. What is real? What is not real? How does it actually work 08:44 the Russians the pioneers of disinformation? How does it work? And what's the objective? What is 08:53 injective is different from the Communist to the Communists wanted to win an argument with us? Right capitalism vs communism, you know their 09:03 system of democracy versus ours, they would play their own rules, but there were trying to win an argument. They weren't they were constrained by the 09:13

fact. Very cynical he's not trying to win an argument. He's trying to make the case that there are no facts, but it's 09:20 all manipulated. You know, Barack Obama can call the other than what he wants just like poop whataboutism whataboutism you invaded try 09:30 and we say to him. Will you add a back to the 19th century who plays that kind of game where 09:40 he wants to just create the idea that there are no facts, but then you asked you asked a question about modalities and this is I think you know, we're 09:50

living through this right now in my view with the the hunter Biden stuff. So in my case the without question one of the worst days of my time is 09:58 Ambassador with one and it was like 3 weeks in right the glory 2012 a video appeared that suggested that I 10:08 was a pedophile. DC-10 and of course the government said we have Free Press here Mike, we had nothing to do with this. Yeah, right, 10:17 but it's a tricky space. So we were all shocked, you know watching the stupid video. How do you respond to get on Twitter and 10:26

getting some argument with some bladimir saying I'm not a pedophile? Yes, you are if you're not a pedophile. How do you do that? How do you prove 10:36 something that doesn't exist? But now notice I just did something that many experts and say you should never do I just with a bunch of strangers, so I 10:45 can't even just use the word pedophile and McFall in the same sentence. What did I just do there? I just created 10:55 a new artifact that will now you know, and I hope most of you believe me when I say I'm not a pedophile but you know, it's going to thunder out 11:04

there's going to kick around and and that's how disinformation works right. So when when they said Hillary and her emails, right? There was no 11:14 evidence that any wrong the other than the final verdict on that came out a few months ago. Nobody saw it was on page 23. We just throw it out there. 11:23 You just throw it out there and academics at Stanford to study this mean completely dominated the argument between Trump 11:31 and Clinton 2016 on the Trump side. By the way, they were like 15 25 different things that he did but there was so many of them that none of them 11:41

stuck and and I think we're seeing eye to get you know, this, you know, we are now doing in the Senate impeachment trial what they wanted 11:48 solinsky to do for them before I so it's so divisive now, is it the norm is it going to be the norm for the next decades and decades to come or is 11:58 that something that we can all do in this room and the society to prevent it because the future looks bleak it. Disinformation 12:08 continues as it as it is today. Well in the short-term are pretty pessimistic because obviously we're dealing with a massive disruption 12:18

in the way that people consume information. I've been listening to that hear your conference today. And we the technology is way ahead of the Norms 12:28 way ahead of the ethics and most certainly had of the rules and regulations and maybe laws were in that weird space. We have Sanford me. I'm on part 12:37 of Arkansas reach a group that studies this and writes about it. You know, what I would say our prognosis is the next Cycle's going to be really messy 12:46 because Putin's Playbook. Is it going to be used by other countries and other high school kids in Palo Alto that, you know, I mean there is there 12:55

going to be doing that too. And we're wearing a weird world where it's hard to know what to disinformation what's not my own view is that those of us 13:04 who work at institutions that have some credibility and even academic institutions are following you look at the data in the den in the Publican 13:14 party, especially but compared to a lot other institutions. We still have that. We got to get more engaged. That's why I'm here with you right now and 13:22 let you know this is not a normal gig for a Stanford Professor just so you know, but Twitter and and television to you know, what Stanford facts about 13:30

her everyday two plus two equals four everyday not just Tuesdays and Thursdays and you can't survive in Academia. The scientific method is what drives 13:40 what we do. I didn't we got to get more involved and I also think the platform companies also have to you know, it would be nice to thicken Pretender 13:50 utilities and say we don't have any dog in this game. I just think that it was over and I think they got to just put some Norms out there. This is 13:59 what we believe in and let the chips fall where they may Got totally I want to shift gears for a minute and talk about Putin because I doubt anyone 14:08

has being in a room with Putin of you in this room, but you have I have no I guess I have a sense of what Putin might be like, but I don't really know 14:18 is he cold mean maybe evil or is he warm charismatic leader? What's it like being in a room with him? And how do you deal with him? 14:28 So I first met Vladimir Putin in the the spring of 1991. Do we go way back not exactly Facebook friends, but 14:39 although who knows, right? Vladimir Putin, I got a lot of 14:48 trolls that follow me to check me out at McFarland Twitter, especially pretty active in Russian, especially when 14:58

I first met him, I'll be honest. I had you asked me back then name 500 people that might be the next president of Russia. He would not have made my 15:08 list completely. Nondescript guy. Bureaucrat tgb guy who's the deputy mayor at the time for international contacts? I was an international contact. 15:16 And so that's how we met and I think it's important for people to understand about Putin and Russia. He was a completely accidental president. There 15:25 was no Groundswell of support for him. He's picked by by Boris Yeltsin out of obscurity to be prime minister in the compressor right 15:33

chest first thing to understand about our time. He's developed the charismatic personality wasn't there before? Two very smart guy. 15:42 He does his homework for those meetings and subsequently. I've been in meetings with him with President Obama Vice President Biden he does but not 15:52 well I can hear them twice that's always a big Advantage by the way, just so you know, we have a present these days just likes to meet with him 16:00 one-on-one a really bad idea for a couple of one who comes prepared. Right? He's he's not just here 16:10

for chit-chat. He is trying to achieve something in his meeting with Obama or binder Clinton or whoever's meeting with number to he's been at the job 16:20 for 20 years. So he's rolling into that meeting with a lot of experience. I remember they're driving out to his house with President Obama in 2009. 16:28 Obama is a pretty smart guy I've ever known a pretty confident guy to he was a little nervous rolling into his first meeting with Putin and 16:36 rightfully so because he knew this guy was coming to you know, he prepared to believe me. And he plays mind games with you. Remember? He's a 16:46

counterintelligence officer you ran spies for a living. So he if he was here he would have done all kinds of research on you including some 16:56 databases that you don't have and he would be playing on that all the time. He did that with Obama on these other people. Most certainly did it with 17:06 from the 30s. Very paranoid. He's extremely paranoid guy. I used to think when they would run all this the stuff on me 17:15 on TV. That's like okay. I I I get politics. I worked at a campaign they got at least he was running for president at the time either you need a 17:25

boogie man. I got it actually went and met with one of his campaign strategist somebody I know for 20 years and I won't name them the key seem like 17:33 he's looking for a job. Now. You just got fired and the front and he's interested in you opportunities in the WASP. 17:42 You guys were just talking about 17:48 big data and using data. He was like one of the first guys to do that Alexa said he he came to me said Mike 17:58 expect. We're all friends here. We 18:04 don't worry about it. And I'm I remember that conversation Putin one 18:12

and it did die down for a while, but then it picked up and then you ask me to harassment would increase from time to time. And when I started his 18:22 Ambassador, we would have this debate with the President Obama. Usually it's like this. He really believe all the stuff. He's putting out and I used 18:31 to be in today. I'm in the second trust and believe it. He has a he thinks rci.a can do all kinds of amazing 18:39 things that they can do by the way, they can do a lot of things that Putin thanks and fundamentally because he's an autocrat he 18:49

worries about the people We all know that 18:58 he wanted Trump to win the election and if you was to give Trump a great today, what would that great day? First he wanted them to 19:08 win and he tried to help him win a dacious Lee right? But by the way, even during the height of the Cold War nothing like that happened in 2016 ever 19:18 happened in our elections. Remember that about food and he's whatever cards he has. He's got a lot of confidence right now and he was very aggressive 19:27

in 2016 and hates Hillary Clinton. Don't forget that I think they all celebrated when Trump was elected. It was a big party. I got lots of 19:35 lots of emails from all kinds of people, you know are guy one your your your Gala. They called her something else not so polite. 19:45 You know the initial e they were hoping for an immediate pay back they wanted to and because we're a democracy 19:57 and the US Congress would not let him do that. He didn't deliver on that on some people he has but generally didn't deliver on that. He didn't blow up 20:07

that he didn't recognize Crimea you might do that during the campaign. So I'm a tangible things. He didn't deliver 20:16 but on the big thing, he's been a massive asset in terms of Putin because he's weak and we're spending all our time 20:25 fighting with each other right? That means we're not focused on the things that Putin is doing inside his country. That means we're not helping 20:35 Ukraine. I mean this Ukraine thing that we had a bipartisan consensus that we were going to support Ukraine when I was in the government, it's 20:42

completely demolished now, so I'm the bigger picture making us look weak around the world he has So great. I 20:51 think it's pretty please they might have to ask you this important question. What's your explanation for the 21:01 dynamic between the two of them Trump and Putin? Why is Trump consistently considered tree towards him the types of the 21:10 session is about compromise compromising materials another Russian Russian a leading question yet. Do you believe 21:20 that there is compromising material on Trump and others within the government in the United States? 21:29

I want to backup and I want to underscore how absolutely unusual. The situation is never right. 21:39 I think about Democrats Republicans administration's I've known and ones that have written about as an academic. I cannot remember a policy issue 21:49 where you had brought agreement in the administration about what to do just basically to contain Putin and the president 21:58 disagree with everybody and I mean everybody folks, you know, why is he on his fourth National Security advisor? None of those people agree with him. 22:08

Sexually Madison didn't agree with them. Pompeo doesn't agree with them. There's not a single person that I know either former or in the government 22:16 who works on National Security that thinks that Trump has the right policy. That's so that's why it's so weird, right? I can't answer your 22:24 question. Let me tell you what I know when I don't know. I'll try to be brief something. I don't know 22:34 the rule Russia the answer to that is yes, everything is about leverage if you know, why either 22:42

honey pot stuff that we all seen in the movies, but it's mostly about money. I'm going to let you do something. I'm going to give you a property. I'm 22:51 going to let you keep your house in London, if your government officials even though that's illegal, but in return you're completely loyalty to me, 22:59 right? So that's that's the way he rules Russia. So when Mr. Mueller started to investigate Financial ties between 23:06 Russians and the Trump organization and he had a big operation. I thought he was looking into that and I was surprised that in the public report out 23:16

then it was on that my I assume that there was going to be more to that and I don't know was it isn't in the classified part or They not find anything 23:25 or did it get shut down. I don't know but I would have thought there was going to be more there. I can tell you want me to talk about things. I don't 23:34 want to talk about as an anecdote in my book about this is hang around about way when when 23:42 businessman from came to Russia in 2013. He stayed at the Ritz-Carlton. I was the US ambassador at the time by the way. Usually when a 23:51

prominent business people come through the Moscow, we would make a decision where the we would host them. We hosted the eBay. We don't you all kinds 24:01 of companies. We decided Miss Universe is not a good look for the Obama Administration. My Marines were really disappointed in that that we did not 24:10 have that party, but we decided we didn't want to do that. So I did not mean with him there, but he said Thrift Carlton. I stayed at the Ritz-Carlton 24:19 with President Obama with Vice President Biden and was Clinton actually. All three of them when I worked at the White House, and I remember when we 24:28

went over there July 2009 and when I first saw this contraption, it was like a submarine with 24:37 really thick wall with our own power supply completely disconnected from the outside we play this wild usually Led Zeppelin by the way, this weird 24:47 background distorted music and we did that and that's where we would go to talk to President Obama to have a confidential conversation 24:56 back millions of dollars were spent for these in 25:05 because 25:11 everything that happens in the Ritz-Carlton is recorded. If you stay there would be just warned you not only the Ritz-Carlton but especially the 25:21

Ritz-Carlton so I don't know what happened to the Ritz-Carlton but whatever happened there. I have one last question for you as we look 25:31 towards the future and there's an election coming up later on this year and the transfer Trump wins the second time. 25:41 Is it possible that Putin is Trump's Playbook? Is it conceivable that if Trump was win a second election? 25:52 thought he could Overtime try to move the US from a democracy to an autocracy cuz I don't think we 26:01

could have looked back at Putin has an accidental President right before right wielding. The immense amount of power. He does to die having just 26:11 change the Constitution a week or so ago, right? You're out of playbook for Trump. Does he 26:21 aspire to do that and maybe even like our president doesn't even understand right from wrong sometimes write like that perfect call what's 26:31 wrong with it? I think you know and we could gone we won't go on for this long time. But sometimes I feel like he just doesn't even get at which makes 26:41

me nervous about it. And remember if he gets an electoral mandate a second time. He's going to all the smart people around him and told him how to 26:49 govern he's going to be you know, I got this folks. I don't need you to tell me how to deal with Vladimir Putin that makes me nervous especially about 26:56 foreign policy cuz the Constitution does not constrain them on foreign policy, but you asked a different question about our own democracy. I'm 27:04 cautiously optimistic because we do have robust institutions. We do have the rule of law, but it's all and then I'm going to just put 27:12

this back on you Adams just set up the other day. You can have the Brilliance Constitution Russian that are really pretty constitution in 2000. But 27:22 the people did not demand that it be adhered to and and I think that I've had that that happens and you care about democracy you got to be busy folks. 27:31 You got to be busy every single day to make sure that that doesn't happen. So a message to this audience to this audience, especially yes, we all 27:41 Democrats Republicans. I don't care what your political views are, but we all have a long-term interest in preserving our democracy, but it's going to 27:50

take some work. It's not going to happen this on its own. Thank you very much. Okay. Thank you very much. 27:59

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