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Nearly A Year In Office, Trump's Presidency Remains Defined By Russia


Almost a year in, Donald Trump's presidency is still in large part being defined by Russia. Did Vladimir Putin interfere with the 2016 election? Did the Trump campaign collude with Russian officials and representatives? And what's behind President Trump's desire for a close relationship with the Russian president?

Well, The Washington Post's Greg Jaffe has been reporting on those issues. And in a story in today's newspaper, Jaffe, along with his colleagues, looks at how all of this has impacted the administration and how the president views the national security threat that Russia poses. Greg Jaffe, thanks for joining us.

GREG JAFFE: Yeah, thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: One of the things you include in this very long story is that the daily briefing the intelligence community gives the president, the presidential daily brief, is nowadays being crafted to avoid upsetting the president. Talk about what you found.

JAFFE: You know, I think what we found is that there's real sensitivity around the Russian elections interference issue. And so there's a lot of thought in terms of, how do you bring that up to the president in a way that doesn't provoke a sort of a counterreaction?

SIEGEL: And so some things are - what? - soft-pedaled, not mentioned? What are you hearing?

JAFFE: Yeah, I mean, I think there's a priority on other issues, and so it's not one of the ones that comes up repeatedly. And I do think that there's thought in terms of how you do it, how you raise it with him in a way that you're not sort of challenging his ego or the legitimacy of his election in his mind.

SIEGEL: You write about President Trump's conviction that a close relationship with Vladimir Putin and with Russia is essential to dealing with ISIS, North Korea, Iran, a host of issues. How do you understand his belief?

JAFFE: You know, I think he has a very sort of personalized view of foreign relations. You know, if I can have a good relationship with this person, whether it be Xi in China or Erdogan or especially Putin, then we can fix a lot of the big problems today. And I think on that list is certainly North Korea, certainly the Syria conflict. And so it's very much of a - sort of a transactional relationship. And I think it's - the criticism would be it blocks out a lot of the other complexity regarding these issues.

SIEGEL: You just mentioned Xi Jinping of China, Erdogan of Turkey and Putin of Russia. Someone in this story tells the Post those are the three leaders that President Trump seems to admire most. None of them - well, Erdogan, nominally a Democratic leader, seems to be going in a fairly authoritarian direction these days.

JAFFE: Yeah. So, you know, it's important to remember that Trump was an outsider. He's new to Washington. He's new to foreign policy. And he comes from a business world. And so I think there's a real respect for strength, for people who decide to do something and charge ahead doing it. And I think the complexity of government is not an area he's comfortable with right now.

SIEGEL: In doing this reporting about Trump, Russia, his relations with others at the White House, I'm just curious whether any of the graybeards at your paper at The Washington Post told you, hey, you should have seen this guy in the White House. Boy, could he throw a tantrum or, wow, was he obsessed with this particular thing. Or do you hear instead, I've never heard anything like that from people who've covered presidents and administrations for 30 years?

JAFFE: So I don't think the tantrums are new. There are certainly presidents who have had tantrums. I think what's new about this president is I think he has a hard time sort of absorbing information and understanding some of the complexities of these issues. And he doesn't always seem to be a hundred percent engaged.

And so I think where a president is most important is in setting a clear strategic direction that everybody can then execute. And so I think where this president has struggled because he's not a real student of foreign policy, because his attention span doesn't always seem to be the best, is setting that clear direction for the rest of the government. And that strikes me as something that's really different here.

SIEGEL: Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post, thanks for talking with us today.

JAFFE: Yeah, no problem. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.