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Trump’s Helsinki meeting with Vladimir Putin was absolutely necessary, but unfortunately it was squandered because nuclear weapons were not discussed, which actually is the main issue between the two countries, says Col. Larry Wilkerson

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

It’s been almost two weeks since President Trump met with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16, but the fallout from the meeting continues to overshadow Washington. There seems to be a consensus across the Democratic and Republican divide that Trump sold out to Putin during the meeting. But griping over whether the meeting should even take place stretched into comedy hours and talk shows. Let’s listen to our next guest, Larry Wilkerson- and by the way, I should remind you that he was Chief of Staff to Colin Powell under the Bush administration. And here he’s being attacked for just suggesting that it is a good thing for two nuclear powers to meet and discuss doctrines and treaties and agreements that are in place. Let’s listen. This is the Bill Maher Show.

BILL MAHER: Do you think this is appeasement, when he meets with Putin?

LARRY WILKERSON: No, I think we need to have a meeting. We’re getting very, very close to developing doctrine. The Russians already have. We’re working on it. And the nuclear-tipped missiles to accompany that doctrine. And we’re getting back to a point where we could actually find ourselves contemplating nuclear war.

BILL MAHER: Why have a meeting with someone who attacked us in 2016?

LARRY WILKERSON: You need to talk to  your enemies. [Crosstalk]

BILL MAHER: But without preconditions? I mean, really? Would we have had just a friend-

LARRY WILKERSON: I wouldn’t set any preconditions at all. I’m not saying I’m in favor of this particular president talking to this particular leader in Moscow. But we need to talk.

BILL MAHER: All our intelligence agencies said that Russia attacked us in 2016. Yes, it was cyber. It wasn’t with armaments. But it was still-.

LARRY WILKERSON: Russia did no more than we have done to any number of countries since 1947 and the creation of the CIA.

BILL MAHER: But that doesn’t make it right, doesn’t make it-.


BILL MAHER: I’m sorry, but I’m on our team.

LARRY WILKERSON: It doesn’t make it-. it doesn’t make it something that should stop a meeting between two leaders who own more nuclear weapons than anybody else in the world combined, and who are getting closer and closer, especially in NATO-

BILL MAHER: I can only imagine what-.

SHARMINI PERIES: Larry Wilkerson is a retired U.S. Colonel and former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell; now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Larry, as always, good to have you here.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, many of our viewers on TRNN who follow you has written in complaining profusely at the way in which you were treated on the Bill Maher Show. Give us a sense of what you were discussing, what you were trying to argue in that conversation, and also what you think President Trump had managed to achieve in that meeting with Putin, and if you believe that he actually betrayed U.S. interests at the meeting with Vladimir Putin on July 16 in Helsinki.

LARRY WILKERSON: The only real substantive question I got asked was about, well, what was going to happen on 16 July at the summit in Helsinki. And I got very serious, and I talked about how this was not something to be laughed at. We needed to meet with Moscow. We needed to talk about nuclear weapons, that we were in a situation that was looking more dangerous than any time during the Cold War with regard to nuclear war and its potential to break out, and that we damn sure did need to sit down and talk. What I saw so far, what I’ve seen so far, probably supports Bill Maher and others. Michael Moore was on the show that night, and Jennifer Rubin. And their positions then mine, they kind of scoffed at me. And Bill in particular laughed at there’s no way this administration could do anything successful. It would probably be a complete failure.

To this point, I think the only positive aspect of it that I can cite is that they actually met. And it was a desperate meeting in terms of the need for it, because of the things I just talked about. Russian doctrine now officially calls for using nuclear weapons. We have countered with a trillion dollar-plus nuclear weapons modernization program to build even newer weapons that will be more susceptible to being used in what would be called in the past conventional warfare. So it’s very dangerous.

What should have happened at this summit, and what I was hoping was going to happen, was that there were enough people left- enough arms control people, enough diplomatic people and so forth, in both the Pentagon and the State Department- that the standard book would go with President Trump to the meeting, just as I know it came with Putin. That book would have everything in it, from intermediate nuclear forces, to strategic nuclear forces, to Ukraine, Crimea, NATO, Syria, all the issues that should have been talked about, particularly the nuclear issues. The SALT talks, for example, and the SALT treaties, which Putin keeps saying are going to expire, and nobody’s doing anything about. He’s right. These should have been all worked out ahead of time in terms of what is the U.S. position, and what is it we want to achieve in these talks with Russia.

As I see it, there were very few people who took these kinds of very, very carefully planned strategized books and points to the meeting. And if there were, they were all overcome by the private talks that Trump had, because Trump disdains this kind of detail, this kind of work ahead of time. This kind of diplomacy that has to be finely tuned, and is sophisticated and complex, and achieves at the end of the day what you want to achieve, or as near to it as is possible. I don’t see anything like that having happened. So what I see at this point is a squandered opportunity to deal with some of these very serious issues, which I was hoping, hoping beyond hope perhaps, would happen. It’s something that does very dramatically need to happen. That is to say, meaningful talks between the leadership in Moscow and the leadership in Washington, and some results that we can all point at that are not just in the interest of the two negotiating sides but also in the interest of the world.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Larry, from what I understand from this morning’s announcement that the invitation that Trump had issued to Vladimir Putin to come to Washington is now rescinded, or it’s off. Apparently there was no movement on either side to make sure this happens. Now, are you surprised by that move?

LARRY WILKERSON: Not at all, politically. Because most of everything Donald Trump has done of substance since he was elected is based on his reading of his domestic political needs. As the German foreign minister said so aptly, I think, about his withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear agreement with Iran, it was all based on domestic politics in the United States. It had nothing to do with strategy, nothing to do with security, nothing to do with NATO or the security of Western Europe. It had everything to do with Donald Trump and his political base. I think the German foreign minister was absolutely correct.

So I have to look at everything that Trump does from that perspective, because that’s his first consideration. So what he saw was what you cited at the beginning; 46 percent thought he was treasonous, and he said, ooh, John- talking to John Bolton, his national security adviser- walk this bit back about a meeting, and put it out that we’re walking it back because we want the brouhaha about the meeting to subside. We want the accusations about the meeting to subside a bit before we invite Mr. Putin to come to Washington. This is bad on two levels. One, Mr. Putin should come to Washington, and we should continue the talks, and hopefully, in the way that I describe, good meaningful talks earlier. That’s how we should continue them, particularly the nuclear issues. And two, because we do not need a war in Europe. And it’s increasingly apparent that both sides are looking very hard at the potential for that war.

And if you want a war that will pale- make all the other prospects, Iran, Syria, North Korea and everything else, pale in comparison, let’s have one break out in Europe, and let’s have one go nuclear. This is bad stuff. So I really would like to see Mr. Putin come to Washington and meaningful talks take place. But to answer your question, and to reiterate, the reason this delay or maybe even cancellation altogether has occurred is because Trump read the domestic political signals and said, oop, can’t get caught in this mess. The midterms are coming up.

These midterms, Sharmini, are going to determine the fate of the Republican Party. If the Democrats were to win both houses of the U.S. Congress in November, I think impeachment would be on the table for a majority of Republicans, and certainly Democrats, almost instantly. So Trump has got to start thinking about these midterms. And so I think that’s the reason he canceled it, or at least told John Bolton to tell the Russians that it’ll be later.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Larry, I thank you so much for joining us today.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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Lawrence Wilkerson

Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.