ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The Russian hacking plot thickens. U.S. intelligence has concluded that Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other Democratic campaign groups had a purpose - to help Donald Trump win the election. Well, now NBC News reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin was personally involved in that effort. NBC cites two senior U.S. intelligence officials.
NPR has not been able to confirm that story, but our next guest says it makes sense to him. Michael McFaul was U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, and before that, he was a Russia specialist on the National Security Council. Welcome to the program once again.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: And why does this report of Putin's personal involvement in the hacking strike you as at least plausible?
MCFAUL: Well, first of all, if this kind of operation was authorized in a democratic government, our own government, there's no question in my mind that the president would have had to sign off on it. But Russia is a one-man system, a one-rule system. Putin controls and makes many micro-decisions. So it's actually implausible to me that he wouldn't have been involved. And the last thing I would remind you of - he is a former KGB agent. He takes special interest in these kinds of operations.
SIEGEL: Let's assume that as the CIA claims, the Russians were interested in tipping the election toward Donald Trump. Which do you think would be the more powerful motive in the Kremlin - to elect Trump or to defeat Hillary Clinton?
MCFAUL: Both of course. (Laughter) They're not mutually exclusive. So on the one hand, President-elect Trump supports many policies that Vladimir Putin supports. He's hinted that he might recognize Crimea. He's hinted that he might give sanctions...
SIEGEL: The Russian annexation of Crimea.
MCFAUL: Exactly. He's called into question our NATO alliance. He never talks about democracy and human rights. That's all music to Vladimir Putin's ears. But at the same time, I think it's very important to remember that he did not want to see Hillary Clinton as president.
He believes that Secretary of State Clinton, when she was secretary of state, intervened in his elections - the parliamentary elections in 2011 - by calling them not free and fair. And just generally she has less, you know, I would say pro-Russian policies. She was going to be tough on Russia. Trump is not.
SIEGEL: Let's say that Putin is pleased with the outcome of our election. What do you think his likely agenda items would be with the - in terms of dealings with the Trump administration?
MCFAUL: Well, my guess is that they're delighted that President-elect Trump has made the objective of his foreign policy towards Russia to get along. I think that's a highly flawed way to think about it. But if he wants to just get along, then Vladimir Putin's got some very clear strategies for achieving that.
Number one, first and foremost, lift the sanctions. Number two, endorse what we're doing in Syria. Support our war against terrorism, as they would call it, and we'll get along better. Number three, acquiesce to what we've done in Ukraine. And if you do those three things, then, you know, we're - we'll be happy to get along. And I think those are probably the top three agenda items for the Kremlin.
SIEGEL: And do you have a sense of what the top agenda items would be for the Trump administration in its dealings with Russia?
MCFAUL: I don't, and that's the problem. I think they've confused objectives and means. At least he has, right? You should never have, in my view, a goal of American foreign policy towards any country, Russia or anywhere, to get along. Good relations, and then what, you know? That's not a goal. That's a means. And so far, it's rather mysterious as to what he wants.
SIEGEL: Just to return to the hacking story for a moment, NBC cites U.S. intelligence sources for this story as saying that the U.S. has a high level of confidence that Putin was involved. Translate a high level of confidence into English words. What does that mean?
MCFAUL: That's the highest they have. Now, they have a scale when I worked in the government of low, medium and high. As an academic, I would like, you know, a little more robust numbers, (laughter) if you will. But that is without question that there's real evidence there. And in my opinion, there is no way people in the CIA would say that to a journalist unless they knew with a lot of confidence that it was true.
SIEGEL: Mike McFaul, thanks for talking with us today.
MCFAUL: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul is now a professor of political science at Stanford University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.