The Current

Trump-Russia scandal 'has shades of Watergate,' says former diplomat Richard Haass

The head of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass joins The Current to explain how the end of order and rise of chaos have created a world in disarray.
'Chaos in the White House ... really needs to be fixed, and fixed fast, or a real crisis will come along,' says author and former U.S. diplomat Richard Haass. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

With the talk of chaos in the White House including resignations and nearly daily stories about Trump's ties to Russian officials, Richard Haass warns the ramifications go beyond the United States — it affects the world.

Haass was the senior Middle East adviser under President George H.W. Bush and was the director of policy planning staff in the State Department under Colin Powell.

He is now the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and warns the world is in disarray.

Haass examines how the rise of chaos and the end of order plays out today in his new book,  A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.   

Richard Haass spoke with The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Laura Lynch: How can the kind of chaos that we're seeing in the White House right now play out in terms of global security?

Richard Haass: This new president inherited a world or an inbox that's daunting. It is a world of disarray. Just look at the Middle East or Europe or North Korea what have you. And the United States plays a central role in pushing back against it. But that assumes the United States itself has the ability and the will to play that role. And the combination of a world in disarray and a United States that is politically in disarray is toxic. And that's what worries me right now. 

It's not just the political dysfunctionality we've seen over the last few years between say Congress and the executive which plagued the Obama presidency. But now we have a degree of — boy, disarray doesn't even capture it — chaos in the White House that really needs to be fixed and fixed fast or a real crisis will come along, not the sort that's been self-generated but a good old-fashioned one.


LL: Yeah, we can see whispers of that sort of thing happening. But right now there are investigations going on into the role of Russia and hacking into the Democratic National Committee and Democratic campaign chair John Podesta's emails using those emails to help Donald Trump supposedly win the election. Why would President Putin take that kind of gamble meddling in the U.S. election? 

RH: Well just to be clear we don't know what if any impact the hacking or manipulation had. We just know that it was done and the Russians did it and nothing in Russia is freelanced so we assume Mr. Putin was foursquare behind it.

LL: Okay assuming that's true then why would he take that risk?

RH: From Mr. Putin's point of view, it probably wasn't a great risk. You know hackers can do things. Governments have what we used to call in the intelligence business, plausible deniability. He's never going confess.

And for him clearly seeing that Hillary Clinton lost was important. She represented probably Barack Obama — plus in terms of muscularity against Russia. And Mr. Trump from the get-go has had what I would call either a benign or sanguine view of Russia — I happen to think it's an incorrect view — but from Vladimir Putin's point it wasn't even a close call.
Former U.S. diplomat Richard Haass says Canada may have to become slightly more active in the world ... 'speak truth to power.' (Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images)

LL: Well that's interesting because we are now seeing some disturbing reporting in The New York Times that high-level members of the Trump election campaign were in frequent contact with Russian intelligence in the lead-up to the election. What will it mean to the presidency if it comes out that this kind of collusion did in fact go in?

RH: Oh if it is found through investigations ... that there actually was some kind of collusion, questions of fundamental political legitimacy will rise and it could basically be a threat to the Trump presidency itself. So I would not underestimate this. This has shades of Watergate and this has shades of Iran-Contra. And those are the two greatest American political scandals in the last few decades. So this is not simply about not informing the vice-president. This is not simply about colleagues not showing trust or respect for one another. This goes way, way beyond it.

National security

LL: You obviously have history. You've sat at tables when national security is being discussed. Have you ever seen a relationship like this between a sitting president and national security agencies?

RH: The short answer is no. I mean I've seen a lot of dysfunctionality in my days. I worked for four presidents. I've worked for Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, both Bush presidents and I've seen times where say secretaries of defense and secretary of state would not talk with one another directly.

But this is a degree of not just in-fighting again — we're used to that. This is a breakdown of the basic fabric of government. 

Here we are sitting here having this conversation and neither the secretary of state nor the secretary of defense has a deputy much less anybody else who's been appointed and working for him and we're now what three-and-a-half to four weeks into the administration. I mean God forbid there's a real crisis. We have an active national security adviser. We have two principals without deputies. We don't yet have a Trump administration when it comes to matters of national security and that to me is alarming.


LL: Finally a little bit of parochialism. Canada is a founding member of NATO America's biggest trading partner. What advice would you give to Ottawa and its relationship with the Trump administration? 

RH: Well I thought your prime minister handled his trip to Washington really well this week. He stood by his principles. And I think Canada can show by example, for example on the immigration issue, on refugees that you can be humanitarian and be secure. I think Canada ought to speak truth to power and develop a good close relationship where the prime minister and other officials … can push back and say we disagree. And also Canada may have to become slightly more active in the world.

Nothing stays local anywhere for long. Whatever happens anywhere gets on this conveyor belt called globalization and it could come back to bite us all. So if Canada sees the United States doing things it doesn't like or not doing things that it should be doing. I'd say first try to influence us because we have so many resources. If that fails, then I think Canada is going to need to have in some ways a more independent foreign policy and find other like-minded countries that perhaps it can work with around the world.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.