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Ex-Obama Official Ben Rhodes Reacts To Trump Tower Meeting


President Trump has now left no doubt - the reason his campaign team met with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in 2016 was to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. The president and his team say this is part of the game. Politics can be dirty. You do opposition research, and you get information from wherever you can. Many campaign advisers from both parties disagree and say they would never have done this because taking help from a foreign national can violate campaign law.

Ben Rhodes was a speechwriter for former President Barack Obama's campaign and then his deputy national security adviser in the White House. Rhodes tweeted this week that he never would have held such a meeting with a foreign power to get information on an opponent. And he joins us this morning.

Mr. Rhodes, welcome back.

BEN RHODES: Good to be with you.

GREENE: So aggressively seeking information about your opponent is pretty common. What makes this Trump Tower meeting different in your mind?

RHODES: Well, first of all, it's with a foreign power and a foreign adversary. In the 2008 Obama campaign, I think the only foreign official I met was the, you know, British ambassador, who just wanted to get to know some folks on the campaign.

GREENE: But we should say this was a private lawyer. This wasn't someone, like, working directly in the Kremlin or working for President Vladimir Putin. I mean, she's a lawyer, right?

RHODES: Well, look; these are Russians, and this is someone who clearly is a Kremlin associate. This is what the Russians do. They have people that, you know, are one degree separated from them who report everything back. And the fact is, if the Russians had reached out to me in the 2008 campaign with dirt on John McCain, we would've called the FBI right away. We wouldn't even have considered a meeting. And the other thing, David, is that the Russians were actively - you know, clearly crimes were being committed. There was a hack of the DNC. These emails were being released. It didn't take a lot for someone to recognize that this was part of a criminal conspiracy.

GREENE: So there is campaign law that a lot of people are talking about now that makes it illegal to accept anything of value from a foreign national. And that's what a lot of people are sorting through right now with this meeting. I just want to ask - didn't the Clinton campaign actually pay for dirt on Donald Trump? And it came from a foreign national, a former British spy, Christopher Steele. Why was that different?

RHODES: Well, for a couple reasons. First of all, you know, they paid for a firm that did opposition research to produce a research document. And then that opposition research firm worked with, among other people, Mr. Steele. You know, that is far more common in terms of how you contract with people who do research, and you get files back. This is different. This is meeting directly with Russians who, it turns out, are representing the Kremlin, who are coming directly to you and saying, we - you know, clearly foreigners, Russians - have this dirt.

And the second thing I'd say is, Russia is the principal intelligence adversary of the United States. And what we're talking about is a country, Russia, that has been in, you know, a state of hostility, if not information war, with the United States since the crisis in Ukraine in 2014.

GREENE: Well...

RHODES: So it's different in both form and context.

GREENE: Let me ask you about that. I mean, you're talking about how active Russia was - and it sounds like still is - in interfering. I mean, President Trump has said all of this interference started and was happening under President Obama's watch, under your watch.


GREENE: I mean, you were deputy national security adviser. If you had done more to prevent Russian interference, is it possible this meeting at Trump Tower never would have happened because Russians wouldn't have taken the risk of having such a meeting?

RHODES: Well, we couldn't actually interfere. I mean, one of the things Trump has wrong is that we didn't control nor did we even know about the FBI investigation into Trump. That's walled off from what the Obama White House could have done. What we could have done is raise more alarms about the massive information war that was taking place - the creation and dissemination of fake news. And one of the other questions that has to be answered in this investigation and I'm sure will be answered is, to what extent was the creation and dissemination of that information by the Russians coordinated with, in any way, shape or form, the Trump campaign?

So there are lots of different threads to pull on, David, here. There's the direct collusion - this meeting and other contacts that might have taken place - and also whether or not the massive Russian information campaign on behalf of Donald Trump was just organically ran out of Moscow or whether they had some steer from the Trump campaign - like, you know, direct your efforts towards Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania. Those are the types of questions that I'm sure Mueller is looking at.

GREENE: And you're referring to the special counsel investigation there. OK. We're speaking to Ben Rhodes. He was a speechwriter for President Obama - also deputy national security adviser.

Thanks so much for coming in. We appreciate it.

RHODES: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.