The McLaughlin Group

Host: John McLaughlin

Pat Buchanan, Author and Columnist;
Eleanor Clift, The Daily Beast;
Guy Taylor, Washington Times;
Mort Zuckerman, U.S. News & World Report

Taped: Friday, March 28, 2014
Broadcast: Weekend of March 29-30, 2014

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JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Issue One: Putin's State of the Union.

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter, from videotape.) It was a -- (inaudible) -- referendum. And the referendum took place in an open and sincere way. And the Crimeans have demonstrated that they want to be with Russia.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From videotape.) Over the last several days, the United States, Europe and our partners around the world have been united in defense of these ideals and united in support of the Ukrainian people. Together we condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine and rejected the legitimacy of the Crimean referendum.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: In dueling speeches, Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama engaged in a barrage of claims and counterclaims this week. At issue were not only the sovereignty of Ukraine and the disputed referendum on Crimea, but also rivaling interpretations of the history of the two decades since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

In a 40-minute address to the Russian Federation Council, Mr. Putin accused the United States and its allies of violating international law. Quote: "Like a mirror, the situation in Ukraine reflects what is going on and what has been happening in the world over the past several decades. After the dissolution of bipolarity on the planet, we no longer have stability. Key international institutions are not getting any stronger. On the contrary, in many cases they are sadly degrading.

"Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destiny of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please. Here and there they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle 'if you are not with us, you are against us,'" unquote.

As cases in point, Putin offered the 1999 Kosovo war and the post-9/11 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, with the U.S. search for weapons of mass destruction and al-Qaida and the NATO campaign against Libya's Muammar Qadhafi.

Question: President Obama says President Putin does not play by 21st century rules, and Putin says Obama does not abide by those rules either. Who is right and who is wrong? Pat Buchanan.

PAT BUCHANAN: Well, I think President Putin, in an enormously powerful and, I think, effective speech -- he's up around 80 percent approval -- he's saying, in effect, you castigate and condemn us for holding a referendum in Crimea and reclaiming Crimea with a single casualty, one death, when you Americans basically bombed Serbia for 78 days in order to rip away its province of Kosovo.

Secondarily, John, when he talks about the Cold War, he has a valid point. The Soviet Union took its army out of Germany, out of Eastern Europe, all the way back to the Urals. They dissolved the Warsaw Pact. And what did we do? We moved NATO into Central Europe, into Eastern Europe, into the former Soviet republics of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia. We're trying to bring in Ukraine, trying to bring in Georgia.

He's saying get out of our face and get out of our space. And that's why the whole Kremlin, I think, got up and cheered and applauded and even wept at what he was saying.


ELEANOR CLIFT: Well, he's at 85 percent approval in his country because he shut down any voices of opposition in the media. He's got -- they call themselves a democracy, but it's not a democracy. That is a rubber-stamp legislature. If that's the kind of country you aspire to, Pat, we can set rules at the top and not have any opposition either. So this is a very selective reading of history.

But I'm not entirely unsympathetic to what he says. I think with NATO, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we did kind of push into countries he regarded within his area of province. And perhaps we did, you know, overly provoke him.
But the notion that the U.S. is trying to encroach upon him and that this is a recreation of the Cold War -- what he's yearning for -- he uses the word bipolarity when there were two superpowers, when he was the big man on campus.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Mm-hmm. (Acknowledging.)

MS. CLIFT: That's what -- he wants to be the center of attraction. And I think the president -- President Obama, when he calls Russia a regional power, he demeans him.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Mm-hmm. (Acknowledging.)

MS. CLIFT: I think it is a great country.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Mm-hmm. (Acknowledging.)

MS. CLIFT: They are not what they once were, but they should be taken seriously.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Why did he do that?

MS. CLIFT: Because they are a regional power. But that's not something he should necessarily have said out loud.

GUY TAYLOR: Putin also, Eleanor, I think, is seizing on a unique moment in time right now when the landscape of world leaders who use the strategy of lambasting the United States to win popularity in their home countries has shrunken a little bit.

Hugo Chavez is out of the picture in Venezuela. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- his political career is basically over in Iran; Kim Jong Il in North Korea. Fidel Castro is on his death bed in Cuba. Right now the opportunity to seize this post-Cold War, post-bipolar rhetorical stage in geopolitics, Putin is doing that.

And his popularity, regardless of how much his crackdown in the media, has surged in Russia. And that's why he's not just criticizing -- just to finish, he's not just criticizing President Obama. This speech clearly went after George W. Bush. It went after Bill Clinton. He was slamming the United States in a way that was just basically over the top.

MS. CLIFT: It's decades of grievances, basically.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Mm-hmm. (Acknowledging.)

Mort, can you hold for a minute?


MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I want to get this in, and then I'm going to go to you and give you a double length of time. Is that agreeable?

MR. ZUCKERMAN: That's fine with me.


OK, Putin elaborates.

Ukraine declared its independence 23 years ago, in 1991. This severed Ukraine and Crimea from Russia. President Putin calls that severance a, quote, "outrageous historical injustice. Russia was not simply robbed. It was plundered," unquote.

The current government in Ukraine, quote, "resorted to terror, murder and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti- Semites executed this coup," unquote. And Putin also accuses the current Ukrainian government of depriving ethnic Russians of their historical memory, their freedom to use their own language, and of forcing them to assimilate with and under the Ukraine.

By the way, 92 percent of Russians approve of Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Question: Does Vladimir Putin have a legitimate gripe? Mort Zuckerman.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Well, to some extent he does. I mean, let's face it. Ukraine and Crimea were not exactly democracies. There were a lot of people there who have been terribly exploited, particularly in Ukraine, where you have an elite group there who are ripping off the country in every conceivable way and just stealing everything they possibly can, at the expense of the average folks in that country. So there's a great deal of resentment that, in a sense, Putin can capitalize on. And that's part of what's going on right now.

MR. BUCHANAN: But John, it's not -- Putin did -- in his introduction there, as Guy and I were talking, he said, look, there were legitimate protests against corrupt and inefficient regimes. These people coming in the streets, they've got a right to do it. However, he said the decisive events were these, these Nazis, et cetera. But he blamed the United States.

John, look, the USA was in it up to its ears. Victoria Nuland's over there. She said we spent $5 billion reorienting Ukraine in our direction. And she named -- in that famous phone call where she had the comment about the EU, she named the future leader, Yats, our friend Yats.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What's the point?

MR. BUCHANAN: The point is, when Putin says the Americans are in this up to their ears, he's not mistaken.

MS. CLIFT: Yes, but they're not -- they are not -- the U.S. is not in it up to their ears in collaboration with the anti-Semites, the fascists and the neo-Nazis. And that's his accusation.

MR. BUCHANAN: They were all in Maidan Square.

MS. CLIFT: Well, there were those elements, but they were certainly not the majority and they were not the elements that the U.S. was (pressing ?). He is exaggerating that. And he is also creating grievances in Crimea and in Ukraine so that he can go in and protect the Russians.

MR. BUCHANAN: They're going to have a vote, John.

MS. CLIFT: That is made up, I believe.

MR. BUCHANAN: They have a vote in there in May --


MR. BUCHANAN: -- and we'll see what are the powerful elements in that vote.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: OK. In an interview Friday with CBS News, President Obama had a message for President Putin and his massing of Russian troops at the Ukrainian border.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) You've seen a range of troops massing along that border under the guise of military exercises. But these are not what Russia would normally be doing. And, you know, it may simply be an effort to intimidate Ukraine, or it may be that they've got additional plans. And in either case, what we need right now to resolve and deescalate the situation would be for Russia to move back those troops and begin negotiations directly with the Ukrainian government, as well as the international community.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Also President Obama seems to have listened to President Putin's lengthy March 18th -- pieces of which we have just heard. Now, listen to what Mr. Obama had to say about what he thinks is in the mindset of Vladimir Putin.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) He said that he considers the breakup of the Soviet Union to be tragic. I think there's a strong sense of Russian nationalism and a sense that somehow the West has taken advantage of Russia in the past and that he wants to, in some fashion, you know, reverse that or make up for that.

What I have repeatedly said is that he may be entirely misreading the West. He's certainly misreading American foreign policy. We have no interest in encircling Russia, and we have no interest in Ukraine beyond letting the Ukrainian people make their own decisions about their own lives.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Question: What do you think of this reasoning of President Obama? I ask you, Guy.

MR. TAYLOR: Look, John, I think it's great that President Obama has done this kind of academic breakdown of trying to read what Vladimir Putin means. But President Obama is the leader of the free world. And what he's trying to do -- and it doesn't quite match up with his statements here -- is to prevent a massive military standoff with the other power, the most powerful nation that has a lot of nuclear weapons, being Russia. And I think he hasn't quite been able to articulate that in such a way to say, look, get behind my camp here.

You know, we sat and watched it as Moscow maneuvered the annexation of Crimea. We'll probably sit and watch if Russian -- if Russia, which now has about 80,000 troops massed on the Ukrainian border, if they go into eastern Ukraine.

But at the end of the day, we want the Russians to sit down and talk with us about how this doesn't widen into something --

MR. BUCHANAN: But the real danger, John --

MR. TAYLOR: -- much more dangerous than it already is.

MR. BUCHANAN: The real danger is right now -- look, the Ukrainians in Kiev are cutting off the electricity to Crimea repeatedly. They control the water, the oil, the gas, the electricity. Russia doesn't have a land bridge into Crimea. If the Ukrainians start squeezing the Crimeans to the point where they're really in pain, I think there's a real possibility that the Russian army could move into eastern Ukraine.

MS. CLIFT: The Russians are going to have enough trouble supporting Crimea. Are they going to take on Ukraine too, a basket case, which is now getting loan guarantees and financial help from the IMF and from the U.S.? It doesn't make sense from a financial point of view.

MR. BUCHANAN: (Inaudible) -- take over Crimea.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Let Mort in. Let Mort in.

MS. CLIFT: Plus the fact, let's not forget that an American astronaut and two Russian astronauts went into space today together. The Russians are still being helpful in a number of other areas. So, I mean, he's not going to act completely against --

MR. TAYLOR: (Inaudible) -- selling a large amount --

MS. CLIFT: -- his own interests.

MR. TAYLOR: -- of military equipment to the new army in Afghanistan that we trained --

MS. CLIFT: Right. Yeah.

MR. TAYLOR: -- which is part of this. I mean, and we don't want to stop that.

Sorry. Go ahead.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Let us not underestimate Putin. This guy is an absolute unique political leader in Russia's history, maybe going back for a long, long time.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You've met him.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: I've met with him several times; first when he became head of the KGB. And I will tell you, he was very young. He was in his early 40s. And when he came into the room and I was at the end of another room --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: He's a lawyer too.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Yeah. Let me tell you, there's something about him. He's very athletic. He's very youthful in his look. But there's something about him that you just say to yourself, I'm not going to mess with that guy if I can avoid it, you know. He is one very, very tough guy and very smart and very determined. He is now really going after Ukraine, like it or not. There are a lot of Russian-speaking people there. You saw that or read that speech that Pat was referring to.


MR. ZUCKERMAN: There is going to be a major crisis over Ukraine before the next couple of years are over. He is --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: He's got a lot of gripes.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: He's got a lot of gripes, sure.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: He's got a lot of legitimate gripes.


MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Historians believe that.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: That's right.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Observers believe that. I think this speech should be read by everybody. Here's how to read Vladimir Putin's full speech, because it's not easy to find, believe it or not -- dated March 18 on the Web. If you -- if it interests you, go and read it. Go to Prague -- P-R-A-G-U-E -- and search for the full text of the speech at the Prague Post website, or copy down the address that you see now as I am speaking to you on the screen.

Exit question: Given the outcome of the Crimean crisis, is the world at greater risk or lesser risk (over ?) a similar territorial dispute? Pat Buchanan.

MR. BUCHANAN: Well, there's a significantly increased risk that I think that Putin could move into eastern Ukraine than there was. But I think it all depends on what happens. I'm not sure that he really wants to do that, John, because that would result in really severe sanctions.

MS. CLIFT: Yeah. I don't think he wants to do it, and I don't think the European Union and the U.S. administration want to come down with harder sanctions. I think right now it's blustering. But one little miscalculation on either side could turn it into a much more dangerous situation.


MR. TAYLOR: Yes, there is, around the world, a greater risk of territorial disputes. And it started when the United States invaded Iraq. And that's what Vladimir Putin used. And it is the fly in the ointment in all of the U.S. (logic ?) at this point.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: And if he does anything in Ukraine, believe me, it's not going to be with Russian military forces in Russian military uniforms. He's going to find some way to have a local community dressed in nonmilitary garb. And they're going to make a huge amount of pressure on the existing government, which in itself is so corrupt, they have virtually no support.

So you have to watch the interior politics in which they are expert. You saw how carefully he moved into Crimea. If he does anything in Ukraine, it's going to be equally well thought out and equally well planned.

MS. CLIFT: Yeah, but there's a new technocratic government in there, and there are elections May 25. So I think --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Mm-hmm. (Acknowledging.)

MS. CLIFT: -- he's going to let that play out.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: We're running late.

Issue Two: Church and State.

President Obama met with Pope Francis at the Vatican this week in what the White House billed as a discussion about income inequality. Last year Pope Francis made waves when he issued his Evangelii Gaudium, a papal exhortation to the clergy with passages that mirror Mr. Obama's focus on income inequality.

Quote: "Some people continue to defend trickle-down theory, which assumes that economic growth encouraged by a free market will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. While the earnings of the minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few," unquote.

Pope Francis is the spiritual leader of America's 75 million Catholics. According to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, 55 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Pope Francis. Among Catholics, 60 percent say Pope Francis has strengthened their faith and commitment to the Catholic Church.

Mr. Obama may be hoping some of that popularity rubs off on him. With only six months to go before November's midterm election, the latest AP poll shows Mr. Obama's disapproval rating has reached an all-time high of 59 percent. His approval rating remains at 41 percent. Among the core constituencies whose faith in Obama is slipping -- notably Hispanics -- many are Catholic.

Question: Will the meeting between the pope and the president have any bearing on this year's U.S. November elections, six months from now? Eleanor Clift.

MS. CLIFT: Well, it helps when the pope is on your side when you're talking about income inequality, and also about immigration. I think the pope is firmly on that side. So I think the president can invoke some of his views. And so I think the pope is a very good person to be speaking out and highlighting the issues that the Democrats would like to see focused on in this upcoming election.


MR. TAYLOR: The pope basically is a Democrat, as we can see from the statements that he's made. And it doesn't surprise me at all that he and Barack Obama --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: How much is he a Democrat?

MR. TAYLOR: Well, they have clear issues on homosexuality, on birth control, on abortion that they're not going to see eye to eye to. But as we've seen with this pope, he has had a willingness in certain situations to put those issues on the side --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: They disagree on --

MR. TAYLOR: -- and say let's focus on world poverty, world health.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: They disagree on gay marriage. What else do they disagree on?

MR. BUCHANAN: Obviously on abortion, but also he dodged a bullet --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, the president --

MR. BUCHANAN: Whatchacallit -- on abortion. But I'll tell you, the president dodged a bullet, because the pope reportedly did not do what a lot of American cardinals and bishops wanted done, which was basically to have him stand up for religious freedom so that Catholics, in their institutions and as individuals, are not required under "Obamacare" to provide abortifacients to their employees.


MR. ZUCKERMAN: Well, look, I think we are in a very interesting situation here with this pope, who is an extraordinarily engaging and popular man in the sense he has an ability, somehow or other, in that mysterious way, to connect with millions of people all over the world, including in the United States.


MR. ZUCKERMAN: So whatever that dialogue is, it's bound to help Obama. However, the problem here is that income inequality is not just a function of the way the pope puts it, if I may say so.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Mm-hmm. (Acknowledging.)

MR. ZUCKERMAN: It is a function of technology. It's a function of international trade. It's a function of things of that sort. And that's not going to change because of the pope.

(Cross talk.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Hold on. Let me get this in.

Exit question: Will President Obama's meeting with Pope Francis give Obama's theme of income inequality added resonance in America? Yes or no, Pat.

MR. BUCHANAN: It helps.

MS. CLIFT: Yes, definitely.

MR. TAYLOR: I hope so, yeah.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Very modestly.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Papal blessing on it.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Yeah, sure.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: How can it hurt?

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Can't hurt.

MS. CLIFT: That's right.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: It'll help.

Issue Three: Meta-Move.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) There's a process that's taking place where we have to win back the trust, not just of governments, but more importantly, of ordinary citizens. The step we took that was announced today, I think, is an example of us slowly, systematically putting in more checks, balances, legal processes.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: President Obama this week announced some changes to the way the National Security Agency, the NSA, collects the phone data of U.S. citizens -- or doesn't collect it, as the case may be.

Ten months after the revelation from the former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, dealing with the NSA's collection and storage of what is called the meta-data of phone records, President Obama proposes the data be stored by the big telephone companies. They would keep the data for 18 months. And if an intelligence agency like the NSA wants it, a special court order would be needed to get it.
Mr. Snowden, by the way, continues to live in exile in Russia. In the U.S., he is charged with espionage. Interestingly, there's one former U.S. president who gave Snowden some praise -- Jimmy Carter.

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: (From videotape.) I think, though, that what Snowden has done has been probably constructive in the long run. Since 9/11, we've gone too far in intrusion on the privacy that Americans ought to enjoy as a right of citizenship.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Incidentally, emails or phone calls are not President Carter's preferred messaging tools.

PRESIDENT CARTER: (From videotape.) I have felt that my own communications were probably monitored. And when I want to communicate with a foreign leader privately, I type or write the letter myself, put it in the post office and mail it.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: He says he does it by mail.

This is his latest book, Jimmy Carter, "A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power." The president writes with great clarity and interesting angles on all of these issues. I recommend it.

We have a question here. Is the concern over privacy going to lead to a revival of snail mail, Pat?

MR. BUCHANAN: No, I don't think so, John. It costs almost 50 cents a stamp now, as I can tell you. I deal with a lot of snail mail. (Laughs.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you see the privacy issue now has --

MR. BUCHANAN: You know, I --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: -- taken a serious turn --

MR. BUCHANAN: I think people are very interested --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: -- because of the computer?

MR. BUCHANAN: -- in the (where ?) of it, and deservedly so. But I do think it's overdone. I haven't seen anybody who has really had his privacy invasion and -- invaded and destroyed, his reputation and things, in all of what's gone on here. And I do think the National Security Agency has got to be checking some of these things out or have the ability to do it. So I'm on the other side of the argument.


MS. CLIFT: The reforms --

MR. ZUCKERMAN: I am too.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Your keystroke, if you use a computer, can be logged. And be careful of that. And instead of using an old- fashioned typewriter or pen or pencil, which is the better way to do it, mail the envelope using adhesive tape on the flap. If it's tampered with, the tape will leave telltale traces and you'll know that the message was compromised.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: There are some very serious senators, like Dianne Feinstein, who was very, very concerned about the loss of intelligence that we got out of this meta-data. And she said we were able to basically interdict several terrorist attacks. And I will just say this. If there is a terrorist attack or two in this country that could have been prevented by some of this information, it's going to shift the country again in a very different direction.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Predictions. Pat.

MR. BUCHANAN: Bad day Sunday for Hollande in France as he loses a number of mayoral elections, and a bad May, when the European Parliament -- folks go to the polls.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What is it with Hollande? Bad luck?

MR. BUCHANAN: No, he's going to lose his prime minister.

MS. CLIFT: With more than 6 million people signing up for "Obamacare," the scales are beginning to tip toward success. And the Republicans might have to rethink their strategy for winning the fall election solely on their opposition to "Obamacare."


MR. TAYLOR: Despite the Ukraine crisis having prompted big calls in Washington for U.S. energy reform, the Obama administration will not approve the Keystone pipeline.


MR. ZUCKERMAN: The Republicans are going to reduce the number of debates in the presidential campaign from over 20 to somewhere in the range of five, because it gave a lot of ammunition to the Democrats.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: President Putin will annex a large enough portion of eastern Ukraine to create a land corridor between Russia and Crimea.


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