Condi Rice on Comey, meeting with Trump, and what keeps her up at night

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Donald Trump (Photos: Ben Margot/AP, Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Former Secretary of State Condoleezza “Condi” Rice on Wednesday played down the uproar over former FBI Director James Comey’s abrupt firing but said President Trump and his aides must be “straightforward and candid” with investigators looking into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

In an interview with Yahoo News for Sirius XM’s P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States) channel, Rice said, “I don’t think any of us know the full story here” and predicted more developments as lawmakers dig into the details, regardless of Comey’s shock removal.

“I don’t think it’s going to affect the investigation, because we have so many institutions that are independent of the presidency that, even if the White House wanted to do that, I don’t think that it could,” Rice said. “I would advise that the president and his team need to be as straightforward and candid as possible, cooperate fully with the investigations that are going on.”

Rice said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s alleged meddling in the U.S. election and his support for populist or increasingly authoritarian regimes — in Europe and Turkey — reflects his drive to restore what he perceives as Russian greatness on the world stage.

“Russian foreign policy under Putin is really about reestablishing Russian greatness. It’s about avenging the end of the Cold War, where he believes that Russia was humiliated,” she said. Putinism “is a marriage, in almost an old-fashioned Russian way, of authoritarian politics at home and assertive, aggressive foreign policy abroad.”

With Trump heading late this month to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, a NATO summit, and a meeting with the Group of Seven rich countries, Rice advised the president to “talk to people, not at them.”

“The first thing is to establish relationships,” she said. “You establish relationships, you take care of them, so that you’re not calling the first time to ask somebody to do something hard.”

Trump “has never been in government,” and “there are obviously some suspicions of him, so I would say take the time to establish these relationships,” she said.

Rice, who met privately with Trump at the White House in late March, said she “found him engaged and asking a lot of questions” — and feeling the weight of the office he holds.

Their conversation came as Trump prepared to host Chinese President Xi Jinping at his private Mar-a-Lago resort.

“He was trying to get a handle on how he might approach that meeting and going about it in a very intelligent way,” said Rice, who served as George W. Bush’s national security adviser and then his secretary of state.

“You also sense that feeling the power of the presidency is different than imagining it from the outside,” she said. “When you’re sitting in that office, and you’re sitting behind Roosevelt’s desk, and George Washington’s portrait is on one side, and Abraham Lincoln’s is on the other, you have a feeling for what the presidency is all about,” she said.

Asked what keeps her up at night, Rice said that her biggest short-term worry is North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs under the leadership of Kim Jong Un. She’s not the only one: During a private post-election meeting in the Oval Office, then President Barack Obama warned Trump that North Korea would be among his most difficult and dangerous challenges, officials briefed on the conversation told Yahoo News.

“Here you have a reckless, possibly slightly unhinged leader, who is fast acquiring a nuclear capability and the means to deliver it to the territory of the United States,” Rice said. “No American president can live with that.”

Over the longer term, “what keeps me up is that the United States might decide that we don’t have anything special to say to the world, that we’re going to mind our own business, that we’re going to withdraw from leadership and engagement, because whenever we do that, we don’t like the result,” she said.

Rice added, “When we withdraw, the world turns uglier.”

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