How would the candidates navigate high-stakes ties with Russia?

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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with leaders of political parties, presented at the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, in Moscow, Russia, July 14, 2016. REUTERS/Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool  - RTSHXVB

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JUDY WOODRUFF: A major topic throughout this election year surfaced again last night at the presidential candidate forum on national security, Russia, and what kind of relations the U.S. should have with Vladimir Putin.

Here’s some of what Donald Trump had to say, followed by Hillary Clinton’s response today.

DONALD TRUMP (R), Presidential Nominee: I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Putin, and I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Russia.

MATT LAUER, NBC News: Let me ask you about some of things you have said about Vladimir Putin. You said, “I will tell you, in terms of leadership, he’s getting an A. Our president is not doing so well.”

DONALD TRUMP: Well, he does have an 82 percent approval rating, according to the different pollsters.

MATT LAUER: He’s also a guy who annexed Crimea and, according to our intelligence community, probably is the main suspect for the hacking of the DNC computers.

DONALD TRUMP: Well, nobody knows that for a fact. But do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does?

HILLARY CLINTON (D), Presidential Nominee: Once again, he praised Russia’s strong man, Vladimir Putin, even taking the astonishing step of suggesting that he prefers the Russian president to our American president.

I was just thinking about all of the presidents that would just be looking at one another in total astonishment. What would Ronald Reagan say about a Republican nominee who attacks America’s generals and heaps praise on Russia’s president? I think we know the answer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on how the candidates view U.S.-Russia relations, we turn to representatives of both campaigns.

Philip Gordon advises Hillary Clinton. He was assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs when Mrs. Clinton was secretary of state. And Boris Epshteyn, he advises the Trump campaign. He emigrated to the United States from Russia in the early 1990s. He’s a lawyer specializing in investment banking and finance and he worked for John McCain’s campaign for president.

And we welcome both of you to the “NewsHour.”

Boris Epshteyn, let me start with you.

So, when Donald Trump says that Vladimir Putin has been very much of a leader, a great leader, he says he has got high poll ratings, is he endorsing what Putin’s action have been, annexing Crimea, backing the Assad regime in Syria, cracking down on the press?

BORIS EPSHTEYN, Advisor, Trump Campaign: Absolutely not.

What Donald Trump said and what he is saying is that he will make sure that America leads and doesn’t lead from behind. And he will make sure that he works with Vladimir Putin, but does it in a way that’s in the best interests of the United States.

And if he does disagree with Vladimir Putin — let’s look at the history of Soviet-U.S. relations, U.S.-Russia relations. Here’s some other presidents who worked with the Soviet Union and Russia, FDR, JFK, Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush. Hillary Clinton herself attempted a failed reset with Russia.

The Obama White House right now is trying to work with Russia on Syria. It’s failing at doing so, but it’s trying. So, just because Hillary Clinton failed doesn’t mean that Donald Trump won’t succeed. He will succeed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me turn to Philip Gordon.

Is it possible to praise Mr. Putin as a leader, but to disagree with his policy?

PHILIP GORDON, Former Assistant Secretary of State: I don’t know.

I personally found Mr. Trump’s praise for Mr. Putin troubling or even chilling, frankly. In a room full of military veterans, to be effusing about his great leadership and how strong he is and how popular he is, while disrespecting the American president and American generals, I don’t know. That was, I think, not just troubling to me, but to a lot of listeners and I think, frankly, to a lot of Republican listeners as well.

Mr. Trump said that he thinks he can get along very, very well with Mr. Putin and have very, very good relations with Russia. I’m sure he can, if he is willing to turn away from our NATO allies and reconsider whether Eastern Ukraine is really part of the country, and do whatever he can to accommodate Mr. Putin’s views.

I’m sure that would lead to good relations with Mr. Putin. But I think that’s not what the American people expect from our foreign policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Boris Epshteyn, is that what would be involved under a Trump administration, closer ties with Russia, but likely at the expense of relationships, long relationships with Europe, with Eastern Europe?

BORIS EPSHTEYN: Absolutely not.

And, again, let’s look at some facts here. Bill Clinton received half-a-million dollars for a 90-minute speech in Moscow. He then received a personal call from Vladimir Putin thanking him. There is also a very famous photograph of the two of them grinning and being very happy, Mr. Putin and President Clinton.

So let’s not act as if the Clintons don’t have a long history of palling around with Russia and Vladimir Putin. It’s also on Hillary Clinton’s watch as the secretary of state that Russia gained control of one-fifth of the uranium produced in the United States of America. So it’s actually the Clintons who have been way too cozy with the Russians.

(CROSSTALK)

BORIS EPSHTEYN: Donald Trump will work with Russia and will of course continue the close relationship we have with NATO, as we well as countries in Eastern Europe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Philip Gordon, what about the point Mr. Epshteyn makes, that other presidents, including — and secretaries of state, including Hillary Clinton, have talked about a reset with Russia, for example, tried to mend relations?

PHILIP GORDON: Right.

No, look, the debate is not whether we should work with Russia. It’s in our interest to do so. Secretary Clinton for four years was part of a policy of resetting Russian relations with Russia in our interests.

BORIS EPSHTEYN: And she failed.

PHILIP GORDON: And we got a lot of things done under — in that context.

We got the Iran sanctions done. We got an agreement by Russia to allow us to use Afghanistan to transit supplies for our forces. We got a Security Council resolution on Libya. We got Russia into the WTO to bring in to it a rules-based trading system.

All of those things were in our interest. The point is not whether we should work with Russia. The point is whether we should sacrifice other important interests to do so. And while we…

(CROSSTALK)

PHILIP GORDON: Let me finish, if I could.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let him finish his point, and I will come back.

PHILIP GORDON: While pursuing those relations with Russia, which are important — Russia is an important country — it is also important to stand by your friends and allies in Europe, defend your treaty commitment to NATO allies, stand by the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

And that seems to be the difference. It’s not whether we pursue relations with Russia when we need to, but what we’re willing to give them in order to have that very, very good relationship that Mr. Trump seems to be talking about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Boris Epshteyn, what is it that Donald Trump would be prepared to give, to trade Russia, to concede to Russia?

(CROSSTALK)

BORIS EPSHTEYN: Mr. Gordon sounds a lot more reasonable than his candidate.

But let’s go again to the things he mentioned. The Iran sanctions, the Iran deal has been a disaster for the United States of America. We now know there are secret causes that are allowing Iran to keep uranium.

As far as Russia being in the WTO, again, a negative for the United States of America and a positive for Russia. So, some of the examples that you gave there are actually again ways in which Hillary Clinton was too cozy to Russia, and did things that are in Russia’s favor, not the favor of the U.S.

Donald Trump has said that he will be absolutely steadfast in his support for our NATO allies, as long as they keep to their agreements of paying 2 percent of their GDP to the mutual defense, which is exactly what is in the original NATO agreements.

(CROSSTALK)

PHILIP GORDON: It’s actually not. What’s in the agreement is a treaty that says we would come to their defense if they are attacked.

BORIS EPSHTEYN: And every country is supposed to spend 2 percent of their GDP.

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s let Mr. Gordon respond. Let’s let Mr. Gordon respond.

BORIS EPSHTEYN: OK.

PHILIP GORDON: No, I was going to the heart of this matter, which is, the issue of whether Europeans should contribute more to NATO, I think, is a matter of consensus.

I think Secretary Clinton believes that, and a series of U.S. presidents and secretaries of defense and state have urged our European partners.

BORIS EPSHTEYN: So, what is wrong with Mr. Trump saying that?

PHILIP GORDON: None, not a single one, Republican or Democrat, candidate or official, has ever said that, unless they do, our solemn treaty commitment to defend them is open to question, which is an invitation to aggression in Europe.

That’s what’s so astonishing about Mr. Trump’s position.

(CROSSTALK)

BORIS EPSHTEYN: You’re completely incorrect. And here’s why.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Boris Epshteyn, let me just come back to you.

When Donald Trump clearly says he admires Vladimir Putin, he thinks he’s a great leader, what is it about him that he admires?

BORIS EPSHTEYN: There are specific things about Vladimir Putin that Donald Trump has said are strong in terms of leadership, in terms of beating back radical Islamic jihadism, radical Islamic terrorism, which Vladimir Putin has done throughout greater Russia, and, again, the fact that Russia does want to work with the United States in defeating ISIS.

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: But let me just stop you there, because, in Syria, haven’t the Russian forces gone after the opponents of the Assad regime, rather than going after ISIS?

BORIS EPSHTEYN: Actually, Russia has been going after ISIS.

And if you look at the history of the United States in Syria, we have absolutely no policy in Syria. We had that red line that was crossed. Hillary Clinton didn’t have a policy for Syria, also didn’t have a policy for Libya, which was another thing that Mr. Gordon mentioned working with Russia on.

Our policy in Libya was cause for an American ambassador to be murdered and for Libya to be a failed state run by ISIS, again, another place where we could be working together with together Russia.

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, let me stop you there, because we only have about 30 seconds, and I want to give Mr. Gordon a final chance to respond.

BORIS EPSHTEYN: Sure. Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Philip Gordon.

PHILIP GORDON: Well, we’re mostly talking about foreign policy, but I would come back, Judy, to your question about Mr. Trump’s admiration of Putin and his system.

BORIS EPSHTEYN: He never said that.

PHILIP GORDON: And that, as I said at the beginning, was so troubling to — and one even tries to figure out why he’s so admiring of a leader who has cracked down on journalists and is suspected of using even violence, cracked down on civil society, ruling with an iron fist within Russia.

To look with admiration on that sort of domestic leadership, I think is just really inconsistent with American values.

BORIS EPSHTEYN: But Mr. Trump never made those comments. You are putting those words in his mouth, Mr. Gordon. And it’s unfair to do so. Hillary Clinton tried to worked with Russia. She failed.

(CROSSTALK)

PHILIP GORDON: … flattery that leads him to say these things. It’s hard to understand.

BORIS EPSHTEYN: You’re incorrect, my friend.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are going to leave it there.

Gentlemen, we want to thank both of you for joining us, Boris Epshteyn, Philip Gordon. Thank you.

PHILIP GORDON: Thank you.

BORIS EPSHTEYN: Thanks.

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