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Former CIA Director James Woolsey On Trump's First 100 Days


It is debatable whether the hundred-day mark of a presidency is important. Either way, we've been using it as a moment to take stock of President Trump's agenda - and today, national security. The president has said he wants to increase military spending. This was in Virginia last month.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will give the men and women of America's armed services the resources you need to keep us safe.

GREENE: So let's hear now from Jim Woolsey. He worked for years in defense and national security. He was President Clinton's CIA director, and then he advised President Trump during the campaign. I asked him what President Trump's actual goal should be if he's going to boost military spending.

JAMES WOOLSEY: Well, the objective should not be to spend money. It ought to get - be to get capability. And I think it ought to be particularly to get modern capability because the next war may well not be at all like past wars. Cyber, for example, is extremely important. You're going to have to worry about - especially with the North Koreans and the Iranians - you're going to have to worry about electromagnetic pulses that they would produce, knocking out our electric grid. And we didn't have to worry about that in previous wars.

GREENE: Well, I think about Iran. I also think about North Korea and the tensions we're seeing right now. I think about Syria and the chemical attack and the president using military action. How much have events so far, in these first hundred days or so, changed this president's national security priorities?

WOOLSEY: Most importantly, I think is he started out with a very favorable view of working with Russia and very skeptical of working with China. And that has more or less turned around. And I think that's an appropriate change. But on the whole, I think that he is doing a rather good job in foreign affairs and foreign policy.

GREENE: His critics would suggest that he has brought this crisis with North Korea to a new boil with much of the tough, bellicose rhetoric - that fair criticism?

WOOLSEY: No, it's not a fair criticism. North Korea is ruled by a totalitarian gaga (ph), and each time - the last four times - we have tried to buy them off in different administrations, Republican and Democrat, with concessions and pleasant talk and so forth. They have lied to us through their teeth and done nothing that they were required to do. The really dangerous thing is that they can both orbit satellites - they've orbited several - and use nuclear weapons. And if they detonate a weapon up some miles above the earth in a satellite, they can knock out a major share of our electric grid.

GREENE: That's not a threat that you hear so much about as, like, a missile striking a Korean or American city. So that's something I didn't know about.

WOOLSEY: It's much harder to hit a city than it is to detonate something in space that's just put in a satellite. So we're not talking about some gigantic project, just detonating a nuclear weapon in a satellite in orbit, in low Earth orbit.

GREENE: And you're saying the North Koreans are closer to doing that than to have an actual nuclear weapon on top of a missile.

WOOLSEY: They're closer to doing that than they are to being able to hit a target in the United States.

GREENE: As you look at past presidents and then look at President Trump, does he have a vastly different definition of American power compared to his predecessors?

WOOLSEY: I don't think he has a vastly different measure. He has a speaking style before big audiences - is sometimes rather bombastic and extremely creative. Let's put it that way.

GREENE: (Laughter).

WOOLSEY: But in small groups, sitting around four or five - table and talking about important matters, he's really very cogent, very smart, good questions, good answers. So the shtick, that one might call it, that he demonstrates when he's out in front of thousands of people, is not the man I see sitting around a table with three or four people trading ideas.

GREENE: But can't the shtick itself be dangerous and impactful when it comes - when the stakes are so high and it's national security?

WOOLSEY: Well, I suppose. It depends on the shtick (laughter). But I think he's learning, and I think he's learning relatively quickly. And to me that's the most important thing about a president, is whether he's willing to stand back and have a look at what his predisposition is - maybe developed before he was president, maybe developed early in his presidency.

I think most presidents are going to - if they have a successful presidency - are going to be like that. They're going to make mistakes. They're going to have predispositions that they have to rethink, and I think Donald Trump has shown that he's capable of doing that, at least on some small and medium-sized issues. We'll have to see whether or not things work out with respect to big ones.

GREENE: James Woolsey, real nice talking to you, we appreciate it.

WOOLSEY: Good to talk to you.

GREENE: Jim Woolsey is former CIA director. He's now a venture partner at the firm Lux Capital. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.