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Why Does Trump Believe Putin over U.S. Intel; Brennan Says Trump's Backing of Putin over U.S. Intel "Treasonous"; Woman Charged with Conspiring Against U.S.; Obama Speech Hits Close to Home. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired July 17, 2018 - 11:30   ET


[11:30:00] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump stood before the world, stood next to one of America's chief adversaries, took questions, and jaws dropped.

One person who never equivocated on Vladimir Putin, Republican Senator John McCain, who put out this statement right after that press conference yesterday: "Today's press conference was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant."

One of the more startling moments in the press conference yesterday was not a question to President Trump but a question to Vladimir Putin and any compromising information that Russia might have.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translation): Yes, I did heard this rumors that we allegedly collected compromising material on Mr. Trump when he was visiting Moscow. Distinguished colleague, let me tell you this. When President Trump visited Moscow back then, I didn't even know that he was in Moscow. I treat President Trump with utmost respect. But back then, when he was a private individual, a businessman, nobody informed me that he was in Moscow.


BOLDUAN: No, Vladimir Putin did not offer Donald Trump any backup there. But why?

Joining me now, Max Boot, and CNN national security analyst, Steve Hall, retired CIA chief of Russia operations.

Max, you wrote, in a new column this, and I want to read just a part: "In the past week, I asked two senior retired U.S. intelligence officers who spent most of their careers focused on Russia how they would characterize the Putin/Trump relationship. Independently of each other, they both said, Putin has something on Trump."

Why do folks believe that?

MAX BOOT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Because of the way that Donald Trump is acting.

BOLDUAN: Is that it?

BOOT: Innocent explanations for his behavior are less and less convincing. People used to argue, for example, that, oh, he can't admit what happened in the 2016 election because it would sully his glorious election victory. Two points run counter to that. A, he has been a defender of Putin since before he won the 2016 election. For example, this is the four-year anniversary of the shoot down of a Malaysian airliner killing 300 people, which was done, as we now know, by the Russians in Ukraine, and Donald Trump consistently denied it was the Russian culpability during the 2016 election. The other point that runs counter to the innocent explanations is we know Trump is all about Trump. What helps Trump in the situation, when the president is accused of colluding with Russia, he needs to get tough on Russia, stand up to Putin, because that will help him with his domestic political problems. But he refuses to do it. He is acting counter, not just to the interest of the United States, but to his own interests. That's why there's a serious debate about what does Putin have on this guy? Putin wouldn't even deny during the press conference that he actually did have something on him. He just deflected the question.

BOLDUAN: Steve, do you think that's what we're seeing play out? Republicans who work with President Trump, and like President Trump, they say that this is a startling accusation, if you say about this and the unfounded dossier, and so far there's no concrete proof. From everything you know and all the years you worked on this, what do you think?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: To start with, there's absolutely no doubt the Russians have this capability. This is what they do. It's almost genetically in their DNA. Of course, Putin comes from that intelligence background. When he says no, of course, he wasn't important enough for us to collect on, that's simply not the case. They would have collected. But the last point that Max raised was it really for me what took it over the edge. This was a perfect opportunity for Donald Trump to silence a lot of his critics and say look how tough, relatively strongly, however he wanted to do it, with Vladimir Putin. He did not. We know he likes being tough. He was tough with rocket man. He was tough with our NATO allies. He's tough with lots of folks. It's in his DNA. Yet, Vladimir Putin is the only guy who he is not tough with even though it would have been a lot of political sense domestically and internationally for him to be tough. He was not. My conclusion is, there's got to be some reason he wasn't. Why else would he not do it? I think there probably is some financial information specifically that Putin has over him that he does not want to come out because it would be humiliating.

BOLDUAN: If there's no compromising -- if there's no compromising information on President Trump, Max, does that lessen the impact of what the president did yesterday?

BOOT: No. The reality is, Trump is not defending America's national security interests. We can debate what the motive for that is. I share with Steve suspicions that there may be more going on here than we are currently aware of. But you know --


BOLDUAN: Where is America First in what we saw yesterday?

BOOT: Exactly. This is a Russia first policy, not America First. Whatever Trump's motives, the reality is, he is not upholding his oath to protect and defend the Constitution.

HALL: To address this -- the counter argument that comes out a lot of times when you hear this America First, we have heard several politicians say, well, shouldn't we be having a relationship with Russia? Trump said, a relationship with Russia is a good thing. My question is, why? We have a country with a very small economy, which is trying to exert itself in a larger geopolitical role. Yes, they have nuclear weapons. What's the likelihood that we're going to have a -- I don't think either side wants a nuclear war. What Putin wants is he wants to sit at the big-boy table. He wants to be part of the geo-political thing. The more we contain as opposed to engage, it seems to me to make more sense as a Russia policy. Having a good relationship with Vladimir Putin and Russia is not a policy.

[11:35:38] BOLDUAN: Do you see intelligence leaders resigning over this?

HALL: That's a good question. Because you get into that whole -- do you want to --


BOLDUAN: I have heard strong arguments on both sides. I had a democratic Senator on who --


HALL: I was watching.

BOLDUAN: Amy Klobuchar says, I want Dan Coats in the position.

HALL: Yes. You want somebody with sanity. You want somebody with a clear view to be in there. By the same token, there does reach a point where you become complicit in what's going on if you remain. Make no mistake, it's difficult for me to imagine what the emotional and professional impact is on some of my former colleagues, not just in CIA but across the Intelligence Community. Do you want to be, as the DNI, the boss over all those folks, complicit in that? Is Coats comfortable with that? It's a tough call.

BOOT: And I have changed my mind on that. I used to think that it was a good thing we had all these relatively sane people serving in higher levels of government to try to contain and check Donald Trump. The reality is, we're seeing they're not succeeding in constraining him. They had some success in his first year. He has broken out of the restraints. Right now, the presence of a lot of these folks is basically legitimating this out-of-control president. I think, at this point, and it's a close call, but I think, at this point, mass resignations are called for. The people at the senior levels of government, including Dan Coats, should make clear they are not comfortable with a president who is putting the interests of a hostile foreign power above the interests of the United States. Even if they resign, it's not as if those agencies will be leaderless. There will always be deputies and others to step forward. I think -- I remember De Gaulle's dictum that the graveyards are full of indispensable men. I wonder if a lot of these senior officials are fooling themselves into thinking they are doing something incredibly vital even as Donald Trump completely ignores their advice.

BOLDUAN: It seems that with Dan Coats' statement yesterday, Donald Trump definitely ignored that advice over and over again.

Gentlemen, great to see you. Thanks, guys. Appreciate it.

Coming up for us, the former CIA director calling Trump's display in Helsinki treasonous. Do the president's comments really rise to that level? We will cut through the noise next.


[11:42:21] BOLDUAN: "Treason, high crimes and misdemeanors," these are terms being thrown around after President Trump's startling press conference with Vladimir Putin yesterday.

Former CIA director under President Obama, John Brennan, tweeting this: "Donald Trump's press conference performance in Helsinki rises to and exceeds the threshold of high crimes and misdemeanors. It was nothing short of treasonous."

The front page of one of President's Trump's hometown papers, "The New York Daily News," putting it this way. Look at that image. "Open treason, Trump, backed enemy Putin over U.S. Intel."

But is the country there yet?

Joining me now, CNN legal analyst, impeachment expert, attorney, Ross Garber.

Good to see you, Ross. Thanks for coming in.


BOLDUAN: Let's break this down. High crimes and misdemeanors. Did the president rise to that level yesterday?

GARBER: The constitutional standard for impeachment is treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanors. The question is, was what he did treason? Treason is actually defined in the Constitution. It's a rare offense in that way, it's actually defined. The definition refers to aiding enemies. So the question is, is Russia our enemy? The answer is, it may be an adversary, it may be a foe, it may even be a competitor, as the president said. It's not an enemy. We are not at war with Russia. Technically, no, there was no treason that happened yesterday.

BOLDUAN: Why is it, when it comes to this standard, if you will, when you're talking about treason and high crimes and misdemeanors, why is the president's motivation key to these questions?

GARBER: The reason why his motivation is going to be key is -- the standard for impeachment is treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanors. High crimes and misdemeanors is not defined in the Constitution, in the law, anyplace. You have to look to historical context for what that means. Normally, the way that's been interpreted is some sort of egregious crime or similarly very, very serious misconduct involving the office. So what you have to look at is what the president has done and what his motivations are. If what the president is doing is doing foreign policy the way he thinks it should be done, well, that's within the power of his office. If, on the other hand, he is doing something for some illegal or otherwise improper motive, well, that may be another issue. But, so far, that hasn't been established.

[11:45:05] BOLDUAN: High crimes and misdemeanor doesn't need to actually be a crime?

GARBER: You know what, there's a debate about that. Most legal scholars would say, technically, it doesn't need to be a crime. As a practical matter, given all of the crimes, all of the federal crimes that exist, it's unlikely that there would be something that's so egregious, so terrible that you would overthrow an election, which is what an impeachment is, that's not actually defined as a crime.

BOLDUAN: Why is there so much gray area around all of the questions? Because that is the only consistent thing I see when you talk to politicians about it or people on the street about it, when it comes to this president, or any president, and this issue.

GARBER: Yes. In our constitutional democracy, we elect presidents and we sort of trust and let them do their job. The only way that comes into question is if something very, very serious is going on. You talk about impeachment. We have never removed a president from office, not once, in our history. We have impeached two presidents, Clinton and Andrew Johnson. But they were acquitted in the Senate. We have never removed a president. So the way the system is set up is it's based on a trust on the one hand. Then also, allowing the political arms of our government, specifically Congress, to oversee the presidency as appropriate.

So right now, there's a lot of ambiguity. But the Mueller investigation continues. The president's allowed that to happen. Congress continues to do its investigation, particularly on the Senate side. That investigation is bipartisan. I think we will have to see what that yields. But there are certainly questions.

BOLDUAN: Certainly questions, and it would come down to a question of political will when it comes to trying to impeach a president. That comes down to the political will of Congress. We are -- we see where that is at the moment.

Great to see you, Ross. Appreciate it.

GARBER: It's good to see you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you.

Coming up for us, the Justice Department says this woman is a Russian foreign agent. And they just charged her. Details about who she is and what they say she was trying to accomplish.


[11:51:49] BOLDUAN: A woman charged with conspiring against the United States is now in federal custody. The Justice Department says Russia national, Maria Butina, not only conspired against the U.S. but also tried to establish back-channel communications between then- Candidate Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the election.

Joining me now, CNN's Sara Murray with much more.

Sara, what do we know about this?

SARA MURRAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Kate, this is right out of a spy novel what we know about this woman, Maria Butina. She's 29, she's a Russian national. She was arrested here in Washington, D.C. As you pointed out, she was basically cultivating this years-long effort with the help of a man named Alexander Torshin, who is a former Russian politician, a Kremlin-linked banker. They were trying to build inroads into the Republican Party, into political organizations here in the United States to try to promote Russian interests. One of the ways that she did this, along with Torshin, was to build inroads into the National Rifle Association and to use that as sort of a conduit in order to meet political leaders, in order to meet business leaders, and even in order to meet American political candidates. As you pointed out, at one point, she was working with Torshin to try to establish some kind of back channel of communication between then- Candidate Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin, although it does not appear that they were successful.

BOLDUAN: Sara, it seems that there could be more to this. Could there be more people involved?

MURRAY: There certainly could. Maria Butina's lawyer insists she was not a Russian agent, she was just a student here. But there are documents related to this case that remain sealed. There are two unnamed Americans listed in the charging documents involving Maria Butina. And charges have not been brought against Alexander Torshin either. So we could see more on the front of the Russian Alexander Torshin. But it's also possible we could see some Americans named in this. As of right now, no Americans have been accused of doing anything wrong.

BOLDUAN: Great to see you, Sara. Thanks so much. Much more to come on that.

Coming up for us, former President Barack Obama speaking out in South Africa just moments ago, making some comments that hit much, much closer to home. The tapes just in. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [11:58:38] BOLDUAN: Former President Barack Obama giving a speech in South Africa this morning, talking about strange times, uncertain times, and head-spinning and disturbing headlines. But also hitting even closer to home. Listen.


BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up.


OBAMA: They just make stuff up. We see it in the growth of state- sponsored propaganda. We see it in Internet-driven fabrications. We see it in the blurring of lines between news and entertainment. We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders, where they're caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more.



OBAMA: Look, let me say politicians have always lied --


-- but it used to be if you caught them lying, they'd be like, oh, man.


Now they just keep on lying. They just --



BOLDUAN: As we often say, as we end the show, you just can't make this stuff up, even though sometimes they are a lot of the time.

Thank you for joining me.

"INSIDE POLITICS" with John King starts right now.

[12:00:13] JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Thank you, Kate.

And welcome to INSIDE POLITICS.