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Trump Tries to Walk Back Comments From Russia Press Conference. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired July 17, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: So, does the president expect us to believe that yesterday was, like, opposite day?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Desperate attempt at damage control. President Trump trying to backtrack, giving a remarkably absurd explanation for why he publicly sided with the Russian dictator against the people of the United States.

Reading between the lines. A look at President Trump's handwritten note in his typed remarks that attempted to clarify what he said yesterday, but he really still wants us to believe there was no collusion.

Plus, top Republicans, some of the president's closest supporters now turning on him over the pass he gave Vladimir Putin and the moral equivalence he drew between the U.S. and Putin's Russia. Is this the straw that broke the elephant's back or are we in for a foreign policy version of thoughts and prayers and no action?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with our politics lead.

And if you thought what happened yesterday in Helsinki was stunning, well, President Trump has taken things to an entirely different level, claiming he did not actually side with Vladimir Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies.

Why? Well, he says because of two tiny letters.

Now, yesterday, the president said would, and today he says he had meant wouldn't.

But just minutes ago, President Trump, under fire from even loyal Republican apologists, he read from typed remarks, trying to contradict what he said yesterday in Helsinki and, frankly, what he's been saying in many ways for years privately and publicly.

This afternoon, the president asserted that he accepts the U.S. intelligence community's assessment that Russians interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.

But I want you to take real attention here, pay real attention. Even in the president's assertion, note, President Trump also made an aside, not in his prepared remarks, that completely undermined the assertion he was making.

The assertion was that he accepts that it's Russia. But then he noted that it could have been other people, too, completely contradicting the intelligence community. Take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I accept our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people, also. There's a lot of people out there.


TAPPER: "Could be other people, also. There's a lot of people out there."

This attempt at a cleanup comes, of course, one day after President Trump stood on the world stage and refused to side with U.S. intelligence agencies over the former head of Russia's top intelligence agency and now Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Now, even more than that, according to the consensus view of experts who are Democrats, Republicans, the House Intelligence Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee, intelligence chiefs under Obama, President Trump's own intelligence chiefs, the consensus view that the U.S. was cyber-attacked by Russia, despite all that, yesterday, the president of the United States sided with the man responsible for the attack on the United States, not with the people of the United States.

Now, President Trump tried to explain this today by saying he misspoke in one key part of the remarks yesterday, in which he said this:


TRUMP: President Putin, he just said it's not Russia. I will say this. I don't see any reason why it would be.


TAPPER: "I don't see any reason why it would be."

But President Trump now says that was a mistake.


TRUMP: I would like to clarify, just in case it wasn't.

In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word would, instead of wouldn't. The sentence should have been, I don't see any reason why I wouldn't or why it wouldn't be Russia. (END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: President Trump wants you to believe, even though the problems of his comments in Helsinki far exceed would vs. wouldn't.

In his comments yesterday, he repeated twice that Putin was powerful in his denial of the election interference, not to mention all the rest of what the president said, his mention of the DNC server, which is a favorite subject of those who don't believe that Russian military intelligence officials of the GRU hacked the DNC server.

But here's the key. White House sources tell me that what the president said in Helsinki, his skepticism of the intelligence community's assertions about the Russian cyber-attacks and affinity for Putin, a desire to side with the Russian president on this and other issues, that's what the president says privately.

In other words, what we heard in Helsinki, that's what President Trump believes. After all, President Trump has publicly said this, publicly, repeatedly doubted Russia's interference before.

Here's just one example, perhaps the most infamous.


TRUMP: And it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?



TAPPER: Could be Russia. Could also be a lot of other people.

That sounds quite a bit like what President Trump said just a few minutes ago in this attempt at cleanup, when he said -- quote -- "It could be other people also. There are lots of other people out there."

He still doesn't accept the U.S. intelligence community's assessment that Russia was responsible.

Let's get right to CNN's Boris Sanchez.

Boris, President Trump apparently wanted us to believe not his words yesterday, but what he said today as he read from these typed remarks.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake, clearly an orchestrated response.

We're learning that several top national security officials actually met earlier in the day and according to sources determined that the president had to clarify the remarks that he made in Helsinki. They even crafted part of this response. I did want to point out the president had his own addition. We saw a

number of markings on these pages. And one part, he specifically wrote out -- quote -- "There was no collusion."

Of course, Jake, as you noted, what the president said contradicts so much of what he said in Helsinki and what he has been saying for months. Perhaps the most stunning part is that the president is suggesting that all of this controversy isn't merited. It's simply because he misspoke.


SANCHEZ (voice-over): Facing fierce backlash after his stunning press conference with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, the president met with lawmakers at the White House this afternoon, reading from extensive prepared remarks.

TRUMP: Just wanted to clear up. I have the strongest respect for our intelligence agencies headed by my people.

SANCHEZ: Despite months of calling the investigations that led to evidence that Russian meddled in the 2016 election witch-hunts, Trump says he fully supports his intelligence agencies, despite appearing to side with Putin in Helsinki.

TRUMP: I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today. He just said it's not Russia. I will say this. I don't see any reason why it would be.

SANCHEZ: The president today attempting to clarify that remark.

TRUMP: I thought it would be maybe a little bit unclear on the transcript or unclear on the actual video. The sentence should have been, I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be Russia. Sort of a double negative.

SANCHEZ: Sources close to the White House tell CNN the president was upbeat as he walked off the stage Monday, but after watching press conference aboard Air Force One, sources say Trump became furious, fuming to aides about receiving scant support of Republicans over his performance.

One rare voice defending the president, Senator Rand Paul on CNN.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: Absolutely, I'm with the president on this. The intelligence community was full of biased people, including Peter Strzok, McCabe and dozens of others.

I don't think anybody doubts that the Russians got involved with leaking e-mail and hacking into e-mail. But there is a question of whether or not the election was legitimate. And all of this is a sideways way for those on the left to try to delegitimize Trump and to say he didn't really win the election.

SANCHEZ: The president responded on Twitter, thanking the Kentucky senator.


SANCHEZ: So, Jake, if the president can find reasons why it was Russia that meddled in the 2016 election, why then did he not condemn Russian leader Vladimir Putin?

He was asked that today. He didn't answer -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Boris Sanchez, thanks so much.

I want to just start again with the fact that, while I'm talking to my experts here, that even as the president was shuttled out there to try to clean up, because so many Republicans, so many national security experts, so many people in his own administration were upset by what he said, he still couldn't help himself.

Bottom line, he doesn't believe and accept the intelligence community's assessment. So he contradicts himself even when asserting that he does.

Let's run that clip once more.


TRUMP: President Putin, he just said it's not Russia. I will say this. I don't see any reason why it would be.


TAPPER: OK. So that's what he said yesterday. Now let's run the clip from today, when he undermines his attempted contradiction.


TRUMP: I would like to clarify, just in case it wasn't.

In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word would, instead of wouldn't. The sentence should have been, I don't see any reason why I wouldn't or why it wouldn't be Russia.


TAPPER: Then he said that he did accept the conclusion of the intelligence community, and then he undermined it.

And I would like to play that clip. All right. We don't have that clip for some reason, but it is him saying "A lot of other people out there, could have been other people."

And what is that?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Who can buy the shred of an excuse that he trotted out today?

[16:10:00] One thing is clear from the Helsinki summit. If he did not collude with Russia during the campaign, he is certainly colluding with Vladimir Putin on the cover-up, because they're trotting out the same lines.

The president went rogue during that summit. And when he came home, he ran into a brick wall of Republicans on Capitol Hill, his allies in the media, pretty much everyone saying this is unacceptable.

And so you see him try to clean this up, very much in the same way he did in the aftermath of the "Access Hollywood" video, when Republican pressure was put on him in such a way he did apologize, before he doubled down again.

I expect he will double down again and trashing the intelligence community, because that's been his consistent line since the election, since the campaign.

And so my question for Republicans is, who do you trust? This is a time for choosing. Donald Trump sided with Putin over the intelligence community. And if Republicans on Capitol Hill do that, it's a sad, dark time for America.

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: But he's still siding with Vladimir Putin even when he came home.

In that press conference, he did say, thank goodness, that he believes the U.S. intelligence community.

TAPPER: Today's press -- today's comment, yes.


VINOGRAD: But from a national security perspective, in a lot of ways, I actually feel worse after that press conference, because he just spent however more minutes talking about the areas for positive cooperation with Russia, talking about areas for positive cooperation with North Korea.

OK. We can work on those. And not calling out the litany of other things that President Putin is still doing to make us unsafe. That's deeply worrisome to me. He's home now.

TAPPER: Scott, I just want to read this -- quote -- "I accept our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people, also. A lot of people out there."

That seems to be to me completely contradicting that he accepts the intelligence community's conclusion.

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. It would be better not to have done anything today at all, if you were going to throw that phrase in.

Look, I have thought about this for the last 24 hours. It's the first time I have been on. And this reminds me a lot of the Charlottesville situation, where you get thrown into a moment, you make a serious mistake. And let's be honest. This was probably the low moment of the presidency. Charlottesville maybe also was a bad moment, for me, too.

Then you try to walk it back and then the walk-back gets muddled because you didn't get that exactly right either.

At the end of the day, I have been thinking there are three things. One, he's got to get it in his mind that there's a difference between collusion and Russian interference. They can interfere in our election. And they did.

But it doesn't mean you have to admit to collusion and it doesn't delegitimize your presidency. That's absolutely true. And that is what most Republicans believe.

Number two, somebody around him has got to get him thinking beyond the next 10 minutes. There's a legacy piece here. What are going to they say about you 10 from today, 100 years from today? Let's stop trying to get through the next 10 minutes and get through the next four years, eight years and legacy.

And then, finally, I seriously hope they're considering him giving a major national speech on the concept of American exceptionalism, because what strikes me about all of this is that if you believe, well, we do it, they do it, then we're not exceptional. Then America's no different than anybody else, like Russia, with a tiny economy and a dictator.

We are exceptional. I think the president should give a speech reaffirming his views on American exceptionalism and that would help I think calm the waters.

CARPENTER: Can I interject really quickly?

I need a speech on what he meant on cooperating with Russia. What he laid out during that summit, proposing a joint cyber-security initiative, possibly accepting the idea that we would subject the Russian intelligence member who we recently indicted to questioning by Russian agents, what on earth was he talking about?

We are so caught up into whether he believes our own intelligence community, we're just drawing a blind eye to all the other crazy ideas that he actually proposed on the world stage deliberately.

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That's my question. Did he -- what else did the president go rogue on?

Or were those, in fact, in the talking points? Look, I sat right here prior to this Helsinki summit and I said Donald Trump isn't going to give us nothing new. He's going to go in and do what he's always done, side with Putin.

He's noted that even in the face of clear, shear evidence, he's going to take the side of President Putin. As I said then, I'm going to say now. What will Republicans on Capitol Hill do?

I need more than just statements. I need more than just tweets. There are legislative things that Republicans on Capitol Hill can do. They have a majority in the Senate. If they wanted to pass legislation, they could. The fact that they haven't speaks...


VINOGRAD: They have before.

SANDERS: Well, one thing I want to say, though, about this particular thing is, Senator McConnell and Speaker Ryan came out and they did not use the president's name.

They said a lot about Putin. They didn't say anything about Donald Trump, although we saw folks like Congressman Will Hurd, Congressman Costello. They came out and they named Donald Trump.

I think it's -- in this instance, it's really important to name names. And for Republicans who are not naming names, it says to me that they're scared. The president has ran away with our goddamn democracy. What are folks going to do about it?

TAPPER: Scott, talk, if you would, about what it like for Republicans on Capitol Hill who are trying to make this decision right now?

They're all, with the exception of Rand Paul possibly, appalled. They can't believe what they heard yesterday. They can't believe the president continues to say these things.

What is the decision when a Mitch McConnell or a Paul Ryan doesn't name the president, but instead just reaffirms what they believe, which completely contradicts the president?

JENNINGS: Well, not only did they reaffirm what they believe, but they also laid out penalties for future election interference. I mean, McConnell was quite clear today about the views of Russia did meddle and that they shouldn't do it again and there will be consequences for that. I keep hearing, you know, what are the Republicans going to do?

I follow a great military national security adviser on Twitter named John Noonan. He said, you know, don't forget, they've already several things. We've increased military expending, greater intelligence vote, more NATO exercises in the Baltic, lethal aid to the Ukraine, developing new low yield nuclear weapons.

TAPPER: All true.

JENNINGS: You have a NATO resolution.


JENNINGS: We've got discussions of new sanctions, the old sanctions. These are all thing that is Russia absolutely hates. And so, the Republicans in Congress, Symone, have already stood up to Russia. You don't like what Trump is doing, but I think it's unfair to blame them for not doing enough.

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I do not think it's unfair because let me tell you. Congress is a co-equal branch of government, folks. So I appreciate everything that Republicans in Congress have done up until this point, but our president stood on the stage next to Vladimir Putin the other day and gave him a back rub, proverbial lotion on the man's feet and so the question is, and today, he attempted to squirm out of what he said and then continued to step on all of our --

TAPPER: What do you want them to do?

SANDERS: I would like them to censure the president. They can come out and say Donald Trump, leader McConnell can do that, so can Speaker Ryan.

TAPPER: Mention his name.

SANDERS: We do not agree with you. I think that is a forceful show that we are standing up to not only Putin but our own president. And I'll tell you, voters across the country have noted that they want a Congress to be a check on this president. Folks are going to lose their jobs.


SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, FORMER OBAMA NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: Agreeing with both of you, the Senate passed 97-2 sanctions against Russia which the president was against. Remember, he signed them under duress. There's a whole lot more to do in the sanctions side, perhaps starting in the legislative branch to hit Russia where it hurts which is their oil and gas sector. We know President Trump is not going to do that by himself, right?

We just saw what happened in Helsinki. Congress can do that. Republicans can do that working with the Democrats and I think it's a shot of getting through.

TAPPER: What's also interesting, Amanda, is that what President Trump is doing is so at odds with not only what Republicans on Capitol Hill generally believe, but also what his own national security advisers want. I mean, John Bolton is one of the strongest Russia hawks throughout and it is surprising that he is now the national security adviser to this president who is saying and doing these things.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: And that's where exactly I think Congress needs to go. We need to find out what happened. If all his national security team gave him contradictory advice, he completely went rogue. I say that phrase deliberately, because it seems that everyone else said to make a strong statement, something went wrong here, and Congress has an oversight function where it may come to public hearings. But I think they need to start pressuring the other cabinet members, may be very uncomfortable. I understand that. People like Dan Coats I think are patriots and did try to stand up and do the right thing, but things need to get uncomfortable to find out how we ended up here. TAPPER: All right. Everyone, stick around. We've got a lot more to

talk about.

Big question: Did President Trump just play right into Democrats' hands with his, quote, clarification?

Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey will join me live next.

Stay with us.


[16:22:20] TAPPER: We're back with the breaking news.

Revisionist in chief. President Trump now suggesting that he simply misspoke when he said there was no reason why it wouldn't be Russia. It's a cleanup attempt some Democrats say comes 24 hours too late.

Joining me now is Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. He serves on the Senate Foreign Relations and Judiciary Committee.

Senator, what's your response to what happened in Helsinki? And what's your response to President Trump's attempt to clean it up today?

SEN. CORY BOOKER (D-NJ), SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Well, I mean, I think the response of Helsinki, I mean, you have heard this across the political spectrum, it was offensive. It was a showing a level of submission before a dictator, before Vladimir Putin. And it put our nation at greater risk.

And this comes at the tail end of him undermining NATO, undermining or attacking our allies in their own countries like what he did to Theresa May. So, this is a country who's really -- this is a leader, Trump, who's really betrayed his role as commander-in-chief to protect the United States of America and to support those people who spend every single day trying to protect the United States of America like our intelligence community.

TAPPER: Something that was so interesting today, President Trump obviously given statements to say, to back the intelligence community, to assert that he agreed that Russia was responsible for the cyber attack. But even in that statement, he ad libbed an aside that suggested and you can -- we just put up on the screen that he had written on the statement, there was no collusion.

But even in the statement that he gave, he made an aside that undermined the assertion that it was Russia 100 percent. I want you to take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I accept our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people, also. A lot of people out there. (END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: When he says, could be other people also, a lot of people out there, is that not just completely contradicting the intelligence community saying that it was Russia?

BOOKER: It is absolutely contradicting the intelligence community again. He basically threw them under the bus yet again. There's been a conclusion, a consensus of the intelligence community, a consensus of the Senate Intelligence Committee in a bipartisan fashion of the Russians attacking us.

And so, for him to try to say this either -- could be this person, could be that person is undermining us, but -- undermining our safety.

But there's something interesting about this. This is a president never loathe to heap insults and attacks on people across the board.

[16:25:07] I mean, he attacked the Canadians using tariffs, using a national security waiver saying that the Canadians and what they're doing to us in trade is a national security issue. He's attacked the allies, calling people in the E.U. foes. He has had these kind of harsh words across the board for so many people.

But when it comes to Vladimir Putin, when it comes to someone who has attacked the United States in cyber attacks, this ongoing attack on the United States, who's killed our -- two individuals on British soil, who's annexed Crimea, whose ongoing hostilities in Ukraine right now, this is a person who's a bad actor and a threat to us. He cannot bring himself to criticize him even to the extent he's willing to insult, undermine and degrade U.S. intelligence in order to institute -- protect his pal Vladimir Putin.

That's unacceptable for all Americans. This isn't about partisanship. This is a moment of patriotism and I'm glad to hear so many of my colleagues condemning what this president said.

TAPPER: Do you think there needs to be any resignation? Do you think for instance, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats or national security adviser, Ambassador John Bolton, do you think their resigning is needed? Or, do you -- would you rather have them in there serving as a check on President Trump's impulses?

BOOKER: Well, I'm hoping people are going to look at this in the long shadow of history. I guarantee you that there will be generations to come that will be talking about this moment in history, the first time -- you can go back to World War II, World War I, where a president on the national stage and took the side of the attacker of the United States, as opposed to the side of the American people.

And so, where do you want to stand with that? I know where I was. If I was standing next to the United States president when he talked about the Nazis in Charlottesville, I would have resigned. I know when the president insulted our allies and undermined our very difficultly knit together alliances and coalitions like NATO, I would have resigned and I most certainly would resign. But that's my moral compass. I think you in many ways can be

complicit in someone's behavior unless you make a courageous stand. But the folks around him are going to have to decide because there's going to be a time in history where people ask where did you choose to stand when the president of the United States undermined the ideals of this country? Where did you stand when the president was engaged in moral vandalism against our collective values and where were you standing when the president of the United States decided to stand with Vladimir Putin as opposed to the American people and the American intelligence community?

TAPPER: New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, thank you so much for your time, sir. Appreciate it.

BOOKER: Thank you very much.

TAPPER: How in the world does one respond to the assertion if you are, for instance, a Republican lawmaker? We will ask a Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee next. Stay with us.