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Does President Trump Believe Russia No Longer Targeting U.S.?. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired July 18, 2018 - 16:30   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: In our politics lead, yes vs. no, today's debate, comes after would vs. wouldn't, yesterday's.

And we're now learning an entire team at the White House helped craft the almost about-face, the statement President Trump read yesterday, a clarification undermined almost immediately by everything else the president has said then and since and before about whether he believes the intelligence community on the Russian cyber-attacks.

So, why the attempted about-face? Why do it?


KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: He said, I was saying wouldn't, not would, a double negative.

TAPPER (voice-over): A double negative, that's the hard-to-believe explanation that the White House is sticking with, as President Trump attempts to explain away this widely criticized remark in Helsinki.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He just said it's not Russia. I will say this. I don't see any reason why it would be.

TAPPER: By saying this.

TRUMP: I said the word would, instead of working.

TAPPER: It's an explanation that doesn't really make much sense.

TRUMP: I accept our intelligence community's conclusion.

TAPPER: Given that President Trump's continued expressed doubts about the intelligence community's assessment that Russia interfered in the U.S. election was clear as soon as he deviated from the prepared texts.

TRUMP: Could be other people. There's also a lot of people out there.

TAPPER: So why say something he clearly doesn't believe? Pressure.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: On Capitol Hill, outside advisers, within the White House, people said you have to address this.

TAPPER: Official tells CNN the criticism was carefully fielded by Vice President Mike Pence, who was tasked with tamping down the negative feedback from Capitol Hill Republicans.

Sources say there was also mounting concern that President Trump looks unpatriotic.

ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: There's probably a cadre of guys, men and women, around the president where they said, look, to be honest with you, you got to walk this thing back because you love the rank and file people in these intelligence agencies.

TAPPER: On Tuesday, Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton met with President Trump at the White House along with adviser Stephen Miller and Chief of Staff John Kelly.

Top priority? Removing the knife many in the intelligence community felt had been thrust into their backs in Helsinki when the president equated what they asserted with what the former head of the KGB claimed.

TRUMP: My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it's not Russia.

TAPPER: Sources tell CNN that officials at the White House feared U.S. Intelligence Chief Dan Coats and other top intelligence officials would resign after Coats issued a firm defense of the intelligence community and its assertions about Russia on Monday.

Aides say it was Bill Shine, the White House's new deputy chief of staff for communications, a former FOX News executive, who was pivotal in convincing President Trump that a change was needed and fast.

According to "The New York Times," the president's prepared statements drafted by Stephen Miller was rewritten several times.

HABERMAN: This was more a statement for, frankly, our allies overseas. This was about sending a message that there is a broader U.S. government that is going to take action if something untoward happens going forward involving Russia.

TAPPER: But even then, the president could not help but push back on the nation's top intelligence chief who say Putin interfered with the 2016 election, undermining the whole walk-back, although many out there seemed determined to ignore his ad libbed candor.

TRUMP: Could be other people also. There's a lot of people out there.


TAPPER: Let's just clarify. Reading the prepared remarks for the president wasn't an easy move for him. He was dragged there kicking and screaming.

The Daily Beast reporting that the president stewed and dug in his heels for hours. "Vanity Fair" saying the chief of staff, John Kelly, was irate. According to a source, he told Trump it would make things worse for him with Robert Mueller. He also exerted pressure to try to get the president to walk back his remarks, according to three sources familiar with the situation.

Kelly called around to Republicans on Capitol Hill and gave them the go-ahead to speak out against Trump. And yet he did backtrack and undermine the whole thing at the end of the day anyway by saying that it could have been a lot of other people, instead of Russia.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And yet on the Hill, Republicans kind of breathed a sigh of relief, that, oh, look, he fixed it.

He didn't. But it gave them something to hang their hat on so they could move on with their lives. I think a senator said today he apologized. He didn't.

So they're kind of taking this and making it what they need it to be, the fact that he did anything at all. So for that reason politically he's off the hook with a lot of these Republicans that were irate just the other day.

TAPPER: Here's the thing I don't understand, Scott.

The president obviously doesn't believe the intelligence. He doesn't believe that Russia interfered in the election. I mean, he said it a million times. He said it again today about continued interference.


And yet the White House is determined to try to make it as though they believe what the establishment believes, what everybody at this table believes, what the intelligence community believes.

Why not just let him be him and not believe it?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, because he would be the only person in town who doesn't believe it.

TAPPER: But that's how it is.

JENNINGS: And the administration needs to get this right, not just for posterity's sake, but for moving forward sake.

I would just offer a tactical piece of advice to the White House. The power of the written statement here gives you a precision of communication that you're not going to get when you try to read a statement and then ad lib from it and do things that you're not comfortable with.

So my advice, when you know you're going to have to clean something up, or you know what the first three questions at a press conference or a briefing are going to be, just pre-write something and hand it out in advance, and say, I have already answered those questions. What else do you have?

This would be a very smart thing for them to do and it would frankly keep them out of a lot of situations like.


JENNINGS: He clearly accepted a piece of paper that had writing on it.


JENNINGS: That's my point. Why not just issue about the paper?


I mean, look, that excuse falls flat. And I think that for any other president, it would be plausible. Maybe the public would think that it was possible that the president misspoke for any other president. But, unfortunately, President Trump has a deficit of trust, and whether that's warranted or not, he has a deficit of trust.

And, look, people around him, his surrogates, people continuously tell us don't worry so much about what the president says, look at what the president does.

And we watched what he did when he stood next to Vladimir Putin. So I don't know that there's any paper statement that's going to fix that. I mean, this is a mess that the White House really needs to take a step back and ask themselves, why is the president doing this?

TAPPER: And, Kirsten, "The New York Times" reports -- quote -- "Now Mr. Trump's aides fear the worst is yet to come, still to come. If the past is any guide, they said privately, Mr. Trump will spend the coming days digesting the continuum fallout from his encounter with Mr. Putin and he will look for someone other than himself to blame."

And then you should see this tweet, which it was -- it's a good one. It's a remarkable one. "So many people at the higher ranks of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki. Putin and I discussed many important subjects at an early meeting. Got along well, which truly bothered many haters who wanted to see a boxing match. Big results will come."

So many people at higher ranks of intelligence liked it.



Look, I think that -- I mean, the idea of handing out a piece of paper just totally misses Donald Trump, who Donald Trump is. So even if you handed out a piece of paper, he would just -- he would do exactly what he just did. He would say, I agree with the intelligence community or it might be a whole bunch of other people.

So he just -- he just -- it doesn't matter what they do. He's going to continue to do this. And I think the reason he can't just say what he really believes is there I guess is a line with the Republicans, to a point where you see even people at FOX News, who typically agree with him on every single thing, saying this -- this was the line right here, standing there with Putin and fighting against the intelligence community.

Now, does that mean they're all going to turn against him? No, but I don't think he expected that to happen. And so that's why he I think ended up reversing his position and is trying to pretend like he misspoke, when, in fact, he didn't expect them to turn against him.

TAPPER: Well, I just don't know how much there really is any fear of repercussion in terms of whatever line he crosses. I mean, you might get some strongly worded statements that don't even mentioned President Trump's name, but there were no resignations, there was no serious congressional action.

There's some people out there with legislation about other subjects having to do with Russia that might be using this to push for that.

JENNINGS: This all -- it's all about credibility and how much -- I mean, you mentioned a deficit of trust. Look at the polling. He does have a deficit of trust.

And that's something that they're going to have to repair moving into a reelection campaign. In order to govern the country, in order to run a reelection campaign, you have to be credible to people in your party. You have to be credible to voters, to people on the hill.

And so it is something the White House has to think about. It will always be a suppression of his job approval and his personal image numbers if they don't improve that much.


POWERS: ... what they were saying. They were calling him weak. And he can't stand to be called weak, right?

He was told at Drudge that he was basically dominated by Putin.

KUCINICH: I wonder, if the midterm elections do not turn out well for the White House, if we see the president recalibrate, because Jake's right.

There really hasn't been any real repercussions that are real time, instant -- gratification is the wrong word -- zero repercussions.

If Republicans lose, he will probably try to blame someone else. But I think that -- maybe that will cause some soul-searching. We will have to see.

TURNER: Yes, and I actually think there was a lot of talk about -- talk about whether or not Dan Coats should resign. I actually think that Dan Coats should dig in and stay there. It's

unusual for people around the president to challenge him, to speak up against him, to stand against him.

Dan Coats had a lot of courage. He kind of stood up and said that he disagreed with the president. And I think that if you demonstrate the courage to do that, then that's the time for you to stick around and to continue to do that.

And if the president doesn't like that, then he will fire you and we will all know.

TAPPER: One other topic I want to bring up, this afternoon, Sarah Sanders, White House press secretary, acknowledged that Putin had talked to President Trump about Putin's interest in prosecuting the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. Take a listen.



QUESTION: Russian authorities yesterday named several Americans who they want to question who they claim were involved in Bill Browder's -- quote, unquote -- "crimes," in their terms, including a former ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul.

Does President Trump support that idea? If he open to having U.S. officials questioned by Russia?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president's going to meet with his team, and we will let know when we have an announcement on that.


TAPPER: Is that the right answer, Scott?


I mean, they should say that Vladimir Putin can poo in one hand and demand Michael McFaul on the other and see which one fills up faster.


JENNINGS: And this a ridiculous thing for another government to ask for. A U.S. ambassador?

Just tell the guy no, pound sand, whatever you have to say in diplomatic terms and move on. This is outrageous.


KUCINICH: And I think the State Department said that that is not going to happen.

TAPPER: So, former Ambassador McFaul just tweeted -- quote -- "I hope the White House corrects the record and denounces in categorical terms this ridiculous request from Putin. Not doing so creates moral equivalency between a legitimacy U.S. indictment -- a legitimate, I think he means -- "U.S. indictment of Russian intelligence officers and the crazy, completely fabricated story invented by Putin."

This is one of the things that Republican foreign policy experts had the biggest problem with when it comes to President Trump, the moral equivalency, President Trump time and time again suggesting that the United States and Russia on the same moral plane.

The idea that he would even consider sending over Michael McFaul or letting Putin and his thugs interrogate Michael McFaul is remarkable.

POWERS: I mean, he said, he said that, basically, yes, that Russia has done some bad things and the U.S. has done some bad things, like they're the same thing.

Yes, of course, United States have done things wrong. Nobody doubts that, but it's not the same. We're not the same as Russia. We're just a fundamentally different country. And I don't think that Trump thinks that.

And I have said this before. This is not -- I think that this a serious thing. I don't think it was a mistake. I think that he relates to Putin a way that he does not relate to members of NATO, for example, and these are his people.

He identifies with authoritarian leaders. And I think he actually seriously considered it.

TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around.

President Trump suggesting he would not want to send his son to defend Montenegro if the NATO ally was attacked. Hmm. But I guess it was OK for that tiny nation to send troops to Afghanistan at the request of the United States? How does that work?

Stay with us.


[16:45:00] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back. President Trump yet again raising serious doubts about whether he would honor Article Five of the NATO charter if it came down to it. It's a cornerstone of the Alliance, an armed attack on one nation is an attack on all. This time the President questioned whether the United States should honor its agreement when it comes to NATO's newest member Montenegro.


TUCKER CARLSON, ANCHOR, FOX NEWS CHANNEL: Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack? Why is that --

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I understand what you're saying. I've asked the same question.


TAPPER: On the principle of collective defense, some facts that did not come out from President Trump in an interview, Article Five has only been invoked once. That was after the United States was attacked on 9/11. Montenegro has been part of that sending troops to Afghanistan since 2010 and agreeing in February to honor the Trump administration request to send more. In other words, whether or not the President thinks that your son should go to Montenegro to defend that country from attack, the sons of Montenegro have been going to Afghanistan to do that for the United States. Only a few dozen troops that's true, but with a population of only 622,000 Montenegro has more troops per capita in Afghanistan than anyone else including the United States.

The small Balkan nation join NATO in June 2017. Much to the ire of Vladimir Putin last year Russian operatives were indicted for their role in an attempted 2016 coup, a plot to kill Montenegro's Prime Minister and overthrow the government. Moscow of course denies any involvement. The U.S. State Department says that the Kremlin also tried to interfere in the country's free and fair election just last year. Now a question I asked the White House today though I received no answer, there are 28 NATO members other than the United States, does President Trump believe the U.S. should honor its commitment to defend any of them if attacked? If not, which ones would he not want to defend? Again no answer. CNN's Barbara Starr picks up our coverage from the Pentagon.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: On the heels of a controversial meeting with NATO allies, President Trump once again questioning the entire point to one of America's oldest alliances.

CARLSON: Membership in NATO obligates the members to defend any other member of its pack. So let's say Montenegro which joined last year's attack, why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack? Why is that --

TRUMP: I understand what you're saying. I've asked the same question. You know, Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people.

CARLSON: Yes, I'm not against -- or Albanian.

TRUMP: By the way, they're very strong people. They have very aggressive people. They may get aggressive and congratulations you're in World War Three.

STARR: It may be no coincidence that Montenegro a tiny country in the Balkans has the American President's attention. Last year President Trump visibly dismissed the Prime Minister of Montenegro when he shoved him out of the way at a NATO photo-op. And Russian President Vladimir Putin has been furious that Montenegro is the newest member of NATO. The country once part of Yugoslavia itself a member of the Soviet Warsaw Pact. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: He has seen multiple countries

lean towards the west over the last 14 or 15 years who have asked to join NATO to include many countries that used to be part of the Warsaw Pact, that used to be part of the Soviet Union. And it acts him that he feels he's being attacked from the alliance and from the United States.

MICHAEL HAYDEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I would not be at all surprised that what you heard the President say to Tucker Carlson there last night is derived from Vladimir Putin told him during those one-on-one discussions in Helsinki.

[16:50:12] STARR: This year Defense Secretary James Mattis certain to congratulate the newest member of NATO.

JAMES MATTIS, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE, UNITED STATES: It's the 29th nation and to see the confidence that they have from a NATO that is that open and discussion and honest in discussion.

STARR: Montenegro about the size of Vermont has a military force of just a few thousand. It's already sent 20 troops to Afghanistan to help with security and plans to send several more. President Trump may also want to consider this. NATO invoked the Article Five mutual defense Clause after 9/11 for the first time sending patrol aircraft to the U.S.


STARR: And since then, more than 1,000 troops from NATO allies have died in Afghanistan. Jake?

TAPPER: All right, Barbara Starr for us at the Pentagon. Cozying up to the NRA, trading sex for information, and working with a Russian oligarch sanctioned by the U.S., those are just some of the accusations against an alleged Russian spy. Stay with us.


[16:55:00] TAPPER: It could cost a fortune. That's what to U.S. Defense officials say about president Trump's strongman style military parades slated to take place in November. These officials tell CNN the parade could cost taxpayers 12 million dollars, nearly as expensive as holding military drills between the U.S. and South Korea, you know the ones Trump canceled after calling the book tremendously expensive. Those drills designed to make sure U.S. troops are ready if war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula. In our "WORLD LEAD" today prosecutors say a web of sex and lies connected accused Russian spy Maria Butina to American political operatives tangling her web of Russian spies and diplomats with those American marks. CNN's Jessica Schneider now has more on the woman one Russian official nicknamed Daredevil Girl.


JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Tonight prosecutors say that this 29-year-old Russian redhead who came to Washington under the guise of being a graduate student after she founded a gun rights group in Russia --

MARIA BUTINA, RUSSIAN SPY: These are all Russian public organization. We promote gun rights.

SCHNEIDER: -- isn't who she claimed to be. Instead, court papers paint Maria Butina as an illegal agent of Russia whose plan was calculated, patient and directed by a Russian official. Butina even allegedly offered sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization here in the U.S.

ROBERT DRISCOLL, ATTORNEY OF MARIA BUTINA: She's not an agent of the Russian government, the Russian Federation, she's innocent on the charges brought against her.

SCHNEIDER: She posed with a pistol for a (INAUDIBLE) spread in GQ Magazine but also buttoned up for political events. She's seen here with Republican Presidential Candidate Scott Walker and sitting just feet away from former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. The man who mentored her, Kremlin linked banker Alexander Torshin who has been sanctioned by the U.S. messaged her on Twitter one month after that breakfast exclaiming you have upstaged Anna Chapman referencing the Russian spy who was arrested and deported in a prisoner swap in 2010.

BUTINA: (INAUDIBLE) because freedom is very important.

SCHNEIDER: Butina also got close to Donald Trump. At the freedom fest event in Las Vegas in July 2015, she announced she was visiting from Russia and then asked then recently declared candidate Trump this.

BUTINA: If you would be elected as the president what will be your foreign politics especially in the relationships with my country?

TRUMP: I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin, OK?

SCHNEIDER: Butina also allegedly kept in touch with members of the Russian FSB, the spy agency that succeeded the KGB. And prosecutors say Butina was well-connected to wealthy businessmen in the Russian oligarchy. And sources tell CNN she had a romantic relationship with Paul Eriksson, a former board member of the American Conservative Union who attempted to make inroads with the Romney and Trump campaigns but was never particularly successful. While the court filing did not name Eriksson and referred to him only as U.S. Person One, the details matched Eriksson's activities. Butina allegedly lived with him but treated the relationship as simply a necessary aspect of her activities since Eriksson previously told McClatchy News he co-founded a company with Butina to help fund her graduate studies.


SCHNEIDER: CNN affiliate Kilo T.V. asked Eriksson if he tried to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was wondering if you would be willing to talk to us about what the New York Times is reporting about you setting -- trying to set up a meeting between President Trump and Putin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It didn't actually happen that way.


SCHNEIDER: And a federal judge has just ruled Maria Butina will remain in jail with no bonds until her trial. Prosecutors argued in courts today that she was a flight risk and also in court they disclosed that American she was in a relationship with who we reported as Paul Eriksson, they say he was under investigation for fraud in South Dakota and that Butina offered to help with the case. But of course, Jake, now she is behind bars and she also pleaded not guilty today.

TAPPER: Curiouser (ph) and curiouser.

SCHNEIDER: Very much.

TAPPER: Jessica Schneider thanks so much. You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER or you can tweet the show @THELEADCNN. Our coverage now continues with Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks so much for watching.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, Clean up. President Trump seems to directly contradict the U.S. Intelligence Community when asked whether Russia is still actively targeting United States.