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Intel Chief Reaffirms Russia's Election Meddling; Trump Flips on Russia's Offer to Question Americans; White House Makes Third Reversal This Week On Russia. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired July 19, 2018 - 16:00   ET



ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS: Is the president really engaged in this?

Because if the president is not leading the charge, will the troops really try to take the hill?

DAN COATS, U.S. DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Well, as you know, we have a new national security adviser, John Bolton.

John Bolton made a decision to make a change relative to who was handling that at the White House level.

The -- John Bolton is putting in place the replacements for that. He ensured me that that is a key issue that we need to address.

In the meantime, this is just spread throughout our various agencies, each one somewhat different than the other, taking major steps. We have fusion centers. We have processes under way.

Kirstjen Nielsen basically said -- told you about what DHS is doing. Defense is doing that. All of our agencies are engaged in that.

This going to continue to ramp up. And it involves not just tampering with the election, but it involves putting the right defenses in place, the right strategies in place in terms of how to retaliate, if necessary.

It's clearly one of our top priorities.

MITCHELL: Last week, you said: "Russia and other actors were exploring vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure and trying to infiltrate energy, water, nuclear and manufacturing sectors. These actions are persistent, they are pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America's democracy."

Have they succeeded, and have you found penetrations in areas?

COATS: Well, sure.

I mean, we see -- we see -- all you have to do is pick up the paper and see -- was the latest hack, successful hack.

(CROSSTALK) MITCHELL: Are those from criminal syndicates or are those foreign actors?

COATS: From any number of -- attribution is one of the problems that we have. It's -- you're not lining up tanks and planes here and see where the enemy is. You don't know exactly where it's coming from.

We have capabilities to determine that, but that takes some pretty good statecraft in order to define that. So, yes, this something that is that is broad, and we see it coming from all different sources.

Criminal organizations can use it. You see this dealing in Bitcoin. You see this dealing in money. North Korea's pretty famous for its capabilities to gain revenue by hacking financial institutions.

So it's everywhere.

MITCHELL: Are you seeing any evidence of increased Iranian aggression, perhaps...

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

You have been listening to the director of national intelligence, Trump appointee Dan Coats, confirming once again that he stands by the U.S. intelligence community's assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

This comes after three days of clarifications and misstatements from the White House over what exactly President Trump believes when it comes to Russian interference, after the president first publicly questioned Russia and Putin's role.

That prompted Coats to issue a statement that evening. President Trump was in Helsinki -- he was here -- affirming the conclusion that Russia indeed attacked the U.S.

Just now, Director of National Intelligence Coats said that he released that statement because it was important to correct the record for the American people, that he was simply doing his job.

Coats also weighed in on the president's one-on-one meeting with Putin, suggesting he would not have held such a private meeting.

But it looks as though another meeting might be happening soon, with this breaking news just in, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders just announcing on Twitter -- quote -- "President Trump asked Ambassador John Bolton, the national security adviser, to invite President Putin to Washington in the fall. Those discussions are already under way."

CNN Jim Sciutto is in Aspen, where Coats is speaking.

And, Jim, the director of national intelligence said that the U.S. needs to be relentless in calling out the Russians for what they have done.


And,listen, we have heard a whole host of senior national security officials speak here, many of them tailoring their words, toeing the line, perhaps with an ear to Washington, knowing that the White House will be listening to how they answer these questions here.

But for the senior-most U.S. intelligence official, in the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, he did not pull any punches. He answered those questions definitively, with conviction. And, in doing so, Jake, he contradicted the president, one, on any questions about the assessment that it was Russia that interfered in the election, two, when the president raised the idea in his correction that, well, it could have been other people too, calling out the president again, saying, no, we know that Russia is leading the charge here.

And finally calling out the president for not calling out Vladimir Putin while standing next to him on this interference.

Have a listen to how he put it in his words.



COATS: I believed I needed to correct the record for that, and that this is the job I signed up for. And that was my responsibility.

Obviously, I wished he had made a different statement. But I think that now that has been clarified, based on his late reactions to this.

And so I don't -- I don't think I want to go any further than that.


SCIUTTO: Well, Jake, you mentioned that he brought up the one-on-one meeting between Trump and Putin.

And he made a remarkable revelation. He was asked if he knows what was said in that one-on-one meeting. And, again, American senior-most intelligence officials said, no, he doesn't know what was said in that meeting. He hopes and believes that we will find out some of it, but he doesn't know, Jake.

TAPPER: Stunning.

Jim Sciutto in Aspen.

Let's talk about all of this.

Nia, the director of national intelligence for a president who, at the very least, is skeptical of intelligence is not an easy job. And you see him walking, walking a tightrope there, but he's very firmly, Director of National Intelligence Coats very firmly saying, this is the intelligence.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: He is. And it's quite a contrast, obviously, from what we have heard from Donald Trump over these last many months, even in this last week, doubting the intelligence, playing the sort of semantics game of would or wouldn't, and then the latest with what is the definition of know, what did he mean in that briefing with the Cabinet officials.

And you also saw some equivocation today from Kirstjen Nielsen, who is the director of homeland security, essentially suggesting that she hadn't read the intelligence report which does say that Russia interfered, Vladimir Putin, with the intent to harm Hillary Clinton and to the benefit of Donald Trump.

She pretended at least not to know, clearly suggesting that her audience is Donald Trump.

Coats there saying, listen, if I need to come to the American people again, he wants to have credibility. So he needs to set the record straight. And also an audience of Donald Trump too. And maybe at some point, Donald Trump will come along, knowing that the intelligence community, as well as the president, need to be on the same page on this.

TAPPER: Michael Allen, you worked on the National Security Council for -- in the Bush administration. And there's been a lot of talk about whether or not Director of National Intelligence Coats can do his job if he is publicly not supported by President Trump.

But he is -- doesn't seem worried by that.

MICHAEL ALLEN, FORMER BUSH NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL STAFFER: I think that's because he's a statesman and he's a man of character. And the first thing you learn after studying intelligence or in his case being on the Senate Intelligence Committee is that you have to speak truth to power.

This is the classic job number one of a director of national intelligence, to say, listen, Mr. President, it's your prerogative to decide what to do if you -- once you get a set of facts, but it's my obligation to tell you what they are.

And the overwhelm -- this isn't a close call, by the way. Oftentimes, intelligence agencies have different views on hard questions. Think North Korea and their plutonium program. But this one isn't a close call. Everyone agrees on it.

And so the DNI, not just saying it to the president, saying it to the world, hey, listen, here's what the United States thinks.

TAPPER: And this is one of the reasons why I think we have seen in the last few days some Republican officials who are upset with President Trump saying they don't want Director of National Intelligence Coats to resign in protest, they need him there, they trust him.

ANGELA RYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. I think that this an interesting situation that we find ourselves in. To me, nothing surprises me anymore, but I think the reality of it is, it is now time and I think has been high time for Republicans to choose patriotism over party, to choose truth over power, right?

I think speaking truth to power means that truth empowers the people, that it empowers our citizens and ensures that we're protected. That is what is in our best interest from a national security standpoint, and it's within the best interest for a commander in chief, whether he realizes that or not.

I'm not sure why he continues to fall into the lane of what Russians call kompromat, but it's very interesting to continue to see him play that role and almost be puppeteered. It's scary to watch, because you really want to know what Vladimir Putin has on Donald Trump.

It continues to raise the question. There are other sitting senators -- I flagged that about Rand Paul the other day, like, where is your backbone on this? And continuing to kind of watch people waffle and waver is -- it's scary. It's maddening.

And if it was a movie, maybe it would be funny.

JOSH HOLMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Yes, I mean, look, I think he provides his critics the fodder that they need to continue to suggest that he has something -- that Vladimir Putin has something on Donald Trump.


I think the reality is, is that this was just mishandled in almost every possible way.



RYE: Every time, though?

HOLMES: And what Dan Coats did today, I think, was speak with remarkable clarity.

Anybody who's watched his career, that's what he does. Dan Coats, from the moment he stepped foot in Washington until today, if you ask him a question, he's going to give it to you exactly as he sees it, which is -- which is what he's done again today.

I think it's of great benefit, not only for the country, our allies around the world to hear, but I -- to your point, I think President Trump actually is the beneficiary of this clarity as well.

ALLEN: On this point about our institutions -- and a lot of people have been saying this, but, listen, here's the intelligence community standing up. And there's at least three times in the last year or so that the U.S. Congress has stood up, Russia sanctions, and twice in the last week to re-endorse NATO and today to say there's no way we're turning over a former U.S. ambassador to Russia over to the Russians.

So people that are keeping score at home and worried about our institutions, I think, when it really comes down to it, especially on Russia and other matters of national security, here's some evidence that people are standing up.


RYE: Sorry, Nia.

I was going to say really quickly, mind you, Susan Rice weighed on this. Mind you, Barack Obama has weighed in on this.

And Michael McFaul himself his said this is someone who has harassed me over and over again. I expect my country, right, to stand up for me. This shouldn't be a negotiable.

ALLEN: That's right.

RYE: And I think that's another important flag.


I mean, one of the things you do see, though, is Republicans essentially -- at least the voters -- falling in line with this president.

I mean, the recent polls show that almost 70 percent of Republicans approve of Donald Trump's handling of Russia and of Putin during this past week. So you do see -- I mean, you talk about institutions and changing institutions. I mean, the Republican Party as an institution certainly changing under Donald Trump, formerly a party very hawkish, very anti-Russia, and at this point seems to be pleased with the president's sort of treatment of Putin and Russia.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around.

We got a lot more to talk about. And we have some more breaking news from the White House. For the third day in a row, President Trump reversing course, seemingly, on Russia.

Stay with us.


[16:16:26] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back.

For the third day in a row, the White House seeming to make a reversal on Russia, this time knocking down an idea that President Trump was entertaining, President Trump called it an incredible offer. Russian President Vladimir Putin saying that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, could talk to Russian military intelligence officers, the ones just indicted for cyber attacking the U.S. if the United States let the Russians interrogate former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul. In a statement today, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said,

quote: It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin but President Trump disagrees with it. Hopefully, President Trump will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt, unquote.

That was after leaving the offer as optional, something being considered just yesterday. Take a listen.


REPORTER: Is he open to having U.S. officials questioned by Russia?

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


TAPPER: The reversal came only after strong outrage including from the president's own party. It has been a week of similar overtures that suggested President Trump somehow trusts the former KGB agent and not U.S. intelligence officials.


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

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 why or it wouldn't be Russia.

REPORTER: Is Russia still targeting the U.S., Mr. President?

TRUMP: Thank you very much, no.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Press, go. Take your way out.

SANDERS: The president said thank you very much and was saying no to answering questions.


TAPPER: Let's bring in CNN's Alex Marquardt.

And, Alex, President Trump appears to be again bowing to intense pressure from Republicans.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jake, that's right. It took 72 hours, that's how long it took for this White House to decide that what President Trump had called what you mentioned an incredible offer from President Putin as one that he disagrees with, a deal that would have let Russian investigators talk to NSA staffers, former State Department officials and former Ambassador Michael McFaul. It was a suggestion that was so outlandish that even his own State Department came out against it.


MARQUARDT (voice-over): Another day, another about face from the White House, today responding to the avalanche of outrage over President Trump considering the request from President Vladimir Putin for Russian interrogators to question a list of Americans, including former Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul.

It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement, but President Trump disagrees with it.

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: Yes, that's not going to happen.

MARQUARDT: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo today also ruling out giving Russia access to McFaul and the others.

POMPEO: With respect to the particular question, the administration is not going to send, force Americans to travel to Russia to be interrogated by Vladimir Putin and his team.

MARQUARDT: Putin's proposal made in his one on one meeting with Trump in Helsinki was to allow Robert Mueller's team to interview the 12 Russians indicted for cyber attacks in the 2016 election, in exchange Russian investigators would get to question McFaul and 11 others for crimes Russia accuses them of, a deal that Trump at first found intriguing.

TRUMP: And what he did was an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that's an incredible offer.

MARQUARDT: The White House saying Wednesday it was being considered.

[16:20:01] SANDERS: There was some conversation about it, but there wasn't a commitment made on behalf of the United States and the president will work with his team and we'll let you know if there's an announcement on that front.

MARQUARDT: McFaul, at the center of firestorm, was stunned.

MICHAEL MCFAUL, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: My government I hope will step up and categorically swat this back, and when I mean my government, I mean my president of the United States of America.

MARQUARDT: Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle angry the proposal was even being discussed.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: The concept of letting American citizens be investigated for crimes that are just I think are jokes is absurd. And I don't believe there's one member -- I challenge you to find one member of the House and the Senate that believes this is a good idea. SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: No president, no

president should have the power to gift-wrap American citizens, let alone former ambassadors to our known adversaries.


MARQUARDT: Jake, Congress, as you heard right there, found this proposal so outrageous that just moments ago the Senate voted 98-0 against making current and former officials available for interrogation by the Russians. Ambassador McFaul has thanked the Senate in a tweet by saying bipartisanship is not yet dead, but at the same time, he also took a swipe at the White House which has called Putin's offer sincere, saying, I don't consider sincerity to falsely accuse U.S. government officials of being criminals -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Alex Marquardt, thanks so much.

What the hell is going on?


TAPPER: Seriously, what the hell is going on? Sincere offer from Putin and an incredible offer to -- I'm looking at you to see you answer the question, not because you're defending it. But just -- what?

JOSH HOLMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Yes, look, I mean, I -- that's kind of my reaction, too. Obviously, what they are trying to do is send a message that they are serious about the 12 people who have been indicted -- 12 Russian government officials that they want to do something about that, right? But in the process of trying to communicate that, somehow they have given validity to a proposal by Vladimir Putin that they're -- I don't know anyone, anyone who thinks that would be anywhere remotely acceptable to even have the conversation about. You don't send diplomats over to be interrogated for crimes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There aren't even crimes. What's the crime?


TAPPER: Michael McFaul didn't commit a crime.

This is one of the issues that Republicans and national security experts have with Donald Trump. It used to be something people said about the left which is this moral equivalence. He thinks the United States and Russia are on the same moral plain.

ANGELA RYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I don't know if that's that buoy (ph) for not -- I know that I'm more of a conspiracy theorist than you think. I'm going to go back to my word from the last segment, kompromat, but I would also say that narcissism is blinding. Let's say he is not compromised, I'm going to give you that, perhaps, perhaps.

If he is not then that means that he is so narcissistic that he can't even potentially accept the fact that as has been proven Russia interfered with the U.S. election because they favored him. James Clapper talked about this, the fact that he just can't accept this idea. That is now causing great harm to our national security. It's causing great harm to have confidence in him even from his party.

I think that there are folks who have actually said they don't approve of the way this summit was handled. And what was said in the meeting? You're talking about what the hell, what the hell happened in closed doors?

TAPPER: We have no idea.

Michael, you work for George W. Bush. If somebody -- if Vladimir Putin has said to George W. Bush, we can work during that early time when Bush was trying to have a relationship and looked into his soul and all that, if he has said, that's fine, we can work on this and such and such, but I need you to turn over Bill Clinton, his immediate predecessor, Bill Clinton's previous ambassador and these 11 individuals, and then we can talk, what would George W. Bush have said to that? And what would I guess it was Ari Fleischer had said from the podium?

MICHAEL ALLEN, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL UNDER PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, they would have been gobsmacked. They would have fallen out of their chair. They wouldn't have known what to do. Speaking of White House staff this week, I mean, wow, they must be exhausted. They have to wrestle all week to get the president back to the starting line.

NATO is good, Russia is bad, and no, we aren't turning over American citizens for interrogation to the Russians. So, this is a lot of effort they have to spend to get back to the starting line.

TAPPER: It's crazy.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It is crazy. I mean, you saw the State Department obviously come out and say this is absurd. You saw Pompeo speaking very strongly there, but Sarah Huckabee Sanders, again, the whole idea of the audience of one. She didn't want to get out ahead of the president but the president had said this was an incredible offer at some point. He said it I think a couple of times in that press conference, seemed to be excited about the idea of it, oh, this is a great idea to have the criminals as part of the criminal investigation and this idea that you mentioned that somehow the Russian justice system, which doesn't really exist, is on par with the democratic justice system that we have.

You think about Michael McFaul. This is a guy who got death threats, right?

[16:25:02] I mean, there are all sorts of salacious and terrible things that they spread about this guy while he was ambassador --

TAPPER: Lies, complete lies.

HENDERSON: Lies, complete lies and this idea. I mean, who would be next to Michael McFaul? Would Hillary Clinton be next on that list?

RYE: He would be real happy about that.

TAPPER: Oh god, don't tempt --


TAPPER: Thanks to the idea, Nia.

ALLEN: If the president wants to have a relationship with Russia, it needs to be on our terms and not on Putin's. It's not on these absurd things that he's putting forward.

It's fine. It's in the president's call. He won the election. Let's have a normal bilateral relationship on nuclear arms and talk about Iran and North Korea and the rest.

But no more of this stuff. So, we've to get -- when he is coming here in the fall, we'll see what the agenda is.

TAPPER: Oh my god. From your mouth.

More breaking news. CNN has just learned the White House is working on bringing Vladimir Putin to Washington, D.C. for another meeting this fall. You heard us correctly. That is an actual thing and Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted it.

Stay with us.