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Mark Zuckerberg Under Fire; Trump Flips on Russia's Offer to Question Americans; VA Purging Non-Trump Loyalists?. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired July 19, 2018 - 15:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[15:00:02]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: But, just yesterday, the administration showed -- literally was of two minds about it, with the White House saying one thing and the State Department saying another.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Does President Trump support that idea? 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.

HEATHER NAUERT, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: What I can tell you is that the overall assertions that have come out of the Russian government are absolutely absurd.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: And, moments ago, the U.S. Senate approved a resolution to oppose the questioning of said diplomats by a foreign government.

This is what Senator Schumer just said on the floor:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: Let this resolution be a warning to the administration that Congress will not allow this to happen. I call on President Trump to say once and for all, not through his spokespeople, that the lopsided, disgraceful trade he called an incredible offer is now off the table.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: Let's go straight to senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny there.

And the senator was correct. The president did refer to it as an incredible offer on Monday. And now, four days later, the White House disagrees. Tell me more.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, this is just another reversal in a series of reversals throughout the week. We have seen cleanups and clarifications.

But this one is extraordinary, in the sense that there really was bipartisan backlash to this idea that the president, as you said, described as -- he thought it was a great idea, an incredible offer he said twice on the stage there in Helsinki.

And it essentially would allow an exchange of information. If those 12 Russians that were named in the indictment a week ago were brought here for questioning, the U.S. would give up American officials, including a former ambassador to Russia, Mike McFaul, Michael McFaul.

That was roundly criticized every place but here at the White House. You played the sound there from Sarah Sanders yesterday saying it's still being considered.

Shortly before that Senate vote, again, a bipartisan vote, something that doesn't happen very often, the White House finally reversed course, and saying President Trump disagrees with Vladimir Putin on that idea.

So, again, Brooke, an example of the earful that the president and his team here at the White House have been getting from Republicans and others about the fallout from the summit. It really speaks to the point of the summit really in hindsight is becoming even more problematic than we knew.

And we're only talking about what happened in the public part of that press conference in Helsinki, never mind the closed-door meeting that we're still decipher and I'm guessing are going to be for some time to come -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Yes, we will.

We know that there is no White House briefing today, Jeff. Tell me about this afternoon event involving the president this afternoon.

ZELENY: We're going to be seeing other the president here shortly and Ivanka Trump as well, as she is leading an effort to essentially do some job retraining.

You can see it there in the East Room. There is going to be talking about how to retrain workers across the country, particularly in some hard-hit areas where some factory jobs may not exist anymore.

So Ivanka Trump leading the charge on that. The president will be speaking about this, and it's an economic event. But, Brooke, it's not going to change the subject and change the focus here. What many on Capitol Hill also worry about is still the fallout from that summit, but we are going to be hearing from the president shortly on that front -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: All right, Jeff, thank you so much at the White House.

And now to some insight on what Jeff just outlined for us from two great voices, CNN political and national security analyst David Sanger, who's the national security correspondent for "The New York Times," and Thomas Countrymen, a former senior State Department official who was pushed out by the Trump administration.

So, gentlemen, welcome.

And, David, I want to get to your reporting out of the paper this morning.

But, Tom, let me begin with you, and this whole Americans, Russians proposal exchange. There are American diplomats, as you well know, right all, around the world who trust and depend on their government's support.

And this idea even for just a minute, right, that they can be served up to Russia, the White House now saying and it was an incredible offer Monday, and now saying, no, no, no, we disagree.

What diplomats be thinking right now?

THOMAS COUNTRYMAN, FORMER U.S. UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE: I think many of them would agree with me that if President Trump had ever read the U.S. Constitution, he would have rejected Mr. Putin's idea in two seconds, and not taken 72 hours to think about it.

It is fundamental to the U.S. system and I think it was well- established during the Nixon Watergate era that the president cannot use the U.S. legal machinery to go after his enemies. And, in fact, he has to answer to the law as well.

[15:05:05]

I think Mr. Trump envies the fact that Mr. Putin has no such constraints.

And for him to even contemplate the idea of any U.S. citizen, let alone an ambassador, who has been identified as an enemy of Mr. Putin, would enjoy the -- that Mr. Putin could enjoy the cooperation of the U.S. government in furthering his political enemies' persecution, to me, it's outrageous.

And it's outrageous, not just because Mr. McFaul was a former public servant of the United States.

BALDWIN: David Sanger, this week, the walk-backs, the clarifications. We're unclear exactly what transpired between Putin and Trump behind those closed doors.

But I was talking to Jamie Rubin last hour, former assistant secretary of state. And he was saying that all these calls to just even talk to the U.S. interpreter who was in the room is a reflection of people's lack of confidence and trust in the U.S. government. How do you see it?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, Brooke, it's been a remarkable week.

I mean, if you start with the president on a Monday saying that an offer was incredible and the State Department saying on a Wednesday that the same offer completely unchanged was absurd, you have got a pretty good sense of what happens when you let a president who has not been schooled in all this, who may not have understood the diplomatic immunity issues, much less the issues that Tom was raising before, step in and sort of do this on the fly with very little preparation.

And when the Russians came out and talked about the meeting, they said that there were several verbal agreements, including in the area of the future of the New START agreement, and the INF, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement, the two main nuclear agreements right now that we have in force with Russia.

And nobody I can find in the U.S. government can tell me what those agreements were. I'm not sure they know themselves right now. And then that's separate and apart from the way the president handled the question of what Vladimir Putin's responsibilities were for the hack into -- into the American election system, and that's why we put the story that we did in the paper today.

BALDWIN: why don't we -- let's get right to that and the story in the paper, that the intel chiefs prior to the president's inauguration, two or so weeks, told him that it was Putin who personally was attacking U.S. democracy and the presidential election.

And to add to your reporting that James Clapper essentially reaffirmed that last night on CNN, here he was.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Before we left the room, we started writing a press release about our encounter. And we're trying to say that the Russian meddling, the Russian interference had no impact on the outcome of the election.

We didn't say that. But I do think there was skepticism from the get- go, from that day to this day, that indicated that anything that attacked the legitimacy or questioned the legitimacy of now President Trump's election, he just couldn't his head around.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: Tell me more, David, about what you learned.

SANGER: Well, Brooke, what we simply did in the story was piece together known facts that we have had.

So the meeting took place with Trump Tower on January 6, two weeks before the president, then president-elect, was inaugurated was well- known and reported at the time. And at that time, the U.S. intelligence services under appointees of President Obama issued that same day their conclusion that Vladimir Putin had personally instructed that these attacks on the U.S. electoral system happen.

What happened inside the room, as we later reconstructed, was that they showed the president the evidence. There were three versions of this report, a public one, one for Congress that had slightly more sourcing, and then one that President Obama and his top aides had seen, which they shared within president-elect Trump, that showed that there were specific human sources who had attributed to President Putin his role in ordering this, in addition to all the electronic intercepts.

That was then later reported earlier this year in two books, including mine, "The Perfect Weapon," went through in several chapters how the Russia hack came together. And then we went back to our sources after the president said what he said on Monday just to make sure that in fact the president had seen all of this evidence, all this intelligence.

[15:10:06]

And the answer we got back was, yes, he's saw all of it. It's exactly what Jim Clapper just -- what he just said.

So, he went into -- the president went into this fully aware of what the intelligence was.

BALDWIN: Tom, have you seen the cover of "TIME" magazine?

COUNTRYMAN: Not yet. I'm looking forward to it. I have heard about it.

BALDWIN: Let's throw it up. Let's throw it up on screen, because I want everyone to see this. This is my final question. I don't know if you -- do you have a monitor where you are, Tom?

COUNTRYMAN: Yes, I can see it now. Thank you.

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: What do you think, looking at this?

COUNTRYMAN: Well, I think there's no question, after Helsinki, that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are ideologically cut from the same cloth, that they both believe in their infallibility. They both believe that all the tools of the state are at the disposal of a single individual.

And beyond that, there's clearly some sense in which Mr. Trump owes a debt to Mr. Putin. We don't know if that's only the financial rescue of his empire that was affected by Russian oligarchs, or whether there is, in fact, compromising material such as Russian intelligence services have always sought to collect from visitors to the Soviet Union or to Russia.

So I remain deeply concerned about what was said in private.

Just one word on vocabulary. Meddling is an inadequate word to describe what Russia did here. Meddling is something your mother-in- law might do in your marriage. This was an attack. This was an attack upon American democracy, similar to the cyber-attacks that Russia has launched against its neighbors repeatedly.

And it shouldn't be diminished the way the president and his servants in Congress try to dismiss it by referring to it as just meddling.

BALDWIN: Which is the word he used earlier this week. But you are absolutely correct, sir, attack, attacked U.S. democracy.

Tom Countryman and David Sanger, gentlemen, thank you so much...

SANGER: Thank you.

BALDWIN: ... for that conversation.

Minutes for now, we should point out we're expecting to hear from the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats. He, of course, we presume, will be asked about the backlash over the president's recent statements here on Russia, what we were just discussing. So we will take that live the second we see him.

Also, new CNN reporting today that a number of European diplomats are calling the Trump-Putin summit meaningless -- why they're not too worried about the fallout from that meeting.

And, later, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg forced to apologize after some comments he made about Holocaust deniers -- what it means for the larger conversation about censorship on social media.

You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:17:32]

BALDWIN: We're back. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Despite the public global backlash to President Trump's summit with President Putin, some European allies seem to be shrugging the summit off, at least according to several senior administration officials.

The reason? Trump and Putin didn't make any firm agreements.

So let's go to Elise Labott. She has the reporting. She's our CNN global affairs correspondent.

And you tell me. I understand one of the official said the summit itself was meaningless. Why?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, that's the way -- the kind of -- it's really interesting how the administration is spinning it, because no one really knows, as we have been discussing, what went on in this meeting, but I think what you U.S. officials have told me is European officials were really afraid that President Trump was kind of going to give away the store to President Putin.

And that didn't seem to have happened. There's a lot of talk about vague agreements. But President Trump doesn't seem to have made any ironclad agreements with President Putin. Certainly, no -- none of his top aides have gotten any instructions about new policy directives.

And so in a sense on, this was talk between President Trump and President Putin that often, as diplomats say to me, really doesn't go anywhere, because President Trump makes a lot of agreements in meetings. And then when diplomats try to follow up, a lot of his aides don't really know what he's talking about.

So I think there's a bit of a sense of relief, in the sense, obviously, everyone is admitting that the optics of that press conference with President Trump and President Putin were pretty bad. But I think in terms of fears that President Trump was going to, agree to lift sanctions or to -- not to support Ukraine against Russia vs. Crimea, for instance, I think there's a little bit of relief that the worst-case scenario didn't happen.

BALDWIN: Some European diplomats may be shrugging this off, but if you are Montenegro, that can't be the case?

LABOTT: Absolutely.

I mean, listen, that whole idea that finally Montenegro is in the kind of arms of NATO and would be protected against Russia, which has been completely aggressive towards Montenegro in recent years, that relief, that sense of security is really shaken right now.

The Montenegrins came out in recent days, said, we're a peace-loving country, we're not aggressive, President Trump's words. And you have to wonder who put that idea into his head? That is certainly talk that President Putin has talked about Montenegro being aggressive.

[15:20:01]

And a lot of the language of President Trump coming out of that press conference echoed what -- some of President Putin's ideas.

So, again, I think the total optics of this are not very good. But what officials say is, you haven't gotten any policy directive, there's no instructions. Therefore, our policy towards Russia, our policy towards Europe remains the same, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Does make you wonder if the Montenegro bit came up in their, you know, one-on-one, and then spilled into that interview afterwards.

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: Hmm. Hmm. Elise Labott, thank you very much.

As the world wonders what happened in Helsinki, the Russian government less than a week after the summit is rolling out fresh propaganda video of their future military weapons.

You remember -- remember the last time Russia released this sort of propaganda? It was back in March. And animation showed nuclear warheads falling over what appeared to be in the state of Florida.

No better person to walk us through this then our retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, CNN military and diplomatic analyst and former Pentagon spokesman.

And, Admiral, I mean, talk about timing. What's going on?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yes, could very well be timed to do them on the back end of Helsinki, just to prove that the Russians are, in fact, as powerful as Putin wants everybody to believe they are.

As you pointed out, though, Brooke, these weapons systems were officially unveiled last March by President Putin. So the timing of the video is definitely curious with respect to Helsinki.

But let's take a look at some of these new weapons system. What we're looking at here, if you look on the bottom of that fighter, that's called a Kinzhal missile. It's a hypersonic air-launched cruise missile that, according to the Russians, can travel up to 1,200 miles at a speed of Mach 10, 10 times the speed of sound.

Now, again, this is not a weapon system that we weren't aware of. But it would allow the Russians to do deep strike. They can launch this thing from well, well out of range and launch into an enemy's territory. It's not clear exactly how maneuverable or actually how operational this weapons system really is.

Next, we will talk about something that the Russians called a Poseidon. It's a nuclear-armed, nuclear-capable, basically unmanned torpedo, also can travel at very, very fast speeds, somewhere between 50 and 100 knots, 1,500 miles an hour.

We're not really quite sure. At a depth of 3,300 feet. And it can also -- has a range of about 6,000 miles that -- again, they call the Poseidon. This bad boy was actually mentioned in the 2018 U.S. nuclear posture review, where the United States government officially acknowledged that this was a potential threat, not only to coastal cities, but to carrier strike groups, for instance, and other naval facilities.

Lastly, we will take a look at a laser system. Now, we're not clear exactly what this is, whether it's offensive or defensive, but it appears to be some sort of laser weapon. Of course, the United States military invest in laser technology. In fact, the U.S. Navy has a laser gun that they have actually mounted on a ship in the U.S. Persian -- sorry -- in the Persian Gulf aboard a U.S. Navy ship.

So we're investing in this kind of technology too, as we are in the hypersonic missile category, but we're not quite sure it is.

Now, we did reach out to the Pentagon for comment, and they declined common at this time, Brooke, but, back in March, when Putin rolled these out, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said nothing new here. We've been aware of all these potential systems. It's not clear how operational they actually are, but we're tracking it and we're watching them closely. -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: I'm sure they are.

Admiral Kirby, thank you so much.

KIRBY: You bet.

BALDWIN: Coming up next: the Department of Veterans Affairs making major changes to it staff before the next VA secretary has even had his confirmation hearings. It's reportedly been done to consolidate power among Trump loyalists.

The "Washington Post" reporter for broke the story joins me live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:28:27]

BALDWIN: New details coming out today about the already embattled Veteran Affairs Department.

CNN can now confirm that a number of political appointees have removed or reassigned some senior-level VA staffers who were considered disloyal to the president and his agenda.

"The Washington Post" is reporting that more than a dozen employees have been moved to lower visibility roles. A VA spokesperson denied that the purge is politically motivated, telling CNN -- quote -- "Absolutely not. These personnel moves are what's required to ensure VA is performing its best."

All of this happening ahead of the confirmation hearing for VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.

Lisa Rein is a federal reporter for "The Washington Post."

And, Lisa, I know you and CNN are reporting that these staffers were being moved because, as we said, they were disloyal to the president, his agenda for veterans. And you're hearing lawmakers up on the Hill are reacting. What are they saying? And what is it about his agenda to veterans that is facing opposition?

LISA REIN, "THE WASHINGTON POST": So, that is the biggest question of all, because the people who are being reassigned are mostly civil servants.

And their jobs, by definition, are apolitical. And the bulk of the people who are moved our support staff who worked in the office of the secretary at VA headquarters a block from the White House.

And they were reassigned with -- given -- and they were given no reason for their reassignments. And so these are people who have served multiple VA secretaries. And they're in crucial support roles for a new secretary to kind of get the new person acclimated.

And Robert Wilkie, who's now waiting in the wings over at the Pentagon, where he's a top personnel official himself, is said