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Desperation on the Border; Trump Flip-Flopping Again on Russian Election Interference; Trump Tries to Talk Tough, Contradicts U.S. Intel Again. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired July 24, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: He's a 72-year-old man with all these reversals. He could pull a hammy.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Days after calling it a big hoax, President Trump today says he cares about Russian cyber-attacks, and yet he still manages to reveal why, to many, he has so little credibility on the issue.

As President Trump tries to distract and deflect, agony and desperation continuing on the U.S.-Mexican border. A CNN exclusive, as mothers try to hold their children again, with another administration deadline looming.

Plus, the top law enforcement official in the country laughs and says, "Lock her up." Then he mocks snowflakes and safe spaces. Attorney General Jeff Sessions trying to fit in with young conservatives.

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

We begin today with the politics lead.

This afternoon, in a speech to the VFW, President Trump told veterans to ignore what the news media is reporting about the economy, as the president pushes the U.S. toward a trade war.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Just stick with us. Don't believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. Just remember, what you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening.


TAPPER: It seemed a clear and concise mission statement of sorts for the Trump presidency. "Stick with us. Just remember what you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening."

And while these specific remarks were about the economy and journalists, they also encapsulate the attitude President Trump has towards all subjects and all voices that are not his. Disturbingly, that also holds true for the subject of the security of the United States, because also today, after denying and then admitting and then denying Russian election interference in the 2016 presidential election, President Trump tried something new.

He tweeted -- quote -- "I'm very concerned that Russia will be fighting very hard to have an impact on the upcoming election. Based on the fact that no president has been tougher on Russia than me, they will be pushing very hard for the Democrats. They definitely don't want Trump."

Now, the office of the director of national intelligence had no comment when CNN asked for any evidence that the Russians are going to be -- quote -- "pushing very hard for the Democrats."

You will recall, of course, what Vladimir Putin told the world eight days ago.


QUESTION: President Putin, did you want President Trump to win the election and did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Yes, I did. Yes, I did.


TAPPER: Now, it is unclear why Putin, whose government has celebrated his meeting with President Trump, would suddenly back a different horse.

After all, even though the president's own intelligence chiefs maintain that the Russian government launched cyber-attacks against the United States to intervene in the 2016 election, even though a week-and-a-half ago, the Justice Department announced indictments of 12 Russian military intelligence officials in that attack, we all saw President Trump standing next to the man behind those attacks on the American people, Vladimir Putin, and the president seeming to side with him, a former KGB official, over U.S. intelligence officials, seeming to side with the perpetrator over his victims, the American people.

Now, President Trump did try to walk that back, but over the weekend in a tweet he again called Russian election interference -- quote -- "a big hoax."

So, today, the president said that there is currently election interference, but it's going to help the Democrats, a charge he makes with no evidence.

Has there ever been a president with so little apparent regard for the credibility of his own national security announcements?

This is not, after all, just a matter of election security. "The Wall Street Journal" reports today that, according to one Department of Homeland Security, Russian hackers last year gained access to the control rooms of U.S. electrical utilities and -- quote -- "got to the point where they could have thrown switches and disrupted power flows."

Just a few months ago, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee was warning, sounding the alarm that the U.S. is still not prepared to guard against future Russian cyber-attacks on the upcoming elections.


SEN. RICHARD BURR (R), NORTH CAROLINA: This issue is urgent. If we start to fix these problems tomorrow, we still might not be in time to save the system.


TAPPER: But, again, if one subscribes to this brand-new presidential ethos, you won't pay attention or worry or fret. You will just -- quote -- "Remember what you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening" -- unquote.

Now, for the rest of you, who want to understand what you're seeing and reading and who understand this is actually all happening, thanks for watching.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is at the White House for us.

And, Kaitlan, Russia's foreign minister said that the summit went better than super. So, when President Trump says Russia will be pushing for Democrats to win, do we have any idea if there's anything behind that claim?


And we have asked the White House if the president has any new intelligence briefings that have led him to believe that the Russians are going to be trying to help Democrats win elections this fall. They declined to comment on why the president made that claim or to shed any light on that.


But the president's tweet today certainly was a change in tone, since just last week he doubted U.S. intelligence findings on Russian interference.


TRUMP: Folks, stick with us. Stick with us.

COLLINS (voice-over): President Trump out with a new narrative again today, now insisting he's worried Russians will interfere in the midterm elections to help the Democrats, tweeting: "I'm very concerned that Russia will be fighting very hard to have an impact on the upcoming election. They will be pushing very hard for the Democrats. They definitely don't want Trump."

That coming from a president who has repeatedly cast doubt on U.S. intelligence findings, most recently while standing next to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

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

COLLINS: A statement he was later forced to clarify.

TRUMP: 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.

COLLINS: Trump also said just last week that Russia was no longer targeting the U.S.


QUESTION: Is Russia still targeting the U.S., mr. President?

TRUMP: Thank you very much. No.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let's go. Make your way out.

QUESTION: No, you don't believe that to be the case?

COLLINS: A statement the White House later was forced to clarify.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I talked to the president. He wasn't answering that question. He was saying, no, he's not taking questions.

COLLINS: Trump claiming today he has been so tough on Russia that they will want to hurt him, despite Putin saying:

QUESTION: President Putin, did you want President Trump to win the election and did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?

PUTIN (through translator): Yes, I did. Yes, I did.

COLLINS: Intelligence officials have warned for months that Russia will interfere in the midterm elections.

DAN COATS, U.S. DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: The warning signs are there. The system is blinking.

COLLINS: But a spokesman for the director of national intelligence declined to say today if the president's claim about Democrats is based on intelligence reports.

Trump's latest reversal coming as he fumes over coverage of his meeting with Putin, even threatening to strip security clearances from former top intelligence officials who have criticized him.

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan insisting he's just messing with us.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I think he's trolling people, honestly.

COLLINS: The president continuing his attempts to discredit the media and keep his supporters believing his narrative.

TRUMP: And just remember what you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening.


COLLINS: Now, Jake, the president is renewing these allegations of a potentially rigged election, as the White House is preparing for a second summit with Vladimir Putin here in Washington this fall. That's a meeting the Kremlin says they haven't accepted yet -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins at the White House for us.

Let's talk about this with my experts.

All right, so first of all, let me just get on the table right now. When President Trump says that he has been tough on Russia, fact- check, true. He has.


TAPPER: I have been saying this for years -- months, at least.

You know they have sent lethal aid to Ukraine to fight the Russian separatists there. There have been expulsions of diplomats. There's been sanctions, et cetera, et cetera.

Now, turning to this issue about his claim that the Russians are going to intervene to help the Democrats, what do you make of that?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I think it's irresponsible because we don't know whether it's based on intelligence or not. And with the president's tweets, it's never very clear at all what's going on.

Look, I think that it is good. The actions are good. The policies have been good and they have been tough. There is this wild divergence in this, because he cannot -- if I may psychoanalyze for a moment, he cannot separate the attacks on the legitimacy of his election from the idea of runs meddling with the election.

TAPPER: Yes, David said that yesterday as well.

HAM: Many of his critics also cannot separate those two, which is why he is upset about it. But he is the president and his words matter and being tough on Russia in rhetoric would help and being tough on them in policy.

JOE TRIPPI, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: But the one area he has not been tough and the administration hasn't been tough is on interference in the elections, not just here in the United States, but in other countries, that they -- that Russia is clearly involved in and clearly still involved in.

Even in the race that we were in, in Alabama last year...

TAPPER: That's right. You worked for Doug Jones, who defeated...

TRIPPI: We had literally 10,000 Russian bots that were attacking, literally pumping out 40,000 posts per minute, not per hour, in that campaign.

TAPPER: On Twitter?

TRIPPI: On Twitter.

And so what I'm trying to say is, there's active engagement going on in the politics. I'm not saying they changed any votes. But what are we doing to stop it? What's the administration doing to stop it? And Trump has not ordered any of his national security folks to engage in that.


NINA TURNER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: If the president and the administration and even the Congress, for that matter, would put as much effort into shoring up the election system itself and making the requisite investments and then from broader -- beyond even our voting system, cyber-threats are real.


And they're real across the spectrum, whether it's government or private sector. If they would put as much energy into shoring up the system as a country as he does in making everything all about him, we would be in a much better place.

URBAN: I don't know if it's fair, number one. Joe -- Joe and I are very friendly. But Joe is a big Democrat, obviously.

I don't think it's necessarily -- what is Twitter doing about that? Did Twitter do anything to help stop the bots? What is Facebook...


TRIPPI: What's the government doing?


URBAN: They bear some responsibility.


TRIPPI: Now he's worried because, geez, they might go after the Democrats.

URBAN: Listen, all of our energy sector folks, it's not like any energy company is sitting on their hands saying, geez, I hope the government helps me so nobody shuts down our grid.

Energy companies, power companies, private sector companies are doing things on their own to help prevent this. The government should be...


URBAN: They should be putting the shoulder to the wheel.

And I can't tell you, Joe. I don't know what the CIA's doing, what FBI counterintelligence is doing, because they're not telling me.


TAPPER: Let me ask you a question, because you both of you work for Democrats and Democratic elections. And let me ask you, do you see any evidence that the Russians are intervening any way to help Democrats, as the president charged?

TURNER: In the president's mind.

TAPPER: But not in real life? You haven't seen it?


TURNER: I think he's setting it up so if there is a blue wave, then he can turn around and blame it on the Russians.

TRIPPI: Right. And they might. But they haven't.

And the whole point is, no one's sitting here saying that they're doing it just for Republicans. It can happen across the board. But so far, that's all they have done, and we haven't done anything to stop it.


TAPPER: When the president said that, do you take it seriously?

URBAN: No. I think -- look, I think that's a little bit of rhetoric there. I think it's a little bit campaign hyperbole.

Look, I think the Russians' goal here is to undermine our democracy. Not Democrats. Not Republicans. Democracy. It's shameful. It should be spoken out forcefully against. We can do much better.

TAPPER: You and I in -- in Kaitlan Collins' piece, after Speaker Ryan said that the whole thing that we did yesterday, we talked about yesterday about stripping security clearances from Bush and Obama security officials, that that -- Paul Ryan says that's just trolling. You agree?

HAM: Well, I think sometimes with President Trump -- and it's regrettable this is the type of politician he is, but it's the truth sometimes. You just have to say he may just be messing with us, because I think sometimes that is the case. I will also say that when it comes to taking away security clearances, obviously, you don't want to do that because of political opposition or criticisms. But both Brennan and Clapper have lied to the American public and to Congress. I'm like not so upset about that. I'm not going to be like super angry about it.


TURNER: This president has lied to the public time and time again.


URBAN: Not to put fine a it -- they're all atwitter -- pardon the bad pun -- but they're all atwitter about this meddling. I think they were the director of the CIA, they were the DNI, they were in charge when this was all taking place. They were in charge.

TAPPER: But let me ask you a question, because the larger point she's making -- I think Clapper and Brennan would argue if they were here -- they would argue they lied to protect secrets is what they would say. OK.

I'm not defending lying, but that's what they would say. But the idea that Paul Ryan is saying, oh, the president's trolling us, meaning -- trolling means putting out a bad faith argument just to mess with people, just to infuriate his opponents, is that really where we are, that that's the best excuse we have for something like this?

TRIPPI: That's where we are.


TAPPER: Joe says yes.

URBAN: I don't know.


URBAN: Mary Katharine made this point yesterday, right?

Everybody runs down the path. The news media chases after the story, as opposed to kind of sticking to the grind and maybe not, you know, the sexy story of the day. Look, there's a big news story which you covered about Iran and the speech the secretary of state gave Sunday night.

TAPPER: Right.

URBAN: That was a big story. Right? The president puts out a tweet, boldface, all caps and everybody talks about the tweet, not necessarily the substance of the secretary of state's...


TURNER: The president has a responsibility, especially when it comes to foreign affairs, not to play those kind of childish games. (CROSSTALK)

URBAN: Listen. I don't necessarily know, in that instance, right, the Iranians, right, we can all agree I think the Iranian people, good people, the government, not best government, right?


TURNER: Yes. We do agree with that.

URBAN: Look, I think there's an effort ongoing to destabilize that government in a variety of methods, this kind of tweet war.


URBAN: Soft craziness.

TRIPPI: But the all caps and the lock her up stuff is all to deflect and move away the conversation from Russia.

TURNER: That's right.

TRIPPI: From Helsinki, from children still not being able to be connected with their parents yet.

TURNER: That's right, 3,000 of them.

URBAN: I don't know 3,000, but...

TRIPPI: Days away from the deadline. That's all it is.


TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We have got a lot more to talk about this show.

Coming up, the sound of a mother's desperate pleas to stay with her son.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I beg of you, please don't remove me from the country. Do it for me, for my son.


TAPPER: A woman begging for a judge to let her stay in the U.S. -- what the judge decided in a CNN exclusive

[16:15:05] You'll see first right here on THE LEAD.

Plus, images show North Korea dismantling one of its missile test sites. A serious step or just for show? Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back.

President Trump tweeting another reversal on Russia. Now, he say the Kremlin will attempt to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections, this time in the favor of Democrats, tweeting, quote: Based on the fact that president has been tougher on Russia than me, they will be pushing very hard for the Democrats. They definitely don't want Trump, unquote.

It was just a week ago, of course, that the commander-in-chief seemed to side with Vladimir Putin on Russian meddling over his own intelligence community, though later he said he had misspoken.

Joining me now is CNN national security analyst Steven Hall. He's a retired CIA chief of Russia operations.

Steve, thanks for joining us.

Do you buy President Trump when he says that he's been so tough on the Russians, they're going to try to meddle in the elections to help the Democrats?

[16:20:06] STEVEN HALL, RETIRED CIA CHIEF OF RUSSIA OPERATIONS: Jake, as I think, just like everything you see from this president, there's this weird mixture of, you know, bizarre claims, some of them with a kernel of truth, some not. I do think it's likely that the Russians -- I mean, the DNI told us this the other day, right? Coats said the other day that we got these blinking red lights ahead of our midterm elections. So, there's no doubt that the Russians are going to try to mess with it.

It wouldn't surprise me as we saw during the presidential elections if they mess with both sides, Democrat and Republican, because remember, Vladimir Putin is not a Republican. He's not a Democrat. He just hates America and wants to see us fail. So, he's going to do everything he can to disrupt that. So, no, the president hasn't figured that part out yet but I expect meddling in the midterms, absolutely.

TAPPER: There's been this odd disconnect between President Trump and how he views the Russians and the rest of his administration which inarguably has been tough on the Russians. I want you to take a listen to U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and her views of Vladimir Putin.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: We don't trust Russia. We don't trust Putin. We never will. They're never going to be our friend. That's just a fact.


TAPPER: Now, that fact seems totally at odds with what President Trump always says about wanting Russia to be a friend. How do you explain this? How do you make sense of it?

HALL: You know, I can't make any sense of it because you've got this weird dichotomy going on between the president of the United States who people listen to carefully and then his, you know, his senior lieutenants like the secretary of state and like Nikki Haley at the U.N. I think it's really, really confusing for our -- not only for our alliance partners but if you look at it from an intelligence perspective, it's really, really confusing if you're a foreign intelligence service trying to decide what exactly -- what type of information am I going to give to the Americans because if it gets to the White House, God only knows what Trump's going to do with it.

So, you know, from what I understand really throughout the U.S. government, writ large, people are saying at the working level, things are making sense. Nikki Haley saying the right thing about Russia, which is absolutely true. But then you got the president saying something different and allies were saying, so, who do we believe here?

TAPPER: And then, of course, the question of how tough was President Trump on the question of U.S. election interference, Russian election interference on the U.S. election? I want you to listen to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan talking about President Trump's performance in Helsinki, as well as a second meeting in Washington.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Look, I'm comfortable having presidents sit down and have one on ones with foreign leaders, but what I think matters is the message. And if the message is: stop meddling in our country, stop violating our sovereignty, then I support that. But it's the message that counts.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Should the press be firmer on that message?

RYAN: I think -- I think we can always be firmer on that message.


TAPPER: I think Speaker Ryan there being diplomatic and saying that he thinks President Trump should be firmer on the message. What do you think?

HALL: Well, you know, I think Ryan's got it half right. Yes, the message is absolutely important and it's something that we have not heard. I mean, I wish, you know, I really wish that the president would wake up one morning and do an all caps tweet to Vladimir Putin like he did this morning to the Iranians. That would be really good. He has not -- he has not done that to date and I'm still trying to figure out why it is he is willing to treat just about every other dictator in the world really harshly but not so much when it comes to Vladimir Putin.

I also would disagree with Ryan that sitting down with any leader is a good idea because if you get back to the idea of what message do you want to send, well, just having a meeting with the president of the United States is a big deal, especially for a country like Russia which I would argue is a lot smaller and a lot less consequential than many of the other allies are. So, you send a message sometimes just by having a meeting, which is what really concerns me about the follow-on meeting, which is just another win for Vladimir Putin.

TAPPER: You said you don't understand why President Trump has the attitude he seems to have towards Vladimir Putin. You're the former CIA chief of operations in Russia. Why do you think -- what's your speculation? Why do you think he is this way?

HALL: Yes. You know, that is tough one, especially from a counterintelligence perspective. Before Helsinki, I was willing to say, look, this is -- this president's got a whack job style. He approaches Russia from an I imagine a very -- not ill-advised position because I think he's probably getting a good advice, but he's just doing whatever it is that he wants.

When I saw him step out on that stage with Vladimir Putin, and denigrate the U.S. intelligence services and when I saw him be obsequious with Vladimir Putin in a way that he is not with the Iranians, in a way that he is not with the Chinese or with the North Koreans, I had to wonder from a counterintelligence perspective, do the Russians have something on this guy, which is making him be very careful? I don't think we can rule that out.

TAPPER: All right. Steven Hall, thank you so much for your time. Appreciate it.

And you can hear the agony in her voice.


ASYLUM SEEKER: I have no one here. Just me. I'm begging.


TAPPER: A mother pleading with a deportation judge to let her stay in the United States so she can remain with her son. It's a CNN exclusive you'll see first on THE LEAD.

Stay with us.


[16:29:39] TAPPER: In today's national lead, brand new audio obtained by CNN revealing the agony that many immigrant parents are experiencing as they struggle to find their children and get them back from the U.S. government. This comes as the Trump administration faces another deadline, this one coming Thursday, to reunite the more than 2,000 children taken from their parents at the border.

The audio is from an immigration court inside a Texas detention center. You're going to hear two mothers in tears desperately pleading their cases, both without their children. Both ordered to be deported.