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The Situation Room

Biden-Putin Statement: Made Progress On Shared Goals Even Amid Tension; Putin Calls Talks "Efficient" As He Denies, Deflects On Tough Issues; Biden Apologizes For Lashing Out At CNN's Kaitlan Collins; Biden Heads Home After Putin Summit: I Did What I Came To Do; Twenty Senators, Including 10 Republicans, Issue Statement Supporting Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework; Israel Strikes Gaza Over Launch Of Incendiary Balloons. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired June 16, 2021 - 17:00   ET



SEN. MARSHA BLACKBURN (R-TN): She knows when she was in the Senate I was the most conservative member of the Senate and she was rated the most liberal.


PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer and "THE SITUATION ROOM" from Geneva, Switzerland.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're coming to you live from Geneva, Switzerland. Happening now, breaking news, President Biden is on his way back to the United States after his faceoff with Russia's Vladimir Putin here in Geneva. The President says he did what he came to do, but how much was actually accomplished?

Putin told reporters the talks were efficient and substantive. But the Russian leader chafed when asked some tough questions on critical issues, repeatedly denying deflecting and spreading disinformation.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're nearing the end of a historic day here in Geneva, scene of the first summit meeting between President Biden and Russian President Putin, both leaders describing their hours of talks and mostly positive terms.

Our Senior White House Correspondent Phil Mattingly is joining us right now.

Phil, President Biden and President Putin, they covered a lot of ground today.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no question about it, Wolf. And if you just think through what President Biden has done over the course of the last several days, three high stakes summits with U.S. allies, dozens of meetings and conversations with European and North American leaders all pushing to this one moment, sitting down with President Vladimir Putin in the hopes of not necessarily reaching a breakthrough, but at least incrementally moving the relationship above where it currently sits.



MATTINGLY (voice-over): Tonight, President Biden emerging from the highest stakes moment of his young presidency satisfied.

BIDEN: It was important to meet in person. So there can be no mistake about or risk representations about what I wanted to communicate.

I told President Putin my agenda is not against Russia, or anyone else. It's for the American people.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): Summit that started with a long awaited handshake and came to a close after roughly three hours direct talks between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. But Biden departing a scenic backdrop steeped in diplomatic history with no shortage of open questions still outstanding, as the U.S. and Russia seek to emerge from a low point in post-Cold War relations.

BIDEN: This is not about trust. This is about self-interest and verification of self-interest. That's what it's about.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): Biden laying out red lines on cyberattacks that have become pervasive in recent years, specifically, outlining 16 entities defined as critical infrastructure that both sides should agree are off limits.

BIDEN: The principle is one thing. It has to be backed up by practice.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): With that caution, also laying out the scale of the potential U.S. response.

BIDEN: I pointed out to him, we have significant cyber capability. And he knows -- he doesn't know exactly what it is, but it's significant. And if in fact, they violate these basic norms, we will respond.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): And as ransomware attacks buckled several critical American companies in recent weeks, this not so subtle note.

BIDEN: I looked at him, I said, well, how would you feel if ransomware took on the pipelines from your oil fields? He said it would matter.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): But Putin in his own press conference continuing to deflect on an issue U.S. intelligence has explicitly attributed to his country.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translator): As for American sources, they've said that most of the cyberattacks in the world are carried out from the cyber realm of the United States.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): And as Putin declined to even say Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's name, Biden had this stark warning, should he die in prison?

BIDEN: I made it clear to him that I believe the consequences of that would be devastating for Russia.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): But both leaders describe the tone of the two sessions is business like.

PUTIN (through translator): I think that both of these sides showed a willingness to understand one another and to find ways to bring their positions closer together.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): In productive,

BIDEN: There wasn't any straightened action taken that was not done in a hyperbolic atmosphere. That is too much of what's been going on.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): A litany of issues address from areas designated for future engagement to matters where the two sides have firmly divergent perspectives. Biden short term goal, to recalibrate the relationship.

BIDEN: We've established a clear basis on how we intend to deal with Russia and the U.S. Russia relationship.


MATTINGLY (voice-over): But Biden also leaning on a view that the U.S. sits in a stronger position than his counterpart, and that a unified West can force a change calculation.

BIDEN: Understand, when you run a country that does not abide by international norms, and yet you need those international norms to be somehow managed so that you can participate in the benefits that flow from that, it hurts you.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): But it's a bet that many of Biden's predecessors have made before with limited success, underscoring a clear reality. But the ultimate outcome of this summit won't likely be known for months.

BIDEN: Let's see what happens. You know, as that old expression goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, we're going to know shortly.


MATTINGLY: And Wolf, U.S. officials think surely could be anywhere between three and six months several different dialogues are expected to continue in those months between the two sides. And one notable incremental step, both ambassadors back home in their countries as tensions increased over the course of the last several months are expected to head back to their countries in the course of the next several weeks.

But it's worth noting, Wolf, President Biden making very clear he believes he has done what he came to do. But there are so many outstanding questions in so many areas where the countries with this very, very low level of relationship are still in wildly different places. Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Phil, standby. I want to get back to you in a few moments.

But right now, I want to bring in our Moscow Correspondent Matthew Chance. He's here with us in Geneva right now.

You had a chance to question Putin at that news conference today, Matthew, He has his own spin of the summit.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN MOSCOW CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we heard Phil there saying that Biden got what he wanted to do -- done at this summit. I think Putin did as well. I mean, you know, he came here, you know, looking for a symbolic victory. And he managed to do that.

You know, he stood on the same stage as -- not stage, with the same room as President Biden. He was treated as an equal that would play very well to his domestic audience back home. And to, you know, tin- pot dictatorships that look to him for guidance around the world, quite frankly.

And President Putin, remember, was in no mood to back down.


CHANCE (voice-over): The historic summit started in chaos.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Russians on the left, Americans on the right.

CHANCE (voice-over): Kremlin and White House press packs jostling for position. U.S. and Russian presidents themselves faced off inside.

PUTIN (through translator): And I hope that our meeting will be productive.

BIDEN: It's always better to meet face to face.

CHANCE (voice-over): Always better to meet face to face, he said. The words drowned out by the scuffles.

The undiplomatic starts to this controversial meeting, set the tone.

(On camera): Could you characterize the dynamic between yourself and President Biden? Was it hostile or was it friendly?

PUTIN (through translator): I think there was no hostility. Quite the contrary. And we don't share the same positions in many areas. But I think that both of these sides showed a willingness to understand one another, and to find ways to bring our positions closer together.

CHANCE (voice-over): But there are some things the two presidents will never agree on. Like the appalling treatment of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition figure who was poisoned then jailed, his anticorruption campaign shut down. Russian military threats against Ukraine, as well as cyberattacks emanating from Russia are also a major thorn in the relationship side. And something President Biden once stopped.

(On camera): Secondly, throughout these conversations, did you commit to ceasing carrying out cyberattacks on the United States? Did you commit to stopping threatening Ukraine's security? And did you commit to stop cracking down on the opposition in Russia?

PUTIN (through translator): As for cyber security, we reached an agreement, chiefly, that we will start negotiations on that. I think that's extremely important.

CHANCE (voice-over): It was only a partial answer and the press conference almost moved on. But to his credit, President Putin took my follow up.

PUTIN (through translator): Some of the question not answered?

CHANCE (on camera): That's correct. And thank you very much for coming back to me, sir. So there were two other parts of the question. The first one is did you commit in these meetings to stop threatening Ukraine?

Remember, the reason this summit was called in the first place or the timing of it was when Russia was building up lots of forces possible from there (ph). And the second part of the question, the third part of the question was, did you commit to stopping your crackdown against the opposition groups inside Russia led by Alexei Navalny?

PUTIN (through translator): Well, I didn't hear that part of the question. Maybe it wasn't interpreted or maybe you just decided to ask a second question.

CHANCE (voice-over): On Ukraine, he restated the Kremlin's line about exercises on Russian soil being a threat to no one. And he again refused to utter Alexei Navalny's name.

PUTIN (through translator): This person knew that he was breaching the laws effective in Russia. He should have noted that as a person who was convicted two times.


I'd like to underscore that he deliberately ignored the crime of signal loss. This person went abroad for treatment. And he didn't register with the authorities. And in he went to -- came out of the hospital. And then, he recorded a video, post it on the internet.

And then, that requirement arrived. And didn't appear, he ignored the law. And he was then -- he knew that he was then being investigated. And he came back deliberately. He did what he wanted to do.


CHANCE: All right. Well, some agreement then. But real, you know, no real agreement, no real movement on the part of President Putin on those core areas of disagreement, Ukraine, cyber warfare in the crackdown at home. Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, good point. Excellent questioning as well. Stick around.

I also want to bring in our CNN Reporter, Natasha Bertrand, our Senior White House Correspondent Phil Mattingly is still with us as well.

Natasha, considering how low the U.S. Russia relationship had gotten in recent years, and the respectful words, both of these leaders, were at least uttering today, could this summit be seen as a success?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN REPORTER: I think that remains to be seen, Wolf. And this is something that President Biden emphasized during his press conference as well is that, now is when the real hard work starts. After this summit, they're going to be negotiating over the next three to six months to see if anything that they discussed at the summit today can actually be delivered, can actually be negotiated on and can actually improve relations between the U.S. and Russia.

But I think that it would be impossible to look at this summit and this meeting between Putin and Biden without comparing it to President Trump and their -- the last meeting in Helsinki that Trump had with President Putin.

Part of the reason why they wanted to have this summit is not to reset the relationship which the White House, of course, hate saying, but maybe to recalibrate it from a president who Putin could use to divide and to undermine Western democracy to saw chaos in the West and in the United States to a president who stands for, frankly, the complete opposite of that, who had all of these meetings with G7 and E.U. and NATO allies beforehand, so that he could actually come to this meeting with the wind at his back as White House officials have been saying to us with this united front against the Russians, and Vladimir Putin, frankly, who still see themselves, frankly, in opposition to the West.

And so, I think that this is going to be a starting point for the president who really likes to have these face to face conversations with foreign leaders, and the Russian president to kind of, you know, figure each other out a bit, see how the relationship can move forward, if at all. Of course, Putin really did not budge on a number of issues today. So, we'll see whether that's even plausible.

But again, this is the White House's attempt to kind of recalibrate the relationship after four years of, frankly, chaos in the U.S. Russia relationship.

BLITZER: And we watched both of these men over the years. I will say that both of these presidents seem to be in their respectful elements today and enjoyed what they were doing.

Now, Phil, did President Biden, from your perspective, go far enough to make it clear that Russia will face serious consequences for its malign behavior?

MATTINGLY: You know, not to dodge the question, Wolf, but time will tell, I think, to some degree. The President didn't go into explicit detail in terms of the red lines and how the warnings for repercussions that he laid out. He made very clear he was going to in this meeting, before the meeting itself.

But I think the most -- one of the most interesting illusions he made during his press conference was to the U.S. cyber capabilities and making clear to President Putin and in his belief, thinking that President Putin understood that the U.S. offensive cyber capabilities put it in an elevated space, if they decide to actually deploy them and use them. Something they have started to do more and more over the course of the last several years.

So, I think, that was certainly laid down, kind of threw down the gauntlet on that. And I think also the idea that if something happens to Alexei Navalny, there will be devastating repercussions. And I think he doesn't mean just from the U.S. in isolation, I think he means from every leader that he met with over the course of the last couple of weeks at G7 and NATO.

I do think, Wolf, in order to back it up, those meetings that he had coming into it are extremely important. The ability to be able to kind of unify the West, if they're going to have to push sanctions, things of that nature is extremely important. But I think that sanctions haven't worked to change behavior over the course of the last seven years.

And so, the idea that the U.S. is willing to deploy offensive cyber capabilities and the president laying out how good he thinks they are, and perhaps President Putin knows they are, is an important element here.

BLITZER: It certainly is. You know, Natasha, what, just about three years ago in Helsinki in 2018, when then President Trump was standing next to Putin. And Trump, as we all remember, sided with Putin as opposed to his own U.S. intelligence agencies when it comes to Russia's interference in the 2016 election.


So, even if President Biden now doesn't come away with some big wins, if you will, at least he was, for all practical purposes, addressing that in his own way.

BERTRAND: He was. And this is, again, I think, why the White House really wanted to and wanted to push for this summit. Not only because they want to recalibrate this relationship with the Russians, but also because they kind of want to focus their attention elsewhere.

They really want to focus their attention a bit more if they can on China, which has been a big priority for the National Security Council, and is to Biden one of the biggest, if not the biggest foreign policy challenge in his mind facing the United States today.

And so, I think that this contrast that we saw today between President Trump and President Biden is an attempt for the administration to say, look, we are now -- we are the adults in the room, we are going to try to do diplomacy with Vladimir Putin, we're not going to be soft on him, we are going to speak frankly, and we're going to see if this works. And if it doesn't, then we'll take it from there.

It is a damned if you do, damned if you don't kind of situation is what a former senior official was telling me about this relationship. And I think they want to show that President Biden can strike a balance here.

Again, President Putin is kind of the wild card in this situation. He is unpredictable, it remains to be seen whether he is going to want to work at all with the U.S. on any of these issues. It is frankly unlikely in a lot of areas, but they're trying in this instance.

BLITZER: I thought it was significant, you know, Matthew, Putin, he spoke first, there were two separate news conferences. Putin went first, you know, Biden wrap things up. But it was Putin who announced that the U.S. ambassador in Moscow would return, the Russian ambassador in Washington would return. It was Putin who announced that when it comes to the cyber warfare issue, there would be substantive discussions between both countries going forward. He was making some announcements that I thought were modest, but potentially significant.

CHANCE: Yes, there were the fringe tensions, the surface tensions in this relationship. I mean, which, you know, President Putin has been keen to, you know, to calm down. Because, you know, he also wants to sort of, I've used this metaphor before, but he put the brake on the runaway train. That's the U.S. Russian relationship.

But there's been, you know, so many sanctions piled on the country for so many issues, has had a real impact on the economy. He's got parliamentary elections coming up in a couple of months from now. He doesn't want that to intensify even further.

I mean, the problem is, this whole idea of sort of threatening Vladimir Putin with consequences if he acts in a malign way around the world. Kind of heard it before. You know, it's been tried before.


CHANCE: And, you know, sanctions so far under any of the other presidents have impose them on the Kremlin have not done anything, really, to change Kremlin policy. And so, it's hard to see is going to be different this time.

BLITZER: Putin has been in power, what, for 22 years now. It's a long time.

CHANCE: Right.

BLITZER: He's got -- he thinks a long way to go as well.

Guys, thank you very, very much. We're going to have much more ahead on what has had been going on today here in Geneva.

Both President Biden and President Putin say they did make progress on their shared goals at today's summit. Among those goals, reducing the risks of armed conflict and the threat of nuclear war. We're going to get reaction from former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster when we come back.



BLITZER: Joint U.S. Russian statement issued after today's Biden Putin summit here in Geneva, looking at live pictures right now, noted that even in periods of tension, the United States and Russia are able to make progress on their shared goals, including reducing the risk of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war.

Let's get the insights right now with former Trump Administration National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, he's the author of the book "Battlegrounds, The Fight to Defend the Free World."

General, thank you so much for joining us.

How important is it to America's national security for President Biden to warn Putin in person that there will be consequences for malign behavior?

GEN. H.R. MCMASTER (RET.), FORMER TRUMP NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, Wolf, it's great to be with you.

It's very important. I think what Putin will get away with -- he'll do everything he can to continue this sustained campaign against us if he can get away with it, right? And so, what Russia is trying to do is divide us, disrupt us, and to deny their aggressive action against us.

So, I think -- I'm sure the conversations began with laying out to Putin, we know what you're doing, we know that you're condoning, you know, the use of these criminal organizations to conduct ransomware attacks against our companies and our critical infrastructure. And I think he probably communicated to him that we will regard these just like we would regard physical attacks in the future. And there's going to be a price you're going to have to pay if you continue this aggression.

So, I think it was an important message to deliver. And now, of course, we just have to watch to see how Putin responds. And if there is a drop in these ransomware attacks, which is, you know, have increased by orders of magnitude in the last couple of months.

BLITZER: And as you know, back in 2018, in that meeting that then President Trump had with Putin in Helsinki, Trump sided with Putin over the U.S. Intelligence Community's assessment on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. How far did President Biden go today, General, in trying to correct this relationship?

MCMASTER: Well, I think it's really important, Wolf, to pull the curtain back on what Russia does, right? It's a campaign of disruption, disinformation and denial. And my friend Mark (ph) said, well, the old national security adviser for the U.K., he called it implausible deniability, right? I mean, he -- Putin endeavors to literally get away with murder. And so, it's important for us to all speak with one voice across the free world. And among those countries that are targeted by this Russian aggression, and pull the curtain back on his activity.

It's important not to give Putin's space to operate because you saw on that press conference today, he was conducting an operation against us there, right? This was part of his continued effort to polarized Americans, pit us against each other. And most importantly reduce our confidence in who we are as a people and in our democratic institutions and processes and to suggest a kind of moral equivalency, you know, between his murderous actions and repression of his people, his aggressive acts of broad, his enabling of serial episodes of mass homicide in Syria, for example, suggesting a world equivalence between us and Russia is ludicrous, but he's brazen. And he's a very smooth savvy, liar and operator.


BLITZER: And you were President Trump's national security adviser. He doesn't seem to -- he didn't agree with you on these kinds of issues, what Russia was really up to in the United States. He almost always sided with Russia. And we certainly saw that very vividly at Helsinki. Why do you think he was like that?

MCMASTER: Well, Wolf, what he did is he conflated three related questions, but distinct questions. Did Russia attack our elections as part of their sustained campaign of political subversion against us? The answer to that is, heck, yes, they did.

The second is, did Russia really care who won? Were they trying to tip the scales? I personally don't believe they were. I think what Russia really wanted to do is to ensure that a large number of Americans doubted the legitimacy of the result. And I think in 2016, Vladimir Putin was just as surprised as maybe you and Donald Trump was that he won the election.

And then finally, did that meddling, did that attack, did that disinformation and propaganda have an effect on the election? We'll never know that. But President Trump had a hard time separating those. And so, what's really important is for no American politician to give Putin's space.

What happens, Wolf, across, I think, across the political divide and spectrum these days is too many of our leader's compromise principle to score partisan political points. And when they do that, you know, with unfounded, you know, unfounded claims of mass fraud during the election or these crazy conspiracy theories, they play into Putin's hands.

BLITZER: They certainly do. As you know and as you heard President Biden ticked off several areas of possible cooperation with Russia, he mentioned Afghanistan, Syria, the Arctic, for example, you served more than three decades in the U.S. Army, retired as a general, how closely do American and Russian interests actually align in those areas?

MCMASTER: You know, they don't align because Putin is driven by not only interest but by emotion. Wolf, this is a man who was driven mainly by a sense of honor lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. And an associated drive, a drive to restore Russia to national greatness.

And the only way he can do that, because he can't compete with us on his own terms is with this campaign of disruption, disinformation and denial and an effort really, to drag all of us down or to help us drag ourselves down under the theory that he can be the last man standing.

So, it's really important for us to compete effectively with Russia, you know, first of all by strengthening ourselves, stop being our own worst enemies. Americans, I think, at this point, need to recognize the threat, Wolf, come together, restore our confidence in who we are as a people and in our democratic principles and institutions and processes.

BLITZER: That would be so good if that were to happen.

General McMaster, thanks so much for joining us. Appreciate it very much.

Up next, how will President Biden summit performance play at home where his domestic agenda right now seems to be stalling?



BLITZER: We're live here in Geneva where President Biden departed just a few hours ago following his historic first summit meeting with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. Before he left the Geneva, Mr. Biden took questions from reporters, one of which he apparently did not like. Listen to this exchange he had with our Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIE WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Why are you so confident he'll change his behavior, Mr. President?

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, I'm not confident he'll change his behavior. Where the hell -- what do you do all the time? When did I say I was confident?

I owe my last question an apology. I shouldn't have -- I shouldn't have been such a wise guy with the last answer I gave.


BLITZER: Let's discuss that and more with our Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger, and our CNN Chief National Affairs Correspondent, Jeff Zeleny. Jeff, what did you make of that moment when the President actually, before boarding Air Force One, went to meet with the Air Force One press poll (ph) in the back of the plane on the Tarmac and actually apologize to Kaitlan?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as you know, presidents rarely come back and talk before boarding something especially after giving a news conference. He really had had the final word but he wasn't happy with his final word.

So clearly, what happened between leaving the press conference site and the airport, his aides told him he needed to make this right. He came off as very sharp and it was very, really a discordant with his other message. He was in such a, you know, good spirits, a mood of confidence, and he really snapped at Kaitlan, which, of course, was a perfectly legitimate question to ask.

But this is always revealing. Whenever a president snaps like that or any public figure, frankly, it's revealing of something. So he may be a little sensitive to the fact that, of course, he's not sure what Vladimir Putin is going to do. And he did say that we'll have to see in the next three months, six months, 12 months, but that is always a window into what someone is thinking.


Yes, he's probably tired after being on the road for more than a week, but that snapping like that clearly he knew he had to clean it up and we know by covering him for a long time. He has done that more than once. But the apology is also classic Joe Biden.

He knew he had to apologize. He didn't want this to appear like it was a sexist attack or it really a disrespectful attack. So I think we're, you know, we're certainly glad he cleaned it up. But Kaitlan, of course, was asking a very reasonable question.

BLITZER: Question was totally legitimate.

ZELENY: For sure.

BLITZER: And the President did the right thing. He apologized for it --

ZELENY: Right.

BLITZER: -- and said he was sorry. You know, Gloria, the White House repeatedly lowered expectations ahead of this summit, they clearly didn't want the American public to expect any major breakthroughs or concessions from Putin, for that matter. How do you think this summit played for a domestic U.S. audience?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, what the White House kept on saying, a voice that they wanted some kind of predictability and some kind of stability, to return to the relationship. And I think when you talk to people at the White House, they will say that that is what they delivered.

And what they also delivered was a President who wanted to meet with Putin face to face and tell him face to face what the consequences of his malign activities would be. And that is exactly what he did. He said, you have to expect us to mention human rights. We cannot have conversations unless we talk about human rights.

If you engage in malign cyber activity, we retaliate. Biden said that he told Putin that. It was very clear from listening to Putin that the conversation was frank and direct and that Biden did not want to be seen as naive or taking in everything that Putin said at face value. They understand each other, they dealt with each other that way.

BLITZER: He's got a huge domestic agenda. He's going to be working on as soon as he gets back to Washington in a few hours. Do you think this trip is going to help him the outcome of this trip?

ZELENY: Certainly gives him some confidence, I think. I mean, this is his preferred venue, being on the foreign stage, talking to world leaders at NATO, really other places. It's much easier than dealing with Republicans in Congress. And he has seen that, you know, during the first several months of his term.

But look, I'm not sure that this helps him that much with his infrastructure plan or, you know, the immigration issue or police reform, because the reality is things are pretty dug in, in Washington. And, you know, he's not been given much of a chance by the opposition party. That's just how things are now.

But I think in just the sense of the fact that this meeting was really deemed successful over here, it's pretty hard to criticize him for this for now. So we will see what other, you know, it brings, but on infrastructure, this has been working behind the scenes.

He was asked today if he's up to speed on the details, he said, no, not quite frankly. But Ron Klain, the White House Chief of Staff, who's back in Washington during all this, has been following all this. So tomorrow, a little bit to more details, but there are significant divisions among Democrats, which he'll have to help heal.

BORGER: You guys are in Geneva.

BLITZER: Gloria, you wanted to make a point?

BORGER: Yes, but you guys are in Geneva so you might not know this. But some Republicans are already coming out and criticizing the Biden- Putin summit, saying that Biden was too weak on Putin. And I think, you know, that's kind of rich (ph) coming after the last four years. And President Trump's relationship with Putin, whom he could never seem to criticize, but they are doing that. And I think you can expect that on everything else, they will remain just as critical.

BLITZER: Yes, I think you're right. All right, Gloria, thank you. Jeff Zeleny, thanks to you as well.

After today's summit here in Geneva, the Russian President compared pro-democracy protests in Russia to the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, a comparison President Biden flatly rejected. We're going to get reaction from Democratic Senator Chris Coons. He's a key member of the Foreign Relations Committee.


BLITZER: We're live here in Geneva where President Biden and President Putin met today. Before heading back to Washington, President Biden described the tone of their summit as good and positive. President Putin called the talks efficient and substantive. But Putin also dodged questions about his crackdown on dissidents trying to equate it to the demonstrations after the death of George Floyd and the arrests after the January 6th riot at the U.S. Capitol. Listen to this.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translations): America just recently had very severe events after -- well-known events, after the killing of an African American. And an entire movement developed known as Black Lives Matter. What we saw was disorder, destruction, violations of the law. We don't want that to happen on our territory. People came to the U.S. Congress with political demands.

Four-hundred people, over 400 people had criminal charges placed on them. They faced prison sentences of up to 20, maybe even 25 years. They're being called domestic terrorists. It's unclear on what grounds. Some people died. And when the people had died, there was simply shot on the spot by the police, although they were not threatening the police with any weapons.


BLITZER: All right, let's discuss with Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. He's a key member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also a very close to the President of the United States. That was classic Russian, whataboutism as it's called, but do Americans domestic divisions help Putin undermine U.S. democracy?

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE): Look, broadly speaking Wolf, the divisions within our country, the Riot at the Capitol on January 6th has been used by some of our opponents. Folks like President Putin, like Xi Jinping of China, to spread doubt about the vibrancy and the viability of American democracy.


But there is no equivalency between the ways in which Putin's Russia have been going after peaceful pro-democracy protesters, like Alexei Navalny, who he's poisoned, and now thrown into jail, on trumped-up charges. And the folks who've been charged with assault, because of their participation in breaking into the U.S. Capitol and assaulting police officers. There's a real false equivalency going on there between Putin and what's happening in his country and what's happening in ours.

BLITZER: Yes, it was interesting, though, that Putin decided to raise it. The summit yield a few results, but it did give President Biden, Senator, the chance to raise his concerns directly with Putin. Considering sort of miserable state of the relationship with Russia right now, is that enough? Is that enough, at least for now? COONS: Well, the summit has ended with an agreement that our ambassadors will return to each other's countries. And I, frankly, believe that this shows you the benefits of having a seasoned and experienced President, someone who knew who he was going to meet, and did what he needed to do.

He went to Geneva to deliver a forceful message in-person to President Putin, essentially to say cut it out, to stop with the cyberattacks like the summer winds hack that infiltrated so much of our critical national infrastructure, to stop with the ransomware attacks, and to stop with interfering in our elections.

But that is the sort of message best delivered in-person and forcefully. And President Biden was just the right person to do it, given his decades of experience of dealing with Russians and before that Soviet leaders.

BLITZER: Senator, I know we only have a minute left, but very quickly, I understand 20 senators, 10 Democrats, 10 Republicans, including you, you're a Democrat, reach some sort of compromise on infrastructure spending, at least 60 senators. Are you going to get to 60? And will President Biden, your good friend, will he support your latest compromise?

COONS: I'm hopeful. You know, Wolf, the last major piece of legislation we took up and passed here in the Senate was broadly bipartisan. It was the U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness Act. It's to invest in our own research and development in manufacturing to make us more competitive with China and other countries.

I'm hopeful that as President Biden returns, as our economy is the strongest of the G7 due to his American Rescue Plan, that we, in the Senate, will show that we can legislate in a balanced and bipartisan way to deliver a big infrastructure package.

There was some positive movement today by the team that Senator Sinema and Portman have been leading. And I was happy to lend my support to that as well.

BLITZER: Let's see what happens on that front. Thank you very much, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. Appreciate it. Always good to have you here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

COONS: Thank you.

BLITZER: There's more breaking news just ahead, that much more on the historic Biden-Putin summit. And we're also following new Israeli airstrikes in Gaza in response to the launch of balloons carrying incendiary devices.



BLITZER: Much more on today's historic summit here in Geneva in just a moment, but first, the launch of incendiary balloons prompted new Israeli airstrikes on Gaza in the first major test of the new Israeli government. CNN's Oren Liebermann has the latest.


OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The next flight between Israel and Gaza is already building. Overnight Wednesday, the Israeli Air Force carried out its first airstrikes in Gaza since last month ceasefire, destroying what it said were Hamas military sites. The strikes, a response to balloons carrying incendiary materials for Gaza that sparked 20 fires in southern Israel Tuesday.

Scorched-earth in a region already smoldering. The renewed balloon launches coming the same day as the provocative flag March outside the entrance to the Muslim Quarter, the Old City of Jerusalem. Some far- right Israeli extremists chanting death to Arabs. This is the first major test for Israel's new government led by novice Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, the right-wing leader pushed for a harsher more hardline approach to Hamas during the last escalation.

NAFTALI BENNETT, MEMBER OF KNESSET (through translations): Under no circumstances will I allow myself to have my hands tied while defending my people. In the past, Bennett criticized Netanyahu for being too soft on Hamas. Now, Bennett must carve out his own policy.

AARON DAVID MILLER, FORMER STATE DEPT. MIDDLE EAST NEGOTIATOR: Each side tried to find a way to discharge their responsibilities and maintain a certain amount of credibility and deterrence without taking the lid off the pot and making this into a full-blown escalation.

LIEBERMANN (voice-over): Eleven days of fighting last month left 232 Palestinians and 12 Israelis dead, both sides claiming victory but neither side achieving it. The Biden administration vowing to help rebuild Gaza in a way that doesn't strengthen Hamas. An easy promise to make a very hard one to keep.

MILLER: The Biden administration will not want to push this government. I think you're in for a real honeymoon and that's going to involve not pressing the Israelis on any aspect of the Palestinian issue.

LIEBERMANN (voice-over): A day later, militants launched more burning balloons from Gaza into Israel. Hamas demanding an end to the blockade of the coastal enclave as the risk of the next fight floats overhead.


LIEBERMANN: For the past few years, there had been an informal if -- behind the scenes relationship between former Prime Minister Netanyahu and Hamas in Gaza that ran through intermediaries.


Now, it's up to the new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to figure out his relationship promising a harder line there without any miscalculations on either side. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Oren, thank you very much. Oren Liebermann reporting.

There's breaking news. Coming up next, President Biden and Russian President Putin to wrap up their historic first summit meeting here in Geneva. We're going to hear what both leaders are saying about it. That's coming up.


BLITZER: We're coming to you live from Geneva, Switzerland. Happening now, breaking news. President Biden puts a positive spin on his critical meeting with Vladimir Putin.