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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

'Disgraceful Performance' by President Trump at Putin Meeting?; Ex-CIA Chief: Trump "Nothing Short of Treasonous" At Briefing. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired July 16, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Telling me Mr. Trump was -- quote -- "played like a fiddle," calling the press conference an unmitigated disaster and embarrassing.

The former CIA Director John Brennan is calling today's performance by President Trump -- quote -- "nothing short of treasonous," after the president of the United States stood side by side with Russian President Vladimir Putin, refusing to say who he believes when it comes to interfering in the 2016 U.S. election, U.S. intelligence agencies or Vladimir Putin.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have great confidence in my intelligence people but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: President Trump apparently trusting the word of Vladimir Putin over the U.S. intelligence community, which concluded in a January 2017 report -- quote -- "We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election."

And over at the Justice Department, which announced just two days ago the indictment, of course, of 12 Russian military intelligence officers for conspiring to interfere in the election.

The comment came after Trump and Putin met for two hours with only interpreters present, no other aides. Not even his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, was present for the one-on-one.

Pompeo, you might remember, attested to Russia's meddling when he was the CIA director just last year.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I am confident that the Russians meddled in this election, as is the entire intelligence community.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So, not only did President Trump disagree with that today, suggesting strongly that he sided with Putin because he didn't see any reason why Russia would do what he is accused of doing, but when asked who he believed, he immediately launched into an attack on Hillary Clinton and the DNC e-mail server and the FBI and American journalists, seeming to suggest yet again Democrats, Democrats are the one to blame for the cyber-attack, that the Democrats should have had better security.

President Trump today also called Putin a good competitor, saying that he meant this as a compliment and asks if he holds Russia accountable for anything in the breakdown of the relationship, could not name one thing or at least did not. He did not note the seizure of Crimea, nor did he note the invasion of Eastern Ukraine.

He didn't mention the poisoning of individuals in the U.K. or, of course, the major cyber-attack and interference in the U.S. election in 2016. President Trump instead -- quote -- "We are all to blame" for the poor relationship between the U.S. and Russia and that the relationship has never been worse, but also that it had changed as of four hours ago.

It is not hard to see why that might be, but now the key question seems to be, why? Why does the president of the United States believe Vladimir Putin, former KGB officer, over officials in the United States of America?

I want to go now to CNN senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, do White House officials realize how horrified so many Americans are today, Democrats, Republicans, independents, by the president seemingly siding with Putin against Americans on the question of an attack by Russia on the United States?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Jake, it certainly is settling into them and it was shortly after that news conference when I actually heard from a senior White House official who was asking me, how bad is this? That's gone really to be the theme of the day.

a senior U.S. official, a separate official I was speaking with earlier said, this was not the plan. The president was going to talk about election meddling and then pivot to other matters. That certainly didn't happen, as we know.

The president is about two-and-a-half-hours or so into his flight back to Washington, is already trying to do some explaining. Of course, he just sent out a message just a few minutes ago, Jake.

He says this. He said: "As I have said and many times before, I have great confidence in my intelligence people. However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past. As the world's two largest nuclear powers, we must get along!"

That certainly was the theme of his message here, but there's no question Helsinki did not turn out like he hoped it would.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

ZELENY (voice-over): With the eyes of the world on Helsinki, President Trump accepted the word of Vladimir Putin over considerable evidence from the U.S. intelligence community and Justice Department that Russia attacked American democracy.

TRUMP: I have great confidence in my intelligence people. But I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.

ZELENY: It was an extraordinary moment in American history, a new chapter in the long rocky road of U.S.-Russia relations. It wasn't the president's repeated denial of election interference that drew condemnation, but the fact that he did so at Putin's side.

TRUMP: It was a clean campaign. I beat Hillary Clinton easily and,, frankly, we beat her. And I'm not even saying from the standpoint -- we won that race. And it's a shame that there could be a little bit of a cloud over it.

[16:05:05]

ZELENY: Going into the summit, it seems Putin's biggest victory would be his reentry on the world stage, away from his isolation.

Yet, in the end, Trump offered a far bigger gift, suggesting the slate be wiped clean of Putin's old misdeeds and atrocities. And he blasted the special counsel's investigation into election meddling.

TRUMP: I do feel that we have both made some mistakes. I think that the probe is a disaster for our country. I think it's kept us apart, it's kept us separated. There was no collusion at all. Everybody knows it.

ZELENY: The president repeated that point again and again.

TRUMP: Zero collusion. I say it all the time. There was no collusion. There was no collusion with the campaign.

ZELENY: Putin echoed those words.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): We should be guided by facts. Can you name a single fact that would definitively prove the collusion? This is utter nonsense.

ZELENY: The two leaders met privately, with only interpreters in the room, for about two hours.

That's when the topic of election meddling came up, with no other aides to hear the conversation. As Democrats, Republicans and officials from within the Trump government expressed disbelief, Russia had another view.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov calling the summit magnificent and better than super. Trump started the day cooling his heels after Putin's plane landed nearly an hour later than scheduled, a diplomatic delay perhaps, making clear the summit was on Putin time.

By day's end, Putin answered another lingering question.

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.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: Now, that, of course, is at odds of what President Trump has been arguing and saying for more than two years, Jake, even back during the presidential campaign.

He was always saying that Russia doesn't want him to win the election because he will be harder on them. Well, today here in Helsinki in the Presidential Palace behind us, that's where that myth was dispelled. President Putin saying with his own words, those three words, "Yes, I did," wanting Donald Trump to be the 45th U.S. president -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Jeff Zeleny, thanks so much.

Let's talk about this with my panel of experts.

David Gergen, President Trump saying in Twitter, doing a little revisionism, "I said I have great faith in my intelligence people," which he did say, but the rest of the sentence is, but Putin strongly denies this or something along those lines. I'm defending it.

That was the meat of what he was getting at. Have you ever before seen a U.S. president side with a former KGB official, a country and a leader that are hostile to the United States, over U.S. intelligence agencies?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, usually, presidents of the United States try to steer clear of KGB agents and not talk to them at all.

But once you do, do that, as president of the United States, no, this is unprecedented. And I think the stupefaction that you're finding all around this country, but also around the world, it's scary to people here in Europe to hear this. And they're going to be relying more on their own themselves again. Merkel said that a while back when he started this insult tour.

But I think this put him -- he was so much on the world stage. Everybody was watching, a big moment in the presidency, and he fell on his face in terms of his argument and made it very clear that, for psychological reasons, because he has something to hide, who knows why, he sides with the Russians over Americans on a lot of things, starting with intelligence.

TAPPER: So, Kaitlan Collins, President Trump's whole pitch to voters was, he was going to make America great again, put America first.

How are White House officials attempting to explain how siding with Russia over American intelligence officials, his own intelligence officials, over the issue of Russia attacking the United States in the cyber-realm, how is that putting America first?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: White House officials don't know how to defend this.

Not a single person I have spoken to from the White House has been able to spin this or frame this in a positive light for them because they realize that the president stood there next to the Russian president and publicly challenged U.S. intelligence in front of the entire world on the world stage and gave Russia -- Vladimir Putin all of this legitimacy even after he attacked our election.

I talked to several officials today. They were speechless, dumbstruck. They truly didn't know what to say back. And then, of course, the aides who traveled with the president got on Air Force One with him, turned their phones off and are on their way back to Washington for the eight-and-a-half-hour flight back there.

So, they're not fielding inquiries, so it left to the people back in D.C. who are having to clean up this mess from the president. And you see the president is clearly watching the coverage of this and trying to do that on his own.

[16:10:02]

And I asked one White House official, a senior White House official, if anyone is going to resign over this, that the president is completely disagreeing with his intelligence agencies who he's in charge of.

They joked, good question. They couldn't say, no, John Bolton is not going to resign, no, Mike Pence is not going to resign, no, Dan Coats is not going to resign, because they realize just how serious this truly is.

TAPPER: This just in.

Putin has told Russian state-run Channel One of President Trump that he's, -- quote -- "a very competent man, he's in the know, he listens and on some issues he sticks to his opinion" -- unquote.

Admiral Kirby, the response that we have seen from Russia, from Lavrov, the foreign minister, from Russian state television, they are delighted.

Is there anything that President Trump did or said today that the Russians might take issue with? Did you see anything?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Not in the press conference, Jake, but your question is exactly the right one, because there's a whole heck of a lot that happened today we don't know about.

Nobody else was in that room. I think what probably is worrying policy-makers much more than the press conference is what they agreed to, what he said, what concessions did he make that now they're going to have to execute? That's the real worry.

TAPPER: Talk about that, if you would, Michelle.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Yes, there was one thing that stood out.

When Putin was speaking, I think he was asked -- I don't remember what the question was, but on the question of Crimea and what President Trump told him when they were one on one, and you could see Putin think for a moment, and then he said, well, President Trump stood by the belief that it was illegal.

And you thought, OK, ding, that was one check for the U.S. side. That was one place. And U.S. allies have been very worried that in that meeting Trump would give some kind of tacit agreement that Crimea is Russia or would make some kind of agreement to lessen support for Ukraine.

So Putin did say that Trump stuck to his guns on that. Of course, we don't really know what was said. But that was maybe the one check mark in the U.S. box and virtually everything else seemed a big win for Putin.

TAPPER: David, the Republican Party has for years, for decades, as long as I have been alive, been a hawkish party.

GERGEN: Yes.

TAPPER: Been a party that doesn't trust the Soviet Union at first and now Russia, a party that believes in strength.

GERGEN: Right.

TAPPER: This is not the Republican Party that I grew up knowing of. This is a Republican Party -- I mean, he didn't have Neville Chamberlain's male, but this was an appeasing president today.

GERGEN: I agree with that, Jake.

And there's no serious division within the Republican Party, or hasn't been for the last 40 years.

One time there was an isolationist wing which was very powerful. But the internationalists won out basically in the 1950s basically and were in charge of a Republican foreign policy up until a few years ago.

Trump has basically hijacked a lot of that or persuaded people to follow him. He has got 25 percent of Republicans now approve of Putin. And that's about double what it was a year ago. And he gradually brought a lot of people over. I think this is going

to put a screeching halt to that migration. I don't just see how you continue as a Republican Party to throw your arms around Putin.

TAPPER: One of the questions, of course, right now is, is this a line for Republicans?

All the Republicans that have been delighted in President Trump's Supreme Court picks, in the tax cut, is this show of deference to Vladimir Putin over the United States, making Russia great again, is that going to cause any resignations in the Trump administration or any serious congressional action from people who are not already critics of the president, such as Will Hurd, such as Jeff Flake?

What do you think?

COLLINS: It's really hard to see how someone doesn't resign over this.

That will actually be very telling. The two main people would be Dan Coats, of course, the intelligence chief, and the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, who told reporters 11 days ago that the president was going to confront Vladimir Putin over election meddling.

We saw Dan Coats swiftly come out with a statement saying he stands by his findings, his exhaustive findings that Russia did meddle in the election, something that a source told CNN they did not clear with the White House before they published that statement.

It's unclear if that could lead to his resignation potentially. Of course, that's really up for debate, but we have seen several Republicans in Congress come out with these statements, some calling the president out by name, including the one from House Speaker Paul Ryan, saying that, no, Russia did meddle in the election, actually.

I think we will continue to see that pile up as the president is on his way back to Washington. But the question is, does it go past just a strongly worded statement that says something along the lines of I condemn in the strongest possible terms?

TAPPER: Right.

COLLINS: But we did reach out to all of these people who have in the past said that Russia did meddle in the election to get comment back from these people in the administration, Pompeo, Bolton, everyone. So far, only Coats has responded.

TAPPER: Yes, and this is a big week for people's legacies. They're going to write it one way or another.

[16:15:00] Everyone, stick around.

President Trump headed back to Washington, D.C. right now. But not before one senator says the president's meeting with allies and with Putin were a, quote, middle finger to the United States. That senator joins me live next. Plus, so much for America first. A look at the president's America

second mentality coming to his friend Vladimir Putin.

This is THE LEAD and we are live from Allas Sea Pool in Helsinki, Finland.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Special coverage of the Trump/Putin summit it Helsinki or whatever that was.

Let's continue the conversation.

I want to show you guys something. A very strong statement from former CIA Director John Brennan. He served obviously in many administrations, but was a CIA director for Obama.

He wrote, quote, Donald Trump's press conference performance in Helsinki rises to and exceeds the threshold of high crimes and misdemeanors. It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump's comment's imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican patriots, where are you? Three question marks.

[16:20:01] Mr. Kirby, forget the high crimes and misdemeanors but do you think that this will prompt Republicans, such as your former boss Chuck Hagel, who's been critical, although he worked in the Obama administration, so he's kind of a special I guess. But do you think this is going to prompt Republicans the take more of a stand?

KIRBY: I hope so, Jake. And I heard Secretary Hagel today saying that he believed President Trump failed America. I associate myself strongly with Secretary Hagel's comments in that regard. I don't know where it's going to go.

And I think, you know, the Republican Party and the Republican base, they're not homogenous. They don't all think alike. There are wings in there. I do hope that they finally now see what they have in the White House and that they're willing and prove able to push back on him in meaningful ways, not just with the tweets and the statements that we've seen today. That's reassuring, but actually pushing back on him with legislation that limit some of the -- his powers and his ability to further this relationship with Russia.

TAPPER: I'm no expert on Congresswoman Liz Cheney. I know she is a Republican. I know she is from Wyoming. I know she's rather hawkish like her father, the former Vice President Cheney.

She did issue a very strong statement on Twitter that I want to read. It says, I'm deeply troubled by President Trump's defense of Putin against the intelligence agencies of the United States and a suggestion of moral equivalence between the United States and Russia. Russia poses a grave threat to our national security.

Do you think we are going to see action? I mean, I don't want to discount Liz Cheney speaking up because that's something. But are we going to see actual action from members of Congress?

KOSINSKI: You know, we also saw an interesting statement pushing back from the Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman's daughter. So, we're seeing people connected to this even come out.

TAPPER: Abby Huntsman?

KOSINSKI: Yes. On the Congress issue, remember, it was only days ago we saw a Republican congressional delegation go to Russia, try to talk to Putin himself. They talked to Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister, and force the issue of hacking the U.S. election and trying to do something. We saw that unanimous -- practically unanimous action on sanctions and to try to push Russia and strangle their economy as much as possible over things like this.

So yes, I feel pretty sure that Congress is going to take some action on this. It's one way, even if it doesn't make an enormous impact, I think for a lot of Republicans, it's a way to say we did something.

COLLINS: And I think it's in the past we have seen Republicans do this, like issue strongly worded statements but then not actually do anything to change what the president did or to check what the president did, but this is something that is so easy for them to stand up against. Voting is most sacred right that Americans have and today the president on live television sided with someone who tried to attack that and take that away from Americans. It is so easy for Republicans in Congress to stand up to the president on this.

GERGEN: When they go 97-2 in favor of NATO, it's very bipartisan, as well.

Jake, my sense is that Trump and his allies were having success in diminishing the Mueller investigation. You know, the tide turning against the Mueller investigation. I sense that with these indictments and with the day that that's going to stop. And it could give an extra layer of protection to Mueller.

I mean, what Republican is going to say let's stop this? You know? The intel is wrong. The chorus is so strong that I would just assume it's going to give extra protection.

TAPPER: That would be logical, but by the same token, it was just today is Monday. It was just on Friday when President Trump's own Justice Department, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said there's 12 military intelligence officers from Russia who were trying to interfere in the election, who cyber-attacked the United States of America. Here they are. Here's what they did and how they did it, here's all the information we have.

And still with that information, President Trump denigrating the Mueller investigation, and attacking the Mueller investigation.

Hold on. We have to take a quick break. We have heard from several Democrats and some Republicans all expressing outrage. Up next, I'm going to talk to a senator who has called President Trump's trip, quote, a giant middle finger from President Trump to his own country. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:28:53] TAPPER: Welcome back. We are live in Helsinki.

But back in Washington, D.C. on Capitol Hill, there is backlash over President Trump's meeting and comments with President Putin.

Republican Senator John McCain calling it, quote, one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. And Senator McCain has quite a memory.

Joining me now is Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. He serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He tweeted today, quote: This entire trip has just been one giant middle finger from President Trump to his own country, just jaw dropping.

Senator Murphy, I want to get your reaction to what President Trump said when he was asked whether he believed Russia interfered in the U.S. election. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: With that being said, all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it's Russia.

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

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: I don't see any reason why it would be Russia.

Your reaction, Senator?

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D), CONNECTICUT: So, his people didn't tell him that they thought it was Russia. His people told him that it was Russia. This is a settled fact. The intel community, American law enforcement, all 100 United States senators all agree on a fact that Russia and named individuals --