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President Trump And Putin Summit Now Underway; Robert Mueller Pushing To Finish Part of Probe By The End Of Summer; Senator Chris Coons Discusses The Trump-Putin Summit. Aired 7:30-8a ET

Aired July 16, 2018 - 07:30   ET

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


[07:30:04] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, it is on. President Trump behind closed doors at this moment in Helsinki, in Finland, with the Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

The two men sitting side-by-side just moments ago announced what they want to achieve going into this meeting. President Trump says they have a lot of good things to talk about.

Joining me now is CNN senior political commentator and former Republican senator Rick Santorum. Senator, thank you so much for being with us.

RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, (R) FORMER U.S. SENATOR, PENNSYLVANIA, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you.

BERMAN: President Trump gushed about the World Cup that just took place in Russia -- said Vladimir Putin did a good job. He said they have a lot of good things to talk about including missiles, and China, and President Xi.

He did not say anything about the Russian intervention in the U.S. election. He did not say anything about the Russian occupation of Crimea. He did not say anything about the Russian attack of a former Russian agent on British soil.

How do you assess these opening moments of this crucial meeting?

SANTORUM: I don't put much stock in them. I think it's just Trump trying to engage using his personality to try to develop a good relationship and he wasn't going to bring up anything that was particularly painful in that -- in that introductory remarks.

You know, we'll wait and see how the one-on-one and subsequent talks with staff go but I don't put too much credit -- too much weight in that -- in that first --

BERMAN: Well, I'm not sure we have to wait and see that much because one of the things the president wrote hours before heading into this meeting was, "Our relationship with Russia has never been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity. And now, the rigged witch hunt."

The Sen. Santorum that I know would demolish a U.S. president for saying that on foreign soil -- for blaming the United States for the bad relationship with Russia.

SANTORUM: Yes, I would agree that the relationship with Russia has been bad, but --

BERMAN: Because of whom?

SANTORUM: -- not because of -- well, the United States, under Barack Obama, let Russia get away with it obviously, in the Ukraine and Crimea. I mean, the reality is --

BERMAN: Yes, and they invaded Crimea. They occupied Crimea. They poisoned the Russian spy. They're aggressive --

SANTORUM: No, no. Look, I understand but we were -- we were certainly not tough. I mean, I love and, in fact, I'm actually encouraged that President Trump's activities with respect to Russia are actually bringing Democrats and Republicans together like we have not seen before under Russia, maybe.

For a long, long time, Democrats were actually closer to where Donald Trump was with respect to Russia than were Republicans have been. So I'm actually encouraged by some of the things I'm hearing from Democrats and the hardline talk. I think it deserves to be hardline.

I would never have countenance to a statement by an American president the way Donald Trump sent that tweet out. It was -- it was wrong.

But the reality is that we have an opportunity here with President Trump --

BERMAN: Yes.

SANTORUM: -- to do some things that I think are very positive. Why? Because unlike prior presidents, there's a great foreign policy team that is hardline against Russia.

President Bush didn't have that --

BERMAN: They won't be -- they won't be in the room. They won't be in the room, Senator.

SANTORUM: Not initially.

BERMAN: The first 90 minutes is President Trump with Vladimir Putin and we believe, two interpreters.

So based on this statement blaming America -- running down the United States of America for Russian policy going in, do you trust that the president alone with Vladimir Putin will carry out these policies that you're advocating?

SANTORUM: No, I don't trust that he will. I think the president is going to do what he tried to do with the North Korean leader, what he's tried to do with other enemies of the United States, which is somehow or another use his interpersonal skills. You saw the same thing with China. Use his interpersonal skills to try to develop a relationship so things can be reset.

I am not particularly hopeful that that will happen here any more than I was hopeful that it would happen in North Korea or in China, but I -- but the president is going to give it his attempt.

The good thing that I see is that the team behind him, from Gen. Mattis to -- look at the DNI -- the director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, just this past week, did a wonderful job laying out the cybersecurity threat from Russia. It was very tough on the Russians.

So there's a lot of good things in behind the president's personal charm offensive that gives me some hope that maybe some good things can happen.

BERMAN: Dan Coats has expressed concern about Russian meddling, Russian intervention --

SANTORUM: Yes.

BERMAN: -- that we have never heard --

SANTORUM: Right.

BERMAN: President Trump express and we do not know --

SANTORUM: But you're hearing it from his people so I mean you can't -- you can't completely ignore the fact that the president has put himself -- put around himself some pretty tough folks when it comes to --

BERMAN: Yes.

SANTORUM: -- Russia.

And if you look at the policies that he enumerated at NATO -- the gas line -- that's right at the heart. I mean, he went after Angela Merkel in a terrific way, in my opinion, for undermining NATO and having NATO spend more money on defense. That is, again, right at the heart of Putin.

[07:35:04] So you can -- you can see a little bit of the back-and- forth that Trump is playing in policies, not necessarily in his -- in his rhetoric.

BERMAN: Again, these are things he, himself, has never said. His staff, as you say, has the question is will the president bring it up when he has a chance to confront the Russian leader? We're watching.

Senator Santorum, always a pleasure having you with us.

SANTORUM: Thank you.

BERMAN: Thank you very much.

You know, Sen. Santorum said that he did not trust that President Trump would bring these things up alone with Vladimir Putin. Well, can Vladimir Putin be trusted?

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Is that rhetorical?

BERMAN: Indeed, I think it is.

We're going to speak to a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHRIS CUOMO, HOST, CNN "CUOMO PRIME TIME": All right. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin right now are meeting one-on-one.

We believe each has their own translator. Why? Because during this initial meeting and handshake and greeting to the media that we showed you just moments ago, we heard a male voice translating Russian to English for Putin and a female voice translating English to Russian for Trump. So hopefully, there are two people in there.

[07:40:01] Now, let's get an understanding of the men in the room, specifically Vladimir Putin. And for that, we turn to Alexander Vershbow, former U.S. ambassador to Russia and former deputy secretary general of NATO.

Sir, a pleasure and thank you.

ALEXANDER VERSHBOW, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA, FORMER DEPUTY SECRETARY GENERAL, NATO, FELLOW, THE ATLANTIC COUNCIL, FELLOW: Hi, Chris. Happy to be here.

CUOMO: What did you -- thank you, sir. What did you take away from the opening statements and the general manner of Vladimir Putin? What did it tell you about where he is?

VERSHBOW: Well, Putin had far fewer things to say than President Trump so I don't think we gained too many insights.

I would draw one little bit of insight. The fact that Putin was late arriving in Helsinki is a kind of typical mind game that he plays on foreign leaders, showing up late for meetings, and I don't think that bodes well for the substance of their discussion.

But, President Trump made clear that he continues to confuse a good relationship with Putin with a good relationship between our two countries. And his tweets this morning just added to my worries about what's going to happen, when he blamed all the problems in the relationship on the United States and Barack Obama.

It looks like he's going to give the Russians a pass on the invasion of Crimea, on the interference in our election, on the aggressive stance they pursued in Syria, so I worry that we're going to come out at the short end of this bargain that may be coming out of the meeting.

CUOMO: If the gambit here is to look forward and to work on things of mutual concern, do you think that is the right tact to take for the United States? And do you believe Putin can be trusted to be a partner on anything going forward?

VERSHBOW: Well, I think that having this meeting is a good idea despite my anxieties. We do need to talk to the Russians. We have a lot of problems in the relationship but we need to be realistic about where there might be common ground and where there won't be.

The Russians have been basically trying to revise the whole post-Cold War arrangements in Europe. They violated some of the most fundamental principles of international relations, including you don't change borders by force, particularly in the 21st century.

But there may be some areas such as nuclear arms control where there's a potential win-win out there. But even then it's going to be difficult if the Russians continue to stonewall on their violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty -- the INF Treaty of 1987 -- where they've deployed a cruise missile that far exceeds the range permitted under that treaty.

CUOMO: Yes.

VERSHBOW: So extending START would be a good thing but the bigger problem is Russia is violating one of the landmark treaties signed 31 years ago.

CUOMO: What does it mean to Vladimir Putin if this latest report is true that after that kind of mocking video that he released at the Kremlin where the range of the missiles was demonstrated by having them land in what appeared to be the middle of Florida -- South Florida where Mar-a-Lago is where Trump seems to spend a lot of time --

If it is true -- again, I say if -- it's not our reporting -- that Trump was actually enraged because we never heard him say anything about it -- and that on the same phone call if you're -- the way you understand Vladimir Putin -- if he gets a phone call from Trump where he is angry about that video but then congratulates him on winning and invites him to have a meeting, what does that mean to Vladimir Putin?

VERSHBOW: I think Putin can only interpret this as signs of either weakness or at minimum, incoherence in the president's approach to the relationship.

I mean, we heard from Sen. Santorum that there's a lot of people who have a very hardnosed view of Russia in the administration and they've been trying to reassure everybody going into this meeting. But the president seems ready to sweep all the difficult issues under the carpet -- even the Russian military build-up that was displayed in that video -- with all these sort of new wonder weapons that Putin's very excited about.

So there may be some basis for limiting the arms race. That would be a good thing.

The military side of the relationship is very dangerous right now. The Russians keep flying their aircraft very close to NATO aircraft and we've had a couple of near misses. And they do these giant exercises with no warning that intimidate our NATO allies. So we could certainly use it to de-escalate the military side of the relationship.

But solving problems like Ukraine, a more balanced approach to Syria -- those are where I don't see the Russians meeting us even halfway.

CUOMO: Well, we will see what happens but again, we will not have it all in full view.

The men are meeting, themselves, and whatever reservations some Republicans hold as voiced by former Senator Santorum, those men weren't allowed in the room, intentionally by President Trump. He didn't want to be contradicted --

VERSHBOW: That's even more worrisome than the --

CUOMO: -- during this talks with Putin.

So we'll see what we're told about it. We'll see how the Kremlin spins it, how the White House spins it, and then we'll come back to people like you for some perspective on how it all shakes out.

[07:45:07] Thank you very much, sir. Appreciate it.

VERSHBOW: You're very welcome.

CUOMO: All right.

So whenever you're going into a meeting like this the political optics matter. So you have the Democrats, you have the Republicans. There's going to be spin on both sides with that Alisyn about what this meeting meant and what was achieved and what was spent as political capital to get whatever comes out of it.

CAMEROTA: Absolutely. I mean, look, the eyes of the world are on this meeting. So how is it playing back here at home in the U.S.? How are lawmakers feeling about what the president and Vladimir Putin might talk about?

We are going to ask Sen. Chris Coons what he's looking for, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: "The Washington Post" reports that special counsel Robert Mueller is pushing to wrap up much of the investigative work in the Russia probe by the end of summer. So what's next in that probe?

Let's break it all down with CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. And, David Sanger, CNN political and national security analyst and author of "The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age." What a perfect book as a backdrop to what's happening at this moment.

Obviously, in Helsinki in Finland, President Trump behind closed doors with Vladimir Putin three days, Jeffrey, after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announces this indictment from the Mueller probe against the Russian military intelligence wing that intervened and hacked into the election.

It's hard to wrap your head around it.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR, STAFF WRITER, "THE NEW YORKER": You know, the significance of this indictment is so enormous historically.

I mean, we've only 45 presidents in this country and the idea that one of them was elected with the active help of a foreign power and that our president, the one who benefitted from it, continues to embrace that country and deny the evidence of it -- you know, historians are going to be looking at this subject for a long, long time.

CAMEROTA: But one more thing, Jeffrey.

TOOBIN: Yes, ma'am.

CAMEROTA: He's being closed doors right now with the president of that country and as far -- there's no transparency so we don't know who's in there but we know that he didn't want the -- President Trump didn't want his aides in there. So there may be one or two translators in there with them.

And so, do you find it strange that the subject of an investigation -- of Robert Mueller's vast investigation -- we've been told that President Trump is a subject of it -- is meeting with the perpetrator of the crime?

[07:50:06] TOOBIN: You know, it is -- you know, you're going to have to ask brother Sanger because he's foreign policy expert.

But just from my perspective, I mean the idea of -- the relationship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin defies understanding in conventional terms. It really does because he simply does not -- if you look at everything else Donald Trump has done in his political career, whether it's about immigration or whatever, it makes certain political sense. You can understand why he does it.

His affection for Russia is hard to understand because it's not something that people want him to do. And the fact that they're meeting alone with no agenda, no reason for this summit -- David Sanger's a smarter guy than I am. He can explain what's going on.

BERMAN: Brother David or Uncle David --

CAMEROTA: Oh my gosh.

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST, NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES", AUTHOR, "THE PERFECT WEAPON: WAR, SABOTAGE, AND FEAR IN THE CYBER AGE": Right. I'm not quite sure how to go take that.

So, a few things.

One, not only is this a historic indictment for legal purposes, if you are President Trump or any of the people around him and you read into that indictment and you read the conversations that are going on that could only have come out of British, American or Dutch intelligence being deep inside the Russian military system, you've got to think what else do they have? What else did they pull out of those systems?

If there are --

CAMEROTA: But what are those conversations?

SANGER: If there were conversations between the GRU and any Americans -- and you saw a little bit of it. We wrote about some of this in the "Times" today about Guccifer 2.0, who was really just a committee of the GRU -- the Russian military intelligence.

But the specificity of the conversations between WikiLeaks and the GRU makes you wonder what else do they have, including how deep were they inside WikiLeaks systems?

CAMEROTA: And yes, WikiLeaks hasn't been indicted or charged with anything.

SANGER: They have not. In fact, they weren't even named in this. They were just called organization one, but it was very clear who they were.

So if you think that Mueller is moving up and putting all of this together, a few months ago he does the Internet Research Agency. Now, he does the GRU -- the Russian military intelligence. Next is what ties all of those together if he's got it, and we don't know that he's got it.

On Jeff's point, it is remarkable that you have nobody sitting in the room because you're not going to get any real sense of what actually happened in this. You're going to get a Trump spin, you're going to get a Putin spin, and we're going to be sitting here wondering which one's right.

BERMAN: Jeffrey, I don't want to get too far away from Finland but I do want to ask you about "The Washington Post" reporting where they have sources saying that Mueller may want to wrap up some parts of this --

TOOBIN: Right.

BERMAN: -- investigation by the end of the summer. Part of this has to do with whether or not they'll speak with the president. They may give up on that according to some sources.

Your take?

TOOBIN: Right. I mean, this is consistent with my reporting which has said Mueller is very close to wrapping up the investigation of obstruction of justice -- the firing of James Comey. Trump's effort, if any, to interfere with the FBI investigation of the Russia probe.

The Russia probe, itself, is not finished. It's much more complicated. It's much more -- it involves getting access to intelligence agencies around the world. It's just very time-consuming and very difficult.

But it is consistent with what I've heard that Mueller is trying to complete the investigation of obstruction of justice relatively soon, but not his entire investigation.

BERMAN: All right. Jeffrey Toobin and David Sanger, thanks so much.

Just because he completes it, by the way, doesn't mean that the questions about it aren't over. He could write a report that raises more questions.

TOOBIN: Exactly. I mean, complete it means filing a report that Congress or whoever could have to do.

BERMAN: All right. Jeffrey, David, I really appreciate it -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Thank you, guys. OK.

So there's so many questions going into today's meeting in Helsinki. Will President Trump confront Vladimir Putin about Russian interference? Twelve Russian military intelligence officers were indicted, as we've been saying, on Friday over their hack of the DNC and being -- attempting to penetrate all of America's election infrastructure.

So joining us now, we have Democratic Sen. Chris Coons. He serves on the Senate Foreign Relations and the Judiciary Committees. Senator, thanks so much for being with us.

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE), MEMBER, SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Thank you, Alisyn. Great to be with you again.

CAMEROTA: So, Senator, how will you be able to trust what comes out of this meeting today when transparency has already been an issue and we know that the president doesn't have any of his top aides or any State Department officials with him? He may, at best, have an interpreter with him.

COONS: Well, Alisyn, that's one of my main concerns. Exactly what is said today in Helsinki between President Trump and President Putin, exactly what happens at this important meeting may, like Russia itself, remain a great mystery. And I think it's risky, even dangerous, for our president to go there without being clear-eyed about who's sitting on the other side of the table from him.

[07:55:03] It's not necessarily a bad idea to talk to the leader of Russia. We've got lots of things we can and should work together on from nonproliferation to fighting terrorism to the future of the Arctic, but we can't do that without first being clear about why our relations are so bad.

What it is that Russia has done in attacking our democracy, invading Crimea, supporting the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. A wide range of things to get our relationship to the low point it's currently at.

CAMEROTA: OK, that's not how President Trump sees it. He doesn't see it as that our relationship --

COONS: That's right.

CAMEROTA: -- is frayed because of what Russia has done. He thinks it's what the U.S. has done.

Let me read his tweet from this morning. He says, "Our relationship with Russia has never been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity. And now, the rigged witch hunt."

Senator, what are to you make of a president being that critical of the U.S. over Russia?

COONS: Well, that's just striking. In fact, I think I read a retweet from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying "we agree."

CAMEROTA: Yes, that's right.

COONS: It is striking how much President Trump stands out from his own party -- members of his own party in the Senate and from senior officials in his own administration.

His own director of national intelligence, my former colleague Dan Coats, just this past week said that Russia is our most aggressive foreign adversary and continued cyberattacks on the United States and will threaten our 2018 elections.

It is striking that President Trump continues to disregard the actions of our own Department of Justice, the public statements of his own director of National Intelligence and instead, suggests that somehow the E.U. is our foe and doesn't correctly identify Russia as our adversary.

CAMEROTA: Senator, you're on the Judiciary Committee and maybe you can help me understand this meeting through a different lens.

You know, I was a crime reporter for many years and I can't imagine the subject of an investigation ever meeting with the perpetrator of that crime. I can't imagine the state police, the local police ever letting the subject of an investigation sit down behind closed doors without witnesses with the perpetrator of the crime.

And so just on a purely a sort of law and order question, does this strike you as strange that with -- given the Mueller investigation that these two will be meeting behind closed doors and we won't necessarily know what's said about that investigation?

COONS: That is, Alisyn, both striking and concerning and one of the challenges we face in crafting a successful bipartisan strategy to confront and contain Russia is that how folks view our relationship with Russia really is determined by how they view President Trump.

There's millions of Americans who increasingly, according to recent polls, don't think that Putin or Putin's Russia a real threat to the United States, and they tend to be Trump supporters. And there's an all-time high number of Democrats who seem to think that Putin and Putin's Russia are a great threat to the United States.

In fact, I'm here at the historic Chautauqua Institution in Upstate New York to deliver a speech on exactly that topic today.

Given how unprecedented this is, given the threat to the rule of law presented by this closed-door meeting between Trump and Putin, how do we move forward in a way that rebuilds a bipartisan approach to Russia that's clear-eyed and hopefully, someday effective?

CAMEROTA: So, Senator, what is the endgame here, do you think? Beyond being pals with Putin, and President Trump has talked a lot about wanting a personal relationship -- a warm relationship with him -- what is the president's endgame here?

COONS: Well, we don't yet know and to be hopeful, if you look at his whiplash performances at the G7 and more recently the NATO summit, one of the challenges with our president is that he tends to come into big meetings full of bluster and approach that is in one direction, and within a matter of 24 or 48 hours he's leaving, characterizing a relationship in a different direction.

Given the warmth and optimism with which he's approached Vladimir Putin incorrectly, given his actions, one can remain hopeful that somehow not much comes out of this summit. And that if anything, it is merely the reestablishment of a relationship between the United States and Russia where very few commitments are made.

But frankly, in some ways, Putin has already succeeded by being at the same table at the same level on the world stage as the President of the United States.

He was thrown out of the G8 by President Obama. He's the subject of sanctions led by the United States -- by most of the Western world. For Vladimir Putin to begin to reenter global leadership is the beginning, I'm afraid, of his exit of the box he was put in for invading Crimea.

The endgame, I'm afraid, is one in which the United States is weakened by our president not having a clear-eyed approach to the very real threat that Russia poses to our alliances and our democracy.

CAMEROTA: All right. Senator Chris Coons, we appreciate you taking time away from your duties in Chautauqua to talk with us. Thank you very much.