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Trump Talked About Election Meddling; Trump Declines to Side with U.S. Intelligence; Members of Congress React to Meeting; Aired 1- 1:30p ET
Aired July 16, 2018 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[13:00:19] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. We're live here at the Allas Sea Pool in Helsinki, Finland. We're following breaking news. We want to welcome our viewers here around the world who are joining us. A truly, truly extraordinary moment in American history. Something I thought I would never see.
Up first, the president of the United States delivering a stunning rebuke to his own U.S. intelligence community with the entire world watching. Not just the intelligence community, but the U.S. law enforcement community, including his own Justice Department and his FBI. Standing right next to the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, at a joint news conference here in Helsinki, the president simply refused to side with his own U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the Russia investigation.
The president described Vladimir Putin's denial, on the other hand, that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as in, President Trump's words, extremely strong and powerful.
Here's how the president responded to reporters' questions.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QUESTION: Just now president Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did. What -- who -- my first question for you, sir, is, who do you believe? My second question is, would you now, with the whole world watching, tell President Putin, would you denounce what happened in 2016 and would you warn him to never do it again?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So let me just say that we have two thoughts. You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server. Why haven't they taken the server? Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the Democratic National Committee? I've been wondering that. I've been asking that for months and months, and I've been tweeting it out and calling it out on social media.
Where is the server? I want to know, where is the server? And what is the server saying?
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, but I really do want to see the server.
But I have -- I have confidence in both parties. I really believe that this will probably go on for a while. But I don't think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server. What happened to the servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC? Where are those servers? They're missing. Where are they? What happened to Hillary Clinton's e-mails? Thirty-three thousand e-mails gone, just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn't be gone so easily. I think it's a disgrace that we can't get Hillary Clinton's 33,000 e-mails.
So 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. And what he did is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that's an incredible offer.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Truly a barrage -- a shocking barrage of statements from the president of the United States.
I want to bring in our senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny and our senior international correspondent Matthew Chance. They're both here in Helsinki. They've been watching the president's summit with Vladimir Putin.
Jeff, did the president just throw not only the U.S. intelligence community but the U.S. law enforcement community, including the Justice Department and the FBI, completely under the bus?
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there's no question about it. We saw it unfolding here. And that was a surprise to many people, including people inside the Trump administration and the U.S. government. I talked to a U.S. official just a few moments ago who said this. This was not the plan.
Of course, the president met one on one with Vladimir Putin and it seemed that something changed from the morning meeting when he was first greeting Vladimir Putin, when he was talking about a variety of issues he wanted to bring up. Election meddling, of course, was not in there.
The White House, of course, knew that these questions would come up, but they were hoping he was going to -- he being the president -- was going to pivot away from them on to something else. But that is not what happened. Hearing that candidate Donald Trump sounded like he was the candidate again. Someone who has not accepted the fact that he won the election. The fact that he would be here in Helsinki, here in Finland, the site of so many summits over the years, talking about the electoral college, talking about the server, Hillary Clinton's server of course, sounded like an aggrieved president there. And it frankly is shocking and surprising many people inside his administration. [13:05:12] Wolf, he is flying back to Washington right now. Air Force
One has just taken off from here a few moments ago. So he'll be in the air for eight hours, most likely watching television coverage of this. We'll see how he reacts, if he reacts, in real-time to this.
But, Wolf, one thing that was also very news making in this press conference, for months and even a couple of years, President Trump has repeatedly said, Russia did not want him to win the election because he would be harder on them. We have, in the -- the words of the Russian president asked specifically by Jeff Mason of "Reuters," did you want President Trump to win? He said, yes, I did, Wolf. Those are the words, of course, of Vladimir Putin.
BLITZER: Yes, he was very, very blunt in saying that the Russians did want Donald Trump to beat Hillary Clinton in that election.
Let's get some reaction from the Russian side right now.
Matthew, what are you hearing? The president's truly stunning, extraordinary comments, the Russians must be high-fiving each other.
MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: High-fiving, cracking open bottles of Soviet champagne (ph), toasting President Trump, I imagine, on the way back to Moscow, which they'll be embarking on that journey shortly.
There's been a statement come from the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, who's normally very restrained in his praise. He called the talks magnificent, better than super, is the phrase that he -- the phrases that he used. Does that give you an indication of just how happy I think the Kremlin is, and the Russians are, at how this all went. They always expected this was going to be a win. Of course, the fact that it was staged at all was a political victory for the Kremlin. They've faced isolation from much of the international community, particularly from the United States over their various acts of maligned activity around the world over the past couple of years.
But I don't think anyone really expected that they were going to get such a comprehensive pass by the president of the United States because I think that's how it would be interpreted on the Russian side, that all of those misdeeds, the annexation of Crimea, the shoot down of MH-17, the backing of Bashar al Assad, the Novichok poisoning recently on the streets of Britain, none of that matters now. There's a line been drawn underneath it, and President Trump just wants to speak with his Russian counterpart about denuclearization, about various other issues, trade, and things like that. And that would be music, again, to the Kremlin's ears.
BLITZER: And it's really amazing, shocking, I should say.
Matthew, thank you.
Jeff Zeleny, we'll get back to you.
We'll get back to both of you.
Let's get some more insight right now and analysis. We have our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen, he's normally based in Moscow, he's here in Helsinki with all of us, our senior diplomatic correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, our military and diplomatic analyst, John Kirby, and our global affairs analyst, Susan Glasser.
Guy, thanks very much.
Susan, this is a moment in American history where the president of the United States, right here in Helsinki, and not only seems to suggest there are very fine people on both sides, he seems to really go with the leader of Russia in this argument that's going on, a blistering argument, a confrontation with the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement community.
SUSAN GLASSER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I think you're right. I think this is something that all of us are going to remember for many years. I've covered Vladimir Putin for 18 years, since he first became the president of Russia. And this moment today, I think, marks something that he never could have imagined, even when George W. Bush was looking into his soul.
This is an act that we've never seen. Could you imagine -- not that President Trump would attack the Mueller investigation. He's been doing that publicly and in his tweets literally for more than a year now. But to call it a disaster while literally standing next to Vladimir Putin, I think is something that I'm not going to forget. And, you know, going into this summit, right, it seems to me that we've come out of it really with what were the worst-case scenarios that experts had in mind.
I spoke with one long-time State Department official who had been involved for decades in preparing superpower summits between the Soviet Union and then Russia and the United States. And beforehand, you know, he said to me, we all fear that this is something like Muhammad Ali going up against an amateur boxer. And in that scenario, let's just say the president of the United States was not Muhammed Ali.
BLITZER: I want to play a clip, John Kirby, and then we'll discuss it on the other side.
Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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. People are being brought out to the fore. So far that I know, virtually none of it related to the campaign. And they're going to have to try really hard to find somebody that did relate to the campaign.
[13:10:06] That 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 can even be a little bit of a cloud over it. People know that. People understand it. But the main thing, and we discussed this also, is zero collusion. And it has had a negative impact upon the relationship of the two largest nuclear powers in the world.
We have 90 percent of nuclear power between the two countries. It's ridiculous. It's ridiculous what's going on with the probe.
BLITZER: How does the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, or the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, the former CIA director, or the secretary of defense, Mattis, even John Bolton, the president's national security, how do they continue to stay on the job when the president throws all of them under the bus?
REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: I'll tell you, Wolf, their job today just got 100 percent more difficult than it was yesterday. And what I've been looking at and thinking about since this press conference is how does the national security establishment now react to everything the president laid out there? Because he's absolutely wrong. First of all, collusion, we don't know yet. The investigation's not over. And, number two, the argument that it affected in a negative way U.S./Russia bilateral relations is just false. I mean what has affected U.S./Russia bilateral relations has been Russia's maligned activities around the world, which are significant and real.
And so now if I'm Jim Mattis or I'm Mike Pompeo, I'm thinking, holy cow, what do I do now? How do I wake up tomorrow and figure out, what am I going to do in terms of policy? Real policy, Wolf, on Syria, on Ukraine, on cyber, on counterterrorism around the world. What am I going to do?
BLITZER: It is shocking.
I want to get to everybody in a moment. But I want to bring in Chuck Hagel right now, the former secretary of defense under President Obama. He's a former Republican senator from Nebraska.
Senator, thanks so much for joining us.
Let me get your reaction to what we just heard from the president of the United States. You speak with a lot of authority on these very, very sensitive issues. What did you think?
CHUCK HAGEL, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Wolf, well, thank you for having me.
I watched the news conference, like all of your guests, and digested it and still digesting it.
But I think if I had a summary sentence to respond, it would be this, Wolf. President Trump failed America today. He failed America, our interests today in every way. I think what's been said here in the last hour and a half on CNN, and I suspect other networks, about the specifics of why he failed America, and this will be brought out more in more detail as we develop the story, is pretty clear.
I mean when you start, Wolf, with this, this was not a golf outing. This was not a real estate transactional kind of arrangement. Meetings are important, obviously. I'm a strong believer in engagement. But engagement must be connected to a strategic interest, a strategic purpose. I don't know what that strategic purpose was. I am now convinced we didn't have one, according to what I have just watched the last couple of hours.
So it's a sad day for America. It's a sad day for the world because I'll end with this, Wolf, when America is off balance, when America is not leading, the world becomes more dangerous, and the world is off balance. I mean all you need to do is just go to the German foreign minister's comments today. When the German foreign minister, one of our strongest -- Germany, one of our strongest allies since World War II, always there with us, says that -- in an interview, that we can no longer depend on the White House. I thought it was interesting he didn't say America, he said the White House.
So let me end there and go wherever you want to go.
BLITZER: You know, I want to read to you a tweet. John Brennan, a man you worked with during the Obama administration, a career intelligence official through -- who's now out of the intelligence community, he tweeted this, former CIA Director John Brennan. 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 comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican patriots, where are you?
What a reaction from John Brennan. Do you agree with him?
HAGEL: Well, I generally agree with John Brennan. There's no one more knowledgeable, more decent, more honest, more committed to the interest of America than John Brennan. He's proven that throughout his career.
But now is the time, and I noticed that some of your colleagues have been reporting on congressional reaction. Now is the time the Congress of the United States must step up and step into this. It isn't just tariff wars anymore. It's not just all of the craziness that's been going on the last year and a half. This is serious. This is very serious because it ricochets around the world, and everything we know is woven into the same fabric.
[13:15:26] So the Congress is going to finally have to get some backbone and some spine and show some leadership as to what they were elected to do. I never thought I would say that. I've had differences with presidents when I was in the Senate in different times, but I always respected the president of the United States in his ability to do it -- do his job the way he thought it was important to do for America. And the Congress played a role. Had to play a role. Constitutionally, it must play a role.
But now is the time for the Congress to step up. And I fear if the Congress doesn't, Wolf, then this problem is going to get deeper and wider, and we'll end up with no allies in the world. And that's where we're headed now because no one can trust us, no one can count on us.
BLITZER: Well, very quickly, before I let you go, Mr. Secretary, high crimes and misdemeanors. That's what John Brennan says, treasonous. Are we talking, at least from your perspective, I assume from his perspective, impeachment?
HAGEL: Well, I'll let that stand as it is, as to the responsibilities of the Congress of the United States on impeachment. But I would not have said it the way John did. I said it the way I said it. John can say it the way he wants to say it. But as to impeachment, we'll see how this plays out. That's a congressional responsibility. And they must -- the Congress must do what they think is in the interest of this country, not only for our present, but always for our future.
BLITZER: Secretary Hagel, thanks so much for joining us.
HAGEL: Thanks, Wolf. Thank you.
BLITZER: You know, the reaction is really pouring in, you know, Michelle, from all over the world. Especially you just heard the German foreign minister, but others here in Europe. And we're right in Helsinki right now. People are gasping. They're wondering, what is going on with the president of the United States.
MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Yes. To be very blunt, we're hearing words like, I feel sick, this is frightening, calling it an abomination. And you can say, sure, European allies are going to want to gloat about this, especially after they were just rebuked by President Trump, which, of course, you could argue they should never have been rebuked by one of their closest friends, the U.S. But people are reeling after hearing this.
And you see the president in this press conference hand win after win to Putin. They started out small. Oh, yes, there's an idea for that -- remember that cybersecurity unit? Sure, there's that. Or, oh, Putin has this incredible idea. He called it incredible that Putin offered to interrogate U.S. suspects for attacking the U.S. election. Then the wins started getting bigger with, oh, we've all made mistakes, we're all at fault and now refusing to answer that he believes U.S. intelligence over Vladimir Putin. And, in fact, compliments Russia and their process of justice, saying that Hillary's servers and e-mails would have been found if this was Russia.
People aren't really sure yet how to respond. And what we see from senior diplomats around the world is that they're reacting brutally at first, and they're just trying to get their heads around this and put together something that will be a coherent response to the fact that they are reeling.
BLITZER: Fred, you're based in Moscow, but you've spent a lot of time in Germany, so you understand what Angela Merkel, her government are going through. Putin emerged. He said the summit was very, very productive, very useful, very positive. He had glowing words for the president of the United States.
FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Yes, I presume right now he's doing back flips on his plane as he's going back because it seems as though this whole summit seems to have been stage managed according to what the Russians wanted. You know, we talked about this earlier. That he came late to the summit, but he landed just as the main political talk show in Russia was going to air. So that's what they see in Russia, right? They see only the Russian president arriving. They see only the Russian president's plane taxiing. They didn't see him come here and a waiting Donald Trump then comes to him. They obviously just heard that press conference as well with all of the things that Michelle just said.
And then just as the press conference ends, it ends right as the second edition of their main political talk show starts again.
PLEITGEN: So it seems almost as though this was all stage managed according to Russian time and according to the audience that Vladimir Putin wanted to reach.
Now, we've been monitoring some of the things that have been going on, on Russian TV. And, obviously, all of them are glowing about this. There's an analyst who said on and said that it's clear that President Trump has never said anything bad about President Putin, that he respects President Putin, and that clearly he feels very grateful to President Putin. So you could already see the Russians sort of taking their victory lap about this.
And I think, Wolf, one of the things that's so interesting when you're in Russia and you hear what they say there, is they've had a lot of criticism for the U.S. --
[13:20:03] BLITZER: By the way, the president and the first lady --
BLITZER: They're just about to board Air Force One for the trip from here in Helsinki, back to Andrews -- Joint Base Andrews, outside of Washington, D.C. They're going to be taking off momentarily. But go ahead.
PLEITGEN: Yes. Yes, yes, yes.
And so, in Russia, what you often hear is that they all criticize the U.S. Some of the things that have happened in the past. Diplomats getting expelled. All of the turmoil that's been the relations. They've always taken President Trump out of that criticism. They've always said they believe in President Trump, they believe that he wants better relations with Russia. They believe that it's the American -- what they call the establishment, which no doubt is us as well. And it's also pretty much large parts of American policy. And clearly, in their books, today, they've won a great victory. And we're going to -- we're going to be monitoring that in the evening. But I can tell you, there's going to be more to come from the Russians.
KOSINSKI: But you just have to ask yourself, what for? What could have been so great coming out of that meeting between Trump and Putin that Trump would say these things? Or is it -- it he just still obsessed with it not taking away any amount from his election win? For what?
GLASSER: And, by the way, this was Donald Trump's idea. I think we've lost sight of that. But Donald Trump invited Vladimir Putin to visit him in the White House back in March. He insisted upon this summer over the objections and concerns, well founded as it turned out, of his advisers. Now his advisers are left to deal with the situation where they basically misrepresented it. Jeff Zeleny just reported this was not the plan. I'm sure that U.S. allies were not told that this was how the president of the United States would handle President Putin. And so it's really -- in sort of a way, it's a debacle of the president's own making.
BLITZER: There's a lot more we need to assess. We're going to take a quick break. But there were truly stunning moments coming from the president of the United States here in Helsinki. How will they play up on Capitol Hill, back in Washington? Our own Manu Raju is getting reaction, and the reaction is pouring in. The president of the United States will not be happy.
BLITZER: We're following the breaking news, the fallout from President Trump's truly shocking news conference with the Russian President Vladimir Putin here in Helsinki. Reaction is rolling in from Capitol Hill back in Washington.
I want to go straight to our senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju.
Manu, I know you've been tracking down lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans. What's the reaction you're hearing?
MANU RAJU, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Democrats, not surprisingly, are sharply critical, jumping all over these statements today, saying this is a disgraceful play by the president of the United States. You're hearing some Republicans side with them and raising their significant concerns about what they heard, about the president casting doubt on the U.S. -- on the Russian interference that occurred in the 2016 elections as he stood by Vladimir Putin. But only the (INAUDIBLE) we're hearing those criticisms from the typical, usual suspects of sort, Republicans who are typical, who criticize the president, like Senator Jeff Flake, who is retiring, and called is a shameful display by this president. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska senator, who has been long critical of this president, saying that this is a bizarre statement by the president to blame both sides, Russia and the United States, for the tension that has occurred and this deteriorating relationship.
[13:25:18] But I spent, Wolf, the morning on the House side of the Capitol talking to a number of -- some of the president's closest allies, and they were aligning themselves in large part with the president, including Darryl Issa, a California Republican, who said that he understands why the president would throw cold water on the intelligence community's assessment. Mark Meadows, the House Freedom Caucus chairman, on the -- before the press conference, but after the president tweeted his criticism of the United States, calling the United States foolish and stupid, and that's the reason why this relationship has gone south, Meadows said, well, he believes that the president just wants to have an open dialogue with Russia.
So what you're seeing is a sharp split between Republicans on the Republican side of the aisle about how hard to go after Russia, whether to side with the president or not. And we're still waiting for reaction from top leaders in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has not yet weighed in on this controversy of this morning. But clearly, Wolf, Republicans are waiting to speak -- some Republicans are probably going to speak out pretty strongly.
We're expecting to hear from Bob Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, here momentarily. And he's had some strong opinions himself. So we'll wait to hear what he has to say as well here, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, we'll get a lot of reaction, I'm sure, including from Republicans. Although, I suspect, and I know you'll agree, a lot of Republicans are so embarrassed, they're simply going to want to stay silent right now. They're not going to rush out and make any statements at all.
Manu, we're going to get back to you.
You know, Fred -- Fred Pleitgen is still with us.
Fred, at the end of the news conference, you heard a reporter ask Putin directly if they have damaging information about the president of the United States that some have suspected could be used as pressure or leverage on him. You heard his response.
PLEITGEN: Yes. And he obviously said, oh, no, there's absolutely nothing like that, that he respects President Trump. It was very interesting to --
KOSINSKI: Right. He doesn't really say no.
BLITZER: Yes. He sort of hedged on that. He didn't flatly say no. He said, you know, there are a lot of people who come to visit. I didn't even know he was visiting Russia when he was there.
PLEITGEN: Right. Yes.
BLITZER: And stuff like that.
PLEITGEN: So many business people came here.
PLEITGEN: We have 500 business people. I said -- he said of the St. Petersburg Economic Forum. Do you really think that we have damaging material on all of them?
PLEITGEN: So he was sort of trying to hedge the question, but also saying, look, is this -- was this really something that was in my interest? But it certainly -- it certainly is interesting to see him debate it that way. And also, I think the other thing that was also quite interesting in that news conference is when he said, look, I was a KGB agent, as you all know, so I know how to deal with situations like this. And I think that he really spoke from a position where it seemed as though Vladimir Putin was the one who was controlling the scene, I would say, in that press conference.
BLITZER: Yes. He basically said, John, you know, don't believe the intelligence community. Go before a court, have a jury decide whether or not it's true, the allegations against Russia.
KIRBY: Yes, again, very superficial, clearly trying to sidestep the issue. The intelligence is solid here.
And, look, before I left government, I stood at the State Department podium and talked about the intelligence that we were allowed to talk about in terms of Russia's activities in 2016. And it's long been known that they have had these nefarious efforts at writ large in terms of cyber and counterespionage. So I think it was totally disingenuous for him to take that (INAUDIBLE).
KOSINSKI: Yes, the president wanted to interject at the end, too, without even being asked that, oh, it would have come out by now.
KOSINSKI: Really? Not necessarily. There could be any number of things keeping something like that.
PLEITGEN: But it's also one of the ways that Vladimir Putin in the past has always tried to kill the argument. He's always said, look, America, as a state with justice, needs to put this through a process. He never manages the fact that, you know, in a free country you also have the press that tends to investigate these things as well, which is something which is totally uncommon in Russia. So I think they don't understand the debate that we have now in America. And it seems as though President Trump is almost trying to squelch (ph) that debate as well.
KOSINSKI: But I think that even if there is nothing -- there could likely be nothing like that in existence.
KOSINSKI: And President Trump made a point, that why wouldn't it have come out now. But he doesn't help himself --
KOSINSKI: By saying -- handing Putin the whole plate because that only raises the question again, is there something else, and why would you do this? It's unnecessary for him to say these things.
BLITZER: Senator Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is speaking out right now. I want to listen in.
SEN. BOB CORKER (R), CHAIRMAN, FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: I got here last night and was here to watch it today.
[13:29:41] I, too, want us to have good relations with Russia. I think everybody would like to see that happen. But I was -- I was disappointed especially by the comments made after the formal presentation. I felt like that everyone who's dealt with Putin understands fully that the best way to deal with him is through strength. And I just felt like the president's comments made us look, as a nation,