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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Tries to Walk Back Russia Statements; Interview With Utah Congressman Chris Stewart; Interview with Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired July 17, 2018 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:32:41]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news this afternoon: President Trump today trying to change his words from yesterday's shocking news conference with President Putin.

The president of the United States now facing unrelenting criticism over siding with the Russian leader and corroding support among many Republicans in Congress.

CNN's Manu Raju now reports, it could be why the president is changing his tune.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Republicans on Capitol Hill are stunned of President Trump's remarks aligning himself with Vladimir Putin. But they're struggling with how to respond.

REP. RYAN COSTELLO (R), PENNSYLVANIA: You could say it's embarrassing, but I don't think that that does it sufficient justice.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: Really, the antics over the last 10 days have been damaging to our country.

RAJU: Standing next to Putin in Finland, Trump flatly disputed the U.S. intelligence community's assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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.

RAJU: That remarkable admission today forcing the Senate majority leader, a key ally of President Trump's, to do something equally remarkable, bypassing the White House to send a direct message to U.S. allies.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: Make no mistake about it. I would say to our friends in Europe, we understand the Russian threat. And I think that is the widespread view here in the United States Senate among members of both parties.

RAJU: But other Republicans called for their leadership to go a step further and take Trump to task.

(on camera): Is it time for more of your colleagues to voice it?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Yes. It's been for a long time, yes. I mean, I just don't know what it will take, frankly, for people to say, hey, this has gone too far.

RAJU (voice-over): Democrats demanded that administration officials testify before Congress to lay out exactly what Trump and Putin agreed to in private.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: President Trump's public statements were alarming enough. The Senate needs to know what happened behind closed doors. Does anyone believe he was tougher on Putin in secret?

RAJU: But Republican options are limited. They're discussing a legislative response, including possible new sanctions on Russia, or a symbolic resolution expressing support for the U.S. intelligence community.

[16:35:00]

Yet the Trump press conference added another complication, especially for Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, which previously disputed the intelligence community's finding that Putin wanted Trump to win in 2016, a fact Putin himself confirmed when asked if he wanted Trump to become president.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Yes, I did, because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.

RAJU: Speaker Paul Ryan strongly criticized Russia, but would not walk back the House GOP's controversial finding.

(on camera): Did the Republicans make a mistake in that report?

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I will refer you to the intelligence community. What they were concerned about was the tradecraft. But let's be very clear. Just so everybody knows, Russia did meddle with our elections.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

RAJU: And several Republicans, Jake, on the House Intelligence Committee continued to stand by that assertion, questioning whether or not Putin, in fact, wanted Trump to win.

But also, Jake, behind closed doors, the House Republican Conference and the Senate Republicans when they separately today they did not discuss what happened in that Trump-Putin summit, a sign that even though the Republicans are voicing their concerns publicly, privately, they are hoping to change the subject -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Manu Raju on Capitol Hill, thanks so much. Joining me now, the Republican Congressman from Utah Chris Stewart.

He's on the House Intelligence Committee. He's also an Air Force veteran.

Congressman, the president attempted to do some cleanup this afternoon, saying that he misspoke and he sides with his intelligence agencies.

What was your response?

REP. CHRIS STEWART (R), UTAH: Yes.

Well, if it was an attempt to clean up, he needed a pretty big broom. I mean, I was pretty vocal yesterday, in the sense that I love this president. I support his policies generally. I think he's trying to serve our country and make things better for people.

But he was just wrong yesterday. He was wrong on a couple fronts. One is to say to the intelligence community and not to stand by them and say that, you know, they got it exactly right. There's absolutely no question that Russia tried to interfere with our election.

I think what the president maybe conflates sometimes is there's a difference between attempting to interfere and then these other allegations of collusion, which we have no evidence about that to this point. And I actually don't believe that there was.

But I think the president often melds those two together, when they really are separate issues.

And then the second thing, Jake, is, Russia is not our friend. They're not our ally. They would destroy democracy and freedom everywhere in the world if they could because they don't want us to stand as an example to his people of what they could have and he is denying them.

And I think our foundation with Russia, I want to have a relationship with them. I want to have conversations. But it's got to be built on that understanding that once again they're not our ally. They do not seek to benefit our nation.

TAPPER: Congressman, I have heard Republicans on Capitol Hill today, though not you, but I have heard Republicans on Capitol Hill say that they take the president at his word that he misspoke.

But I want to play the sound from President Trump saying that he misspoke, because if you listen to his full statement, including what he ad libs afterwards, he very clearly still doubts the intelligence community's assertion that it was Russia and Russia alone. He says it could have been other people.

Let's run this sound from afternoon.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TRUMP: I accept our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people, also. There's a lot of people out there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: "Could be other people, also. There's a lot of people out there."

STEWART: Yes.

TAPPER: Isn't he contradicting the intelligence community in this statement in which he's asserting that he believes the intelligence community?

STEWART: Well, no, I think both things could be true.

And he's alluded that, look, China clearly hits us every day with cyber-attacks. So does Iran. So does North Korea, a bunch of other countries.

But the focus -- in 2016 is on Russia. Russia was the country. Vladimir Putin was the leader who said we want to go in and mess with their elections.

Jake, I was in Moscow in the August before the election. I came home. This was well before other people were talking about this. I said they're going to mess with our elections. It didn't take a genius to see that. They'd done it throughout Europe.

So, yes, in a very technical sense, the president is right. There are other actors out there in the cyber-world, other elements that want to harm our democracy.

But, look, this is about Russia. It's about 2016. I think that's where we should maintain focus.

TAPPER: With all due respect, sir, I don't think, if the intelligence community says it was Russia, that it also could be other people.

STEWART: No. I agree. I agree with you. That's what I said. There are other people out there who are attacking us every day. But this is a focus on Russia. This is a focus on their efforts in 2016.

We don't have evidence that China was trying to interfere like they were during the election or like the Russians were during the election.

TAPPER: So, if the United States was attacked by Russia, and President Trump expressed support and belief in the person who led the attack on the United States, how do you have faith in the commander in chief to protect the United States?

[16:40:02] STEWART: Well, I'm going to disagree entirely with the premise of your question. When you say he supports this person standing next to him, I don't think that's true at all.

It's President Trump who challenged NATO to pony up and to pay their dues. Why? So that they can confront Russia. It's President Trump who with the help of Congress has increased significantly our defense spending. Why? So that we can, among others, defend ourselves against Russia aggression.

It's President Trump and this administration who have policies that will keep the price of oil and energy low, which is one of the most harmful sanctions we can have against Russia. It's President Trump and others who have imposed sanctions on Russia.

So, look, he made a mistake yesterday. There's no question about that. He needs to fix that. And I believe he's tried.

But I think it's an incredible stretch to say that he supports Vladimir Putin and that that will harm our national security. His actions have clearly been with the intent of defending, not only America's, but NATO's interests as well, the rest of the free world.

And I think those are the things that really matter, not what was probably ineloquently said, at best -- and I'm trying to be gracious -- ineloquently said at a press conference.

TAPPER: Do you have any concerns about what President Trump might have said to Vladimir Putin behind closed doors, with no other administration officials there?

STEWART: Well, no.

As I -- I actually said this before. I'm glad he met with President Putin. I think it was necessary for us to try to try to develop relationships, as long as it's based on, as I expressed to you earlier, kind of a real world view of their view towards the United States.

And if they have a private meeting, I don't have any particular concern with that. And I think kind of the premise of the question is, once again, well, we know he's a Russian stooge and we know they're secretly collaborating against America.

I just, frankly, think that's silliness. I don't think that's true at all. And I think we will eventually and probably in a short time get a pretty good readout on what they discussed together.

TAPPER: Well, just to be clear, I'm not saying that President Trump is a Russian stooge.

But I think it's pretty clear he's expressed publicly and privately that he has an affinity for Vladimir Putin, he wants to work closely with Vladimir Putin, and he's willing to insult almost every single person on the planet, except for Vladimir Putin. And I think that's curious. But... STEWART: Well, and I wouldn't necessarily argue with your description there.

I mean, he does seem to go after our friends. And it's a bit of a family squabble. I think it was necessary, once again, for NATO and others, but -- and, by the way, Jake, I wasn't saying that I felt like you believed that about...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: OK. I just wanted to make sure. Just wanted to make sure.

STEWART: Yes.

But I think -- but some people -- some people actually do. And I just think that's an unfair characterization of the president's intentions.

TAPPER: Republican Congressman Chris Stewart of Utah, thank you so much, sir. Appreciate your time, as always.

STEWART: Thank you.

TAPPER: Again, this backlash is in response to what President Trump said publicly.

Now some lawmakers are demanding to know what was actually said between President Trump and President Putin behind closed doors.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: We're back with our breaking news. And now, democrats responding to President Trump, insisting he simply misspoke when he said Russia wouldn't interfere in the 2016 election. Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, saying, quote, "It's 24-hours too late and in the wrong place."

Senator Mark Warner, the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, saying, "I don't accept the president's comments today. If you wanted to make those comments, you should have the strength to make them in front of Vladimir Putin." Let's talk about it with the panel.

You know, something interesting Symone (ph), there has been whole debate within the Democratic Party of should we talk about Russia or should we not talk about Russia, with a lot of people saying the American - this doesn't put food on their plate - on their tables, though, democrats can fall into the trap about talking about this too much.

Does this play a role in getting that issue back on the subject or do you think democrats will still talk about healthcare and jobs?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, we're still going to continue to talk about healthcare, jobs, the economy, Donald Trump, the Trump Administration putting kids in cages, because, frankly, that's what resonates with the voters across the country.

But I want to be clear that when folks say do not talk about Russia, we're saying that because, one, you can turn on the television and hear about Russia every single day, 24 hours a day, but you can't turn on your television and hear about the economy, necessarily, or healthcare or the farm bill.

And that is why democrats are focused on this type of messaging, but to be clear, you have a number of democrats speak out on this issue because it's just egregious. This just shouldn't be a republican or a democratic issue, this is an American issue. And what the president did yesterday and the performance we saw today was just inadequate.

And, Jake, I'm happy that reporters like yourself and other folks are calling it what it is and folks aren't running with these clickbait headlines of, "Oh, Donald Trump walked it back. He now accepts the assessment," because his contradictory statement in the talking points that were written out to him by his national security team totally negates all of it. That's why, in fact, folks are calling him a puppet because he does things like this.

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, FORMER OBAMA NATIONAL SECURITY OFFICIAL: And we're also taking about it because the attack is still happening. So when we look at the 2018 (ph) midterms, as much as you - as we want to talk about domestic issues, we have to be (inaudible) about the fact the Russians are still trying to actually interfere the very elections that we're talking about.

That's why you have Kirstjen Nielsen from DHS, treasury secretary, the DNI, making this a front and center issue for republicans, for democrats, and for the media.

TAPPER: This - I guess one of the questions is, how seriously does President Trump takes this because, Scott, during the CBS interview with President Trump, Jeff Glor, the anchor for CBS Evening News, read the quote from the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, a Trump appointee, saying that there are red alarms going off, like before 9/11, in terms of attacks on United States - cyber attacks on the United States, with Russia being the worst actor.

And the president said that he didn't know that he agreed with Dan Coats. Does it matter if the commander-in-chief doesn't agree with all the people on the front line? Is it enough that they're - they're doing their job?

SCOTT JENNINGS, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, I think he does agree, otherwise, he wouldn't be implementing the sanctions, which are very tough. They wouldn't have gone after more military spending. He wouldn't have pushed the NATO allies to spend more on our mutual defense against Russia, ostensibly.

[16:50:00]

So I think there has to be some agreement. Otherwise he wouldn't be doing those things. I think ultimately he needs to talk more about that. I mean I was stunned yesterday and today that he didn't use the sanctions that they're implementing as a shield because he did sign the sanctions.

You said they were under duress (ph) but he did sign it. This is under executive authority that he did it and we're punishing them for interfering in the election. So if Donald Trump wanted to use that, he really could.

And so I suspect he's going to have to say more about this in the day ahead. I want to see them pivot to talk about the things that he is doing that shows he is taking it seriously.

TAPPER: But -- I mean I think the issue is that there are Republicans in Congress forcing him to do this. There are people in his administration forcing him to do this. But clearly, based on reporting and his public statements, his heart is not in punishing Russia.

CARPENTER: No. And I sort of get frustrated when I hear Republican friends say; oh the Trump Administration has been so strong on Russia because he agreed to sign the bills that Congress passed.

It would have taken such a massive amount of confrontation for the Executive Branch to veto those bills and to shred them and shut down the government.

TAPPER: Well they were passed -- they were passed with veto proof majority. So I mean he couldn't have vetoed them (ph).

(CROSSTALK)

AMANDA CARPENTER, FORMER COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR FOR SEN. TED CRUZ: Yes. But -- right. And so that -- why are we even having that debate. He did it because Congress made him do it, which goes to the fact that Congress can make him do the right thing.

And so while President Trump may be conflicted on whether he believes the Intelligence Committee or not, Congress should not be. They should drop these farce (ph) secondary investigations like that circus we saw with Peter Strzok last week that gave him ten hours of questioning, yield very little information.

And so these Republicans that have given Trump cover and tried to de- strap (ph) from the Mueller investigation need to drop it. The Mueller investigation should be protected. It should continue.

If legislation needs to be passed, Republicans should do that because everyone can see that for some reason we don't know why Donald Trump is conflicted on this question. So that investigation must continue and these side shows should stop.

TAPPER: You know what was weird is that both in these -- a FOX News interview of Vladimir Putin and also in his comments, in the press conference Vladimir Putin did not deny that he had compromising information on President Trump.

And when asked directly, did you want Trump to win and did you help him win; he said yes and then he explained how he wanted Trump to win and didn't address the question of whether he actually acted to help him win.

SANDERS: Look, Vladimir Putin is a villain that can't be trusted that we know meddled in our elections who said that Donald Trump was his preferred Candidate. I'm not sure what else we need to know here.

I am extremely concerned that folks from the administration and friends of the administration, not Scott but other people are contorting themselves to try to make excuses for this President. We have the facts here and I just think it's so clear, it's crystal.

VINOGRAD: But this is also just a really good reminder that Vladimir Putin is really good at psychological operations. I mean Vladimir Putin; 18 years KGB officer, almost 20 years leading Russia. Its 38 years of experience figuring out how to really mess with people's minds.

He doesn't do anything by accident. So that whole show when he was standing next to President Trump and he kind of paused when asked that question about compromising information and then that interview, you have to know he thought very carefully about everything that he was doing just to make the President uncomfortable enough that his fine was up. And that he was pretty worried about what Putin was doing.

TAPPER: I talked about playing into President Trump's insecurities, he said well when President Trump came to Russia I didn't even know who he was. He doesn't deny that they had compromising information but I didn't even know who he was.

You know he was wealthy but there are lots of wealthy people, much wealthier, you know almost insulting President Trump.

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: Yes. Yes, he was like he wasn't on my radar until he decided to run for President.

CARPENTER: But do we really have to give Vladimir Putin all this credit for being some kind of rhetorical genius and making President Trump look uncomfortable on stage. I mean this was -- there was obvious dodges and deflections. There wasn't a great stage craft to it. He dodged the question.

TAPPER: It was -- it was this evil inaction is all. I mean I just thought it was ...

(CROSSTALK)

CARPENTER: Well, maybe yes. And I'm just saying it was so obvious what it was.

TAPPER: I agree with Symone. He's a villain. I'm not giving him credit or believing anything he says.

SANDERS: And really good at psych-ops (ph).

TAPPERS: Really -- really fascinating. Would versus wouldn't, where do we go from here. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL)

[16:55:00]

TAPPER: We're back with our breaking news speed round. And where does this story go from here? Let's go around, just get quick takes. Is what has happened with President Trump and Putin and all of this controversy going to have any sort of effect on his presidency with Republicans, et cetera?

CARPENTER: Absolutely. And I need to know what happened in that one- on-one meeting that Donald Trump had with Putin and I need to know the areas that he thinks he's going to work on Putin on and if there's any work underway. That is an immediate question.

TAPPER: Prediction.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's having an impact. Russia's goal is to undermine confidence in our democracy and what we saw yesterday and today, he's doing exactly that.

TAPPER: Scott.

JENNINGS: I predict more written statements from the White House communications office because they offer a precision of communication you don't get sometimes in these unscripted press events.

TAPPER: You're very -- that's a very generous description. Symone.

SANDERS: Vote. Look, for Democrats and folks across the country that didn't like what they saw yesterday or heard from the president today, they can take their frustration to the poll and usher in a Congress that will do something about this president.

TAPPER: Do you think Republicans or any Republicans are actually are going to come out and do what you want them to do?

SANDERS: I think -- I -- I think the water is real hot right now and I think if President Trump continues to put feet in his mouth, which I predict he will, I think we'll see some additional Republicans come out.

TAPPER: All right. Thanks so much, everyone. Follow me on Twitter and Facebook. On Twitter, it's @JakeTapper. You can tweet the show @TheLeadCNN. We actually read them. Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in the Situation Room. Thanks so much for watching.