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U.S. Charges Russian National; Trump Faces Condemnation; Russian Seeks Back Channel with Trump Campaign. Aired 6:30-7a ET

Aired July 17, 2018 - 06:30   ET


[06:30:00] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: So, there was also this Russian national arrested, accused of conspiring --

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: It can't be. This would be too much irony.

CAMEROTA: Yes, no, there's too much, actually. There's too much happening. And this is one of them. So we'll tell you the back story of this alleged spy.


CAMEROTA: Well, on the very same day that President Trump sided with President Putin over U.S. intelligence officials, a Russian woman was charged with being a foreign agent for the Russian government here on U.S. soil. The Justice Department accuses her of conspiring to infiltrate political, U.S. organizations, like the NRA, and push Moscow's agenda.

CNN's Evan Perez is live in Washington with more.

Tell us this back story, Evan.


Maria Butina spent the last few years making inroads with influential Republicans and conservative political organizations, including the National Rifle Association. Now the goal, according to the charges filed in federal court, was to influence the American politics organizations, to quote, advance the agenda of the Russian Federation.

Now, prosecutors said in court that -- in documents that there were Americans who were actually involved in helping her. Butina worked with a Russian official named Alexander Torshin, who is among a group of Russians that the Treasury Department put on the sanctions list earlier this year.

[06:35:04] And CNN has reported that the two of them were part of an effort to set up a meeting between the Russian president and then candidate Donald Trump. Now, that meeting didn't happen then. But prosecutors said in court papers that there were many other ways that Butina was trying to make connections with influence Republicans. She attended conservative political conferences. She attended the National Prayer Breakfast in 2016 and 2017, even raising the possibility that Vladimir Putin could attend the prayer breakfast.

An attorney for Butina says that she's not an argument of any government. That she's simply a student of international relations and was working to build better relations between the United States and Russia.

Now, Butina was arrested over the weekend. A law enforcement source told us that investigators were concerned that she was about to leave the D.C. area. Prosecutors told a judge that this is an ongoing investigation and, John, that there are other subjects still under investigation.

BERMAN: Evan, the timing of this is simply amazing.


BERMAN: Evan Perez for us in Washington, just one more thread right now to be pulled on in regards to Russian involvement in this country.

How will the White House react? We're told White House aides did not think that this was what was planned when the president went out there and chose Russia. So what are they going to do about it today?

Stay with us.


[06:40:22] BERMAN: How bad was that? That's the question coming from a senior White House official to CNN's Jeff Zeleny. White House aides, once again, doing damage control or trying, we think. How will they explain the president's embrace of Vladimir Putin, his choice of Russia over U.S. intelligence agencies?

Joining me now, CNN political commentator, former press secretary for President Clinton, Joe Lockhart, and Mark Weinberg, former special assistant to President Reagan. He helped plan all of Ronald Reagan's summits with Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He's also the author of "Movie Nights with The Reagans."

Guys, fundamentally, I don't think this is a communications issue, so I don't want to start with the spin aspect of it, but I want to get both your takes because you both worked in White Houses before about what happened, because I think this is such an important moment that we have to take note of it.

And, Mark, you say you were surprised and deeply disappointed.

MARK D. WEINBERG, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: I was. And, simply put, I don't think the president had America's back. And that's the bottom line. The president of the United States should always have the country's back, especially against an adversary like Russia.

BERMAN: What are the implications? I'm sorry, it's hard for me to compute a president of the United States not having America's back. That is a statement that is illogical. So what does it mean? WEINBERG: Well, we don't know, and that's the worrisome point. We're

just seeing the beginnings of this. When he says, well, I believe the intelligence community, but the Russians deny it, and -- and that there's some kind of choice, he should always be on the side of the American intelligence community. That's a no brainer.

BERMAN: If the president doesn't have America's back, the system is broken.


BERMAN: The system is broken.

Joe Lockhart, you had a one-word reaction to what you saw yesterday, treason.

JOE LOCKHART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Treason, yes. I think we've moved past whether the president is a witting or unwitting agent of the Russian government. It doesn't matter now. Vladimir Putin, for a decade, has been trying to undermine NATO and undermine the E.U. as his primary adversary to expand his economic and political influence around the world, to bring Russia back to Russia.

Well, Donald Trump went to Europe and did all of Vladimir Putin's bidding. He undermined E.U. He said that the E.U. is the enemy, not Russia. He undermined NATO during his trip over there. And then he went and refused to stand up for America. So he is doing their bidding. And we have to get away from whether he knows what he's doing or he's not and focus on what he's doing.

And that is the very definition of treason. When you put someone else's interests, whether it's your own or another country's ahead of our nation, that is treasons. And that may sound like a radical statement, but it's simple and it's true.

BERMAN: Well, look, I mean treason has a legal definition.


BERMAN: Do you think the president should be impeached for this?

LOCKHART: I think the -- particularly the Republicans in Congress have to get serious. This has to go beyond tweets. It has to (INAUDIBLE). We have to have a real look. If this was any other president in any other time, there would be a move towards at least censure for this kind of behavior. I don't expect that will happen, though.

BERMAN: Mark, I just want to note, I don't know if our viewers saw it, but you were nodding yes?

WEINBERG: Yes, it's time for the Republican leadership to man up. And they should do to Trump what Trump didn't do to Putin and they should go to him and say, knock it off, it's enough. This is not how you should be behaving. McConnell and Ryan should be in the cab to the White House this morning. BERMAN: Well, there is a Ways and Means meeting. You know, these are

guys who write tax budgets. Do you think any of these Republicans will say, Mr. President, before we get to maybe more tax cuts here, we have something we want to say, because I don't see that coming here (ph).

WEINBERG: It depends. They want the Trump voters when they run for re- election and they're afraid to lose the base. So their courage is in very small amounts lately.

BERMAN: So, Joe, we know what the White House plan is today because Jim Acosta got ahold of some of the talking points overnight.


BERMAN: Essentially the White House is going to claim the president has always said he sided with the intelligence communities. You can't read this, but these are the talking points of the president, always said he sided with the intelligence community. He said way back as far as January 2017 he believes that Russia meddled. It's simply not true, that spin.


BERMAN: Leave that part of it aside. I want to know, how would you dig yourself out of this if you were in the White House?

LOCKHART: I think you can't. I think all you can do is repeat what the president said and say the president made his feelings known yesterday. You can't try to spin this and turn this into something positive. There's -- you will make it much worse.

What I expect is they'll go underground. I don't think we'll see a lot of people from the White House. I don't think you'll see a lot of the president's normal defenders on television. And they'll hope that the storm passes or, in the Trump world, some other cyclone hits and changes the subject.

BERMAN: Do you think people should quit, Mark? Do you want Republicans who work for the president to walk out?

[06:45:04] WEINBERG: Well, that's up to them. That's -- that's -- it's easy to sit here and say what they should do.

BERMAN: Would you walk out?

WEINBERG: Would I? I might. I might. I'm -- I probably wouldn't be senior enough. But I think somebody should say something. And if I were the president, I agree with Joe, it may be too late. But if I were advising him, I would say, if you're willing to do this, sir, you should do a television interview and say, I was misunderstood and here is why. I would try. But I don't think he will. The one thing about Donald Trump is, you always know what he's thinking.

LOCKHART: I think people should leave for another reason, which is that we have elections in November. And the public has a right to know when they're going to the polls where his senior people are. And if they, on moral or principle grounds, think it's time to leave, they should leave because a Democratic Congress will be -- do real oversight.

BERMAN: Joe Lockhart and Mark Weinberg, thanks so much for being with us.

The one thing I will note is a tweet cannot undo what a president of the United States said when he was standing side by side with the Russian leader while the whole world was watching. This is not fixable by a tweet.

I appreciate you being with us.


CAMEROTA: All right, John, on the very same day that President Trump revealed his trust of Vladimir Putin, a Russian national was arrested, accused of conspiring against the U.S. Who is she? And what about this timing?


[06:50:14] CAMEROTA: The Justice Department accuses a Russian national of being a foreign agent for Russia in the United States. This arrest comes on the heels of Robert Mueller's indictments against 12 Russian military intelligence officers for hacking e-mails of the DNC and the Clinton campaign and penetrating the U.S. election infrastructure.

Joining us now to explain all of this, we have CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

Jeffrey --


CAMEROTA: So this is intriguing.

So there's this Russian national, but she was not charged by Robert Mueller's prosecutors. She was charged by the National Security Division of the DOJ. Is that significant?

TOOBIN: Well, it just shows the breadth of the investigations of Russian involvement in American life. Maria Butina, a very strange story. She's only 29 years old. She had been studying at American University. But she sort of materialized on the campaign trail.

She was working primarily with the National Rifle Association, trying to encourage the National Rifle Association to support President Trump, which it did. And she came to a press conference of the president's, asked a question there, raised the issue of sanctions. And she's not charged with espionage. She's charged with being a foreign agent without registering, which is an unusual criminal charge. It doesn't usually lead to criminal charges, but I guess the Department of Justice felt her behavior was so obviously an advocate for what Russia, you know, wanted, that she was doing -- CAMEROTA: And that's the point. So is that what she was doing? And

what they're accusing her of is basically trying to make inroads for Vladimir Putin while in the U.S., because some of the things that -- her asks were unusual. She really wanted Vladimir Putin to be able to go to the National Prayer Breakfast in 2017. So what was a big ask.

TOOBIN: That's --

CAMEROTA: And then she also wanted to play some role on the campaign. She met Don Junior She was trying to establish backroads, according to the indictment, backroads to the campaign. There is a picture of Don Junior at some sort of NRA event with her. And she was, I guess, working with the NRA and bragging about it.

TOOBIN: Right. And what's peculiar in reading the indictment is that you look at her conduct. She's going to meetings. She's asking questions. She's trying to arrange meetings. In and of itself is not illegal. But what's illegal about it is doing all of that on behalf of the Russian government without registering. If she had registered, this all would have -- this all would have been legal. But the question -- the big question is, who got her to do this and why was she doing it and, of course, was she successful in integrating the Russian agenda into the Trump agenda?

CAMEROTA: What do you think about the timing, that this was on the same day that President Trump expressed his deep trust of Vladimir Putin and that it comes right after the Mueller indictments of those Russian military officials? Do you think this is all coincidental or is there something being timed here?

TOOBIN: Well, I think the indictment coinciding with the now notorious press conference was a coincidence. I don't think there was any connection there. I suspect that they did separate themselves from the Mueller -- the Mueller indictment. But it's just -- it's just another sign of how incredibly aggressive Russia was in attempting to ingratiate itself with the Trump campaign.

And if you read the indictment of this woman, Maria Butina, it seems she was very successful. I mean you saw the National Rifle Association engage at a level that had never been seen before, spent tens of millions of dollars on behalf of Trump. And I think we all know now how much the president has embraced Putin's agenda as president.

CAMEROTA: So you're thinking that it was in part because of her the NRA was supporting President Trump with such gusto.

TOOBIN: Well, that --

CAMEROTA: That she made some -- she had some success.

TOOBIN: That is --

CAMEROTA: To be seen.

TOOBIN: Well, I -- no. I mean I think that is certainly partially true. I mean the National Rifle Association had other reasons to support Donald Trump, but her efforts to get them even more engaged do seem to have had some impact.

CAMEROTA: It's all very intriguing.

TOOBIN: Strange stories.

CAMEROTA: Strange days.

TOOBIN: Strange.

CAMEROTA: It just gets curiouser and curiouser.


BERMAN: Jeffrey Toobin, thank you very much.

TOOBIN: John Berman will figure it all out.

CAMEROTA: Yes, he will.

Thank you, Jeff.

BERMAN: Well, I'm sitting here trying to figure this all out because I'm still shaking my head.

TOOBIN: He's a smart guy.

BERMAN: The president chose Russia. The president chose Russia today while we were all watching.

[06:54:43] So what will the White House do about it? There is growing condemnation, but will Republicans step up with more than just harshly worded statements? Our special live coverage continues after this.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is probably the most tragic day in the history of the presidency.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He just said it's not Russia. I don't see any reason why it would be.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To side with this former KGB officer is a despicable act of betrayal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Trump basically invited Putin to continue to interfere in U.S. elections.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Engagement with our adversaries is a good idea.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was really the president of the United States failing to fulfill his oath of office.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president has been consistent. We need to have open dialogue. GOV. JOHN KASICH (R), OHIO: Where is his Republican base going to be?

Are some of them finally going to say this is enough?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My belief as an American, we have a president who has betrayed us.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman.

BERMAN: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to your NEW DAY. And it is a big day. John Avlon joins us here as well.

[07:00:047] The president chose Russia in front of everyone. He chose Russia. And today the White House, the Republican Party, the country and, in fact, the world are dealing with the ramifications of