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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Does President Trump Believe Russia is No Longer Targeting the U.S.?; Only Four People in Private Meeting: Trump, Putin & Two Interpreters. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired July 18, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:05]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The White House just said that President Trump really meant yes when he said no. This is one day after he said he meant wouldn't when he said would.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Oops, he did it again. President Trump saying no when asked if Russia is still targeting the Democratic process, when all the evidence and his own experts point to a mountain of interference. The White House today saying he was really saying no a question that the reporter hadn't even asked.

Tale of the interpreter. Lawmakers now trying to get the only other American in the room with President Trump and Vladimir Putin to spill what was said. What does she know?

Plus, sex, lies and spies. Court documents reading like a Bond script about the accused agent who allegedly tried to use the GOP to help mother Russia.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

President Trump's long established skepticism about the U.S. intelligence community's assertions about Russian cyber-attacks are not limited, it turns out, to what happened in 2016. We also learned today that the president's doubting of his intelligence agencies also applies to the cyber-attacks going on right now.

The president this afternoon, when asked if Russia is still targeting the United States, said no. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Is Russia still targeting the U.S., Mr. President?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you very much. No.

QUESTION: No, you don't believe that to be the case?

TRUMP: No.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: To recap, the reporter, Cecilia Vega of ABC, says, "Is Russia still targeting the United States, Mr. President?" The president says: "Thank you very much. No."

Cecilia says, "No, you don't believe that to be the case?"

The president says again, "No."

That all seems a stunning contradiction of the president's own director of national intelligence, who warned just days ago of this threat primarily from Russia.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAN COATS, U.S. DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: The warning lights are blinking red again. Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.

In regards to state actions, Russia has been the most aggressive foreign actor, no question. And they continue their efforts to undermine our democracy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Now, this afternoon, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders holding the White House press briefing for the first time since July 2 denied the president was answering no Cecilia Vega's specific question.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president was -- said, thank you very much and was saying no to answering questions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: It's would vs. wouldn't all over again from a White House and a president not exactly overflowing with a reservoir of credibility.

But here's the thing. President Trump has already said he doesn't agree with Dan Coats' assessment that the U.S. is under attack and vulnerable to it. Just days ago, the president was asked about what Coats warned about, these attacks, mostly Russian, on the United States.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Speaking about hacking, your DNI, Dan Coats, said that America's digital infrastructure is at a critical point right now, similar to what it was like in some ways before 9/11, and that is, we're susceptible to a large-scale attack. Do you agree with that?

TRUMP: Well, I don't know that I agree with that. I would have to look.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: "I don't know if I agree with that."

So, even if one is inclined to give the president the benefit of the doubt today on this no to a reporter who asked if he believed Russia was still attacking United States -- people in the room, by the way, say that the president was looking right at the reporter and question after she asked. And he said no. When she asked it again, he said no again.

But, again, this comes as a part of a whole, the president expressing doubts about the intelligence community's assertions. The president already told CBS News he didn't know if he agreed with intelligence chief Coats.

And in Helsinki, of course, the president doubted him once again, suggesting that maybe he believes Putin.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is at the White House for us.

And, Jeff, folks in the room, the reporters there, they are not buying this new explanation.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: They are not, Jake.

The pool reporters in the room have done this a lot. We're often in the pool as well. When you ask the president a direct question, he often locks eyes with you and gives an answer. That's what he did with Cecilia Vega of ABC News right there. And he answered no one and moved on.

But as Sarah Sanders said he was trying to not answer questions and move on, period, he went on to talk for a variety of time about how strong he is against Vladimir Putin.

But, Jake, in the end, what this all amounts to is a second straight day of cleanup here at the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): It's happened again, President Trump contradicting his own intelligence leaders today, saying Russia is no longer targeting the U.S.

At the end of the Cabinet meeting, the president was asked this:

QUESTION: Is Russia still targeting the U.S., Mr. President?

TRUMP: Thank you very much. No.

ZELENY: AS White House aides tried to clear reporters from the room.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let's go. Make your way out.

QUESTION: No, you don't believe that to be the case?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let's go. We're finished here.

ZELENY: The president did not answer the question again.

More than two hours later, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders repeatedly saying the answer had been misconstrued.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president was -- said, thank you very much and was saying no to answering questions.

The first thing that the president says after the question was asked was, thank you very much. And then he said, no, I'm not answering any more questions.

[16:05:01]

I'm interpreting what the president said. I'm not reversing it. I was in the room as well, and I didn't take it the way you did.

ZELENY: And adding the president does believe Russia is an ongoing threat.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: We certainly believe that we are taking steps to make sure they can't do it again.

ZELENY: The confusion complicating an ongoing effort to clean up the diplomatic debacle of the summit with Vladimir Putin.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think he has called them out for interfering in our election. He's been tough on Russia repeatedly.

ZELENY: The president also made this claim today about Putin.

TRUMP: There's been no president ever as tough as I have been on Russia. All you have to do is look at the numbers, look at what we have done.

ZELENY: But that hardly erased what he said while standing alongside Putin Helsinki.

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

ZELENY: The president's initial comments today about Russia not being an ongoing threat directly at odds with his handpicked intelligence chief, who said there's no question Russia remains an urgent threat to American elections.

COATS: The warning lights are blinking red again. Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.

ZELENY: The White House was still consumed with fallout from this summit, after the president said Monday he took Putin at his word.

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

ZELENY: At the first White House briefing since July 2, Sanders struggle to explain the firestorm.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: To act like he hasn't been tough on Russia, that he hasn't called them out is simply not true.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: So, the president, Jake, had one more chance to explain this. He was arriving back to the White House after flying out to Joint Base Andrews earlier this afternoon.

Reporters asked him again just within the last hour if he could -- if he believed Russia was an ongoing threat, did not answer those questions.

Jake, the interesting thing about all of this, the first meeting happened around noon or so here in Washington. The White House had more than two hours to say, no, no, that's not what he meant. It was being broadcast. It was alerted by all the major newspapers. They did not make that claim.

Sarah Sanders tried explaining it once they got their story in a row there. So, again, more cleanup, more confusion here on Russia -- Jake.

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

Shawn Turner, how did you take it? And obviously you have to view what the president said earlier today to Cecilia Vega of ABC News in the context of his general attitude towards the intelligence community.

SHAWN TURNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: You absolutely do.

And I think that just like the president's comments yesterday, when he claimed that he meant to say wouldn't, when he said would, we have to look at this and realize that it absolutely falls flat.

But the president was answering the question that he was asked, and I think that for people around the president to then come out and suggest, just like they did yesterday, that somehow there was a misunderstanding here, it kind of suggested that they think that we're all stupid.

Look, this an issue of preparation. When the president goes out and he makes a statement, if the plan is for the president to simply make a statement and then to allow the press to be ushered out of the room, he has to have the discipline to stick to the plan, and to keep quiet.

And I think that time and time again, the president gets himself in trouble because he doesn't stick to the plan. And that certainly what happened today.

TAPPER: And one of your reporters, "USA Today," one of your reporters was in the room. What does he think about what the president was saying?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, Daily Beast reporter.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: I'm sorry, Daily Beast.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Daily Beast. I forget. Daily Beast reporter.

KUCINICH: So, Asawin Suebsaeng, he's our White House reporter, he was the pooler today, which is designated reporter who goes in for other reporters.

TAPPER: Representing magazines or print?

KUCINICH: Print.

TAPPER: OK.

KUCINICH: And so he was there. He saw the question asked and said, yes, there was crosstalk, but there was no question the president was answering the question.

And I think at some point we just have to believe what the president says the first time, because he has said similar versions of this, as you said, other times, including and yesterday when he was -- or Monday when he was talking about next to Vladimir Putin, he said all that before too, just not standing on foreign soil next to the Russian president.

It's when the White House tries to clean it up that it gets all confusing. And they try to gaslight us all. We should just believe him. He doesn't believe that Russians did -- despite all the evidence, all the intel experts, doesn't believe that Russians interfered in the election. And he doesn't think that it could happen again.

TAPPER: And reporters tried again with Sarah Sanders. They asked the question about whether or not Russia is still targeting the U.S. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HUCKABEE SANDERS: There's currently not an election today, not specifically, but we certainly believe that we are taking steps to make sure they can't do it again, unlike previous administrations.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What can't you just give a direct answer?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, that is the question.

Why is this so hard, right? Why is it always so hard when this issue comes up?

And I think gaslighting is the perfect word to use.

TAPPER: Explain what that means, because a lot people don't know.

POWERS: Gaslighting means you drive people crazy and then you call them crazy.

And so you're just constantly -- so it's like, oh, you are all crazy and hysterical.

[16:10:01]

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: By lying to them, by telling people that up is down.

(CROSSTALK)

POWERS: And so I think that you -- they keep sort of asking like why is everybody acting so strange about this?

But it's clear why everyone is acting so strange, because they're acting strange. And so they're always not quite giving an answer that that lines up with what they say they believe.

So, the I agree with the intelligence community, except then proceeds to say something that the intelligence community didn't say. They it's the Russians. They didn't say or maybe somebody else. And so that's what she is doing here.

She's just sort of answering it, but then saying the opposite of what she claims -- the point she claims to be making.

TAPPER: Scott, a point that you have made on the show, that I have made on this show, the president has taken steps to be tough on Russia, troops deployed to the Balkans, additional sanctions. He kind of had to be dragged kicking and screaming, but additional sanctions imposed on Russia, lethal aid to Ukrainians.

With all that, why is there also this other weirdness about -- this reluctance to say what everyone, Democrats, Republicans, House, Senate, his own intelligence people, Obama's intelligence people, that they all assert Russia was interfering in the 2016 election and continues to do so?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think the president continues to believe that if he admits that the Russians interfered in the election, or that they may try to interfere again, that it is somehow linked to his own legitimacy as president.

And what a lot of Republicans want the president to know is, you are the legitimate president. Even if it turns out that they did interfere in the election, which I believe they did, which we all believe they did, that in no way delegitimizes you. You are the president of the United States, and that's not going to change no matter what the findings are.

So I think it's all wrapped up in that. And I think there's something wrapped up in his ongoing negotiations with -- whatever they are -- with Vladimir Putin. He says he wants to make deals. He says he wants to have better relations. He says he wants to engage.

I think people support that. And I think he might be worried that if he is too hard on him in public, that it's somehow going to interrupt this deal-making that he's doing.

But I would just say to the White House that the smart play here is to assume they are going to do it again and hope they don't and hope that the measures you put in place stop them from doing it. Until they prove themselves to be better actors than they have been, we can't take their word for it.

(CROSSTALK)

TURNER: We don't have to assume they're doing it, they're going to do it again. They are doing it right now.

We are watching the Russians right now, as we speak, attempting to probe our networks. We are watching the Russians plant disinformation in social media. So this question of whether or not this is actually happening, happening looking forward, we know that it's happening right now.

And the White House, the president should step forward and acknowledge it. POWERS: Yes.

And also, I think that, when they talk about how hard they are on Russia, it's unrelated to this, right? So we're talking about what are they doing in terms of preventing another attack.

They eliminated the top cyber-security position at the White House. That's not very helpful. Right? So they're doing things that are counterproductive. The president has never expressed any interest in getting to the bottom of it.

And I think that the question is why and is it possible that he is fine with them doing it again because it might help him?

TAPPER: And, Jackie, take a look to this. Look at this. In February, the chief of the NSA, Chief Admiral Mike Rogers, testified that he needed the president or the secretary defense to grant him authority to stop Russia cyber-threats where they originated.

And at the time, February, he said that had not been granted. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ADM. MIKE ROGERS, NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY DIRECTOR: If granted the authority -- and I don't have the day-to-day authority to do that -- if granted the authority. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you would need basically to be directed by the president through the secretary of defense?

ROGERS: Yes, sir, as I mentioned that in my statement.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you been directed to do so, given the strategic threat that faces the United States and the significant consequences you recognize already?

ROGERS: No, I have not.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: At the time, Sarah Sanders said, well, nobody was denying him the authority. Obviously, Admiral Rogers has a different take.

And this is the fear. This is the fear. The president not taking it seriously enough means actually that our defenses are not as strong as they need to be.

KUCINICH: Well, right. And I think Sarah Sanders said something to the effect today there's not an election going on right now.

There is. There was one yesterday, actually, the primary election. So, yes, the White House claims that it is doing things to protect the election security. That said, it has to come from the president's mouth.

I mean, we -- The Daily Beast had a story the other day with some Balkan politicians saying that they don't even listen to the president anymore. They listen to Congress and the Pentagon when they say that everything's OK, and that the U.S. still has their back.

It matters what the president says. It matters when he says the buck stops here, this is not going to happen again. It would matter if he said to Vladimir Putin you can't do this again.

It does. So he can talk about how tough he is. But when push came to shove, standing next to the Russian president...

TAPPER: He didn't say it.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Final thought?

JENNINGS: The fact that the president has stated that his government is taking steps to prevent any election interference this year ought to give somebody the authority inside the administration, inside the White House to lay out specifically what those steps are, to give us all some assurance that we had this under control.

To me, that's the next logical communications play here, is to tell the American people, here's what the president was referring to. That would help. I hope they get to it.

TAPPER: The director of national intelligence, Coats, seems concerned, though, of course.

She's the only other American who's able to say what really happened, what was actually said in that room between President Trump and President Putin.

JENNINGS: To me, that's the next logical communications play here is to tell the American people, here's what the president was referring to.

[16:15:00]

But will President Trump's interpreter, will she be forced to share what she knows by Congress?

And then, she's a Russian who's accused of trading sex for insider access to the American political system and that's just the beginning of that tale.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: In politics, only one other American knows what was said in the private meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It's this woman, Marina Gross, seated next to President Trump. She's a U.S. State Department interpreter.

As CNN's Alex Marquardt reports, there's now growing pressure to bring her to Capitol Hill and tell Congress what she heard.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When President Trump faced off with Vladimir Putin in private, right at his side is someone few knew. Marina Gross, an interpreter and his only aide in the room for the more than two-hour one on one meeting.

With Trump siding with Putin over his own intelligence agencies on allegations of Russian hacking --

[16:20:03] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.

MARQUARDT: -- the calls are growing to find out what happened behind those closed doors.

REP. JOE KENNEDY III (D), MASSACHUSETTS: This is a serious national security issue on the roll-up to another series of midterms and all that I'm asking for is that we understand what our president agreed to. And if he won't tell us, then we should find some other way to figure it out.

MARQUARDT: That other way may be testifying in front of Congress, with talk now of subpoenaing Gross.

SEN. CORY BOOKER (D), NEW JERSEY: This is a moment where we should have access to what went on in that private meeting.

MARQUARDT: Some Republicans also joining the chorus.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: I'm not saying it ought to be done in a public hearing. We at least ought to get access to the notes that the translators keep.

MARQUARDT: Gross is a highly experienced Russian interpreter at the State Department, where she said for a long time. This photo taken in 2008 with First Lady Laura Bush, appearing last year in Moscow with then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

For interpreters, discretion is paramount, expected to not reveal what they see or hear. So talk of a subpoena is not just uncomfortable but unchartered territory.

JUDY JENNER, AMERICAN TRANSLATORS ASSOCIATION SPOKESPERSON: When in doubt, we keep it confidential, unless a judge orders me to talk about it. I probably wouldn't. And this is a legal issue, not so much an interpreting issue, right? If you get subpoenaed, by Congress, I don't think there would be any code of ethics that would supersede that obligation.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARQUARDT: Jake, no one we spoke with today can remember a situation in the past where a government interpreter has been asked to testify before Congress. And then there's the question of whether the White House could use its executive privilege to block it.

Now, interpreters are supposed to be extensions of the people they're translating for. So, many are also arguing that it should be the president and his top officials who likely got debriefed or debriefed Marina Gross and may have actually seen her notes who should be the ones answering the questions, not the interpreter -- Jake.

TAPPER: Thanks so much.

Let's talk about this again.

Now, I wonder what you think because you come from the perspective of the Obama administration for director of national intelligence, but I know you're also skeptical of President Trump.

Do you worry that if she is forced, this woman is forced to testify, that that is actually an overreach by the legislative branch into the executive branch?

TURNER: I do. I think it sets a bad precedent. Look. I think because of the nature of the relationship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, in the intelligence community, there's interest of what happened in the room, particularly what Vladimir Putin would have said. There's also a lot of interest in the planning leading up to that meeting and what the plan was going into that meeting.

However, it is the case that there are a lot of people around the president who serve a function that allow the president to do his job. And I think that if we set the precedent of identifying the interpreter and bringing her in to testify you open up a can of worms and others might be in the same situation.

TAPPER: The White House we should point out said that the request to bring the interpreter before Congress is something they have to go through the State Department. And a few minutes ago, the State Department was asked about it and here's the response.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HEATHER NAUERT, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: Is there any precedent for this? We have not been able to find that just yet. I can tell you there's no formal request to have the interpreter appear before any congressional committees at this point. Overall, as a general matter, you know, we always seek to work with Congress.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: The White House also said there's no recording of the meeting, so it's really up to President Trump and Marina Gross?

POWERS: Yes. Well, I agree with everything that you said. I think it's also problematic because this isn't a policy person. This is something when's trying to interpret as they go along and if they represent things, they may represent them not correctly, even if they're trying to do the best and then in the future, you could just see what's to stop them from -- with any president saying we want to subpoena your interpreter because we don't know what happened there. So, I think it sets a bad precedent.

All that said, I am curious about -- one of my issues about this is that the president is not just about Donald Trump or whoever happens to be president. They're representing the United States and the United States is not his toy, right? So, he is there representing the United States.

So, the question is, should they be meeting alone? And how common is that to actually meet alone with an adversary?

TAPPER: I think it's very uncommon.

TURNER: Uncommon.

TAPPER: Scott, I know you're going to disagree with the notion that this woman should be subpoenaed or testified before Congress. But don't you think that there is a public right to know about what was said in that meeting that has not yet been satisfied in any way?

JENNINGS: I think the president of the United States has to have the latitude to talk to and negotiate with other world leaders as he sees fit. This is what it means to have a president who is in charge of a separate and co-equal branch of government. I mean, there's bad ideas, there's terrible ideas, there's crazy ideas and then there's this one. It comes from the farthest left fever swamps of Washington, D.C. We

cannot go down this road. It would have a serious chilling impact on all of these functional people in the White House to help the president do the job. I mean, what's next? We're going to have to go out and find the people that take the garbage out to the dumpster saying, did you look through the garbage last night? This is a lunatic idea.

[16:25:02] KUCINICH: I think the issue is there's no recording you said that we know of.

TAPPER: Right.

KUCINICH: Pretty much every Russia expert I heard from said there's a recording, when the United States doesn't have it.

TAPPER: Somewhere.

KUCINICH: Somewhere, right. And so, I think the White House created this problem in a way, because usually there is someone else in the room, a staffer, someone with the president. That could, not only for history's sake, but could report back.

The other is we're getting information about what happened in that meeting from the Russians.

JENNNGS: Right.

KUCINICH: That is not ideal.

TAPPER: And who knows if they're telling the truth?

KUCINICH: Right.

TAPPER: Would versus would, that's his excuse. An inside look at how the White House crafted the cleanup campaign yesterday. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)