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President Trump Walks Back Comments Made During Press Conference at Summit with Russian President Putin. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired July 18, 2018 - 8:00   ET

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


[08:00:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Facing backlash from both Democrats and Republicans after taking Vladimir Putin's side over U.S. intelligence, the president apparently decided he had to issue an explanation, and this, we guess, was the best he could do.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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.

The sentence should have been "I don't see any reason why I wouldn't, or why it wouldn't be Russia."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: But even as he tries to clean up the mess he made, he undercut his own message by saying in the next breath that the interference could actually be a lot of other people also.

No matter how the president tries to spin it, Congress is considering options, Republicans are weighing a bill that would impose sanctions on any country that interferes with U.S. elections while some Democrats are calling for the president's national security team and the president's translator, who was the only other American in the that meeting with Vladimir Putin, to testify before congress.

BERMAN: Let's bring in CNN political analyst, "New York Times" White House correspondent, Maggie Haberman. Maggie, you have one of the lead articles in the "Times" explaining how the president came to sit in the White House yesterday and issue the explanation he did. Spill.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It was under duress, John. This was not something he was rushing to go out and do despite what some of his advisers are claiming.

Looking, he got off that stage in Helsinki, and he said it yesterday, that was true, he did not feel like he had done something wrong. He was surprised by the reaction. He spent a pretty long flight home aboard Air Force One at times being fine, at times being pretty snappish as the coverage was going as he put it to people, quote/unquote, so negative. By late morning yesterday he knew that he had to do something, and then began the several hours long process of Stephen Miller, his speechwriter, crafting a statement that got revised repeatedly. You could see those revisions by the president at the end.

There were outside voices weighing in on this, people who had called him on Capitol Hill, outside advisers within the White House, people said you have to address this. But what they came up with was frankly too clever by half. It satisfied basically no one, and he has already started walking back the walk back, which was completely predictable because he was never going to get the credit in the media he thought he should get for cleaning this up.

This was more a statement as it was described to me by people close to the White House for frankly our allies overseas. This was less about trying to quell people here because I think that the White House knows the damage is done on that front. This is about sending a message that there is a broader U.S. government that is going to take action if something untoward happens going forward involving Russia. But this president is going to continue to dig in. And what we saw on Twitter all morning I think is the start of it.

CAMEROTA: But Maggie, did something different happen yesterday than has happened in the past? Any time there's been sort of an epic blowup, and I'm thinking of Charlottesville, and I'm thinking of David Duke and first saying he didn't know who David Duke was, I'm thinking of all the sexual harassment claims against the president or accusations, I should say, was there something different about the mood in the White House or something different in the way it was managed or who got to the president that allowed for this president, who is loath to ever admit wrongdoing, to do so publicly?

HABERMAN: The cast of characters that got to the president were primarily the same with one important addition, Bill Shine, the new deputy chief of staff for communications in the White House. But the playbook certainly was the same. The difference, I would say, was two things. Number one, this was done relatively quickly in terms of a cleanup or attempted cleanup, or whatever that was. We have seen him dig in repeatedly and double down on comments and refuse to give into critics over and over again, such as after Charlottesville. That's the big one I would think of. The travel ban is another. There's a bunch of examples from last year we can list.

This was much more like frankly "Access Hollywood" for two reasons. There was a tape of it, it's very hard for him to say, even though he did try in this case, he put it on himself, you're misunderstanding me, you're taking me out of context, what you're hearing is not what you heard. With "Access Hollywood" and with this press conference it was pretty clear what people heard, and in both cases he moved relatively quickly to deal with it, but again, the dealing with it is a half measure at best and he clearly didn't want to do it.

BERMAN: I've got to say one bit of news from Maggie this morning is this was primarily designed for an international audience, U.S. allies, and, John, if that was the case I feel like the Montenegro betrayal that we saw overnight when he basically said we don't really need to defend Montenegro, or I don't think we should, that probably undercuts any sort of security sense he was providing.

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. Nice Article Five you got, be a shame if anything happened to it. Look, he is not -- as with all things, when Donald Trump speaks off the cuff or when the Twitter Trump persona comes forward, that's the real Donald Trump. Everything else is bunting and official statements that will be quickly dispersed with.

[08:05:06] So the problem is when he dissed Montenegro as an example of why would we get involved in a war for one of the NATO allies, he not only undercuts the concept of collective security, he parrots Vladimir Putin's talking points, who has been particularly irritated about Montenegro's arrival within the NATO sphere and all those smaller Baltic nations that border Russia. That's where the danger is, and the president is basically validating his perspective, saying why would we want to go to war for folks like that? They have got Russian connection. They don't contribute that much. So it's deeply undermining to the larger message if, as Maggie says, the goal was to calm the international community.

HABERMAN: One of the things everybody does after one of these incidents, we've said respectfully, John, the larger we, is look for some consistency. If he was trying to do this, then why did he do that? Because he does whatever he wants in any 10-minute increment of time. His objective is different than what his government's objective is, and we have seen that time and again.

CAMEROTA: Another thing that Democrats do after one of these big conflagrations and say this is it, surely this is it, surely this is the moment the tables turn, surely this is the moment where the rules of gravity still apply. And I think that because he had to walk it back or whatever that was, and because FOX News turned on him, some of his biggest cheerleaders, because he stood side by side with Vladimir Putin and said America was to blame and blamed America for stupidity and foolishness, and I'm just wondering, Maggie, do you think something shifted in the atmosphere permanently on Monday?

HABERMAN: For all of the reasons you cited before about things never changing I am very reluctant to predict this is going to be the moment of change because, frankly, what change is going to require would be members of Congress going a lot more than what they did yesterday, more than just calls for hearings that may or may not happen. They would really have to step up. The leadership of the GOP-held Congress would have to step up. And I know they will argue we've done what we can do. I think that that's a debatable question.

We're four months out from the midterms, three and a half months out from the midterms. That's where we're going to know if this mattered or not. In the meantime, I think you're going to see a president who is going to just carry on as if nothing took place.

AVLON: But the there's a fundamental difference between what the president did in Helsinki on the world state standing next to Vladimir Putin and off-the-cuff remarks at a rally in Montana or western Pennsylvania. As Matt Lewis wrote yesterday, this takes America first and makes it blame America first. This is a different gravity, and it's difficult for I think his Republican colleagues who are willing to tolerate a lot to stand by and not call out the fact that he backed Vladimir Putin against his own Justice Department and intelligence agencies. That's a mark that's not going to come off.

HABERMAN: Completely agree with that, and I think there is no question this is a different order of magnitude. I guess what I would say is because the coverage of almost everything related to Donald Trump over the last year and a half -- and this is across the board -- everything has been characterized as this moment -- to Alisyn's point, this is going to be the tipping point. I think that people are pretty numb to understanding why what happened this week was actually really different, and I think the press did a good job capturing why it was different. Whether that then translates into something beyond that I don't know.

BERMAN: And I will tell you, if you're looking for the Republicans to stand up to the non-walk back walk back yesterday, I just don't think it's going to happen. It seems to me Mitch McConnell's statements yesterday, Paul Ryan's statements yesterday, Anthony Scaramucci, he's going to be on in just a second here, his public statement yesterday was to push the president to do what he did.

HABERMAN: Some version of what he did.

BERMAN: Some version of what he did.

CAMEROTA: Anthony Scaramucci's suggestion was stronger than what the president ultimately did.

BERMAN: It was ham-handed execution, but that is what they asked for. They got what they asked for to an extent, and now they're going to run back it seems to me, and we'll see when you talk to Mooch, I'm going to talk to John Kennedy, senator from Louisiana in a second, it seems to me they're going to say OK, that's enough, let's move on to something else.

HABERMAN: I think that's right, and I think if past is prelude that is exactly what they are going to do. I would say it was more than ham-handed execution. I think that you could reasonably argue it was disingenuous execution based on what we've seen since, but it doesn't matter. It's going to give Republicans something they can point to and say, look, he dealt with it, which I think we saw Rand Paul do, I think we saw Newt Gingrich do. I think you're going to see a lot of people do that.

AVLON: He dealt with it. Come on, that was desperate and panicked and flaccid.

CAMEROTA: There you go. Maggie, thank you.

HABERMAN: Thank you.

BERMAN: There is a pill for that. Just saying.

(LAUGHTER)

CAMEROTA: And scene.

BERMAN: Thank you maggie. Maggie's like I'm going for the exits right about now.

(LAUGHTER)

BERMAN: One Republican senator who went to Russia and told Russians to stop screwing with our elections, he will join us next to tell us whether he thought the president delivered that same message.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[08:13:47] SEN. JOHN KENNEDY, (R) LOUISIANA: We're going to have to contain them. And the only by a to contain them, you don't have to be ugly about it, but you've got to be very, very firm. Dealing with Putin is like handfeeding a shark. You can do it, but you have to do it very, very carefully.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: That is Republican Senator John Kennedy's advice on how to handle Russian President Vladimir Putin. Senator Kennedy's recent return from a congressional trip to Russia where he says he told high- level officials to stop screwing with our elections. Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana joins me now. Senator, thank you so much for being with us. You say talking to Putin is like feeding a shark, you can do it but you have to do it very carefully. Did President Trump feed the shark carefully?

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY, (R) LOUISIANA: Here's -- let me answer your question this way, and I will answer it, John. Here's what I wish the president had said. I wish he'd come out after the meeting and said President Putin and I had a very frank conversation. I told him to stop acting like a thug. I told him if he wanted a better relationship with my country he should stop trying to mug democracy. He should stop treating the truth like his mother's good China. He should get out of Ukraine, let them self-determine, get out of Crimea, let them self-determine. Help us settle the mess in Syria and stop poisoning people in other countries.

Now, that's not what the president said. He started out like a man on fire. He fussed at NATO as he should have for letting the American taxpayer pay most of the freight. He fussed in Germany for signing a gas deal with Russia.

But at his press conference -- and I watched it first live and then I watched it on tape -- he was very uncertain, very tentative. He was clearly off his game. I will tell you I left -- after listening to both of them, I told my better half, Becky, I said, Becky, I'm not sure what the president said.

Now, he's cleared it up and regardless of what anybody says, I stand by what I said about Mr. Putin, dealing with him is like hand-feeding a shark. He even has eyes like a shark, no disrespect.

Forget what he says, watch what he does. If he meddles in our election this fall -- and I told his colleagues this when I was in Russia as did the other senators. If he messes with our election this fall I believe Congress will double down on sanctions, maybe triple down.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: OK, Senator, let's review a few things you said here. You said you thought the president was very ineffective, uncertain, you said, off his game.

KENNEDY: Yes.

BERMAN: Do you feel he looked weak standing next to President Putin?

KENNEDY: He looked off his game. I'm never had an at-length discussion one on one with Mr. Trump about how he feels about Russia, so I honestly don't know. You have to judge --

BERMAN: Well, I think we have every reason to think we do know how he feels about Russia. He's asked about it frequently. He talks about it frequently and we have every reason to believe what he said in the past about Russian election meddling which was actually consistent when he sat next to Vladimir Putin which is he's not sure if Russia did it or not. The Russians have also told him no.

He thinks that Vladimir Putin believes that it didn't happen and you think the president clarified that statement?

KENNEDY: Well, John, first, those are your words not mine.

BERMAN: OK.

KENNEDY: Let me tell you what I was going to say.

BERMAN: OK.

KENNEDY: What I was going to say is I've never had a one op one conversation with the president about Russia but here's what I think he thinks about Russia.

I think he thinks that Russia did meddle in our election. I think he thinks -- and I agree with him -- that Russia's meddling did not determine the outcome of the election. I don't know how anybody who is fair-minded can point to a specific activity and say, yup, that's what tipped the election. Americans have a multitude of reasons for voting as they do.

I think he understands the threat from Putin. I do think he wants a better relationship with Russia. I think the world would be safer if we had a better relationship with Russia. What I hope he understands is that -- I'll say it again, trying to reason with Mr. Putin is like trying to hand feed a shark. Logic doesn't work.

BERMAN: Right.

KENNEDY: You have to hit him in the face and say if you do it again I'm going to hit you in the face twice as hard. That he understands.

BERMAN: You can't sit here and tell me you thought president Trump hit the shark in the face.

KENNEDY: No, I just said, he looked tentative, he looked off his game, I wasn't certain what he said and I was very thankful yesterday that he came back -- I don't know if he would do it and said let me clarify what I meant.

BERMAN: You buy the clarification that would versus wouldn't, you buy the clarifications that it could be other people also? That's enough for you?

KENNEDY: No, I buy his clarification about what he said at his press conference when people said, well, he's given in to Russia. I don't think he's given into Russia but what I think doesn't matter, and no disrespect, what you think doesn't matter. What anybody thinks based on words doesn't matter.

People talk a lot in government and politics. Let's watch what they do.

BERMAN: What actions have you seen or what words have you heard from President Trump that make you believe he is standing up to Russia on this -- on the history of their attack on the U.S. election in 2016, on the fears from our intelligence community they might do it again?

KENNEDY: Well, here's what I see, I see number one he told our NATO allies start carrying the load a little bit, the American taxpayers are getting tired of it and one of the purposes of NATO is to contain Russia.

Number two, he was very critical of Germany for establishing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with Russia.

[08:20:05] I mean, here we are on one hand with the left hand trying to contain them and on the right hand, we're giving them money to buy weapons to try to kill us and he fussed at Germany for that.

Number three -- let me finish. Let me finish.

BERMAN: Go ahead.

KENNEDY: Number three the president said last night and I believe him and I think Congress will hold him to his words. If they mess on our election, they're trying to meddle in our election, we're going to knock the hell out of them twice as hard and I think we should.

Now, if Mr. Putin wants a better relationship with the United States, I would welcome it, but he's got to stop acting like a thug and the only way to judge whether he really wants a better relationship is if he starts acting like it and changes his behavior.

The guy does -- I mean, I remember what President Bush said about looking in Mr. Putin's eyes. I haven't been as close as President Bush but I've seen his eyes on television. He's got shark eyes. I mean, the man -- I'm not saying -- he's either moral or amoral. He understands power.

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: He understands power and the question is, is President Trump president Trump projecting power when he stands next to him and equivocates over the Russian attack on the U.S. election? Is the president projecting power when he tells Tucker Carlson last night, you talked about what the president said last night, when he tells Tucker Carlson, yes, he often wonders whether or not it's worth it sending U.S. troops to help defend Montenegro if they're attacked? Montenegro is part of NATO. That's foundational to NATO.

Does that project power?

KENNEDY: Here's what I think. And I don't speak --

BERMAN: Can I ask you -- I'm just trying to figure out, do you think that the president projected power to Donald Trump on the key issue -- President Trump projected power to Vladimir Putin on the key issue of election meddling?

KENNEDY: Here's what I think. I think you have to judge world leaders -- including but not limited to politicians -- not by their words but by their actions and we will be able to judge President Trump and President Putin by their actions.

I believe that President Trump meant what --

BERMAN: But --

KENNEDY: Let me finish, John.

I believe President Trump meant what he said. For example, if Russia meddles in our elections and we'll know, our national intelligence agencies will tell him, will tell us, we're going to hit him so hard he coughs up bones. I think the president will do that.

If he doesn't, I'll come back on your show and say the president should have done that and I don't agree with him for not doing it. But I think he'll do it. And if he doesn't do it --

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: He hasn't done it yet, senator. Let me say this. It will be too late for the people of Montenegro to wait and see if president Trump sends U.S. troops to help them if they are perhaps invaded. It's too late then that the message needs to be sent now. Correct?

KENNEDY: Look, I didn't hear -- I'm not trying to dodge your question, John. I honestly didn't hear the comments about Montenegro, so I'm kind of flying blind here.

Part of President Trump's approach to management -- and it's his choice. He's the president of the United States. He often thinks out loud. He clearly often grows anxious --

BERMAN: I --

KENNEDY: Let me finish, John.

BERMAN: But you keep talking about the two different things. You keep talking about the need to project power and you won't tell me if the president is achieving that and you see a key oversight role in the Senate.

KENNEDY: Let me say it again. You judge word leaders by their actions not words. I've heard President Putin give an extraordinary speech before about how Russia embraces Western values and democracy. The last time Russia embraced Western values on --

BERMAN: I won't interrupt you again, it's the last time I promise. The last I interrupt you.

KENNEDY: I'll hold you to that, John.

BERMAN: I promise.

What actions, actions have you seen from President Trump that make you believe that he will stand up to Russia on their attacks of the 2016 presidential election?

KENNEDY: He has -- well let me answer it in terms of -- let me answer it straight up in terms of the election.

The president put sanctions at the urging of Congress on Russia for meddling in our elections. The president has said that if Russia does it again we will double down on sanctions and I think the United States Congress respectfully will hold him to that.

Number two, part of the reason for NATO is to contain Russia. You can't do that without money. The American taxpayer has been putting up 70 percent of the money. The president said if you want to contain Russia, by god, to our allies, put up your share of the money.

[08:25:02] Now, that's not pro-Russia.

Number three, he was criticized for doing it but in very candid terms, he fussed at Ms. Merkel for on the one hand saying we got to fight Russia over here through NATO and on the right hand saying, by the way, I'm just going to sign a multibillion dollar gas contract with Russia and give them money to buy weapons to try to kill us. And he called her out.

I don't remember anybody on either side of the aisle on Congress calling her out over that.

BERMAN: Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, thank you so much for the discussion this morning on behalf of Shark Week, we do appreciate your time, sir.

KENNEDY: Thanks, John.

BERMAN: Alyson?

ALYSON CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: You cannot have too many shark references. That's what I've learned.

BERMAN: He cares a lot about sharks and how they're fed.

CAMEROTA: Who doesn't?

BERMAN: Yes.

CAMEROTA: OK. You will all remember that we had Anthony Scaramucci on yesterday with his prescription for what President Trump should do to clean up the mess. Did the president do it? Is the Mooch satisfied by the president's words? Here's here to tell us next.

BERMAN: Moochify.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CAMEROTA: On Monday, President Trump threw America under the bus as he stood side by side with Vladimir Putin.