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Russia Not Interfering; Accused Russian Agent Expected in Court; Trump Questioned on NATO Defense. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired July 18, 2018 - 13:00   ET



[13:00:18] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington, 8:00 p.m. in Moscow. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

Up first, President Trump talking tough on Russia after walking back comments from his jaw-dropping news conference with Vladimir Putin. At a cabinet meeting only moments ago, right here in Washington, he said no president in the history of the United States has been tougher on Russia than he has. And here's what else he had to say.


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


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Press, let's go. Make your way out.


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

QUESTION: Senator Schumer is saying you would walk back --


TRUMP: Thank you very much, everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Make your way out.

TRUMP: We're doing very well. Let me -- we are doing very well and we're doing very well, probably as well as anybody has ever done with Russia. And 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've done, look at sanctions, look at ambassadors not there. Look, unfortunately, at what happened in Syria recently. And I think President Putin knows that better than anybody, certainly a lot better than the media. He understands it, and he's not happy about it. And he shouldn't be happy about it because there's never been a president as tough on Russia as I have been.

OK, thank you very much.


BLITZER: All right, this comes only a day after the president tried to walk back his comments during the summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. He came under a lot of fire when he seemed to take Putin's word over U.S. intelligence about Russia's attack on the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Our senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny is joining us live.

Jeff, what do you make of the president's comments just now about Russia?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there may be another cleanup act here coming at the White House, specifically the question that he was asked in the cabinet room just a short time ago, if he believes that Russia is still targeting the U.S. He paused for a moment and said, no.

And then there was some confusion and some loud noises in there, as often happens, because with these White House aides, Wolf, more than other administrations are trying to get reporters out so the president does not answer questions. The president often wants to answer some questions. So there was some shouting back and forth.

But we have checked with the reporters, the pool reporters, who were inside that cabinet room and they say they have no doubt at all the president was saying no when asked directly if the U.S. is still being targeted by Russia.

Wolf, the reason this would be a big deal, this, again, would be the president going against the own words, the own evidence, from his director of national intelligence, from his intelligence community. Just a couple days ago, Dan Coats, the director of the DNI says the United States is, frankly, still under attack. They said that a Russia (INAUDIBLE) was successful during 2016 and might want to retry it in 2018.

So the president there also moving on to say that no president has ever been tougher in the history of relations. The administration has been far tougher than the president, no question. There have been so many sanctions imposed. But in Helsinki, Wolf, you and I were both there watching President Trump standing next side -- alongside with Vladimir Putin, certainly not as tough as any president in the history of this country. Vladimir Putin, of course, has stood alongside four American presidents. President Trump was very much agreeable with him. He's been criticized for that.

So the White House, again, Wolf, I expect these will be questions coming up in the White House briefing, the first one in quite some time coming up later this afternoon. But particularly the question we should ask, does the president still believe that Russia is targeting the U.S.? He said in a word, no. We'll see if they try and clean that up as well, Wolf.

BLITZER: I suspect they're getting ready for that.

Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thanks very much.

Joining us now for some perspective and insight, CNN political analyst Julie Hirschfeld Davis, White House reporter for "The New York Times." Also with us, our CNN political analyst, David Gregory, and our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

You know, the question that Cecilia Vega, she was the network White House pool reporter, she specifically asked the president, is Russia still targeting the U.S., Mr. President? The president responded, thank you very much and then he said, no. And everybody -- he was looking right at -- he was looking right at her when he said no. This is, obviously, very different from what the U.S. intelligence community believes that Russia is still targeting the U.S.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And we reported yesterday as well that Russia is about to step up some more targeting of the United States. And I can only think back to the president saying that Putin's denials were powerful was the word -- was the word that he used. So he has his own intelligence community, not only the DNI, but his entire intelligence community saying, get ready, things are going to get bad and I think the DNI said the red lights are flashing. And yet the president of the United States dismissing it.

[13:05:12] It seems remarkable to me because only yesterday he had to come out and apologize, sort of, and say, you know, I do have faith in my intelligence community. Well, if you have faith in your intelligence community, they are telling you that the Russians are still targeting us. So which is it?

BLITZER: His director of national intelligence, David, Dan Coats, issued a statement after the president's awkward news conference in Helsinki on Monday. And, among other things, he said, we have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.

Earlier he said they were still trying to do it in the midterm elections coming up in November. The president said, no, they are not targeting the U.S. any longer.

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. So that has to be cleaned up.

And I think what's so important, even in the political debate, if you are someone who believes that there's an overstatement of what the 2016 meddling amounted to, is it hyperbole to say it was Pearl Harbor or 9/11. You can put that aside.

What we have to learn from our short-term history is that you can't have a failure of imagination. And we don't have to when it comes to Russia. Russia has attacked critical infrastructure before, as they did in Ukraine in 2014. They had -- they did interfere in our election in 2016. And there's no question they'd like to do more.

We know that Putin is a bad actor on the world stage. We know the United States government feels that way and acts accordingly. But the president of the United States has shown repeatedly his infatuation for this imperial figure who is Vladimir Putin. And that is what is so troubling.

I don't know what the administration policy is toward Russia. And I don't know how often it may be changing given how erratic and ill- informed the president appears on the subject.

BORGER: Well, there may be two policies.


BORGER: There may be his advisers and then the president of the United States.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, and this is why this matters. I mean, obviously, the fact that he's -- he's done this news conference. Then he had to come and clean it up yesterday. He's now again seeming to ultimately -- to take issue with what the intelligence community is telling him about the election interference and whether it's going on still.

But the reason this all matters is because he was in that room by himself with Vladimir Putin for more than two hours.


DAVID: And the question is, what did he say to Vladimir Putin? And if he, in fact, he does not believe that the meddling and the interference and the attack on American democracy and our voting system is still going on, that would very much affect what he said or what he didn't say.

And so because he has been on such a different page from the rest of his administration, he alluded to how tough they've been. Well, his administration has been tough. There have been a lot of sanctions. They expelled all these diplomats after the poisoning in the U.K. There have -- there have been concrete moves, but he, with every step, public statement, he undermines them because he makes it clear that he doesn't actually agree. And when he has the opportunity to stand next to Putin, he won't press the issue.

GREGORY: Well, and the big here -- factor here is that Russia is a complicated issue in terms of our foreign policy because there's areas where we might work with Russia, potentially in Syria, notably elsewhere in the Middle East. But the president can't get his own ego out of this. He cannot give any quarter on the idea of the Mueller investigation or the meddling because it seems to delegitimize him. In his mind -- it does, in fact, Julie, but in his mind it does. And so -- and so -- and it -- and he so admires the way that Putin conducts himself that he lets that get in the way.

So this is, to your point, exactly right, what are they saying behind closed doors? What business relationships did the president have before he was president with Russia that could undermine his judgment? We need to know these things. And anybody does because the policy is so delicate.

BORGER: And we need to know what occurred in the meeting. I mean and that's, of course, very difficult to find out because you have a note- taker and that's about -- a translator and that's about it.

DAVIS: No note-taker, which is significant.

BORGER: No note-taker, sorry, just a translator. And the Russians today said, well, we'd like to get moving on some of these -- the practical implementation of agreements we reached in this meeting.


BORGER: And we're all saying, what agreements?

BLITZER: Well, the president said it was great -- a great meeting. Let me read a couple of the tweets that he did earlier today. He said, some people hate the fact that I got along well with President Putin of Russia. They would rather go to war than see this, it's called Trump derangement syndrome. And then he said, so many people at the higher ends of intelligence love my press performance in Helsinki. Putin and I discussed many important subjects at our earlier meeting. We got along well, which truly bothered many haters who wanted to see a boxing match. Big results will come.

So he seems to be confirming what the Russian foreign ministry is saying --


BLITZER: And the Russian defense ministry is saying. There's some major developments underway right now, but he's not giving us any details.

BORGER: Well, this is why congressional oversight is so important. And the question is, what is the -- what is the Republican-controlled Congress going to do? Who are they going to have testifying on Capitol Hill? How are -- how is anyone going to get a debrief? Are they going to get this translator's notes? It's just -- it's a mess. And I'm not even sure the president has debriefed his own people. Do we know that?

[13:10:16] DAVIS: I don't know that we have. I mean he has obviously talked with them about what was said in that room. But in terms of concrete agreements --


DAVIS: Some of the things that they mentioned in this news conference about arms control, about an agreement to help secure Israel's border with Syria, all of those things, they're very, very vague. And I think going in, his administration, his advisers were so intent on downplaying expectations. I actually expected to see a lot more concrete detail, at least on the issues that they were going to agree to talk about. What is this conversation going to be around New START? What is the conversation going to be around Syria?


DAVIS: We got very little detail from that, partially because President Trump himself focused so intently on election interference and defending himself during that news conference.


I want to just point out, Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, a key member of the Armed Services Community, he just tweeted this. A big discrepancy between President Trump's statement and DNI Coats' warning. It's imperative we get to the bottom of what is going on so we can be prepared to protect ourselves in advance of the 2018 elections. My personal view, the Russians are at it again.

GREGORY: And think about that. This -- you have -- you have the intelligence community saying this is a big threat. Republican leaders finally saying, you know, Russians need to know it's not going to happen again. And the president is an apologist for Vladimir Putin and is so infatuated with him that he is -- even in his use of language, it is so imprecise to be reckless. And who on the president's staff, including some very experienced people, would allow a meeting where there's only a translator to be present? It's so irresponsible. I don't care, again, what your views are about the Mueller investigation. There's every reason for engagement with Russia. This is irresponsible policy.

Go back, near-term history. When President George W. Bush was asked by Rob Fornei (ph) of "The Associated Press," do you trust Putin? And his immediate answer was, I got a chance to look in his soul and I do trust him. And I was standing -- I was sitting in Slovenia right next to Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, and she went like this. She said to Karen Hughes, his counselor, she said, we do not talk about Vladimir Putin like that. You cannot trust him. That was a major issue at that time. And the --

BLITZER: And, very quickly, you know, Gloria, because a lot -- all of us, we've studied history. We know history. We know the history of the U.S./Russian relationship. When the president says no American president has ever been tougher -- more tougher on Russia than I have been, there have been a few American presidents who have been pretty tough on Russia during various crises, including the Cuban missile crisis.

BORGER: Of course. And no president has ever been stronger. And no president has ever been more popular. And no president -- I mean, you know, you can --

GREGORY: Tear down this wall. He gave a strong denial.

BORGER: Yes. Yes. OK. I mean but it's just, you know, it's just absurd. But you talk about the issue of trust.


BORGER: Who trusts President Trump to debrief them about what actually occurred in that meeting? I think the -- there is an issue there not just with trusting Putin, but it's about trusting the president because he is not known for telling the truth.

GREGORY: Yes. Right. BORGER: And so who knows how he would color what occurred during this


GREGORY: Exactly.

BLITZER: All right, guys, we're going to continue this assessment.

There's a lot more unfolding on the breaking news.

What did President Trump say when asked if Russia was still targeting the U.S.? Take a look at this. There's a briefing about to happen over in the White House. We're hoping the White House will clarify what the president exactly said. Lots of controversy again emerging on this day. We'll have live coverage of that White House press briefing with Sarah Sanders. Stick around.

Plus, a flight risk. That's what a Russian national charged with acting illegally here in the United States as a foreign agent is being called today. Maria Butina will arrive in court any moment now. We'll have the very latest. We're live on the scene.


[13:18:29] BLITZER: An accused Russian agent is expected to be in court here in Washington in the next few minutes. Prosecutors now say Maria Butina spent the last three years in the United States trying to infiltrate conservative political circles, including the National Rifle Association, and then using those connections during the 2016 presidential election to try to set up back channels between then candidate Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Our crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz, has been following this story for us.

So what do we expect to happen in the next few minutes.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: So she'll be -- appear in court. You know, a little interesting color is that her lawyer is asking that she appear in street clothes. So that request was just made to the judge and they're deciding on whether or not she's going to appear in her prison jump suit or in street clothing.

But this is set up as a detention hearing, Wolf. The prosecutors wanting to keep her behind jail -- in jail behind bars as they proceed with their case. The concern here is, is that she could flee. She's not a citizen of the United States and essentially she could just walk into the Russian embassy and then be shipped back to Russia.

But prosecutors gave us a little bit of a preview of what they're going to argue as to why she should be detained. And it's really a fascinating list of information and evidence that they have been able to gather about her. They say that she has been in regular contact with Russian intelligence. At one point, as a part of her operation here, she offered sex for a position in an organization. They also say that her operation here, and this is directly from the court papers that they released, that her plan was calculated, patient and directed by the Russians.

[13:20:08] So, really, a lot of information in these documents that they released. It's clear that the FBI has been monitoring her, following her. They say that they moved to arrest her on Sunday because she was going to leave the area. She was planning on moving to South Dakota. And they were concerned that she was going to leave and that is why they arrested her on Sunday.

BLITZER: Yes, if you read this 17-page court document, government's memorandum in support of pretrial detention, it reads like a spy novel.

PROKUPECZ: It certainly does. And its textbook of how the Russians developed these kinds of operations. This takes time. They study people. They learn about who they want to target. In this case, she was given specific orders. They have these conversations. They have recorded conversations in Russian that they were able to obtain of her with handlers, people that she was talking to about the operation, about what she was doing here in the U.S.

So, really, if you, according at least to these documents, there's overwhelming evidence to suggest that she was here on behalf of the Russian government.

BLITZER: All right, we'll see what happens in this court procedure that's coming up in the next few minutes.

Shimon, thank you very much.

Also moments ago, the president addressing Russian President Vladimir Putin and the controversial summit in Helsinki, said this. Listen carefully.


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


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Press, let's go. Make your way out.


Let's go. We're finished here.

QUESTION: Senator Schumer said you were walking back (INAUDIBLE) --


TRUMP: Thank you very much, everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Make your way out.

QUESTION: Can you just --

TRUMP: We're doing very well. And -- we are doing very well and we're doing very well, probably as well as anybody has ever done with Russia. And 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've done. Look at sanctions. Look at ambassadors not there. Look, unfortunately, at what happened in Syria recently. And I think President Putin knows that better than anybody. Certainly a lot better than the media. He understands it, and he's not happy about it. And he shouldn't be happy about it because there's never been a president as tough on Russia as I have been. OK, thank you very much.


BLITZER: All right, let's get some reaction from Capitol Hill. Republican Congressman Chris Stewart of Utah is joining us. He serves on the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

REP. CHRIS STEWART (R), UTAH: Good afternoon.

BLITZER: All right, so let me get your quick reaction to a couple points the president just made. He just was asked if Russia is still targeting the U.S. and he said no. Your reaction?

STEWART: I'm honestly not sure what he means by that. I mean if we're talking about cyberattacks, I can tell you that as of last week they were. I think as of yesterday they were. Now, maybe he has some agreement or some, you know, some mechanism in place that they've agreed not to do that. And I hope that that's true. But I would like to have him further explain what he means by that.

BLITZER: Because even his own director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, former U.S. senator, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, twice in the last two weeks he said Russia not only did it in, the 2016 election, but is continuing to do so, looking ahead to the 2018 midterm elections in November. And on Monday, after the president's news conference in Helsinki, he said we have been clear -- this is Dan Coats -- we have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy. So he and the president seem to disagree on this sensitive issue.

STEWART: Well, you know, look. I -- Mr. Coats is exactly right. And, Wolf, I've said it to you, I've said it to, you know, virtually every media appearance I've had or private conversations as well. There's no question that Russia was active and was seeking to interfere in the last election. Frankly, I don't know that that's surprising to anyone.

I was in Moscow a couple months before the election. When I came home I said they're going to try to interfere. I mean this isn't new activity, by the way. They've been doing it for virtually generations.

And I think the president sometimes conflates two things. He mixes up two things and puts them together. One of them is, did they seek to interfere? No question that they did. The second one is, was there collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians? And there's no evidence of that. And I think the president sometimes puts those two in the same silo, if you will, and they're really very different issues.

But, once again, the DNI is right, they were interfering and they seek to interfere in the future.


STEWART: That's one of the main reasons why the House Intel Committee wanted to get our report out as quickly as we could so that we could warn the American people, so that we could warn states, so that we could begin to put in some fixes to what we know is going to be their nefarious activity once again in 2018 and in 2020.

BLITZER: And, by the way, not just Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence. It's Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, former CIA director, it's James Mattis, the secretary of defense. They all say Russia is still doing exactly what they were doing in the 2016 election. It's ongoing. It's pervasive in their own words.

[13:25:04] And, quickly, what do you think of when -- go ahead.

STEWART: And, Wolf, let me -- let me just very quickly on that. Look, why would they not try to do this in 2018 and 2020 when this means they've had remarkable success in 2016. I think their primary objective was to sow discord, it was to break down the foundation of democracy, to break down trust in our electoral system. Look, they far exceeded their expectations in that. Having that success, why would they not try to do the same thing and continue that same activity?

BLITZER: Yes, they've not only succeeded in sowing discord, a lot of partisan fighting, as you well know here in the United States. But one of their objectives was to sow discord among the NATO allies.


BLITZER: And right now there's a lot of tension, as you know, between the United States on the one hand and whether Germany or France or the U.K., the NATO allies on the other hand. What did you think of what the president said on Montenegro in that interview with Tucker Carlson on Fox last night when he seemed to be raising questions, well, why should U.S. troops go in and protect Montenegro if it's attacked by Russia?

STEWART: Yes, well, because we -- Article V compels us to. And until we rewrite the rules of NATO, that is our treaty obligation.

And, by the way, I think that it's probably appropriate that we look at some of the rules of engagement on NATO and maybe we do need to update them. But this is built on the foundation of mutual defense. And Montenegro had went through the process. They were admitted into NATO. They're a small member, admittedly, and certainly not a powerful military force. But once we -- once we sign that treaty with them and allow them as a treaty member, then we have that obligation.

And, look, I've been saying for years now, for two or three years, when I've been in Europe, to our NATO allies, you have to be willing to pay more and contribute more to your own defense. You can't ride on the American coat tails and expect us to defend you when you're not willing to spend what you have agreed to spend. The president was right on that. It's a bit of a family squabble, but there's no question that the policy is exactly right. NATO has the -- NATO members have to be willing to contribute to their own defense. And, why? To counter Russia. An expansionist Russia. And it's one of the things where I agree with the president when I say -- when he said he's actually been very tough on them.

BLITZER: Chris Stewart, the congressman from Utah, thanks, as usual, for joining us.

STEWART: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Still ahead, the president calls the people of Montenegro strong and aggressive, his words, though the prime minister of that country might say the same thing about Mr. Trump. We're going to explain. We have a live report.

Also, controversial comments from the president calling the U.S. commitment to defending NATO allies into some sort of question. We're going to talk to the former U.S. ambassador to Russia to get a sense of how much these words may be damaging U.S. relations.