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U.S. Commitment to NATO Allies in Question After Trump Comment on Montenegro; McCain: Trump Attacks on Montenegro Plays into Putin's Hands; Words Reveal Trump Still Isn't Convinced Russia Meddled in Election; Old Tapes Surface of Kavanaugh's Comments on Independent Counsel Role. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired July 18, 2018 - 13:30   ET



[13:32:35] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: President Trump and first lady, Melania, are at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, D.C., where the remains of a U.S. Secret Service agent who died in Scotland are returning. The Trumps arrived just a short time ago to offer their condolences. The agent, Nole Remagen, was a married father of two. He suffered a stroke while on duty. Our deepest condolences to his family and his friends.

President Trump has put the U.S. commitment to defending all NATO allies into question right now. And it stems from his recent remarks during an interview. Listen to this.


TUCKER CARLSON, FOX HOST, TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT: Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack? Why is that --


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I understand what you're saying. I've asked the same question. You know, Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people.

CARLSON: Yes. I'm not against Montenegro, or Albania.


TRUMP: By the way, they're very strong people. They're very aggressive people. They may get aggressive and, congratulations, you're in World War III.


BLITZER: Serious statement from the president. Montenegro is a NATO country located in southeastern Europe. It's smaller than the state of Connecticut. Its population is roughly the same as the city of Baltimore.

President Trump does have some history with the country. Last year, at the NATO summit, the president famously pushed aside the prime minister of Montenegro as leaders prepared for a group photo opportunity.

Our international diplomatic editor, Nic Robertson, is joining us live from London.

Give us some context, Nic, into all of this. We know it's a small country, a small population. But why do you think the president called it aggressive?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: You know, Wolf, it's very hard to say. Look, I used to spend quite a bit of time in Montenegro. The people there were tall. I didn't find them particularly aggressive. If we put Montenegro into context, more than the fact its population is probably -- its total population is probably smaller than the whole of the standing army in China, NATO is a group of nations that have mutual strategic interests. And the strategic interests for NATO in Montenegro is, perhaps -- and certainly this is the way Russia views it - is to deny Russia its important port facilities. Montenegro has a deep warm-water port. Now when Montenegro was part of Yugoslavia and the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union used to have access to that deep warm-water port on the Mediterranean. When it came under -- Montenegro sides now with NATO, that takes it away from Russia. So think about it like this. Russia annexed Crimea because they wanted to make sure they would have the port facilities there, the warm-water port facilities in the Black Sea. Montenegro, not quite the same stature, not quite the same level of port facility. But this is perhaps why Russia has looked displeasingly upon Montenegro joining NATO. That's a little bit of context.

[13:35:37] And that perhaps goes to understand why the special prosecutor in Montenegro last year accused two Russian Secret Service members of a plot in 2016 to kill the prime minister and effect a coup in the country because he was trying to join Montenegro. That's the bigger picture about -- that's the bigger picture about Montenegro and its relevance to Russia and its relevance to NATO.

But as -- from what the president was saying, that would seem to raise that very fundamental question for NATO, all NATO allies, not just tiny Montenegro, but all of them, would the United States step up were one of its allies in NATO attacked. And it's an open question. And it shouldn't be for these allies, an open question -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Let's not forget Montenegro was admitted as a full member of NATO in June of last year. And Donald Trump was president of the United States when that occurred.

Nic Robertson, thank you for that perspective.

Let's bring in John Beyrle, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia.

This is a big deal right now. The words of the president, the message that he sends out, this whole issue of Montenegro. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, tweeted this: "The people of Montenegro boldly withstood pressure from Putin's Russia to embrace democracy. The Senate voted 97 to 2 supporting its succession to NATO. By attacking Montenegro and questioning our obligations under NATO, the president is playing right into Putin's hands."

Do you think McCain is right?

JOHN BEYRLE, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: Yes, unfortunately, I do, Wolf. I think we're seeing on a daily basis here, the press conference in Helsinki, the attempt to correct the record yesterday, the statements on Montenegro today, we're seeing the president is really struggling to sort of promote -- to project the strength that he needs to promote U.S. interests.

And with respect to Russia, this is an important relationship. We can't just afford to put it in the hold box for the next two years. So I think it's really time for the president maybe to give Secretary Pompeo, his national security adviser, John Bolton, the lead on dealing with Russia. These are two people who know America's place in the world. They're tough. They're respected by the Russians. And it's not unusual in American history. We've had times when -- during Watergate, during the Clinton impeachment, when the president simply has to -- he can't do everything himself in any event. He needs to look to some of his strong advisers to lead the diplomacy --


BLITZER: But this president, he'll get some advice but he does what he wants to do. He doesn't necessarily accept that advice going into these sensitive meetings.

BEYRLE: But we have an agenda with Russia we know -- we have some very important things with Russia that we need to address, and they need to be addressed urgently. The whole question of election interference, I think we've been going at it completely the wrong way for the last two years. It looks as though Congress is readying a new round of sanctions, which we would then announce publicly, and all that does is force Putin to stand up and show that he can stand up to American bullying. What we need to do is get Congress and the Treasury Department together and come up with a package of sanctions, which we would then take privately to Putin, led by Pompeo and Bolton, and say, here's what's coming unless we see some change in what's being directed against our --


BLITZER: You are a retired U.S. diplomat, a career Foreign Service officer. You spent a lot of time in Russia over the years, including as the U.S. ambassador for four years in Moscow. You speak Russian. When the president says, as he just did once again just now, that no American president has ever been tougher on Russia than he has been -- I see you beginning to smile.

BEYRLE: Well, the president, frankly, says a lot of things that beg to be discounted. I think of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower as two presidents who were probably tougher on Russia. But that was the Soviet Union. That was a different time. We're dealing with a Russia now which is very aggressive. And it will only respond to strength. And that's not strength only in terms of our military establishment. It's also the strength that we show in sitting down with the Russians and making clear to them what the consequences for their actions will be. That's not been happening.

[13:40:08] BLITZER: Very quickly, because it came up when I interviewed Adam Schiff, the top democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, last night, that private meeting, two-hour meeting that the president had with Putin in Helsinki. Only their interpreters were present. He's convinced the Russians taped that meeting and have an audiotape. Whether Putin was wired, the Russian interpreter was wired, they have the full -- they know precisely every word that was said. Wasn't exactly sure if the U.S. did the same. You've got a lot of experience in these kinds of meetings. What do you think?

BEYRLE: I would be surprised if the Finns didn't do it. It was --


BLITZER: It was in their presidential palace.

BEYRLE: Yes, it was in their presidential palace.


BLITZER: Yes. I left there convinced the Finns have a full tape of it as well.

BEYRLE: We had an interpreter in the room. I know the interpreter. She's a professional. Interpreters at that level understand their job is not just to interpret. It's also to keep notes and keep a record. I'm sure she has been debriefed by Mr. Bolton, maybe by Fiona Hill, the president's chief adviser on Russia. So I think we probably have a pretty good sense of what was said in that meeting. I expect Secretary Pompeo will talk about that when he testifies before Congress next week.

BLITZER: I assume everybody, by now, has a full tape of that meeting and they'll be able to review the questions. How much are they going to share with Congress is another issue --

BERYRLE: We'll see.

BLITZER: -- we'll deal with down the road.

John Beyrle is the former U.S. ambassador to Russia.

Thanks very much.

BEYRLE: Thank you.

BLITZER: And thanks for all your diplomatic service to our country over the years.

BEYRLE: Thank you.

BLITZER: Appreciate it.

Still ahead, new video for the man who wants to be the next Supreme Court justice and it's raising some eyebrows. We'll have details. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:46:15] BLITZER: President Trump had one clear mission when he made a prepared statement yesterday afternoon over at the White House: Clean up the damage he created Monday when he broke with the U.S. Intelligence Community and members of his own party by suggesting Russia might not have been behind the 2016 election interference here in the United States.

Let's replay some of those remarks.


TRUMP: I realized that there's a need for some clarification. In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word "would" instead of "wouldn't." The sentence should have been, "I don't see any reason why I wouldn't or why it wouldn't be Russia."

I accept our Intelligence Community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place.


BLITZER: But then he stopped reading from a prepared script. He ad- libbed this.


TRUMP: Could be other people also. There's a lot of people out there.


BLITZER: Let's bring in our political reporter, Chris Cillizza.

Chris, with that one sentence, "a lot of people out there, could be somebody else," did the president undermine the entire message he was trying to get across?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER & CNN EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Yes, is the answer to that, Wolf. What's remarkable about it is you see in there, he's reading from the written statement and then he goes and ad libs it. But far from the first time Donald Trump has done this, Wolf. He's done it a lot.

Let's document. We'll go in order. This is September 2016. One of the debates with Hillary Clinton. "Maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia but it also could be China". Now comes the really famous part, "It could also be lots of other people." Let's go to the next screen. "It could also be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds." OK, no 350-pounders, Wolf. Only 400-pounders. That's when he is a candidate.

Now he's president. This is January 2017. "As far as hacking, I think it was Russia but we also get hacked by other countries and other people." That same hedge. Let's go to the next one. There's a theme here. "I'll go along. I'll go along with Russia." That's like when my wife says I'll go along with getting that dinner. I know she doesn't want to go to that place. "I'll go along with Russia. It could have been China. It could have been a lot of different groups." Again, the hedge. Let's go to another one. "I have said it very -- I've said it very simply. I think it well could have been Russia but I think it could, well" -- and the next screen, you already know what it's going to say -- "could have been other countries. I won't be specific, but I think a lot of people interfere."

Look, Wolf, it's a very simple thing here. Donald Trump in his heart of hearts is not convinced that Russia meddled in the election. Despite the Intelligence Community's unanimous assessment that it did. Despite the Senate Intelligence Committee's assessment that it did. He isn't convinced. He makes that clear over and over again when he speaks in public. And what we heard on Tuesday is the latest example of that.

Back to you, Wolf.

[13:49:12] BLITZER: We also heard just now from the president, he doesn't think Russia is still targeting the United States, as his Intelligence Community is convinced, including Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence.

Chris Cillizza, thanks for that report.

Once again, we're only minutes from the White House press briefing with Sarah Sanders. You see the press briefing room. Not that many reporters yet. It will be packed. This will be the first of a press briefing over at the White House in quite a while, several weeks. We'll bring it to you live. Lots to explain.

We'll be right back.


BLITZER: CNN has just obtained some sound of President Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, where he lays out his thoughts on an independent counsel. His remarks, from a 2016 panel discussion, could now be front and center during his upcoming Senate confirmation hearing.

Our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, joins us from Capitol Hill right now.

Manu, what exactly did Kavanaugh say?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, two years ago, at an event speaking to a conservative group in Washington, Judge Kavanaugh said he wanted to overturn the ruling from three decades ago that upheld the constitutionality of the independent counsel. That ruling, Morrison v. Olson case, was upheld in 1988 and it formed the basis of independent counsel, Ken Starr, who investigated President Bill Clinton, with whom Kavanaugh worked with in the mid-1990s. This is getting a lot of scrutiny because Kavanaugh has said separately that he does not believe a president can be indicted because of concerns about the president being above the fray, not having the same issues involving regular citizens. People wonder what this may mean for his views about the Mueller investigation. Mueller is a special counsel, not an independent counsel, so they're governed differently under the rules. But it could have implications if this ruling were overturned.

When he spoke to this conservative group two years ago, he said this.


[13:55:33] JUDGE BRETT KAVANAUGH, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: I think justices of all stripes agree that stare decisis is important, but not an inexorable command. It is not inflexible, it is not absolute.

PAUL GIGOT, EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR, WALL STREET JOURNAL: Can you think of a case that deserves to be overturned?



GIGOT: Would you volunteer one?



KAVANAUGH: Actually, I was going to say one, Morrison v. Olson.


GIGOT: That's the independent-counsel statute case.

KAVANAUGH: It's been effectively overruled, but I would put the final nail in.


RAJU: Wolf, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, told me earlier he does not view this has a big deal but Democrats trying to press him on this very hard in his confirmation hearings -- Wolf?

BLITZER: We'll see what happens.

Manu, thank you very much.

We're only moments away from the White House press briefing, the first since the president's testy NATO summit, the awkward meeting with the British prime minister, Theresa May, the controversial meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Looking at live pictures. We'll, of course, have live coverage of that.

Much more right after this.