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Trump's Week

Jul 20, 2018
Originally published on July 20, 2018 3:45 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So near the end of this chaotic week, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a statement. He said he reached, quote, "useful agreements in his summit with President Trump." This confused many U.S. officials, even the White House Director of National Intelligence, who say they have no idea what, if anything, Trump agreed to in his one-on-one meeting with Russia's leader.

Towards the end of this week, President Trump declared that summit a success. That is despite week-long criticism and dismay from people on both sides of the aisle. Though, a poll suggested most Republican voters liked Trump's performance in Helsinki. And now, the White House says Trump wants to meet with Vladimir Putin again.

So what has this week revealed? What's mattered, and what are the consequences of what happened? Let's try and answer all of that with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: I wonder if you'll indulge me and listen to some of the sounds of this week with me, starting on Monday, which was a big day. We had the two leaders holding this meeting in Helsinki. They came out, and President Trump is asked if he accepts the evidence provided by U.S. intelligence agencies of Russia's interference in the 2016 election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So 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.

GREENE: Sounding like Trump trusted Putin's denial or at least might have. What does this tell you about who Donald Trump trusts?

LIASSON: I think it tells you that, on Monday, he trusted Vladimir Putin. He also said on Monday, my people, Dan Coats came to me, said it was Russia. Putin says it's not, and I don't see why it wouldn't be Russia. Now, later, he said he misspoke and meant to say - I'm sorry. Why - he said - I'm sorry. He said why it would be Russia. Later, he tried to clarify that and said, I meant to say the word wouldn't. You can see it's still pretty confusing, even for me...

GREENE: It's of - yeah, for all of us.

LIASSON: ...But I think it shows you that he is deeply, deeply reluctant to accept the conclusion of his intelligence agencies that Russia was the No. 1 bad actor here.

GREENE: Well, and in that summit, he had this one-on-one meeting, it sounds like despite the advice of his own advisers. What does it mean for the country that the heads of U.S. intelligence even don't know what the president might have promised in a one-on-one meeting with a foreign leader?

LIASSON: It means there is a big gap between the president and his own administration and his own party because he is the only top official who hasn't accepted the conclusions of his intelligence agencies that not only Russia interfered, but that Putin himself directed it, and also that they're in the dark about what happened in this meeting. Usually, by now, there would be a briefing, a readout. But all we've heard is reports from the Russians saying that there were all these agreements reached between the two men, and they want to move forward on them.

GREENE: OK. Well, let's move forward to Tuesday. Let's muddy the waters even more.

LIASSON: (Laughter).

GREENE: The president attempted to walk back this statement about Russian interference and walk back the idea that he didn't support the intelligence finding that Russia was guilty. Although, some questions here about what exactly this meant. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

GREENE: Could be other people, also, who interfered in the election. Still being incredibly vague, maybe as vague as he's been since 2016, right?

LIASSON: Yes. He just doesn't want to finger Russia or Putin for some reason, but he just won't. Even when he's walking something back, he tends to walk back the walkback in the same sentence.

GREENE: Although, then, he goes on CBS with Jeff Glor. And he seems to sort of point the finger at Vladimir Putin.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS EVENING NEWS")

JEFF GLOR: But you haven't condemned Putin specifically. Do you hold him personally responsible?

TRUMP: Well, I would because he's in charge of the country, just like I consider myself to be responsible for things that happen in this country. So, certainly, as the leader of a country, you would have to hold him responsible, yes.

GREENE: All right. Getting closer, but still this generic idea of - if you're the leader of a country, you're responsible for anything that happens. So, Mara, can you just remind us, like, what does the evidence show?

LIASSON: Well, we know that the president was shown evidence way back in January that Vladimir Putin directed this interference. It wasn't some random rogue Russian hacker who did it. And then you have the indictments that came out last Friday of 12 Russian military intelligence officials in granular detail showing about what they did and how they did it. And the indictment says that the president's own Justice Department is willing to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt in a public courtroom and show that Putin has been lying to Trump. So there is a lot of evidence to show the president that Putin was in charge of this, and he just doesn't want to accept it.

GREENE: Well, and a lot of people in Congress, though, do accept it. And that was one of the extraordinary themes of this week. You had Republicans who seemed very willing, at least in their language, to confront and openly disagree with this president. This is the outgoing speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, talking about Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL RYAN: Vladimir Putin does not share our values. We just conducted a yearlong investigation into Russia's interference in our elections. They did interfere in our elections. It's really clear. There should be no doubt about that.

GREENE: Are we hearing something new from Paul Ryan? I mean, he is forcefully saying, I mean, without, you know, using the president's name that - President Trump, you're wrong.

LIASSON: I think this has been the biggest pushback that you've seen from Congress to anything that Donald Trump has done so far. And the other thing that happened this week was the demise of the so-called incredible offer when Trump said in that press conference that Putin had made him an incredible offer that if - that he would allow U.S. Justice Department officials to come to Russia and interrogate the GRU officers if America sent over former diplomat Michael McFaul and others so that Russia could interrogate them.

And that was an extraordinary offer. It was incredible. And the Senate passed a nonbinding resolution 98-0 saying, no, that shouldn't happen. And, of course, by the end of the week, that - the White House said, no, we disagree with that. We're not going to push forward with that offer.

GREENE: Ninety-eight to 0, though. Have we seen any moment in this presidency so far where the Republican leadership in Congress, I mean, so forcefully taking a vote against this president?

LIASSON: We've only seen it one other time, and it also had to do with Russia. The Senate and the House passed nearly unanimous resolutions saying that Russia should be sanctioned. And the president had to sign that legislation despite his misgivings. So yes, they have pushed back before, and it was on this same general topic.

GREENE: I'm just - I just want to underscore nonbinding because...

LIASSON: This one was nonbinding. The...

GREENE: This...

LIASSON: ...Other sanctions, of course, he had to sign...

GREENE: The other sanctions, of course, was sanctions that had teeth.

LIASSON: Yeah. So they're willing to slightly - they're willing to be slightly more aggressive and express themselves on the other side of this issue. Slight pushback against the president.

GREENE: Why slight? Why not go further if you're the Republican leadership?

LIASSON: Because you're in the midst of an election campaign. And the president is extremely popular among the Republican base, the voters that every one of these Republicans who are up this year need to have. And this is not the time that they want to break with this president.

GREENE: And we should say that even though a lot of Republicans in Washington and in political circles have sort of been scratching their heads about what Donald Trump has done this week, there's a poll suggesting that something close to 80 percent of Republican voters approve of how he handled the summit.

LIASSON: That's right. That's what I'm talking about. And, right now, the president's hold on his base is very, very strong. We don't know if the base is growing, but it certainly is staying extremely loyal to the president. And that is the main reason why Republicans don't want to go any further in their disapproval of what he did in Helsinki.

You know, they'll say to you, why should I immolate myself? Why should I end my career, for what? They've seen what happens to people who criticize Donald Trump. Mark Sanford, a House Republican who voted with Trump almost 100 percent of the time, lost his primary because he was deemed insufficiently loyal because he'd criticized the president.

GREENE: I want to finish with what was an absolutely extraordinary moment yesterday at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. This - the - Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence was on stage. The moderator was MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell. And the idea that Donald Trump might invite Vladimir Putin to the White House maybe this fall had come up. And it was Andrea Mitchell who told the director of National Intelligence, who actually gave him the news.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREA MITCHELL: We have some breaking news. The White House has announced on Twitter that Vladimir Putin is coming to the White House in the fall.

DAN COATS: Say that again?

(LAUGHTER)

MITCHELL: You - Vladimir Putin coming to...

COATS: Did I hear you?

MITCHELL: Yeah.

COATS: OK.

MITCHELL: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

COATS: That's going to be special.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: The man in the White House responsible for knowing things did not know this. So, I mean, it kind of sums up the week in a way.

LIASSON: Sums up the week. You have to have some black humor, I think, if you're going to be Dan Coats. But, you know, there was talk after Monday about Dan Coats resigning, not that he was saying he was going to resign. But I had several Republicans say to me, wow, if the president doesn't walk this back, Coats will have to resign because the president just threw him under the bus.

GREENE: All right. A big week. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks for talking it through with us. We appreciate it.

LIASSON: Thank you.

GREENE: Have a good weekend, Mara.

LIASSON: You, too.

[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: In this story, we say President Trump was told of Vladimir Putin's role in the election interference "back in January." That information was received in January 2017.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.