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Trump seems to deny ongoing threat of Russia when asked

President Trump used a Cabinet meeting to insist he's been firm with Russia, but when a reporter asked him if Russia is an active threat, Trump said no. That seemed to contradict the director of National Intelligence who warned that Russia is still trying to penetrate the American democratic process. Judy Woodruff talks with Yamiche Alcindor.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    More whiplash at the White House today over Russian interference in U.S. elections. It came as President Trump appeared to dismiss the threat, and denied that he ducked confrontation with President Vladimir Putin.

  • President Donald Trump:

    There’s been no president ever as tough as I have been on Russia.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The president used a Cabinet meeting to insist he’s been firm with Russia at the Helsinki summit and beyond.

  • President Donald Trump:

    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.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Then came a potential new bombshell, when a reporter asked Mr. Trump if Russia is an active threat.

  • Question:

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

  • President Donald Trump:

    Thank you very much. No.

  • Question:

    You don’t believe that to be the case?

  • President Donald Trump:

    No.

  • Woman:

    Let’s go. We’re finished here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That seemed to contradict the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, who warned last week that Russia is, indeed, still trying to penetrate the American Democratic process.

  • Dan Coats:

    What’s serious about the Russians is their intent. They have capabilities, but it’s their intent to undermine our basic values, undermine democracy, create wedges between us and our allies.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was left to White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders to say just what the president meant by his answer today.

  • Sarah Sanders:

    I had a chance to speak with the president after those comments, and the president was — said, thank you very much and was saying no to answering questions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sanders also said repeatedly that Mr. Trump is focused on election security.

  • Sarah Sanders:

    We’re making bold reforms to try to fix this and make sure it never happens again, because we take it seriously and because we recognize that our election systems are incredibly important and is certainly a cornerstone of our democracy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All of this after Mr. Trump appeared to accept the argument of Russia’s President Putin on Monday that Moscow didn’t interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. That touched off a storm of bipartisan criticism, and, yesterday, Mr. Trump claimed he simply misspoke in Helsinki.

  • President Donald Trump:

    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.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    After that, some Republicans, like Senator Bob Corker, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, had seemed ready to give the president the benefit of the doubt. But then came his comments today.

  • Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.:

    I don’t know what it is about the president’s relationship with Putin that causes him to doubt, to trust him over our intelligence community, but it’s really damaging morale. It’s baffling I think to those of us who have concerns about the integrity of our elections.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.:

     He’s walking back the walk-back.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer lambasted Mr. Trump’s Tuesday clarification as weak and said the president would need another walk-back after what he said today. And he called for the U.S. translator in the Trump-Putin one-on-one meeting to testify.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.:

     The translator works for the federal government, works for the taxpayers, and may be the only person who can accurately report what President Trump said to President Putin behind closed doors, what concessions were made to Vladimir Putin.

    We want to know, did the president make concessions that hurt tour national security? What did he agree to?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In a series of tweets this morning, the president boasted that his summit with Putin was a success. He wrote that, “So many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki.”

    And he declared that Russia had offered to assist U.S. nuclear talks with North Korea. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also talked up progress at the summit, sitting next to the president today.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    We can now begin to have important dialogues to put that relationship in a place where we reduce the risk to the United States from threats from Russia.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But adding to the ongoing furor, Mr. Trump, in an interview that aired last night, appeared to question again the reason for NATO and its bedrock pledge to mutual defense among allies, designed with Russia in mind.

  • Question:

    Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack? Why is that?

  • President Donald Trump:

    I understand what you’re saying. I have asked the same question. Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people.

  • Question:

    Yes, I’m not against Montenegro.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Yes, right.

  • Question:

    Or Albania.

  • President Donald Trump:

    No, by the way, they have very strong people. They have very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and, congratulations, you’re in World War III.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Members of both parties are now demanding that top national security and diplomatic officials testify before Congress and disclose any deals Mr. Trump may have struck with Putin. Secretary Pompeo will be first up.

    He testifies at a Senate hearing a week from today.

    And, late today, CBS News released part of their interview with President Trump where he claims he told Vladimir Putin that the U.S. will not tolerate election interference.

    Here’s part of what he told anchor Jeff Glor.

  • Jeff Glor:

    Do you hold him personally responsible?

  • President Donald 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.

  • Jeff Glor:

    What did you say to him?

  • President Donald Trump:

    I’m very strong on the fact that we can’t have meddling, we can’t have any of that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And “NewsHour” White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor joins us now.

    So, Yamiche, you have gone from the president saying in Helsinki that he was inclined to believe Vladimir Putin to then saying he misspoke, and then the back and forth today, and now this comment that he holds Vladimir Putin personally responsible.

    What do we understand at this point about what the president believes?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, based on his conversation with CBS News, he’s saying that he does hold President Putin personally responsible for election interference.

    But, at the same time, he is contradicting the intelligence communities, who have said over and over again that Russia meddled in the election, that Putin ordered it personally. So, he was saying, I’m kind of responsible for things that happen in general in the United States, much like Putin is responsible in general for things that happen in Russia.

    I suspect that there are going to be a lot of people who listen to the president’s comments to CBS News and say he’s still not being as forceful as he needs to be.

    I think it’s also important to note that the president didn’t walk back other things that he said during the press conference. It wasn’t just the wouldn’t and wouldn’t and — would and wouldn’t.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    It was the fact that he said that the FBI and DOJ were having a witch-hunt, that they were having this probe that was hurting U.S.-Russia relations.

    He didn’t say that he takes that back. He also didn’t say that he takes back that Putin offered this strong denial and that he basically was taking him at his word. That was something that he didn’t walk back.

    So, while the president is saying that there were clarifications that need to be made, he isn’t changing all the things that happened at the press conference that I attended.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, one question I know that you still hear conversation about is, it’s not clear, because, at one point, it does — it did sound or — and may still sound as if the president is equating the U.S. intelligence community in terms of its credibility with Russia’s President Putin.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, I asked Sarah Sanders directly that question.

    I questioned her on this idea of whether or not the president was having a false equivalency. I said, specifically, after Charlottesville, in Virginia, when that young woman was killed while she was protesting neo-Nazis, the president got a lot of backlash for saying that there was violence on both sides.

    Then, in Finland, before the world, the president said both parties, both Vladimir Putin and U.S. intelligence agencies, had their issues when it comes to the Russian election interference. And why is he putting them both on — on equal playing fields?

    Sarah Sanders said, one, that it wasn’t fair to put Charlottesville and Russia on the same — compare them at all, that they shouldn’t be compared. She also said that the United States and the Trump administration take election interference very seriously and that they’re looking into this.

    That said, the president did back up and didn’t backtrack from when he said, when he said both parties have issues with the way that Russia interfered in the election. He’s not taking that back.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, just quickly, how are Republicans handling this? I know some of them are giving the president still the benefit of the doubt. Others have come out in a way they have never come out before and questioned and even criticized him.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, there are some Republicans, like Senator Rand Paul and Congressman Collins, who are coming out saying that the president — that they agree with the president, that they have issue with the Mueller probe, that they question whether or not Russia interfered in the way that the intelligence community says they did.

    And then you have people like Newt Gingrich, who said that he was happy that the president came out and clarified himself. And then you have Senator Lindsey Graham and you have Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina both saying that the president needs to be way more forceful. And these are both Republicans.

    The Republicans have not pushed back on this president very much. But these two people and other Republicans are saying the president needs to get this right, and he needs to get this — and he needs to be more clear about this.

    The other thing that’s happening, Democrats are using this to fund-raise. Just — the DCCC just today said that they raised — they raised just in June $15.2 million.

    James Comey is also coming out urging people to vote for Democrats. Of course, that’s a former FBI director who President Trump fired. So Democrats are seeing this as a way to win in the midterms.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raising money.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yamiche Alcindor, the story continues. Thank you.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thanks.

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