Return to Transcripts main page


Under Fire, Trump Reverses Course on Intelligence about Russian Meddling; Russia to Step Up Targeting of Western Nations; Grand Jury Approves Indictment of Suspected Russian Agent; Russian Media Celebrates Trump-Putin Summit as Success. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired July 17, 2018 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now. Breaking news, damage control. Under fire after publicly siding with Russia's Vladimir Putin, President Trump launches a carefully-scripted attempt at damage control, now saying he supports U.S. intelligence agencies and their findings that Russia attacked the United States election but still suggesting it could be, in his words -- and quoting him now -- "other people."

[17:00:29] Russian aggression. CNN has learned that Russian spy agencies are planning to ramp up operations against the West as intelligence officials warn that the nerve agent poisonings seen in Britain could now be carried out in other countries.

Intelligence issues. After President Trump spent two hours alone with the Russian leader and then publicly rejected the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies, there are now new questions tonight about whether U.S. intelligence may start actually withholding very sensitive information from the commander in chief.

And "strongman politics." As President Trump takes heat for his humiliating appearance with Vladimir Putin, former President Obama warns of a threat of democracy from, quote, "strongman politics."

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. Facing ferocious criticism for openly supporting Russia's Vladimir Putin, President Trump just reversed course, now insisting he backs U.S. intelligence agencies which blame Russia for attacking the U.S. presidential election. But the president continues to claim others could also be responsible.

I'll speak with Senator Chris Coons of the Foreign Relations and Judiciary Committees. But our correspondents and specialists, they are standing by with full coverage.

First, let's go straight to our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny. Jeff, tell us more about the president's rather stunning effort today at damage control.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it was a firestorm unlike any other of -- of his time in office so far, both internally and externally. And we are told that several of his top aides gathered in THE SITUATION ROOM to try and piece together these remarks that we saw the president give earlier this afternoon.

He was hearing from Republican loyal allies on editorial pages across the country. He knew he had to do something.

But, Wolf, when he was sitting inside the White House this afternoon, certainly not on the world stage as he was in Helsinki, but he tried to explain the remarks and clear it up like this.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So I got a transcript. I reviewed. I actually went out and reviewed a clip of an answer that I gave. And I realized that there is a need for some clarification.

It should have been obvious. I thought it would be obvious. But I would like to clarify just in case it wasn't.

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." So, just to repeat it, I said the word "would" instead of "wouldn't." And the sentence should have been -- and I thought it would be maybe a little bit unclear on the transcript or unclear on the actual video. The sentence should have been "I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be Russia." Sort of a double negative.

So, you can put that in. And I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.


ZELENY: Wolf, it's unclear if that clarifies anything at all, actually. It hardly clears up the spectacle of what happened at the summit, the president there talking as though it was, you know, essentially a typographical error or a clerical error.

The words, of course, meant far more than that. But they knew here at the White House, the president as well, he rarely apologizes for anything. And he did not use that word today, but he did acknowledge making a mistake when he said that he does not believe that Russia has any reason to hack an American election.

But, Wolf, the more striking comments that the president made in Helsinki, as we were there to watch him say, he said he sided with Vladimir Putin over the U.S. intelligence agencies. That created a firestorm here inside his administration. There was talk of, you know, are some people possibly going to leave or resign. So he said this today to try and clean up that.


TRUMP: Let me be totally clear in saying that -- and I've said this many times -- I accept our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people, also. There's a lot of people out there. There was no collusion.


ZELENY: So in one breath, he's saying he accepts the U.S. intelligence community's findings, and then in the next breath, he says that it could be other people. Wolf, that is what President Trump has been saying again and again, you know, for the better part of a year and a half or so; and insisting no collusion. That, of course, is what the special counsel is investigating.

[17:05:14] But when you talk to people close to the president -- supporters of the president, we should point out -- we're not even talking about Democrats here -- they say that the president is so hung up on the idea that he did not win the election or didn't win it fairly or squarely, and so hung up on the possibility of collusion. That is what he is latching onto.

Wolf, all this discussion does not do one thing. It does not give an insight into what President Trump and President Putin talked about during their private meeting. This cleanup exercise here today is all about his public press conference. Officials tonight are asking if we'll ever find out what the president said to the Russian president privately.

BLITZER: Yes. And you make a very important point, because the U.S. intelligence community concluded it was Russia that attacked the U.S. and the presidential election. And they don't say it could have been other people. As the president said, "could be other people, a lot of people out there." So there's a clear, clear distinction between what the president is still saying about other people, as opposed to what the U.S. intelligence community concluded.

Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thanks very much.

There's more breaking news we're following. CNN is now learning that just a day after the Helsinki summit, Russian intelligence is planning to step up the targeting of western nations.

Let's go to our crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz.

Shimon, what are you learning?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf. There's increasing intelligence and certainly concern among intelligence officials that the Russians are planning to step up some of their aggression, some of their activity towards -- towards the West. You know, this, of course, including the U.S. and the U.K.

Now, this comes at a time after the World Cup. Of course, it was Russia that was hosting the World Cup, and there was increased intelligence that indicated that the Russians would sort of stop any aggressive actions or would stop any kind of activity to sort of not take away from the World Cup, sort of a stage that they have been on. The -- what the president even himself has said, a very successful World Cup. And that the Russians had created a lull, in that they ordered that no activity, nothing aggressive from any of their intelligence agencies, occurred during the World Cup.

Well, now that that is over, there's increased intelligence that has come in that indicates the Russians plan to step up some of their aggression. And possibly, you know, what that may be is not entirely clear, but certainly, there is concern along the intelligence agencies that something, something else could be coming from the Russians.

BLITZER: So what do officials, based on everything you're hearing, Shimon, expect the Russians to target?

PROKUPECZ: Well, it could be increased cyber activity, as we've seen; intrusions into western nations. It could also be something more aggressive and more serious, like what had happened in the U.K. in London, where they attacked and tried to assassinate a former British spy. There is certainly concern that that could be some activity that could occur.

U.K. investigators are still working that. They are close to identifying some of the people who were behind that attack. But certainly, there is concern that that could happen in other parts of the world, Wolf.

BLITZER: Shimon Prokupecz with the very latest. Very disturbing information, indeed.

Also breaking, a Russian woman sits in a U.S. jail tonight. A federal grand jury has formally approved a criminal indictment of Mariia Butina with two charges: conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent. She's accused of trying to set up secret contacts between Moscow and American politicians, including Donald Trump.

Let's bring in our political correspondent, Sara Murray, who is working the story for us. What do we know, Sara, about Mariia Butina's alleged operation?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we basically know that she was trying to infiltrate American political organizations and other politically-influential individuals in order to promote Russian interests.

And that led that to a number of different encounters. In one of those encounters that we've talked about quite a bit, is the fact that she and the mentor, Alexander Torshin, who is this Kremlin-linked banker, tried to establish a back channel communications between then- candidate Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the presidential campaign.

Now, they weren't successful in trying to do this. But Torshin and Butina, because they had these various connections of political organizations like the National Rifle Association, were able to swing by an exclusive dinner, where they chatted briefly with Donald Trump Jr. Although we're told that it didn't have anything to do with the Russian government. And let's back even further because the government says that this is a

year's long effort. So go back to 2015. This is before any of us were talking about Putin, any of us talking about Russia. Mariia Butina just happens to be at a political event in Las Vegas. Here's what she asked then-candidate Donald Trump.


MARIIA BUTINA, ACCUSED OF ESPIONAGE: I'm visiting from Russia. So my question --

TRUMP: Ah! Putin, good friend of Obama, Putin.

BUTINA: My question --

TRUMP: He likes Obama a lot. Go ahead.

[17:10:00] BUTINA: My question will be about foreign politics.


BUTINA: If you would be elected as the president, what will be your foreign politics, especially in the relationships with my country? And do you want to continue the politics of sanctions that are damaging on both economy? Or, you have any other ideas?

TRUMP: I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin. OK? And I mean, where we have the strength. I don't think you'd need the sanctions. I think that we would get along very, very well. I really believe that.


TRUMP: You know, Sara, it's interesting. It apparently, extends beyond this operation. There seems to have been some higher goals. What are you hearing?

MURRAY: Well, that's right. This is something that went back for years. Her trying to infiltrate these various political organizations. And it really does read like something of a spy novel.

You know, she's this young Russian woman. She's very attractive. She sets up this gun rights group in Moscow. She even does a spread in Russian "GQ" with these very sort of risque photos of her posing with guns. And she uses this gun group to make a number of ties in the U.S.

When we look at the charging documents, they talk about a U.S. political operative who helped her make other introductions to other politically-influential Americans in the U.S.

Now, we know from our own reporting that there is a man, Paul Erickson. He's a South Dakota political operative, who ended up fostering this years-long relationship with Mariia Butina. He even set up a company, which he told McClatchy was to help pay for some of her educational expenses. So this is the kind of thing that went on for years and spanned a

number of political operatives. All along, Wolf, she's reporting back to Alexander Torshin, this influential Russian. And he's encouraging her along the way. At one point, according to these court filings, he sends her a Twitter message saying that she needs to have "patience, cold blood and faith in yourself," and everything will turn out.

BLITZER: The Americans she interacted with, they were not named, I take it, right now in this current charge. Right?

MURRAY: That's right. So they're not named in the latest documents that we have, the court filings. As we said, she had this long relationship with Paul Erickson, this South Dakota political operative.

And there are still sealed documents related to this case, so that means it's possible, for instance, the government could bring charges against Alexander Torshin, this Russian that they say that she worked with, who is also not named in the court filing and who has already slapped with sanctions by the U.S. government.

And we don't know what's going to happens when it comes to these Americans that they don't name in the court filings and if they were just kind of unwitting participants who were caught up in the ploy by this sort of young, charming, alleged Russian spy.

BLITZER: Yes, it's amazing just indicted by a federal grand jury here in Washington. I suspect there's more going on that we clearly don't know about. Sara, thank you very much.

Joining us now, Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. He's a member of the Foreign Relations and Judiciary committees.

Senator, does President Trump's attempt today to clean up his remarks from yesterday in Helsinki change your mind?

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Well, first, I wish he had been as clear and as forceful about his support for the intelligence community when he was standing next to our adversary, Vladimir Putin, as he tried to be today.

If President Trump is now going to say that he believes our intelligence community, rather than Vladimir Putin, he needs to start acting like it.

Wolf, one of the most striking things to me is that our president knew for days that there were impending indictments of 12 Russian military intelligence officers for interfering in our election. Yet, he persisted repeatedly last week in continuing to call the Mueller investigation a rigged witch hunt.

If he believes our intelligence community, he should believe the counterintelligence investigation that produced those 12 indictments and stop calling the Mueller indictment a witch hunt.

BLITZER: As you know, the president meet with Putin for, what, about 130 minutes; and they met privately, only some interpreters, two interpreters present. No key advisers, no secretary of state, no national security adviser, nothing along those lines.

Are you concerned about what happened in that private conversation?

COONS: I am. As you know, Wolf, I recently joined the Republican chairman of both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Senator Flake led a group of five of us. And we went to meetings with the leaders of Finland and Latvia, Denmark and Sweden, and heard across the region grave concerns that President Trump, in a private meeting with Vladimir Putin, might make big concessions, whether on Ukraine and Crimea, on military exercises with NATO, or on trying to sort of let bygones be bygones in terms of establishing a new and stronger relationship with Putin, our enemy.

We don't know what conversations were taken up in that period, and I think we should do everything we can to find out. I'm pressing Republican colleagues to work with us to ensure that we get some accountability around that conversation, that we have hearings imminently with Secretary Pompeo or with Director of National Intelligence Coats, or that we get access to some of those translator's notes from the meeting in Helsinki that President Trump and President Putin held.

[17:15:13] BLITZER: You know, it's interesting. Republican Congressman Mark Sanford of South Carolina says he doesn't know if Russia has anything on President Trump. He's calling on the president, though, to release his tax returns.

Do you think that would help establish whether President Trump has any relevant business relationships with Putin or with Russia?

COONS: It would certainly help clear up something. As you know, President Trump's the first modern candidate for president to refuse to release his taxes. And there have been allegations now for years that he had business interests in Russia.

It would be a great way for President Trump to clear his name on this issue: to disclose his financial holdings. Obviously, he has interest in lots of different business concerns. But to have access to his finances to get a full financial disclosure comparable to what previous presidents made available would help address that issue.

BLITZER: That's interesting. Mark Sanford is putting that out there right now.


BLITZER: You heard our latest reporting here on CNN about this Russian woman who's now been charged as a Russian agent. When you look at her interactions with Republican officials, what are your concerns?

COONS: I think we're going to learn more in the days ahead about a persistent campaign that she led to try to get closer and closer access to the Trump campaign and to the White House by courting very senior donors. I think there's some complicating relationships that we'll be learning about more in the days ahead.

BLITZER: Senator Coons, thanks, as usual, for joining us.

COONS: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, President Trump launches an attempt at damage control after his disastrous meeting with Russia's president, Vladimir Putin. And while Trump takes heat at home for his behavior at the summit, the summit is seen as a cause for celebration -- you guessed it -- in Russia.


[17:21:34] BLITZER: Our breaking news, a stunning attempt at damage control. After publicly siding with President Putin, President Trump now says he backs U.S. intelligence agencies and their conclusion that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election. But he also insists others -- others -- could also be responsible. That comes amid blistering bipartisan criticism here at home.

But Russia, meanwhile, is celebrating the controversial summit in Helsinki. Our senior international correspondent, Fred Pleitgen, is joining us from Helsinki right now.

Fred, bring us up to date.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. The Russians didn't even comment on President Trump's attempts at damage control earlier today. They're still busy taking victory laps there in Moscow.

The Russians believe that President Trump wants to change and improve relations between the United States and Russia, even against the will and against the criticism of what they call the establishment in Washington. Here's what we learned today.


PLEITGEN (voice-over): Facing a barrage of criticism from both Democrats and Republicans after his meeting with Vladimir Putin, for siding with the Russian leader over his own intelligence agencies --

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R), ILLINOIS: To see what happened yesterday was shocking and beyond that.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D-VA), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: This was such a pitiful performance and a -- such a degrading effort by this president.

PLEITGEN: -- President Trump defending the meeting.

TRUMP: The press covered it quite inaccurately.

PLEITGEN: But there are media outlets that fully support President Trump's assessment in Russia. Analysts on state-run TV saying it's now up to Moscow to support Trump and his Russia-friendly course. UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): If all these agreements will

work out, at least on ministerial levels, that's a big breakthrough and benefit for us. But we have to understand that we can't set Trump up once again now. Our job now is to help him with good arguments, and he himself will go to change the U.S. domestic agenda.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): And then you say Trump is not ours? We need to help him, guide him, support him.

PLEITGEN: The host also taking note of the issues President Trump didn't bring up in Helsinki.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Trump could have mentioned the traditional aggression and annexation, but he didn't do it. He didn't forget it but purposely didn't mention it.

PLEITGEN: While America's allies, especially in Europe, seem shocked by President Trump's posture towards Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader praising Trump after the meeting.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): He's a very skilled person. He's in the know. He listens. He accepts the arguments. On some issues he remains in his opinion.

TRUMP: Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you.

PLEITGEN: And while President Trump's performance at the meeting with Vladimir Putin is causing anger and disbelief in Washington, Moscow is celebrating a major victory on the international stage.


PLEITGEN: So as you can see, Wolf, a lot of very happy people in Moscow and, indeed, in a lot of parts of Russia after that summit took place. They obviously believe that it was Vladimir Putin who came out on top.

Also, it's interesting to hear, because the Russians seem to believe that there could be a fundamental shift in American politics and American policies, a shift of the U.S. towards Russia and away from some of its traditional allies. Of course, that's not necessarily something that those traditional allies, especially in Europe, are keen on hearing. They're quite concerned after that summit between President Trump and President Putin, Wolf.

BLITZER: Understandably so. Fred Pleitgen, reporting from Helsinki, thank you.

Coming up, can President Trump succeed with his effort at damage control or is he only digging a deeper hole for himself with his explanation of what went wrong at the summit?

[17:25:00] And outrage here in Washington up on Capitol Hill. While Democrats called for urgent testimony on what happened behind closed doors in Helsinki, even some of the president's supporters are now voicing deep concerns. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Our breaking news: amid a firestorm of criticism from lawmakers and former intelligence officials, President Trump this afternoon attempted to do some damage control over what he said during the news conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki yesterday.

[17:30:09] Let's discuss all of this with our political, legal and national security analysts.

And Gloria Borger, the president says more than 24 hours later he misspoke -- he misspoke with one word and, as a result, he wanted to come out and fix that. Listen to what he said.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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."


BLITZER: If there was a real mistake that he made, he could have immediately, after the news conference, fixed it.


BLITZER: But he waited and waited and waited.

BORGER: And he didn't want to fix it. It was very clear. I mean, the old double negative defense. That'll work.

It's very clear that people in the administration knew that he blew it. And that he had made a huge mistake and that the country was upset about it and that they were upset about it. And they had to force him. As I said earlier in the day, it looked like a hostage video. Right? They had to force him to go out there and -- and read from this statement. And try and explain what he had done, which he tried to do with this double negative reference.

But every once in awhile, the real Donald Trump came out, because when he said, you know, he accepts the conclusion of the intelligence communities, but he also said, you know, there -- it could be a lot of other people out there. So, he couldn't even bring himself to not mention collusion, for example.


We had that clip. I want you to react. Because the president could have left it, you know, "I made a mistake."

BORGER: Yes. BLITZER: "Misspoke. I believe in the intelligence community. I support the intelligence -- I support every word they say." But then he ad-libbed. Listen to this.


TRUMP: Let me be totally clear in saying that -- and I've said this many times -- I accept our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people, also. There's a lot of people out there. There was no collusion.


BLITZER: So he wasn't totally clear. Instead of simply accepting what the intelligence community concluded, that Russia did it, he said it could be other people also, a lot of other people out there.


BLITZER: He's often said that. It could be some 400-pound guy in his basement.

TURNER: Right, right. But it wasn't. It was the Russians. Period.

Look, Wolf. Not only does it fall flat in terms of an explanation, but as Gloria pointed out, the president was reading what he was told he needed to read. And I think that, for any other president, the public might be able to accept it as plausible that perhaps he misspoke.

But we have to remember that both the Republicans and Democrats and certainly the president's surrogates have repeatedly told us, "Don't worry so much about what the president says. Look at what he does."

And what did he do yesterday? He stood on a stage, the leader of the free world, stood next to Vladimir Putin and completely rejected the findings of his intelligence community, completely demurred. He was -- he was meek and looked weak.

So look, we saw what the president really meant. So today was the president simply saying, "OK, OK. I'll come out. I'll say what I need to say, but clearly I don't really mean it."

BLITZER: Yes. And you know, there was a whole meeting, and we take it in the White House situation room, not our SITUATION ROOM, the White House situation room, in which they discussed the damage from the joint news conference with Putin yesterday.

And he came out, and then starts ad-libbing. And the sense is, Jackie, he was trying to say, "You know what? I misspoke in order" to give Republicans up on Capitol Hill some cover, because they are very angry and disappointed, as well.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, right. Because they continually have to explain, to take a position on whether they believe the president or not. They don't want to talk about it. Unless you're Rand Paul, who basically was his only friend yesterday, and maybe some members of the Freedom Caucus.

This puts the members, particularly of the leadership but also the Republican Party writ large, in the crosshairs, because they can't explain this; because this is the same party that a couple of years ago was talking about the Russian threat. You really don't have to Google that far to find those quotes.

BLITZER: Yes, you certainly don't. And there's a lot of concern, as you know, Laura, the -- what the president said in that one-on-one more than two-hour meeting with Putin. Only their two interpreters were present. No senior national security advisors were there. Nobody taking notes. The two interpreters were there, and that's it. And there's enormous concern what was said.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, there should be. When you have a battle of he said/he said and you have a matter of credibility actually belonging to neither of them. And there's concern from everyone as to what actually happened. Especially because it appeared, from his public statements, that he was not trying to position -- argue from a position of power. He was trying to placate or satiate Vladimir Putin, which is a very odd thing to try to do, to try to kowtow and show some level of deference.

[17:35:00] So if that's what he's willing to do publicly and throw the intelligence community under the bus, then what happened behind the scenes before the cameras are there to allow you to have ego, bravado, for you to say, "I would never do something publicly"?

You know, it's odd if you choose the public setting alone to do damage to yourself. It's far more likely you'll do it in the privacy of that one-on-one meeting.

BLITZER: And now there's some on Capitol Hill who want to question the interpreter, the American interpreter to find out what was going on, as well.

BORGER: Yes. I met that interpreter has already been debriefed by intelligence. Wouldn't you think?

BLITZER: I suspect you're right.

Everybody, stand by. There's a lot more reaction coming in, including what former vice president Joe Biden just said exclusively to CNN about President Trump's behavior during that news conference with Vladimir Putin.


JOE BIDEN (D), FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think the press conference was beneath the office of the presidency. And I think it did us great damage. Internationally.



[17:40:40] BLITZER: We're back with our political, national, security and legal experts.

And Gloria, let me play a clip. This is the former vice president, Joe Biden. He spoke exclusively with our friend and CNN Espanol anchor Juan Carlos Lopez, and he said this about the president and Putin in Helsinki yesterday.


BIDEN: I think the press conference was beneath the office of the presidency. And I think it did us great damage. Internationally.

And I -- I was proud to see, finally, some of my Republican colleagues who you cover finally beginning to speak out about the -- some of the outrageous things that are -- are being said and done.

Let me just suffice it to say the president's conduct at that press conference was beneath the dignity of the presidency.


BLITZER: Very strong words.

BORGER: Very strong words, but I got the sense that Biden is trying to control himself there. He was -- you know, usually Biden is full of a lot of fire. And you didn't see the fire there, because you got a sense, at least I did, of the seriousness of what he was discussing.

And reading between the lines you could tell that he probably agreed with somebody like former CIA director Brennan, who considered the president's comments treasonous, except he would never -- he would never say that.

So I think he was -- you know, I think he was trying to walk a fine line here to protect the country and the office of the presidency and yet be critical of Trump. And to kind of urge some of those Republicans to start doing some things that they haven't been doing before.

BLITZER: Vice President Biden, you know, did the interview with Juan Carlos Lopez from CNN Espanol in Colombia down in South America. He said he usually don't criticize presidents when he's outside of the United States, but he felt so strongly about this. Twice he said the press conference in Helsinki beneath the office -- beneath the dignity of the presidency.

KUCINICH: No, I said -- in fairness, I mean, the president himself criticized the United States from foreign soil yesterday, so it really is hard to be held to that standard if the president himself isn't -- isn't going by that.

You know, the other thing you saw today from Republicans is them trying to reassure global partners that the United States still has their back. Yesterday, there were M.P.s in town from various Balkan countries, and

they -- one of them told our reporter that they don't even listen to the president's words anymore. They're listening to people at the Pentagon, State Department, members of Congress say, "It's OK. You're going to be all right. We're still going to protect you from Russia."

That's saying something, when you're tuning out the office of the president, the person in that office, because you can't count on him.

BLITZER: What does it say, Shawn? You used to work in the government for a long time. When the president's own staff apparently has limited influence going into a historic summit like this; give him a lot of briefings, give him a lot information, and then he goes and does whatever he wants?

TURNER: Yes. You know, it's not only troubling, it's actually dangerous. The president needs to be surrounded by people who feel empowered to stand up and challenge him when they think he's wrong. Every president needs that.

And what this president has done, as we know, he does not like to be challenged. He does not like it when people disagree with him. And so, to a large degree, what he's done is he's surrounded himself with people who will nod and go along with whatever he says.

And I've talked the people in the administration now who have said the fear of going against the president, of crossing the president, is palpable. That's a very dangerous thing, because, you know, look, the president needs to have a range of views. And he needs to believe the people that he's surrounded himself when they offer differing opinions on -- on strategy and on the direction he should take the country.

So I think it's really troubling that people feel as though they can't talk to him and that, you know, people are talking about walking away from this president. Because all he's going to do is he's going to fill those positions with more people who will agree with him, no matter what. And we need that diversity of opinion.

BLITZER: Yes, it's a really, really sensitive moment right now.

You know, Laura, you heard Shimon Prokupecz, our crime and justice reporter, say there's deep fear right now. There's a sense within the U.S. intelligence community, the law enforcement community, that Russia's about to accelerate its own intelligence operations aimed at the West.

COATES: That's so troubling because, of course, we've had about 18 months of knowledge that they have tried to meddle with our elections, and preparation for our very major midterm elections coming up this fall.

And so the question you'd like to ask President Trump is whether or not he has done something to prevent it. Has he been proactive in that stance?

And one of the most troubling things yesterday about the press conference was the whole absence, and today as well, to cover an entire absence of not only recognizing that this is actually forthcoming and there is actually preventive measures in place to do so.

And, you know, Shawn was talking about one of the scariest parts about this. When people around the President, his advisers, his kitchen cabinet, cannot advise him, well, that's the whole premise behind executive privilege. That you are able to have these very frank, forthright conversations, and you're protected by the law in that capacity.

Because why? We want him to not only absorb the information but also to act on it. And so you're almost having a legacy, now, going forward of, but why is there executive privilege because that isn't there anyway? Should that even be in place in future administrations? It's just -- you just don't know.

BLITZER: Good point. Everybody stick around. There's more we're following including a dilemma created by President Trump's summit with Vladimir Putin. Should his top advisers hold back the most sensitive information during his intelligence briefings?

Plus, more on the President's attempt to clean up what he said during his news conference with President Putin yesterday.


[17:51:00] BLITZER: Despite President Trump's efforts at damage control this afternoon, questions remain about how much he told Vladimir Putin during their private meeting in Helsinki. And it is creating a dilemma for those who brief the President on the nation's most sensitive and closely held secrets.

CNN's Brian Todd has been checking with experts. So, Brian, what are they telling you?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we've been speaking today with current and former U.S. intelligence officials.

Some in that circle are telling CNN tonight that the President's uncomfortably close relationship with Vladimir Putin, his frivolous handling of the most sensitive intelligence, could prompt America's top spies to start withholding the most sensitive and vital information from President Trump.


TODD (voice-over): The President spent 131 minutes alone with the former KGB colonel with no advisers present, only translators. Then President Trump came out praising Vladimir Putin and denying the conclusions of his own intelligence community.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.

TODD (voice-over): Former intelligence officials are voicing serious concerns tonight about what Trump said to Putin in their closed-door meeting.

JOHN BRENNAN, FORMER DIRECTOR, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: U.S. intelligence capabilities are exceptionally precious but also exceptionally delicate. And I don't know what Mr. Trump might have said in that meeting that could have, in fact, compromised or impacted those capabilities. I just don't know.

TODD (voice-over): An ominous warning from former CIA Director John Brennan. Going forward, he says there could be a tendency for intelligence gatherers to withhold vital intelligence from the President.

Veteran agents telling CNN tonight Trump is risking their trust that he can handle America's secrets.

ROBERT BAER, FORMER CASE OFFICER, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: The rank and file in the CIA do not trust this president with a secret. I can't assure you our president will not get on the hotline to Moscow and call Putin and say, hey, I got a guy in your office who is saying. Is this true?

TODD (voice-over): It is not the first time Donald Trump's relationship with the intelligence community has been strained by the question of trust.

Last year, he shared highly classified information with the Russian foreign minister and Russian ambassador in an Oval Office meeting. Sources told CNN the President said he has the right to share information with Russia on terrorism and said he didn't divulge its origin.

TRUMP: Just so you understand, I never mentioned the word or the name Israel.

TODD (voice-over): The possibility of withholding crucial information from the President, analysts say, would leave America in a dangerous place.

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: We essentially now have a Commander-in-Chief, the head of government, who is not fully briefed and fully informed on not only actions that are taking place around the world but the implications for his own actions.

TODD (voice-over): Colonel Christopher Costa, a member of President Trump's National Security Council until this year, says he never observed Trump mishandling sensitive intelligence. On the question of whether intelligence briefers might hold information back from the President --

COL. CHRISTOPHER COSTA (RET.), EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, INTERNATIONAL SPY MUSEUM: I think it's going to be incumbent upon the intelligence community to give the President of the United States the most important and sensitive intelligence that we have.

(END VIDEOTAPE) TODD: The White House has not responded to our inquiries about the comments from former intelligence officers who say that some intelligence officials may, in fact, be reluctant to share sensitive information with President Trump going forward and that some intelligence officials simply don't trust him.

The CIA has also has not commented on any of this.

The office of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats says that office is going to continue to provide objective and unvarnished intelligence in the name of national security, Wolf. We'll see if that really happens.

BLITZER: And we certainly will. Brian, you're also hearing there's concern tonight from intelligence professionals about what's described as a ripple effect from all of this, that critical intelligence sources could be lost. What are you hearing?

TODD: Right, Wolf. Former CIA Officer Bob Baer who used to run double agents and other human sources for the CIA said if the President maintains his pattern of being close with Putin, if he reveals sensitive intelligence in any way, well, those human sources could be rounded up by rival agencies like the Russians. Those sources could be killed.

And the result would be some potential sources will not come forward. They're not going to share information with the CIA and other sources. That's a very dangerous situation.

[17:55:05] BLITZER: It certainly is. Brian Todd reporting. Thank you.

Coming up, under fire after publicly backing Russia's Vladimir Putin, President Trump launches an attempt at damage control, now saying he supports U.S. intelligence agencies and they're finding that Russia attacked the U.S. election. So why is he still suggesting, at the very same time, it could also be, quote, other people?


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Walk back stumble. President Trump tries to ease the damage from his Putin summit debacle, claiming he now accepts that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. But did an adlib during his largely scripted remarks reveal his true feelings?