April 6, 2020
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JUDY WOODRUFF: More shifting winds at the
White House today on whether Russia’s President Putin is a friend, a foe, something else. Word came that President Trump wants Putin
to visit this fall, even as Monday’s summit sparked more questions. White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor
begins our coverage. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: For President Vladimir Putin,
a warm reception from Russian lawmakers today, as he celebrated the Helsinki summit results. VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russian President (through
translator): Finally, the full formal meeting happened, which allowed me to talk directly
to President Trump, and it was successful generally and led to useful arrangements. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: There’s been no formal announcement
of any deals the leaders may have made. Putin said they worked out a range of agreements
involving international security. But, today at an Aspen Institute forum, the
U.S. director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, said he’s not sure what was discussed. DAN COATS, U.S. National Intelligence Director:
Well, you’re right. I don’t know what happened in that meeting. But that is the president’s prerogative. If he had asked me how that ought to be conducted,
I would have suggested a different way, but that’s not my role. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: This morning, President
Trump tweeted, saying: “The summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real
enemy of the people, the fake news media.” He went on to say he looks forward to a second
meeting with Putin, “So that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed,
including cyber-attacks, Ukraine, and Middle East peace, among others.” But the overall U.S. commander for the Middle
East, Army General Joseph Votel, said he has heard nothing about any changes regarding
Syria, where both American and Russian forces are involved. He spoke to Pentagon reporters on a video
link from his headquarters in Tampa. GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL, Commander, U.S. Central Command:
We have received, no — no further direction than we have currently been operating under. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Direct collaboration with
the Russian military would need congressional approval. There was more today, too, on the matter that’s
dogged President Trump since Helsinki, Russian cyber-hacking in the 2016 U.S. election. The New York Times reported that, two weeks
before his inauguration, in January of 2017, he was shown highly classified evidence that
Vladimir Putin personally ordered the campaign of cyber-attacks and disinformation. Just five days later, the then president-elect
held a news conference. Today, he posted a clip from it. But, later on, in that same news conference,
he dismissed the intelligence community’s conclusions that Putin had been trying to
help him win the election. QUESTION: Do you accept that part of the finding? DONALD TRUMP, President of the United States:
Well, if — if Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability, because
we have a horrible relationship with Russia. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: In Aspen, Colorado, the
president’s homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, said today she’s never seen evidence
that Russia’s election interference was aimed at securing a Trump victory. KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, U.S. Secretary of Homeland
Security: What we have seen on the foreign influence side is, they were attempting to
intervene and cause chaos on both sides. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: On Monday, the president
seemed to take Putin’s denials at face value. Intelligence Director Coats quickly challenged
that, saying Russian interference did happen and is continuing to happening. Today, Coats said he’d had no choice. DAN COATS: I was just doing my job. My thoughts there were that I believed I needed
to correct the record for that. Obviously, I wished he had made a different
statement. But I think that now that has been clarified. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Just yesterday, Mr. Trump
appeared to dismiss the notion that Russian interference is ongoing. QUESTION: Is Russia still targeting the U.S.,
Mr. President? DONALD TRUMP: Thank you very much. No. QUESTION: You don’t believe that to be the
case? DONALD TRUMP: No. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: The White House said later
Mr. Trump had been misunderstood. All of this has lawmakers on both sides asking
questions and seeking action. Republican Senator Bob Corker chairs the Foreign
Relations Committee. SEN. BOB CORKER (R), Tennessee: I just can feel
sometimes that the president conflates getting along with someone and flattery and those
kinds of things, conflates that with the actual policies. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: In a statement today, Senate
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced he’s directed two Senate committees to hold
hearings on potentially strengthening U.S. sanctions against Russia. On the House side, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer
of Maryland called for bipartisan legislation to increase funding for election system security
and to counter Russian-led cyber-attacks. REP. STENY HOYER (D-MD), Minority Whip: The flashing
red light calls us to action. Surely, we can rise above pandering to party
and Putin to act on behalf of our freedom and our security. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: The measure ultimately failed. Republicans voted against it, saying there’s
already ample money available for those purposes. JUDY WOODRUFF: And Yamiche is here with me
now, along with our foreign affairs correspondent, Nick Schifrin. Hello to both of you. So, Yamiche, as you have just been reporting,
we have seen over the last few days a number of statements the White House has made about
the Russian threat, about what the Russians did in 2016. Then they have turned and made a clarifying
statement or they reversed themselves. How does the way the White House is handling
this, because you have been looking into it, compare with the way the rest of the administration
has been looking at all this? YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Well, President Trump’s
inability to definitively say that Vladimir Putin ordered Russian nationals to interfere
in the 2016 election has put him at odds often with the U.S. intelligence community. Today in Aspen, Director of National Intelligence
Dan Coats today looked visibly surprised when NBC’s Andrea Mitchell told him about Putin’s
upcoming visit. ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC 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) ANDREA MITCHELL: Vladimir Putin coming… DAN COATS: Did I hear you? Did I hear you? ANDREA MITCHELL: Yes. Yes. DAN COATS: OK. ANDREA MITCHELL: Yes. (LAUGHTER) DAN COATS: That’s going to be special. (LAUGHTER) JUDY WOODRUFF: Wow. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I mean, that really sums
up where the national intelligence director and the president stand right now. He was completely surprised, and he’s not
alone. The intelligence community is looking at what
President Trump is doing and saying, and they’re really questioning kind of why the president
is saying all these things, and they don’t know what he said to Vladimir Putin in that
one-on-one meeting that went on for two hours. And Dan Coats isn’t the only person in the
Trump administration that is pushing back on the way that Trump is talking about Russia. The director of the FBI, Christopher Wray,
said that: “Russia is the most aggressive country that’s trying to attack the U.S. right
now.” That’s really, really important. And I was talking to sources today. There was a former Department of Homeland
Security official who was very senior in past administrations. He said that the homeland security — the
secretary of homeland security today saying that she didn’t know if Russia was trying
to help Donald Trump shows that these administration officials are under a lot of pressure to pick
between Donald Trump or the truth. So, that’s really, really important. And the Senate today voted unanimously to
oppose Russia talking to U.S. officials or U.S. citizens and basically saying that Russia
shouldn’t be able to question American citizens. So they’re also coming out and saying, we
are not with the president on this one. JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Nick, you have talked to
folks in the intelligence community. There is some sort of division, it appears,
between what the president is doing and what they know. NICK SCHIFRIN: I think it’s important to note
that they will continue doing their job despite that division, but that there is worry, concern,
even discomfort with some of what the president is saying and some of the policies that he’s
exhibiting toward Russia and toward Vladimir Putin. We have to remember that, since January 2017,
the intelligence community has fingered Putin personally and said that President Putin ordered
the hacking and the disinformation campaign in the United States. The president was given that information,
as we learned today from The New York Times, with specific intelligence that there was
human intelligence about President Vladimir Putin’s order. And there’s just bafflement, frankly, among
some intelligence officials as to why the president will not back them up on that. And at least publicly, they just don’t know
why the president is not backing them up. JUDY WOODRUFF: Two other things. Yamiche, this whole — the White House saying
yesterday that the president was considering seriously this idea of swapping interrogation
between the U.S. — former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, among others, with the U.S. being
able to interview these intelligence folks in Russia who have been indicted by the United
States. So — and then today they said, no, it’s not
being considered at all, the president doesn’t like the idea. What’s going on there? YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Well, the White House and
the State Department had vastly different answers when it came to the question of whether
or not Vladimir Putin could get his way and Russian national officials could sit down
and interview American citizens that they see as criminals. The U.S. intelligence community has found
that these Americans are not criminals. They include the former ambassador to Russia,
the former U.S. ambassador to Russia. And there’s this idea that Putin wanted to
kind of float that out there and that it was pretty much seen as absurd. The State Department came out very forcefully
yesterday and said that it’s absurd to even ask this question, where Sarah Sanders kind
of hedged it and said, well, we will think about it. And it took until today, which is a full 24
hours later, for the White House to come out and be on the same page as the State Department. So, again, it comes back to that idea that
I have been talking to sources about when they say they don’t know why the president
is doing the things he’s doing, and people are very worried he made deals with President
Putin in that two-hour meeting. They’re not sure if maybe he gave him some
kind of signal that there might be an assurance there. So they’re very, very much worried and don’t
know what to think. JUDY WOODRUFF: And just very quickly, Nick,
on that point, it isn’t clear what was said in that meeting. How much of a problem is that? NICK SCHIFRIN: It is a big problem, because
the Russians have a well-oiled diplomatic machine. And they will put forward their ambassador
to the U.S., who briefed reporters yesterday. They put forward President Putin today. And they will fill the void where there is
no statement from Secretary Pompeo about what was decided, there’s no statement from National
Security Adviser John Bolton. The defense secretary, Jim Mattis, wasn’t
even at the Cabinet meeting yesterday, whereas the Russians are absolutely organized. And so they will fill that void and try and
shape the legacy of the summit and certainly the day-to-day actions of both countries in
the near future. JUDY WOODRUFF: Nick Schifrin, Yamiche Alcindor,
thank you both. NICK SCHIFRIN: Thank you.

David Frank