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Trump On The Defensive About Putin Discussion


President Trump arrived in the Philippines this morning for a summit meeting with Southeast Asia leaders. It's the final stop on the president's five-country tour. Trump also spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the weekend in Vietnam. Trump's comments about Russia after that meeting have him doing a lot of explaining. NPR's Scott Horsley is traveling with the president and will explain to us what's going on. Good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, Scott. These conversations the president had with Putin have sparked some controversy here at home, which I'm sure you're aware of. Trump says they once again discussed Russia's interference in last year's presidential election. Walk us through what he had to say.

HORSLEY: Well, Trump says Putin once again denied that Russia meddled in that presidential contest. And the controversy stems from comments Trump made last night to reporters traveling on Air Force One with him. The president said of Putin and the election interference, quote, "every time he sees me, he says I didn't do that, and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it." Now, some people interpreted that as Trump saying he believes Putin over the U.S. intelligence community, which concluded that Russia did interfere in the election. At a news conference this morning, Trump tried to clarify those remarks.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: What I said - that I'm surprised that there's any conflict on this. What I said there is that I believe he believes that, and that's very important for somebody to believe. I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election. As to whether I believe it or not, I'm with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with their leadership.

HORSLEY: And, again, those U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia did interfere and, moreover, that Russia did so to help Donald Trump.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Despite the interference that the intelligence agencies say happened, Trump says he wants to strengthen U.S. ties to Moscow. Why?

HORSLEY: Right. And this is not a new position for the president. He's argued ever since the campaign that better ties with Russia would be a good thing. In particular, today, he said Russia could be helpful in curtailing North Korea's nuclear program. Of course, the president's been working on China to use its economic influence to rein in North Korea. And as China tightens the screws, Trump wants to be sure Russia doesn't throw Kim Jong-un an economic lifeline.

Speaking of Kim, Trump tweeted somewhat surprisingly today that he has tried hard to be friends with the North Korean leader. When reporters asked the president about that, Trump said strange things happen in life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to talk a little bit about another controversial meeting. In Manila, Trump will be meeting with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and other leaders from throughout Southeast Asia. What's his focus there?

HORSLEY: Southeast Asia is a crossroads for what the administration calls the Indo-Pacific region. You've got a lot of fast-growing economies. You've got a whole lot of commercial shipping in this area, and the president says the U.S. wants to keep it that way.


TRUMP: The United States is committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific where strong, independent nations respect each other's sovereignty, uphold the rule of law and advance responsible commerce. We want our partners in the Indo-Pacific to be proud and self-reliant, not proxies or satellites.

HORSLEY: Obviously, a huge player in this region is China, which has laid territorial claims to big swaths of the South China Sea. In Vietnam this morning, the president talked about a Coast Guard cutter that the U.S. has given to Vietnam. It's kind of a remarkable story. The cutter, which once was patrolling for the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, now belongs to the communist government of Vietnam as a tool for defending its freedom of navigation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that meeting with Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines - what is expected to be on the agenda there?

HORSLEY: Duterte has obviously drawn a lot of human rights criticism for his crackdown on drug trafficking in the Philippines. Former President Obama canceled a meeting with Duterte when the Philippine leader crudely warned the ex-president not to raise the human rights issue. The White House says if Trump brings it up, he will do so quietly. The administration also says Trump has a warm rapport with Duterte.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Scott Horsley traveling with the president. Thank you very much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.