Ahead Of More Pressure From Russia Investigations, Trump Delivers Mixed Statements
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to start the program again today hearing about President Trump's five-country Asia tour. He is in the Philippines, the final stop. The trip's been going on for more than a week, but one big story is the controversy the president stirred over an old debate. Did Russia interfere in the 2016 presidential election here in the U.S., and does President Trump believe they did? NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is on the line with us now to talk us through this. Hi, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi.
MARTIN: So we heard yesterday from Vietnam, where the APEC trade summit is being held, that President Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And afterward, Trump spoke with reporters on Air Force One. What did he say about Russian election interference?
KEITH: Trump said that, once again, Putin, at that meeting, reassured him that Russia didn't get involved in the presidential election. Now, he told reporters something about that. It wasn't on tape. We only have a transcript, so I'm going to do a little interpretive reading here. President Trump said, quote, "every time he sees me, he says, I didn't do that. And I believe - I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it. But he says, I didn't do that. I think he's very insulted by it, if you want to know the truth." Trump also said something that he said before, which is that there are those who are saying if he did do it, he wouldn't have gotten caught. All right.
MARTIN: OK. So this does lead people to wonder - some people anyway - if President Trump believes Putin. Does he?
KEITH: Well, at a press conference a few hours after President Trump spoke to reporters on Air Force One, he was asked what he meant by all of that. And this is what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: 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.
KEITH: He's currently - he's talking about the U.S. intelligence agencies, which, almost a year ago, released an assessment with a high level of confidence that said Russia did interfere in the election and wanted President Trump to win. What President Trump seems to be saying is that he trusts the intelligence community rather than Putin now that his appointees are in charge of it, though the assessment has not changed at all since January.
MARTIN: So, Tam, some people might be wondering why this is getting so much attention, so can you talk about that?
KEITH: Yeah. You know, it's a pretty significant thing if the president of the United States seems to be siding with an adversary over the U.S. intelligence community. Now, the president insists that isn't what he was doing, and he just wants to move on. He wants to have a good relationship with Putin, not argue about the election but work on Syria and North Korea and Ukraine.
But there's also the backdrop here - Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into whether Trump associates colluded with Russia to interfere with the election is ongoing. And, in fact, sometime very soon - as soon as this week - several key members of the White House staff - the inner circle - will be sitting for interviews with Mueller. White House lawyer Ty Cobb told me that he expects all of those interviews involving West Wing people and those recently departed to be completed by Thanksgiving or shortly thereafter.
MARTIN: So, Tam, before we let you go, I'd like to ask you about this tweet from the president where he seems to be calling the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un short and fat. And he goes on to say, oh, well, I try so hard to be his friend, and maybe someday that will happen. What was all that about?
KEITH: Well, no. It seems that the president might have been responding to Kim calling him old. And, of course, name-calling isn't anything new here. Don't forget Little Rocket Man. Though, on this trip, the president has been relatively restrained as he's trying to bring people in from around the region to sort of offset what North Korea is up to. Asked at that press conference in Vietnam about the tweet and whether he is really trying hard to be Kim's friend, President Trump said anything is possible, and it would be a good thing for North Korea and the world if that were to happen, though that does seem currently pretty unlikely.
MARTIN: That's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks, Tam.
KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.