News Brief: Trump Walks Back Comments, Russian Student Charged, Migrant Detentions

Jul 18, 2018
Originally published on July 18, 2018 7:04 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

At the White House yesterday, President Trump walked away - sort of - from his controversial statement in Helsinki that drew widespread condemnation. Here is what's different.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I accept our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place.

NOEL KING, HOST:

But the president suggested that others may have interfered as well.

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TRUMP: Could be other people also - a lot of people out there.

KING: And he repeated his familiar claim that his campaign did not collude with Russia.

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TRUMP: There was no collusion at all.

KING: The president said that he misspoke in Helsinki. While he was there, he said he saw no reason why it would be Russia that interfered. He clarified yesterday, he meant to say he saw no reason why it wouldn't be Russia.

GREENE: OK, so just like a few letters there that are different. Anyway, the fallout seems to be continuing from Helsinki. Let's talk about it with NPR's political reporter Sarah McCammon.

Sarah, good morning.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: OK. So does this settle things? Are the president and the Republican Party now just totally back on the same page?

MCCAMMON: Well, you know, it's hard to say. There's been some reaction, some positive reaction. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had criticized the president's statement, came out yesterday and said he essentially appreciated the walk-back. I've also seen some skepticism on both sides.

But you know, the president has, you know, long suggested that concerns about Russia are overblown. And at the same time, that has gotten a lot of pushback. You know, his initial comments in Helsinki have gotten a lot of pushback from leaders across the spectrum, including, just yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan who both criticized President Trump's initial comments.

GREENE: Because I mean, that's really an interesting point to make, that even if he's walking back these comments, what he said - casting doubt on the intelligence community - sort of was in line with what he often says, is that concerns about Russia's interference are overblown.

MCCAMMON: Right. This is something he's kind of gone back and forth on for a long time. And we saw more of that oscillation this week.

GREENE: So one impact that we were talking about yesterday was on the intelligence community and what it might be like to be an intelligence analyst or a spy for the U.S. government if your president doesn't really have your back and is casting doubt on your findings. Has the intelligence community responded to Helsinki yet?

MCCAMMON: Yes - and again, lots of pushback from both sides here. Former CIA Director John Brennan, perhaps most notably, tweeted this week that Trump's comments were nothing short of treasonous and that he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. And he raised questions about why Trump would meet with Putin alone and what he might be hiding from the public.

Also, Trump's own director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, came out right away with a statement after his initial comments in Helsinki, saying he would continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence. Lots of criticism as well from, you know, members of Congress in the intelligence community - Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr reaffirmed that Putin is not our friend. So you know, across the spectrum again, lots of concerns from people who know something about intelligence about the president's initial comments, regardless of what he might have said this week to clear it up.

GREENE: And I guess a lot of these questions are still going to be out there next week when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is going to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to talk about the summit. Right?

MCCAMMON: Right, no doubt this will come up. The chairman of that committee, Bob Corker, has expressed a lot of concern, and I'm sure that Pompeo will face some tough questions.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Sarah McCammon for us this morning. Sarah, thanks a lot. We appreciate it.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

GREENE: And let's turn now to another story that involves alleged Russian influence in American affairs.

KING: Yeah. A woman who's accused of conspiring to act as a Russian agent inside the U.S. will appear in court today. Her name is Maria Butina, and she has been detained since Sunday on a conspiracy charge. Prosecutors say she was trying to influence American policy-makers to favor Russian interests.

GREENE: Wow. This is interesting stuff. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following the story of this woman.

Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: OK. So who is she, and what should we know about this case here?

JOHNSON: She's a 29-year-old former graduate student who came to the U.S. to study international relations at American University here in D.C. But the FBI says that Maria Butina actually had been working for a Russian government leader all along. And new charges - a grand jury in Washington yesterday accused her of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent, acting as an agent for Russia. She reported on her visa paperwork she had stopped working for Aleksandr Torshin, a top Russian official. In fact, the FBI says, she continued to work at his direction inside the U.S. Their goal was for her to meet influential Republicans and influence American policy and steer it toward Russia.

GREENE: So she's denying these charges through her lawyer, right? But we haven't heard from her yet. But she is going to be in court today. What happens now?

JOHNSON: Maria Butina's expected in court in D.C. this afternoon. Through her lawyer Robert Driscoll, she's denied these charges, says she intends to clear her name. But interestingly, David, Maria Butina's been in custody since her arrest over the weekend by the FBI. She's going to make a bid to be freed pending trial. And it seems like prosecutors here in Washington are going to argue that she may pose a flight risk because she is, of course, a Russian citizen and also may pose some kind of criminal or national security threat. So a judge is going to have to decide today whether or not she should be released as she tries to contest these charges against her.

GREENE: And Carrie, haven't there been a lot of photos that have surfaced of her with, you know, pretty well-known political figures? Does that hurt her case denying this?

JOHNSON: Yeah. You know, her lawyer said she got really good grades in her graduate school program. But it seems as if she was spending as much time cozying up to officials and going to the National Prayer Breakfast, attending events for the National Rifle Association and getting her photos taken with a bunch of luminaries like former Sheriff Dave Clarke, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker - even, we've been told, a photo of herself with Donald Trump Jr., although that interaction is said to have been very brief.

Maria Butina's whole goal here, according to the Justice Department, was to try to make friends with top Russian - with top American figures, rather, and try to get them to bend in the way of Russia. And so we're going to find out more about those allegations as this case proceeds.

GREENE: Does this relate at all to the whole larger investigation into Russian interference in American politics?

JOHNSON: This case is handled by the U.S. Attorney's Office in D.C. and national security prosecutors here, not by the special counsel Bob Mueller. But of course, it has a lot to do with the scope of the Russian influence campaign surrounding 2016 and, we now know, beyond.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Carrie Johnson. Interesting story to follow.

Carrie, thanks.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

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GREENE: OK. A new federal court filing has these detailed accounts from migrant children and their families about the conditions they experienced recently in federal detention.

KING: And these accounts are pretty troubling. People say they slept on cold concrete floors, that facility lights were left on all night so they couldn't sleep, the bathrooms were dirty, it was hard to find running water. These stories were collected by volunteer lawyers and interpreters who interviewed more than 200 immigrants in holding facilities and detention centers. Now, advocates say the federal government is not complying with a court decision that outlines acceptable detention conditions for migrant children.

GREENE: All right, Alex Hall from member station KQED has been covering this.

Hi there, Alex.

ALEX HALL, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So can you explain exactly what this court filing is? Why are we getting these details now?

HALL: Yeah. So the filing is important because it comes after a long - it's the latest filing in a long settlement. It sets standards for how migrant kids should be treated when they're in these detention facilities. This filing in particular includes hundreds of, like you said, detailed, very vivid statements from kids and parents explaining what they've experienced and what they've witnessed while they're being held in detention facilities.

You know, some of the kids describe being denied water or sometimes only being given food that smelled bad or was frozen. One boy in particular talked about how he drank the water at a detention facility, and it needs his stomach feel funny.

GREENE: Wow.

HALL: There was another woman who said she and her children were wearing wet clothing when they were detained because they had just crossed a river. And then they stayed in their wet clothes in a room where the AC was turned up high for two days without showering or changing their clothes.

GREENE: They never changed their clothes, my God.

HALL: Right.

GREENE: Well, I know you've been reporting on one family that experienced these facilities firsthand. Who are they? How'd did you meet them?

HALL: Yeah. So I met Elisabet (ph) and her husband and their three small children, ages 1, 5 and 9, the day that they were requesting asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. This is the Calexico port of entry, a couple hours east of San Diego. And they asked that I not use their last name because they're currently fleeing violence from criminal groups in Mexico that they think could still find them where they are at now. Here's part of an interview that I had with Elisabet.

ELISABET: (Speaking Spanish).

GREENE: OK. So what's she saying there? What is she saying about this family and what they experienced?

HALL: So Elisabet was held by Customs and Border Protection for six days total. And the conditions that she described to me are very similar to what you read in these court filings. She says it was freezing, there were bugs in the mats on the floor where they slept. She really pointed to how there wasn't enough food for her kids, and she said that they were losing weight. Her 1-year-old son was only being given formula, and he needed solid food. So she asked an officer for more food. And he responded - she responded, this isn't a seven-star hotel. What do you want, dead kids or skinny kids?

GREENE: My goodness. All right, Alex Hall from member station KQED.

Thanks for that reporting. It's important, and we appreciate it.

HALL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.