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Week In Politics: Election Interference and President Trump's Relationship With The Press

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's August in Washington, which means the weather is hot and muggy. And many of the city's residents have fled, including the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. President Trump is on vacation at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. But earlier this week, he was on the road campaigning for congressional candidates and touting his administration's successes, like he did at this rally in Tampa.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But everyone that greets me says, hello, Mr. President. Congratulations on what you've done for the economy. It's the talk of the world.

(CHEERING)

CHANG: Then in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., he continued to downplay the threat from Russia.

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TRUMP: Now, we're being hindered by the Russian hoax. It's a hoax, OK?

CHANG: He said these words even though just a few hours earlier, his intelligence team stood at the podium in the White House briefing room and warned that Russia continues to interfere in our elections. Here's FBI Director Christopher Wray.

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CHRISTOPHER WRAY: But it's important to understand this is not just an election cycle threat. Our adversaries are trying to undermine our country on a persistent and regular basis whether it's election season or not.

CHANG: And here's Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen chiming in.

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KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs.

CHANG: OK, this disconnect between what the president has been saying publicly about the threat from Russia and what the intelligence community has been saying is where we are going to begin our Week in Politics segment. I'm joined by two people who are not on vacation, Susan Glasser of The New Yorker and Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post, where she writes The Right Turn blog. Welcome to both of you.

JENNIFER RUBIN: Nice to be here.

SUSAN GLASSER: Thank you.

CHANG: All right, so there's been a continual disconnect between national security officials and the president. But does what we just heard right now feel any different to you? I mean to have all the top national security officials up there in agreement with each other but not with the president. Susan, let's start with you.

GLASSER: Well, I have to say disconnect is an awfully polite word for what's going on here - isn't it? - in some ways. You know, they are singing from a different page than Donald Trump. That's been true for the entire year and a half of Trump's administration. You know, I as a Russia wonk have heard this over and over again. Well, don't pay attention to the president's words. Pay attention to our policy.

Then came Helsinki and his meeting - his extraordinary and really unprecedented meeting with Vladimir Putin in which essentially he chucked out his administration's policy. You heard the FBI director there talking about Russia as an adversary. Donald Trump doesn't think Russia's an adversary. And I just - I felt that yesterday they were trying to clean up from that Helsinki summit, in fact have been engaged in a weeks-long effort of cleanup duty from the president's meeting. And it really - the rally last night suggested that it's failed.

CHANG: What do you think, Jennifer? Were they in cleanup mode? Is that what was happening yesterday?

RUBIN: Absolutely. I think you saw that also with the testimony of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he comes up to the Hill. And he kind of dances around the fact that he really doesn't even know what was discussed between Vladimir Putin and the president, which in and of itself should be alarming. He then explains what the policy of the United States is, says, don't worry about what the tweets are; don't worry about the statements. When he's pressed by Senator Menendez, he says, oh, yes, of course what the president says is policy. And that in a nutshell is the problem. What the president says is policy. His advisers can say whatever they want, but the president speaks for the country. And unless he's going to adopt these policies...

CHANG: I want you to...

RUBIN: ...We're in trouble.

CHANG: I want you to flesh that out a little more. What - how do you divine policy when you have two divergent attitudes towards this threat from Russia? What is dictating national security policy right now? I mean, is it the intel community, or is it the president? Jennifer.

RUBIN: We have both and neither, which is the problem. In a normal administration, the president first of all speaks. They have a unified message. All administrations have battles between Defense and State, between various constituent groups, but you usually don't have one with the president on one side and everybody else on the other. And that's what makes this so extraordinary and so confusing for our allies, for our adversaries so that our own people don't feel like they're in the loop.

CHANG: Susan.

GLASSER: Well, I think there's two important points I'd make about that. First of all, to Vladimir Putin, he's not confused. In his view - he has a very authoritarian view of the world. He also has a very cynical view of the power of anyone else in our system aside from the president himself. And so even going all the way back, when he would hear criticism from Colin Powell, from American ambassadors - his policy in Chechnya, his human rights abuses - he would say, well, I haven't heard that from my friend George, George W. Bush. And he always has believed that the word of the president trumps that of insignificant apparatchiks whose job it is to fall in line. And, you know, so I think that's important.

CHANG: I want to get to another issue where we've been hearing some contradictory statements. Another theme at Trump's rallies this week was calling the press fake news or the enemy of the people. Here's what the president said about the media in Wilkes-Barre.

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TRUMP: They can make anything bad because they are the fake, fake disgusting news.

CHANG: OK, earlier in the day his daughter Ivanka, when asked if the press was the enemy of the people, she said no. Yesterday afternoon, this issue boiled over in the White House briefing room where CNN's Jim Acosta asked White House press secretary Sarah Sanders to say the press is not the enemy of the people. She avoided answering the question.

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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The media has attacked me personally on a number of occasions, including your own network, said I should be harassed as a life sentence, that I should be choked. When I was hosted by the Correspondents' Association, which almost all of you are members of, you brought a comedian up to attack my appearance and call me a traitor to my own gender.

CHANG: Susan, should it even matter whether the president's press secretary personally thinks the media's the enemy of the people?

GLASSER: Yes.

CHANG: Is that even relevant?

GLASSER: Absolutely.

CHANG: Right.

GLASSER: Absolutely. I found it to be, as a journalist for my entire career, devastating actually to hear Sarah Sanders over and over again yesterday asked to reject this notion that the press is the enemy of the people and refusing to do so because she's been personally insulted. You know, a robust, free, critical discourse is not about whether they like you at the White House Correspondents' Association or not. It's a fundamental tenet of our constitutional system. And I think it's one of the areas in which the Trump administration has really shown a clear-cut disdain for the norms of American government as any previous administration, Democratic or Republican, has agreed to. I think it's - should still be shocking to people even if it's not surprising.

CHANG: But, Jennifer, does Sarah Sanders have some legitimate complaints? I mean, has the press been especially hard on her personally?

RUBIN: I don't think so. She has gotten up there day in and day out and lied to our faces. She says black is white and white is black. This is not a normal press secretary who will put the best spin possible on the existing facts. This is someone who lies. And as a result, there has to be a point at which she is held accountable. What I find so interesting is the Trump people now consider themselves the same as America. If someone is mean to her, that makes them an enemy of the people. Arguably, that just makes an adversary of Sarah Huckabee Sanders. But in her mind, she is the people, and that's a totalitarian mindset.

CHANG: OK, that's Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post and Susan Glasser of The New Yorker. Thank you both so much.

GLASSER: Thank you.

RUBIN: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.