Trump’s Putin fallout: Inside the White House’s tumultuous week of walk backs

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Trump’s contradictory, back-and-forth comments on Russian election interference

Over the course of three days, President Trump commented on Russian election interference in ways that repeatedly contradicted his own intelligence officials.

Executive time began early on Thursday, just after sunrise.

Feeling exasperated and feisty as he awoke in the White House residence, President Trump fired off his grievances on Twitter about how the media had been covering his Helsinki summit. And, refusing to be cowed, Trump gave national security adviser John Bolton an order: to schedule a second summit and officially invite Putin to visit Washington.

The two presidents had already discussed the likelihood of a follow-up meeting, but at Trump’s direction Thursday morning, Bolton sprang into action to make it official, making an overture to the Kremlin. By midafternoon the White House announced that planning was underway for a fall summit in Washington.

The bulletin landed midway through a remarkably candid interview of Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats at the Aspen Security Forum that underscored the disconnect and tension on Russia policy between Trump and his administration. The intelligence chief criticized Trump’s performance during the Helsinki summit and — taking a deep breath and then offering a prolonged grimace-laugh — made clear that he had no advance knowledge of the follow-up meeting with Putin.

“That’s going to be special,” Coats said wryly, as the crowd in Aspen, Colo., rallied around him in sympathy for his being left in the dark.

For Trump and his White House, the days that followed the Helsinki summit amounted to an unofficial Walk Back Week — a daily scramble of corrections and clarifications from the West Wing. Each announcement, intended to blunt the global fallout from the president’s Russophilic performance in Helsinki, was followed by another mishap that fueled more consternation.


White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller attend a Cabinet meeting at the White House on July 18, 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

 Just as Trump prepared to decamp to his New Jersey golf course for the weekend and turn the page on a full week of Russia controversies, more bad news arrived Friday. Reports surfaced, first in the New York Times, that the FBI had a fall 2016 recording of Trump and his then-personal attorney, Michael Cohen, discussing payments to silence a former Playboy centerfold who alleged that she had an extramarital affair with Trump.

This portrait of a tumultuous week in the White House amid growing concerns over Trump’s approach to Russia comes from interviews with a dozen administration officials and Trump confidants, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely recount private conversations.

The trouble started Monday in Helsinki, though the magnitude did not set in for Trump for several hours. Delighted with his own performance, he stepped offstage after his freewheeling, 46-minute news conference alongside Putin — in which he seemed to accept Putin’s denial of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election campaign over the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies. The president felt he had shown strength, an impression buoyed by two friendly interviews he did with Fox News Channel personalities before boarding Air Force One to return home from the Nordic capital.

But roughly an hour into the flight, Trump’s mood darkened and grim reality set in as he consumed almost universally negative cable news coverage and aides began reviewing pages upon pages of printed-out statements from fellow Republicans lambasting the president. Trump called his former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, to discuss the trip and his news conference, and he also huddled with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in his cabin at the front of the plane to strategize.

Much of the initial scrutiny focused on Trump’s taking the side of Putin over his own intelligence community, so Trump and his aides first settled on the president’s sending a tweet that reiterated, “I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people.”


President Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin address a joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki on July 16, 2018. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

But that did not silence the uproar, and aides knew they had a big problem.

Trump himself was flummoxed. He waxed on about his impressions of Putin up close — strong, smart and cunning, in Trump’s assessment — and told associates that he viewed the Russian as a formidable adversary with whom he relishes interactions. He also was furious with the negative media coverage of a summit that he felt had been a clear success. And he complained to some about what he viewed as an undercovered angle of the election controversy: That the Democratic National Committee allowed its server to be hacked.

Trump further grumbled about the tough question he was asked by Jonathan Lemire, an Associated Press correspondent, wondering why that reporter had been called on rather than someone who might have asked an easier question.

Lemire asked whether Trump would denounce Russia’s election interference to Putin’s face, “with the whole world watching,” and the president demurred. Aides tried to explain to Trump that nearly any journalist would have asked a similarly pointed question in that moment.

But, as one White House official said, “If you don’t like the answer, you don’t like the question.”

The president still was not satisfied. Later in the week, he told CNBC, “I had some of these fools from the media saying, ‘Why didn’t you stand there, look him in the face, walk over to him, and start shouting at him?’ I said, ‘Are these people crazy? I want to make a deal.’ ”

On Tuesday morning, Trump told friends he did not understand what the big fuss was about. But his advisers understood. A coterie of them — including Vice President Pence, chief of staff John F. Kelly, counselor Kellyanne Conway, deputy chief of staff for communications Bill Shine, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, Bolton and Sanders — met with Trump to draft a statement that he would deliver that afternoon seeking to clarify his Helsinki remarks.

Shine, new to his job, also wanted to change the narrative, and after a career as a Fox News executive, he focused on the imagery — eager for Trump to supplant the image of himself standing admiringly next to Putin with fresh content for cable news.

Trump personally reviewed first the transcript and then the video of his news conference and came up with the “double-negative” explanation that he ultimately provided — that when he said in Helsinki he saw no reason that the election hackers “would” be Russian, he had meant to say “wouldn’t.”

Initially, the president worried that his statement would be viewed as backing down or not toughing out the criticism — the sort of concessions he is loath to make. But senior advisers reassured him that if he had really meant to say that he didn’t see why Russian wouldn’t be to blame, he would be simply offering a clarification, not caving.

Clouding Trump’s judgment all week has been his apparent inability to distinguish between Russian “meddling,” of which there is overwhelming evidence, and Russian “collusion” with the Trump campaign, which special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is still investigating, and which the president insists did not happen.

“The biggest problem is that he believes meddling equals collusion,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) “Nobody else believes that. I think he’s very sensitive about going there because he thinks it undercuts his legitimacy.”

By midweek Wednesday, some in Trump’s orbit believed he would emerge relatively unscathed.

“This president has weathered countless storms, and I think his political obituary has been written countless times and has to be rewritten,” former White House press secretary Sean Spicer said. “He has broken the mold when it comes to . . . what would have been a showstopper for any other politician.”

But there were showstoppers still to come. At Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting focused on the economy, as staffers were ushering reporters out of the room, ABC News’ Cecilia Vega asked Trump whether he still believed the Russians were targeting the United States.

Amid the chaos, Trump looked at Vega and uttered one word: “No.”

Sanders and other aides in the Cabinet Room did not consider the president’s comment an answer to Vega’s question. But news organizations, including The Washington Post, alerted the news that Trump had yet again undermined his intelligence officials, who have been warning about active Russian threats. And the White House had a fresh crisis on its hands.

Sanders scrambled to reach the president, who had already departed for Joint Base Andrews to greet the family of a Secret Service agent whose remains were being returned from Scotland. The agent died after suffering a stroke in Scotland while there as part of the president’s support team. The press secretary delayed her afternoon briefing until after she had conferred with Trump, and relayed the president’s response.

“I talked to the president,” Sanders told reporters. “He wasn’t answering that question. He was saying, no, he’s not taking questions.”

But there was another problem for the administration. Sanders was questioned about Putin’s proposal that Mueller visit Moscow to interrogate Russian hacking suspects in exchange for Russians’ interrogating U.S. officials, including former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. Trump had called Putin’s proposal an “interesting idea,” and Sanders did not rule it out — even though the State Department had dismissed it as “absurd.”

“The president will work with his team and we’ll let you know if there’s an announcement on that front,” said Sanders, who was careful not to declare policy from the lectern before first discussing the matter with Trump.

The episode revealed a naivete on the part of the president. White House aides fretted that Trump did not recognize the massive diplomatic and security implications of turning Americans over to an autocratic regime that jails and kills dissidents. State Department and National Security Council officials, and others, realized there would need to be another cleanup.

In a meeting Thursday morning, Trump’s national security team saw that the president was mostly focused on the sending-Mueller-to-Moscow part of the proposal — and not on a quid pro quo interrogation of a former U.S. ambassador. They focused him on the full scope of Putin’s suggestion, restating just why it was so problematic.

Later, after discussing the matter with Trump, Sanders issued the president’s final verdict, saying he disagreed with Putin’s proposal, which she said had been “made in sincerity.”

Meanwhile, in a senior staff meeting, Conway pointed out to the team that Coats would be sitting down for an interview with NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell before a gathering of thought leaders and media elite in Aspen. Conway warned her colleagues that Coats could generate headlines — and she was prescient.

The White House had little visibility into what Coats might say. The intelligence director’s team had turned down at least one offer from a senior White House official to help prepare him for the long-scheduled interview, pointing out that he had known Mitchell for years and was comfortable talking with her.

Coats was extraordinarily candid in the interview, at times questioning Trump’s judgment — such as the president’s decision to meet with Putin for two hours without any aides present beyond interpreters — and revealing the rift between the president and the intelligence community. The spectacle was all the more surprising considering that Coats is nicknamed “Marcel Marceau,” after the French mime, in national security circles because the director so rarely opines in the way he did with Mitchell.

Coats’s comments were received poorly inside the West Wing, where Trump advisers saw him as playing to his elite audience in Aspen at the expense of the president. One senior White House official said, “Coats has gone rogue,” and recalled another colleague’s suggesting, “He may as well just have said he was DNI for Obama.”

A U.S. official pushed back on the criticism, saying it is “not in Coats’s DNA” to seek the spotlight and that he would never try to embarrass the president.

But the incongruous split-screen was striking. As the White House was brought low, struggling to emerge from a seemingly endless week of walk backs from controversy, the crowd in Aspen seemed to be enjoying a high-altitude party.

When Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein gave remarks in Aspen about deterring foreign interference in U.S. politics, the sometimes target of Trump’s ire was given a hero’s welcome.

Several hundred people who were crammed into a roasting tent jumped to their feet when Rosenstein entered, and many stayed after his speech, hoping for a coveted souvenir: A selfie with the prosecutor overseeing the Mueller probe.

Shane Harris in Aspen, Colo., and John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.

Michael Cohen Taped Conversation With Trump About Buying Rights to Playmate’s Story

Conversation occurred in September 2016, after American Media Inc. had purchased Karen McDougal’s story that she had affair with Trump

President Donald Trump's ex-lawyer Michael Cohen leaving federal court in April.
President Donald Trump’s ex-lawyer Michael Cohen leaving federal court in April. PHOTO: EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Michael Cohen taped a face-to-face conversation with Donald Trump in which the two men discussed buying the rights to a former Playboy Playmate’s story that she had an affair with Mr. Trump more than a decade ago, according to people familiar with the matter.

The conversation between the then-GOP presidential nominee and his longtime personal lawyer took place in September 2016, the people said. That was two months before the election and a month after American Media Inc., the publisher of the National Enquirer, bought the life rights to Karen McDougal’s story of the extramarital affair, which she has said began in 2006 and lasted nearly a year. Representatives of Mr. Trump have denied the affair took place.

In the conversation, Mr. Cohen told Mr. Trump about the American Media deal and suggested that they consider acquiring the rights to Ms. McDougal’s story themselves, the people with knowledge of the matter said. Mr. Trump, appearing open to the suggestion, asked how to proceed and whether he should write a check or pay in another manner, they said.

It isn’t clear why Messrs. Cohen and Trump didn’t ultimately acquire the rights from American Media. A company spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Trump ignored shouted questions about the recording as he departed Washington Friday for New Jersey, where he is spending the weekend at his golf resort.

The recording of the conversation, reported earlier Friday by The New York Times, was less than two minutes long and cut off before the conversation ended, the people said. There were some interruptions during the conversation between Messrs. Trump and Cohen, including someone entering the room to bring the candidate a Diet Coke he appeared to have requested, one of the people said.

Representatives for Mr. Trump had previously denied any knowledge of American Media’s contract with Ms. McDougal.

American Media declined to publish a story about the alleged affair, allowing Mr. Trump to avoid possible bad press after he locked up the Republican presidential nomination.

The recording was among the materials seized by federal investigators in an April 9 raid of Mr. Cohen’s home, office and hotel room, a person familiar with the matter said, as part of a probe into Mr. Cohen’s personal business dealings and efforts he made to suppress damaging information about Mr. Trump during the presidential campaign.

Rudy Giuliani, a lawyer for Mr. Trump, called the recording “entirely exculpatory.”

“It helps us, rather than hurts us,” Mr. Giuliani said, adding that the recording “bears out the fact” that Mr. Trump wasn’t aware of the American Media payment to Ms. McDougal before Mr. Cohen informed him about it. Mr. Giuliani said it also showed Mr. Trump wanted any such transaction to be “done in a regular way that was transparent.”

“You just don’t do any form of an illegal tax or campaign-finance violation by check,” he said, adding that the payment to American Media for the rights to Ms. McDougal’s story ultimately didn’t take place.

Carol Heller, a lawyer for Ms. McDougal, said, “We are learning of this as it unfolds, at the exact same time as everyone else.”

“When the recording is heard, it will not hurt Mr. Cohen,” said Lanny Davis, a lawyer for Mr. Cohen. “Any attempt at spin can not change what is on the tape.”

Federal investigators are examining whether Mr. Cohen coordinated with American Media to buy and then bury Ms. McDougal’s story in violation of campaign-finance laws, people familiar with the matter said. The searches of his property sought information about American Media’s payment to Ms. McDougal, as well as about a $130,000 payment Mr. Cohen made to silence former adult-movie star Stephanie Clifford, The Wall Street Journal previously reported, citing people familiar with the matter.

The materials seized in the April raid were subject to a weekslong review, led by a former federal judge, for potential attorney-client privilege. It isn’t clear whether the former judge ordered the recording of Messrs. Trump and Cohen to be released to prosecutors in the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office, which is leading the probe. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment.

The Journal previously reported that Mr. Cohen was in communication with American Media Chief Executive David Pecker and the company’s chief content officer, Dylan Howard, during the course of their negotiations with Ms. McDougal, citing a person familiar with the matter. Mr. Pecker has said he is a friend of both Messrs. Cohen and Trump. A spokesman for the company told the Journal that American Media initially called Mr. Cohen for comment on Ms. McDougal’s story.

Ms. McDougal flew to Los Angeles in June 2016 and was interviewed by an American Media executive about details of her alleged relationship with Mr. Trump, according to a lawsuit she filed against the company in March, seeking to free herself from the American Media contract, which she alleged was meant to muzzle her.

The publisher declined at the time to buy her story but showed renewed interest the next month, after Mr. Trump won the GOP nomination for president and after Ms. McDougal had begun talking to investigative journalists at ABC News, Ms. McDougal’s lawsuit said.

By early August, American Media had agreed to pay Ms. McDougal $150,000 for life rights to her story. When the Journal revealed the existence of the contract in November 2016, an American Media spokesman said the company principally engaged Ms. McDougal to model for magazine covers and write fitness columns.

That same month of the election, Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks, when asked about the agreement with Ms. McDougal, told the Journal: “We have no knowledge of any of this.”

A spokesman for Ms. McDougal’s lawyer in the deal, Keith Davidson, declined to comment.

Write to Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com, Michael Rothfeld at michael.rothfeld@wsj.com and Joe Palazzolo at joe.palazzolo@wsj.com

COURTESY: WSJ

Mnuchin Says He ‘Wouldn’t Minimize’ Chance of Tariffs on All Chinese Imports

Treasury secretary, attending a meeting among G-20 finance ministers and central bankers in Latin America, adds, ‘if Europe believes in free trade, we’re ready to sign a free-trade agreement’

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin meets in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Friday with Brazilian Minister of Finance Eduardo Guardia.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin meets in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Friday with Brazilian Minister of Finance Eduardo Guardia. PHOTO:FERNANDO BIZERRA/EPA-EFE/REX/SHU/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK

BUENOS AIRES—U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he “wouldn’t minimize” the possibility that the U.S. will impose tariffs on all $500 billion worth of goods that the U.S. imports from China, amplifying a threat President Donald Trump made in a television interview earlier in the week.

Mr. Mnuchin was speaking ahead of a meeting among G-20 finance ministers and central bankers here.

Mr. Mnuchin stressed that the administration’s goal is to achieve a “more balanced” trade relationship with China, by getting the Asian country to open its economy and permitting U.S. exports there to increase.

The Treasury secretary pointed out several sectors where U.S. sales to China could rise, including energy, agricultural products and technology.

“China has a large, growing population that will consume more products” and that likes American products, he said, while cautioning that U.S. companies shouldn’t be pressured to share their technology.

Mr. Mnuchin also talked about the administration’s willingness to sign trade agreements with the European Union and Japan, always with the objective of opening up markets and permitting what he called “real” free trade.

“If Europe believes in free trade, we’re ready to sign a free-trade agreement,” he said, adding that any agreement would have to eliminate tariffs, along with other barriers and subsidies. “It has to be all three issues,” he said.

During the meeting with reporters Saturday, the Treasury secretary played down comments Mr. Trump made earlier in the week about the Federal Reserve and currency markets. Mr. Trump said in a tweet and in a television interview he wasn’t happy that the Fed is raising short-term interest rates, which he said is undermining administration efforts to rev up U.S. economic growth. It was unusual because the White House usually refrains from commenting on monetary policy.

Mr. Mnuchin said he and the president still “fully” supported Fed independence. He also said the U.S. isn’t trying to interfere in foreign-exchange markets after Mr. Trump accused China and the European Union of manipulating their currencies to make their economies more competitive.

The president has threatened tariffs on $500 billion in Chinese imports before. On July 6 on Air Force One, the president told reporters tariffs could eventually hit $550 billion in imports from China.

When asked during Friday’s CNBC interview, “Will you ever get to 500, though?” Mr. Trump responded that he is “ready to go to 500,” referring to the approximate dollar value of Chinese goods exported to the U.S. last year.

“I’m doing this to do the right thing for our country. We have been ripped off by China for a long time,” he said.

Earlier this month, the U.S. imposed levies on $34 billion of Chinese exports of machinery, components and electronics. Also scheduled are tariffs on $16 billion of Chinese electronics and other components.

The U.S. has identified a further $200 billion in Chinese goods the U.S. may target for tariffs, for a total of $250 billion. Anything further, Mr. Trump has said, depends on the extent to which China retaliates.

Write to Jeffrey T. Lewis at jeffrey.lewis@wsj.com

‘I don’t know what happened in that meeting’: Director of National Intelligence Coats says Trump-Putin summit details remain unknown

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Watch Coats learn that Putin is invited to visit the White House

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats reacted to breaking news that Russian President Vladimir Putin could be visiting the White House in the fall. 

Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats on Thursday acknowledged that he did not know what took place in President Trump’s one-on-one meeting in Helsinki with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, even as the White House announced plans to invite the Russian leader to Washington for a second meeting in the fall.

“Well, you’re right. I don’t know what happened in that meeting,” Coats told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell in an interview at the Aspen Security Forum. He said that while it was Trump’s prerogative to decide how to conduct the meeting, he would have advised the president otherwise.

“If he had asked me how that ought to be conducted, I would have suggested a different way,” Coats said. “But that’s not my role; that’s not my job. So, it is what it is.”

Coats, who on Monday issued a statement standing by the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, also said that he would have liked to have seen Trump strike a different tone in his extraordinary 46-minute news conference with Putin.

“Obviously, I wish that he’d made a different statement,” Coats said when asked about Trump’s remarks on Monday defending Putin. “But I think that now that has been clarified, based on his late reactions to this, and so I don’t think I want to go any further than that.”

The statement from Coats came as the White House announced that Trump had asked National Security Adviser John Bolton to invite Putin to Washington in the fall. Trump earlier Thursday had said in a tweet that he looks forward to a second meeting with the Russian president, without giving any further details..

 1:30
Coats: ‘I don’t know what happened’ in Trump-Putin private meeting

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats spoke on July 19 about the one-on-one meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

“In Helsinki, @POTUS agreed to ongoing working level dialogue between the two security council staffs,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a tweet Thursday afternoon. “President Trump asked @Ambjohnbolton to invite President Putin to Washington in the fall and those discussions are already underway.”

Trump told law­makers this week he and Putin had made “significant progress toward addressing” key issues. U.S. officials have offered few specifics on what was accomplished on those subjects beyond what Sanders on Wednesday called “the beginning of a dialogue with Russia.”

The president’s longest encounter with Putin, a two-hour-plus session, included no other officials or note-takers, just interpreters.

In a brief speech Thursday to Russian diplomats in Moscow, Putin said the Helsinki summit had led to “useful agreements.” Now, he said, both U.S. jobs and European and Middle Eastern security hang in the balance as Trump’s U.S. opponents try to block the path to improving relations between Moscow and Washington.

 0:32
Trump calls his foreign meetings ‘a tremendous success’

President Trump held a Cabinet meeting at the White House on July 18, and touted his “historic” visit to Europe as “a tremendous success.” 

“We will see how things go, as some forces in America are trying to belittle and disavow the results of the Helsinki meeting,” Putin said. “We see that there are forces in the United States ready to sacrifice Russian-American relations for their own domestic political ambitions.”

A day earlier, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, told reporters in Moscow “important verbal agreements” were reached at the Helsinki meeting.

That includes preservation of the New START and INF agreements, major bilateral arms-control treaties whose futures have been in question, Antonov said. He also relayed Putin had made “specific and interesting proposals to Washington” on how the two countries could cooperate on Syria.

In the United States, the focus in the days since the summit has been on Trump’s views on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the degree to which Russia remains a threat — as well as what was accomplished.

Earlier Thursday, Trump lashed out on Twitter about news media coverage of Monday’s summit, which has focused heavily on Trump’s refusal to publicly confront Putin about Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media,” Trump wrote. “I look forward to our second meeting so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed, including stopping terrorism, security for Israel, nuclear proliferation, cyber attacks, trade, Ukraine, Middle East peace, North Korea and more. There are many answers, some easy and some hard, to these problems . . . but they can ALL be solved!”

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media. I look forward to our second meeting so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed, including stopping terrorism, security for Israel, nuclear……..

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

….proliferation, cyber attacks, trade, Ukraine, Middle East peace, North Korea and more. There are many answers, some easy and some hard, to these problems…but they can ALL be solved!

Meanwhile, the fallout continued on Capitol Hill.

Senate Republicans blocked two attempts to pass resolutions backing the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, while insisting that the president cooperate with the Mueller investigation and take punitive steps against the Russian government for the threat it continues to pose.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) argued against voting on the first resolution, presented by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), saying that it was an unwarranted attempt to engage in diplomacy and that “Trump derangement syndrome has officially come to the Senate.”

Sanders shot back, arguing that his resolution simply sought to affirm the intelligence community’s determinations in the face of the president’s equivocation and protect the sanctity of the special counsel’s probe.

Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) also unsuccessfully attempted to secure a vote on a resolution throwing support behind the intelligence community’s determinations and the Justice Department for Mueller’s probe and calling on the president to fully implement the sanctions that Congress passed last year.

But Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) objected, dismissing the bipartisan effort as needlessly “symbolic.”

“Yes it’s symbolic. The symbolism is important. Our agencies of government need to know that we stand behind them. That’s what this is about,” a visibly frustrated Flake retorted on the floor. He promised to raise the resolution again and predicted that “ultimately it will pass.”

McConnell has already called on the chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations and Banking committees to hold a new round of hearings on sanctions and other matters related to Russian aggression.

On Thursday, the Republican leader scheduled a floor vote on only one of the many resolutions being offered: a measure from Democratic Sens. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Brian Schatz (Hawaii) expressing the sense of Congress that the United States should not make any current or former American diplomats, political appointees, troops or law enforcement officials available to Russian authorities for interviews.

On Monday, Putin raised the possibility of interviewing Russian officials indicted in Mueller’s probe in exchange for granting Russia the same access to similar American officials. In the days since, Putin has expressed a particular interest in interviewing former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.

None of the resolutions offered Thursday would be binding.

Schumer, meanwhile, expressed exasperation on the Senate floor that so little is known about what took place behind closed doors between Trump and Putin.

He called for bringing in Trump administration officials who were present at the summit, including the interpreter who accompanied Trump in the private meeting with Putin, “so we all know what happened.”

“Do we know if President Trump made commitments about the security of Israel or Syria of North Korea or any of the other issues the president said he discussed with Putin?” Schumer asked. “It is utterly amazing, utterly amazing, that no one knows what was said. This is a democracy. If our president makes agreements with one of our leading — if not our leading — adversary, his Cabinet has to know about it, and so do the American people.”

The prospect of calling Trump’s interpreter to testify generated some intense debate Thursday.

Flake advocated at least getting the interpreter’s notes.

“I mean, when the Russian ambassador is saying that important verbal agreements were reached, we don’t know what those are? I mean, how are we going to know what those are? The White House isn’t saying.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he thought it would not be appropriate to interview the interpreter.

“I think we’re moving to a precedent that unless some crime has been committed is unprecedented and just not appropriate,” he said. “I will stand with anybody in my challenging of what’s occurred around Russia. There’s nobody that’s been more concerned about that. . . . If someone can convince me otherwise, I’d be glad to reconsider.”

House Democrats introduced a package of measures Thursday dubbed “The Secure America from Russian Interference Act of 2018.” Though Democratic leaders called for bipartisan support of the wide-ranging legislation, that appeared unlikely.

While Trump asserted that only the media has panned his summit with Putin, some of the harshest criticism of his performance in a joint news conference with the Russian leader has come from fellow Republicans.

On Tuesday, Trump sought to tamp down criticism of his performance in Helsinki by affirming his support for the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia was behind the attack on the election.

Trump ignited another firestorm Wednesday by appearing to suggest Russia is no longer seeking to interfere in U.S. elections — prompting the White House to assert hours later his words were misconstrued.

In his remarks Thursday, Schumer blasted Trump for “all his walkbacks.”

“Frankly, any post hoc clarifications cannot substitute or repair the president’s failure to confront Putin face to face.”

Vice President Pence, meanwhile, defended the administration’s approach to Russia. During a speech in St. Louis, he cited a series of sanctions, expulsion of diplomats and other steps taken in retaliation for Russia’s interference and other actions.

“We’ve met Russian aggression with American strength and action,” Pence said.

Seung Min Kim, Karen DeYoung and Missy Ryan in Washington and Anton Troianovski and Natalia Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.

Trump Aides Did Damage Control on Air Force One After Putin Meeting

Trump told aides he wanted to come out with a new statement, and Bolton wrote up key points to make and passed them to White House aides

‘So many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki,’ Mr. Trump wrote in an early morning tweet Wednesday, referring to his Monday meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
‘So many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki,’ Mr. Trump wrote in an early morning tweet Wednesday, referring to his Monday meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. PHOTO: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Flying home Monday after the summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Donald Trump and his senior aides recognized that he had made a mistake that risked lasting damage and needed to be fixed quickly, people familiar with the matter said.

Playing on a loop on television was footage of the president standing next to Mr. Putin, casting doubt on the U.S. intelligence community’s finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and aligning himself with Moscow’s denial of any meddling.

Mr. Trump, aboard Air Force One, spoke to his staff about how best to correct what they knew was a miscue, and the discussions continued with staff meetings Tuesday morning in Washington. Aides considered various responses and passed them back and forth, culminating in Mr. Trump’s afternoon announcement in the Cabinet Room that he had misspoken, a person familiar with the matter said.

What he meant to say, he told reporters, was: “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia” that had intruded in the U.S. election and not what he actually said: “I don’t see any reason why it would be Russia.”

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

So many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki. Putin and I discussed many important subjects at our earlier meeting. We got along well which truly bothered many haters who wanted to see a boxing match. Big results will come!

The rare admission of error on Mr. Trump’s part came after bipartisan criticism of his remarks, which some of his closest allies have said could weaken his presidency and other Republicans feared would drive away voters in the November midterms.

It isn’t clear whether Mr. Trump’s statement will quell the backlash. The White House found itself under scrutiny again Wednesday when Mr. Trump, at a cabinet meeting, appeared to say that he didn’t believe Russia was trying to influence this year’s midterms.

After remarks to reporters at the White House later Wednesday, amid shouting as the press was being escorted out, Mr. Trump was asked whether he believes Russia is still targeting the U.S. He said: “Thank you very much. No.”

His own top security advisers have described Russia’s efforts this year as “ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.”

Later Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Mr. Trump wasn’t addressing the Russia question when he said “no.” Rather, he was saying “no” to answering further questions, Ms. Sanders said. But Mr. Trump did continue to answer questions.

Asked about criticism from Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer that the president was being insincere about his position on Russia, Mr. Trump responded that, “We’re doing very well—probably as well as anybody has ever done with Russia.”

The focus on what the president did, or didn’t say, has consumed much of the White House since Mr. Trump returned to Washington on Monday, and has delayed some of the briefings for administration officials on the Putin summit, according to people familiar with the scheduling.

Trump Diplomacy: When Old Allies Are Foes and Old Foes Are Allies

President Trump’s cordial meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin was in sharp contrast to his more combative meetings with NATO allies last week. Photo: Reuters

In an interview with CBS News on Tuesday, Mr. Trump was asked if he would hold Mr. Putin responsible for election meddling.

“Well, I would, because he’s in charge of the country,” Mr. Trump said. “Just like I consider myself to be responsible for things that happen in this country.”

At the Defense Department, at least three aides who would be part of any policy change to come out of the private one-on-one meeting between Messrs. Trump and Putin said Tuesday they hadn’t been briefed on the two hours the two leaders spent alone.

On the flight home from Helsinki, with Mr. Trump telling aides he wanted to come out with a new statement, John Bolton, his national security adviser, wrote up a list of points that needed to be made quickly and passed them to White House aides, a person familiar with the matter said.

Mr. Bolton noted that president should make clear that he had always backed the U.S. intelligence community, that Russian or any foreign meddling wouldn’t be tolerated, that interference in U.S. elections wouldn’t happen in the midterm elections and that there hadn’t been any collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign in the 2016 election.

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

While the NATO meeting in Brussels was an acknowledged triumph, with billions of dollars more being put up by member countries at a faster pace, the meeting with Russia may prove to be, in the long run, an even greater success. Many positive things will come out of that meeting..

Bill Shine, the newly minted deputy chief of staff for communications and a former Fox News executive, voiced concern that the White House needed to provide a new TV image so that networks would stop broadcasting images of Mr. Trump’s news conference in Helsinki, a person familiar with the matter said.

Mr. Trump would heed that advice, making a televised statement from the Cabinet Room during a meeting with lawmakers that was originally supposed to be closed to the press. Mr. Shine didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, suggested that the president was being treated unfairly by the media. She reminded him that former President Barack Obama should have done more to expose and punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 elections, a White House official said.

She urged him to talk about the administration’s record on Russia, including sanctions and the dozens of Russian national officials who were expelled this year.

Mr. Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence emphasized the importance of reassuring the intelligence community.

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

Some people HATE the fact that I got along well with President Putin of Russia. They would rather go to war than see this. It’s called Trump Derangement Syndrome!

One concern among Trump allies was that Mr. Trump’s comments in Helsinki, in which he put the intelligence community’s assertion of Russian meddling on a par with Mr. Putin’s denials, could alienate Republican voters and the broader electorate.

In the statement, Mr. Trump said he accepted the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the election, adding “I have full faith and support for America’s great intelligence agencies.”

Write to Peter Nicholas at peter.nicholas@wsj.com and Michael C. Bender at Mike.Bender@wsj.com

COURTESY: WSJ

Europe Warns of Retaliation Over U.S. Auto Tariffs

EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström cautions Washington against unilateral measures that threaten global free-trade

Levies on imports of autos and car-parts would be a “disastrous” and illegal move to gain leverage in trade negotiations, said Cecilia Malmström.
Levies on imports of autos and car-parts would be a “disastrous” and illegal move to gain leverage in trade negotiations, said Cecilia Malmström. PHOTO: WIKTOR DABKOWSKI/ZUMA PRESS

BRUSSELS—The European Union said Thursday it would retaliate if President Donald Trump imposes tariffs on car exports to the U.S., cautioning Washington against unilateral measures that threaten global free-trade.

The threat comes less than a week before a planned White House visit by the EU’s top executive, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Both sides have touted the visit as a chance to discuss the escalating trade battle and other issues.

Prospects for fruitful negotiations could now be clouded following Mr. Trump’s angry reaction to a separate EU ruling Wednesday, fining Google parent Alphabet Inc. $5 billion for abusing the market dominance of its Android mobile operating system.

“I told you so!” Mr. Trump tweeted. “The European Union just slapped a Five Billion Dollar fine on one of our great companies, Google. They truly have taken advantage of the U.S., but not for long!”

Mr. Trump has said that tariffs on car imports would respond to EU trade practices. On Wednesday he threatened “tremendous retribution” against the EU, specifically with auto duties. Last month he said EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who levied the fine on Google Wednesday, “really hates the U.S.,” according to people who heard the comment. Ms. Vestager, whom Mr. Trump called the EU’s “tax lady,” rejected Mr. Trump’s accusation.

“I very much like the U.S.,” she said Wednesday.

The EU exports roughly $60 billion annually in autos and car-parts to the U.S. Imposing tariffs on that would be a “disastrous” and illegal move to gain leverage in trade negotiations, said EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, who will accompany Mr. Juncker to the White House on Wednesday.

Administration officials have proposed a bilateral trade deal cutting tariffs on only cars but the EU cannot agree to that under World Trade Organization rules, Ms. Malmstrom said. Mr. Trump has repeatedly complained about the 28-member bloc’s 10% car tariffs, which is quadruple the U.S. rate but lower than the 25% U.S. tariff on light trucks.

Ms. Malmstrom said the EU is ready to discuss a broader trade agreement but was also girding to go tit-for-tat with the president.

“If the U.S. would impose these car tariffs, that would be very unfortunate,” Ms. Malmstrom told a conference. “We are preparing, together with our member states, a list of rebalancing measures.”

It remains unclear what products the EU would target, in part because officials in Brussels don’t know yet precisely what measures the U.S. would take.

European leaders had hoped Mr. Juncker might succeed with Mr. Trump where other European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, had failed.

Mr. Trump’s “America First” policies are diametrically opposed to the internationalist stance of Mr. Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg whom the president has called a “brutal killer” in trade.

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How Will Allies Respond to Trump’s Tariffs?

Will President Donald Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum for the EU and others cause U.S. allies to retaliate? The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald F. Seib explains. Photo: Getty

The EU will convey its concerns to Mr. Trump over potential car duties, stressing European manufacturer’s investments in the U.S., the importance of international supply chains and risks to millions of jobs for both parties in an escalating trade war.

“A car can be bought in Seattle, assembled in Detroit, having been designed by a German, built with a Mexican chassis and Canadian engine parts—this is how trade is win-win,” Ms. Malmstrom said.

Similar arguments—including at the Group of Seven summit in Canada last month—have not swayed Mr. Trump.

The weakening trans-Atlantic alliance has fueled EU efforts to strike free-trade agreements with other partners and engage China in an effort to revamp global trade rules. Meanwhile, the bloc has responded to Mr. Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs with levies on €2.8 billion worth of American exports, a WTO challenge and trade-protection measures to safeguard European manufacturers.

Still, EU officials have repeatedly said that none of its relationships measure up to its partnership with the U.S. The two built the WTO in the 1990s and until Mr. Trump took office jointly championed global free trade.

“We’re not prepared to walk away from the order we have built together,” said Ms. Malmstrom. “We know from the past that these meetings can be a bit unpredictable, but we come there with the best intentions as friends and allies.”

Corrections & Amplifications 
Cecilia Malmström was at a trade event organized by the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the think tank. (July 19, 2018)

Write to Emre Peker at emre.peker@wsj.com

COURTESY: WSJ

Nigeria: No return to normal life for freed girls of Dapchi

Five months ago, Boko Haram kidnapped more than 100 schoolgirls. Four weeks later, the terrorists let the girls go. But for many of them, a self-determined and normal life seems out of reach. A report by Adrian Kriesch.

    
Two young girls, sisters Aisha and Falmata, wearing a green and red hijab respectively, sit by a wall

Aisha and her sister Falmata sit in front of their family’s house in Dapchi. 15-year-old Falmata is wearing a red hijab. She says she would like to become a lawyer, to help people in trouble. Her 14-year-old sister, clad in a green hijab, smiles. She hopes to become a doctor.

Just just two teenagers dreaming about the future, a normal occurrence anywhere in the world, you might think. Except that, contrary to other teenagers around the world, they are not at school. Why? Aisha seems embarrassed by the question. “I don’t know. Our parents told us to wait for a while,” she says.

‘Ready for marriage’

Just as we turn to their mother to ask about this, their father Zanna Zakaria arrives home from Friday prayers at the mosque. Everybody falls silent. Zakaria has two wives and six children. School is out the question now, he says. He has already arranged to marry both daughters off. “Look at them, they are mature enough to move into the homes of their husbands,” the father says. The girls and their mother lower their eyes and stare at the ground.. “They can’t stay here, it’s against our tradition. They will marry and then their husbands will decide if they can go back to school. It’s out of my hands now,” Zakaria tells DW.

A few months ago, Falmata and Aisha were taken hostage by Boko Haram. In February, the Islamist terrorist group attacked their boarding school and took away more than 100 schoolgirls. They were freed a month later, after negotiations with the government. The girls do not want to talk about their time as hostages. None of the kidnapped pupils have so far received any psychological assistance to help to them deal with their experience.

A man sits by a wall. His wife is in the background.Zanna Zakaria wants to marry off his young daughters

Few girls back in school

Another girl, Falmatu, is one of the few who are willing to talk about what happened. She was among the 900 pupils attending the boarding school when it was attacked. Classes have started again, but only a third of the kidnapped girls have returned. Sitting in front of one of the dilapidated classrooms of the boarding school in her pink uniform, Falmatu tells her classmates about the most horrific month of her life: The one she spent as a hostage of Boko Haram.

They were constantly on the move, crossing rivers, and often fighter jets would fly overhead. The terrified girls hid beneath the trees. Falmatu and eight friends once tried to escape. But after a few hours they were found by the wives of the Boko Haram fighters, who took them back. They were caned as punishment, she said.

Shortly before setting the girls free, the terrorists threatened them: “Don’t dare to go back to school. We will kidnap you again.” Falmatu was afraid to go back, but her parents pushed her. “My father said: ‘Why did I spend so much money on your education, if you quit now?'” she said. Falmatu once ran away from school back to her parents. But her father convinced her she should  think about her future. “So I decided to go back to school.”

A group of schoolgirls in uniform surround a classmate to listen to her speakingFalmatu tells her friends about her month-long ordeal

Is Dapchi safe now?

Several girls didn’t dare go back to their old school. Some say they wouldn’t mind going to school in another town. But that would be too expensive. Twenty girls were lucky and won a scholarship to attend a Turkish school two hours drive away.  Modu Ma’aji Ajiri from the Yobe state education ministry told DW that the school in Dapchi is safe.  A couple of soldiers have been posted in front of the gates. There are checkpoints on the roads accessing the village. “Parents who don’t send their children to school have given in to the terrorists,” Ajiri said. “We are calling on them not to that.  Ignorance must not triumph.”

According to the UN children’s agency UNICEF, 10.5 million Nigerian children don’t go to school. The situation is especially dire in the northeast since the start of the Boko Haram insurgency. In the last couple of years the terrorist group have destroyed more than 1,400 schools and killed some 2,300 teachers.

President Buhar with a group of the freed schoolchildren from DapchiPresident Buhari (center) is accused of not providing help to the kidnap victims

Dreaming of a self-determined life

Florence Ozor, who leads the strategy team of the BringBackOurGirls group, says the government has once again abandoned the kidnap victims and their parents to their fate. “You really can’t expect them to immediately recover from such a trauma. There has to be some rehabilitation and some psycho-social therapy for them,” she said. “The girls have to go through a systematic long recovery process which needs to be carefully planned.” And that is something the government didn’t do, Ozor concluded.

The right to education and a self-determined life looks like remaining an unfulfilled dream for the sisters Falmata and Aisha. Their father seems to think it is more important to get the bride price of between €50 ($59) and €120 for each girl. That is a lot of money in one of Nigeria’s poorest regions. But even Falmatu, who has gone back to school, does not know what will happen next. It’s her last year at school and soon she’ll be sitting her exams. She hopes that someone in her family willl come up with enough money to enable her to study further, away from Dapchi.

Watch video04:46

Dapchi girls fear going to school

COURTESY: DW

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