MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
After weeks of buildup, President Trump held his first one-on-one summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think we have great opportunities together as two countries that frankly - we have not been getting along very well for the last number of years.
KELLY: The two presidents were accompanied only by their interpreters as they met in the Hall of Mirrors of the Presidential Palace here in Helsinki. Russian interference in the 2016 election was a leading topic during a joint press conference following the meeting. In an extraordinary series of statements, Trump refused to say that he believes U.S. intelligence agencies' conclusion that Russia interfered in the election.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
As the press conference drew to a close, reporter Jonathan Lemire of the Associated Press asked President Trump if he would stand behind his own government.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
JONATHAN LEMIRE: My first questions for you, sir, is, who do you believe? My second question is, would you now with the whole world watching tell President Putin - would you denounce what happened in 2016, and would you warn him to never do it again?
SHAPIRO: Here is part of President Trump's response.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
TRUMP: People came to me. Dan Coats came to me and some others. They said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it's not Russia. I will say this. I don't see any reason why it would be.
SHAPIRO: Dan Coats is President Trump's director of national intelligence. Mary Louise, you were there in the room in Helsinki as that press conference took place, and I'm eager...
KELLY: I was.
SHAPIRO: ...To hear your reaction. Also joining us on the line from the White House is national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hi, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: And, Mary Louise, let's start with you there in Finland. You covered the intelligence community for many years. Put today in context for us.
KELLY: I mean, start with that statement we just heard there from the president where he said, I don't see any reason why it would be Russia.
KELLY: I mean, I was sitting there with my jaw on the floor, thinking, I can think of 17 reasons to think it would be Russia - the 17 spy agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community and who concluded, as we know, last year unanimously that Russia intervened in the American presidential election. So the reactions started pouring into my inbox almost immediately. We heard from the former head of the CIA, John Brennan, calling this a performance nothing short of imbecilic - so not mincing words and accusing Trump of being in the pocket of Putin.
Notably just one other quick reaction worth highlighting, which is the current director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, who we just heard there - he weighed in with a statement shortly after this press conference saying, we, meaning U.S. intelligence - we have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling. And he went on; we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence - so not quite saying, you're wrong, Mr. President, but saying, you need to trust us on this one, sir.
SHAPIRO: And we are going to hear from former leaders of the intelligence community elsewhere in the program. There were so many remarkable statements during that news conference. It's hard to go through all of them. But what stood out most to you?
KELLY: There were so many. To me, the most honest moment perhaps or what seemed to be the most honest moment was the reaction from Putin. He was asked about whether he wanted Trump to win, whether he wanted Trump to win the presidential election. And for the first time on the record we heard him say yes because Donald Trump talked about wanting to bring U.S.-Russian relations back to normal. It was both fascinating to hear and also kind of ironic as we watched this, you know, anything-but-normal relationship...
KELLY: ...Play out in this press conference today.
SHAPIRO: Well, Mara, looking at this through a political lens for a moment, describe what the reaction to this has been.
LIASSON: Well, the reaction has been shock across the board, no Republicans rushing to Donald Trump's defense. The speaker of the House issued a measured statement saying the president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There's no moral equivalence between the U.S. and Russia, which the president seemed to draw today. Other Republicans, ones who are not running for re-election, which seems to be the pattern here when it comes to talking about the president...
LIASSON: ...Were much tougher. Bob Corker, who's on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he said it made the U.S. look like a pushover. He said he was disappointed and saddened to see the president put his own intelligence community on parity with Putin's words. And he said that Putin ended up gaining a tremendous amount by this because he's no longer ostracized on the world stage.
John McCain was even harsher. He said, no prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant. So I think the bottom line - Corker even went on to say that as far as substance is concerned, I hope nothing will come of this. In other words, I hope there were no concrete deals made behind closed doors.
SHAPIRO: What did you make of President Trump's attitude towards Vladimir Putin during this appearance today?
LIASSON: Well, that was the most extraordinary. Donald Trump prides himself on being an alpha male. But there was only one alpha male in that room today, and he was - Trump was definitely the beta. He has no problem attacking American allies, saying to their face how he disagrees with them, whether it's the EU or Angela Merkel or Theresa May. But he...
SHAPIRO: We saw that just last week at the NATO summit.
LIASSON: Yes, yes, but he has refused to say a single negative word about Vladimir Putin. He's been only deferential to Putin in every possible venue. As a matter of fact, when he was asked why he called Putin an adversary, he corrected the Russian reporter, saying, no, no, no, I didn't call him an adversary; I called him a competitor, and that was a compliment. He said that Vladimir Putin was extremely strong and powerful. Those are very important words in Trump's vocabulary - so very, very deferential. And the question is, why? This - it seemed to be unnecessary. Why does he feel he has to be like that?
SHAPIRO: Mary Louise, just in our final seconds, there was a pretty unusual offer made that came up in this press conference where President Trump said Vladimir Putin had offered to have investigators from Russia and the U.S. work together on this question of election interference. What do you make of that?
KELLY: It was a pretty unusual offer indeed. This is with respect to the 12 people, as they called it, these, you know, Russian military officers who were charged just Friday...
KELLY: ...By special counsel Robert Mueller and saying Russia can go over and help us go over the intelligence in the U.S. and put an end to this once and for all - pretty safe to say it's unlikely that U.S. spy agencies are going to take them up on that offer.
SHAPIRO: All right, Mara Liasson, thank you for joining us from the White House.
LIASSON: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: And Mary Louise Kelly in Helsinki, I'll hand it over to you.
[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: In this report, we say that the 17 spy agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community have concluded that Russia intervened in the American presidential election. While it is correct that the conclusion was issued by the director of national intelligence, who speaks for all U.S. intelligence agencies, the work that led to the conclusion was done by three of the 17 — the CIA, FBI and NSA.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.