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Weekend Politics: Trump And Putin, NATO, U.K.


The White House says President Trump's meeting with Vladimir Putin next week is going on as scheduled, despite indictments announced by the Justice Department yesterday. Ron Elving is NPR's senior Washington editor and correspondent. He joins me now to talk about that and more political news. Morning, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: The Justice Department says 12 Russian intelligence officers carried out a sustained cyberattack during the 2016 presidential race on the Democratic National Committee, on the Clinton campaign, state election systems and more. But the White House says calls to cancel the Trump-Putin meeting are misplaced. How does that work?

ELVING: Well, those calls are coming from Democrats primarily but also from Senator John McCain, of course, prominent Republican. Yet the meeting with Putin seems to be every bit as important to the president as the NATO summit or his visit to Great Britain. Let's be clear - as these indictments made it clear, this was not a small-scale or a casual operation. It was not meddling, as some have called it. This was a concerted effort by Russian officials, by the Putin regime to disrupt and interfere with the American election, specifically designed to disrupt the Democrats and defeat Hillary Clinton. Now, the White House response has been that this list of 12 indictments on Friday did not name any Americans, does not indict anyone in the Trump operation. And that is true, Renee. But it also left those doors open. There may be more to come.

MONTAGNE: News of the indictments hit just as Trump was rolling up to Windsor Castle to meet Queen Elizabeth and after a less than smooth meeting, to say the least, with NATO leaders.

ELVING: Yeah, the NATO meeting was really two meetings - the one we saw on TV with Trump attacking various allies and others and saying outlandish things about them and one that was conducted when the cameras were not present, which seems to have been far more congenial. Now, near the end, the President questioned whether we needed to have NATO at all. And then he said everything was going to be fine, and the meeting was a total success. Then it was on to Great Britain for his somewhat awkward photo op with the Queen and an even more awkward news conference with the prime minister, Theresa May, whom Trump had trashed in that morning's tabloids.

MONTAGNE: You know, I wonder, though - do Trump's - of course, we were just talking about NATO - care about U.S. troop levels in Germany?

ELVING: I doubt they lose sleep over the precise number of troops we have there. But they see it as part of a longstanding pattern - one that Trump has talked about a lot. And this is the post-World War II, 75-year pattern of the U.S. being the world leader but also a kind of pitiful giant in this formulation, protecting everyone else at our own expense and making trade deals that help everyone else at our expense. And that message - that notion resonates with a lot of Trump voters, with a lot of Americans.

MONTAGNE: So maybe that explains why a soy farmer might still support the president, even though the farmer is getting shut out of the Chinese markets thanks to trade wars.

ELVING: Yes. Now, some soybean farmers - and we're maybe using them here kind of as a metaphor - but they may be willing to hold on for a season and see if Trump's tactics with China work. We've also heard anecdotal evidence that workers who have been adversely affected by tariffs and other Trump policies do not blame the president for that if they voted for him in 2016.

MONTAGNE: If we're talking about the president's political base, is Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court making the base as happy as that last nomination, Neil Gorsuch?

ELVING: Some of them may have preferred another prospect for the court, but they like Kavanaugh fine. All the criticism about his positions on abortion and guns and presidential powers - that is all fine with the Trump base. Opponents have just about four weeks to go through a very long career on and off the bench, looking for some kind of new controversy or disqualifying issue. So we can expect the Republican majority will want to vote in the Senate as fast as possible. And there'll be a lot of pressure on Senate Republicans and on a few red-state Democrats to confirm.

MONTAGNE: So, Ron, we have a little extra time here, so let's circle back to the headline we started with. You're seeing a president with a bounce in his step, even as the Justice Department is alleging a sustained attack on the integrity of our election, and the special counsel's investigation steadily continues. Talk to us about that.

ELVING: The president is clearly concerned about Mueller. He's gone from calling it a witch hunt many times to calling it a rigged witch hunt. And the White House takes some comfort in polls that show that a lot of the public is either less confident in the Mueller probe than they once were or ignoring it entirely - just not paying attention. So we shall see if these latest indictments and the Putin meeting on Monday have any effect on that trend.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks very much.

ELVING: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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