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GOP Sen. Sasse On The Consequences Of Trump's Remarks In Helsinki

NOEL KING, HOST:

Today, President Donald Trump is set to meet with select members of Congress. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are publicly upset after the president appeared to question his own intelligence agencies' findings about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Now, this happened at a press conference held with Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, in Helsinki yesterday. Afterwards, President Trump talked to Fox News, and he said all of the attention on the intelligence agencies was distracting from everything else that went on at the summit.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think it's a shame. We're talking about nuclear proliferation. We're talking about Syria and humanitarian aid. We're talking about all of these different things and we get questions on the witch hunt. And I don't think the people out in the country buy it, but the reporters like to give it a shot. I thought that President Putin was very, very strong.

KING: Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska is with us now. He joins us on the phone. Senator, welcome.

BEN SASSE: Thanks for having me, appreciate it.

KING: All right. What are the real-world consequences of the president's remarks yesterday in this press conference about our intelligence agencies to our intelligence agencies?

SASSE: We were very, very weak yesterday. When you don't reaffirm American values on the global stage, it props up and supports autocrats all over the world. Putin fears the very stuff that we believe in. We believe in human dignity, free speech, press, religion, assembly, protests. And Putin fears when we affirm those values, they undergird an American-led international order. And that's why we're his main targets. And so when we do what we did yesterday, when we act that weak on the global stage, we're both winking at who Putin is, which is a murderer and an invader of his neighbors and an attacker of America, and we undermine our own moral standing in the world, which makes a whole bunch of our allies go weak-kneed. So the consequences in the real world are very significant.

KING: The president is set to meet with lawmakers today. What do you expect to happen in this meeting, and what would you like to see come out of it?

SASSE: Well, I think the White House just pulled together this meeting last night in the midst of damage control. And I'm not really sure what their objectives are, but what we need to have happen is a reaffirmation of American values. We should've done it yesterday, and we need to do it today. We have to do it tomorrow and forever because who we are are people who believe in human dignity. And we need to declare to Putin that we know that he has attacked us. There is clarity in the intelligence community about what he has done. This is not Republican versus Democrat. This is not right versus left. Putin attacked America in 2016. He has ongoing information operations and propaganda campaigns that work in the U.S. today. And we need to bring the American people together to understand that. There's no on the one hand, on the other hand about that.

KING: How do we do that? How do we confront Vladimir Putin specifically?

SASSE: Well, first of all, we need to declare to the world and to him that we know what he's done. We need to ramp up sanctions. There's a whole bunch more that we can do to put pressure on his cronies. Remember; when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, for about seven or eight years we had a lot of optimism about what privatization of those formerly state-controlled industries might look like. Instead, they were just transferred into the hands of about 20 guys who were thugs who shared their stealing from the Russian people with Putin. And that's how he maintains a hold on power.

KING: And you're saying sanction those people.

SASSE: There's sanction work to be done - sanction those people. But also we need to expose what Putin has done, and we need to put that information out there for the Russian public. The U.S. is not against the Russian people. We're against Vladimir Putin. There's much more alignment between America and the Russian people than there is between Vladimir Putin and the Russian people. And so we need to expose that.

KING: Senator, we have seconds left, but I want to ask you what can Congress do to prevent further interference in U.S. elections by Russia?

SASSE: Well, we definitely need to do some of the small technical things like increased support for state election systems. There's lots of small things we need to do like that. But we - much more broadly, we need a shared understanding of what NATO is because the reason Putin is doing this - we need to understand the motives behind his attack. He wants to undermine American public trust. So the main thing people see in America is that the great fight is Republicans versus Democrats.

KING: All right. And we need to take it from there. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, thank you so much.

SASSE: Thanks for the time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.