Oklahoma's Republican Senator On Russian Meddling In U.S. Elections
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There is a new revelation today about the Trump campaign's potential ties to Russia. President Trump's oldest son met with a Russian lawyer in 2016, a lawyer who promised to provide information that could help Donald Trump's presidential campaign. This comes as the White House promotes the president's past trip to the G-20 summit, casting it as a success. The president tweeted out a slideshow, showing photos of him meeting with world leaders during the summit, soundtracked to this song.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHOIR: (Singing) Make America great again, lift you towards your freedom...
MARTIN: The White House is also framing the president's meeting with Vladimir Putin as a win. Joining us now is a Republican senator who has been critical of Russia's behavior across the board but particularly when it comes to meddling with the U.S. election, Oklahoma's James Lankford. Senator, thanks so much for being with us.
JAMES LANKFORD: Very glad to be able to be with you.
MARTIN: I'd like to start, if we could, with this new information about Donald Trump Jr. He released a statement yesterday saying he had this meeting. It happened at Trump Tower. Jared Kushner was there. Paul Manafort, the campaign manager at the time, was also there. They were expecting to get damaging information about Hillary Clinton that could have helped Donald Trump in the campaign. What do you make of this?
LANKFORD: Well, this is a meeting that's been previously disclosed. But Kushner had already noted in his security clearance that he had had this meeting. So the meeting was known about. And we're trying to be able to get further details on it. It is our understanding at this point that the meeting was a request of a third party directly to Donald Trump Jr. And the meeting request came saying that actually Russia was helping Hillary Clinton and wanted to be able to meet with the Trump - get someone in the Trump campaign to talk about what Russia is doing to help Hillary Clinton, not the reverse. So then we're trying to get the full details of the rest of the meeting.
MARTIN: So what questions do you have? I mean, you're on the Senate Intelligence Committee. One of the central questions you're looking at is whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to benefit Donald Trump. Where does this meeting fit into that?
LANKFORD: That's correct. This is one conversation of many that we're walking through the details of. There's no question that the Russians were reaching out, trying to find ways to be able to interfere in this election through cyberintelligence, through gathering intel on different individuals face to face, and then trying to be able to penetrate campaigns.
What we're still trying to determine is - we know the Russians reached out to the different campaigns. What we don't know is, did the different campaigns reach back? And so that's - the details of that meeting make that exceptionally important, to be able to know whether there was a reach back after this meeting took place.
MARTIN: So it wouldn't be enough just - the fact that Donald Trump Jr. had this meeting under the pretense of garnering information that could have helped his president - helped his father in the campaign. That in and of itself is not enough to demonstrate cooperation with the Russians.
LANKFORD: That is correct. This is the Russians reaching out through some other third party. We need to be able to find out how they were doing it and why they were doing it. But just because a meeting occurred doesn't necessarily mean that the campaigns cooperated together. We need additional details. Now, should we look into it? Absolutely, we should, as we are at this instance and multiple other instances. But just a meeting that had occurred and that the Russians were reaching out does not mean that we were reaching back.
MARTIN: I want to ask you about President Trump's meeting with Vladimir Putin that happened at the edges of the G-20 summit. The White House says that the president brought up the issue of Russian meddling in the U.S. election. And Vladimir Putin apparently denied it. Are you satisfied with that?
LANKFORD: (Laughter) No, I'm not satisfied that Putin denied it. I'm not surprised that he denied it. I know we're not satisfied with that. I am pleased the president brought it up. I understand he brought it up a couple of times and should have brought it up and addressed it to say this is a very serious issue. But this is an area that has been clear from the facts that we know that Russia was trying to engage with us. I would be surprised if Vladimir Putin and then Russia did say, yes, of course, we did that. But everyone in the world knows they did it...
MARTIN: But are...
LANKFORD: ...As they try to interfere with other elections.
MARTIN: Are you convinced that the president put the kind of pressure on Vladimir Putin that you would have wanted to see in that opportunity?
LANKFORD: No. Real pressure is in follow-up in what you actually do and the actions afterwards. A verbal back and forth - did you do it? No, I didn't - is not real pressure. Real pressure is what you do with sanctions and what you do to be able to apply pain.
This is very similar to what happened to the Russians when they were doping their athletes during the Sochi Olympics. But in the Olympics following that, they had very severe sanctions. And most of their athletes were not allowed to participate then two years later in the next Olympics. That is pain applied after they actually made a very poor choice. We need to continue to apply real pressure to the Russians to say, you did this. So here is the consequence of that.
MARTIN: And yet the president tweets about, quote, "moving forward in working constructively with Russia" when it comes to cybersecurity, suggesting that some kind of cybersecurity unit could be formed between the U.S. and Russia - then hours later saying, it couldn't actually happen. But is it concerning to you that the president would even make this suggestion?
LANKFORD: It was an odd suggestion. I would still love to be able to hear exactly what that suggestion even means. We should have a clear cyberdoctrine. But that should not include cooperating with the Russians. Cyberdoctrine means that we set clear parameters saying, if you violate this area in this way, then here is the consequence that comes after that. This is something we worked with the previous administration to try to form. And they were unsuccessful to be able to accomplish that. But we do need to have clear guidelines that tell the Russians and any other government - whether it's Iran or North Korea or China - this is the barrier. You can go no further.
MARTIN: Lastly, I want to ask you - you've written a letter to Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader, asking that the August congressional recess be canceled. Why?
LANKFORD: We've not finished our work on health care. Till we've finished our work on health care, set up the appropriations process and do the budgeting work that needs be done, we should stay and be able to finish it. We're only - we don't - meet only one time per year. And that is August. But I would suggest that we stay even through August, if that's what it takes to be able to finish our work.
MARTIN: Oklahoma Senator James Lankford, a Republican. Thanks so much for taking the time.
LANKFORD: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
Correction July 10, 2017
A previous version listed the interviewer as NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. In fact, it's Rachel Martin who spoke with Sen. James Lankford.