STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
He calls them the failing New York Times. But like many people he insults, President Trump has made it clear he really cares what they think. The president gave a long interview to the Times yesterday and took the chance to air complaints, including against his own attorney general. Four and a half months after it happened, the president is still unhappy that Jeff Sessions stepped away from the Russia investigation.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Sessions should have never recused himself. And if he would - if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would've picked somebody else.
INSKEEP: The president said much more, and we have a response today from Ben Cardin. He is the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, welcome back to the program.
BEN CARDIN: Oh, it's good to be with you. Thank you.
INSKEEP: What do you make of the president's remarks about Jeff Sessions?
CARDIN: Well, it's another one of those remarkable comments by the president. He does not realize that the attorney general is the attorney general for the people of this country. It's not a personal position for the president of the United States. Attorney General Sessions had no choice under law but to recuse himself from this investigation since he was part of the Trump campaign. That was under clear rules from the Justice Department.
INSKEEP: The president's statement is not that it's unjust in some way, but it's unfair to the president. Is it unfair to the president that he doesn't get to have the counsel of his attorney general on this particular matter that involves him?
CARDIN: No, not at all. That's why we had these statutes that allow for, or the policy to allow for a special counsel to be appointed. Mr. Mueller is conducting this particular investigation, and that this is the responsibility of the Justice Department to do an independent investigation that couldn't be done with the attorney general. The president has lots of lawyers who can advise him in regards to what Mr. Mueller is doing.
INSKEEP: Let me ask about something else that the president said in this interview. He talked about a meeting previously undisclosed - until recent days, anyway - with Russian President Vladimir Putin at this G-20 summit. We've talked about this on the air. They were at a dinner with other world leaders. And Trump and Putin sat down together for, according to one account, about an hour, although the White House says less. There was a Russian interpreter there. There was no other American there. The president says this was not much of a conversation but also now says that Putin and Trump discussed adoption. What's the significance of that? Why would that topic come up?
CARDIN: Well, as we know, adoptions were involved in the sanctions - decisions by the United States to impose sanctions under the Magnitsky statute. Russia retaliated by an adoption policy which actually hurt the children of Russia. So it does lead to the fact that maybe they were talking about sanctions. So look, we don't know what happened in that conversation. This is very troubling.
The president was there alone. He did not have his own interpreter. That is - could be a compromising position in and of itself. This is something, when you're talking between the Russians and Americans, that you just don't do that casually, particularly for somewhere around an hour. We don't know exactly how long. But it was not just a casual conversation.
INSKEEP: You know, I'm thinking about that conversation and realizing that world leaders talk to each other all the time and thinking that if you trust the president, this may seem like no big deal. He reached out to a foreign leader. He did it in an improvised way. He used the interpreter available. So what? But if you do not trust the president, you're asking what was said and who can verify that and why no Americans were around. So do you trust the president of the United States?
CARDIN: I certainly don't trust the president of Russia, and I don't know how he used that opportunity to try to advance Russia's interests rather than U.S. interests. I know he had his interpreter. President Trump was relying on a Russian interpreter. That's also a problem. I know that there's a reason why we've prepared for all of these types of meetings, that we have our proper experts with us. So no, it is troublesome. It's not a matter of trusting the president. This is a position where the president put himself in that could have compromised U.S. interests.
INSKEEP: Senator, I want to ask about another bit of news. The Washington Post is reporting that President Trump decided to end the CIA's program to arm and train Syrian rebels. These are rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad. There's another program with the Pentagon that aids rebels fighting ISIS. But this is rebels who've been fighting against the government of Syria, and the report is that U.S. aid would end to them. Do you believe that, and does it sound like a good idea?
CARDIN: Well, we're waiting to hear a comprehensive policy by the Trump administration as it relates to the fight against ISIS and our strategies in Syria. What concerns us when we get bits and pieces of - what is the overall strategy? Are we conceding that the Assad regime is going to remain in power? Because if that's the case, that's disastrous.
Mr. Assad has no legitimacy to lead the government of Syria. So if this is just a matter of changing our strategies on how we are being involved in Syria, that's another matter. We don't have, in my view, the authorization for the use of military force that's relevant to Syria. So the president owes to the American people and to the Congress an explanation as to what our policy is in Syria.
INSKEEP: Is there a case to be made, Senator, that the aid to the rebels has been pretty much useless, hasn't worked out very well and it might be smart to cut it off anyway?
CARDIN: It's part of an overall strategy to try to end the civil war in Syria, concentrate on ISIS and get a representative government that represents all the people of Syria. That's our - should be our overall objectives. So whether the training of rebels by the U.S. has been effective in dealing with that, we know that there have been mixed results as to our military campaign in Syria.
INSKEEP: Mixed results at best. Should the United States still be trying to overthrow Assad?
CARDIN: There is no military victory for the U.S. in Syria. We need to negotiate the end of the civil war. That requires diplomacy. And that requires us to be much more aggressive in diplomacy.
INSKEEP: Aggressive in diplomacy, OK. Senator, thanks very much, really appreciate it.
CARDIN: My pleasure to be with you. Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland.
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