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Sen. Chris Van Hollen On The Democrats, Russia And The Midterms

NOEL KING, HOST:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is warning Russia to not intrude in this year's midterm elections.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: There's a possibility that we may well take up legislation related to this. In the meantime, I think the Russians need to know that there are a lot of us who fully understand what happened in 2016, and it'd really better not happen again.

KING: President Trump attempted some damage control yesterday after his much-criticized press conference with Russia's President Vladimir Putin. The president says he accepts the findings of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia did interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Worth noting that President Trump is also tweeting this morning. He says, quote, "so many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki. Putin and I discussed many important subjects at our earlier meeting. We got along well, which truly bothered many haters who wanted to see a boxing match. Big results will come." End quote.

So for Democrats, possibly, a political opening here. Senator Chris Van Hollen is with us now. He's a Democrat from Maryland, and he's one of the people behind the legislation mentioned by Leader McConnell. Welcome to MORNING EDITION, Senator.

CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Good morning. Good to be with you.

KING: Good to have you. I want to start with this legislation. It's a bipartisan bill from you and Republican Senator Marco Rubio. It would impose sanctions on Russia if the Kremlin interferes in future elections. How likely does it seem to you that the Senate is going to take action on this?

VAN HOLLEN: I think there's growing momentum to pass this legislation. President Trump has shown that he will not protect the integrity of our democracy. That means the Congress has to do it. There are 16 weeks to go before the 2018 elections, and the bill that Senator Rubio and I have introduced, called the DETER Act, would do that by creating huge penalties on the Russian economy if Russia is caught again interfering in our elections - so growing momentum to protect our democracy.

KING: Senator, you called it insane that the president believed Vladimir Putin when he assured Trump that Russia didn't interfere in the 2016 election. The president then clarified yesterday. Did his clarification change anything for you?

VAN HOLLEN: No. Not at all. Look, first the president undermined the credibility of the United States and our intelligence community. He insulted our intelligence community, said he believed Vladimir Putin over our own people and our own intelligence. And then his effort to walk it back really insulted the intelligence of the American people, of the American voters. I think most people saw that sort of like the dog ate my homework excuse a kid might give. And his tweet this morning, President Trump's tweet this morning, shows that the real Donald Trump was the Donald Trump standing next to Vladimir Putin undermining the United States, not the sort of failed attempt at an apology at the White House.

KING: All right. Let's talk about what this could mean for Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer hinted at a Capitol Hill press conference yesterday that Russia is going to be a campaign theme.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

CHUCK SCHUMER: If we're in the majority, we'll probably be more effective. And you'd see a lot stronger things protecting American security than you will with this majority, which seems so afraid of President Trump.

KING: Do you think that could be a winning message for Democrats in the midterms?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, on this issue, I think it's one for the country. This is a moment that demands patriotism over partisanship. But I also know that voters want members of Congress who are going to hold this president accountable and sort of live up to the idea of Congress as an independent body that's going to have checks and balances on this president. I think what happened in Helsinki is an example of why that is so important. Voters do not want a rubber stamp. They don't want somebody is just going to go along with President Trump. And, after what happened in Helsinki, people are more than ever going to want a Congress that's going to be willing to hold President Trump accountable.

KING: Do you worry, Senator, though, that if you make this a campaign theme, you'll be accused of politicizing national security? Just quickly.

VAN HOLLEN: I just said that I think this is an issue that demands patriotism over partisanship, and that we need to work together in Congress both to protect the Mueller investigation and to protect the integrity of our elections going forward. That's what the DETER Act is all about. I think it's patriotic for people to want to stand up for a Congress that does its job under the Constitution as an independent body, and then one that holds President Trump accountable. On issues of national security, it is President Trump that has abandoned a long tradition of American foreign policy where we stand up for the rule of law. And, certainly, American presidents haven't thrown their own country under the bus standing next to Russian leaders.

KING: Senator Chris Van Hollen is a Democrat from Maryland. Thank you for your time, Senator.

VAN HOLLEN: Thank you.

KING: Just briefly, we're going to turn to NPR's White House reporter Sarah McCammon in studio with us. Sarah, what do you think about what we just heard?

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Well, this could be a problem for Republicans. You know, you never want as a party to be divided or to be facing chaos heading into an election. And this, as we've seen, has been an issue that Republicans and Democrats have come out, criticized the president's remarks. You know, I've heard consternation from lots of Republicans about what the president said. And, you know, Democrats, whether or not they're concerned about politicizing it, it's likely this will come up in the next couple of months as we head toward November.

KING: Sarah McCammon is a political reporter for NPR. Sarah, thanks so much.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.