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DNC's Tom Perez On Russia And The Midterms

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You would be hard-pressed to summarize in a sentence the White House position on Russian election interference. President Trump said in Helsinki he was not convinced. Then he said he was. His own director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, said yesterday there is no doubt that Russia is trying to undermine American democracy. And Trump in a new interview says he would hold Vladimir Putin personally responsible for interference. This is Trump speaking to Jeff Glor on CBS.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS EVENING NEWS")

JEFF GLOR: Do you say you agree with U.S. intelligence that Russia meddled in the election in 2016?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Yeah, and I've said that before, Jeff. I have said that numerous times before. And I would say that that is true, yeah.

GLOR: But you haven't condemned Putin specifically. Do you hold him personally responsible?

TRUMP: Well, I would because he's in charge of the country just like I consider myself to be responsible for things that happen in this country. So certainly as the leader of a country, you would have to hold him responsible, yes.

GREENE: OK. So here's a question out of all of this. Do Democrats have an opening here? The Washington Post ran a headline this week that said "After Helsinki, Democrats See Chance To Capitalize On Trump's Embrace Of Russia." Tom Perez is chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and he joins us this morning. Mr. Chairman, welcome back.

TOM PEREZ: It's great to be with you, David.

GREENE: So we're talking about protecting American democracy from foreign interference. Is this really an issue to, quote, "capitalize on?"

PEREZ: This is a sad moment. This week was one of the lowest moments in the history of the presidency. President Trump sided with Vladimir Putin over the intelligence community, over the interest of the American people.

GREENE: Although he changed that position after Helsinki, we should say.

PEREZ: Oh, he twisted himself into a pretzel. Let's be clear. Since 2016, he has never wanted to side with U.S. intelligence agencies. He has continued to tweet. He's continued to raise conspiracy theories about this. This was an act of war. The DNC was one victim, but our bigger victim was democracy. The chilling indictment last week - these were acts of war committed by people at the highest levels of the Russian military. It's clear to me that Putin knew, that Putin ordered it, that Putin assented to it. And yet you had him on Monday of this week side by side, and he was Putin's poodle.

GREENE: But let me just ask you, if I can...

PEREZ: And that makes America less safe.

GREENE: Chairman Perez, if Democrats bring this up during the - during this fall's election, I mean, one argument that President Trump has made is that the interference took place under President Obama's watch. Is that a legitimate point that the president and Republicans could bring up this fall?

PEREZ: Well, listen; the act of war is continuing. That's what we've heard - not from Tom Perez. That's what we've heard from our intelligence community. That's what we've heard from the director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats. This is a cyberwar. It's continuing. We need the commander in chief to step up. And what we're going to be doing this fall is focusing on what I believe is the most important midterm of our lifetime. We're focusing on making sure Americans are safe. We're focusing on fighting for good wages because the reality is profits are soaring. Paychecks are lagging. We're fighting for health care. We're fighting for women's reproductive health and women's rights to control their own bodies. We're fighting for education. And frankly...

GREENE: It sounds like...

PEREZ: ...We're fighting for our democracy as well.

GREENE: It sounds like your party is not going to be, quote, unquote, "capitalizing on" this Russia issue. It sounds like there are some other issues on your mind.

PEREZ: Well, there are many issues on my mind, and more importantly, there are many issues on the minds of the American people. They want to make sure that they have a fair paycheck when they work a hard day's work. They want to make sure they can form a union. And this court has been hostile. This administration has been hostile. We believe that health care is a right for all and not a privilege for a few. And we also believe that our democracy is at risk because the most important thing that we export in the United States is our values, our values of opportunity, our values of freedom.

And what we saw last - in this past few days is I think those values are at risk. America is less safe because he attacks our allies while he embraces authoritarian thugs. And that for the American people is very, very dangerous because the No. 1 job of the commander in chief is to keep us safe. And I think America is less safe under this president because he's unwilling to stand up to our most serious adversary in Russia who doesn't want democracy, who is continuing to try to meddle in the United States. And again...

GREENE: Well, if I can, let me ask you about that specifically because I do want to get to one final question. The DNC, I mean, as you mentioned, was hit by Russia in the last election. What actions are you taking ahead of the midterms and are you working with the RNC to protect both?

PEREZ: Listen; we've continued since this hack occurred. We've hired one of the nation's preeminent companies that does cybersecurity. We have a chief cyber officer who is one of the best in the country. He was the chief cyber officer at Yahoo. We're working with the authorities, and we will continue to work with the authorities because we know that this will...

GREENE: Tom Perez, sadly, we'll have to leave it there. We're out of time. We really appreciate your time this morning. Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.