In this July 16, 2018, photo, U.S. President Donald Trump, left, tosses a soccer ball to his wife first lady Melania Trump after Russian President Vladimir Putin presented it to him during a news conference after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland.

AP Photo

Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet has reinforced his criticism of the way President Donald Trump handled a press conference earlier this week with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

At the press conference, Trump was asked if he believed Putin or the conclusions of U.S. intelligence experts on whether Russia interfered in the 2016 general election. The president appeared to side with Putin.

“I think this is one of the lowest moments that we've had as a country in our foreign policy in a long time,” Bennet told CPR News. “First of all, there was a right time to conclude that the intelligence community's assessment is that Russia interfered, and that's when he was sharing an international stage with Putin, and he didn't do it.”

After a bipartisan outcry, the president attempted to walk back his Helsinki, Finland press conference comments. But as NPR reported, after Trump declared support for his own intelligence experts, he seemed to contradict himself later in a cabinet meeting.

“He can come wandering back to the United States and say, 'Well, now I sort of think that maybe they had something to do with it, although it might have been others as well,'” Bennet said.

“Nobody who has seen the intelligence on this, there is no question about what happened, and it was the Russians who did it. It's not some 400-pound person sitting on their bed at home, as the president once said. It's not maybe some other people. It is the Russians. He should've been telling Putin that we weren't going to put up with it in the United States. Apparently, he didn't send that message.”

By Thursday morning Trump was accusing reporters covering the summit as “the real enemy of the people, the fake news media.”

Bennet rejected Trump's claim that he misspoke in Helsinki and didn't mean to question the U.S. intelligence findings.

“I don't believe he misspoke because this is completely consistent with what he has said from the very beginning. There were briefings that I sat through as a member of the United States Senate where it was made crystal clear that this was the Russians, and there was no ambiguousness about it. The president had the benefit of that intelligence more than a year ago, and he still said, even back then, that it wasn't clear that it was the Russians that did it,” the senator said.

“So what would be inconsistent, would be for him to now take the position that he believes the intelligence community, or that he believes the Russians are continuing to meddle. I think he's having a hard time saying that because I think he either doesn't believe it, or he wants the American people to be misled about what actually happened. This was an attack on our democracy, and it was not trivial,” he said.

“I don't have the faintest idea,” what Trump’s motivations are, Bennet said. “I don't have the faintest idea. I mean, I don't think he knows what he's doing to begin with on these subjects, so I don't, it's beyond me to know what the motivations are. But it's just not acceptable. It shouldn't be acceptable. I mean, there's no sense to it.”

Bennet’s Colorado colleague in the Senate, Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, also had harsh words for Trump, and has said in the past that perhaps there’s a “moral case” Russia should be designated a state sponsor of terrorism, which would mean the imposition of new economic and defense sanctions. Gardner cited Russia's activity in Syria, the invasion of Crimea and the poisoning of two people in Britain as supporting evidence.

“Russia has invaded its neighbors Georgia and Ukraine, it supports the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad and our enemies in Afghanistan, and it is engaged in active information warfare against Western democracies, including meddling in the 2016 United States elections,” Gardner wrote in the New York Times.

“I haven't looked at the designation in the context of Russia, but I certainly think that the State Department should examine that,” Bennet told CPR News. “But the fact that Cory Gardner would say that suggests to you what a mortal threat Russia is and the reason why the president's behavior at Helsinki was so poor.”

Read The Transcript

Ryan Warner: Colorado's Democratic senator, Michael Bennet, has written a letter to the White House about separating immigrant families. It is signed by more than two dozen other senators from both parties. Bennet spoke to me yesterday from Washington about the letter, and about the president's recent statements on Russia.

RW: This is a bipartisan letter you're sending the president. Why did you want to send it? What's its message for the White House?

Sen. Michael Bennet: The message for the White House is that the default position of the United States of America should be to keep families together. That it should not be the policy of the United States of America to separate children from their families, and that they should work with faith-based organizations around the country to put these families back together. It's the first bipartisan letter to be signed on this issue that I'm aware of in the Senate.

RW: Now the administration has said it is working to reunite families. What is it that you hope to add to the discussion here?

MB: The sense of urgency. They're not moving quickly enough. There are 2,500 children that are still separated from their families. I visited a detention center in Aurora on Friday and met with somebody whose nine-year-old son is in Arizona. So I guess that's the first point. And then the second point is that the faith-based community would like to be engaged here and be helpful, consistent with our values as a nation, and consistent with their religious values to help these families endure what is a very difficult situation for them, and they haven't necessarily been included.

RW: Does the White House pay attention when you send it letters?

MB: Well, it depends, you know? When more than a quarter of a Senate says something, I hope they'll pay attention to it.

RW: I want to talk about the president's trip to Helsinki. He has said that he misspoke, and that he does support the U.S. Intelligence Community's conclusion that Russians meddled in the election, although he has since said it could've been others as well. What do you make of this moment?

MB: I think this is one of the lowest moments that we've had as a country in our foreign policy in a long time. First of all, there was a right time to conclude that the Intelligence Community's assessment that Russia interfered and that's when he was sharing an international stage with Putin, and he didn't do it. So he can come wandering back to the United States and say, "Well, I now sort of think that maybe they had something to do with it, although it might've been others as well." Nobody who has seen the intelligence on this, there is no question about what happened, and it was the Russians who did it. It's not some 400-pound person sitting on their bed at home, as the president once said. It's not maybe some other people. It is the Russians. He should've been telling Putin that we weren't going to put up with it in the United States. Apparently, he didn't send that message.

RW: It sounds to me like you don't believe that he misspoke.

MB: Well, I don't believe he misspoke because this is completely consistent with what he has said from the very beginning. There were briefings that I sat through as a member of the United States Senate where it was made crystal clear that this was the Russians, and there was no ambiguousness about it. The president had the benefit of that intelligence more than a year ago, and he still said, even back then, that it wasn't clear that it was the Russians that did it. So what would be inconsistent, would be for him to now take the position that he believes the Intelligence Community, or that he believes the Russians are continuing to meddle. I think he's having a hard time saying that because I think he either doesn't believe it, or he wants the American people to be misled about what actually happened. This was an attack on our democracy, and it was not trivial. I sat with an ambassador from a European country six months ago, and listened to him tell me how destabilizing the Russians had been in democracies throughout Europe. So this isn't even about just the United States, it's an attack on the West. Instead of labeling our allies foes and then going to Helsinki and being on bended knee to Putin, he should've been rallying our allies and then confronting Putin.

RW: To use your words, that Trump was on bended knee with Putin, what do you think his motivations are?

MB: I don't have the faintest idea. I don't have the faintest idea. I mean, I don't think he knows what he's doing to begin with on these subjects, so I don't, it's beyond me to know what the motivations are. But it's just not acceptable. It shouldn't be acceptable. I mean, there's no sense to it.

RW: Is there room for Congress to act in this realm? Is there some specific step that you'd like to take to address what you've called this low moment?

MB: The first thing that we should do is have a briefing for the Senate on what was actually said in Helsinki. We need to know what the conversation was that was two hours behind closed doors with only translators there in order for us to do our oversight. I also think that the administration should put together a strategy to counter Russian aggression and Russian information warfare, and that the Senate and the House should be part of that, too. We should conduct real oversight, hold hearings to ensure that foreign governments cannot interfere in our elections. I think that the President should pass a bill to protect Robert Mueller from being fired. I mean, there are a lot of things for us to do.

RW: One other step, suggested by Colorado's Republican Senator Cory Gardner, is that Russia should be designated a state sponsor of terrorism, which would mean the imposition of new economic and defense sanctions. Gardner cites Russia's activity in Syria, the invasion of Crimea and the poisoning of two people in Britain as supporting evidence here. Do you think that designation should be imposed?

MB: I haven't looked at the designation in the context of Russia, but I certainly think that the State Department should examine that. But the fact that Cory Gardner would say that suggests to you what a mortal threat Russia is and the reason why the president's behavior at Helsinki was so poor. I'm glad he feels the way he does, Cory Gardner that is.

RW: You mentioned the Mueller investigation, and there have been some on the left, including Senator Cory Booker, who have said that the president should not be allowed to nominate someone to the Supreme Court and have that person confirmed while the president is under investigation. What do you make of that argument?

MB: I think that we have had a devastating series of actions, most of them undertaken by Mitch McConnell, but not only by Mitch McConnell, that have led us to a place where we may never see another bipartisan confirmation of a Supreme Court justice. I think that's devastating to the court. I think that's devastating to our country. The actions that Mitch McConnell took to invoke the nuclear option to make the Supreme Court nomination subject only to a 51-vote threshold instead of a 60-vote threshold, this has created a terrible dynamic for the country. I think there is a process in place for the Senate to vote up or down a Supreme Court nominee, and I believe that's what we should do.

RW: Do you believe that the Mueller investigation in any way disqualifies the president at this moment from having had his say?

MB: No, I don't think that because I think that we, until very recently as a country, were committed to the rule of law. If you're committed to the rule of law, then you need to do everything you can to protect Bob Mueller's investigation and then see where the chips fall when that investigation is concluded and he makes his report. That is the appropriate time for people to consider what action to take as a result of the investigation, not before that.

RW: I have heard varying levels of optimism from Democrats about their ability to influence this Supreme Court process. You sound the least optimistic to me.

MB: As you may know, I strongly believe that we should not have filibustered Judge Gorsuch. Judge Gorsuch was replacing Judge Scalia and because we filibustered Judge Gorsuch and Mitch McConnell invoked the nuclear option, we do not have available to us now a filibuster. And I wish very much that we did and this is what I argued at the time. That we should wait until there was going to be a change in the majority of the Court and then we would have the filibuster and we could make that fight and unfortunately we don't have it anymore.

RW: Senator, thanks for your time.

MB: Thank you.