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A Secret Meeting in a Remote Island; A Powerful Secretary of Everything in the White House; Latest Defense of President Trump's Wiretapping Claims. Aired 10-11p ET
Aired April 3, 2017 - 22:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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[22:00:00] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: That does it for us. Thanks for watching. Time to hand things over to Don Lemon. CNN Tonight starts now.
DON LEMON, CNN HOST: A secret meeting on a remote island, a Trump associate and a Putin confidante. What was on the agenda?
This is CNN Tonight. I'm Don Lemon.
It happened in the Seychelles islands just days before Donald Trump's inauguration. But what did Vladimir Putin want from that undercover meeting? I'm going to talk to the reporter who broke that story.
Plus, President Trump's latest defense for his indefensible wiretapping claim. No surprise it comes from Fox News. And no surprise it does not support the president's claim that the Obama administration spied on him.
And what does a 30-something New York real estate heir know about Iraq, China, and the Middle East? President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner is the administration's unofficial secretary of everything. But is he in over his head?
We're going to all of that. But first, a word before we get started. It has been one month since the president of the United States falsely tweeted that former President Barack Obama wiretapped him.
One month later, the White House and the president are still trying to make a lie true. And they're using the president's Twitter account, the White House press briefing podium and right wing media to do it.
Today it's a claim that President Obama's former security adviser Susan Rice unmasked the names of Trump's associates. We will talk about that in detail in just a moment on this very program.
And last week, it was the debunk talking point that former Obama administration official Evelyn Farkas admitted spying on the Trump team. She did no such thing.
The week before that it was Representative Devin Nunes' clumpsy effort to give the president cover for wiretapping claims. The president said he was vindicated by Nunes. He was not. The Washington Post today calls the latest claims about Susan Rice
anatomy of a fake scandal, ginned up by right-wing media and Trump.
So let us be very clear about this. There is no evidence whatsoever that the Trump team surveilled or spied on -- was spied on illegally. There is no evidence that backs up the president's original claim.
And on this program tonight, we will not insult your intelligence by pretending otherwise, nor will we aid and abet the people who were trying to misinform you the American people by creating a diversion. We're not going to do it.
I want to tell you that we're learning tonight that President Trump spoke briefly with President Vladimir Putin today to express his sympathies to the Russian people in the wake of a terror in St. Petersburg.
I want to bring you now Michael Isikoff, he's a chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo news, former CIA analyst, Nada Bakos, CNN's Jim Sciutto, and the Washington Post Adam Entous.
I'm so good to -- I'm so glad to have all of you on this evening. Jim, I want to start with you because you can bring us the details on this story.
President Trump once again sees all of this as vindication for his false wiretap tweets when it doesn't at all vindicate that. Do they know -- tell us what you're reporting tonight. Because I understand that you have been speaking to a person who is close to Ambassador Rice.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN'S CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right, this is the first comment we really have from the Rice camp, in effect, on this allegation. And I'm told in simple terms that the allegation that Ambassador Rice improperly unmask the identities of Americans is false.
And that this is -- unmasking is something that happens when you're a senior financial security official whether democrat or republican. That's a statement from the Rice camp. Leave that as it be, because I also spoke with former senior U.S. intelligence officials who serve both republican and democratic administrations, and they say consistently a couple of things.
One, unmasking identities in certain circumstances is not unusual and it's not illegal. Why would you do it? You would do it to get more background on an intelligence report that your briefer brings you. It's legal, and, in fact, there were protocols put in place and updated after 9/11 to allow this under certain circumstances. And when you do, it's very well logged.
One former senior U.S. intelligence official said it's better logged than Irish baptismal records. A little bit of a joke, but you can't do it in secret.
A couple more points on it. One, a security national official, whether they are the National Security Adviser, Susan Rice or anyone can't do it on their own. They ask the intelligence committee to unmask that identity, and it's up to the intelligence committee, specifically the NSA, to do so.
So they have to decide that it is justified to do that. And finally, how broadly is that information shared, Don? I'm told that when an identity is unmasked, it is between the briefer and that senior national security official. It is not put in a memo, it's not tweeted out, it's not put on the Whitehouse.gov web site. Right? It's between them.
Now there are open questions here. That official could of course share that information more broadly within the administration. We don't know what happened in this case. We also don't know what justification was used to unmask in these particular cases.
But at least on the issue of masking, unmasking by itself is not leaking, it's not illegal, and I'm told by multiple officials who serve both parties that it is not unusual, either.
[22:05:06] LEMON: Unmasking is not leaking, though, if you hear that talking point, you're being bamboozled there.
So, Nada, here's what you tweeted on the Susan Rice story. That you said, "She was the national security adviser reading a report of foreign officials discussing U.S. persons coming into W.H. the White House, this isn't odd or wrong." So explain why it isn't odd or wrong despite the president calling it, quote, "a crooked scheme."
NADA BAKOS, FORMER CIA ANALYST: Right. Not knowing exactly what's in the report but say those incidental collections. She is reading something say, Russian diplomats are discussing incoming administration officials.
She has a need to know then, are we going to be vulnerable, are they going to try to manipulate our government? And this trade craft 101. She has a need to know. So she's able to asks the intelligence committee then, can you please unmask this so I can understand the context? And then it informs their foreign policy decisions as well.
LEMON: So, speak as if President Trump is watching right now. What is he missing about the Intel community or willfully ignoring when he is shooting off these tweets?
BAKOS: This doesn't take anything into context as to how this works. This is really, it is trade craft 101. When you have a need to know, and especially if you're national security adviser, you have the right to be able to ask the intelligence community for more information and for more context.
LEMON: So Adam, to you now. There is no evidence that President Trump was directly wiretapped or surveilled, zero evidence of it. So the more President Trump tries to distract, the more attention it gets. Why keep doing it?
ADAM ENTOUS, WASHINGTON POST REPORTER: Well, I think, you know, I'm not actually sure why he keeps on doing this. I mean, obviously the reporting about connections with Russia are distracting from his agenda, and by maybe trying to point to incidental collection cases in which members of his campaign or transition team were unmasked is a way of pointing everyone in a different direction.
I really don't fully understand what his motivations are here except for maybe an attempt to distract. I mean, I do think incidental collection, which is what we're talking about here, is a very legit -- is a legitimate topic for a discussion, and does warrant attention.
There are specific rules that are applied if people are unmasked. If a lawmaker, for example, is unmasked, there has to be a notification to the congressional oversight committees that oversee the intelligence community.
So it is a legitimate issue, you know, but it is, as your other guests have said, something that happens probably several times a week. You know, if not more often than that.
LEMON: In this particular case, so it is a diversion and it's trying to get, you know, people to look at something else rather than what the president originally said.
Michael, it's good to have you in studio. I want you to speak to this. I want to play this. This is Eric Swalwell who sits on the intelligence committee. He reacted to Bloomberg News report today. Watch this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ERIC SWALWELL, (D) UNITED STATES REPRESENTATIVE: Just because Susan Rice would have been able to, you know, quote, unquote, "unmask this information" does not mean that anyone else is able to see it. It's often the case that only one individual or someone on their staff sees it.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right.
SWALWELL: So this isn't sent out a reply all to the whole intelligence community where names are being released. It's usually just one person.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEMON: What do you think, Michael?
MICHAEL ISIKOFF, YAHOO NEWS CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I know, look, that's exactly right. And as it goes to motivation, if you remember when the whole tweet storm started, March 4th on a Saturday, just before that, the big issue in Washington that was blowing up in the Trump White House's face was Jeff Sessions and did he lied to the Senate judiciary committee.
And you know, did he have to recuse himself or go further? Did he commit perjury? Did he have to come back before the Senate judiciary committee? As soon as President Trump started tweeting about the wiretapping at
Trump Tower, that discussion pretty much dropped off the table. So in one sense, it was effective. It diverted public attention from what was the issue du jour at the time.
LEMON: But it didn't he open up an entirely terrible can of worms now?
ISIKOFF: Obviously he opened up a completely different issue that has, that in some ways is plaguing him even more.
Look, I agree with what every all the guests have said. There is nothing that has come out, nothing we've learned in any way justifies the wording of those tweets. But, you know, there are issues about incidental collection.
That was a big issue for civil libertarians in the wake of the Snowden disclosures, that Americans' conversations were being scooped up by the intelligence community, by the NSA, and were being incidentally collected. And what was the procedures by which those were guarded?
[22:09:59] And we do know that in at least one instance, Mike Flynn, it did get publicly disclosed, his conversations with Kislyak became public. Now, that is potentially problematic.
It doesn't mean that it isn't worth knowing that when he had these conversations, there was good reasons for the Obama White House to want to know if Flynn was undercutting the sanctions that they had just imposed on the Russian government as a result of the hack.
But, you know, to be a stickler about the rules, it was probably not OK under the rules and perhaps even under the law for that name to be leaked to the public.
LEMON: But they say they know where that name came from and to connect it to the former national security adviser, it's just...
ISIKOFF: No, that's a leap that goes beyond available evidence.
LEMON: Yes. All right, everyone, stick around. When we come right back a secret meeting between a man calling himself unofficial envoy for Donald Trump and a Russian close to Vladimir Putin.
LEMON: What happens in the Seychelles stays in the Seychelles. Well, until now, new revelations tonight about what happened when a Trump associate and a Putin confidante met just days before the inauguration.
Back now with my panel. Adam, I want to start with you because I understand you have some reporting out tonight about a secret meeting on a remote island between a Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a Russian close to Putin to establish a Trump/Putin backchannel. Tell us what you found. [22:14:59] ENTOUS: Yes. So what we learned was that basically, you
know, there was a secret meeting in New York that was attended by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi in mid-December with, you know, several of Trump's top advisers.
A few weeks later, Erik Prince, who was a supporter of Trump, and, of course, the brother of the education secretary-to-be, he approached the crown prince and said he was representing Trump and that he would like a meeting with an envoy for Putin.
You know, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and frankly, the UAE was very eager to be helpful to both Putin and to trump. They are very interested in getting Russia and the United States back together, because they believed that if that occurs, then Iran gets squeezed out of the picture.
And so they helped set this up this meeting in the Seychelles which of course is an island chain in the Indian Ocean far away from the media where they had this meeting. We have not identified as of this time the Russian official person who went representing Putin in those talks.
LEMON: Adam, can you just explain a little bit more to our viewers who Erik Prince is? Because while he didn't have a formal role with the Trump campaign, he happens to be the secretary of education. Betsy DeVos' brother donated $250,000 to the campaign.
ENTOUS: Right. I mean, Prince is either best known for his days with Backwater, basically a private contractor who got into some hot water in Iraq several years ago. Since then he's basically he lived partly for a few years, a couple years, maybe, in the UAE where he got to know the crown prince who he later would approach about this meeting.
You know, during the campaign last year, Prince was not officially part of the Trump campaign. The people we talked to who were part of the transition said that he was, though, a frequent presence in their transition offices in New York last year, including in December, and that he was sort of an unofficial adviser on certain issues to the campaign.
He has ties with Bannon, the strategic adviser to the president, and appeared regularly on Breitbart, the news organization that Bannon was running at the time.
ENTOUS: So there was a connection there, and what we really don't know at this point is, you know, who, if anybody, basically asked him to make this outreach effort.
LEMON: Yes. Well, and I need to say the White House and Prince denied that it was on behalf of the Trump administration anything to do with the Trump folks.
Jim, so with all this back channeling, it was just last week we learned that Jared Kushner was interested in finding a backchannel to Putin and ended up meeting with the controversial top Russian banker. How many backchannels did they need?
SCIUTTO: Well, it's a fair question. We should be clear that the Trump administration was not the only administration who sought backchannels. I mean, remember the Iran nuclear negotiations started with a backchannel communication between the Obama administration and the Iranians, which was secret until it later led the public negotiations so that happens.
Of course, the trouble with those I suppose you have to watch who you're backchannelling with. One, you don't want it to get public which has happened twice in the span of a week. And two, are you going with people that you can trust to give you that actual backchannel?
And you saw the dangers last week with Kushner's interaction with a Russian bank that's under U.S. sanctions. That obviously raises questions. It just shows that as you're doing this kind of thing, which goes back, you know, many administrations of both parties, you got to be very careful and it raises questions about the oversight of these kinds of decisions on key national security issues, key foreign policy issues the most key ones, arguably, for this administration.
LEMON: Yes. Let's talk about this a little bit more, Nada. The Trump campaign in transition had a direct channel. They had meetings with a Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, also one of the President Obama's transition officials who went on to become U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Obama. He tweeted this.
He said, "This story just gets weirder and weirder. During the Obama transition in 2008, I was his Russian adviser back then. We met with zero Russians. Zero." Nada, what do you think?
BAKOS: I think, well, I agree with Jim that this is, using unofficial channels is commonplace, especially for negotiating agreements. But it's done with the sitting government. So I don't understand what the rush was. They could have waited until after inauguration.
I also question the use of Erik Prince, if this is, if he was directed by the White House. I don't know why you would use Erik Prince. It seems like a conflict of interest. He's worked quite a bit with the UAE government and has ties to the royal family there. So I don't think he's the best person, also, in a position to do this negotiation.
LEMON: Yes. Michael, I want to talk to you. Because you had new reporting about a cancel February meeting between President Trump and a top Russian banker after it was discovered the banker was suspended of mob ties. What was that all about?
[22:20:04] ISIKOFF: Well, this is perhaps another dimension when we talk about a Russian influence campaign. There is a guy, Aleksander Torshin, he is the deputy governor of the Bank of Russia, the country's central bank, he is a close ally of President Putin, and he had been head of the United Russia Party in the Duma, and he has forged relationships with a lot of people in the Republican Party.
He's a life member of the NRA, goes to its annual meetings. He was heading the Russian delegation to the national prayer breakfast and was on the schedule to meet with President Trump just before the prayer breakfast when somebody in the National Security Council discovered that he also happens to have been the target of an organized crime money laundering investigation by the Spanish national police.
In fact, as we reported this weekend on Yahoo News, the Spanish national police had mounted an operation to arrest him at the Majorca airport when he was flying in to meet the head of the Russian organized crime syndicate in Spain.
He got tipped off, didn't show, but continued to come to the U.S., was having dinner with republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, Tom Massie of Kentucky and was showing up at the prayer breakfast. The meeting did get canceled, so you can't put that on the Trump White House. But it is another look at the many ways in which interesting people from Russia are forging relationships and perhaps trying to influence our political process.
LEMON: That sounds like a pitch for, in our day, what we called movie of the week. Remember that?
ISIKOFF: Let's hope so.
LEMON: All right. Because I mean, Donald Trump, Jr. actually met with his banker last year. Michael is also reporting that, Jim, there is also this.
A former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page telling BuzzFeed that he met with a Russian diplomat named Victor -- I can't say his last name -- you can say it back in 2013 in New York.
I mean, this diplomat was later charged in 2013 as working as a secret agent. He tells BuzzFeed, this is Carter, nothing sensitive was discussed. But it seems like, I mean, this is just another point of concern that's now hanging out there for them.
SCIUTTO: Well, it is. I mean, you have multiple contacts between people close to trump or at least were advising Trump during the campaign at various points and Russians. Now, it does show the risk of having what was an unformed, I suppose you could describe it, campaign structure where you had people with varying degrees of qualifications, frankly, and even also closest to the candidate himself who were meeting, at least claiming to be speaking for Trump or claiming to have access to him through this campaign.
And that shows you one of the risks of having what was a largely unformed operation even as you got into the transition period where you have a guy like Erik Prince doing the representation or even a son-in-law, right?
This kind of thing, it makes sense to have people with experience and to have a structure, a decision-making structure, an oversight of all these things. Because when you don't, that's where you'll end up with these strange and somewhat risky relationships that, you know, that create problems for the president down the line. LEMON: Yes.
SCIUTTO: You know, now he's president, now he has a chance to build out that staff, but even in that case we know that many of these key positions aren't filled in the State Department and elsewhere. Still doesn't have that structure that allows you to avoid some of these pitfalls along the way.
LEMON: Perfect segue to my next segment, by the way, Jim Sciutto. Thank you so much for you.
SCIUTTO: That's why I do it for you.
LEMON: Thank you, Michael. Thank you, Adam, and thank you, Nada, as well.
When we come right back, the president's son-in-law in Iraq today. Also on his plate slamming down the federal government reforming criminal justice and solving Middle East peace. Is Jared Kushner the secretary of everything?
[22:25:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
LEMON: Jared Kushner is a very, very, very busy man in the Trump administration today. The president's son-in-law was part of American delegation meeting in Baghdad with Iraq's prime minister. Also he likes diplomatic experience. The White House explained his presence this way.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN SPICER, UNITED STATES WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He has a team that he oversees and I think there is a lot of areas that he has been working very diligently on behalf of the government, on behalf of the president's agendas.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEMON: So I want to bring in CNN contributor Emily Jane Fox, staff writer at Vanity Fair, Elizabeth Spiers, a former editor in chief at the New York Observer who worked for Jared Kushner, by the way, Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University, and CNN political commentator Mr. Andre Bauer.
Good evening to all of you. Emily, you first. because here...
ANDRE BAUER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Hello, Don.
LEMON: Hello. Here's the jobs that Jared Kushner is responsible for, Emily. Advising the president, brokering Middle East peace office of American innovation, which includes overhauling the bureaucracy, Veterans Affairs, and ending drug addiction.
And he seems to be the shadow secretary of state with Mexico, Canada and China. And today he showed in Iraq at a meeting with the prime minister. So what is he doing do you think with all these very critical assignments?
EMILY JANE FOX, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, that's all? That's all he's responsible for.
LEMON: That's it, I mean, not much.
FOX: It's probably not a whole lot. He probably has a lot of free time on his hands. I think the way it was explained to me by someone who is close to him, who has known him for a while in the private sector and is now familiar with what he's doing in the White House, is that sometimes when someone chooses to have a lot of balls in the air, what you're able to do is to distract some -- to distract everybody and not really have responsibility for keeping any of them up in the air.
And what all you need is one success, one ball to stay in the air and everyone else will forget about the other ones. It's kind of a smart strategy there.
LEMON: It's very interesting. And you -- but you know him.
ELIZABETH SPIERS, FORMER EDITOR IN CHIEF, THE NEW YORK OBSERVER: Yes, I would say -- I would be a little skeptical that there's any overarching strategy there. I think a piece of it is Donald Trump doesn't seem to have a lot of overarching strategy for how he delegates, so it may just be a function of Trump wanting to delegate something and Jared putting his hand up. And it might be as simple as that.
[22:30:04] FOX: Actually, someone close to him said to me, Donald asks a lot of him and he simply just says yes.
LEMON: He says yes.
LEMON: Even though some believe -- it's not my assessment, but some believe he, you know, it's a 30-something heir, a real estate heir that it's just, you know, he's sort of out of his depth here.
Andre, Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked about Jared's incredible portfolio of responsibilities. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's our understanding that Mr. Kushner is involved with Mexico, that he's involved with Saudi Arabia, that he's involved with Canada, that he's involved with a number of different issues, China in particular?
SEAN SPICER, UNITED STATES WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Yes. And I think that there has been, as he has made clear initially during the transition, he played a very key role in helping to facilitate a lot of those.
But now that the State Department is up and running, he has started to push a lot of those. But there is obviously people that are going to continue to...
SPICER: Absolutely. But there's a lot of relationships that Jared has made over time with different leaders, Mexico being one of them, you mentioned, that are going to continue to have conversations with him and help facilitate. That doesn't mean, by any means, that it's being done without coordination by the State Department. Quite, in fact, the opposite.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEMON: So I'm going to ask a similar question that I asked Elizabeth Spiers. Does he have the experience with any of the complicated issues involved with these countries?
ANDRE BAUER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, to say this, Don, as a 32-year-old guy I got elected lieutenant governor. I didn't have any background in that, but I met with Margaret Thatcher, Fidel Castro, the princess of Jordan, the president of Taiwan. Nobody briefed me, nobody prepared ahead of time.
And Jared Kushner is Donald Trump's most trusted adviser. The guy has graduated magna cum laude from Harvard. He's got a great background, he made $20 million flip in real estate in college. So he's a well- achieved guy in his own merit.
But more than anything, he can assess what he sees unbiased and go back to the President of the United States and say, here's what I see from 40,000 feet and give his opinion. And then the president is able to get a person that he trusts that doesn't have an agency he's looking out for or a certain entity that he's trying to protect, just a viewpoint of somebody that he actually trusts and I think that's a good thing to have for a president.
LEMON: OK. Go ahead, Mr. Drezner, because it looks like you want to react to this.
DANIEL W. DREZNER, PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL POLITICS, TUFTS UNIVERSITY: I'm just assuming that Jared Kushner stayed in the best Holiday Inn express imaginable last night, because that's the only explanation I have for why so anyone would have the kind of hubris to think that you can solve U.S. relations with Mexico, U.S. relations with Canada, U.S. relations with China, bring peace to the Middle East, solve the opioid crisis, solve the V.A. problem, and by the way, reform all the federal government.
So this is insane. Let's just be honest about this, OK? This is a 36- year-old guy who probably has some intelligence but has no actual knowledge about any of the policy areas we're talking about beyond the two months he's been in office. And demonstrates no staff or no ability to actually implement solutions. His one qualification is that he married well.
LEMON: Yes. Wow. What do you say after that? What do you...
SPIERS: I would agree -- I would agree with Dan to a large extent. I think it's preposterous to talk about the situation in the context of anything other than his relationship to Donald Trump. If you look at the fact that he went to Iraq yesterday, it's -- it has nothing to do with anyone in the Pentagon believing that he has any value to add on a foreign policy basis.
It's about the Pentagon looking for other channels to influence and communicate with President Trump who so far has eschewed conventional channels.
LEMON: Well, that really the crux of the story, is that they're trying to have some sort get time or at least get the president's ear, right? So they brought Jared Kushner in so that they might be able to do that. That's an interesting strategy, Emily.
FOX: Well, it's family. Who better to have Donald Trump's ear, a man who is famously loyal to his family, someone whose own children work for his family business and now children who work for him in the White House. Who better to get to Donald Trump than his own flesh and blood or in-law?
LEMON: But listen, I love my mom, but I wouldn't hire her as a producer on my show. She's not qualified.
FOX: Well, you don't operate like the Trumps do where I said this before. But the greatest qualification for Donald Trump is having the last name Trump. That is the ultimate job qualification.
LEMON: Or Kushner, right? Or Kushner.
FOX: Yes. Or in this case Kushner.
SPIERS: But I think it's also a mistake to assume that because he trusts Jared that he takes his advice. You know, we all have family members that we trust but we wouldn't take advice from them.
LEMON: Hire them, yes. Go ahead, Andre.
BAUER: Well, he's going to receive an update on things like campaign to defeat ISIS. Again, he's not making policy, he's going back and reporting to Donald Trump, from my understanding, and giving him an overview of what he sees. And he's just analyzing what he sees in each one of these different scenarios.
And a guy, again, on his own, in his own right, he's a very accomplished young man, and so Donald Trump trusted him. I don't see what the harm is and to send someone you trust, get information gather, and then come back and inform the President of the United States to make a better decision. [22:35:08] LEMON: Well, isn't that what the secretary of defense and
the secretary of state would normally do, that's why you hire them because they have the experience and you can -- you can trust them?
BAUER: Sure they would.
LEMON: But how would -- how would Jared Kushner -- let's just be honest. If he saw a fight or skirmish or a scuffle in Iraq in a war zone, what would he know, you know, a from z? He wouldn't know. That's what the defense secretary would know. That's why he hired all the generals, remember? He hired a bunch of generals and we were talking about that.
So, Dan, I have to ask you, though, because I have to move on here. You're reporting in the Washington Post, you said, "The looming strategic disaster in Mar-a-Lago this week, the president meeting with the Chinese president this Thursday and Friday. It's one of the most important relationships with the U.S. One of the most important relationships the U.S. has." Why do you say that that's going to be a disaster?
DREZNER: Because everything that Donald Trump believes when it comes to foreign policy is that what he wants out of countries like China or Germany or what have you is pledges of investment in the United States. He wants sort of shiny deliverables to say, I have, you know, reached an agreement where China will bring $5 billion worth of investment in and that will create so many jobs.
The question is, what is the quid pro quo for that? What will China ask for that? And I think there is genuine concern to the extent to which you are going to see U.S. foreign policy for rent. And not all that valuable, either. They're going to charge low prices where the U.S. agrees to, let's say, step out of the South China Sea, for example, in return for a couple billion dollars of investment.
And the problem is, that those pledges of investment, China made pledges of investment to Russia, for example, that actually haven't borne out. But changes in U.S. foreign policy are very tough to reverse. So I worry, frankly, that the summit is going to go extremely well.
That you're going to see a lot of declarations about agreements about, you know, new Chinese investment in the United States that in fact, don't actually amount too much and wind up leading the strategic reversals when it comes to American foreign policy.
LEMON: Let's talk a little bit more about the president's son-in-law, Elizabeth. Because again, he's supposed to be leading this office of government innovation to modernize and stream line the government. You worked with him at The Observer for 18 months. That was back in 2011 and 2012. And you said you don't believe he's qualified for that position, either?
SPIERS: Well, I mean, look what it's designed to do. You know, if what you're really talking about is reforming government, which is largely requires operational expertise that Jared doesn't have and he doesn't really have that kind of experience, either.
He comes out of commercial real estate, which certainly is a competitive and difficult to be competitive industry, but it's 90 percent transactional and the 10 percent that isn't transactional is really about cost cutting.
And if those were the only two things that mattered in terms of reforming government, maybe he would be qualified to advise, but they aren't. You really do need the operational expertise.
LEMON: All right. We're not done yet. Stick around, everyone. When we come right back, First Lady Melania Trump goes glam in her brand new official portrait.
[22:40:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
LEMON: The White House today releasing the official portrait of the First Lady Melania Trump. She is wearing a black tuxedo style jacket along with a sequined scarf. The photo was taken inside the private residence at the White House.
Back with me now, my panel. So, Emily, I want to get everyone's reaction to this, Melania's official portrait. I want to start with you.
FOX: She looks beautiful. I think the lighting is very reminiscent of maybe the '90s, '80s soft photo.
LEMON: It looks like a glamour shot. She's a beautiful woman.
FOX: She looks stunning.
LEMON: Doesn't it look like a glamour shot?
FOX: Yes. But first lady is oftentimes is very glamorous.
LEMON: It's a very glamorous, yes. Elizabeth?
SPIERS: She looks like a bond girl that you're not sure which sides she's on. You know, the good guys or the bad guys. She looks stunningly beautiful, but there is something bondish about it.
BAUER: She's stunning. I mean, she's a striking woman and one of the most beautiful first ladies we've ever had.
LEMON: Yes. What do you think, Dan?
DREZNER: I'm not going to argue against Melania Trump being an attractive woman.
LEMON: All right. So we're going to look at -- let's look at some of the other first lady portraits.
DREZNER: Well, I feel like we need to join hands and sing Kumbaya. This never happened before.
LEMON: It's a little bit of a departure from some of the first ladies, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and Laura bush. They all wore black, though, as well, right?
FOX: Yes. I didn't realize that everyone is wearing black. It's an interesting choice.
LEMON: They are all in black. Yes. OK, so, we're all -- everyone is in agreement there.
All right. So let's talk about some of the other Trump aides that you've got an article out in Vanity Fair about Kellyanne Conway's role at the White House. OK.
And here's what you write, Emily. You said, "What does Kellyanne Conway do when she is not on TV? Even in the White House there has been a growing lack of clarity. There is some confusion about what she does day to day. One White House aide tells me she has an agenda of the issues she wants to work on and is very passionate about the plans to help out with. But it's less clear how she is working on them on a daily basis." So what is she doing?
FOX: Well, it is very related to what we were just talking about with Jared Kushner, actually, what she's doing on a daily basis. If we go back to February, Kellyanne was actually on with Jake Tapper on CNN and she had touted wanting to work on issues related to veterans and the opioid addiction.
At that time people close to Jared Kushner have said to me, you know, Jared is not really sure what her place is here so let's keep her focused on those two issues.
Now flash forward to this week when this commission that he is in charge off was announced. Suddenly his commission is tasked with veterans issues and the opioid addiction crises facing the country.
Those were the two things that Kellyanne was supposed to be focused on. So, as Jared role is ballooning in the White House, Kellyanne's role seems to be diminishing. And she is answering and offering her help to Jared Kushner, who is 14 years younger than she is and far less experienced in politics.
FOX: The two are definitely tied and interrelated.
LEMON: Far less experience in politics. Go on.
[22:44:54] SPIERS: I think a piece of this is the entire administration as the valued expertise across the board as being inherently valuable, and as a result they're willing to assign an astounding variety of tasks to people.
Where, you know, Jared is managing epically broad portfolio and so is Kellyanne. And there is an overriding sentiment within the administration that you can do that and do it well. And certainly previous administrations have not bought into that notion.
LEMON: But isn't why maybe they have so many issues over the last 70 or so days, Dan, because Kellyanne Conway has been one of the most controversial of the president's advisers from talking alternative fact, to talking about microwaves, you know, turning into cameras and pitching Ivanka's products.
She has experience in politics but she has little experience in government and actually governing. Is that part of the problem in terms of how the first 70-some days have gone?
DREZNER: Sure. That's a huge part of the problem. If you look at Trump's sort of senior White House staff, none of them coming in had any experience whatsoever working for the federal government up until this administration.
And furthermore, it's also worth pointing out that beyond Kellyanne and Jared, you've actually had a remarkably degree of staff turnover, the burn rate is incredibly high given that we haven't even hit the 100 days yet. You've already got Michael Flynn who has been forced out.
We're hearing rumors now that K.T. McFarland who is the deputy national security adviser is on her way out, and I believe last week, Kelly Walsh, who is the one of the deputy chief of staff, also went out.
And I think that also explains, by the way, one of the reasons why you've got Jared Kushner assuming a larger portfolio and why the lines of command seem to be so confused. Trump's sort of inner staff is becoming smaller and smaller. He's not expanding it, he's actually shrinking it. Which is going to mean, by the way, that governing is actually going to get harder for him over time, not easier.
LEMON: Andre, what do you think because Jared Kushner, Ivanka, Kellyanne Conway. No one really understands exactly what their jobs are. The lack of definition do you think, is that a problem with getting things done or getting a coherent message out of this administration?
BAUER: Possibly so. It would be better if the Americn public knew actually what their roles were. I think it would be a better from a standpoint of public perception to know a delineated job title as to what her undertakings were.
LEMON: I have to go. Quickly if you can because I know you want to.
FOX: I think it's a good thing for Jared and Ivanka, and Kellyanne to not have their roles defined. It ends up they're not responsible to anybody if no one knows what they're exactly supposed to be doing.
LEMON: Yes. Very good point. Thank you all.
When we come right back, Donald Trump quietly changing the rules of the blind trust that controls his company and that's raising a lot of questions. [22:50:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
LEMON: New questions tonight about potential conflicts of interest for President Trump. It turns out he's allowed to draw cash payments from the trust he's set up to hold his business assets while he is in office.
Here to discuss now Richard Painter, who is the chief White House ethics lawyer under President W. Bush. Good evening, Richard. Thank you so much for coming on.
I want to start with this Republika Report today that revealed that there have been changes made quietly to the president's trust. Changes that meant to address potential conflicts of interest.
Now according to a report, a new clause was added on February 10th. Then here's what it says. It says, "The trustees shall distribute net income or principal to Donald J. Trump at his request, as the trustees deem necessary for his maintenance, support or uninsured medical expenses or as the trustees otherwise deem appropriate."
So, what does this clause do to the president's trust and what does it say about his ongoing level of involvement with his own business?
RICHARD PAINTER, FORMER CHIEF WHITE HOUSE ETHICS LAWYER: Well, he has plenty of money for maintenance for medical expenses already. What this is about is that this trust was set up to benefit him. And allow him to do with his money whatever he wants when he wants. That's what's going on. We've known that all along.
This so-called trust are just another way to hold the assets that belong to Donald Trump as President. He still has a conflict of interest on those assets. Whether they're in a trust, a corporation of partnerships or whatever. And this just confirms what we've known all along. This is just about a way to hold those assets for the benefit of Donald Trump.
LEMON: All right. Well, Richard, let me ask you this. At today's press conference, Sean Spicer was also asked about the costs surrounding a Trump family trips and whether the president has considered paying for some of that out of his own pocket. Let's listen to Spicer's response.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SPICER: Third is, you know, I would know ironically this is a day that the president just donated a significant amount of money of his salary back to the federal government. And so, you know, respectfully, it's like at what point does he do enough? He just gave a very sizeable donation.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Probably that's the every small...
SPICER: But that's not how we judge. I mean, I don't, I think to be able to say that he isn't taking a salary, I think he stopped from his business. He's walked away from a lot. I think let's -- I think at some point he's, you know, he's done quite a bit in terms of having, you know, making a donation to the government.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEMON: All right, so, Richard, can you explain this to me. Seriously, when it comes to his business, exactly what has President Trump walked away from?
PAINTER: He has walked away from many things. He still owns the businesses, he just has other people managing the businesses for him and he's getting some quite frequent update. We're finding out he's getting a lot more updates than he said he would but he still owns the businesses.
He's making a ton of money in the private sector while he's president of the United States. He has conflicts of interest and yet insists that the president cannot have conflicts of interest. That's wrong. He does. He needs to address those conflicts of interest. He won't.
And now he's taking these trips to Mar-a-Lago all the Secret Service in tow and had to bring down all the White House staff members and the members of the club pay $200,000 to join. They raised that fee from $100,000 to 200,000 right after the election. So they can hang out with the White House staff and the president and that's just pay to play.
And now they tell us they don't even have records as to who is going in to Mar-a-Lago and that's just utter nonsense.
[22:55:00] I just don't think he wants to share that with the Secret Service because he thinks Congress might subpoena him.
So this whole Mar-a-Lago thing is turning into a serious problem where we don't even know who is going in and out of there to lobby the president. And the taxpayers are paying for it.
We need a president who's going to focus on doing his job as president, not just on making money and hanging around his winter White House as he calls it with no visitor logs and no accountability.
LEMON: And the money that he's donated so far, I am told it would only cover a few hours of Secret Service for, you know, in one visit just a couple of hours. So, I mean, that's a lot of money.
Let's talk about this new report that Michael Flynn, President Trump's former national security advisor failed to reveal that he had received payments from three Russia connected entities when he follow financial disclosure when he filed that form after joining the Trump administration.
Is that illegal, Richard?
PAINTER: Yes. That's a false statement. If he knowingly made a false statement either orally or in writing and here I believe he signed this form 278, financial disclosure form. If he knowingly made a false statement to the United States government in the conduct of its official business, which this was, that would be a crime.
So the question is whether he knew he was making a false statement or whether he just happened to forget that he even, I believe it was $45,000 by an entity linked to the Russian government to give a speech the year before.
Well, all I can say if someone had paid me $45,000 a year to give a speech, I wouldn't have forgotten about it when filling up my form 278, and I wouldn't have lied about it. So, I don't know what's going on with him.
LEMON: Yes. Richard Painter, always a pleasure. Thank you very much. Don't miss CNN's Van Jones in a live town hall with the former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Messy Truth. Wednesday night at 9 Eastern and Pacific. We'll be right back.
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