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Interview With Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy; Report: Trump Shared Highly Classified Information With Russians; North Korea Nuclear Fears; White House Refuses to Discuss Potential Oval Office Taping; Washington Post: Trump Shared Secret Info from U.S. Ally with Russians. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired May 15, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Classified information shared. A new report tonight that President Trump revealed highly classified information to Russia's foreign minister and Russia's ambassador during an Oval Office meeting. Did the president jeopardize a critical intelligence source?
Replacing the director. President Trump says the search for a new FBI director is moving rapidly, while both Democrats and Republicans are in Congress -- they are demanding to know more about his firing of James Comey. At least eight potential replacements have been interviewed so far. Who will the president pick and can he get that person confirmed?
Tapes of wrath. An angry White House press secretary facing a barrage of questions about President Trump's threat to release tapes to embarrass FBI Director James Comey, Sean Spicer refusing to discuss possible White House recordings and saying the president has been cleared. Does the president really have tapes and will Congress subpoena to get them?
And in range for a strike. North Korea conducts its most successful missile test to date, firing a rocket potentially capable of reaching the U.S. military base in the Pacific possibly carrying a nuclear warhead. The dictator Kim Jong-un is said to have personally supervised the launch. So what's his next move?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking news tonight: President Trump reportedly revealed highly classified information to Russia's foreign minister and Russia's ambassador in a White House meeting last week, this according to "The Washington Post," which sites current and former U.S. officials as saying that Trump's disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.
Fresh fallout from the president's stunning firing of FBI Director James Comey. The president says the search for a replacement is moving rapidly, with at least eight candidates having already been interviewed. But some congressional Democrats are now trying -- tying confirmation of a new FBI director to appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, the same issue Comey was probing when he was dismissed.
At the same time, the White House is being peppered with questions about the president's tweet threatening Comey with alleged secret recordings. Press Secretary Sean Spicer won't address the issue, saying the president has been clear and there is nothing to add. But lawmakers from both sides of the aisle say the White House should turn over any tapes to congressional investigators.
We are also following North Korea's most disturbing missile test yet, a device that may be capable of reaching U.S. targets. The Kim Jong- un regime claims the missile can carry a nuclear warhead. Experts say the test was successful and that Kim himself supervised the launch.
And Democrats and at least one Republican are now criticizing the administration's order to prosecutors to go after suspects for the most serious charges that can be proven in court. They say the directive by the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, will accentuate injustice in the criminal justice system.
We are going to talk about it this hour with the head of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks.
We are covering all of that, much more this hour with our guests, also including Senator Patrick Leahy, key member of the Judiciary Committee. And our correspondents and specialists, they are also standing by.
But let's go to Capitol Hill and our senior congressional reporter, Manu Raju, who is getting new information for us.
What are you learning, Manu?
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this information coming as major surprise to senators from both parties, even members on the Senate Intelligence Committee saying they had no idea about this report saying that President Trump may have revealed classified, highly classified information to two senior Russian officials at his meeting in the White House last week.
Even members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, like Richard Burr, the chairman of that committee, saying that he is still learning more information about it, waiting to read that article when he gets back to his office.
And just moments ago, Wolf, I talked to John McCain, the chairman of Senate Armed Services Committee, who said he is concerned about this report.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RAJU: Turns out, according to "The Washington Post," that President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russians last week. What is your reaction?
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Well, if it's true, obviously, it's disturbing, but I think we have got to find out more before I can comment. I just can't comment on every news story, so -- but, obviously, if it's -- it is not a good thing.
RAJU: Should be part of the investigation here going forward?
MCCAIN: Let's wait and see what this was all about first.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RAJU: Wolf, even some of Donald Trump's allies on Capitol Hill are raising concerns.
Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, telling our colleague Ted Barrett that if this report is true, it's very problematic, but members of Congress, Wolf, still waiting to learn more details about exactly what happened -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, stand by, Manu.
I want to go to Jim Acosta, our senior White House correspondent. He's getting more reporting on this explosive report in "The Washington Post".
What are you learning, Jim?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the only thing we can tell you so far is that White House officials are very tight-lipped about this story in "The Washington Post" that President Trump during that meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, that he revealed classified, highly classified information to those Russians during that Oval Office meeting.
And apparently it has something to do with code word information that came through a U.S. ally about intelligence regarding the Islamic State. That is all we know at this point in terms of what "The Washington Post" is reporting.
Now, we can tell you, Wolf, that within the last hour, the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, walked by reporters in the press area of the West Wing. He was peppered with questions about all of this. And he essentially told those reporters to the effect of, this is the last place I want to be right now.
And then he walked away from those reporters. But, Wolf, we've repeatedly asked White House officials, national security officials over here at the White House for some kind of comment or confirmation of this story.
We should point out at this point we have not received any kind of comment or confirmation on this "Washington Post" reporting. But, Wolf, if it's true that the president did reveal highly classified information to the Russians during that meeting, which, by the way, came under a lot of scrutiny, because, remember, this meeting happened one day after he fired the FBI director, James Comey, potentially and apparently about -- or at least in some part about his concerns about the Russian investigation.
The optics of that meeting obviously were under heavy criticism at the time. But if the president also revealed classified information to the Russians during that Oval Office meeting, it is going to recall all sorts of questions and flashbacks to the campaign of last year, when the president time and again hammered Hillary Clinton, accusing her of revealing classified information through private e-mail practices and that use of her server.
And so, Wolf, if this turns out to be true, and you heard John McCain there caution to Manu Raju that they don't have confirmation of that yet, this is going to create just a whole slew of nasty questions for this White House, Wolf.
BLITZER: Stand by, Jim Acosta.
I want to go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She is working this story as well.
Barbara, "The Washington Post" headline, "Trump Revealed Highly Classified Information to Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador."
What's the reaction? What are you getting?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is very serious if it's true, and it's more than just revealing classified information.
We don't know if the "Post" story is fully accurate. We haven't confirmed it yet. But what it is suggesting is the president revealed information that the U.S. got through another country, through some sort of ally.
And when you get intelligence information from one of your intelligence partners, they own the information. You don't have the ability or the right basically to share it with another party. They own the information. And you can only share it if they give you permission, "The Post" suggesting that did not happen.
Why are there these rules of the road in the intelligence world, in intelligence services around the world? Because if you reveal what another country tells you without their permission, they cannot have confidence to share with you in the future. You begin to shut off your access to other intelligence services around the world, which are so critical in the terrorism fight, in the fight against ISIS.
These countries have to have confidence that they can tell the United States what they know and that the president of the United States, of all people, is not going to go out there and start talking about it, especially to the Russians. So this becomes very serious. It is the confidence that other
countries have that they can share with the United States and the president of the United States is not going to go out there and start talking about it. It goes even deeper than that, because what the president could not possibly be aware of is what the Russians already know.
If he shared this information with the Russians, did something President Trump might have said to the Russians give them knowledge about where the source of this information was somewhere in the world, and could the Russians take action against that source based on what president of the United States told them?
There are reasons that intelligence services operate this way, friendly intelligence services, Western intelligence services, and it has been a struggle for years now to gain the confidence of intelligence agencies in the Middle East, those who operate in Iraq and Syria throughout this region. It is very serious if this all proves to be accurate, Wolf.
BLITZER: And, very quickly, Barbara, "The Washington Post" quotes one U.S. official familiar with this conversation, this Oval Office meeting that the president had with the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador to the United States, as saying -- quote -- "This is code word information."
Tell our viewers what that information means, code word information.
STARR: Well, typically, when something is described as code word information, start with the notion very much need to know.
You don't just go trolling through your laptop, your computer and find this kind of stuff. It is very tightly controlled. It is very sensitive. It is sometimes related to human intelligence, meaning a human source, meaning a spy that works for one of these intelligence agencies.
That can be what this is all about. But it indicates this is very much a need-to-know, highly restricted information. The U.S. intelligence community would have briefed the president on it. They would have no expectation that he would turn around and tell the Russians, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, it's one of highest levels of U.S. classification.
You reveal code word information, potentially, you can reveal the sources and methods of how this U.S. ally reportedly got this information. Those sources and methods could potentially quickly dry up if shared with an inappropriate element.
Barbara, stand by.
I want to get some more on the breaking news right now.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont is joining us. He's a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Senator, I want you to react to this bombshell in "The Washington Post." I will read to you the first sentence in the article. "President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said that Trump's disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State."
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: Well, I don't know whether it happened or not. I think that Senator Burr and Senator Warner, the chairman and vice chairman of our Intelligence Committee, will look into it.
And I know they're going to look into it. But your correspondent described exactly what code word is. I know, whenever I'm given something code word classification, we do it in a secure room with people who are cleared to see the code word thing.
We read it in this secure, soundproof room. And then the material is put back into a secure safe. It is something done very, very carefully. You never discuss it outside.
I don't know what happened in that meeting. I know that the president did not allow American photographers and newspeople into the meeting, but they allowed a photographer from Russia into the meeting, who then promptly sent worldwide the pictures of the president laughing with the foreign minister and the Russian ambassador, people that were -- who are under investigation for involving themselves in our election and continuing to involve themselves here and elsewhere around the world.
It was the most jarring photograph I have seen out of any White House of any Republican or Democratic administrations.
BLITZER: The only reason we have that picture of the president with Ambassador Kislyak is because a Russian photographer supposedly from the Russian Foreign Ministry, really from TASS, we're told, the official Russian news agency, was allowed in and took those pictures.
You see a smiling president, smiling Russian ambassador to the United States. We only got a photograph from the White House official photographer the next day, no pictures with Kislyak, only with Lavrov, the foreign minister.
BLITZER: You wanted to make a point, Senator.
LEAHY: Of course there is no pictures with Kislyak, because General Flynn was fired because of his involvement with him.
Attorney General Sessions today had to come back and explain that he wasn't truthful to -- with the Senate Judiciary Committee when he said he had not met with him.
You would think that nobody would want to be seen with him. We know of Kislyak's involvement with Russia and with the United States. He is not here as a friend. And I think the Russians were making a point to say, hey, we can have this guy, who we rely on to give us information about the Americans. Look at him grinning and having fun with President Trump.
It is the wrong image to send. It's frightened a lot of our allies and has disturbed a lot of members of Senate, both Republicans and Democrats.
BLITZER: Senator, the report in "The Washington Post" says -- and I'm quoting now -- "Trump revealed the city in the Islamic State's territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected this latest threat."
Explain to our viewers how the Russians potentially could use that information and how damaging potentially it could be to sources and methods of this U.S. ally that shared this very sensitive information with the United States.
LEAHY: Well, you know, we haven't been shown whether the article is accurate or not, but you never disclose sources and methods.
Those are disclosed only to a small group of people in the Senate and the House. It is almost always code word clearance required, which is the highest clearance you can get, to have sources and methods.
Our allies, if they tell us where their sources were, they assume we are going to never release that, because they may have worked for years to develop the source. They also know, if the source is revealed, that source may have a very, very short life left. It is just never, ever done.
BLITZER: What does this to do to U.S. relationships with allies who share this kind of highly sensitive code word information with the United States, if it does wind up in the hands of Russians? The U.S. doesn't even share this kind of information with other allies, let alone with the Russians.
LEAHY: Well, again, I'm not here to defend the Trump administration, but I don't know whether the article is accurate or not.
They have had a lot of very accurate articles. And I will wait until our own Intelligence Committee has looked at it. I will certainly get briefed by our intelligence people on whether it is accurate or not.
But it would be almost inconceivable that any president would allow something of that nature out, anything that would disclose sources and methods. Those are things we protect.
I will give you an example, not that has anything to do with this case. But I know of cases where we have probably put somebody under deep cover for years, waiting for that one time that they might have information that is necessary. And we have very few allies we can share that with. We do with the British, of course, but very few others.
And we also have to rely on countries that normally we don't deal a lot with to on occasion give us information that helps them and helps us. We don't want to turn on those sources.
The United States can't be in every single place in the world every single time. If we can't rely on others to help us, then we're in deep trouble.
But there are bigger questions here. And that is, what is the influence of Russia? Did they influence our election? Are they continuing to influence actions of this country? If they are, then, you know, God save us all, because whether you're a Republican or Democrat or an independent, you better fear for the United States of America.
BLITZER: Senator, in July of last year, the House speaker, Paul Ryan, tweeted this.
And I will put up on the screen -- quote -- "It's simple. Individuals who are extremely careless with classified info, information, should be denied further access to it."
As you know, the president, as commander in chief, he has the authority to declassify government secrets at his will. So, should there be any consequences? Will you push for a full-scale investigation? Because the president can declassify even the most sensitive information if he wants to.
LEAHY: If the president wants to declassify something, he has that right, tell the American people he did. But then he would further explain why he did, and then lastly explain whether that made the United States more secure or less secure.
If you're going to be disclosing code word material to the Russians, there is no way in God's green earth that you can say that makes us safer, because it doesn't.
BLITZER: He is new on the job, as he points out himself. He had his career in business, not in government. Do you think President Trump fully understands the kind of impact these words potentially could have?
LEAHY: He claims to be very bright and understand it all. That's his statement.
BLITZER: The article in "The Washington Post" reports that the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, Thomas Bossert, had his subordinates called for what is described as the problematic part of Trump's discussion to be stricken from internal memos. If that's true, I assume that troubles you.
LEAHY: You know, we're into an "Alice in Wonderland" situation here.
I have spent years here with both Republican and Democratic presidents. I watched all of them very careful on these issues. If this is article is right -- and I said if this is article is right -- I think you're going to hear a lot of condemnation from both Republicans and Democrats.
But it also emphasizes, again, we have to have a special counsel, a special prosecutor, to look into what is Russia's connection, both with the election and ongoing. It cannot be somebody who says that they have to pledge their loyalty to the president, not to the rule of law.
This American wants a rule of law to stand up above anybody in government of either party. The rule of law is not being respected during all of this.
BLITZER: Senator Leahy, thanks so much for joining us.
LEAHY: Good to be with you, Wolf.
BLITZER: We're getting lots more reaction from this bombshell just reported in "The Washington Post," the headline, "Trump Revealed Highly Classified Information to Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador."
We will update you on the breaking news right after this.
BLITZER: Breaking news tonight: President Trump reportedly revealed highly classified information to Russian's foreign minister and Russia's ambassador in a White House meeting last week, that according to "The Washington Post," which cites current and former U.S. officials as saying that the president's disclosures jeopardize a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.
Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
So, what's the reaction you're getting over there from officials at the White House?
ACOSTA: It is almost radio silence, Wolf, over here at the White House in response to this "Washington Post" story.
If true, it means that the president disclosed highly classified information during that meeting he had last week with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.
Keep in mind that meeting was already coming under heavy criticism just because of the optics of it, that meeting happening one day after he fired the FBI director, Jim Comey, apparently over his concerns that he didn't like this Russia investigation that is going on over at FBI.
Now, the national security adviser to the president, H.R. McMaster, did walk by reporters within the last hour inside the West Wing. He was peppered with questions about this "Washington Post" story, and according to reporters who were there if the room and heard H.R. McMaster respond to all of this, the only thing they heard him say is, this the last place I want to be.
And then he scurried away from those reporters. And at this point, the White House, the national security staff, Wolf, they have simply not given us any kind of response either to confirm it, knock down this report, comment on it, what have you.
But we should point out, Wolf, if this is confirmed to be true that the president revealed classified information, apparently a code word, according to "The Washington Post," that has something to do with the fight against Islamic State, and that information coming from a U.S. ally, that would mean that the president has really contradicted himself in the criticism that he levied against Hillary Clinton during the campaign, when he pounded her time and again, accusing the former secretary of state of revealing classified information through her use of a private e-mail server.
So, some pretty difficult consequences for this White House, for this president who is already under fire over last week when it comes to Russia if this holds up and is confirmed to be true, Wolf.
BLITZER: It is a bombshell of a report. Stand by.
I want to bring in our chief security national correspondent, Jim Sciutto. He is joining us on the phone.
Jim, this is a bombshell. And now "The New York Times" is reporting something very, very similar. "President Trump boasted," according to "The New York Times," "about highly classified intelligence in a meeting with the Russian foreign minister, ambassador last week, providing details that could expose the source of the information and the manner in which it was collected," a current and former government official said on Monday.
What are your sources telling you, Jim?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Let me tell you this, Wolf.
The news of these reports is rippling through the intelligence community unlike any other story related to intelligence. And that's a high mark, as you know, Wolf, because we have been in sensitive territory before with this administration and intelligence.
I want to tell you, one former senior U.S. intelligence official told me about this, if these stories are true. He said -- quote -- "Never before have I witnessed a senior government official so carelessly threaten an intelligence-sharing relationship."
There are really three elements to this that are raising alarms, one, just the simple fact that it is classified information. That is basic. Shouldn't surprise anyone. Two, however, that it was reportedly revealed to a -- in effect, a hostile government, Russia. This is an adversary, by all accounts in the intelligence community.
But, three -- and this is a particular sensitivity -- that it affects -- infects -- affects, rather, a relationship with a sensitive intelligence-sharing partner, a partner who did not want this particular intelligence or even the nature of intelligence-sharing revealed to anyone, let alone an adversary.
And, as you know, Wolf, oftentimes, the U.S. has intelligence-sharing relationships with obvious partners, allies, the most prevalent being the Five Eyes. That is the U.K., Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Long-term relations where, in effect, you're part of a family; you see all the same intelligence. Other allies like France, Germany where you're often sharing. But also allies that aren't -- don't want it to be public. And this appears to fall into that category.
I can tell you, the reaction to this, Wolf, is deep, deep, deep alarm on a level we haven't seen with other similar stories in this administration so far.
BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, stand by.
Jim Acosta over at the White House is getting reaction, getting more information. What are are you getting there, Jim?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Just getting this information right now. I want to read to you directly what was sent to us from the White House press office. This is a statement from the U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.
It says -- and forgive me for just reading this as we -- as we speak here. It says, "During President Trump's meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, a broad range of subjects were discussed, among which were common efforts and threats regarding counterterrorism. During that exchange, the nature of specific threats were discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations."
This is, again, according to the statement provided by the administration from Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state. It goes on to say, "The president and the foreign minister reviewed common threats from terrorist organizations to include threats to aviation." This is according to the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. It goes on to say from H.R. McMaster, "At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed and no military operations were disclosed that were not known already publicly."
And then this is from Dina Powell, the deputy national security adviser for strategy, who also attended the meeting. Wolf, this is the closest we are coming to the White House saying that they're knocking down the story. This from Dina Powell: quote, "This story is false. The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced."
So there you have it from Dina Powell, the deputy national security adviser for strategy, who also attended this meeting.
We should point out, Wolf, all of these quotes were provided to us -- I'm reading them to you -- by the White House in just the last several seconds. But you have the secretary of state, the national security adviser and the deputy national security adviser essentially saying, no, this is not the case. The president did not discuss a code word, for example, that had to do with ISIS.
Of course, we're going to keep on digging and checking on this. We are talking to our sources to find out whether or not this is some spin coming from the White House, but you have a pretty -- in a pretty declared fashion there from the deputy national security adviser, Dina Powell, saying that story if false. They're trying to knock down this story, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, all right. Well, that's the first official reaction from the White House. We're going to go through those words very carefully. I know you're getting more information, Jim Acosta. Stand by.
I want to bring in our specialists and our analysts to discuss this, as well.
Gloria Borger, let me start with you. So the reaction from Capitol Hill is pretty intense.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.
BLITZER: Most of the top U.S. senators, Senator Mark Warner -- he's the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- he tweeted this just a little white ago: "If true, this is a slap in the face to the intel community. Risking sources and methods is inexcusable, particularly with the Russians."
Senator Bob Corker told CNN that if it's true, it's very, very problematic. Gloria, this is truly now a stunning report from "The Washington Post," and a similar report just was posted by "The New York Times."
BORGER: And a -- and a, you know, a blanket statement by Dina Powell, the deputy national security advisor, saying this story is false. Right? And Dina Powell and others talking it down.
And you have to ask the question -- and this is in "The Washington Post" story -- senior White House officials, according to "The Washington Post," after the meeting took steps to contain the damage, placing calls to the CIA and the National Security Agency.
So then the question has to be asked, why did they feel the need to place those calls if this discussion was pretty much pro forma and a discussion of shared threats? If it was nothing more than that, then there would not have been a need to place these calls to give people a heads-up, I don't think. And that question has not been -- you know, that question has not been answered.
So clearly, what we're -- what we're seeing here in the stories in "The Post" and "The Times" is a concern, as Jim Sciutto was just talking about, on the part of intelligence officials that the president of the United States effectively, according to "The Post," bragging to Lavrov about how great our intel is, spoke about some things that he should not said to someone who is not a friend of the United States and that he shared this highly-classified information as way to brag about how great our intel is.
[18:35:19] So I still think there's a lot of digging to be done about why the administration felt the need notify these agencies about the president's conversation.
BLITZER: It's a good point. David Chalian, I want to get your reaction to this. As you know, the president tends to say what's on his mind. And just to be precise, if the president wants to declassify even the most sensitive intelligence, the most sensitive information, he has that right to do so. He can't be charged with any crime.
But as you know, a lot of U.S. intelligence officials, they've been fearful of a development like this for a long time, if these stories in "The New York Times" now and "The Washington Post" are accurate.
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Right. As you say, he can -- not only can the president declassify anything, but he can do it in the moment, right? And so it's probably within his prerogative to do this. That is not the issue of whether or not he broke the law or not here.
The issue here is, did he just severely damage a relationship with an ally who was trusting us with that information? Did he give information to our adversaries, the Russians, who were hanging out in the Oval Office with him, something that they should not have, that they shouldn't be aware that the United States has? Those -- those are the questions about the behavior that are going to be asked here, Wolf.
And when Dina Powell in that statement says the story is false or the story is not true, whatever her quote was there in that statement, she doesn't say which parts of the story aren't. Because clearly, you can sense in the Tillerson statement and the McMaster statement, they are working overtime in the White House right now to say that sources and methods were not revealed here, that we're not exposing, dangerously, some intelligence stream, that the president did not do that, even though he was clearly talking about some of this information about the Islamic State and their plans.
BLITZER: The official statement from Dina Powell, the deputy White House national security adviser, simply says this, quote, "This story is false. The president only discussed the common threats that both countries face."
The statement from Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, said this: "During President Trump's meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, a broad range of subjects were discussed, among which were common efforts and threats regarding counterterrorism. During that exchange, the nature of specific threats were discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations."
Jeffrey Toobin, our senior legal analyst, is joining us on the phone right now. Your reaction to the breaking news. How serious is this, Jeff?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST (via phone): Well, it is certainly a potentially serious political and national security problem. As you have said, it is not a legal problem for the president. I mean, he does have the right to declassify anything he wants, including in the moment. The vice president has that power, too.
So what might get someone else literally imprisoned is something the president has absolute freedom to do. That doesn't mean it's a good idea. That doesn't mean that it couldn't have serious diplomatic, national security, political implications if he discloses something that is, potentially, information that could cause risk to people or organizations. But legally, it is not a problem.
If I could just sort of state the obvious about the political aspect, it's not just any country he disclosed this information to, apparently. It's Russia. And Russia is the fulcrum, is the center of so much political controversy now, all of which is based on the Trump campaign and the Trump administration giving them favorable treatment. Here's potentially another very serious example.
BLITZER: Potentially indeed.
And the statements from Dina Powell, "The story is false. The president only discussed the common threats that both countries face." The statement from Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, those words will be analyzed very closely.
The suggestion in both the "New York Times" and "The Washington Post" is the information the president shared with the Russians potentially, Jeffrey, could lead to understanding -- to undermining some of those sources and methods of how the U.S. received that kind of information, shutting it down down the road. So people are going to be looking at those statements very, very closely. I assume you agree.
TOOBIN: That -- that's right. You know, if the story is false, the story says a lot of things. So it's not exactly clear what she means by "The story is false."
Obviously, I think Gloria mentioned this. If this was simply a routine diplomatic exchange, why then is the National Security Agency and the CIA trying to clean up a mess? I mean, that's the real question, that if this was simply a normal diplomatic exchange, there would be no need for a panicking attempt to contain information, to comfort allies, which is what the stories say is going on.
[18:40:28] That certainly is what these, you know, terrific journalists at "The Washington Post" and at "The Times" and our colleagues at CNN will be trying to figure out in the hours and days ahead.
BLITZER: David Swerdlick is with us, as well. David, you work for "The Washington Post." You're our CNN political commentator, but you're an assistant editor over there at "The Washington Post." And it's a lengthy story, clearly, a lot of reporting going into this "Washington Post" story. "The New York Times," now for all practical purposes, has matched what "The Washington Post" is reporting. But you're getting these reactions from White House officials. Your reaction?
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: So two quick points, Wolf, in addition to everything that Jeffrey, David and Gloria said, which is one, my colleagues Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe are the best in the business, and this is an exhaustive report that they broke about this transaction or this conversation between Lavrov and President Trump.
But I want to zero in on one detail, Wolf, which is this part where they were told, my colleagues were told that part of this resulted from President Trump sort of going off script of what was -- he was sort of, you know, preset to discuss with Foreign Minister Lavrov in this conversation, as he has done in the past. And that is part of what led to what we're reporting: him giving away this classified information.
The one other point I wanted to make, Wolf, in general, is that this is why it's so important for an administration to establish credibility with the media and with the public. When an administration has a reputation for misleading or inaccuracies -- whether it's crowd size, whether it's whether or not a decision to fire Director Comey was based on a memo from Rod Rosenstein -- and folks lose confidence in some of that information that's coming from the White House, then when the White House comes out in a situation like this, and says, "Story's not true," you have to really parse that out finally and decide what they're saying, as -- as our colleagues here have said.
BLITZER: Everybody stand by. There's more reaction coming in from the White House, from Capitol Hill. We're following the breaking news, the report in both "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post." "The Washington Post first." President Trump revealed, according to "The Washington Post," highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador during their meeting in the Oval Office the other day. Much more right after this.
[18:47:25] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Take a look at these live pictures. The microphones have now been set up.
The White House says the president's national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, will walk out of the West Wing, there you see, the door right there, walk over to the microphones and make a statement on these bombshell reports now on "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times," that the president supposedly revealed highly classified intelligence to Russian foreign minister and Russian ambassador during their meeting in the Oval Office last week.
General McMaster, by the way, put out a statement and we will keep this shot up there. This is the statement that McMaster put out just a little while ago: The president and foreign minister reviewed common threat from terrorist organizations to include threats to aviation at no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed and no military operations disclosed that were not already known publicly.
That statement from General McMaster. There are other statement as well from White House officials. Dina Powell, the deputy national security adviser, saying the story in "The Washington Post" is false. She said the president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced.
I want to go to Capitol Hill. Manu Raju is getting lots of reaction up there to these two reports now.
What are you learning, Manu?
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Wolf, members of Congress want answers. They really don't know anything beyond what they've read in these reports, saying that they are alarmed, both Republicans and Democrats, saying that they are very concerned. People like John McCain telling me that this is troubling. People like Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, saying this is very problem and Democrats like Dick Durbin, the Senate minority whip, saying that this is, quote, reckless if this were true.
Now, the thing is, though, Wolf, a lot of members have not heard about this, even members who sit on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Richard Burr, who's the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he hasn't even read anything about this other than what's in the report. He said he has not fully read in detail.
Now, we just got a statement from Paul Ryan, the House speaker, who said this: We have no way to know what was said, but protecting our nation's secrets is paramount. The speaker hopes, he said, for a full explanation of the facts from the administration.
I should note that came from a spokesman from the speaker.
So, even the speaker's office wanting more information. So, Wolf, suffice to say, a lot of concerns from Capitol Hill, people wanting to know more information and Trump's not getting much support from his own party, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. People want to know if, in fact, the president of the United States did reveal highly classified information to the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak.
[18:50:05] I want to bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She's working the story as well.
Barbara, what are you learning? BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the key
question here, if all of this is true that "The Washington Post" is reporting, they are suggesting that the president shared information that came through an arrangement with a U.S. intelligence partner, another country, if you will, another intelligence service that came into possession of information.
Here's the problem: the rules of the road are, when you get intelligence from another country, another intelligence service, you don't share it. It's very confidential. It's extremely classified. You certainly don't share it without that country's permission.
Why? These countries have to have confidence in the United States intelligence services and in the president of the United States that the U.S. will keep their secrets. It puts their people, their agents on the ground, their sources and methods of collecting intelligence, potential eavesdropping. It puts all of that at grave risk.
And here's the problem in particular. If this happened, and again, we have no confirmation either way, the U.S. may not -- especially President Trump -- may have no idea what the Russians already knew. And so, he's potentially giving them a huge advantage.
They may be able, if it's true, to marry it up with other pieces of intelligence they already have, that the U.S. may not be aware of. They can potentially locate the source of the foreign intelligence. They can put people, assets at risk overseas. That's the reason you don't do this.
Again, can't emphasize enough, CNN has not been able to independently confirm this account. But we can certainly explain to people why it's so sensitive and perhaps why you're seeing some of the reaction you're seeing. Sharing intelligence with a third party when you got it from a partner is one of the biggest no-noes in the intelligence business, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. The White House says that the president's national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, will walk out of the West Wing momentarily, and walk over to the microphones that have now been set up over there and make a statement on these bombshell reports. We'll, of course, have life coverage of that.
You know, Gloria, over these past few months, there have been several reports that friendly countries, friendly allies and their intelligence services have been occasionally reluctant to share certain information with the United States during the Trump administration for fear it could be compromised. You've seen the reports, I've seen the reports. Stories like this that have just emerged will simply reinforce that notion and that fear.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right, and angered intelligence agencies like the British, for example, Wolf. Look, I think this raises the question about the president's ability to handle this kind of sensitive information and whether he, in fact, understands the consequences of even saying something that he thinks might be unimportant but he is in effect sharing highly classified information with somebody who, you know, who is not our friend.
And I think that in the interest again of showing how good our intelligence is, the president may have been bragging or boasting to a certain degree. What the "Washington Post" report states is that he shared this highly sensitive information that he should not have, perhaps without understanding the consequences of what he was doing. And largely the consequences to the people and the states that have supplied this information to us who would not want to continue sharing any intelligence stream with us in the future if they can't, of all things, trust the president of the United States not to share it with a country with whom we perhaps don't want to have this information.
So, these are the questions that General McMaster has to answer. And, you know, again, I come back to the question of why was the White House doing cleanup on this if there was nothing to clean up. Why was the courthouse calling the CIA and informing folks at the national security agency that in fact they ought to be aware of what the president said to Lavrov.
I think these are questions that need to be answered. Obviously, Congress wants to get the answer to these. But I think the White House has to explain exactly what went on in that meeting. And one thing we know did not get discussed in that meeting, Wolf, as we spoke about last week, was the question of Russian hacking.
[18:55:00] BLITZER: That did not come up, you're right.
BLITZER: And we're going to get -- once again, we're going to get reaction from the White House momentarily. H.R. McMaster, the president's national security adviser expected to walk outside the driveway there at the West Wing of the White House, walk over to the microphones and make a statement and hopefully answer reporter's questions.
Rebecca Berg, as we await for General McMaster to show up at there at the microphones, what's your reaction to these developments?
REBECCA BERG, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: Well, it's obviously astounding, Wolf, especially coming from President Trump who campaigned essentially on Hillary Clinton and the way he said she mishandled classified information, as these revelations during the campaign were coming out about her e-mail server and classified information that may have been on it and sent on it. Donald Trump said Hillary Clinton was unfit for the presidency as a result of the way that she handled classified information.
Obviously, she was never charged with any crime for what she did, but this is something obviously of much greater gravity if these reports are true. And it's not only an issue for Donald Trump but also for all of the Republicans who supported him during this election, all of the congressional lawmakers who are going to be responding to this story within the next few hours and days.
They also were highly critical of the way that Hillary Clinton handled classified information. This appears in the early reports that we're seeing to be a much more serious breach of classified information, of course completely lethal for the president to declassify this information by sharing it.
But the fact that he shared this classified information with Russia will raise plenty of questions about why he did this, whether it was appropriate and from the reporting, it appears that this was not any strategy on the part of the president, that he was merely bragging to the Russians about the classified information that he is privy to as president. And the president will have a lot of explaining to do if that was purely the justification for sharing this information.
BLITZER: All right. Justice correspondent Evan Perez is getting more information as well.
What are you learning, Evan?
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, back on March 31st when CNN broke the story about the intelligence that was behind this laptop ban involving those Middle Eastern countries, we spent a couple of days on the phone working with U.S. intelligence agencies. They had some very, very specific concerns about our reporting because we knew a lot of information that they were concerned was going to reveal classified information about sources and methods in particular and how they got the intelligence that they had.
And so, one of the things that we did, we held back some of that information because of those specific concerns. Now, this "Washington Post" story describes that what the president mentioned to the Russian officials there in the Oval Office is specific information that is essentially the stuff that they asked us not to publish.
So, we held some of this stuff back because the CIA, because the director of national intelligence, and other intelligence agencies were specifically concerned that this information, if it got out, would essentially reveal the way they collected that information, the sources and methods that they rely on, including from partner ally countries, partner agencies in allied countries.
And so, the concern here that you hear from people we're talking to is that essentially by using the language that the president might have used with the Russian officials, he may have let them in on some of the secret things that the U.S. intelligence agencies and the allies have been able to collect and specifically with regard to terrorist organizations in that region.
Again, this is stuff that we were asked specifically not to reveal and we haven't because of the sensitivity described by the U.S. intelligence agencies, Wolf.
BLITZER: It's interesting. "The Washington Post" says something very similar. "The Washington Post" says it's withholding most plot details, including the name of the city at the urging of the officials who warned that revealing that would jeopardize --
PEREZ: We did the same, Wolf. BLITZER: -- important intelligence capabilities and CNN obviously did
the same thing.
David Chalian, very quickly, we're getting the statement from a spokesman for the House Speaker Paul Ryan, quote: We have no way to know what was said, but protecting our nation's secret is paramount. The speaker hopes for a full explanation of facts from the administration.
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Wolf, this is going to show you this is going to have ramifications politically beyond the national security realm as well. That's the most important statement we've heard so far. Nowhere in that is a full-throated defense standing by President Trump from Speaker Ryan, another Republican Bob Corker quoted on "The Hill" saying: The White House has got to do something to bring itself under control and order. It's got to happen.
What you're going to look out for now are as the Republicans react to this, are they not standing lock arm with the Trump White House on this as they scramble to get this story in the right place for them?
BLITZER: David Chalian, thanks very much.
Our special coverage will continue. We're waiting for the president's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, to walk out and make a statement.
Our live coverage continues with "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" right now.