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Trump Defends "Right" to Share Info with Russians; Sources: Trump Gave Highly Classified Intel to Russians; Today: Trump Meets with Turkey's President. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired May 16, 2017 - 10:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman. "You're damn right I did." That's the key line in on "A Few Good Men" and it's the sentiment from President Donald Trump this morning, who now says yes, he did share information with senior Russian officials in a meeting last week.

The president wrote "As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled White House meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS and terrorism."

Here's the thing, U.S. intelligence officials tell CNN that there is concern about Russia will do with this information that some officials say is highly classified and it could out a highly sensitive source and damage relations with the unnamed ally, the nation that entrusted Washington with this intelligence.

We're covering the story from every angle, across continents. I want to begin with Joe Johns at the White House. Again, Joe, this statement from the president saying, yes, he did share information, a very different explanation, in some ways, perhaps, at odds with the theme professed last night from his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's absolutely right, John. But I think we have to do a little bit of fact-checking on the president's tweets this morning, starting with the fact that he referred to the meeting last week with the Russians as openly scheduled. And it may have been openly scheduled, but it wasn't exactly open, because American journalists were not allowed in to take pictures or record any part of it. And the pictures you see that have been made public are pictures that were taken by a Russian photographer, a bit of a public relations problem there for the White House.

But in the big picture, John, as you said, there is that issue of the president sort of suggesting or creating the inference that the story as reported last night may very well have been true, but the president didn't go all the way to say that. In fact, he did not suggest that there was sensitive information or top-secret information that may have been shared with the Russians in that meeting and neither did the national security adviser, who appeared last night speaking with reporters, though at that time, the national security adviser was trying to create the inference or suggest that the story was false. Listen.


GENERAL H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: At no time, at no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed and the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.


JOHNS: So, that sort of question of whether the national security adviser, who's seen very much as a straight shooter, was trying to hide the ball there a little bit simply because, among other things, the initial reporting on this story never said anything about disclosing sources or methods. The initial reporting was much more about the release of what's known as "code word" information, which is a level above top-secret, John.

BERMAN: Yes, highly classified information, Joe Johns. And I should note, we will hear again from General McMaster. He will be a special guest star at the White House briefing today. We will see if he sort of bridges the explanations that he gave last night and this new one from the president this morning.

We're joined by CNN justice correspondent Evan Perez. Evan, a key part of this story, exactly what was shared by the president and why it's considered so sensitive.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. The intelligence that we're talking about is considered so highly classified that back in March, the U.S. government told CNN that the disclosure of it would cause serious harm to national security. And they asked CNN to withhold some of the key details from a March 31st story on this sensitive intelligence that was behind those restrictions on carrying laptops and other large electronics from flights, on flights from ten airports in the Middle East.

Now, this is some of the same information that President Trump reportedly shared with the Russian foreign minister and the ambassador during his meeting there at the White House last week. The concern that U.S. officials told CNN at the time was that publishing this information, including a city where some of the intelligence was detected, could tip off adversaries about the sources and methods used to gather the intelligence.

Now, just mentioning that it was a concern about ISIS bomb technology that was behind the laptop bomb was considered classified. So, if the president mentioned that fact, he was doing something that we were told back in March would be highly damaging to intelligence sources and methods.

Now, you saw that narrowly worded denial from the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. He told reporters that the stories, quote, "as reported" are false. You'll notice that that denial doesn't really cover the damage that U.S. intelligence told us can come from revealing this information, John.

[10:05:10] BERMAN: He doesn't say what in the information was wrong. It says the story as reported was false and then goes on to deny things that specifically were not part of that story. We will again hear from General McMaster again in a little bit. Evan Perez, thank you very, very much for your reporting.

This morning Russia is denying something having to do with this. What, though, is pretty unclear? I'm joined by CNN's Matthew Chance live in Moscow for the Russian response. Matthew.

MATTHEW CHANCE, SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John thanks very much. Well, the Russians I think at this point, with so much controversy surrounding whatever contact they have with the Trump administration, are absolutely horrified that yet again there has been this massive controversy over this meeting, what was said in it.

We spoke to the Kremlin's spokesperson this morning, the spokesperson for Vladimir Putin and he was irritated. He was actually angry on the phone that this question was being asked. And he said this, "We absolutely do not want to have any relationship to this nonsense." So, he didn't address the content of that meeting directly, but he's just saying, look, we don't even want to discuss it as an issue. For us, it is not one.

The foreign ministry spokesperson saying something similar. She said this was presented in the "Washington Post" as a way to bring more evidence of the Trump-Russia connections. But the "Washington Post" article, she said, is an example of manipulation of public opinion.

And so, again, the Russians are very frustrated by what's taking place, by this continuing controversy. Remember, they hoped that this relationship between Trump and Moscow, Trump and Putin was going to be a pivotal one. It was going to be transformational. They're going to be able to cooperate on issues like international terrorism, which is clearly what was discussed in this meeting. But in fact, it's one step forward, two steps backwards for them and that relationship now is more controversial, perhaps, than at any time in the past.

BERMAN: And remember, this meeting took place the day after the president fired his FBI director who was seen as leading the investigation into alleged contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. So, this tangled web.

Matthew Chance for us in Moscow, thank you very, very much.

I want to discuss this more. With me, Bob Baer, CNN intelligence and security analyst, a former CIA operative and CNN military and diplomatic analyst John Kirby, a former spokesman for the State Department. Admiral, I do want to start with you, because what the White House is telling our Jim Sciutto is that they called around after this meeting to check on how classified the information was. How sensitive the information was that the president shared. And the White House says, that no one expressed any kind of alarm, no one at that meeting, including General McMaster, who says he was there last night, expressed any kind of alarm. So, they don't see a problem, according to the White House.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Well, somebody must have been alarmed enough, John, to make a call to the Intelligence Community to find out the level of classification of what they said and it must have tipped somebody off, because they wouldn't have made that call in the first place.

I also think it's important to remember that according to reporting, anyway, that it was a good back-and-forth between the White House and the "Washington Post" before that story got posted last night. So that the nothing more sensitive than needed to be was in the story. So, they obviously knew they had something here.

And then thirdly, we're talking about what they call a Special Access Program, a S.A.P., which is something that was highly classified information you have. It's compartmentalized and you have to be read in to it and read out of it. And we're talking about information inside a S.A.P. then a third-party country didn't want shared -- not even not broadly internationally but broadly within our own government, again, according to press reports.

So, I find it rather a weak argument that well, we made a couple calls and nobody was all that concerned about it. The fact that they made the calls at all and to the "Washington Post" and now are trying to do some damage control with whatever third-party country this is tells you a lot about the sensitivity of this information.

BERMAN: Again, their version is that the calls made by Tom Bossert, the Homeland Security chief afterwards, were just to check in with the security heads. They see they're being overblown. Again, that's their version. I take your point as well.

Bob Baer, you've been on the ground, you've been in the shadowy places where intelligence is collected. You know, if this is some infraction, what does it compromise? Who does it compromise?

ROBERT BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST AND FORMER CIA OPERATIVE: Well, there are a couple things. I agree totally, this is unusual. A wave Special Access Program is highly compartmented. But more than that, if it's true that the White House staff called the National Security Agency, we're talking about intercepts of some sort. That's the only explanation for that. All of that information is top secret, compartmented. It's not widely disseminated.

And frankly, I have never seen a White House staff call up the agencies concerned saying the president just disclosed very important secrets. I've never seen that in, what, 45 years. This is very unusual and especially to the Russians, which we do not share intelligence with, detailed intelligence, end of story.

[10:10:00] BERMAN: We heard a short time ago from Leon Panetta, who was the former White House chief of staff, former Defense secretary, former CIA director. He has a very dim view of what took place, to say the least. Let's listen to what he said.


LEON PANETTA, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: I watched this president rationalize these kinds of things. And the problem that really bothers me is that it undermines the credibility of the office of the presidency.

He is President of the United States. He is not a reality TV star. He cannot just you know, go ahead and reveal classified information without creating some huge problems within the Intelligence Community in terms of gathering that kind of information.

So, what bothers me here is that the President of the United States, an office that I respect throughout my life. I just think this president has to understand that he cannot just say whatever the hell he wants and expect that it doesn't carry consequences.

This president is a loose cannon.


BERMAN: All right. You know, Bob Baer, a lot was just said by the former CIA director, Leon Panetta there. He says the president can't just say what he wants. But in fact, legally speaking, he can. I mean, he can share this information if he wants to, Bob and you may not buy the justification, but the White House, the president himself is justifying it by saying that he wanted the Russians to know this, basically to help in the fight against ISIS and to keep airlines safe. At the end of the day, isn't that the commander in chief's determination?

BAER: Of course. He's the commander in chief. He can declassify what he wants simply by his signature, talking to people, or putting it out on the Internet, but the fact is, what would we say if the President of the United States declassified, for instance, the legacy codes, our nuclear codes, or identified our agents in Moscow or all communications we intercept? He can do anything he wants, but he could do major damage when it's not coordinated with the Intelligence Community and there's no reason for it other than bragging to an adversary like the Russians. It's just unacceptable.

BERMAN: You make the point that Susan Hennessey from Brookings made last night about Russia, Admiral Kirby. I mean, that's part of this in a way that's getting lost. --


BERMAN: We're talking about Russia here.

KIRBY: Right. BERMAN: And we're talking about a country that you know, Mitt Romney, for instance, called the biggest geopolitical threat to the United States. Does this show on behalf of the president a casual attitude about the possible threats posed by Russia?

KIRBY: Well, I think at the very least it shows some level of ignorance here in terms of Russian interests in the region and what they're up to, even regionally across Europe. I mean, look, this is a nation that is working against our interests in Syria and they have done precious little, if anything, really, to go after the ISIS threat.

So, I simply don't buy the argument that, oh, we're going to share some sensitive information with them related to ISIS in the region in the hopes that they're going to intensify their efforts against this terrorism group. That just not, -- doesn't make any sense at all and they're not really interested in that anyway. They're only interested in propping up the Assad regime.

So, that this was sensitive information compartmentalized alone should be worrisome to everybody. That it was shared with Russia, of all nations, should really be worrisome. And then the third thing that really has me concerned is this pattern of sort of recklessness by the commander in chief in terms of the kinds of information he puts out into the public stream without thinking about it first.

BERMAN: All right, Admiral Kirby, Bob Baer, thank you, gentlemen, so much for being with us.

You know, one Republican senator said that the White House is in a downward spiral, another Republican senator pleading for a crisis-free day. Will that be today, given that the president has already admitted that, yes, he did share information with the Russians.

We're live on Capitol Hill, coming up. The president, he claims that it was in the spirit of fighting ISIS. Well, the president has a new closed-door meeting at the White House today. Will he share classified information behind closed-doors this time?

Plus, 300,000 computers attacked, 150 countries affected, the suspicions on this huge worldwide hack now falling on North Korea.


[10:17:50] BERMAN: All right, the report overnight from the "Washington Post" and others, including CNN, that the president shared classified information with the Russians sparking bipartisan reaction on Capitol Hill. And again, this morning the president, he admitted he shared information with the Russians. Exactly what, that's a little less clear, but the Senate majority leader, the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, says that these ongoing firestorms, these ongoing controversies distract from his legislative agenda. Listen.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: I read the "Washington Post" story and I read General McMaster's response, which tends to refute the story, rebut the story. I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things, so that we can focus on our agenda.


BERMAN: All right. That is what Mitch McConnell says when faced with things that the president does that are highly controversial, but notably, Phil Mattingly, who joins us on Capitol Hill right now. That wasn't a defense from the Senate majority leader and we are hearing from more and more Republicans this morning, Phil.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's exactly right. And with the exception of one or two, the vast majority of them have both a lot of questions and are raising a lot of concerns about what actually happened. And I think what's really important here is to try to get a gauge on where everyone is.

Obviously, Democrats have made no secret of their opinion on things, but I think Republicans especially -- we've been trying to get a sense of will there be a moment where they break from the White House? Will there be a moment where those concerns that they continue to raise actually bring action?

Now, I've been asking around, what have people heard? Have they had their questions answered? This is what Senator Marco Rubio had to tell me a short while ago.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Accuracy is important and understanding what happened (INAUDIBLE) would be fair. I think it's the right thing to do to the American people, fairness to the administration, but we need to learn more about it. We have very specific questions. I hope they'll be answered at some point today.


MATTINGLY: And John, the interesting element of that is the senator actually told me that the administration had reached out last night. And I asked, was there more clarity? Were any of his questions answered? And he said flatly, no. He expects those questions to be answered today.

Now, compare that, John, to what Senator Mark Warner just told a group of reporters out here a couple of minutes ago. He is the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Now, Senator Rubio says the administration reached out to him. This is what Senator Warner had to say.

[10:20:08] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATTINGLY: Just from the "Washington Post" story?

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: Well, I think there's a lot of the questions that need to be answered. I'd tell you, you know, one of the things you know as a member of the Intelligence Committee from day one is that you always protect sources and methods. And if you don't protect those sources and methods, potentially people's lives can be at stake or the collaboration, cooperation of our allies could be at stake and we've got a lot -

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Has the White House reached out you to explain?

WARNER: I have not been briefed about that.


MATTINGLY: A little surprising, the top Democrat would have not heard at all from the administration. Again, several senators saying they expect to hear more and are requesting more information today. But as it currently stands, John, I think this is something we've seen over the last couple of weeks. This news is happening so fast, it seems so dramatic, so big and nobody seems to be able to get their head around it as they have to face these questions and trying to answer some very difficult questions both from the media and from their constituents.

BERMAN: You know, I spoke to Denny Heck, Democratic Congressman on the House Intelligence Committee who said he had not been briefed yet, but he also said that he wants this latest story to be part of the House Intelligence investigation into alleged contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. If that's the case, it would be an interesting development.

Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill. Phil, terrific reporting, thank you very, very much.

We're joined now by Kevin Madden, CNN Republican strategist and analyst, also with us, Symone Sanders, national press secretary for Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign and Professor Julian Zelizer of Princeton University, also a CNN analyst.

Kevin Madden, you know, it's very interesting, Marco Rubio said that he got a phone call from the White House overnight and he's still not satisfied. Bob Corker, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says that this White House is in a downward spiral. So, is it different this time? You know that's the question a lot of people are asking, this story, is it different this time and if so, why?

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, yes. Look, I think there's an important distinction between what they're saying publicly and what they're saying privately. Publicly, you see many of these senators. They're essentially pleading with the White House to try and right the ship or answer this question -- some of the questions that they're getting about this more affirmatively. Whereas privately, many of these members of Congress, including the senators you mentioned are just exasperated with having to answer questions about this.

I think the nature of the issue that this is highly classified - this is highly classified information intelligence that has, you know, potentially been given to a foreign adversary. The nature of that threat and the potential fallout from it, meaning that we could potentially hurt our ability to gather more intelligence and it could also hurt our partnerships around the globe with our allies in the fight against ISIS. I think that is what's particularly troubling to many of these senators.

BERMAN: I've got to say, normally when you hear lawmakers say I haven't read the story or I need to find out more information, it's just their way of evading. I actually think what we've been hearing from them overnight and this morning, when they say that, they mean it. They want to know what went on here. They're sort of alarmed by the headline and the details here matter a lot and potentially concern them a lot.

Professor, you know, the words being tossed around this morning -- out of control, chaos. Susan Collins, Republican senator from Maine, says "Can we have just one crisis-free day?" When you're talking about a presidency, you know, what can words, what can phrases like this, how do they affect a presidency?

JULIAN ZELIZER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST AND HISTORIAN AND PROFESSOR PRINCETON UNIVERSITY: They have a big effect. I mean, I think you have a crisis of competence taking place in the White House and I think what you're talking about is that Republicans on Capitol Hill don't feel secure anymore. They don't feel secure knowing what's going to happen overnight. And they're not totally confident that the president can handle the most basic responsibilities that take place in the Oval Office, including protecting classified information from adversaries who are under investigation for intervening in the election that the president won.

So, I think many Republicans are now saying some things out loud that we weren't hearing, but privately, they're watching their agenda. They're watching 2018 all go out the window and this is not what they were imaging a few months ago.

BERMAN: You know what's interesting, it's clear Democrats are saying that, really, a lot. The question, though, is Republicans are expressing concern and they want to find out more information, Symone Sanders, but I don't know that other than privately that they're really doing anything going forward.

Let me read you what Brian Schatz, a Democrat of Hawaii, wrote about this. He said, "Let today be the day for Republican courage. Because it wasn't yesterday, and we cannot wait until tomorrow."

But that's a Democrat here. I don't know that you're seeing that from Republican lawmakers and I haven't seen any sign yet that the people who voted for Donald Trump care as much about this yet or care enough about it yet to force their lawmakers to do anything.

[10:25:00] SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND FORMER NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY BERNIE 2016: Well, look, I mean, we know that Russia particularly is not necessarily an issue that moves the majority of the American people, but if you ask, you know, do folks believe there should be a special prosecutor, the overwhelming number of Americans, do believe there should at least be a special prosecutor and we should know what is going on. I think it is very, very telling that we have yet to see Congressional Republicans on the House or the Senate side actually step up and say something forceful to this White House. We've seen reporting over the last few days that said people are scared. I know Chris Cillizza's out with some reporting right now from CNN that says he talked to a lot of Republicans and they're -- look, if they don't think it's -- basically, if they don't think it's going to put their re-election in jeopardy, they won't be saying anything. I think it's a very dangerous place for us to be when folks stepping up on the right side of the truth is dependent upon their poll numbers.

BERMAN: Again, this morning we may be in a slightly different place. You know, Republicans have not jumped to the White House defense, really, at least not yet today. And Kevin Madden, H.R. McMaster, General McMaster, the national security adviser, he briefs, I think at 1:30 p.m. today. How important is that briefing, you know, not just for the White House, but also for Republicans who want to find out more information here and how complicated is it for the general now that the president, if not directly contradicting what the general said last night, coming out with a different explanation of what happened, the president saying, yes, I shared information?

MADDEN: Well, look, I think the public briefing is more about offering some sort of reassurance that the White House has a better handle on dealing with some of the scrutiny that they're going to get about this particular incident. But I think just as important, John, will be folks like Henry McMaster and others inside the administration with national security credentials, with a background of dealing with intelligence, privately reaching out to all of these members and assuring them that, you know, that this is not the issue, or this is not the problem that is being portrayed in the media.

I think that is going to be a very tough sell right now, given that one of the most important things to doing that is a high level of credibility. And I think this goes back to the professor's point. What they've witnessed over the last month or so is that every day they seem to get an assurance that whatever's in the media is not true. 24 to 48 hours is actually proven to be true, or whatever the White House ends up promoting ends up having its credibility put in question. So, I think those are very, very difficult challenges when you look at how the White House is going to be handling this in the next few days.

BERMAN: You know, Symone Sanders, we have this progressive conference right now where someone who might very well want to be the next Democratic nominee to be President of the United States will speak. And I say that because there are a bunch of Democrats all speaking there and they all want to be president one day. How do you think they approach this in general?

I was talking to Hilary Rosen yesterday and she says she thinks Democrats need to be careful. If all they're talking about are the president's problems, whether it be firing James Comey or perhaps today with Russia. They're forgetting to talk about the actual issues that animate Democratic voters. Is there a trap here for them to focus only on this? SANDERS: There's absolutely a trap and I think it's a trap that, frankly, the Democratic National Committee has fallen into over the last month or so. Look, we know from the 2016 that the majority of Democratic voters, the base of Democratic voters stayed home. Why? Because a lot of folks felt, either a, their vote didn't count, b, that Hillary Clinton had it in the bag, or a mixture of b and c, c being that no one was talking about the issues that I cared about.

People want to talk about the economy. They want to talk specifically about health care. They want to talk about education. They want to talk about the things that affect their lives and it's not enough for Democrats to beat Donald Trump or the Republicans over the heads saying their policies aren't good enough.

Democrats are going to have to come to the table to voters and present something. It's not enough to say that the other guy is really bad and you just need to vote for me. And until Democrats are able to move past that, I don't think they'll be able to really make traction for 2018.

BERMAN: All right. Julian Zelizer, Symone Sanders, Kevin Madden, again, we're waiting on H.R. McMaster. What will he say? We're also waiting on the Democrats. What will they say?

President Trump is defending his right to share facts with the Russians. He explained why he did. He's got a very important meeting behind closed-doors with a different world leader today. How will the reports about this information-sharing, how will that affect what's going on today? Stay with us.