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Trump Defends Information to Russians; Trump Not Briefed; White House in Downward Spiral. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired May 16, 2017 - 14:00   ET



[14:00:13] BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi there. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you so much for being with me. You're watching CNN.

For the second time in less than 24 hours, the White House is defending President Trump against an accusation that one legal scholar says constitutes, quote, "the most serious charge ever made against a sitting president." CNN has now confirmed the details first reported in "The Washington Post" that president Trump divulged highly classified information to not one but two Russian officials during this White House visit last week. Sources say the president describes specifics on how Isis hopes to use laptop computers as bombs on airplanes. The sources say the president did not reveal the source of the information but intelligence officials say there is concern that Russia will be able to figure out the highly sensitive source from what President Trump actually did say. The president then tweeted this morning that he, quote, "has the right" to share the information with the Russians.

Moments ago, he qualified his time with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the ambassador this way.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, we had a very, very successful meeting with the foreign minister of Russia. Our fight is against ISIS, as General McMaster said. I thought he said, and I know he feels, that we had actually a great meeting with the foreign minister.


BALDWIN: Just before that, the president's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, insisted the president did nothing wrong, but he would not clarify if classified information was, in fact, disclosed.


QUESTION: Are you denying that you revealed information that was given to the U.S. by an intelligence partner?

H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: So, what I - what we don't do is discuss what is and what wasn't classified. What I will tell you is in the context of that discussion, what the president discussed with the foreign minister was wholly appropriate to that conversation and is consistent with the routine sharing of information between the president and any leaders with whom he's engaged could jeopardize our security.

QUESTION: But what (INAUDIBLE) U.S. ally that you have these types of intelligence sharing relationships with the U.S. will stop providing that information?

MCMASTER: No, I'm not concerned at all. That conversation was wholly appropriate.

QUESTION: If there was nothing that the president shared that he shouldn't have shared, why does his national - his counterterrorism adviser contact the NSA and the CIA about what he had said?

MCMASTER: Yes, I would say maybe from an overabundance of caution, but I'm not sure. I mean I've not - I've not talked to Mr. Bossert about - about that, about why he - why he reached out.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) so what - (INAUDIBLE) you would understand why there was a reason to reach out.

MCMASTER: (INAUDIBLE). I was in the room. The secretary of state was in the room, as you know. The deputy assistant - the deputy adviser for national security, Dina Powell, for strategy, was in the room and none of us felt in any way that that conversation was inappropriate.

QUESTION: What the report said is that the president revealed classified information that had been shared by one of our allies in the Middle East. So the question is simply a yes or no question here. Did the president share classified information with the Russians in that meeting?

MCMASTER: As I mentioned already, we don't say what's classified, what's not classified. What I will tell you again is that what the president shared is wholly appropriate.


BALDWIN: All right, Jeff Zeleny, let's go to you, our senior White House correspondent. If you were to do a work cloud of that briefing there, "wholly appropriate" would be, you know, the two words mentioned the most. He also sort of buried the lead at the end, saying the president had the information but didn't actually know how sensitive that information was.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Brooke, that was pretty extraordinary there at the very end of that news conference as he was sort of walking off. He did say the president simply, you know, was not briefed on the very sensitive nature of this. You know, the implied sort of statement there is that, so he couldn't have shared anything inappropriate because he wasn't briefed on it.

But let's watch the national security adviser say that about the president and then we'll talk on the other side.


MCMASTER: The president, in no way, compromised any sources or methods in the course of this conversation.

The president wasn't even aware of where this information came from. He wasn't briefed on the source and method of the information either.


ZELENY: So, again, saying the president was not even aware of the sources and methods. Again, did not answer the question about classified information being shared, though. The national security adviser was given multiple chances to answer that, decided not to, of course, but he did confirm, interestingly, that there was enough alarm by what went on in that Oval Office meeting that several officials reached out to the National Security Council and the CIA to give them a heads up that the president had leaked this information. He did not reject that line of questions from Carol Lee at "The Wall Street Journal" at all. He said perhaps it was an overabundance of caution there.

[14:05:06] But, Brooke, what the White House is trying to do here by putting out the national security adviser, General McMaster, they're trying, first and foremost, I'm told by a senior administration official, is to, quote, "calm Republicans on The Hill." They're trying to sort of contain this fallout here. That's why they moved up the briefing, which was scheduled to be at 1:30 p.m. Eastern Time to 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time. They were trying to get sort of ahead of this. You might argue that they're about 12 hours too late getting at this here, but they definitely were trying to show, you know, the national security adviser out there.

And it is having some effect. The Republicans that are - colleagues are talking to on The Hill this afternoon are saying that they were somewhat reassured by this. We'll see how long that lasts.

But, Brooke, I think the takeaway from this is, the president still does not get his daily intelligence briefing. And perhaps that is why he was not aware of the sources and methods of this. Perhaps, you know, some people are holding things for him. I'm not sure. But that, to me, is the question going forward here. Why is that a good thing that the president was not aware specifically of the sources and methods?

BALDWIN: It's one of the questions I have for my panel next. Jeff Zeleny, you teed me up perfectly, thank you so much, in Washington.

So much to discuss. Amy Pope joining me, served as deputy Homeland security adviser for the National Security Council under President Obama, and David Chalian is with us today, CNN political director.

So, great to have both of you on. Let's just get right to it.

David, you know, again, to Zeleny's point, the president, you know, he had this information, didn't realize how sensitive it was, wasn't briefed on the source of the intelligence. What would be the reason the president of the United States would do this?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, I don't know. The answer is, I don't know what the reason is. But their - one might surmise that we have heard this president talk very often - and we heard it again just there in the Roosevelt Room that you played at the top of the show - of a desire to work with the Russians to solve the Syria problem. And so perhaps he was sharing some piece of information that he had in his head from some briefing that he thought maybe would impress upon the Russians a way in which they can help their efforts in their relationships with Assad in solving part of the Syria problem. Perhaps.

But here's my larger question, Brooke. Why is the president of the United States, in an Oval Office meeting with our adversaries, never mind the extra heightened attention put on Trump's specific relationship with Russia, but here, in the Oval Office meeting, with our adversaries, why is he freelancing or why is this not one of the most scripted conversations ever and why is he passing on information if he has no idea what the source of the information is?

BALDWIN: Right. Right. Right. And we know meetings like this are on the calendar for weeks. There are conversations about what to be discussed. It's an excellent question.

But before we get into to maybe a piece of that answer, Amy, same question to you, why do you think the president would do this? Really simple.

AMY POPE, FORMER DEPUTY HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISER, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: It's inexplicable. This kind of information would never be information that you would share with an adversary, particularly when there's an open investigation involving their intent here in the United States. It doesn't make any sense. It suggests that somebody didn't do their homework, perhaps, in briefing the president or the president didn't pay attention when he needed to. But there's no good answer for why he would do this.

BALDWIN: We're hearing, you know, Jeff pointed out, they moved the briefing up and this is General McMaster, somebody who's widely respected by both sides of the aisle. That said, we're hearing from Senator John McCain, who, by the way, initially called these reports, you know, deeply disturbing. He was asked about General McMaster's defense of the president today. He said, quote, "I take General McMaster at his word." But this does raise the issue again, David, of credibility.

CHALIAN: Well, certainly that was part of General McMaster's job today was to try and restore his own credibility. If you listen to what he said last night when he was on the driveway and he said, the entire "Washington Post" story as reported is false and he said at the end, I was in the room and it didn't happen.

Well, today, from the podium, he clearly was aware of some of the blowback he was getting because he said, well, what I really was saying was that I thought the premise of the story was false. That I thought the insinuations being made in the story was false. Well, that's very different than actually questioning the reporting that is in the story and he got a lot of questions about this in the briefing. Jon Karl of ABC News pressed on this. He was responding to stuff that wasn't actually in the initial reporting and today he tried to clean that up by saying - by saying he was really responding to what he felt was insinuated or what the premise of the story was.

BALDWIN: So not that the story was wrong, but it was the premise of the story that was wrong, which is what we got from him today.

We also heard from Leon Panetta this morning, you know, former CIA director, former defense secretary. Amy, let me play this for you.

[14:10:02] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LEON PANETTA, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: The problem is, sure, obviously presidents can do whatever they want, but what is the damage from that? The damage is that this country may cut off any kind of intelligence provided to the United States on very sensitive issues that relate to the national security of this country. That's the damage that can be done here. And the president needs to understand that this is not a joke. This is very serious business that relates to the security of this country.


BALDWIN: So, Amy, you now have Republicans and Democrats, you know, maybe Republicans more behind closed doors, they're criticizing and questioning whether the president of the United States truly understands the gravity of his job. What do you think?

POPE: I think that is a legitimate question at this point. It's more - it is, of course, the security of the United States because we rely on our allies around the world to give us information. If we can't show at the highest levels of government that we can be trusted to safeguard that information, to use it appropriately, and to let them know when we intend to use it, then we jeopardize our access to that information.

But even sort of more concretely and on the ground, part of why it's so sensitive is it reveals who may be getting that information or how they might be getting that information. It's not necessarily revealing the sources and methods. The president doesn't have to speak about that directly. But the fact that somebody knows that information, the fact that it made its way to the United States, reveals that there was someone who can't be trusted in ISIS' circle and that puts that person at risk. That puts that entire line of intelligence at risk and that makes us less safe in the end.

CHALIAN: And, Brooke, can I just add -


CHALIAN: Let's just think about the context that this is taking place in right now. This is ahead of his first big foreign trip as president.

BALDWIN: Overseas trip. Yes.

CHALIAN: And when McMaster was asked about this today, he was asked flat out, which is just a stunning question, right, do you, as the national security adviser, with any sensitivities around Donald Trump having one-on-one meetings with a series of foreign leaders in these upcoming days, McMaster said not at all, he's not concerned at all. He tried to put that concern at bay. But the fact is that we are about to see Donald Trump on the world stage in a way we never have before in this foreign trip and what this incident is going to do is really heighten the tension to each one of those one-on-one interactions, what we learn out of those meetings, how he behaves in them. This is going to be a very delicate dance for this president and this White House.

BALDWIN: I thought the same thing when that question was brought up earlier today. We'll be talking a lot more about that when we see him meeting with these foreign leaders overseas.

But for now, David and Amy, thank you two very, very much.

Staying on topic, Republicans not rushing to the president's defense. As one lawmaker says, the White House is on a downward spiral. We'll speak live with a Republican congressman and Iraq War veteran about the silence.

Plus, several security officials warn people could die over this breach. A former CIA spy joins me on how this compromises agents in the field.

And as the White House's credibility takes another dangerous hit, new CNN reporting just in about drama and anger behind the scenes.

I'm Brooke Baldwin and this is CNN's special live coverage.


[14:17:15] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: This is about checks and balances as well. When is Paul Ryan going to get a spine? I'm tired of Republicans saying, we have our lane in the road. I don't have anything to say about what the president did. In our country, checks and balances means the media, the congress, the judiciary, the White House, they all checks and balances each other. I'm waiting for the speaker to speak because so far no spine.


BALDWIN: That was former CIA Officer Phil Mudd reacting to President Trump revealing highly classified information to Russia. And he's echoing a sentiment felt across the country, why are most Republicans in Congress silent on that?

But one by one, some are starting to speak out. You had Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN after the news broke, quote, "they are in a downward spiral right now and have got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that's happening. You know the same of it is, there's a really good national security team in place. There's good, productive things that are underway through them and through others. But the chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline is creating an environment that I think it creates a worrisome environment."

So, I've got a Republican lawmaker with me who's good enough to sprint a couple block to make it in time for us today. Congressman Lee Zeldin of New York is with me now. He's an Iraq War veteran and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, thank you so much for being with me.


BALDWIN: Thank you for your service to this country.

ZELDIN: Thank you.

BALDWIN: You know, before we get into the politics of all of this, when you heard the news, your reaction to all of this and our lives of U.S. service men and women at risk as a result of it?

ZELDIN: What was said? That's the first question that comes to my mind. As - over the course of the last several hours, we hear more about, this conversation may have been focused on laptop bombs and terrorist groups in the Middle East and their developing capabilities. You don't have to search much further than to get caught up to speed on February 2016, a Somali passenger plane gets brought down by a laptop. Just about a month and a half ago, a story breaking on Wolf Blitzer as the president's executive order comes out, a travel restriction coming from 10 airports, can't bring a personal device that the bomb maker of al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula is developing a technology to use computer bombs that may be spread to other terrorist groups. So beyond open source, it's important to know what was said and then you make a judgment based on that.

BALDWIN: I can also add something that we actually didn't share with our viewers, and we still won't, that our Evan Perez actually had the name of the city that apparently was divulged in the Oval Office. We had that reporting back in March. We didn't divulge it because we shouldn't be doing that, nor have they. And so there is more to this story than what actually the public doesn't knows.

In addition, how about the fact that it's - it's who the president shared this information with. You know, this is the day after the Comey firing. This is the country at the center of this information, this probe. I mean why were the Russians in the Oval Office in the first place?

[14:20:08] ZELDIN: Well, first off, I view Russia as an adversary of the United States. I -

BALDWIN: So why were they in the Oval Office? ZELDIN: OK. As it relates to ISIS, remember, ISIS targeted a Russian

plane. They are using this technology. They are not happy. They are at war with ISIS. So as far as our strategic goals for protecting America's security here and abroad and for our service members abroad, what Russia brings to the fight to defeat ISIS is an important element that shouldn't be dismissed. And where Russia can defeat ISIS, disrupt their command and control, provide us with any type of intelligence -

BALDWIN: But why would the president have done this? Why should he trust, your word, an adversary with classified information?

ZELDIN: OK. Well, again, the question would be, beyond what's available in open sources, exactly what was provided? And then based on what was provided, you make a judgment call of whether it's in America's best -

BALDWIN: But the question is, if I may, congressman, why would he divulge this classified information to an adversary?

ZELDIN: If that information - if that information - again, we could speculate on what - on what it was. If that information in the best interest of America's -

BALDWIN: We don't need to speculate. We know it's classified.

ZELDIN: Well, it would be very helpful to know what it is to determine whether or not it's in America's best interests and, you know, and those of our allies and for our service members overseas and the need to stabilize Syria and to stick up for our nation's greatest ally in Israel and for our mission in Iraq and Afghanistan and these other places in the Middle East that's being destabilized. The president's going to Saudi Arabia next week. He's going to - he's going to Israel. If it's in America's best interest to provide information because what they are doing with it helps bring the fight and ends up protecting us, it may protect Russia too because they're at war with ISIS, that's a good thing.

BALDWIN: Well, let's - let's replace the headlines with, instead, what if it were president Hillary Clinton divulges classified information to Russians in the Oval Office. You tell me how you'd be responding sitting with me today?

ZELDIN: Well, listen, I didn't vote for Barack Obama but he was my president. And I still serve in the Army Reserves. I view our president as our commander in chief. My question would be, what was divulged?

BALDWIN: Would you be standing by the president just as you are?

ZELDIN: I - my question would be, what was divulged? And based on - once you have that information, the next question would be, is it in America's best interest to provide that information to Russia? Now, if Russia is bringing the fight to ISIS, if a President Hillary Clinton provides that information because it's going to protect American service members, it's going to protect our country, it's going to protect our allies and it's going to help defeat ISIS, I have no problem with that.

BALDWIN: Would you agree or disagree with Senator Corker, who, by the way, was on a short list to become secretary of state, who said the White House is in a downward spiral. Is it?

ZELDIN: Well, I believe that in some respects where I would disagree with - I mean I just mentioned Russia. Russia's an adversary. I have a different approach, a policy as it relates to Russia. But I - I support - I support the president's -

BALDWIN: The question is, is the White House in a downward spiral?

ZELDIN: Because - look, the White House is doing good things mixed in with the stories that might make headlines here. You know, when you target -

BALDWIN: Might make headlines as in the president divulging classified information to Russians?

ZELDIN: Yes, but also doing good - well, again, we need to know what the information is and then I can tell you what I think about that information being divulged in the best interest of America's security. But when it relates to - in Syria with a targeted strike of infrastructure not people, or if it's in Afghanistan, giving General Nicholson the resources that he needs in order to turn the tide in Afghanistan, if it is strengthening the - the effort on behalf of al- Abadi in Iraq, trying to bring the fight to ISIS in Mosul, and push them out of Iraq all together. There are wins that are - that keep on getting mixed up amongst what are headline grabbers. Is it a distraction? Absolutely. Would I rather be here right now talking about what is good about the president's trip to the G-7 next week and what can be discussed in order for us to strength our bond with our friends to help strengthen America's interests? Absolutely. But here I am, you know, talking with you about what happened and what was released in a Washington - reported on in a "Washington Post" story. There are wins and there are setbacks.

BALDWIN: That the president acknowledged on Twitter this morning, by the way.

ZELDIN: Yes, and there are - oh, no, and there are wins and there are setbacks. And we can entirely talk about the wins. It can make it paint - paint a picture like it's all rosy, we can be here only talking about the setbacks and make it sound like it's the worst thing. I am honored to serve in Congress and where I agree with the president, I would agree and where I disagree, I disagree. That related to my relationship where I disagree with President Obama on foreign policy and agrees where I disagree with President Trump on foreign policy. But I want him to be successful and I want him to be able to put wins together because that's important for the America people.

BALDWIN: Well, let's talk again about when he goes overseas and let's talk policy.

ZELDIN: Look forward to it. BALDWIN: All right, Congressman Zeldin, thank you so much for swinging by.

ZELDIN: Thanks, Brooke.

[14:24:44] BALDWIN: Coming up next, fallout from the president's intel sharing concerning a number of people within the intel community. Could his comments have been compromising sources and our allies less likely to share information in the future? We'll talk to a former CIA operative about that. Stay with us.


BALDWIN: Welcome back. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin. While the White House reiterated today that no sources or methods were divulged to the Russians when the president admittedly shared classified intelligence with Moscow's foreign minister and ambassador, adviser - National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster did downplay the significance of whether the president revealed the city where this intelligence actually came from.

[14:29:49] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE ADVISER: All of you are very familiar with the threat from ISIS. All of you are very familiar with the territory and controls. If you were to say, hey, from where do you think a threat might come from territory that ISIS controls, you would probably be able to name a few cities, I would think. And so it was - it was - it was nothing that you would not know from open source reporting in terms of the source of concern. And it had some - it had - it had all to do with operations that are already ongoing.