Return to Transcripts main page


Report: Critics Question Competency of Trump as President; Officials Say Source of Intel Was Israel; Sally Yates Says Russians Had Real Leverage Over Flynn. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired May 16, 2017 - 15:30   ET


[15:30:00] THOMAS COUNTRYMAN, EX STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: He did not do that. He could have chosen to say briefly to the Russians, there is some information I'd like to share with you and it will be coming to you soon and then he could have followed a proper procedure. The fact that he chose to do neither illustrates many of the adjectives that have been thrown out there, whether it's reckless, impulsive or childish. I think we still haven't found the adjective that fully describes this President's operating style.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Chris Cillizza, I'll give you an opportunity to offer your adjective in a second. Let's talk about your piece on the straw that broke the camel's back piece on where you talked to one anonymous Republican source who talked candidly to you which said, "the question is whether this is the straw that breaks the camel's back. 40 percent approval is not the issue. An erratic and rudderless white house is."

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN REPORTER AT LARGE: That's right, Brooke. I just said, obviously, the Republicans have been relatively willing to stick with Donald Trump. Was this the moment? And what's fascinating is a lot of the feedback I got was until there's an actual electoral consequence, you won't see full-scale revolt. So, if so, you might see real action. It's not about the President's job approval ratings, which are around 40 percent. Not great. Lowest as any presidency in the modern era. It's more about the unpredictability. If they knew that Donald Trump was going to talk about, let's say, spying and the wall every single day from now until next November, Congressional Republicans would be able to position with that or against it. The problem is, they have no idea what is coming next.

BALDWIN: The downward spiral?

CILLIZZA: Yes. It is spinning out of control because the only person that who knows what he's going to do next is Donald Trump, he doesn't inform people around him of what he is going to do. And he certainly not telling congressional Republicans what he is going to do and that puts them very much on

edge because they don't know, they wake up in the morning and they pick up their phone and look at it what's coming.

BALDWIN: It's interesting they say it would take an electoral loss for them to really do something. That's key.

CILLIZZA: It's telling about the mentality which context matters here. Throughout the crisis, he called himself throughout the campaign, he won. And so, I think there's a concern to, you know, are we going to run away from -- and then the base is going to hate us in addition to the issues that we have with independents and Democrats.

BALDWIN: Just on your point, Tom, do you think that is waiting a little too late?

[15:35:00] COUNTRYMAN: I think the Republicans are not doing themselves any service by being completely unable to disagree with some of the outrageous steps the President has taken. Now, the bigger question to me is, are they going to stand up for the constitution whether the issue is FBI leadership or Russia investigation or careless handling of intelligence. That's what they should be focusing on for the sake of the country but I agree, as much as I understand the Republican leadership, until they start to lose some races, they are not going to change.

BALDWIN: Tom Countryman, Chris Cillizza, thank you both very much.

Coming up, more on this breaking news and the message from Moscow, don't read American newspapers. That is the kremlin's response when asked about President Trump's sharing of intelligence with Russian officials. That's next.


[15:40:00] BALDWIN: Tonight, on CNN, Anderson Cooper has this exclusive interview with former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates. You know her story. She alerted the white house that then National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was known by the Russians. Before Flynn was forced to resign, Trump fired Yates for refusing to enforce his travel ban. She talks about the Trump campaign's possible collusion with Russia. Here's a piece of that exclusive interview.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: The under lying conduct itself was potentially a fire-able offense.

SALLY YATES, FORMER ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: I can't speak to a fire- able offense. It was up to the President.

COOPER: You were asked whether or not you thought the national security adviser should be fired?

YATES: Uh-huh.

COOPER: What did you say?

YATES: I told him it wasn't our call.

COOPER: Was the underlying conduct illegal? Was illegality involved?

YATES: There was a criminal statute for his conduct.

COOPER: You expected the white house to act? YATES: Yes.

COOPER: Did you expect them to act quickly?


COOPER: There was urgency to the information?


COOPER: You're in the government one week, you get fired and now you're out and you're watching day after day after day go by and nothing seems to have happened to the national security adviser that you have informed the white house about. Just as a private citizen at that point, did it concern you?

YATES: Well, sure, I was concerned about it. But I didn't know if perhaps something else something had been done that I wasn't aware of.

COOPER: Maybe that they were keeping him away from certain classified information while they were investigating, something like that?

YATES: Maybe. I just didn't have any way of knowing what was going on at that point.

COOPER: Were you aware that he sat in on a media report, with Russia's President?

YATES: Uh-huh.

COOPER: Did you find that surprising?

YATES: Well, sure. Absolutely that was surprising.

COOPER: Sean Spicer said on the day after Michael Flynn resigned, it was no legal issue. Do you believe there was no legal issue with Flynn's behavior?

YATES: I don't know how the white house reached the conclusion there was no legal issue. It wasn't from my discussion with them.

COOPER: Do you think Michael Flynn should have been fired?

YATES: I think it was a serious situation and he lied to the Vice President of the United States. Whether he's fired or not is a decision for the President of the United States to make but doesn't seem like that's a person who should be sitting in the national security adviser position.

COOPER: Mike Flynn was let go after "The Washington Post" reported a story. Some Republicans have accused you of leaking it. Did you leak it?

YATES: Absolutely not. I did not and I would not leak classified information.

COOPER: Have you ever leaked information?


COOPER: The President seems to suggest that you were behind this "Washington Post" article. The morning before you tweeted he said, ask Sally Yates if she knows how the information got out after she explained it to white house counsel".

YATES: Uh-huh. There have been a number of tweets that have given me pause.

COOPER: You want to elaborate on that?



BALDWIN: Anderson Cooper with me now. Want to elaborate? No, not so much, she says. She seems somebody very measured. By somebody fired, she was very measured in your back and forth.

COOPER: Yes. Look, she spent 27 years in the department of justice and prided herself on not being partisan. That's what she loved about the department of justice. There was clarity to the mission. It wasn't about politics and it was about the law and what's constitutional and what's right. Certainly, a lot of Republicans have said she could have stepped aside. She talks about that tonight and allegations by Republicans in terms of surrogates that she's setting her accept up for a political career and she's not interested at this point and she's not going to be running for the governor of Georgia, which is what a lot of people have been saying.

BALDWIN: To your question on the Trump administration that it was a trust issue versus a legal issue, clearly, she's saying I don't know how it could have been a legal issue.

[15:45:00] COOPER: Yes. She's saying there is was an underlying behavior of General Flynn. She won't say what that behavior was. We know it's the conversations he had with the Russian ambassador.

BALDWIN: We'll watch for it tonight. Thank you for swinging by. Right here at 8:00 p.m., the exclusive with Sally Yates. Appreciate it.

Getting back to our breaking news, we're learning that Israel was the source of some of that classified intelligence that President Trump gave to the Russians in their meeting in the oval office. Also, more drama in the white house. The president's team now wants senior staffers gone. Stay with me.


[15:50:00] BALDWIN: While the white house says the President's decision to share classified information with the Russians was wholly appropriate, the decision is causing alarm among lawmakers, members of the intelligence community as well as those involved with diplomacy. With me to discuss this is Thomas Pickering, a former Russian ambassador. Welcome back.


BALDWIN: Let me get your initial reaction when you heard the President shared this classified information with Russians in the oval office a week ago. Is that, sir, appropriate?

PICKERING: I think that the question here has to be what did he do and how did it affect American security? And I think the answer to that is quite straightforward now that we've heard a great deal more. The President has the right to declassify and share information. He may have thought he was doing some good with the Russians. The really interesting questions, were the Russians going to be able to, from the information, provide it, including reports that he is able to identify a city that was the source of the information as well as the information themselves? Were the Russians going to be able to determine where it came from and what the sources and methods were in using it? And that's the vulnerability. It comes from our ally Israel, according to press reports, which puts our relationship with Israel under more tension. The Israelis can't be happy. The source may be a technical source. It may be a human source.

Daesh is in a position now I think to begin to track that source down. They are not very gentle with people they believe might be spies and I suspect they are not very discriminating. So maybe innocent people are at risk. Maybe the technical source of the information, the communications that were used if they know that will be shut down and we'll know less about Daesh and its actions in the future, including dangerous questions like doping up laptops with exclusives to explode on aircraft, something that, if they know that will be shut down and we'll know less about Daesh and its actions in the future, including dangerous questions like doping up laptops with exclusives to explode on aircraft, something that, of course, we've tried so it is in my view the side effects that are really quite significant here, not the President's right to tell the Russians something he thought they ought to know for their own protection and perhaps for intelligence cooperation reasons, but the fact is that it might come about. A final point, whoever made all of this public for whatever political reasons is kind of aided and abetted, unfortunately, by these negative consequences I've just skipped out for you.

BALDWIN: So, it's the risks, the consequences, but we know, Ambassador Pickering, we know it was the Russians, you know, that hacked the election. They are at the center of this Trump campaign investigation. My question is why was the President meeting with them at the white house in the first place?

PICKERING: Well, the President obviously has a responsibility to deal with the Russians who are and do pose perhaps the single most dangerous threat to the United States in terms of their nuclear arsenal, and so I can't question meeting with the Russians. I can question telling them what he told them, but I can question even more perhaps the way in which it was conveyed, if that was the way in which it was conveyed and the danger it poses to U.S. national interests as a result, the shut off of information, the danger to friends and allies and perhaps a real message to Daesh that we are on to one of their methods and they will switch to two or three others, that we don't know about and can't track, and so we can see all kinds of ramifications in this which are I think truly bad, and truly obviously the production of something that cannot have been thought through.

An old friend who preceded me on the program said there's ways to do this properly where the officials who deal with the intelligence have a way of sterilizing the intelligence so it doesn't convey all of the messages that I suspect might have been conveyed by the inadvertent passage by the President of this information. We only have the press reports to go on, but they already have begun to indicate some of the things that I think we need to be very concerned about here.

BALDWIN: Mr. Ambassador, in the final minute I have with you.


BALDWIN: You've been in the room with Russians, right.

PICKERING: I spent many years with Russians.

BALDWIN: Many years. What would their reaction be, sir, to getting this kind of intelligence?

[15:55:00] PICKERING: Well, sometimes this information is exchanged, exchanged through intelligence channels and the reaction would have been one of gratification, maybe one of, hey, maybe we can exploit this, I don't know. I know minister Lavrov and ambassador Kislyak. I don't think that they are malevolently interested in the United States, but, look, they are servants of the Russian state, and they are loyal to Mr. Putin. They need to be, and as a result they may not have the best interests of the United States and the future flow of information at heart, and a lot of people obviously in Russia don't have those views, too, and so we need to be concerned. We need to think about what we pass, how we pass it and why we pass it in a pay that promotes our interests and doesn't open us up to the kind of vulnerabilities that this particular process may have involved.

BALDWIN: Ambassador Thomas Pickering, a pleasure, sir. Thanks so much for taking the time.

PICKERING: Thanks, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Thank you.

Coming up here on CNN, new details emerging from members of President Trump's inner circle who say they are eager for a shake-up at the senior level. That would include the likes of Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon and Sean Spicer. What we're learning next.


BALDWIN: Just a couple moments ago Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talked to CNN's Christiane Amanpour about President Trump's disclosure of classified information with top Russian officials. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, obviously if it involves an ally you'll have some work to do to make sure that that relationship remained strong and whatever happened there's efforts under way to reassure this ally to go over what might have happened so that you have to do because there's nothing more important, by the way, than intelligence sharing among allies, particularly in this environment, in this world in which a lot of the information is coming not from our own intelligence sources but from others, so that relationship has got to be -- has got to be rebuilt, if necessary, or certainly shored up.

Of course, they have a steeper learning curve with this President because he's never been in government, never been anywhere near government, and so, yes, there will need to be some tightening up of white house processes, real understanding of what you go into a meeting like this how much do you say. If you want to tell the Russians something because you're worried about, as the President said, something humanitarian, maybe that this is a threat that might affect the Russians, that's not a bad impulse. I do remember when the Russians shared information with us, but you have to do it very carefully, and that's where the processes in the white house have simply got to improve.


BALDWIN: Much more on this new firestorm inside the white house with my colleague Jake Tapper. "The Lead" starts now.