Return to Transcripts main page


Sources: Trump Shared Classified Info with Russians; Sally Yates Grants CNN First TV Interview Post-Firing; Trump Defends Disclosing Classified Info to Russians. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired May 16, 2017 - 07:00   ET


HARLOW: But our reporting certainly says otherwise.

[07:00:09] Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are expressing shock and concern about the president's Oval Office disclosure. And this comes just days before he heads overseas on his first major trip. He's also got some key meetings with foreign leaders at the White House today.

So let's go to the White House. Joe Johns is there with more. Good morning.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Poppy, a serious information question here at the White House. The president accused of coughing up highly-classified information to the foreign power at the center of a federal investigation into interference in the last election.

And there's another huge question, because this president harped throughout the campaign on the sanctity of classified information.


JOHNS (voice-over): The White House reeling from another Russia crisis, an unforced error at the hands of President Trump.

H.R. MCMASTER, WHITE HOUSE NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: The story that came out tonight as reported is false. 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: National security adviser H.R. McMaster, in a carefully-worded statement, refuting claims that were not in the story first reported by "The Washington Post," while falling short of denying the president revealed classified information to Russian diplomats.

GREG MILLER, "WASHINGTON POST": That the White House is playing word games here to that effect to try to -- to try to blunt the impact of this story.

JOHNS: Intelligence officials tell CNN that the president did reveal sensitive information that could expose intelligence sources, potentially jeopardizing critical U.S. access to intelligence on ISIS as the terror group hopes to use laptop computers as bombs on planes. The White House insists the president only discussed common threats

with the Russian leaders.

The shocking revelation opening up the president and the Republican Party to accusations of a double standard after repeated criticism of Hillary Clinton's handling of classified e-mails.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We can't hand over our government to someone whose deepest, darkest secrets may be in the hands of our enemies.

I don't think it's safe to have Hillary Clinton be briefed on national security, because the word will get out.

JOHNS: The report setting off a firestorm on Capitol Hill.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: If it's true, obviously, it's disturbing. But I think we've got to find out more before I could comment.

JOHNS: Republican Senator Bob Corker, a Trump supporter, telling journalists, the White House is "in a downward spiral. The chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline creates a worrisome environment."

Democrats calling for a bipartisan investigation into the latest Russia firestorm.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: I hope that we will be able to proceed in a very nonpartisan way.

This is as serious as it gets.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: This kind of serious and grave threat really requires a national response putting country above politics.

JOHNS: This report comes as the White House fends off tough questions about the firing of FBI Director James Comey, which occurred just one day before Trump's meeting with the Russians. White House press secretary Sean Spicer repeatedly dodging questions about whether tapes exist of their conversations.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think I made it clear last week that the president has nothing further on that. I was very clear.

I made it clear what the president's position is.

I think the president's position has been very clear.

The president has made it clear what his position is. He said that he has nothing further to add.

I've answered the question over and over again the same way.


JOHNS: The tempo never seems to wane here at the White House. Another day, another controversy. Today the president is expected to host a critical meeting toward the interests of the United States in the Middle East. The Turkish President Erdogan is expected to show up here around midday.

Chris and Poppy, back to you.

CUOMO: Joe, appreciate it.

Let's bring in senior writer for "The New York Times," Eric Schmidt. He's the co-author of his paper's reporting on President Trump's sharing of classified intelligence with Russian officials.

Thank you for joining us this morning. So let's answer the basic question for folks at home. Why do they care about this? What is troubling?

ERIC SCHMIDT, SENIOR WRITER, "THE NEW YORK TIES": So what's troubling about this is that President Trump, in this meeting with the Russian officials in the Oval Office, disclosed highly-classified information about an Islamic State plot.

Now, this information came from a key Middle Eastern ally, who provided the information to the United States on the condition it not be provided widely, not only within the American government but to other countries, as well.

So apparently, the president -- it's unclear whether he did this wittingly or unwittingly -- in discussing this threat that was imminent even from a city in Syria in ISIS-controlled territory, inadvertently perhaps tipped off the Russians as to what the source -- who the source was and what other details might be playing out, since the Russians are in Syria now.

[07:05:06] CUOMO: So just as important as the disclosure winds up being the explanation. General McMaster comes out -- strong pedigree, respected man of integrity -- says the story is false, but then seems to compare apples to oranges. He seems to say the president did not expose any sources or methods or any operations that weren't already in the public, but that's not what "The Washington Post" reporting was. What did you make of the denial?

SCHMIDT: Exactly. And that's not our reporting either. No one is saying that the president did these things. What he's saying is he gave some basic information, some very important and classified information about a threat emanating from Syria, apparently, an Islamic State plot.

And from that, the Russians may well be able to reverse engineer that information -- it may only have come from a very selective source -- to be able to identify that and perhaps even disrupt that source of intelligence, which is very important for the United States and its allies in combating ISIS in the Middle East. CUOMO: All right, Schmidt. You're getting your -- you're getting

your shot at the title right now. The president is tweeting in the last minute about this. We know he often watches the show. And this is an important morning to be watching.

"As president, I wanted to share with Russia at an openly scheduled White House meeting" -- I don't know what that means -- "which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining" -- and obviously, he's going to tweet more. When he does, I'll share you with it. But let's start with that.

The president's saying, "I can do this." That's true. Even though there are some protocols and procedures that normally go with declassifying information, it is well-known that the president has almost unfettered discretion to declassify whatever he wants whenever he wants, arguably however he wants. So this is not a legal issue. But does that end the analysis of error?

SCHMIDT: No, not at all. In fact, you characterized it just accurately. The problem here is you've taken very sensitive information that a key ally has provided the United States with strings attached. And the president apparently has given away that information to the Russians, an adversary, without consulting with that ally first to get permission to do so. That's the normal protocol in this kind of thing.

CUOMO: And it does seem, if nothing else, the president would rather defend than be open to the suggestions about what he did wrong. There seems to be no acknowledgement of that forthcoming.

Eric Schmidt, thank you for explaining the reporting to us this morning. You're always welcome here on NEW DAY.

SCHMIDT: Thank you.

HARLOW: All right. And as we wait for part two of the president's tweet to finish that thought, let's bring in our panel: CNN counterterrorism analyst Philip Mudd; CNN Politics reporter/editor-at- large, Chris Cillizza; and CNN military analyst Lieutenant General Mark Hertling.

General, let me begin with you, because some of the great reporting by "The New York Times" by Eric Schmidt and his team lays out a little bit more detail in terms of who this ally was and why it was so important to the United States in terms of this information sharing agreement.

They said it's a Middle Eastern ally. This ally warned the United States, apparently, upon giving this information and this intelligence, "Don't tell anyone. Don't even share it widely among U.S. intelligence, the U.S. intelligence community. And if you disclose this to too many people, if you share too widely, we will stop helping you."

OK. So what does this do now, the fact that this has been disclosed, to our national security? LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, all of

those things, Poppy, are part of the reason it was a code-word secret document, or secret information, rather.

Special access packages, SAPS, which code words are a part of, tell you that, hey, a very limited number of people know about this. And if it gets out, it can give information that we don't want to get out, because it will either destroy the program, harm people, or give our adversaries an advantage -- an advantage. That's what a SAP is.

I was thinking last night about this, as I watched this unfold. And I could think of probably a dozen or more countries that have told they were a part of intelligence collection on a terrorist group, and then it was told to the Russians, the Russians could very easily counter it and cause a great degree of harm to not only our allies but to our enemies.

This -- this whole thing is interesting, because what you have with a SAP program is the requirements to not share information. And especially when it's not your own information you're sharing. We're sharing information that an ally provided us. It is not only going to destroy trust with that particular ally, and I can think of one or two that it probably is. But the rest of the world is now going to say, "We're never going to share information with any intelligence community members of the United States, because they're doing to give it to the president, and he's doing to share it with our potential adversaries."

CUOMO: Well, in this bizarre new reality, the one foreign player that doesn't seem upset about this at all, General, is Russia. They couldn't come out and defend this situation, mocking it, minimizing it, and it really reminds of Lavrov laughing at the American media when there were questions asked about Comey.

[07:10:14] So the president says, "You guys are huffing and puffing but there's no House to blow down," Phil Mudd. He says it was an openly-scheduled White House meeting. He had an absolute right to do what he did, and he's going to continue with this line of thought. Is this satisfying to you?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: No, let's be clear. He can do whatever he wants. He fired the FBI director. That's not the question. He's skirting the question. It's whether he should do this.

We have a responsibility, when we take classified information from an ally, to do as they request. We told them, I'm sure we confirmed for them that we would not share this with anyone. Now we have -- we not only owe them an apology but, as General Hertling suggested, they're going to come to us and say, "How do you secure future information."

Repeatedly, we've had a president, whether he's talking about wiretapping his office; whether he's talking about Susan Rice's unmasking, which Democrats and Republicans said was appropriate; whether he's firing the FBI director for conducting an appropriate national security investigation; or whether he's speaking inappropriately to the Russians in the Oval Office, who doesn't have the temperament and the judgment to deal with national security issues.

This isn't about Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister, in the Oval Office. It's about the president's temperament.

One more comment, Chris, quickly. 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 mean the media, the Congress, the judiciary, the White House, they all check and balance each other. I'm waiting for the speaker to speak, because so far, no spine.

HARLOW: Look, there is a deafening silence from some of this Republican leadership right now, only the statement out of Paul Ryan's office. Two sentences, that's it.

CUOMO: And the first part wasn't even accurate.

HARLOW: The first part says, you know, we have no way of knowing what happened. That is just absolutely not -- not the case. "The Washington Post" is reporting about transcripts from inside the Oval Office.

Hey, Chris Cillizza, the way that Alan Dershowitz, an esteemed legal scholar, professor emeritus at Harvard, puts it is this.


ALAN DERSHOWITZ, LEGAL SCHOLAR/PROFESSOR EMERITUS AT HARVARD: This the most serious charge ever made against a sitting president. Let's not minimize it. Comey is in the waste basket of history. Everything else is off the table. This is the most serious charge ever made against a sitting president of the United States. Let's not underestimate it.


HARLOW: Cillizza, your column this morning, titled "Trump's Intelligence Slip-Up May be the Straw That Breaks the Camel's Back." Make the case.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT/EDITOR AT LARGE: Well, I talked to a bunch of Republican House members, as well as Republican operatives last night. And obviously, this was fresh information at that point.

And a lot of them said, "Look, you know, we're OK with the strategic and tactical -- you know, his unorthodoxy there, but when he does stuff like this, really bad self-inflicted wounds, it makes our members very, very nervous."

Now, I will tell you, in that same reporting, lots of people told me you will not see Republicans abandon Donald Trump wholesale until you start seeing either special election losses in places like Georgia's 6th District, or the Montana open seat, which are coming up in the next month or so, or you see his poll numbers in states where there are Senate races start to tank.

One Republican said to me, "We just did a poll in Alabama. Eighty- nine percent of Republicans approve of him." There's obviously going to be a Senate race there. So you're not going to see this wholesale break.

I know -- I'm not looking, but I know Phil Mudd is rolling his eyes, because it is frustrating. Because the politics of this is standing in front, in many ways, of the policy of it, which is there are only two good options here. Sorry. There are two options, neither good, for Donald Trump. Either he unwittingly gave this classified information, because he didn't sort of know all the different circumstances. That's bad. Far worse is if he did it knowing the circumstances. There's only two good outcomes.

Unfortunately, we live in a very polarized political Washington. Most politicians on the Republican side will make their calculations not on what they believe is right but what they believe is politically sort of advantageous or, more accurately, disadvantageous at the moment.

CUOMO: Well, we now have more to go on, because the president has continued his tweet. And just a quick note, Cillizza, Mudd doesn't roll his eyes. He was blinking very rapidly, though, which could be a sign of stress or intense aggression.

The finishing of the tweet is that the president had the absolute right to do what he did. "Facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety, humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS and terrorism."

Does this make it OK, Phil Mudd?

MUDD: Hell no. All you have to do to go into that meeting is have national security apparatus say, "It is appropriate to talk to the Russians, who lost a plane to ISIS, remember, in 2015. It's appropriate to tell them about airline security." I agree with the president, we should tell them.

But when you take that information from someone to whom you pledged secrecy, you owe them the courtesy to tell them.

By the way, this isn't the biggest news out of that meeting. Why is nobody talking about the fact that the president feels responsible to be more courteous to the Russians than to the American people? He didn't talk about election meddling. It's his first face-to-face with the Russian and the secretary of state, and the president can't say, "You shouldn't be meddling in our elections," but they can fire the FBI director for investigating that? You've got to be kidding me.

HARLOW: Phil Mudd, it's a great point, when you look -- and I read this morning the White House readout of that meeting that they had last week, in it, it does not talk about election meddling at all.

CUOMO: And it doesn't mention that Kislyak was there. HARLOW: Also -- exactly. But it also doesn't lay out this. He also

doesn't say in that White House readout that they were talking about these -- it does say humanitarian issues. It does not say terrorism. So what gives, General?


HERTLING: I'm concerned about the fact...

HARLOW: I'm sorry. General Hertling first.

HERTLING: I'm concerned about the fact that the president feels like he has to give something to Russia first when there have been repeated instances of Russia being sanctioned in Ukraine, committing war crimes in Syria, and conducting operations that are contrary to what we like to believe are freedom of operations and sovereignties of different nations.

So why are we so intent -- why is the president so intent on giving Russia the advantage when, as the great dealmaker, he hasn't done that with any other country he's been working with so far? This just confuses me to no end. Anybody that's worked with the Russians, as I have, knows that you can't just continue to give them things and expect them to give things in return.

CUOMO: Cillizza, is it fair for people to be asking about the president's competency to do the job in light of this? Is that too harsh?

CILLIZZA: I mean, yes, you can ask about it. The issue for me is that he does have the right to do this. That doesn't mean he should do it. No, almost certainly not. But he does have the right to do it in the same way he has the right to fire James Comey.

The problem here to me, and I think to many people, is that it often seems with this president that it's action and then searching for an explanation. That's what the Comey thing felt like. I mean, it bore out that way, because we had five different explanations before the president then went and contradicted all of those explanations with a different explanation that was the one we thought it was.

Here it seems as though what he's saying is, "Well, this is my way of bringing the Russians into the fold." You know, I can't prove that that's not what he was up to, but I will say, if past is prologue, this is a president who tends to act and then make up the strategic reasoning behind his actions. Or speak, say something, and then go back and re -- sort of reengineer why he did it. And that -- that certainly is a pattern with him.

Could this be different? Sure, it could be different. So, you know, I'm not in his brain, probably luckily, you know, and so I can't tell you what exactly he's thinking in those moments. But I will say look at how he's acted in the past. And it doesn't necessarily indicate that there's a broad 3-D chess game always going on, as he likes to present.

HARLOW: I'm having the image of you in the president's brain and the columns you would write.

CILLIZZA: Taunting. Taunting. Yes.

HARLOW: Guys, thank you all very much. We appreciate it, following all this breaking news and the president's tweets on it this morning.

Now to a CNN exclusive: former acting attorney general Sally Yates giving her first television interview to Anderson Cooper. Yates discusses the warnings that she gave White House directly about then- national security adviser Michael Flynn and the Trump campaign's possible collusion with Russia. Here's a look.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: The underlying conduct itself was potentially a fireable offense?

SALLY YATES, FORMER ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: You know, I can't speak to a fireable offense. It was up to the president to make that decision about what he was doing to do, but we certainly felt like they needed to act.

COOPER: Don McGahn actually asked you at that first meeting whether or not you thought the national security adviser should be fired. What did you say?

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

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

YATES: There's certainly a criminal statute that -- that was implicated by his conduct.

COOPER: You wanted the White House to act?

YATES: Absolutely, yes.

COOPER: To do something?

YATES: We expected the White House to act.

COOPER: Did you expect them to act quickly?


COOPER: There was urgency to -- to the information?


COOPER: I'm just wondering, just on a personal level -- and I don't know if you can answer this or not -- but, you know, you're in government one week. You've -- 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? [07:20:21] YATES: Well, sure I was concerned about it. But I didn't

know if perhaps something else had been done that maybe I just wasn't aware of.

COOPER: You mean 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 -- even from media reports, that he sat in on a phone call with Russia's president?

YATES: Just from media reports.

COOPER: Between the president and Russia's president. Did you find that surprising?

YATES: Well, sure. Absolutely that was surprising.

COOPER: Sean Spicer said on the day after Michael Flynn resigned that it was a trust issue that led to his resignation, not a legal issue. Do you agree there was no legal issue with Flynn's underlying behavior?

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

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

YATES: I think that this was a serious compromise situation, that the Russians had real leverage. He also had lied to the vice president of the United States. You know, whether he's fired or not is a decision for the president of the United States to make. But it doesn't seem like that's a person who should be sitting in the national security adviser position.

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

YATES: Absolutely not.

COOPER: Did you authorize somebody to leak to "The Washington Post"?

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

COOPER: Have you ever leaked information to them?


COOPER: The president seems to suggest that you were behind this "Washington Post" article. The morning before you testified, he tweeted, "Ask Sally Yates under oath if she knows how classified information got into newspapers soon after she explained it to White House counsel."

It does sound like he doesn't -- he seems to believe that you're the leaker. Does that -- when you heard that, what did you think?

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

COOPER: Do you want to elaborate on that?



HARLOW: All right. You're going to want to watch Anderson's full interview with Sally Yates. It is only right here tonight, 8 p.m. Eastern. Anderson will join us in our next hour on NEW DAY to talk about that interview and his reaction.

CUOMO: A big reason it's so important isn't just the timing, but it's about the intentionality. The White House, such -- has such a different narrative than what Sally Yates testified to...


CUOMO: ... and apparently says in this interview.

HARLOW: And you learn more from her about the urgency with which she went to the White House.

CUOMO: What was called a "heads up" by the White House.

HARLOW: Right.

CUOMO: All right. President Trump is fighting back. In the face of allegations that he abused classified information, he is saying, no, everything he did was fine. Well, why are so many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle troubled by what happened? We have a member of the House Intel Committee next.


[07:26:18] CUOMO: If people were expecting an apology from the president, they will be disappointed. He is defending his decision to disclose highly-classified information to Russian officials. He's been tweeting this morning: "As president, I wanted to share with Russia at an openly-scheduled White House meeting." Remember, U.S. media was not allowed to it. We only learned about photos from it from Russian media who were allowed at the meeting. He says he had the absolute right to do what he did. "Facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons. Plus, I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS and terrorism."

Does this make it OK? Joining us now is Democratic Congressman Jim Himes. He serves on the House Intel Committee. The president legally can declassify information whenever he deigns.

Nobody has more unfettered discretion in that regard than he. So it can't be illegal. But do you believe that that explanation he gave is unsatisfying?

REP. JIM HIMES (D-CT), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, it may not be illegal, but it's completely beside the point. Look, if the "Washington Post" story is to be believed, what happened is that the president gave a lot more information than would typically be given. It might -- you know, let's just imagine, because "The Washington Post" story said that it was location. So let's just work with that.

Let's imagine that the president is describing a building or a neighborhood. These are places that have limited numbers of people, right? So let's just imagine it's a room that four or five people have access to. Now all of a sudden, four or five people are turning up dead, quite possibly the source for whatever this piece of intelligence was.

So that's the sort of close-in issue.

Much larger, of course, is the fact that, you know, we rely on cooperation and tips from intelligence services and sources all over the world. And what has now happened is that all over the world, whether it's in China or Hong Kong or Australia or Africa, people are saying to themselves, "You know what? I might give a tip that the next day is being discussed on CNN NEW DAY, because the president talked about it with somebody who, in this case Russia, doesn't necessarily have an interest in keeping it secret."

CUOMO: Now, we have another situation, as we did with the Comey firing, where there was an initial story that went out and now the president, in an effort to clarify, seems to be revealing something that may be closer to the truth.

With Comey, it was "The A.G. gave this report. so we did it." And then the president came out and said, "I was going to do it anyway. I thought about to myself about this Russia situation; it's false. I got rid of Comey."

Last night, H.R. McMaster came out, respected general, national security adviser to the president of the United States and said, "The story is false. He didn't give up any sources or methods or anything," which isn't the reporting. And some could say he was parsing his words too carefully.

But the president this morning isn't saying that. He's saying, "Yes, I did it. And it's OK that I did it, because I want to help Russia get more involved with ISIS; and it was the right thing to do." He's saying something different, apparently. Yes, it's just a tweet, but this is the way the president likes to communicate most often.

It seems like he's saying, "I know what I did, Himes. I know why you're concerned about it. I'm not. My interests with Russia are more important than what you're talking about." HIMES: Yes, again, there's this -- there's all this haze out there,

H.R. McMaster, as you point out, enormously respected on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, he came out and he said the president didn't disclose sources and methods. That may be technically accurate.

But again, if the "Post" story is correct, in that there were locations described, you might not need to say, "Hey, Chris in Damascus gave me this information." Our foes can figure that out.

But this -- this gets to something larger and much more concerning, because it's the same deal as the Comey firing. You know, this stuff happens. The president appears to just go off script, to do something that can have profound implications; and then the White House spends the next couple of days trying to get the story straight.

What that tells you is, whether it's the promised tax reform plan that people at Treasury were looking to each other and saying, "Oh, my God, what did the president just promise?" or the firing of Jim Comey, for which we still have four different explanations, or what happened?