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President Trump Tweets about Releasing Classified Information to Russians in Meeting; Interview with Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired May 16, 2017 - 08:00   ET


[08:00:00] LEON PANETTA, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: He's got to have some guard rails. The president of the United States cannot just do or say or speak whatever the hell he wants. That's just irresponsible. And so you need to have some people that sit down with the president before he goes into a meeting and say these are the lines you cannot cross because it relates to the security of our country. If this president is going to be successful, he has got to be disciplined. And the main problem right now is that he is not disciplined.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: The Comey situation, I'm sure you have your thoughts on them, happy to hear them. The idea that the president said threat or not, matter of fact or not, better hope there are no tapes, do you think there is a chance that there is the recording of that tape of conversation and those tapes are available, or do you think this was just nonsense?

PANETTA: We don't know. We don't know. Again, this is kind of a loose statement by the president in a tweet, which is, frankly, probably the first thing I would do as chief of staff is take away those tweets from the president of the United States because you cannot control what's going on in the country when the president is simply tweeting whatever he wants.

CUOMO: But he tells you mind your own business. My direct live to the American people is why I'm president. You professional insiders don't know what you're talking about. I rescued your from yourselves. Leave me alone. Worry about yourselves.

PANETTA: You know I'd say -- Mr. President, you are president of the United States. You are not just a TV personality. You are a president of the United States. You have a responsibility when you speak to speak clearly, with authority, and speak in a way that doesn't hurt this country.

CUOMO: Your disloyal, you're out. Is it worth it if you're working for the president to risk that?

PANETTA: Absolutely. That's why you're there. If you are a bunch of yes-people around the president of the United States, what good does that do? You need to have people that are willing to say to the president you're wrong. You've got to be able to discipline yourself, Mr. President. This is important. Otherwise, you are going to damage the trust in the office of the presidency. And that's the worst thing you can do. You want to pass legislation, you want to get things done in the world, you have to have the trust of the American people, and he's damaging that.

CUOMO: Secretary Panetta, thank you for your take on these important issues.

PANETTA: Thank you.

CUOMO: Always a pleasure to have you on NEW DAY.

PANETTA: You bet.

CUOMO: There are big stories going on right now, including we have a response, a Republican senator, a very rare animal these days when talking about the president on television, he is going to react to the latest Russia firestorm. Let's get after it.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CUOMO: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is NEW DAY. Alisyn is off. Poppy Harlow is by my side. And we have breaking news for you. A defiant President Trump defending his decision to share highly classified information. He is not advancing what we heard from his national security advisor about what wasn't said. He is owning that he did say things, he is just saying it wasn't wrong. This controversial office meeting with the men on your screen there from the Russian government, the White House is calling the story false. But right now calling it false seems to be false based on the president's own explanation.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Exactly. The president's tweets further clarifying what the White House is actually trying to put out there. You have equal shock and concern from both sides of the aisle, some would say about what the president has done. The latest self- inflicted firestorm likely to overshadow this president's first trip overseas. It begins this week.

Let's go straight to the White House where we find Joe John. Good morning.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Poppy. Deja vu here at the White House. The president essentially making his position clear and confirming in a couple of tweets this morning a story that White House staff, including the national security advisor last night, tried to knock down. Let's look at the president's tweets. He said "As president I wanted to share with Russia in an openly scheduled White House meeting, which I have the right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline safety, humanitarian reasons. Plus, I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS and terrorism."


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

H.R. MCMASTER, WHITE HOUSE NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: 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 publically 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": The White House is playing word games here to that effect to try to blunt the impact of this story.

[08:05:00] 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, 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 is 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 is 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 why. 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 have answered the question over and over again the same way.


JOHNS: In the midst of all these controversies, the president is holding an extremely important meeting today, critical to U.S. interests across the Middle East. President Eedogan of Turkey expected to show up here at the White House to see Mr. Trump midday. Chris and Poppy, back to you.

CUOMO: All right, Joe, at the top of the chain of reaction here, we have the top ranking Democrat, Nancy Pelosi, saying this is as serious as it gets. Why? Because the classified information that President Trump is reported to have shared with the Russians centered around an ISIS plot for reported by CNN last month. And the intel and the access that was provided by one of our allies could be jeopardized. Let's discuss. We have CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto who joins us now with more. You have been working intel sources. You've been talking to the White House. What have you gathered?

JIM SCIUTTO, CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CNN CORRESPONDENT: So let me start with the story itself, and Jake Tapper, my colleague and I, our colleague and I got the same information last night. And that is that the president did not reveal the source of this information. He did not say we got it from here. But the degree that he went with the Russians in describing this intelligence, details he gave, was enough of a trail that some in the intelligence community are concerned they could figure out where it came from.

The specificity of the intelligence, naming details like the city where this plot originated, this kind of thing, that's what gave concern to the folks in the intelligence community. And that's serious because we are dealing with some of the most sensitive intelligence, most highly classified, one, and with a partner that is loath to have its cooperation with the U.S. and its sharing of this intelligence get out to the public or certainly get out to the Russians.

The administration point of view is this -- the president shared important information with the Russians about this aviation threat, but he didn't say where it came from, and he certainly didn't reveal the source. And low and behold, this is a serious threat to us and the Russians, and it was his right and he'll even say his responsibility to share with them because it's his intention to have them cooperate in the threat against ISIS.

HARLOW: What about "The Washington Post" reporting that the White House in the aftermath tried to clean this up, that Peter Bossert, one of the chief guys around the president on national security, called the CIA director, called the head of the NSA, tried to strike things from these transcripts. Do we know anything about that?

SCIUTTO: I asked this very question a few minutes ago. They say that that conversation with the intelligence community is misrepresented, that it was not a chickens-with-their-heads cut off kind of the sky is falling conversation, that it was something to a detail regarding classified administration. That's the administration point of view.

I know because I have spoken to my own sources that there are those in the intelligence community who have genuine concern about this, enough that they are raising the alarm.

[08:10:00] So we've talked about intelligence on 1,000 different threats before. You can have different points of view on the same intelligence, right? Two people can look at the same stuff and make a different conclusion. And we did report last night that there is some disagreement in the intelligence community as to how far the president went. Some people more concerned, other not as concerned.

CUOMO: So let's discuss. Stay with us. Let's bring in what the president's defense is, what the ramifications are. CNN politics reporter and editor at large Chris Cillizza, and CNN military and diplomatic analyst John Kirby. John Kirby, from your perfective of messaging when you were at the Department of State, what do you make of this, the response from the White House and your understanding of what might have been shared and how important it is?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: I think from a messaging perspective, and I think they are trying to treat this as a PR problem rather than what it really is, which it is an intelligence problem, no question about it. And I think they are trying to stuff the answer into a shell that they created by the president getting this out there. I mean, you got H.R. McMaster, you've got Dina Powell, you've got Secretary Tillerson out there trying to put context on this, a non-denial denial. And then you have the president coming out in tweets this morning and saying, hey, it is no big deal. That it is a big deal you don't have to look further into the fact they put out their national security adviser yesterday. They put out the secretary of state, and now you have the president tweeting about it. When you elevate the discussion to that level you automatically acknowledge that this is in fact something major.

HARLOW: All right, so the president just tweeted again. Let me read this to you. We'll see if we could get it on the screen. "I have been asking Director Comey and others from the beginning of my administration to find the leakers in the intelligence community..." so it looks like there is going to be a part two, maybe part three to this tweet. But again, Chris Cillizza, after he comes out and says, yes, you're right, I said that, and here's why I was justified, he's now once again going after the leakers in the intelligence community.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, EDITOR AT LARGE, CNN POLITICS: Yes. I heard Leon Panetta say the first thing he would do as White House chief of staff is take away Donald Trump's Twitter account. Look, that will never happen, but it is good advice.

This has turned into -- we saw this in the wake of the James Comey firing and now this has turned into sort of a personal grievance settling. This is how Donald Trump who we know is unhappy with his communications staff and how they handled the aftermath of the Comey firing, though I would say he had as much if not more to do with the problems there than they did. This is how he vents. This is how he gets what he believes to be his side of the story out.

Again, I think he winds up doing himself a little more harm than good when you have H.R. McMaster and you have a number of people come out, Secretary Tillerson, and say this is false. Which, by the way, I worked with Greg Jaffe and Greg Miller. Those guys don't get this stuff wrong. As Jim Sciutto and Jake Tapper, they don't get this stuff wrong. They're very careful on this stuff.

But when you come out and say this is false, and then on Twitter the next morning say, yes, I mean, it's true, but I have the right to do it and I did it on purpose, those aren't the same thing. I don't know if he knows how much he undermines, or cares how much he undermines his staff doing it, but that's exactly what he's doing.

CUOMO: Right.

KIRBY: Not to mention what he's undermining in terms of our relationships overseas. He wrote in that tweet, "I have the right to do this." And I beg to differ with the president. Yes, he can declassify material at his discretion, but he doesn't have the right to violate an agreement, an intel sharing agreement, that we have a third party nation in the region who is providing us intelligence almost on a real-time basis. You don't have the right to just do that whenever you want.

HARLOW: Who does it hurt, Jim Sciutto, when you do that?

SCUITTO: First of all, as John Kirby is saying there, it hurt the relationship. The U.S. shares intelligence with loads of folks and has intelligence shared with us with loads of countries. Some are obvious. The U.K., long ally under the five I's. There's sharing back and forth. France, Germany, Japan, you expect that kind of sharing.

But the U.S. also shares with partners that aren't comfortable with that kind of relationship, that aren't quite in the ally category or because they're concerned about the risk to their own people on the ground, that kind of thing. That's the nature of intelligence sharing. So you have got to respect those relationships as you are doing this.

And the other point is that, yes, the president can declassify anything, but I have been told by a number of folks in the intelligence community this is not something you do willy-nilly. You don't just wake up one morning and tweet out something because I'm president. There is a process to it. The example I was led to was 1983, President Reagan declassified intelligence showing that the Russians shot down that airliner. Remember this? He did that to demonstrate that we know that the Russians shot it down, but there was a process. He spoke to his advisors. It made strategic sense. They did it. He didn't wake up one morning and announce from the portico of the White House.

CUOMO: That's why Chris Cillizza, I can hear your grandmother saying to you, don't say anything about Trump getting off Twitter.

[08:15:02] Because what a gift to journalism and the American people it is --

CILLIZZA: Absolutely.

CUOMO: -- because otherwise we would have had the Kirbys and the world and the professionals getting out a message spin us away from where we want to be. We all know the adage. The truth is very often, news is very often what the powerful want to keep hidden.

This is a gift. Donald Trump goes against what H.R. McMaster said in my reckoning. Certainly went against what he had, Rosenstein, put in his memo and he gives you where his head really is, what his intentions really are, how he really feels and isn't that invaluable to journalism.

CILLIZZA: Yes, absolutely. I would say from a political advice perspective, Leon Panetta is right. I encourage the president to continue his active tweeting. The one thing I would say is it does encapsulate the Trump, the conundrum that is true.

On the one hand, this is someone who has at best oftentimes a casual relationship with the truth, been demonstrated in the campaign and the White House. And yet, he also has an odd sort of at times transparency to him. He is sort of honest about it. Yeah, I fired Comey because, you know -- well, the Russia thing that I didn't think it was a big deal, and he did, so I fired him.

Again, it's terrible to be on staff for Donald Trump. But he does have this honesty that you're right, Chris, most politicians don't exhibit. At the same time, though, let's not forget, fact checkers found two-thirds of the things they factored in the 2016 campaign that Donald Trump said to be totally false. He repeats falsehoods.

The inauguration crowd was the biggest ever --

CUOMO: That makes it a challenge for us, but at least you get the opportunity.


HARLOW: Go ahead, Chris.

CILLIZZA: No, true enough. Look, I think that -- I think that if you had to gauge Twitter, it's been far more of a blessing for journalists in this White House and this campaign than it has been hurtful. I just think if you are a Republican and you make up this morning and you see, you know, tweet one of seven from Donald Trump, you have to think, this may not ever turn around in any meaningful way, that his transparency at times is damaging.

Good for journalism. Damaging to the Republican Party because it runs so counter to the message that this White House is trying to sell.

HARLOW: So, Republican Senator Ben Sasse will be on this program, shortly, to answer a lot of these questions. It will be good to hear from him.

Jim, I know you want to jump in. I just want you to respond to a number of viewers here. If you missed Chris's interview with former CIA Director Leon Panetta, it was a very important one to hear. And here is part of it talking about the security of our nation.


PANETTA: Sure. Obviously, presidents can do whatever they want. But what is the damage from that? The damage is that this country may cutoff 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 just a joke. This is very serious business that relates to the security of this country.


HARLOW: Beyond partisan politics -- Jim Sciutto.

SCIUTTO: It's the conflict between what serves the president in the moment, in that room, made a judgment that it served him to show to the Russians that he's cooperating with them. Maybe "The Washington Post" he wanted to show the kind of information he's getting as president versus as Leon Panetta was saying the relationship with this ally versus lives, right? Because oftentimes, intelligence is gathered at risk to lives, right?

People on the ground taking risks to do this. That's the concern from the intelligence community, is that he revealed too much and, therefore, risks not just the partnership, but the people on the ground who are facing great risk to gain this intelligence.

HARLOW: Lives.


HARLOW: Jim Sciutto, thank you for the reporting. I know you are working around the clock on it.

Thank you all very much. Chris Cillizza, Admiral Kirby, we appreciate it.

Ahead for us, how do members of the president's own party feel about this intel disclosure? As we said, Republican Senator Ben Sasse who has been openly critical of this president will join us next on all of it.


[08:22:52] CUOMO: President Trump defending why he disclosed highly classified information to Russian diplomats. His actions not illegal but there could be ramifications.

Joining us now, Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, the author of "The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming of Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance."

Good to have you, sir.

SEN. BEN SASSE (R), NEBRASKA: Good morning, Chris.

CUOMO: So important enough. Let's spent a block talking about the news and then we'll take a break and talk about the book, good?

SASSE: Fair enough.

CUOMO: Good. All right.

So, the president is once again providing the pathway to our understanding on something. The White House came out with a quick response in the form of General McMaster, respected national security adviser. He said, story is false that you heard. President didn't reveal any sources, methods or any military operations that weren't already public.

Now, apple and oranges. That's not what "The Washington Post" reporting was about. It was about what the president may have given in detail of highly classified information that could allow the Russians to deconstruct, backtrack and find out where it might have come from.

So, different things. But then the president this morning doesn't follow McMaster. He takes his own path, which is much closer to the reporting.

And he said, As president, I wanted to share with Russia at an openly scheduled White House meeting.

Remember, the U.S. media was not invited to that. The pictures came from Russian media.

I have the absolute right to do, he says. Facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus, I want Russia to step up their fight against ISIS and terrorism. I have been asking Director Comey and others from the beginning of my administration to find the leakers in the intelligence community.

Thank God for those leakers, Senator Sasse, otherwise we might not have known about this, the same way we might not have known what was going on with General Flynn, and what precipitated his removal from office.

What is your take on what transpired in that Russia meeting?

SASSE: So, I don't know what happened in the meeting and I haven't been in a classified SCIF yet. I'll be in the bunker later this afternoon and hopefully I'll know more then. But, right now, I think you made a number of points that are

important, the sanctions to tease out. First, when we're talking about sources and methods, why is that important? The American people need to understand why te the direct disclosure of sources and methods or something that could lead to the discovery of our sources is such a big deal because sources and methods are the lifeblood of the intelligence community.

[08:25:12] The world is a dangerous and broken place and we need spies out there fighting for American interests. And these men and women, they're in the shadows. We don't get to celebrate them the same way we celebrate troops when they're in the sendoff ceremony or return ceremony. We need the American people to understand why sources and methods are so important.

Number two, I think you draw an importance distinction between imprudent and illegality. I haven't seen all the particulars on the president's tweets. I've just heard about them in the green room coming in here. But the president is the ultimate declassifier in our system.

So, when media jumps to the line of saying something is illegal, it inoculates people against the full story. The real question here is what's prudent and imprudent?

And third, it doesn't help this is with Russia. Our interest and Russia's interest do not align. Putin is a bad guy. He wants to fracture NATO. He's an enemy of free speech, religion, press and assembly, which the beating heart of the American experiment.

So, it's not at all helpful that this happened with the Russians. But again, particulars about the meeting, we don't know all that much yet.

CUOMO: But you can. It is interesting. Speaker Ryan put out a very terse statement. The first line of which was, we have no way of knowing what was said.

That's probably not true, right? Because we do know that there are reports and transcripts of meeting like this, and that there were efforts reportedly from the White House to get the information that the president had given to the Russians out of those transcripts of what transpired during the meeting so it wouldn't be exposed again.

Is it time for the speaker to not stand back as he seems to like to do and say, look, the president tweets what he tweets. He says what he says. I'm not here to defend that.

Isn't leadership about standing up and talking about the checks and balances of how we govern our people?

SASSE: Yes, checks and balances are critically important part of this American system. And right now, we have too many people that feel like our partisan labels, whether they're Republican or Democrat is somehow a fundamental part of people's identity. That's not the oath of office I took. I'm one of the most conservative guys in the Senate by voting record,

but I don't start by saying either of these two political parties are very interesting or impressive or have a long term view.

So, I worry about the station chief of different CIA installations around the world and at those stations, you want your station chief, when they're cultivating human intelligence assets, you want them to be able to tell those assets a couple of things. One, your work is so important that it is worth you risking your life over because decision makers back in Washington need to understand the intel you are going to deliver. And number two, we're going to protect you. We are concerned about your life and your wife or your husband or your kids back home.

And it's really important that we understand why leaks are dangerous of any place that they originate, because we want those people who are out in the field that are our assets or our ally's assets to know what they're doing is going to be protected. Sources and methods again are the lifeblood of the intel community.

CUOMO: Nitpicking or are you seeing a pattern in the behavior of the president and the White House that should be a legitimate cause of concern?

SASSE: You know, governing tweet storms is not a sustainable strategy and the president has picked a lot of good people. They are a number of really wonderful -- they're smart people and they're honorable people in this president's White House and they have a really, really hard job because it feels like kiddy soccer most guys. That people are just following one frenzy to the next frenzy to the next frenzy.

I would love it if all of our political leaders, both parties and both Article I legislature and Article II executive branch were thinking five and ten years in the future. Are we going to have done things that restore public trust or are we going to have further eroded public trust? Because right now, both of these parties contribute to inoculating the American people against lying and it creates a sort of shirts and skins exercise that's like a medieval blood feud.

CUOMO: The politicization of truth starts at the top and that was a point that Leon Panetta made in our interview this morning about why words matter, especially coming from the president. Take a quick listen to this.


PANETTA: The president of the United States cannot just do or say or speak whatever the hell he wants. That's just irresponsible. And, so, you need to have some people that sit down with the president before he goes into a meeting and say these are the lines you cannot cross because it relates to the security of our country.


CUOMO: Your take? SASSE: That's well said. I mean, I'm one of the most conservative

people in the U.S. Senate. But I sit in Daniel Patrick Moynihan's desk on the Senate floor for a reason. He is the guy who is the author of the famous quote attributed to lots of people, but he's the author who said, you can have your own opinion, but you can't have your own facts.

We need shared facts in this country, and right now, more and more of us are getting our news and media in a way that creates silos and echo chambers around ourselves, so we only have to listen to people who already with agree with us. That's not healthy for the republic.

CUOMO: Now, you get us a good pivot point, Senator, because part of this is political. Part of it is cultural. And you've written a very provocative book about who we are and, more importantly, who we are no longer.