Return to Transcripts main page


1 Dead, 22 Injured in Times Square Accident; NYT: Flynn Told Trump Team He Was Under Investigation; Source: Joe Lieberman Leading Candidate for FBI Director; Controversial Sheriff: I've Accepted Administration Job. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired May 18, 2017 - 14:30   ET


[14:30:00] BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: As for the driver of the car, the person is 26 years old from the Bronx here in New York, and has a history of DWI, and is in the custody of police after witnesses say he tried to run away. He's in police custody. And he's not only being questioned but being tested to see if he was under the influence when all of this happened.

Certainly, scary events happening here in the heart of New York City. Police confirm, though, this was not any kind of act of terrorism. They are taking special precaution, sending unit across the city, just as an act of caution - Brooke?

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: An 18-year-old out just for a walk, in Times Square, awful.

Brynn Gingras, appreciate the update.

Let's take you back to the developing story out of the White House. Once again, another red flag regarding fired national security advisor, Michael Flynn, and this one coming from Flynn himself. "The New York Times" today reporting Flynn told the Trump transition team on January 4th that the FBI was investigating him for his work as a paid lobbyist as Turkey. That's 16 days before the president took office. And it's the third time the president or his White House counsel was warned about General Flynn before he was forced to resign on February 13th. Back in November, President Obama personally talked to Trump about the retired general, advising him against it. In late January, then-acting attorney general, Sally Yates, informed the White House counsel that Flynn was vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians. So all of these warnings. As you know, it was Flynn's misleading the president about his conversation with a Russian ambassador that led to his exit, according to the White House.

Back with me is CNN Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr; and CNN intelligence and security analyst, Bob Baer, a former CIA operative.

Barbara, you bring up a great point. I saw a note from you. You've been talking to a senior defense official who is saying that essentially this decision regarding the Syrian Kurds may have been in the works for a while.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it goes to the point that there's a lot of nuance here, a lot of complicated events, but with the bottom line that investigators may be looking at was Michael Flynn's motivation for whatever he might have done.

Let's start at the beginning. Michael Flynn was getting money from sources, elements, companies, officials, whatever in Turkey. Turkey was objecting to how the Obama administration at the time was carrying out the campaign against ISIS just over the border in Syria and Iraq. Turkey, which it hired Michael Flynn, was objecting to two things specifically, arming the Kurds that the U.S. backed in the fight against ISIS and the Obama administration plan to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa. He comes into office as national security adviser. During this transition time, apparently, according to the published reports, he had put a block on two things. On the administration's plan, the Obama administration's plan to move forward under Raqqa and arming the Kurds. But what actually wound up happening, the plan to retake Raqqa was never really stopped in its tracks. The U.S. military goes ahead, does what it does, conduct their strikes and operations. So the Raqqa plan is never really stopped in its tracks. And the Obama administration left that decision of arming the Kurds to the Trump administration, let them make that decision. There may not have been a lot of practical effect about all of this, but the question for investigators may well be, was the money that Michael Flynn was paid from Turkish elements part of his decision-making process. Did it influence him on what he was advising the president to do -- Brooke?

BALDWIN: So, Bob, Barbara brings up all of the right nuances of this story regarding Turkey and the White House and Syrian Raqqa. Is it also a definition of a conflict of interest, which is why you cannot have senior military officials getting paid by foreign governments?

BOB BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE & SECURITY ANALYST: Oh, absolutely. This is a complicated issue to the Kurds and Turkey and this cleric in Pennsylvania, Gulen, and the real point is he shouldn't have had a security clearance being in the pay of Turkey. And the Obama administration did its duty by going to the White House and saying, watch out for this guy, you've got to clear some stuff up, he probably shouldn't have a security clearance. But recklessly, the Trump administration said we know what we're doing, we trust him, he's an honorable man and forget the money, which you can't do in Washington. When you have a top-secret security clearance, you cannot be in the pay of a foreign government, ends of story.

BALDWIN: You remember we talked about -- it's all blurring together, but during a White House press briefing and Sean Spicer was throwing shade on the Obama administration and their vetting process to allow Flynn through. My question to you is, if the transition team knew, as per "The New York Times" report that back on January 4 the FBI was investigating Flynn, what does that then do to the White House blaming the Obama administration for giving Flynn the security clearance in the first place?

[14:35:38] BAER: Well, I mean, you know, look, this information developed because Flynn was working for Turkish companies. It was a process of slow accrual. They figured out what Flynn was about, working for the Russian media. Going back to the speech in Moscow, it dawned on the Obama administration very late that he shouldn't have a security clearance. You can park a security clearance but when you become national security adviser, you're raised to a new level. You see intelligence that most people don't see. In fact, you see it all. You're right next to the president. And I think Sally Yates at Justice Department said this guy should not be in the White House, should not be in the Oval Office and the FBI, I'm sure, said the same thing. And at this point, the Trump administration simply ignored it and took the risk that it could get away with this, and I think it's simply, because inexperience that Donald Trump doesn't understand national security, nor does Sean Spicer, and right now they are learning the hard way.

BALDWIN: Barbara Starr, final thought from you.

STARR: Well, let's remember, you know, the buck really does stop with a president of the United States. If Mr. Trump had some understanding of a problem, if he was warned several times, he made his decision, and now we'll see how it all sorts out.

BALDWIN: OK. Barbara Starr, thank you.

Bob Baer, thank you.

Let's get to some more breaking news.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BALDWIN: OK. We have just found out here at CNN that -- this is according to sources, a senior administration official and two other sources -- telling CNN that the former Senator and vice presidential candidate, Joe Lieberman, is now leading the candidates to become the next FBI director. We know the president has met with him and we're told it's close. This source has the impression it's highly likely this is close to being a done deal.

Abby Phillip is with me, CNN political analyst.

Abby Phillip, there at "The Washington Post," are you surprised?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, not entirely. I think for a president looking for someone who might be agreeable to both sides and who might allow them to escape some of these questions about whether the person that they put at the head of the FBI is going to be independent enough, Joe Lieberman is a decent choice. I say that because the thing about Joe Lieberman is that while he's a Democrat, he's been sort of separated from the Democratic Party for quite some time. And doesn't have much connection to the current Democratic Party as it stands. It's a little unclear how Democrats are going to respond to this. I think Republicans might find him to be a perfectly acceptable choice for that position. It doesn't open up any problems with seats in the House or in the Senate and they will be breathing some sighs of relief. But I can see why they are going down this road because Lieberman is someone that they can present as a potential bipartisan choice.

BALDWIN: Stay with me, Abby.

David Chalian is joining me, CNN political director. When you think through the other names that have been floating, folks

who have been named in law enforcement, whether it's Ray Kelly or Mike rogers, your reaction to Lieberman being it because he has a huge resume but that's not a piece of it.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Right. He did, I believe, chair or ranking member co-chair the Homeland Security committee. So he's been exposed, obviously, to some law enforcement matters in his tenure in the Senate, no doubt. And obviously, I could have looked at his full bio, but if my memory is correct, Brooke, I believe he has prosecutorial experience or attorney general experience back in his Connecticut days.


CHALIAN: So I do think, politically, as Abby was just saying, yes, this is somebody who has had relationships on both sides of the aisle but it's probably his Republican relationships with John McCain and Lindsey Graham that carry a lot of weight here. Since they have been two of the people from the president's own party asking for a special select committee or really looking to have some independence of the Russia investigation, they've gotten what they are looking for, to some extent, with the special counsel. And if they're advocating for their dear friend, Joe Lieberman, to be the FBI director, I imagine that would have some sway in President Trump's mind as well.

[14:40:20] BALDWIN: Let me put this both to you, David and Abby, the timing of this. Here we are, the longest week ever in Washington. This is the day after we know Rod Rosenstein has appointed bob Mueller to lead this special investigation. And this is the day before the president leaves on his first major trip. What do you think of the timing of this near announcement?

CHALIAN: Well, I do think that they understand the stakes of this first foreign trip are high and they understand that they are about to board the plane and go overseas under what has been a really damaging week. If they can get their ducks in a row and feel good it's sort of putting a period at the end of the sentence and they're able to turn their attention fully to that foreign trip. I think that's also somewhat wishful thinking because the thing about the new FBI director or the special counsel, Brooke, this is the Trump presidency now. It is the presidency that is fully defined at the moment by the Russia investigation, by his relationship with DOJ and FBI and creeps back into the headline and I think they are trying to, if they can -- and if they can feel competent that they have the clean rollout. If you botch this, that creates more problem. But if they can get a clean rollout, they can get on Air Force One with a little more of a clean slate as they head overseas.

BALDWIN: Abby, David mentioned that Lieberman is close with both the likes of McCain and Graham. Do you find that interesting, coincidental as this could be the White House's selection?

PHILLIP: I don't think it's coincidental at all. In addition to those relationships I think McCain and Graham are among the staunch critic and the most likely voices to be a thorn in his side when it comes to all things Russia and law enforcement related when it comes to the FBI but also this person has to get confirmed in the Senate and President Trump wants to move quickly. It's hard to move quickly to vet an FBI director candidate in seven days. It's very, very difficult. One of the ways to maybe get around some of that difficulty is to pick someone who has a known track record, a former lawmaker who has been vetted by the political system. So it's a little for them a short cut to getting a name out there for a president who is eager to move on, to turn this page, to get on the road and talk about something else and it's hard to do that unless you have someone that's been out there and maybe Joe Lieberman is that person.

BALDWIN: Gloria Borger is joining us now.

Apparently, our reporter spoke to Mr. Lieberman on the flight, and he said that, quote, "The appointment was not sought after or expected." He said he's been enjoying private life, and this notion of meeting with the president to be head of the FBI, totally unexpected.

Gloria, your reaction?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANLAYST: Right. I think it was. I was speaking with a source familiar with the process who says when he met with the president, the president found him, quote, agreeable, end quote, and liked him and I was also told that Lieberman, unlike some of the other candidates, did not go through the Department of Justice interviews that the other candidates went through and that he's been an attorney general of the state, I'm not sure of that experience in terms of law enforcement. But, again, with every appointment -- and I don't know if you folks have been talking about it, so my apologies if you have -- it all goes to the president and the president makes these decisions because of his chemistry with people. And so when the source said to me that the president found him agreeable, and then it became highly likely, as the source put it, that Lieberman would get the nod.

[14:45:08] BALDWIN: Agreeable.

David Chalian, what do you make of that word "agreeable?"

CHALIAN: We know that Donald Trump likes members of the crowd, whether it's generals on TV, somebody he's been familiar with in the public eye. I would imagine that has some sway, too. I want to underscore how important this is. There's been a lot of talk with Joe Lieberman as a Democrat and whether this is a play for bipartisan support across the aisle. At this moment in the Trump presidency, because of the politically perilous position that the president is in at the moment, shoring up his own party is really important here. So if the likes of Lindsey Graham and John McCain make his case, that is really important for Donald Trump to be able to shore up his own forces, never mind that he may get bonus Democratic support because it's Joe Lieberman. It's about keeping the critics in his own party on board with him.

BORGER: It's a good choice, from the president's point of view, precisely because of David's point. And while liberal Democrats don't love him much, I think there's a great deal of respect as somebody who will do the right thing and, you know, we'll have to see how this relationship progresses.

BALDWIN: OK. Let me put aside the conversation on Joe Lieberman, because, Abby, I haven't heard from you as far as your reaction to the big news that Bob Mueller, the former FBI chief, you know, has been named as this special counsel and then the Trump Twitter aftermath.

PHILLIP: Yeah. I mean, the special counsel news is pretty much something that, for Republicans, it's the best thing that's happened to them this week. It gives them a golden opportunity to put this behind them. But the problem, as always, is that the president is not thrilled about it and he's letting the whole world now. It's an interesting situation he's finding himself in where he's constantly weighing in on ongoing investigations that have some involvement with him. So I think that has got to be giving some lawyers in the White House and elsewhere a little bit of a headache right now because the one thing that I think they would like the president to do is to just leave this thing alone, let a special investigator take it over on the side and not continue the conversation. The investigation is going to go on. Robert Mueller is known for not necessarily bowing to political pressure. He's known to stand up to presidents in the past. That's something that has really heartened Democrats but also something that should give the White House a little bit of pause. They have got to step out of the fray here and allow this to move forward and not make problems worse than they already are.

BALDWIN: You know, I keep going back to a really simple point which is, you know, if you have nothing to hide, why fight bringing on any sort of special counsel? In one of the Trump tweets, he called this a witch hunt, David Chalian. Do you know what I'm saying? Why not be transparent? If you have nothing to hide, why push back?

CHALIAN: Well, because Donald Trump can't resist being a combatant. That's the reality. He sees life as winning and losing. We've seen him talk about that time and time again. While clearly the White House got out their preferred statement, that's a measured response to the naming of Mueller as special counsel and it's clear this morning he's ready to do battle over this. That he sees himself the victim. The problem here for him is that that really isolated him because, as Abby was saying, the special counsel really is a sigh of relief for many Republicans on Capitol Hill. Donald Trump, instead of pledging full cooperation and believing in his case, as he says, there will be nothing here at the end and letting the cards fall where they may, instead, he enters a battle that is not necessarily that every Republican on the Hill is going to want to join him in. He isolates himself and raises question about how cooperative he's willing to be in this investigation.

BALDWIN: As we've been talking, we have new numbers. Let me share with everything watching. We have this new poll showing 60 percent of Americans think that the president fired James Comey over the investigation. If you add it all together, 60 percent say this is why he did it.

Gloria, what do you think of that? [14:50:01] BORGER: It's not great news for the White House although

the president himself may have contributed to that. Gee, thinking about Russia in the same breath that he talked about Comey. Why wouldn't people think that? The president didn't say that.

I think getting back to the general, you know, question about the president's petulant tweets about this is that I think he understands that a special counsel can go anywhere a special counsel wants. And, of course, you know, you look at Monica Lewinsky, which started with a Whitewater investigation.

BALDWIN: Right. Right.

BORGER: And I think that the president clearly understands that. The special counsel might ask for his tax returns, for example. So I think he understands the gravity of it and the importance of what happened. He was not informed until a little bit beforehand, so he probably felt blindsided because Mueller is independent. And I think it was probably just sinking in and he was feeling very victimized by this when, in fact, we've all spoken on the air quite frequently, the president has self-sabotaged over and over again. Perhaps if he hadn't fired Comey, this might not have happened.

BALDWIN: On the self-inflicted wounds from the president, David Chalian, I understand we have more numbers from this poll as far as his approval rating. Where is it now?

CHALIAN: The Monmouth University poll has him at 39 percent. And so this is a little bit down from where they had him a couple of months ago. A couple points. But this is in concert with what we've seen with other polls. Around the 36 to 39, 37 to 40 percent range, which, again, as I would say sort of about a month ago he was in a slightly stronger position, more low 40s. So perhaps there's been the slightest bit of a downtick and this shows that despite the last week -- and we'll wait for more polling to come out because there were developments late into this week. But thus far, we have not seen these news stories, a constant drumbeat from the White House. We have not seen the bottom fall out. I'm not saying that they are good numbers but he's still -- his base of support is hanging on, for the most part.

BALDWIN: And keeping in mind, tomorrow he leaves on a mega overseas trip and this Russia cloud, whatever you want to describe it, hanging over the White House will carry with him. Maybe it will be a boost this trip for him and maybe it won't. We'll cover it throughout.

Guys, thank you all so much.


BALDWIN: Abby, Gloria, David, I appreciate you.

Moments from now, President Trump will be holding a news conference with the president of Colombia. This as he says, quote, "I'm very close to choosing an FBI director." We'll bring that to you live from the White House. We're back in a moment.


[14:55:50] BALDWIN: One of Donald Trump's most controversial defenders, Milwaukee controversial sheriff, David Clarke, says he's going to work for the president in the Homeland Security, but DHS won't confirm if that's true.

As a Trump campaign surrogate, Sheriff Clarke became an enemy of the Black Lives Matter movement, calling them, quote, "purveyors of hate," and sparked outcry when he moved closer to allowing his own officers to conduct immigration raids in his jails. But he was most known for his outlandish statements, some made right here on CNN.


DAVID CLARKE, WISCONSIN COUNTY SHERIFF: So many actions of the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter transcends peaceful protest and violates the code of conduct we rely on. I call it anarchy.

The social order in Milwaukee totally collapsed on Saturday night. When the social order collapsed, tribal behavior takes over. When tribal behavior takes over, the law of the jungle replaces the rule of law.

Don, I wish you had that message of civility


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: -- have a conversation with you -


CLARKE: -- towards this hateful ideology, these purveyors of hate.


LEMON: Will you let me get a word in?


CLARKE: -- Pride and virtue in the name of hate.

LEMON: I'm going to break. We'll be right back.

CLARKE: I'm tired of these crocodile tears about the poor kids coming. We're not talking about that. We're talking about able- bodied grown men, fighting age, who should be back in Syria and the Middle East fighting for their country, coming over to the United States to spread jihads.


BALDWIN: Here is how DHS is responding to the news for this, quote, "Senior positions are announced and made official by the secretary. No such announcement has been made."

With me now, Philip McNamara. He had that very job under the Obama administration.

Philip, welcome.


BALDWIN: Sheriff Clarke says he's humbled by being granted this position, yet DHS isn't confirming him. How bizarre is this?

MCNAMARA: Well, it's totally bizarre, and I'm actually hopeful that perhaps this is just all a trial balloon and he doesn't get to take the job that, up until January, I had. It's important role or one that requires building well territorial governments with governors and mayors and county legislators, and Sheriff Clarke is combative. He does have an unapologetic or brass personality. And the office is actually named Partnerships and Engagements. And having Sheriff Clark, the office would really be about partisanship.

BALDWIN: OK, we see how you feel and hope he doesn't get the job, but can you just explain to me, Phil, give me a real-life scenario, something that you, having had the job, or him potentially having it, would be involved with.

MCNAMARA: Sure. Absolutely. Again, so the office is the sort of outward-facing role working with state and local partners and governors to keep their communities safe. In the event of an incident, no one ever picks up the phone and calls DHS. Instead, they pick up a phone and call 911. That phone is answered by a state or local government. DHS is there in support. I was there with a whole host of incidents, everything from Hurricane Sandy and Matthew, to the Boston Marathon bombing, to the Ebola, to long lines at TSA checkpoints at the airport. And what I really had to do, though, throughout my job was build relationships with elected officials, with policy makers on both sides of the aisle. That meant that we had to work as well with --