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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Former CIA Director Confirms Russia-Trump Campaign Contacts; Terror in Manchester; British PM Raises Threat Level In U.K. To Critical; Flynn To Plead the 5th, Deny Subpoena; Interview with Rep. Joaquin Castro. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired May 23, 2017 - 16:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:30:03]

JANE HARMAN (D), FORMER U.S. CONGRESSWOMAN: And I really commend our law enforcement effort in the United States.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: And, Paul, this is the worst terrorist attack in the U.K. since the 7/7 London bombings in 2005.

What was the threat level there? Were authorities taken by surprise by this?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, of course, they were taken by surprise, in the sense there was no intelligence to stop this.

But, in a way, they weren't surprised, because the threat level here was so high. Officials just in the past few months telling me, when it comes to Islamist terrorism, it was the highest ever in the history of this country.

There's been an uptick in terrorist activity in recent weeks. By in March, we saw the attack on Westminster Bridge. Since then, there have been multiple plots thwarted in the U.K., including just last week here in London, four people arrested in a terrorism plot by authorities, preventing some kind of attack here.

So, to a certain degree, the system is blinking red. There's concern about all those hundreds and hundreds of British extremists who travel to Syria and Iraq that are coming back now in increasing numbers, trained killers coming back to British shores.

TAPPER: All right, Paul Cruickshank, Juliette Kayyem, and Congresswoman Jane Harman, thanks, one and all. Appreciate it.

Our politics lead now: President Trump landed in Rome this afternoon, where he will meet with the pope in Vatican City, but the deadly Manchester attack did cast a shadow over the day, as the president condemned the attacker in harsh terms.

CNN senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny traveling with President Trump and filed this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In Israel today, President Trump delivering touch words on terrorism.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Obliterate this evil ideology and protect and defend our citizens and people of the world.

ZELENY: Fighting extremism, already the key focus of the president's first trip abroad, even more urgent in the aftermath of the attack in England.

TRUMP: So many young, beautiful, innocent people living and enjoying their lives murdered by evil losers in life. I won't call them monsters, because they would like that term. They would think that's a great name. I will call them from now on losers, because that's what they are. They are losers.

ZELENY: Traveling in the Middle East, the president's words coming far faster than his policies to combat terror. He's yet to unveil his plan to fight the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the Manchester attack, at each stop along the trip, the president urging leaders to join the fight against extremism.

TRUMP: We arrive.

ZELENY: In Saudi Arabia, he spoke of the false glory of jihadism.

TRUMP: If you choose the path of terror, your life will be empty, your life will be brief and your soul will be fully condemned.

ZELENY: In Bethlehem today, standing alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, he said political leaders must speak out against terror, what harbors and inspires it.

TRUMP: The terrorists and extremists and those who give them aid and comfort must be driven out from our society forever. This wicked ideology must be obliterated, and I mean completely obliterated.

ZELENY: The attack aimed at young concert-goes shattered a day once set to highlight Trump's effort to revive the Middle East peace process.

TRUMP: The Palestinians are ready to reach for peace. I know you have heard it before. I am telling you. That's what I do. They are ready to reach for peace.

ZELENY: In the moments after a terror attack, the condemnations and condolences flow quickly.

TRUMP: Our society can have no tolerance for this continuation of bloodshed.

ZELENY: It's the entrenched politics and deep disputes here in the Middle East that make solutions far more elusive.

Jeff Zeleny, CNN, Jerusalem. (END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: The former head of the CIA says the number of Russian contacts with the Trump team during the campaign raised questions in his mind. What did John Brennan's testimony today mean for the investigation? That story next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:38:30]

TAPPER: We're going to go live to Capitol Hill right now, where Senators Richard Burr of North Carolina and Mark Warner of Virginia, the chairman and ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, are talking.

Let's listen in.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: ... absolutely unanimous agreement that there was massive Russian intervention. We have to make sure we don't see it coming forward again in the future.

And what we're looking amount now, part of the thing of this investigation is to look at those contacts that Mr. Brennan spoke about and see what they were, how extensive they were, and what they led to, if anything.

QUESTION: Senators, when you say all options are on the table, can you explain what those options are? Because I'm not sure folks have a good idea of what a Senate committee can do to compel somebody to testify or what remedy there might be.

SEN. RICHARD BURR (R), NORTH CAROLINA: Well, we have taken actions that we feel are appropriate right now.

If in fact there's not a response, we will seek additional counsel advice on how to proceed forward. At the end of that option is a contempt charge. And I have said that everything is on table. That's not our preference today. We would like to hear from General Flynn. We'd like to see his documents. We'd like him to tell his story, because he publicly said: I have got a story to tell.

We're allowing him that opportunity to do it.

(CROSSTALK)

WARNER: One last thing before we head off. I think the chairman and I also agreed today that we heard from -- some conflicting testimony from ODNI Director Coats.

But my understanding was that Director Coats said he would be happy to appear before the Intel Committee and tell his story as well in regard to the alleged conversations he had with the president. And we want to make that invitation as well.

[16:40:10] QUESTION: Why is an offer of immunity off the table?

BURR: It's a decision that the committee has made, that we're not the appropriate avenue in a potential criminal investigation.

As valuable as General Flynn might be to our counterintelligence investigation, we don't believe that it's our place today to offer him immunity from this committee.

Thank you, guys.

WARNER: Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you, gentlemen.

TAPPER: The chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee there talking about what they heard from former CIA Director John Brennan in his testimony today, after Brennan publicly today for the first time testified that he was concerned about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, raising the possibility of collusion in his mind.

CNN's Jessica Schneider joins me now.

And, Jessica, Brennan stopped short of saying that there was direct evidence of collusion.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. He did, Jake.

And Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy repeatedly pointed out that direct evidence has not been presented, but Brennan stressed that, while he couldn't make the leap to collusion, there was clear contact between Trump aides and the Russians, to the point where they were being recruited as Russian spies.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN BRENNAN, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: I was worried by a number of the contacts that the Russians had with U.S. persons.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Tonight, the former CIA director revealing he was concerned by the communication he saw between Trump associates and Russian officials at the height of the 2016 campaign. John Brennan relayed the communications to the FBI, but stopped short of calling it collusion.

BRENNAN: I don't know whether or not such collusion -- and that's your term -- such collusion existed. I don't know.

But I know that there was a sufficient basis of information and intelligence that required further investigation by the bureau to determine whether or not U.S. persons were actively conspiring, colluding with Russian officials.

SCHNEIDER: Brennan led the CIA until the final day of the Obama administration. Today, he told Congress he received information that the Russians were working to recruit Americans associated with the Trump campaign.

BRENNAN: By the time I left office on January 20, I had unresolved questions in my mind as to whether or not the Russians had been successful in getting U.S. persons involved in the campaign or not to work on their behalf, again, either in a witting or unwitting fashion.

Frequently, individuals who go along a treasonous path do not even realize they are along that path until it gets to be a bit too late.

SCHNEIDER: By early August, Brennan was so concerned, he called the head of the Russia's intelligence agency, FSB, to send a warning.

BRENNAN: I told Mr. Bortnikov that, if Russia had such a campaign under way, it would be certain to backfire. I said that all Americans, regardless of political affiliation or whom they might support in the election, cherish their ability to elect their own leaders without outside interference or destruction.

SCHNEIDER: That interference has led to an FBI investigation and questions about whether President Trump has sought to discredit, undermine or obstruct that investigation.

Multiple current and former U.S. officials tell CNN that President Trump asked two of the government's top intelligence chiefs, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Admiral Michael Rogers, to publicly deny evidence of cooperation of evidence between his campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.

Both men refused the request. Today, Coats refused to comment on the reports.

DAN COATS, U.S. DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I don't feel it's appropriate to characterize discussions and conversations with the president.

SCHNEIDER: It was just last week that sources disclosed President Trump also asked recently fired FBI Chief James Comey to shut down at least part of the investigation. A U.S. official now tells CNN the president made this request in part because White House officials were unsure about the president's power over the bureau.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Michael Flynn.

SCHNEIDER: And now that Michael Flynn has announce he will invoke his Fifth Amendment rights, instead of complying with a subpoena from the Senate Intelligence Committee, top Democrat Mark Warner is promising to push back.

WARNER: We don't believe that you can take a blanket immunity on the Fifth in terms of documents. We will take some further action today, two sets of options. And as Chairman Burr mentioned yesterday, we're not taking contempt of Congress off the table either.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And former CIA Director Brennan also briefed the House Intelligence Committee behind closed doors today.

Now, the White House responded to Brennan's testimony, saying it backed up the administration's repeated claim that there was no evidence of collusion. But it is important to note that Brennan was not privy to any intelligence after January 20.

And, Jake, Brennan said that it was his job prior to that to press the FBI to investigate further.

TAPPER: All right, Jessica, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

We are going to talk to a member of the House Intelligence Committee who questioned the former CIA director today. Did John Brennan's testimony change his mind about the Russia investigation in any way? Stick around.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:45:00] TAPPER: Welcome back. We do have some breaking news on THE LEAD. British Prime Minister Theresa May just announcing hours after Manchester bombing that the U.K. is now raising its threat level to critical. It is not been that high since June 2007. Let's talk about this and much more with Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas, he serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman thanks so much for joining us. Appreciate it.

REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO (D-TX), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

TAPPER: Theresa May in addition to saying that they've raised the threat level also talked about how there's going to be more of a military and law enforcement presence at public events. I'm sure you're getting a lot of questions from constituents, especially anxious parents. Do you know of any threat in the United States that should have anybody concerned?

CASTRO: No, and because it just happened yesterday, obviously our thoughts and prayers as a nation are with the people of Manchester. But because the event just happened, in Congress, we've not been debriefed on what intelligence may have collected or what law enforcement now knows. So I can't confirm any of the things we've heard. It does sound though like the M.O. of a group like ISIS. That said, again, there's nothing that I can confirm yet.

[16:50:20] TAPPER: And just to - just to explain for our viewers when the U.K. raises its terror threat level to critical, that means that they are expecting an imminent attack. Can you tell us anything about that? Is there - is this - is this - there a terror cell in the U.K. that is loose right now?

CASTRO: Well, I can only speculate what that means for their - for their government, but I would suspect that their intelligence agencies have told them that there may be other threats that are in the works and because of that they are raising essentially the terror threat level, and are - on - are on high alert. And so, you know, that's just speculation but I would imagine that that's what they are going through right now.

TAPPER: You just finished a closed briefing with former CIA Director John Brennan. He said today publicly that he was worried about contacts between the Trump campaign or Trump team and Russia. Do you know what types of contacts he was specifically referring to?

CASTRO: I have seen some of that information. It is classified, and as he in an open setting refused to name individuals. I also have to decline to name individuals, but I do think it was important for the nation to have the Former CIA Director speak openly about the fact that he saw repeated contacts and interactions between members of the Trump campaign or his associates and Russians.

TAPPER: Former Director Brennan also said that he's not sure if there's any actual evidence of collusion between the Trump team and Russia. Additionally, Senator Mark Warner, who's the Ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that what there is, what exists might not meet the legal definition of collusion. Do you have any concerns at all of these investigations might uncover very little direct evidence of any wrongdoing?

CASTRO: Well, ultimately, that's the investigation that's still underway and as the CIA Director mentioned, once he got the intelligence that he did and had the suspicions that he did, he turned that over to the FBI so that they could start their process of looking into that, those actions by American persons, and with the Congress and now with the Special Counsel, these investigations continue.

TAPPER: Sources tell CNN that President Trump and the White House asked two top intelligence chiefs, Coats and Rogers, to publicly deny the evidence of cooperation between his campaign and the Russians. Do you believe with all this mounting anecdotal evidence that there is a possibility that the President actually committed obstruction of justice?

CASTRO: If the media reports are true and if the President did what is being reported, then I think there's a pretty credible case of obstruction of justice, both in the firing of Jim Comey and also in the news reported as you just mentioned in asking members of the intelligence community to say that there was no collusion really without evidence one way or the other.

TAPPER: Former FBI Director James Comey has agreed to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Do you have any sort of sense how much Comey will be able to divulge given he's so critical to the ongoing probe now led by Special Counsel, Former FBI Director Robert Mueller?

CASTRO: Well, when it comes to the issue of possible obstruction of justice by the President, Jim Comey is the main witness. He is the star witness, so to speak, and so his testimony and if he did write down memos or type up memos that he took contemporaneously with his interaction with the President, if he knows if there were any taped recordings or audio recordings of their conversations and what he could tell us about that, those things and his testimony are going to be critical to figuring this out. TAPPER: Brennan also testified today that Russia will, quote,

"further refine its meddling tactics in elections." What is the United States government, specifically the congress doing to try to prevent that from ever happening again?

CASTRO: Well, as part of this investigation, as least for the intelligence committees, it's figuring out and I believe ultimately making recommendations about how we make sure that this doesn't happen again. And I say that realizing that the cyber capabilities of not only Russia but other nations is only growing, so that means that our defenses have to get better and better, and it's got to be a priority for this Congress.

TAPPER: The White House has refused to turn over documents related to fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's screening, and Flynn is expected, of course, to plead the fifth in the Russia probe. The Senate Intelligence Committee said they are considering subpoena - subpoenaing business records of Flynn and possibly even holding him in contempt of Congress. What do you think needs to be the next step?

[16:55:12] CASTRO: I think we should do everything legally possible to get ahold of the information and the documents that we need from Michael Flynn.

TAPPER: Congressman Joaquin Castro, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

CASTRO: Thank you.

TAPPER: How will the terror attack in Manchester impact the United States plan for handling ISIS? A member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will weigh in next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news, concerning contacts. Former Cia Chief John Brennan drops a bombshell telling lawmakers there were suspicious contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. And now CNN has learned that the President himself asked his intelligence chief to push back on stories about possible collusion.