Return to Transcripts main page


Vigil Held for Victims of Manchester Terrorist Attack; Former CIA Director John Brennan Testifies Before Congress on Possible Connections between Trump Campaign and Russia; White House Counsel Don McGahn Under Growing Scrutiny. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired May 24, 2017 - 08:00   ET


[08:00:00] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Back here at home big news as well, stunning revelations into the Russia investigation. Former CIA director John Brennan testifying he was aware of interactions between Russian operatives and the campaign and that those deserve investigation. What will the fallout be from those words? We have all the angles covered, including President Trump's face to face with the pontiff.

But let's start with CNN's senior international correspondent Clarissa Ward live in Manchester. Clarissa?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Chris. It is quite a crowded scene at a vigil that has sprung up. People are filing through, remembering the dead as the investigation into the suicide bomber and his potential network continues. We know that four people altogether have been arrested, one yesterday, three today. Raids appear to be ongoing as security services really try to determine here whether or not he acted alone and who might still be out there. Take a look.


WARD: New details emerging about suspected Manchester bomber Salman Abedi. British officials telling reporters it seems likely that Abedi did not act alone and that he was known to intelligence services.

AMBER RUDD, U.K. HOME SECRETARY: I'm sure we will find out more what level they knew about him.

WARD: The 22-year-old born in Britain to Libyan parents had recently returned to the U.K. from Libya according to British officials. He was a business student at the University of Salford but had stopped attending classes. A family friend described him as a lonely child, noticing that he recently appeared to become more devote, growing a beard and dressing in long robes. This information coming as England remains on high alert, raising its threat level to critical for the first time in a decade.

THERESA MAY, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Their assessment is not only that an attack remains highly likely, but that a further attack may be imminent.

WARD: Experts noting that the sophistication of the bomb and its target could indicate influence from a larger terror cell. ISIS taking responsibility, but so far British authorities have no evidence supporting that claim.

BISHOP DAVID WALKER, MANCHESTER: You cannot defeat us because love in the end is always stronger than hate.

WARD: A moment of silence in Manchester. A city grief stricken but resilient, pausing to remember those lost, including eight-year-old Saffie Rose Roussos. Her teacher says she was simply a beautiful girl, loved by everyone. Georgina Callander was 18, a super fan who met Ariana Grande in 2015, tweeting how excited she was to see the pop singer the night before. And 26-year-old John Atkinson was a college student who loved to dance, his local dance studio calling him an amazingly happy gentle person and a real pleasure to teach. And 15- year-old Olivia Campbell also lost in the attack.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She was waiting for Ariana to come out, and she was so happy. And she thanked me and said she loved me, and that was the last I heard from her.

WARD: Her mother making an emotional plea to CNN for help finding her daughter before confirming hours later that she was killed, posting this touching memorial online.


WARD: And if yesterday was a day of shock, today really feels like a day of grief. You can see the people behind me. They're here and paying their respects as all these terribly sad stories emerge of loved ones lost. And I just want to add, Chris, that we are still hearing about some injuries, some in very critical condition, 64 victims are now being treated in eight different hospitals, 20 of those are in critical care, Chris.

CUOMO: Have to stay on it. The concern tends to flag in these situations. But people likely fighting for their lives. Thank you for checking on that. We'll stay with you. Clarissa Ward, thank you very much.

So back here at home, there was some really impressive testimony by the former CIA chief. He said that intel reveals brazen interference by Russians in the U.S. election. Remember, that's the main consideration. What did they do? How do we stop it the next time? Also, John Brennan says that he definitely had intel indicating Russian contacts with the members of the Trump campaign and that those contacts warrant investigation.

CNN's Joe Johns live in our Washington bureau with more. Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Chris, a 30,0000 foot view here is in the most detailed public description of events leading to the Russia investigation, the man who was in charge of the CIA last year said there was intelligence of contact between the Trump campaign and the Russians, but John Brennan also said he had no knowledge of whether those individuals were cooperating with the Russians.


JOHN BRENNAN, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign.

JOHNS: The former head of the CIA, John Brennan, testifying for the first time he saw concerning evidence of Russian operatives attempting to recruit Trump aides during the campaign.

BRENNAN: It raised questions in my mind again whether or not the Russians were able to gain the cooperation of those individuals.

JOHNS: Brennan conceding he did not see any proof of collusion before leaving the office.

BRENNAN: These are contacts that might have been totally, totally innocent and benign.

JOHNS: While stressing there was enough evidence for an investigation.

BRENNAN: I know what the Russians try to do. They try to suborn individuals, and they try to get individuals, including U.S. persons, to act on their behalf either wittingly or unwittingly. Frequently individuals who go along a treasonous path do not even realize they're along that path until it gets to be a bit too late.

JOHNS: The White House seizing on Brennan's statements, saying in a statement, "Despite a year of investigation, there is still no evidence of Russia-Trump campaign collusion." Meanwhile the Senate intelligence committee issuing two new subpoenas to businesses owned by President Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn after Flynn pled the fifth, refusing to comply with a previous request to turn over all documents related to the Russia investigation.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D-VA), VICE CHAIRMAN, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, we disagree with general Flynn's lawyers and interpretation of taking the fifth, it is even more clear that a business does not have a right to take the fifth.

JOHNS: Committee leadership holding open the possibility of holding Flynn in contempt of Congress if he continues to ignore their requests.

SEN. RICHARD BURR (R-NC), CHAIRMAN, SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: If in fact there is not a response we'll seek additional counsel advice on how to provide forward. At the end of that option is a contempt charge. And I have said that everything is on the table.

JOHNS: The White House now gearing up for a prolonged fight after initially dismissing the Russia probe as a witch hunt. The president hiring his longtime attorney Marc Kasowitz to represent him on matters relating to the investigation.

(END VIDEOTAPE) JOHNS: Meanwhile, the search for a replacement for the fired FBI director James Comey may be back to square one. The president had said last week he was close to naming someone, but now we're told they are expanding the pool of applicants. Chris and Alisyn?

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: OK, we'll be watching that, Joe. Thank you very much.

Let's bring in our political panel to discuss everything. We have CNN political analyst John Avlon and David Gregory, and CNN counterterrorism analyst Phil Mudd. John, let me start with you. You heard the White House responding to John Brennan there. See, no evidence of collusion. That was their take-away. What was yours?

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Of course that's totally predictable spin. They're also trying to make it sound like old news. People have been looking into this for a full year. The fact is they have been in office just over four months and every day it seems new information comes out that, and that testimony was very concerning, that even in the mid-campaign, while during which the Trump campaign was outright saying that there was no contact between their campaign and the Russians, something that the vice president said subsequently, there was contact during the midsummer between the Russians and the Trump campaign that was concerning enough to be elevated to the level of the highest intelligence agencies in our country. That is serious. The investigation is ongoing, and you can't spin your way out of that reality.

CUOMO: Phil Mudd, from the intel perspective, having had a seat at the table, is Brennan saying I don't know if there is any proof the same as saying there is no proof? And what is your response to the idea of everything has been leaking. This would have leaked by now. It has been long enough. There should be proof. This is a hoax.

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Look, I don't think everything has been thinking. And we think we're seeing 50 percent. My guess is 10 percent. We haven't seen interviews. We don't know about financial records. Those are critical in this case.

On your earlier question of former director Brennan said, there is a huge difference between saying "I haven't seen evidence" and "there is no evidence." If you are looking at this case, let's look at the most substantial elements -- interviews with the parties, reviews of their financial records, reviews of their phone and e-mail records to indicate their contacts. In those interviews, are they contradicting each other? Has anybody flipped? You name one of those elements I just spoke about that a CIA director would see. He sees none of that piece of investigation, so he can't know there was there is collusion. What he sees is what the Russians are saying in intercepted communications, and that's a pretty small piece of the puzzle, Chris.

CAMEROTA: David, your thoughts?

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I want to look at another aspect of it. And that is that I think what's so problematic is that the administration led by the president's view on this is that it's a hoax, that it's fake news, that it's a way to delegitimize him.

[08:10:07] So it is just his own security and his ego that's leading him to make a judgment about this instead of protecting the institution of the presidency, protecting our electoral system. The Russians tried to interfere. We don't know what the extent was, we don't know if there was illegality, but they tried to interfere. This was an attack on our election and our election system.

And you had in it a campaign and candidate who were so cavalier about that possibility that indeed they were vulnerable. Vulnerable because of ignorant things they were saying, when Trump said the Russians should hack Hillary Clinton's e-mails, which of course they did with the DNC, and not believing that in fact they could be compromised. I thought that's what Brennan was getting at. Sometimes you go down a path and don't realize you're on it.

And when you have a president and people close to him who have extensive business dealings around the globe and who have conflicts of interest, you are vulnerable to the potential for being compromised. And the fact that they don't allow for that or don't want to get to the bottom of it is what I think a lot of --

CUOMO: Let's play some of the sound of Brennan. And he and everyone I've heard asked about it so far don't say they tried to interfere. They say they interfered, were successful. Here's Brennan's sound.


BRENNAN: Frequently individuals who go along a treasonous path do not even realize they're along that path until it gets to be a bit too late. And that's why, again, my radar goes up early when I see certain things that I know what the Russians are trying to do, and I don't know whether or not the targets of their areas are as mindful of the Russian intentions as they need to be.


CUOMO: Avlon?

AVLON: Another term for that is "useful idiot." And the problem here is that you have a very canny foreign power led by a former KGB agent that had contact with a campaign and now an administration that it may find it very easy to spin or move into their spear of influence.

And don't forget the larger context that Brennan talked about. Ultimately what Putin and Russia's aim is, is to undermine faith in our institutions, to undermine the credibility of democracy itself as a governing alliance globally and in the United States. That's what we're trying to defend as journalists, as citizens, and as the other branches of government. And when the White House actively tries to undermine the credibility of that investigation, it is undermining credibility in our institutions and playing into Russia's hands.

CUOMO: What better proof of their success than the president of the United States, if the "New York Times" reporting is true, and we haven't had any significant pushback on it, says to Russian leaders, boy, that FBI director, he was a nut job. I'm happy I got read of them. Takes the pressure off me from the Russian investigation.

AVLON: Straight from the horse's mouth. You don't get that kind of confirmation outside of the Nixon tapes, except this happening in real time over and over again. So you can't spin your way out of that. You can't pretend that was an old news cycle so let's move on. That is core to this investigation, and there keeps being logs added to this fire, and this is not going to go out on its own, folks, no matter how hard you try to spin it.

BOLDUAN: And yet, Phil, there was a moment when John Brennan seemed to agree with the Trump administration in terms of what was really pernicious in all of this, and that is the leaks. He basically said that they were very dangerous, that people are leaking from the oval office or from the administration and that it is affecting national security. To journalists, we don't think the leaks are as dangerous as the actual contend and the information. We rely on leaks. That's how Watergate was obviously busted open. But to hear John Brennan say that he agrees with the Trump administration that the leaks have to stop.

MUDD: I agree, but nay intelligence professional has to say that. What's he supposed to say? If you have to rank issues here, Russian interference in an election and a White House inability to acknowledge that going into 2020 election compared to the leaks, I'm an intel guy. The leaks are about grade C compared to interference in the election. That's one more comment. In the past 12 hours, the British have come out and chastised the Americans were leaking about the Manchester investigation. I think that's a more significant leak than what you have seen on Russia.

CUOMO: David Gregory?

GREGORY: That is significant. But the leaks are a problem. They're always a problem, and no administration is going to like it. But the leaks are being used in a way by the administration to distract from the core issue, which is how vigilant is this administration going to be to get to the bottom of it. And the ultimate problem for them is that they hung all their credibility on Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, who has concluded that there is enough there and in the public interest to warrant an investigation. So the president has got to find a way to rather than to shut this investigation down to accept all the ramifications of it now that it's underway.

[08:15:01] AVLON: And also, the leaks are being driven by people who are deeply concerned in a patriotic way about what they see as unethical behavior in the administration. Any leak investigation about national security, that's the standard about national security, not whether the information is embarrassing to a position the White House has taken or something the president has said in private. So, let's keep that clear, too.

Journalism is not the problem here. Journalism is the solution to the problem that we're dealing with as a country right now.

CUOMO: And remember, people were saying all along, you keep bashing the intel committee, you keep bashing the FBI, they're not going to forget. They're going to protect themselves. One of the ways they do that is leaking.

CAMEROTA: Gentlemen, thank you very much.

GREGORY: Thanks.

AVLON: Thanks.

CUOMO: Critics taking on White House counsel over the Russia probe and the firing of Michael Flynn. Coming up, we're going to speak with a former colleague who calls him a Chaos Agent. Is McGahn the problem? Next.


CAMEROTA: White House officials under growing scrutiny amid mounting controversies. The latest embattled adviser under the microscope is White House counsel Don McGahn for his role in the Michael Flynn saga, among others.

So, let's bring in McGahn's former colleague at the Federal Elections Commission, FEC, Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub. She says McGahn was a Chaos Agent.

Good morning, Ms. Weintraub. What do you mean by that?


At the FEC, McGahn came in and he was the guy that tried to break all the china.

[08:20:03] He threw out all the norms of the way the agency had functioned in the past with commissioners trying to work across the aisle, to try and come up with compromises so that we could in an agency that is inherently divided between the parties, no more than three out of the six commissioners can be of any one party, the only way we can function is that people work across the aisle.

And that was not his game plan. He came in and tried to obstruct investigations, obstruct enforcement of the rules and made it very difficult to enforce the laws that are supposed to protect against conflict of interest and make sure that the American public is informed about conflicts of interest that arise out of the money and politic system.

CAMEROTA: So, none of that bodes well for what he may be doing at the White House. I mean, through your -- looking at it through your lens, you worked with him from 2008 to 2013. So, that was him -- I mean, you are describing the way he was at the fec. You say now that he should be putting out fires, not starting them.

But what do you mean? What fires is he starting at the White House?

WEINTRAUB: Well, of course, I have to be clear about this. I have no idea what advice he is giving the president behind closed doors and hopefully it is good advice. But what my perspective comes from seeing the way he viewed conflicts

of interest and enforcement of the law at the FEC, which is an anticorruption agency, and there -- he seemed to find pleasure in finding ways around the rules. And once he got there, he led the group of Republican commissioners into an era where investigations plummeted, where penalties plummeted, and many people in the regulated community just thought that enforcement was not going to happen and they didn't have to worry about the agency as an enforcement agency.

So, when I hear the president say that he's not covered by any conflict of interest rules, I think -- well, that's just vintage McGahn. That sounds exactly like the kind of advice that he would give. It sounds like the way that he interpreted the law at the FEC, where he specialized in finding ways to avoid investigations and avoid enforcing the law, and no one should be above the law.

CAMEROTA: But what is that about? I mean, but explain, what is that about? If you are going to be a government agent or work in the government, why would you avoid enforcing the law?

WEINTRAUB: Well, I think it came out of his libertarian philosophy that he didn't like the campaign finance laws and didn't think people ought to have to comply with them. So, when complaints were raised at the FEC, it's our job as commissioners to try and figure out whether the complaints are well-founded and to investigate and find out the facts. In case after case, he would vote against investigating and also try and block any kind of rule-making. After -- this started before Citizens United, but after Citizens United, there were attempts by me and my colleagues to open up rule-making, to make sure that the new flood of money in politics was adequately disclosed to the public, that we were taking adequate measures to ensure that foreign money was not seeping into our elections, threw the money in politic system, and he blocked any efforts to move forward with that.

OK. So, let's look at the real-life application of the philosophy that you are describing. Let's look at some of the scandals or at least missteps, misfires that Don McGahn has been involved in since the president took office. He was behind the travel ban. The travel ban has not gone well. Judges do not like how the travel ban was phrased.

Sally Yates says that she went to Don McGahn to tell him about Michael Flynn's checkered past and it still took -- well, first of all, Don McGahn said what does it matter if one person in the White House lies to another person? Meaning, what does it matter if Michael Flynn lied to the vice president? What does that have to do with the DOJ?

It goes on. The Trusia -- the Trump/Russia investigation, I've now turned into one word, continues to grow. Kellyanne Conway, as you recall, urged people to buy Ivanka's stuff. That was an ethics violation many people said. Jared Kushner's sister continues to pitch to Chinese investors.

So, all of these things are things that the White House counsel in years past would be attempting to stop. But not Don McGahn. WEINTRAUB: Well, as I said, I don't know what he's advising the

president. But one would hope that the White House counsel would serve the role of being the president's conscience. Setting, you know, being the better angel on his shoulder and advising the president and everyone in the White House to uphold the highest ethical standards, the highest moral standards because public service is a public trust. It's not an exercise in trying to find loopholes and ways for people to do whatever they want to do. The White House counsel's role is to make sure that everyone is upholding the highest standards.

CAMEROTA: Ms. Weintraub, you also, I believe, want the FEC to investigate these reports that Russia paid some of its agents for these Facebook ads to spread damaging disinformation during the 2016 campaign.

[08:25:08] Tell us more.

WEINTRAUB: Well, I can't comment on any enforcement or investigatory matters that might either be currently or in the future come before the FEC. I had spoken about whether those Facebook ads would be subject to FEC regulation, and they would be because we do have jurisdiction over any advertised money that is spent on advertising, whether it is on the Internet or in other fora, and I have spoken out on many occasions about my concern about the potential for foreign money creeping into our system and have tried on numerous occasions to introduce stronger rules to the FEC to try and ward that off.

And it's been extremely frustrating that even in the current environment, with everything we need in the newspapers about potential foreign influence on our election, that I cannot seem to move that at the FEC because of objections from Republican commissioners. And this started back when Don McGahn was on the commission and has continued to this day.

CAMEROTA: Well, Ellen Weintraub, we appreciate your candor this morning. Thank you for sharing your perspective on all of this with us.

WEINTRAUB: Thank you.


CUOMO: So, a main question that's developing with all this Russia intrigue is why does the president do and say what he does? For example, the accusation that he put pressure on three top officials to somehow alter or change the investigation, the allegation that he called the former FBI director a nut job to the Russians and said the pressure is now off from the investigation. The allegation that he called the former FBI director a nut job to the Russians and said the pressure is now off from the investigation.

Is this intentional? Is this a calculation or is this some kind of blissful ignorance? We debate, next.