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White House Pushes Back on New Russian Meddling Reports; Source: Kushner Not Giving Up Any Part of Portfolio. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired May 30, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:06] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm John Berman. Breaking news. Staff changes at the White House. This as CNN has new exclusive reporting that Russian officials discussed having potentially derogatory information about President Trump and his top aides during the campaign.

HARLOW: And this morning, the White House is pushing back, calling this a, quote, "another round of false and unverified claims," to, quote, "smear the President." All of this is happening as the President's son-in-law and his senior adviser, Jared Kushner, faces increased scrutiny over his ties to a Russian banking executive, someone with a direct line to Vladimir Putin.

Let's go to our Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto, who is working on this and broke this story with his team overnight. Jim, what have you learned?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John and Poppy. Two former intelligence officials and a congressional source tell myself, Pamela Brown, and Dana Bash that Russian government officials discussed having potentially, quote, "derogatory information" about then presidential candidate Donald Trump as well as some of his top aides. This, in conversations intercepted by U.S. intelligence during the 2016 election.

One source described the information as financial in nature and said the discussions centered around whether the Russians had leverage with Trump's inner circle. Source says the intercepted communications suggested to U.S. intelligence that Russians believed, quote, "They had the ability to influence the administration through the derogatory information."

Now, the sources privy to the descriptions of these communications written by U.S. intelligence cautioned that the Russian claims to each other could have been exaggerated, even made up. The details of the communications, though, still shed new light on information U.S. intelligence received about Russian claims of influence. The contents of the conversations making clear to U.S. officials that Russia was considering ways to influence the election, even if their claims turn out to be false. As you may remember, CNN first reported the U.S. intercepted

discussions of Russian official bragging about cultivating relationships with Trump campaign aides, including his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. All this to influence Trump himself. Following that CNN report, "The New York Times" said that Trump's campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was also among those discussed.

BERMAN: Jim, this derogatory information, any sense of who exactly the Russians were talking about here?

SCIUTTO: Well, beyond the President himself, none of the sources would say which specific Trump aides were discussed. One of the officials said the intelligence report masked the American names, kept them hidden, but it was clear the conversations revolved around the Trump campaign team. Another source would not give specifics, citing the classified nature of the information discussed.

As for comment, the White House told CNN overnight the following, quote, "This is yet another round of false and unverified claims made by anonymous sources to smear the President. The reality is a review of the President's income from the last 10 years showed that he had virtually no financial ties at all. There appears to be no limit to which the President's political opponents will go to perpetuate this false narrative, including illegally leaking classified material. All this does is play into the hands of our adversaries and put our country at risk," end quote.

The office of the Director of National Intelligence, the FBI, they would not comment to CNN. The President himself has said in public many times that he has no financial dealings with Russia.

HARLOW: So, Jim, do we know if this specifically, your reporting, if this is part of the current investigation that is underway led by Special Counsel Bob Mueller?

SCIUTTO: Well, here is what we know. The FBI investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. election, that's a big picture topic which was recently taken over by the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, includes seeking answers to questions as to whether there was any coordination, collusion with associates of Trump, and also examining alleged financial dealings of key Trump associates.

The FBI would not comment on whether any of the claims discussed in the intercepts we've reported have been verified. I should note that by the time Trump took office, though, questions about some of his aides' financial dealings with Russia entities, those were already under investigation.

So, John and Poppy, many threads here that are still subject of investigation in the FBI, House, and Senate Intelligence Committees. The newest information in our reportings that Russians were bragging to each other, claiming that they had derogatory information on Trump and his aides, not, you know, verified or finalized or no conclusion reached yet but still an open line of investigation.

BERMAN: Jim Sciutto, stick around. Don't go anywhere. We have a lot more questions for you.

In the meantime, also new this morning, "The New York Times" reports investigators are looking into a meeting between President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and a Russian banking executive.

We want to bring in CNN's Senior Washington Correspondent Joe Johns at the White House. Joe, what is the latest here?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. Well, the latest is we're talking about Jared Kushner here, the President's son-in-law and senior adviser here at the White House.

[09:04:59] CNN is told that despite all the controversy that's going on right now, Jared Kushner does not intend to give up any of his vast portfolio of issues he handles, including Middle East peace, streamlining government. The source tells CNN's Jim Acosta, Kushner has a strong team around him working on every part of his portfolio.

That said, this controversy centering on Jared Kushner continues, apparently, to expand. "The New York Times" reporting this morning that investigators are looking closely at his contacts in December of last year with a Russian banker, a very well-known Russian banker, and that is Sergei Gorkov. These conversations, getting a lot more scrutiny right now. The question, of course, whether he was trying to set up a back channel and what that back channel would have been for to communicate with Moscow.

This is including also the conversations that he apparently had with the Russian Ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. Investigators wanting to know more about those conversations as well.

Jared Kushner, for his part, has been keeping a low profile with his wife, Ivanka Trump. And he has sent a message, however, through his attorneys that he's willing to sit down and explain everything about these conversations. Of course; one of those possible explanations is the back channel.

But we are told, and we have been told here at CNN for some time, CNN's Gloria Borger, that one of the possible explanations that some people around Kushner are putting out is it was the Russians looking for a back channel in order to talk to the President's national security adviser about Syria. Who knows? Back to you.

HARLOW: It would be good to hear from Jared Kushner directly to answer that question and many more.

BERMAN: He has volunteered to talk.


BERMAN: I mean, unlike some other people in this investigation, he has said he will go answer questions.

HARLOW: From the outset, not from journalists but from investigators.

BERMAN: Not from us, from the investigators. HARLOW: Joe Johns at the White House, thank you. We're going to get

to the staff shake-ups at the White House in just a moment, but want to dig in to Jim's reporting now. He's back with us.

Also joining us is Kimberly Dozier, our CNN global affairs analyst. Errol Louis is here, CNN political commentator, and CNN Contributor Salena Zito.

So, Kimberly, the White House response is, "This is yet another round of false and unverified claims by anonymous sources in an effort to smear the President." That's their take. For the Russians, based on all of this reporting from Jim, Dana, and Pamela, what is their M.O. in terms of using this type of information, if indeed it does exist? How would they use it? Why would they use it?

KIMBERLY DOZIER, SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, THE DAILY BEAST: Well, as Jim has reported, we've got a couple of different possibilities. Maybe this was one intelligence officer bragging to another intelligence officer that we've got the goods on the Trump campaign. If they get into office, we're in the catbird seat. Or maybe this was a conversation designed to be overheard.

That is how disinformation works. You spread something that is close to pre-existing beliefs but takes it to another level. Whether it be a leaked e-mail or a conversation like this that might have been designed to let FBI or CIA investigators listen in and think, oh-oh, there is a problem. There is malfeasance here. That is the point of a disinformation campaign, to spread and sow distrust inside another government.

BERMAN: You know, Jim, following up on what Kimberly is saying there, you know, look, I get why the White House and Trump loyalists are pushing back on the idea that there were financial irregularities here. But they also seem genuinely incurious about whether or not the Russians were sniffing around their campaign. Do they deny completely that maybe the Russians were trying to infiltrate or they were trying to spy like they may have been on the Democrats?

SCIUTTO: Well, John, there has been a reflexive reaction from the Trump administration, right up to the President himself, that any and all of this is just about avenging, in effect, or explaining the Democrats' loss. And we saw the President repeat that again in a tweet today.

And that goes to questions of collusion. It goes to questions about the back channel. It goes to the very question of Russian interference in the election, which is something well established. It's about confident conclusion of U.S. intelligence that Russia meddled in the election.

But even on that simple question, agreed upon by Democrats and Republicans and all of Trump's advisers in effect, even on that question, the President himself has often been reluctant to admit that that's the case and undermining his own intelligence agencies' judgment because it appears that he takes that as a judgment about the legitimacy of his election. And that kind of reflexive response extends to a whole host of

questions here. So the thing is, though, that it's not just the media who is going down this path, reporters like ourselves. It's the FBI, it's the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. Democrats and Republicans on both those committees.

[09:10:01] It's the Senate Judiciary Committee, the House Oversight Committee, that are taking these questions very seriously and say, in sworn testimony, that they remain open questions. So take that against the White House position, and it is up to you at home who you believe, I suppose.

HARLOW: So staying on the Russia thread but broadening it out to these new reporting on Jared Kushner and "The New York Times" saying officials in law enforcement want to know more about this meeting with the big Russian banker. This is a bank that was sanctioned, still is sanctioned by the United States.

And it's also the timing of this. This is when the President was openly feuding with the intelligence community about the finding that there was indeed an attempt by Russia to sway the election in the favor of Donald Trump. Here is how John McCain put all of it in a new interview.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), CHAIRMAN, SENATE COMMITTEE ON ARMED SERVICES: My view of it is I don't like it. I just don't. I know that some administration officials are saying, well, that's standard procedure. I don't think it's standard procedure prior to the inauguration of a president of the United States by someone who is not in an appointed position.


HARLOW: And he is talking about Jared Kushner reportedly looking to open up a secret line of communication. Errol, John McCain is a frequent critic of this President and his White House. But is it a problem for this White House if more and more Republicans in Congress are questioning these relationships?

ERROL LOUIS, POLITICAL ANCHOR, SPECTRUM NEWS NY1: Oh, absolutely. And it's not simply because they are Republicans. It is because they are senior influential members of committees that have subpoena power and credibility with tens of millions of Americans. I mean, it ensures that things are not going to go away.

There is this two-track kind of conversation. I think, very much, as Jim Sciutto was suggesting, the White House keeps trying to push back as if they're in the middle of a campaign. They send out some tweets. They say, oh, this is just angry Democrats and so forth. Well, no, this isn't angry Democrats.

These are institutional organs of government that are doing their sworn duty to get to the bottom of this, you know. We're not going to see former FBI Director Mueller, you know, swayed by tweets or by opinion polls. He's not in this to try and excuse whatever the Democrats did wrong last fall. This is a much more serious kind of effort. And John McCain, in the statements that he makes, I think, represents states that.

BERMAN: But, look, since Errol was talking about, Jim was talking about it before, I can put up the tweet from the President earlier this morning.


BERMAN: The President wrote this morning, "Russian officials must be laughing at the U.S. in how lame excuse for why Dems lost the election has taken over the fake news."

You know, Salena Zito, one of the things that had been reported over the weekend was that the new outside counsel, Marc Kasowitz, for the President, he was going to have some kind of approval over the President's tweets. Does this indicate to you the fact that the President is still mixing it up, still directly addressing the Russia investigation, that any attempt to reign him in would be for naught?

SALENA ZITO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, it's clear that this tweet was put out by the President. You know, I mean, this is one of the things that he enjoys doing, either out of frustration or out of bragging about things that he's accomplished. It might better suit him to have someone help him tone it down a little bit.

You know, I just got back from seven different states across the country, and people that supported him are sort of split on how he expresses himself through Twitter. A lot of people, like, love it, and it's, like, great; and the other people are like, I wish he would just totally tone it down. But he uses it as his ability to get his point across. It might serve him better to have someone possibly filter it once in a while.

HARLOW: Hey, Salena, just to follow up because you are so tapped into all of these, you know, Trump loyalists, really. That sounds like a little bit of shift in sentiment, that some of his biggest supporters are saying lay off the Twitter. Do they care about Russia?

ZITO: It's not that they don't care about Russia. I think that's, you know, something that people are getting wrong. Yes, everyone cares about a foreign government in trying to influence.


ZITO: But I think that voters are weary of so much of it and want to hear more of a balance of maybe some of the other things that he's doing. But until we cut through all of this, until all three investigations are over, you know, this is going to drive the news for the next forever. I mean, for a while, at least.

BERMAN: For the next forever, which is, in fact, a long time.

HARLOW: You heard it here.


BERMAN: Kimberly Dozier, part of the President's tweet there was, "Russian officials must be laughing at the United States right now." Just take that part of it right there. Is there an element of truth in that? If they sit back and look at everything that they have sown here, are they amused?

DOZIER: Well, that is the point of an information operation campaign, to leave the other side in disarray. And pretty much, that's what you've got. This administration is going to be tied up with investigations probably for the entire four years, and that is going to hang over the next election.

[09:15:03] Meanwhile, you have the French President, Emmanuel Macron with Putin standing right next to him saying that RT and Sputnik are propaganda outlets that lie to the public. It is a very different example. You also have to wonder which one does Moscow respect more, probably the confrontational style.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Interesting. We'll talk much more about that coming up. Jim Sciutto, Kimberly Dozier, thanks so much for being with us. Jim, terrific reporting. Errol Louis, Salena, go nowhere. We need you. Why? Because there are some comings and goings, mostly goings right now from the White House.

What's really going on in the west wing? More changes coming, but how fast and forget walking back. German Chancellor Angela Merkel digging in after signaling Europe's relationship with the United States getting worse.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Plus the president looking to rework his message. Here comes the messenger, folks. You will hear from Sean Spicer live today.


HARLOW: All right, shake up in the west wing. White House communications director, Mike Dubke is out. He says this morning he is resigning for personal reasons. White House officials insist a wave of departures is not imminent, but they do add change is coming. Just not clear how fast it's coming.

[09:20:05]BERMAN: Yes, a new press secretary apparently not part of that change. Officials say Sean Spicer isn't going anywhere and in fact he will brief reporters in front of cameras later today. This as we're seeing some old faces from the campaign reemerge. Literally walking around the White House grounds in the evenings.

Let's discuss this with CNN political commentator, David Swerdlick, an assistant editor for the "Washington Post." I want to bring back CNN political commentators, Errol Louis and Salena Zito as well.

David, to you, Communications Director Mike Dubke out. White House says this was his choice, which is what you always say when someone gets pushed out the door there. But is this the beginning of something more? Do you think we are going to see more shake ups inside the west wing?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, John, one thing about Dubke is that unlike Priebus and Sean Spicer, who were running the RNC during the campaign, and unlike some of the other folks, you know, Steve Bannon, who were Trump loyalists during the campaign, Dubke was sort of an outsider, a hired gun brought in after inauguration day.

So in some ways it is not surprising to see him go first. But if he's the only one to go, I don't take that much from it because my sense is that their messaging problems in the White House are bigger than just one person in the communications shop.

The problem, though, for this White House is it's like that old movie, the call is coming from inside the house, right? Their biggest problem for their messaging in a lot of ways is the president himself.

His inconsistent statements, his tweets he fires off that the communications shop is caught unaware of and having to clean up. So we'll see if there is more dominos to fall in this.

BERMAN: I think the film reference was "Scream."

HARLOW: I was going to say, who is your source on that? It must not be the president himself because according to Gloria Borger, the president sources telling her, Salena, that the president, President Trump believes he bears no responsible for any of the current political drama. You have interviewed the president. No surprise there, right?

SALENA ZITO, CNN COMMENTATOR: No. Not really. He -- he views the world and his mission as president as something that he takes command of and that -- that he feels that he is in command of, right? And that all these sort of outside interferences, all these outside dramas are created outside of anything that he has done.

And a lot of times he feels as though, you know, the press reporting and, you know, staff shake-ups or potential staff shake-ups are not of his -- you know, not something he created. They were created either driven by outside forces, driven by the press and that's how he has always operated.

I always suggest to people read his first book that he co-wrote with "The Art of The Deal." This is who this guy this. He's never changed. He's 70 years old. I doubt he's ever going to change.

BERMAN: You know, Errol, there is some other reporting overnight from CNN from Ivanka and Jared Kushner world, their sort of wing inside the White House. They are said to be laying low now and taking a heads down approach.

I mean, why would they want to send that message out? Ivanka also sending the message she's not involved in the president's response, the full throated defense of Jared Kushner. She's not involved in the day-to-day defense of the president here so she says. ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, that's right. And look, they have played in some ways kind of a behind the scenes role for the most part. Those who jump out in front end up getting in the middle of all of this jungle warfare end up getting battered and bruised pretty badly. Look at what happened to Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, Corey Lewandowski, you know, being involved in this stuff in a very proactive way, this is for political professionals by and large.

HARLOW: Well, look at what happened to Corey Lewandowski then, but look where Corey Lewandowski is now. He's roaming around the White House at night out in clear view with David (inaudible), two people that the president thinks are very loyal, even though he did fire Lewandowski during the campaign. He puts it this way about those two, they are not polished characters being brought in. They are killers and as we know, David Swerdlick, the president loves that.

SWERDLICK: Yes. The president has -- I don't know. The word killers, but, yes, the president does like these loyalists, these people that are fiercely going to defend his agenda but --

HARLOW: Tough, he loves tough.

SWERDLICK: Yes, he loves tough, but compare this to the Clinton administration. In their early years, they found themselves floundering message wise on a variety of fronts and who did they bring in? They brought in a grown up, our CNN colleague, David Gergen even though he had served three Republican administrations. They brought him into a Democratic administration to right the ship.

[09:25:07]I think either Errol or John said a political professional, and that is probably what's really required here from the White House. Not necessarily a loyalist.

BERMAN: And, yet, Salena Zito, you know, Corey Lewandowski's tenure with the Trump campaign didn't end, you know, in a blaze of glory. The guy got fired for being overly aggressive.

HARLOW: With a reporter.

BERMAN: And not to mention the fact that allegedly, you know, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump weren't too happy with him either would say that the president has to go back to that role here.

ZITO: I think what the president needs, to David's point, is he needs a tough traffic cop. Someone that could get the communications team in line and set their schedules, set the message, but also serve as a liaison to the president.

But most importantly, be able to say no to the president. That takes a very special kind of person, but I think that's the most important aspect of a communications person in this particular White House right now. One that Gergen served well as with the Clinton team.

BERMAN: Can you say no to this president, Salena?

ZITO: Pardon? BERMAN: Can someone say no to this president?

ZITO: Yes. I absolutely think they can. But, you know, again, it takes a special kind of person. You know, I -- one of the people that immediately comes to mind is part of the CNN family, and that's David Urban, who served as his Pennsylvania campaign coordinator.

But he also work for Arland Spector and that was a tough guy to work for and he served as his chief of staff for over a decade. I saw David Urban say no to Spector a lot of times. That wasn't pretty, but he was able to do it.

HARLOW: All right, guys, thank you so much. Salena Zito, David Swerdlick, Errol Louis, we appreciate it. We have a lot ahead.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel not backing off her comments about Europe not being able to rely on the U.S. Today she is digging in for a third time.

BERMAN: And the president has a big decision this week on the Paris climate deal. That certainly adding to the tensions with Europe. CNN's business correspondent, Christine Romans, here to join us before the opening bell -- Ms. Romans.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, you guys. You're right. The president has a big decision this week and believe it or not this pro-business president is at odds with the business community about what to do about the Paris climate agreement.

Big business fiercely lobbying to stay in the Paris accord. They have gained this out. They want to have a seat at the table. They say they know what the Paris accord could mean for their bottom line and that disrupting it now is not the best way to go for the American economy.

Some people watching this whole debate saying that basically you'd be giving up American leadership on such important business issues in favor of some coal jobs and that would not be the right trait-off for this president of the United States.

Here are some companies that are lobbying and standing by the Paris climate deal. These are just a few of a diverse of set of names, Microsoft, Google, Adidas, Apple, L'Oreal and others. But even big energy names have stood up and said, wait a second, we've been at the table at this Paris climate accord. We think we need to stay in it.

Maybe in part because it favors natural gas in some cases over coals and big energy companies make money on natural gas, but still a big decision for this president.

For the opening bell watching maybe a little bit lower, 25 points lower is what futures are showing right now. The front page headline is that tax reform talks have faltered.

This is a White House and a Republican dominated Congress that hoped to repeal and replace Obamacare and the "Wall Street Journal" saying things looked like they have stalled here for now. That could be one reason why you have the stall on the market, guys.

HARLOW: That August deadline I think the treasury secretary said at the outset is looking pretty close right now. Christine Romans, thank you very much. We're going to take a quick break. We'll be right back.