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White House Communications Director Resigns; WH Official: Some Changes Coming to West Wing; EU Leaders React to Trump's First Foreign Trip. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired May 30, 2017 - 10:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump's communication director resigning this morning, citing personal reasons, but a White House insider says don't call this a shake-up, even though sources did say there are more changes on the way.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: We'll have much more on that in just a moment, but first, CNN has new exclusive reporting that Russian officials discussed having potentially derogatory information about President Trump and his top aides during the campaign. This morning, the White House is pushing back, calling it "another round of false and unverified claims to," as they put it, "smear the president." And all of this is happening as the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, faces increased scrutiny over his ties to a Russian banking executive who we think has a direct line to Vladimir Putin.

Want to bring in CNN's Jessica Schneider in Washington with CNN's latest reporting on this derogatory information the Russians might have, Jess.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John and Poppy, two former intelligence officials and a congressional source, they tell CNN that Russian government officials discussed having potentially, quote, "derogatory" information about then presidential candidate Donald Trump and some of his top aides in conversations intercepted by U.S. Intelligence during the 2016 election.

Now, 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. The 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." But the source is privy to the descriptions of the communication written by U.S. Intelligence. They do caution that the Russian claims to each other could have been exaggerated or even made up.

Now, the details of the communication shed some new light on information U.S. Intelligence received about Russian claims of influence. The contents of the conversations, though, made clear to the U.S. officials that Russia was considering ways to influence the election, even if their claims turned out to be false. And of course, as CNN first reported, the U.S. intercepted discussions of Russian officials bragging about cultivating relationships with Trump campaign aides, including Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, to influence Trump.

And following CNN's report, "The New York Times" said that Trump's campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was also discussed. John and Poppy?

HARLOW: So, Jess, outside of the president himself, do we know from our sources who the Russians were specifically talking about when they're talking about this derogatory information?

SCHNEIDER: Well, Poppy, none of the sources would actually say which specific Trump aides were discussed. One of the officials said the intelligence report actually masked the American names, but it was still clear the conversations did revolve around the Trump campaign team, though no specifics. And another source would not give more specifics, citing the classified nature of all of that information.

Now, it's important to note that asked for comment, the White House is telling CNN the following, saying, "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 ten years showed 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."

And the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as well as the FBI bolstered on that comment and of course, the president himself has insisted on multiple occasions that he has no financial dealings with Russia.

BERMAN: So, Jess, does this fall under the purview of the special counsel? Is this something that Bob Mueller is now investigating?

SCHNEIDER: It does. This FBI investigation is wide-ranging. It's into that Russian meddling during the U.S. election. Of course, like you said John, it was recently taken over by special counsel Robert Mueller, and it includes these seeking answers as to whether there was any coordination between associates of Trump and examining these alleged financial dealings of key Trump associates.

Of course, at this point, the FBI is not commenting as to whether any of the claims discussed in those intercepts have been verified. And by the time Trump took office, though, some of the questions about his aides' financial dealings with Russian entities or those were already under investigation. John and Poppy?

HARLOW: Jessica Schneider, thank you and the entire team for that reporting and breaking that news.

Also new this morning, "The New York Times" is reporting that investigators are getting more and more curious about a meeting between President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner and a big-name Russian banker. They want to know what exactly the two men wanted from one another.

Let's bring in our senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns, who is live at the White House. What else are you hearing?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, the significance of this is that banker, his name is Sergey Gorkov, he works for a bank under sanction by the United States government and he has ties, certainly, to Vladimir Putin. The question is, what were they talking about? What was inside that conversation? Of course, this first reported by "The New York Times." Jared Kushner, also being looked at for his conversations, communications with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States.

[10:05:01] A lot of focus on the notion that he wanted to set up some type of concealed communications, what's previously been referred to as a back channel, to Russia, to Moscow. And why he was doing that.

Now, meanwhile, of course, Jared Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, have been keeping a very low profile here in Washington, D.C. Kushner has sent the word through his counsel that he's willing to sit down and talk, explain what these communications were about.

One possible explanation is the suggestion out there that has been reported by Gloria Borger of CNN and others that Russia may have been the instigator or the initiator of the conversation about setting up a back channel, if you will. And that was because Russia wanted to have some type of a communication with President Trump's national security adviser about issues relating to Syria.

Jared Kushner, for his part, one thing for sure, he has sent word today pretty clearly through a source that he's not going anywhere. He's keeping his full portfolio of work here at the White House, which includes the Middle East. Back to you, Poppy and John.

BERMAN: At least China trade. It's a full portfolio, to say the least, as most of the portfolio inside the White House sometimes, it seems.

Joe Johns at the White House thanks very much.

Joining us now to discuss, Susan Hennessey is a CNN national security and legal analyst, Steve Hall is a national security analyst and retired CIA chief of Russia operations.

You know, Susan, first I want to get your take on this reporting from the CNN team, Jim Sciutto and others, that officials are saying that they heard Russians claiming they had derogatory information about then candidate Donald Trump and his staff. What should be the headlines there that jump out?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: All right. So, it's important to keep in mind that just because something was intercepted in signals. Intelligence, it just means it was said. It doesn't mean that the underlying information is accurate. The Russian sources could be wrong. They could be exaggerating. It could be misinformation. What this is an indication of is that there are very, very serious Russian efforts either to interfere in the election or to confuse the U.S. Intelligence Community. So, this is further indication that President Trump himself should really want to be taking this investigation seriously to get to the bottom of it so that he can move forward.

HARLOW: And exactly to that point, I mean, Steve, if this was disinformation, which, you know, the Russians use that tactic a lot, that's one thing. But there seems to be a real genuine lack of interest from this White House to get to the bottom of anything. They constantly say this is nothing to see here, this is a smear campaign by political foes of this president. Do you see this White House as not interested and curious about it in total?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST AND RETIRED CIA CHIEF OF RUSSIA OPERATIONS: Poppy, it really confuses me, because you would think that now this interplay back and forth, where you have leaks from the press about the Russians, you know, how truthful they are and what the details of the context are, as you correctly indicate, could be misinformation, could be disinformation. But the White House's response is always something along the lines of oh this is the Democratic Party trying to get over their loss in the election. This is deep state. You know, they've got all the -- I'm surprised they don't take a different tact, because it really plays nicely into the Russian game plan, I think.

The Russians are all about disruption. They're all about driving wedges. We saw how they were successful in driving wedges, you know, when the president was in Europe last week and a lot of our allies now expressing some concerns. But they also like to do that in Washington and it's almost like every one of these leaks that comes out, the White House reacts predictably and it's sort of a win for the Russians.

So, you would think that even in their own interests, the administration would change tactic and say something along the lines of Jared Kushner's going to testify tomorrow and he's going to explain all of this or you know, these are very serious allegations and we hope the investigation gets to the bottom of this sooner rather than later, we stand by to help on that. But they're taking a different tact, which again, for the Russians is a good thing.

BERMAN: You could say look, there are no financial irregularities here, but boy we hope the Russians weren't spying. It'd be really, really bad if they were saying these things and passing that information.

Susan, there is another, you know, strain of reporting here which has to do with Jared Kushner and meetings that he had during the transition, once with the Russian ambassador, then with a Russian banking official. "The New York Times" asked a question today and says investigators want to know why he had that meeting with the Russian banking official, what was discussed there. You know, Senator John McCain basically says he doesn't like the idea that it happened. Listen to the senator. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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


BERMAN: Where's the line of justifiability here, Susan? You know, on what side of it would Jared Kushner be totally OK and then where would he have crossed the line?

[10:10:02] HENNESSEY: So, certainly during the transition period, President Trump's team, including his close advisers, should have been thinking about the future of their relationship with Russia and even having some forms of communication.

What's a concern here is that what is reported is not that Kushner was really seeking a back channel but that he was seeking a covert channel. The only real reason why someone would seek to use Russian communications equipment, a very, very significant deviation from sort of ordinary protocol, it raises the specter that they're trying to hide from U.S. Intelligence surveillance or from, again, information getting out to the Obama administration.

So, these are the things that really in very serious national security issues. We tend to sort of put the partisanship and the campaign season behind, recognize we're all on the same team. We all need to have information in order to have that really, really critical situational awareness.

So, this is really an area in which the White House needs to come out now, open the curtain, give a really fulsome explanation for exactly what their motivations were here, why they thought that was the appropriate method, whether or not they were seeking to evade only surveillance during the transition period or whether or not this is something that they planned potentially for after President Trump assumed office.

HARLOW: So, Steve, this meeting that Jared Kushner did have with Sergey Gorkov, this big-name Russian banker at a bank under sanction then and now by the U.S. government. Investigators want an answer as to why. What did these two men want from one another?

And the timing is critical, isn't it? Because this meeting was during the time when -- and this is a guy with a direct line, you know, to Vladimir Putin -- during the time when President Trump was just railing against the Intelligence Community as a whole. How important is it that investigators get the answer as to why Kushner sat down with Gorkov and what they wanted from one another?

HALL: It's important and I actually think it could be more important than this whole Brouhaha about you know, saying he wants to go in, Kushner wants to go into the Russian embassy and use Russian communications equipment to talk to Moscow. That strikes me as bizarre.

However, somebody like Kushner, you know, a former or current, I guess, New York businessman, talking to Sergey Gorkov, the head of VEB bank, a guy who does, you know, have contacts back to Putin, but he's a former intelligence officer. You don't go through the FSB School just like night school. You go in to be an intelligence officer.

So, yes, it is important. And those financial ties, those economic ties are actually the ones that trouble me a bit more than this whole, you know let's talk to the Russians via their own. That does indeed need a lot of investigation. But again, Kushner has said, I'll talk about that. All this could be put to bed, you know, tomorrow, as soon as they can schedule a meeting with Mr. Kushner, say hey, what's going on with this?

HARLOW: That's a good point. He has from the beginning said I will come forward. I will answer your questions. He's not talking to the press, but he will talk to investigators.

Susan Hennessey, Steve Hall, thank you both.

All right, so, today is the deadline for former national security adviser Michael Flynn to respond to a pair of subpoenas sent by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

BERMAN: Committee leaders say, if he does not comply, their next step could be to hold him in contempt of Congress.

Joining us now from Washington, CNN's Phil Mattingly. Phil, what are you hearing?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, right now still no response, at least according to committee staffers, haven't heard back from Michael Flynn's lawyer yet. I think the key issue here is what these two subpoenas actually are. They tried to narrow down the scope, the committee leaders did, instead of targeting kind of an overly broad, kind of group of documents that they did in the initial subpoena. These were very finely tailored towards two specific businesses that they believed they could get the documents from and their point in doing this, guys, which is an important one is, while Michael Flynn made very clear through his lawyers that he would invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege, business documents, they don't believe, can actually be used -- the Fifth Amendment can't actually apply to those documents. So, that was the rationale for their scope, again, no response yet.

The big question now and I think this isn't just on the Senate Intelligence side, this is also on the House Intelligence side is, what kind of cooperation, if any, will they ever get from General Michael Flynn particularly now that the special counsel has been appointed. At this moment though, it's really a game of wait and see.

We do expect the House Intelligence Committee as soon as this week to also issue subpoenas related to Michael Flynn. As of yet, they have not, so there's no shortage of issues for Michael Flynn to be dealing with right now. The big question, does he feel like there is any need or desire to speak to the committees at all? His lawyers have made very clear. They are very uncomfortable with the scope and the scale of the investigations that they've been looking at so far.

BERMAN: You know, Phil, on the legislative front, we learned moments ago the president's calling essentially to change the rules to try to get some of those things through. He tweeted this -- can we put it up on the screen so I can read it here? "The U.S. Senate should switch to 51 votes, immediately, and get Healthcare and TAX CUTS approved, fast and easy. Dems would do it, no doubt!" He wants to remove the legislative filibuster, Phil.

MATTINGLY: Yes. So, let me kind of take this tweet apart, piece by piece.

[10:15:01] First and foremost, both tax reform and health care are being moved on a track that would only require 51 votes for passage or 50 Republicans plus Mike Pence. That's via reconciliation. So, there are a lot of constraints via reconciliation, this procedure that's done in the Senate that frustrated a lot of Republicans, particularly on health care.

A couple points here. This is not a Republican versus Democrat battle right now, on both tax reform and on repeal and replace. This is intraparty. And so, the idea of changing the rules of the Senate, this kind of key cog on how the Senate operates and most notably, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made very clear is not on the table. More than 45 to 50 Republicans or Republican and Democratic senators said that there will be no kind of nuclear option to this idea.

But this proposal, while it's not something Republicans are interested in, at least at this moment, wouldn't solve their problems at all. It doesn't matter if it's 50 votes or 60 votes right now on both health care and tax, guys. It's intraparty, Republican versus Republican. If they can't figure that out, it doesn't matter how many votes they think they need, nothing will get done in the future.

BERMAN: Important points to make. There aren't 50 votes on health care right now, so changing the rules would not help. Phil Mattingly, thank you very, very much.

All right, the president withdrawn, living within himself in a dangerous place, these words, these new details about the president's emotional state from someone who speaks with him.

HARLOW: Also with one sentence, German Chancellor Angela Merkel sends a jolting message around the world. Is America's relationship with Europe changed for good?

And a scuffle inside of the State Capitol, Texas lawmakers trade assault allegations ending with threats of gun violence. You cannot make this stuff up. A live report is straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [10:20:15] BERMAN: All right. New this morning, White House Communications Director Mike Dubke, he is out, change is in. The question is how much and how far?

HARLOW: We have some new information. Let's bring in CNN political commentator and Republican strategist Alice Stewart, she's also former communications director for Senator Ted Cruz and Christine Quinn is also here, former New York City council speaker and a Democrat. And they will debate it now.

But before that, let me get to you, Alice, you have some new information. So, Mike Dubke is out. This is sort of behind the scenes, what are big role running comes that the White House, what else are you hearing about a shake-up?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Sure. His effort was to get the communications really drive a long- term message. My understanding is he offered his resignation for personal reasons and there's a lot of talk going on as to what else is going on, but many people say that there's not a lot right now going to happen. There may be some waves of some people and some personnel changes, but right now Dubke's out for personal reasons and there are some other names.

I'm hearing that people are reading a little bit too much into the Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie returning to the White House. They have a lot of considerations to think about, making a lot of money outside of the White House or going back in. They had to make a decision, go in or stay out. And so, those are some changes and some things that are abuzz in Washington.

Also, Sean Spicer, you know he'll be on the podium today for the press briefing. My understanding, he's going to stay for a while, so a lot of talk about a big shake-up. My understanding is all talk and not a lot of action at this point.

BERMAN: You know, Christine Quinn, I am sure you have criticism for the White House in many fronts, but you know you've worked in politics before. How important is it to get the right person in that communications role and have it be someone that you trust with everything?

CHRISTINE QUINN, FORMER NYC COUNCIL SPEAKER: Well, it's one of the most important things. I mean, it's one of the most important things because it's basically the person, even in local levels -- forget national -- that is you. They are the personification of you to the press corps and to the public. And if they don't get you, if they don't have your message, if they don't have your back, if you're not totally in Sympatico, it's a disaster.

Now, look, I feel - well, on one level, I feel for people who have taken press roles for Donald Trump. In another, I don't, you knew what kind of bed you were getting into it. You made it, lie in it. But that said, we can all agree whether you're a fan of the president or not, he is a guy who changes messages, who changes lanes without a blinker. So, it is a tough job to be like this with the president. And if you're not, with any elected, it's a recipe for disaster.

Now, I just want to say, resigned for personal reasons? Those are three words that we all know never mean what those three words mean. That means you got fired or you saw the ax coming. In every business, not just politics, but it's absolutely what you say when you're quitting or getting fired, no question.

HARLOW: Alice, "Axios" is reporting this one. The president may hit the road a bit more, may take more questions himself. I mean, when I read that, I thought yes, probably a really good idea. I don't know who could message for the president, to be honest. I really don't know who could truly message for this president.

QUINN: And he said that.

HARLOW: So, is it a good strategy? I mean, you still have to have a common structure and you have to have a White House press secretary but they could do a lot less.

STEWART: Surely. I think hitting the road is good for one reason and one reason more than anything, it's because Donald Trump likes it. He is in his best element when he's out there with the people when he's connecting with the American people and he's able to -- he gets a lot of energy from that and it keeps him busy and off Twitter. Not to mention that fact. But he enjoys doing that and it's his way in his mind of communicating directly to the people, again, bypassing the media like he does with Twitter and getting right out there and communicating one on one and not having to rely on the media and he's in his best element.

QUINN: I would agree with Alice.

BERMAN: We have one minute left and I want to get your take --

QUINN: But I just want to say, Twitter, Twitter, Twitter that will be this man's death now, even if he has Jesus Christ himself as his spokesperson but Corey.

BERMAN: Corey -- 30 seconds now left, you know, you had some run-ins with him right here at CNN. If he is brought back into the fold, what message does that send?

QUINN: That they're doubling down on mean nastiness.

BERMAN: That was less than 30 seconds, but if the president trusts him, could be effective?

QUINN: I think Corey plays to the president's worst demons.

HARLOW: The president also trusts him implicitly, even though he fired him at the end, but he's a loyalist to the end, right?

QUINN: Whatever trust and loyalty means with Donald Trump, he hold Corey in those regards. But again, Corey, I believe, will steer him down a path that is negative and divisive and not good for the country or the world, as we see with this morning's tweet about Germany. BERMAN: All right, Christine Quinn, Alice Stewart -

HARLOW: Thank you guys.

BERMAN: Thank you so much for being with us. I appreciate it very, very much.

The rift between the United States and Europe, just talking about their now growing, a new European Union leader piling on that message, stick around.


[10:29:45] BERMAN: All right, new this morning, European leaders joining together to go it alone, agreeing that they will no longer count on U.S. leadership, German Chancellor Angela Merkel really leading the charge with three hard-hitting statements in just the last 48 hours.

HARLOW: Right. Here's part of the latest one. She said there are more reasons than ever to, quote, "Take our fate into our own hands," and just moments ago, Italy's prime minister reiterated the same thing to reporters, saying Italy and the EU "must take its own future into its hands."