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GOP Source: "White House Is Paralyzed" By E-mail Bombshell; Justice Department Probe To Look At Trump Jr.'s E-mails, Meeting; Soon: Trump's FBI Pick Testifies Amid Russia Firestorm. Aired 9-9:30a ET
Aired July 12, 2017 - 09:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[09:00:03] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm John Berman. This morning, the White House is paralyzed. That's new reporting from our Jeff Zeleny about what is happening behind closed doors right now in the West Wing. You're going to hear about that in just a moment.
This as the President of the United States just issued a new defense of his son who admits to holding a meeting after being promised campaign dirt from the Russian government.
And this as the man who could be central to this investigation into all things Russia is about to testify before the Senate. You're looking at live pictures right there. Christopher Wray is the President's pick to lead the FBI, to fill the void created after the President fired former Director James Comey, in his words, because of the Russia investigation.
HARLOW: You will hear from him and senators from both parties that are on a mission. This is in just moments.
In the meantime, this is how Donald Trump, Jr. is now defending the meeting he had more than a year ago with a Russian lawyer under the promise of Russian government information.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, JR., SON OF PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: In retrospect, I probably would have done things a little differently. For me, this was opposition research --
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARLOW: CNN now has also learned that Special Counsel Robert Mueller plans to investigate that meeting and all of those e-mails.
CNN's team of reporters covering this from every angle as this movie -- as this story moves very quickly. Let's begin with CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jeff Zeleny. And you have a lot of color out of the West Wing directly this morning feeling paralyzed.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John and Poppy. There is a sense of dismay in some quarters of this West Wing of the White House largely because they had hoped this week was a chance to turn the corner once again and focus on the President's agenda coming back from his G20 Summit last week, as he prepares later this evening to fly to Paris. But that is not what has happened this week.
A top Republican who is in close contact with the West Wing tells me, quote, the White House is paralyzed. And that is simply because, a, this involves the oldest son of the president and, b, from an agenda point of view, the agenda essentially is not moving.
Another administration official tells me, you know, describing the mood here, saying another week is lost. And that, of course, is about the agenda here that Republicans on Capitol Hill, you know, Republicans and others here at the White House, were hoping to move forward. They're hoping to get some progress on health care, you know, trying to move this forward. This has essentially ground all of the activity here at the West Wing to a halt.
I'm also told by the people inside the White House here that White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who is never sure of his own standing with the President, he is trying, you know, to urge staffers to just put their heads down and get to work and focus on the matters at hand here. But that has become much more difficult in the wake of all of these revelations.
And, John and Poppy, it is really interesting to note that the President is -- we've not seen him in public since he stepped off Air Force One and arrived back here to the White House on Saturday evening. Not unusual, of course, to not see him over a weekend, but we have not seen him hold any public events on Monday, on Tuesday, on Wednesday.
As I said, he is flying to Paris later this evening, but this is something that has indeed, in the words of one top Republican, paralyzed this White House.
BERMAN: And, Jeff Zeleny, we understand from your reporting also the President's been watching this coverage. What does he make of it?
ZELENY: He has indeed been watching this coverage. And, in fact, I am told that he spent a lot of yesterday watching the coverage. And in one respect, he is viewing this as a father. As any father would, he is dismayed that his son is involved in this.
And he also views this as deeply unfair. He also -- you know, he's -- it's described to me, at one hand, he's furious by this. At one hand, he is frustrated by this. But he does believe that this is unfair.
And he is also viewing this as, in one respect, just another bit of this Russian news that's unfair. That's, you know -- we've heard him call it a hoax. We've hold him call it, you know, something that Democrats are trying to stir up.
But that is not taking into account what many others inside this White House realize, that this is indeed a different moment. Republicans on Capitol Hill, many of whom are supporters of this President and surely supportive of this agenda, know that this is a different moment here.
So, once again, this is becoming the soundtrack of the summer as opposed to passing health care, talking about tax reform, or other things. And the President, as near as we can tell from his public schedule, has not done anything to advance that agenda.
The Vice President is -- you know, been taking the reins on health care, talking to senators and others here. He'll be traveling the country and giving a speech but President Trump has not been, John and Poppy.
[09:04:59] BERMAN: All right. Jeff Zeleny at the White House. A very busy White House, busy in the sense of dealing with the fallout of all these.
Now, CNN has learned that the Special Counsel Robert Mueller will investigate this meeting, will investigate these e-mails. Our Justice Correspondent Evan Perez has all the details on that. Evan?
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Hey, John. And we fully expected that this was going to be the case, but Robert Mueller's team, which includes FBI agents that have been working on this investigation for about a year now, are planning to take a look at this meeting.
A lot of this was not fully known to the investigators until very recently. And we know that as part of this investigation, this counterterrorism -- I'm sorry, counterintelligence investigation by the FBI, led by the FBI, they have looked at some of Donald Trump, Jr.'s business dealings and some of his meetings, some of his contacts, foreign contacts, over the past year, again, as part of the broader investigation into Russian meddling.
We did reach out to the Special Counsel. His spokesman said that they decline to comment. We also talked to Donald Trump, Jr.'s lawyer. He says he has not heard from the FBI and is willing to turn over any materials if they come asking for them.
HARLOW: So, Evan, we know that Jared Kushner's lawyer, Jamie Gorelick, said over the weekend that they amended his security clearance form, that SF86 Form, yet again. Is this meeting the reason for that additional amendment?
PEREZ: It was, Poppy. This amendment came just about three weeks ago or so to the FBI. Jared Kushner, if you remember, has now amended his SF86 Form. This is the form in order for him to get a security clearance. He's now amended it at least twice that we can count.
And this continues to be an issue because he -- when you sign these documents, you say you're swearing under the penalty of perjury that you're disclosing all your foreign contacts, and he has not done so repeatedly. So now we -- they're telling us that this is the final update. They don't have any additional meetings that they need to disclose.
But this was a big one to miss because Paul Manafort, who was also in that meeting, had previously disclosed that meeting to senate investigators. So it's not clear why Jared Kushner, who is paying a lot of legal fees to some very high-powered attorneys here in Washington, did not disclose it until much, much more recently.
BERMAN: All right. Very, very interesting. Evan Perez, lots of questions there. Thanks so much, Evan.
And as this controversy swirls, the man who will be central in working with the Special Counsel Robert Mueller on this probe is set to face questions on Capitol Hill, Christopher Wray.
HARLOW: In just moments, he, the man picked by President Trump to replace the FBI director he fired, will testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Among the many questions he will be asked, front and center, was he ever asked to be loyal to the President? That is key, considering the context.
Suzanne Malveaux is on Capitol Hill with us for a preview of what we will hear. Suzanne?
SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning. Well, just moments ago, I had an opportunity to talk to Senator Chuck Grassley, who is the Republican head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he made news on a number of fronts.
We are trying to turn that sound, but, first of all, in regards to Donald Trump, Jr. and the e-mails, the statements that he has made, we do know that Senate Intelligence Committee, as Evan had said, are asking for him to go before sworn testimony.
Chuck Grassley also saying as well that they are considering calling Donald Trump, Jr. to go before their own committee as well as the attorney, the Russian attorney, making the point that she had overstayed her visa. How did that happen? So they would really also like to get all of the members involved in that meeting before their committee as well.
It is something that he says they're currently negotiating. He does not want to step on the Special Counsel Bob Mueller's investigation. That is a sensitivity. So that is something that is currently in the works.
I also asked him as well about what are the top things that you'll be asking Christopher Wray, of course, in that hearing that's coming up in about 25 minutes. And a couple of things that he said.
First, as you know, independence from the White House, from this President, is key. It is the most important thing here. He also said that he wanted to make sure that this was an FBI director that would protect whistle-blowers, that that has been an ongoing issue and ongoing problem in the previous directors.
And then some general questions here, of course. What are the other senators going to be asking? They're going to be looking for whether or not there was any kind of loyalty test, if you will, for Christopher Wray. We do know that previously from James Comey. He has said that the
President wanted this pledge, asked him his pledge. He also says that President Trump had asked him to end or suggested to end the investigation of former NSA Chief Michael Flynn. That is something that is also going to be of consideration.
[09:09:51] So those are just some of the things that we expect. The format is going to start with opening statements. And then each one of these senators on committee will have about 10 minutes to question in the first round and then five to seven minutes to question in the second round. It is going to be an ongoing affair, but Chuck Grassley -- Senator Grassley hopes that this can be wrapped up and confirmed before the August recess.
HARLOW: Suzanne Malveaux in the Hill. Again, that hearing getting underway in just moments. Let's bring in our panel as we wait for it.
Jeff Zeleny is back, along with our Nia-Malika Henderson, our senior political reporter. Asha Rangappa is with us, CNN legal and national security analyst and former FBI special agent. As well as Michael Zeldan, CNN legal analyst and former special assistant to Bob Mueller at the Department of Justice. So nice to have you all here.
Nia, let's begin with the word of the day from the White House and that word is transparency. Nothing to see here, we have been fully transparent. If you look back, it's anything but the case.
This Saturday statement that didn't disclose the purpose of the meeting from Donald Trump, Jr. was now reviewed -- we've learned from the "The New York Times" -- by the President himself. They had to change that drastically by Sunday.
The message Sunday was Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort had no idea about this meeting. That was not the case. They were forwarded this e-mail with all of the information about the meeting. That's a low bar for transparency, is it not?
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: It is a low bar for transparency, and that is what we heard from the President, sort of praising his son for being transparent. He tweeted again saying that he felt like his son was open and honest in his interview last night as well.
But what we've seen here is really, you know, sort of rolling disclosures about this meeting and shifting stories from Donald Trump, Jr. about why that meeting happened, this idea that it was about adoptions in those initial e-mails that we've seen, at least part of those e-mails. We don't know that we've seen all of the e-mails about these conversations that he had with that Russian government lawyer. But certainly in those e-mails that we've seen so far, no discussions about the meeting being about adoptions.
And, you know, I mean, in many ways, you feel like this could be the tip of the iceberg, right? I mean, this is one set of e-mails. Were there previous discussions that we don't have those e-mails? Were there subsequent discussions about any of this? I think from the White House's point of view and certainly Donald
Trump, Jr.'s point of view, he wants this to sort of be put to an end with that interview that he had last night, certainly the sort of public relations part of it. But certainly, the legal discussions of this will be ongoing with the special prosecutor and certainly on the Hill as well, more discussions about this.
And you can imagine that there might be more information to come. John McCain has talked about this whole episode as a centipede, a centipede with a hundred legs and many more shoes to drop. So we'll see what happens, going forward.
BERMAN: He described it as disclosure at gunpoint. Now, Asha, you know, Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, the President of the United States, are all of their interests aligned right here? They all now have their own lawyers giving them their own advice.
It seems to me there might be some conflicts here, especially given what Evan Perez is reporting. You know, Jared Kushner, aside from the President, is the only one now in office who had to fill out these security forms.
ASHA RANGAPPA, ASSOCIATE DEAN, YALE LAW SCHOOL: Sure. Their interests aren't aligned. I think this is -- it's been on a collision course for a while now. All of these people should have lawyered up a long time ago. I was actually surprised that Donald Trump, Jr. only recently got his lawyer because a lot of the statements that he made were very unwise from a legal perspective.
And at this point, I think that you're going to start seeing a lot of fingers pointed at each other. And they're going to start talking when the FBI starts closing in.
HARLOW: So, Michael Zeldin, because you have worked with Bob Mueller when he was at the Department of Justice, we know now that he was, you know, looking into this meeting, these e-mails. He knew about them in the days leading up to this.
How does this change how he looks at things, what questions he asks, who he wants to talk to? How does this now change the investigation?
MICHAEL ZELDIN, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO FBI DIRECTOR ROBERT MUELLER: Well, it's a bit of a sea change from the standpoint of this is the first direct indication that we have in the public domain of a contact between the Trump campaign and Russian surrogates. And so to the extent that there was rumors of collusion or conspiracy to aid the Trump campaign by Russian operatives, it remained, you know, sort of vague.
This is now much more direct, and so I think it gives Mueller and his team a little bit more impetus to root out what was at the bottom of this thing. And so I think, as with the intelligence committees on the Hill, this will be just evidence of their need to be thorough and investigate all of this stuff. Not that Mueller wouldn't have been otherwise --
ZELDIN: -- but this really says we've got to look at this because this is a direct link between the transition, the people on the campaign, and the Russian operatives here.
[09:14:59] BERMAN: I mean, you know, Jeff, I want to take you down memory lane here. This is the campaign you covered very, very closely. You know, this meeting was, what -- June 9th, was it, the meeting?
BERMAN: Between the President's son and the Russian. This is what President Trump said on June 7th, right around those days. This is what he was promising then. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week and we're going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you're going to find it very informative and very, very interesting.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BERMAN: OK. So he said that after the e-mails were sent back and forth with Donald Trump Jr., e-mails we're told now by Donald Trump Jr., he never told his father about, that's the story from Donald Trump Jr.
Ultimately with Donald Trump Sr., the president gave that speech there wasn't much new there, but this was right at the beginning, just prior to the wave of everything that happened with hacks and Russia and this and that, Jeff?
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is so interesting to look at that really week period of time, John, and June 7th was the day was the final round of primaries in the election cycle. Donald Trump was basically already going to be the Republican nominee.
But Hillary Clinton was just trying to wrap up her Democratic primary fight and the California primary was on that day, but on June 7th when then-Candidate Trump was giving that speech right there, a meeting had already been set up.
As we learned from the e-mails yesterday, on June 3rd it was the first request for the meeting and then six days later on the 9th of June, that meeting actually happened.
So it certainly looked in hindsight watching this all in order here that President Trump, Candidate Trump was expecting something to come on the Clinton campaign. Now, it is -- we don't know that he knew about that meeting at all because certainly this is the time that the general election battle was joined here.
But it certainly seemed like he had something on his mind that he was going to give a speech the next week. You're right that speech didn't really have much in it, much new in it. You know, a lot of new back and forth.
And at this point, both sides were going after each other fairly hard. But very interesting that he would deliver that speech that day in the middle of all this, and then again on June 9th on that Thursday, when this meeting actually happened, Donald Trump, Candidate Trump was at a fundraiser.
His first fundraiser at the Trump Victory Fund at the Four Seasons Hotel about a block from Trump Tower. He was back in Trump Tower all of that afternoon as the meeting happened.
Again, we do not know if he knew about the meeting, but it certainly is important to remember and point out, this was a very small campaign operation in terms of the number of people.
The Clinton campaign headquartered in Brooklyn had hundreds and hundreds of people. The Trump campaign very small particularly back in June. So some people wonder and this is what, you know, a subject of the questioning likely will be, how could the president, Candidate Trump not have been aware that the meeting was going to happen because it certainly seemed so juicy.
Donald Trump Jr. said I'd love it if this is actually a real in terms of having information for a Hillary Clinton. So watching all this back in sequence, it certainly is interesting.
MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: May I add something to that timeline as well?
HARLOW: Very quickly, yes.
ZELDIN: Which is that the e-mail says we could use that stuff later in the summer and then of course later in the summer was the Wikileaks leak. So they all sort of tie into together.
HARLOW: Donald Jr. also said in that e-mail especially later in the summer, putting an emphasis on the importance of later in the summer, which he completely downplayed in the interview with "Hannity" last night saying, well, I didn't really need it then so I thought maybe later on when things weren't as busy.
BERMAN: It's interesting. I don't remember the follow-up question. All right, guys, stick around. We have a lot more to discuss.
Just minutes from now the president's pick to run the FBI, fill in the void created by the firing of James Comey over the Russia investigation that will begin. You're looking at live pictures.
Christopher Wray, the nominee, what does he think about this investigation? Has the president asked for his loyalty?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRESIDENT TRUMP: I love e-mails. You can't erase e-mails. You can't erase them. I love them.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARLOW: It's true, you can't erase them, but sometimes they come back to haunt you. President Trump voicing support also this morning for his son in the midst of his own e-mail controversy. The president said, "Donald Trump Jr. did a good job during his interview with Sean Hannity last night, called him open, transparent and innocent.
BERMAN: All right, joining us, Nia Malika Henderson back with us again. Also here, former Senator Rick Santorum, David Drucker, CNN political analyst, senior congressional correspondent for "The Washington Examiner."
Senator Santorum, you know, we have not heard from you after these latest revelations and I do want to say that's a bit curious. Look, does this change things for the White House? The fact of this e-mail that we all see in plain black and white, what's different now?
RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Oviously just -- it doesn't look good, I mean, and raises a lot of suspicion as to what else are we going to find. It's just a huge distraction. Do I believe that there was some sort of plan to collude with the Russians? No.
Do I believe Donald Trump Jr. was naive and foolish? Yes. Could there be some sort of charge levied against him by this investigation? Possibly, which is not good.
But I guess the frustrating part for me is, we got about ten days here that we got to get a health care bill passed or not and that should be what everybody should be focused on right now and everybody's scurrying around and not focused on it.
And that's the disturbing part for me because we're talking about something that's important to the American public, which is what the future of his presidency and his ability to get his agenda passed.
HARLOW: So Nia, the senator is saying this is naivety, foolishness on the part of the son, but is it a game changer? Is it a game changer for this White House where people on the inside told our Jeff Zeleny this morning they are paralyzed? Is this different than other moments?
NIA MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: You know, it certainly feels different even with the Republicans I've talked to here, there is a sort of different tone in terms of how they're talking about this White House. [09:25:09]You typically in talking to people around the White House, in the White House, there was this sense that this was a witch hunt or hoax, it was often used as a rallying cry to rally the base and that had gotten some traction I think with the base and was a good talking point for this president and some of his allies and surrogates.
That seems to be changing. The existence of this e-mail as Donald Trump said there, you can't erase e-mails. I talked to one Republican who said does Donald Trump Jr. not realized that the "e" in e-mail stands for evidence. It obviously doesn't.
But this is the kind of concrete sort of evidence and then you sort of juxtapose these e-mails with what we've heard from top White House officials, Vice President Pence, obviously the president as well denying this and saying this was essentially a distraction and sort of cooked up by the media, fake news, and sort of a Democratic witch hunt.
And then you have these e-mails. So it really takes the wind out of that argument that we've heard from a lot of the president's allies and obviously the president as well.
BERMAN: Although he did use the word witch hunt again.
HENDERSON: He's going to keep going back to that.
BERMAN: That's what I want to read, David Drucker. I want to read you sort of the new defense from President Trump today of his son that he wrote in a statement this morning, "My son Donald, did a good job last night. He was open, transparent and innocent. This is the greatest witch hunt in political history. Sad." I could give a point by point analysis there and talk to you about how transparent he is or not, but what do you make of the president's defense?
DAVID DRUCKER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, it's not surprising that the president would defend his son. But I think it's another example of the president appearing to be more concerned about his family's brand than he is about the office of the presidency and how it's being impacted by all of this.
I mean, the senator, Senator Santorum brought this up, but Republicans are trying to do things that they haven't been able to do in a generation, tax reform, health care reform.
And although the president has not lost Republican voters through all of this and that's something that we shouldn't lose sight of because it has an impact on how he operates and possibly on the next election.
The truth is he hasn't been as out front and as valuable from the presidential bully pit in trying to affect the policies that he ran on, that Republicans are trying to produce on Capitol Hill as he could have been.
The whole reason you won a presidency is to bring your party together and when things get tough, you're able to squeeze through health care reform or tax reform or all of these other things. And he largely been absent from that not using his connection to the Republican base to get those things done and then when things like this happen, it completely clouds the message and if the response, which I've heard from some conservative quarters, this is great.
He's distracting everybody so they can get it done. If you have to distract from a message that you think is a winning message, it's not a winning message and it means you've got problems.
BERMAN: Hold on, Senator. Hold that thought. I just want to bring in our political commentator, Paul Begala.
BERMAN: Dramatic entrance.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Didn't even know he was on.
BERMAN: We like to keep it suspenseful.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is where we lower our standards.
HARLOW: You're looking at the moments before this very important confirmation hearing for Christopher Wray, the president's picked to be the next FBI chief gets underway.
He would play, Paul, a central role in Mueller's investigation, the special counsel investigation of all things Trump and Russia. I want your reaction to the first line in (inaudible). Here it is, "In the media, the focus is on the son. In the west wing, colleagues are watching the son-in-law." What do you think?
PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think that's right. These things happen. You either come together or come apart as a staff, as a family even. It looks like they're coming apart. They're turning on each other. Somebody leaked that information, I'm glad they did but somebody did and it wasn't a Democrat. Somebody inside that circle.
HARLOW: It could have been anybody.
BERMAN: We don't know.
BEGALA: But they're turning on each other and Mr. Kushner now was in that meeting. We are talking about Donald Jr. who seemed to host the meeting. Mr. Kushner a critical aid was also in that meeting. This is another time when Jared Kushner was involved with Russians and did not disclose it originally.
He's got an enormous problem and they are going to start throwing each other under the bus. I was struck that the president this morning now kind of defended his son, but really just praised his performance on a TV show on the fake news channel.
He said he did a good job last night. He didn't say it was good for him to meet with Russians. He did a good job on TV last night. In his first defense, my son is a high quality person. Wow. My son is a carbon based life form with 23 pairs of chromosomes. That's the weakest defense I've ever heard a father give a son, and I think he's sending a message, which is they are going to throw Don Jr. under the limo.