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White House Contradicts Trump Lawyer on Trump Jr. Meeting. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired August 1, 2017 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:06] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Good evening.

We begin tonight keeping them honest with the White House's latest admission that raises serious questions yet again about their credibility and their honesty.

Now, last night, "The Washington Post" broke the story that it was President Trump himself who dictated a statement they say that his son, Donald Trump, Jr., released on July 8th when "The New York Times" was about to reveal that Trump Jr. had met during the campaign with a Russian attorney.

Now, just to refresh your memory, this is the statement that Donald Trump, Jr. put out that "The Post" says his father actually dictated: quote: We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up.

Now, the president's attorney, Jay Sekulow, has been saying the president had nothing to do with that statement. He said the statement was worked on by Donald Trump, Jr. and his lawyers, and we know he said this because he said on the TV, a lot.


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: So, he didn't have anything to do with the statement that Don Jr. put out that was being worked on with his team?


The president was not -- did not draft the response.

The president was not involved in the drafting of the statement.

I wasn't involved in the statement drafting at all, nor was the president.

The president didn't sign off on anything.

The president wasn't involved in that.


COOPER: OK. So, if "The Washington Post" was right, then the president's attorney was either misinformed or were just not being accurate. The inaccuracies continue today when the White House made the claim that nothing was inaccurate in Donald Trump, Jr.'s original statement, even though it had to be updated several times when the e- mail chain was finally released under pressure. There was no mention of adoption in the e-mails, just mentioned of dirt on Hillary Clinton and the Russian lawyer's alleged ties to the Russian government.

And also the White House confirmed that the president actually did weigh in on the statement.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The statement that Don Jr. issued is true. There's no inaccuracy in the statement. The president weighed in, as any father would, based on the limited information that he had. This is all discussion frankly of no consequence. He certainly didn't dictate, but, you know, he -- like I said, he weighed in, offered suggestions like any father would do. Like I said, the statement that was issued was true and there were no accuracies in the statement.


COOPER: Now, to say Donald Trump, Jr.'s statement was true is just not true. If I said to you "Jaws" is a movie about going to the beach on the Fourth of July weekend, I mean, I guess that is in the movie somewhere, but is that an accurate statement of what "Jaws" is actually about? It sort of has a big gaping hole where the main point is supposed to be, it doesn't tell the whole story.

On the point the White House is now making about the president weighing in, just as any father would, the story from the lawyer is, he wasn't involved. Now the story from the White House is, oh, yes, he was involved, he weighed in. Of course, he did, he's the father.

And despite what we've all seen in Donald Trump Jr.'s email chain setting up the meeting, they are still spinning the story that this meeting was about adoptions.

Now, it's not the first time we've been told to move along, folks, there's nothing to see here. And it's not the first time we've heard the story changed, little by little, as more information comes out from various sources.

At the press briefing today, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said we're all wasting our time.


SANDERS: Everybody wants to try to make this some story about misleading. The only thing I see misleading is the years-worth of stories that have been fueling a false narrative about this Russia collusion, and based -- phony scandal on anonymous sources. I think that is -- if we're going to talk about misleading, that's the only thing misleading I see in this entire process.


COOPER: Well, keeping them honest, given how much the narrative has shifted right up until today about this one meeting at Trump Tower, I'm not sure the White House should be lecturing anyone on the true meeting of the word misleading. The president and his team can cry phony and fake, and made up all they want. That doesn't change the fact that there is an open FBI investigation to whether anyone in the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. A special prosecutor has been named.

The Senate and the House Intelligence Committees are investigating Russian meddling in the election. The Senate Judiciary Committee is investigating obstruction of justice questions related to the firing of James Comey and other committees are looking at other facets of this, all in a Republican controlled Congress. Those investigations are real. They're happening.

Now, they haven't finished. We don't know what, if anything they'll find in the end, but they're real. And with all the cries of nothing to see here, only to have missing pieces of the story suddenly show up, if the White House expects these explanations about anything going forward to hold water, to quote the late great Roy Scheider, they're going to need a bigger boat.

Jeff Zeleny joins us now from the White House.

Jeff, so, the White House is essentially caught changing their story once again, but not actually admitting they're changing their story, just calling this all a PR stunt by Democrats.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, they were, and the reality here is, when I was sitting in the press briefing room today with White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, she was saying that, yes, the president weighed in, he added his voice to this first statement describing that meeting in June of 2016. She said like any father would.

Well, the one problem with that is, the president's lawyer, Jay Sekulow has insisted the president was never involved in the writing of that statement. He said he was never involved in crafting it. That, in fact, he didn't know about it.

So, today, the White House added some new information to this broadening picture. Anderson, it's not just a news story, it's an investigation actually that's going on here. So, I think as Sarah Huckabee Sanders was trying to deflect, talking about the Clintons, talking about Russia, other things, they added some new information today acknowledging for the very first time, the president indeed helped craft that statement.

So, he knew about that -- you know, the shaping of that narrative about that all-important meeting on June 9th of 2016 in Trump Tower between his three top campaign officials and the Russians. So, that was a big development today, Anderson.

COOPER: Right now, also, I mean, you know, the White House said, hey, he weighed in. "The Washington Post" said based on their sources that he dictated it. I mean, I'm just trying to imagine like in a meeting when the president of the United States says, oh, he throws in his ideas into the group think of the meeting. I would think his ideas would tend to dominate any discussion of what the statement should be. It's not like they're all just spitballing and, you know, somebody is going to say, no, Mr. President, that's not good idea.

ZELENY: His ideas certainly carry more weight than other people's ideas. And this was all happening on aboard Air Force One flying back from Hamburg, Germany, on July 8th, here back to Washington, an eight- hour flight or so. And I'm told that a lot of top advisers, including Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, others were in the president's office on Air Force One talking about all this.

But, Anderson, the reason this matters is we heard Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, again, Republican of South Carolina, he's one of the Republicans leading this investigation, he said, look, every question of his credibility, every time they change their story, it makes us not believe them in the future here. So, today, Anderson, is a development that we'll remember going forward. For the first time, the White House saying the president was involved in that.

The news stories will continue. There will be different news stories. But investigators will mark this day. This is something they want to know more about, and they'll learn more about it as this investigation continues, Anderson.

COOPER: Yes. Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much.

Joining us now is constitutional law scholar, Jonathan Turley, and former White House ethics czar, Norman Eisen.

Ambassador Eisen, first of all, what do you make of the White House saying "The Washington Post" report is much ado about nothing, that the president was essentially just acting in his capacity as a father, but admitting he did weigh in on the statement which obviously contradicts what the president's own legal team had been saying?

NORMAN EISEN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE ETHICS CZAR FOR PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, Anderson, thanks for having me. You'll note that the White House did not reject the statement. If you look at Mr. Sekulow's parsing of it, as well, President Trump's outside counsel. He also tacitly while quibbling admits that something happened.

I think they've got another self-inflicted wound over there, Anderson. This is a president who is already under investigation for obstruction, and now he's engaged in something which could be, we're not deciding it yet, but could be shaping a witness' testimony about a critical event. That is a violation of criminal law 101. You just don't do it because it can constitute obstruction or witness tampering. So, they've got another problem on their hands.

COOPER: Professor, I mean, should the president have been weighing in to craft help -- you know, craft a statement for his son, and also if Jared Kushner was in the room involved in this as well, is that appropriate?

JONATHAN TURLEY, LAW PROFESSOR, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: Well, no, it's not a good idea. I mean, what the president did is he removed any crush space between him and this controversy.

One of the things you try to do as an attorney for a president is to create some separation for the president, that critical crush space to guarantee that you have some range of motion as a controversy unfolds. In a blinding flash, the president wiped that out by directly participating in what was a really bad spin. I mean, instead of spinning out of the scandal, they deepened the scandal, they prolonged it, which unfortunately is something of a pattern here.

I have to disagree with my friend Norm. This is not witness tampering. It doesn't even come close to that standard.

You know, there wasn't any plan for testimony on this point. But more importantly, it doesn't meet the statutory definition. I have a column in "The Hill" newspaper dealing with that charge from Professor Tribe. It just doesn't meet that crime.

We have to be careful that -- everything the president does is not some perpetual motion machine under the criminal code. Everything he does is not necessarily a crime. It can be ill-advised, it can be even moronic, but there is an effort to try to find crimes in everything that occurs here.

There are serious problems here. There's a legitimate investigation going forward. This was a remarkably bad idea.

But I don't think we should start talking about witness tampering.

COOPER: Ambassador Eisen, what about that?

EISEN: Well, there can be little doubt that even my friend Jonathan won't deny that there's a serious issue here.

[20:10:03] We can agree to disagree on witness tampering. I'm with Professor Tribe on this.

But there is serious exposure, Anderson, under obstruction of justice. And there's a pattern. It's not an isolated incident, and nobody is eager to make these allegations. But it started with demanding Jim Comey's loyalty -- asking Comey to drop the Flynn investigation, firing Comey when he wouldn't follow through.

And now, this latest question, again, only a question, was the president engaged in a cover-up? Is this the latest step, an admitted misleading statement? Again, I don't think Jonathan disagrees that the statement is misleading --

TURLEY: Norm --

EISEN: Was this the latest step in that obstruction pattern? I think there's serious exposure here.

COOPER: Professor?

TURLEY: Norm, I do think the statement was misleading, you're right about that. But this was a spin. It happens in the city all the time. If you start criminalizing spins, half this city will be frog marched into a federal penitentiary.

I mean, people like Trump try to manage messages. That's part of the danger for people in this town who are all apersonality types to try to control messages and events. It's hard for a lawyer to restrain those people and say, the best thing you can do is nothing at all. You're making this a lot worse.

But spinning a statement like that is not a crime. Otherwise, most of what happens in the city is a crime.

COOPER: Hmm. We've got to leave it there. Professor Turley, appreciate it. Norman Eisen as well -- thank you both.

A lot to talk about with the panel. Joining me now is David Chalian, Gloria Borger, Kirsten Powers, Scott Jennings, Mary Katharine Ham and Bakari Sellers.

You heard the legal advice there, Gloria. What do you think?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, I think the president has a problem here. I think the statement was misleading at the very best. That's the best way to describe it.

I think there are questions now that are being raised about whether what the president knew and when he knew it to use an old phrase. And did the president lie to his lawyer?

I mean, you know, this is a big question we need to have answered, which is Jay Sekulow is out there saying the president did not touch this in any way, shape or form. He was not -- he was not out there, and dealing with this. And now we learn that he so-called weighed in, or whatever that means.

And I think this White House has a lot of -- has a lot of questions to answer, because not only was the statement misleading, but the question is, what was the president doing, even weighing in on this? I mean, there should be somebody there to protect him from the kind of legal problems that Ambassador Eisen says he may not face.

COOPER: David, even if it's not, you know, enters the legal realm, just the fact that it does impact the president's credibility and the White House's credibility.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: No doubt. Team Trump took a credibility hit today in the face of Jay Sekulow, and where did that hit come from, it came from the White House podium. I mean, that's -- Sarah Huckabee Sanders went out today and basically conceded that the Trump team and his lawyer didn't have the truth in the initial telling of this.

Remember when Sarah Huckabee Sanders first spoke about this, she didn't know. She didn't know if the president weighed in. She would find out and get back to us. Today, she says he weighed in, "The Washington Post" reports he dictated.

The large question here is, someone should explain, and I truly don't understand this, why is the White House pursuing a strategy here of drip, drip, drip, instead of marshaling all the facts and coming out with a complete story to your point about "Jaws." like, tell the entire point of this movie now so we don't learn something new every night of learning something new and we go back and say, well, that's not what was said before.

BORGER: Don't you think that's Donald Trump?

CHALIAN: I do. And I think it's a significant problem.

The other question I have hanging over is this how did Jared Kushner allow President Trump to dictate that statement? Obviously, Jared Kushner's concerned about his own legal ramifications here. But how, since this entire thing started, with he and his legal team going back to discover the additional meeting with the Russians, to reapply for national security clearance, and it all began with that e-mail. And Jared Kushner had all the facts.

So now we do need to know, well, did President Trump read that e-mail? Because Jared Kushner, when he's sitting there on Air Force One hearing this statement being created, he knew what the full facts were of that meeting.

BORGER: And when did he read it?

CHALIAN: So how did he allow that statement to go through?

COOPER: Well, also, I mean, what every legal scholar has said all during this is people involved in investigations shouldn't talk about the investigation with other people involved in the investigation. So, Jared Kushner discussing this with President Trump or at least having this conversation about this statement just doesn't seem like a wise idea.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No. I mean, he should have been protected. The president should have been protected from this. I suspect he probably inserted himself into it -- at least that's what it sounds like.

And I think there's a couple of problems with it.

[20:15:01] One is in, you know, the reporting talking about how Donald Trump did insert himself in this, right? The reporting is that the instincts were to get all the information out and then Donald Trump inserted himself and no longer were they going to be truthful and get all the information out.

So, what's that about? That would suggest that he knew what the truth was and he told them not to do it.

The other problem is that they're only coming clean now because they were caught, right? Because they heard Jay Sekulow come out and say this over and over and they never said oh, actually that's not really true. What happened was "The Washington Post" ran a story, now we're hearing that the president weighed in.

BORGER: Well, it's just like "The Times" knew about the e-mails and were going to release them, and then Don Jr. decided --

COOPER: Scott, is there a credibility problem?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think this speaks to the possible need here to segregate the communications channels. You know, Sarah Huckabee Sanders from the White House podium should be answering questions about federal government stuff. This is a Russia investigation thing, and I'm thinking that it may be past time for them to segregate these questions and just push them all off to Sekulow or somebody --

COOPER: Which they said they were going to do months ago.

JENNINGS: They did. And now, we have Sarah forced to answer these questions that have contradicted Sekulow. So I would like to see them under new management, segregate all the Russian stuff into one communications stream.

Secondly, I'm not sure there's nothing much new here. I mean, the original "New York Times" story pretty much pointed out this was drafted on Air Force One, the president was on Air Force One. So, we sort of knew this.

COOPER: Well, "The Times" said he signed off but they denied that. I mean, Sekulow denied that.

JENNINGS: He did deny it. But the original -- but my point is the original reporting, if you follow all the reporting on this, had it right to begin with. And so, if you're someone who believes there's a grand Russia collusion conspiracy here, you're going to sit up all night tonight reading all the tweets about this. If you're someone who believes this is a hoax, that this is all B.S. to explain, you know, Hillary's win, then you're going to dismiss it.

I don't know that this story moves anyone from one camp to another.

COOPER: Bakari?


COOPER: Mary Katharine?


HAM: I kind of assumed that he was involved, which is perhaps a -- partly the reading of the reporting, but also partly an indication of where my bar is with listening to the White House.

COOPER: So, did you think Sekulow just wasn't informed or not telling the truth? HAM: I don't know what the truth is there either. But, look, I think

this speaks to an inability of this White House team to protect the president, to protect other staffers who were brought in on this.

And, look, it's bad judgment and the distinction between a legal issue and bad judgment is really important. And I think what should be disappointing, I think especially to Trump supporters, is the part where they were going to be forthcoming about this allegedly, and then they were --


COOPER: And also, Donald Trump, Jr.'s attorneys talking to our justice correspondent said they were ready to give a more fulsome statement and then didn't.

SELLERS: Let me help my colleagues to the right on me, I guess, both on this panel and literally, attempt to unravel this pretzel, because the fact is, this is something we've seen from the White House periodically. It's a three-step process. The White House lies, and then the facts come out, and then the White House tells you don't worry about facts.

What we know to be the truth is that this meeting was not about adoptions or Russian adoptions. We also know that the president dictated that statement. What did we deduce from that? That the president lied, period.

So, you can call it whatever you want to, but then the president lied and he sent his own attorney, Jay Sekulow, out on TV on Sunday morning, on "Meet the Press," on "Face on the Nation", on "STATE OF THE UNION," and he gave up all his credibility because you know what he did? He lied, too.

And to answer David's question, he asked a great question, why would you lie? In this situation, when you know when Jared Kushner knows what's in the e-mails, we don't know if Donald Trump had read the e- mails or not, but why would you lie? And the reason you lie is because you don't think anyone else has that information.

They are novices. I mean, the way they handle scandal is purely elementary. And maybe that's a travesty. Maybe it's refreshing.

COOPER: We're going to continue this conversation next. We've got to take a quick break.

We'll also hear what Donald Trump Jr. had to say last month about being transparent and whether anything else was going to come out. I think you can guess what he said.

Also ahead, former National Intelligence Director James Clapper said recently that President Trump was making Russia great again. I'll speak with him coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [20:22:16] COOPER: The White House today admitted that the president, quote, weighed in, in their words on the statement that Donald Trump Jr. released about the Trump campaign meeting with the Russian lawyer being pitched as a way to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. "The Washington Post" reports the president dictated the misleading statement which the White House denies. They say he just weighed in on it.

I want to look back at Donald Trump, Jr.'s on "Hannity Show" on July 11th after he released the e-mail chain under pressure setting up the meeting because "The New York Times" was about to publish it.


DONALD TRUMP, JR., SON OF PRESIDENT TRUMP: I just want the truth to get out there. And that's part of why I release all the stuff today. I want to get it all out there. They're trying to drag out the story, Sean, in all fairness. You know, they have -- they want to drip a little bit today, drip a little bit then. So, it's like, here it is. I'm more than happy to be transparent about it and I'm more than happy to cooperate with everyone.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: So, as far as you know, as far as this incident is concerned, this is all of it?

TRUMP, JR.: This is everything. This is everything.


COOPER: It wasn't everything. It wasn't everything. Three days later, we're still here, weeks later, we're talking about this. It's not because we want to drip this out, because y'all are dripping it out.

Later, we learned there were at least eight people in the meeting.

Back now with the panel. I mean, the idea that this is all just a media conspiracy, that we're just dolling it out like, you know, Starburst fruit juice every now and then --

BORGER: It's ridiculous.

COOPER: You know, every day, we're learning something new, and it's only because reporters are digging and getting people to talk.

BORGER: You know, it's A, it's ridiculous. B, I wonder how much the lawyers knew. I mean, you know, you have to ask a question whether Jay Sekulow, what he knew when he was saying everything.

COOPER: But why Donald Trump Jr. and go on -- first of all, why go on TV to discuss it when you're under investigation? But why go --

BORGER: He wasn't getting press.

COOPER: But say but this is everything? POWERS: But I think it's what Bakari said. I do think they understand

that if it's written down somewhere, it will be found. If you told another person, it will be found. That's just the way it always works.

For some reason, they don't seem to understand that. They seem to think that they can control this, and that they can put out what they want to put out, and that everybody will just sort of walk away and leave it. And that's just not what happened.

CHALIAN: It's not the press that's doing drip, drip, drip on this.

BORGER: Right.

CHALIAN: It's them. It's the Trump team, because they give a little piece of information where they think that will be sufficient and this will somehow go away. And then more facts come out. And another little piece of information. They actually perpetuate the notion of drip, drip, drip.

COOPER: The other thing I don't understand the way about the White House handles stuff is that all of their, you know, all their, move along, there's nothing to see here, is based on the idea that everyone is an idiot and doesn't actually see what they're seeing.

I mean, the idea that we don't know -- we know what those e-mails said. It didn't talk about adoption in those e-mails, and yet, today, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the president, continues to say this is a meeting about Russian adoptions, which even -- which even Donald Trump, Jr. in his misleading said was not an issue during the campaign.

[20:25:06] So, if that was the pitch to have the meeting, he wouldn't have had the meeting.

HAM: Right.

SELLERS: Even if it was about Russian adoptions, we all know what that's code for.

COOPER: Right, which is sanctions, right.

SELLERS: Which is sanctions. I mean, if you think about this, there are a few things. As a Hillary Clinton supporter, we saw one Trump campaign e-mail, and it was incriminating as hell. And we saw thousands and tens of thousands of Hillary Clinton e-mails. I mean, what else is there? You have to ask yourself the question.

HAM: We'll never know with Hillary.

SELLERS: Well, you saw tens of thousands of them.

HAM: We missed thirty-three --

JENNINGS: Thirty-three thousand or so --


SELLERS: Oh my God, here we go. And we're talking about people jumping up on conspiracy theories.

COOPER: You brought up her e-mail.


SELLERS: The second thing is the more important aspect is that with everything that's going on around the world with North Korea, with ISIS, with Iran, how will you ever trust the words coming out of this president's mouth when the American public is going to need to trust him most? I mean, that is -- that's the question. I mean, you want to say that it's frivolous or you want to say that it's -- you know, we're all looking for this conspiracy theories.

OK. What if I give you that? The fact is, we know the president misled the public. What happens when we need to trust him?

JENNINGS: I didn't say it was frivolous. I'm well on the record --

SELLERS: What happens when we need to trust them?

JENNINGS: -- in stating that these investigations need to go forth and the best thing for the White House here is for all these things to wrap up and that they found out there was no collusion. I have long stated and believed we're going to find out the Russians absolutely, 100 percent meddled in the election. That doesn't mean they needed a colluding partner to do it.

I think the president is enormously frustrated. You know, you mentioned -- you said, David, that this drip, drip, drips from them. Well, the first story was a couple of anonymous sources. This "Washington Post" story has a couple of unnamed sources. The president reads these things, and continuously is frustrated about unnamed sources.

CHALIAN: But the intervening events were -- Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying she didn't know and then Jay Sekulow saying, no, those are the intervening events.

JENNINGS: I'm not disputing that, but if you understand the president's frustration.

BORGER: Why would he be frustrated?

JENNINGS: The frustration about the fact that we don't have one named source who was on Air Force One that night that is on the record saying here's exactly what --


COOPER: I guess, my question is, if you're lying about stuff that is just stupid stuff to lie about, small stuff like I did weigh in, he could have said before, yes, Jay Sekulow could have said, yes, the president was on the plane and consulted on the thing, but it was Donald Trump Jr.'s statement. I mean, if you're lying about the small stuff, to Bakari's point, I mean, do you worry about that at all?

HAM: I'm not sure this is a small thing. I do think we turned a corner, not in the sort of media attention to this story and not necessarily in the global collusion theory, but like this e-mail from Donald Trump, Jr. was in black and white.

This is what was going on here, and they were not telling the truth about it, which leads you to believe, oh, why are you not telling the truth about this? They have bad judgment.


HAM: No, no, hold on. They have very bad judgment. If exhorting the Donald Trump team to have better judgment and prudence --

SELLERS: That's not the bar.

COOPER: Let her finish.

SELLERS: Go ahead, that's not the bar there.

HAM: I'm just saying the truth. What do you want me to say?


SELLERS: I get that, the bad judgment --

HAM: Do you want me to have my hands up here?

SELLERS: Right here, but the point is --

HAM: You want it to be more dramatic. What I'm saying is, look, I've been exhorting the Trump team to have better judgment and prudence from day one. I don't like many of their behaviors.

But the distinction between a legal problem and that is important. And if exhorting them to do that changed anything, we'd be in a different place right now.


SELLERS: I want us to be able to trust the president. That's all. Because Democrats, Republicans, black, white, South Carolina, New York, it doesn't matter. There's going to come a point in time in this country where the president is going to say something that we need to hear and we need to be able to trust.

So, it's not about judgment, legality, it's about the fact that no one can trust the president.

COOPER: When he says believe me, I think you can trust him.


COOPER: We've got to take a break here. Up next, we're going to talk to former National Intelligence Director James Clapper to get his thoughts on this and ant the credibility of the White House. What he thinks about this revelation today and how it affects the White House's credibility or lack thereof.

We'll be right back.

[20:32:40] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: More now on the revelation from White House today, the President weighed in on his son's misleading statement last month on the meeting with Russians at Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential campaign. That is in contradiction to what the President's own lawyer has been saying. Still the White House insists the statement was true and the President was simply acting as any father would. In a moment, I'll speak with Retired Lieutenant General James Clapper, the Former Director of National Intelligence and the CNN National Security analyst to get his take on all of this.

Here's what Mr. Clapper said recently about the Russian meeting at Trump Tower, this was at a security forum.


LIEUTENANT GENERAL JAMES CLAPPER (RETIRED), CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think the Russian objective here was, one, to explore, we can -- in order to see if there was interest in having such a discussion on offering up, of course, dirt on Hillary Clinton. And somehow, you know, at least create the optic or the image of at least ostensibly plausible deniability. And this is typical soviet Russian trade craft approach.


COOPER: And General James Clapper joins me now. General Clapper, does this White House -- are they credible in their public statements?

CLAPPER: Well, there's certainly a lot of doubt about that. And what's happened most recently, I think just has the effect of casting more doubt on the credibility of what they say. And I'm kind of on the same page with Mike Hayden here, because to me the greater issue is the assault on truth in this country, which in an extremist situation, could be pretty important to us.

COOPER: Right.

CLAPPER: I worry about that, and what's the definition of truth? This has sort of a chilling Orwellian aspect about it with the minister of information putting out a set of facts and then -- which don't comport with ground truth.

COOPER: It seems then when they are then confronted with actually what is true, they simply deny what is true and say, well, just sort of act as if everybody else is wrong. I mean, saying that in this particular instance, which is pretty small instance, just saying the original statement that Donald Trump, Jr. put out, that it is true. I mean, that's just not accurate.

[20:35:05] CLAPPER: Well, that's exactly right. I won't parse out the -- I'm not a legal scholar, I won't parse out all this. But to me the bigger issue here is the image, the optic of a lack of faith, a lack of trust in what the White House says by this drip, drip, drip, and the daily drama of some other revelation, which sort of comes out halfway and then there's the back and forth in the White House press briefing. And this is I just think a very regrettable pattern and a huge distraction to the country in light of all the other issues and problems we have to deal with.

COOPER: So what happens -- I mean, Bakari Sellers earlier made the point, what happens when there is a national crisis and people need to know what is actually happening and to know that the White House is actually giving real information? And I think back to, you know, what I read about the Vietnam war, there was a problem with the military inflating body counts or the metric that they used for body counts was self-reporting and ultimately just became kind of -- was false.

CLAPPER: Well, I lived through the Vietnam War, and I know exactly what you're alluding to. And this, again, smacks of that to a certain extent. And I do think it's tremendous problem for this country, it's very disturbing when even before an extremist situation you have doubts about the truthfulness and the credibility of what leadership in this country is saying. And that's a terrible commentary.

COOPER: I want to get your take just one two things, just on just Russia. I heard you say earlier or another time that Donald Trump is making Russia great again, and also the situation in North Korea?

CLAPPER: Well, I was perhaps being half facetious about his efforts, his curious solicitous, if I can use that word of Russia, and the Trump personally. I don't quite understand it. I think what people have a tendency to forget is the tremendous threat that Russia poses to us. They do in fact, pose an existential threat to us. They're embarked on a very impressive and impressive modernization of their strategic weapons. They have the most sophisticated cyber capability of any adversary that we confront the world today and all by the way, they're in violation of the INF treaty. And they are not interested in helping. They are interested in undermining us and our system. So I don't understand that.

With respect to North Korea, I was heartened by Secretary of State Tillerson's statements about the need for diplomacy. I think that is the secret here, right?

COOPER: Do your think direct talks at North Korea or?

CLAPPER: I'm sorry?

COOPER: Are direct talks in North Korea, which is obviously --

CLAPPER: Yes, I would be an advocate for that. I gave a speech in Seoul last month which I suggested that we give some consideration to opening up an intersection in Pyongyang, much like we had in Havana, to deal with a government that we didn't recognize.

And apart from the advantage of having an in residence diplomatic presence would help us understand what's going on in North Korea. And importantly, as a -- be a conduit for information to North Korea. When I visited there in 2014 to bring out a couple of our citizens in hard labor, I was overwhelm, blown away by the degree of paranoia and the siege mentality that exists there. And of course, when we saber rattle, all that does is heighten that paranoia in North Korea. So I believe -- I'm very supportive of what Secretary Tillerson said about reaching out to them, because there's too much at stake here to do otherwise.

COOPER: Lieutenant Chapper, I appreciate your time. And also -- I want to welcome you to CNN as a new contributor. So thanks very much.

CLAPPER: Thanks. Always be willing.

COOPER: Up next, the White House still fielding questions about the President's comments to the police last week, telling them to be "Rough on Suspects." America's top prosecutor Attorney General Jeff Sessions is weighing in as well. We'll have that when we continue.


[20:42:29] COOPER: America's top persecutor Attorney General Jeff Sessions has weigh in on the President's comments about police use of force. The leader of a Black Police Organization says that Sessions told him, he believe the President's comments were, "done in jest." But Sessions also said they could impact community police relations. Here's what started all of this. Take a look at what President said last Friday.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And when you see these towns and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough. I said, please don't be too nice. Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you're protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over. Like, don't hit their head' and they've just killed somebody. Don't hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away. OK?


COOPER: All right, today's White House press briefing, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked again about the comment. Back with me is Bakari Sellers, Scott Jennings and Mary Katharine Ham.

Bakari, I mean, you know, Sarah Huckabee Sanders again basically just said that this was the President joking.

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I mean, I think as a country -- we had this discussion last night, I think as a country we need to be less politically correct sometimes. It gets us in trouble. However, Donald Trump crossed a line. There are many parents right now who fear their children going out, having encounters with law enforcement because they may not come home. There are many people who look like me who are afraid that if they interact with police they're not sure how that may go, whether or not they have one degree or two degrees -- whether or not they have no degrees. And so, it's a very troubling statement when you see the leader of the free world condone that statement, when there are people who are actively, law enforcement, black lives matter, everybody in between actively trying to rebuild the system, which we feel is rotten from the core, which is our criminal justice system.

And so I've found a great deal of angst and have a great deal of angst for him to make jokes about a matter that's not a laughing matter. And you know, he said it in New York, and I just can't help but think about Eric Gardner who was choked to death on the streets of New York.

And so we have a serious problem with police brutality in our criminal justice system. And for the President of the United States to make a joke like that was out of bounds.

COOPER: Scott?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Let me set the policy conversation aside for a minute because I agree. I think the tension between the police and the citizenry in this country is one of the most worrisome civil problems we have. They only speak to the political land. This reminds me a little bit of when people were fomenting outrage or trying to -- about the treatment of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

If you live in a certain part of the country that probably hit you one way and maybe you were outrage. But if you live in Trump country and you heard those sentiments expressed, you probably were thinking, I pretty much agree with the President on this. He was speaking about violent gangs. And I was -- I initially read this and it hit me frankly wrong. I watched his comments several times. I think he was making a tongue in cheek remark, not to communicate policy but to communicate a sentiment, which is we're not going to coddle criminals in the Trump administration. And that sentiment hits his people just right.

[20:45:30] So through the political lens, I think it -- that's the conversation he wants to foment among his supporters.

COOPER: Right. But, you know, Mary Katharine?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, I think it was in jest. I'm also a conservative who thinks we do have a problem with excessive force and with fixing this communication problem between cops and communities. And so it's a jest that would be wiser not to make. It's bad judgment to make that jest, as I mentioned earlier.

But I'm also -- I'm like more concerned about the policy side. I don't think this is a directive and we shouldn't act like it's a directive. But it could be badly encouraging. I'm more concerned about something like lawsuit reform where they actually are moving backwards that have changed that policy on the criminal justice front.

But as you were pointing out about the political correctness thing, and I think politically that's what he is doing. He is sort of sending that message. I just want to point out that there's a "Washington Post" piece that sent into President Trump's reference to paddy wagons insults Irish Americans like me. And a lot of people, though, oh my God, this is where we are.

SELLERS: I mean -- no, I hear that. I hear Scott's comment about Guantanamo Bay. And this is something that's totally different. And I think that if this is something in Trump country that people don't understand, maybe me and you need to have a sit down and a different conversation. I mean, maybe we need to go out and sit down and talk to the families of these individuals like the Tamir Rice who was supposedly a grown man, but who was a 12-year-old child, while Donald Trump, Jr. was just a good little boy.

Maybe we need to sit down and talk to the families of Walter Scott, maybe we need to go sit down and talk to the families of Keith Lamont Scott or Philando Castile, Alton Sterling who didn't get the benefit of their humanity. And so I completely understand that maybe there is a disconnect. And maybe in this country we're talking beyond one another. But one thing that whether or not it's Scott Jennings or whether is not is somebody in Trump country needs to have is a level of empathy for those of us who register that as fear. And if you can have that level of empathy for an issue that's near and dear to my heart, I should be able to sit down and listen to your issues as well and have that same level of empathy with you. That's all I ask in this discussion.

JENNINGS: I agree with you. As I said, I think the tension that exists between police and our citizens in many communities it is extremely worrisome. It's happening in cities all over the country. The President was actually speaking about violent gangs, and so if you're one of his supporters, and you're listening to that speech and you hear him talk about the violent Ms-13 and then you --

HAM: And there are people by the way, who should get empathy. Who have experienced that violence as well.

JENNINGS: Yes. And then you hear the liberals come in and say oh, the President has completely mishandled this. It's a not a liberal ideal --


SELLERS: Do you understand that some people look at me as being inherently dangerous because I'm a black male, do you get that? Do you understand that?

JENNINGS: As I said, I agree with you. You don't have to keep yelling at me.

SELLERS: I'm not yelling at you.

JENNINGS: I agree with you.


SELLERS: We have the opportunity to have an amazing conversation. JENNINGS: It's a worrisome problem, but I'm trying to tell you that the conversation he was having about MS-13 to a lot of people in this country was right on. Did it help, was it bad judgment? Maybe. It may have been bad judgment. Maybe it didn't help. But through a political lens, you can see the two conversations he's trying to stoke on a lot of issues. It's the same -- actually --


JENNINGS: It's the same with the transgender ban.

SELLERS: No, no, I -- what?

JENNINGS: He has spoken two conversations in this country. He says things and he wants certain people to react one way and he wants other people to react another way. He does it on a lot of issues. He is the master of it. I think this was one of them.

SELLERS: I just want Donald Trump to care about people who look like me. And when he does that, maybe then we can acknowledge that the President of the United States wants to fix the system, which we find to be oppressive and harmful to people of color.

COOPER: Let's take a break. We got a quick note. Mary Katherine Ham is the co-author of the book, "End of the Discussion" which is out in paperback today.

HAM: Speaking of which.

JENNINGS: Three visits.

COOPER: We are going to have the discussion. Up next, a new lawsuit alleges the White House and Fox News colluded on a fake story about the real murder of a democratic national community staffer, all just shift attention from the Russia hacking. Details on that, ahead.


[20:52:47] COOPER: Explosive new allegations are coming to light today in a lawsuit filed by a Fox News contributor. The story begins last July when Democratic National Committee Staffer Seth Rich was murdered in what D.C. police believe was an attempted robbery gone wrong. His murder was spun into a baseless conspiracy theory alleging that he was involved in the WikiLeaks DNC e-mail dump. This new lawsuit alleges that it was Fox News who purposely cooked up that false story, with the White House input. With more, that allegedly President Trump signed off on. CNN's Randi Kaye tonight picks up the story from there.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When Democratic National Committee Staffer Seth Rich was killed, a conspiracy was born. Caught up in it, this man.

ROD WHEELER, FORMER D.C. HOMICIDE DETECTIVE & FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: I do believe I was used as a pawn in this entire thing.

KAYE: His name is rod wheeler. He's a former D.C. Homicide Detective and Fox News Contributor. And now he's filed a lawsuit against Fox News. Wheeler claims he was used to help fabricate a story connecting the murder of Seth Rich to the WikiLeaks release of thousands of e- mails from the Democratic National Committee. The idea being that Rich was murdered by some sort of DNC operative in retaliation for the leaks. All of this despite the fact that police say Rich's murder was the result of a botched burglary and that this is key, authorities had already determined that Russians hacked the DNC e-mails and gave them to WikiLeaks.

KAYE (on camera): What was the goal?

WHEELER: I think their goal, based on the e-mails and the voicemail messages that I got from Ed Butowsky was to debunk this Russian hacking narrative.

KAYE (voice-over): Ed Butowsky is a GOP supporter and Fox News Financial Commentator. The alleged goal to distract from the Russia investigation was not only pushed by Butowsky but according to the lawsuit it was done in coordination with the Trump White House, with Butowsky even arranging Wheeler to meet with then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Spicer has acknowledged meeting them but said he was unaware of any contact involving the President. Still, just two days before the article was published on Fox's website, Butowsky left this voice mail for Wheeler.

[20:54:59] ED BUTOWSKY, GOP SUPPORTER & FOX NEWS FINANCIAL COMMENTATOR: Hey, Rod, it's Ed. So, a couple minutes ago I got a note that we have the full attention of the White House on this. And tomorrow let's close this deal.

KAYE: Hours later this text from Ed Butowsky to Wheeler. "Not to add anymore pressure, but the President just read the article. He wants the article out immediately."

And according to the lawsuit, Ed Butowsky sent an e-mail to Fox News producers and anchors encouraging them to push the narrative that Russia wasn't behind the hack. It seemed to take hold.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: This issue is so big now that the entire Russia collusion narrative is hanging by a thread.

KAYE: According to the lawsuit, Butowsky had also texted Wheeler before the article was published saying, "The narrative in the interviews you might use is that your and Malia's work prove that the Russians didn't hack into the DNC and steal the e-mails and impact our election."

WHEELER: I thought it was horrible because what did that have to do with the murder of this guy that i was investigating?

KAYE (on camera): Wheeler insists the Fox reporter attributed fake quotes to him, one even suggesting he had information that there had been an e-mail exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks. He called Butowsky to find out why.

BUTOWSKY: One day you're going to win an award for having said those things that you didn't say.

WHEELER: Keep the award. Let's just tell the truth here.

KAYE: In that conversation, was he basically acknowledging to you that, yes, it's true, you didn't say these things but they sound good and we're going to use them?

WHEELER: That's exactly what he was saying. He knew it and Ed knew it and so did Malia Zimmerman. They knew I never said these things and I challenged them immediately.

KAYE (voice-over): Fox retracted the bogus story a week after it was published. Fox News told CNN in a statement today that the accusations that Fox helped to detract from coverage of Russia collusion is completely erroneous and that it has no evidence that Rod Wheeler was misquoted. Ed Butowsky told CNN it was all just a joke. And today White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders pushed back on allegations the White House played a role in this scheme.

SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The President had no knowledge of this story and it's completely untrue that he or the White House involvement in the story.

KAYE: Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.

COOPER: Randi got this statement from the attorney for Rod Wheeler who told her he wanted to depose the President. The attorney says, "We're going do litigate this case as we would any other. We want to talk to anyone who has information, and that means the President and Sean Spicer.

Joining me is Brian Stelter. First of all, to depose the president that seems like a long shut. But I don't -- I mean, this guy, Wheeler, this private detective, I mean, he was on Fox talking about this story, no?

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: He was. He was part of the promotion of this conspiracy theory. The theory, of course, supporting the idea that the President had nothing to do with Russia, and suggesting it was actually the DNC, maybe the Clintons that somehow shared these DNC e-mails of WikiLeaks.

It is all about fundamentally all about disputing the Russia collusion idea. This conspiracy theory is popular in the swamps of the internet, but Fox really promoted it in the middle of May thanks to Wheeler, thanks to Butowsky, thanks to this reporting.

Now Wheeler is saying I was misquoted, I was misled, I was defamed. It's going to be a tough case, but it could be revealing.

COOPER: And Ed Butowsky, he's e-mailing people at Fox telling them what angles to push?

STELTER: That's what this lawsuit shows and that's one of the most revealing parts.

COOPER: That's being bizarre.

STELTER: We actually got the quotes. There they were in Randi's piece, very unusual at a normal television news operation, but maybe not unusual For News.

COOPER: Yes, to have a Republican -- or Democratic operative e- mailing people what they should be talking about.

STELTER: It seems highly unethical. A lot of this about Fox seems highly unethical. The Trump pieces, Trump White House pieces, they need more reporting. But it is clear Sean Spicer was there meeting with these guys in the White House so at least there was some talk about this conspiracy theory in the White House.

We know the President has promoted other conspiracy theories like wiretapping claims, and things like that's. He's never brought up Seth Rich, however. And I think fundamentally, Anderson, this is about two competing realities, two alternative universes. We talk about it all the time. You would think the Russia story is a big deal that needs investigation or it's a hoax. Hear about interview (INAUDIBLE), similar on climate change. You either believe it's a pressing issue or buy into the denialism. I think, the two alternative universes idea is coming through in this story.

COOPER: We should point out. These are allegations being made, a lawsuit, people make allegations in lawsuits any time. And it doesn't, you know, it could just be not true.

STELTER: We need more reporting on this and if it ever get to the point of discovery and depositions, we will learn a lot more at that point.

COOPER: All right, Brian Stelter, I appreciate it. And thanks for watching "A.C. 360." The CNN town hall event, "Al Gore, The Climate Crisis", starts right now.