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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With Arizona Senator Jeff Flake; Did White House Help Push FOX News Conspiracy Story?. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired August 1, 2017 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:13]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: A major admission from the White House just now. President Trump -- quote -- "weighed in" on that misleading statement from Donald Trump Jr. about his meeting with the Russians.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Amid all that, one lawmaker's searing indictment of his own party, Senator Jeff Flake speaking his own mind and then some, railing against President Trump, saying his GOP colleagues are in denial. But will Flake's words lead to any real action?

Senator Flake will join us live this hour.

Two potentially explosive crises overseas, one, a stark warning of war, a Senator Lindsey Graham paints a terrifying picture of the dwindling options with a nuclear North Korea.

Then, what in the world is Russia up to near the border of several NATO countries? And why is Putin stockpiling so much military gear there?

And then, is this the ultimate fake news tale? A new lawsuit alleging the White House may have helped concoct a huge news story along with FOX News, exploiting crackpot conspiracy theories and smearing a young murdered DNC staffer. But can the details of this lawsuit be believed?

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD.

And we begin in breaking news in our money lead on Wall Street.

Let's take a live look at the Big Board, where the Dow industrial average closed just shy of an all-time high of 22000. The Dow, as well as the Nasdaq and S&P has hit record highs in July, despite turmoil in Washington and international tensions.

The president tweeted about the Dow this morning, saying -- quote -- "Stock market could hit all-time high again, 22000 today. Was 18000 only six months ago on Election Day. Mainstream media seldom mentions!"

And that brings us the our politics lead.

In the former Soviet Republic of Georgia today, Vice President Pence promised that President Trump would sign into law very soon the tough new sanctions on Russia that Congress passed overwhelmingly and delivered to the White House last Friday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And in a further sign of our commitment, very soon, President Trump will sign legislation to strengthen and codify the United States sanctions against Russia.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Pledges like that notwithstanding, Senate Republican sources tell me that they are concerned that President Trump might not sign the sanctions into law, though their worried are assuaged, given the fact that they have enough votes to override were the president to veto the measure, and even if the president does nothing at all and just lets the bill sit, it will become a law in 10 days automatically.

The president's seeming ambivalence on the Russian sanctions is intriguing coming alongside a deafening silence, as it does, from President Trump as it does about Moscow's recent retaliation to those same sanctions.

President Vladimir Putin's order that the U.S. eliminated 755 staffers from the U.S. diplomatic mission there, the most aggressive move by the Kremlin against Washington since the final years of the Cold War.

In the past few days, since the move by Putin, the president has had plenty to say about the news media, about Republican senators, about Democratic senators and more. But the president has had nothing to say publicly about Putin or that move, nor has the president had anything public to say today about a different Russia-related story, "The Washington Post" scoop that President Trump "personally dictated" that initial misleading statement from his son Donald Trump Jr. when first asked about that June 2016 campaign meeting with the Russians.

We now know that the encounter happened because an associate of Donald Trump Jr. offered to get him a meeting with a Russian government lawyer who was promising incriminating information about Hillary Clinton. But that initial statement about the meeting was misleading.

It suggested that Trump Jr. and the lawyer had "primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children." But that statement did not mention the purpose of the meeting and had to be updated after "The New York Times" obtained more evidence about the meeting and offered many more details.

"The Times" had reported, of course, that President Trump personally signed off on that misleading statement, which, at the time, one of the president's attorneys told me was not true.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: "The New York Times" also reporting that the president personally signed off on the original statement that Donald Trump Jr. issued on Saturday, that one that required a follow-up clarification because it didn't disclose the idea of opposition research.

JAY SEKULOW, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: That's not true. First of all...

TAPPER: The president did not sign off on that statement?

SEKULOW: No, he did not.

The statement was issued by Donald Trump Jr. The president was on return from his trip to the G20. Again, these are stories that are out there. People can say anything they want, but the fact is that's just not true.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Today, however, we found out from "The Post" that the president did more than look at Don Jr.'s misleading statement. He dictated it, against the advice of his advisers, who favored a fuller disclosure about the meeting, suspecting that all the information was going to come out anyway, which it did.

[16:05:02]

Now, asked for comment just a few minutes ago, the White House press secretary acknowledged what the president's lawyer denied, acknowledging that the president did play a role in the drafting of that misleading statement.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: To be clear, of course, the statement that Don Jr. issued that was dictated by the president, according to "The Post," was misleading.

It did not even remotely acknowledge the purpose of the meeting, which was Donald Trump Jr. wanting to meet someone billed as a Russian government lawyer with one specific purpose, to obtain dirt on Hillary Clinton, a meeting attended, by the way, by Jared Kushner and campaign chair Paul Manafort.

Now, you, as a citizen, you should expect a much higher standard of truth than the one that the White House press secretary just enunciated. If a meeting takes place so campaign officials can get dirt on a political rival from the Russian government, describing that meeting as being about adoption, and not mentioning the purpose of the meeting, it's not true. It's inaccurate.

And it's so misleading as to be a lie. And you, as a citizen, you have every right to wonder, why would the president hide the truth and be inaccurate about this? Why would he want to hide from you the facts of this meeting, which they insist was innocent?

And, as always, what does any of this have to do with making America great again?

So, how does the president's just weighing in, as we learned today, square with what we have been told in the past about the formulation of that initial misleading statement?

CNN's Jim Acosta is looking into this evolving story line from the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Yes, the White House said, the president was involved in the crafting of a misleading statement that initially obscured the true nature of his son Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian lawyer during the campaign.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: There is no inaccuracy in the statement. The president weighed in, as any father would, based on the limited information that he had.

ACOSTA: The questions came after a "Washington Post" story reporting that the president dictated the statement released July 8 for Trump Jr., then inaccurately claimed the meeting was focused on Russian adoptions. "We primarily discussed a program for adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government."

Three days after that statement, Trump Jr. released four pages of his own e-mails showing the Russian attorney planned to show information that -- quote -- "would incriminate Hillary in her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father."

Talking to reporters on Air Force One the next day, the president was still talking up the adoption explanation, saying: "They talked about the adoption stuff, which was actually a big thing at the time, but nothing happened," a story he was still using at a news conference the following day.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I guess they talked about -- as I see it, they talked about adoption and some things. Adoption wasn't even part of the campaign. But nothing happened from the meeting. Zero happened from the meeting. And, honestly, I think the press made a very big deal over something that really a lot of people would do.

ACOSTA: Asked about that initial misleading statement from Donald Trump Jr., White House outside counsel Jay Sekulow insisted the president was not involved. SEKULOW: That statement -- by the way, I wasn't involved in the

statement drafting at all, nor was the president. I'm assuming that was between Mr. Donald Trump Jr., between Don Jr. and his lawyer. I'm sure his lawyer was involved. That's how you do it. And you know that. And so to put this on the president I think is just absolutely incorrect.

ACOSTA: Leaders from both parties say the president's involvement in his son's statement is yet another concern for the Russian investigation.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: If it is true, I think it is of serious concern, but we don't know that it is.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: If you had had the e-mails available to you, you would understand that the whole meeting wasn't about adoption, that the e-mail chain shows that it was about the Russian government wanting to help the Trump campaign. I don't think the statement helped Don Jr. I don't know what role the president played, if any.

Here's what I would suggest, that when you put out a misleading statement, it's going to be hard to convince people to stop looking at other things.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: The other big question lingering here at the White House is whether the president will sign a bill that would limit his ability to ease sanctions on Russia.

Today, the White House said the president would sign that legislation. Congressional leaders were not very concerned the president would veto the bill. The measure has enough support in Congress to override any veto.

And, Jake, getting back to Donald Trump Jr.'s statement, for all the talk about the new chief of staff here bringing order and discipline to the White House, there is another thing that is in short supply over here, and that's honesty -- Jake.

TAPPER: Jim Acosta, thank you so much.

Let's turn now to Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, whose new book is rattling more than a few cages today. It is titled "Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle."

[16:10:04]

Senator, thanks so much for being here.

I have a different "Conscience of a Conservative" book at home by Barry Goldwater. It looks a lot like this one.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: It looks a lot like that one. TAPPER: It looks a lot like this one, obviously, the content very different.

Congratulations on the book.

FLAKE: Well, thank you.

TAPPER: I want to get to that in a second =.

But, first, let's start with this news, "The Washington Post" reporting and the White House confirming that President Trump played a role in drafting this initial misleading statement about Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with the Russians. What's your reaction?

FLAKE: Right.

I was surprised to hear that, but I know that the committees of jurisdiction, the Senate Intelligence Committee on a bipartisan basis is looking at this, as they should, and I'm sure Bob Mueller and others will as well. But it was a bit of a surprise.

TAPPER: What about the fact that you have the president's lawyer going out there and telling people he did not play any role at all in the drafting of the statement, and now we're told that he did, and then also just the issue of the fact that the statement was misleading? It said it was just about adoptions, when, obviously, we know, as Lindsey Graham just said, that the meeting, the purpose of the meeting was to get dirt on Hillary Clinton?

Does this White House have a huge credibility gap?

FLAKE: Well, I would agree with Lindsey in that regard.

And it's tough to tell people not to look elsewhere if they don't believe that you're giving the full story. But we will leave it to the committees of jurisdiction. I'm glad we have a bipartisan committee looking into this, Senate Intelligence Committee, and they're committed to do it and others are as well.

TAPPER: Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary, was asked today if the credibility gap, the transparency and honesty issues, were hurting the Republican agenda. Take a listen to what she had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think what's hurting the legislative agenda is Congress' inability to get things passed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What do you think?

FLAKE: Well, that's a pretty fair criticism.

First and foremost, it's our responsibility to pass things. We have, I think, reached the limit of what we can do on health care with just our party. And so we're going to be reaching across the aisle, and perhaps we should have started that way, but that's where we're going.

TAPPER: What do you think of the new chief of staff, retired Marine General John Kelly? Yes.

FLAKE: I'm glad he's there. I think it's been a good start.

And, obviously, the measures that have been taken so far I think will give us more confidence that we will see a little less chaos over there, and that will help. That will help.

TAPPER: Let's turn to your book. You have a comment in here which was really fascinating. There is a lot of criticism about the president and his behavior and how Republicans, conservatives specifically, have dealt with him.

At one point, you write -- quote -- "To carry on in the spring of 2017 as if what was happening was anything approaching normalcy required a determined suspension of critical faculties and tremendous powers of denial."

That's a pretty strong thing to say. What do you think Republicans, conservatives, Americans should be doing?

FLAKE: Well, there are two parts of conservatism. The first, I would argue, is policy.

We have always adhered to limited government, economic freedom, individual responsibility. Barry Goldwater in 1960 felt the party was straying from those principles. And that's why he wrote the original "Conscience of a Conservative."

I think we're facing a similar crisis now, where we've kind of as Republicans taken up an unfamiliar banner that, you know, is populism, in some cases, xenophobia, anti-immigration, protectionism.

That's not familiar to us, and I don't think that that is a governing philosophy. So on the policy side, I think we have an issue, but also being conservative means, particularly in foreign policy, that you're steady and that you're measured in your use of diplomacy and force, and predictable, and that we embrace our allies and recognize our enemies.

And that, I think, has been lacking, and I'm concerned about that.

TAPPER: I have heard from many Republicans on the show and also just talking in the green room who think that, in fact, the president's point of view is embracing our enemies and giving the stiff-arm to our allies in a lot of ways.

FLAKE: Well, for those of us who were raised in the Cold War, and having the Soviet Union and now Russia adopting some of the same attitudes as the Soviet Union, that was the existential threat.

And now to be seen as, you know, being more friendly or more trusting, and to distrust our own institutions of government, our intelligence communities, just seems foreign to us.

And I think it should seem foreign to us. And I think we need, when we see that, to speak up more often.

TAPPER: Senator, stick around. We're going to take a very quick break.

When we come back, we will talk more about your book. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:19:14] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: We're back with Republican Senator Jake Flake of Arizona whose new book "Conscience of a Conservative" is drawing quite a bit of attention today and this week.

Senator, your book, the subtitle is "A Rejection of Destructive Politics and Return to Principle". You just talked about some principles --

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Right.

TAPPER: -- that you think conservatives Americans need to get back to. Let's talk about rejection of destructive politics, because you're quite critical in the book, and also you have been critical in real life about some of the things that President Trump has said. His mockery of a disabled reporter -- I could go on, but it's only an hour-long show.

What do you think political leaders need to do when he does things that are indecent?

FLAKE: Well, let me just say, this didn't start with President Trump.

TAPPER: Absolutely not.

FLAKE: I was in the House from 2001 to 2012 -- '13.

[16:20:04] During that time, we had a Republican stand up during President Obama's State of the Union and yelled "you lie."

TAPPER: Yes.

FLAKE: The famous episode.

We've seen things like this and I talk about it in the book. When Gabby Giffords got shot, a year later she came back during the State of the Union, she was going to resign the next day, and I sat with her and she couldn't stand on her own, still, at that time. And so, I helped her up during the president's applause lines, President Obama's applause lines. I started getting texts and e-mails from Republicans saying, why are you standing? The president is speaking. Do you agree with the president?

And just this shirts versus skins attitude that really predates President Trump. And so -- but I think we've just gotten coarser and coarser. I talk in the book about, things like the birtherism that was put forward. I think that was awful.

TAPPER: By President Trump, mainly. He was one of the biggest proponents of that.

FLAKE: A sheriff in Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio --

TAPPER: Sure.

FLAKE: -- sent investigators to Hawaii and then had a press conference after he was defeated, still saying it was a forged birth certificate. This was in December of last year -- a terrible thing to do and to prolong.

And I think that that rejection of destructive politics, we've got to reject that. As a conservative, I mean, that's just not what conservatives should do. And I mean, we've got huge problems to solve in this country, the biggest, in my view, is our looming debt and growing deficit. We have $20 trillion in debt. We'll be over a trillion dollars a year in deficits coming up soon, and we know that the only way to solve that is for both parties to sit down and share the risk.

Every decent budget agreement we've had in the past 40 years is when Republicans and Democrats, you know, Reagan and Tip O'Neill or Gramm- Rudman-Hollings Act or the budget deal of 1997, when Republicans and Democrats say, all right, let's share the risk and do it together.

And to say you're conservative and say, I'm not going to even deal with entitlement spending, we'll put that off. We can't do that anymore. And we've got to sit down, Republicans and Democrats. You need 60 votes in the Senate to do just about anything.

If you're not under reconciliation, and we're going to be there soon, and we should keep that. The president is calling for us to get rid of the filibuster. That would be an awful thing. The Senate is at its best when we work together on these things.

TAPPER: So, your being outspoken doesn't come without a potential price. President Trump has reportedly been talking with people about getting challengers, Republican challengers, to run against you. "Politico" is reporting that the White House officials have met with at least three possible primary challengers against you. You're running for reelection next year.

How worried are you that doubling down on your outspokenness on these issues with this book might cost you your political career?

FLAKE: Well, I think some things are more important than a political career. I think, yes, it would have been probably politically smarter to wait until you're safely reelected to write a book like this, but then it wouldn't mean as much. If you don't have anything to risk politically, it doesn't mean as much. I felt that it was important enough to stand up and write this. So, I've done it.

TAPPER: And there are critics out there on your left who say, talk is cheap, writing this book is one thing, what are you going to do about it? What are you going to do?

FLAKE: Well, like I said, I've reached across the aisle. I've worked on the so-called "Gang of Eight" when I first came to the Senate. I spent a lot of time --

TAPPER: On immigration reform. Yes.

FLAKE: Yes, and we're going to have to do that. We're going to have to sit down together. I partnered with Tim Kaine to do a bipartisan AUMF, authorization of use of military force.

To prove that Democrats and Republicans can get along, I marooned myself on an island with Martin Heinrich, the Democrat senator from New Mexico, a rival survival, to show that Democrats and Republicans can get along.

TAPPER: You worked with Democrats on Cuba, too, with the Obama administration.

FLAKE: I have. And I have agreed with President Obama on Cuban policy. I disagreed with this president. And one thing that I should point out, too, I came to Congress, you know, in 2001, disagreed with President Bush on No Child Left Behind, prescription drug benefit, disagreed with him for eight years on Cuban policy, and yet, a couple of months ago, he came to Arizona and did a fundraiser for me because we agreed on most issues and work together on most issues.

We've got to get away from this attitude that you have to agree with the president and the senator should be a rubber stamp for everything the president wants at all times. I will agree with this president when I think he's doing conservative things and doing decent things.

[16:25:05] And I'll oppose him and speak up when I think that he isn't, and I think that's what Arizona voters expect me to do.

TAPPER: The book is "Conscience of a Conservative" by Senator Jeff Flake.

Thanks so much for being here. We really appreciate it. Don't go before you sign my copy. Thanks so much, Senator.

FLAKE: Thank you.

TAPPER: Coming up, a big election and now opposition leaders snatched from their homes in the dead of night. Rampant violence and more chaos in oil-rich Venezuela. We're going there live. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: We're back and we're sticking with the politics lead. We've got lots to talk about with my panel.

Amanda, let me start with you. You just heard Senator Jeff Flake, conservative Republican from Arizona who has expressed many concerns with President Trump not only on policy but also just basic human decency. He says conservatives have been complicit in the rise of Trump and Trumpism.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think that's true, but listen, I always thought, oh, this is going to be a make or break time for people like Jeff Flake who are reluctant to support Trump. We have to remember, Flake didn't go to the convention. He's never been, you know, a pro-Trump Republican.