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Trump Wanted Gag Order Lifted; Trump's Approval Ratings; Podesta and Wasserman Schultz Denial; Nigerien Soldier: U.S. Patrol Had Insufficient Firepower; U.S. Releases Most, But Not All Of JFK Assassination Files. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired October 27, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: To lift a gag order to allow an undercover informant to cooperate with the congressional probe of a deal involving U.S. sales of uranium in 2010. It was a very big deal at the time, and still is, because the buyer was the Russian Atomic Energy Agency. Now, also, of course, because it was uranium, a host of agencies, look at all of those U.S. agencies that had to approve this sale, including the State Department, which was headed at the time by Hillary Clinton.

What was not public knowledge back then in 2010 was a newly reported FBI investigation into shady Russian dealings aimed at getting a foothold, potentially, in the U.S. nuclear sector. There are a lot of dots. Dots that need to be connected. And I am glad we have my friend Jessica Schneider here with us to help us connect them because this is important. And let's begin, before we go through those dots, with the president making a really unprecedented move since the Nixon era and intervening in the Justice Department here.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE DEPARTMENT: Yes. And it's definitely being criticized, Poppy. So two sources tell CNN that President Trump did play a hand in getting this gag order lifted. It's something that Republican Senator Chuck Grassley asked the Justice Department to do in a letter last week. When it came out that an informant wanted to talk, saying he had information on corruption in that uranium deal back in 2010, but that the informant had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the FBI.

So we know that the president directed his senior staff to get the DOG to lift the gag order. That's when White House Counsel Don McGahn relayed the president's message to the Justice Department. And by Wednesday night the gag order was lifted.

So here's where some people, Democrats in particular, they're crying foul. Because the Justice Department has strict rules limiting any White House involvement in criminal law enforcement matters, especially when it involves the president's political opponents, in this case Hillary Clinton.

Well, White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway, she defended the president's intervention this morning.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNCILOR TO THE PRESIDENT: He believes, as many others do, frankly, that the FBI informant should be free to say what he knows. But this was made -- let me repeat, the judiciary chairman in the United States Senate, Chuck Grassley, made this request to the Justice department last week.


SCHNEIDER: So Kellyanne Conway there confirming that the president did play a hand in this.

Now, we have reached out to the Justice Department about the president's role in this, but, Poppy, right now they are not commenting.

HARLOW: So, Jessica, Hillary Clinton was, you know, heading the State Department at the time and she was asked about this last week. She said, look, this is over, done, put to bed. Here's what she said.


HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: I would say it's the same bologna they've been peddling for years and there's been no creditable evidence by anyone. In fact, it's been debunked repeatedly and will continue to be debunked.


HARLOW: But here's the thing, Jessica, that doesn't seem like a fulsome answer, because there is new reporting from "The Hill" that says that there was this FBI investigation for years at the time and it's unknown whether Congress or the Obama administration was made aware of this before the sale was approved, right? Aren't there still some burning questions?

SCHNEIDER: There are. And that's really what Republicans are touching on here. So there was that FBI investigation into bribery and corruption. It was into whether a Russian company -- they were looking to gain influence in the uranium market. So that FBI investigation, it started in 2009 and it resulted in a guilty plea by a top Russian executive in 2015. So, in that way, the investigation, that side of it, is over.

But Republicans say that there's a much broader investigation that should be done. Reports are that Russians channeled millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation at the exact same time that that committee that Hillary Clinton was on approved that sale of a big uranium company to a Russian agency. So now Republicans, they want to know if the committee ever knew about that FBI investigation into bribery at the time the uranium deal was approved. And, of course, Poppy, they also want to know whether those millions of dollars that were funneled into the Clinton Foundation, if that played any role in this uranium deal being approved back in 2010.

Poppy. HARLOW: One of the issues with their argument that will -- thank you, Jessica, we appreciate it.

And one of the issues we'll get into with the panel is the timing, right, the timing of some of those big donors and when they were related to this company or not, that's problematic for some of the Republicans argument here. We'll get into it.

CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash is here. CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin joins us. And CNN political analyst David Drucker.

So, Dana, just to that question, how legitimate are these questions and why is the timeline an issue here?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the timeline is an issue because it will speak to the fundamental question and accusation that this was pay for play for the Clintons.

HARLOW: Right.

BASH: That they were getting donations from this gentleman at CGI, at the Clinton Global Initiative, at their foundation, and that the allegation is that is effectively why he ended up getting this big deal on uranium. So what those inside the Clinton campaign argue, because they spent a lot of time, you know, sort of doing a forensic investigation in this, is that the timeline doesn't add up, that he -- that this individual had already left the company, so he -- by the time this deal went through --

HARLOW: Would gain.

[09:05:19] BASH: Right. By the time the deal went through, he wouldn't have gained from it.

Having said all that, you know, the fact that the -- never mind the question of how this FBI informant was, you know, kind of -- the gag order was lifted by the president of the United States --

HARLOW: Which Jeffrey will get to.

BASH: Which he will get to which is highly unusual. You know, the way I look at it is, Republicans, even, you know, if it's a little bit subterranean in the conservative world, have not let this go.

HARLOW: Right.

BASH: And they have brought it to the floor because it's politically advantageous for them to do this now. But, you know what, why not hear from this guy?


BASH: Because, at the end of the day, you know, he will tell us something that is important about how this deal went down and perhaps put an end to it. HARLOW: And it's beneficial for the American people to get as much

information as they can for those who know.

BASH: No question.

HARLOW: However, Jeffrey, and it's wholly appropriate for Senator Chuck Grassley to call for this gag order to be lifted, for example, which Kellyanne Conway says, look, it was all Grassley, not the president. But we have two sources saying the president pushed for this. The president pushed his Department of Justice to do that. How big of a deal is that?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Look -- look, what this story is about is the symbiosis between Fox News and the Trump White House. This is an old investigation that has been -- deals with 10-year-old events, or almost 10-year-old events, and it's an attempt by the Republicans to get us to be talking about something other than Russian's possible influence in last -- in the election last year.

You know, sure, it is appropriate to hear from witnesses to care. But the idea that this is a priority for the Senate Judiciary Committee at this late date, it's a completely political undertaking designed to get people to talk about the only thing that unifies the Republican Party today, which is hating Hillary Clinton.

HARLOW: How big of a deal that the president intervened here?

TOOBIN: Well, you know, after Watergate, when Richard Nixon used the IRS to target his enemies, there are a series of policies that were put in place to limit the president's and the president's immediate subordinates involved in criminal and IRS investigations.

HARLOW: Right.

TOOBIN: It's not a law. It's not a crime to violate those rules. But, clearly, what's gone on here is the president getting involved in a criminal investigation, who should have a gag order, who should have a gag order lifted, which is precisely the kind of thing that this policy was designed to avoid. It's not -- it's not a crime by the president. It's not an impeachable offense. But it's an example of how President Trump has changed the norms that govern the president's behavior.

HARLOW: And, David Drucker, I mean, isn't the context, to Jeffrey's point, important here. This is a president who said that part of the reason he fired James Comey was because of, you know, the Russia investigation? I mean it may not be illegal, but it's not a good look.

DAVID DRUCKER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, I think the president clearly has been willing to exercise his executive power in ways that past presidents have not, at least since Richard Nixon. And there's always been this sort of quasi idea that you had to leave the Justice Department and federal law enforcement authorities alone to do their job so that you have this sort of idea of independence, even though the president, as the chief executive, overseas these agencies. I think there are a couple things here, Poppy. One is that this

Uranium One issue would have been litigated during the campaign if the private e-mail server, which rolled into the Clinton Foundation and the leaked Podesta e-mails had not become the consuming scandals, if you will, or big issues that Hillary Clinton had to deal with. And so this was never -- it may be nothing, but I know a lot of Republicans early on in the campaign thought it was something, although I do not doubt they're bringing it up now for very political purposes because it gets them to talk about something other than the president's issues, which then makes him happy and helps their relationship.

But the broader problem in all of this is that as we saw during the 2016 campaign, after the tarmac meeting between Loretta Lynch and Bill Clinton, when Republicans and conservatives were crying foul, the Justice Department intervening to protect Clinton, and now you have President Trump using his authority to direct the Justice Department to take a particular direction in this investigation. So you're going to now have everybody not trusting the Justice Department and the FBI. That further diminishes faith in American institutions and government. And that is a dangerous thing for everybody.

HARLOW: That is an important point.

I want to get to something else.

Dana, there is a new Fox News poll out, approval ratings for the president. They're down from 42 percent to 38 percent in just a month. But here's what -- what's even more fascinating, guys, if we can pull up the other number. Among white men without college degrees, 68 percent approval last month, now 56 percent approval. Significance?

[09:10:16] BASH: It's a big danger zone, because that is the president's base. I mean that is the core Trump -- the core that makes up the Trump coalition. There's no question about it. And the fact that he still was at 68 percent, so two-thirds of that base, was still for him and now it is -- it is just north of a majority, is -- still means he has just north of a majority, which is good. But the flip side is, it's going in the wrong direction. And I think it's probably no accident that you have seen over the past month or so a -- kind of a direct appeal to people in that base.


BASH: The NFL situation I think case in point.

Now, some of that, I'm told, is just the president kind of reading the room and it started out by him being in Alabama, by the way, where a lot of -- kind of -- maybe a good focus group for that base when he was campaigning in the Senate race there and kind of getting the feel that he threw it out there and it worked and he kind of went with it. But I think if you -- if you look at the way that the president is operating with regard to those core supporters, there's got to be concern.

HARLOW: One final question, Jeffrey, and that is on -- just more on this Trump Russia dossier. And we now know partly funded by the DNC, Hillary Clinton's camp. John Podesta, who was chairman of the campaign, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was heading the DNC at the time, told congressional investigators in the past few weeks they -- they did not know -- you know, they didn't pay for -- they didn't know it was being paid for by these two entities. Plausible?

TOOBIN: Yes, highly plausible, because they were not managing the campaign day-to-day. I would be much more interested to know if Robby Mook knew. Probably -- he was the campaign manager.

HARLOW: But Debbie Wasserman Schultz was running the DNC.

TOOBIN: Well, Debbie Wasserman Schultz was a complete outsider. She -- I wouldn't be surprised if she didn't know anything that was going on there. John Podesta was the chairman of the campaign, mostly involved in fundraising.

You know, there's nothing unlawful or even unusual about funding opposition research. That's what -- that's what all campaigns do. It seems like the Clinton campaign could have said from the very beginning, yes, we did this. This is what campaigns do. Leaving this lingering mystery out there is unfortunate for them, but, you know what, she's not running for anything anymore. So what.

HARLOW: It seems like transparency -- it was a lack thereof is the word of the week.

BASH: But that's -- but that's the key. And I think that the one awkward sort of event in this is that when John Podesta went before congressional investigators, his personal attorney, Marc Elias, is the guy who hired the company that did this -- that did -- that ended up doing this dossier. So he's sitting there while -- knowing that they actually did hire him, while his client was asked about it not -- you know, I'm not saying that there was anything untoward. He didn't have to tell him. But it's certainly uncomfortable.

TOOBIN: It's not a good look.

HARLOW: We -- we are --

TOOBIN: It's not a good look. I mean he was the lawyer --

DRUCKER: (INAUDIBLE) information came from. I think it's also important to know where the information came from because the campaign should have had guardrails to make sure that the information wasn't coming from places, in other words, foreign entities it shouldn't have been coming from, if that was the case.

HARLOW: I have to leave it there because we have a lot to get to this morning. So nice to have you all here. Thank you very much.

New details this morning on the Niger attack that killed those four American soldiers. We're hearing from a Nigerien soldier who was there to witness it. Saw the American green beret's unit the day before the ambush. He says that he was surprised they were going out on this very important mission to get intel on a suspected terror leader dressed, frankly, the way they were, wearing t-shirts and baseball caps, not heavily armed. The woman who got all of that information is our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon. She is on the ground.

You spoke to him. This is stunning, Arwa.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and the reason why he said he expressed his surprise was because when he and his unit patrolled through this same very volatile zone, they usually go out with at least 80 to 100 soldiers. Now, h didn't specifically know what the U.S. mission was when he saw the unit and their Nigerian counterparts before the attack took place, but he was also surprised by the fact that they seem to be very lightly armed.

Now, it is worth noting, though, Poppy, that this is pretty much how the U.S. does go out in this particular region. They do not go out in uparmored Humvees with full battle rattle on the way that we see them in Afghanistan, Iraq and other war zones. And that is both because of the practicality, but also because of what the U.S. assessed the risk to be. And that's one of the main questions right now, did America, in the analysis of what the threat levels were, miss crucial information?

[09:14:54] Now, this soldier and his unit arrived on scene to find the remaining surviving Americans and Nigeriens back-to-back in defensive positions. He said that he saw the bodies of two of the American soldiers who were killed in the back of a U.S. vehicle, and a third body lying close by, and he noticed some of the brush was still smoldering.

Villagers later telling them as the assailants were withdrawing, they set portions of the landscape on fire to avoid detection by aircraft. Now soldier also said that it took about a day, if not longer, of searching to try and find the body of the fourth American, Sergeant La David Johnson.

He was also going on to describe, Poppy, the fact that he was surprised that not only did the U.S. mission go out so lightly protected, it would seem, but that they did not have overhead surveillance. This is an area where the Nigeriens themselves get attacked on a fairly regular basis.

In fact, just this past weekend, 13 Nigeriens members of the security forces lost their lives in another attack within the same dome, and this is an area where over the last two years, the Nigerians at least have observed the threat morphing from what was banditry into something that they now describe as being terrorism.

HARLOW: Arwa Damon, such important reporting on the ground. Thank you for breaking that news and bringing it to us. We will get back to you for more.

A lot ahead this hour for us, the top0secret documents about JFK's assassination, not a secret anymore, but some are. So, there are still some big questions remaining, namely was Lee Harvey Oswald the CIA agent? Why didn't the public get all the remaining JFK assassination files as the law calls for?

Also, how did this tiny Montana energy company land this massive contract to rebuild Puerto Rico's electric grid? Republicans and Democrats in Congress are demanding answers. The governor of Puerto Rico says there will be hell to pay if there was any wrong doing.

Plus, two Americans lost at sea for five months. This is the moment they were rescued with their dogs on this boat. Can you believe it? For five months. You are looking at video from the U.S. Navy. Incredible. That story ahead.



HARLOW: This morning, new details and many questions about the assassination of President Kennedy, including one major cliffhanger, was his killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, an agent of the CIA? We don't know.

Even after the government released thousands of new files, documents on him last night, why? Because hundreds of those were redacted and many are being held back for now, the president not happy with that, but feeling sort of forced to make that decision writes this morning, "JFK files are being carefully released. In the end, there will be great transparency. It's my hope just about everything goes out to the public."

With me now, CNN senior Washington correspondent, Brianna Keilar, who knows these documents inside and out at this point, CNN political analyst and historian, Julian Zelizer, who, of course, wrote the LBJ book, and CNN chief legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.

So, Bri, let's begin with you. So, many cliffhangers, let's sort of take through them and get some analysis. One of the biggest ones, Lee Harvey Oswald, possibly a CIA agent?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, that -- and this is one of the documents that's going to just I think make people -- especially who are -- have the proclivity to believe in conspiracy theories maybe wonder because there's a deposition from 1975 with the deputy CIA director. And he's asked if perhaps Lee Harvey Oswald is a CIA agent or agent, maybe some other kind of agent, and there isn't an answer. It's very unsatisfying.

HARLOW: Right. There is no answer. It's unsatisfying and one of these other document shows Lee Harvey Oswald was in Mexico City, we know that just, you know, a few weeks before Kennedy's assassination. But while he was there made a very intriguing, interesting, and concerning phone call to a KGB officer at the Russian embassy there. What else do we know about that?

KEILAR: That's right. So, the CIA intercepted this, and what we know is that according to these documents, Oswald was speaking in broken Russian. So, we know that he was in touched obviously with Russian operatives.

We also know from the documents that Russia had some concerns, perhaps, that they might be blamed for the Kennedy assassination later so that was a concern. We alos learned from these documents that according to actually the FBI that Cuban operatives said they had been in touch with Oswald. He was someone who sympathize certainly with communist and he did have contact with them.

HARLOW: All right. Hold on there, two important things to take through, our historian, Julian Zelizer here, the significance of these two things, and the really sort of unanswered and unfinished part of the -- you know, was Lee Harvey Oswald a CIA agent?

JULIAN ZELIZER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, the CIA document is incomplete, and so, we have to be careful as we piece it together not to make an assumption. The next thing Helm's (ph) was going to say is he was a CIA agent working for us. There is no evidence to that.

The second about the Mexico City, we have known for a while. We are getting more detail about what Oswald was doing there, the kind of contacts he was having. Again, we know some of this and we don't have any evidence that there was any kind of conspiracy or coordination, but this will fuel the conversation.

HARLOW: It feels like, Jeffrey Toobin, the word of the week is sort of non-transparency, or lack of transparency, on so many different stories and then this.

TOOBIN: I just think this is a shameful performance by the American government. They have had 25 years to prepare for this document release. The idea that they are scrambling on the last day and withholding hundreds of these documents, it just feeds exactly the problem that that this document release was supposed to address. And, you know, maybe in 180 days after the president's delay, there will be more disclosures, but it seems to me this was handled in the worst possible way.

[09:25:04] HARLOW: For people who don't know what you are talking about is the 1992 law, right, Brianna? A '92 law that said within 25 years, which was yesterday, the government has to release all of these and then they don't.

KEILAR: That's what is nuts about this, right? It's not as if they were told, look, you have 180 days to do this, and they had 25 years. It's not even like the 11th hour in a way. It sorts of feels like the very last second because there were requests for reductions coming in from intel agencies late yesterday. You know, that's pretty amazing that these were coming in yesterday.

HARLOW: It is and then our reporting that people were sort of rushing into the oval office trying to make their case for the president to withhold, you know, a number of these. Brianna, one of the other interesting nugget, President Johnson, had a theory about why JFK was killed, and it was retaliation for another assassination?

KEILAR: Yes, the assassination of the Vietnamese president, President Diem. This is interesting on sort of the bigger picture because you have the president, President Johnson, himself who is entertaining a theory, right, that is not founded as we learned.

But his thought was that -- so President Diem enjoyed the support of the U.S., but eventually did not and so, there was a U.S.-supported coup. He was taken out of power, and then, he was assassinated. It was actually something that dismayed the U.S. government because they were worried about blowback.

But Johnson apparently had this theory that the assassination of Kennedy was retaliation for the assassination of Diem.

HARLOW: And to you, Julian, you write quite the book on LBJ.

ZELIZER: I mean, in the uncertainty of the moment, the height of the Cold War, the president assassinated, LBJ had all kinds of thoughts. There were fears that it was the right wing in the United States that had gathered in Dallas when Kennedy was there. That might have been it or it was the Soviet Union --

HARLOW: But it's unique that he would say something like this?

ZELIZER: This coup had just taken place a few weeks before the assassination. So, it has been an idea that has been out there, and what are the connections? But in the end --

TOOBIN: You know, people don't remember or don't know how crazy the Oswald story is. The United States Marine, 1959, defects to the Soviet Union, and defects back to the United States, and goes to Mexico right before the assassination trying to get to Cuba.

I mean, it's no wonder people have a lot of suspicions about whose side he was really on. Most of these -- all of these documents relate to who was Oswald, not to the mechanics of the assassination in November of '63.

HARLOW: Brianna, there's also quite a talker in here, Marilyn Monroe, you know, makes an appearance in these documents, a warning to, you know, those in power, and the government about, you know, what is going to be written about her relationships.

KEILAR: Yes, that's right. So, this was a notification to the then attorney general, Robert Kennedy, and to Jay Edgar Hoover that a book was coming out. Now this book did actually come out, Poppy, not too long after this and actually interestingly, it didn't make a splash.

But what it said was -- it was this assertion that was going to in the book that was that RFK and Marilyn Monroe had had a relationship. That he had sort of led her on, led her to believe that it was more serious than it really was.

And then in the end, when she was upset about the fact that it wasn't, she was going to reveal -- bring out publicly that they had had an affair, and that this assertion in this book was that RFK was actually behind her death. Not that it was an overdose.

HARLOW: And before we go, here a big issue is everything we don't know, what is missing, just to name a few, you know, almost 400-page file on the head of the CIA office in Dallas where Kennedy was assassinated, the dossier, the files on the Dallas man who met with Jack Ruby, who, of course, assassinated Oswald. Jeffrey Toobin, how problematic that there is so much missing here?

TOOBIN: Well, you know, it was a long time ago and this is all in history, but, you know, when the government tries to do something to address suspicions that the government is not disclosing all the information, and then doesn't disclose all the information, it seems like a pretty big fiasco.

HARLOW: Indeed. Brian Keilar, Julian Zelizer, Jeffrey Toobin, thank you very much.

Three quarters of Puerto Rico still in the dark. This is an American territory. These are 3.5 million American citizens, and three quarters of them still in the dark, no power. The company that landed the $300 million-gig to turn the lights on, it is tiny.

It is based in a tiny Montana town that happens to be the hometown of the interior secretary. Now Republicans, Democrats in Congress wants answers ahead.