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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Russia Probe Investigating Trump Son-in-Law; Another Former Trump Adviser Flips; Students Protest for Gun Control; Trump Spent Weekend Watching News, Venting on Russia. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 19, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:15]

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Will Robert Mueller try to get to the president through his son-in-law?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news right now in the Russia probe: the investigation in the White House, in the family, and in the finances, the interest in Jared Kushner growing.

He had an arsenal, new information today on the Florida high school shooter, as young survivors of this massacre become a new generation of activists.

Plus, they infiltrated news feeds and minds, Russians paid by Vladimir Putin to write garbage that Americans spread on social media. Today, CNN is live at the very troll farm at the very heart of the Russia probe.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in for Jake today on this President's Day.

And we begin with breaking news in the Russia investigation involving President Donald Trump's own family.

CNN has learned that special counsel Robert Mueller's interest in the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, has expanded now beyond Kushner's contacts with Russia, and now includes Kushner's efforts to secure money for his company from foreign investors during the presidential transition.

This according to multiple sources. During that time, Kushner was also, we should note, the lead contact for foreign governments trying on reach his father-in-law, the president-elect.

Joining me now to break this important story is CNN's Shimon Prokupecz and Kara Scannell. Also with us, CNN's Sara Murray on a key new development in the Russia investigation.

Shimon, though, though I want to start with you.

What is at the center of what you're learning now in terms of Mueller's investigation? SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's

right.

Well, Jim, CNN has learned that Mueller is now asking questions about Kushner's personal buildings dealings during the presidential transition, including asking discussions Jared Kushner had with potential Chinese and Qatari investors.

This according to people familiar with the inquiry. The new development is the first indication that Mueller is exploring Kushner's communications with contacts beyond Russia. The business dealings in question involve Kushner's attempts to shore up financing for the flagship building his company backs in Manhattan. That's 666 Fifth Avenue, which has been facing financial troubles and is over a billion dollars in debt.

It is important to keep in mind that it's just not clear what is behind Mueller's specific interests in the financing. And we are told there has been no requests of the Kushner companies for information or interviews with its executives.

And, Jim, we should note that the special counsel, we've reached out to them. They declined to comment for this story.

SCIUTTO: Important reporting.

Kara, you're also part of the team broke this story. What are the details of the meetings that Jared Kushner was involved in?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There are two meetings that we're aware of with foreign investors that special counsel Robert Mueller's team is exploring.

One of the meetings involved this Chinese conglomerate called Anbang Insurance. "The New York Times" had written about this meeting that took place one week after the election between Anbang, Jared Kushner, who was then the head of his family's real estate business.

So, we understand that Mueller is asking questions about that meeting. They were discussing an investment in 666 Fifth Avenue. Nothing ever came of that. The other meeting that we understand that Mueller's team is asking about involves Jared Kushner and a Qatari investor, very prominent investor there who is a former prime minister.

Again, no deal was ever made and we have reached out to that investor. We have not been able to reach him. Kushner, a representative for Kushner and a representative for Anbang declined to comment.

SCIUTTO: So, notable here that it is Qatar and China, as opposed to Russia, the name we're used to hearing in the news in relation with this administration during the transition.

SCANNELL: That's right.

This is the first time we're seeing interest in investors that extend outside of Russia. And it is unclear to us still exactly what the interest is in these foreign investors and where the curiosity is coming from Mueller's probe in this, but it is the first time we see it expand beyond that.

SCIUTTO: Understood.

Now, Sara, separately, a different story for the Trump campaign and the investigation, another Trump campaign adviser who we understand is pleading guilty.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right.

Lots of different components of this. This one involves former Trump adviser Rick Gates. And we reported last week -- we were the first to report that he was finalizing this plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller and he appears poised to cooperate.

"The L.A. Times" has added some new details to that, saying over the weekend that he will plead guilty to some fraud-related charges, that he is likely to spend about 18 months in prison and that he is willing to testify against his co-defendant in this criminal, case, who is Paul Manafort.

Now, obviously, if you are Paul Manafort, that is certainly worrisome news. The two of them had both pleaded not guilty back in October. And these are for financial crimes that were unrelated to the presidential campaign.

SCIUTTO: Now, we often from the president, other Republicans this investigation is going nowhere. And yet now we have three former advisers to the president, two of them very significant, the former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and the former deputy campaign chairman here -- or chairman, I suppose I should say, who are pleading guilty to crimes, one, but also crucially cooperating with investigators.

[16:05:15]

MURRAY: Right.

That's why it's so difficult to say exactly what Robert Mueller is building to here. Obviously, Gates cooperating is going to put additional pressure on Paul Manafort to cooperate with the special counsel, rather than going to trial.

But we don't know if this is just a question of dealing with Paul Manafort or if Rick Gates' cooperation is just a building block, if Bob Mueller is trying to build up to a potential case against President Trump Donald Trump or some of his other associates.

The White House is downplaying this, though, insisting they don't believe it will come anywhere near the West Wing.

SCIUTTO: Right. And they have downplayed these things, before, we know.

Shimon, what would Miller -- some of this is reading tea leaves about what the law is, but what would Mueller be seeking to figure out in asking these questions specifically about Kushner and these business dealings during the transition?

PROKUPECZ: Well, sources we have talked to have sort of stressed that sort of like Mueller is exploring this topic, this issue.

One of the things we have been told is that Mueller could be looking into whether Kushner was mixing his personal business with his work. We had an incoming administration. So perhaps Mueller could be exploring whether or not there could be some kind of ethical violations.

It is really not clear. I think it is important for us also to note that we don't have any indication that Kushner is a target of this investigation. But certainly, from everything we have been told, Mueller is exploring this avenue. He is looking into it.

SCIUTTO: And would it make a difference that this took place during the transition, in other words, after President Trump has been elected? He is the incoming leader of the free world. Does that get to then profiting off the trappings of the office? Is that the legal question?

PROKUPECZ: Certainly, that could be one of the avenues that Mueller is looking at, because during the campaign he would be a private citizen.

So perhaps there would be no violation. But given the idea that he was going into an incoming administration, was going to have a prominent role in the administration, and he is having meetings with countries that he's potentially going to have to deal with policy and other issues.

So perhaps maybe they're looking to see if there was any mingling of some kind.

SCIUTTO: Kara, President Trump has said repeatedly that if the Mueller investigation gets into his family or his own finances, that that would be a red line for him. Are there questions about whether this falls under Mueller's purview?

SCANNELL: I think people close to the president say this might cross over into that line.

I think it is also important to note that Mueller has a very broad mandate. And, in fact, his authorization says that he can look into any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.

And if he believes that this relates somehow into the bigger picture of collusion, into potential other issues like Shimon is describing, then it would fit within his purview. And I'm sure this is going to be a point that people argue about.

SCIUTTO: Sure.

Shimon, Sara, Kara, fantastic reporting. Thanks very much. Joining me now to help break this all down is CNN senior legal analyst

Preet Bharara. He's a former U.S. attorney appointed by President Obama.

First, Preet, as you look at this news, your reaction that Mueller now expanding his investigation to look at Kushner's finances, crucially, it seems, during the transition.

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yes. This is the first I have heard of it watching along with you the beginning of your show here.

We need to be careful not to speculate overly. But it strikes me the kind of thing he may be exploring, if this is true, and I caution everyone to make sure we wait and see what comes of it, is you want to make sure someone who is coming into the administration who knows absolutely that he is going to have a job in the administration and is a conduit to the president, not only sort of indirectly, but directly as a family member, a son-in-law, if he is attempting to get some financial benefit from anyone, and in this case, as the reporting suggests, from people who have investments from foreign countries, if he is trying to get some benefit on the one hand.

And because he is in the future, in the near future, going to have some power over policy, and quite a broad portfolio as he ultimately got, was there a quid pro quo?

We don't know if that has happened. But it is an unusual thing for someone who was going to have the portfolio that Jared Kushner was going to have to be having conversations about potential investment in his own company.

And that's potentially a criminal case.

SCIUTTO: Troubled investments, we might note.

I know that oftentimes you would hear from people in Trump world about conversations about business during the campaign that, listen, they're businessmen, they're high flyers, this is nature of what they do.

From a legal standpoint, once the president is elected, is what you're saying here that that enters a different legal category because then it would be attempting to use or to benefit from the office or his connections to the high office?

BHARARA: Yes, first of all, in any phase, during the campaign, during the transition, during the actual presidency, it is a terrible look and it could be an ethical problem.

But certainly during the transition -- I don't know that there's a distinction between the transition and the actual presidency. My understanding of the law based on cases that we brought was that if you knew to a certainty, and it was clear to the other party that you were going to have a role in government, like Mike Flynn, did for example, and Jared Kushner was understood to be, and you were going to trade some government policy in favor of some financial benefit to yourself, that's a problem and that's potentially criminal, yes.

[16:10:23]

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this.

Just again to imagine the significance for a Jared Kushner and others tied to him, including the president's daughter, of course. When a special counsel like Robert Mueller starts asking questions like this, it doesn't mean necessarily he's going to file charges, but he is at least interested.

You have some experience with Robert Mueller. You know his investigation. How significant is it that he's going down this path at least in terms of investigating?

BHARARA: Is it possible to know?

What I know about Bob Mueller and a lot of great people who are working for him and that used to work for me is that they're very thorough.

In any investigation, two things will be true. One is, there will be lots and lots and lots of questions that get asked that go down a path that don't amount to anything. And this could be one of those.

And, at the same time, there are lots of questions that are being asked as you and I speak here on television that we don't know about and that will lead to something. For example, the indictment from last Friday that involved charges against 13 Russian nationals, nobody saw that was coming. Nobody knew that that was happening.

And that was a product of a lot of inquiry and discussion as well. So, both things will be true.

SCIUTTO: Preet Bharara, thanks very much for lending your expertise.

BHARARA: Sure. thanks.

SCIUTTO: Well, President Trump throws a Twitter tantrum at everyone from the Democrats to Oprah Winfrey to the FBI, all while just 50 miles away a community was still in mourning over a gun massacre.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:56] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: You're looking at live pictures now. This of Air Force One. President Trump this Presidents Day is about to depart Florida and return to Washington following the holiday.

This after spending the morning at his golf course in Florida. But a quick scroll through his Twitter shows that the president is still not over his anger at the ongoing Russia probe.

Obama was president up to and beyond the 2016 election, so why he do something about Russian meddling? The president asked there. The Obama administration, we should make clear, did seize Russian

compounds here in the U.S., expelled some three dozen Russian diplomats, also imposed additional sanctions on Russia. That said, some Democrats themselves have also said the administration should have done more.

CNN's Boris Sanchez joins me now live from West Palm Beach.

Boris, the president's advisers had decided for him to golf this weekend would be unseemly, given last week's shooting, and yet, today, he was back on the golf course?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We haven't been able to confirm that he was actually golfing today, Jim. The White House not telling us whether he was or not, but we know that he did go to Trump National Golf Course where he typically spends his weekends golfing. As you noted, White House advisers convincing the president to not to do that this weekend out of respect for those killed in last week's shooting a high school in Parkland, which is only some 40, 50 miles from here in Mar-a-Lago.

So, the president stayed inside, watched TV, became very agitated and then unloaded through his preferred method, on Twitter.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SANCHEZ (voice-over): President Trump spending the day at his Florida golf course, only about 40 miles away from where two more slain teenagers were laid to rest after a school shooting massacre. But in a stream of angry tweets sent over the weekend, Trump focused less on the shooting and more on the Russia investigation.

Sources tell CNN the president decided not to go golfing Saturday and Sunday as a sign of respect for the victims, instead opting to stay inside, watching cable news and boiling into a rage after dining with his sons, Eric and Donald Trump Jr., who sources say encouraged the president to satisfy the a stronger stand against the FBI following news that the agency mishandled the tip about the Parkland shooter.

The president then taking to Twitter, not only to blast the FBI but also former President Obama and other Democrats for failing to stop Russia's meddle in the 2016 election -- a claim the White House defended Monday.

RAJ SHAH, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Do you want to treat this as an act of war or something very extreme? And have a very forceful response to Russia. You know, the first place they should look is at the previous administration. They knew about this effort in 2014.

SANCHEZ: At one point during the tweet storm, the president claimed he never said Russia did not meddle in the election. But listen to this from last July.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it was Russia but I think it was probably other people and/or countries and I see nothing wrong that statement. Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure.

SANCHEZ: And more than a dozen tweets altogether, the president attacked the media, and undercut his own national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. Missing from any of the president's tweets, a harsh condemnation of Russia. In fact, a White House spokesman went a step further, suggesting the United States' biggest enemies are domestic.

HOGAN GIDLEY, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: There are two group that's created chaos more than the Russians. And that's the Democrats and the main stream media who continue to push this lie on the American people for more than a year. And quite frankly, Americans should be outraged by that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SANCHEZ: And, Jim, I can tell you that RT, Russian-state media, picked up on those comments from deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley and rebroadcast them in Russia. You can imagine that's a welcome tune to Vladimir Putin and some of his cronies to hear that their campaign to sow discord within the United States is still a resounding success -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: And it's not the first time those talking points have been on the same page.

Boris Sanchez in Florida.

I want to go now dig this more with my panel.

[16:20:01] The president in a series of tweets, as you noted over this weekend, took shots at a lot of people. Here's what he said about Russia sort of declaring victory here over this. In fact, he said laughing their asses off.

If it was the goal of Russia to create discord, disruption and chaos within the United States, then with all the committee hearings, investigations and party hatred, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They are laughing their asses off in Moscow. Get smart America!

Paris, if I could start with you, has the president worsen or lessen those divsions.

PARIS DENNARD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't think the president has worsened the divisions. I don't know if the American people were looking at what President Trump says as it relates to the Russia investigation as a rationale for whether or not they believe Russian meddling occurred. I think if you look back at what the FBI said, or those indictments, is that they wanted to sow discord and create division. They wanted do it through racial lies and socioeconomic lies.

And I think when you look at political division, when you look at political discord, the Russia investigation has been a tremendous distraction. There's been no evidence of collusion. So, I think the Russians have been successful to a certain extent if they've been trying cause distractions and this type of effort to make us take our eyes off the ball which is America first.

SCIUTTO: I'm just asking you straight up if the president himself worsened or lessened those divisions.

DENNARD: He did not.

SCIUTTO: As the president was describing.

DENNARD: No.

SCIUTTO: You say the president did not contribute.

DENNARD: No, I don't believe the president contributed to that at all.

SCIUTTO: Bill Kristol, your thoughts?

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Why did the president get so upset, so angry, so self-pitying suddenly late Friday night and early Saturday morning, clearly because of the Mueller indictments I think on Friday. He may have also known that Rick Gates, Paul Manafort's right hand man, was going to flip and start Cooperating with Mueller. And I think that's being underappreciated.

I mean, Gates is extremely close to Manafort. Any conversation, I don't know him that well but I would guess any conversation Trump would have with Manafort, Manafort would come and tell Gates about. So, Gates is not a window simply into Manafort. He is a window into Trump. Now, you can't use hearsay in a trial, but certainly Mueller can learn things from what Gates heard from Manafort.

On the fundamental indictments, as I understand, what Mueller did Friday is he indicted those Russians for conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the U.S. And he said they were unwitting accomplices and also other persons known or unknown who might have bean part of the conspiracy. So, I understand that that legal theory leaves it wide open to indict Americans for being part of that conspiracy and maybe those Americans could be minor participants in the Trump campaign and associates, or maybe they could be Don Jr. or Kushner, or maybe Donald Trump himself could be an unindicted co-conspirator.

I think Trump understood -- it could be. But I think Trump is the one who seemed very upset Saturday morning. I think he was upset because he chatted with one of two of his lawyer friends and they said whoa, we're now at real trouble.

SCIUTTO: Symone, I imagine, you want to add in on that.

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I just -- one, on these indictments, I find it -- myself and a lot of other American people are like, you know, he really indicted 13 people they do not have in custody. I find interesting. But I -- what concerns me is that Donald Trump seems to be more upset about the Mueller investigation and what came out from that this Saturday morning than these kids who were shot in Parkland, as well as school. So this just goes to show how in my opinion, just how wrapped up in

himself the president truly and really is. And I think you saw the outrage from these young folks, these students on Twitter responding to the president's tweets over the weekend. And I think it's very telling.

So, when the president says that his condolences, his thoughts and prayers, I really don't think it's enough and I actually don't think it's sincere.

SCIUTTO: Well, in relation to the shooting, another target of the president's ire this weekend was the FBI once again, let me read what he had to say about that. Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent by the Florida shooter, this is not acceptable. They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, there is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud.

Paris, that is a connection that only the president but many of his allies are making, implying that because they're a small number of agents that are involved in the Mueller investigation, that then drew resources and attention away from the warning received about this shooter. Do you think that's a substantive connection?

DENNARD: I think what is a substantive connection is the fact that there's been multiple instances where they said the FBI dropped the ball when it came to the individual, the monster who shot up the 17, who killed 17 people. So --

SCIUTTO: And the local authorities who are warned as well.

DENNARD: And local authorities. So, there is no doubt that what the president was tweeting is factual. And I think when you look at it from an objective standpoint, what the American people are saying is, my gosh, the FBI seems so consumed, and the media seems so consumed with this Russian investigation, they seem to be trying to get that right. But when you somebody is giving them actual evidence, actual tips, they can't get that right and we have seen --

(CROSSTALK)

SCIUTTO: Is there any -- I'll ask both of you. Is there any substance to mixing, you know, the divisions of the FBI that look domestically at, say, shooting threats, et cetera, and the small number of agents that are looking at what is a foreign counterintelligence operation?

[16:25:10] SANDERS: I think it's -- I think it's conflating two issues and it's confusing folks that do not understand how the FBI operates. The FBI can walk and chew gum at the same time. They definitely dropped the ball in the Parkland shooting.

And so, I think there's something to be said about why the FBI seems to be able round up and prosecute, quote/unquote, black extremists, but the white supremacists are going to keep slipping through the cracks. We can talk about that. But there is no straight line here when it comes to the FBI and not doing what they need to do on carrying the water on the Parkland shooting and the Mueller investigation.

SCIUTTO: Please, everyone stick around. We're going to have much more time.

Russians paid to distort and divide the political debate in the United States. CNN is inside Russia with a rare look at an operating Russian troll farm. That's next.

Plus, from students to survivors to speakers. Emotional please for help from parents and from children demanding that the president take action on guns. This as we learn shocking new information about just how many guns this 19-year-old Parkland shooter managed to buy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)