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Kelly, Kushner Tension Simmers Amid West Wing Uncertainty; CNN: Mueller Looks at Trump's Pre-Campaign Biz Dealings. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired February 28, 2018 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:17] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Hi there. I'm Brianna Keilar.

And we begin with a string of bombshells hitting the White House, which is facing not just one not two but a half dozen controversies rocking the Trump inner circle. Here is the rundown of all of them.

CNN learning that special counsel Robert Mueller is looking at the president's business dealings in Russia before the campaign. The president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner losing his top-secret security clearance, and a bombshell "Washington Post" reports saying officials from at least four countries discuss ways to target Kushner looking at his financial woes in his inexperience. Former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort pleading not guilty to new charges. White House communications director Hope Hicks admitting to a House committee that she has told white lies.

And the president's latest slam on his attorney general, calling Jeff Sessions actions on surveillance warrants, quote, disgraceful. Sessions did just respond.

We're going to get into all of this. But first to the breaking news involving the growing tensions between Jared Kushner and Chief of Staff John Kelly. We have CNN senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny joining us with this.

Are these battle lines deepening between Kushner and Kelly?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, it certainly seems like they are and, of course, they've been sort of lying in wait if you will a bit too dormant over the last couple weeks or so. But they are again showing themselves because John Kelly, of course, have followed the president's directive in stripped Jared Kushner of his top secret security clearance.

Now, this is something that has, you know, has inflamed tensions but it's something that Jared Kushner has known about since Friday. He didn't you know talk about it of course but he was on Capitol Hill yesterday working on his domestic agenda on sentencing reform, prison reform. That's an example an aide set he's going to keep doing his job, keep doing something. But the question is, is his job going to remain the same?

But it almost certainly isn't it because he does not have access to the same intelligence information. But we're talking to a variety of people and someone who's close to him said that he believes everyone is out to get him at this point inside the White House. So, he's, you know, upset/concerned but does not want to prove his critics right by leaving.

So, he's going to stay. The question is at what point will these attentions sort of a boil over with the chief of staff? But again, he is focusing on the matter at hand.

But important to remember, he may not have that top-secret security clearance, but he's the president's son-in-law through and through, and that perhaps is the most weighty title of all here. So, it's not like he's some, you know, advisor who's operating without an entire portfolio. He has the family portfolio which is very significant.

KEILAR: And I want to bring in our panel to discuss all of this. We have Shannon Pettypiece with us, White House reporter for "Bloomberg News", David Sanger, CNN political and national security analyst, who is also the national security correspondent at "The New York Times', and our very own Abby Philip with us as well.

And I do, Jeff, want to ask you about this because we just learned this. The White House briefing has been cancelled. We were expecting this to be happening right now. It was going to be something we would discuss. What's going on with that?

ZELENY: Well, I think one of the reasons, at least the official reason is that the White House says that they want the press and the public to focus on guns today. There's an event in the next hour where the president's having lawmakers in.

I think probably more of the real reason is they don't want to answer questions about the security clearance. It's something we've seen again and again day after day that it's something that they don't want to talk about. There are no answers from yesterday so they're trying to not distract their message, so they cancel the briefing.

KEILAR: Do you all remember a time where a briefing has been cancelled like this on such little notice?

SHANNON PETTYPIECE, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, BLOOMBERG NEWS: Yes, not on this short notice. And I think it says something about where they're at, that they're saying, hey, let's talk about gun issues which we're kind of the third rail of, you know, Republican and Democratic politics, so it's not an area anyone wanted to go, let's say, in January. Well, let's focus on guns instead of everything over here. It's not like they canceled it so they could focus on an infrastructure meeting they had or something.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And we know that the White House has been willing to have briefings even when the president is speaking. There was one point when Sarah Huckabee Sanders was in the briefing room, giving a briefing while the president was speaking in another room. So, this is definitely something that they could have done today if they wanted to.

But clearly, they don't -- to Jeff's point, they don't have anything more to give us and there's all of this swirling about not just what Jared Kushner status is, but also about what his actually duties are, what is his job description right now? And where does that and at this point I'm given his clearance issues?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I think that the core element is yesterday, they said they just didn't want to discuss security clearances, you know, who's got them and how -- you might be able to get away with that for a little while. But the issue is exactly the one that Abby has talked about.

[14:05:02] He has two major foreign portfolios to think about. One is Mideast peace and the second was supposed to be China competitiveness, all the China-related issues. Both of those are areas in which it's really hard to understand how you can sit in a meeting, absorb the data if you don't have a top secret or in some cases compartmentalized clearance.

You know, the Israelis when they send something over, never send it across at merely the secret level. Whether it's worth it or not, they always do top secret or higher. Almost anything that deals with China, China and North Korea, or the president's strategy with China is probably and certainly this week on Xi Jinping's decision to go extend his own term beyond two to perhaps indefinite rule, those would all be highly classified matters.

KEILAR: It's hard to understand, David, how Jared Kushner will do his job without that information. I mean once you dig into clearances and what different clearances levels mean, and you explain that to lay people who are not familiar, what you realize is actually for something that is secret, if you have secret clearance, there's a lot of that information you can just get from reading the newspaper, a lot of the things that people read day-in day-out reports may technically be classified. Some people will say that's because a lot of information is over classified when it comes to what is in the government.

But how is he, one, supposed to do his job without that information? And also, do you actually see the president abiding by this considering -- I mean, I think back to when he was in the Oval Office with the Russians and he disclosed classified information to them, highly sensitive information. He doesn't show really respect for these different dividing lines when it comes to properly disclosing information.

SANGER: Yes, there is an easy way around this which is the president can designate anybody they want on earth to receive classified information. I've even seen cases where in very select cases, they wanted reporters to receive classified information, usually when the White House is making an argument in favor of not disclosing something and trying to convince us not to publicize.

So, he could simply step in and designate that Jared Kushner can receive information on a narrow group of issues or can get the presidential daily brief or anything else he wants.

The problem is that at his press conference last week, he said he was going to let John Kelly decide this. So if he stepped in to do this, he would essentially be overriding Kelly and that would just get further at this tension between Kelly and the president.

PETTYPIECE: Yes, I don't know if he's worried about overriding Kelly at this point and to get to -- but did -- your point is well-taken that that the president is the one who can declassify anything. So, if he wants to share information from the daily briefing with Jared Kushner, he can.

But on that daily logistical level of, you know, I'm meeting with some people from Israel who are coming and I'm making a trip to Saudi Arabia, which he was very directly involved in a lot of conversations going on around the Middle East, traveling there regularly, really, really helping from day one the administration's formulate their policy. I know we -- every one jokes about Jared peace in the Middle East, but that was a real big part of his portfolio that on a daily logistical level is going to be very difficult, because the president's just not going to be able to declassify any sort of document, every document he wants to request or any briefing he wants to escape.

PHILLIP: And it may not just be about not contradicting John Kelly. It's also about what does this say about this White House's approach to sensitive and classified information that there are enough concerns about Jared Kushner's situation that he can't get a top secret clearance that the president then overrides that determination to give him that access. I mean, this is an administration that made all kinds of hay about Hillary Clinton's dealings with classified information. They -- it wouldn't be the first time that they've, you know, made it an issue that they once hammered opponents about.

But it would certainly be something that they would have to talk about and explain and certainly on the Hill, there are questions about whether this is appropriate for Jared Kushner to be seeing this if there are in fact concerns that he might have been manipulated or that foreign governments wanted to manipulate him because of his background and his business dealings.

KEILAR: Well, and there is this report out there, that there were a number of countries and this may not be surprising, Jeff Zeleny, and four countries that looked at Jared Kushner, looked at some of his -- let's say, let's call them financial liabilities -- here you have the countries. United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico.

They saw his financial liabilities, certainly some of his naivete, we've heard that before, and thought this might be someone that we can exploit when it comes to issues of national security or foreign policy.

[14:10:03] ZELENY: Right, it was a potential opening and this, of course, comes from that "Washington Post" report, probably one of the other reasons there's not a briefing because this happened after the briefing yesterday.

But, look, it is not accusing or suggesting that Jared Kushner did anything wrong, specifically in this case. It said he simply was vulnerable to manipulation and it is his brand-newness to government. You know, that's a huge issue. He's taken meetings here that have raised the eyebrows of some national security advisors and officials here. So, that is --

KEILAR: They questioned his judgment as he has those meetings without having others in on the meetings, right?

ZELENY: Exactly, no question about it, and he's as susceptible to this. It's probably one of the reasons he has not gotten his permanent security clearance here because all of his financial dealings. So, this is the issue. So, he's operating under a secret clearance now and we believe it's not even a permanent secret clearance. It's an interim one as well because the FBI has said that it needs more time.

So, this has not entirely been ruled out. He's not been denied a clearance, important to point out. He's just not been given one up until this point.

But the question again as David was saying, he's the son-in-law and that is certainly not a security clearance, but perhaps a security --

KEILAR: A security blanket, I saw that coming.

All right. You all stay with me, we have a whole lot more to talk about here.

And coming up next, is special counsel Robert Mueller crossing President Trump's red line? Mueller now asking questions about the president's business dealings with Russia before the 2016 election.

Also, breaking news, Attorney General Jeff Sessions now pushing back against President Donald Trump's latest insult after Trump chastised him on twitter this morning. So, where does this feud go from here?

And Dick's Sporting Goods making a big announcement about the guns that they sell as Parkland students return to school for the first time since the massacre two weeks ago. We're going to take you there live.


[14:16:13] KEILAR: The Russia investigation is now delving into a period of time before the 2016 presidential campaign. CNN has learned that special counsel Robert Mueller and his team are looking at how Russia might have tried to influence Donald Trump when he was weighing a presidential run.

CNN's Kara Scannell is following that story for us.

Kara, walk us through this timeline that Mueller and his team are following.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Brianna. Sources were talking to tell us there were several areas of interest to the special counsel when it comes to Trump's business dealings in Russia before he launched his presidential bid. There are some key dates that are important to Mueller. First, November 9th, 2013, that's when Trump hosted the Miss Universe

pageant in Moscow. He made significant money from the event and he met with Russian oligarchs and it's also when he began discussing plans to Brand Trump Tower Moscow. Now, just two days later, Trump announces it's a done deal. He tweets, Trump Tower Moscow is next. But the deal fell apart relatively quickly and Trump Tower Moscow was never built.

Sources tell us Mueller has been asking witnesses about his meetings with people during that trip and exploring whether it was possible Russians have compromising information on Trump. Now one source that investigators appeared interested around the timing of Trump's decision to run and how that coincided with his business talks.

Now, the next year in 2014. That's the year one source told Mueller Trump that, quote, serious about running for president.

Fast forward to 2015, Trump makes a second run at trying to brand a Trump Tower Moscow. Trump had his attorney Michael Cohen begin negotiations with some different Russian backers. Trump even finds a non-binding letter of intent in October of that year. This is after he had launched his campaign, he was running for president while he was trying to push this deal through.

But there were three months before the Iowa caucuses, the negotiations for Trump Tower Moscow fell apart and the project never got off the ground. Now at no point during his campaign did Trump ever reveal he was negotiating with Russians to expand his businesses there. All of these points along this timeline are of great interest to Mueller, according to our sources, as he's been asking different witnesses specific questions about all of this, Brianna.

KEILAR: That is a fascinating timelines. Kara Scannell, thank you so much for laying that out for us.

I want to bring my panel back in.

So, as you have the special counsel asking questions, they're looking back in time to President Trump before he was President-elect Trump. What are his business dealings? You can see why they are because of what Kara is laying out there. What does this tell you?

PHILLIP: Well, I think one thing to add to all of this is that when Mueller indicted those Russians, one of the data points that came out of those documents was that they began their operations in around 2014, and President Trump's response to that was, well, I wasn't even thinking of running for president at that time, even though there -- you know, there were in even in the newspapers, some mentions of the president then Donald Trump --

KEILAR: Right.

PHILLIP: Private citizen Trump talking about this very issue. And so, that's why you can see why Mueller might be casting back that far, casting as far back as 2013, to just find out what was going on at that time, what kinds of connections did he -- might he have had while he was doing business in Russia, what kinds of business deals was he doing at around the time that he was trying to decide about his decision on running for president.

These all seem much more germane to the conversation because of how far back we know the sort of Russian interference campaign began, at least according to what Mueller has put forward in these documents. Beyond that, it's hard to know. I mean, we don't know what Mueller has actually found. We know these are the questions that he's asking.

KEILAR: Critics have said Mueller is getting out of his lane here.

[14:20:01] He's overstepping the rightful bounds of what he should be investigating. One of those critics perhaps ironically it is the former special independent counsel on the Whitewater investigation, Ken Starr. Here's what he said.

Actually, we don't have that. But so Ken Starr just refresh everyone's memory, if you go back and look at Whitewater, it was -- I mean, wow, you could argue there was a mission creep. You could also argue that it was totally rightful and within the purview of what he can do. There was the Whitewater which was a land deal. There was looking at the travel office. It went into the Paula Jones investigation. It was during that the perjury that President Clinton committed pertaining to Monica Lewinsky that ultimately then led to the impeachment. All of these sort of different things strung together.

David, what do you think about that when you hear Ken Starr being critical of this?

SANGER: Well, we're cruising (ph) elements. So, Mr. Starr was on with Chris Cuomo this morning on "NEW DAY" and he basically his argument was that the Mueller investigation is there to look at questions --

KEILAR: Actually, let's -- can we listen? We do have it.

SANGER: Oh, there we go.

KEILAR: All right. Let's roll it and then we'll talk about it.


KENNETH STARR, FORMER WHITEWATER INDEPENDENT COUNSEL: I think it's beyond his mandate. The mandate is, what happened during the 2016 election in terms of collusion? That's the key idea.


KEILAR: All right.

SANGER: He put it better and more succinctly then I could have put it into his mouth.

So, the question for Mueller is, is this out of his lane or do you start here because you believe that there is some connection of Russian influence that actually does connect up to the campaign?

Now, this -- if you start with 2013, of course, that's the exact period of time covered by the Steele dossier, the now-infamous dossier put together by the former MI6 agent based on sources, not all of whom he had known or seen inside Russia. So, even if Mueller is not relying on the dossier itself, his investigators must be trying to go back and figure out, try to reconstruct that same set of events.

The next interesting question I think that comes out of that is if they found any indication that the people he met, the things he said whether he talked as ivy suggested about possibly running could have been related to what happened at the Internet Research Agency which started up in 2013, began getting going in 2014, but actually does --

KEILAR: This was the Russian actor (ph). That was the Russian --


SANGER: That was --

KEILAR: -- when it came to social media, the Internet Research Agency.

SANGER: That's right. But when you look at there at what they did they do that would have helped Trump very much until later on, 2015, after he had run.

PETTYPIECE: Well, I'll tell you who does think this is Mueller getting out of his lane, and that's the president's lawyer, John Dowd, because whenever we have asked him in the past about Mueller looking into Trump's business, he says nope, that is off the table, that's outside of his mandate, that's a red line. So I don't know if this will be the sign that they feel like they've crossed it, but the president's lawyers have been very clear that Trumps businesses should be off the table, his business dealings prior to election.

KEILAR: And unless we not forget, Donald Trump himself said it. Let's listen.



SCHMIDT: If Mueller was looking at your finances and your family's finances, unrelated to Russia, is that a red line?

HABERMAN: Would that be a breach of what his actual charge is?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I would say yes. I would say yes.


KEILAR: But does it matter that that President Trump says that's a red line? Does that matter -- does that even matter? Doesn't seem to be mattering to Robert Mueller and his team. PETTYPIECE: Right, and, of course, he cannot himself remove Robert Mueller. But there is this you know concern among even his close allies that a line will be crossed and he will put in place the motions that could remove Robert Mueller as a special counsel. So, that's the concern here.

PHILLIP: And it's worth pointing out here that at the moment, what we know about what's Mueller is asking about is in fact related to Russia. He's asking about the 2013 Miss Universe pageant that was held in Moscow. So, these are related to Russia for the moment. The question is the other part of the Mueller mandate, which is any other you know crimes that might arise as a result of their investigation into the central issue of Russia, if they find something else while they're asking these questions, that's when they should ask.

PETTYPIECE: And the situation of Paul Manafort.

PHILLIP: Yes, exactly.

PETTYPIECE: And a whole host of charges against him not related to the campaign or Russia at all.

KEILAR: Really appreciate you, guys. Thank you so much, Abby, David and Shannon, thank you.

And also breaking news, Attorney General Jeff Sessions fighting back against the president's new insult against him in a rather frank statement. What is the endgame here?

Plus, as the president gets ready to hold a live bipartisan meeting on guns, today, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School walk back through the door of their school. What they're saying about returning to class and the change that they've already created just two weeks after surviving the massacre.


[14:29:34] KEILAR: A company has just done something Congress will not, the CEO of Dick's Sporting Goods, the nation's largest sporting goods retailer, says they will stop selling assault-style rifles like the one that was used in the Florida school shooting and that includes high-capacity magazines and accessories as well. Another big change, Dicks will no longer sell any guns to people under 21, regardless of state or local laws.


EDWARD STACK, CEO, DICK'S SPORTING GOODS: We actually sold the shooter a shotgun in November of last year. And we looked at that and found out that we did this, we had a pit in our stomach and said we need to not -- we don't want to be a part of this story and we need a responsibility to these --