Return to Transcripts main page


Kushner Under Fire; Mueller Looks at Trump Pre-Campaign; Red Line for Trump; Ken Starr on Mueller Investigation. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired February 28, 2018 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

A set of bombshells rocking the White House. In just the past 24 hours, the president's son-in-law stripped from seeing America's top secrets as other countries look to exploit him. The president's communication's director admitting to Congress, meanwhile, that she tells, quote, "white lies" for the president.

Plus, the president's former campaign chairman in court facing new charges. And the president, himself, and his business dealings before the campaign now under new scrutiny by the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

On top of all of this, corporate America doing what Congress won't, at least not yet. As students in Parkland, Florida, return to school for the first time since a shooting massacre, a major retailer, Dick's Sporting Goods, making big changes involving the weapons it sells.

All that coming up. But first, the truly explosive revelations rocking the White House right now, raising new questions about the Russia probe and a key Trump adviser's role in the west wing.

Here's a look at some of the extraordinary developments over the past 24 hours. Sources tell CNN Special Counsel Robert Mueller is looking into President Trump's business dealings in Russia prior to the 2016 presidential campaign.

Also, "The Washington Post" reports that Jared Kushner was targeted by other nations for manipulation. Kushner has been stripped of his top- secret security clearance.

White House communications director, Hope Hicks, at the same time, admitting that she tells white lies, her words, white lies, for the president.

And former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, pleading not guilty to new charges against him today.

Let's begin with the breaking news and the tensions between Jared Kushner and the White House chief of staff, John Kelly.

First, listen to what President Trump said just days ago about General Kelly and Jared Kushner's security clearance.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: General Kelly respects Jared a lot. And General Kelly will make that call. I won't make that call. I will let the general, who's right here, make that call.

But Jared's doing some very important things for our country. I will let General Kelly make that decision. And he's going to do what's right for the country, and I have no doubt he'll make the right decision.


BLITZER: Let's bring in our Senior White House Correspondent Jeff Zeleny. He's joining us with breaking developments. Jeff, what have you learned?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we do know that the existing battle lines, that have long existed in the west wing, have been entrenched by this decision from the chief of staff to essentially strip the senior adviser, Jared Kushner, of his security clearance.

But I'm told the reality is more complicated there. We're doing some new reporting, and we have a new story now on that -- is saying that Jared Kushner, of course, first and foremost, he remains the president's son-in-law. And we were told, again and again, that is something to keep in mind.

The president, as we know, believes he is doing a good job. The question is, can he do his job in the same way? The answer probably is no.

But the reality is, the Middle East peace process is not on the verge of happening. So, there's nothing, necessarily, that's going to stop anything urgently.

Jared Kushner has known about this since Friday. Not everyone in the White House knew about this. Of course, it seemed like a bombshell yesterday afternoon. But he has gotten used to this idea.

One of the reasons, I'm told, he was up on Capitol Hill working on his domestic agenda. He does not want to seem like he is being shoved aside.

Someone who is a friend and supporter of his this morning told me that, look, he does not want to prove his critics right by leaving. So, do not look at Jared Kushner to leave at all.

A bigger question is, how does this relationship develop between the chief of staff and Jared Kushner? We don't know the answer to it.

But the president, we are told, does not like the view of all this on television, that his son-in-law looks like he's hanging out there. Jared Kushner feels like he's being picked on, in some respects. So, this is going to be one more, you know, chapter in this ongoing story about the White House chief of staff.

Right now, it looks like he is secure. But, of course, these are sometimes minute-by-minute, day-by-day situations.

But, for now at least, Jared Kushner did not ask for special permission to have the president review this.

But, again, keep in mind, yes, he's the senior adviser. But he's the son-in-law. He's at dinner tables, lunch tables. He stands above almost anyone else in the west wing, except Ivanka Trump, perhaps, who also is stripped of her interim clearance.

So, this is a developing story, to say the least.

BLITZER: And the tension between General Kelly, the White House Chief of Staff, and Jared Kushner. We've seen a lot of reports that the tension is very, very significant. And the president thinks all these reports about Jared Kushner have been totally unfair.

ZELENY: Right. I mean, the president believes that Jared Kushner is doing a good job. We saw him say that at that press conference on Friday. But he also is delegating his chief of staff to do this.

So, at some point, will the president have to make a choice between his chief of staff and his son-in-law?

[13:05:02] If so, I think the bloodlines will be much stronger, the family lines there.

But, as of now, the president has not indicated that he wants to make that choice. But watch for that relationship to develop.

A lot of people, you know, have thought that John Kelly was out a number of times. He still remains and has the president's support.

We've seen this president as someone who can, you know, be just fine with feuding and fighting. Look what he's doing to his attorney general here.

So, this is something that, again, we'll see how it shakes out.

But Jared Kushner, he wants to get back to work. He is working. The question is, will he be able to, you know, be in the situation room, other things, for those private meetings? Probably not.

BLITZER: Yes, we have a lot more on the latest humiliation by the president of his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. That's coming up in a little while. It's pretty extraordinary what's going on that. It's also extraordinary what's going on in the west wing of the White House.

Jeff Zeleny, stand by. There's more news we're getting. To get a better understanding as to what this downgraded security clearance means for Jared Kushner and his work in the White House, I want to bring in our Military and Diplomatic Analyst Retired Rear Admiral John Kirby.

You've had a top-secret security clearance over at the State Department, at the Pentagon. Walk us through the difference between what Kushner had, an interim top-secret, SCI, Security Compartmented Information security clearance, as opposed to what he has now, an Interim Secret security clearance.


And it's important to remember that there are three levels of security clearance in the U.S. government. Confidential, secret, and top- secret.

What we're going to do is, kind of, break down the differences between top-secret and secret. It's also important to also remember that it's not just your clearance that matters, whether you get access to information and material. It's whether there's a need to know. Whether you actually have to have it to do your job.

So, with that, let's take a look. Top secret's the highest level of clearance, most sensitive information. If it's disclosed, it could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security. That's the two big elements right there.

Next, it's the most rigid storage and handling and access protocols. So, if you're going to have access to top secret, that kind of material is really going to be carefully safeguarded from the time it's created to the time it's destroyed.

And the clearance must be reinvestigated every single five years. Again, owing to the highest sensitivity of that information, Wolf.

On the secret side, this is information that if it's disclosed could cause serious damage to national security as opposed to top secret, which does exceptionally grave damage to national security.

There's going to be less detailed information, with respect to secret material. It's not going to go into the sources and methods. It's not, really, going to lay out where all this information comes from and the context behind it.

You're not going to have access to the president's full daily briefing. I use the word, full, deliberately, Wolf, because there's going to be articles and material in the presidential daily briefing that will be at the secret level, that Mr. Kushner would be able to see. But he's not going to be able to see all of it.

And that clearance is going to be reinvestigated now every 10 years. Again, because the material under a security clearance isn't quite as sensitive as it is under the top secret.

BLITZER: All right, good explanation. John Kirby, thanks very much for that.

Let's get some more analysis on all of these extraordinary developments. Joining us now, CNN Legal Analyst, former federal prosecutor, Michael Zeldin, and CNN Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger.

You look at all the tumult that's going on right now about Jared Kushner's security clearances, is it worth it? What does he bring to the table, as far as national security, Middle East diplomacy, other sensitive issues that would allow him, in the face of this assault, to continue?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think that's up to the president, honestly. It's a -- it's a decision the president has to make. I think it's very clear that Jared and Jared and Ivanka would not want to leave town right now, because it would look like that they were under assault and were -- and were leaving under assault.

You know, he is involved in criminal justice reform, so he could clearly continue to do that.

I spoke with someone at the White House last night who pushed back on me very hard and said, you know, he can continue doing exactly the job that he was doing. But this White House adviser seems to be the only one who was saying that, to be -- to be honest.

That if he's going to be very involved in Mid East peace, he has to be allowed to see classified information that talks about sources and methods, perhaps satellite photographs, et cetera, et cetera. Has to be in the sit room, at moments.

And I think it would be -- it's, really, trying to do your job with a blindfold on.

BLITZER: Here's the problem, though, Michael Zeldin. That let's say he's involved in sensitive diplomatic missions for the president. Whether Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which doesn't seem to be moving very fast, at least not now.

But let's say he has to go to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates or let's say he goes to China. He's developed a relationship with Chinese leadership.

Or to Mexico, he's developed a relationship with them. He's going to have deputies who are there who have top-secret SCI security clearances. He only has secret security clearances.

[13:10:00] What if they, you know, say something that is top secret in his presence, that potentially could be awkward?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: To say the least, it could be awkward. And it's, really, untenable.

And I think, personally, that the president is going to do a waiver. I just don't think it's acceptable to the president to have his chief, you know, sort of, guy, Kushner, so handcuffed as you and Gloria have properly described it.

He has that authority on an issue by issue, event by event, person by person basis to waive. And so, I think if he's -- to take your hypothetical, he goes to Saudi Arabia, president says, in Saudi Arabia, he's got top secret.

Or -- but it doesn't really help the briefing process. You really need to be briefed before you go into these meetings, and that briefing wants you to be as informed as the person you're going to be -- your counterparty is going to be.

So, I just don't see how it works, unless there's a waiver of some sort.

BLITZER: You know, Gloria, "The Washington Post" had a major story, saying that at least, at least, four countries, they named China, Israel, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates, have privately discussed ways to manipulate Jared Kushner because of leverage they may have to their advantage over him.

This is an extremely serious potential matter.

BORGER: Well, it is a -- it is a serious matter. And, you know, these stories, we've done them, the post has done them, about questions about Jared's conversations, potentially mixing his business with his work during the transition, are probably a large part of the reason that he has not been able to secure the security clearance that he wants.

I mean, we don't know whether this information came from intercepts of these conversations. We also know that diplomats tend to brag to each other about how much influence they have over high-ranking people in the United States government.

And we know that that occurred with Michael Flynn, for example, where Russians were bragging about their relationship with Flynn.

But, again, you have to put one and one together and come up with two here. And you have to say, look, here's this person who has never been in government before, who considered himself the person to be the back channel during the transition to Russia and other countries.

And, suddenly now, he is unable to get his security clearance -- or not suddenly, it's taken a year. He's not able to get his security clearance. Why is that? And the post story is a very good example of it.

BLITZER: You know, Michael, last week, CNN exclusively reported that the special counsel, Robert Mueller's, interest in Kushner had expanded to include what are described as non-Russian foreign investors, for example China right there.

You think those attempts to seek leverage over him, these reported attempts, played a role in the decision not to grant him top-secret security clearances? ZELDIN: It sure would seem so. Because one of the issues in issuing a secret -- top-secret clearance is, are you vulnerable? Can you be leveraged? Can you be blackmailed? Can you be financially compromised?

And all of the reporting that Gloria has been doing on AmBank, the Chinese insurance company, and the VEB Bank, the Russian bank, all of these meetings, occurring while we know, at least has been reported, that one of his, Kushner's, marquee properties, 666 Fifth Avenue, is a billion point something in debt and it's coming due quickly. And if they don't get that money from a foreign investor, something terrible could happen to that building.

So, you have this confluence of public role and private interests. And that, I think, is going to hold up anything that relates to top secret because he's too vulnerable.

BLITZER: Yes, it's a major problem for the White House right now.

Guys, stand by.

There are other developments unfolding as we speak. Is Robert Mueller crossing the president's so-called red line? New CNN reporting, the special counsel is looking into President Trump's business dealings long before his presidential campaign. So, what does this tell us about the scope of the Russia investigation?

Also, once again, the president publicly, yes publicly, insults his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions. What is the president's end game -- what is the president's end game here? Is he trying to get Sessions to resign?

And Dicks Sporting Goods, a major retailer, making a huge announcement about the guns they sell, as Parkland students return to school the first time since the massacre. We'll go there live.



[13:18:41] BLITZER: President Trump's business dealings with Russia before the 2016 campaign are under the microscope right now. Sources tell CNN investigators for the special counsel, Robert Mueller, have been asking a lot of questions about those earlier business dealings. Questions include the timing of Trump's decision to run for president and any possibly compromising information Russia may have had about him.

Reporter Kara Scannell is joining us now with more.

Kara, walk us through the timeline of events that Mueller's team is looking into right now.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: That's right, Wolf. Sources we're talking to tell us there are 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 9, 2013. That's when Trump hosted the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow. He made significant money from the event and met with Russian oligarchs. 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's possible Russians have compromising information on Trump. One source said investigators appeared interested around the timing of when Trump decided to run and how that coincided with his business talks.

[13:20:07] Now the next year, in 2014, that's the year one source told Mueller Trump got, 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 signed a non-binding letter of intent in October of that year. This is after he launched his campaign. He was running for president while he was trying to push this deal through.

But then, three months later, just 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 business there.

All of these points along this timeline are great interest to Mueller according to our sources, as he's been asking different witnesses specific questions about all of this.


BLITZER: Very intriguing indeed.

All right, Kara, thank you very much.

Kara Scannell reporting.

As the Russia probe takes direct aim at the president's inner circle, a pivotal moment could be at hand. Listen to what the president said just a few months ago in this exchange with two "New York Times" reporters.


QUESTION: Mueller was looking at your finances and your family's finances, unrelated to Russia. Is that a red line?

QUESTION: Would that be a breach of what his actual charge is? DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I would say yes. Yes, I would say yes.


BLITZER: I would say yes. The president said it would be a breach of that so-called red line.

Let's discuss this and more. Once again, Michael Zeldin is with us, he's Robert Mueller's former special assistant in the Department of Justice, and our chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

So has this red line been crossed now that Mueller and his investigators are asking various witnesses about Donald Trump's business dealings with Russia long before the campaign?

BORGER: No, I don't think so. I think Mike Schmitt's (ph) question was unrelated to Russia. This is related very much to Russia. And I think in asking these questions, you know, our sources say, look, we don't know why Mueller is asking these questions. Was he just trying to check a box and go through a timeline regarding Donald Trump and his businesses? Or is he looking for ways that the Russians had potential leverage over Donald Trump and his business associates and his business over -- over the past years? So I would say that this is a completely legitimate area of inquiry.

I know that Kenneth Starr, former special counsel for Bill Clinton, says that it is not. But I believe that we have seen from Bob Mueller, the 13 indictments against the Russians, that he is pursuing all things Russia, and this is -- and this is a part of it.

BLITZER: Listen to what Ken Starr, Michael --

BORGER: There you go.

BLITZER: Said on CNN's "NEW DAY" earlier this morning. Listen to this.


KEN STARR, FORMER SPECIAL PROSECUTOR: 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.


BLITZER: That's not accurate, is it?

ZELDIN: No. There's a multi-part mandate. And point one of it is to continue the counterintelligence investigation that Comey testified was under way in March. So front and center in Mueller's investigation is the counterintelligence aspect of it. And I think this -- Gloria, you were just speaking about -- relates exactly to that. Was there an effort by the Russians to compromise Trump and similarly Kushner or anybody else, Flynn, Cohen, all those people, in an effort to have leverage on them should the president -- should Trump become president of the United states. This is -- this is exactly in his mandate --

BORGER: Exactly.

ZELDIN: Which is exactly about counterintelligence. Now to Ken Starr's point, there is a secondary part, which is, was there a collusive relationship? Were the Russians trying to do something to be -- you know, sort of counterintelligence-wise, and were any Americans trying to cooperate with them? So that's the second part. But first and foremost is the counterintelligence investigation.

BLITZER: I was surprised to hear Ken Starr's answer that the mandate is what happened during the 2016 elections in terms of collusion. He clearly didn't read the mandate that Robert Mueller got --

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: When he was named by Rod Rosenstein, the acting attorney general. The first part was any lengths and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign and President Donald Trump. That is correct.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: Part two, quote, any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation. Part three, any other matters within the scope of -- then it goes through another matter.

The same reason why Mueller is going after Paul Manafort, for example, on things that he allegedly did long before the campaign, opens up the president to the same kind of inquiry.

ZELDIN: Exactly right.

So Gloria's, I think, dead on when she says that these inquiries that relate to whether the president could be compromised fits squarely within the mandate.

[13:25:10] As to the Manafort indictment, it's not as closely -- as closely tethered, but if it creates an understanding of what the Russians were doing and/or if it creates an understanding of whether there was a collusive relationship, it falls within the mandate. And we know from Rosenstein's testimony that he and Mueller talk. And Mueller brings things to him and says, what do you want me to do about this. And Rosenstein gives an answer.

So, for example, the eastern district of Virginia cases, which are tax cases against Manafort, Mueller had to have gone to Rosenstein and said, what do you want me to do, and he said take it.

BLITZER: All right. There's other news that's breaking right now.

Just in, the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, has now responded to this latest insult by the president of the United States in a pretty frank pushback to the president. We'll have that and a lot more right after this. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:30:09] BLITZER: Attorney General Jeff Sessions is now firing back at President Trump. Earlier the president tweeted