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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Trade War?; Does Trump Want Sessions Gone?; Did Kushner Use White House Influence to Acquire Company Loans? Former Trump Aide Says Mueller Asked About Hicks Denial; Interview with Congressman Mike Quigley of Illinois. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 1, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump making a big announcement, and Wall Street apparently not too happy.

THE LEAD starts right now.

The Dow dropping sharply after President Trump announces new policy that some fear could spark a trade war and mean higher prices for everything from your car, to your washer/drier or even to your beer.

[16:00:07]

The White House in total chaos and morale reportedly at an all-time low. Could new questions about potential conflicts of interest be the end of Jared Kushner's career in the Oval Office? The shocking new report that his business got $500 million in loans amidst multiple meetings at the White House.

Plus, a statement that's pretty much a dare, plus a defiant dinner, and a bulletproof vest, and now a president fuming at his handpicked attorney general. Who will win the battle between Jeff Sessions and President Trump?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

A chaotic week for the Trump administration, struggling with one crisis after another, including right now, as the Dow just closed down more than 400 points after President Trump announced this afternoon his intention to impose new tariffs on steel and aluminum. It had been down more than 500 points earlier.

The tariffs raising concern about a possible trade war. This comes as the White House grapples with another bombshell report involving presidential son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.

"The New York Times" revealing the Kushner family business received loans from companies totaling half-a-billion dollars amidst Kushner in his capacity as a White House official meeting with the heads of those companies.

Joshua Harris, the founder of Apollo Global Management, met with Kushner on multiple occasions beginning in early 2017, three sources told "The New York Times." Those sources tell "The Times" he was advising the administration. According to a CNN source familiar with those conversations, he was also talking about a possible role with the White House.

That was discussed, though it was never -- though it never materialized. In November 2017 after all these meetings, Kushner Companies was given a $184 million loan by Apollo Global Management.

That loan is three times the size of their average property loan, according to "The Times." In addition, Citigroup lent Kushner Companies and one of its partners $325 million for a different project, a loan made last spring, after which Kushner met with the Citigroup chief executive Michael Corbat.

A spokesman for Apollo said the loan went through the standard approval process. Citigroup says its CEO was not involved in the transaction and never discussed it with Jared Kushner. A spokesman for Kushner's attorney told CNN -- quote -- "Mr. Kushner has met with hundreds of businesspeople during the campaign, transition, and in the administration to hear ideas about improving the American economy. He's had no role in the Kushner Companies since joining the government and has taken no part of any business loans or projects with or for the companies after that."

We should note, Kushner remains part owner of the company that got the loan from Apollo after he met with the head of Apollo in his official White House capacity. And Jared Kushner owns a stake in the entity that got the loan from Citigroup, after which he met with the CEO of Citigroup in his capacity as a White House official.

This report is just the latest calling into question Kushner's ability to function in his position as senior adviser, but sources tell CNN Kushner is planning to stay and the White House reaffirmed that the president wants him to.

Let's go now to CNN's Pamela Brown.

Pamela, we have seen many tumultuous weeks at this White House. Is there any sense among allies of President Trump that this time, all the tumult, everything going on with Jeff Sessions, with the market today, with Jared Kushner, with Hope Hicks, that it's different in any way?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it certainly seems like it's one thing after the other just in the last couple of days, Jake.

And there is a sense in the White House that the morale has plummeted, and it feels to some staffers who we've spoken to who are used to the chaos, mind you, that things seem to be in a downward spiral.

Even with today's tariff announcement, Jake, sources say many White House staffers were left in the dark on what is a major trade decision that has already caused the stock market to go down in reaction, but today White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders downplayed there was any chaos surrounding that announcement and beyond.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BROWN (voice-over): President Trump announcing plans to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum next week, a move that could spark a trade war.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Workers in our country have not been properly represented, so we're going to build our steel industry back and we're going to build our aluminum industry back.

BROWN: The president outlined the tariffs, 20 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum, during hastily arranged comments at the White House.

The move aimed at fulfilling a longtime campaign promise comes a day after the White House announced the pending resignation of one of the president's longest serving and closest advisers, Communications Director Hope Hicks.

TRUMP: She used to be in my real estate company. I said, what do you know about politics? She said, absolutely nothing. I said, congratulations, you're into the world of politics, right?

[16:05:04]

BROWN: Hicks' departure adding to the chaos in the West Wing, with sources describing sinking morale among staffers. Amid the turmoil, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly cracking a joke about his job in the White House at an event with current and former heads of the Department of Homeland Security.

JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: One of the great honors of my living being the secretary of homeland security, but I did something wrong, and God punished me, I guess. I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

BROWN: Kelly's crackdown on interim security clearances leading to the loss of top-secret clearance for Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, along with dozens of other White House officials.

The move adding to tensions in the West Wing and raising questions from those outside the White House about Kushner's role.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: I don't think he should have been there to begin with, especially with the portfolio that he had. What I'm worried about right now in the White House is the revolving door. It's spinning like a top.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Jared's still a valued member of the administration and he's going to continue to focus on the work that he's been doing.

BROWN: Kushner is also facing fresh scrutiny over a report in "The New York Times" that his family business has received $500 million in loans from companies whose executives he met with at the White House. A spokesman for Kushner's attorney tells CNN that Kushner has met with hundreds of businesspeople, but has had no role in the family's company since joining the government.

Even though Kushner stepped down as chief executive of the company, he still retains a stake in many Kushner company holdings, according to his financial disclosure.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And Kushner's spokesperson says Kushner had no role in Kushner Companies since joining the government.

Now, Sarah Sanders you heard there said during that press briefing today that the president does not want to fire Jared and that he will continue in his current role, but Sanders' answer on Attorney General Jeff Sessions was far from certain, Jake. In response to a question about whether the president wants to get rid of Sessions, she'd only say, "Not that I know of" -- Jake.

TAPPER: Not that I know of.

Pamela Brown, thank you.

My panel joins me now.

So much to discuss. but let's start with the idea of Jared Kushner in his official capacity in the White House meeting with individuals, CEOs, and loans coming either immediately before or after those meetings.

This is why people, even if it's completely innocent, this is why people, Kaitlan, sell, divest, get rid of their financial holdings before they go into the White House, so that there are not questions.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. This is precisely why.

This is just another addition to a string of stories that question his ability to be able to work in the West Wing and whether or not he has these outside ventures that are complicating his role.

And the press secretary today at the briefing referred questions about this to his personal attorney, Abbe Lowell, which just blows my mind, because this is a senior adviser to the president meeting with the executives in the White House, and then his family's real estate company is benefiting from it to the tune of millions of dollars in loans, and the press secretary can't answer questions.

He's a White House employee. He doesn't take a paycheck, but he certainly flies around on taxpayer-funded airlines and benefits from the likes of working in this very high-ranking position in the White House, and the White House press secretary can't even answer questions on this.

She's referring it to his outside attorney, which just is striking to me.

TAPPER: Odd. And, Josh, there is a national security component to this. "The

Washington Post" reported yesterday according to individuals who have seen the intelligence reports, there's individuals in at least four countries, China, the UAE, Israel, and Mexico, who believe, who have expressed the belief they could manipulate Kushner based on financial problems that his companies are having, his naivete and also just the complicated web of all hi financial holdings.

Again, we don't know that that's happened, but this is why people sell off their stuff before getting into these powerful positions.

JOSH HOLMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, you hit the nail on the head.

That's exactly why the process is in place for most people who become staff or any sort of senior administration or even congressional position. You ultimately want to divest yourself of any appearance of a conflict.

And what they done here obviously is put themselves and the administration in a difficult spot, because you have two fact patterns, right? You have got the loans and then you have got the meetings.

I have met Josh Harris. I find it extremely hard to believe that he'd put a company that he has basically built in jeopardy for a White House job, as suggested. It did not happen. But we do have an appearance problem here that obviously the White House needs to deal with, and Jared needs to deal with.

TAPPER: And what seems to be going on here -- I mean, it just boggles the mind for people who have been following politics. Jimmy Carter had to sell his peanut farm. He had to sell his peanut farm before becoming the president.

The idea that the rules don't apply.

NINA TURNER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: My, how times change.

And we talk about guilt by association. Well, this is influence by association. Even if he's not running the day-to-day, there is a connection between what these bankers have done to give his family loans and his influence in the White House.

[16:10:02]

And I'm not so sure. I think if he really cared about this administration and the country, the best the thing to do is to go beyond -- just put away the appearance of impropriety and just leave.

TAPPER: And this all comes, of course, in the midst of a ton of turbulence. Hope Hicks the latest member of the West Wing to head to the door.

I want you to take a look at this photograph. This is the swearing-in of senior staff shortly after the inauguration. Look at all those names who have disappeared, Omarosa, Hope Hicks, Rob Porter, Katie Walsh, Michael Flynn, Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, probably some others there that we can't see.

Is this week, Kaitlan -- I mean, I know it's been chaotic. This is your first White House you have covered, so I have to say, I don't mean to sound patronizing, but it's normally not like this.

(CROSSTALK)

COLLINS: The bar is set pretty high.

TAPPER: It's normally not this crazy, but is this week even particularly crazy amidst this chaos?

COLLINS: Certainly.

There's certainly that feeling in the White House, even among White House staffers. They were texting me about that Kushner story, saying, I can't even believe this. This is really ludicrous.

It's not just -- this is not just a normal week. That's often a running joke around the White House press, that every day is insane, but this week has been especially a flurry of stories. Hope Hicks was a really big, significant story yesterday that really took a lot of people by surprise, not just those of us who cover the White House, but also people inside the White House.

The very senior staffers were very surprised. Though they knew she was contemplating leaving at some point, no one imagined that she would be there forever, a lot of staffers don't imagine they will be there for forever, but it was still very, very surprising.

And what's going to be interesting to see is how it affects the president day-to-day, because he can lose staffers like Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer and these other staffers and it doesn't affect him on a daily level, but Hope Hicks is someone who didn't even leave the West Wing typically on a daily basis, because the president could summon her at any moment from the Oval Office with a, hey, Hope, get in here, so they could talk about whatever was on his mind.

It certainly is something very significant that it's going to affect him out of all the stories we have had this week.

TAPPER: Take a listen to Anthony Scaramucci on CNN this morning about the culture inside the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: I think it's the chief of staff. I think there's a culture of fear inside the White House, and people are afraid to talk to each other. Morale's terrible, and the reason why the morale is terrible is that the rule by fear and intimidation does not work in a civilian environment.

I predict more departures. (END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: He also said to Bloomberg News -- quote -- "Does the president want to lose everyone because of General Jackass?"

A reference to General Kelly, that's his words, not mine, and we should point out General Kelly fired Scaramucci.

What do you make of all that?

HOLMES: Yes, the Mooch back in action, right? Why not? Let's get a little bit more him on cable TV. He was there for a cup of coffee. He must be an expert.

Look, I think he has absolutely no idea what he's talking about in terms of the fitness that General Kelly may or may not have with respect to being the chief of staff there.

He clearly doesn't have any -- that's part of the reason why he's showing up, because he doesn't have access to this administration, so he's irritated about it.

But ,look, personnel issues are real and they're difficult, and you mentioned in particular, Kaitlan, with Hope, she was very, very close to the president, obviously one of the few people who had the capability of influencing him on a day-to-day basis, and that's difficult for any principal or any president to take.

No staff is totally irreplaceable, but it is going to take some work.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around.

What Hope Hicks said that has now caught the attention of special counsel Robert Mueller. Don't go anywhere. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:17:44] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: We're back with our politics lead now. New details about expanding Russian investigation. Special counsel Robert Mueller is looking at whether President Trump obstructed justice in his repeated attempts to oust Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the summer, according to a new report in the "Washington Post".

This comes as CNN has also learned that Mueller is asking witnesses about denials made by outgoing communications director Hope Hicks.

CNN's Jessica Schneider joins me now.

And, Jessica, this all centers around Hicks claiming that there were no known contacts between the Trump campaign and any Russians.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. And those were the comments she made just two days after the election. It was Hope Hicks in our role with the transition at that time where she told the "New York Times" no one on the campaign had met with any foreign entity.

But, of course, as we know, numerous people associated with the campaign met with numerous Russian officials and Russian nationals throughout the campaign, so now Hope Hicks' comments are getting a closer look by the special counsel.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Tonight, Hope Hicks may be on her way out of the White House, but she's still under scrutiny in the special counsel's Russia investigation.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It's not ending any time soon. That's one thing we know for certain.

SCHNEIDER: Two days after the 2016 election, Hicks told the "New York Times" no one on the campaign had any contact with Russian officials. She said, we are not aware of any campaign representatives that were in touch with any foreign entities before yesterday when Mr. Trump spoke with many world leaders. A former Trump campaign aide tells CNN Mueller's team has asked about this comment and interviews specifically if it was accurate, given the numerous contacts with Russians that have since come to light and whether Hicks was aware of those contacts when she made the denial.

The list of Russian meetings that took place in the campaign and were disclosed over the past year or more includes that Russian Trump Tower meeting with the Russian lawyer in June 2016, attended by Donald Trump, Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner, Jeff Sessions meeting with then Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the Republican National Convention in July 2016 when Sessions was still a senator, but a top surrogate of the Trump campaign.

Trump campaign advisers meeting with Kislyak at the RNC and additional Sessions meeting with Kislyak in his Senate office in September 2016, and George Papadopoulos' series of meetings, phone calls, and e-mails with Russians and people connected to the Kremlin during the campaign.

[16:20:00] Hicks denied knowing about the Trump Tower meeting during her House Intelligence interview this week, according to a source. Meanwhile, "The Washington Post" reports Mueller's team has been investigating the period of time last summer when the president seemed determined to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The president livid at Sessions for rescuing himself from the Russian investigation repeatedly unleashes furry at him on Twitter.

Legal experts say it could play into the obstruction of justice piece of the Russian probe.

ZELDIN: If his venting is towards a corrupt purpose of eliminating an investigator, firing an attorney general, sending out a false narrative, that speaks to corruption of intent, and that is what under Mueller's inquiry.

(END VIDEOTAPE) SCHNEIDER: And this questioning about Jeff Sessions has gone on for the past few months, according to "The Post". Mueller's team has asked witnesses about the president's private comments about the attorney general and president's state of mind in late July and early August of last year when the president, of course, furiously belittled Jeff Sessions on Twitter, and, of course, Jake, it's the exact same belittling we saw over Twitter yesterday when Jeff Sessions did push back in that statement.

TAPPER: He did.

All right. Jessica Schneider, thanks so much.

He spent five hours with Hope Hicks, what's does our next guest think? Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:25:25] TAPPER: Welcome back.

Sticking with the politics lead now, a former Trump campaign aide telling CNN that investigators for special counsel Mueller asked him about Hope Hicks' claims that there was zero contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives. Claims made just two days after the 2016 elections, claims that obviously were false.

Joining me now is Democratic Congressman Mike Quigley of Illinois. He serves on the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

Your committee questioned Hope Hicks on Tuesday. Sources say during that meeting, during those questions, she admitted telling, quote, white lies on behalf of the president, refused to answer questions about her time inside the White House. I know you were there for about five hours of the nine-hour testimony.

Was she asked about that denial she made?

REP. MIKE QUIGLEY (D-IL), HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: That's right.

Oh, I think the nine hours she got asked about everything, including that. What's most disturbing is the fact that she wasn't able to answer because of the gag order, questions involving the most critical time in her involvement with the Trump associates.

TAPPER: Yesterday, she announced she's leaving the White House in the coming weeks. Did you have any inkling this was coming? Do you think it has something to do with the Russian investigation?

QUIGLEY: No inkling at all. I thought she was calm, composed, extraordinarily well-prepared. I heard rumblings that the president said something about, how could you be so stupid? I think she was anything but stupid. She was extraordinarily ready for that interview yesterday. And aside from the fact she couldn't talk about certain things and time frames because of the gag order, you know, I had a hard time believing that she wasn't forthcoming about the other periods.

TAPPER: In terms of the comments made about telling white lies on behalf of the president, there's, obviously, a big difference between telling somebody on the phone he's in a meeting, he can't talk to you, which is a white lie that I think nobody would really object to, and lying to the public, lying to a reporter about something of consequence.

Did she mean one or the other in particular?

QUIGLEY: You know, it's hard to tell. If we're not allowed to push a witness to answer questions about all time frames, it's extraordinarily difficult to know. You know, it's deep within her own mind what she really meant, how much she was willing to protect the president, and it's clear to me in watching witnesses, perhaps now over 60 and over a year's period, those close to the president were willing to do just about anything to defend him. So, I suppose if we're lucky, we'll get her back under subpoena under this time frame and we'll find out more.

But right now, we've been stalled and stymied on this investigation because my Republican friends are willing to let the White House install a gag order on our key witnesses.

TAPPER: Speaking of your Republican friends, take a listen to your colleague, Republican Congressman Tom Rooney who's also on the House Intelligence Committee also.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. TOM ROONEY (R), FLORIDA: We need to end this investigation. It's been going on for a year. We've interviewed scores of witnesses, and now we've gotten to the point now where we are literally bringing people in for nine hours just so that the Democrats can leak to the press something as ridiculous as white lies.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: How do you respond, sir?

QUIGLEY: Yes. I mean, putting aside yesterday's testimony, because in the grand scheme of things, it's not that critical, we have not even touched on money laundering, right? Deutsche Bank was fined $610 million for helping the Russians launder money, and who was the Trump financial world financing? Trump associates. It came from Deutsche Bank.

We haven't talked about Peter Smith. We've let people like Sessions, Trump Jr., Lewandowski, and Bannon not answer critical questions. So, sure, it's taken a year, a lot of that because we've wasted time on the memo, and we let the White House dictate how we're going to move forward on the investigation. If they are serious about this, let Mr. Nunes stand aside. I don't think this is on Mr. Rooney. I think it's on the speaker of

the House for letting them do this, he is complicit as anyone in stalling this investigation and, frankly, obstructing it.

TAPPER: The White House has not implemented the sanctions that Congress overwhelmingly passed against Russia for election interference. Do you think that that is relevant to the Russian investigation?

QUIGLEY: It's extraordinary that no one in the White House -- no one in the majority, in the House and Senate, hasn't spoken out about this. In any other law passed so overwhelmingly that the executive branch says we're not going to enforce this, it's just beyond comprehension. And the fact of the matter is, the White House has said, and the president has said there's nothing to this.