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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Manafort Pleads Not Guilty to Tax, Money Laundering Charges; Mueller Investigating Secret Meeting in the Seychelles; Officials: 21 People Treated for Nerve Agent Poisoning. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired March 8, 2018 - 16:30   ET

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


JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Manafort has maintained his innocence in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation even as his former co-defendant and campaign deputy Rick Gates pleaded guilty to separate charges as part of a plea deal two weeks ago.

[16:30:10] GEORGE NADER, MIDDLE EAST SPECIALIST: My name is George Nader.

SCHNEIDER; Mueller's team is talking to Middle East specialist George Nader, CNN has learned, as interests intensifies around a secret meeting in Seychelles islands just days before President Trump's inauguration.

Nader was there when Blackwater private security firm founder and Trump associate, Erik Prince, met with officials from the United Arab Emirates and later was present when Prince talked with Kirill Dmitriev, head of a Russian state investment fund at the hotel bar. It's unclear whether Nader was involved in that conversation.

"The Washington Post" reports that Mueller has gathered evidence that meeting was an effort to establish a back channel between the incoming administration and the Kremlin.

JENNIFER RODGERS, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: It makes it seem like they're trying to make deals before he becomes the president. And he doesn't speak for the country before he becomes the president.

SCHNEIDER: Now, Democrats are calling for clarification on testimony about the Seychelles meeting. Erik Prince gave the House Intelligence Committee in November.

Prince denied it was an attempt to set up secret communications between the Trump administration and Russia and did not reveal that George Nader was there.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: If those reports are accurate, there's clearly a significant discrepancy between that version and what we heard in Erik Prince's testimony, which is accurate, I don't know, and we should find out, but, clearly, both can't be true.

SCHNEIDER: The ranking Democrat on the committee, Adam Schiff, wants Prince to reappear before the committee and hand over more documents. Schiff also wants Nader to testify. This as "The New York Times" reports the president asked two key

witnesses in Mueller's investigation what they told the special counsel's team. The president reportedly asked former chief of staff Reince Priebus if investigators had been nice to him, and talked to White House counsel Don McGahn about his disclosure that the president asked him to fire the special counsel Robert Mueller, even asking an aide to get McGahn to release a statement saying it wasn't true.

Talking to witnesses isn't illegal, but it may raise more questions in the possible obstruction of justice piece of the probe.

RODGERS: It makes it more likely the times he took those actions, he was thinking the same thing. Let's get this thing off the rails. So, to me, it's another piece of evidence for obstruction.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And CNN has learned that the Chief of Staff John Kelly has warned President Trump to be careful about talking to witnesses in the Russian investigation, and that the president's conversations with those two key witnesses have made top aides uncomfortable, John, though some of those aides have defended the president's right to make those kinds of inquiries -- John.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And normally, a lawyer might do that, not say the president of the United States.

All right. Jessica Schneider, thanks so much.

Joining me now is Lisa Monaco, who served as President Obama's homeland security and counterterrorism adviser.

Lisa, I want to start with the Seychelles meeting if I can first. Erik Prince, you know, if you believe the allegations now reported in the "Washington Post" and CNN, he was there perhaps to set up a back channel with Russia a week or so before the inauguration. What would be the problem with that?

LISA MONACO, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: OK. So, let's just step back a minute. The types of things that the prosecutors and investigators are going to be interested in is any time you see an evolution in accounts of critical meetings or critical incidents and investigation as it appears from the public reporting, which is all I have to go on, that prosecutors are going to be interested in the evolving explanation, because they're going to want to know what's motivating those changes and stories.

So, there's two principles at play here. One is, you have one government at a time. So, even the incoming administration normally does not conduct meetings, substantive meetings with foreign counterparts and other governments, so that you can send a signal it's one government at a time.

So, if this was not a business networking meeting, as one account would have it, but really an effort to set up a back channel for substantive discussions with the Kremlin, then investigators are going to want to understand why is that the case? And why the other principle at play here is normally, you have meetings that are set up for substantive discussions with governments, foreign governments, are informed by experts and policy advisers and diplomats within the U.S. government so that you can have the attendees at that meeting fully informed about the angle and motivations of the parties and you can prioritize national security interests, not the interest of the individuals at the meeting.

BERMAN: It's interesting. Your first point is very well-taken, too. You know, if you listen to Democrats in House Intelligence Committee, the story had changed over time, and that in and of itself would have been of interest to the special counsel here.

Let's talk about the other big story which has to do with the fact that President Trump has been asking witnesses what the special -- not what the special counsel's asked, in the case of Reince Priebus, if he was being nice. Not illegal necessarily, but why would be that of interest?

MONACO: So, there's a few things going on here I think are going to be interesting to prosecutors and investigators in the special counsel's team, which is any time you have an investigation, the prosecutors, investigators are going to ask witnesses, have you talked to anybody about your testimony here today or about the subject of this interview?

[16:35:05] They are going to want to see and understand any indications of shaping of stories or shading of stories. Not to say that went on here, but that's what they're going to be interested.

BERMAN: He talked to them after they testified.

MONACO: Then the question will be, was there any effort to shape stories or get them straight for subsequent witnesses?

Now, it is not necessarily illegal for a witness or a subsequent witness to talk to another witness about their testimony about their interview, but if it starts looking like an effort to tamper with that witness's testimony, to shade it, to influence it, or ultimately obstruct the course of the investigation, that's what investigators will be focused on.

BERMAN: In minimum, the Don McGahn aspect of this is very interesting. Apparently, "The New York Times'" Maggie Haberman reports that the president went to Don McGahn after "The New York Times" story came out that said then in the course of the testimony, the special counsel found out that Don McGahn at one point had been ordered by the president to fire the special counsel. The president asked Don McGahn to fix that publicly, go make a public statement that that did not happen, and Don McGahn came back and said, well, you know, I can't do that because it did happen.

What you have there potentially is the president trying to shape the public's narrative right now, and why might the shaping of the public narrative be interesting to special counsel? MONACO: Well, first, what we have here is really quite extraordinary,

again, based on the public reports of real dispute and disclosure of the dispute between the president and the White House counsel, which is extraordinary in and of itself, right? The White House counsel's job is not, remember, to be the personal lawyer to the president.

BERMAN: Right.

MONACO: It is to be the lawyer for the executive office of the presidency, the institution of the presidency, so efforts to shape the public narrative about an investigation not part of the White House counsel's wheel house.

BERMAN: All right. Lisa Monaco, great to have you with us. Thanks so much. Appreciate it. MONACO: Thanks.

BERMAN: A Russian double agent, his daughter, and a police officer all fighting for their lives after being poisoned with a nerve agent. Now we're learning they were not the only ones affected. That's next.

(COMMERICAL BREAK)

[16:41:15] BERMAN: In our world lead, we're now learning that British doctors are treating 21 people for nerve agent poisoning in connection with the attack on an ex-Russian spy and his daughter. Sergei Skripal and his daughter are still in the hospital in critical, but stable condition. And Russian embassy in London tweeted this without further explanation. Look at this. He was actually a British spy working for MI6.

I want to bring in CNN's Nick Paton Walsh who is live in London.

Nick, what are politicians saying needs to be done here?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's been extraordinary. You heard from the senior security official in the United Kingdom, and she gave very little extra detail today, really trying to say to people, we need less speculation, we need more facts. When we have all the evidence, then we will move, then we will make our decision about what retaliation is required if you find a foreign power has been involved.

She was clear, too, that the police officer who rushed in to help Sergei Skripal as they lay losing consciousness on a bench on Sunday afternoon now named as Sergeant Nick Bailey, that he was recovering, he's now said to be conscious, a selfless act, frankly, rushing in there too. But much information is known behind me here at New Scotland Yard, whose counterterrorism division took over the investigation yesterday, shortly after announcing that they had determined specifically what the nerve agent was.

They haven't released the information. The British government trying to keep the details to themselves as to not impede the investigation. Now, we have heard that, in fact, Sergei Skripal may well have been recruited, according to the Russian security services, by an MI6 officer who shares a name of another man known to live in the town of Salisbury where he was poisoned. That's one tip that we're learning as well.

But this investigation is moving a lot faster than those behind me in the place necessarily want to publicize at this stage -- John.

BERMAN: So, Nick, the widow of a Russian spy who was poisoned and killed in 2006 in England has now spoken out about this incident. What did she say?

WALSH: Well, it's remarkable, actually. So many people in Britain were shocked when they heard of this case because it reminded of Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned in 2006 with polonium 210, a radioactive substance, the specific nature of which, the rareness of which led back to Russia as being the main culprit. But Marina Litvinenko she said today, in fact, that Russians can't feel safe here in London. She expressed anger, frankly, at how there could be more to be done to prevent the influx of Russian wealth here into London.

And speaking to our Nic Robertson in Berlin, said it was clear, really, unfortunately, the British government weren't able to keep people safe here and how she'd immediately seen similarities in the method of assassination when she heard of this case of Sergei Skripal. But the investigation moving faster, the key question, what was that substance? John?

BERMAN: You get a sense we're going to hear a lot more about this in the coming days.

Nick Paton Walsh, thank you very, very much.

So, you think you've heard it all about the Kennedy family? Think again. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:45:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: It's a family dynasty that went from importing booze to propelling us to the moon. You would be thinking you know everything about the Kennedys, wait until you see CNN's new series "AMERICAN DYNASTY" shedding new light on the drama, the tragedies, the drive behind their rise to power. So Jake Tapper recently got the sit down with Kick Kennedy, Robert Kennedy's granddaughter, and she sort of turned the tables on Jake. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KICK KENNEDY, GRANDDAUGHTER OF ROBERT KENNEDY: Thank you so much for talking to me.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: It's my pleasure.

K. KENNEDY: I'm really excited to hear about some of your Kennedy family memories. Is there one that sticks out? TAPPER: Well, yes, on the 100th anniversary of JFK's birth, I was lucky enough that Caroline did an interview, I think her only T.V. interview about her dad on my show, and it was a huge honor. And I think what I remember most about that interview was that she talked about how much people still come up to her and talk about how touched they were by her father.

CAROLINE KENNEDY, DAUGHTER OF FORMER PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: People would come up to me every day say, you know, I got involved in my community because of your father's inaugural speech and even when I was in Japan, people were still telling me that they had memorized that speech, that they were so inspired by President Kennedy's vision of service and of American leadership that I think that really kept him alive.

K. KENNEDY: I watched that interview. It was really lovely. I thought it was a touching message, but you covered Ted, too, am I right?

[16:50:04] TAPPER: That's right. I covered the Senate for a while during his last decade. He was always in the thick of whatever was going on in the Senate despite the fact that the Kennedys are known for being Democrats, for being fierce, for being partisan at times, he was always in the mix when it came to bipartisan compromise, really quite against the type. I mean, when you look at the founding of the children's health insurance program. That's him and a very conservative Republican Orrin Hatch, and he was very popular among not just the Democrats, but the Republicans in the Senate because they admired the fact that he had a real work ethic and was willing to give and take.

K. KENNEDY: So you're a history buff, I know, and you have a collection, I believe, of some special things? Can you tell me about that?

TAPPER: I do. I collect a lot of historical memorabilia. I have autographed items from Ulysses S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt and FDR, but I do have a number of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Ted Kennedy item as well. In fact, it's my most indulgent purchase that I did once buy, an autographed copy of profiles and courage autographed by John F. Kennedy. I also have an autographed letter that President Kennedy wrote to his school board president about integration, and just having these pieces of history are interesting just because I'm such a student of history and it's also just moving to have a piece of that, of what was such an important and momentous era for this country.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN: So ask not what your DVR can do for you. Be sure to tune in this Sunday at 9:00 p.m. "AMERICAN DYNASTY" is the Kennedys, premiers only here only on CNN. So, one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington, D.C. comes out swinging against the President's new tariffs. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BERMAN: All right, back p now with our "POLITICS LEAD" as some negative reaction pours in from Republicans who oppose the President's action this afternoon on trade. Let me read you what House Speaker Paul Ryan has said about this. "I disagree with this action and fear its unintended consequences. I am pleased that the President has listened to those who shared my concerns and included an exemption for some American allies, but it should go further. So, Margaret, it is interesting there, Paul Ryan acknowledging that he did won some fights here and got some exemptions, but he's not happy.

MARGARET HOOVER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think that's rights. Republicans largely believe this is a decided policy and understand the President is doing it because it's a political win for him, it was a promise, and it's probably consistent with what he said for 30 years frankly about trade. The Republican strategy has shifted. Republicans are no longer -- they're not going to be coy with the President face to face but they are going to try to influence the policy around the edges and try to make it as favorable as possible so that regardless, the President can have what he needs, which is a political win, and Republicans have what they want which is the policy outcome.

BERMAN: Well, OK, so Jeff Flake Republicans from Arizona, retiring Senator Jeff Flake, Republican from Arizona says this, "Trade wars are not won, they're only lost. Congress cannot be complicit as the administration courts economic disaster. I will immediately draft and introduce legislation to nullify these tariffs. Alex, this is certain to pass. No. Jeff Flake is proposing this, this goes nowhere?

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No, I think if you're the President and you're worried at all about a civil war within the Republican Party over free trade, the best thing that could have happened to you is Jeff Flake leading the charge on the other side. There's a lot of Republicans who very uncomfortable with what the President has done today. There are very, very few Republicans who are going to jump into a foxhole with a guy who is really (INAUDIBLE) at the base of the party.

BERMAN: So Jeff Flake, you do not think will gain any real traction here?

BURNS: Look, I think, he could very well gain traction in some sense for some version of pushback on the White House, you're not going to have some broad bipartisan bill to completely strike down with the President.

JOAN WALSH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: But you also have Democrats kind of divided on this issue. The candidate in that Pennsylvania --

BERMAN: Conor Lamb 2 WALSH: -- Conor Lamb is pro-tariff. So you know, you have some contradictions here. So it's not like it's not like Jeff Flake could count on all 49 Democratic Senators.

BERMAN: Sherrod Brown in Ohio has come out and said nice things about it. You know, other Democrats have, Joe Manchin, has said nice things about it.

WALSH: Right.

BERMAN: You know, so some of the loyalties are split here. The votes certainly aren't there, but I don't think Republicans will even fight that hard in Congress except for Jeff Flake, which I think is interesting. Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform, he said this, and it's notable, I think, if only for his you know, reputation. Taxes -- tariffs are taxes, tariffs are taxes, tariffs are taxes, tariff are taxes, tariff are taxes on American consumers. You know, Joan, it's interesting when you look at what the President has done to the Republican Party. You know, Grover Norquist, the most loyal of loyalist. It was the pledge for years and years, every Republican candidate for president had to sign the pledge to Grover Norquist to raise taxes.

WALSH: Right. No matter how much cutting they got, they would never raise taxes, embarrass a lot of them running for office, but, yes, he's up in arms. I know. You want to put that to a song, right? It's kind of like an earworm. I'm going to be seeing that all day. Tariff are taxes, tariff are taxes. But again, you know, I think that people are going to count on this on having influence behind the scenes on negotiations on which countries get exempted and hope that this a toothless policy.

HOOVER: The real statement -- a real statement about the lack of power and emphasis of the Modern American Conservative Movement and the Republican Party, how it's changed under Trump.

BERMAN: Margaret Hoover, Alex Burns, Joan Walsh, thank you all so much for being with us. That is it for THE LEAD today, I'm John Berman in for Jake Tapper. You can follow me on twitter @JOHNBERMAN. I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."