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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
NYT: Russian Lawyer at Trump Tower Meeting had Closer Ties to Kremlin Than Previously Known; House Republicans Trying to Distract From Mueller Probe?; Historic North and South Korea Meeting. Aired 4- 4:30 ET
Aired April 27, 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 HOST: One probe officially ends, as we get all a new bombshell in the other Russia probe.
THE LEAD starts right now.
Putin's informant? The runs lawyer who was supposed to deliver dirt on Hillary Clinton to Trump Tower drops a bombshell today. She's even closer to the Kremlin than she originally said.
Despite that, House intelligence Republicans are say case closed and blaming mere poor judgment on the behalf of the Trump campaign for that meeting. President Trump is saying he's honored by that decision. Poor judgment?
Plus, Kim Jong-un saying a new history begins, as the North and South agree to end a war that started before of us were even born. But is Kim Jong-un serious this time? And should President Trump be getting a tip of the cap?
Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
We begin today with the politics lead and some stunning news involving the Russian lawyer at the center of the now infamous June 2016 Trump meeting involving top members of the Trump campaign.
"The New York Times" is now reporting that Natalia Veselnitskaya has close tied to the Kremlin. She disclosed to NBC News she was the source of information for Russia's chief prosecutor, saying -- quote -- "I am a lawyer and I am an informant. Since 2013, I have been actively communicating with the office of the Russian prosecutor general" -- unquote.
In June 2016, Veselnitskaya, of course, met with officials of the Trump campaign, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower, after they were promised dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Donald Trump Jr. e-mailed a European publicist, as you might remember: "If it's what you say, I love it," when the meeting with the Russian government lawyer was first proposed. A meeting that Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee downplayed today as an act of "poor judgment" in their newly released report, a report that the president is celebrating this afternoon as evidence of no collusion between his campaign and the Russian government.
We have all angles of this story covered with our reporters from the White House to Capitol Hill and expert analysis here with me.
Let's begin on Capitol Hill with CNN's Manu Raju.
Manu, the lawyer Veselnitskaya long claimed she was a private attorney and she used to deny working on behalf of the Russian government, but now it appears we're learning otherwise.
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And she also denied there was anything nefarious that happened in that June 2016 meeting that she attended with senior members of the Trump campaign.
But the revelations today of her being an informant catching many on Capitol Hill by surprise and actually also came as news that she was an informant to the Republican who ran the House Russia investigation.
RAJU (voice-over): The Russian lawyer who attended a 2016 meeting with Donald Trump Jr. now acknowledging she's an informant of the Russian government.
In newly released e-mails from 2013 reporting by "The New York Times," Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya is shown coordinating closely with the office of a senior Kremlin official, the prosecutor general.
"I'm a lawyer and I'm an informant," she told NBC News. "Since 2013, I have been actively communicating with the office of the Russian prosecutor general."
The disclosure shines a new light on a 2016 meeting she attended with the president's eldest son and senior campaign officials, when Trump Jr. initially was promised dirt on the Clinton campaign that never materialized.
On Capitol Hill today, the Republican who ran the House's Russia investigation acknowledging he was unaware that she was an informant of the Russian government.
REP. MIKE CONAWAY (R), TEXAS: That's new information.
RAJU: This on the same day that the House Intelligence Committee released its report from the Russia probe. The Republicans' conclusion? They found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
(on camera): Is it troubling you in any way that she was a Russian informant and had a meeting with senior level Trump campaign officials in 2016? CONAWAY: No, because that's not how she presented herself, and there is no evidence that she acted on that.
RAJU (voice-over): The House GOP report does fault the Trump campaign's periodic praise and communications with WikiLeaks as -- quote -- "highly objectionable and demonstrating poor judgment."
Plus, it says both the Trump and Clinton campaigns took ill-considered actions, including the Trump campaign's decisions to meet with Veselnitskaya in Trump Tower.
In one interaction described in the report, Trump's former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in December 2015 before he joined the Trump campaign at the Russian Embassy with then Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Flynn traveled to Moscow.
The report cites e-mails exchanged between Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen and business associate Felix Sater over a proposed Trump Tower Moscow project in an effort to set up a Trump-Putin meeting.
Sater told Cohen that "If Putin gets on the stage with Donald for a ribbon-cutting in Moscow, Donald owns the Republican nomination."
The efforts to set up a Trump-Putin meeting didn't end there. In one brief interaction, the report says Trump Jr. met briefly with a government official during the National Rifle Association's annual meeting.
The GOP report concludes that the brief meeting centered on shooting and hunting and not the campaign. Democrats say that misses the point.
JULIAN CASTRO (D), MAYOR OF SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS: Yes, the sad part is that this was not a real investigation. This was basically a kindergarten investigation.
RAJU: And Democrats released their own views about the findings here, including the NRA encounter between Donald Trump Jr. and the official.
It said that ahead of the meeting, that a veteran NRA official actually said they wanted to have that meeting with the Russian and Donald Trump Jr. as a first contact between the Trump campaign and Russia.
And also in that same Democratic report, it shows that Aras Agalarov, who is that Russian oligarch who orchestrated the June 2016 meeting, actually sent Trump a birthday gift the day after the June 26 meeting and that birthday gift was an "expensive painting."
And, Jake, Trump responded to Agalarov about a week later, according to this report, saying this: "There are few things better than receiving a sensational gift from someone you admire and that is what I received from you" -- Jake.
TAPPER: Manu Raju on Capitol Hill.
Let's go now to Pamela Brown. She's at the White House.
And, Pamela, the president held a press conference this afternoon alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He was not even asked about Russia and yet he still managed to bring it up himself.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. That's right.
Russia was clearly on the president's mind today during the joint press conference. He brought up what he called the Russia collusion hoax when asked a question about Dr. Ronny Jackson, who was, of course, his pick for VA secretary who withdrew his nomination.
The president took it upon himself to say he sympathized with Dr. Jackson and the fact that in his words that he faced false allegations because the president said that he also has faced false allegations in the Russia investigation.
And the president echoed similar sentiment earlier today on the heels of the House intelligence Republicans' report saying there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Here is what the president said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: We were honored. It was a great report. No collusion, which I knew anyway, no coordination, no nothing. It's a witch-hunt. That is all it is.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BROWN: And we should note there was a Democratic dissent to the collusion from the House Intelligence Republicans.
But bottom line, Jake, even though their investigation has wrapped up after a year, Robert Mueller, special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation is still very much ongoing -- Jake.
TAPPER: All right, Pamela Brown at the White House for us, thanks so much.
Joining me now to discuss this is Phil Mudd. He's a former FBI and CIA official.
Phil, thanks for being here.
And let's start with the bombshell news of the fact that this Russian lawyer actually is an informant working with the prosecutor general in Russia, describing herself as an informant. What do you make of that?
PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I look at this and say, look, we are never going to get access to her. There is two characteristics to an investigation, talking to people and acquiring the data.
The interest to me here is looking at her history of involvement and now she's admitted that involvement with Russian officials, seeing if I could acquire data. For example, the data related to maybe e-mails she had with people with the campaign, if there are phone numbers, I want to see that data.
And then start to bring it into the Mueller investigation and say, over the course of years did she ever e-mail anybody, did she ever call anybody and did we see information on the back end, did she communicate back to Russia that suggests this is not just a one-off meeting in June of 2016 at Trump Tower? I want the data, Jake.
TAPPER: Do you view her as an operative of the Kremlin? Did Donald Trump Jr., even if he did unknowingly, invite a Putin operative into Trump Tower? Is that how the people, the American people should view her?
MUDD: No, I don't think so. There is a way the intelligence game works.
Let's make sure we understand intelligence. It's about access to information and access to people. Here, obviously, we have access to powerful people, the son of the president, the future in that case of the president of the United States.
If I'm an intelligence service, I'm saying, if she has access, we call that an access agent, she might not be a full-time operative, she may not be a spy, but I'm going to bring her in and say, look, there are some things I want you to do in Washington, there are some questions I want you to ask.
And maybe most significantly, when you come back, I want to debrief you. That kind of person is classic because they have ready-made access to somebody that you want to know about. But she doesn't have to be a fully vetted spy to conduct operations like that.
TAPPER: I want you to take a listen to the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff of California, talking about this Russian lawyer.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: The Trump campaign wouldn't necessarily have to know whether she's affiliated with Russian intelligence or simply working on behalf of Putin. All they would need to know is that the Russian government is trying to help their campaign, that this is unlawful, and they accept that help and they coordinate in the receipt of that help. That would be a criminal conspiracy.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: Do you agree with Congressman Schiff?
MUDD: I do. But I think he simplified it. I think he's even making it too complicated.
You understand what we're doing here. There is a lot of smoke and mirrors. Let's cut to the chase.
A U.S. campaign is considering accepting information about another candidate not only from a foreign entity, but from a foreign entity that is the most significant rival to America in Europe and elsewhere. Whether or not it breaks the law -- and it would I think if he had acquired, if Don Jr. Had acquired that information.
TAPPER: Which he said he did not, for the record.
MUDD: That is correct.
But we're talking about legalities. I don't think it is that complicated. Why are politicians, whether they're Democrats or Republicans, bringing people into an office who represent a foreign adversary and they're saying, I encourage you to acquire information about my adversary, Hillary Clinton, and if you do, I want it?
That is encouraging influence in an American election, and I don't understand that.
TAPPER: And one assumes that Robert Mueller already knew the information about Natalia Veselnitskaya, that she was not just a lawyer from Russia, that she actually had close ties to the Kremlin.
As a former FBI official, what role might this information play in the Mueller probe?
MUDD: I'm looking at this. I wouldn't assume he knew that.
TAPPER: You would not?
MUDD: No, because in my business when you make assumptions, I assume Saddam has WMD because he's violating sanctions, when you make assumptions, that is one step to getting burned.
I'm looking at this, saying, I'm guessing he had it. I wouldn't assume it. My first question is looking at the history and her history of engagement and what she talks about, especially the timeline, can I acquire, as I mentioned earlier, the information going back to 2015, 2014, 2013 about who she was talking about in Russia and who she was talking about in the United States?
And does that help explain either any connections with the American election, or any connections with the Trump campaign? This is one reason why you want records going back not just during the campaign, but before. It is a whole web of stuff.
TAPPER: So Republicans on the little and people from the Trump campaign and Trump White House say none of this would matter anyway because ultimately, according to attendees at the meeting, Veselnitskaya did not give any information damaging to Hillary Clinton to Don Jr. and Manafort and Kushner.
What would you say to them?
MUDD: Excuse me? They didn't conduct an investigation. There is two characteristics to an investigation. Number one, you have to interview people. A, they didn't. And, B, a lot of the people who walked in said, I'm not talking.
Corey Lewandowski was one of them. B, they don't have the capability -- and this is really significant, but boring -- to conduct the kind of forensic investigation that the FBI can conduct.
I want to look at phones, e-mails and financial records. You tell me, can they look at financial records going back years about people like Paul Manafort and confirm to me they know the connection between Trump people and Russians? I will give you an answer, and that is no.
TAPPER: Well, given the fact that we know that President Trump and Donald Trump Jr., their initial response to requests for information by "The New York Times" about this meeting was not honest, they were saying the meeting was about Russian adoption, and we know that that is not true.
There are e-mails released by Donald Trump Jr. himself saying that it was about dirt on Hillary Clinton. He says, "If it is what you say, I love it."
Given the fact that there have already been lies about it, as a former investigator, are you inclined to think if they are lying about this part of the meeting, I don't know that I could believe anything they say about the meeting?
MUDD: I would be careful of that. I want to start with a fact.
The fact is, there was a meeting. The fact is, they lied about the meeting. Therefore, I go to say I think it is a fair conclusion to say, what are they trying to hide? When I'm looking at an investigation, though, I don't want to jump to a conclusion that says they are lying about everything, because eventually I'm going to have to go to a court of law to a judge to say, this is why I believe they're colluding or this is why I believe they're lying.
And that has to start with the fact. Now, in this case is, the fact is, despite what the White House is saying, we have cooperated fully, from day one, they showed us intent. We intend to lie about what we're doing. That is the clue, but that is not the end of the game. I want facts before I draw conclusions.
TAPPER: Great perspective. Phil Mudd, thank you so much.
Manu, Pamela, thank you so much.
Are House Intelligence Committee Republicans trying to distract from the special counsel's Russia investigation, as Democrats charge?
That's next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
[16:18:06] TAPPER: And we're back with our politics lead. President Trump once railing against the Russia investigation and celebrating the disputed findings of the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, as "The New York Times" report that the lawyer at the center of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting works with the Kremlin as an informant for them.
My political panel is here with me.
Jackie Kucinich, let me start with you, how do you find -- how significant do you find this revelation that this Russian lawyer actually in an interview with NBC conceded that she is an informant for the Russian government?
JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It is very significant. I don't know if it changes anything in the current environment that we're in. But certainly that this person is closer to the Kremlin than she thought, I mean, it's another fact that we -- the facts keep on glaring on each other with this investigation and this is another departure of what was initially ruled out as a meeting about Russian adoption. It wasn't that.
TAPPER: And what do you -- what do you think, Kristen, does this new involving the Russian lawyer, show that any attempt as of now to conclude there was no collusion might be premature because we still don't have all of the facts?
KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST & POLLSTER: Well, there is no evidence of collusion.
ANDERSON: Which is difference than evidence of no collusion.
ANDERSON: And what I think this changes is half of the conclusion that's coming out of this House Intelligence Committee report which both said we have no evidence of collusion, but the Trump campaign did things that were bad judgment, they were sketchy, but there's no proof that they colluded. But also sort of makes the case, we also have no proof that Putin wanted to engage.
And it's things like this that suggest that second part is incomplete. There is I think a lot of evidence that pretty strongly suggests that Vladimir Putin was interested in meddling in our elections and causing chaos. What I still think has not yet been proven is that the Trump campaign colluded.
And so, as far as I'm concerned, wake me up when Bob Mueller has an answer to this investigation because anything that's coming out of the House, whether it's the Republicans or Adam Schiff saying there is evidence of collusion right under our noses.
[16:20:07] Well, where is it? Where is it? You've been saying that for a year. It is still not there fully in my opinion.
And so, anything that comes out of the House I just sort of disregard as politics. Tell me when Bob Mueller has an answer (ph).
TAPPER: Robby, you disagree.
ROBBY MOOK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I do. I -- look, at every single step of this investigation has gone in one direction, which is it's not what people said it was. And let's step back. When we say collusion, what are we really talking about, in campaigns, it is illegal to accept something of value from somebody else that you didn't report. OK?
When the Russians -- it is also illegal to participate in crimes, right? The Russian stole e-mails from the Democratic National Committee, OK? They then released those e-mails through a Website, OK? I would argue that was something of value. Somebody had to pay to do this operation and that operation was illegal to begin with.
Roger Stone said he talked to the Russian agent that released the e- mails, A. B, he predicted that John Podesta's e-mails would be released.
So, to me, we have a lot of evidence there was communication about plans and strategies that the Russians had to intervene in the election when you are working on a campaign, it is illegal to coordinate with outside organizations on their plans and strategies. That's against the law.
MOOK: So, I think there is plenty of evidence.
TAPPER: I guess you are saying that there is circumstantial evidence but no evidence saying the Trump people said here give me that stuff, or it'd be better if you released it through WikiLeaks. There's no evidence of that?
MOOK: I guess this was fair. Sorry, I don't want to take more time. But it is clear they spoke to them and it's clear that they knew about their plans, and the legal thing for Roger Stone, if he had learned of the Russians' plans would have been to call the police and say I've learned of something illegal or somebody is trying to do something on behalf of my campaign and they told me what their plans and strategies were. He didn't do that.
So, to me, the evidence points to there was a legal coordination, put aside the term collusion, because I don't know what that even mean.
TAPPER: It doesn't actually --
MOOK: It's an illegal coordination.
KUCINICH: Though to Kristen's point, we don't know what Robert Mueller has. We don't know he might --
MOOK: Sure, he might have more.
KUCINICH: He might have more, he might not. And when it comes to the House report, I'm incline to agree with you. It's politics, it has been politics, it's kind of been a dumpster fire since go, and this was just more fuel to that rage and fire.
ANDERSON: I remain -- I maintain though the news cycle said new big thing happened in the Russia investigation, new big thing happened in the Russian investigation, the one thing that made my jaw hit the floor was the day that Donald Trump Jr. released his e-mails on Twitter showing that he had --
TAPPER: Right before "The New York Times" was about to publish them.
ANDERSON: Right before "The New York Times" is about to publish them. That is the day that I still marvel that occurred and that continues to be the strongest evidence of -- at a minimum of really horrible judgment. But I still don't think it is the fully smoking gun.
TAPPER: Robby, I want to give you an opportunity to respond. And speaking of Donald Trump Jr., you came on "STATE OF THE UNION" in July of 2016, it was the morning that the DNC hacked mails were released and you blamed it on Russians. I kind of pushed back on you, I said, what's your evidence? Where is your evidence?
Donald Trump Jr. came on afterwards. Now, this is a few weeks after he had that meeting with the Russian lawyer, we didn't know that at time and here is Donald Trump Jr. in July 2016.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, JR., SON OF PRESIDENT TRUMP: Well, it just goes to show you their moral campus. I mean, they'll say anything to be able to win this. I mean, this is time and time again, lie after lie. You notice, he won't say, well I say this -- we hear experts. You know, his house cat at home said this is what is happening with the Russians.
It's disgusting. It's so phony. I watched him bumble through the interview. I was able to hear it on audio a little bit. I mean, I can't think of bigger lies, but that exactly goes to show you what the DNC and what the Clinton camp will do. They will lie and do anything to win.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: So, a few weeks before he said that, he met with this Russian lawyer who as of today we know actually works with the Kremlin as an informant. I want to give you an informant to come after him because he last time went after you.
MOOK: Well, first of all, he lied about a lot of things. I don't own a cat. So, that was lie number one.
KUCINICH: And it certainly wasn't a Russian informant.
MOOK: Yes, yes, exactly. Look, this is the story of the campaign in 2016. They lied their whole way through it, and we are cleaning up that mess today. You know, they would accuse of all kinds of things and at the end of day, you know, Hillary Clinton made a big mistake with her e-mails and Donald Trump and his campaign probably broke the law, I would argue.
And we're going to be r-- we're now watching this play out and it is dragging our country down.
TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We've got a lot more to talk about.
Coming up, it is one small step for Kim, will it be one giant leap for peace or is North Korea playing President Trump and the world?
[16:25:00] Stay with us.
TAPPER: In our world lead today, potentially huge news coming out of North Korea.
First, we're just learning from a U.S. official that they have seen some sort of dismantling of North Korea nuclear test sites. The official also warned that the actions taken so far by North Korea are reversible. But this come after the historic moment of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un crossing the border to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. It's the first meeting of Korean leaders from the North and South in more than a decade, and one of the biggest steps towards potential peace that we have seen between the two countries in quite sometime.
They pledge to officially end the 68-year-old Korean War. They're still at a declared state of war and they also said that they would completely denuclearize the peninsula.
Just minutes ago, President Trump said he has a responsibility to help bring peace to Korea.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have a responsibility to see if I can do it. And if I can't do it, it will be a very tough time for a lot of countries and a lot of people.