Return to Transcripts main page


NYT: Russia Lawyer at Trump Meeting Closely Tied to Kremlin; House Intelligence Committee Releases GOP Report on Russia Probe; North and South Korea Now to End Korean War at Historic Meeting. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired April 27, 2018 - 10:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. I'm Jim Sciutto in for John and Poppy.

Breaking news this morning, concerning the Russia investigation, the "New York Times" is now reporting that the lawyer who was in that famous Trump Tower meeting with the Trump campaign in 2016 had closer ties to the Kremlin then she let on. Natalia Veselnitskaya reportedly has admitted that she's been, quote, "an informant" for the Russian attorney general since 2013, three years before that Trump Tower meeting.

Plus, this other breaking news, the House Intelligence Committee has released a redacted version of the Republican report on the Russian investigation that finds no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, although the Democrats released a dissent to that.

But first let's get more on that "New York Times" reporting. Evan Perez is here right now. Remarkable story here because she is in effect admitting very close ties to the Kremlin both communications with them and describing herself in a role as an informant.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. This is something obviously that she had denied before, Jim. And to be honest, I think no one really believed those denials. So this is really just her admitting to something that pretty much everyone already sort of knew that she was. Look, there had been previous documents that had shown that some of the talking points she brought to Trump Tower matched very closely to documents that were shared by the prosecutor general in Moscow.

She obviously had previously denied that she had any kind of representation of the Kremlin. That she was simply working as a private attorney. No ties to the Russian government. But obviously now the "New York Times" says that there are new documents, new e-mails that show, that put a lie essentially to what her previous statements had been. And of course she has also apparently given an interview to NBC, we haven't seen that interview yet, but in that interview, she appears to confirm that indeed she's been in communication with the prosecutor general in Moscow. She's been working essentially as an informant what she calls an informant.

And if you remember, let's step back a little bit. I mean, the reason why this meeting at Trump Tower happened and why people have focused on it, it occurred in 2016, but it was because you know the -- Veselnitskaya was supposed to be coming and that she had promised to bring dirt on Hillary Clinton, things that were going to be negative for her campaign. And this is why Donald Trump Jr. had said bring it, you know, essentially, excitedly saying yes, we -

SCIUTTO: We'd love it. E-mails show that.

PEREZ: Right, exactly. So we know, we've seen those communications which indicate that members of the Trump team were very excited about having this meeting and wanted to see what possible dirt she had on Clinton to share.

SCIUTTO: It's interesting because Christopher Wray, director of the FBI, who was appointed by the president, was asked what a campaign should do when a foreign entity comes to them and says hey, listen, I got some dirt on your opponent. And he said very clearly, well, report to the FBI. It would seem natural.

PEREZ: Right. And I think it is not just Chris Wray. When you heard Lindsey Graham and other people say the right thing to do in that instance is to call the FBI, to call the authorities because this is not something that any campaign should want to participate in. Look, again, this is the reason. This is the center of why there is so much suspicion about what exactly was happening in the Trump campaign in that period and why we have so many unanswered questions.

SCIUTTO: And the timing is interesting as well because we know the way Russia works. Things don't happen by accident. She's working for the Russian government. She doesn't go out there willingly without the perception at least or perhaps explicit direction to make this public. Can we read this to some degree as a message from Russia to Donald Trump?

PEREZ: Look, I think perhaps. I mean, this is definitely something that you have to think that she has coordinated with whoever it is that she is working for. But again, nobody really believed her earlier statements anyway. And I think, you know, the fact is that we have this investigation that is still ongoing. And I think that she really probably doesn't have any other way to go with the statements that she's made before.

SCIUTTO: Bottom line, the Trump campaign met gleefully it seemed with someone who was an informant for the Kremlin.

Joining our conversation now, our panel here, Michael Zeldin, he's a CNN legal analyst, former federal prosecutor and former special assistant to Robert Mueller at DOJ. We also have CNN senior political analyst, Ron Brownstein and CNN political director, David Chalian.

First here, if I can go to you, David, just for the political implications of this at this time, so we've just had the House Intelligence Committee release in effect a conflicting report here. Republicans saying there was no evidence of collusion and Democrats issuing their dissent at the same time. And on the same day, you have new evidence here just how close this Russian lawyer is and was to the Kremlin when the Trump campaign gleefully took this meeting. From a political perspective, does this raise that issue of collusion again or rather give it new life?

[10:05:08] DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, this Trump Tower meeting in I think it was June of 2016 clearly was the biggest sore spot or one of the biggest sore spots in this entire episode of potential collusion for the president. A, because it dealt with his son who as you just noted said, love it, let me see that dirt. And he did not care apparently who it was, what kind of Russian emissary. And now we're learning that she is a self-declared informant for Putin's government.

So that didn't seem to concern Donald Trump Jr., you know a pretty senior, never mind just a family member, but senior official inside the campaign apparatus as well. And you also have on top of that, remember, the crafting of the statement in response to the revelation of this meeting aboard Air Force One. This is an area that we know Mueller is interested in if indeed he ever gets to talk to President Trump about this, that this is an area of interest, crafting that response. So this whole meeting, Jim, has been a centerpiece of the investigation and a clear political sore spot for the president himself. So having this reemerge, more questions now of course to the president about this. That is not a politically welcome development for this White House.

SCIUTTO: Interesting that it doesn't just go to the conspiracy question, but it goes to the obstruction question because the White House frankly lied or at least mischaracterized this meeting initially, describing it as being about adoptions, et cetera. President was involved in drafting that initial very misleading statement.

Michael Zeldin, on the legal issue here, and again, I'll set aside the term collusion because as we've said many times, not a legal, not a crime, really a legal term. But on the issue of conspiracy, is this relevant to a legal judgment about how significant that 2016 Trump Tower meeting was?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think it is in this sense, that the crime here, there are two possible crimes. One is conspiracy to defraud the United States of the honest workings of the Federal Election Commission. And the second is a campaign finance coordination effort. It is illegal for domestic campaign to coordinate with foreign nationals to receive anything of value from them.

And so if these verify that this attorney was in fact bringing them something of value and that there was a coordinated effort to work with them, remember when she came, she wanted to talk about the Magnitsky Act, which is these sanctions bill that was put in place against Russia which fairly has been very painful to the oligarch and potentially Putin himself.

And so if this shows more coordination between Russian government officials and the Trump campaign where the object of it is an exchange of dirt for relief from sanctions. I think it puts it front and center at a coordination or conspiracy. And now, I'm not saying it has risen to that, but it certainly revisits both of those legal violations, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Ron Brownstein, we're seeing on the political - so you've got the Mueller investigation, he is continuing really without interference from the outside, it is a black box. He's not leaking from there, he sort of nose to the grind stone. On the political side, you see the House Intelligence Committee devolves into what folks are worried about, which is you got a Republican view here, their own report. You've got a Democratic view and that's really how this is playing out now. News we're learning today likely to move those who have already concluded that there is no "there" there?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think the first point about the revelation from today, it prompts the ritual disclaimer that the special counsel investigation is very different than the way we're used to kind of judging what is happening in the political world for precisely the reason you say. We've grown accustomed to kind of assessing which side is winning in a legislative fight or campaign in effect inning by inning or almost pitch by pitch. And when revelations like this come out, it just shows how inappropriate that is to try to apply to the Mueller investigation. But the one thing we know is that he knows a lot of things that we don't.

Now, in terms of what this means for the parties, I think the release of the House report says more about what is happening in the House than it does about the underlying Russia investigation. And in that way, I think it is very kind of confirming of what we saw yesterday frankly with the hearing about Scott Pruitt. And that is this fundamental judgment by House Republicans and to a large extent Senate Republicans that they are going to go into the midterm elections circling the wagons around President Trump on any front and really offering very little to nothing to the voters who are uneasy about him and want more oversight and more of a check. As I've said before, that is the fundamental gamble of the midterm election because the driving force in the special elections and the scheduled elections since 2016 has been the unease among the voters who are uncertain or hostile to Trump.

[10:10:06] We saw it again in Arizona, this remarkable result of Democrats coming within less than five points in a district of Republicans have been winning by 20. And they are choosing again and again and this intelligence report is the latest example to basically say that we are going to lock arms around him rather than serve in any kind of independent oversight much less constraining role.

SCIUTTO: Let's go to the Hill because we have Manu Raju now on that breaking news. Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, as we said, releasing their report. Manu, I know that you've been looking through it. What are the headlines here?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is a 253 page redacted report that comes after they initially released the summary of those findings that were made by Republicans from after this yearlong investigation, this report approved by party lines. No Democrats voted for it. But overall what it does, it makes a case that there was no evidence of collusion or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 elections.

Now, what it does do, it does criticize both the Trump campaign and Clinton campaigns for actions that it took and for ties to Russia. Now, in one of these passages in this report, it says while the committee found no evidence of the Trump campaign colluded, coordinated or conspired with the Russian government, the investigation did find poor judgment and ill-considered actions by the Trump and Clinton campaigns.

And one of the things that they do reference the 2016 meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, among others, Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, there. And they said that the Russian lawyer falsely purported to have damaging information on the Clinton campaign, but it was still a demonstration of, quote, "poor judgment" to have that meeting.

Now, in addition, the committee does criticize the Trump campaign for its praise of "WikiLeaks" and in the word of this report, it says they call "WikiLeaks" a hostile organization to be highly objectionable and inconsistent with national security interests. But as I mentioned, this Republican-led investigation also went after the Clinton campaign largely because of its efforts to fund that research dossier, the dossier opposition research dossier by that former British agent, Christopher Steele. It says the committee found that the Clinton campaign and the DNC used a series of cutouts and intermediaries to obscure their roles, pay for opposition research on the Trump campaign obtained from Russian sources. That is in reference to the Steele dossier.

So the committee here saying that there was some bad judgment demonstrated by the Trump campaign, but no evidence of collusion. And they are trying to make the case that there was some bad decisions made by the Clinton campaign as well. Because lot more detail in this 253 highly redacted report, members are trying to push for more of this information to be un-redacted. We'll see where that goes. But this was a Republican investigation is what they're finding right now, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Manu Raju on the Hill, thanks very much to our panel as well.

And still to come, North and South Korea agreeing to declare an end to the nuclear war -- the Korean War, rather, this year. A historic summit meeting between the two leaders, details of that meeting next.

And the White House medical unit under fire accused of being a grab and go clinic where staffers could obtain prescription drugs without even being examined by a doctor, all at the center of this, the president's former pick for VA secretary, Dr. Ronny Jackson.


[10:17:53] SCIUTTO: Family reunions, denuclearization and potentially a full-on peace treaty by the end of this year. Today's hugely symbolic meeting of the North and South Korean leaders and the joint declaration that followed checked every major box on the lengthy Korean to-do list, but left most of the details until later and those of course very key to making a real agreement.

For now, we have lasting images of Kim Jong-un stepping across the military demarcation line at the DMZ, the two leaders walking and talking like brothers, seemingly heedless of the cameras and finally sharing not only handshakes, but hugs, laying the ground work perhaps for even bigger summit, weeks from now between Kim and President Trump, who next hour, hosts German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House, much more on that in a moment.

But we begin now with CNN's Paula Hancock. She is near the Korean DMZ where that is historic. Get together took place. Paula Hancocks, what is the level of optimism there in South Korea? The North and South Korean leaders have met before. Those agreements have gone nowhere, they fallen apart. Is this time different?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there is, Jim, a different kind of optimism that I felt certainly in South Korea just because of the fact that it was so tense this time last year. In fact just about six months ago, there were talks about a potential American strike on North Korea. What that could mean for the Korean Peninsula. So there was real fear, tangible fear in South Korea. So the very fact that this has happened so quickly, the fact that you are seeing these made for TV moments, these historic photo opportunities that Kim Jong- un walking across the MDL into the South and then holding Moon Jae- in's hand and taking him back into the Northern side of the DMZ, that sort of thing is an incredible optic. But it is optics at this point.

To think what the South Koreans are trying to show at this point is that there is some kind of a relationship being built between the North and South Korean leaders. These are two leaders of two countries that are still technically at war and they have met and agreed that they are going to try to end that war with the help of the United States and China, both signatories to that armistice back in 1953.

[10:20:06] So the optics are important. Yes, this signed declaration is fairly light on detail. They have agreed to work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That is a stock phrase. We have heard that phrase many times before. But the fact that it is in the document, the fact that Kim Jong-un has signed a piece of paper that has the word denuclearization on it, so whether or not you think he will stick to that is another matter, but that is significant in itself. But as you say, the details have yet to be hammered out. I don't think anyone expected too many details today. I think some expected a few more, but the optics was certainly good. Jim?

SCIUTTO: Paula Hancocks, right there in South Korea to watch it for us.

Joining me now, Jung Pak, she's a Korean Studies Chair at Brookings, former CIA and CNN's global affairs analyst, Kimberly Dozier. Jung, if I can begin with you, long history of watching the Korean Peninsula, there is some optimism here, there are some skepticism here. Do you see a substantive change in the two sides approach to these talks?

JUNG PAK, KOREAN STUDIES CHAIR, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: I'm pretty amazed by all the pomp and circumstance of the events that led to this meeting. It was the Oscars, the royal wedding, and the Super Bowl all into one event. And to president Moon's credit, President Moon of South Korea's credit, we have moved from fire and fury and locked and loaded to this point which is very remarkable. So he was able to walk that political tightrope between managing the U.S. president and maximum pressure but also Kim Jong-un's belligerence.

On the agreement itself in the meeting as Paula has mentioned, there is very little substance to it. In effect this is a lot of it is trying to get to the second date, which is the Trump/North Korea meeting an additional follow-on inter-Korean meetings. So for what it does in lowering tension in the region, I think it is great and to increase communication between North and South Korea. But on terms -- in terms of denuclearization, it's incredibly light on substance. And Kim himself did not actually say that he was going to look forward to denuclearizing. So we'll look forward to that tough conversation later. I imagine with the U.S. president.

SCIUTTO: Kim, one problem here seems to be that the U.S. and North Korea, U.S. and South Korea, North Korea, have different definitions here of denuclearization. My understanding is for North Korea, denuclearization is more of a freeze where they are, whereas from the U.S. perspective, it is an end to the nuclear program as a whole.

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: And this has happened before in previous talks. I've talked to a six party talk envoy who has sat across the table from the North Koreans before and said he had to explain over and over and over that complete denuclearization means allowing inspectors into all of the sites, the peaceful nuclear plants, the military test site, and arranging that can take much more than a year. Look how long it took to arrange the Iran deal. Access to sites, what is going to be destroyed, dismantled, if they're going to have a peaceful nuclear program going forward, who is going to provide them the nuclear fissile material. None of those details had even been mentioned. The worry is that the North Korean leader is trying to get the South behind a deal such that there will be such momentum that they will give in to some nuclear power or plants being left in North Korea.

SCIUTTO: That is a big point, for you Jung, because you can argue that North Korea has already gotten a couple things it wants. First of all, to be face-to-face with the South Korean leader and presumably with the American leader, that gives them kind of an international status, that is a win for them. And at least if they are able to sign an end to the -- an actual end to the Korean War, that is another thing the North has wanted for some time. What hard concession has the west gotten so far, if anything?

PAK: I don't see any demonstrable or observable concessions from Kim Jong-un. So far what he's done has been cost-free, meeting with -- going to the Olympics has been cost-free. In fact, all of these things boost his prestige. And one of the things -- one of the reasons for his nuclear weapons program is to have that international prestige and the strategic relevance. Otherwise he is just a leader of a poor country in East Asia.

SCIUTTO: It sounds like -- again, it is early. They could find a way to agreement on these issues and like you said, to be removed from fire and fury and danger of missiles flying through the air, that is progress in itself, but I wonder as you look forward to those talks, Kim Dozier, is there is a danger of Kim setting up the U.S. to some degree, playing the U.S.?

DOZIER: As it's done in the past. Getting some cessation of the sanctions which are beginning to bite, getting a sort of economic breath, if they're like a drowning swimmer, they get enough to keep them going for a few more years while promising very little in return.

[10:25:12] Talks like this can be drawn out for years and in the meantime they can get trade going again. And also establish diplomatic relations with the South in a way that goes around the United States. Look what happened when Moon met with the Chinese leadership? He gave away some things that the U.S. wasn't very happy about. He promised not to expand the THAAD missile defense system, not join in a U.S./Japan try lateral pact. So what is Moon going to promise the North before Washington can stop it from happening.

SCIUTTO: And if the U.S./North Korea talks fail, then the fall back is a North/South talk and where is the U.S. in that. Kim Dozier, Jung Pak, thanks very much for breaking it down.

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee released their Russia report and the president just made a statement, more on that next.