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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Trump Lawyer Getting Look Inside Russia Investigation?; White House Attorney Emmet Flood Attends Part of DOJ Briefings; Nunes Proves to be Key Ally to Trump Amid Russia Probe. Aired 4-4:30p ET
Aired May 24, 2018 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good afternoon, and welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
We are going to start with some breaking and, frankly, to many people on Capitol Hill, stunning news in the politics lead.
Today, the Justice Department shared with members of Congress information, you might recall, about that confidential source that the FBI sent to talk to some members of the Trump campaign in 2016 as part of what the FBI says was its probe into what Russia was up to, in what we now know to have been a campaign of interference and disinformation.
Now, you may recall, earlier this week, the White House said no congressional Democrats would be attending this briefing, just House Republicans Devin Nunes and Trey Gowdy, as well as some others, though, under pressure from Congress, today, the Trump administration ultimately relented and allowed a Democrat, Adam Schiff, into that briefing at the Justice Department.
And then they added a second briefing on Capitol Hill, inviting Republicans and Democrats, which is supposed to happen with intelligence matters in this duty of congressional oversight. It's supposed to be bipartisan.
But, all that said, in a move that Republicans are calling odd, at the very least, the White House also chose today to send to those briefings Chief of Staff John Kelly, as well as this man, Emmet Flood. They attended the tops of both meetings, Kelly and Flood.
Flood, as you may recall, he's a member of the team defending President Trump in the Russia information. In fact, on May 2, when Flood joined the White House Counsel's Office, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Flood would be -- quote -- "joining the White House staff to represent the president and the administration against the Russia witch-hunt" -- unquote.
Now, sources tell me that Kelly and Flood attended the very tops of both meetings and left before classified matters were discussed. The White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, just issued a
statement saying -- quote -- Neither Chief Kelly nor Mr. Flood actually attended the meetings, but did make brief remarks before the meetings started to relay the president's desire for as much openness as possible" -- unquote.
But, on Capitol Hill, people are stunned. One Democratic congressional staffer told me that Flood's presence -- quote -- "caused everyone to be sort of aghast."
After all, Flood is the lawyer defending the president. He has no oversight role when it comes to the case being built by the FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller. Flood's only job, as stated by the White House press secretary, is to defend President Trump in this very case.
And, in fact, this afternoon, Rudy Giuliani, another attorney defending the president in the Russia probe, told Politico that the briefings will inform the president's legal defense.
Giuliani said -- quote -- "We want to see how the briefing went today and how much we learned from it. If we learned a good deal from it, it will shorten that whole process considerably" -- unquote.
Now, behind the scenes, Democrats are outraged by all of this, and even some Republicans are expressing concern. One Republican congressional staffer spoke to me about Flood attending the starts of both briefings using language that, parents, you might want to take a second to mute the television for, because this congressional staffer, a Republican, told me "It's the craziest shit I ever heard" -- unquote.
We have a team of analysts and reporters to discuss all of the latest in the Russia probe and the president's, shall we say, norm- challenging defense.
First, let's go to Capitol Hill, where Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff just spoke moments ago.
Let's take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: Good afternoon.
I won't be able to take any questions today, but I have been asked to read a brief statement on behalf of Leader Schumer, Leader Pelosi, Vice Chairman Warner and myself.
Today's Gang of Eight briefing was conducted to ensure protection of sources and methods. Nothing we heard today has changed our view that there's no evidence to support any allegation that the FBI or any intelligence agency placed a spy in the Trump campaign or otherwise failed to follow appropriate procedures and protocols.
Thank you. QUESTION: Was it appropriate to have Emmet Flood at the meeting, sir?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: I want to bring in CNN's Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill, where the second briefing just finished.
And, Phil, are any of these lawmakers revealing what was said behind closed doors, and are any of them expressing publicly what so many have expressed privately in terms of how surprised they were that the president's lawyer on the Russia probe, Emmet Flood, attended the starts of both of these briefings?
PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jake, what you just heard from Adam Schiff was the most we have heard from just about anybody coming out of either of the meetings, including the second one that, as you noted, just ended.
But our colleague Ted Barrett, our senior producer, just spoke to Senator Mark Warner, who while not talking about the content of the meeting, said -- quote -- "Never seen a Gang of Eight meeting that included any presence from the White House. Those individuals left before the substance of it. Unusual times."
So, pretty much, Jake, what you were saying, maybe slightly less colorful, but no less flummoxed. And that's what I have heard also from several aides, several sources, who said at one point in one of the meetings some of the lawmakers didn't even know who Emmet Flood was, until he introduced himself.
They were given no heads-up that was going to be in the meetings themselves and it was a complete surprise. Now, as you noted, he didn't stay for any of the classified portion. There were just brief introductions made.
But one of the interesting elements -- and you kind of hit on this, Jake -- is that I'm hearing more from Republicans than Democrats who are concerned about the appearance of this and what this will actually mean going forward.
Behind the scenes, the last 24 hours, it's been Republican leaders on Capitol Hill that have been pressing the White House, pressing the Justice Department to have a second briefing, to make it bipartisan.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr were instrumental in getting that second Gang of Eight meetings, the leaders and the intelligence communities and the committees themselves.
The concern now, the very real concern, is that just the presence is enough to undercut all those efforts, Jake.
TAPPER: All right, Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill for us.
Let's go to the Justice Department, where we find CNN's Laura Jarrett.
And, Laura, you're the one that first spotted White House lawyer Emmet Flood at the first briefing there. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told PBS that it was -- quote -- "odd" for the president's lawyer on the Russian matter to be there, and he wanted to know more about why that was, what the reason was that he was there.
What does the Justice Department have to say?
LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Justice Department is radio-silent here tonight, Jake.
But I have to say, it was certainly a surprise spotting for all of the reporters gathered here at the Justice Department today. He was not on the list of invitees that was circulated around late last night by the Justice Department.
But, of course, the guest list itself had been something of high drama, changing virtually hour by hour earlier today. But the White House put out a statement just a short time ago essentially saying there's nothing to see here. Flood and Kelly's attendance was merely in order to ensure transparency.
But, of course, Flood is not just any regular White House counsel junior lawyer. He's a key member of the president's legal team, as this Russia investigation progresses. And, of course, the entire purpose of this briefing was to gain more information about a source that was used in the Russia investigation.
So, you have to wonder -- and legitimate questions are being raised on Capitol Hill, of course, tonight -- about whether this was actually a congressional oversight activity or something else entirely, Jake.
TAPPER: All right. Laura Jarrett on the Justice Department for us, thank you so much.
Let me bring in my panel. And let's remind everybody -- and, Jeffrey Toobin, let me start with you -- that Rudy Giuliani has already told Politico that they are going to try to find out as much information as they can about these classified briefings and use it for the president's legal defense.
I was stunned when I heard that Emmet Flood attended, even if he wasn't there for the classified part of it, that he would even show his presence. And you heard the congressional staffer, the Republican congressional Republican staffer, saying it's craziest thing he's ever seen or ever heard.
What was your response?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, the fundamental question about this part of the investigation is, is this a good-faith effort by Congress to determine whether there was some unfairness in the FBI's investigation of the Trump campaign, or is this simply a political exercise to defend the president? That's -- those are sort of the two poles of views here. If you have
the White House chief of staff and the White House lawyer in charge of defending the president at this briefing, it sure suggests that this is much more of a political effort to defend the president, rather than a fact-finding enterprise.
What is -- and Rudy Giuliani's comments even more so reflect that view.
TAPPER: Josh Campbell, let me ask you,.
Moments ago, Senator Mark Warner -- he's the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee -- he said, in remarkable understatement -- quote -- "Never seen a Gang of Eight meeting that included any presence from the White House. Those individuals left before the substance of it. Unusual times."
The Gang of Eight, for people who don't know, it is congressional leaders that deal with intelligence. It is four Republicans, four Democrats, four members of the House, four members of the Senate.
And, normally, nobody from the White House would attend a meeting like that.
What is your reaction to the fact that not just somebody from the White House Counsel's Office, because one could, I suppose, make the argument that Don McGahn, the chief White House counsel, has a role in making sure that the Justice Department does its job, but specifically Emmet Flood was brought in to fight the Russia probe. What is your response to his being there?
JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: So, what the White House and Congress both have, they have a polarization problem, they have a perception problem.
Let's start with polarization. Now, Washington is no stranger to nonsense. If you look throughout our history -- you talked about it in "The Hellfire Club" -- through the 1950s, some of the swampy nature of the city.
Fast-forward to the '70s, when the House Intelligence Committee was established. It was established to provide that oversight of the intelligence agencies that are responsible for these sensitive operations.
But it was technically -- you know, the norm was, it was nonpartisan. And that existed up until now, where now you see both sides that can't even look at the same piece of intelligence without coming to a different conclusion.
And, as evidence, let's look at the memos, the Nunes memo, the Schiff memo. Obviously, we saw that play out in February, differing views there. But that's not the way it should be.
[16:10:01] And fast-forward to the perception problem. If we have learned anything from the memo debacle, is that we have to have our leaders together. We have to have them united and sitting in the same room.
So, we're in this polarization, you know, time now, where it's really going to be tough for the intelligence community to do its job, knowing that its leaders aren't even on the same page.
So, when it comes to perception, the White House is now injecting themselves into this. And even if this person wasn't there for malicious or for reasons that were, you know, improper, there's the perception.
And, at the end of the day, we need the American people to have confidence in law enforcement. We need them to have confidence in Congress and our leaders. And we don't do that by taking a conflicted party whose job is to counter these allegations of Russian interference and inject him into a room where highly classified information may be discussed.
TAPPER: And, Jeffrey Toobin, let me ask you, why send Emmet Flood? Chief of Staff John Kelly, retired Marine general, he could have gone to both meetings and said -- if the White House's explanation of what this was about is the truth -- and I realize that's a big if these days -- but if it's true, and John Kelly wanted to say the president wants there to be transparency, there wants to be cooperation, whatever, that's fine.
Why send the guy who is the point man to defend President Trump on the Russia investigation?
TOOBIN: Because of the reason Rudy Giuliani said, because they view this as an attempt to gain facts that will help them exonerate the president.
They are advocates. They are partisans. They are using every tool at their disposal, including information they can gather from this briefing, to help exonerate the president. That's the only reason I can think they were there.
And Rudy Giuliani told you that's why they were there, because they want to use this information to help the president.
TAPPER: Of course, nobody in that room is supposed to share the information, Josh Campbell, although, obviously, the Intelligence Committee chairman in the House, Devin Nunes, a Republican of California, is a very close ally of the president.
He is still not supposed to tell anybody what he learned.
CAMPBELL: That's right.
And his credibility on this issue has pretty much been shot from the time of the infamous midnight run, going over and meeting with the source in the White House, and really injecting himself into this process. He is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, a very
powerful committee. He should not be inappropriately sharing information. And, again, it goes back to perception.
Even if really not doing something wrong, the perception is bad in and of itself.
So, if you're Christopher Wray, if you're Rod Rosenstein, and officials in the DOJ, and you're walking into a meeting knowing you're meeting with members of Congress who have a penchant for being a little loose-lipped, you have to go in there thinking anything that I say here may make it out into the airwaves by the time I get back across the street to FBI headquarters.
That's not a place that our officials should be in. So, all of this is inappropriate, especially when you're talking about sensitive sources and methods. And I think we just will stay tuned to see if we start hearing some of the rumblings of what took place in that meeting.
TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around.
Today's briefings may come with political fallout for Republicans. We are going to have more on that story next.
Stay with us.
[16:17:23] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back to THE LEAD.
This afternoon, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and White House lawyer Emmet Flood, who is the president's point man in the White House to fight the Russia probe, the two men joined the beginnings of two classified briefings by the Department of Justice concerning that FBI confidential source who spoke to members of the Trump campaign back in 2016.
My political panel joins me now.
Bill Kristol, let me start with you. This is exactly how Flood's hiring was explained by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders on May 2nd. Quote, Emmet Flood will be joining the White House staff to represent the president and the administration against the Russia witch hunt, unquote.
Minutes ago, the White House released a statement on his attending these classified briefings saying, quote, neither Chief Kelly, Chief of Staff John Kelly who was there as well, nor Mr. Flood, actually attended the meetings, but did make brief remarks before the meeting started to relay the president's desire for as much openness as possible.
I know there are a lot of people on Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans, stunned he showed up. What do you think? BILL KRISTOL, WEEKLY STANDARD: Well, it's stunning but everything is
stunning with this White House and the total collapse of norms and procedures that tried to preserve distance of the White House and the Justice Department, politics and law, between a president certainly one who's being investigated, keeping his personal defense team separate from official government business. Senior congressman briefing the White House on things they have learned and circumstances where presumably in this case, the president was -- parts of the team subjects of investigation, he's briefing the subjects on stuff he learned, this is Nunes, in the House Intelligence Committee.
So, this is just one more instance. In a way, I think of sending -- I mean, I say the charitable interpretation of what's happened, how did all started? It started with Trump's tweet over the weekend, wasn't it, where he said, I hereby officially demand something.
And they kind of got him to back off that a little bit. I mean, he sounded like he's going to send a memorandum to Rod Rosenstein Monday saying, go ahead and do all these things. It ended up being a meeting.
Maybe Kelly and McGahn, the White House counsel, were able to convince the president that, you know, we'll go to the meeting and represent you strongly and maybe you could be charitable, saying they've managed to make this a tolerable version of what seemed to be something really inappropriate that Trump demanding. Or they're sending a signal to the followers out there they're beating up this Justice Department and this witch hunt, and they have just further laying the predicate for discrediting anything Mueller comes up with or for firing Rosenstein.
And, Kirsten, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders originally said no one from the White House was going to attend the meetings.
[16:20:01] And then, of course, now we have Rudy Giuliani telling "Politico" that depending on what they learn from those meetings even though Flood and Kelly weren't there for the classified part of it, it affects the defense strategy. Your reaction?
KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: This seems just utterly corrupt to me. You know, Devin Nunes -- anywhere where Devin Nunes is, we've learned something's not going right. So, he's basically a stooge of the White House. We saw that early on and, you know, he's repeatedly dumped things like, remember, released the memo, we were talking about seems like 100 years ago that he did this whole --
TAPPER: Oh, the Nunes memo.
POWERS: Yes, the Nunes memo was going to be released and it was just going to prove all these things that it never proved and in fact it was said things that weren't even true about the dossier and in terms of what was -- you know, the FISA court was told. Donald Trump tweeted afterwards he was completely vindicated and a game where they use Devin Nunes to go out and do their bidding. I don't know why. I haven't figured that out why yet to say he's
raising a ton of money off of it. In the last six weeks, he's raised about a couple million dollars and, you know, I don't know what his motives are, but I don't think he's trustworthy and I think the fact this meeting started out today is just being two Republican congressmen, Trey Gowdy and Devin Nunes, and, only, you know, was added -- had a Democrat added to it is itself completely sketchy.
I mean, why do they have -- why are they going through all of this? And then just get back to the fact of what are they investigating here? Nothing happened.
KRISTOL: Well, Rod Rosenstein said he was going to ask the inspector general to investigate this, right?
TAPPER: Go ahead, Bill.
KRISTOL: I mean, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, said after Trump tweeted over the weekend, well, we will have the inspector general look into whether there was wrongdoing or any way by the FBI or within the Justice Department. Within that respect, this is all a pretty successful misdirection by the president, right?
Aren't we supposed to be talking -- I mean, what is -- at issue is whether there was collusion in the campaign and an obstruction of justice afterwards. That could be true or untrue regardless of whether the FBI made every decision perfectly in 2016 about what to say to someone who was part-time telling them about some of their concerns about Russian collusion.
So, he's got us talking about the FBI and instead of about the collusion and the obstruction of justice. And I suppose in that respect, this is success for Trump.
TAPPER: All right. Everyone, stick around. We've got a lot more to talk about.
He's part of the reason there were classified briefings today as Kirsten was just mentioning -- Devin Nunes. Just how powerful is Republican Congressman Devin Nunes when it comes to influencing the president and as his critics say protecting him?
Stay with us.
[16:26:51] TAPPER: In our politics lead, more on one of the masterminds behind today's back to back briefings, Republican Congressman Devin Nunes. Nunes is proven to a key ally of the Trump White House, having a quiet but major influence on the Russia investigation despite officially kind of recusing himself from it.
CNN's Tom Foreman reports.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Out of 50-plus members of Congress, none appears closer to Donald Trump than Devin Nunes.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A very courageous man, he's courageous -- Congressman Devin Nunes. Thank you very much, Devin, for being here. Appreciate it.
FOREMAN: The California Republican has been in office 15 years, but he didn't gain notoriety until he served Trump's transition team and then started making headlines as the head of the House Intelligence Committee. That's where he's proven so value to believe the president amid the Russia investigation.
Nunes grabbed attention a year ago when he dramatically announced he had proof federal agents surveilled Trump's campaign and promptly informed the president.
REP. DEVIN NUNES (R-CA), CHAIRMAN, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I felt like I had a duty and obligation to tell him because, as you know, he's been taking a lot of heat in the news media.
FOREMAN: Nonetheless, critics suggested it was like giving a police file to the subject of an ongoing investigation. Nunes walked it back a bit, but not before widely sharing details.
NUNES: What I saw is -- has nothing to do with Russia and nothing to do with the Russia investigation, has everything to do with possible surveillance activities.
FOREMAN: Fellow Republican Mike Rogers hit Nunes fast, saying when he was in charge of the same committee, members worked in a bipartisan way to get facts.
MIKE ROGERS, FORMER HOUSE INTELLIGENCE CHAIRMAN: We didn't have press conferences about it. We didn't run out every time we got a new document and say this happened or that happened.
FOREMAN: Nunes stepped away from the committee's Russia investigation, yet he's pressed on in other ways, sharply suggesting the probe is a political witch hunt, pushing the idea that any real fault lies with intelligence services and digging for ever more information about the investigations.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), RANKING MEMBER, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: What they would like this information for is clearly be of service to the Trump defense team and further any narrative they have.
FOREMAN: Democrats have responded with a scene from the movies.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think those billboards is very fair.
FOREMAN: Erecting billboards back in his district accusing Nunes of ignoring the people who elected him in favor of the national limelight. And when a local newspaper, "The Fresno Bee" asked if he had any plans for any public meetings with his constituents, Nunes erupted.
NUNES: Your paper is a joke to even bring these issues up or raise these issues.
FOREMAN: So, what's in all this for Nunes? Well, a lot of praise from the White House, of course, but also this. His actions have brought an avalanche of donations to his campaign. According to "The Washington Examiner" $2.25 million in just 6 weeks, Jake.
TAPPER: All right. Tom Foreman, thanks so much.
Our other big breaking news story today: President Trump abruptly cancelling his highly anticipated nuclear summit with Kim Jong-un. Is there still a chance it could happen?
Stay with us.