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Trump Threatens to Strip Security Clearances of Ex-Intel Chiefs; Interview with Rep. Gregory Meeks (D), New York. Aired 10- 10:30a ET

Aired July 24, 2018 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:00] JEWEL, SINGER: Sort of false prophet. My currency has always been my ability to have an authentic happy life.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: You can hear my full interview with Jewel on our podcast, "Boss Files." Subscribe today on iTunes.

Top of the hour. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York. President Trump is on his way right now to Kansas City. House Speaker Paul Ryan is about to face reporters on Capitol Hill. And hanging over Washington like the rain clouds are this morning, a new White House assault on the president's perceived enemies and potentially on the U.S. intelligence community in general.

The president is threatening to yank security clearances of former top intelligence and national security figures, figures who have criticized him publicly.

Let's begin our coverage at the White House this morning. Abby Phillip joins me.

And Abby, when you look at sort of why the White House is very comfortable, according to our Jeff Zeleny's reporting, putting this out there, they think this is another way to play to their base, right, with the deep state argument. What else are you learning?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Poppy. If there is anything that this White House knows how do very well it is change the subject. And that's exactly what they're doing with another potentially very controversial move.

What Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, said yesterday that President Trump is looking into removing the security clearances of some former Obama administration officials. This idea was first brought up by Senator Rand Paul who said -- and he talked to President Trump about it in a meeting yesterday. But Sarah Sanders added several other officials to the list. Former CIA directors John Brennan, Michael Hayden, former director of National Intelligence James clapper, and former National Security adviser Susan Rice as well as former FBI officials James Comey and Andrew McCabe.

The problem, though, as you can see on that list, two of those people, James Comey and Andrew McCabe, don't have security clearances anymore. And what we hear from sources is that this is going to be something that President Trump is not in any way hurry to actually resolve. That he may not even do this at all or any time soon. In part because this is about having the conversation, making this about former Obama administration officials and ways of getting at what he calls the deep state.

But some people are taking it very seriously. And listen to what James Clapper, one of those individuals on that list, said about what this means if President Trump is even considering it.


JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I think this is a real abuse of the clearance system. Just to use it to attack political opponents or people that had been critical of the president. It has all kinds of First Amendment implications, which are deeply disturbing.


PHILLIP: Now a lot of these former officials say that this is not something that they utilize all the time. But the protocol has been allowing former National Security advisers to keep their clearances allowing them to consult with current officials to get advice, to get insight into the matters that they are working on currently. So that's the reason why some of these officials might have these clearances. But at the same time, Sarah Sanders said yesterday the reason they want to look into this is to prevent former officials from potentially monetizing their public service -- Poppy.

HARLOW: But something that former members of the Trump administration have done and every administration going back.

All right, Abby. Thank you.

Let's bring in CNN Intelligence and Security Analyst, Bob Baer. He's one of the most accomplished CIA agents out there, over 20 years of experience in all this stuff.

Good to have you, Bob.


HARLOW: Well, is criticizing a sitting president a security violation or a threat that should risk their clearance being revoked?

BAER: Absolutely not. Your clearance is revoked if you leak classified information, misuse it, give it to a foreign government, publish something without permission. But criticizing the president does not fall within that category at all.

I mean, look it, there's hundreds of thousands of people in this country with security clearances that have political views that get on the net, that write articles and the rest of it. As long as you're not looking classified information, you can't have your security clearance withdrawn.

HARLOW: Well, so -- but here's how Republican Senator Rand Paul sees it. And remember, he is the one who -- it seems like from his series of tweets -- put this idea in the president's head. Listen.


SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I think anyone who is calling basically the president treasonous, which would require the death penalty is someone that is over the top and not showing the proper judgment to still have access to classified information.


HARLOW: He is talking about John Brennan who said after the Helsinki Trump-Putin summit that that was tantamount to treason. I mean, he does seem to think that this is dangerous to the country. Any argument there?

BAER: Well, here is the argument is that John Brennan has seen the classified information which suggests there was collusion between Russia and the Trump administration.

[10:05:03] Now is he basing his comments on that information? I don't know. But when Rand Paul is clearly worried about that and so is the president, they're worried about the criticism, they worry about where the Mueller investigation is going, they wonder what John Brennan remembers that he's seen, especially intercepts and the rest of it.

So this is very defensive on their part. And for the base, they want to characterize the intelligence community as the deep state. And that's a political point they're making, not a legal one, or nothing to do with security clearances.

HARLOW: Explain to our viewers why officials maintain their security clearance when they leave their post. Because I think a lot of Americans are waking up this morning and wondering -- I don't get why Brennan and Clapper would still have this if they're not working in government.

BAER: Well, a lot of times CIA directors and other CIA officials and the rest of the defense community will go on contract. They want to keep their security clearance especially a top secret so they can work for Northrop or wherever. It's useful for the government to keep these security clearances. They're very expensive to do background investigations. And frankly, Washington has got, like I said, hundreds of thousands of people that keep their security clearances, that work for defense contractors. And it's a courtesy. And former presidents as well keep their security clearances, like Obama.

HARLOW: Right.

BAER: They are briefed by the CIA. So it's not that unusual. And it's a practice that's been going on a long time. And by the way, everybody monetizes their security clearances. John Bolton, the National Security adviser, wrote a book. He's effectively monetizing his security clearances by drawing on what he knew when he was in office at the State Department.

HARLOW: All right, Bob, thank you for laying it out for us. We appreciate it.

That's the national security impact. What about the politics around all of this? Let me bring in Josh Dawsey, our political analyst, and Julie Hirschfeld Davis to talk about it.

So, Julie, you cover the White House. Let's unpack how Sarah Sanders put this yesterday. Here is sort of part one of her explanation.


SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president is exploring the mechanisms to remove security clearance because they politicize and in some cases monetize their public service and security clearances.


HARLOW: Ironic the monetizing argument coming from this White House or really any White House that would make it?

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, yes. Obviously, there have been, you know, many officials who have left this White House and gone on to use their positions and in some cases their security clearances to land, you know, lucrative consulting contracts, lobbying contracts. We saw Michael Flynn when he left the Defense Intelligence Agency, the former -- the first Trump National Security adviser, did that when he went and consulted for foreign governments, including Turkey.

You know, this is not an uncommon thing. And I do think it's worth delving into whether the president and the White House actually intend to follow through with it. I do think that this is much more about making the point that, you know, there are these people out there who are criticizing the president.


HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: And saying things that we don't like about him and it's an effort to really discredit them. And I don't think a real, you know, tangible threat --

HARLOW: That's interesting.

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: It's not about the security clearance. It's about discrediting the critics.

HARLOW: And we know, Josh, from our Jeff Zeleny's reporting the White House is totally comfortable with, you know, the optics of this, how this looks, how this is playing out for them. It plays right into their deep state argument, to their base. Do you think, though, the White House, the president, will follow through with this and actually revoke the security credentials of these four individuals?

JOSH DAWSEY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's hard to know, right? But the president has been very frustrated for months with some of the criticisms that these officials have given him. As we reported, he's wanted to see charges filed even against James Comey. He is very angry with these criticisms. And --


DAWSEY: You know, this president is someone who has shown a vindictive streak at times. And to be clear the president has wide and vast powers over classification. Most presidents have not taken away unilaterally the security clearances of others who they dislike. But the president has wide purview to classify, to declassify. And here he could do this.

HARLOW: He could do this. I will just say it's, you know, notable that General Michael Hayden, former director of CIA and NSA tweeted, "I don't go back for classified briefings. It won't have any effect on what I say or I write."

Guys, we just have some new sound in. I think we have, and control room, let me know if we don't, from Attorney General Jeff Sessions. We have it. He was speaking to a group of conservative high school students this morning. I want you to listen to this.




CROWD: Lock her up. Lock her up. Lock her up.



HARLOW: All right. So, Julie, I mean, the fact that you have, you know, the head of the Department of Justice, the attorney general here sort of laughing and also chanting at one point, lock her up, of course, one would assume regarding Hillary Clinton, something that Michael Flynn, you know, led that chant as well on the stage of the convention. The significance of that?

[10:10:09] HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: I mean, look, this is still top of mind for the president. We heard him bring up Hillary Clinton last week in Helsinki standing next to President Putin. And it's still a chant that we hear break out at all of his rallies and all of his appearances.

HARLOW: But by the attorney general?

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: Well, to me, that sounded like a sort of reaction of, like, you know, what am I hearing here, and he sort of -- it seemed to me like he was trying to laugh that off. But certainly if you're in the administration now and you're Jeff Sessions, who's already on very thin ice with the president, you're going to embrace that sort of tack and that political point that, you know, the president has never let go of. And it is very much something that animates his supporters. And if you're Jeff Sessions, you don't want to step on that thread. I

mean, that's not a place you want to ever be given how preoccupied this president continues to be with his former rival who he is no longer facing in any sort of political race at the moment.

HARLOW: On the topic, Josh Dawsey, of attorney generals, current and former, Eric Holder. So Eric Holder, doing the media rounds. And Holder goes on Colbert. And Stephen Colbert, I don't have the sound to play for you unfortunately but Holder goes on Colbert and Colbert asked him if he's thinking about running for president. And he says, yes, I'm thinking about it.

Do you have any reporting on it? What do you make of the chances he would have and him publically confirming this?

DAWSEY: Well, I'm not sure what the chances he would have. But we've certainly seen people jump in, you know, to early machinations and moves that they're ready for 2020. Doesn't hurt to be talked about at this point. It doesn't hurt to have your foot in the ring. You see people go to Iowa, donors, Massachusetts, you know, for fundraisers. And Nantucket and Cape Cod. You're seeing a lot of early action. If you're Eric Holder, it doesn't hurt to say, you know, I'm considering it, I'm floating it. Whether he actually runs or not. I mean, you know, it's mid 2018. So we have a year and a half before there's even really any sort of palpable action where you have to do anything.

HARLOW: Let me get to you both on the sort of the willingness of Republicans in Congress to act right now, Julie, when it comes to the latest sort of unprecedented move by the White House, this threat of revoking national security -- security clearances, rather, for these former intelligence officials, our team caught up with Republican Congressman Scott Taylor yesterday. And he is one of the few Republicans to at least vocally blast this. Here is what he said.


REP. SCOTT TAYLOR (R), VIRGINIA: No, I'm not OK with it. I'm not OK with it at all. It's free speech. So if something -- so I'm troubled by it. I think it is -- it's not what we need to be doing.


HARLOW: It's one thing to say it. Right? And it's another thing for Republicans in Congress to act to do something about it. What's the appetite for that right now? Although the president has the power to do this unilaterally but we have seen Congress make efforts to tie the president's hands and hold symbolic votes, for example.

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: Well, from what we have seen, frankly, there's very little appetite for challenging the president on any of this. I mean, we did see the Senate with the vote last week to refuse to extradite or send any Americans to Russia for questioning when that outrageous idea was not dismissed out of hand by the president or by the White House press secretary.

But in general on concrete issues where they could weigh in and make a difference, they have chosen not to. And if you look at the polling now, Republicans are more behind the president than they have ever been. And it's a political risk for the Republicans on Capitol Hill like the one whose sound you just played to challenge him given that their constituents, if you look at the numbers again, are very much in line with what the president is doing. And as Josh said earlier, there really isn't anything in this particular case that Congress could do. The president has wide latitude on national security issues.

HARLOW: Right.

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: And certainly when it comes to clearances.

HARLOW: I suppose all they could do is hold one of those symbolic votes, you know, to send a message. But that's about it.

Thank you, Josh, Julie. Nice to have you.

Still to come, new evidence shows that North Korea is dismantling its main rocket site. Could this be a promising sign? We're going to dive in.

Also House speaker Paul Ryan set to take questions at any minute. Will he address -- you can bet he will be asked about the president's threat to strip those security clearances from former intel officials. What's he going to say on that?

And what started off as a dispute over a parking space leads to a deadly shooting. The gunman is walking free because of Stand Your Ground laws, sparking new concern about the legislation next.


[10:18:54] HARLOW: All right. It's being called a first major step in the removal of nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula if indeed that happens. You've got these new satellite images that now appear to show North Korea dismantling a key test facility in the (INAUDIBLE) region. South Korean officials are hailing it as a, quote, "good effect" on denuclearization.

Let's talk about this and much more with Congressman Gregory Meeks, Democrat of New York and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

It's nice to have you on this and a lot of topics. So let's begin on that. South Korea likes what it is seeing in these satellite images. And they say, look, this is proof positive that North Korea is taking steps towards denuclearization. Does the Trump administration deserve credit for this ?

REP. GREGORY MEEKS (D), FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: Well, I think that we need to investigate further. I mean, I know that from what I've heard and talked to individuals, there are several different kind of facilities that are there in North Korea. One is what they utilize -- and I understand this has not been utilized since 2012. If that is in fact the case, then I think that we should be focusing more on what they utilized in the tests they were doing in 2015 and 2016 and 2017.

[10:20:01] One is an old type of equipment and the other is new. So if they're just dismantling something that they had utilized or had not utilized in 2012, then we don't have anything here.

HARLOW: Yes. It's --

MEEKS: And I think that's what needs to be investigated.

HARLOW: It's a fair point as our Will Ripley reported last hour. This is where sort of liquid fuelled rockets were tested. Not the new solid fuel, which are much more difficult to detect because they can be rolled out immediately and then utilized.

You sit on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was invited by your committee to testify this week. He declined due to a scheduling conflict. He will testify in front of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee tomorrow. Have you had the opportunity for him to testimony before you? What is the most pressing question you were planning to ask?

MEEKS: Well, it's both. One, about North Korea because, you know, when I look at what took place, if you compare the North Korean -- what the president did at the so-called summit and what the president did pulling out of Iran, do you have any agreement to have someone that's on the ground in North Korea that way and going to all of their sites so therefore we can verify what's taking place as opposed to guessing?

Secondly, does even Mike Pompeo know what took place in those two hours in Helsinki with the president being exclusively with Mr. Putin? Does he even know? Because when I see Mr. Coats, he doesn't know. And seems like no one else knows. So I would like to ask him those questions, although I do think it would be more appropriate to do it in a classified session.

HARLOW: Congressman, I'd like your response to the White House threatening to strip six individuals who have been critical of the White House and the president from their security clearance, two of them McCabe and Comey don't have their clearance anymore. So it would be effectively taking away the clearance of these four individuals.

Here is how Republican Senator Rand Paul justified it.


PAUL: I think anyone who is calling basically the president treasonous, which would require the death penalty is someone that is over the top and not showing the proper judgment to still have access to classified information.


HARLOW: He is speaking about John Brennan who said the president's actions on stage and words with Putin were tantamount to treason. Does he have a point? MEEKS: No. I think that, you know, just as some people talk about

our Constitution, it's First Amendment rights also. And so individuals have the First Amendment right to say -- this is not Russia. We don't jail people, we don't take things away from people for them saying what they think. I believe --

HARLOW: Well, there's a difference between jailing someone and stripping them of their security clearance. But I hear your point.

MEEKS: But -- so what this president is doing in my estimation is -- and it's not a surprise. He does it all the time. He knows what took place in Helsinki has been a mess. So what -- and I -- not my words but again, Senator Rubio, Senator Cruz called him a con man when they were doing the campaign. And what you do is to shift the view, to shift your mind away from something, you bring something else up. And that's what they're trying to do.

HARLOW: On the topic of Russia, let me ask you about some "Daily Beast" reporting that's come out in the last few days. And it's reporting about a trip you took to Russia with Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California back in August of 2015 and this was a time of very high tension between the United States and Russia. This is after Russia had annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.

Let me ask you about the purpose of your trip there. Why did you go? And did you meet with any Russian officials while you were there?

MEEKS: Well, I went with an official (INAUDIBLE) and the ranking Democrat on the Europe Eurasia and Emerging Threats Subcommittee. The chairman of the committee decided that he wanted to go. And the committee approved it. So I wanted to make sure, knowing what the chairman's position was on Russia, that I thought it was important given the significance of the time that they did not hear one voice, they needed to hear both voices.

And I wanted to make sure that they knew that we were not pleased with the going in and taking over of Crimea. We were not pleased with the fact that they were going into the eastern Ukraine. So I wanted to make sure that they heard two sides of the voice -- two voices. I know what the position of the chairman was. We heard it in the committee. That was my purpose of being there.

HARLOW: Any meetings with Russian officials?

MEEKS: No. The one person I can recall --


MEEKS: -- was somebody from the Dumas.


MEEKS: At an open meeting.

HARLOW: An open meeting. Final question about the future of your party. We heard Seth Moulton, Congressman Seth Moulton on this weekend with Jake Tapper. And he said when it comes to leadership of the party, this is bigger than one person. What we need is a new generation of leadership to be honest about the problems we face.

Who do you think embodies, Congressman, the future of your party, the future of the Democratic Party, more right now -- Nancy Pelosi or the candidate up in November Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

[10:25:02] MEEKS: Well, I think -- and we just had a motion actually in Democratic caucus just before my coming here where we are saying that we're going to be focused on winning these elections together. And then we want to take the time --


HARLOW: I understand that, Congressman. But I'm running out of time. And I really want to know from you, because Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won New York 14 here and is up for general election in November, a lot of people are pointing to her and saying, you know, a candidate like this far, far to the left is the future of the party more than the Nancy Pelosi. Are they right or is Pelosi more the future of your party?

MEEKS: I don't think that there is any one person. What makes our party good is the diversity in our party. We have people from all different points of view, just like America does and that's why we are different.

HARLOW: Congressman, hold on one second. I have to jump over. I'm sorry to interrupt. So let's go over to Paul Ryan, taking questions.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: I think some of these people already lost their clearances, some people keep their clearances. That's something that the executive branch deals with. It's not really in our purview. Yes?


RYAN: I think he's just trolling people. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: In the latest NBC News-"Wall Street Journal" poll, 49 percent of respondents said tariffs hurt the economy. The president said tariffs are the greatest as bringing --

RYAN: In all caps. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: How long do you give him to see (INAUDIBLE)?

RYAN: Look, well, I don't -- I've made it pretty clear, I don't think tariffs are the right answer. I don't support tariffs. I think tariffs are taxes. And I think there are better tools that we can use to hold abusers of trade laws and people who -- countries that perpetuate unfair trade practices. I think there are better tools to use to get them to play fairly. So I just don't think the tariff route is the smart way to go. I understand the president's plan. I understand what he is trying to do. And the goal he is trying to achieve is a good one, a better deal for

Americans, better trade agreements. I just don't think tariffs are the way to go. And our members are making that pretty clear.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: But it's the way he is going. So at what point would Republicans --

RYAN: Like I said, we made our points very clear. And we hope that this -- at the end of the day, we all want to land in the same place. I would like to get to the landing spot as fast as possible. Anna?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The question on trade, the (INAUDIBLE)

RYAN: I'm seeing is Cecelia today, I think. I don't know if I'm seeing Unger or not.


RYAN: Well, they do -- they don't trade fairly with us on a number of issues. I think I'm a person who wanted to go get tee tips, so I guess I'm a little bit out of the mainstream on these things. I believe it's important that we lower our trade barriers to one another. They do have higher tariffs on our products in certain areas. And agriculture in particular, we have a big beef, no pun intended, with the Europeans and cheese as well. But I think it's important that we work together to reduce trade barriers and trade restrictions between our countries.

This friction that we're having, as long as it results in lowering barriers and making it easier for us to access foreign markets and have reciprocal trade agreements, that's great. That is hopefully where we can end up with this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I see a question back there?

RYAN: Wait, who's going to ask the last question? Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: See right over there.

RYAN: Yes.



RYAN: Sam Ryan came with dad for work today so therefore Sam Ryan gets the distinction of that honor today. All right. Thanks, everybody. Have a good one. Take care.

HARLOW: Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan talking about trade, talking about tariffs. We'll have much more after the break.