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Trump Considers Yanking Security Clearances for Critics; Details Emerge on 12 Tapes Seized from Michael Cohen by Feds; Interview With .Sen. Chris Coons Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired July 24, 2018 - 07:00   ET



SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president is exploring the mechanisms to remove security clearance, because they've politicized their public service.

[07:00:09] LT. GEN. JAMES CLAPPER (RET.), CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST (via phone): I'm speechless. I think it was a real abuse of the clearance system.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: We're in a different time, and these sorts of things are always open to reexamination.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Take the security clearances. It won't stop me speaking out.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I don't think that ex-CIA agents should continue to get classified information. I think it's wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What you're seeing at the White House is Operation Distraction.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Welcome to one of the last truly wild places on Earth.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A friend called: "Is it true that you have ANWR in the --?"

I said, "I don't know. Who cares?"

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We need to keep some of these places untouched. Why not leave a few places unspoiled?


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to your NEW DAY.

President Trump is trying to silence his critics. The president is threatening to revoke security clearances of some top intelligence officials who have questioned and criticized Mr. Trump's refusal to confront Russia. The White House says the former intel chiefs have, quote, "politicized and in some cases monetized" their public service.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: So is what we are seeing here from President Trump really the art of the distraction? In some ways it's very, very small and other ways it's potentially pretty big. A senior White House official tells CNN that the president is more than comfortable with how this debate is playing out and is in no rush to actually decide on revoking those security clearances. So is this just a distraction from the whole Russia news conference?

Or, as Maggie Haberman suggested to us a short time ago, is this perhaps a distraction from the news about Michael Cohen, his personal attorney, and the tapes that we now know exist of conversations between the two.

CAMEROTA: And there she is, Maggie Haberman herself, the aforementioned political analyst and White House correspondent for "The New York Times." Maggie, great to have you.


CAMEROTA: OK. So what took him so long to attempt to revoke these security clearances? I mean, he -- President Trump doesn't like people going on television --


CAMEROTA: -- like James Clapper has, like John Brennan has and criticizing what they see in terms of his complete lack of respect and denigration of the intel community. So they have criticized him publicly. So now it feels that this is punitive.


CAMEROTA: And retribution for that and that they -- he might revoke their security clearance. What else is going on behind the scenes?

HABERMAN: Well, this actually is what we were talking about before is what's a distraction versus just him popping off. This is actually a distraction. This is something that Sarah Sanders went to the podium, was reading from this. To the extent that this White House plans things out, this was something that was planned.

What took him so long is the fact that this is not realistic. I mean, some of the people who he was talking about don't have active clearances, No. 1.

BERMAN: Comey and McCabe.

HABERMAN: Correct, No. 1.

No. 2, it's not going to stop people -- he doesn't get to wave a wand and make this go away very quickly. This is something that the White House knows will get us talking, will fill headline space and to the extent that they can squeeze out other things, that is what they're trying to do. But it is, to your point, about very small and very big. This is not

a small thing to have a president suggesting retribution for political criticism in this way. It is this leveling out, this flattening that he does with everything, where everything is the same; everything is political. Nobody can have a motive other than good/bad, up/down about Donald Trump.

And there is also that sort of -- that -- that mirroring aspect to this, where he takes criticism that has been levelled against him or his administration, and he puts it back somewhere else.

The criticism of the security clearance process of his White House has been extensive. The fact that his daughter and son-in-law have security clearances has been a huge issue. And the fact that both of them have been accused of monetizing their positions in the White House.

So I was really struck by that language --


HABERMAN: -- from Sarah Sanders, because it has been applied to his own family over and over again.

CAMEROTA: We have it if you want to hear it.

BERMAN: Yes, let's play the short version of that, just so we know what we're talking about right now.


SANDERS: Not only is the president looking to take away Brennan's security clearance, he's also looking into the clearances of Comey, Clapper, Hayden, Rice and McCabe. The president is exploring the mechanisms to remove security clearance, because they've politicized and, in some cases, monetized their public service and security clearances.


BERMAN: All right. So this happened. She was reading from that sheet. So as you say, this was a planned escapade, a planned distraction.

HABERMAN: And we're talking about it.

BERMAN: We are. And we were discussing the fact that we thought it was to distract from Russia, which of course, the news conference is more than a week ago. But Maggie, in our last episode of NEW DAY, and by that I mean eight minutes ago before the top of the hour here, you said you think it might have something to do with Michael Cohen. You were part of "The New York Times" team that broke the Michael Cohen tape recording story last Friday.

HABERMAN: Feels like it was seven weeks ago.

BERMAN: Remind us exactly what was in that and update us then on what the president is so concerned about here.

HABERMAN: Sure. So this was -- this is a recording that was among the things seized or found on one of the devices seized from Michael Cohen in this FBI raid in April.

Our understanding is this is the only one of substance about issues involving Trump and women and "The National Enquirer." And that is what they were talking about on this tape.

[07:05:10] It is a brief recording. It is less than two minutes long. The conversation cuts off before it's finished. But they are very clearly talking about payments being made to a woman named Karen McDougal, who had an alleged decade-old affair with then-businessman Donald Trump and pavements that she had gotten from AMI. They were discussing acquiring the rights to her story.

As we understand it, I don't think that Donald Trump was planning on publishing that story when he acquired her rights, so you would have to assume that it was just to put it on a shelf.

We've been told two different things. There are additional recordings of the two that have nothing -- that are of no substance or significance at all. And then there are just other recordings of Cohen either talking to people or talking to people about Trump.

There are 12 recordings that were turned over to prosecutors. We don't know which ones they are. We would assume that the one we reported on on Friday is among them, but we do not know.

CAMEROTA: And other than this being tawdry, is this legally damning?

HABERMAN: So Trump's folks argue it is not legally damning, that basically this was not a reimbursement. That this was about a straight-out purchase. That there was nothing wrong there, that the problem is personal. The problem is not legal.

CAMEROTA: I don't get that, a straight-out purchase of somebody's silence?

HABERMAN: Well, I mean it's -- look, even if you're acquiring the rights, again, Donald Trump was not about to put this in "Trump Magazine," right? I mean, this was not a story that he was going to publicize. So it's not -- it's hard to imagine what other purpose he was acquiring these for, other than continuing to ensure that she would stay quiet.

Their argument is that there's no legal issue. I'm not a lawyer. I'm not a prosecutor, so I don't want to go that far. But there's a lot more that I think will be revealed as we go forward here.

BERMAN: This is actually what's really interesting to me here, because Rudy Giuliani claims it's exculpatory. Yet, you are also suggesting that this information is somehow so upsetting to President Trump that he's out there doing things like threatening war with Iran and threatening to revoke the security clearances of top intelligence officials. HABERMAN: Right. I think it --

BERMAN: Or at least that is what is coloring his mindset.

HABERMAN: Part of it.

BERMAN: So what is it exactly that has him so worried.

No. 1, I think it's part of it. I don't think it's the only thing. I do think the Russia thing is still an aspect.

No. 2, I don't know that it's so much that -- I think he doesn't know what's on these tapes. I think he doesn't know. And so I think that with him, the unknown always becomes a little bit scary and a little concerning. And this is the unknown about things he was talking to his lawyer/fixer about. So I think that that is a looming threat that he can't contain.

One of the things that people involved in this entire issue have said repeatedly is that Trump's lawyers and Cohen's lawyers weren't necessarily going to know everything that was there, because these were not two clients who were going to just sit down and sort of unload with their lawyers and say, "Well, here's the spectrum. This is the menu of things it could be," for a variety of reasons.

And so I think that, for the same reasons that you would have advisers to Trump or to Cohen concerned about what could be there, I think Trump is going to share some of those concerns.

CAMEROTA: I have to get back to Sarah Sanders and -- and Rand Paul's claim that part of the reason why the intel chiefs' security clearances would be revoked is because they're monetizing their public service.


CAMEROTA: I mean --

HABERMAN: We know this administration is very against that.

CAMEROTA: -- the audacity. Oh, they're shocked, shocked.

BERMAN: They have those conversations at the Trump Hotel all the time.

CAMEROTA: That's right. And with Ivanka's meetings for her clothing line and her accessories line and her home goods line and her shoes line.

HABERMAN: It's -- right.

CAMEROTA: They are upset about monetizing public service? Emoluments? Paging the Emoluments Clause.

HABERMAN: I mean, look, this is again, one of the ways -- they have been pretty shameless about using the same things that they are accused of --

CAMEROTA: Unapologetic.

HABERMAN: -- with reason -- with reason that they get criticized for, and then trying to toss it back on other people. This is, again, one of those examples.

I think that they realistically know this is not really going anywhere. And also, I think it was General Hayden who said on Twitter, "OK, great. It's not going to stop me from talking."

So there is -- the degree to which this is retribution or an act of attempted retribution or potential retribution from the White House is staggering. On any given day, President Trump does something that would have destroyed previous presidents. And that his -- Trump's own supporters would have been furious with President Obama for it or president Hillary Clinton or a President Bush, maybe --

CAMEROTA: The blame America is the -- is the piece de resistance.

HABERMAN: But I mean, this is --

BERMAN: Said it in French, by the way.

CAMEROTA: Thank you. We have to revisit that in a second.

But this is -- this is another example of that. And again, given that the security clearances have been such a problem for this White House, I was really surprised to see them drive the car straight toward it.

BERMAN: Kushner, Rob Porter.

HABERMAN: Right. Right.

BERMAN: I mean, all of this stuff. You think of the problems that he's had and the people with whom it's been associated with, and now he's directing this on people like Michael Hayden.

HABERMAN: Right. It does actually make me wonder whether there is some other issue looming with security clearances that we're not aware of. Because sometimes when they do these distractions, that is a piece of it. I haven't heard like that, but it's certainly a possibility.

[07:10:03] CAMEROTA: Very quickly, can you just explain the Rand Paul factor. So Rand Paul is the person who suggested this, we think --


CAMEROTA: -- to President Trump. That -- first of all, why does he want their security clearances revoked? What does Rand Paul have to say about it? And is he doing him a favor for a quid pro quo of some kind? Why -- did he just like this idea.

HABERMAN: I don't know enough about what Rand Paul would have wanted in terms of quid pro quo, but I do know that they have a pretty unique and, in some ways, surprising relationship.

Remember, though, the supporters who Donald Trump went after initially in the primary were Rand Paul's father's supporters, Ron Paul's supporters. There is sort of a natural political alliance there. So this is not totally out of place.

BERMAN: Rand Paul has a distrust or at least --


BERMAN: -- a long-standing distrust --

HABERMAN: Correct.

BERMAN: -- of the security apparatus of the country. So there is a suggestion that Rand Paul is wavering on Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court pick. So maybe the president would make this gesture to get Rand Paul's vote. I'm not so sure that Rand Paul's vote is that hard to get. I'm not sure he needs Rand Paul's vote.

HABERMAN: Right, and I'm not sure that there is something that they want in exchange. I think that Rand Paul may have actually just liked this idea, thought it was beneficial to the president, and it went from there.

BERMAN: Respect for secrets and classified information. There is also some irony here, correct? Because it was more than a year ago -- I lose track of time -- where the president in the Oval Office to Ambassador Kislyak and Foreign Minister Lavrov apparently divulged classified information provided to the Israelis. He can do that. He's the president.


BERMAN: But it's still information that the intelligence community did not want out.

CAMEROTA: Nor did the Israelis.

HABERMAN: Right. I mean, during the campaign -- and this is contingent to the White House -- advisers were always very careful of what they told Donald Trump, the candidate, because they knew he had a penchant for turning around and repeating it. So there is an irony to how this is all playing out.

But again, I don't believe this is a real thought-out, meticulous proposal. I think this was something that got them through a news cycle.

CAMEROTA: We need to play you a bit of sound from the White House briefing room, where Sarah Sanders seems to have fully embraced her boss's notion that the investigation into Russia is a hoax. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SANDERS: The president is referencing the collusion component. Once again the president has faith in the intelligence that suggests and maintained that Russia was involved in the elections.

However, it's also important that that same information concludes that it had no impact on the election and that the president again would like to repeat that there was no collusion.


CAMEROTA: Now, just one thing. I mean, I think that we've all so, like, at this point, metabolized that it had no impact on the election. How do we know that? How do we know who read a fake news Facebook post and didn't vote a certain way?

HABERMAN: Right. We don't. Although I actually didn't think that what she said was that particularly out of line with what she has said before and what, you know, other supporters of the president have said to try to make his sort of blunt, boiled-down-to-the-bone "no collusion. You know, it's a hoax" thing sound more complex and more detailed.

I do -- I think, look, there is no way of knowing. This was -- this was a perfect storm election and a very narrow election. So in that kind of an election, all kinds of things are factors.

CAMEROTA: Of course.

HABERMAN: And so it's right.

CAMEROTA: I'm saying we keep giving -- we keep taking them -- we keep giving them the benefit of the doubt. "But there was no effect on the election."

HABERMAN: I don't know that anybody is -- at this point I actually don't think that that's the case. I don't think people are just sort of taking that at face value.

I think that the problem has been in, as we cover this administration, because they say so many things and so much has to be fact-checked, providing the full context. So a headline that just regurgitates what they say does give them the benefit of the doubt, and I think maybe that's what you're referring to.

BERMAN: And that right there, for instance, on the screen right now. It says, "Trump's 'hoax' tweet was a reference to collusion." Well, it's not like it's a footnote in that actual tweet.


BERMAN: I know you're not on Twitter anymore.


BERMAN: But it wasn't a footnote in a tweet from the president, where he's saying, "By the way, I'm talking about collusion --" HABERMAN: Right.

BERMAN: "-- not the whole Russia investigation." He is quite intentionally -- and you noted this before -- he chooses language that can mean a whole lot of different things to a whole lot of different people.

HABERMAN: Yes. And then you have to present him with this menu of options to try to figure out what exactly he's talking about. But in the meantime, what happens is we all repeat, "No collusion, no [SIC] hoax." So I don't think it's the benefit of the doubt so much as only so many hours in the day to catch up to these things.


HABERMAN: And I think that we don't always do the most thorough job that we can just collectively as the news media, putting in full context what this is.

CAMEROTA: I agree. The fire hose of news makes us speak in a shorthand.


CAMEROTA: I agree with that. But it is interesting to hear the press secretary just start to say "hoax." I mean, to use the word "hoax."

HABERMAN: Right. Although I mean, I think again, it's one of these things that he's -- he's clever about how he deals with the media. And he knows that if he says the word "hoax," we will now be saying, "No [SIC] hoax, no collusion" over and over again. And he is aware that that is something that a fair number of voters will just make that their takeaway.

BERMAN: Maggie Haberman, thank you so much for coming on. Really, this is one of the only places that you can get Maggie, in addition to "The New York Times." Get her here on CNN, because no longer on Twitter.

HABERMAN: Not the way I was anyway.

BERMAN: Not the way you were. So that's why you have to tune in.

Maggie, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

The security clearance issue, is it about silencing critics or limiting free speech? We're going to talk to a Democratic senator about all this next.


BERMAN: President Trump is considering revoking security clearances of a handful of former intelligence officials that have been critical of the president. So is this a real threat or just a way to distract from the various Russia headlines?

Joining us now is Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. He is on the Foreign Relations and Judiciary Committees.

Senator, thanks so much for being with us.

You were asked flat-out if the president's all-caps tweets on Iran and then, of course, this statement from the White House press briefing room on the possibility of revoking security clearances, you were asked bluntly, "Is this an effort to distract by the president?" Your answer was, "Yes."

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: That's right, John. Frankly, the idea that a few career intelligence officials who served across both Republican and Democratic administrations should have their security clearances revoked is a pure distraction.

It's also just, frankly, being petty. Most of these officials either don't use their security clearances or have no relevant access to classified information anymore.

[07:20:09] And I'll note that the list of who's being singled out exactly coincides with those who have been publicly critical of the president. This is the sort of attack on free speech, the press and the rights of individuals to speak out in our country that really doesn't serve the president well.

BERMAN: What's the right way, then, for the opposition party, the Democrats, to respond to this? If you think it is just a distraction, how do you handle it?

COONS: By focusing on the important matters in front of us, which is more developments and information about the attack by Russia on the United States.

The Department of Homeland Security yesterday released, for the first time in an unclassified setting, more detailed information that Russian hackers managed to get into the control rooms of hundreds of power utilities in the United States.

So, if folks out there watching think somehow that Mueller's investigation is a rigged witch hunt, as our president strikingly continues to insist, there is more and more building information that Russia continues to be our most aggressive foreign adversary.

Rather than following President Trump's tweets and the red herrings that he's been putting out, we should be focusing on our responsibility to strengthen our infrastructure, to protect our upcoming election, and to help the American people be clear-eyed about the very real threat that Putin's Russia presents to the United States.

BERMAN: The White House will say and has said repeatedly, and the president has said himself, "I've been tougher on Russia than anybody."

COONS: It's just not true.

BERMAN: Twice, they carried out these -- well, let me tell you what they say. Twice they've carried out these missile attacks on, you know Assad and Syria, obviously, a client of Russia and Vladimir Putin. The president has signed on, albeit belatedly, to sanctions on Russia and the like. They say they've been tough.

COONS: Look, I complimented President Trump for taking sanctions action against Russia when he did. I'll remind you that bill passed the Senate 98 to 2. That's a veto-proof majority if I ever saw one. The president opposed our pushing him to take those sanctions actions, but he did.

And I think he took the right action against Bashar al-Assad in Syria by striking his military assets when he used a poison gas against his own people again. I think those were the right steps for the president to take.

But frankly, the Trump administration has dragged its feet on implementing sanctions against Russia. If we want to deter this sort of aggressive action against our 2018 election that President Trump's own director of national intelligence recently predicted, we should take up and pass the bipartisan Deter Sct that senators Rubio and Van Hollen have put forward. I'm a co-sponsor. It would impose tougher sanctions on Russia if they continue to interfere in our elections, in our November elections just four months from now.

BERMAN: We're charting the progress of that vote. There was one sense of the Senate vote, a symbolic measure that did pass. There was one that you were also pushing that didn't pass. This actual legislation is yet a different avenue that still going forward. We are, as I said, tracking that progress.

On Iran, this is something that you have talked about a great deal over the last several years. Your vote on the Iran nuclear deal, you've always talked, about being one of the most difficult votes you had to cast in the Senate.

There's been this back and forth between the president and Iran over the last few days. The president threatening Iran that there could be consequences if it continues to speak out against the U.S. The foreign minister of Iran, Javad Zarif, just tweeted, "Color us unimpressed" and went on among other things here.

Do you like what you have seen from the Iranian regime over the last several weeks? Hassan Rouhani has threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz to international oil shipping.

COONS: Not at all. Look, Iran is one of the greatest state sponsors of terrorism in the world. They have been aggressive. They have expanded their reach throughout the region. Their support of the Houthis in Yemen, their support of Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, which is in partnership with the Russians. And their aggressive expansion of their reach throughout the arc of the Middle East, from Iran, through Iraq into Syria, into Lebanon. And their ongoing threats against Israel in southern Lebanon and southwest Syria make them a country of grave concern to us.

And I do think that we need to be tough against them. I guess I just don't find an all caps midnight tweet the most credible of actions in terms of pushing back against them.

I do think that this Wednesday the Foreign Relations Committee has an important opportunity to question Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on what is our strategy against Iran? President Trump walked away from the Iran nuclear deal, which although it had its limitations, was working.

I haven't heard any strategy for how we will replace that. And I'm concerned that the administration's strategy is a regime change strategy, one which I doubt will be successful.

BERMAN: I want to talk about the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, a man who I believe you've known since law school.


[07:25:03] BERMAN: For some 30 years here.


BERMAN: Joe Manchin, senator from West Virginia, has become the first Democrat to announce he will meet with Brett Kavanaugh. Will you meet with Brett Kavanaugh?

COONS: I will. But I first want there to be an agreement about the release of the documents relating to his five years of service in the Bush administration and his time serving with Judge Starr's independent counsel team. He has a very long and detailed record. Much of it is public. His decisions as a member of the D.C. Circuit court, but much of it is not. His work at the highest levels of the bush administration.

And as we saw just last Thursday, there have been Trump nominees for senior judicial positions who once we really know the full extent of their record, even Republicans fail to support.

BERMAN: But you will commit to meet with him, yes?

COONS: Of course. I will meet with Judge Kavanaugh.

BERMAN: Because one of the thing that we're heard from the White House is that no Democrats will extend that courtesy. That's not the case?

COONS: Of course, I will meet with Judge Kavanaugh. I think we need to have an agreement in place first about the production of the documents necessary for any senator, in particular a senator on the Judiciary Committee, to begin the laborious process of digging through his whole record so that I can ask questions that are well-informed at his confirmation hearing and in a personal meeting.

BERMAN: Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate it.

COONS: Thank you, John.

BERMAN: Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: All right. Why does President Trump not want to use intelligence? And I think you know what I'm referring to here. Two former FBI agents will debate what's behind that.