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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Evolving Stories on Trump Tower; Key Witness Set to Testify in Manafort Trial; Interview with National Security Adviser John Bolton. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired August 6, 2018 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Sure seems like President Trump knows a lot about a meeting he says he didn't know much about.

THE LEAD starts right now.

The president changing his story on the Trump Tower meeting once again, this time flat-out admitting that the purpose of the meeting was to get dirt about Hillary Clinton. Did the president just help or hurt his son's chances with the special counsel?

[16:00:07]

Ditching the deal. President Trump about to slap sanctions back on Iran., the sanctions that President Obama had taken away. Might this bring us closer to war? To peace? Is North Korea watching? The president's national security adviser joins me live.

Plus, the first lady backs LeBron and his school for at-risk youth after President Trump says he doesn't like LeBron. He likes Mike. This is not the first time Melania has dunked on the Donald.

Welcome to THE LEAD, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with our politics lead and the increasing concern from the president's about the Russia investigation, which led to a stunning admission, President Trump yet again changing the entire story surrounding the now infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting, admitting for the first time that the only reason for the meeting was to get dirt on Hillary Clinton.

This was in response to a story in "The Washington Post" and another in which sources close to the White House told CNN's Kaitlan Collins and myself that President Trump is increasingly worried about whether his son Donald Trump Jr. might be legally exposed in the special counsel's Russia investigation.

This concern, according to sources, particularly about Mueller potentially touching Don Jr., is leading to the president's increasingly frenzied public agitation, sources tell us

And just like that, President Trump put that agitation on full display, tweeting in response to this reporting from CNN and "The Post" -- quote -- "Fake news reporting, a complete fabrication that I am concerned about the meeting my wonderful son Donald had in Trump Tower. This was a meeting to get information an opponent. Totally legal and done all the time in politics, and it went nowhere. I did not know about it."

Now, that tweet right there sparking the latest twist in this ongoing saga, by casually admitting that the true intention of the meeting was to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. Of course, the president and his son had previously stated that there was no meeting with Russians at all. Then they said that the meeting was about Russian adoptions.

Then once reporters got hold of e-mails suggesting that was not accurate, the president acknowledged that getting dirt on Hillary Clinton was a reason for attending the meeting. But this was the first time the president suggested that that was its sole purpose.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is in New Jersey near where the president is staying for his working vacation.

Jeff, this morning, the White House announced there will be no public appearances today by President Trump and they're also apparently, staffers there, hoping that the president will stop tweeting about the Trump Tower meeting.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, that is the hope.

And we have certainly heard that before, aides and advisers asking him to stop doing this. It's been met with mixed success, frankly, over the last year-and-a-half or so. And the reason is they do not want him to add oxygen to that already fraught discussion of that meeting in Trump Tower back in June 2016.

The president so far has been quiet today, but, Jake, that often changes the more he watches television and talks to some friends.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump summer vacation is sounding more like a venting session. At the Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey today, the president out of public view, but raging on Twitter over the Russia probe.

More explicitly than before, he's zeroing in on the 2016 Trump Tower meeting between his son Donald Trump Jr., top campaign officials and a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton.

"This was a meeting to get information an opponent. Totally legal and done all the time in politics. And it went nowhere. I did not know about it."

That Sunday tweet was the most direct acknowledgment yet for the real purpose of the meeting, which is now part of special counsel Robert Mueller's inquiry. It shows how brazenly misleading the original explanation of the meeting was when Donald Trump Jr. first said, "We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children."

While the president has since defended the meeting. DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So, I think from a

practical standpoint, most people would have taken that meeting.

ZELENY: One of his lawyers now admitting he made a mistake last year initially describing it.

JAY SEKULOW, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I had bad information at that time. I made a mistake in my statement. I talked about that before. That happens when you have cases like this.

ZELENY: CNN has learned that Mr. Trump is now being advised to stop tweeting about the Trump Tower meeting, for fear of adding even more oxygen to a moment in time that is now part of an ongoing collusion and obstruction case.

While the president has repeatedly suggested the meeting was standard operating procedure, it's actually against the law for U.S. political campaigns to receive donations or information of value from foreigners.

On ABC's "This Week," the president's lawyer Jay Sekulow said that point wasn't clear.

SEKULOW: Well, the question is, how would it be illegal? I mean, the real question here is, would a meeting that nature constitute a violation, the meeting itself constitute a violation of the law?

ZELENY: The weekend tweet comes as the president increasingly lashes out at the special counsel's investigation and his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort's trial starts its second week.

CNN has also learned that the president's legal team is poised to respond to Mueller in the coming days about the possibility of a presidential interview, a decision that will answer one of the biggest questions hanging over the White House.

[16:05:06]

TRUMP: Now, we're being hindered by the Russian hoax. It's a hoax. OK?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: So the president, of course, still refers to it as a hoax. That's what he talks about publicly, but, Jake, privately, we are being told that that is one thing that may come out of the president's time here at his golf resort.

Is he going to sit down with Bob Mueller's lawyers or is he not? Rudy Giuliani, other lawyers say that decision could be made in the coming days.

He, of course, always says he wants to. Many advisers and certainly his lawyers, Jake, hope he doesn't.

TAPPER: That's right. Jeff Zeleny with the president in New Jersey, thanks so much.

There's obviously a credibility issue going on here. There are questions. President Trump is attacking the credibility of the media. There are questions about Michael Cohen's credibility. But let's look at the Trumps' credibility just for one second.

We know from the e-mails that Donald Trump Jr. had been promised from a Russian government attorney information that -- quote -- "would incriminate Hillary, and would be very useful to your father, part of Russia and its government support for Mr. Trump."

Donald Trump Jr.'s response at the time, "If it's what you say, I love it."

So we have known about this for quite some time. And yet there's been all these stories about what the meeting was about. And now finally President Trump comes out and says the meeting was about getting information Hillary Clinton, not just that that's why Donald Trump Jr. attended it to get information, but that's the purpose of the meeting.

HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: The irony is, I think, actually, most Americans think that that's what political campaigns do, that they're dirty, that they will meet with anyone who has business about their opponent.

So I think, actually, if they had told the truth about this at the beginning, this might not be the story that it is, because, yes, it's an FEC violation to meet with a foreign government and have that, and there are legal implications now from the lying.

But if they had actually just admitted it at the outset, this would be so much less of a story.

TAPPER: Is that right? I mean, what is it? Is it just an FEC violation? You are a former FBI official. Is there not anything more? I mean, when you hear Jay Sekulow others say there's nothing illegal here, is that true? Would -- I mean, we don't know exactly what happened. But might there be more than just an FEC violation?

MIKE ROGERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: The meeting in and of itself didn't necessarily have to be illegal.

If there were actions taken subsequent to the meeting...

TAPPER: The release of information

ROGERS: Or some requests that went forward either by the Russians or their representatives with the campaign, that's where they start to get in trouble.

You could walk into a meeting and someone say, oh, my gosh, I have -- I have dirt on your opponent, I have eight -- two truckloads full of it. That in and of itself isn't crime, even if it is the Russians. What becomes the crime is where they solicit or conspire to violate federal election laws and -- or -- this where I think they really get in trouble.

Did you ask the Russians if they would go ahead and release stolen information? That is, in fact a violation of felony -- of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. That's where they could be going.

And I think the president got exercised about this for the fact that he has now Cohen raising his hand saying, I know something about that meeting. They have Gates, who is now cooperating with the -- with the Mueller investigation saying, I know something about the meeting.

They're zeroing in on Roger Stone, who actually met with another Russian through the campaign about information that might be -- that's where I think they're starting to get nervous. It's really was a legal problem. It was a veracity problem.

TAPPER: Right.

And, Nia-Malika, I want you to take a listen to President Trump's lawyer Jay Sekulow talking to ABC News over the weekend. He had originally said that President Trump had nothing to do with that misleading statement that Donald Trump Jr. gave in which he claimed that the meeting was just about adoptions. Obviously, it was about a lot more than adoptions.

Here's Jay Sekulow explaining why what he said originally was not true.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEKULOW: I think it's very important to point out that in a situation like this, you have -- over time, facts develop. That's what the investigations do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Facts develop?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I don't think facts are developing on something that happened essentially a year ago. The facts were the facts. And who relayed the facts to him or who misled him, I mean, that's the question.

Who told him about what happened there? What did the presidency about the meeting? What did Don Jr. say about the meeting? It sounds like he just didn't know what was going on and that somebody misled him in terms of what was going on in terms of crafting that statement on Air Force One.

We, of course, later realized that it was the president who was...

TAPPER: The president dictated the statement.

(CROSSTALK)

HENDERSON: This misleading statement about this meeting. Yes, I mean, it's interesting because they want to say, oh, this was no big deal, but, my goodness, I mean, all the lengths they gone to, to shade the truth about what happened at this meeting.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: And here's the issue, Amanda. Here's the issue, is that Michael Cohen, without question, people are saying he has a veracity problem, that he has a credibility problem.

And the Trump team is doing everything they can to say you can't trust a word he says. But time and time again, we have seen these -- this cast of characters contradict themselves, admit things that they previously had denied.

[16:10:02]

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes.

And we have to remember that this Trump Tower meaning didn't happen in a vacuum. As you pointed out, there's a series of events that transpired and they lied. Alternative facts, whatever you want to call it, they lied at every turn to try to conceal all of the contacts that members of the Trump campaign and family had with Russians.

That blanket statement that Hope Hicks gave out after the election saying there's been no contact with any Russians was such a blatant denial, that there was just no way it could be true, because we knew these things were happening.

And so when you look what happened at the Trump Tower meeting and then you continue to look at people like George Papadopoulos and George Page...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Carter Page.

(CROSSTALK)

CARPENTER: Carter Page -- that communicated with the Russians, there's a reason they lied about it to such an absurd degree.

And now, as these facts are revealed, they have to keep changing their story.

TAPPER: If there is nothing there other than the lying, which you're saying is a possible theory, that if they just admitted what happened a year ago, then none of this would be going on right now, why all the lying?

I mean, you have been in this town for a long time. And this is not the first time we have seen this play.

ROSEN: Yes, I was talking about what I think people think about how campaigns are run. But I do think that from well before the election -- well before the

inauguration, I should say, when we got word that there were communications with the Soviets about pulling back on the sanctions, when Trump has consistently cozied up to Vladimir Putin, when everybody in his party, including elected officials, thought that was dangerous, I mean, there's a -- there's this consistent ease of relationships with Russia.

That is ultimately why I think they're doing this lying, because they -- we don't know what there is there. But there is something there. And I'm tired of sort of the Democratic rhetoric about this is all about collusion with Russia to fix the election.

We know the Russians interfered with the election. We know that the Trump campaign was a beneficiary of that result. What we don't know is the real relationship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin or others.

CARPENTER: Yes, but there were two constant conversations that were always happening.

And you can zone in on the Trump Tower meeting as evidence of this. They told Don Jr., we have dirt and Hillary Clinton, but once they got in the door, they wanted to talk about sanctions. That is a conversation that continued throughout the campaign and even after Trump was elected.

The Russians pushed negative information about Hillary Clinton and every contact that they could have with members of the Trump team. And there were many. I think there's at least 80. They wanted to talk about sanctions.

TAPPER: They wanted -- I mean, the idea that it was just a way to get their foot in the door is one theory, the idea that like, hey, we have dirt on Hillary Clinton, and then they just change the subject to sanctions relief, the relief of the Magnitsky Act.

But another theory is, the Russians were seeing the two as tied together, whether that was obvious to everybody in the room at the time or not.

ROGERS: I mean, think about it.

You had Russian intelligence, either agents, meaning they were recruited by intelligence officers, or intelligence officers themselves with very senior level access to a political campaign. They are not going to walk away from that opportunity, even if the campaign was witting or unwitting.

And I'm going to guess they were unwitting. I think they ran ahead of their headlights a little bit on this. I think Don Jr. didn't really understand what he was getting into. And they used that to their advantage.

So, of course, they're going to say, hey, don't forget about what's behind door number three, but we really need to talk about sanctions. So they were just kind of leading them along the entire opportunity that they had to pitch this notion, we have this stuff and, by the way, you got to help us with sanctions.

CARPENTER: But even if they were, if Don Jr. was ignorant of what was going on, is that a defense?

ROGERS: Well, ignorance of the law is no defense, but you have to show that he was witting and knowingly, intentionally committing a crime, and that's where I think...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We got to take a quick break. I'm sorry, Hilary. We will come back to you.

Breaking news in the Paul Manafort trial. The star witness is about to take the stand. The big question is when and what right-hand man Rick Gates might reveal.

That's coming up next.

Plus, what's behind Melania Trump's latest break with her husband where she's taking LeBron James' side over his? Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:18:34] TAPPER: And we're back with breaking news in our politics lead.

You know, for all the talk about locking her up, the Trump campaign's deputy chairman soon should be taking the stand in the United States of America versus the former campaign chairman. The key witness is Rick Gates, Manafort's right hand man for over a decade. He'll be face to face with his former boss for the first time since flipping and now as a witness for prosecution for team Robert Mueller.

Prosecutors say Manafort and Gates made millions consulting for Viktor Yanukovych, the former pro-Putin Ukrainian president.

CNN's Jim Sciutto joins me now.

And, Jim, Rick Gates presumably knows everything about how Manafort operated.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: He does, and that's certainly the prosecution's argument. In fact, we had some brief excitement here moments ago when he was expected to be the next witness. Prosecution instead called a woman named Paula Liss, unclear what her relationship is, involvement in the case. But Rick Gates will come. A defense attorney saying that earlier today.

So in addition to having been Paul Manafort's deputy during their time at the head of the Trump campaign in 2016, for years, Rick Gates worked with him as his right-hand man and the prosecution believes that he can then detail exactly how all this worked and then can get at what Paul Manafort is charged with here -- bank fraud, lying to get loans, avoiding millions of dollars in taxes and we should note and remember that Gates has pled guilty. He pleaded guilty not only to conspiracy but also lying to federal prosecutors.

[16:20:01] He pleaded guilty to get a lower term for the crimes, for the charges he faces and with that, of course, comes the promise he would have to prove his usefulness to the prosecution in cooperating. And that testimony when it comes will be the demonstration of that cooperation. That certainly puts Paul Manafort in a risky legal position to have his long-time deputy in effect as witness for the prosecution.

TAPPER: We were just told just a second ago they have called Rick Gates to the stand, Jim. This is expected to be one of the most dramatic testimonies of this trial and we know the defense is planning on discrediting him in one key way.

SCIUTTO: That's right. And here's the way. They're basically going to blame him, right?

They're saying that Rick Gates, the defense's argument is that Rick Gates was that mastermind of this. That he embezzled money from Paul Manafort, that Rick is the one who is arranging the criminal wrongdoing. That's their argument. They're going to be sticking to it.

Of course, earlier in the day, you had Paul Manafort's long-time accountant who is providing a lot of details for the prosecution, exactly how Paul Manafort, the prosecution argues, was leading the way on the criminal wrongdoing. But again as you said, it's been changing very quickly here. Now, Rick Gates is coming to the stand and it will be interesting to hear what he has to say.

TAPPER: All right. Jim Sciutto, thanks so much.

Joining me now is CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor Laura Coates.

I mean, just on its face, dramatic -- a dramatic idea, the notion that President Trump's former deputy campaign chair is testifying against his former campaign chair. I mean, we haven't seen anything like that probably since people were testifying against each other in the Nixon administration.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes.

TAPPER: "The Washington Post" reports that Gates is expected to shine light on allegations about Manafort lies including filing fake tax returns, committing bank fraud, lying to get loans. It could potentially be very damaging for Manafort.

COATES: Of course, it could. Now, you have it. Finally, ever since February, when he agreed to cooperate with Mueller's probe, everyone's wondering what's going to happen? What will he say? Will he cooperate?

Now, the battle is between the admitted liar and accused liar and who are you going to believe?

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Rick Gates being -- sorry to interrupt, but Rick Gates is being the admitted liar.

COATES: The admitted liar --

TAPPER: OK.

COATES: -- in terms of plea agreement with the government at this point of time about lying, et cetera. Remember, he was charged with conspiracy against the United States, as well. So, you have an issue of who are you going to believe?

And this remains a very document-heavy case. The reason that the prosecutors led with their trump -- forgive the pun -- is accountant. There's still information that somebody allowed this particular accountant to say, I'm going to facilitate a fraudulent transaction, fraudulent letter. That still stands there, along with all the documentary proof.

Now, you got the person who knows the true intent. Have you had conversations with Paul Manafort before? What does he said? Is he truly ignorant of everything he's telling you he's ignorant of right now? And is this a really viable and believable scapegoat? Probably not.

TAPPER: Gates is probably going to go to prison no matter what, but under a plea agreement, a judge could give him less time if he provides substantial assistance to Mueller, but this also makes him a liability in a way for the prosecution because the defense is just going do say he is lying to get -- so he gets a lighter sentence.

COATES: The defense will use that. And every defendant would use that sort of scenario. However, as a prosecutor, I don't know any prosecutor who ever, ever had Mother Theresa as their witness. Everyone has a credibility problem.

The idea is whether or not you can believe that this person was in a position to know the information you're going to testify about. And what's their reason to lie?

Remember, if you are a cooperator and if you have this impending sentencing, tell the truth. Because if you don't, it will be a longer sentence or may be even more charges against you. So, he has the incentive to tell the truth to the government but also, you have the incentive here for someone like Rick Gates to say, look, I can't be believed in most things but I am now.

TAPPER: All right. Laura Coates, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

This afternoon, Iran's president delivered a direct message to President Trump. Let's negotiate right now. Will president Trump do it? His national security adviser, Ambassador John Bolton, will join me next. Stay with me. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:28:43] TAPPER: And we're back with our world lead.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump called it a terrible deal and promised to toss it out and in May, President Trump announced that the U.S. was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. The agreement that established curbs on Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

So, now, at midnight tonight, the first wave of U.S. sanctions on Iran will be re-imposed at 12:01 a.m.

Joining me now to discuss this and more about President Trump's foreign policy, President Trump's national security adviser, Ambassador Bolton.

Mr. Ambassador, thanks for joining us. We appreciate it.

JOHN BOLTON, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Glad to be with you.

TAPPER: So, the president has said as recently as this weekend that he's open to meeting with Iranian leaders. Earlier today, you told Fox News that the Iranian leaders, quote, flatly turned him down. They aren't serious about stopping their malignant behavior.

A couple of hours, however, the Iranian president said of a potential meeting, quote: If there's sincerity, Iran has welcomed dialogue and negotiations. I don't have preconditions. If the U.S. government is willing, let's start right now, unquote.

What's your response? Does that satisfy you?

BOLTON: Well, let's see what really comes of it or whether it's just more propaganda. I mean, I think President Trump has been consistent since his days on the campaign trail that he would sit down and negotiate with Kim Jong-un, with the ayatollahs in Tehran. That's his approach to diplomacy and he's, as I say, been consistent on it.

So, if the Iranians are really willing to come and talk about all of their malign behavior in the region and around the world, I think they find the president willing to do it.