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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Strzok Fired over Texts; Trump and Comey Didn't Discuss Flynn; Trump Attacks Sessions Again; Trump Supporters Embrace Don Junior. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired August 13, 2018 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:00] MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): The most infamous FBI agent in the country, thanks to President Trump's numerous tweets, now out of a job. Peter Strzok, the controversial figure in the Russia probe, terminated Friday by the FBI because of his text messages disparaging Donald Trump.

Trump quickly took to Twitter to celebrate and to call for an end of the Russia probe. The list of bad players in the FBI and DOJ gets longer and longer. Based on the fact that Strzok was in charge of the witch hunt, will it be dropped?

Strzok helped oversee the start of the Russia probe and played a key role in the Clinton e-mail investigation, which Trump today said should be properly redone. Strzok was taken off the Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team after the discovery of texts between him and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page. Those messages led to a tense, 10 hour congressional hearing in July.

PETER STRZOK, FORMER FBI AGENT: I'm stating to you, it is not my understanding that he kicked me off because of any bias and that I don't appreciate what was originally said being changed.

REP. TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I don't give a damn what you appreciate, Agent Strzok.

RAJU: But the Justice Department's inspector general found no evidence to suggest Strzok's feelings towards Trump impacted the decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton. The news comes amid questions about whether Trump will sit down with the special counsel. Trump's lawyers say the president won't answer questions about whether he asked then FBI Director James Comey to back off investigating the former White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Trump's attorney, Rudy Giuliani, now changing his story, disputing Comey's sworn testimony that the president suggested he back off Flynn.

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: And the reason I keep saying his words is, I took it as a direction. I mean, this is the president of the United States, with me alone, saying I hope this. I took it as, this is what he wants me to do.

RAJU: Giuliani now saying this on CNN's "State of the Union."

RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S ATTORNEY: There was no conversation about Michael Flynn.

RAJU: The comments to Jake Tapper contradict what Giuliani said repeatedly.

GIULIANI: He didn't direct him to do that. What he said to him was, can you -- can you give him a break.

RAJU: And this last month.

GIULIANI: He didn't tell him, don't investigate him, don't prosecute him. He asked him to exercise his prosecutorial discretion because he was a good man with a great war record.

RAJU: After Giuliani denied making that claim, he offered this explanation to Tapper after being shown video of his past comments.

GIULIANI: I said it but I also said before that I'm talking about their version of it. Look, lawyers argue in the alternative.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

RAJU: And Rudy Giuliani just told "The Wall Street Journal" that he -- that the president would not sit down for an interview after September 1st because of how close it is to the midterm elections, demanding the investigation end by September. But, Jake, no sign that that's actually going to happen.

Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Manu Raju on Capitol Hill for us, thanks so much.

Phil, that is a pretty big contradiction. Up until yesterday, the story was that the president and Comey had talked about Flynn, but Giuliani was saying, oh, he just meant like you exercise your prosecutorial discretion or, yes, don't make such a big deal out of it. Comey took it to mean, lay off, stop investigating him.

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Yes.

TAPPER: Now Giuliani/Trump are saying it never happened, we never discussed it.

MUDD: Well, let me make this real easy. When we dealt with the Stormy Daniels case and the president gets on the presidential aircraft and says, I didn't know anything, and you find out other people, Michael Cohen, knows stuff, people like Giuliani say, we've got to roll this one out. The truth. The truth is, the president knew about payments to Stormy Daniels because there's a lot of people who know.

Now, let's contrast that to what we have in this case. Rudy Giuliani's looking down. The guy hasn't told the truth since Ab Lincoln was in shorts. He's looking around saying, wait a minute, I checked the facts, there might have been only two people in the room. And that's Trump and Comey. So I can say whatever I want and it's going to be the president versus the former attorney general who's -- or, pardon me, the former FBI director, he's been vilified. I think he just looked around and said, there's not enough evidence, so now I'm going to say they didn't talk about this.

TAPPER: They'd better hope that Omarosa's pen wasn't in that room during the -- during the conversation. I mean do you -- do you find -- I mean this is a -- this is a -- this is a real contradiction. I mean Giuliani tried to play it off like he was just arguing an alternative or something but then --

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right.

TAPPER: It just -- it doesn't -- it's really confusing if that's true and the easier explanation, the Occam's razor explain is, they've just decided to change their story.

PHILLIP: Yes, or maybe Trump has the tapes, because, remember, he was the first person who brought up tapes in the first place.

But Giuliani was saying something about lawyers arguing in the alternative. I'm not sure what Giuliani is doing is lawyering right now. He's muddying the waters. He's creating confusion and doubt in people's minds about what the truth is, for whatever reason, and that's because it only helps the president when people feel like they don't know who's right and who's wrong. When it becomes a he said/she said kind of situation, it helps them to undermine the Mueller probe. So that's really what's happening here. Not so much some kind of grand legal strategy. I don't think that's really Giuliani's job at the moment.

TAPPER: What -- what do you think's going on?

[16:35:00] DAVID URBAN, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN STRATEGIST: So, look, as Phil said, two people in the room.

TAPPER: Right.

URBAN: Right.

TAPPER: Comey and the president.

URBAN: There's two different versions of the truth, right? One person's heard it one way. One person hears it another way.

TAPPER: Well, three different versions of the truth, really --

URBAN: No. No.

TAPPER: Because there's Comey and there's what Giuliani and Trump were saying and then there's what Giuliani and Trump are now saying today.

URBAN: Right, but the people in the room where it actually occurred.

TAPPER: Right.

URBAN: Right. Whatever the president said, however it was heard by Comey, could be -- they could -- they could both think they're telling the truth. Could be completely two different versions of the same movie, right?

TAPPER: And -- and the other thing is, is, Jamal, is that Giuliani is saying that they don't want to let President Trump answer questions about this because they say there's indication that Mueller and his team already have a favoritism of the Comey version of events. I asked what the proof there was and he didn't -- he didn't really have any.

JAMAL SIMMONS, HOST, "HILL TV": Well, I don't know any idea -- I don't have any idea what Mueller is doing. All I know is, Donald Trump has lied over 4,000 times according to "The Washington Post." James Comey, we have not yet seen a place where he's not told the truth. So if you had to choose between the two of them, of course you would choose the person who does not publicly -- is not publicly known to lie over the person who will lie about things we have seen with our own two eyes.

URBAN: You know what, at the end of the day, this report comes down to a written report, which is going to be laid on the desk of Rod Rosenstein --

TAPPER: Yes.

URBAN: And then it's going to be taken and either given to the House and they're going to do something with it, and that's a political context. I don't think anybody around this table, anybody in America thinks that the president's going to be indicted by Director Mueller.

TAPPER: And speaking of Rod Rosenstein --

URBAN: So completely, completely political.

TAPPER: Speaking of Rod Rosenstein, the president escalated his attacks on his go-to punching bag, the Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has recused himself. He wrote, our attorney general, our AG, is scared stiff and missing in action. This is the president talking about how there should be more investigation into the FBI, into the deep state, into Peter Strzok and all this stuff. Is he just letting off steam here or is he trying to pressure Sessions to resign?

PHILLIP: I think a lot of people around him believe he's just letting off steam. They think this is his outlet for his frustration. If he were going to do something, he would have done it long ago. He's been mad at Sessions for over a year now and that hasn't really changed much.

I don't think that we have any evidence to suggest that he's doing anything other than just venting and you can imagine that he said at various times that he believes he has the authority to fire whoever he wants. If he wanted to fire Sessions, he probably would have done it by now. But I think a lot of people around him have, for now, successfully convinced him that if he tried to do that, it would only make matters so much worse for him.

Instead, it's being used just as a way to kind of gin up the base, to get people excited, to get people mobilized online and elsewhere and to undermine the legitimacy of the whole enterprise. The FBI, the Justice Department and the Mueller probe. URBAN: And firing Sessions gets you what? It gets you nothing at this

point, right, because the Mueller report's not going to Jeff Sessions, because he recused himself.

TAPPER: Right.

URBAN: It's going to Rod Rosenstein. So what does firing Jeff Sessions get you? Absolutely zero in this game.

TAPPER: And the senator who runs the Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, has told the White House, we're not going to be able to confirm a new attorney general. I mean everybody on Capitol Gill --

URBAN: Right, so he's not getting fired.

PHILLIP: And they --

TAPPER: Yes.

PHILLIP: They have a lot on their plates. I mean that's a -- that's a small thing, but a really real thing. I think they know that if he fired Sessions --

TAPPER: And a Supreme Court justice to confirm also, yes.

PHILLIP: Yes, there would be no chance that they get someone to replace him. They'd be stuck with Rosenstein.

TAPPER: All right, every --

SIMMONS: I just can't believe that I'm in the position of having to like Jeff Sessions and want him to stay as attorney general.

TAPPER: It's a new era. All sorts of things they're trying -- going on.

It's one thing for the critics to pounce, but your own family? The uncle of Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller is calling his own nephew a hypocrite. And Miller's not the only Republican getting called out by his family today.

Stick with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[06:43:04] TAPPER: Just like his father, he's quick to cause controversy. Just like his father, his allies worry he might get dragged further into the Mueller Russia investigation. And like father like son, the baggage doesn't seem to matter to the base. Notwithstanding, Donald Trump Junior's eagerness to meet with Russians to get dirt on Hillary Clinton, or perhaps even because of it, Donald Trump Junior's wildly popular with his dad's supporters on the campaign trail.

CNN'S Tom Foreman reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): In Florida, West Virginia, Kansas, Ohio, Montana and more, at rally after rally, Donald Trump Junior is emerging as a campaign rock star. One adviser to Don Junior telling CNN, it looks like practically half the Republicans in the House and Senate want him on the campaign trail.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Where's Don? Get up here.

FOREMAN: Like his father, he routinely rails about a so-called witch hunt, attacks journalists and takes on all who dare question the Trump empire.

DONALD TRUMP: He was on CNN on Sunday with Jake. Jake's tough. He's smart. He's fair. Yes, pretty fair. But Jake was grilling him and this guy was unbelievable. In fact, I was writing down some of the things he was saying.

DONALD TRUMP JUNIOR, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S SON: Are you bored of winning?

FOREMAN: His divisive rhetoric thrills Trump loyalists. Just days ago he argued there are similarities between Nazis and the Democratic Party. His interest in hunting and fishing draws legions of fans. He's getting divorced, but his new girlfriend is a former Fox News host well-known to Trump's base. And his endless praise of the president is wildly popular, too.

DONALD TRUMP JUNIOR: He's built a great business by realizing that he does not know everything, but he's brought in the best people. He listens to them. That's how you're successful.

FOREMAN: But Trump's namesake is also something else. The most direct link to allegations of shady dealings with the Russians. It was Don Junior who set up that meeting with Russians at Trump Tower before the election, Don Junior who initially denied it was about getting dirt on Hillary Clinton, who's e-mails then revealed it was, and who then said --

[06:45:07] DONALD TRUMP JUNIOR: But really it went nowhere and it was apparent that that wasn't what the meeting was actually about.

FOREMAN: Don Jr. has steadfastly denied doing anything wrong and never misses a chance to echo his dad's complaints about the Russia probe.

TRUMP JR.: The reality is the greatest investigative bodies in the world have been looking at this for two years, two years and they've come up with nothing.

FOREMAN: Indeed he appears utterly unworried as he rallies support for his father and his political allies.

TRUMP: Show this country that your vote matters.

(END VIDEOTAPE) FOREMAN: Still sources close to the White House tell CNN the President remains concerned that the Russian investigation could yet be big trouble for his son even as his star campaigner prepared for what aides say will be at least a dozen more campaign events in the near future. Jake?

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right, Tom Foreman thanks so much. Let's continue with our panel. An advisor to Donald Trump Jr. told me today there's a strong demand for the President's oldest son in the fall that practically half of the Republicans in the House and Senate want them to appear, expected to do at least a dozen if not two dozen rallies. What makes him so popular with the base do you think?

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Oh I think for the dwindling base because think about this, both Pew and Gallup report that self- identified Republicans have dropped by three to five percent over the last year and independents have grown by about three to five percent over the last year. So some people are choosing this back away from the table of the Republican Party. But for those people who are left, they love Donald Trump and Don Junior is the advocate for his father.

The question will be what happens to those people when they run in the general election. Will that -- will the virus that is the Trump's come and pop up on them in the general election and really make everything bad?

TAPPER: Would you want Donald Trump Jr. campaigning in swing seats in Pennsylvania where you're from, where I'm from for you know, Republicans are on the bubble?

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, listen, so it's you know, the dwindling Republican base, just keep going with that in 18 and 21 it turns out. But I think -- I think that it will take lots and lots of members across the United States who love to have Donald Trump Jr. in, right? We have it -- when we in the office in Southwestern Pennsylvania, Donald Trump Jr. showed up. We had 1,200 people come to that opening of that office, a campaign office. That was more people to show up for Hillary Clinton, OK, the Pittsburgh.

So he's wildly popular amongst lots and lots of folks, not just the base. He's a great advocate for his father and a great spokesman and so you know, I think he's going to be in high demand. I wouldn't have him campaigned the Philly suburbs, I wouldn't have him campaign in Chicago.

TAPPER: Yes, but keep him in solid red districts.

URBAN: Absolutely.

TAPPER: I want to change the subject to a different family member of a different member of the Trump White House. The uncle of Senior Policy Adviser Stephen Miller is calling out his nephew who is the architect of a lot of the President's immigration policies. Miller's uncle David Glosser titled his article in Politico Magazine "Stephen Miller is an immigration hypocrite. I know because I'm his uncle." He goes on to say "if my nephew's ideas on immigration had been enforced a century ago, our family would have been wiped out." That's a that's a hell of an early Hanukkah present from his uncle there.

ABBY PHILIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and it's -- I think it's really serious for his uncle probably who's looking back at their history and saying this is not just about oh it would have been better to come to the United States for a better life. I mean he's saying our family members literally would have been killed if we had not been allowed to come to this country. But what Stephen Miller would say to that is you know, in the United States we've had a history of periods when we let a lot of people in and when we don't let a lot of people in. And he's saying I want this time to be the time when we don't let a lot of people in.

I don't think this is going to move Stephen Miller. I don't think it really moves anybody in the White House but it's just emblematic of how even within Republican families, conservatives who maybe want tougher borders, they look at their broader family history and they say not that long ago my grand -- great-grandparents were immigrants, even President Trump's family. The President is the child of immigrants.

TAPPER: Well, and even more recently than that, his wife's parents just last week became naturalized citizens because of chain migration because Melania sponsored. In fact here is the attorney for Melania's parents talking about chain migration with CNN last week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL WILDES, LAWYER OF MELANIA TRUMP: To say you can bring one relative and another relative, I can understand that some of them may be in jeopardy and you may want to retool an antiquated immigration system that looks weird to have a lottery system but chain migration, no family reunification.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So is it hypocrisy, is it unfair for the administration to be pursuing policies that hurt other people in the same boat as Melania's parents?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Look, if you look at why we're having this debate, somebody's family member, an uncle decided that they wanted a comment on magazine about what they think of their nephew, excuse me, if you've got one of my three sisters on here on any a given day they're going to say I'm an idiot. If a family member participates in a public debate because they're a member of Congress, they remember the media, fine. But if some random uncle decides you wants to write an article, I'm not going to pay any attention.

Look, the immigration debate I think it's an appropriate debate for America. I think the President has take it in the wrong direction on issues like family separation but to have somebody's uncle come on and say you shouldn't listen, my nephew, because he came from immigrants 100 years ago, I don't buy it.

[16:50:22] SIMMONS: Jake, if someone whose family came here at least in the 1820s but probably before that because slavery was outlawed around that time period importing slaves a lot time period. I just find it to be so unnerving for someone like Stephen Miller whose family came here so recently to try to tell people like the rest of us that we can't make decisions about immigration. At the same time we have babies being taken from their parents in the southwest border of the United States, the southern border of the United States and we can't find those children. It will be different if this policy was some sort of -- or widespread policy, it's not. They are targeting brown people from south of the border --

URBAN: Stop, stop, stop.

SIMMONS: Because the President himself talks about s-hole countries.

URBAN: Targeting illegal immigration. I'll go -- don't go so crazy.

SIMMONS: No, did you hear --

URBAN: Illegal immigrants, this policy we're talking about illegal immigration.

SIMMONS: They have also -- they looked at look at people with green cards, they are questioning people with green cards and going back over people's immigration records.

URBAN: What -- we could talk about -- I'm talking about with Stephen Miller's uncle, or cousin, or whomever is opining about. Look, this administration has overreached on certain things and they have it on other things, right? You pull Americans, you pull immigrants, every time I talk to somebody who's not born in this country and I asked, I said what do you think about the President's policies? How did you get here? Guess what they say. I came here legally. I think the President's policies -- I think we should crack down on illegal immigration, right? I don't think you find many folks are supporting other immigration except open border Democrat.

PHILIP: We really do have to say it is also about legal immigration, it's about refugees --

URBAN: But that's a broader call.

PHILIP: It's about -- it's about the whole --

URBAN: Absolutely.

TAPPER: Yes. All right, everyone stick around. We've got more to talk about, Tom Price, David Shulkin, Scott Pruitt, all investigated all now former cabinet secretaries, the call to possibly add one more name to that list next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:00] TAPPER: And we're back with our conflict of interest watch. A scathing new report about Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, a government watchdog group demanding that the Inspector General investigate possible criminal conflicts of interest. CNN's Cristina Alesci reports. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have the legendary Wall Street genius Wilbur Ross here. He's our Secretary of Commerce.

CRISTINA ALESCI, CNN MONEY CORRESPONDENT: He's a Wall Street whiz with the kind of wealth the President finds appealing.

TRUMP: In those particular positions, I just don't want a poor person. Does that make sense?

ALESCI: But while Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has kept a low profile, quietly keeping away from the Presidential spotlight, reports of ethically questionable dealings are piling up. Now, a government watchdog group is calling for the tycoon turned cabinet member to be investigated. In a hundred page report to the Inspector General obtained by CNN, the Campaign Legal Center lays out several cases in which it says Ross appeared to engage in criminal conflicts of interest.

BRENDAN FISCHER, ASSOCIATE COUNSEL, CAMPAIGN LEGAL CENTER: We're hoping that the Inspector General will investigate Commerce Secretary Ross to preserve the public's trust in government and to demonstrate that ethics still matter.

ALESCI: After Ross joined the administration in 2017, he was either supposed to part ways with investments that may influence his work or recuse himself from matters that presented conflict. For example, he needs to divest from a company called Invesco which planned to invest in steel before he worked on a policy affecting the steel business.

WILBUR ROSS, UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF COMMERCE: The tariff actions taken by the President are necessary to revive America's essential steel and aluminium industries.

ALESCI: One of Invesco's subsidiaries posed a multi-billion dollar Chinese steel deal soon after Ross took office. As for Ross, he claimed he had divested filling out this form and signing on the dotted line for the government ethics office. The only problem is --

FISCHER: He maintained tens of millions of dollars in investments in assets that potentially posed an ongoing conflict of interest.

ALESCI: Still Ross says everything he's done is on the up and up.

ROSS: Everything that's been done has been done in compliance with the Office of Government Ethics.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ALESCI: Jake, when I reached out to the Commerce Department for comer -- for comment, they referred me to Wilbur Ross' personal attorney and he said Secretary Ross has not violated any conflict of interest law or regulation. He has not participated personally or substantially in or taken any action in regard to a particular matter that would have had a direct and predictable effect on his financial investments. That's all jargon but bottom line, his attorney arguing that Wilbur did not participate in any policy work that impacted his bottom line but ultimately the Inspector General is going to have to decide whether to investigate and more importantly whether it refers the Department of Justice because this is a criminal allegation. Jake?

TAPPER: Christina Alesci, thank you so much. We are humbled to announce today that THE LEAD will soon be making its CNN International debut beginning on September 10th. Starting then will be seen around the globe including in primetime and Great Britain and across Europe. You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER or you can tweet the show @THELEADCNN. Our coverage continues now with one Mr. Jim Sciutto in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks for watching

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Happening now, breaking news, Kremlin joy.