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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Senator Warner Accuses Trump of "Nixonian" Tactics. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired August 15, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Nice work. You know, he's not the first president to have made an enemies list. THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news. President Trump exacting revenge on a political nemesis, revoking the security clearance of a former CIA director. Distraction or not, how dangerous is this?

Verdict watch. Paul Manafort facing 300 years in prison. His fate is about to be in the hands of a jury as prosecutors wrap their case saying greed, lies, and deception drove the man that Donald Trump hired to run his campaign.

And do not engage. The White House trying to deal with presidential outburst after presidential outburst over Omarosa releasing tapes and her gossipy tell-all book. And now, she's got a few tips on how to keep President Trump quiet. Is the White House listening?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD.

We begin this afternoon with breaking news in our politics lead. The White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders dropping a bombshell in today's White House briefing.

She walked in and read a statement from President Trump announcing that the White House is revoking the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan citing what the President called erratic behavior.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Mr. Brennan has a history that calls into question his objectivity and credibility.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Brennan had served for more than 25 years for the spy agency under multiple presidents on both sides of the aisle before becoming CIA Director under President Obama.

Last month, Brennan tweeted the President's Helsinki press conference with President Trump, quote, was nothing short of treasonous.

The White House also says they are considering revoking the security clearances of the following -- Obama Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former FBI Director James Comey, former Bush CIA Director Hayden, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice, former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, former FBI Agent Peter Strzok, former FBI attorney Lisa Page, and Justice Department official Bruce Ohr.

Now, what do all of those people have in common? Well, they're almost all critics of President Trump's.

It's important the note that a source with knowledge told our Jim Sciutto the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was not consulted on this decision. We're also told that the CIA was caught completely off guard.

And it's not clear whether the White House is clearly trying to change the subject from a fourth day of backlashes and headaches caused by the President's former aide, Omarosa, and her salacious allegations, or if this is really just what it is.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny now joins me at the White House.

And, Jeff, when did President Trump make this decision to revoke Brennan's security clearance?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, that is something we do not know exactly the answer to.

We assumed it was earlier today because it was announced in the White House briefing room, but the two-page statement that the Press Secretary sent out to reporters just a short time after that briefing is actually dated July 26th.

That is three days after this threat was first made in that briefing room. So it raises a question about if this is a new announcement or if this is something that the President has indeed been sitting on.

But in either case, the White House is insisting this is not about settling political scores but protecting national security. But, Jake, there is one thing in common with all the names mentioned today -- they have questioned and criticized the President.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump taking the extraordinary step today of stripping the security clearance from one of his fiercest critics, former CIA Director John Brennan.

SANDERS: Mr. Brennan has recently leveraged his status as a former high-ranking official with access to highly sensitive information to make a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations, wild outbursts on the Internet and television about this administration.

ZELENY (voice-over): The President making good on a threat he first made last month in response to Brennan's blistering criticism and persistent questioning of the White House.

Press Secretary Sarah Sanders insisted the President was not trying to silence his detractors, saying the decision was to protect national security, not settle scores.

SANDERS: Mr. Brennan's lying and recent conduct characterized by increasingly frenzied commentary is wholly inconsistent with access to the nation's most closely held secrets and facilities. The very aim of our adversaries, which is to sow division and chaos.

ZELENY (voice-over): But Sanders could not answer why Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who has admitted lying to the FBI, still maintains his security clearance.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The former national security adviser has admitted to lying to the FBI. Why is this only a list of the Democrats who have been critical of the administration, and why should Americans have confidence that you are taking this seriously if there's not a single Republican on that list?

SANDERS: Again, certainly, we would look at those if we deemed it necessary, and we'll keep you posted if that list gets updated.

ZELENY (voice-over): Brennan, who led the CIA under President Obama, has become a thorn in Trump's side, particularly by assailing his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

[16:05:04] JOHN BRENNAN, FORMER DIRECTOR, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: Donald Trump can be played by foreign leaders who are going to appeal to his ego and to try to play upon his insecurities, which is very, very worrisome from a national security standpoint.

ZELENY (voice-over): The President only took action today on Brennan, but Sanders says he is reviewing a long list of other former national security officials who share one thing in common -- they have criticized the President.

SANDERS: James Clapper, James Comey, Michael Hayden, Sally Yates, Susan Rice, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, and Bruce Ohr.

Security clearances for those who still have them may be revoked, and those who have already lost their security clearance may not be able to have it reinstated.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: So unclear when the review will be finished on all of those names there, Jake. One thing is clear, this is the second straight day we have not seen the President, at least in public view. He's been having meetings privately.

Certainly keeping an eye on several things. One, of course, the trial of his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. The second is still fallout over the racial discussion of his former aide here who was fired late last year.

Unclear if this was designed to change the subject from both of those. But certainly, regardless of that, Jake, this decision has real consequences. Jake?

TAPPER: Jeff Zeleny at the White House for us, thank you.

Joining me on the phone is the former Director of the CIA and the NSA, General Michael Hayden.

Sir, thanks for joining us. What is your response to former CIA Director Brennan losing his security clearance and the White House -- the Trump White House singling you and others out as possibly being next?

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN (RET.), FORMER DIRECTOR, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY (via telephone): So two elements there. The first is disappointment, all right?

Now, look, John's been very harsh in his language and even John knows that he -- it's been at the personal level against the President. But that's just reflecting the deep feelings that John has about the issue. And one expects the President to be the president at all times. And so, over there, it's disappointment.

But over here, I mean, the way that Sarah Huckabee Sanders rolled this out was almost in a tone to be threatening to the rest of us. In other words, it looks to me like an attempt to make us change the things we are saying when we're asked questions on CNN or other networks. And I -- frankly, for those of us who appear routinely on air, it's not going to have that effect.

I certainly try to be respectful for the -- both the office and the person of the President, but, you know, you've got to tell the truth. And if something's not right or not true, you've got to point that out. And that implied threat isn't going to change what I think, say, or write.

TAPPER: The White House said today that John Brennan was being penalized for, quote, erratic conduct and behavior. What's your response to that?

(LAUGHTER)

HAYDEN (via telephone): I'm sorry. You know, again, I do try to make this not personal. But if our standard for having a clearance is avoiding erratic behavior, we've got a lot -- we have a lot of other folks we need to look at.

TAPPER: You seem to be suggesting, and I'm reading into this, that President Trump has erratic behavior.

HAYDEN (via telephone): Absolutely. I mean, look, the President may or may not tell the truth, all right? But you can't -- you cannot question that he is authentic, that what he tweets or says is what it is he feels at the moment. And that's exactly what's going on with John.

TAPPER: Jim Sciutto reports that the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, a former Republican senator, that he was not consulted on this decision at all. What does that say to you about how legitimate the security concerns might actually be here? HAYDEN (via telephone): Yes. You know, after this started a couple

weeks back, I had a thought as to what the agencies would do about what had been threatened at that time because, you know, they have to do things for cause. They just can't make stuff up.

So that's the first I've heard that the DNI wasn't consulted, but that's absolutely consistent with my instincts when I first saw the reports of the press conference.

But I have to quickly add, this is the President's call. He has absolute authority on this, and so you can't appeal his right to make this decision. I just think -- well, let me put it to you this way. I think it's bad for him, not just for some of the other folks who may be involved.

TAPPER: How is it bad for him?

HAYDEN (via telephone): Well, I mean, the dignity of the office. The office derives a lot of its power from the dignity of the office that is maintained and the restraint that is exercised by the occupant of the office, even though he's the most powerful man on earth.

[16:10:00] And I think we saw both of those elements degraded today with regard to dignity and restraint.

TAPPER: But what do you make of the fact that Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, he is not on this list for recrimination, but it is rather a list of mostly Democrats, but also some Republicans, who have criticized the President?

HAYDEN (via telephone): Yes. So when you go back to the first announcement, Ms. Sanders talked about people like me monetizing our clearance.

Now, I'm not exactly sure what that means, but to the degree it means anything, it's a big club. There are an awful lot of former officials who, because they continue to have a clearance, are able to contribute in very positive ways that other folks can't.

And so the fact that she singled out this group -- at that time, it was six -- for monetizing their clearances but not including anyone else told me it had nothing to do with the so-called monetization. It had everything to do with they wanted us to be quiet or to at least punish us for criticizing the President.

I mean, to bring two stories that are current full circle and to touch one another, it's almost as if they wanted us to at least implicitly sign a no disparagement agreement.

TAPPER: That's funny. So the message from you to the White House, to President Trump, is, you can try to threaten me, try to quell my criticism all you want, but I'm not going anywhere and I'm not going to stop?

HAYDEN (via telephone): Not -- no, and, look, you and I talked an awful lot, over several years, well before the election, during the campaign.

And I certainly am not doing any of this when you ask me a question to intentionally hurt Donald Trump or his presidency. I'm just trying to tell the truth as I see it to be and just let things fall where they may.

TAPPER: General Michael Hayden. Thank you so much for your time, sir. We appreciate it.

HAYDEN (via telephone): Thank you.

TAPPER: Let's talk it over with the experts here.

Jackie, I mean, the fact that the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats did not know about this, was not consulted according to Jim Sciutto's reporting, the fact that this caught the CIA unawares, how much is this actually rooted in national security versus vengeance?

JACKIE KUCINICH, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, THE DAILY BEAST: It does seem like it's the latter rather than the former. And it's really kind of cutting off his nose to spite his face because the reason that these individuals have -- still retain these clearances is for the benefit of the United States and the current set of national security professionals.

That's why. It's not just so they can have it and monetize it or do what they want with it for sentimental reasons for something. There is a reason. So that they don't have to be read in, so you don't have to have time when national security is involved.

TAPPER: And it is worth pointing out that Michael Flynn, who lied to the FBI, was not on that list, and President Obama did not take away his security clearance even when he was out there chanting "lock her up" in 2016.

AMANDA CARPENTER, AUTHOR, "GASLIGHTING AMERICA: WHY WE LOVE IT WHEN TRUMP LIES TO US": Right. No one is entitled to a security clearance, but let's make no mistake. What we witnessed from the White House podium today was a brazen act of intimidation.

Not only do they list off critics of the President, these are people that are directly tied or played a role in the Russia investigation. And so I think this is something that Mueller may be interested because it's very clear that they are trying to silence their critics.

If this was a policy directive rooted in legitimate reason and grounds, they would all be listed together. But they're rolling them out one by one, holding this over their heads, and I think we should be very clear-eyed about this.

TAPPER: Also, Mary Katharine, it is interesting that Sarah Sanders mentioned that Brennan's being punished for erratic conduct and behavior. You heard General Hayden laugh at that because, obviously, a lot of people think that President Trump --

MARY KATHARINE HAM, SENIOR WRITER, THE FEDERALIST: Right.

TAPPER: -- displays erratic conduct and behavior.

HAM: Yes. And beyond that point, there's the issue that that's the tell, that this is about a speech related issue. And that's why I think when you get into dangerous territory, you're punishing him for that reason.

Frankly, and I say this all the time because it sticks in my civil libertarian crow, but in 2014, Brennan did lie to the Senate Intelligence Committee about having improperly gotten into Senate Intelligence Committee computer files. So I think there's an argument you could've made in 2014 that there could have been reasons for punishment on those grounds.

But revealing this now, by the way, cynically, a couple of weeks after it happened in this news cycle is an interesting choice today. It reveals that it's not about that, and it should be about that.

TAPPER: What do you make of the fact that it's dated, this thing -- this page of his revoking John Brennan's security clearance, it's dated July 26th?

Why release it today, a day that the Manafort jury is going to start debating whether or not to convict Manafort, a day where the questions about the N-word tape and Omarosa, a day after Sarah Sanders she couldn't guarantee that that tape doesn't exist?

Why release it today, do you think?

[16:15:01] SYMONE SANDERS, FORMER NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY FOR BERNIE SANDERS: You know, I think someone wants to muck up the news cycle, Jake.

Look, I definitely -- I think this is ridiculous. This is nothing short of extraordinary and we should all be scared about the state of our democracy.

The president sent his White House press secretary out there today to basically poop on the people from the press secretary podium. And not only threaten, like they didn't make a threat, it was a promise. They're snatching John Brennan's national security clearance. John Brennan was in the Situation Room when American heroes took out bin Laden. Like, what is happening here?

So, my question, as it always is, is where is -- what is Congress going to do? Congress, as I like to remind people, a co-equal branch of government.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: They need to be reminded.

SANDERS: They do need to be reminded.

(LAUGHTER) SANDERS: I don't think time to be forgetting. But what is Congress going to do? Are they going to censure the president? Is Paul Ryan going to say that he didn't see this in the news cycle today?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Paul Ryan said he was trolling the last time and Trump said this to begin with.

HAM: And I actually thought he might be right.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He was wrong.

TAPPER: You thought he might be right.

Everyone, stick around. We've got a lot more to talk about. One of President Trump's key critics is weighing in on the timing of the news in the middle of the Omarosa-gate, if you will, and the Manafort trial. What that critic said coming up next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[16:20:20] SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VICE CHAIR, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: It appears obvious to me this is a White House that feels under siege because of the president's former campaign manager's trial and obviously some of the issues with his former staffer Omarosa. This is an attempt to distract the American public from those items (ph) or the process of (INAUDIBLE) to me smacks of the Nixonian type --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: If that's true, according to the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, that this is all to distract from Manafort and Omarosa, it's not going to work. We're still going to cover Manafort and Omarosa. But that is significant thing, Symone Sanders --

SANDERS: Yes.

TAPPER: -- to take away the security clearance of John Brennan because of erratic behavior.

And now, all these other individuals who have played a role in either criticizing the president or played a role in the Russia investigation.

SANDERS: This in my opinion the president trying to crush his detractors. And I know that we have seen a whole lot of movies and folks read a whole lot of books and when someone -- when you think about this happening, we think about it happening in such extreme terms and extreme ways but the oppression of people, the systematic and gradual oppression happens bit by bit piece by piece.

It happens by dehumanizing individuals, calling people animals, referring to someone like Omarosa black woman as a dog. It happens by slowly taking away things because you've been erratic and I'm the president and I have the power to do that. This is a very slippery slope.

What -- the president, yes, this is within the realm of the ability to do. Who's going to check Donald Trump? When is too much too much?

TAPPER: If President Avenatti decides to --

SANDERS: Oh, Lord, Jake!

KUCINICH: Oh man.

TAPPER: -- take away the security clearances of Dan Coats --

HAM: Right.

TAPPER: -- of Secretary of State Pompeo, of FBI Director Wray, are all the people applauding this today going to say, well, that's cool? That's how presidents do it?

HAM: No, obviously not. Everybody will switch teams immediately.

No, I think that, look, a security clearance is a privilege. It's not a granted thing, right? But it should be done with a clear-eyed plan and with good reason and frankly they should be taken away sometimes, but you should like let your DNI know you're doing that and it should not be for speech-related violations because that is in violation of the spirit of free speech and dangerous.

TAPPER: Now, Amanda, everybody on the list is a critic of the president's publicly except for one person, Bruce Ohr who we haven't heard from. He's a Justice Department official. He was demoted. There are questions about his ties to Christopher Steele, author of the dossier, alleging kompromat, alleging compromising information that Russians claimed they had. But he hasn't done anything I know of and he was demoted a little bit, but he's still director of a division of the Justice Department.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't like to do Trump's people's work for them, but there is an argument that he somehow mishandled information in the dossier. He was involved in that. And since the firing of Peter Strzok over the weekend, there's been a lot more chatter among Trump supporters about Bruce and Nellie Ohr. And, you know, whatever --

TAPPER: Nellie Ohr worked for Fusion GPS which puts together or hired Steele to do the dossier. But I guess the question is, is it appropriate for a president to be getting involved like this?

CARPENTER: Why would you put the name on the list from the White House podium if you haven't made an argument about what he's done wrong publicly? That is deeply unfair. It's deeply cynical. I mean, this is an act of intimidation.

And I just don't think we can view this in a vacuum. This does go to the overall corruption and strong-arm tactics that are carried out by this White House. I mean, we're talking about the nondisclosure agreements he makes his White House staff sign.

He cracks down on people who voice opposition to him in any way, shape or form and now he's using the levers of the government to do that. And it's shocking to watch.

TAPPER: And, Jackie, I have to say, he's done this to Congress, Republicans in Congress. It looks like it's worked.

KUCINICH: Well, right, because the Republicans that he's gone up against have either decided that they're going to not run again or have decided to fall in line. We've seen it play out in various elections.

Look at Tim Pawlenty. He's someone who spoke out against the president. He ran again in Minnesota. Sure, there were some other issues there. He didn't win a chance to run again.

You have seen -- and you know what? The Republican base is backing him up and still has power because he's getting support for these actions. Until that dries up, that's when Republicans will, you know, maybe assert themselves.

TAPPER: Also breaking this hour, closing arguments done in the Paul Manafort trial. How this verdict could point back to President Trump no matter what the jury decides.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:29:41] TAPPER: It has been speculated that the president revoked the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan so that we would not cover this next story. Any moment, jurors will get the case of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. We know the president is closely watching this first test of Robert Mueller's prosecutors, and the verdict could theoretically change the way this investigation moves forward.

The 69-year-old Manafort is charged with a slew of financial crimes, among them orchestrating an elaborate worldwide scheme involving dozens of offshore bank accounts to avoid paying taxes on millions of dollars earned while lobbying for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine.