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President Trump Revokes Security Clearance of John Brennan and Possibly Other Former Intelligence Officials; President Trump Links Decision to Revoke Security Clearances to Russia Investigation; Interview with Rep. Joaquin Castro; Investigation Into Trump Foundation Donations. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired August 16, 2018 - 8:00   ET


[08:00:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Now more than ever, it is critically important," Brennan writes, "that the special counsel Robert Mueller and his team of investigators be allowed to complete their work without interference from Mr. Trump or anyone else so that all Americans can get the answers he says they so rightly deserve."

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump making his motivation for revoking Brennan's security clearance very clear. In a new interview with the "Wall Street Journal," he says, quote, "I call it the rigged witch-hunt. It is a sham, and these people let it, so I think it's something that had to be done," laying out very clearly where his mind is.

The White House also releasing a list of nine other former and current officials in the intelligence community whose security clearance we're told is under review. Critics of the president's move are calling this an enemy's list, Nixonian, and a dangerous press da precedent.

BERMAN: Joining us now, Lisa Monaco. She is the former homeland security and counterterrorism adviser to President Obama and a CNN senior national security analyst. Lisa, thanks so much for being with us. And again, so many developments overnight, including the president telling us exactly why he did revoke the security clearance of former CIA director John Brennan and put those nine other people on the list on double secret probation to have their security clearances revoked if they perhaps speak out again. And the president says it's because they were behind the Russia investigation. He says I call it the rigged witch-hunt, these people led it, so I think it's something that had to be done. Retribution the president admits for the Russia investigation. Your reaction?

LISA MONACO, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: John, I think this, as Jim Clapper said this morning, is a stunningly candid and disturbing admission on the president's part. And what we saw yesterday with the revocation of John Brennan's security clearance is really an effort to silence and intimidate critics. I don't think, as we've seen this morning with John Brennan's op-ed, it's certainly not going to have the intended effect. I don't think it will have an effect of silencing -- it won't be successful in silencing those who are threatened and on what does appear to be an enemies list.

The thing I'm most concerned about, though, John is not about John Brennan's security clearance, Jim Clapper's or mine, or any of us former officials. The concern I have is the message this sends to career intelligence officials, career intelligence professionals and law enforcement professionals, whose job it is to do independent work free from political influence, whose job it is to speak truth to power, to tell the unvarnished -- give their unvarnished assessments. And what this does, what the president's steps yesterday and what these threats amount to is sending a message to people that if they give uncomfortable assessments, if they send uncomfortable messages and pass uncomfortable messages up the chain, that they should beware that there's going to be retaliation. And that's a very, very dangerous thing for our democracy and it's a dangerous thing for our national security.

BERMAN: You say it's more about the message than perhaps the direct impact of someone like Brennan not having a security clearance. Michael Hayden, James Clapper have all said they don't think the country will suffer terribly much from them not having top secret clearance.

MONACO: I think that's right. Look, that is -- as Jim Clapper said, the republic won't rise or fall on whether any one individual has their security clearance. But what will damage the republic is the president and the administration in an effort to silence political critics by using the levers of state power. That's really unprecedented. The parallels are being drown to the Nixonian enemies list, but at least that was being done behind closed doors until it was exposed in the Watergate process.

BERMAN: There is no ambiguity give on the what the president told the "Wall Street Journal." He said something that had to be done because they were behind the Russia information, again, no ambiguity. And as you said, Lisa, it hasn't had the immediate impact perhaps that the president was hoping for, which is silencing John Brennan, because he wrote this blistering op-ed in the "New York Times" where he says the president's claims of no collusion are hogwash.

Let me read you just a bit of that. Brennan writes "the only questions that remain are whether the collusion that took place constitutes criminally liable conspiracy, whether obstruction of justice occurred to cover up any collusion or conspiracy, and how many members of Trump incorporated attempted to defraud the government by laundering and concealing the movement of money into their pockets. Again, that's what Brennan wrote this morning. I have a couple of questions about that. Number one, do you think he's right?

MONACO: Look, I think what John did this morning in the "New York Times" was the same type of blunt, unvarnished assessment I heard him give in the Situation Room time and time again. He was not concerned then or he's not concerned now about whose agenda is being disturbed by his blunt assessment, and I think he has got a right to give his view.

[08:05:15] What that op-ed does, as I read it, was lay out from John's decades of experience as an intelligence professional, the clear tactics and practices and intent of the Russian intelligence services, a set of assessments I would add, John, that the intelligence community both in the Obama administration and under the current intelligence leaders all agree with. This is this intelligence community assessment that he refers to in his op-ed has been endorsed by President Trump's own intelligence community leaders who say that we continue to be under attack by Russia's effort to interfere in our democracy.

So our focus ought to be on doing whatever we can to repel that attack, to defend ourselves against it, to prevent it from happening, and instead what we have is a weaponization of the security clearance process which says to me that this very grave national security matter is not being dealt with as such but rather is being used as a political tool against the president's critics.

BERMAN: It should be noted Brennan goes a step further than that really and goes a step further than the intelligence assessments that you're talking about. all those assessments are that Russia attacked the United States electoral system in 2016, it was a cyberattack, cyberwarfare against the United States. They all agree on that. They all agree it was to help Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. What they do not say, they do not give an opinion on is whether there was collusion between people associated with Donald Trump and the Russians. And John Brennan, the former director of the CIA, came out this morning and he wrote that the president's claim there was no collusion, he says it's hogwash.

So you note John Brennan has a right to say that. The question is, is it politically expedient to say that? Because Brennan notes he has got no evidence, classified evidence that he's telling us that it actually happened. He saying he's basing his opinion on the publicly available information.

MONACO: As you note, the intelligence community assessment that came out in January of 2017 and has been repeatedly endorsed and agreed with by intelligence community leaders across two administrations said nothing about collusion because that is not the job of the intelligence community. That is, however, the job of the special counsel and his team to determine what happened, who tried to interfere, who tried to help or conspire with Russia in an effort to interfere in our election, and that's the job of Bob Mueller.

And as I read John Brennan's op-ed, his view is that that needs to, and I quite agree with this, that investigation and that effort by the special counsel needs to be able to continue unfettered, unintimidated, and un-interfered with.

BERMAN: Lisa Monaco, thanks very much for being with us, appreciate it.

MONACO: Thank you.

HILL: Joining us now, CNN Political Director David Chalian. David, as we look at this, it's impossible to ignore how political it looks and is, frankly, I think we can say that, just looking at the list. Senator Susan Collins of Maine had this to say in reaction, while Brennan has been "far too political in his statements, unless there was a disclosure of classified information, of which I'm unaware, I don't see the grounds for revoking his security clearance." That being said, if this is political retaliation, David, is there a sense of how far it could go?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICS DIRECTOR: Well, there is no sense, I don't think we have a sense, of how far Donald Trump wants to use his power for retribution on critics. But it's clear that's what this is. And I don't think you need to be a critic of the administration to say that. I think it's in Donald Trump's words. I think he makes it clear in the "Wall Street Journal" interview. I don't think there is any pretense here to what is going on, and that this is much like in his interview with Lester holt that this is part of the pushback on what he believes is an unjustified Russia investigation and Mueller probe.

I would just say that what I find so interesting in listening to all the national security officials you guys have been talking to that are on this list, nobody seems to be making, first and foremost, that there's a real national security argument against this. It is a -- everyone to a person, and these are the national security officials that are the ones being talked about as having possibly have their clearance revoked, it is a First Amendment issue, it is a chilling effect issue, it is the ability to speak your mind issue that they are raising, not one where they think national security somehow is at risk because of this.

BERMAN: I will suggest that perhaps long term that has its own national security implications, but I do take your point.

[08:10:00] They're saying that the fact they can't provide advice, or certain kinds of advice with certain kinds of clearance, now that won't have major impact theoretically. You brought up the Susan Collins comment, and I'm glad we have David here for this. It struck me that whereas Republicans are often quiet about some things like the president's comment which is have been called racist by so many this week, you don't see a lot of Republicans weighing into that discussion, there were Republicans jumping up to support the president here. Susan Collins' criticism was lukewarm at best, and she did say that Brennan has crossed the line. Rand Paul actively supportive of what the president did here. And John Kennedy from Louisiana called John Brennan -- and I quote here -- a butt-head. So the president does seem to have some Republican support here.

HILL: And Rand Paul, you talk about support. Rand Paul went the White House, right to have this whole decision. Thank you, Rand Paul.

CHALIAN: No doubt, John, and I think that speaks also to the role that Brennan has been playing since he left the Obama administration. He's been a chief critic, but it's in the political arena that he's doing that, and so I think you see some political players revert to form here and take him on on that score.

I wonder, though, if we were to probe deeper with some these Republicans about, we're talking about the potential of a chilling effect that that could have, I wonder if they would be as -- certainly Rand Paul would be, but I don't know if every Republican would be as not worried about that potential effect here. But I think it's a good point. Brennan has entered the political arena. His criticism is only viewed through a political lens, not necessarily a partisan one, but just one in politics. And so I think that you will see the partisans who have largely been supportive of the president remain so. You remember when Paul Ryan was asked about this when it was initially threatened, and he tossed it off as he's just trolling people. He didn't take it seriously.

HILL: Although, based on history, we all could have, right? I want to go back. When you're saying that this is, in fact, freedom of speech and the First Amendment could ultimately be a national security issue, you're right, because it calls back up something that we've discussed a number of times, the fact the president wants to surround himself with yes men and women. He doesn't want to be questioned. Whether that be by somebody who is questioning him on television or even around him. So it gets back to the point of this president trying to get rid of sort of anybody who in any way he perceives to be criticizing him or who disagrees with him, and that does have chilling ramifications.

CHALIAN: It certainly could, Erica. There's no doubt about it. It's just hard to separate how the president would feel about this absence the Russia investigation, because as I read his words in the "Wall Street Journal" and he completely ties it to this, it's hard I think for any American to assess does he only want yes men around him when he's making decisions of war, or is this just, again, a president completely consumed in bunker mentality and he and his team are under investigation, something the he thinks is unfair, and he's lashing out in every way he possibly can with all the power before him. That is a scary enough concept, obviously, that the president would use his power simply to make these political pushback attacks, but nonetheless it's hard to assess if that's how he would respond absent that.

BERMAN: David Chalian, always a pleasure to have you with us this morning, thanks so much for joining.


BERMAN: As we've been talking about, John Brennan calls the president's claims of no collusion hogwash. We're going to speak to a member of the House Intelligence Committee to see what he thinks about that. Stay with us.


[08:17:19] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Former CIA director John Brennan is responding to the fact that the president revoked his security clearance. He wrote an op-ed that is out just this morning in the "New York Times."

The White House says the president is also reviewing the security clearance for nine other current and former officials, many of whom have been critical of the president.

Joining me now is Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas. He serves on the House Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committee. Congressman, thanks so much for being with us. Woke up to this

interview the president did in the "Wall Street Journal" where he says that the reason he revoked John Brennan's security clearance and is considering revoking the others is because of the people that led, as he calls it, the rigged witch hunt. He's talking about the investigation into the Russian attack on the U.S. election, so the president says, "I think it's something that had to be done."

Your reaction to the president's words?

REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO (D), TEXAS: It's a clear abuse of power and it's a mark of authoritarian dictator really rather than a democratically elected president of the United States. John Brennan's issue is that he challenged a thin-skinned president of the United States and it really portends dangerous things.

Who's to say that in -- well, first of all, who's to say that in six months the list won't be nine people but 100 people in a way that basically discourages anybody from criticizing the president who holds a security clearance or that in 10 years you won't have another Republican or Democratic president stripping a thousand people of their security clearances. So this is a dangerous precedent to set.

BERMAN: You say it's an abuse of power but he clearly has that power. Michael Hayden who was on with us overnight said this is clearly something the president can choose to do.

CASTRO: No, you're right. He likely has the power to do that. But that doesn't mean that it's a good idea. It's an abuse of power because he's not doing it for a legitimate reason. He's doing it because somebody exercised their First Amendment right to criticize an elected official, and because of that it's a bad idea and it's an abuse of power.

BERMAN: Yes, he doesn't even say it's about their First Amendment rights, he says it's because they launched the investigation into the Russian attack on the U.S. election. It does seem timed to counteract some of the criticism that these people including John Brennan have said publicly about the president.

CASTRO: And I would add that if he's linking it directly to that, to John Brennan's role in the Russia investigation, then that should be included in Bob Mueller's inquiry, in his investigation. Because that also could be considered a kind of obstruction.

BERMAN: Yes. I will say that if you listen to Brennan, Clapper, Michael Hayden, they don't believe the fact that they don't have clearance in and of itself will have any major impact on national security which would include any investigations.

[08:20:02] Let me get your take on what John Brennan did right this morning because he reacted. I mean, clearly if President Trump was trying to silence John Brennan, it didn't work because a few hours after revoking his security clearance, Brennan came out with this blistering op-ed in the "New York Times" and in it he says the president's claims of no collusion are hogwash. Now you're on the Intelligence Community -- Intelligence Committee, I

should say, do you agree with that assessment?

CASTRO: Well, I strongly agree. I realized that among Americans there's a lot of debate about that, but there were both public and private interactions that really amount to collusion. Let's start with the private ones. George Papadopoulos who was working with the Trump campaign, meeting with the professor who was a Russian operative, the Trump Tower meeting that included Donald Trump Jr. and all of the top Trump campaign officials meeting with a Russian operative who they believe was going to give him dirt on Hillary Clinton.

Roger Stone who has been a decades-long friend of the president and confidante politically knowing ahead of time about the Clinton e-mail dump and then lying about it by the way to the committees in Congress.

But then also, John, you've got to consider this. That then-candidate Trump and now president of the United States went out on stage a few times at least and begged the Russians to find Hillary Clinton's e- mails and basically begged them to dump those e-mails, to make them public.

Now for some reason -- and I understand it partly -- people don't usually think of that as a conspiratorial act because it was done out in the open but if that had been found buried in an e-mail somewhere, Donald Trump asking the Russians to do this, that would have been considered the smoking gun.

So how does somebody simply cleanse that act by making it a public act? I don't believe you can. I believe it's part of collusion.

BERMAN: I will note that John Brennan writes about that this morning. He says it's a public clarion call that makes one wonder what Mr. Trump privately encourages his advisers to do.

CASTRO: Right.

BERMAN: And what they actually did. He muses that. He wonders. He doesn't provide any evidence here. And he draws the distinction between collusion which isn't a prosecutable crime as opposed to conspiracy here. So when he's saying there was collusion, he's not saying that Robert Mueller is going to come out and say that the president broke a law here. He doesn't know that right now and perhaps he's trying to imply that or give wiggle room there.

Do you think that John Brennan has allowed himself to become too political?

CASTRO: No, I don't think so at all. I think this is somebody who cares deeply about the United States and what's happening to his country. Somebody who served the government at the highest levels and he's exercising his right as an American to speak out.

BERMAN: John Brennan also chose to speak out over the last week about comments the president made about Omarosa. John Brennan wrote about the president calling Omarosa a dog and he basically said, is there no length to which you will not go?

Do you think that the president somehow was trying to shift the discussion from race where it has been the last few days to something else?

CASTRO: Yes. I mean, the president basically tries to change the subject whenever the politics against him get hot and he's actually very good at that. That's one of the things that he does best is working the media narrative and changing it often successfully. I think that was another attempt.

He also goes back to the same themes. You'll notice him going back to basically anti-immigrant themes with build a wall, MS-13, anti-Muslim themes, and, of course, you know, comments that are basically made against African-Americans when he talks about the NFL and keeps going back to that, so yes, it's an attempt for him to change the narrative. And also I think for him thinking that he's appealing to some base out there that he believes is eating this up.

BERMAN: I will say, you know, you've had Republican members of Congress say they are supportive of his move in regards to John Brennan. John Kennedy, senator from Louisiana, called Brennan a butthead.

Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas, thanks so much for being with us.

CASTRO: Thank you.

BERMAN: Erica?

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: There are new allegations the Trump Foundation may have broken federal tax laws by using donated funds to boost the Trump presidential campaign.

CNN investigates next.


[08:28:08] BERMAN: There are new allegations that the Trump Foundation may have illegally used donations to boost the Trump campaign.

Drew Griffin who has been working on this story has much more.


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): On January 28th, 2016, right in the middle of the Iowa caucus campaign --

MEGYN KELLY, DEBATE MODERATOR: Donald Trump has chosen not to attend this evening.

GRIFFIN: Donald Trump blew off a Republican debate and held a well- publicized fundraiser for veterans. He raised nearly $6 million, about half of it was paid directly to charities. $2.8 million went to the Trump Foundation and within days Donald Trump was at Iowa campaign rallies giving that money away.

God deeds? Perhaps. But e-mails and records uncovered by the New York attorney general show behind the scenes then campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was making it clear the good deeds would be used for political gain. The day after the fundraiser Lewandowski writes to the Trump Organization's chief financial officer Alan Weiselberg, "Is there any way we can make disbursements this week while in Iowa?" Weiselberg writes back, "Put together a list of the Iowa veterans groups you have in mind along with dollar amounts."


GRIFFIN: According to the New York attorney general's office, using the donated money to boost Trump's campaign violates IRS nonprofit rules which prohibit making expenditures to influence the outcome of an election and in a letter to the IRS commissioner David Cotter, the attorney general's office has passed on its evidence for a possible IRS investigation to determine if Donald Trump's foundation and Donald Trump himself may have broken federal tax laws.

Marc Owens ran the nonprofit division of the IRS for 10 years.

MARC OWENS, FORMER DIRECTOR, EXEMPT ORGANIZATION DIVISION, IRS: The evidence that the New York attorney general has collected suggests very strongly and in fact I would say close conclusively that the Donald Trump Foundation was used to --