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Microsoft Thwarts New Russia Attacks Ahead of Midterms; President Trump Asserts He Could Run the Russia Probe; Trump Said to be Unsettled by McGahn's Interviews with Mueller. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired August 21, 2018 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning. Top of the hour. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York. Russia is at it again. Overnight we learned of yet another cyber attack linked directly to the Kremlin just a few months before the 2018 midterms. Microsoft says it thwarted a group of cyber attackers and detected and seized six Web sites, Web sites that were set up as a trap to lure users in then steal their sensitive information.

So far this morning, still no reaction to this from President Trump. But we are getting reaction from the Kremlin, completely denying any involvement. That is not a surprise. But this is a surprise. The spokesman for the Kremlin, Dmitry Peskov, tells journalists, quote, "From the U.S., we hear there was not any meddling in the elections." That line, that sentence matters a lot.

Let's be clear. All of the U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that, yes, Russia at the behest of President Vladimir Putin, interfered with the 2016 election and is still interfering in American politics at this very moment.

Let's go first to our senior national correspondent Alex Marquardt who joins me with more.

A few things here. This is big. This is targeted. And this is the same group of hackers that targeted the DNC in 2016. This time, though, it's the reverse, right? They're targeting conservative think tanks with prominent Republicans in their ranks.

ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Right, so Microsoft overnight put out this statement. They really pre-empted this before the government said anything. Microsoft said that these hackers are broadening their efforts. And what they mean by that is, until now most of the victims that we have seen of Russian hacking, primarily in 2016 the DNC and the Clinton campaign, were Democrats.

We do know that Republicans were also hacked but everything that came out from the Russian hackers, that was from the Democratic side. So essentially what Microsoft has done is that they swooped in, were able to stop this before it really went too far. But this still does show how these Russian hackers are still very aggressive and very active. They are a group called Fancy Bear, which you may remember from 2016. They are linked to Russian military intelligence.

And what they did was they set up six bogus Web sites to carry out what are called spear fishing attacks. And that is to essentially lure people into handing over vital information like their passwords. Now what's interesting about this, the reason Microsoft is saying that the hackers are broadening their efforts is that two of the targets appear to be conservative think tanks, not political parties, not Republican candidates themselves but conservative think tanks.

The first is the Hudson Institute. The second is the International Republican Institute. Both of them have been extremely critical of President Vladimir Putin and Russia and their corruption. There you can see on the screen some of the board members of the -- of IRI, some of the most vociferous and vocal anti-Putin critics, Mitt Romney, Senator John McCain, Senator Lindsey Graham, Senator Marco Rubio, among others.

So those were two out of the six Web sites. Three of the others had the word Senate in the address, which makes it looks like this group Fancy Bear was trying to either go after -- was trying to go after certain senators, certain Senate offices. It's unclear which. But this wouldn't be the first time.

Last month, we learned that Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, was targeted in an almost identical attack also by Russian military intelligence. McCaskill is one of the most vulnerable senators in this year's midterms.

Now Microsoft has come out very aggressively this morning and with a statement saying, despite last week's steps, and that's when they swooped in and shut down these Web sites, "We are concerned by the continued activity targeting these and other sites and directed toward elected officials, politicians, political groups and think tanks across the political spectrum in the United States. Taken together, this pattern mirrors the type of activity we saw prior to the 2016 election in the United States and the 2017 election in France."

And, Poppy, we should note that the vast majority of the efforts to stop election meddling are being led by the federal government. This shows that corporate America is also getting involved.


MARQUARDT: And Microsoft, to their credit, is actually rolling out tailored cyber security packages essentially that campaigns can use. And Microsoft is giving them to them for free. And that just speaks to the magnitude of the issue that these campaigns in this country is facing.

HARLOW: That's great to hear. I was going to say, well, they're selling them, you know, that's good business. But they're giving them for free? That's great to see the private sector stepping up like this and helping on this front.

Alex, thank you.

Let's talk about this. Rear Admiral John Kirby is with me, our military and diplomatic analyst. He also has of course worked at the Pentagon and the State Department. And our Senior Political Analyst, Mark Preston is here.

Gentlemen, good to have you here this morning. And Admiral, to you, let's just dive into that one line in the Kremlin's response here. Right? Because, of course, they said, no, no, no, we had nothing to do with it. But then they added this. This is Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Putin. Quote, "From the U.S., we hear there was not any meddling in the election."

[10:05:04] Well, I mean, you know, the president has questioned it over and over again as well.

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yes, that's the only thing that I can infer from looking at that, that he is referring, when he refers to the U.S., he is referring to President Trump. I don't know, of course. But, I mean, if you just go back a couple of weeks, the entire inter-agency was at the podium at the White House laying out very clearly what they believe, not just the intel community but Department of Homeland Security, DOD, all have said that Russia continues to find ways to try to interfere with our electoral process and that they have plans in place and that they're working to combat them.

So one is left to believe when you look at Peskov's statement, and this is a classic Peskov denial.

HARLOW: Right.

KIRBY: That he must be referring -- I mean, you could assume he is referring to possibly President Trump.

HARLOW: So, Mark, on top of that, radio silence from the president this morning on that statement and on the hack overall. Why?

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, because he doesn't necessarily know what to say. What he's done at this point is that he's put his intelligence chiefs in a very awkward position because they are now going to have to come out and answer for what President Trump said less than 24 hours ago, where he said that this probe -- that the Mueller probe, quote, from the -- from the Reuters article played right into the Russians, if it was Russia, they played into the Russian hands.

The idea that the president of the United States continues to cast doubt on his own intelligence agencies' findings that Russia is trying to infiltrate our electoral system is just amazing. And the fact that he continues to get away with it just really is astounding. It's shocking.

HARLOW: How dangerous is it, Admiral Kirby, that this happened? And that it was clearly targeted. Because you remember Marco Rubio in 2016 when he was running for president and he was warning Republicans, don't get so excited about these John Podesta e-mails that were hacked from the DNC because, and I quote, "I want to warn my fellow Republicans who may want to capitalize on these political leaks, today it's the Democrats, tomorrow it could be us," and now it is. KIRBY: It is very dangerous. And it's significant. And on two

levels. One, and this goes to Senator Rubio's comments. One of the goals here is to sow discord and division that they already see percolating in American politics and they like -- they want to sow confusion in our process. That's one way of interfering with the electoral process, and therefore trying to undermine American democracy.

But the second level is very much about Vladimir Putin. You see these attacks on these conservative think tanks and -- and you know conservative members. This is all about people who have been critical of Vladimir Putin.

HARLOW: Right.

KIRBY: So it's a very direct tactical precise strike against those who are criticizing him and his leadership in Russia. And that also makes this extremely significant and worrisome.

HARLOW: Let's listen to National Security Adviser, John Bolton. He was on this weekend on ABC with Martha Raddatz, but I think, Mark, what he said about other countries and potential election interference now is even more relevant given what we have seen overnight. So let's listen to Bolton.


JOHN BOLTON, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, I can say definitively that it's a sufficient national security concern about Chinese meddling, Iranian meddling and North Korean meddling that we're taking steps to try and prevent it. So it's all four of those countries really.


HARLOW: So there's something different from what he did there than the president often says, well, it could be Russia but it could be all these ones, too. He is saying yes, it's Russia and by the way there are other nefarious actors as well. What's your read?

PRESTON: Well, redirecting a little bit away from the question. Trying to draw the focus off of Russia and then again by doing so drawing the focus off President Trump and his constant tweets and the problems and the concerns that he is causing, you know, within his own administration. You know, we shouldn't be Pollyanna, we shouldn't sit back here and be Pollyanna and think that countries don't engage in spying or engage in espionage.

But President Trump has really held himself up to be this great deal maker, somebody who can sit across from a negotiating table and you have to wonder all these olive branches that he continues to try to hand over to Russia, he seems to be getting a dead stick in return from Vladimir Putin. Shouldn't Putin be coming to the table maybe, you know, offering a detente so to speak perhaps on this espionage or a cool down? But in fact we're seeing him increase it. We're seeing -- we're seeing Microsoft denounced that just a few hours ago and at the same time President Trump just hasn't seemed to grasp it.

HARLOW: Admiral Kirby, the fact that it was a private corporation, you know, publicly traded company but the private sector that found this, how important is that in terms of really everybody coming together to get at this? Because clearly, intelligence government can't do it on their own.

KIRBY: That's right. I believe it's very significant for Microsoft to do this and to get out in front of the federal government in saying what they found and what they've done about it. It does show -- and I think to the credit of President Trump's national security team -- that they have made progress in working with private industry and these high-tech companies to do more and to say more and to acknowledge more about not only what they are seeing out there in cyber space but what they're about things out there in cyber space.

[10:10:013] So I think this is very encouraging. Obviously it's a very worrisome report. And we should all take heed of what the Russians continue to try to do to our electoral process. But I think we should also take some measure of comfort today that companies like Microsoft are willing to get out in front like that.

HARLOW: Absolutely. Thank you, gentlemen. Nice to have you both, Admiral John Kirby and Mark Preston. See you soon.

I could run the Russia probe if I wanted to -- not me, but the president. Those are the words of the president in a new interview that he just gave as he changes his tune on the potential interview that he may sit for with Special Counsel Bob Mueller.

This is part of what the president told Reuters. We're going to dive into that. Ryan Nobles is at the White House with more on what he is saying this morning.

And he is, Ryan, in this interview echoing the exact words of his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani when he talks about perjury trap.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Poppy. Perjury trap is something that Rudy Giuliani has said repeatedly. We haven't heard the president use those words until this interview with Reuters, and essentially the argument the president is making here is that he'll go into this interview with Robert Mueller and tell the truth, but he can't trust the other people who have talked to Robert Mueller. And he worries that if their accounts are different than his account, then perhaps he's going to be accused of lying.

So he essentially doesn't want to be set up here. And to your point, Poppy, this is a bit of a different tone from President Trump. For the most part, when he's been asked directly about whether or not he's willing to interview with Robert Mueller he said that he wants to. And now he appears to be hedging his bets a little bit. And he even takes it a step further, kind of reminding the folks working for the special counsel that at the end of the day, he believes he has the authority to either allow this to continue or just to outright shut it down. Listen to what he told Reuters. He said, quote, "I can go in and I

could do whatever. I could run it if I want. But I decided to stay out. I am totally allowed to be involved if I wanted to be. So far, I haven't chosen to be involved. I will stay out."

So, Poppy, the president making clear and sending a message to a certain extent to Robert Mueller that he believes that he has the authority in this matter.

HARLOW: Right. And he's saying a lot this morning, right? He's talking about the Democrats, blue wave, he is talking about border security. And he is talking about the continued fight with John Brennan and security clearance. And seeming to sort of make a veiled threat at others.

NOBLES: That's exactly right, Poppy. And there's no better evidence that the president believes that he's on the winning side of this issue than the fact that he continues to talk about this and double down on the fact that he's taken this bold move, despite all the criticism that he's received. And listen to what he said this morning on Twitter. He said, quote, "Even James Clapper has admonished John Brennan for having gone totally off the rails. Maybe Clapper is being so nice to me so he doesn't lose his security clearance for lying to Congress."

And Poppy, that threat not so veiled at all. And this is a bit of what many National Security experts have been worried about, that if the president threatens people, that perhaps some of these intelligence officials will be less objective in their view of what's going on in the world. And that could be dangerous for national security -- Poppy.

HARLOW: OK. Ryan Nobles at the White House, thank you.

Ahead for us, the president unsettled by his own White House counsel Don McGahn's 30 hours of interviews with the special counsel's team. This morning, new reporting that McGahn does not think that he implicated the president in any legal wrongdoing. We will dive into that.

Also happening right now, jurors are back for day four of deliberations in the trial of former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort. We are on verdict watch.

And police are looking into allegations against one of the biggest voices in the Me Too Movement, this woman, Asia Argento, who is accused of paying off a young actor who accused her of sexual assault and sexual battery. We will give you a live update.


[10:18:16] HARLOW: Well, this morning, those 30 hours that top White House lawyer Don McGahn spent with Robert Mueller and his team of investigators not sitting well with President Trump. Sources tell CNN the president is unsettled over all of it. But there is important new "Washington Post" reporting that notes that McGahn doesn't think he said anything at all that implicated the president.

Let's talk about this. Molly Ball is with me, our political analyst, and our contributor, Salena Zito.

Ladies, to you first, Molly. It is interesting the update from "The Washington Post," Josh Dawsey and the team. I mean, it's important to note that at least McGahn's attorney has told the president's lawyers, yes, there may have been 30 hours of them talking to investigators, but there was nothing in those 30 hours that implicated the president in any legal wrongdoing. What's your read?

MOLLY BALL, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, I think the reason that the president and so many around him are unsettled by the revelations about Don McGahn over the weekend is that they just don't know. And, you know, they can give the president assurances about what he said. But the fact that the cooperation was so long and so extensive, I think, and it wasn't widely known even inside the White House that he was cooperating so extensively.


BALL: You had Trump tweet, I authorized all of this. It's fine. Nothing to worry about. That may well be the case. And so we shouldn't assume that just because he gave so much time to investigators that there's definitely, you know, something there or that he had turned on the president because it does seem that he does not believe that was the case.

HARLOW: Salena, when it comes to the legal strategy, which some like Steve Bannon are saying this was sort of the worst legal strategy ever by the president's attorneys at the time, but it is what it is and it is what happened. CNN has learned that the lawyers at that time when they were saying, sure, McGahn, go out, tell everything, be as transparent as possible, were calculating they really didn't have solid legal ground to stand on to try to fight this.

[10:20:08] McGahn is a federal employee. Right? So he'd be compelled to be very transparent and open. Here is how Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer now, reads it.


RUDY GIULIANI, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT TRUMP: I knew not to worry about it because if the president has said anything criminal to the counsel of the White House, McGahn wouldn't be there now. McGahn as a matter of legal ethics and possibly even law would have to quit.


HARLOW: What do you think, Salena? Point?

SALENA ZITO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, I mean, Giuliani is right. Right? He would have had to quit. He -- I think -- look, I actually personally think it was a good idea to have McGahn go out there. If they believe that they have nothing to be afraid of, then it was the right move to make. It was the right thing to say, you know, I'm sending you off with my blessings. Go do it. You know, go -- you know, report back and we have nothing to be afraid of.

When it's framed as 30 hours, it seems like oh, my god.

HARLOW: Right.

ZITO: But then when you step back and you think 30 hours over how much period of time?

HARLOW: Three days.

ZITO: Now that's -- three days? You know, still that's -- a 30-day interrogation all one day seems like. But when you spread it out over a few days, it's not that bad. McGahn is channeling through his lawyers that, look, I didn't really say anything that hurt the president. And, you know, maybe the president should just let it be and let the chips fall where they may.

HARLOW: I don't know, Molly. I mean, the former White House counsel and independent counsel who I've had on this show yesterday morning and last night with me, said 30 hours is like, wow, big.

BALL: Yes, it's a lot. And I think, look, McGahn may not have said anything himself that accused the president of wrongdoing, implicated the president of wrongdoing. But what he's doing is he's giving investigators information. And they can take that information and they can collate it with other information to connect the dots. So when any witness gives information to investigators, they are not necessarily, you know, confessing or implicating or anything else. But all of that information is extremely valuable to prosecutors or investigators who are looking to pool together a lot of information to make a case toward whatever they are making a case here.

And I think one other thing that's important here is, so much of this has to do with the turnover that has happened in the White House in general and also specifically on the legal team.

HARLOW: Right.

BALL: There have been so many lawyers come in and out and quit because they didn't like the job, that there is a lot of confusion. And everybody is not necessarily on the same page with this stuff.

HARLOW: Salena, on the issue of clearances, which, you know, is certainly staying in the news cycle. The president keeping it in the news cycle with his tweets this morning. Conservative radio host and also former editor-at-large of Breitbart News Ben Shapiro had this to say about it. I thought this tweet was interesting. Let me quote him. "Trump likes pardons and security clearances, anything he can treat as a reward or punishment in this governmental version of 'The Apprentice.'"

Ben Shapiro is a conservative radio host. He also has been critical of the president when he thinks he needs to be. But is he right on that?

ZITO: Yes. I actually don't think he is wrong on that. Look, I think Brennan was a completely different animal than the rest of all of the other people that appear on television within our own network that talk -- that held, you know, high positions in intelligence like Michael Hayden, like Mr. Clapper. They were never saying -- they weren't strident in their tone and in their analysis. They also weren't calling his behavior treasonous. They weren't going on Twitter and being bombastic.

Brennan approached this in a very political way. When you watch Clapper and when you watch other people, you see it's much more measured, it's much more analytical. Brennan makes a great foil for the president. I think he thinks he wins on it. And I think he's going to continue to bite back, if you will, with him, as Brennan, you know, gives it right back to him.

HARLOW: Right. He certainly is.

Ladies, thank you. Molly Ball, Salena Zito, nice to have you both.

ZITO: Thank you.

HARLOW: All right. Jury watch, verdict watch. It's a waiting game. An army of reporters literally standing outside the courthouse waiting and waiting and waiting. The defense team passing the time with cards and crosswords. And jurors beginning day four of deliberations in the trial of Paul Manafort.



HARLOW: All right. They are back at it, the jury in the Paul Manafort tax fraud and bank fraud trial, behind closed doors again this morning. They've already deliberated for more than 21 hours. And now they are in day four, deciding the fate of President Trump's ex-campaign chief Paul Manafort. While they are doing that, everyone else is waiting it out. We're hearing a lot of colors, those inside the courtroom playing cards, doing crossword puzzles, waiting and waiting outside of the federal courthouse, throngs of reporters standing ready for an update.

And in nearby restaurants you have Manafort's entire defense team along with his wife taking their position at what has become a regular corner table for them as they wait.

Let's talk about what is at stake and what the experts think. CNN Legal Analyst, Renato Mariotti joins me. Good morning to you. I mean, how would you look at this?