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Intelligence Community Warns Russian Hackers Attempting to Influence U.S. Midterm Elections; John Brennen in Losing His Security Clearance. Government Has No Ability to Stifle Freedom of Speech. President Trump States in Interview He Could Run Mueller Investigation. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired August 21, 2018 - 8:00   ET

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


[08:00:00] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: So we are just 77 days away from the November elections. How will the Trump administration respond to these new Russian attacks? Joining us now are Josh Green, national correspondent for Bloomberg, and Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for the "New York Times," both are CNN political analysts. Great to have you both here.

So Josh, it's just like clockwork. The president again saying to Reuters if it was Russia. At this point, on some level you have to believe he's just doing it to poke at either the media or his critics, because he had to read that statement after Helsinki where he basically in a chagrinned way had to admit he knew it was Russia, but then he reverts back to saying well, maybe, if they meddled.

JOSHUA GREEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think there's two things going on here. Number one, any implication that Russia interfered in the election on behalf of Donald Trump, which is the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence agencies, Trump believes undermines the validity of his victory. And that is something that his ego will not allow. I think the other factor going on here is that Trump, even when he has been forced to walk the plank at times and admit yes, I support my intelligence community, insists on always injecting that element of doubt, maybe to keep open in the minds of his supporters the possibility that Russia didn't interfere in the election.

But again, we see this continuing pattern of behavior not just from Trump but on behalf of Russia also, who now after having hacked into the DNC has evidently hacked into think tanks that have been critical of Trump. So another example of Russia seeming to go after Trump's opponents.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Consider the targets here. Again, these normally Republican-leaning think tanks that have been specifically critical of Russia and also of the president's Russia policy, these are the new targets. Again, the president equivocating on this.

And Jonathan Martin, it's glaring to wake up two months before the 2018 midterm elections to find out the Russian intelligence services, folks connected to it, are trying to hack, trying to attack the 2018 election. JONATHAN MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And they're going to keep

doing this and they're going to try to do the same thing in 2020, and the question is, will the country be prepared? And by the way, not just the federal government, but for those of us, John who every Tuesday night cover a primary of some kind across this country, we know that the election system in this country is a patchwork system that is basically done on the county or, in your native New England, the town level, and that some of these localities have a difficult time, John, counting votes on election night, let alone protecting themselves from a cyberattack. So I think that should be alarming to all Americans. This country, if you look at the localities that count votes, I've got my doubts if they're ready or not.

CAMEROTA: Microsoft, which is the organization that thwarted these new six web sites that were masquerading as conservative think tanks or even Senate-connected websites they were masquerading as. So Microsoft says they've seen an uptick in the number of attacks. They say they need help from the federal government to try to head these off at the pass, but at the moment they say that it wasn't effective.

Josh, we've been talking about this all morning but it bears repeating, the schizophrenic nature of the Trump administration where President Trump has taken action against Russia, there are sanctions against Russia, but his rhetoric is so different it's very hard to know how committed he is to this.

GREEN: I think that's right. I think by and large the people in the intelligence community's under Trump's presidency recognize this threat, and you've had people from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on down who have spoke very harshly about Russia, tried to push back on the behavior. The problem is it's fairly consistently undermined by the president himself and his own rhetoric as we were just discussing.

I think the other issue going on here is that, to be frank, it costs money to protect these state electoral systems against this kind of international cyber espionage, and there have been efforts in Congress pushed by Democrats just this past summer to introduce additional spending that were blocked by Republicans. So it's both a spending issue and a government priority issue, but it seems pretty clear based on these reports in the lack of efforts to protect these electoral systems that we're not in much better shape as a country to defend these attacks than we were in 2016.

BERMAN: Let me remind people that there have been indictments against Russian entities for attacking --

CAMEROTA: Including Fancy Bear, one of these same entities.

BERMAN: -- for attacking the U.S. election system as part of the Mueller investigation. The president continues to talk about the Mueller investigation, Jonathan Martin, including in this new interview with Reuters, where he says among things, that he could take it other and run it if he wanted to, this days after he accused Robert Mueller of being a modern-day Joe McCarthy.

[08:05:10] And Jonathan, you've noted on Twitter, or at least you've endorsed the notion that viewing John Dean, the former White House counsel who turned on Richard Nixon, viewing John Dean as the villain in the Watergate story seems like a tell. Explain.

MARTIN: Because you're pointing the finger at the finger-pointer, at the whistleblower, right. John Dean was somebody who exposed the rot, to borrow a Watergate phrase, in the Nixon White House. He was not somebody who was Haldeman or Ehrlichman or Nixon himself or overseeing the wrong doing and calling out the dirty trick playbook, John. And so it does get at the president's mentality that in his world there's few greater sins than being a rat, and John Dean was the Nixon council and did turn on Nixon and exposed the wrongdoing in the Nixon White House in that famous Watergate testimony up on Capitol Hill. To Trump, that's the story of what came out of Watergate is who turned on the administration. Tells you everything about his view of loyalty and perhaps also the fact that he doesn't have a terribly strong view of the Nixon administration's wrongdoing.

CAMEROTA: John Dean is having a total renaissance. We've said the name John Dean more in the past 24 hours than 24 years, and he is everywhere because so many different people are comparing current figures to John Dean. And then there's the Joseph McCarthy comparison which, frankly, Josh, I've lost the thread on because so many different people are pointing in every which direction, making that comparison as well. Strange times.

GREEN: There is, but look, it's a valid point of comparison. We just learned over the weekend through Jonathan's paper, the "New York Times," that the White House counsel Don McGahn has spent 30 hours talking to Robert Mueller's investigators. This is echoes of Nixon. John Dean turned on Nixon. I think the fear in Trump's mind is that Don McGahn might turn on him. So it's really the best historical parallel, and I think that's why it keeps coming up again and again and again.

MARTIN: And guys, to be fair to President Trump, there is no evidence of the find of wrongdoing and conspiracy that the Nixon White House was engaged in. Those Nixon tapes are damning about what they were up to, using the tools of the government to go after their political enemies. In a way that, yes, the president may use Twitter that break norms, but at this point there's no evidence of the actual wrongdoing.

GREEN: That's a good point. We've heard plenty of Trump tapes but none have been as incriminating against the Nixon tapes.

BERMAN: There's a big difference between the Omarosa tapes right now and Nixon's Oval Office tapes.

MARTIN: That's fair to say.

BERMAN: We will stipulate that.

(LAUGHTER)

BERMAN: Josh Green, I have been quoting you all morning, so I want you say this out loud yourself and explain what you mean here.

GREEN: Oh, boy.

BERMAN: No, no, no, with praise I've been quoting you all morning. You noted when President Trump says he could take over the Mueller investigation, you think this is about control, trying to show that he has control, trying to show in light of what happened in the last few days that he has control.

GREEN: By all accounts, Trumps was blindsided by this "Times" story over the weekend that said not only that McGahn had been speaking with Mueller, but that he'd been telling Mueller things about Trump that Mueller didn't know. Trump evidently did not recognize that Don McGahn is the White House counsel who works for the office of the presidency, not Trump's personal lawyer and therefore might have interests in mind like protecting his own reputation, aside from just protecting the president.

So I think CNN has reported Trump fears that that makes him look weak, and one thing we know that Trump does when he thinks he looks weak is to try and look strong by tweeting something like or telling Reuters I could take this investigation at any time. so I think that explains why we're seeing this latest outburst from Trump.

MARTIN: John, Alisyn, real fast, it's important to note there's a big difference between Don McGahn and Michael Cohen. Here's the difference. Don McGahn had a life really before Donald Trump. Don McGahn was a Washington campaign attorney, had been involved in GOP politics for years and years and years. He is somebody who came to the Trump administration having established himself in Washington.

Cohen was basically dependent on Trump for his own relevance and owed a lot to Trump. To Josh's point, McGahn is somebody who has a reputation that precedes Trump and is mindful of that in a way that think Cohen was more willing to go down with the ship at least until the feds laid out some pretty damning facts before him.

[08:10:07] CAMEROTA: Right, but on the flipside of what you're saying, doesn't it, Josh, suggest a feeling of -- I don't know, being sanguine the president said, yes, apparently he claims that he said Don McGahn, yes, sure, go ahead, talk to Robert Mueller, give him whatever you need?

GREEN: And I'm sure he did because Trump's personal lawyers originally Ty Cobb and John Dowd pursued a strategy of open cooperation, and I think McGahn recognized this as an opening to go in and talk to Mueller's investigators to lay everything on the table so as not to wind up in a situation later on where he is implicated for Trump's wrongdoing.

I don't have personal reporting on this, but according to the "Times" story McGahn was worried about being Trump's fall guy and took this opportunity to go in and speak to investigators and tell them everything he knows in order to protect his own reputation. What he told those investigators we don't know. Perhaps it helps to advance a story of Russian collusion or obstruction of justice. We don't know, but obviously it's something

that greatly concerned Donald Trump because you saw how he brooded about it over the weekend, tweeted about it, and now has told Reuters that he could take over Mueller's investigation any time he wants to. That's not the behavior of someone confident that he's going to be exonerated in the end.

BERMAN: Josh Green, Jonathan Martin, great to have you with us this morning, do appreciate it.

MARTIN: Thank you.

GREEN: Thanks, guys.

BERMAN: What is Congress going to do to pressure a skeptical president about fighting these Russian attacks? We're going to speak to a U.S. senator next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[08:15:15] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: So the breaking news we all woke up to this morning, Microsoft says it uncovered new attempts by the Russians to attack the 2018 midterm elections. The Russian operation targeted conservative think tanks critical of President Trump and also Vladimir Putin. Now the Kremlin denies any knowledge of these new attacks.

Joining me now, Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. He's a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who will be holding hearings that looks into these cyber developments day in and day out.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us. If I can start off by asking you, what do you make of the nature of the targets here, the Hudson Institute and the International Republican Institute, conservative think tanks that have been critical of Moscow and Vladimir Putin.

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Well, I actually work a lot with the Hudson Institute. They are running a kleptocracy initiative whose purpose is to shut down the access of international criminals and people who loot their countries to the protections of our world, our rule of law world, through shell corporations and various kinds of sleazy anonymity.

And I think the Russians see that as a direct threat at their oligarchs who are almost inevitably crooks and people who are looting their country and who want to take their ill-gotten gains and find security for them in the rule of law world. So I think it makes a lot of sense for Hudson Institute to be in their gun sights and I hope that the Hudson Institute is not discouraged by this and that they keep fighting on this because it's a really, really important issue, and it's a thing where I'm a Democrat and they're pretty darn Republican but I think there's room for real bipartisan national security progress, going after these kind of international thieves and crooks who like to seek shelter in our system.

BERMAN: So this is no coincidence that they went after this institute, this Hudson Institute you see as something that is a threat to Vladimir Putin and Russia?

WHITEHOUSE: I think the Hudson Institute's kleptocracy initiative is a direct threat to the little circle of crooked oligarchs who surround and support Vladimir Putin and to Vladimir Putin himself. You saw from the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers how much they use foreign shell corporations and the anonymity allowed in rule of law world to shelter their ill-gotten gains so this is a really important priority for them.

BERMAN: Does this show to you that the Russians in the intelligence services there are on the attack for the 2018 midterms?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, I don't think there's any doubt about that. They'll try to keep some faint level of plausible deniability but I think anybody who's got any brains sees that plausible deniability as a joke and I think their real hook is that they have a president of the United States who's highly, highly reluctant for whatever reason to take them on in any serious or sincere way.

BERMAN: At least rhetorically in the last 24 hours, again in an interview with Reuters, he was talking about the Mueller investigation and he almost subconsciously slipped in a phrase which seemed to equivocate on whether or not the Russians are to blame for the attack on the 2016 election. He says, "Mueller's probe played right into the Russians -- if it was Russia they played right into the Russian's hands."

WHITEHOUSE: Yes, I mean --

BERMAN: How do you assess that rhetorical equivocation.

WHITEHOUSE: I don't know if he's sending a little flare up into the sky to show Putin and the Russians that he's still trying to lean their way wherever he can to try to provide them, you know, just a little bit of cover, a little bit of signaling but it's really hard to tell. It's a peculiar thing to say when all of the evidence is exactly to the contrary including from his own attorney general, his own director of National Intelligence, his own director of the FBI.

There's really no support for that kind of a statement other than the only thing that makes sense to me is that it's signaling and he's trying to let Putin and his crew know that he's still trying to be helpful.

BERMAN: You mentioned DNI Coats, you've mentioned the attorney general, we have seen Russian sanctions, sanctions against Russia come up from this administration. How do you suggest the bifurcation of the president's rhetoric, the president's rhetoric is one thing. You just commented on that. But how about the action being taken by the administration? Is Dan Coats doing what he needs to do here?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, I think that the administration at the Cabinet level has been very candid and clear that the Russians are a continuing threat and a present threat in the 2018 elections and that there's no reason to think that they will stop between now and November. I think they also -- particularly DNI Coats who I worked with in the Senate -- have a fairly strong sense of duty. And they're going to go about doing their jobs the way they should.

[08:20:04] They also have to have credibility with the people who work for them so they can't take a dive down the Trump hole into Russia is not really doing anything and still have credibility with the people who report to them so for a whole lot of reasons I think that the institutions of government are still responding quite well to the Russian threat notwithstanding all this bizarre signaling and bizarre behavior out of the Oval Office.

BERMAN: I want to shift gears if I can to the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. You are one of four Democrats on the Judiciary Committee who have scheduled one-on-one meetings with Kavanaugh, if I'm not mistaken.

WHITEHOUSE: Yes.

BERMAN: What do you plan to ask him?

WHITEHOUSE: Well --

(LAUGHTER)

WHITEHOUSE: I'm not going to telegraph that but I'll make a larger point which is I think that to the extent that the focus in these proceedings is entirely on Kavanaugh and misses the larger environment that his nomination comes out of, the scrutiny that the special interests behind the Federalist Society have give this so-called list that the president originated and has followed, the dark money operation that is operating right now to try to pave the political path for him to confirmation, all the funny right-wing groups that turn up before the Supreme Court as so-called friends of the court, filing amicus briefs, funded by these same special interests.

There is a very smelly special interest network that is operating through this nomination process and I think we've got to put a spotlight on that as well.

BERMAN: Even if we do buy everything you're just saying, does Brett Kavanaugh have to answer for that?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, it's not clear because he hasn't come clean with what his role in all of this has been. How much has he been back channeling with Leonard Leo to get himself on to the list and to the top of it, what does he know about the dark money funding that is supporting his confirmation? These are all questions that I think need answers.

BERMAN: Can I just ask you quickly, also in the last 24 hours we've seen the memo that Brett Kavanaugh wrote when he was working for Ken Starr as part of the investigation into Bill Clinton? And at one point Brett Kavanaugh wanted Ken Starr and his team to ask very graphic, sexually explicit questions to President Clinton when they got behind closed doors.

If you had a chance to look at that, and does that matter now? WHITEHOUSE: Well, I think the recommendations that he was making at

the time I would categorize as vengeful, partisan and juvenile. I think that some of those questions judges would rule objectionable. So it's not even very good lawyering. He's had a lot of years since then and maybe he's matured since then but it's certainly a sign that he had a real ax to grind at that time and that his new fealty to the president and regard for presidential independence and the office of the president certainly was not very evident back then.

BERMAN: Sheldon Whitehouse, Democratic senator from Rhode Island, thanks so much for being with us, sir.

WHITEHOUSE: Good to be with you.

BERMAN: Alisyn.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, John, President Trump's administration is making a lot of environmental changes. They are set to roll back Obama-era coal regulations today so we have President Obama's former EPA chief with what she thinks about all of this, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[08:27:12] CAMEROTA: President Trump will hold a rally in West Virginia's coal country tonight as the EPA is expected to formally announce plans to roll back regulations on power plants. The "Wall Street Journal" reports the new proposal abandons the Obama-era clean power plan and allows states to set their own carbon emissions standards.

Joining us now to talk about all of this is former EPA administrator under President Obama, Gina McCarthy.

Miss McCarthy, thank you very much for being here. So let's show everybody, as you know the Trump administration -- excuse me -- has been determined -- thank you, John.

To roll back things that were set up on your watch under the Obama administration. So here are a couple of the things. This new EPA plan would abandon's Obama clean power plan, allow states to set their own CO-2 emissions standards.

Here's what they say would be beneficial to the environment, allow coal plants to produce energy using less fuel and eliminate regulations that would mandate technological overhauls. What are your thoughts?

GINA MCCARTHY, FORMER EPA ADMINISTRATOR UNDER PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, this particular proposal is another step in industry's playbook to dismantle regulations that they find inconvenient but that are absolutely essential for our public health and for our kids' future. It's really all about playing their base, not doing their job to protect public health and so this is another one of those rules that is very long but actually in the end does absolutely nothing to protect public health or our kids' future.

CAMEROTA: But explain to us --

MCCARTHY: It is nothing but --

CAMEROTA: I hear you. So explain to us how will Americans' lives change once this proposal is enacted? What are the real-life consequences here?

MCCARTHY: Well, the benefit of the clean power plan was twofold. One, it would have significantly reduced carbon emissions that fuel climate change from the power sector and it would have been supporting our effort to move towards clean energy making us a leader internationally in the effort to become stronger economically, to grow jobs and clean energy. Instead, this is all about coal at all cost. It's about looking backwards to see how we can revive coal again and making false promises to those folks that the president is going to talk to tonight.

If we can look to the future, as the only country in the world who's doing this, looking at coal as the future instead of understanding that the future is about clean air, the future is about clean energy, the future is about addressing the challenge of climate change which is really the most significant public health challenge that we face. And providing the international leadership that the U.S. is known for.