Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Taps Pompeo to Head CIA; $25M Settlement Agreement Reached in Trump Univ. Case. Securing Trump Tower; Trump Fills Key National Security Positions. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired November 18, 2016 - 16:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Donald Trump's pivot to center as president? Not happening.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Trump's hard-liners, the president-elect picking his top spy, along with a man who will have his ear in times of crisis and war, retired General Michael Flynn, who once said Islam isn't a religion.

Also, Donald Trump's pick for most powerful lawyer in the land, one rejected by the Senate over his civil rights record, now he's embraced by many colleagues, even Trump opponents. So is Senator Jeff Sessions the right man for the job?

Plus, massive tie-up in Manhattan, just in time for the holidays -- how securing Trump Tower, what some are calling White House north now, could cause a four-year traffic mess in Gotham.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in again today for Jake Tapper.

It is Friday, and the Trump team is now announcing the president- elect's Cabinet picks at a feverish pace. Today, president-elect Trump is giving the American public a window into how he intends to keep the U.S. safe, to mete out justice and lead the country in times of crisis.

The president-elect unveiling his choices to lead national security, the CIA and the Department of Justice. Lieutenant General Michael Flynn will become national security adviser, the man with the future president's ear on everything from how to destroy ISIS to secret surveillance programs to whether to combat or coddle the Russian president.

Congressman Mike Pence will oversee clandestine operations and intelligence gathering over at the CIA. Pompeo bucked his own party to support President Obama's recent request to use military force in Syria, but he has a long list of disagreements with the current president over national security.

And Senator Jeff Sessions, he will take charge of the Justice Department as attorney general. Sessions has already been through the confirmation process, though, three decades ago, and it didn't go so well.

All the choices have already come under attack from some Democrats, potential harbingers perhaps of what could be very tough confirmation fights once Trump is inaugurated just 63 days from today.

CNN is tracking every development in the Trump transition and working our sources to get more information about who will lead our country come January 20.

But first I want to start with CNN political reporter Sara Murray. She is outside Trump Tower in busy New York.

Sara, you talk to Republican sources. What do they think these three picks signal about what Donald Trump is going to cover?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, in many ways, the response from Republicans on the Hill has been positive, or at least an acknowledgement that the incoming president deserves to build his own team.

One thing this does not signal though is that president-elect Donald Trump is planning on taking the hard edge off of his proposed policies any time soon.


MURRAY (voice-over): Donald Trump unveiling the first layer of his national security team, a trio of picks signaling the president-elect has little interest in moderating the hard-line views he campaigned on.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT: We have to be tough and we have to be strong.

MURRAY: Trump announcing retired General Michael Flynn for national security adviser, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general, and Congressman Mike Pompeo for CIA director, each one of them known for their unyielding and at times controversial views.


MURRAY: Flynn has been lauded as a talented battlefield intelligence officer. But he could fuel concerns that Trump White House is a haven of intolerance. He's made a habit of voicing concern about Islam, which he once called more of a political ideology than a religion.

Sessions is known for his staunch anti-immigration positions in his two decades in the Senate, but he's also echoed Trump's calls for Hillary Clinton to face a special prosecutor for her use of a private e-mail server, a threat Sessions could turn into a reality if he's confirmed.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: The evidence indicates to me that this should be fully investigated. I cannot say Mr. Comey has not completed a full investigation, but it seems like he has not. MURRAY: As for Pompeo, the House Intelligence Committee member has

been a fierce critic of Clinton's handling of the 2012 attack in Benghazi.

REP. MIKE POMPEO (R), KANSAS: How come not a single person lost a single paycheck connected to the fact we had the first ambassador killed since 1979? How come no one has been held accountable to date?

MURRAY: The Kansas Republican arguing there was a cover-up surrounding Benghazi as the panel investigating the failed to find new evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of the Obama administration or Clinton.

Trump unveiling his picks with little pomp and circumstance, blasting out a press release with his selections this morning as he remained ensconced in Trump Tower. The president-elect now set to hunker down at his gulf club in Bedminster for a weekend of nonstop meetings.

Among those making the trek to see the president-elect, 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools Michelle Rhee and General James Mattis.


A source tells CNN Romney has long wanted to serve as secretary of state, but a Cabinet post in a Trump White House would surprise many, given the tone between the two men during the campaign.

MITT ROMNEY (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud.

TRUMP: No, I have a lot of friends. By the way, Mitt Romney is not one of them.


MURRAY: Now, one of the lingering questions is whether Donald Trump this weekend will be seriously considering some of these moderate Republicans, past rivals and even Democrats for top Cabinet positions or whether these meetings are merely for the optics -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Well, they made need a short memory.

Sara Murray, thanks very much in New York.

It was only minutes after Trump announced his selection of General Flynn as national security adviser that Democrats and other critics in the national security community blasted the choice as dangerous. One lawmaker described Flynn to me as erratic.

Throughout the campaign, Flynn particularly riled up other former military men and women over his decision to dive into politics, lobbying sharp-tongued verbal grenades at Hillary Clinton, the Obama administration, Muslims, even U.S. allies.

Now Flynn is under fire for lobbying for foreign companies while at the same time sitting in on classified intelligence briefings right next to president-elect Trump.

It's a decision sources say would drive government security officials ballistic.


FLYNN: The next president of the United States right here!


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, once a registered Democrat, will now be the president-elect's closest adviser on the greatest threats to U.S. national security, but with views that are a marked departure from long-held U.S. policy of both parties.

He has called Islam itself, not radical versions of it, a threat. In tweets such as this one during the campaign, "Fear of Muslims is rational," he wrote, and in public speeches even calling Islam a cancer.

FLYNN: Islam is a political ideology. It is a political ideology. It definitely hides behind this notion of it being a religion.

SCIUTTO: More broadly, he supports a significant reversal of which states the U.S. views as threats. He has identified longtime ally Saudi Arabia as a danger, while growing U.S. adversary Russia, who the U.S. blames for invading Ukraine, atrocities in Syria and meddling in the U.S. election, as, at worst, an exaggerated threat, at best, a potential friend.

This is a view that contradicts the U.S. intelligence community and senior defense officials from both parties. He has also unsettled U.S. allies by arguing that military commitments to NATO and other treaty allies should be conditional.

FLYNN: I have been called an angry general. I will tell you what. You know what? I'm not angry. What I am, what I am is I'm very determined to make sure that this country is ready for my children and my grandchildren.

SCIUTTO: Flynn's military record is impressive. As an intelligence officer, he is credited with helping turn the tide against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and ISIS' predecessor in Iraq.

And yet, when he was chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, his management style antagonized many in the intel community, leading to his being forced out. Since then, he was Vladimir Putin's dinner guest in December last year, accepting an undisclosed speaking fee.

And Flynn's for-profit consultancy was still working with a foreign client while he was also attending classified security briefings with Donald Trump during the campaign.

The ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Government Oversight is now questioning Flynn's ties to lobbyists, requesting more information on his foreign connections as well.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: He has a reputation as an iconoclast and an independent thinker. And some of that is good and necessary. I think the deeper problem potential is that he has publicly said that he thinks this war can go on for several generations. He has publicly called for expanding the war to basically any Islamist militant around the world. Many of that comes with some potential downsides.


SCIUTTO: President-elect Trump's pick to run the Justice Department has had problems with Senate confirmation before, though, granted, years ago.

In 1986, the Alabama attorney general, Jeff Sessions, could not get the blessing of a Republican Senate to become a federal judge over allegations that he was a racist.

CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown is here with me now.

So, Pamela, I know that the Trump transition team talking today about Sessions' more recent more moderate positions on civil rights legislation, et cetera. Do they think this could be a problem in confirmation, though, his past comments?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: They think it's going to come up during the confirmation hearings, but they are confident that, in fact, he will be confirmed.

And Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions was the first U.S. senator to champion Donald Trump during the campaign and now it looks like that loyalty to Trump is paying off. And the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, coming out today, already saying that he will help him win the job.



SESSIONS: How is everybody? Here we go.

BROWN (voice-over): Jeff Sessions has been Alabama's senator for 20 years, and, before that, Alabama's attorney general...

SESSIONS: The rule of law is an important thing.

BROWN: ... and U.S. attorney.

SESSIONS: The witness has not answered your question.

BROWN: He is currently a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the same committee that denied him a federal judgeship in 1986 over allegations he made racial remarks, calling the NAACP un-American and communist-inspired. One African-American U.S. attorney who had worked under Sessions

testified that Sessions called him -- quote -- "boy" and joked about the KKK, saying he was OK with them until he learned that they smoked marijuana.

Sessions denied the allegations and says he has never been a racist.

SESSIONS: I am not a racist. I am not insensitive to blacks. I have supported civil rights activity in my state.

BROWN: In the Senate, Sessions has earned the reputation as a staunch conservative and garnered respect from his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. If confirmed, he will be taking the reins as the chief law enforcement officer in the country, at a time when the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color is front and center.

TODD A. COX, NAACP LEGAL DEFENSE AND EDUCATIONAL FUND: Everyone needs to be held to account. And just because you are a sitting senator going before those who are your brothers and sisters in the same body doesn't mean you're entitled to just walk into a position that is frankly one of the most powerful positions in this country.


BROWN: And despite claims from some that he's a racist, as U.S. attorney in Alabama, Jeff Sessions prosecuted the head of the state KKK for abducting and killing an African-American teenager.

And he has said that he sought to end segregation in Alabama schools. But other parts of his civil rights record has drawn fierce from the NAACP and ACLU, particularly on voting rights and hate crimes law. All of this, of course, will be under scrutiny during the confirmation hearing.

SCIUTTO: It was a big issue during the election as well.


SCIUTTO: Thanks very much, Pamela Brown.

He's a West Point and Harvard Law School graduate. Now he's Trump's top pick to be the nation's top spy. So, just who is Congressman Mike Pompeo? That's right after this.



[16:16:08] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Sticking with the fast and furious developments today in the Trump transition, the president-elect wants Congressman Mike Pompeo to run the Central Intelligence Agency. Pompeo is not a former spoke turned public servant, though, he did graduate from West Point, top of his class, in fact, and now serves on the House Intelligence Committee.

CNN senior political reporter Manu Raju has more on the potential future CIA director.

So, Manu, Pompeo, a little bit out of that Trump inner circle in terms of the early selections for the most senior posts.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes, that's right. In fact, you know, Congressman Pompeo actually endorsed Marco Rubio in the presidential primary. Even after Pompeo endorsed Donald Trump in the general election, he really didn't campaign much for him. And they gave some advice to Donald Trump from time to time, he appeared as a surrogate for Mike Pence at the vice presidential debate, but really that was about it.

But one thing is clear, many of Pompeo's views align with Trump's.


RAJU (voice-over): Congressman Mike Pompeo, a staunch conservative, now in line to lead the CIA. A Harvard law grad who was first in his class at West Point, Pompeo quickly gained the trust of GOP leaders after his 2010 election.

REP. MIKE POMPEO (R), KANSAS: You've testified here this morning --

RAJU: Holding influential posts on the House Intelligence Committee and the panel investigating the 2012 Benghazi attacks.

But Pompeo not satisfied with the findings of the GOP-led investigation issuing a separate report, laying the blame on Benghazi at the feet of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

POMPEO: This was a failure at the most senior levels of our government and one that I hope the recommendations this committee presents will help making sure that something like this never happens again.

RAJU: Pompeo has called for more sweeping surveillance. He wants to keep open the ion center at Guantanamo Bay. He's criticized Obama for rolling back tough interrogation tactics like waterboarding and he was a staunch critic of FBI Director James Comey and his investigation of Clinton.

POMPEO: Director Comey screwed this up from the get-go by announcing on July 5th that he wasn't going to indict a woman who had materially mishandled classified information.

RAJU: And Pompeo had issued some statements about Islam, even accusing its religious leaders of turning a blind eye to extremists.

POMPEO: Silence has made these Islamic leaders across America potentially complicit in these acts.


RAJU: Now, some key members of the foreign policy establishment have actually praised the Pompeo selection, including former CIA director, Michael Hayden, who was not a Trump supporter and said today he was heartened by the choice. And Pompeo, he said, is a man who takes these questions seriously -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: A lot of bipartisan support for him.

Manu Raju, thanks very much.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

SCIUTTO: And we have this breaking news just into CNN. President- elect Trump just agreed to settle a lawsuit for $25 million. We talked about Trump University a lot during the campaign and how it could be a massive problem for the Trump administration. People who attended the Trump-branded school, you may remember, claimed that they were sold a bill of goods and that they were lied to. The president- elect had filed appeal after appeal, insisting that he did not defraud people who attended Trump U.

But now, again, just minutes ago, in a press release, the attorney general announced the president-elect had agreed to $25 million settlement for the more than 6,000 victims. Trump will also pay up to $1 million in penalties to the state of New York for violating state education laws, all this according to the statement.

I want to bring in our political panel now to talk president-elect nominations, as well as this latest news. Politics writer at "The Atlantic", Molly Ball, Republican strategist and CNN political commentator, Kevin Madden, and associate editor at "The Hill", A.B. Stoddard.

Perhaps just with this news, I want to get your reaction to this, Kevin.

[16:20:01] This was we thought quite an issue during the campaign. Of course, he won the election. Would have been trouble to let this drag on.

How significant a development do you think this settlement is?

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, well, it removes an incredible distraction. I mean, the last thing you want when you're trying to put together an administration and you're trying to set an agenda, you have a busy 100 days planned, you don't want this type of distraction hanging over you. So, removing this distraction I think was -- is a good thing for the Trump administration as they go through what will be a very busy time next year.

TAPPER: Molly, there are still other lawsuits out there and questions. You can't settle them all, I imagine, although there might be some effort made. How much of a cloud is that in the midst of someone who's trying to be a transformative leader, right?

MOLLY BALL, THE ATLANTIC: Right. I mean, I think that's the question, whether he's going to try to put more of these potential conflict of interest, these lawsuits, all of the various loose ends out there, is he going to try to bring as much closure as possible to his private dealings before he takes office? You do hear a lot of Republicans saying and "The Wall Street Journal"

saying today, we need him to devote all of his attention to the presidency. That means getting rid of all these distractions, getting rid of these questions about family entanglements and business entanglements that even if he thinks they don't affect him will continue to raise questions as long as they're still out there.

SCIUTTO: And, A.B., it's not just the lawsuits, right? I mean, you still have multimillion dollar, billion dollar businesses, you have this question of a blind trust. We've talked to ethics lawyers who say giving it to the kids doesn't give you the separation you need. That's going to be a whole other kettle of fish, right?

A.B. STODDARD, THE HILL: Right. That is really the biggest issue that they're ignoring. We've seen them trying to change the narrative from, do you only get the job if you're a Trump loyalist to we're talking to every enemy we've ever made, we're open book here, we're searching for the best talent. But what they're ignoring is this big question about what separation is required -- what's the appropriate separation between the businesses the kids have told us with pride they do vast dealings around the world, including with the Russians, and what their definition of blind trust is not remotely close to what the actual definition is going to have to be.

And that's the one thing that's outstanding that's raising a lot of concern. And it needs to be decided pretty quickly.

SCIUTTO: Kevin, I have to ask you, of course Donald Trump has said many times he never settles. He just settled.

MADDEN: That was another -- that's a very good point. He has indicated previously he doesn't have a proclivity for settling these. Is this a sign of a new Donald Trump? I think there needs to be a lot more evidence before anybody can come to that conclusion.

BALL: Donald Trump also has a long career of settling lawsuits, so that was never actually true. That was never actually the case.

But, you know, Donald Trump's entire campaign was an exercise in shattering norms. In taking the unwritten rules of politics and defying them. There was no actual law that said you had to release your tax returns, even though a lot of people expected it. He shattered that norm. Now that he's going to be president, does he suddenly decide to abide by those unwritten rules or does he feel so validated by his success that he says, you know, no, I don't have to do any of those things that you guardians of propriety claim I have to do.

TAPPER: I'll let you place bets on what you think will happen after this break. Molly, Kevin, A.B., please stay with me. We have a lot more.

We'll be right back after this break.


[16:27:42] SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

We're sticking with politics and we have our panel still with us here, Kevin Madden, A.B. Stoddard and Molly Ball.

Kevin, if I could begin with you, a number of appointments today, Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions, Pompeo, some fairly hard line positions here we're talking about. And yet, this weekend he's meeting with your old boss, Mitt Romney, there. Do you take that as a sign that he is expanding the field a little bit, looking to moderate the overall tenor of the administration?

MADDEN: Potentially. I think there are a lot of policy professionals that are reluctant to really join a Trump administration because they think that maybe they're not open to a new line of thinking. This could send a signal to those policy professionals that they are open to hearing from people who have more pragmatic or a much more or more moderate voice on some issues like national security or foreign policy.

SCIUTTO: Hearing from is one thing. Do you believe that Mitt Romney is actually a serious contender for secretary of state?

MADDEN: You know, I don't know. I'm not well connected enough with the transition to speak to that, but what I do know is that Governor Romney does take these issues very seriously. And they do have a previous relationship. Granted, he has been a very strong critic.

But I think the Trump transition team and Trump himself knows that Mitt Romney cares about these issues, knows about these issues. If they do show a willingness to listen to them, I think Mitt Romney will share insights that he thinks are important.

SCIUTTO: Would he take the job if he was offered it?

MADDEN: I think this, I'll say this. I think Mitt Romney's sense of duty is very, very strong. And the belief -- and I think it could allay some of the concerns that people have that there aren't enough people in there, you know, people with strong ideas that will challenge Trump on things like national security and foreign policy. So that sense of duty is going -- I think it's what's guiding Romney to have the meeting and I think that sense of duty would guide any decision where there's an offer.

TAPPER: A.B., Molly, I had to pepper the Romney guy a little bit on these questions. But let's look, I want your thoughts on those selections as a whole, because it's not just the personalities we're talking about here, we're talking about some pretty hard core positions. I mean, look at Flynn's positions on Islam, on Russia, Pompeo on torture. Sessions at least in the past on voting rights.

Do you look at them, Molly Ball, as a sign that he's going to stick to this right path? Not a correct path, but far right path?