Return to Transcripts main page


Trump "Concerned" About Russia Hacking; Putin Visits Japan, Kremlin Denies Hacking Claims; Weighing The Risks Of Lifting Russian Sanctions; Trump Dismisses Conflicts of Interest Questions; Interview with Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. Aired 4:00-4:30p ET

Aired December 15, 2016 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Thanks, Brooke. Donald Trump asking why Russian hacking was not raised as an issue before the election. So odd, with all the CNN, the president-elect watches, doesn't he know it was? THE LEAD starts right now.

The kremlin now responding to new reports that the former KGB Bondville and spy master himself, Vladimir Putin knew about the U.S. election hack as a Trump ally stamps his passport in Moscow.

Running America. Now the family business, new questions about how close Donald Trump's adult children will be to the situation room was major roles for Ivanka and her husband come into focus.

Plus scramble. Why is there a frenzied rush by academics and researchers so save information about climate change from government websites? What are they afraid will happen to this data?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. For weeks, President-elect Donald Trump has dismissed the assessment from U.S. intelligence community that Russia hacked computers of Democrats this election season.

But today, in a possible shift, a transition team source told CNN's Jim Acosta that the president-elect is in fact concerned about the Russian hack. He is also concerned, however, about Democrats and others trying to use the hack to de-legitimize his electoral victory.

Today the president-elect tweeted, "If Russia or some other entity was hacking, why the White House wait so long to act? Why did they only complain after Hillary lost?"

The answer is, they didn't. The White House actually weighed in on the hacks on October 7th. We covered it right here on THE LEAD. Here is the receipt.


TAPPER: U.S. officials have been debating whether to do this for a while. Today the Obama administration formally said they are, quote, "Confident that Russia is behind the DNC and other hacks." What changed?


TAPPER: Now, to be fair, the president-elect might have missed that report because it broke the same day as that "Access Hollywood" tape. But he and President Obama are very focused on this issue right now.

Let's bring in CNN's Pamela Brown. Pamela, the White House and the president-elect are at odds here debating a fact. The fact is the issue of Russian hacking was discussed, clearly, before the election.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. In fact, today the White House pointed out that point, Jake, that close Trump supporters were even calling out Russia as the culprit and the hackster in the campaign even before the joint intelligence statement in October outing Russia. It is clear today tensions are reaching a boiling point over the issue.


BROWN (voice-over): Today the White House is squaring off against President-elect Trump over the intelligence community assessment that Russian conducted unprecedented cyber hacks on American political operatives and organizations during the presidential election.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It might be time to not attack the intelligence community, but actually be supportive of a thorough, transparent, rigorous, non-political investigation into what exactly happened.

BROWN: The terse response comes after Trump tweeted today, "If Russia or some other entity was hacking, why did the White House wait so long to act? Why did they only complain after Hillary lost?

White House Spokesman Josh Earnest pointed out that the claim was not accurate noting an October intelligence statement made public pointing the finger at Russia. Earnest even suggested Trump may have known well before that about Russia's role.

EARNEST: It's possible also that he consulted with one of his closest aides, Roger Stone, who back in July, July 27th, to be precise, tweeted, quote, "Of course, the Russians hacked at Hillary Clinton's e-mail." Mr. Trump obviously knew that Russia was engaged in malicious cyber activity that was helping him and hurting Secretary Clinton's campaign.

BROWN: Today, a Trump transition official pushed back saying the White House is trying to undermine the election results.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (via telephone): At a certain point, you've to realize that an election from last month is going to stand, whether it's the recount or continued questions along this line.

BROWN: As Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives in Japan, Moscow is denying allegations Putin was directly involved in the hack with a kremlin spokesman calling it, quote, "funny heresy." CNN has learned intelligence officials believed Putin was aware

of the hacks even before they released that October statement saying Russia's senior most officials authorized the theft of documents from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman, John Podesta.

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: The way Russia operates when it comes to activities of this type, they have people who do the work for them. That gives them plausible deniability.

[16:05:03]BROWN: Today, Republicans are on the Hill are vowing to hold Russia accountable. Senator Lindsey Graham, who claims his campaign e-mail was hacked by Russians, didn't mince words, calling out Putin by name.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: We're going to hit you and hit you hard. I am going to introduce bipartisan sanctions naming Putin as an individual, his inner circle, for not only hacking into our political systems but trying to destabilize democracy throughout the world.

BROWN: But Trump's surrogates are signaling sanctions will likely not happen. According to NPR, this week in Moscow, former Trump campaign surrogate, Jack Kingston, met with American business people and suggested the Trump administration will lift western sanctions imposed on Russia because of its armed intervention in Ukraine.


BROWN: Intelligence sources say there is still no hard evidence firmly showing Putin's involvement largely because Putin and others in the kremlin don't use e-mail and go to great lengths to cover their tracks in cyber espionage operations.

Right now, the Obama White House is figuring out ways to retaliate against Russia, but of course, all of that work could be undone in a little over month when Trump takes office -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Pamela Brown, thank you so much. Appreciate it. Let's hear directly from former Congressman Jack Kingston. He was a senior adviser to the Trump campaign and he joins me now.

Congressman, thanks so much for being here. We appreciate it. You're just back from Moscow. You met with American business executives in Moscow. Did you discuss with them whether you thought President-elect Trump, when he becomes president, will attempt to lift sanctions on Russia?

JACK KINGSTON, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER, TRUMP CAMPAIGN: Well, that was one of their questions. But Jake, let me make sure, I want to make it abundantly clear to you as I did the business groups, as I was over there as a private citizen. I work for a law firm that has been located there for 20 years.

We have done post-election analysis in Australia, London, pre- election in Brussels. We're doing it anywhere we have an office. That was a hat I was wearing --

TAPPER: Not there as an emissary from the Trump --

KINGSTON: Absolutely.

TAPPER: Were they aware you were going?

KINGSTON: No. I did surrogate work during the campaign since that time. I am still a Trump supporter, but I'm not affiliated with the campaign in an official role at all. So I want to make that clear.

Now among the many questions that the businesses ask -- I want to talk a little bit about some of these businesses. You're talking about groups like IBM, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, 3M Company, Boeing, these are American businesses that have been in Russia for over 20, 30 years and do $50 billion worth of work in Russia.

Hiring a lot of Americans and a lot of Russians and increasing communication between the two countries along the way. They had a number of questions. One of the questions was, what about sanctions?

To which I said that sanctions, not something that the administration is going to lead with at all. The sanctions have been in place a while now. The administration should take a look and say, are the results what we were looking for, brand-new administration. It's a good time to revitalize --

TAPPER: They want the sanctions lifted, just to be clear, because they think it will be a business opportunity for them if the sanctions are lifted. They will be able to make more money and do more business in Russia.

KINGSTON: Yes. Businesses traditionally have their own view of things. The businesses acknowledge, we have Syria, Crimea, Ukraine. We know that's unfinished business and that will be top of the priority list when Trump becomes president. He's going to have to deal with those.

Now where businesses can play a vital role is to be somewhat of a shock absorber between the two nations as we deal with delicate national and world security issues.

When you have a relationship on business to business and there is an economic impact in both countries, it can be a channel of communication, something that could be used to tamp down some of the tension. I think it's a positive thing regardless of where you are.

TAPPER: Do you think President-elect Trump wants to lift the sanctions? He said as much in his very last press conference in I think it was July. He talked about maybe lifting the sanctions. Is that something that you think he would try to do?

KINGSTON: Well, I can't speak for President Trump on it, but I think for him to start out new with Russia, with China, Cuba, that's his prerogative as president. President Obama reopened Cuba, put it on the front table, if you will, changed the policy that had been in place since the 1960s, and I think that Donald Trump, or any new president, has that right to look at things with brand new eyes.

TAPPER: Isn't there a risk, if he does attempt -- if the president- elect does attempt to lift the sanctions, isn't there an attempt that Vladimir Putin and the kremlin would interpret that as weakness and then try to do something else just as provocative as invading Crimea, going after the Baltics, for example?

KINGSTON: I don't the Russian government and again, it's a private sector. I did not meet with the government officials, but I don't think they'll perceive Donald Trump as somebody who is a weak leader. They're going to see -- listen to his discussions about increasing the military, regaining our strength, about us being selective on what things we engage with and what we don't engage with.

[16:10:10]I mean, Donald Trump is a guy that I think Vladimir Putin will have a lot of respect for. The two of them possibly can get a lot done together. We've already seen Secretary Kerry and Lavrov talk about working together to defeat ISIS. Donald Trump, much to his criticism as a candidate said I'll work with Russia to defeat ISIS.

It might be a good thing and we did the same thing over the past years. We defeated Nazi Germany with Stalin, of all the thugs in the world. Roosevelt made a pact with him.

So you can work with your enemies on a lot of different levels. I think, again, it's so important, with a new administration, to look at things with fresh eyes.

TAPPER: All right. Congressman Jack Kingston, thank you for your time. We appreciate it.

KINGSTON: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: It's not complex. That's what President-elect Trump says about separating his global business empire from his presidency. But if that's the case, why did his team say they were postponing a news conference that was supposed to be today, in part because these are complicated matters? That story next.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Staying with politics, now just to give you an idea of the massive scope of the potential conflicts of interest facing the next administration, a brand-new report says the president-elect's company, the Trump Organization, is now one of America's top 50 private businesses.

The financial research firm says the Trump Organization is now ranked 48th on the list of the largest private companies in the United States. That is up 14 spots from last year. The president-elect's company employs more than 22,000 people and made $9.5 billion in revenue last year, according to the report.

Now despite the widespread reach of Trump's businesses, the president-elect took to Twitter this morning, suggesting that the very complicated job of untangling the huge global business empire, and any possible conflicts of interest from the White House, is actually not complicated at all.

Today was supposed to be the day Donald Trump explained exactly how he was going to wall off any conflicts of interest between the Oval Office and his hundreds of Trump Inc. entanglements. But that conference was, of course, postponed. CNN has learned that's because the Trump transition team is still working out the legal framework.

Let's get right to CNN's Jim Acosta in New York.

Jim, if eliminating these conflicts of interest is not complex, as the president-elect says. Why is it taking so long to explain how he's going to do it?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That is the question, Jake. But I can tell you, sources inside the transition tell me that lawyers for the president-elect are busy working on disconnecting Trump from his businesses. Critics say, if Trump stops short of a total separation, he could be violating the law on day one of his administration.


ACOSTA (voice-over): Donald Trump is sounding as if cutting his ties to his vast real estate holdings may not be so tough after all, saying in a tweet, "The media tries so hard to make my move to the White House as it pertains to my business so complex when actually it isn't."

But that's not how his own transition team is putting it. On the same day Trump was supposed to hold a news conference to detail the separation from his businesses, a spokesman said, it's complicated.

JASON MILLER, TRUMP TRANSITION SPOKESMAN: There are obviously internal considerations as far as what the structure will look like for family members that will be taking the reins of the business. And I think that the priority here is to make sure that we get it right.

ACOSTA: While sources stress the president-elect's plans are not final, Trump's sons are expected to take the reins of the family businesses while daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared are likely to work in the White House, Ivanka in East Wing, and Jared as a key advisor.

Critics argue that's a problem asking now Trump's sons could be poised to run his companies while sitting in on transition meetings like this round-table with tech giants.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: There are laws on the books against this.

SEAN SPICER, RNC COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: And he will follow every one of them.

BOLDUAN: So, Don Jr. and Eric Trump are not going to have --

SPICER: Mr. Trump has made it clear in January he'll lay out the process by which he'll focus on this country and leave his business to his family and others to run.

ACOSTA: A new poll finds the public is worried about the potential for conflicts. With 52 percent saying they're concerned Trump will place his business interests ahead of the American people. A group of Democratic senators led by Elizabeth Warren plans to introduce a bill that would force Trump to put his holdings in a blind trust, saying in a statement, "The American people deserve to know that the president of the United States is working to do what's best for the country, not using his office to do what's best for himself and his businesses."

Top transition advisers say, not to worry, and maintain he has the right to have his children serve as advisers.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, SENIOR TRUMP ADVISER: The president does have discretion to choose a staff of his liking. So, if that actually is true and the legal advice holds, then that will open up a realm of possibility.

ACOSTA: But experts say Trump could be in danger of violating a little known clause in the Constitution, the Emolument Clause, which bars presidents from accepting gifts from foreign governments.

RICHARD PAINTER, GEORGE W. BUSH ADMINISTRATION ETHICS LAWYER: The president has to make sure that he does not have money coming in from foreign powers. That is prohibited.


ACOSTA: And transition officials announced retired Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg and Money Crowley are joining the National Security Council at the White House in the new Trump administration. Crowley is the second FOX News analyst to move to the NSC. Sources say Trump is on course to finalize the separation from his businesses by January in time for the news conference, Jake, that has been pushed to the New Year. We're still waiting on the news conference.

TAPPER: Of course. We all are.

Jim Acosta, thanks so much.

He is a Democratic senator on the Foreign Relations Committee who's been critical of Trump. But our next guest just had a meeting with the president-elect. What does he think? That story next.


[16:22:34] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Sticking with our politics lead.

Today, President-elect Trump today was supposed to explain to the American people how he is going to wall off his hundreds of business entanglements throughout the world from his job as president. The announcement has been postponed. Democrats on Capitol Hill are now proposing a way for him to do it themselves, forcing him to divest his assets that pose any conflict of interest and into place any proceeds in a blind trust.

Joining me now is one of the sponsors of that bill, Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks for joining us.

So, as I understand it, you don't have any Republicans on board with your legislation. Does this have any chance of becoming law?

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Well, Jake, the legislation we intend to introduce in January so far has five Democratic co-sponsors. But it's our hope that there will be Republicans who will join us as well because the core of this bill, what it does is simply makes the president subject to the same conflict of interest standard as thousands of senior federal government employees. It tries to make it clear that we expect a president who is focused on doing the nation's business rather than being distracted by his own business.

TAPPER: Take a listen to what transition spokesman Sean Spicer said this morning about the concerns of potential conflicts of interest.


SPICER: The American people have understood exactly what they're getting and voted overwhelmingly for him. He has been very clear about what he owns, the role of his family and everything else since he announced that he was running for president. And they overwhelmingly elected him with all of that on the table.


TAPPER: Your response, sir?

COONS: Well, first, Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote, so the idea that he was overwhelmingly elected I think sort of flies in the face of the recent record.

But more importantly, Donald Trump alone, among modern candidates for president, refused -- steadfastly refused to release his taxes. So, we have no idea what the scope of his conflicts of interest might be. Whether some of his major development projects were financed by Russian oligarchs or whether he owes a significant amount of money to banks in China.

And in the absence of knowing that, I think it's hard for the general public to assess whether or not he's got conflicts of interest that are impacting decisions he makes in foreign policy, particularly where someone like President-elect Trump takes such an unorthodox stance towards Russia, breaking with 70 years of Republican Party orthodoxy in suggesting that we should turn a blind eye towards his invasion of Ukraine, his occupation of Crimea, his aggression in Syria and his coddling of Iran in support for terrorism.

[16:25:01] I frankly think it's a question that most Americans would like an answer to regardless of whether or not they voted for him in the election.

TAPPER: So, I had a feeling you would bring up the popular vote issue. And, you know, that and $7.99 will get you a latte. It doesn't really matter. We have an Electoral College.

COONS: That's true.

TAPPER: And Donald Trump won 306 electoral votes, including in three traditionally Democratic states, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. And I guess the argument that we are hearing from Spicer is, look, he won. He won not releasing his tax returns. He won with these global business entanglements and no promise that he would sever those relationships as president.

Why would he be obligated to subject himself to laws that he is not subjected to as president?

COONS: Well, I think what we as the co-sponsors of the legislation will introduce in January are seeking to say is that there may well have been an expectation by the millions of Americans who voted for Donald Trump that he would disentangle himself from this global business. He had promised an announcement today, as you said earlier in this piece. He announced that he was going to sever ties with his business and has put that off until early next year.

So, going back to the very founding of this country, the reason that there is a clause in our Constitution saying that the president shall take no benefit or title from a foreign government is in order to prevent any complications in our foreign policy. And I do think this is a pressing question. Of course, I agree, he won the Electoral College. But I disagree that this is a subject that millions of Americans can look at without being genuinely concerned.

TAPPER: Let's turn to the Russian hack. You are a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I want your reaction to what Republican Congressman Peter King had to say about the claim that Russia was trying to swing the election for Mr. Trump which the CIA seems to be putting out there. Take a listen.


REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: I have been in briefing after briefing and even in the public statements, the director of national intelligence, director of the FBI, have all said that they don't know what the motive is, if there is a motive it was to disrupt the election. Not to prefer one candidate over the other.

And to suddenly have it in "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times," the intelligence community, the CIA has concluded this. Who? Who in the CIA? Is it John Brennan? Is it some rogue person behind a desk?

This is almost, the CIA -- people in the intelligence community using disinformation tactics against the president-elect of the United States. And that is just disgraceful.


TAPPER: Have you seen any direct evidence that the Russians were trying to tip the election to Donald Trump? Or what do you think the motive was based on any briefing you have attended?

COONS: Well, one of the things I was struck by, going back to August when I led a bipartisan trip to Central and Eastern Europe, was just how broadly the Russians have been involved in overtly and covertly undermining democratic elections throughout Europe. I have been briefed in a classified setting on some of the elements of this Russian hacking, and I'm looking forward to a more thorough hearing in the Foreign Relations Committee, both a public hearing and a classified hearing.

I am convinced that there was an intentional effort at the most senior levels of the Russian government to undermine confidence in our elections and, thus, to have an impact on the elections. But I do think there is more information that members of the Senate need to hear. And frankly, I wish that we would have some of this information released to the public, released before the electors meet on Monday so that we had a sense of how big and how deep this is.

TAPPER: Senator, there is a big debate right now about the direction of the Democratic Party. Take a listen to another son of Delaware, Vice President Joe Biden, talking about white working class voters that he thinks clearly too many Democrats have been ignoring and insulting. Take a listen.


JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There is a sort of sense that's growing up in the Democratic Party that somehow these folks are -- I mean, these are good people, man. These aren't racists. These aren't sexists.


TAPPER: What's your reaction, sir?

COONS: Well, if you look back to the 1980s, the time in my life when I was first coming up. I cast my first vote in the 1984 election, Democrats lost I think it was four out of five presidential elections in a row, or four out of five in a period there, in the Reagan and Bush era. And our party had gotten pretty far off track. And frankly hadn't engaged enough with the people who became the so-called Reagan Democrats.

And I think Joe Biden who understands America and understands our middle class better than anybody in national politics has a point here, which is that there's millions of Americans who voted for Donald Trump not because they're racist, not because they're so-called deplorables but because they wanted change. They are frustrated. They feel like they haven't gotten the benefit out of the significant increase in productivity and wealth in this country in recent years. And they see the economy and they see our country moving past them. And they're wondering who is going to stand up and fight for them. I agree with Joe that Democrats are the natural allies of the working

class in America and that, going back to the FDR coalition, we have had the ideas and initiatives and solutions that have met their real needs and problems day in and day out.