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Embattled House Chair Steps Aside in Russia Probe; Interview with Former CIA Director James Woolsey. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired April 6, 2017 - 16:30   ET



MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER (voice-over): Tonight, the embattled chairman of the House Intelligence Committee forced to step aside from leading the investigation into Russia amid growing accusations that he had grown too close to the White House.

REP. DEVIN NUNES (R), CALIFORNIA: Strict procedures for --

RAJU: Already under siege, Congressman Devin Nunes facing a new problem, a House Ethics investigation into whether he improperly disclosed information about top secret intelligence with comments like this.

[16:30:05] NUNES: This is information that was brought to me that I thought the president needed to know about incidental collection where the president himself and others in the Trump transition team were clearly put into intelligence reports that ended up at this White House and across a whole bunch of other agencies.

RAJU: Leaving the capital Thursday, Nunes refused to answer questions, but he released a statement blaming left wing groups for making false and politically-motivated accusations.

Still, he said it was in the best interests to let Congressman Mike Conaway lead the committee's investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign.

The news stunned members of the intelligence committee who only learned of the decision after staff handed them Nunes' statement once he abruptly left a closed door meeting.

REP. JIM HIMES (D), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: We were all caught a little off guard. I think now the investigation can proceed.

RAJU: It marked a dramatic shift from a week ago when Nunes defiantly rejected calls to step aside amid his decision to cancel a public hearing that could have provided more information on Russia's alleged coordination with Trump associates.

(on camera): Are you going to stay as chairman and run this investigation?

NUNES: Well, why would I not? You guys need to ask them why these things are being said. RAJU: But they're saying that it cannot run as you as chair with --

NUNES: You're going to go and talk to them. That sounds like their problem.

RAJU (voice-over): House Speaker Paul Ryan privately met with Nunes last night and said he supports the chairman's decision.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Chairman Nunes wants to make sure this is not a distraction to a very important investigation.

RAJU: But neither Ryan nor his aides would say if the speaker urged Nunes to step aside.

(on camera): Did you urge Nunes to step aside, sir? Did you urge him to?

(voice-over): Nunes had grown weary as his explanation shifted on whether the White House had given him intelligence so he could provide cover to President Trump's unsubstantiated charge that former President Obama had Trump Tower wiretapped.

On Tuesday.

(on camera): Can you stop for a second? Just take one second.

NUNES: No, not going to get into --

RAJU (voice-over): And on Wednesday.

NUNES: We're not going to talk about anything to do with this investigation.


RAJU: Now, Jake, another question tonight is whether or not Mr. Nunes will still receive the top secret information that he and other leaders of Congress get in the so-called Gang of Eight, and also we're learning tonight that intelligence officials had been resistant to giving Nunes and the intelligence committee information that could help with the Russia probe because they were concerned about the actions that he took last month. We'll see, though, if his decision to step aside changes that all -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Manu Rogers on Capitol Hill for us -- thank you.

Joining me now to discuss this and the broader investigation, former CIA Director James Woolsey, who served a former policy adviser to the Trump campaign.

Ambassador, thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate it.


TAPPER: So, Congressman Nunes stepped aside from chairing the committee's Russia probe. Do you think that there needs to be an independent commission or do you think that Congress and the FBI will be able to sort this out?

WOOLSEY: I think they should be able to sort it out. I think this is, frankly, overall a minor matter. And the reason both you and I were surprised at what happened was I think partly related to that.

There is something very important in our electoral politics involving Russia, but it's not this year. It is a year and a half from now when we go to an election where 25 percent of our voting machines don't leave a paper trail and most of those can be hacked, and certainly the ones that have a paper trail, that helps, you can have a recount. But for 25 percent of our voting machines, Russia may be controlling things with its hacking a lot more than any American would want.

That's the problem involving Russia. It is not this kind of silly back and forth that we've been focused on Capitol Hill.

TAPPER: OK. So that's a gad point for the future.

In terms of the FBI investigation and the Senate and House Intelligence Committee's investigation in looking into the role that Russia played and whether there was any collusion in the words -- pardon me, or coordination in the words of the FBI director, what do you make as an intelligence expert of the fact that there were all of these meetings and contacts between Trump campaign officials and associates such as Jared Kushner, then Senator Jeff Sessions, Carter Page, Erik Prince, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, with Russians known to the U.S. government?

WOOLSEY: I don't make a lot out of that. People in Washington in all parts of the government and all parts of the diplomatic corps are always exchanging ideas with one another, meeting one another, talking all the time. And I think that this particular one is something that has several aspects of it that are different than what we've seen before, but nothing that suggests to me success in -- or near success in being able to actually control how votes go in an election.

[16:35:07] That's the key thing.

TAPPER: You don't think the information war, the fake news and the hacking of the real e-mails and distribution is significant enough?

WOOLSEY: The Russians have had recently and before them the Soviets for some time a program called disinformation, disinformatzia. Essentially, it is doing this sort of thing, what is fouling up people's elections and so forth. In Western Europe, they've been very vigorous in western Europe for decades.

What is new is cyber. Adding cyber to that and giving people the ability to hack into an electoral system, not change a few votes in Chicago here and there by bribing someone but rather really changing our elections, that's what's new. And that's why people are worried this year, but they really ought to be a lot more worried a year and a half from now.

TAPPER: Switching gears, let's talk about Syria, if you would. What would you advise President Trump to do about Syria and about the chemical weapons attack against the Syrian people by the Syrian regime?

WOOLSEY: Well, I don't think there's a good answer by talking. Assad does not care what we do. Russia is not going to change its support, and Iran is certainly not going to change its support of Assad.

Assad is kind of -- kind of Iran's poodle mainly in this whole world. I think that it would be really very important to plan, whether they carry it out or not is another matter, but to plan very seriously for a major military strike against the parts of the Iranian infrastructure that are headed toward nuclear weapons. The nuclear agreement that we have with them is, I think, worse than worthless.

And on their way in or their way out, if our forces do use air power against Iran, it would be possible to knock out some of the Syrian facilities, too. But we are down to a situation where we will see a nuclear Iran I think very shortly because of bad decisions that have been made in the past, unless we do something, and this at least gives us an opportunity to do something that is tied to the Syrian events, and that would be use force against the Iranian nuclear program.

TAPPER: I certainly don't need to lecture a former CIA agent on the notion of blowback, but are you not worried a strike against Iran's nuclear facility as well as some Syrian military facilities would create a huge amount of upheaval and perhaps put the United States and its allies in greater peril than what you're suggesting?

WOOLSEY: There's nothing about this situation that I find at all comfortable, whether it is using force or trying to get out of it by talking diplomatically. I -- but I see no way in which arguing with Russians, talking even to Iranians, getting coalitions together -- people are just not going to respond effectively in the United Nations or elsewhere to that kind of a complaint, even as terrible as what the Syrians did was. It is not going to do any good.

And if we want to change the nature of the threat to us in that part of the world, I think what we have to do is take out the Iranian nuclear program, and if we can without hitting any Russian units and so forth, some of the Syrian capability.

TAPPER: All right. Ambassador James Woolsey, we always appreciate your time, sir.

WOOLSEY: Good to be with you.

TAPPER: High school journalists take on the principal after her resume raised many red flags. They tell us caught their eye and what made them call out the very person who might suspend them from school.

And then he was the master of the insult. Legendary comedian Don Rickles passes away. We'll take a look at how he made us laugh.

Stick around.


[16:43:45] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm joined by political roundtable, so let's dive in.

President Trump is now considering military action against the Syrian regime, and I have to say, I guess I'm not surprised that he is so starkly changed his position from what he was saying just a few days ago, but it's almost as if the way they're reacting to this chemical weapons attack in Syria, which was horrific, it's almost as if they're not aware Syria has been doing this since 2013.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, SENIOR WRITER, THE FEDERALIST: Well, look, yes, he does change his position. I'm not sure that he will stick with this position for a long time. But I think the central issue, I'm not an anti-interventionist, but I'm cautious what we can accomplish in a theater that this complicated and how you do it. But I think the one you need is actually constancy from an American leader to say, this is a fight worth fighting, it is our inner interest for these reasons. And right now, the moral problem with Syria and this genocide is running up against the political problem with no one to convince the American people that this is worth blood and treasure.

JOSH ROGIN, COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes, I mean, I'm somewhat reassured but also somewhat scared that President Trump seems to be learning about foreign policy on the job, OK? But he saw the pictures and you saw him in front of the cameras. He seemed emotionally affected. It really got to him. He changed from "I don't want to be president of the world" to "this is my responsibility". Those are the words he used.

That means something. What that did internally was everybody who works on national security in the White House, the NSA and the State Department, they switched. They turned on a dime from a policy that was ISIS only, we'll worry about Assad another time.

TAPPER: Yes, we'll cooperate with Russia and - right. It's all over.

TAPPER: - theoretically maybe even Assad to go after ISIS.

ROGIN: This Presidency is about the President. He set the tone and now everyone is scrambling to come up with these options. And when it - when it all shakes out, we'll have two basic courses of action, escalate or do what we've been doing and accept the consequences. It's the same choice that President Obama had. It's the same choice that Trump has. It is more difficult now, but the consequences of inaction are also more drastic than they've ever been.

TAPPER: Maybe when President Obama was facing the same basic decision in September 2013, Donald Trump businessman was tweeting at him, don't go to war, don't bomb Syria, don't do it, it's foolish. This is now actually - this chemical weapons attack where almost 100 people died this week, horrible but it is not the first and frankly it is not the worst. The one in September - in August rather 2013 was worse.

A.B. STODDARD, REALCLEARPOLITICS ASSOCIATE EDITOR AND COLUMNIST: That's what's so remarkable about the way that we see his reaction as if it is kind of new and he hasn't been following this civil war that's seven years old and 500,000 people have died. He weighed in on this. At that moment of - that turning point moment telling our foolish leader, he called President Obama at the time, not to get in there, there's no - there's no upside, and then he mocked him since for backing away from a red line, including yesterday in front of King Abdullah. I mean, he did not only did it in a statement two days ago, he did it again yesterday. He couldn't resist the temptation. And it is really hard, I think Mary Katharine is right, to see if he can actually stick with this through next week, particularly because the Secretary of State is going to go to Russia. What is this administration asking of the Russians in Syria? Get out of Syria, join us in a coalition for regime change? This is the huge question, is what - are we going to go to war with the Russians.

TAPPER: Right.

STODDARD: And I think we don't know the answers and I don't think they know the answer.

ROGIN: I think there's only one thing they can really ask from the Russians which is put pressure on Assad. OK. This is the same thing we've been asking Russia for the last six years. They're not going to do it.


ROGIN: Then they're going to be put to a choice, OK, do we press - increase the pressure and take risk even if that means we're arming the opposition, more covert action, sanctions, whatever it is. There's a whole litany of things you can do. Each of those has risks. There's also risks of inaction. Those risks are more terrorism, more refugees and extremism just growing throughout the region. So, you know, in the end, he's going to have to choose one of these two basic paths. If he wants to really get out of Syria, he's going to have to escalate to de-escalate. He's coming around to that and you can see it in real-time on TV, and now he just has to get the whole system geared up to enact that policy.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, THE FEDERALIST SENIOR WRITER: I just think it is really tough, and I come back to the part where you do have to sell the American people on your strategy.

TAPPER: And there's none of that.

HAM: I wonder -- right.

TAPPER: There's none of it.

HAM: And also there are risks of doing the international community thing and sort of lauding, as Kerry did, those deal that they had on chemical weapons back in the day which was not actually a deal. So that carries risks as well. I'm unsure whether Trump has a grasp of all the strategies that are available to him. Whether - but I do think it's really important for the American people to be informed of them - be informed of them -

TAPPER: Exactly.

HAM: - in a real way.

TAPPER: I think that's -

HAM: - and have this debate and agree to it. And have a guy who is willing to push through it.

ROGIN: Right. And that's what President Obama never did and that's why people like President Trump when he was a citizen didn't understand the issue. So if he really wants to do this, he's going to have to bring the American people along.

TAPPER: So, let's turn for a second to what's going on in the House Intelligence Committee because I think it was really surprising to all - I know it was surprising to me. I did not expect Congressman Nunes to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. What happened here? Was it really these left-leaning good government groups complaining about Nunes to the Ethics Committee or did Speaker Ryan say, you know, you've cast too much of a cloud over this here - over this investigation?

STODDARD: I think it was a combination. I think that there was already a protest in his district and there were going to be more. They're going to go home for a recess and he's going to face a lot of heat. Probably republicans on the Intel Committee might have the same protest, you need to abandon your chairman. I think internally, I spoke to a member who's fond of Nunes, who knew what Ryan's thinking was. Just a few nights ago, who said Ryan, of course, he's going to stick by unless it becomes a big problem. And I think possibly republicans just went to Ryan and said, this has just becoming too much. And you know, members even who are fond of Nunes really acknowledged openly they didn't want to do it on camera but privately that he made a mess of this. And he did not - he did a great disservice to himself and the investigation. He mishandled the entire thing. And I think they just didn't want to answer those questions at home on the recess and Nunes knew that.

TAPPER: He's a - he's a very well-regarded personally. People do like him a lot, they think he's a nice and decent man. But Nunes seemed to think that this was just causing too much of a problem for his - for his fellow members on the committee.

HAM: Right. And I'm somebody who wanted the information that he brought forward to Trump and to the press out there and cares about it because they care about -

[16:50:02] TAPPER: Sure, although the White House will release it.

HAM: How the tools are used, right? But didn't go about it in the correct way, I don't actually think he did, I think he created this problem for himself. Politically speaking, not morally speaking, I think he had probably gotten to a point where he could have weathered it, maybe. And the quickness of our news cycles these days, I am not buying that people can't get past these things anymore. But - so I thought it was an interesting choice, and it may have been because he truly thought that morally he had - he had gotten away of this. ROGIN: Yes. He could have weathered it but the investigation would

not be seen as credible. And at the end of the day, what the American people need is an accounting of what happened in that election, and you can throw in the allegation of collusion and the Susan Rice stuff and all of that. There was no way that Devin Nunes was going to be able to complete an investigation that the American people could look at and say, OK, that's the final word, we trust that that was independent and credible. So he's stepping aside -

HAM. No, I was counting - I was counting the ship sailed on that and just looking at the Senate -

ROGIN: Well, I still got hope but somehow we'll figure out what happened.

TAPPER: All right. Thanks one and all. Appreciate it. They may only be in high school, but don't call these young journalists fake newsies. How their story ended up exposing lies that were on their new principal's resume. Stay with us.



DON RICKLES, COMEDIAN: 30 years ago you were handsome, and now we're going to put good year on your face and fly you over the beach for a half hour.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD, our "POP CULTURE LEAD". Now, legendary comedian and master for insult artist Don Rickles has died of kidney failure at age of 90. And if you hockey pucks out there who aren't familiar, the king of zing from Queens, New York was discovered by Frank Sinatra in 1957 and has entertained audiences with his potent one-liners ever since.


RICKLES: And I want you to know something from my heart, I never liked you.


TAPPER: That was Jimmy Fallon, but today fellow comedian Jimmy Kimmel tweeted out this afternoon, "90 years with Don Rickles weren't enough."

Now, on to our "NATIONAL LEAD" and the tale of a powerful figure brought down by journalists, in this case, high school journalists from Pittsburg, Kansas writing about their incoming principal, Amy Robertson, who had been hired last month. But the students writing for their school paper, The Booster Redux discovered that Corllins University, Robertson's alma mater was not accredited. Further investigation raised more questions than answers about their new principal's credentials. Their story was published last Friday, Robertson resigned Tuesday.

And to of the student journalist join me now. We have with us, Trina Paul and Patrick Sullivan. First of all, congratulations on your excellent work. I was editor of my high school paper but I did not manage to get the principal fired, unfortunately. Trina, you are co- editor in chief. What made you suspicious during your initial interview with Amy Robertson?

TRINA PAUL, BOOSTER REDUX CO-EDITOR IN CHIEF: I think just some of the words that she used, some of the phrases she said, like that she had lived in California and Spain and New York and she commuted. Some of those things were glaring. And I think at that point we realized that we had stumbled onto something much larger than any of us.

TAPPER: What do you mean it was glaring?

PAUL: It didn't seem plausible. It wasn't realistic. And just - even just looking at her educational background, Corllins, we look through Web sites, broken links, accreditation mill, just various Google searches, just the power of simple internet led us to draw these really simple conclusions from the information.

TAPPER: Internet, yes, Google searches that apparently, the school board was not capable of. Patrick, at what point did you and your colleagues realize, holy smokes, we got a real story here?

PATRICK SULLIVAN, BOOSTER REDUX, REPORTER: I believe it was once we discovered the Corllins' Web site, we dug a little bit deeper into the non-functionality of the Web site itself and we discovered that there's no phone line or e-mail of anyone we could contact.

TAPPER: Trina, your team present your findings to school officials before you publish. What was their response?

PAUL: I think initially they had wanted to stick with her. They gave her an ultimatum, if you present the proper transcripts, you will be able to stay on essentially, and she was unable to do so. And It thus resulted in her resignation.

TAPPER: Patrick, under Kansas law, high school journalists are protected from administrative censorship, but this was a gutsy thing to do. Were you nervous at all?

SULLIVAN: Yes, I was very nervous. Without the help of our advisor, Emily Smith, and a man from the student press law center, Frank Lamonte, who helped us understand our rights as a student journalist.

TAPPER: And, Trina, you're co-editor in chief, did anyone pressure you not to publish the story?

PAUL: I think it was just general apprehension about how the community would react. I don't think there are any specific people that would, say, like single me out or anything like that. It was just the idea of the entire school board or the entire administration having certain thoughts about it. TAPPER: I think you guys are awesome. Patrick, it is your 16th

birthday I understand. Happy birthday. Trina, you are a senior. Are you planning to study journalism? Can we look forward to your application to be an intern here at THE LEAD someday?

PAUL: I am planning on joining a college-produced paper. I look forward to any future internships in news media.

TAPPER: All right. Well, we look forward to hearing from both of you more in the years to come. Thank you so much. And Patrick, I'm sorry, it is your 17th birthday today. Happy birthday. But to both of you, good luck.

PAUL: Thank you.


TAPPER: I've seen the future of journalism and it looks great. That's it for THE LEAD, I'm Jake Tapper. Turning you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM".