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Trump Defends Giving Highly Classified Info to Russia; GOP Senator Says White House in a Downward Spiral; Congress Demands Release of Tapes; McMaster to Speak Out Again at the White House; Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired May 16, 2017 - 11:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

[11:00:05] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. We are beginning with breaking news.

Show us the transcripts. The Senate's top Democrat now demanding that the White House turn over exactly what the president said to Russian officials in the Oval Office, a meeting during which President Trump is now accused of disclosing highly classified intelligence to the Russian Foreign minister and the Russian ambassador to the United States.

And moments from now, the president's National Security adviser will be speaking to reporters on this unfolding crisis, going before cameras alone, solo. This was not previously scheduled to be this way. That means it's a big deal.

These will be his first comments since the president may have contradicted his original account of what happened behind closed doors. Stand by for that.

Here's what the president has said about all of this, this morning, on Twitter -- taking to Twitter to defend himself, saying this, "As president, I wanted to share with Russia at an openly scheduled White House meeting, which I have the absolute right to do. Facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety, humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS and terrorism."

So where does that leave us right now, other than a lot of moving parts to follow? Let's get to Jessica Schneider, who's following all of these twists and turns.

So, Jessica, what the president said this morning, does that contradict what H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser, said just last night?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It seems to, Kate. You know, this has become sort of a common refrain within the White House. The story goes something like this. A crisis situation breaks, White House staff and administration officials, they scramble to address and explain it, and then the president comes out with his own version of events, seeming to contradict the previous explanation, and that really is how it went down after the "Washington Post" broke that story that President Trump revealed classified information to the Russian Foreign minister.

When it happened, the White House first issued several statements, one from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, where he said that threats in counterterrorism were the only things discussed and not sources. Then deputy national security adviser Dina Powell said flatly that the story was false and that President Trump only discussed common threats. And then, of course, there was that brisk on-camera appearance by National Security adviser H.R. McMaster. Here's what he said.


H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The story that came out tonight as reported is false. The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time, at no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed, and the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.

Two other senior officials who were present, including the secretary of State, remember the meeting the same way and have said so. They're on-the-record accounts should outweigh those of anonymous sources. And I was in the room. It didn't happen.


SCHNEIDER: So a carefully worded statement there where General McMaster barely went off script, but he only there mentioned methods and sources, saying those weren't revealed. But what we know from the extensive reporting that our team here has done, including Evan Perez, is that sources and methods, Kate, they weren't really the main concern. Our team was in touch with these U.S. officials back in March. They said even disclosing information about ISIS bomb-making technology and then connecting that to the laptop and electronics ban on flights out of 10 airports in the Middle East, that information itself was highly classified information that if revealed could cause serious national security harm.

President Trump, though, in his tweets this morning not disputing that in the tweets that he may have, in fact, revealed this incredibly sensitive information to the Russians when he met with them just last week -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Yes, notably not addressing it in those tweets. We will wait to see exactly what H.R. McMaster has to say as he prepares to take to the cameras.

Jessica, thank you so much.

So the reaction from Capitol Hill this morning? Democrats call it dangerous and inexcusable, and Republicans, at least right now, they are not coming to the president's defense. Here's Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell responding to the news on Bloomberg this morning. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), SENATE MAJORITY: Well, I read the "Washington Post" story and I read General McMaster's response, which tends to refute the story, rebut the story. I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so that we can focus on our agenda.


BOLDUAN: So another powerful senator, Bob Corker, he's the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he had this to say. He said this, "The White House has got to do something soon to bring itself under control and in order. They're in a downward spiral," Corker said. "And they've got to go figure out a way to come to grips with all that's happening."

That's not ringing endorsement.

CNN's congressional correspondent Phil Mattingly, he's on Capitol Hill with much more reaction that's really been coming in this morning from lawmakers.

So, Phil, what are folks saying right now?

[11:05:02] PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, no shortage of questions. A serious shortage of answers. And kind of widespread recognition in both parties that this could be a very big deal.

And Kate, I think kind of the key point here is it's twofold. One, the actual issue itself, what the reports came out last night and what they mean, but also you hear a lot, publicly now, what we've been hearing for weeks behind the scenes. I think that's exactly what Senator Bob Corker was hinting at. There's extreme frustration that the White House just can't seem to get out of its own way.

Now one of the big questions here is how have people on Capitol Hill actually been looped in on things? I want you to take a listen to what the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee told me just a short while ago.


SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VICE CHAIRMAN, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, I think there's a lot of questions that need to be answered. I'd tell you, you know, one of the things you know as a member of the Intelligence Committee from day one is that you always protect sources and methods. And if you don't protect those sources and methods, potentially people's lives could be at stake or the collaboration, cooperation of our allies could be at stake, and we've got a lot of unanswered questions.

MATTINGLY: Has the White House reached out to you to explain?

WARNER: I have not been briefed at all. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTINGLY: Now, Kate, the interesting moment there, obviously, top Democrat, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee still has not heard at all from the administration, and several members of both parties have repeated that same sentiment.

Senator Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, still hasn't heard anything, didn't want to weigh in until he did. Now Marco Rubio, also a member of the Intelligence Committee, did tell me earlier this morning that the administration did reach out to him last night, but they didn't answer his questions, and he needs more clarity going forward.

And Kate, just one other thing. Senator John McCain, obviously, rarely holds back when he talks about what his feelings are when it comes to this administration. He just put out a statement saying, essentially, regrettably, every moment the president spent allegedly disclosing classified information to the Russians was a moment that he did not spend talking to them or trying to walk them away from the aggression that they show.

So you see, a lot of frustration from both parties. Not a lot of senators, or really any except for one that I've spoken to, coming out and overtly supporting the president right now. I think we're in a situation where story after story, major story after dramatic story coming out and people are both frustrated, they're tired, and frankly, they want answers, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Yes. I mean, it's notable, Phil, the change in tone from Republicans who might say I don't have enough information yet to comment, to what you hear from John McCain in this statement, what you read, and he also calls it deeply disturbing and sends a troubling signal to America's allies. They clearly need more information over there, and a lot of folks do.

Great to see you, Phil. It's only just beginning this morning for you. I really appreciate it.

Joining me now to discuss, Jamie Metzl is here. He worked for the State Department and National Security Council under President Clinton. He's now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. And also with us now is former presidential candidate Evan McMullin, a former CIA officer.

Guys, great to have you hire. A lot to get through. One bit of information that came out from Jim Sciutto, Jamie, that I found really interesting today, is that following this meeting, Jim Sciutto has his sources telling him that advisers after this meeting, advisers to the president, they consulted the Intelligence Community to check on the classification level of the information that was discussed in the Oval Office meeting.

You've been in those meetings.


METZL: That tells me that they were really worried. I mean, there is secret information, there's top secret information and then secure, classified information. That is highest level of classification, and often it's because if that information gets out, it can put people's lives in danger, it can undermine critical relationships with foreign intelligence services, with foreign governments. And so to leak that kind of information or just to give it away so brazenly, especially given the bad state of relations between the United States and Russia is just deeply concerning for Democrats and Republicans alike.

BOLDUAN: Evan, the immediate fear, as you've heard from many this morning, is that U.S. allies abroad will, simply put, say they just can't trust the United States to sharing intel anymore. Former CIA director Leon Panetta, he said very much that this morning. Listen to this.


LEON PANETTA, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: The problem is, I'm not sure. Obviously, presidents can do whatever they want, but what is the damage from that? The damage is that this country may cut off any kind of intelligence provided to the United States on very sensitive issues that relate to the national security of this country. That's the damage that can be done here, and the president needs to understand that.

This is not just a joke. This is very serious business that relates to the security of this country.


BOLDUAN: Evan, from your point of view, how real is this fear that he lays out?

EVAN MCMULLIN, FORMER CIA OFFICER: former Well, it's very real, but I would say that Director Panetta understated it. It does apply to this particular ally who provided the information to us, but it also impacts the way other intelligence allies see us and see our intelligence-sharing relationships. They've long had concerns about Donald Trump as a potential president and now as a president, about his ability to protect information, his willingness to protect information, and what you see here is sort of the perfect display of the most sensitive type of information that can have real impact on Americans' lives, their safety.

[11:10:16] And there he is, the president, sharing it with one of our greatest adversaries. So there really couldn't be a better or a worse example of the kind of recklessness that we now see in the White House.

And I would just add that that's only the start of it. President Trump is demonstrating a terrible lack of competence, and incompetence is weakness on the international stage, and I fear that our adversaries, including Russia and others, are seeing this chaos in the White House and the lack of President Trump's ability to learn the job, and we're not in the first week here. There are certain things he should understand well now. And the fact that he hasn't is communicating weakness to the rest of the world.

BOLDUAN: So, Jamie, you have -- now you have H.R. McMaster, the National Security adviser, after coming out and speaking to reporters last night, saying -- he said, "As it was reported." It was carefully reported, "The reporting is false." But it was a carefully worded statement and Republicans and Democrats alike today acknowledge that and kind of have been pointing to that. What does H.R. McMaster do now? He's coming to cameras.

METZL: Yes, well, he is really in a bind, because the whole point of H.R. McMaster, the reason he is in the White House now is he is the person who has written the book about the military being honest in speaking with civilian officials.

BOLDUAN: He's well-respected.

METZL: He is well-respected. In his book about Vietnam, he talks about the military didn't have the courage to say what needed to be said. But it's not as if there was this some big question that was yes or no. It was a bunch of very small moves, some very small decisions. And H.R. McMaster's credibility was put on the line by this statement and he was very careful. He was mincing words, but it seems increasingly clear that something amiss is going on, not just -- not only with this statement, but in the White House more generally.

This is not just a crisis for the White House. This is a crisis for the country, and we need to get to the bottom of what's happening in the White House and we need to fix it. We need to get the information and then we need to respond, but we cannot go on like this because our country and the world will really be harmed.

BOLDUAN: Following this reporting coming out, Evan, it seems that there are two options here, either the president knew he was sharing highly classified information or he didn't. Which is a bigger problem?

MCMULLIN: They're both big problems. You know, probably it's a bigger problem if he knew he was sharing highly classified information. That's probably a bigger problem, but not knowing is also a huge problem. I don't know.

How are we in a position where we have to make that kind of decision? It's all bad. And what you see here is a dangerous cocktail of presidential incompetence, presidential lack of true concern about American national -- American security, and to add a third element, an unhealthy relationship with the Russians. I think all of those things are at play here and it's dangerous for our country.

BOLDUAN: Yes, well, we need to stand by, everybody, Jamie, Evan, all of us included. We're going to stand by to hear from the president's National Security adviser, H.R. McMaster, to see if there are more answers coming out of the White House, exactly what happened in that meeting and where exactly if they will be releasing more information. Thank you both very much for walking through it with me.

Coming up for us, even though the White House still is refusing to answer whether the president has recorded conversations in the White House, Congress now adding a new element to it, saying, forget the tapes about Comey, any tapes about this Russia meeting is what they want to see now. Will it happen? That's next.



[11:17:49] SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think I made it clear last week that the president has nothing further on that. I think -- I said, I was very clear that the president would have nothing further on that last week. I made it clear what the president's position is on that issue. I've answered the question over and over again the same way. Yes, I've answered that several times. That's his position. He said that he has nothing further to add.


BOLDUAN: And of course, that's White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, not answering questions, or very curtly not answering questions about the possibility that the president tapes private conversations at the White House. A possibility, you'll remember, that the president first raised himself.

With the breaking news today about the president's Oval Office meeting with Russian officials and what he may have disclosed during that meeting, Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings and John Conyers, they are now saying that if any audio exists from Trump's Oval Office meeting with those Russian diplomats, hand it over.

Joining me now is John Dean. He's a former White House counsel to President Nixon, a central figure in the Watergate scandal. He is now a CNN contributor.

Great to see you, John. Thanks for coming in.


BOLDUAN: So if tapes were important last week over Donald Trump's conversations with James Comey, how important is it now that Congress get its hands on any tapes, if they exist, from the Oval Office following this Russia meeting?

DEAN: Well, we don't have any idea of what kind of taping might or might not be undertaken by Mr. Trump. We know he has a history of doing this when he was in business. I do know his telephones, it's a very simple switch. These are Internet-based telephones, and they are digital now, and so there's just a switch you hit and you can do -- you can record phone calls. Whether they're getting the room in totality or not and have wired that, I have no idea. So it will be interesting to see what comes out on this. BOLDUAN: And a lot of folks will remember that following Nixon it

became a lot easier, a lot more clearer for Congress and the public to gain access to any tapes coming from the White House, if they exist, but here's my question.

First and foremost, does the White House have a legal responsibility to confirm or deny if tapes exist?

DEAN: I don't think they have a responsibility to admit or not admit. They might get confronted with a subpoena at some point.


DEAN: Now the law is not quite so clear on Congress.

[11:20:02] When Nixon was sued for his tapes, it was by a grand jury and by a prosecutor, and the Supreme Court ruled on that. The Supreme Court's never ruled on whether Congress has that same power to reach in and get a president's recordings. So that -- they'll have to barter for them, more likely, than subpoena them.

BOLDUAN: Bartering for them, I would love to see how that's going to go down.

On the news today, John, you have a National Security adviser out last night with a carefully worded statement, trying to deny the reporting, though not really addressing the main substance of the reporting. What, then, effect does the president's words this morning have on this whole episode, when he says that as president, I wanted to share this information with Russia and I have the absolute right to do so?

DEAN: Well, he does have the absolute right. The entire classification system originates from the president. While Congress has adopted some statutes to protect it, he really does control it and is the ultimate authority in the executive branch. It comes out of his executive powers under the Constitution. So he appears to me to have thrown his National Security adviser under the bus.

I don't know what the National Security adviser's going to say when he crawls out from under the bus this morning because he's been, you know, he's been totally undercut. So this is just this confusing chaos that from day to day this administration doesn't seem to be able to get any process where they're consistent.

BOLDUAN: Well, as former White House counsel under Nixon, what kind of advice would you give to H.R. McMaster right now?


DEAN: Just keep -- I think he's a very truthful man and he has a reputation of that, and he's just got to keep calling it the way he -- he may well have just gone around the edge, and he and Trump may not be at that great of odds, so he'll have to parse it again this morning is what's going to happen.

BOLDUAN: Threading the needle, walking a fine line, whichever metaphor you want to use today.

DEAN: Yes.

BOLDUAN: We will watch it play out on live TV.

John Dean, always great to have your perspective. Thank you.

DEAN: Thank you, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Coming up two events that we are watching for. As we were just discussing, the president's National Security adviser speaking out moments from now to reporters on this new crisis facing this White House. We will bring this very important moment to you live. What is the White House saying today about what went down in that meeting with top Russian officials, and what are they going to do about it now?

Plus, the top Democrat on one of the intelligence panels investigating the president's -- the Trump campaign's possible ties to Russia. He is speaking out this morning. He says President Trump just jeopardized national security.

Stay with us. We have more on that. We'll be right back.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

[11:27:16] BOLDUAN: All right, we continue to follow breaking news. You're looking at a live picture of the White House briefing room. We are waiting right now for the national -- president's National Security adviser, H.R. McMaster, to come to the briefing room to address reporters and take questions regarding this unfolding crisis involving what the president told top Russian diplomats in the Oval Office last week.

And this will be the first time we're going to hear from the National Security adviser since the president tweeted this morning defending what -- defending that he has an absolute right to share information with the Russian officials, notably, though, not addressing the major issue of was it highly classified, what he shared with them.

Let's go to the White House. Let's see what we're waiting for.

Jeff Zeleny is our White House correspondent. He's there.

Jeff, a lot riding on this. There's a lot riding on what H.R. McMaster is going to be presenting when he goes to cameras this morning. What are the challenges he faces? What are you expecting?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: There is, indeed, Kate. I mean, particularly, let's look at the 12 hours that passed between when the National Security adviser, H.R. McMaster, talked to reporters last evening around 7:00 or so on the driveway of the White House. And then this morning, between 7:00 or 8:00 or so, when the president tweeted something entirely different. So that 12-hour period I think is something that the White House so far has struggled to answer, what changed specifically. But the credibility, of course, of this White House has been an open question, we should say, week by week, and the National Security adviser certainly wants to try and put a bigger lens on this, explain exactly what happened here.

But the fact that he is doing it and not the White House press secretary or anyone else from the communications staff is an acknowledgement by the White House that they know that they need to speak with one voice and explain this, not just to the American public, also to Capitol Hill. That is a central audience here.

Republicans on Capitol Hill who they are -- you know, are frustrated by this. I am told the president has not had direct conversations yet with many leaders on Capitol Hill. So having the National Security adviser out there to, A, perhaps explain what he said last night, and B, put a wider lens on what happened at that meeting last week with the Russian ambassador and the Foreign minister is essential here.

But, Kate, it's one more example of how the president tweets something and his staff has to run out and follow up and either explain it or clean it up.

BOLDUAN: And Jeff, just a couple things as we're waiting for H.R. McMaster to come out. He's holding it in the White House briefing room, which always is notable. That suggests, of course, that he will be taking questions. Is that your understanding?

ZELENY: Sure. It would be unusual to be in the White House briefing room to not answer questions. Not impossible, of course.


ZELENY: But he was always scheduled to be holding a briefing this afternoon as part of the daily White House press briefing to talk about the very important first overseas trip that the president is taking on Friday.


BOLDUAN: Yes, the now overshadowed trip overseas. Right.

ZELENY: Exactly. He was always scheduled to be on that -- at the briefing today.