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Source: White House Consulted Intel Community After Trump Leak; McConnell: We Can Do With "Less Drama" From White House; Sources: Trump Gave Highly Classified Intel To Russians; Official: Trump Will File Personal Financial Disclosure; Interview with Rep. Denny Heck. Aired 9-9:30a ET
Aired May 16, 2017 - 09:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[09:00:04] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.
Oh, to be a fly on the wall when the President is being briefed with the country's most precious secrets. Oh, to be that fly or a senior Russian official connected to spy recruitment because then the President might just tell you some of those secrets anyway.
That is what is being reported this morning, that the President shared highly classified information in a meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador about ISIS.
And new this morning, the President, he is not exactly denying it. He wrote, "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."
Now, that explanation seems to deviate from what his own national security advisor said last night. Remember that. But more importantly, intelligence officials tell CNN that there is concern about what Russia will do with this information, that it could out a highly sensitive source.
We're covering this story from every angle across continents. We want to begin at the White House with Joe Johns.
Joe, last night, the White House sent out three aides, including a highly decorated general, to say this whole story was false. And then an hour ago, the President said, yes, I shared information.
JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and it really tells you a little bit about the way information flows inside and outside of the White House.
You're right, the President's tweets this morning going a long way in the direction of confirming the story that broke last night, suggesting that the President of the United States, in his meeting with top Russian officials in the Oval Office last week, sort of coughed up some very critical key and secret information that the intelligence community would just as soon not have out there. But right last night, after that story broke, a number of officials,
including the national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, spoke to reporters and gave denials. But now, if you listen very closely to the sound bite from the national security advisor, it is pretty clear he doesn't say anything about the President giving up national security information. So listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR TO PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: 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.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
JOHNS: So the problem there is that the reporting never was that sources and methods had been disclosed. Essentially, what the reporting was from "The Washington Post" and some others including CNN, picked up large parts of it and we were able to confirm it, was that the President disclosed what's known as code word information, which is above top secret and a real concern for the national security as well as intelligence communities, John.
BERMAN: That's right. The White House never denied that he shared information, and the President confirmed that he shared information. Joe Johns at the White House. Thank you so much. I want to bring in CNN Justice Correspondent Evan Perez.
Evan, lay out for us exactly the nature of the information that was shared, why it's important and why some people think it puts others at risk.
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, the intelligence that we're talking about is considered so highly classified that, back in March, the U.S. government officials told CNN that the disclosure of it would cause serious national security harm. They asked CNN to withhold some of the key details from a March 31st story on the sensitive intelligence that was behind the restrictions on carrying laptops and other large electronics on flights from 10 airports in the Middle East.
This is some of the same information that the President reportedly shared with the Russian Foreign Minister and the Ambassador during his meeting at the White House last week. Now, the concern U.S. officials told CNN at the time was that publishing that information, including a city where some of the intelligence was detected, could tip off adversaries about the sources and methods used to gather that intelligence.
Just mentioning that it was a concern about an ISIS bomb technology that was behind the laptop ban was considered classified. So if the President mentioned that fact, he was doing something that we were told, back in March, would be highly damaging to intelligence sources and methods. Now, n that narrowly worded denial from the national security advisor,
H.R. McMaster, he told reporters that the stories are, quote, "as reported are false." Now, that denial doesn't cover the damage that U.S. intelligence told us that can come from revealing this information, John.
BERMAN: All right. Evan Perez, important point. Again, remember, the President, on Twitter, moments ago this morning, admitted that he shared information. Where there might be a dispute is the nature of exactly how classified or important that information is, but the President said he shared it.
[09:04:58] Meanwhile, Russia is brushing off these reports. A spokesman for President Putin, just hours ago, called them nonsense. When pressed by CNN, specifically denied the report. The spokesman reiterated, saying, quote, "We absolutely do not have any relationship to this nonsense," which doesn't exactly deny that it happened.
All right. Joining us now, retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, a CNN military and diplomatic analyst, along with Susan Hennessey, a CNN national security and legal analyst. She's also a former attorney in the office of general counsel at the NSA. David Drucker, CNN political analyst, senior congressional correspondent for the "Washington Examiner." And Matt Lewis, CNN political commentator and senior columnist for "The Daily Beast."
Susan, I want to start with you because as part of, you know, your moonlighting on the "Lawfare Blog" last night, you laid out in great in detail exactly why this story is significant. And I want to take off a few quick points with you. First of all, you say this is not a garden-variety breach. Explain.
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Right. So we always see sort of partisan bickering after breaches of classified information. You know, Democrats bring out old quotes from Republicans; Republicans bring out old quotes from Democrats. This is really something different.
This is about sources and methods information, highly sensitive things that could actually compromise the ability to gather intelligence moving forward. Even more significantly, it appears that this is not our own sources and methods information, but that of a foreign ally. That could have really cascading national security consequences.
BERMAN: Right. And again, important to note that the White House says they didn't share sources and methods, but they are accused of sharing intelligence that could lead to sources and methods. Number two, Susan, it matters, you say, that this is the Russians we're dealing with.
HENNESSEY: Right. So certainly, there is an optics concern. There is also a question about the specific intelligence. So according to the earlier reporting out of "The Washington Post," U.S. intelligence officials were actually concerned that this was the type of intelligence or sources and methods types of information that the Russians would want to disrupt because it might be valuable for getting insight into Russian movements in Syria.
BERMAN: And then, number three -- and, again, this is what jumped out a lot of people last night -- you know the President didn't break any law here. He has the power to declassify whatever he information he wants and he can share what he wants, but you say it might be a violation of his oath, as in his oath of office. Explain.
HENNESSEY: Right. So people tend to get hung up on sort of the questions of legal technicalities. The President didn't violate any laws. He's allowed to disclose this information. But consistent with the law, he is also allowed to do things like tweet out the nuclear codes.
We would understand that, that even though it was not a violation of law, that that would be a breach of his oath, in which he faithfully execute his office. And so these are much larger political questions and are, ultimately, issues that Congress is going to have to confront.
BERMAN: All right, guys. Now, I'm going to bring the rest of you into this conversation. Admiral Kirby, to you, the White House, today, vehemently denies that it did anything wrong, although albeit a slightly different denial than we heard last night from the national security advisor.
The President says he shared information, which was his absolute right to do, because he basically thought it would help in the war on terror, the war against ISIS. Is that not an acceptable justification?
REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: No, I fundamentally disagree with the President on this. Yes, he is probably on good legal ground. I'm not an expert on that. But he didn't have the right to share sensitive intelligence that were shared with us by a third party nation in the region with the express desire that it not be shared widely, not even internationally but inside the U.S. government. So, no, he didn't have the right to do that.
And the other thing that, I think, is missing from this discussion is the potential damage that this disclosure will do, not only to the bilateral relationship with whatever nation this is but perhaps multilaterally across the region in terms of our own trustworthiness from our allies and partners about the way we're going to treat sensitive information and intelligence that we get from them.
And we have to remember that information that is this sensitive -- and it is a special access program, so that tells you it's very, very highly classified -- is also very perishable. It's very fragile, and it usually comes at great cost and potential great risk. And so to have that divulged in a reckless sort of ad hominem way in the Oval Office is dangerous for the future.
BERMAN: I want to come to that last phrase you said, reckless and ad hominem, in just a moment.
But, David Drucker, to you, the newest item is the President's tweets, his own words saying that he did share information. The manner with which he said this, if it doesn't directly contradict what we heard from General McMaster last night, it's a different justification than what McMaster said last night.
You're getting different messages from the White House. He sent people out last night to say the story is false. And this morning, he is out there saying, yes, I shared stuff.
DAVID DRUCKER, SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, WASHINGTON EXAMINER: Right. So there are a couple of things to unpack here. I feel like we're dealing with this all over again in terms of how the President dealt with the Comey firing.
He sends his staff out to address an issue that he dealt with, gives an explanation. And a couple of days later, the President just blows it up completely and says, no, actually, this is the reason I did it. Last night, his very senior staff, not communication staff, goes out, explains, explains the story is false in their view. And then the President says today, yes, I said it. It was my right to do it.
[09:10:05] First of all, that issue is important because it lends to this idea that we have a dysfunctional White House with no control. Who is actually running things, and how are they running it? The second issue here is what the President said this morning, "I had the absolute right to do it. I wanted to do it."
The way you explain these things to have confidence in voters and to gain confidence from Congress, notwithstanding what happened, is to explain that you acted in the best interest of the national security of the United States, taking all of the facts you had at hand and making a decision that you think will further that end, and you do not focus on you and what rights you had or didn't have. And that's where, I think, the President runs into trouble because he keeps making this all about him and not about the people that he's serving.
BERMAN: That's good point. It is about the safety of the United States. Matt Lewis, to the statement of reckless and ad hominem, which Admiral Kirby just said there, David Brooks in "The New York Times" wrote a blistering op-ed, a scathing op-ed, this morning. I just want to read you one line here.
He basically said that the President is an infant. He said, "At base, Trump is an infantalist. There are three tasks that most mature adults have sort of figured out by the time they hit 25. Trump has mastered none of them. Immaturity is becoming the dominant note of his presidency, lack of self-control his leitmotif."
MATT LEWIS, SENIOR COLUMNIST, THE DAILY BEAST: Yes. No, I think that's exactly right. There are a lot of people in the media and a lot of people on the left who are attributing, I think, the worst motives and nefarious motives that Donald Trump is in league with the Russians. I don't buy that.
I think David Brooks is probably right. What we have here is a guy who has no impulse control, who is essentially a child, who has made it this far by doing things his own way, who has never been told no, and it is hard to tell him, at the age of 70, no.
Look, I think that he basically does what he wants to do, doesn't fully appreciate or care about the consequences. I suspect, in this case, he was bragging to the Russians and maybe thinking, if I tell you guys something, a little secret, you'll like me, or you'll tell me something, a little secret, without being cognizant of the repercussions.
The sad part is that the adults that might reign him in, because Trump is so persuasive and powerful and set in his ways, end up looking so bad and being tarnished. And it would be a real shame if people like Vice President Mike Pence, people like Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General, and now people like H.R. McMaster, who had sterling reputations, are tarnished by this presidency.
BERMAN: And, look, if you listen to the critics, Admiral, this is different than just saying, I have the best words or the best buildings. He's saying I have the best intelligence and he is sharing with people that maybe shouldn't be getting it.
BERMAN: What do other countries then, including maybe the country that did share this information with the United States, what do they make of this and how do they behave going forward?
KIRBY: Yes, I think it could perhaps have repercussions for how much information we're going to get from this intel sharing relationships going forward, particularly from allies and partners.
But we also need to remember here, Russia is acting against our interests in Syria, and they have done little to nothing about the ISIS threat in the region. And so sharing information with them in, as the President's tweets suggest, the hopes that they'll do more is simply a false narrative.
They're not going to do more because you are sharing more information with them. In fact, what you could be doing is putting your own sources of information and those credible intelligence-sharing relationships at greater peril.
BERMAN: All right, Admiral Kirby, David Drucker, Matt Lewis, Susan Hennessey. Again, it's a terrific blog you wrote last night. I encourage everyone to take a look at it. We appreciate all you being with us this morning.
The White House in a downward spiral. Those words from a Republican who almost ended up as Secretary of State.
And can the White House control the damage if the President continues to contradict or, at least, deviate from his own staff? Today's press briefing is going to have a special guest star.
Plus, she sounded the alarm on Michael Flynn and was fired before he was. The exclusive Anderson Cooper interview with former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SALLY YATES, FORMER ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: I think that this was a serious compromise situation, that the Russians had real leverage. He also had lied to the Vice President of the United States.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we have some breaking news just in from our senior national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. Jim has been talking to his sources to get a sense of what the people in the administration thought about this controversial meeting.
Jim says the White House consulted the intelligence community following the president's meeting with Russian officials last week. The source explained that after the meeting, advisors were checking on the specific classification level of the information discussed there.
Administration officials insist no one involved in the meeting expressed alarm over the president's discussions. In other words, they knew what he said. They were not particularly worried about what he said. They think that the firestorm caused since the "Washington Post" report last night confirmed by CNN is overblown.
Now, one person who is not at all pleased at least with the nature of what was going on and also I think if you read between the lines with how the White House is handling it, the Senate Majority Leader Mitch Mcconnell, who commented on this firestorm just moments ago. Let's listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: I read the "Washington Post" story and I read General McMasters' 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, which is the deregulations, tax reform, repealing and replacing Obamacare.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BERMAN: All right. Interesting. That was not a defense from the Senate majority leader and there was not a defense overnight from the speaker of the House, Paul Ryan either.
Joining me now Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill. The nature of these responses from not just Democrats but also from Republicans on the Hill, Phil, very interesting.
PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Very interesting, very careful and also pretty clear that there is a lot of frustration. Not just publically but behind the scenes when you talk to senators, when you talk to their staff, particularly Republican senators about why things can't just get together, why can't they move forward, why can't they go more than two or three days without some major dramatic event.
[09:20:07]But I think what's really important right now is you recognize that senators, John, in both parties are still trying to get their head around what has actually happened.
I just spoke with Senator Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He says up to this point the committee still hasn't been briefed on anything. He also addressed how fast things are moving. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SENATOR JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: There is 19 of us that are privy to this information on the intel committee, 19 people out of 100. That means there is 81 senators I can't share information with at the highest classified levels. I can't share it.
Even if I come out of the meeting and they say what did you think about this, Joe, what did you hear? I say, sorry, man, can't talk about it. OK. Now you know how difficult that is for your own colleagues. So for this type of information to come from the president is quite troubling to all of us.
This is coming at such a speed and at such a high level that you are wondering what is next. What could be next? Russia is not our friend. They don't have our best interests at heart. We've got to make sure we understand that.
The countries that do have been steadfastly behind us and with us all the way. Whether it's the U.K., Canada is one of their best trading partners economically. Israel, the people that we continue to trust and rely on continues.
These have been trusted allies we have built over years, over wars, over territorial battles and disputes, everything. So we know who we can trust. Russia is not one of them.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTINGLY: And, john, that's really the concern you hear from both parties right now. I also spoke to Senator Marco Rubio, also a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
He said administration officials reached out to him last night. He said he was not completely comfortable with the explanation that was given to them. He expects more questions and answers with administration officials going forward.
But I think what this really underscores, John, is that both parties right now are having a really difficult time with things. What is most interesting is Republicans who up to this point who have held the line, they are starting to show their frustration.
We just take a look at what Senator Bob Corker last night had to say last night. He is a supporter of the president, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
He said, quote, "They are in a downward spiral right now and have got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that's happening." That's a very powerful senator putting in public what we have been hearing behind the scenes for a last couple of weeks and really raising the question, is this what we're going to hear and see a lot in the days ahead from the party -- John.
BERMAN: All right, Phil Mattingly, great reporting for us on Capitol Hill. We'll check back in with you in a little bit.
Joining me now Democratic Congressman Denny Heck of Washington. He is a member of the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman, thanks so much for being with us. The president of the United States has the absolute right to share this information with the Russians. Is he correct?
REP. DENNY HECK (D), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: He has the legal right, John, but let me tell you, as a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on intelligence, if I had done what he had done, I would be subject to prosecution under the Espionage Act of 1917 and subject to going to jail for 10 years. So whether he had the legal right is one thing. Whether or not it was mind numbingly reckless is another thing, and it was.
HECK: Because it compromises our allies, tracing back the classified information that he shared, seemingly at random, can lead to putting lives at risk, can lead to our allies saying to themselves why would we ever share information with America again? We don't know who is going to disclose it, when they are going to disclose it, such that our own operatives, own people are put at risk and harm's way.
BERMAN: So he says he knows obviously, as you note, if you had said it you might end up in jail, but you are not the president. He is the president, the commander-in-chief. He could declassify pretty much whatever he wants albeit through a process. So there's nothing illegal about it.
He justifies it by saying that he wants the Russians help in the battle against terror. If this, hypothetically, if this information could help them fight ISIS, is there not an argument that this is good for the United States?
HECK: Well, John, you say that he subjected it to a process. There is no evidence of that whatsoever. In fact, what we've gotten from the White House are conflicting stories.
First, they seemed to disavow it, but what they really disavowed was that he revealed methods or sources, just the classified information. And then this morning the president went on another tweet storm and revealed that he actually did this on purpose.
BERMAN: Yes. He absolutely admits that he shared information. His tweets don't say I shared classified information, but he's certainly not denying that he shared things and he's not denying any specifics of "The Washington Post" report.
We should note that H.R. McMaster last night didn't explain what was false exactly about the "Washington Post" report. He denied things frankly that were not in the report.
You sit on the House Intelligence Committee. Do you want to make this part of your overall investigation into alleged contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia?
HECK: Well, absolutely. I think the American people deserve to know what it is he shared and why and whether or not it will lead to compromising American's allies or operatives themselves.
[09:25:12]You know, John, you said earlier or Phil said earlier that Republicans are beginning to walk back from the president and becoming less assertive in their defense of him. My thought, with the exception of Senator Corker, all of their responses were fairly tepid.
And frankly, I think if Senator McConnell and Speaker Ryan were in office during Watergate, Nixon might very well still be president of the United States.
I want to make a deal with them. Have them write down on a piece of paper exactly what it is he could conceivably do to finally cross the line such that they would actually speak up and speak out against him.
Give me a copy. Put another one in the safe. When that line is crossed, take it out and do exactly what he says. Do exactly that, stand up and speak out. Let's stop defending him one tweet storm at a time.
BERMAN: Has your committee been briefed yet on this incident, sir?
HECK: No. We've been on district work period unlike the Senate, we are back in session tonight and in fact there is a meeting of the committee this afternoon. I do not yet know what the agenda is, but I fully expect that we will be briefed at the appropriate time in the near future.
BERMAN: All right. Democratic Congressman Denny Heck of Washington State, thank you so much for being with us, sir.
HECK: You're welcome, John.
BERMAN: All right, still no plans to release his tax returns, but a White House official says that President Trump will follow his recent predecessors and file a personal financial disclosure report this year.
We are moments away from the opening bell. What a great moment to be joined by CNN's chief business correspondent, star of "EARLY START," Christine Romans. Good morning.
CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning. What will we learn about the president's finances? We are going to learn broad, big ranges. It's not a tax return, of course, but we will learn broad ranges for his incomes, assets and liabilities for the year 2016.
He's doing this earlier than he needs to. He is supposed to do it by next year, but he is doing it this year as his two predecessors did. What we won't learn is his net worth. We won't know his tax rate, which I think is really key especially when we are talking about tax reform in Washington.
And we won't learn his charitable contributions. Something that most presidents are very eager to say what their charitable contributions. In fact for years before they run for president, they groom themselves for giving a lot of money away.
So we won't know any of those things. But again, he's doing this voluntarily. So we'll get a little sneak peak there of what the broad ranges are for the president's finances.
You remember that last year when he released similar disclosure, it was 104 pages long. I think we can look line item by line item and find out in book sales, revenue, revenue from his hotels, if perhaps being president has enriched him further.
We know that being president has enriched the investor class. No question just look at S&P 500, John, I could tell you it's near record high. I'm looking at futures up higher right now. You could have another record today. Nasdaq hit a high yesterday.
The Dow futures up 45 points right now. If you have a big rally today you could see a record for the Dow. They want tax cuts. They want to be able to get really cheap tax rates on the money they have parked overseas.
They want to have tax cuts in general. We know Steven Mnuchin and Gary Kohn are going to meet with moderate Republicans tomorrow about tax reform. So there is a feeling there is a momentum underway.
BERMAN: It's interesting if the futures hold, it indicates investors don't think that there is this moment of chaos that could in some way jeopardize tax reform. It will be interesting to see if they get jitters as the day goes on. Christine Romans, great to see you this morning. Thank you very much.
She warned the White House of how vulnerable Michael Flynn could be to Russian blackmail and she was fired before him. Sally Yates speaks to CNN in her first television interview since she was ousted.