Return to Transcripts main page
Trump Defends Giving Highly Classified Infor to Russians; How Trump Giving Russians Classified Info Was Leaked; White House Drama, Anger Amid New Trump/Russia Crisis; Trump Has Broad Authority to Government Secrets; Israel Provided Information Trump Gave to Russians. Aired 2:30-3p ET
Aired May 16, 2017 - 14:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
[14:30:00] GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: All of you are very familiar with the territory and controls. If you were to say, hey, from where do you think a threat might come from territory that ISIS controls, you would probably be able to name a few cities, I would think. And so it was nothing that you would not know from open- source reporting in terms of the source of concern. And it had all to do with operations that are already ongoing, had been made public for months.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: That classified information is connected to a threat that has resulted with the likely banning of laptops on European flights to the U.S., and the city where the threat came from is a detail CNN agreed to withhold when CNN broke the laptop ban story back in March.
I have CNN senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, with me here in New York, and former CIA operative, Bob Baer, with us, also a CNN intelligence and security analyst.
Nick, let me turn to you. We heard General McMaster say, hey, anyone could figure out this city because of open-source reporting, but then we were told otherwise back in March when we first knew.
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You can't have it both ways. Which is a potential hazard for national security. In March, just because Trump accidently in a private conversation isn't suddenly OK for everybody to know about.
What McMasters is clearly saying, if we're talking about territory that ISIS holds, what are the major centers that is are in control of, it's Raqqa and Syria and there's a little bit of Mosul left in Iraq as well. The way he talked about ongoing military operations suggests he might be talking about Mosul. We don't know. The point is, this shouldn't have been put out there in the first place and it's potentially jeopardizing the relationship with a nation possibly in the Middle East -- we don't really know -- that gave it to the U.S. in the first place.
Remember, there's probably a person somewhere in one of these cities who found the secret out and gave it to an intelligence agency, and risked the life in the gain of U.S. intelligence and the safety of the people living in the United States, because of the fear potentially this posed towards people trying to laptops perhaps containing bombs on to aircrafts. It's a pretty substantial deal. And more broadly, too, it goes to reserve engineering. Let's say, for example, you tell me you found out something at a restaurant near where you live. You might just tell me that, then I might work out where you've been to eat recently in a restaurant. I might work out who you were with, get a picture of that person leaving, where they went afterwards. There's a lot of things you can learn from a small piece of information --
PATON WALSH: -- adequately resources. You have to argue you probably are in this case. So it's troubling. I think the most worrying thing is it isn't perhaps a purposeful, strategic way of currying favor with the Russians. It doesn't sound like President Trump sat down with the intel community beforehand and said, what can I tell them, what's going to --
BALDWIN: He said he divulged this during the conversation.
BALDWIN: And just people scrambling afterwards to say, well, hand on, we just have done that. That's not really what want them an on the receiving end of information, people who have risked their life to obtain to begin with.
BALDWIN: Bob Baer, how could what Nick just outlined endanger the spies working for the U.S.?
BOB BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE & SECURITY ANALYST: Brooke, what's clearly happened is that Trump gave away details about whatever this intelligence is, whether about airplane bombs or whatever -- it really doesn't matter -- which people at the meeting considered might compromise the source, and then they called the CIA, the National Security Agency, and said that the president just disclosed classified information, which may endanger your sources, whether intercepts or human sources. So he clearly went beyond discussing stuff that is just in the press. That's ingenuous of the national security advisor and it's not true.
You have to look at the optics of this, and this is what really concerns me. The Russian foreign minister is in the Oval Office, Trump doesn't bring up the hacking of our elections, which 17 intelligence agencies have confirmed. He gives a gift to the Russians, whatever this intelligence was, about the Islamic State, and the previous day he fires Comey. If I'm a Russian in Moscow considering working for the United States, I'd tell you right now, I wouldn't do it, because the president might blurt something out. This does major, major damage to the CIA, the FBI and every other intelligence agency, when these unauthorized leaks -- and I don't care whether the president is authorized or not, but leaks that haven't been approved by intelligence agency, it does major damage and I don't think anybody would disagree with me who has been in intelligence.
BALDWIN: The president is about to embark on this massive overseas trip. The question then becomes, he's meeting with world leaders there, and knowing what happened in the Oval Office last week, concerns there.
Nick, let me quote one Western intelligence officer who told "The Guardian," that "Real information coming from the ISIS member was like gold dust."
Gold dust. What does the U.S. rely on with these sources?
[14:35:00] PATON WALSH: I think a lot of that information they would hope to get from bugging telephones, trying to listen to what ISIS members are saying electronically. We know they are using encrypted apps, et cetera. We also know they listening to local mobile phone chatter in areas around Raqqa and also Mosul. But the gold dust really is that person in the meeting in the room where they discuss how they blow up airplanes, who doesn't like the idea of that and decides to pass it somewhere else. It's rare. For example, they might choose to go to U.S. agents or get in contact with members of the CIA. They may come across more local intelligence agency. They may have a brother that's known to them or something like that. But it enables them to feel more comfortable, at least have the ability to access people in the common language, for example, and pass that information on. That's kind of the gold dust. As journalists ourselves, it's incredibly hard to get information from inside of ISIS. We've spoken to people who have left. Once you're in, you probably don't want to be caught speaking to CNN because ISIS is ruthless to anybody who considers giving away information. In fact, they find you with a mobile phone and they immediately presume you're spying for the U.S. and people have been executed just for that. It's a life-and-death game and it's not something that you treat as a matter of boasting when you're talking extensively to potentially your biggest geopolitical enemy.
BALDWIN: All right.
With the president, last question, Bob, is it even a fair question to ask, could the president be trusted with classified information?
BAER: If you're -- Brooke, if you're looking at the perspective of the national security establishment, clearly, no. I mean, he's crossed a line here. And if you're a CIA officer in the field and have some very, very important information or source in the Islamic State, as N ick was talking about, you'd be very reluctant to provide detail to the president, which he may give to the Russians or Turks or anybody else. You just don't know what he's going to say next, simply because he doesn't understand the sensitivities of collecting intelligence, whether it's intercepts or from human sources.
BALDWIN: Bob, thank you, Bob Baer.
Nick Paton Walsh, nice to see you. Thank you.
Under way right now, the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer is holding a gaggle with reporters. We're waiting for news there. It's away from the cameras.
Also, new CNN reporting of drama and anger playing out behind the scenes after this latest crisis there at the White House. Stay here.
[14:41:46] BALDWIN: We have a report involving the drama and anger in the White House amid this new crisis over President Trump revealing classified information to the Russians.
But first, new details on how people outside the meeting caught wind of this brief.
I have with me now CNN chief political analyst, Gloria Borger; and Dana Bash, CNN's chief political correspondent.
Ladies, good to see you.
Dana Bash, both of you have some new reporting.
But, Dana, let me ask you first.
You've been talking to sources inside the White House about precisely this, and what are you learning?
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPODNENT: Well, a few things. One is the context, according to an administration source, in which the president was talking about this classified information with the Russians. And the context was that he was trying to pressure the Russians to be more involved with some of the world's worst actors in some hot spots like Syria, to deal more aggressively with Assad. In that context, the president brought up this classified information. You know, there's been some discussion about whether he was doing it in sort of a bragadocious way, to borrow a Trump term. But they said it was about trying to be more aggressive with Russia to help with the common threats, which the U.S. is trying to convince Russia that it's not an easy sell to make to the Russians.
The president, according to the source I'm talking to, when talking about this, did not reveal anything to the Russians that could open up the sources and methods of the intelligence, meaning that the Russians wouldn't be able to figure out. I will tell you that Jim Sciutto is being told by other sources in the intelligence community that that's not true. That their sense is that the Russians would have and are able to figure out where this intelligence came from, based on what the president told them in the Oval Office.
Which leads me to the next little bit of reporting here, which is that during this meeting with the Russians, we know that the president was there, H.R. McMaster was there, the national security advisor, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was there, and the deputy national security adviser, Dina Powell. None of them alerted the National Security Agency, the intelligence community, about what the president said to the Russians, and I'm told it was because they didn't see any alarm bells. However, the president's Homeland Security advisor, Tom Bossert, was
reading the report from the meeting and did see a discussion about this plot, this classified information. The president talked about it with the Russians and did feel that he was worried about it and did want to tell the intelligence communities and the I.C.s, which he did, not sure if he did it or asked others to do it, and that's what got the information out, and that's a little bit more of the backstory of how that happened.
Before I toss it back to you, I want to say that my sense is that the administration is trying very hard to get more information that they can talk about publicly since this is classified and they think that if they're able to do that, it could clear some of this up and make it so that the president isn't as culpable as it might seem now.
[14:45:23] BALDWIN: Certainly, they will. Thank you for those incredible nuggets.
Gloria, you have information that's painting a picture of a president who feels under siege. What are you hearing?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I have spoken with multiple sources who talk to the president regularly and they are from outside the White House. A and one source said that the president seems to have lost confidence in just about everybody. I know we've talked about someone who could say know. To your point, that person He is complaining, apparently, about White House counsel, Don McGahn and believes the firing of Comey was handled in a way that made him look bad, that it wasn't presidential, and he has been complaining about his communication staff, as we know, and so, in fact, has Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, who has also been complaining about the communication staff. And --
BALDWIN: We haven't seen much publicly from a while.
BORGER: We have not. Although he's there at the White House. And the people that I talk to are beginning and these are people who are very loyal to Donald Trump and have been for years and so what surprised me in doing my reporting today is that they seem to be losing confidence in him. I have defended him for years and I'm not sure I can do that anymore. And there seems to be an effort to establish distance between the people and the president and one said to me that he's not taking my advice anyway.
And the bottom line here is they all believe that Donald Trump needs somebody who can tell him when he's wrong and stand up to him even if it means that they're going to lose their job. And they don't believe that that is being done currently and that that's a problem for him because Donald Trump believes he should be his own chief of staff.
BALDWIN: I know we've talked about someone who could say know. To your point, that person could lose their job over that.
Gloria, Dana, thank you. We're watching the president say good-bye to the leader there in
Turkey, President Erdogan, who visited the White House today.
Also, a quick programming tonight. Tonight, a CNN exclusive. Former acting attorney general, Sally Yates, was fired by Donald Trump and now she is telling her side of the story to Anderson Cooper in an exclusive interview tonight at 8:00 eastern.
And then keep it right here because John Kasich and Bernie Sanders, they battled in Congress for years, and tonight they have a debate at 9:00 eastern, right here. Don't miss it.
Coming up next, President Trump can legally reveal classified information. but should he? Why it is allowed and what the precedent is for such a move like this, next.
[14:52:] BALDWIN: While it may be alarming to a number of lawmaker, the intelligence community and many others that the president shared highly classified information with the Russians, it's not actually against the law. President Trump has broad authority to declassify government secrets.
Let's go to Paul Callan, CNN legal analyst.
A lot of people may not realize this. If you're any other top government official and pass along classified information, that may be the law, but not the case with the president. Why?
PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: That's right. Ordinary civilians facing ten years in prison if you release classified information but not so for the president. He's the only person in government that has the absolute right to classify information and instantly declassify it. It's considered to be the role of the chief executive to have that responsibility and the only one in government who can do it.
BALDWIN: Has a president in the past divulged information in a speech and then had to officially declassify?
CALLAN: When I looked into this, I was surprised at how frequently it has happened.
CALLAN: I found cases involving James Madison doing it in the 1800s. The most recent cases have been George Bush when giving information to Bob Woodward with 9/11. There were also questions about the Obama administration, that classified information was leaked to Woodward for that book. The information, though, is this, and I think it's a very substantial difference. We'll find out as time goes on. But this leak by President Trump looks like an impulsive act on his part.
CALLAN: Absolutely spontaneous. And the problem with that is it looks to be irresponsible and kind of immature for a president to do that without carefully considering the implications of the classified information.
BALDWIN: Paul Callan, thank you.
We're getting breaking news on this.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BALDWIN: Let's go to our White House correspondent, Sara Murray, who has the breaking news on the source for this information shared with the Russians.
Sara, what do you know?
[14:54:51] SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPODNENT: We have confirmed that Israel was the source for at least some of this. This was our intelligence partner. And some information that Trump shared with Russian officials. The White House is not officially commenting on this. We just had a briefing with Sean Spicer in which he refused to comment on where this intelligence came from.
And earlier today, H.R. McMaster, the president's national security adviser, said when the president was sharing information with the Russians, he also did not know where the source of the information was coming from.
The comes with the backdrop of what is going to be a very ambitious foreign trip that the president will soon be embarking, and one of those stops include Israel.
One of the concerns with the president sharing this information is this could jeopardize our intelligence-sharing agreement. Israel's ambassador put out a statement today, saying, "Israel has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump."
So neither of these nations saying publicly that this information came from Israel, but sources are telling CNN they were the sources for at least part of what Donald Trump shared with the Russians.
BALDWIN: Israel, as you pointed out, is one of the countries he'll be visiting on his first big overseas trip.
You were part of the gaggle with Sean Spicer. I know it wasn't on camera. What else did Spicer reveal?
MURRAY: He didn't reveal a lot, Brooke. We're still seeing an administration that is struggling with the fallout. The president felt like it was a great meeting that went very well. But I asked Sean Spicer whether they could have been better prepared for this, whether they went through all of the normal protocols and procedures you might go through if the president was heading into a meeting with another foreign official and wanted to share sensitive information. And Sean Spicer really took issue with that question and saying that the president doesn't really know what is going on here, but refusing to give us any more details about whether they went to the appropriate intelligence agencies ahead of time and say we believe it's a common threat and it will help us unite in the fight against ISIS.
As of right now, sources are not giving us any caution that those conversations occurred. And it raises the question of why President Trump's own national security officials would, after that meeting, reach out to the CIA and the NSA to try to smooth things over if this was the plan from the outset and everything went according to protocol -- Brooke?
BALDWIN: Sara Murray, thank you so much with the breaking news.
I've got Nick Paton Walsh, who was reseated next to me.
Now we have it. It's Israel as the source of this classified information, now declassified, that the president shared with the Russians in the Oval Office. People thought it was Jordan. Now it's Israel.
PATON WALSH: That's the reason for the acute sensitivity around this. Israel is an isolated country. Deeply controversial. The fact that they have been able to get to a spy to learn about their inner complex and secret plans to blow aircrafts out of the sky, of course that's something they wouldn't want anyone to know about. The hunt will be on for the Israeli moles. It's an incredibly complicated task to feed you information like that, particularly if you are the pariah state.
BALDWIN: This was so highly classified that not only was it not shared with other U.S. allied countries but even folks that are top U.S. government people. He has full confidence in our relationship, how does this news fall on the ears of other U.S. allies?
PATON WALSH: I think a lot of concern what level of trust do they think the U.S. has in them, and this clearly is a special relationship when it comes to information like this. The nature of the threat was quite specific to the United States. You can understand why they may have delivered it directly like that, but the caveat is to protect them and the way they obtained the information.
We know Israel have a lot of tentacles into what is happening in Syria. They've done a lot of successful strikes, taking out key Hezbollah commanders fighting alongside the regime. Hezbollah is a Lebanese group but they're also vehemently opposed to Israel. And Israel, they have been taking out their senior leadership fast, and of shipments that may have been weapons bound for different directions. Their intelligence around the Syrian regime area is very strong. It appears, if this is the case, they did have some kind of access to ISIS-held areas. And the question now is, whether that sustain if we know they were the source? All of this started from Donald Trump, really.
BALDWIN: Right. And again, this is a country that he's visiting in his upcoming massive overseas trip this latter part of the week.
Nick, thank you very much. Let's continue.
[15:00:02] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BALDWIN: We're going to continue on. You're watching CNN. Breaking news here. I'm Brooke Baldwin.