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Trump Administration Praises Lack of Protests in Saudi Arabia; Politically Correct Donald Trump Overseas; Michael Flynn to Plead the Fifth Over Trump-Russia Ties; President Trump in Israel; Source: Flynn Expected to Invoke the 5th; Interview with Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired May 22, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The White House shutting out the U.S. media in Saudi Arabia and marveling at a lack of protesters. When in Riyadh, I suppose.

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump making history in Israel by visiting the Western Wall. Afterwards, he met with Israel's prime minister, but did the president accidentally confirm he gave up classified information to the Russians?

Breaking news in the Russia investigation, a source telling CNN Michael Flynn now plans to take the Fifth, instead of testifying in the Senate, a move Donald Trump once said you only do if you're guilty.

Plus, dangerous step, North Korea firing its second ballistic missile in a week and bragging that it's taking a major step towards the goal towards of being able to reach the U.S.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We're going to begin today with the world lead. Today, President Trump continued this historic visit to the Middle East, touching down in Israel today and meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to ever visit the holiest site in the Jewish faith, the Western Wall.

At about the same time as that visit, we learned that fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn plans to plead the Fifth and will not testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee. That was big news, though, of course, the president is focused on his swing through the Middle East.

That began in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where the president disturbed even some in his own party by suggesting in his speech that he would not -- quote -- "lecture countries on how to live," which many took as an abdication of the traditional role of the United States in publicly preaching the values of freedom and democracy, values that some critics suggest the Trump administration might not fully appreciate. Case in point, a source close to former FBI Director James Comey told

me that, in Comey's February 14 Oval Office meeting with President Trump, the president expressed irritation with news stories about private phone conversations he had had with the leaders of Mexico and Australia, the president telling Comey that he needed to pursue the leakers.

Comey tried to explain to the president that leak investigations are quite difficult for law enforcement, because often you end up having to threaten to jail journalists. The president told Comey he should throw journalists in jail.

This, the source said, is recorded in that memo composed contemporaneously by Comey about that meeting, as first reported by "The New York Times."

Another example of these values, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a man who, as America's top representative of the world, is supposed to publicly demonstrate the importance of free speech and a free press, Tillerson, held a news conference Sunday in Riyadh without alerting any American reporters that he was doing so, not exactly leading by example on the virtues of freedom of the press.

But it was Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross whose analysis of his time in Saudi Arabia truly stunned observers.


WILBUR ROSS, U.S. COMMERCE SECRETARY: There's no question that they are liberalizing their society.

And I think the other thing that was fascinating to me, there was not a single hint of a protester anywhere there during the whole time we were there, not one guy with a bad placard.


TAPPER: Now, the anchor pointed out that Saudis don't have the same rights of free speech or free assembly that we have in the U.S., to which Secretary Ross replied this:


ROSS: In theory, that could be true, but, boy, there was certainly no sign of it.


TAPPER: It's not theory. In the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011, the Saudi Ministry of the Interior informed the Saudi people -- quote -- "Regulations in the kingdom forbid categorically all sorts of demonstrations, marches and sit-ins, as they contradict Islamic Sharia law and the values and traditions of Saudi society" -- unquote.

Dissent in Saudi Arabia has been criminalized. Amnesty International this year noted that -- quote -- "Human rights activists in Saudi Arabia are an endangered species. One by one, they are vanishing, prosecuted, jailed, intimidated into silence or forced into exile, highlighting authority's zero tolerance approach to freedom of expression" -- unquote.

But Ross noted that, at the end of his trip, a number of Saudi security guards asked for a photograph with him.


ROSS: And then they gave me two gigantic bushels of dates as a present, a thank you for the trip that we had had. That was a pretty from-the-heart, very genuine gesture.


TAPPER: Two gigantic bushels of dates? That's all it took for the Saudis to cover up an abysmal human rights record, funding for extremism all over the globe, evidence of possible government participation in 9/11, and current alleged war crimes against civilians in Yemen?

A critic might say you guys are cheap dates. Pardon the pun.


CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta is traveling with the president in Jerusalem.

And, Jim, today, the president seemed to perhaps inadvertently confirm that story that sources say he shared intelligence with the Russians.


And the White House is hoping the president can change the narrative back home by showing off the alliances he's building with leaders here in the Middle East, but the president finds new ways to step on his own message. He did that today when he tried to offer up an explanation for his sharing of Israeli intelligence with the Russians that didn't add up.


ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump is discovering it's not so simple to bring the art of the deal to the Holy Land. After suggesting Middle East peace might be easy just weeks ago, the president acknowledged what his predecessors have known for decades. It's not.

TRUMP: I have heard it's one of the toughest deals of all, but I have a feeling that we're going to get there eventually, I hope.

ACOSTA: Even as Mr. Trump continued this photo-op for his foreign trip by becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit one of Judaism's holiest sites, the Western Wall, he's doing damage control with his Israeli hosts. The president appeared to confirm that he had recently shared

classified Israeli intelligence with top-level Russian officials with this misleading explanation.

TRUMP: I never mentioned the word or the name Israel, never mentioned it during that conversation. They were all saying I did. So you had another story wrong. Never mentioned the word Israel.

ACOSTA: The problem is, those news reports never stated the president mentioned Israel by name in that meeting with the Russians. While some in the administration insist there's no need for apologies...

REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I don't know that there's anything to apologize for.

ACOSTA: ... others are conceding some reassurances may be helpful.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: We're trying to reassure all of our counterparts that what they tell us is kept, trusted and valued, and we will return the favor.

ACOSTA: But the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are both touting their strong ties with sharp criticism of the Iran nuclear deal that was crafted by the Obama administration.

TRUMP: I thought it was a terrible, terrible thing for the United States to enter that deal, and, believe me, Iran will never have a nuclear weapon. That, I can tell you.

ACOSTA: Still, the president has yet to follow through on his campaign promise to tear up the nuclear agreement.

TRUMP: I think that agreement is a disaster for this country, for Israel, for the Middle East.

ACOSTA: And that's not the only contradiction from this trip. Contrast the president's rhetoric on Islam from the campaign trail...

TRUMP: I think Islam hates us.

ACOSTA: ... with the softened language the president used in Saudi Arabia.

TRUMP: There's still much work to be done. That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds.

ACOSTA: The president slipped and said Islamic terror inside of Islamist terror, the White House said, because he's -- quote -- "exhausted."

But top administration officials who danced the night away with the Saudis are stepping around that comment.

TILLERSON: He's doing better than I am. And he's got a few years on me. (END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: And the president will find that the bargaining will only get tougher when he sits down with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, tomorrow. Abbas obviously will have to be a partner in any peace talks.

And while the president will have his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, at his side when he enters these talks, two of the top officials have already returned back to the White House, Jake. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, are already back at the White House -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Acosta live for us in Jerusalem, thanks so much.

With President Trump overseas, the Russia investigation continues full-steam ahead, a source telling CNN that Michael Flynn is expected to plead the Fifth. And now members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are exploring their next options.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Our politics load now, and something of a setback for the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion by members of the Trump campaign team, a source telling CNN that retired General Michael Flynn, the fired national security adviser, will not provide records to the committee and will invoke his Fifth Amendment rights in response to a subpoena to appear before the panel of senators.

Let's bring in CNN's Elise Labott.

And, Elise, just because Flynn is taking the Fifth, it does not mean he's done with this committee.


The top Democrat on that committee, Mark Warner, just told CNN senators are looking at next steps, including whether to hold Flynn in contempt. But his lawyers say Flynn fears any documents he provides would be used against him, citing an escalating public frenzy fueled by members of Congress leaking information and calling for his prosecution.


LABOTT (voice-over): Tonight, as criminal probes against possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign mount, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn expected to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights, refusing to comply with a subpoena from the Senate Intelligence Committee for records concerning his conversations with Russia's ambassador to Washington.

A source close to Flynn tells CNN it does not make sense for him to testify when several members of Congress have called for his prosecution, a move then candidate Trump said was evidence of guilt when used by Hillary Clinton's aides to avoid testifying over her use of a private e-mail server.

TRUMP: You see, the mob takes the Fifth. If you're innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?

LABOTT: Sources tell CNN Russian officials in conversations picked up by U.S. intelligence bragged they could use Flynn to influence Trump.

Newly appointed special counsel former FBI Director Robert Mueller now looking at whether President Trump sought to obstruct justice by trying to pressure then FBI Chief James Comey to drop the bureau's investigation into potential wrongdoing by Flynn, in February, cornering Comey alone in the Oval Office, telling him, quote, I hope you can let this go -- according to a memo Comey wrote recalling his conversation with the president.

[16:15:10] Trump denies he made the request.


LABOTT: But has pointed to the Russia investigation as a reason for firing Comey.

TRUMP: When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It's an excuse.

LABOTT: And according to the "New York Times", the president called Comey a, quote, "nut job", and said his firing would ease pressure on him regarding the Russian investigation during a meeting with Russian officials. The White House also said Comey's firing could help end the investigation sooner.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: We want this to come to its conclusion. We want it to come to its conclusion with integrity, and we think that we've actually by removing Director Comey taken steps to make that happen.


LABOTT: Now, Comey is expected to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee after Memorial Day.

Meanwhile, Jake, lawyers and lawmakers hope that they will get ahold of those Comey memos before then.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Elise Labott, thank you so much. How will Congress get answers in the Russia probe? Senator Patrick Leahy on the Senate Judiciary Committee joins us next.

Stay with us.


[16:20:21] TAPPER: Welcome back.

Let's stick with the politics lead. While President Trump is on a busy trip overseas, back at home, congressional investigations into possible Russia ties are moving forward.

Joining me now, Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.

Senator, thanks so much for coming on. As always a source telling CNN that former national security adviser Michael Flynn intends to plead the Fifth in a Senate probe into Russia ties. When Hillary Clinton's IT staffer pleaded the Fifth in the investigation into her e-mail use, this is how then candidate Donald Trump responded.


TRUMP: So, there are five people taking the Fifth Amendment like you see on the mob, right? You see the mob takes the Fifth. If you're innocent, why are you taking Fifth Amendment?


TAPPER: If you're innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment? Is that a fair question for anyone?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Well, I was a prosecutor for eight years. I prosecuted a lot of criminals who took the Fifth. They had the right under the Constitution. But General Flynn's lawyers say he wants to take the Fifth because it may be a frenzy.

No. Fifth Amendment gives you protection against incriminating yourself for a crime, not protecting yourself against a frenzy.

TAPPER: So, you think that he should be -- what do you think the next step should be then?

LEAHY: I don't know. I would like to hear to him. He's obviously under investigation. He's certainly -- there's certainly reasons to hear from him. I think the Congress has asked for that. If he's unwilling to testify, there are a lot of other people that we should talk with.

And I think even though it's a Republican-controlled Congress, I think there's a growing feeling that we need to get to the truth of everything that has happened for the American people. You know, are we in control of the government, or is Russia in control of the government?

TAPPER: As you know, you're a former prosecutor. I want to ask you, after the "New York Times" reported that the president told Russian officials about firing Comey, quote, I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off now, unquote. You tweeted, quote: This is what obstruction looks like, unquote.

A lot of other Democrats are not willing to go that far, but you think that's evidence of obstruction of justice?

LEAHY: I think it is reason enough to at least look at that, and that's why we have to go through and ask more questions. For example, Attorney General Sessions has agreed to come before the House and the Senate this week. I commend him for doing that. If he's voted to come forward and tell the truth about what happened, we'll know far more about that, and I think we have to.

They say they don't know what went on in the Oval Office, but Russia says, well, gee, we've got the notes on it. We have the recordings. We have the transcript of what went on. I hate to think that we have to go to Russia to find out what our government is doing.

TAPPER: After that meeting in the oval office with the Russian officials, there was a lot of questions about what the president revealed about intelligence, intelligence that might have come from a friendly source, some in the media said -- some sources told media that the source was Israel.

Today, in Israel, President Trump told reporters that in that meeting with Russians, he didn't mention the word Israel when he met with Russian officials. Take a listen.


TRUMP: Just so you understand, I never mentioned the word or the name Israel, never mentioned it in that conversation. They are all saying I did, so you heard the story wrong. Never mentioned the word Israel.


TAPPER: Now, of course, none. Media reports said he had ever mentioned the word Israel. The question was whether or not he gave enough information that the Russians would be able to figure out the source of the information. What was your response?

LEAHY: Well, Russia has a worldwide intelligence service. In fact, they are constantly spying on the United States. If you give a very direct idea of where information came from and what it was from, neither they nor we would have that much difficulty in figuring out which country it came from.

TAPPER: Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, thank you so much, sir. Appreciate it as always.

LEAHY: Thank you.

TAPPER: The White House sends its budget to Congress tomorrow and there are some concerns that some people rely upon, including many Trump voters will be on the chopping block. What the administration wants to cut next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:28:53] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Continuing with politics. Programs designed to help low-income families, children and disabled could take a huge hit if President Trump has his way. His budget blueprint comes out tomorrow.

What we saw on March was only a preview. But now, we had some specifics. And it is expected to include some cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka SNAP, aka food stamps.

CNN's Phil Mattingly joins me now live in Capitol Hill.

And, Phil, an administration official suggested just last week that this program would likely remain untouched. What are the proposed changes?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's exactly right and that doesn't appear to be true. If you look specifically at the food stamp program, the SNAP program, Jake, according to a document that was circulated on Capitol Hill that we obtained, the administration is going to propose $193 billion in cuts over a ten- year period to that program.

Now, to give you some perspective on that, the U.S. spent $71 billion on that program last year. That cut would be around 27 percent of the total program. That is a dramatic cut.

Now, the rationale for that is that they are trying to get the budget over the course of a ten-year period to balance, but as you noted this, seemed to fly in the face of what Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue said just last week. Take a listen.


SONNY PERDUE, AGRICULTURE SECRETARY: As far as I'm concerned, we have no proposed changes. So, you don't fix you don't try to fix things that aren't broken and when the motto is do right and feed everyone, I view that as very, very --