Return to Transcripts main page


Interview With Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy; Putin Admits Russians May Have Meddled in U.S. Election; Former FBI Director Set to Testify; Putin Denies Involvement in U.S. Election Meddling. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired June 2, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump's tweets, they may have undercut his ability to keep Comey quiet.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Fired FBI Director James Comey is set to testify with the world watching. Will President Trump invoke executive privilege to try to shut him up, or did Trump's itchy Twitter finger shoot holes in that possibility?

Vladimir Putin calls the Russia investigation plain hysteria, but admits that some Russians may have meddled in the U.S. election. He calls them patriotic hackers just doing their part for the motherland.

Plus, conflict of interest watch. President Trump granting broad ethics waivers to top aides, how Steve Bannon might benefit, to the detriment of Bannon's enemies, even those enemies within the White House.

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

We begin today with the politics lead. The president's decision to take America out of the Paris climate agreement not the only reason he's feeling heat today. We are now less than a week away from what might be the most anticipated congressional testimony since the Clarence Thomas hearings.

On Thursday, the fired FBI Director James Comey will testify before the world about his private conversations with President Trump and whether the president's requests for information about the FBI investigation ever made him uncomfortable and just what President Trump said to him about dropping the inquiry into the activities of Michael Flynn.

Comey is set to testify as to all that, unless, unless, unless President Trump successfully invokes executive privilege to keep Comey from testifying about those conversations, though we should point out legal experts say Trump's tweets and his public descriptions of those conversations make it much tougher for him to legally block Comey from offering his side of the story.

CNN's Athena Jones starts us off with all the developments from the White House.


ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): While President Trump and his allies are celebrating his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord...

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our withdrawal from the agreement represents a reassertion of America's sovereignty.

JONES: ... reaction across the country and around the world has been swift and harsh. German Chancellor Angela Merkel calling it regrettable.

ANGELA MERKEL, GERMAN CHANCELLOR (through translator): The position of the United States to step out of the Paris climate change agreement is very regrettable.

JONES: And French President Emmanuel Macron even slamming the move in English.

EMMANUEL MACRON, FRENCH PRESIDENT: We all share the same responsibility, make our planet great again.

JONES: The worldwide response seemed to surprise the White House.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: For some reason or another, this issue of climate change has emerged as a paramount issue for the left in this country and around the world.

JONES: Environmental Protection Agency Chief Scott Pruitt defending the move.

SCOTT PRUITT, ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY ADMINISTRATOR: And the president made a very informed and I think thoughtful and important decision for the country's benefit.

JONES: Even as Democrats from President Obama to former Vice President Al Gore to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi blast the decision as reckless.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: It's about the children and the responsibility we have to them.

JONES: Meanwhile, the governors of states like New York, California and Washington have committed to upholding the Paris agreement and taking aggressive action on climate change.

The backlash growing, even as White House officials still refuse to say whether the president views climate change as real.

QUESTION: Does the president believe global warming is a hoax?

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: He believes in clean air, clean water, a clean environment, and he believes that we have to negotiate better deals for this country. WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Does President Trump still believe climate

change is a hoax?

GARY COHN, PRESIDENTIAL ECONOMIC ADVISER: What President Trump believes is he was elected to grow the U.S. economy and provide great job opportunities for American citizens.

QUESTION: Does the president believe that climate change is real and a threat to the United States?

PRUITT: You know what's interesting about all the discussion we had through the last several weeks have been focused on one singular issue. Is Paris good or not for this country?

JONES: As the administration grapples with the fallout from its Paris decision, the president also considering whether to invoke executive privilege over his conversations with James Comey ahead of the former FBI director's testimony next week.

QUESTION: Is the White House going to invoke executive privilege?

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: That committee hearing was just committed, and I think obviously it's got to be reviewed.


JONES: So, we're standing by for that decision.

But on the point of what the president believes about climate change, it's been remarkable to see White House officials repeatedly unable to answer what seems like a simple question and an important question.

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway even ended her exchange on the topic this morning by telling the anchor he should ask the president directly what he thinks about climate change. The problem with that, Jake, is that President Trump hasn't had a solo press conference since February.


So there haven't been a lot of opportunities to pose any questions to him -- Jake.

TAPPER: Athena Jones at the White House for us, thanks so much.

So, just how much might Comey reveal when he testifies publicly on Thursday? After all, much of the investigation is classified.

CNN's Jessica Schneider joins me now.

Jessica, do we have any sense what Comey is likely to say about his interactions with President Trump?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, we know from our sources that James Comey is eager to tell his story and testify. In fact, he has already consulted with special counsel Robert Mueller about the parameters of his testimony.

And now a source tells CNN after some reflection on his interactions with the president, James Comey may be viewing the intent of the president a bit differently.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Tonight, new insight into how James Comey might recount his conversations with the president. A source with knowledge of Comey's thinking says that, while Comey was disturbed by his interactions with President Trump, Comey believed he had the situation under control.

The source says if Comey believed at the time any specific encounter constituted obstruction of justice, Comey have done more than just write a memo. But when Comey pieces together the president's possible pressure to drop the FBI investigation into Michael Flynn in his testimony next week, the source thinks it's possible Comey could come to a different conclusion.

The White House is now weighing whether to assert executive privilege to block Comey's testimony, though counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway indicated she expects Comey to talk.

CONWAY: We will be watching with the rest of the world when Director Comey testifies.


QUESTION: So, the president is not going to invoke executive privilege?

CONWAY: The president will make that decision.

SCHNEIDER: Comey no longer works for the government, so the president can't order him to stay silent, and some say President Trump's tweets about Comey and declarations like these...

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We had a very nice dinner and at that time he told me you are not under investigation, which I knew anyway.

SCHNEIDER: ... waived the president's right. Others argue asserting executive privilege is necessary.

PETE HOEKSTRA (R), FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN: It sets a dangerous precedent that the president's conversations, you know, private conversations can be revealed. It will be a he said/he said type of thing. It's one side of the story. I don't think that helps the process.

SCHNEIDER: And there are continuing questions about Jared Kushner's mid-December meeting with Russian bank chairman Sergey Gorkov, a man who has close ties to President Vladimir Putin. The White House insists Kushner conducted the meetings in his capacity during the transition. VEB Bank maintains it was part of their -- quote -- "business road

show." The meeting was arranged after Kushner met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in early December at Trump Tower. In St. Petersburg Friday, President Putin defended the talks.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Our ambassador met someone. That's what the ambassador must do. That's his work. He's getting paid for that. He must meet. He must discuss current affairs. He must make agreements.

SCHNEIDER: Kushner's meetings with Russian officials came as Russia was feeling pressure from U.S. sanctions imposed after Russia's action in Ukraine.

Retired coordinator of sanctions policy Dan Fried is now speaking out about his efforts to stop the Trump administration from lifting Russian sanctions earlier this year. Fried retired from the State Department in February and said he contacted lawmakers in an effort to codify the sanctions, something that never happened.

DAN FRIED, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Lifting sanctions without the Russians doing anything, as a free gift struck me, strikes me now as a bad, bad idea. My colleagues were concerned about this. And so was I at the time.


SCHNEIDER: And White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer would not comment on reports that the administration is considering returning seized Russian compounds here in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Press Secretary Sean Spicer also said that Jared Kushner absolutely continues to have the full confidence of the president -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jessica, thanks so much.

He was one of the senators who told the FBI he was concerned about the attorney general's meeting with a Russian widely known as a spy recruiter. Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, joins us next.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: Welcome back to the lead.

Our politics lead, CNN has learned that congressional investigators are scrutinizing whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions had an additional undisclosed meeting with Russia's ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, in April of last year.

This new development comes after Sessions failed to disclose two prior meetings with the ambassador during the campaign. Joining me now is Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. He

serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us, as always.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: Good to be with you, Jake.

TAPPER: So, I want to start with this letter that you and your colleague Senator Al Franken sent, several letters really, to the FBI to get more information on whether Attorney General Sessions perjured himself when, during his hearings to become attorney general, he claimed he had not met with any Russian officials.

He later clarified he hadn't met with any Russians as part of the Trump campaign. What are you trying find out with these letters?

LEAHY: Well, then, later, we saw a picture of him at a Trump campaign event with -- with Russians.

We just want to get the facts. You know, it's -- this seems to be such a moving target. I think of the years I served with Jeff Sessions on the Judiciary Committee. If he saw somebody who the facts were changing like this, he would want the answers. He'd be writing the same kind of letters that Senator Franken and I wrote. All we want are some answers.

TAPPER: Do you suggest -- are you suggesting in any way that he did anything improper in these meetings with Russian officials?

LEAHY: Well, I'm suggesting that he didn't tell us the truth when he was under oath, and I want to know why.

[16:15:01] If it was simply a lapse of memory, that's one thing. If there's something going on at these meetings that he wants to hide, that's another thing.

I mean, we have a cascading list of Trump people who are meeting with Russians, including somebody who has access to all the Russian spies in the United States during the campaign. More and more information comes out that Russia wants to influence our campaign. Now, we see the president of the United States willing to restore just about everything to Russia. I expect the next step is to remove sanctions against Russia.

What is there about Russia that has such control over this administration?

TAPPER: Let's turn to the investigation into national security adviser Michael Flynn who lost his job for not being honest with the vice president about his conversation with the ambassador, the Russian ambassador. You were just referring to Ambassador Kislyak. We know that Flynn may not have complied about army regulations regarding his trip to Russia and payments for speaking there, and we know that he registered as a foreign agent retroactively. Beyond that, do you and your colleagues have any evidence that Flynn committed any crime at all or did anything illegal? LEAHY: Well, I think the question comes why try to cover up

everything he did? Why hide the fact that he did? Why hide the amount of money he had? Why try to downplay any involvement he had with the Russians until you find him sitting next to Vladimir Putin at a dinner where he was paid tens of thousands of dollars to be there?

He now says he wants to take the Fifth Amendment, and he does not want to testify. Now on that, I support it. Anybody.

I mean, I was a prosecutor for ten years. I prosecuted an awful lot of criminals. Any criminal had the right to take the Fifth Amendment, and I supported them no matter what the crime was that I was charging.

TAPPER: Russia's President Vladimir Putin today said that meetings between Russian officials and the Trump administration were in his view part of the normal diplomatic process and that any notion that secret deals were agreed to before the inauguration were, quote, plain hysteria.

What's your response to that?

LEAHY: Well, of course, we know that Vladimir Putin would always tell the truth and he would never want to do anything that might hurt the interest of the United States. I'm used to reading fairy tales to my grandchildren. I think maybe Putin has grandchildren. That's a fairy tale and he knows it.

TAPPER: All right. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont -- thank you so much for your time, sir. We appreciate it, as always.

LEAHY: Good to be with you.

TAPPER: Vladimir Putin comparing the evidence from U.S. intelligence agencies to something a 3-year-old girl could come up with. More of his take on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, coming up.


[16:22:08] TAPPER: Welcome back.

The world lead now: Russian President Vladimir Putin is giving his two cents or two whatevers on practically every controversy he's ever wrapped up here in the United States. For a second day in a row, he's weighing in on intelligence reports alleging that Russia meddled in the U.S. elections.

CNN's Matthew Chance joins me now live from St. Petersburg, Russia, where Putin just spoke at an economic forum.

Matthew, yesterday, Putin said that Russian hackers might have interfered in U.S. politics. He called them patriotic. What is he saying today?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, we've seen more classic Putin. Him holding up his hands saying there's nothing to see here, screaming foul, and playing down and denying, again, all of the allegations that have been made against Russia and his security services, particularly by the U.S. intelligence agencies that say Russian secret services hacked at the U.S. election. Putin saying again that the evidence is just not fair, and frankly anyone could have hacked those political institutions, even a toddler.

Take a listen.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): A 3-year, girl that is 3-year-old can perpetrate such an attack. And they present it like this. They can mass it off like this and these specialists can invent anything and then they will blame someone else. These are not proofs. These are trying to shirk responsibility.


CHANCE: Yes, it kind of, Jake, reminded of the Trump claim that this could have been a 400-pound that did it. But Putin's using a different example, a 3-year-old girl. But, still, you know, once again, it's another example of the Kremlin echoing a sort of White House defense in a way.

TAPPER: And, Matthew, President Trump said back in April that the U.S. relationship with Russia may be at an all-time low. What did Putin have to say about that?

CHANCE: Well, he said -- he still holds that position as far as we're aware, but, you know, he's trying to appeal to people in the United States that perhaps have an interest in the relationship between the United States and Moscow improving to give him a helping hand had. I mean, we sat in a closed door meeting today inside the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. It was a Russian/U.S. business roundtable and there were several business leaders there from the United States who had come to hear various Russian officials and Vladimir Putin speak. And he asked them directly to help and build a more normal political dialogue with Russia and the United States and to help the U.S. president as well.

TAPPER: All right. Matthew Chance in St. Petersburg, thank you so much.

Coming up, a free pass on ethics rules. Steve Bannon allowed to communicate directly with the company he used to run, "Breitbart", the same website that has done hit pieces on his White House co-workers.

[16:25:03] Does this White House waiver go too far?

Stick around.


TAPPER: We're back with our "Conflict of Interest Watch" series. Newly released records show that President Trump has granted more than

a dozen ethics waivers to White House staff. These waivers exempt several top aides from ethics rules imposed by the administration, despite the president's promise to drain the swamp and curb lobbyists influence in Washington.

Let's bring in CNN's Cristina Alesci.

And, Cristina, one of those waivers seems to apply to chief strategist Steve Bannon.


While it doesn't mention him specifically, it's pretty clear that it helps Bannon get around a potential ethical violation. Why? Because the waiver allows White House aides to communicate with news organizations even if they involve a former employer or a former client.

Bannon, you know, was the head of "Breitbart", a far right news website, and before the White House issued the exception that we're talking about today, Bannon was subject to the ethics pledge barring him from communicating with Breitbart about anything that overlap with his White House duties.