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Heated Congressional Race; Russia Threatens to Shoot Down U.S. Planes; Interview With Illinois Congressman Adam Kinzinger. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired June 19, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Russia threatening to shoot down American planes.

THE LEAD starts right now.

The skies over Syria now even more dangerous for American pilots, Russia's new threat after the U.S. shoots down a Syrian jet.

Tweet said/he said. President Trump and his own lawyer seemingly not on the same page or even the same chapter when it comes to what they're saying or tweeting about the president being under investigation. So, what are we supposed to believe?

Plus: ugly ads, uglier threats, the most expensive race in U.S. House history now in its final hours. Who is going to win this nasty battle?

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

We're going to begin with our world lead.

Any U.S. warplane flying over a Syrian government-controlled area could now be shot down by Russia. That is the stark warning from the Kremlin today after the U.S. shot down a Syrian jet over the weekend, one that the U.S. Pentagon says dropped bombs on U.S.-backed anti- regime forces.

Russia issuing this threat of sorts to the U.S., stay out of our way, saying any aircraft spotted west of the Euphrates River will be treated as -- quote -- "air targets."

Let's bring in CNN's Barbara Starr, who is at the Pentagon.

Barbara, how seriously is the Pentagon taking this threat from the Kremlin?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, to be clear, the Pentagon not looking for a dogfight with the Russians, but taking it strongly enough to respond to it, Jake.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) STARR (voice-over): U.S. pilots flying over Syria now on the lookout for Russian airplanes or missile threats following the weekend shoot- down by a U.S. Navy FA-18 Super Hornet of a Syrian warplane, this because the Kremlin threatened that any U.S. warplane operating in certain areas of Syria would be considered a threat.

When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was asked if he was confident that Russia would not shoot down a U.S. warplane, the answer was carefully worded.

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: I'm confident that we are still communicating between our operations center and the Russian Federation operations center, and I'm also confident that our forces have the capability to take care of themselves.

STARR: Defense Secretary James Mattis taking the threat seriously, his spokesperson issuing a statement. "As a result of recent encounters involving pro-Syrian regime and Russian forces, we have taken prudent measures to reposition aircraft over Syria."

The Pentagon won't offer details, but the goal is clear, get U.S.backed ground forces to push ISIS out.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: They're sending warnings to the Syrians, to the Iranians and to the Russians that this offensive must be the top priority and it cannot be hindered.

STARR: When a Syrian warplane attacked those U.S.-backed forces on the ground, the U.S. reacted. It began Sunday at 4:30 p.m. Pro- Syrian regime forces attacked the U.S. fighters near the city of Tabqa, a key area on the way to Raqqa, the ISIS capital, driving them from their fighting positions.

U.S. aircraft flew in, launching flares to scare off the pro-Assad units. They actually also contacted the Russians to try to stop the fighting. At 6:43 p.m., a Syrian SU-22 dropped bombs near the U.S.- backed fighters. It was immediately shot down, the coalition said, by that U.S. Navy aircraft as a matter of self-defense.


STARR: And a full-court press is now on by the Pentagon and the Trump administration to try and calm all of this down.

As a first step, they want to make sure they are still talking to the Russians and the Russians talking to them on that so-called deconfliction line, the communications channel they use almost every day to make sure that nothing escalates and gets out of control -- Jake.

TAPPER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon for us, thank you.

Joining me now to discuss this is Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. He serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and did tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq as an Air Force pilot. Congressman, good to see you, as always.

So, Russia called the shoot-down a -- quote -- :act of aggression" and is threatening to suspend military cooperation with the United States, if not worse.

Do you think that Russia would actually actively target an American warplane?

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R), ILLINOIS: I think it's one thing to actively target.

Target means basically just painting on radar. It's kind of a show of force. The guy in the plane, our plane, would know that he's being painted at that point. And that could be indication to attack that radar that's painting.

But to attack an American military aircraft, I think -- look, I think Vladimir Putin is a pretty smart guy. I don't like him, but I think he's smart.


And I think he knows that to attack an American warplane would basically mean the end of the Syrian air force and potentially could have some real damage to the Russian S-300 missile defense system that I would imagine the next reaction, if we saw our aircraft attacked, would be to take out their S-300 missile defense.

And, frankly, the Russians don't want that because it would show how ineffective the S-300 could really be against American military.

TAPPER: On a human level, you're a pilot. What would it be like for a U.S. pilot to fly into Syria and possibly on an assignment that would take him or her west of the Euphrates, which would then put them in direct harm's way, according to this threat from the Kremlin?

KINZINGER: Well, it's frightening. It would be disconcerting, but this is what they train for. They train every day to fly into hostile environments where you're bombing a target with a nation that has a full integrated missile -- or air defense system, that has capable aircraft of intercept, so it's not like this is new to them.

They have trained for this. But it is noteworthy that this is the first air-to-air engagement we have seen against a manned aircraft since 1999, so this is very rare. Despite all the training that a pilot can get, nothing is like the real thing. So, my guess is, there are some nerves going into this, but, again, the Russians would be really stupid and the regime would be really stupid to think that somehow engaging American military after they just bombed a ground force attacking ISIS, if they somehow think that would be smart, I would actually think that they wouldn't think that, because I think they would know better.

TAPPER: Congressman, the U.S., as you know, is leading the coalition air campaign in Syria. We have nearly 1,000 U.S. troops there. Are you afraid that we're headed for further military confrontation with Russia in Syria?

KINZINGER: I don't want that without us having prior planned it, definitely not with the Russians.

But I do think that in order to eliminate extremism in Syria, in order to take out ISIS, ultimately, we're going to have to go after the regime, not necessarily militarily, but forcing a negotiated solution, which may take strikes to do that.

But that has to be on our timetable, and as President Trump, who I think has handled this very correctly -- we have reacted against Syrian regime forces a couple times in an exclusion zone in Syria, against ground forces. We have done this against this plane. And you're not seeing a lot of bravado out of the administration. It's kind of the silent strength that says, hey, look, we're putting down red lines.

If you cross these red lines, it's going to cost you. We're not seeking a confrontation. But this is our area of operation and don't come into it and don't attack our forces.

TAPPER: All right, Congressman Kinzinger, stay with us. We have much more to talk about, including the White House today responding to questions about whether or not there are tapes of the president's conversations with fired FBI Director James Comey.

That story next. Stay with us.



TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

The politics lead now. President Trump promised, and we are all still waiting. Today, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said it's possible we could have an answer by the end of this week about whether tapes exist of the time President Trump spoke to the FBI director he fired, James Comey.

Speaking of tapes, there isn't one of Spicer saying that today because the White House banned audio and video recordings of the White House briefing.

The issue of the tapes and whether they are even real is not the only inconsistency with this White House right now, as the president's own attorney continued to contradict what the president tweeted, all but confirming that he is under investigation for possible obstruction of justice.

And CNN's Jeff Zeleny is live for us now at the White House.

And, Jeff, how did you get a camera in that Briefing Room? They weren't allowed a couple hours ago.


I'm actually standing exactly where Sean Spicer would normally deliver a televised briefing. He did not do that today, of course, because the White House is trying to keep the focus off of the investigation Russia investigation, so they have decided yet again to not hold their briefing on camera.

We are inside here now because there's a storm moving through the Washington area, but the storm here at the White House is over Russia and whether the president is the target of the investigation or not.


ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump welcoming the president of Panama to the White House today, but the fanfare fading away inside the Oval Office.

QUESTION: Mr. President, are you under investigation by the special counsel?

ZELENY: A seemingly simple question with a yes-or-no answer has become the latest flash point in the expanding investigation over Russia's role in the 2016 election.

The president started it with a tweet last Friday. "I am being investigated for firing the FBI director by the man who told me to fire the FBI director. Witch-hunt."

Appearing across the spectrum of Sunday talk shows, Jay Sekulow, one of the president's private attorneys, told Jake on CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION" it was not true.

JAY SEKULOW, ATTORNEY FOR DONALD TRUMP: That response on social media was in response to "The Washington Post" piece. It's that simple.

TAPPER: With all due respect, the president said "I am being investigated" in a tweet, and people take his word on that.


TAPPER: And -- but you're his attorney. You're saying that the president, when he said that, was not accurate.

SEKULOW: No, the president was -- it was 141 characters. There's a limitation on Twitter, as we all know. So, there should be no confusion, no confusion. The president is not under investigation.

ZELENY: But confusion and contradictions linger over the president's firing of FBI Director James Comey. On "FOX News Sunday," Sekulow seemed to concede the president was under investigation.

SEKULOW: And now he's being investigated by the Department of Justice, so he's being investigated for taking the action that the attorney general and the deputy attorney general recommended him to take by the agency who recommended the termination. ZELENY: On CNN's "NEW DAY," Sekulow still doing cleanup today,

telling Chris Cuomo he doesn't know for certain whether the president is a target of the investigation.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Do you think that that Bob Mueller is looking at the circumstances surrounding Comey's firing?

[16:15:01] Do you think that that's part of the purview of his probe?

SEKULOW: I have no idea if he's looking at that or not.

ZELENY: Again today, the White House did not allow the daily press briefing to be televised, as the administration tries to avoid questions about the Russia investigation.

The president faces a deadline of the end of the week of turning over tapes to a congressional committee, if they exist, of his conversations with Comey.

Meanwhile, the president's senior adviser and son in law Jared Kushner, who normally stays behind the scenes, made a rare public appearance today.

JARED KUSHNER, SENIOR ADVISER TO THE PRESIDENT: This is technology at the White House, and we're happy to be kicking it off with your engagement.

ZELENY: Kushner is also heading to the Middle East this week to try and jumpstart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.


ZELENY: Speaking of Jared Kushner, he is also considering adding new legal representation to his team as well. He is still due to appear to a hearing at some point on Capitol Hill about his official meetings with the Russian officials late last year after the election.

But, Jake, specifically, Sean Spicer was asked today if the president has confidence in Rod Rosenstein. Of course, he's the deputy attorney general who appointed the special prosecutor. Sean Spicer said this: the president has confidence in everyone who serves him in this administration.

Asked again, he would not specifically say if he agrees the same about Rod Rosenstein -- Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. We're going to have much more on Jared Kushner later in the show.

Jeff Zeleny, thank you so much.

Congressman Adam Kinzinger is back with me. Does he believe that the White House is letting the Russia investigation run its course? That story next. Stay with us.


[16:20:37] TAPPER: Welcome back. We're back with our politics lead.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer saying today that President Trump could answer as soon as this week whether Oval Office recordings exist of conversation with fired FBI Director James Comey. Of course, we were supposed to get those last week, but moving on.

Back with me is Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger.

Congressman, the deadline to turn over all Comey memos and possible White House tapes to the House Intelligence Committee is this Friday. If that request is not granted by the White House, how would suggest that the House Intelligence Committee proceed?

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R-IL), FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: Yes, i don't know what their options are, whether it's further subpoenas, holding somebody in contempt. I actually don't know what they can do. But I hope they get the information that they requested. As I've said, I put faith into the Senate and the House Intelligence Committee in the investigation. Now with Robert Mueller and his investigation, I think through these processes, we're going to get to the bottom of what did or didn't happen. But I think all that information needs turned over.

From the tapes' perspective, President Trump never said there were tapes. He said Comey better hope there's no tapes. I think we need an answer as to whether or not there's tapes. I mean, this is -- it's another example of how a tweet in the morning can drag something into a whole different area and can drag something out.

So, I just think -- I think the American people, right, left, in between, everywhere else, just need answers to what happened, what's going on, and that's all we're asking.

TAPPER: Speaking of tweets, President Trump has been pretty critical not only of James Comey but also in recent days of Robert Mueller, who is heading the investigation. He's the special counsel. Also, presumably taking aim at the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. What do you make of this all?

KINZINGER: So, I don't like this. I don't like any attempts to discredit people, especially through Twitter. I'm uncomfortable with that. I think it's wrong. I think Robert Mueller is a great American who served his country very well and is going to continue to serve his country in this unfortunate capacity.

I think President Trump needs to remember other presidents have survived special counsels. When you think about President Clinton's situation, what he did very well was instead of focusing on the investigation against him, he kept repeating that he has work to do for the American people and basically turned public opinion in that process. I think President Trump would be well-served right now to be focusing on the agenda that we have as Republicans in the House, which I think is very aggressively good for the economy, to focus on his successes on foreign policy, and let the investigation work its way, and then, you know, we'd have other things to talk about than this.

But when you tweet about it every morning, this is the front of every newspaper and every 24-hour news cycle because it's just natural that it would be.

TAPPER: What did you make of the president's attorney, Jay Sekulow, going on the Sunday shows, including "STATE OF THE UNION" yesterday and basically contradicting the president? The president had said that he was under investigation and took a slam at Rosenstein, and then Sekulow, his lawyer, came on and said he's not under investigation.

I mean, I don't know what the American people are supposed to think.

KINZINGER: This is another concern I have. Truth matters. And lately, you know, on both sides of the aisle, frankly, there's been this idea that truth only matters if it benefits your side, if it makes your side look good.

I think when we talk about the shooting and the political tone, some of this is the case. You only look at things that comport with your world view. I think in this case, you know, do we know if the president is under investigation or not? I haven't heard so I can't answer that.

The president said he is, but when his folks come out and say the opposite, I would -- again, if I was giving advice to the White House right now, it's just, get your message together. There may be competing interests in the White House, there are maybe competing interests in the White House, there are competing interests in every White House, but get your message together and present a unified front and always pivot the same what you want to do for the American people.

I think that's beneficial for the American people. It's beneficial for Republicans. It would ultimately be beneficial for President Trump.

TAPPER: Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois -- thank you so much, sir. Always good to see you.

Two terror investigations under way in two different cities after two separate attacks just hours apart. What are we learning about a car filled with explosive and a van that plowed into a crowd? Stick around.


[16:28:50] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

A man driving a car full of weapons and explosives ram up into a police van on the Champs-Elysees earlier today. A source close to the investigation tells CNN that a -- I'm sorry, tells a French wire service that the attacker was a 31-year-old man who had been on police radar since 2015. Authorities said he is now dead after being taken down by officers. The French interior minister said the driver had weapons and enough

explosives to detonate the car. This is the second time in just two months that police were targeted on the iconic boulevard. In April, a man shot at police officers also on the Champs-Elysees, killing one officer and wounding two others.

Turning now to new developments in last night's terrorist attack outside a mosque in London. British media have identified the terrorist as 37-year-old Darren Osborne. He's accused of plowing a van into a group of Muslim worshippers marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. At least one person has been killed, though it's not clear if his death is directly attributed to the incident. Several other individuals have been hospitalized.

Late today, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the president's thoughts and prayers are with the victims in London. But President Trump has yet to comment himself personally on Twitter as he frequently does when the attacker is an Islamist terrorist.

Let's get right to CNN's Fred Pleitgen in London.

And, Fred, was Osborne, this white male who launched this terrorist attack on these Muslims, innocent Muslims, was he on anybody's radar screen?