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Trump Plans to Ban Transgender People From Military; Trump Blasts Attorney General. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired July 26, 2017 - 16:30   ET



ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Sessions did not meet or speak with the president while here.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, INCOMING WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think the president has been very clear about where he is. He's obviously disappointed, but also wants the attorney general to continue to focus on the things that the attorney general does.

He wants him to lead the Department of Justice. He wants to do that strongly. He wants him to focus on things like immigration, leaks and a number of other issues.

JONES: He was later spotted leaving the White House grounds. But Sessions has told colleagues he has no plans to leave the administration, despite the slings and arrows coming from the president.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He should not have recused himself.

JONES: Who said during Tuesday's press conference he was disappointed in Sessions.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look, he can be disappointed in someone, but still want them to continue to do their job.

JONES: Trump's steady string of insults sparking a backlash among Sessions' supporters on Capitol Hill, South Carolina Lindsey Graham telling CNN's Manu Raju:

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I would fire somebody that I do not believe could serve me well rather than try to humiliate them in public, which is a sign of weakness.

JONES: Alabama Republican Richard Shelby adding:

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R), ALABAMA: He deserves better than this. He's not the president's personal lawyer. He's attorney general of the United States. He took an oath to the Constitution, not to the president.

JONES: The message from Hill Republicans to Trump, firing Sessions would be a mistake and could hurt the president's ability to carry out his agenda.

This as the president's incoming communications director argues:

ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI, INCOMING WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: I would recommend to every Cabinet secretary and every member teammate that I have here in the West Wing have a tough skin.


JONES: When it comes to the Sessions matter, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders had something interesting to say about that during the briefing today.

She said you can be disappointed in someone, but still want them to continue to do their job. An interesting statement, given the president's near constant attacks, and it's exactly what Sessions has been trying to do, carry out the president's agenda at the Department of Justice.

Just yesterday, he announced the administration will now make cooperating with federal immigration authorities a precondition for states and localities to receive certain law enforcement grants, and we're told in the coming days he plans to announce stepped-up efforts to crack down on persistent leaks to the media, a practice we have heard the president rail about for months -- Jake.

TAPPER: Athena Jones at the White House for us today, thank you so much.

Also today, dramatic testimony on Capitol Hill about the Kremlin's interference in the November election. Top Justice Department and FBI officials giving a stark warning today that Russia will keep up its nefarious activities. This as we're learning more about the Russian lawyer and Russian-American lobbyist who met with top members of the Trump campaign last year.

CNN senior Washington correspondent Brianna Keilar has report.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): At the heart of Donald Trump Jr.'s controversial meeting with a group of Russian and Russian-aligned lawyers and business associates, among others, Sergei Magnitsky.

As an attorney working for American-born financier Bill Browder, Magnitsky discovered a $230 million tax fraud and corruption scheme involving the Russian government and oligarchs with ties to the Kremlin.

BILL BROWDER, FINANCIER: Sergei Magnitsky was a 37-year-old lawyer who was working for me. He was my responsibility and he was taken hostage because of me. And then he was slowly tortured to death in the most horrific way as a hostage. And then he died.

KEILAR: His arrest and death in prison in 2009 inspiring the Magnitsky Act, a law passed by Congress to financially punish Russians involved in human rights violations, many of whom are close to Putin and are believed responsible for Magnitsky's death.

BROWDER: These people are not good people. And they're doing very bad things. And everyone needs to understand that.

KEILAR: Browder is a leading proponent of the sanctions, which led Putin to retaliate by suspending U.S. adoptions of Russian children. And it was this adoption issue, merely a cover for discussing removal of the sanctions, that Trump Jr. claims was the focus of his 2016 meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and American lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin.

BROWDER: When they mentioned that this was about adoption in that meeting, it had nothing to do with adoption. There were two effectively agents of the Russian government who went to Donald Trump Jr. and said, can you help us withdraw this act if your father gets elected president?

KEILAR: CNN has not confirmed Browder's claim.

President Trump said his previously undisclosed hour-long conversation with Vladimir Putin at a G20 dinner earlier this month was also about Russian adoptions.

BROWDER: For Putin, this is his single largest foreign policy priority, to get rid of these sanctions which sanctions him and the other people around him.

KEILAR: Browder is set to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday. Today, they heard from the FBI's top counterintelligence official about the extent foreign adversaries are spying on the U.S. and attempting to meddle in elections.

BILL PRIESTAP, FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: Our country is under relentless assault by hostile state actors and their proxies. They use people from across their governments and from all walks of life in pursuit of their desire to gain strategic advantage over the United States in whatever ways they can.



KEILAR: This hearing was noteworthy because of the witnesses that did not attend, Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

They struck agreements with the Republican-led committee to avoid being forced into what certainly would have been a very high-profile public appearance. They did agree to provide records and they agreed to private interviews ahead of any public session that might occur, Jake.

TAPPER: Why wouldn't they want to testify publicly? So strange.

KEILAR: I can't even imagine.

TAPPER: Brianna, thank you so much.

The White House says transgender service affects military units and readiness. The first openly transgender member of the military to be promoted weighs in.

Stay with us.



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

In our world lead today, growing threats from North Korea. This morning, a U.S. official told CNN that Kim Jong-un's accelerating weapons program could help North Korea launch a reliable nuclear- capable intercontinental ballistic missile by early next year.

We have only five months left this year, which means threats from Pyongyang could be more imminent than ever.

And that brings us to our national lead. President Trump, instead of addressing this new U.S. intelligence assessment, instead of focusing on a new North Korea strategy or a new ISIS strategy or a new Afghanistan strategy, for that matter, this morning, he announced on Twitter that he is banning transgender Americans from serving in the U.S. military in any capacity.

That includes the current estimated 4,000 transgender service members or those the reserves.

Let's bring in CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, President Trump said transgender service members would cause "disruption," but they have been serving open for a year. Have they caused any disruption since that ban was lifted?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, I have to tell you the military has yet to offer any comprehensive evidence of any kind of disruption.

The question now is in fact what will happen to those already serving?


STARR (voice-over): President Trump making military policy via Twitter, today suddenly announcing: "The United States government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military," sparking instant criticism from Democrats and Republicans.

REP. TED LIEU (D), CALIFORNIA: I believe that is an awful decision. I serve in active duty in the military, and I can tell you, we don't care about gender orientation or identity or who you love. STARR: Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services

Committee, also saying: "There is no reason to force service members who are able to fight, train and deploy to leave the military, regardless of their gender identity."

But some lawmakers agree with the decision, citing Trump's reasoning that the military "cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical cost and disruption that transgender in the military would entail."

REP. VICKY HARTZLER (R), MISSOURI: We need to spend every defense dollar where we need to, and this has been a real concern.

STARR: A 2016 RAND study concluded gender transition health care coverage for transgender military members would increase the Defense Department's health care by as much as $8.4 million, a tiny fraction of the Pentagon's overall $49.3 billion health care expenditures.

SARAH MCBRIDE, TRANSGENDER ACTIVIST: This isn't just about health care. This, according to Donald Trump's tweets, is about not allowing transgender people to serve at all.

STARR: That same RAND study put the number of transgender service members at between 1,300 and 6,600.

Two unanswered questions? Under President Trump's ban, will those already serving be forced out? And what about Defense Secretary James Mattis, who just last month ordered a six-month delay so DOD could study the issue further?

The Pentagon will not say if Mattis agreed with this sudden Trump announcement.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, INCOMING WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The decision is based on a military decision. It's not meant to be anything more than that.


STARR: But we may not have heard the last from Congress. Just recently, the House defeated a measure that would have banned the Pentagon from spending any money on transgender persons' health care. We will have to see now what the next steps are -- Jake.

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

And joining me now is Navy Lieutenant Commander Blake Dremann. He joined the military in 2006 and transitioned in 2013 while on active duty. He is reported to be the first openly transgender service member to be promoted after the ban was lifted against transgender individuals serving openly.

Thanks so much for being here. We appreciate it.

LT. CMDR. BLAKE DREMANN, U.S. NAVY: Absolutely. Thanks.

TAPPER: So, what was your response when you saw or heard about the tweets from the president this morning?

DREMANN: I was definitely shocked and upset.

As a transgender service member, I'm doing my job and continuing to serve with honor and dignity. And this was definitely something that has taken me aback, at least for the foreseeable future.

TAPPER: Have you heard from your superiors? Are you worried about being separated from the military against your will?

DREMANN: I am absolutely worried about being separated.

I have already talked to my superiors, and they are just as shocked as I am. But they -- and they wanted me to know that they completely support me and support the work that I do as far as within the military, and that they will continue to do so until the military tells me it's time to hang up my boots.

TAPPER: So, one of the reasons. The President said that the reason was because people like you are disruptive. And the truth of the matter is that for people watching right now, you might be the first transgender individual that they've ever seen or heard from, and certainly the first transgender current military that they've ever heard from.


TAPPER: So what do you want them to know?

DREMANN: What I'd really like to know ---want them to know is that we were already been - we've already been serving for over a year. We've caused no disruption -

TAPPER: Openly since -

DREMANN: Openly since June of 2016. We've caused no disruptions, there's been no readiness issues. We continue to deploy. We are company commanders, special operators, drill sergeants who are continuing to do the mission, and there is nothing that has held us back with regards to moving forward on the policy. There's been no issue with the policy since it's been released. And as stated, this has - this has been a bit of a shock. The numbers are in our favor.

TAPPER: There are - there's talk that the reason the President might have done this could have something to do with wanting this to be an issue for Democratic members of Congress, especially in Rust Belt States, to have to defend, putting them in an awkward position. If it's true that this was being done for political reasons, what would you think?

DREMANN: If it's being done for political reasons, then that's not - that's not really my realm to delve into.

TAPPER: OK. The reason you're not wearing your uniform is because you can't wear it as an active duty service member talking about this, and you also been - you also have parameters of what you can speak to. DREMANN: Absolutely. I do.

TAPPER: A study directed by the Defense Department found that the military would spend less than a quarter percent on readiness and health care for transgender service members. The President disagrees, obviously. He also said in summarizing transgender service members are a disruption. Has the military ever had to make a special accommodation for you? Did the military pay for your surgery?

DREMANN: I prefer not to talk about my surgeries, but yes. We provide - we provide medical care for service members that need medical care, and that's the premise. Being transgender is a medical issue that can be treated and that's what we - that's what we've done. So no different than anybody that needs a knee surgery or a shoulder surgery or is pregnant, you know, if a medical issue comes up and you're already actively serving, we treat it and we go back to serving just like anybody else.

TAPPER: Before the election, President Trump - and since the election, I should say, President Trump has painted himself as a supporter of LGBTQ rights. There he is holding up a rainbow flag, LGBTQ, during the - during the campaign. And listen to this from the campaign.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Ask yourself who is really the friend of women at the LGBTQ community? Donald Trump with actions or Hillary Clinton with her words? I will tell you who the better friend is, and someday I believe that will be proven out big league.


TAPPER: Did you believe him when he said that he was going to be a friend to the LGBTQ community?

DREMANN: I trust that my Commander in Chief knows what he is supposed to be doing, and this definitely feels that he - yes, I'm uncomfortable - because as a member of the military, we support and defend the Constitution. And I will not criticize his words or his actions with regards to the military publicly. So I have to believe that he wants the best for the military, and this is just really bad advice that he's been given by people who don't trust Rand when they trust Rand for other studies that the military does. They don't -

TAPPER: The Rand Corporation said - had said there's very little disruption.

DREMANN: Very little disruption, and it has been. We've proven that over and over again as we've seen over the last year. There has been no major disruptions due to transgender service members. So to think that we are suddenly out of a job based on bad information is unkind.

TAPPER: Lastly, without getting specific about any specific politician, you volunteered to serve your country. You don't make a lot of money, you work very hard, and you serve your country. You've been in the military since 2006. What do you make of politicians who have not volunteered to serve their country, who have tried to avoid military service telling you that you can't?

[16:50:00] DREMANN: I think personnel decisions should really be left up to the Secretary and his staff. We're the ones out there doing the job. And that's what it is. We're already there. We're already serving. And it causes a bigger disruption to suddenly change personnel policies than it does for anything else. And just like with any big company, they've all run big companies at some point in time in their life, and you don't suddenly fire a third of your -you know, a portion of your workforce based on bad information. And I think that we need to focus on the mission and less on the social aspects of the military. The only thing that brings up these social aspects are people who can't move past it and focus on the mission. And that's what we need to be able to do. We need to be able to focus on the mission that the military is already doing and that transgender service members are already contributing to. To make this a wedge issue hurts the lethality and the readiness of the military overall.

TAPPER: Lieutenant Commander, thank you so much for your time and thank you for your service.

DREMANN: Absolutely. Thank you.

TAPPER: I appreciate it.

More than 100 people dead already and now the crisis in Venezuela could get a lot worst. CNN is on the ground in Caracas, next.


[16:55:00] TAPPER: We're back with our "WORLD LEAD." A short while ago, the White House announced brand new sanctions against Venezuela, targeting 13 current and former officials of that socialist regime currently in crisis. The new sanctions are primarily aimed to pressure Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to stop his attempts to rewrite the nation's constitution to give himself more power. This as the death toll in that country has surged to 103, as violence to anti- government protest have been erupting on the streets of Venezuela almost every day in the past four months. CNN's Leyla Santiago is on the ground in Caracas, Venezuela. And Leyla, the crisis there has entered something of a pivotal week as this two-day anit-Maduro strike began today.

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, and this strike has now turned deadly. We understand that one more person died in a clash today and that - so that brings the death toll to 104 people who have died since the political unrest began. But where you see the impact of these strikes, be it the stores closing, the roads being blocked, Jake, well, that really depends on what part of the city you find yourself in.


SANTIAGO: These young men, teenagers, children, are hiding their identity, not hiding their thoughts on Venezuela's government. This is all part of a 48-hour strike by those opposing the government. For them, it's about -

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Democracy and freedom.

SANTIAGO: Frustrated by food and medical shortages, this is what they feel is necessary to bring change. These makeshift road closures are really having an impact on traffic. Typically we would see a bit of a back and forth, not the case today. All we really see, the traffic on the sidewalks, people having to walk to the places they need to be. This is the east side of Caracas, different story in another part. This is the west side, dominated by government supporters, a place where talk on street corners doesn't support the opposition's strike. And yet even in pro-government territory - you may be able to find food but many can't afford to buy it. Even she admits things are tough for everyone right now, no matter what side of town you live on.


SANTIAGO: And something else that sort of stuck with me when it comes to these shortages, Jake, the amount of people digging through trash just to be able to eat, just to be able to find food. You go to the east side and there are people who are opening bags to find anything that is left behind to eat. You go to the west side, you'll see piles of trash, but those bags aren't as open and you won't see as many people digging through trash in the areas that tend to be pro- government territories.

TAPPER: All right, Leyla Santiago for us in Caracas, Venezuela. Thank you so much. Turning to our "NATIONAL LEAD" and another headline from the military tapped with a new study that finds soldiers have a higher risk of attempting suicide if another soldier in the same unit also attempted suicide. This is the largest study of its kind. Researchers looked at the medical records of more than 9500 soldiers in the U.S. army between 2004 and 2009. Obviously, that's during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The study found risk doubled in units with at least five suicide attempts in the past year versus units with none. Researchers admit they still have a lot to learn from the data. They cannot say for sure if serving during the wartime led to the higher numbers and if so, why. We should note, for any service members or veterans out there, there is lots of help out there for you if you need it. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide please call the veterans crisis line open to all service members and family. That number, 1- 800-273-8255, then press 1. 1-800-273-8255, press 1

We do have some positive news in our "HEALTH LEAD" today. Congressman Steve Scalise has been released from the hospital following six weeks of treatment. Of course, you remember the House Majority Whip was critically injured after a gunman opened fire on the Republican Party Baseball Team during their charity game practice on June 14th. The head of the trauma unit at the hospital said Scalise was in imminent risk of death at one point. He underwent several surgeries, but now the MedStar Washington Hospital Center where Scalice was treated says he's made "excellent progress in his recovery." Congressman Scalice will now begin rehabilitation and I know we're all wishing for the best for him. That's it for THE LEAD, I'm Jake Tapper, turning you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."