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CNN Back on the Ground in Syria; Smear Campaign Targets Trump's National Security Adviser; Trump Takes Vacation After Slamming Obama For It Often; Starr: Prosecutors Shouldn't Go On Fishing Expeditions; Sources: House GOP Intel Staff Tried To Meet With Trump Dossier Author; Shkreli Found Guilty Of Securities Fraud, Conspiracy; Survey: 1 in 6 American Kids Struggling With Hunger. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired August 4, 2017 - 16:30   ET


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: But one of the new ceasefires is now north of the town of Homs, which is just brokered yesterday. And what it does is frees up some of those Syrian army forces, also affiliate forces like, for instance, like Hezbollah that then go on to fight ISIS, where the Syrian government actually, we have to say, has been making some significant gains over the past couple of weeks.

[16:30:14] Of course, especially, also, with the help again of Russian air power, as well, Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And, Fred, what might this mean in the ongoing war against ISIS if Russia has an even bigger effort, a bigger role in battling the terrorist group and trying to drive them out from Syria?

PLEITGEN: Well, you know, it seems to us, though, it seems pretty clear as though between the U.S. and Russia, it is clear who is going to fight ISIS where in Syria. And that's something that's very important. So, you have the pro-U.S. forces which, of course, right now very much involved there in the Raqqa area and trying to get ISIS out of there.

But that terror group does have a lot of other territory in Syria, first and foremost, the town of Deir Ezzor, which is probably the most town still under its control here in Syria, and that's where the Syrian military is now concentrating its fire power and really trying to move forward there. They've done a lot of that in the past couple of weeks. It's taken considerable amount of losses as well, but it certainly seems as though the U.S. and Russia are pretty clear on where each side is going to operate.

Now, we're speaking today with some senior commanders from the Syrian military, and they said, first of all, they're fine with U.S. aviation flying in Syria, as long as they coordinate with the Russians and they also say they have now put more of a focus to try and defeat ISIS in those key areas. Of course, the big question is going to be, what happens once ISIS is gone and then these forces are there on the ground have to somehow come to terms with one another?

TAPPER: All right. Fred Pleitgen, reporting on the ground for us in Syria, thank you so much.

Also in the world lead, the U.S. is bringing home two soldiers killed this week in Afghanistan. Earlier today, Vice President Pence was at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware as the remains of Army Sergeant Jonathan Michael Hunter and Army specialist Christopher Harris arrived. The two soldiers were killed in a suicide bombing this past Wednesday in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Sergeant Hunter was just 22 years old. He was from Columbus, Indiana. His father who also served in the military told "The Chicago Tribune" that his son just got married last year and was excited about his first deployment.

Specialist Harris was 25 years from Jackson's Springs, North Carolina. He and his pregnant wife had just moved to North Carolina, ahead of the deployment. Both soldiers were stationed at Fort Bragg.

Now to the politics lead, to the president's national security adviser finds himself being attacked by loud voices among the president's base. Far right media outlets have ramped up attacks on Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster after he removed holdovers who'd been hired by his predecessor Michael Flynn from the National Security Council. Some fringe supporters of the president are now openly out to ruin the respected three-star lieutenant general's reputation.

Let's got to CNN's Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Barbara, is McMaster's job at the White House in any sort of jeopardy?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, we're getting the sense that for the general, at least for now, his job is safe.


STARR (voice-over): Even by Washington political standards, it's an extraordinarily nasty media campaign against a three-star general, combining smear and speculation about the future of H.R. McMaster as national security adviser.

A staffer who worked for George W. Bush's National Security Council says it's unconscionable.

MICHAEL ALLEN, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL OFFICIAL: I think there is an extraordinary amount of backstabbing going on.

STARR: It's almost open warfare between McMaster and Steve Bannon, the president's chief strategist, according to administration officials, all dating back to fired national security adviser Mike Flynn.

MICHAEL WARREN, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: There is this battle, and I think it does come down to a difference in opinion between McMaster and Bannon, and the view I think that McMaster sort of clearing out Mike Flynn, you know, the former national security adviser, Mike Flynnites, and that's a problem that Bannon allies see as sort of going directly to the heart of Trump's own agenda. STARR: CNN has reported that McMaster had been at odds with President

Trump on some national security issues, such as more troops for Afghanistan, and had been undercut by Bannon. But once retired General John Kelly arrived this week as chief of staff, he may have signaled his willingness to allow McMaster latitude to run the NSC. McMaster has fired five top NSC officials tied to Flynn, causing some fury.

Now, political media across the spectrum, especially on the right, including "Breitbart" formerly run by Bannon, are running stories within hours of each other suggesting that McMaster could be pushed out. And he's been under fire for taking the routine step of extending former NSC adviser Susan Rice's security clearance. Some conservatives accuse Rice of mishandling classified information involving Trump campaign associates.

And now, fringe right-wing personality Mike Cernovich is soliciting tips on the national security adviser on, using imagery of McMaster being controlled by a puppet in a cartoon the Anti-Defamation League calls anti-Semitic.

Whether McMaster stays on the job may depend on Kelly's influence on the president. One current administration official tells CNN Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis are pressing for West Wing stability.

ALLEN: I think General Kelly is going to protect H.R. McMaster, because I think this is part of what he's trying to do, and that's guarantee that we have a cohesive, crisp decision making process, and that's what the White House needs right now, because it's been a rough ride for the last six months.


STARR: So, inside the West Wing, General McMaster still may be the most stable voice for the job, but only if he can survive the political firestorm -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Barbara Starr, thank you so much.

What former independent counsel Ken Starr said this morning about the Mueller investigation that has some scratching their heads. That's next.

Plus, people feeling the void, bringing healthy meals to children in their community as some students on summer break are now left without access to food.

Stay with us.


[16:40:22] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Turning to our money lead now. Some good news in the labor market. The U.S. economy added 209,000 jobs last month, beating some analysts' expectations. Since February, President Trump's first full month in office, the economy has added more than a million jobs. The unemployment rate has also dipped under President Trump from 4.7 percent in February to 4.3 percent in July.

The president praised the news, tweeting, quote: Excellent jobs numbers just released, and I have only just begun. Many job stifling regulations continue to fall. Movement back to USA!

Let's dive right in with my panel.

Karoun, how much -- how much credit should President Trump get for this? I mean, we have unemployment numbers going up, jobs numbers going up, the stock market breaking records.

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, he's the sitting president and this is happening now. I mean, he's been in office for six months so he does get to claim some credit for it. Whether that means that everything else in his presidency is a sign that everything is going well, that's another question entirely because, of course, you know, jobs numbers do reflect what's going on in the economy. Things were on the upswing when he came into office.

He does get some credit for the continued upswing. But as we've seen, there are problems with his relationships on Capitol Hill, palace intrigue which keeps changing week to week. So, the job numbers don't quite give a thumbs-up for the entire story.

TAPPER: Interesting also, Michael, he doesn't give Congress any credit. Congress is gutting a lot of these regulations as well and a lot of these guys and gals are going to be on the ballot in November 2018. He does recently seem to be signaling in a way that they're going to be on their own.

MICHAEL SHEAR, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, right. I mean, there's not only the fact that he's not giving them credit, but he's giving them a really tough time. A lot of them for the health care vote that doesn't happen. You'd think that a Republican president would want to try to give some cover to his Republican members, especially. He doesn't seem to want to do that.

You know, presidents have often been very careful about taking too much credit for economic news, because they know it can turn around. And, you know, so they're wary of saying this is all me, because a year from now, a year and a half from now, if things are going the other direction, people are more inclined to point at you as well.

TAPPER: And let's talk about the first week of retired General John Kelly as chief of staff. You have a new piece in "The Times," Michael, suggesting he is bringing structure to the White House that they haven't had there before. Is it possible that it will be maintained?

SHEAR: I mean, that's really ultimately the big question is, will it last?

The two things that struck us when we looked at the first week and examined a little bit of John Kelly's background over the last six months in the cabinet were two things. One, the extent to which he was really frustrated for almost the entire six months that he served as head of homeland security, clashing with the White House repeatedly, over and over again on personnel issues, on procedural issues, really frustrated that the White House was so chaotic, inexperienced, and a lot of that kind of fell on his department and caused all sorts of problems.

And then the other thing that was striking was how quickly he moved to change that once he had the opportunity. You know, shutting the door to the Oval Office, telling people they couldn't linger out there and just sort of wandering whenever they wanted, cutting aides off in mid sentence if they weren't making a point that was relevant to what the president was talking about, and even imposing that on President Trump's children, Ivanka and Jared. So --

DEMIRJIAN: And heads have rolled also since he took over. I mean, we saw Scaramucci come and quickly go. Now, we've seen that the person who is the head of the intelligence division at the NSC who McMaster wanted to get rid of before when he came in, he's now gone. So, he's allowing changes to happen.

The question is, has he just been given a honeymoon period where the president is not interfering in any of those decisions? Because the base is still the base. The base will still get riled up. They still have a stronger ally perhaps in that White House inner circle that may run afoul with Kelly at some point. Who will the president side with if and when -- likely when that happens?

TAPPER: Steve Bannon you're referring.

DEMIRJIAN: Yes, exactly.

SHEAR: And we've seen this pattern before, right? Throughout the campaign and throughout the first part of the presidency, where, you know, the president is able to sort of pull back a little bit, he doesn't tweet so much, he sort of lets order be maintained for a brief period of time, and then something happens. Either something catches his eye on FOX News or in Breitbart or somebody says something about him, and sort of things fall apart.

And so, we'll see. That will be the test.

DEMIRJIAN: Or certain people start getting too much credit for things going well in the administration. We've seen Trump not liking to give away that piece of the limelight. I mean, General Kelly is not going to be somebody who seeks out the limelight, that's not his pattern, that's not his pedigree. But if somebody else does that happens to be in Kelly's good graces and Trump's bad graces, what happens then? Are there more shake-ups?

TAPPER: And one of the things also that's been reported out is Kelly's control of information that gets to Trump because these have been putting, you know, these things from the fever swamps of the far fringe right wing in front of the President and then he starts tweeting about them. I want to turn to the President's vacation. We play a game in the office. You might - you guys probably play the same game in your offices, Is There a Tweet for It?

And you know, he's obviously spent years criticizing president Obama for taking vacations, playing golf. Here's a couple of what we found. Barack Obama played golf yesterday, now he heads to a 10-day vacation in Martha's Vineyard. Nice work ethic. And then here's another one. Why is Barack Obama always campaigning or on vacation? Obviously last night, the President was pretty much campaigning and now he's on vacation.

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, THE WASHINGTON POST CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: I think I saw some breakdown but as of - if this pace continues, then at the end of next month - or sorry, this month, it's August already. He'll has been - have three times as many leisure hours or something as Barack Obama did. I mean, it's uncanny how often you can find these past tweets where he's criticizing something he does seem to be doing, but the question is does it matter? If it's just fun for us to kind of compare the tweets from two years ago with the actions of today, OK, great, but his constituent or his base doesn't care.

MICHAEL SHEAR, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, and look, I think - this is one of those very cases where I think the substance on the substance of the fact that he's taking vacations. We - I mean, you know spent eight years covering Obama. Obama went on long vacations to Martha's Vineyard, to Hawaii. I think to criticize the President for taking the vacations is a little rich. I think though there is no sheepishness in this man, right? Like, the idea that he doesn't have - doesn't even begin to acknowledge the irony of his past statements, then, you know, you would think maybe you would want to sort of be a little self-deprecating or something like that and that's not - that's not in him, that's not in Presidents -

TAPPER: Speaking of past statements - speaking of past statements, I want you to listen to Ken Starr, former Independent Counsel during the Lewinsky investigation on "NEW DAY" this morning.


KEN STARR, FORMER INDEPENDENT PROSECUTOR: I do not think that it is clear on way or the other but I do think it is a certainly serious matter when a Special Counsel is accused, and I was accused of that, of exceeding his or her authority. That's a serious matter because we do not want investigators and prosecutors out on a fishing expedition.


TAPPER: We don't want investigator and prosecutors out on a fishing expedition. Talking about Bob Mueller looking into the finances of President Trump, family, associates and President Trump's businesses, obviously a lot of Democrats accused Ken Starr of the same thing. You look like you're too young to remember this, but as you remember, and Michael, you don't, and neither do I, he was - it was - it was Whitewater and ended up being about Lewinsky.

SHEAR: Right. I mean, that is-that is -- I mean, the irony of that just drips. I mean, that you know, the fact is that Ken Starr, as the Independent Counsel back then, vigorously defended his right to go where the facts took him and if he found irregularities or improprieties or illegalities, no matter far field from his original charge, he went there. And so, the idea that he sort of criticizing a fishing expedition is ridiculous.

DEMIRJIAN: And it's was really - I mean, it's not a surprise getting to finances. The Congressional Committee have been talking about finances for a very long time. I'm sure we've heard that mentioned before that this would be part of the scope and he's not limited. He's not prevented from looking at somebody's bank accounts or transactions that they may have had when you know, there's an argument right now about a meeting with the head of the Russian (INAUDIBLE) bank that does foreign investment and Kushner during that transition period. You don't -

TAPPER: Certainly relevant.

DEMIRJIAN: Right. You could - they did argue that it's about Syria, but that's the guy that controls the Russian and that's the money that goes to - overseas. So I mean, it seems like it - an obvious question where it might be malpractice not to ask those questions.

TAPPER: Indeed. Karoun and Michael thanks so much and I hope you guys take vacations too, I will not make fun of it, I promise. The school is out, which means some students right here in the United States don't know where they're going to be getting their next meal. We'll talk to one of the people in one city trying to change that. Stay with us.


[16:50:00] TAPPER: Welcome back. Breaking news in our "WORLD LEAD." We are learning that Republican House Intelligence Committee Staffers went to London to try to speak with former British Intelligence Officer Christopher Steele. You might remember Steele had compiled a dossier of as-yet uncorroborated allegations of ties between Donald Trump's campaign and Russian officials and operatives. Joining me now is CNN's Shimon Prokupecz. Shimon, remind us about this dossier, what is it and why does it matters?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN PRODUCER: Well, Jake, this is a document that has a serious of salacious accusations about Mr. Trump before he became President, and former Director James Comey said in testimony that he told President Trump privately about its existence. Now CNN has learned Republican Staff Members of the House Intelligence Committee traveled to London to try to speak with the former British Intelligence Agent Christopher Steele early this summer according to a source familiar with the matter. The source says the Congressional Staff Members did not ultimately meet with Steele while in London.

TAPPER: And what do we know about how Steele became involved in all of this?

PROKUPECZ: Well, Jake, he was hired by a research firm here in Washington, D.C. and helped compile a dossier of allegations of alleged ties, Russian ties to Donald Trump's campaign. A Congressional source confirms that Democratic Staffers on the Committee were kept in the dark about the Republican Staffers' trip to London.

TAPPER: Shimon Prokupecz, thank you so much.

In our "MONEY LEAD" now, the infamous so-called Pharma Bro is now a convict. A short while ago, a Federal Jury in Brooklyn found Martin Shkreli guilty on two counts of securities fraud and a single count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud. Prosecutors argued Shkreli duped investors into putting millions of dollars into the hedge funds he launched. Shkreli was accused of lying to his investors about how the funds were doing at the investment firms and illegally using money from a pharmaceutical company where he was CEO to repay the defrauded investors and cover his personal loans. Shkreli drew national scorn two years ago when, as the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, he unapologetically raised the price of an AIDS drug from $13.50 per pill to $750.00 per pill. That controversial episode is officially unrelated to this fraud case. after the verdict, Shkreli called his prosecution "a witch hunt of epic proportions." He faces as many as 20 years in prison.

[16:55:39] In our "BURIED LEAD," that's what we call stories we don't think are getting enough attention. This summer while you're enjoying hotdogs or barbeque with your family and friends, imagine what it would be like not to know where your next meal might come from. According to the non-profit organization No Kid Hungry, 13 million children in the United States of America, one of the wealthiest nations in the world, struggle with hunger. That's nearly one in six kids either without access to healthy meals or sometimes without anything to eat at all, especially during summer months when school is out for those who rely on free or subsidized school meals. But this summer Chicago, we at THE LEAD, we met some special people who are trying to do something about this.




TAPPER: Hungry. Super hungry. In the Brighton Park neighborhood of Chicago, this was a common answer to a question, how do you feel when you see this green truck?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I've never seen something super, super healthy in my life, so all the time when the truck comes, I run to get a meal.

TAPPER: For many struggling families across the United States, mobile meal sites such as this one are the best part of summer. Inside a free food pack for kids under 18, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and one less expense for parents who are already trying to make ends meet.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't have to worry about having nothing to eat while they're out of school so it's a good replacement.

TAPPER: During the academic year, public schools provide free or reduced price breakfast and lunch to millions of low-income children nationwide but when classes let out for some, the meals also stop and six out of seven of those same children are at risk of going hungry.

LUCY MELCHER, NO KID HUNGRY CAMPAIGN DIRECTOR OF ADVOCACY: Hunger exists everywhere. It exists in middle class, suburban communities, it exists in our rural areas, so there really is no definition of what a hungry child looks like.

TAPPER: Lucy Melcher works for No Kid Hungry, a national organization aimed at ensuring all children get the nutrition they need year round.

MELCHER: The only way we're going to end our summer hunger crisis is by communities coming together and coming up innovative solutions that reach kids where they are.

TAPPER: Last year, the organization says, more than 47,000 sites served 177 million meals. This year the organization is teaming up with local parents to raise awareness about meal sites in their neighborhoods. Brighton Park is a community of mostly Hispanic families with an average income of $36,000 a year, according to the U.S. census. These moms are armed with t-shirts, flyers, maps, and most importantly, familiarity.

ANGELICA ROSALES, FOOD AMBASSADOR: I have three kids of my own, and just to see other kids who could eat healthy and other parents like I am that, you know, that they could benefit from this, and - it's just - it's just an inspiring thing to me.

TAPPER: Team Leader Yanny Duran says it was a program similar to this one that helped her introduce more nutritious food to her own son.

YENNY DURAN, FOOD AMBASSADOR: I help us and It also introduced my son to vegetables and fruits.

TAPPER: Now she and her teammates receive grant money to help spread the word.

MELCHER: They know these communities and they know these families and they know exactly how to make sure that parents are getting the information that they need for their kids.

TAPPER: Back at the food sites, dozens of meals of salads, tuna, and milk are being devoured by children who can just enjoy being a kid this summer without having to focus on hunger pains. Worries about the next meal are eased knowing the truck will return tomorrow.


TAPPER: You can visit to learn more about the program fighting child hunger or to make a contribution. Be sure to tune in tonight to our CNN Special Report "FATAL ATTRACTION OR FATAL MISTAKE?" The Carolyn Warmus story. CNN's Kyra Phillips talk with convicted killer Carolyn Warmus about the new questions in her case. That all airs at 10:00 p.m. Eastern this evening. Be sure to tune in this Sunday to "STATES OF THE UNION" I'm going to talk exclusively to the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff as well as New Jersey Governor and President Trump Confidant Chris Christie. That all starts at 9:00 a.m. and noon Eastern. Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER or you can tweet the show @THELEADCNN. We actually read them. That's it for THE LEAD, I'm Jake Tapper. Have a great weekend. I'm going to turn you over to Wolf Blitzer next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM."