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National Security Adviser Facing Attacks from Bannon Allies; Trump: Critics Attack My Rhetoric Because It's Me; Trump Warns North Korea: U.S. Military Locked & Loaded; WH: Trump Was Sarcastic In Thanking Putin; Venezuelan President Maduro Wants To Meet With Trump; Venezuelans Trying To Leave Home In Search Of New Life. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired August 11, 2017 - 16:30   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST (voice-over): Lieutenant General McMaster, the national security advisor to the president, has been fending off an information and sometimes disinformation campaign against him by a warring faction vying for power under the same White House roof -- allies of the president's senior strategist Steve Bannon and those of his first fired national security advisor, General Michael Flynn.

[16:30:03] MICHAEL ALLEN, SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO THE PRESIDENT, 2005- 2009: It's really a fight for the soul of President Trump as he grapples with, should I be more of a traditional national security president or should I try in and be a foreign policy president in my campaign voice?

TAPPER: Bannon received a special waiver to continue to talk to his former employees at "Breitbart" News, where he served as chief executive in which he wants once described as a, quote, platform for the alt right. It's a Website that launched attack after attack against McMaster in a slew of recent articles.

Earlier this week, the Atlantic Council's digital forensic research lab noted many stories including others by fringe Websites and figures including Info Wars have been pushed on social media using the #fireMcMaster by a former "Breitbart" employee who now literally works for the Russian government as an employee of Sputnik News. #FireMcMaster has also been pushed by fringe conspiracy theorists with social media presences wh have occciaionally been granted access to the White House briefing room by the Trump team. Also pushing this propaganda, someone not particularly influential but extremely noteworthy. Michael Flynn Jr., the son and one time top aide of the man who used to have McMaster's job, General Michael Flynn.

The digital forensic research lab notes that the hashtags spread partly because of fake or automatic accounts, or bots. They say the campaign against McMaster began in earnest after McMaster ousted the fifth of five controversial officials of the NSC who had been brought in by Flynn. Why Rich Higgins, a strategic planning aide who worked on the Trump campaign, was fired by McMaster is subject to debate. Some sources say he and others exemplify McMaster's view that Flynn hired unqualified, substandard staffers. But there's also the matter of this memo, Higgins wrote, rife with conspiracy theories reminiscent of those in the fevered corners of the paranoid Internet.

JANA WINTER, CONTRIBUTOR, FOREIGN POLICY MAGAZINE: If you are on the McMaster side, you do not like this memo because you read it and you say, is he talking about me? Are you talking about someone in leadership who may disagree with the president? Am I that guy?

TAPPER: The memo obtained by purports to unravel a bizarre conspiracy theory about a coordinated effort between the establishment, the media, globalists, bankers, Islamists, Black Lives Matter, the ACLU, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the United Nations, cultural Marxists, and the so-called deep state or permanent government apparatus. All of whom, the memo claims, are banding together to delegitimize and destroy President Trump and prevent him from making America great again.

Quote, for this cabal, the memo states, Trump must be destroyed.

ALLEN: For me, it was really a declaration of war on some of the choices for personnel that the president has made. This memo's message essentially was, hey, those that are perhaps generals or those that had been in the process, that's not your brand, that's not who you are.

TAPPER: The memo also compares Trump to Abraham Lincoln, casting Trump's struggle as a battle between good and evil. Quote, in the same way President Lincoln was surrounded by political opposition both inside and outside of his wire, in both overt and covert forms, so too is President Trump, Higgins writes. Had Lincoln failed, so too would have the republic.

Though President Trump, it should be noted, defended McMaster just yesterday.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He's our friend. He's my friend, and he's a very talented man. I like him. And I respect him.

TAPPER: The evidence the campaign is having an effect. While McMaster is trying to give essential advice during this critical time, he's also forced to fend off attacks from the far right both from outside the White House and the memo makes pretty clear from inside as well.


TAPPER: CNN reached out to the National Security Council at the White House for comment. They said the memo was not an official NSC document.

Let's talk about all of this with the panel.

Bill, let me start with you. This Higgins memo is quite something, the idea that somebody in the National Security Council would write something like this is astounding.

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Yes. Well, General Flynn brought in a lot of true believers, who believe that not just some adjustment in foreign policy was necessary, but the whole bipartisan tradition of Bush, Clinton, Obama, Reagan, was -- had made horrible mistakes, so we needed this alt-right nationalists American first point of view. It was striking, watching the North Korea crisis though, I thought to myself, I don't know, who knows how it will play out and who knows what the real policy is behind Trump's rhetoric.

But I thought to myself, if this had happened six months ago, three weeks into the administration, Michael Flynn would be national security advisor, K.T. McFarland would be deputy national security adviser, Reince Priebus would be chief of staff, Steve Bannon at the National Security Council meetings. Remember, he was originally put on so to speak, on the National Security Council, and people like Mr. Higgins, perhaps, or Seb Gorka or others would be probably in the room to discuss policy.

Now, whatever you think of Trump's tweet and his occasional statement statements, John Kelly is the chief of staff.

[16:35:02] Obviously, H.R. McMaster is the national security adviser, no Bannon, no Gorka. I feel better about our chances of coming out of this pretty well with this new team, but it has led to this huge reaction. This is not the original group that the Trumpites thought they were going to get advising President Trump.

TAPPER: It's interesting. And Lieutenant General McMaster, he's got a lot on his plate and I don't imagine that it has a lot of time to devote to whatever he's fending off from Bannon directly and then also all of Bannon's allies and others attacking him --


TAPPER: -- but the very fact that President Trump gets asked about him, you know, do you still have confidence in H.R. McMaster says that this is now a thing that McMaster and the president have to deal with.

POWERS: It's definitely a thing. And I think that there are people, a lot of people who feel that he is not supportive enough of the president's goals, and that he needs to go. But the problem with the memo is that Donald Trump liked the memo, right? So, it's like we could say that while these are people that are gone now and, you know, we have this new leadership in. But the fact of the matter is, at least reportedly, the memo.

TAPPER: And then reported it.

POWERS: The memo got to the president, right. The president saw it, he liked it. He was told that to the person who wrote it and fired, and was very angry about it.

The memo is insane. I mean, it's truly insane. People should take time to read it to understand as the wording goes, people are still in the White House that believe the things that are is this memo. It even goes off into this sort of alt right stuff about how, what is -- the memo calls out people who call rights based on sex and ethnicity, basically equal rights. TAPPER: There's a whole thing about political correctness.

POWERS: Yes, they're taking their time to complain about the fact that, you know, people want equal rights, you know, people of color and women want equal rights. But it also this idea that there is this Marxist cabal. I mean, it's just -- it's just ridiculous. There are real people who believe I think correctly that Washington has a problem and that there are, you know, changes that need to happen, but this goes to a different place of Marxist cabal trying to undermine Donald Trump. It just doesn't exist.

TAPPER: And what's disturbing about it is it's not just these fringe players on Twitter, or on Facebook who are out there. These are people that, first of all, get retweeted by people in the administration or related to people in the administration, and they obviously, some of these fringe players obviously have White House sources who tell them things. This is part of the president's base that somebody in the White House is nurturing and taking care of.

KRISTOL: And probably, that will continue and H.R. McMaster and John Kelly have tough jobs. I'm told that when H.R. McMaster took over, he was really astonished to see the kind of people who are different levels, pretty serious levels of the National Security Council. He's obviously -- he was -- Donald Trump didn't even know him when he took the job. He got to wait some time to develop, you know, his rapport and credibility, and I think he's very pleased now to have John Kelly as chief of staff, presumably a stronger chief of staff.

But it's not over. I mean, we shouldn't get ourselves, I feel much better about the country with John Kelly and H.R. McMaster there, but Trump, of course, himself has an inclination to say the least, people in his family do, others who are close to him, Steve Bannon is still there. So, it's not as if the fight for the -- for what, I think I would regard as a reasonable policymaking process in the Trump presidency is resolved. And the other thing I would say is the chaos remains pretty chaotic.

I think Kelly is doing his best. He's been there just a couple of weeks but what I'm told, I talked to a couple of people this week who are pretty close to the whole situation, I mean, it remains a very haphazard system even though Kelly is doing his best to get it under control.

TAPPER: Well, the chaos is a feature, not a bug.

POWERS: Right.

TAPPER: I mean, that's part of the Trump system.

How long can General Kelly tolerate a situation where Steve Bannon and maybe they're doing it on their own without him telling them to do it -- who knows? But how long can he tolerate a situation where Steve Bannon's allies, the people that used to work for him at "Breitbart" are constantly attacking the national security advisor? Constantly sending out nasty tweets one step removed from the "Breitbart" people? How long can -- will he tolerate that nonsense? POWERS: Well, I mean, I guess that's up to him. I mean, I don't

think it's going to stop, right? And to a certain sense, Trump apparently believes in this kind of management which is to pit people against each other and to have this kind of chaos. And so, I don't -- unless the president wants it to stop, it's not going to stop.

And so, which General Kelly has to decide and I assume he considered this before he took the job, you know, whether or not he wants to work in an environment like this because it's not a secret that this is the environment and I think the question now is, will president want to keep McMaster around or does he want somebody who's going to be operating more like these other people?

KRISTOL: Well, and will he empower Kelly to actually get the normal authority of chief of staff? Seb Gorka, who is on the Flynn/Bannon side of this.

[16:40:03] TAPPER: Yes, former "Breitbart" editor.

KRISTOL: Right. All over TV this week, talking about the North Korea crisis.

He's a second tier White House aide. He's not part of the National Security Council. He hasn't been in the National Security Council meeting so far as one knows. He hasn't seen the documents, decision memos prepared for the president.

It is mind boggling as someone who served in the White House, the idea that I would, for example, I was the vice president's chief of staff, I was kind of similar level, second tier, higher second tier, would go to the TV and just pop off my views in the middle of a crisis? I would have been fired in ten seconds. Jim Baker and Dick Cheney would have been on the phone to Dan Quayle and I would have been walked out of the White House.

That's good test for Kelly. I mean, this -- we see the president today and he seemed to have maybe a policy and strategy on North Korea.


KRISTOL: Is Seb Gorka going to keep just chilling up on TV popping off for the next few days?

TAPPER: Stick around. Lots more to talk about.

I do think it's an open question the FBI is investigating interference in the U.S. election. Should the FBI also be investigating who is behind this campaign to go after McMaster? We know at least one person employed by "Sputnik News" which is owned by the Russian government who is doing it.

Stay with us. We're going to talk about President Trump's other war of words with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [16:45:00] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD, back now with my panel, Kirsten Powers and Bill Kristol. The President said these minutes ago. He'd been asked if his rhetoric was too inflammatory. Take a listen.


TRUMP: My critics are only saying that because it's me. If somebody else uttered the exact same words that I uttered, they'd say, what a great statement, what a wonderful statement. They're only doing it, but I will tell you, we have tens of millions of people in this country that are so happy with what I'm saying because they're saying, finally, we have a President that's sticking up for our nation and frankly, sticking up for our friends and our allies.


TAPPER: So, he's saying that the only reason people are criticizing him is because it's him and if any other president, let's say President Obama or President George W. Bush have said fire and fury or locked and loaded, that the criticism would not be there. It would be compliments. Thoughts?

POWERS: I don't think that's right. And I think that people look to the President for stability and for reassurance and those kind of comments are not reassuring to people. I think it's frightening to people. I think the fact you have Homeland Security reportedly warning people in Guam not to look you know, basically if there's an explosion, not to look at it because you could be blinded, I think those are scary things for people and it doesn't really matter who the president is who's saying that and that people expect the president to try to de-escalate. The fact is, a lot of these things are coming out on North Korea are things they say all the time. So you know, other presidents have not responded this way, whether it's President Obama or, you know, President Bush.

TAPPER: Yes. In fact, there's been a policy unofficial - unofficial policy since Eisenhower of not talking this way about nuclear weapons. I recall George W. Bush getting some criticism for his rhetoric when he talked about a crusade and he said, wanted dead or alive and I think even First Lady Laura Bush made fun of him for that one.

KRISTOL: And I think it would be typically (INAUDIBLE) walk back. I mean, look, I just hope honestly, at this point, I just hope as an American, that privately, the right, you know, we have good communications with our allies, they're not freaking out, that we have a sensible policy, that we actually know what we - what we really want to happen here. I assume we're communicating with the Russians and Chinese and probably back channels with the North Koreans. There's a huge question about the North Korean policy down the road which is, are we willing to tolerate them having militarized nuclear weapons that they can fit on an ICBM but just getting through this crisis, I just hope that Mattis and Tillerson and McMaster and Pompeo are dealing with their counterparts and probably, having to come pretty close which is embarrassing and difficult to telling them, you know, the President is going to say these things, Trump is Trump but here's the actual policy.

TAPPER: What do you think of the locked and loaded language? It actually doesn't mean anything militarily, it's like a line from a movie but what does it mean?

POWERS: Yes. Well, I mean, it doesn't seem to mean anything because I don't think that there's been any movement that we've - at least that's been reported that would suggest that the military is somehow mobilizing or doing anything different than they would normally do. You have someone on earlier talking about the fact that they're always on alert basically, you know, in South Korea. So, I think the United States is prepared, but no, it's - he's suggesting something has happened that hasn't happened and he is kind of - you're right, behaving like, you know, Arnold Schwarzenegger or something like that.

KRISTOL: And the problem is if we come through this crisis which I really hope we do -

TAPPER: We all do.

KRISTOL: Trump will take credit and say, see, I make them back down. It's not clear what backing down even means. I mean, they didn't fire the missiles, that they once said they might fire towards Guam, that's a victory for the U.S. that we stop North Korea from attacking part of the United States? I don't think that's a huge success in North Korean policy but look, I hope North Korea doesn't do that and I suppose Trump will take credit. I'd really would worry that it will then embolden him to think, well, this is great, I handled this crisis. This is the problem with Trump, right? I mean, you want it to come out well for the country but then he'll think, I handled that brilliantly and it's not going to be the Kelly and McMaster and Mattis that took a huge amount of work to make it happen but it's going to be that bluster paid off.

TAPPER: SO, Will Ripley in Beijing reported that Russia and China are now urging the United States to not go ahead with its joint military exercises with South Korea that had been previously planned. Russia is an interesting player in this and yesterday when the President was asked his response to the fact that Putin had ordered 755 U.S. diplomats and personnel to be exited from the embassy, this is what President Trump had to say.


TRUMP: I want to thank him because we try to cut down on payroll and as far as I'm concerned, I'm very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have this smaller payroll. There's no real reason for them to go back so I greatly appreciate the fact that they've been able to cut our payroll for the United States. It will save a lot of money.


[16:50:16] TAPPER: Sarah Huckabee Sanders said today that the President was being sarcastic which I think is probably credible but I think one of the-one of the questions is, again, why will President Trump never ever say anything negative about Vladimir Putin even when he is taking a definitionally anti-American position?

POWERS: Yes. That's the million dollar question, right? And I think that it's why people are you know, get upset and suspicious at these kinds of comments. I think you're right. I could see that that could be a sarcastic comment but there's always extra focus on Donald Trump when it comes to the Russia situation because he is so willing to criticize pretty much everybody and attack them in the most vicious terms possible and for some reason, will not with Putin.

KRISTOL: He will criticize people who work currently in the Trump, for Donald Trump as President in the State Department and conservatives have issues with the State Department and Trump has some issues and some this issues are legitimate. Really, when you're President of the United States, to publicly just mock and denigrate people, whether they're American national or Russian nationals (INAUDIBLE) those people are who were working in the U.S. Embassies and it's some a risk in Russia, it's not such a wonderful assignment, probably. They're not even - I mean, it's just - that's just sort of a lack of appreciation, what it means to be President in the United States in mocking people who were working in the State Department.

TAPPER: There was an Assistant Secretary of State who sent a tweet expressing camaraderie and sympathy for American diplomats and personnel which is not obviously what the President had done. Kirsten and Bill, thanks so much for joining us. I appreciate it. In just moments, President Trump is going to meet with U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to make more remarks afterward. We'll bring this to you as soon as they happen but first, the White House has put him in the same category as Syria's brutal Bashar al-Assad and now Venezuela's leader wants to talk to President Trump? That's next.


[16:55:00] TAPPER: Let's turn to another part of the world in our "WORLD LEAD." Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro wants to meet with President Trump despite the President calling Maduro a dictator and the U.S. imposing what they hope will be crippling sanctions on the socialist country. Maduro says he's instructed his foreign minister nonetheless to approach the U.S. about arranging a meeting with President Trump at next month's U.N. General Assembly. This as more Venezuelans are looking to flee the violence and dire food shortages in that country. CNN's Leyla Santiago reports for us now from Caracas.

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, we have Venezuelan government officials, what is next for the country? The response, peace. But as we talk to people on the streets, we actually found a lot of uncertainty. Many wondering, what's next for the country, its economy and its people?


SANTIAGO: There's so many reasons why these friends find it hard to let go. This could be the last time they see each other. Jorge and Carolina are leaving Venezuela. Uncertainty, she says, is why they're saying goodbye just like friends and family who have scattered across the globe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Venezuela, Chile, Roma and Peru.

SANTIAGO: So much has happened in Venezuela in just the last couple of weeks. A controversial election, an attempted revolt, opposition leaders detained and released and yet for most Venezuelans, little has changed in their daily lives. Tasks that should be simple remain a challenge. An employee managing the bread line announces he can only guarantee enough bread to sell up to here. A common occurrence in a country plagued with food shortages. Just down the line, Jennifer is not optimistic.

She says everyone is leaving. They can't find food or medicine.

I'm asking her where she would go? The United States.

Long lines are sort of a way of life here. These people have been waiting in line for hours today, waiting to process paperwork inside this building where you'll find the Spanish Embassy. They're looking for a way out.

17-year-old Andrea isn't looking forward to moving but she acknowledges it may be the only way to chase her dreams, the possibility of a successful career in Venezuela?

ANDREA ARRENCHAR, STUDENT: With this government, everyone can go.

SANTIAGO: The government has promised solutions for the economic crisis. Many supporters believe they're on that route. This man calls Venezuela the best country in the world, free and democratic. Jorge believes in Venezuela too. He and Carolina hope to come back one day but they're not willing to wait around to find out what is in Venezuela's immediate future.


SANTIAGO: Carolina and Jorge and the baby are now in Peru but many are actually looking to the United States. Venezuelans are now the top asylum seekers in the United States. Jake?

TAPPER: All right, Leyla Santiago reporting for us from Caracas, Venezuela. Thank you. Be sure to tune in this Sunday morning for "STATE OF THE UNION." My guest will be White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert, Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado and former Director of National Intelligence Retired General James Clapper. It all starts at 9:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. Eastern on Sunday. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER or you can tweet the show @THELEAD. That is it for this edition of THE LEAD, I'm Jake Tapper. I'm turning you over now to one Mr. Wolf Blitzer right next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM."