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Russia Closing U.S. Consulate, Expelling U.S. Diplomats; Trump Goes Miles Off Message During "Infrastructure" Speech. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired March 29, 2018 - 16:30   ET


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: A bold act of retaliation by Russia today, now shutting down the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia, and giving 60 U.S. State Department employees working in Russia one week to get out.

[16:30:11] That is exactly the same number of Russians kicked out of the U.S. last week. This in response to the poisoning with a nerve agent of a former Russian spy on British soil.

General James Clapper joins me now. He's a CNN national security analyst and former director of national intelligence under President Obama.

General, thanks very much for taking the time.

So, we're in the midst of a tit-for-tat here between the two.


SCIUTTO: Does it go further than this, do you think?

CLAPPER: I don't think so. I think that's as far as they go. I couldn't help but think back on last December 29th, 2016 when we excelled 35 Russian spies and the Russians didn't do anything, which was interesting. Historical contrast.

SCIUTTO: Meaning that at the time, I mean, the implication at the time was that they got a signal from the Trump administration?

CLAPPER: Well, obviously, they did, yes. I was just thinking back on that.

SCIUTTO: Interesting point. We will keep that in mind. I understand you just returned from the U.K.


SCIUTTO: What was the British respond to this American step? Do they see a tougher Trump on Russia now?

CLAPPER: Did they see --

SCIUTTO: Do they see the Trump administration getting tougher? CLAPPER: Well, belatedly, I think they were -- and I say "they,"

these are former seniors in the U.K. intelligence services, and I think they are gratified we took this stand. I mean, they view us as their closest allies, I think the delay was a little disconcerting to them, but the fact we took pretty resolute action, expelled 60 was, went over very well there.

Whether that actually is enough to really change the behavior of the Russians, particularly with this aggressive information operation warfare campaign they are raging against us, no, but I think it was perfect response to a really egregious things the Russians did in the U.K.

SCIUTTO: All right. On the Russian investigation here, I'm sure you're aware the "New York Times" is reporting that Trump's lawyer floated the idea of pardons for both Michael Flynn, who's pled guilty to lying to the FBI, and Paul Manafort, former Trump campaign manager who faces a whole host of criminal charges. In your view, is that appropriate?

CLAPPER: Well, I'm not a lawyer. I don't think so. I don't know, again, from a legal standpoint the extent to which merely, if there was such conversations, to what extent that represents potential obstruction of justice. So, I wouldn't think it's appropriate. No.

SCIUTTO: And that is -- and we know the special counsel is looking at least at the possibility of obstruction of justice.

Also, on the investigation, e-mails obtained by CNN show the justice department if the president were to, imagine this, tweet a pardon out, which, you know, his own Justice Department was prepared for that very possibility, it concluded that it would really have no involvement in that.

Can you see a scenario where that would be legally viable? I mea, what amount to a presidential decision?

CLAPPER: Well, I think legally, the president can pardon just about anybody he wants to. So, that's certainly the case, you know, President Obama pardoned people, and there was not a lot of staffing done at the end of his administration. So, that's within the president's prerogative, and, yes, I wouldn't be surprised if he did it by a tweet, would be unusual, but that's characteristic.

SCIUTTO: Final question here. We learned from court documents filed this week by the special counsel that Rick Gates, Trump's former campaign deputy chairman, was working with a former Russian intelligence agent, someone that he knew was a former Russian intelligent agent, and told other witnesses in there, you and I have talked over the past several months about contacts between the Trump campaign.

Would that be -- I don't know if appropriate is the word, but what would it be right for someone working on a presidential campaign in the U.S. to speak to someone he knows as a former Russian intel agent? CLAPPER: Well, I read an article today that somebody characterized

this contact as the witch (ph), as in the witch hunt that the president has been claiming. I don't know, because just as some of the context we saw in the last administration, I don't know the content of the conversation. But, certainly, as an intelligence guy, it kind of raises my, you know, dash board warning light any time a Russian intelligence agent, whether past or present, they never really retire, by the way, is in contact with someone in the United States, and that kind of, you know, raises a yellow flag.

SCIUTTO: General James Clapper, thank you very much.

CLAPPER: Thanks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: In his first public appearance in five days, President Trump talked about Hillary Clinton, the "Roseanne" reboot, and Democrats, just to name a few topics.

[16:35:04] But there's one thing he say that may leave a key ally scratching its head. Stay with us.


SCIUTTO: We're back now with the politics lead this afternoon.

The president gave nearly an hour long rambling speech in Ohio. It was supposed to be focused on infrastructure, but off-script is an understatement. He attacked Hillary Clinton. He promised to protect the Second Amendment. He talked about withdrawing from Syria, and the TV show "Roseanne's" ratings. So, he also toyed with delaying a newly minted trade deal with U.S. ally South Korea.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It may hold it up until after a deal is made with North Korea. Does everybody understand that? Do you know why, right? You know why? Because it's a very strong card, and I want to make sure everyone is treated fairly.


[16:40:01] SCIUTTO: So help me out with that. Listen to that.

Is he saying he's considering a trade deal with North Korea, and he doesn't want to advantage long time U.S. ally South Korea, did I read that right?

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, USA TODAY: Yes. So, first of all, what would a trade deal with North Korea look like, given their -- the state of their economy? But also, here's South Korea, our ally of decades, who have been in harm's way standing against --

SCIUTTO: Miles from the threat, right?

PAGE: Yes. And, so, he said, don't you understand this? I would count me as one who does not quite understand -- SCIUTTO: Well, it's remarkable. I mean, to say it's a very strong

card, he's in effect holding that card over the head of South Korea.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: But it's -- yes, separate from the fact that South Korea's an ally. I mean, North Korea is one of the most evil regimes in the entire world. I mean, it's not -- it -- people live in concentration camps. They don't -- they live in prison camps, born in them and die in them.

And those are the people -- then you have people living outside that are equally as oppressed, even if they are technically, you know, at least they are not living in a prison camp, but this guy is a monster, and to have him talk that way, it's just, yes, count me confused as well.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: But not only that, but divorce in terms of the Vice President Pence took at the Olympics. You heard that amazing speech at the State of the Union when he reminded everyone that they sent home an American Otto Warmbier as a vegetable, scrambled his teeth and tortured him, and now we are treating North Korea and South Korea as if they are equal footing?


CARPENTER: Maybe that sounds like a fun trade deal, but it goes against what good you were doing in explaining the threat of this horrible regime.

SCIUTTO: No, no question. The other target of the president's ire of late is Amazon, the president just reigniting it with this tweet.

I have stated my concerns with Amazon long before the election. Unlike others, they pay little to no taxes to state and local governments. No longer really true. Use our postal service as their delivery boy, causing tremendous lost to the U.S. and are putting many of thousands of retailers out of business.

Is this Amazon, of course, owned by Jeff Bezos who happens to own a little newspaper in town called "The Washington Post". Is this about Amazon or is this about "Washington Post"?

PAGE: Well, he didn't mention "The Washington Post" in this particular -- or the Amazon "Washington Post" as he sometimes refers to it. But in previous tweets he has and we saw him first go after Amazon ion a serious way when he was really angry about some coverage of "The Washington Post" of him. So, it's hard to believe that is not a part of his motivation.

Also, by the way, the delivery boy, U.S. Postal Service; that is what the U.S. Postal Service is --

SCIUTTO: They do. It's the only time I see them the Postal Service in my house, right, is Amazon packages.

As we talk about these various questions and controversies, the president's numbers are improving. CNN's own polling, his approval rating going from I believe it's 35 percent to 42 percent in the last month, and crucial to 2018, the generic ballot, Democrats versus Republicans in the midterms. It's now at 50 percent of voters voting Democratic, 44 percent for Republicans. That's a six-point lead, it was 16 points just a month ago.

What do you see there, Amanda Carpenter?

CARPENTER: What I think it gets down to in terms of people looking at elections. If you are a Republican who is uncomfortable with Trump- style, but largely agree with him on substance, even if you detest his style, where do you have to go? There's no clear leaders emerging from the Democratic Party, candidates that are even trying to appeal to dissatisfied Republican voters. So --

SCIUTTO: Is that entire -- I mean, if you look, for instance, the candidate in western Pennsylvania, right, Democrats went with a fairly conservative --

CARPENTER: Yes, and that was a good fit. I guess I'm talking more nationally, it terms of like, oh, who would run in 2020? If you care about abortion, gun rights, taxes, I don't see any kind of national movement appealing there. If anything, the progressive movement is getting harder line, and that is going to divide people even further and send them into opposing corners.

SCIUTTO: Did you see a similar dynamic in the midterms?

POWERS: Well, I think it's not a national election. So, it's going to be based more on candidates, and they are actually -- the Democrats are recruiting candidates that are more like Conor Lamb who definitely fit the district that they are running in. So I think that that is what's really going to matter.

And I think, you know, I mean, Susan said this in the break, and I agree with it, Trump's been out of sight, out of mind, and I think that helps them, and, honestly, I think the Stormy Daniels thing, when you look at the polls, people don't really seem to care about it, and so, it's, you know, that's all media's been talking about.

SCIUTTO: Thanks very much to the panel as always.

Everybody, please stick around. We're going to be right back.


[16:45:00] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: The breaking news, just into CNN, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is not, for now, appointing a second special counsel to investigate complaints by Republicans that the Justice Department may have exhibited bias in its 2016 investigations into presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Sessions did name, however, an investigator who he says has been looking into those allegations. CNN Laura Jarrett joins me now for more. Laura, explain the decision here and what Session's plan going forward? LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Jim, this is likely the day that John Huber becomes a household name. He's a veteran federal prosecutor, the U.S. Attorney in Utah, he served under both President Trump and President Obama but he's likely now going to be thrust into the mix of a nasty partisan fight with Democrats saying all of these allegations of FBI and DOJ misuse -- misconduct rather is just a distraction from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe, but Republicans have said anything short of a special counsel just won't do and that Justice Department cannot investigate itself. Now, Sessions in explaining the reasoning behind the appointment of Huber, explains that he's a career federal prosecutor and will have the power to bring charges as Republicans have said that they want. Now, he also says that it's possible that a special counsel could be appointed down the line. In a letter to members on Capitol Hill, he says he's going to receive regular updates from Huber and upon the conclusion of the review, will receive his recommendations as to whether any matters not currently under investigation should be open and whether they merit the appointment of a Special Counsel, Jim. And he's got a lot on his plate. Remember, Republicans have called for a special counsel and everything from FISA abuse, for the monitoring of Carter Page, to the Clinton e-mail investigation. But the big question now, Jim, is whether this will satisfy Republicans on Capitol Hill, as well as the President.

[16:50:50] SCIUTTO: Laura Jarrett, thanks very much. My panel back with me now. You know, there's been a number of these allegations that Laura just focussed on there, you know, the Uranium One case, Hillary Clinton's involvement there, whether the FBI unduly surveilled Carter Page during the election, etcetera, a whole host here, no special counsel. Amanda, I have to imagine many Republicans are going to be satisfied.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, this takes a huge argument away from Trump that he is been leveling in order to distract from the Russia investigation. If I'm following Laura's reporting is that the special counsel will not be looking into alleged FISA abuse which many of Trump's ally say was misused, to illegally conduct surveillance on the campaign. That goes away now. And all the times that Donald Trump has gone on the campaign trail and said, you know, lock her up, Hillary Clinton, saying that she was not treated fairly because of these questionable donations to the Clinton Foundation that were allegedly done in exchange for mining rates for Uranium in behalf of Russia, that whole idea of Russian inclusion for the Clinton campaign goes away too. And so, you know, I hear this because I listen to a lot of conservative media, conservative talk radio. This is everything to them, you know, illegal surveillance to the campaign, and Hillary Clinton was treated with kids gloves by the FBI. Those two things go away now. There's going to be tremendous pressure by conservative media on Jeff Sessions now, and I, quite frankly, don't know how he's going to handle it.

SCIUTTO: Well, it's interesting. You know, before we get to the politics, it's significant, Susan Page, is it not, that a Justice Department run by the President's own appointee, he has signed a very credible lawyer here who looked into this, and concluded that there isn't a substance there for a special counsel to investigate these various claims.

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, USA TODAY: Jeff Sessions heroed the Democrats at the moment, who would have thought that. You know, Jeff Sessions was grilled about this in a recent appearance on Capitol Hill about wha0t was the standard for appointing a special counsel? And he basically refused to be pushed into saying a special counsel was necessary in this case because he said that bar hadn't met. It does not mean that these allegations are not being investigated, it means they are not investigated by a special counsel. Now, that is a significant in some ways because special counsels tend to have a lot of running room and take a lot of time. If you're worried about the Justice Department not being able to fairly investigate itself, they are more independent. But it doesn't mean that these issue goes away, I means that Jeff Sessions is saying they do not as of now rise to the level that was required for the appointment of a special counsel.

CARPENTER: Just a quick point in that. A lot of Republicans thought Jeff Sessions is going to be the way that they were going to get this. Conservative media people, voices like Sean Hannity were pressuring Jeff Sessions constantly to say why won't you look into this? Donald Trump get a hold of your administration, essentially, look into this because they wanted the political punch out of it.

SCIUTTO: Well, what about, Kirsten, the bizarre possibility that on the legal merits there's not a case for a special counsel here, right, because everything is -- this entire investigation is been so politicized, everybody see that through that lens, right?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I think that, look, this is -- I don't think this is what Donald Trump was expecting Jeff Sessions to do generally, not just in this case but I think he's turned out to be a different kind of Attorney General than what he was banking on, and maybe what a lot of people were banking on. I think people were expecting him to maybe be a little more partisan. So on the Uranium one issue, I mean, this is something that had just been pushed almost singlehandedly by Sean Hannity at Fox News and this is you know, something that's been looked at and I think is pretty obvious that there's nothing there, that this was a multiagency process. It wasn't just something that the state department did, let alone Hillary Clinton. And so I think that it's not surprising that they would reject that as you know, something needing a special counsel to look into.

CARPENTER: Just a note, there's a big profile in Time Magazine of Jeff Sessions --

SCIUTTO: Yes, we have a picture, in fact, that is --

CARPENTER: It's a beautiful -- it's an interesting picture, but if you read it, I think what comes through is his respect for the law. Jeff Sessions gets demonized a lot for his stance on immigration, drug enforcement, but I think even if you disagree with him on those issues, you can see with how he's conducted himself on attorney -- as Attorney General when it comes to these hard questions, that he is a man of integrity who does care about the rule of law.

SCIUTTO: And isn't that what you want from your Attorney General, respect for the law?

PAGE: Not if you're Donald Trump.

[16:55:00] SCIUTTO: Is that a crazy statement?

PAGE: I don't think that's what Donald Trump wants. I think Donald Trump wants somebody that's going to do what he wants him to do.

POWERS: And of course, we've seen turmoil in his cabinet, and so here's a question, does Jeff Sessions have a long tenure ahead of him as Attorney General and, did he think about that when he was making this big decision?

SCIUTTO: Well, you know, keep your eyes open for the Presidential tweet in reaction to this decision. Thanks very much to the panel on a number of issues. We're going to be right back with much more on this breaking news.


SCIUTTO: Be sure to follow the show on Facebook and Twitter @THELEADCNN. That's it for THE LEAD today, I'm Jim Sciutto, in for Jake Tapper. I turn you over now to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."