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Volcano Disaster in Hawaii; President Trump Pushes FBI Conspiracy Theory; Ex-Intel Chief Clapper: Russians Swayed Election for Trump. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired May 23, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: From a minor rumor to a full-blown conspiracy theory in just five days. That must be some kind of record.

THE LEAD starts now.

Quote: "We now call it spygate" -- unquote. President Trump pushing a counter narrative and conspiracy theory, attacking the FBI. Just how far is he willing to go to defend himself?

One of the president's targets today, former National Director General James Clapper. Clapper will join me for his response to the president's attacks and how exactly the FBI was involved in the 2016 campaign.

And a new danger for residents in Hawaii, molten lava creating highly explosive methane gas -- the latest on the eruption and new dangers ahead.

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

We begin with the politics lead today and President Trump pushing a brand-new conspiracy theory, one seemingly grounded more in suspicions and his desire for a counternarrative than it is based on established facts.

Tweeting, in one of his five tweets today on the subject of this confidential FBI source who spoke with at least three Trump campaign members in 2016 -- quote -- "Spygate could be one of the biggest political scandals in history."

And, this afternoon, the president went on to say this:


QUESTION: What proof do you have that your campaign was spied on?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: All you have to do is look at the basics and you will see. It looks like a very serious event.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: Well, we have looked at the basics.

What we know is this. The FBI, conducting a counterintelligence investigation in 2016 into whether Russians were trying to influence the election or just what they were up to, sent a confidential FBI source to speak with members of the Trump campaign.

U.S. officials tell CNN that that source was not planted within the campaign. He wasn't a campaign staffer, as far as we know. There is obviously a lot we don't know. But there is no evidence as of now that this was done for political purposes, as the president is alleging.

We're told that the FBI was trying to figure out just what the Russians were up to and whether they were getting help from any Americans.

Now, while we await the investigation into this matter by journalists and by the Justice Department inspector general, it is worth remembering that while we're sticking to the facts and telling you just what we know, President Trump apparently has no such constraints, since he simply makes stuff up.

He frequently lies and has a long and well-documented career engaging in conspiracy theories about all manner of subjects, with no concrete evidence ever provided.

Just a small sampling, for years, he perpetuated the myth that President Obama wasn't born in the United States. He's claimed with no evidence he saw thousands of Muslims on TV celebrating 9/11 on rooftops in New Jersey. No evidence of that.

He bizarrely suggested Senator Ted Cruz's father might have been involved in the assassination of JFK. Nope. Explained his popular vote loss by blaming three to five (sic) illegal votes. Again, zero evidence for this.

He pushed a conspiracy theory that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough was somehow involved in the tragic death of one of his staff members. Again, zero evidence. He said that former President Obama had his wires tapped in Trump Tower. No evidence of that either.

I could go on, but this is just an hour show.

We should get to the bottom of the FBI's counterintelligence investigation into Russian election interference and whether anything was done improperly by law enforcement, as well as those who are guilty of whatever they might be guilty of.

The FBI is certainly not above criticism and without question there needs to be a healthy and robust oversight of the intelligence agencies.

But that is not what the president is pushing for here. He is focused on propelling a counternarrative to try to undermine the special counsel investigation. It is a fable in which he is the victim and law enforcement officials are the bad guys.

The president frequently seeks to undermine those who look to uncover uncomfortable facts about him.

This week, for example, "60 Minutes" correspondent Lesley Stahl revealed that then candidate Donald Trump told her during an off- camera conversation she had with him in the summer of 2016 -- Stahl says she asked Donald Trump why he continues to attack the press. And, according to her, this was his response.


LESLEY STAHL, "60 MINUTES": He said: "You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so, when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you."


TAPPER: Chilling, really, and yet wholly unsurprising.

And the president is now doing the same thing with special counsel Robert Mueller and the Justice Department and the FBI.

And, as this new counternarrative is being born, one that is being repeated already by the president's obedient supporters on the Hill and his vassals in conservative media, we here will continue digging for the truth, despite this bombardment of falsehoods.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny now picks up our coverage on this issue from the White House.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump coining a new phrase for an old conspiracy theory.


TRUMP: We now calling it spygate. You're calling it spygate. A lot of bad things have happened.

ZELENY: It should be noted that virtually no one is using that term, except the president, who has turned a false rumor into a full-blown conspiracy in short order.

Leaving the White House today for a trip to New York, the president would not answer our questions about so-called spygate.

(on camera): Sir, how can you call this spygate? How can you call this spygate, sir?

(voice-over): When asked directly for proof that his campaign was spied on, he said this:

TRUMP: All you have to do is look at the basics and you will see. It looks like a very serious event. But we will find out. ZELENY: But the president isn't waiting to find out. He's sparking a

storm of self-generated outrage on Twitter, firing off these assertions and accusations today, saying: "Spygate could be one of the biggest political scandals in history," before resorting to his classic witch-hunt.

That of course is how he refers to special counsel Robert Mueller's probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

TRUMP: No, no, we're not undercutting. We're cleaning everything up. This was a terrible situation. What I'm doing is a service to this country. And I did a great service to this country by firing James Comey.

ZELENY: History will offer the final judgment. But firing Comey as FBI director led to the special counsel and the cloud of controversy hanging over the White House.

He's repeatedly said this week his campaign was spied on, when, in fact, U.S. officials say a confidential intelligence source approached several members of his team who had already been in contact with suspected Russian agents.

TRUMP: If you look at Clapper, he sort of admitted that they had spies in the campaign yesterday, inadvertently, but I hope it is not true, but it looks like it is.

ZELENY: But that is not what James Clapper, director of national intelligence in the Obama administration, said Tuesday on "The View."

JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: No, they were not. They were spying on -- a term I don't particularly like -- but on what the Russians were doing, trying to understand, were the Russians infiltrating, trying to gain access, trying to gain leverage and influence, which is what they do.

ZELENY: The president suggesting the Obama administration was behind it, a claim he softened today.

TRUMP: I don't want to get into it yet, but I will tell you after we look at -- after we look at the proof, would he know? I would certainly hope not.


ZELENY: Now, one question the president did not answer on the South Lawn earlier today was, does he have confidence in or does he plan to fire Rod Rosenstein?

Of course, that is the deputy attorney general who is overseeing the entire Russia investigation. But, Jake, just a couple of hours ago at an event on Long Island about MS-13, immigration event, Rod Rosenstein was sitting just a few feet from the president talking about other matters like immigration.

And the president said, "Nice job, Rod." But we still don't know if he has his confidence -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny at the White House for us.

Let's talk about it with my panel.

Jeffrey Toobin, let me bring you in.

Take a listen to the president's comments before departing the White House today.


TRUMP: What I want is, I want total transparency. This supersedes Republicans and Democrats. So, what I want from Rod, from the FBI, from everybody, we want transparency.


TAPPER: What is your reaction?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, remember what he's asking for.

He is asking for an investigation of the investigation of him and his campaign. There is a long tradition in this country that the White House stays out of the day-to-day investigative actions of the Justice Department and the FBI.

But that tradition is especially strong when those investigations involve the president himself. But what -- what the president and his allies are doing now is they are trying to investigate and disrupt Mueller's and the FBI's investigation.

And because the facts of this case are somewhat complicated, the fact that he gets to denounce the investigation without most people understanding what is even going on is a tremendous advantage for him.

TAPPER: Amanda Carpenter, one of the things I wonder about, if the erosion of norms is continuing, as we keep seeing, the president has long called for the Justice Department to investigate his political opponents and such.

Now he's calling for an investigation into the investigators. He's sharing information about this FBI confidential source with allies of his from Capitol Hill, no Democrats, just Republicans.

Don't Republicans on Capitol Hill understand that these norms are being eroded and that means that a Democratic president will then do them too?


I mean, listen, spygate is a movie we have all seen before. It is a repeat of birtherism. It's a repeat of the whole idea of the rigged election and voter fraud. It is a repeat of the unmasking scandal, which was kind of a dud, because it has all of the same elements. He's making things up and getting people to go along with it. But

this one is different, because Capitol Hill is going along with it, Republicans, and there is a cost. There has been an asset used that has been outed. There may be more.


They're having a meeting tomorrow where there is going to be more information given to Trump's allies on Capitol Hill. And if that information leaks, and more assets are damaged, they are now responsible for it.

And I think now there is a push on some to include Democrats in it, because they realized, if it's only Republicans there, they can't blame it on leaking for leaking, because they want that information to get out.

I think Trump is damaging the FBI, but now other people are helping him do it and using the levers of government. And that is what is different.

TAPPER: I want you to take a listen, Nina, to current Secretary of State, former CIA Director Mike Pompeo on Capitol Hill being asked about the so-called deep state, this unnamed group of -- the Borg of intelligence officials who conspire against heroes like Donald Trump.

Here is Mike Pompeo on the deep state.


MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I don't believe there is a deep state at the State Department.

REP. TED LIEU (D), CALIFORNIA: That is your experience also when you interact with colleagues at the FBI and the Department of Justice as well?

POMPEO: Yes. There are always exceptions to every rule. I have never led an organization that didn't have bad actors.

LIEU: But, in general, you're confident that the members of the various agencies are honoring their oaths to the United States Constitution?

POMPEO: Yes. Yes, in general, yes, sir.


TAPPER: That is an interesting way to respond.

NINA TURNER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: In general. He seemed very uncomfortable there, because he's seen as a man that talks about a movie.

He's seen this time and time again, that once you undercut the president or go against the narrative that he's put out there, you're chastised by the president for doing that, which is wrong.

The Republicans will have a big responsibility, and I know that Director Comey put out his tweet in saying to the Republicans, what are you going to tell your grandchildren, basically? It is your obligation at some point, especially moments like this, it's bigger than your party. It is really about America.

TAPPER: Yes. Let me read that quote and then get your response.


TAPPER: Here is how former FBI Director James Comey responded to the president's claims.

Quote: "Facts matter. The FBI's use of confidential human sources, the actual term, is tightly regulated and essential to protecting the country. Attacks on the FBI and lying about its work will do lasting damage to our . How will Republicans explain this to their grandchildren?"

What do you think?

CARPENTER: Well, that depends on who wins this fight.

And I want to go back maybe to the questions by Ted Lieu, because I don't think that is proper way to conduct oversight. The question is fine, but you're not gaining any ground in getting to the facts when you're saying, oh, do you believe in the president's conspiracy theory?

That is a wasteful question. Why aren't you asking him if the same thing happened today and you had knowledge that people, foreign nationals were trying to tamper potentially with a campaign, would you support an investigation?

Ask questions like that, that get to the heart of the matter, because there are so many things that the administration needs to be pinned down on, like, what is their position on the Magnitsky Act? Where are they actually at on sanctions? Move the ball there, rather than getting sucked into the president's conspiracy theories.

TAPPER: And, Jeff Toobin, the meeting that is taking place tomorrow with the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, his colleague Congressman Trey Gowdy, they will be briefed on this confidential source.

Democrats, despite their objection, are not being invited to this meeting. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted -- quote -- "Today, Nancy Pelosi and I will be sending a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Wray to request they reconsider holding a meeting at all, and if they do move forward, to do so in a bipartisan fashion with the Gang of Eight."

Normally, the way this is done, as the senator alludes to, is there are eight members of Congress, four from the House, four from the Senate, four Republicans, four Democrats, and they are the Gang of Eight. They are briefed on intelligence matters.

This is a real deviation from the norm to have just two Republican members of Congress.

TOOBIN: Well, this is a violation of so many norms of conduct both at the Justice Department and in terms of Congress.

The Justice Department does not, as a rule, turn over information about pending investigations, especially regarding confidential informants. But that norm is going away.

But when they do interact with Congress, traditionally, it is with bipartisan groups, Democrats and Republicans. Here, you have Trump's -- the president's representatives dealing exclusively with the president's party in Congress in an effort to discredit the FBI and the Justice Department.

It just doesn't happen. Hasn't happened previously, but we're in a different world now.

TAPPER: What world are we in, Nina?

TURNER: The Trump zone. Talk about the Twilight Zone. We really are in the Trump zone. Only thing is, there no one Rod behind there to tell us that this is artificial. This is real.

And to a point that Jeffrey was making about a violation of the norms, this is what President Trump specializes, in, a violation of the norms. He feeds off of a violation of the norms.

And that is why Congress cannot abdicate its responsibility, and particularly Republicans, because they hold the power. What does this say?

[16:15:01] How far will they let this go?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: There is a lost talk of whether we're in a constitutional crisis or not. Everyone agrees the norms are being destroyed. So, what is anybody going to do about it?

Republicans are not going to do anything. That's over.

TURNER: Obviously. Yes.

CARPENTER: The Democrats could do a lot more than write these letters saying, please let us go to the meeting. You have tools. When I was on the Hill working for Senator DeMint and Cruz, we used the tools to force votes, hold nominees, you have things that you could do and they're doing nothing. They're just wringing their hands, writing these letters.

Does anybody care? Does any going to fight for oversight? It appears no, Republican and Democrat alike.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right. Everyone, stick around. The president has called him the, quote, world's dumbest former

intelligence head. He's also called him a liar. What does Retired General James Clapper have to say about becoming the president's punch line?

Clapper will join me next. Stay with me.


TAPPER: Welcome back.

President Trump and his allies pushing a narrative that is completely unproven so far that the intelligence community under President Obama planted political spies to politically spy on his campaign.

[16:20:10] Intelligence officials, including the former director of national intelligence, retired General James Clapper, are purposely denying what he is suggesting.


JAMES CLAPPER, EX-DNI: They were spying on -- a term I don't particularly like, but on what the Russians were doing. Trying to understand were the Russians infiltrating and trying to gain access, trying to gain leverage and influence.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And so why doesn't he like that? He should be happy --

CLAPPER: Well, he should be.

TAPPER: That's General Clapper on "The View". President Trump firing back on Twitter. Quote: no, James Clapper, I am not happy. Spying on a campaign would be illegal and a scandal to boot.

He added, quote, even Clapper, world's dumbest former intelligence head who has the problem of lying a lot, used the word "spy" when describing illegal activities.

Let us take a second amidst this barrage of insults, personal attacks on the general, that General Clapper has served this country for nearly six decades first as a Marine, and then in the Air Force, rising to the rank of a three-star lieutenant general. He served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from '91 to '95. He was appointed director of national intelligence by President Obama in 2010, a post in which he oversaw 16 different agencies.

Joining me now is retired General James Clapper and he, coincidentally, is out with a new book titled "Facts and Fears: Hard Truths From A Life in Intelligence".

General Clapper, thanks for being here. I want to get your response to what president Trump had to say about you today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I mean, if you look at Clapper, he sort of admitted they had spies in the campaign yesterday, inadvertently. But I hope it is not true. But it looks like it is.


TAPPER: Did the intelligence community spy on President Trump and his campaign?

CLAPPER: We did not. And that is -- that is a distortion of what I said. In fact, I had an aversion to the use of the term and thought I made that clear. And the important thing is here, what was this all about?

Well, what it was about was trying to determine what the Russians were doing, were they trying to gain access, infiltrate political campaign. It didn't matter what the -- which campaign. And had nothing to do with spying on the campaign and it was about the Russians which is what we should all be concerned about, to include Trump.

TAPPER: And to be fair, whoever the confidential sources were and we know of one of them and I don't know if there were others, but they were trying to find out not just what the Russians were doing, but what any members of the Trump team might have been doing with the Russians too, right?

CLAPPER: Well, my understanding -- and again I should point out, Jake, that I did not know about this contemporaneously --

TAPPER: The FBI was doing this on its own.


TAPPER: They didn't tell you --

CLAPPER: Which is the standard procedure. I mean, I never knew the identity of informants in the FBI, nor should I. And so, I'm sure this was -- and there is very strict rules and protocols for using informants in any circumstance, and especially one like this.

And it appeared to me from what I read, now that unfortunately the individual has been exposed and some parts of the media, but this is a very benign thing that where he engaged directly with two or three people about -- and again trying to glean insight into what might the Russians be doing to gain access to the campaign.

TAPPER: Allies of the president including former campaign staffer Michael Caputo and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have been brutal attacking you. Take a listen.


MICHAEL CAPUTO, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN STAFFER: I'll tell you, when we finally find out the truth about this, Director Clapper and the rest of them are going to be wearing some orange suits. NEWT GINGRICH (R), FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER: I've known Jim Clapper for

years. I'm astounded how bad he looks now. I'm astounded how dishonest and incompetent he looks.

He was the director of national intelligence, what do you think he was in charge of doing? He was in charge of spying.


TAPPER: Your response?

CLAPPER: Well, I sure hope I get to go to the assisted living wing with an orange suit I guess. I don't know what they're talking about --

TAPPER: What do you make when they suggest you've committed a crime of some sort?

CLAPPER: Well, I take umbrage with that. I didn't commit a crime. I was trying to explain my understanding of what this informant was doing. And I wasn't spying on the campaign.

You know, I just -- I take -- I take exception to it. And I don't particularly want to dignify it by talking about it too much.

TAPPER: Caputo says that he told the Intelligence Committees, House and Senate, and Mueller's team that a second individual who worked for the U.S. government approached an intermediary, a friend of his, and offered up Hillary Clinton's missing e-mails. Were there other individuals poking and prodding members of the Trump team, trying to find out if they were getting mails or other information from the Russians?

[16:25:06] CLAPPER: Well, there could have been. You know, I don't know what this is about and I don't -- I should know what Mr. Caputo was referring to by -- I mean, the inference was there was another informant from some other part of federal government. I'm not aware of that.

TAPPER: You're not aware of any. When you said there could be, do you know of other --

CLAPPER: Never say never, but I'm not aware of -- I wasn't aware of the first one, and nor should I have been. You know, I didn't monitor informants in the FBI and -- or their identities or -- I just -- that's not something a DNI would do.

TAPPER: You have a book out just came out yesterday, doing quite well. In the book you write, quote, of course the Russian effort affected the out come of the election, surprising even themselves, they, the Russians, swung the election to a Trump win to conclude otherwise stretches logic and common sense and credulity to the breaking point.

Now, this is more you stated than when you were director of intelligence and you and your fellow intelligence officials put out that report -- you avoided making a conclusion one way or the other about whether or not it had an impact. You have learned more information or is this just you speaking as a private individual?

CLAPPER: Both. So, to be clear, we did not -- and that was deliberate, did not make any assessment or any call about what impact the meddling had on the actual outcome of the election. That wasn't in our charter authority or capability to do.

But that -- since I became a private citizen, knowing what I know of what the Russians did, the massive effort that they undertook and the variety of means that they used and the number of millions and millions of voters they got to, to me it stretches credulity as I said in the book and logic that to not think they didn't help swing the election, given the fact it turns 80 -- less than 80,000 votes in three states.

So, that's what I would call an informed opinion. I don't have the empirical evidence to go with it. But it is thinking about it and seeing and understanding better since I left the government that the full magnitude of what they did, in my mind and in my opinion, they did affect the election.

TAPPER: What do you make of President Trump last night and this morning put out this conspiracy theory that there were spies sent in there from the Obama administration to spy on his campaign politically, that this is a horrific crime that has been -- that occurred. He's the victim of it all.

As somebody who was director of national intelligence while this counterintelligence investigation into the Trump team was going on, how do you assess what he is saying?

CLAPPER: Well, I think he's deliberately spinning the narrative that whereby he's a victim of the deep state spying on him or spying on the campaign, which is -- which is not the case. What we're concerned about and what particularly the FBI but everybody else -- particularly the FBI was concerned about was the Russians, what they were doing to penetrate or influence the campaign.

And for me, they were simply doing their jobs. What we'd expect them to do.

TAPPER: Does it offend you when the president says these things?

CLAPPER: Yes, it does. It doesn't surprise me any longer. Yes, it's offensive.

TAPPER: General Clapper, good luck with your book. And thanks again for coming by. We appreciate it.

CLAPPER: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: A lot to digest. Our panel is back with the reaction to General Clapper. Stay with us.