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Tensions With Iran Continue To Rise As The U.S. Prepares To Impose Renewed Sanctions; Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro Surviving An Apparent Assassination Attempt; Nearly A Dozen Children Have Been Found Held Captive And Malnourished Wearing Nothing But Rags; The Letter Q Is Front And Center At Multiple Trump Events. Aired 2-3p ET
Aired August 5, 2018 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[14:00:00] ZAKARIA: Thanks to all of you for being part of my program this week. I will see you next week.
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. Thank you so much for joining me. I'm Fredricka Whitfield in Washington, D.C.
It is the meeting that just won't go away. More than two years later, the story is still evolving on the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting. President Trump now taking a firm stance on the true purpose of the meeting, tweeting today, "This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics and it went nowhere."
That message very far from the initial statement from Donald Trump Jr. that we later learned was actually dictated by President Trump himself, saying this, "We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children." With no mention of dirt on Hillary Clinton. It wasn't until "The New York Times" was going to break the story that Trump Junior was promised damaging information on Clinton back in July of last year. That was "The New York Times" reporting.
At the time, Trump Junior and the Trump team started changing their tune, saying the promise of damaging information turned into mainly an adoption conversation.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSEL TO THE PRESIDENT: They get into the meeting, and it quickly turned into a pretext for Russian adoption, according to his statement. That the comments they're sort of making about any type of information on Hillary Clinton were vague, they were meaningless.
DONALD TRUMP JUNIOR, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S SON: But as you can see from the e-mails, the pretext of the meeting was, hey, we have information. And there was, you know, some small talk. I don't even remember what it was. It was sort of nonsensical and then garbled. Then it quickly went on to, you know, a story about Russian adoption and how we could possibly help.
SEAN SPICER, THEN WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There was nothing as far as we know that would lead anyone to believe that there was anything except for a discussion about adoption.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: All right. This change comes as sources tell CNN the president is concerned about his son becoming entangled in the Russia probe.
CNN's White House correspondent Boris Sanchez is in New Jersey for us near the president's golf resort, where he is staying for his working vacation. So we know this meeting is of interest to the Mueller team. What is the White House position on this latest Trump approach?
BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hey there, Fred. Yes, another denial from the Trump administration. The president responding to this reporting from CNN that indicates that he is not only worried and concerned for his son and his son-in-law and the legal implications of this Russia probe but that he's agitated enough to aggressively attack the special counsel. Several sources telling CNN that's part of the reason the president has become so aggressive toward Robert Mueller over the past several weeks.
The president this morning denying that reporting on Twitter. Here's a tweet that he sent out. He writes, quote, "Fake news reporting a complete fabrication that I am concerned about the meeting my wonderful son Donald had in Trump Tower. This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics, and it went nowhere. I did not know about it."
Of course, in that tweet there's no mention of adoption, which was the official story that we got from the White House when asked what the purpose of that meeting was. And when the White House legal team was pressed, they told us and the American that the president had no involvement in the crafting of that adoption story. A short while later through sources, we learn that the president actually dictated that statement put out by Donald Trump Jr.
Today it was one of his attorneys that led that denial, Jay Sekulow, acknowledged that he was wrong. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAY SEKULOW, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S ATTORNEY: I had bad information at that point. I made a mistake in my statement. I talked about that before. That happens when you have cases like this. As far as when did we correct it, the important part is the information that we've shared with the Office of Special Counsel, I'm not going to get into the details, but we were very clear as to the situation involving that trip and the statements that were made to "The New York Times."
So I think it's very important to point out that in a situation like this, you have, over time, facts develop. That's what investigations do. I agreed to go on your network and others days within being retained on this and had a lot of information to process. I got that one wrong.
(END VIDEO CLIP) SANCHEZ: Now despite calls from the president for this Russia investigation to end, every indication is that it will continue. And last week CNN reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is interested in hearing more from people that were in that Trump Tower meeting, including Emin Agalarov. He's that Russian pop singer whose father is a Russian oligarch with deep ties to Vladimir Putin. He helped facilitate that meeting. And what we're hearing from sources is that the special counsel has been involved in ongoing conversations for over a year to try to set up a meeting with that Russian pop star -- Fred.
[14:05:03] WHITFIELD: All right, Boris Sanchez. Thanks so much.
So what does all of this mean for the Russia investigation? Joining me right now, CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor Michael Zeldin, CNN political analyst and congressional reporter for "The Washington Post," Karoun Demerjian, and CNN political analyst and professor at Princeton University, Julian Zelizer.
All right. Good to see you all. All right. We just heard from Jay Sekulow there, one of Trump's attorneys, saying he misspoke in previous statements about this meeting. But he's also questioning now the meeting's overall legality. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEKULOW: Well, the question is how would it be illegal? I mean, the real question here is would a meeting of that nature constitute a violation, the meeting itself constitute a violation of the law? Let's be honest with the American people, there are irregularities in this investigation, the likes of which we have not seen.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: OK, so, Michael, you first. I mean, a few things there from Jay Sekulow. It almost sounds like he's kind of falling on the sword, also saying I made a mistake, I misspoke. But then to the issue of legality, he says a meeting of this nature, talking about of adoption, that's not legal or is he talking about just meeting, period, whether there's dirt or whether it's about adoption, it's not illegal?
MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Right. So a couple of things. First, isn't it refreshing to have Jay Sekulow instead of Rudy Giuliani? Nice change of face that was. But secondly, to your exact point, the meeting itself can be illegal or legal depending. So --
WHITFIELD: Depending on the content?
ZELDIN: Depending on the content.
ZELDIN: And the purpose. So under the Federal Election Law, if you knowingly and willfully endeavor to receive a donation or a thing of value from a foreign national, that can be a crime. So the facts here could reach that. Similarly, if you conspire with others to defraud the Federal Election Commission of their rights to run fair elections, that could be a crime. So to answer Jay's question, there are two crimes that on paper could fit the facts here. Whether a prosecutor would ever bring a case like that is another matter. But there are two crimes that Mueller will look at and make determinations, presumably about whether these meetings meet the standard of probable cause to believe that a crime was committed.
WHITFIELD: So, Karoun, there is the political message. There's the legal message. That kind of underscores the legal messaging coming from the White House. But why politically does Jay Sekulow or even President Trump think it's better to clean this up, you know, to try to help out Don Junior?
KAROUN DEMERJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Who better to clean this up at this stage?
DEMERJIAN: I mean, there's been several rounds of cleanup in various ways.
DEMERJIAN: There's been sometimes obfuscation. Right. Exactly. So at what point is it, you know, the final round of cleanup? That's not clear. But if things go poorly for Don Junior, that starts to get very close to the president. You start to see that the -- you know, the father-son relationship, it's a lot more difficult to assume, OK, well, there was no conversation casually there, anything the way that you could maybe say that for Trump and an employee.
And with the various sorts of legal problems that the president is having and the people around the president is having, this issue of credibility has really come up very often. Also, look, Don Junior is -- was a face for the president in his original campaign. We're now back in campaign mode again. You kind of want to have people trust the Trump name and all the Trumps that are associated with it, even if there's a mess going on because, you know, you can always blame people for not having been loyal enough, for not having given you the straight story.
But it helps them to try to also just, you know, push this to the side because it has kept coming up over and over again in the last year and change I think since the story broke. But ultimately speaking, I mean, this is a question of, you know, can you believe what the president is saying? The most recent version of events that the president is giving it seems like everybody is falling into line at least to say don't blame the president here but there's other people now talking about who knew what when. And this is really -- they haven't been able to clean this one up yet.
WHITFIELD: The president was involved in that statement to help protect Don Junior from the start so this is just another effort perhaps to help protect his son. DEMERJIAN: Indeed. I mean -- and like I was saying before, it's
important because, you know, you're talking about the inner Trump family at this point. And -- but the story has changed so dramatically so many times with so many euphemisms for --
DEMERJIAN: Even the adoption thing was code for sanctions, right. I mean, it's difficult to say, OK, well, from this point in history going forward, this will be what's the credible argument. And we'll trust --
WHITFIELD: So, Julian, this is about the president or the White House, the attorney, somebody trying to change the narrative, but in your view, who does this ultimately hurt?
JULIAN ZELIZER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, the situation is that the facts don't match what the president or his advisers said. So they were unable to suppress the facts. And once the facts are out, the president shifts to strategy two, which we've seen before.
[14:10:07] It's to convince you that the narrative is different. It's not what it looks like. It's not what they're saying, meaning the elites. And believe what the president says about the meeting rather than believing what anyone else has to say. So there are ways in which he can continue to do that and still retain the support of many Republicans and still raise doubts about the investigation, but we see in the last week or so, he is having trouble containing the different voices in this story. And this is what happens when an investigation intensifies.
WHITFIELD: So, Michael, this almost underscores, why does Mueller even really need to interview the president? Because the president is willingly coming out with whether it be new explanations, statements, you know, his comments are potentially helping the investigators in terms of getting info from him, right?
ZELDIN: Well, that's right. There's a different, though, between receiving information via tweet or other public distribution mechanisms and an interview. But it may be that on this question he does not need the president's testimony. We don't know what Mueller has. We don't know what Mueller still feels the need to fill in.
This is part of what I think is the ongoing negotiations between Trump's lawyers and Mueller to determine the parameters of this interview. And the interview is sort of important to close down some open threads, I think, that the president and Mueller still need to reach consensus on. So we'll see how it turns out.
WHITFIELD: Mueller's team ultimately needs it for its -- almost like, you know, its file, for the record so that they have a consistent account to present, whether it's to Congress or someone else.
ZELDIN: That's right. Mueller at end of his investigation has to file a confidential report with Rosenstein to say, these are the people I indicted, these are the people I didn't indict, these are the reasons why I didn't indict them. And so being able to complete that narrative, I think, is important from a legal perspective and perhaps from a political perspective as well so that we know what happened and that if the president did nothing wrong, he can and we can move forward from it.
If he did something wrong, we can know what that wrong was and what the, you know, sort of action that should be taken in respect of it. So I think that the interview is important, but its parameters still need to be negotiated.
WHITFIELD: Karoun, this speaks volumes, does it, perhaps that Jay Sekulow would comment the way in which he is. Well, we haven't heard from him, we've heard a lot from Rudy Giuliani, but then Jay Sekulow would come out and say, you know, the story is changing and it's I who erred.
DEMERJIAN: Yes. OK, first of all, it wouldn't make that much sense to have Rudy Giuliani be the spokesperson for this particular chapter because Sekulow was involved in it in a unique way, where he did go out there and say things that now he's having to explain.
WHITFIELD: But that isn't enough.
DEMERJIAN: That hasn't come through -- this is a delicate enough situation that you want to make sure you can keep the person who's going to go on television on the script because you don't need to create yet another chapter of this mess that you then have to clean up even more quickly and urgently and perhaps with more difficulty.
Yes, look, it's interesting. He's certainly taking this step and saying, I didn't I have complete information in a way of kind of protecting the president, his clients, and he's also kind of protecting himself from the changing story and saying, you know, no one lied here. I didn't know at the time because we didn't have a full readout, I was new.
WHITFIELD: That's pretty remarkable for an attorney to say --
DEMERJIAN: To say that.
WHITFIELD: -- I'm commenting without all of the facts, the information, and then to go back and say, I didn't have the whole story?
DEMERJIAN: Right. I mean, it is a weird thing for a lawyer to do, certainly, but we have seen a lot of weird things happen in the last year and a half, especially when it comes to, you know, stories changing as explanations are being given for episodes in this presidency-campaign that potentially have legal consequences because things were done not on the up and up.
But yes, I mean, I think it's interesting that he's saying what he's saying in a way of being like, everybody calm down, nothing to see here, but also interesting that he's separating himself from his client in a way by saying, like, I didn't have full information, not saying they didn't have full information.
ZELDIN: Right, but to -- in Sekulow's credit, things do evolve. It evolved in Whitewater. It involved in Watergate. Things evolve. And in this case, it evolved. And, you know, where it takes us next, we'll see because we still have to answer the question of when did the president know of this meeting? That's still a flat denial by the president. I did not know of this meeting before the fact. That still needs to be sorted.
WHITFIELD: And Julian, are these indicators that the president is worried?
ZELIZER: Yes, I think there's sufficient evidence from multiple news organizations at this point that the president is worried for himself. The president seems to be worried about his son. And you can just follow the intensity of his responses.
[14:15:03] I mean, part of it is political. And this is the message he loves, the witch hunt message. But part of it reflects a concern about what exactly Mueller has, what he's found, and where this will all go. President Trump loves having power, loves being president. And at some level, this has been an incredible obstacle, hindrance, source of opposition to him since the administration started.
And he realizes this won't be settled in a legal court. It will be settled in the halls of Congress. And that's why he wants to undercut Mueller. He wants to undercut the investigation so that when this comes out, people will doubt the veracity of the report and the person who did it rather than doubting him.
WHITFIELD: Julian Zelizer, Michael Zeldin, Karoun Demerjian, thanks so much to all of you. Appreciate it.
All right. It is a key test for the Trump administration before voters head to the polls in November. The special election in Ohio just two days away now. A Republican nominee in a traditionally Republican district should be a sure win, but that's not the case.
Is President Trump's popularity enough to get the nominee over this hurdle? We'll discuss next.
Plus, a shocking discovery in New Mexico during a search for a missing child. Authorities find nearly a dozen children in a filthy trailer wearing nothing but rags. No food or fresh water. A live report coming up.
[14:20:43] WHITFIELD: In a special election this Tuesday, Republicans in Ohio risk losing a seat in a district they've controlled for three decades. That's why President Trump made a special trip there for a rally last night.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We must elect more Republicans, and we must elect Troy Balderson. We have to elect Troy. So get your friends, get your neighbors, get your family, and get out and vote for Troy on Tuesday.