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Microsoft: Russians Targeted Senate & Conservative Groups; Sources: Trump Unsettled by McGahn Interview with Mueller; Manafort Jury Sends Another Note to Judge; Trump Leery of Mueller Perjury Trap. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired August 21, 2018 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:01] ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Erica Hill, in for Kate Bolduan.

New Russian cyberattacks on the U.S. just weeks ahead of the midterm elections. Hackers tied to Russian military intelligence set up fake Web sites to target the U.S. Senate and conservative think tanks. Who discovered this? Microsoft. Not U.S. intelligence agencies. In fact, the tech giant, which said it did foil the attack, warned candidates and other political groups would have been at risk.

All of this coming as President Trump once again doubts Russia was responsible for interference in the presidential election. We learn that in a new interview with Reuters when the president questioned the conclusion of his Intelligence Community saying, quote, "If it was Russia," which may sound familiar because it's similar to what President Trump said standing next to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

CNN's Alex Marquardt is in Washington with the very latest.

Alex, of course, 77 days away from the midterm elections. What more do we know about these Web sites that were found by Microsoft?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Erica, it seems that Microsoft found these in the very early stages before Russia was able to do too much damage. It does show how active and aggressive Russia still is.

What happened is this Russian hacking group, Fancy Bear, connected to the Soviet military intelligence -- we know that name because they hacked into the DNC in 2016. They were indicted by the special counsel's office. They appear to have set up six fraudulent, bogus Web sites in order to carry out what is known as a spear-fishing campaign, which tries to lure people into revealing sensitive data like their passwords for their e-mail addresses.

What Microsoft has said is that the Russians are now broadening their campaign. The reason they say broadening is because it now appears to be encapsulating conservatives and Republicans as well.

If you look at the names of these Web sites that were set up by Fancy Bear, one appears to be -- they want to link it to the conservative Hudson Institute, the other one to the International Republican Institute. These are two conservative think tanks and two think tanks that have been critical of President Vladimir Putin and the Russians and have been in support of sanctions. There you see on the screen some of the board members of IRI, some of the most vocal and aggressive opponents of Russia and President Vladimir Putin, including Senator Marco Rubio, Senator John McCain, Mitt Romney, former national security advisor, H.R. McMaster.

Then when you look at the other sites that Fancy Bear set up, three of the names included the word Senate, which meant -- which appears to mean that they were trying to go after certain Senators, certain Senate offices. It's not clear, because Microsoft did intervene in what looks like an early stage, which Senators they might have gone after. We do know last month, we heard that Senator McCaskill, of Missouri, one of the most vulnerable Democrats, was targeted also by Russian military intelligence.

We have not heard from the White House yet today. We have heard from the Kremlin. Of course, Erica, you can imagine they did come out denying any knowledge of this hacking group, of the hackers. It's a pretty remarkable statement. Let me read it. It says, "From the U.S. we hear there was not any meddling in the elections. Whom exactly they are talking about, what is the proof and on what grounds are they reaching such conclusions?"

Think about that. They are saying from the U.S. we hear that there was not meddling in the elections. Every level of the U.S. government, intelligence and political, is saying that there was meddling by the Russians. The only person giving a convoluted answer to that question is the president. And he did so yesterday -- Erica?

HILL: That he did. We'll continue to dive deeper into that.

Alex Marquardt, appreciate it. Thank you.

With us now, Graham Brookie, the director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab, which is working with Facebook on the threat of interference in the midterm elections. Brookie was also a top aide to President Obama on cybersecurity.

I want to pick up right where Alex left off there. We look at this response from Russia, and to have it clearly say, from the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, from the U.S. we hear there was not any meddling in the elections. Is that something they are getting from President Trump? Where else could that come from?

GRAHAM BROOKIE, DIRECTOR, DIGITAL FORENSIC RESEARCH LAB: That's straight from the mouth of President Trump. But I think there's a discrepancy between what we hear from President Trump and what we see from the entire U.S. Intelligence Community. Whether that's director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, on through the entire community, which says that interference in U.S. elections, interference in basically anything that undermines Vladimir Putin is on the uptick and a trend we're continuing to see.

[11:05:02] HILL: How significant are these discoveries by Microsoft? These Web sites -- Alex laid out what was done. Put it in perspective for us in terms of the uptick of Microsoft discovered. BROOKIE: I think one important point here is that this is not new

activity. In fact, the actors that Microsoft discussed in their blog post from today are actors that were -- that we saw in 2016. As the gentleman before me said, the actors known as Fancy Bear are directly linked to Russian military intelligence. What is unique is we see an uptick around elections. We're seeing an uptick on entities that are not necessarily focused on U.S. elections, but focused on perhaps critical viewpoints of Vladimir Putin who are up for election or who will also be engaging in U.S. elections.

HILL: They are focused on what is best, obviously for Vladimir Putin.

National security adviser, John Bolton, suggested a couple of days ago that Russia isn't the only threat here. Talk a listen.


JOHN BOLTON, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: I can say definitely it's a sufficient national security concern about Chinese meddling, Iranian meddling and North Korean meddling that we are taking steps to try and prevent it. It's all four of those countries really.


HILL: All four of those countries. But are they on the same par, the other three, with Russia?

BROOKIE: What we can we say with a high degree of confidence is that Russia is the most aggressive actor in trying to interfere in the United States' political discourse. We would expect other nation states to mount influence operations. But it's abundantly clear that Russia is the most aggressive and most blatant actor.

HILL: We know intel agencies are focused on the threat. We hear about it being an ongoing threat repeatedly. Is there enough though in terms of a coordinated effort that we can look at this as being on the offensive at this point?

BROOKIE: I think that the response needs to be not only robust and include the entire national security apparatus from across the agency, whether it's our diplomatic tools, military tools, intelligence tools, but this is a truly collective challenge. We're going to need collective action from not only the United States government but tech companies and media. Frankly, this is something that all of those entities are vulnerable to and need to be aware of.

HILL: We will continue to follow it.

Graham, appreciate your insight today. Thank you.

BROOKIE: Thank you for having me.

HILL: Sources telling CNN that President Trump is feeling unsettled that he didn't know everything that happened when White House Counsel Don McGahn, everything he said to Special Counsel Robert Mueller about the Russia investigation. Trump tweeting he allowed McGahn to testify and didn't seem concerned. Those same sources tell CNN the president did not know the conversations lasted 30 hours. Nor that his legal team did not fully debrief McGahn afterwards.

CNN's Ryan Nobles is at the White House.

How is this playing in terms of tension within the White House and Don McGahn?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It can't be easy, Erica. Keep in mind that Don McGahn serves as White House counsel. He is here at work on a regular basis, still has to deal with the president as well. I think the interesting thread in all of this is that McGahn seems trying to make sure everyone understands that he views the role of the White House counsel as being someone who protects the presidency and is the legal voice for the presidency as the office, not for Donald Trump the person. That's where the divide seems to be right now between the president, his legal team and Don McGahn. What the "New York Times" article clearly states is that when Don McGahn was told by the president's private lawyers he should go and take part in these interviews and they were not going to be holding up attorney/client privilege, that McGahn became concerned that perhaps he was being set up, that this was something that could be used to make him the fall guy if the special counsel determined there was obstruction of justice.

The president and his legal team have gone out of their way to say this was all part of their plan, they were trying to be as transparent as possible. What we're finding after this "New York Times" report came out is that they did not know the full breadth of what Don McGahn talked to with the special counsel. Erica, there are few people that know exactly what's going on here in the White House over the past year and a half than Don McGahn. That appears to be what has the president and his legal team concerned.

HILL: Ryan Nobles with the latest. Ryan, thank you.

Just ahead, can the president actually take over the Mueller investigation? In a new interview, President Trump says, yes. But is that really the case?

[11:09:55] Plus, the president takes aim at another former intel official who dared to criticize him, CNN's own Phil Mudd. President Trump now threatening to take away Mudd's security clearance. We will look at what sparked the new threat, next.


HILL: We are following breaking news. There's been some activity at the courthouse where the jury is in its fourth day of deliberations for Paul Manafort's trial on bank and tax fraud charges. We are learning a note has been sent.

Jessica Schneider is live outside the courthouse with the latest for us -- Jessica?

[11:14:44] JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Erica, the suspense builds here. There has been another note from the jury. This is the third note that we have seen throughout these deliberations. This is day four of deliberations. We understand now that the defense team, the prosecution and the jury, they are all in Judge Ellis's courtroom. At this point, we will find out a little bit more what this note says.

The previous notes we have seen, most of them have related to when jurors want to adjourn for the day. Given the fact this is about 11:15 in the morning, they have only been at it for less than two hours, that seems quite improbable. It's likely that this note may seek some further instruction from the judge.

As the defense team was walking in, Paul Manafort's lawyer, Kevin Downing, was asked, do you think this is a verdict? Kevin Downing said, no, this is just a note. Their understanding is that this is likely just some -- the jury just seeking clarification from the judge.

Remember, Erica, we saw one such note on the first day of deliberations. The jury in that instance asked four questions. They asked for some specifics about the tax filings, the foreign bank accounts. They also asked the judge, can you clarify for us what reasonable doubt means. That was the one question that this judge answered. He basically said, reasonable doubt. The prosecutors have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. It's more than just possible doubt. It's not beyond all reasonable doubt here.

Wondering what exactly this juror -- the jury is asking the judge in this case. We're going to see this play out. I will give you more information as soon as we know -- Erica?

HILL: We know you will let us know as soon as you have that.

Jessica, appreciate it. Thank you.

President Trump is raising eyebrows. In a new interview with lawyers, he says he is leery of sitting down for questions in the Russia investigation because the special counsel could be setting a, quote, "perjury trap." He also says he is keeping his distance at least for now. "I've decided to stay out," he says. "I don't have to stay out, as you know. I could go in and I could do whatever. I could run it if I want."

Let's bring in one of the reporters who took part in yesterday's interview with President Trump, Jeff Mason, the White House correspondent for Reuters.

Jeff, good to have you with us.

Being in that room, I mean, did the president really mean, I could replace Robert Mueller with myself?

JEFF MASON, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, REUTERS: Well, all I can say is what he said. That is what he said. The context of that, the in- between part that was question is he said that I have decided to stay out, I wouldn't have to, but I have decided that it's better for me to stay out. He made clear it was an option and the fact that part of the option at least in terms of what he said yesterday was to run the thing is understandably getting a lot of attention. He said -- the overall context of that comment was, he is keeping himself at arm's length despite feeling like he has another option not to do that.

HILL: In terms of Robert Mueller, he brought up Mueller and security clearances. What did he say on that front?

MASON: Yes. We asked him about that. Just last week, on Friday, when he was boarding Marine One, he spoke to reporters, and in the same breath talking about the next person, Mr. Ohr, at the Justice Department, he was considering taking security clearance away from. He started talking about Mueller having conflict of interest. I asked him in our interview, you said that, are you considering taking Mr. Mueller's security clearance away. He paused for a second and then said, I haven't given a lot of thought to that. When we followed up later, he said, no comment. I don't know if it's something he has considered or not. He certainly is very critical of the Mueller investigation. He repeated again in our interview he viewed it as a witch hunt and talked about in that same context the possibility of doing an interview with Mueller's team, that being a potential perjury trap, like his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has said.

HILL: They are sending that message out.

He also mentioned in terms of the Mueller investigation -- we know about the continued threat we are facing. We have findings from Microsoft this morning. The president continuing to ignore in this interview, he was saying if it was Russia and he was concerned the investigation is actually playing into Russia's hands. Doesn't seem to be concerned his continued denial could be playing into Russia's hands.

MASON: No, indeed. He brought that up on his own. We didn't ask him again, are you convinced Russia was responsible for the 2016 election. That's something he has weighed in on. Corrected himself on during and after the Helsinki press conference. Yesterday, we were talking about what he felt he had achieved in his relationship with President Putin ad about that Mueller investigation. He said, look, I think things are going very well for my administration. The economy is going well. The one place it's not going well is with this Mueller investigation and it's playing into Putin's hands. Again, as you just said, included in that answer was another dig at the possibility of Russia not having been responsible for meddling in the 2016 election despite the evidence and conclusion by his own intelligence agencies.

HILL: Jeff Mason, really appreciate you joining us today. Thank you.

MASON: My pleasure.

[11:20:06] HILL: With us now, Jack Quinn, White House counsel in the Clinton administration, and CNN political analyst and national political reporter for "Politico," Eliana Johnson.

Good to have both of you with us. Eliana, picking up where we left off in terms of the president's mindset on Russia, not surprising what he told Jeff there. We heard this from the president before. As everything else is playing out around him, he was noting -- Jeff was noting the president brought this up on his own. Clearly, it must be top of mind. And yet, we're seeing all the other things are swirling. We have Omarosa last week. We have McGahn this week. CNN reporting the president is feeling unsettled by everything. How much is all of this starting to weigh on the West Wing itself and what's actually getting done?

ELIANA JOHNSON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, I think we're in the dog days of summer. We have seen the president sort of filling the void in the West Wing by tweeting out attacks on Robert Mueller on Twitter. Clearly, all of this stuff is top of mind for him. The Mueller probe, which he has been told is coming to a close, Paul Manafort's trial, which we may be getting a jury verdict on any day, AND The upcoming midterm elections, which will be its own verdict on the first two years of the Trump presidency. I think the president knows that he is going to be getting -- the voters will vote on his first two years in office. He is feeling the heat, both from the Mueller probe and from voters going to the ballot box.

HILL: In terms of feeling the heat, we don't hear much from Robert Mueller. Not a lot of leaks.

The president has upped his attacks, Jack, on Robert Mueller. Not on McGahn. But in the wake of what we learned about Don McGahn, upping his attacks on Robert Mueller, and actually saying, I could run the thing. How should we read that? How do you think Robert Mueller reads that?

JACK QUINN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: I'm sure he is as baffled as many of us are. He can't run this thing. To do so would require getting rid of Robert Mueller and the team under him. That would create a constitutional crisis. Hopefully, he was being hyperbolic and once again exhibiting the egoism that he brings to the job in feeling that he can run this as well as anything, because he is the supreme commander.

HILL: He also brought up, Jack, this idea of a perjury trap, which he and Rudy Giuliani have floated multiple times, which a number of attorneys I have spoken with, said, listen, that's a term they are putting out. You don't set a trap for someone to come in and lie. Does the president have a point, Jack, when you look at it that a couple of people can be in the same conversation and they can both walk away with different interpretations of how it happened?

QUINN: That's different. That's not a perjury trap. In a prosecution, you are trying to get to the truth. A perjury trap is a term of art which refers to a situation in which a prosecutor lures an otherwise innocent target into the grand jury, for example, and -- for the sole purpose of getting that person to commit perjury. Knowing the person will deny something, for example, that the prosecutor already knows. A perjury trap is only a trap in a circumstance in which, number one, the prosecutor is acting with ill motive and, number two, when the target is -- you know for sure that that person is going to lie. In normal circumstances, a perjury trap doesn't exist when the witness will tell the truth. The solution to any perjury trap, of course, is simply telling the truth as you know it.

HILL: You make that sound so easy, Jack.

We have to leave it there.

Jack, Eliana, appreciate you joining us.

We are getting more activity from outside the courthouse. We are waiting on a verdict in Paul Manafort's trial there. The jury sent a note.

Jessica Schneider is live outside the courthouse with more for us.

Jessica, what are you hearing?

SCHNEIDER: Erica, it appears that this is not a verdict. We are hearing from the courtroom that the jury has, in fact, submitted yet another note. Again, we have seen a note from this jury before. It was on Thursday where they asked those four questions. We're waiting to get the details of exactly what question or questions the jury has now submitted to the judge. We understand that the defense team, prosecutors, they are in the courtroom.

How this unfolds, the jury will be brought into the courtroom. The judge will -- the clerk probably will read the question from the jury and then the judge would determine how exactly to answer this. What's interesting is, last week on Thursday, the jury asked four questions and the judge actually only answered the one pertaining to reasonable doubt. As to the other ones, he didn't provide any specific instruction. He said, just rely on your recollections, your best memory of what happened during trial. So we will wait to see what the question is from the jury.

But it is important to remember here, we're all counting the minutes and hours and days of the deliberations. But these are 18 complicated counts that this jury has to come to a unanimous verdict on each and every count, whether that's for conviction or acquittal. We seem to be quite antsy, but it's possible this jury is just really being painstaking about this. And we will see what this note entails to see maybe what charges they might be up to, what might really be a sticking point for them and then we will go from there.

We will keep you posted as this jury has, in fact, submitted a note. We're waiting to find out exactly what this question is for the judge. The question or questions and how they will be answered in court -- Erica?

[11:26:11] HILL: Jessica Schneider with the latest for us. Thank you.

Just ahead, a new threat from the president sparking new questions about who will be allowed to keep their security clearance. Trump warning CNN's own Phil Mudd, a former CIA and FBI official. Why the warning? Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)