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White House Witch-Hunt; President Obama Rebukes Trump; Former Trump Adviser Faces Sentencing; Trump: I Don't Want NYT Op-Ed Author To Be in Meetings. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired September 7, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump now admitting that that anonymous source, the senior administration official, well, he or she exists.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news: President Trump today calling on the Justice Department to find the senior administration official who said in "The New York Times" that the president is a danger to the country. Don't they need to identify a specific crime first?

More breaking news. A Trump campaign official about to learn his fate for lying to the FBI. And I sat down with George Papadopoulos for an exclusive interview. That's right ahead.

Plus, he's back and leading the charge. President Obama delivering a fiery speech attacking President Trump, delivering a rallying cry to Democrats ahead of the midterm elections, but might this all backfire?

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

President Trump is officially moving past denying the existence of the author of that explosive anonymous "New York Times" op-ed and is now demanding that a law enforcement investigation be opened into his or her identity, telling reporters today on Air Force One that he wants Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate and uncover which senior member of his administration wrote it.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's national security. I would say Jeff should be investigating who the author of that piece was, because I really believe it's national security.


TAPPER: The president insisting this is a national security matter.

Let's get right to CNN's Kaitlan Collins at the White House.

Kaitlan, the president and Attorney General Sessions obviously have a very strange relationship. You're talking to sources familiar with Sessions' thinking. What are they telling you?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, Sessions has come to terms with the fact that things between him and President Trump are not going to end well one way or the other.

When President Trump first started attacking Sessions, he kept his head down, saying he was going to keep doing his job over at the Justice Department. And then, as those other attacks increased, he started pushing back. And now in recent weeks, he is readily acknowledging that things between the two of them have gotten even worse.

He jokes from time to time that he checks out the president's Twitter feed to see what his job status is. But in all seriousness, he's signaling that he's prepared for whatever the outcome is going to be, even if that includes being fired.


COLLINS (voice-over): President Trump tonight calling on his attorney general to investigate the unnamed source of a critical "New York Times" op-ed questioning his ability to lead the country.

TRUMP: I think It's national security. I would say Jeff should be investigating who the author of that piece was, because I really believe it's national security.

COLLINS: Speaking to reporters on Air Force One, Trump voicing concern that the anonymous official who described the president as petty and ineffective has a security clearance.

TRUMP: Supposing I have a high-level national security and he has got a clearance and he goes into a high-level meeting concerning China or Russia or North Korea or something. I don't want him at those meetings.

COLLINS: Asked if he can trust his own White House staff:

TRUMP: What I do is now I look around the room and I say, hey, if I don't know somebody.

COLLINS: Sources says Trump his fumed about the op-ed since it was published as the search inside the administration continues to be a guessing game.

TRUMP: We are going to take a look at what he had, what he gave, what he's talking about, also where he is right now. Eventually, the name of this sick person will come out.

COLLINS: As high-ranking officials race to deny it with them who trashed Trump, the president not ruling out administering lie-detector test.

TRUMP: People have suggested it. Rand Paul, who I like and respect, came out this morning. He said have a big lie-detector test. COLLINS: Miles away from Washington, Trump in South Dakota tonight

with the Russia investigation on his mind, telling reporters he's open to sitting down with the special counsel, Robert Mueller, with conditions.

TRUMP: I would do it under certain circumstances. I think it's a big waste of time, because there was no collusion.

COLLINS: But the president voicing concern about perjuring himself.

TRUMP: I don't want to be set up with a perjury trap. Number one, everybody that looked at anybody over there, they get them on some kind of a lie.


COLLINS: Now, "The New York Times" has responded to the president's directive for Sessions, saying in a statement: "We're confident that the Department of Justice understands that the First Amendment protects all American citizens, and that it wouldn't participate in such a blatant abuse of government power. The president's threats both underscore while we must safeguard the identity of the writer of this op-ed and serve as a reminder of a free and independent press to democracy."

Of course, Jake, that comes as a president isn't even making clear what it is he believes is there for Jeff Sessions to investigate.


TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins at the White House for us, thank you so much.

Let's talk about it with the panel.

So President Trump, he is claiming this is a matter of national security.

To be fair, both this anonymously written op-ed and the Bob Woodward book say that this a matter of national security, with all these senior administration officials suggesting that President Trump poses some sort of danger, even with stories of Gary Cohn stealing a letter from the Resolute desk in the Oval Office.

What's your take?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think the president is ridiculous, if you will.

And I think -- to put it mildly. I think he's ridiculous. And I also think that I am just patiently waiting for congressional Republicans to do something, to say something, to do something. What Donald Trump is doing, pretending as though the Department of Justice is his personal lawyer over at Trump Tower, is not only problematic, but there are safeguards in the Constitution against things like this.

So, when are folks going to step up and let the president know, sir, that is not how we do business in the United States of America?

TAPPER: Is there any national security reason for there to be an investigation, you think, any justification for Attorney General Sessions to try to find out who wrote this op-ed?

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": I don't see one, unless there is classified information released in the op-ed.

And so if there isn't, and that doesn't seem to be, it's pretty general level of discussion and the foreign policy discussion is pretty generic about Russia and so forth. So I assume that the attorney general will ignore this charge from the president, as he has ignored others.

TAPPER: If he ignores the charge, is he gone? Or is he gone anyway after the midterms?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, it feels like he's gone anyway after the midterms.

It doesn't seem that relationship, that's not a rift that's going to be mended anytime soon. But I don't think this would be the straw, frankly. I think the straw happened a long time ago. And he's kind of just dead man walking.

TAPPER: Now, Ryan, President Obama, former President Obama gave a speech today and he said a lot of very harsh and tough things about President Trump. But he didn't say something that almost defended Trump from the op-ed.

I want you to take a listen.


BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The claim that everything will turn out OK because there are people inside the White House who secretly aren't following the president's orders, that is not a check.


OBAMA: I'm being serious here. That's not how our democracy's supposed to work.


OBAMA: These people aren't elected. They're not accountable.

They're not doing us a service by actively promoting 90 percent of the crazy stuff that's coming out of this White House, and then saying, don't worry, we're preventing the other 10 percent.


TAPPER: Again, not defending, but defending him on the notion of senior administration officials are not supposed to be taking to the op-ed page of "The New York Times" to say, hey, don't worry, we're not doing everything he says.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: The Constitution did not anticipate that anonymous administration officials who are not elected would be the check on an out-of-control presidency that by their own account they see as a threat to national security as undermining democratic norms.

You know what the Constitution anticipated? We have a Congress and a judiciary. Those are the institutions that are supposed to step up when we have a presidency that is the way that's described in that op- ed.

So I agree with Obama. I think people in the administration are forced to take some of the actions that they're taking because Congress has completely abdicated its check on the executive branch.

I mean, I have been watching interviews with Republican members over the last few days, and a lot of journalists have pressed them on, what are you going to do? How are you going to investigate this? And people just...


KRISTOL: I defend that writer mostly. And I -- he's been criticized by both conservatives...


SANDERS: Or she.


KRISTOL: Or she.

Conservatives who were both pro-Trump and anti-Trump. I don't quite agree.

First of all, the Constitution, the civil service laws are constitutional. And they put various limitations on what the president could order people to do. We have a First Amendment, which people in the government have the right to use.

We don't just think Congress and the judiciary are the only two branches that can check the president. There's supposed to be an infrastructure in the government that -- they take an oath incidentally to the Constitution, not to the president personally, senior officials, Cabinet officials and senior White House staff.

Now, having said all, that -- so I think the actions described in the op-ed I think are quite defensible, A. B, I don't agree that no decent person could work in the administration and that it's not -- we shouldn't be grateful that there are some people stopping the president from doing certain things.

So then it comes to the question of what about the op-ed itself? Is that really an appropriate thing? And I think I could argue that one either way. But I think there's a case to be made that letting the public know at this moment of what's happening in the White House is a service to the country.

LIZZA: Go public. Go on the record. Bear witness to it.

TAPPER: That's what Nikki Haley says, U.N. ambassador.

In a brand-new op-ed "The Washington Post" this afternoon, she writes -- quote -- "I too am senior Trump administration official. I proudly serve in this administration and I enthusiastically support most of its decisions and the direction it's taking the country. But I don't agree with the president on everything. When there is disagreement, there is a right way or wrong way to address it. I pick up the phone and call him or meet with him in person."



KUCINICH: But just really quick.

You have heard this from senators who have stood up to the president, someone like a Bob Corker, that this made it worse. This made what they're trying to nurture in the Trump presidency worse by this coming out, and by people not putting their name to it, not challenging the president.

But in terms of other Republicans who are running for reelection -- I'm not defending them, but other than upholding your role under the Constitution and that warm, fuzzy feeling, there isn't a lot of incentive to go up against this president.

He's going to go after your -- he's going to go after you.

He's going to perhaps...


KRISTOL: No, but let's just take Nikki Haley for second.


KRISTOL: I am probably chairman of the Nikki Haley for president campaign in 2020. I hope she takes on Trump in the primary.

But that's very nice that she's having private conversations with the president. But she should let the rest of us know perhaps if there are serious things that this administration is doing that she finds deeply objectionable.

So, I don't quite agree with all this they should keep everything private stuff.

SANDERS: But they don't -- people like Nikki Haley, she's still serving in the administration. She clearly doesn't find it too objectionable because she goes out to do the bidding of the Trump administration at the United Nations every single day. So I'm not passing out cookies or pats on the back for people that are

willing to do the bidding. This administration still puts kids in cages.

So, I say, though, to these congressional Republicans, that is part of the job.


SANDERS: I mean, but this is part of the job. And so when you sign up to be a member of Congress, when the people elect you, they do not elect you, so you can just keep on getting elected. They elect you to do the business of the people.

And the problem with this particular Republican-controlled Congress is they have not been necessarily doing the bidding of the people. They have been covering your own tails, watching their own backs, in hopes to get reelected.

And they're going to reap now the consequences in less than 63 days.

KUCINICH: Well, one the things that Nikki Haley has done, and actually was mentioned in the anonymous op-ed, was that you see a divergence between some officials and what Trump has said, particularly on things like Russia.

We have seen Nikki Haley diverge and actually do things that are different than what the president is talking about. So I don't know if that's right or wrong, or what it is, but that is pointed to in the op-ed as something that maybe she -- maybe she doesn't even know that she's part of the...


TAPPER: That's an interesting point, because there is this chasm between the Trump administration's position on Russia and President Trump's position on Russia.

LIZZA: Absolutely.

And that was one of the things that this anonymous op-ed writer wanted to point out. I think they said that astute observers have realized that the administration has been a little bit tougher on Russia than they're commonly given credit for with respect to sanctions and a few other things.

But Trump has to be dragged kicking and screaming on every one of those policies. Now, look, obviously, they need people to staff the government, right? I don't think anyone -- I don't even think you would say that everyone should resign en masse, right?



LIZZA: You need someone. But the reason people aren't incentivized to step up, Republicans aren't incentivized, because these people aren't coming out and bearing witness and saying this is what's going on. It's just like Nixon in Watergate.

It wasn't until John Dean came forward and then we had the tapes when Republican congressmen and senators who did not want to do anything about it finally changed their mind.


LIZZA: They need the receipts.


TAPPER: There are still things about Nixon that haven't been fully explored in the public, including like whether or not he was a domestic abuser.

That's something for another matter -- for another day.

Everyone, stick around, because we have a lot more to talk about.

The president reportedly saying the snakes are everywhere and keeping a list of potential leakers. Is this obsession the real risk to national security?



OBAMA: How hard can that be, saying that Nazis are bad?


TAPPER: President Obama not holding back on his return to the campaign trail, clobbering President Trump, but does he see a savior for the Democrats other than himself?

Stay with us.


[16:18:04] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: President Trump is lashing out at the anonymous author of "The New York Times" op-ed and warning of national security implications, saying this afternoon on Air Force One, quote: Suppose I have a high level national security and he has got a clearance. We talk about clearances a lot recently. And he goes into a high level meeting concerning China or Russia or North Korea or something and this guy goes in. I don't want him in those meetings, unquote.

This comes as "The New York Times" reports that an outside adviser says the White House has a list of 12 potential authors who could be behind this stunning letter.

Let's discuss more.

So, let's start with this, Bill. Can you understand why President Trump might be angry about this? I mean, you know, if you really feel strongly about him, why not resign and sign your name to it?

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Right. And this is why presidents get so angry about leaks with the same problem. If you feel so strongly, speak up. Put your name on it. Don't say something on back ground to "The Washington Post" or "The New York Times" or CNN or anyone else.

I was in the first Bush White House and President H.W. Bush was seasoned politician and responsible president and not like Donald Trump in so many ways, and there were a couple times where he launched mini-leak investigations or had the leak investigations launched within the White House because he was so angry that something on background out in the press. It ended up going nowhere. He didn't get -- put any -- make people take lie detector tests. It was kind of, interrogate your staff.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: And it was Bill Kristol who's doing the leaking.


KRISTOL: I can't believe you -- like --


KRISTOL: Deep Throat right here.

KUCINICH: There's also a layer of team of enemies that he's assembled and people trying to knife each other over -- like, over who probably didn't write this op-ed, had nothing to do with it and they're like, yes, that guy because they've had --


TAPPER: They're already like that about nothing.

KUCINICH: Totally. Totally. So this is just another incentive to, you know, get the guy fired that you've wanted to get fired forever.

TAPPER: So, Paul Begala says when he was in the Clinton White House people would leak using terms and words that their colleagues used in meetings so that President Clinton would think, oh, it was so and so that leaked it.

[16:20:10] And I wonder if this person did that, too. There's this whole ending with all of this pageantry and tribute to John McCain who obviously President Trump hated and continues to hate to this day and in addition to sticking to President Trump a little bit more, maybe that was a distraction.

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Maybe it was. I worked on a number of campaigns where people, again, go leak and I'm the press secretary. I'm like, who the hell is talking to the reporters on background telling this information? And they're like maybe it's so and so. Maybe it's so and so.

Look, this is like a bad version of "Game of Thrones" and I'm wondering how this greatly serves the Trump administration's larger agenda. Like if I'm a Republican -- if I'm a Republican and we are --


KRISTOL: You're losing credibility here. Keep going, keep going.

SANDERS: And we are going into the midterm election, a fight for us to hold on to the House, keep -- get a large majority, if you will, in the Senate, these are not the types of things I want to be talking about. These are not the type of things that I want my candidates in the field talking about.

So, I'm just, like, if not for national security, heck, for the sake of maybe winning some damn elections, will Republicans get into the White House (INAUDIBLE) again?

TAPPER: So, Ryan, I want to ask you, the Woodward book describes the president using a number of nasty and derisive terms for his own officials. Today, the president tweeted the Woodward book is a scam. I don't talk the way I'm quoted. If I did, I would not have been elected president.

But, of course, the president does talk the way he's quoted. We've -- he's been on radio using the term retarded derisively. There's a quote in "The New York Times" about him having called an ex-wife's parents dumb Southerners before and, of course, look how President Trump talked about his opponents.

John Kasich, he called a dummy. Jeb Bush, low energy. Lying Ted Cruz. Wacko. Lightweight choker Marco Rubio, looks like a little boy. Rick Perry, the current secretary of the Department of Energy, should be forced to take an IQ test. And truly weird Senator Paul, that's according to Trump, a spoiled brat without a properly functioning brain.

That's just the Republicans, by the way. That's just the Republicans. So, is it hard to believe that he would talk the way he talks in the Woodward book?

LIZZA: I have a copy and I'M reading it over 48 hours and this is the way Trump talks. I mean, look, you have to say Woodward's sourcing is a little bit opaque.

TAPPER: It always is. Every book.

LIZZA: It's not same thing that we're used to in newspaper where stuff, there's always an according to in at least some sense, so he does all of these interviews on background, and he quotes people verbatim and usually either that person told it to him or someone who is engaged in the conversation. So, you know, you've got to take that -- you've got to understand that sourcing. Look, the one thing maybe people surprised by is Trump drops the F- bomb a lot in this book.


LIZZA: Every other word is F-this, F-that.


LIZZA: That's right. That's right. If you were privately with Trump, he uses that word a lot. Anyway, that's long way of saying it sounds like him.

TAPPER: All right. Everyone, stick around. We've got a lot more to talk about. President Obama is no longer on the sidelines.


BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT: That's not how things are supposed to work. This is not normal.


TAPPER: But could he rally Democrats and Trump supporters? Stay with us.


[16:28:03] TAPPER: The fight over the 2018 midterms just turned into a heavyweight match and the two names battling it out won't be on the ballot. President Obama made a stinging return to the political spotlight today, going after President Trump directly as well as the Republican Party. The speech likely a preview of his midterm message as he kicks off campaigning for 2018 candidates.

And as CNN's Athena Jones reports, it's a break from precedent by going after his predecessor in such stark terms.


OBAMA: The politics of division and resentment and the paranoia is unfortunately found a home in the Republican Party.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Obama making his first foray into the midterm election season, delivering a blistering rebuke of his successor's political tactics.

OBAMA: It did not start with Donald Trump. He's a symptom, not the cause.


He's just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years.

JONES: The former president who has not spoken within the current president since inauguration day warning the country is at a critical moment with America's very democracy under threat and urging ordinary people to get involved.

OBAMA: You need to vote because our democracy depends on it.


But just a glance at recent headlines should tell you that this moment really is different. The stakes really are higher. The consequences of any of us sitting on the sidelines are more dire.

JONES: He slammed Republicans in Congress for failing to act as a check and balance on Trump.

OBAMA: Republicans who know better in Congress and they're there, they're quoted saying, yeah, we know this is kind of crazy, are still bending over backwards to shield this behavior from scrutiny or accountability or consequence.

JONES: Obama argued that preventing nearly 3,000 Americans from dying in a hurricane in its aftermath, a reference to Hurricane Maria's toll on Puerto Rico, should not be a partisan issue.