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CNN: Bolton & Kelly Get Into Shouting Match in West Wing; Interview With Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard; Trump Administration Providing Cover For Saudi Arabia?. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired October 18, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: It's been more than two weeks. How long does it take to come up with a good cover story?

THE LEAD starts right now.

The rulers of Saudi Arabia are considering blaming a top intelligence official close to the crown prince for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, while the Trump administration tells the world, wait, wait, wait, give the Saudis more time.

Bracing for battle. President Trump gets a new lawyer weeks before Democrats salivating to investigate this president could probably flip the House.

Plus, conflict of interest watch. Why does President Trump suddenly want the FBI to stay so close to the White House? Democrats are charging it has everything to do with the Trump hotel business. We will explain.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin today with our world lead.

The Saudi government, which originally claimed for days that "Washington Post" columnist Jamal Khashoggi entered and exited its consulate in Istanbul without incident, is now considering blaming a top intelligence official close to the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, for his murder, three people with knowledge of the plan told "The New York Times."

This news comes as Saudis insist they need more time for their investigation into his likely murder. And, remarkably, the U.S. government, the Trump administration seem to be accepting this all at face value, or at the very least they seem to want the public to.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling for patience today after meeting with President Trump at the White House.


MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: This report itself will be transparent for everyone to see, to ask questions about and to inquire with respect to its thoroughness.

And I told President Trump this morning that we ought to give them a few more days to complete that, so that we, too, have a complete understanding of the facts.


TAPPER: Complete understanding of the facts, the facts as apparently uncovered by the Saudis investigating themselves.

This all comes as "The Washington Post" reports the Trump administration is working with the Saudi government on a -- quote -- "mutually agreeable explanation" that avoids implicating the crown prince, MBS.

Which is interesting, given that "The New York Times" is reporting that U.S. -- quote -- "intelligence agencies have growing circumstantial evidence of the prince's involvement," including not only intercepts of Saudi officials discussing a plan ahead of time to detain Khashoggi, but these surveillance images released today by Turkish media which show a man named Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a Saudi diplomat and intelligence officer with close ties to the prince, entering Turkey the same day that Khashoggi disappeared.

We should note Mutreb traveled alongside MBS throughout his visit to the United States earlier this year at MIT and in Houston.

CNN's Alex Marquardt joins me now live.

Alex, a source familiar with the investigation tells CNN that Mutreb, the man in those images, played a -- quote -- "pivotal role" in the apparent assassination of this journalist, Khashoggi?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Jake, and that same source also telling us that Mutreb was aware of the plot, as they called it, of that operation to kill Khashoggi in Istanbul.

And now this news that Saudi Arabia is also thinking about pinning all of this, according to "The New York Times," on a general named Ahmed al-Assiri.

Now, we know that he is a high-ranking adviser to the crown prince, those two ties going back to MBS, who just met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who told MBS, a source says, that the Saudis need to -- quote -- "own this."


MARQUARDT (voice-over): Back in Washington, after a whirlwind trip to Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

POMPEO: Had a chance to talk with -- in Riyadh with the king, with the crown prince.

MARQUARDT: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was expected to tell the president what answers he had gotten about the death of Jamal Khashoggi. Instead, the message was, let's wait and see for the results of a Saudi investigation into themselves.

POMPEO: I told President Trump this morning that we ought to give them a few more days to complete that, so that we, too, have a complete understanding of the facts surrounding that, at which point we can make decisions about how or if the United States should respond.

MARQUARDT: Pompeo came under fire after this chummy scene with crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, but a source tells CNN that behind closed doors those smiles ended when the cameras left. Pompeo then told MBS he would have to own the situation or the U.S. will take action because the world will demand it.

And the vice president today saying the U.S. won't just settle for the Saudis' find

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When we have that information -- and we won't solely rely on that information -- we will collect all the evidence -- and then the president will have a decision to make what the proper course of action is for us going forward. But the world deserves answers.

GERALD FEIERSTEIN, MIDDLE EAST INSTITUTE: The problem that the administration has is that president, through his public statements, has cast doubt, particularly here in Washington, about whether or not those serious, strong messages were actually delivered.


MARQUARDT: This as new images were released by Turkish media from security cameras allegedly of another of the 15-man team that flew in from Saudi Arabia.

Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb is a diplomat and intelligence officer who sources say played a pivotal role in Khashoggi's apparent assassination. Mutreb has been spotted several times before in MBS' traveling entourage, one more link to the embattled crown prince.

ROBERT BAER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, runs all the security services. He runs the military, the economy. He's an autocrat, is known to be particularly cruel.

MARQUARDT: The only concrete action that the Trump administration has so far taken after the horrific apparent murder is Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin tweeting he will not attend an investment conference in Riyadh next week, belatedly joining the already long list of business and political leaders who have pulled out, as the world waits for an explanation from the Saudis.


MARQUARDT: And, Jake, the delay in that official explanation from the Saudis is, of course, only fueling speculation that they are still working on their cover story. Meanwhile, Khashoggi's family has just released a statement saying

they are not yet resigned to the fact that he's dead, saying that he's still missing in their minds since, there's been no official proof otherwise -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Alex Marquardt, thanks so much.

Minutes ago, President Trump spoke about Khashoggi on his way to a rally.


QUESTION: Do you think Jamal Khashoggi is dead?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It certainly looks that way to me. It's very sad.

QUESTION: Mr. President, what are you considering for possible consequences for Saudi...


TRUMP: Well, it will have to be very severe. I mean, it's bad, bad stuff, but we will see what happens.


TAPPER: Joining me now is Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. She is a major in the Army National Guard and serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congresswoman, good to see you, as always.

Saudi sources telling "The New York Times" that the regime plans to pin the blame on a high-ranking intelligence official with close ties to MBS who they say this intelligence official didn't have the appropriate authority to act.

Do you buy it?

REP. TULSI GABBARD (D), HAWAII: We have heard different versions of statements coming from the Saudi government as the coverage has really exploded around what actually happened to Mr. Khashoggi.

I think this is really an impetus, this should an impetus for you, for those in the media, for those in the public to challenge this administration, to challenge many members of Congress who claim that Saudi Arabia is a close ally.

This should challenge us to look at the facts of Saudi Arabia's record, beyond what has happened to this journalist, things like Saudi Arabia being a theocratic dictatorship, Saudi Arabia being this number one exporter of the extreme Wahabi Salafist ideology that is fueling terrorist groups and like ISIS and al Qaeda, to the tune of billions of dollars a year, Saudi Arabia waging, continuing to wage the centuries-old sectarian war, the Sunni-Shia war, in which part of that war, they are funding, financing, providing weapons and support to terrorist groups like al Qaeda in places like Syria, and also waging a genocidal war in Yemen that has killed tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians and children.

And creating what the U.N. has called the worst humanitarian crisis in a generation, with eight million people who are starving and sick because of this Saudi-U.S. coalition's blockade in Yemen. So this should force this tougher conversation here and to be confronted with the facts that Saudi Arabia, in fact, is not our ally.

Their interests do not align with ours.

TAPPER: I have a question about the larger U.S.-Saudi relationship in a second, but before I do can, I do want to drill down just on the Khashoggi incident, if we can.

Sources telling CNN the president's son-in-law and top adviser, Jared Kushner, has cautioned the president to proceed cautiously before making any decisions on what to do.

What do you think of that, and what do you think about Secretary Pompeo saying the Saudis need more time in their investigation into what happened?

GABBARD: Well, I think these are all just examples of how this president is not putting the well-being of our country first and frankly is instead kind of behaving like the businessman that he is, as though this country is a corporation.

The problem is, he is a businessman without a conscience. So he's thinking and he's talked about how, well, we don't want to ruin our relationship with Saudi Arabia because of this $110 billion arms deal and all the money that that will make, but not looking at what the consequences of these decisions are, not looking at the atrocities and this genocide that Saudi Arabia is waging in Yemen today.


So when you look at all of these kind of different hedging and excuses and things that are coming forward, it points, again, to this stark fact and reality that this so-called alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia really shouldn't exist at all, because our interests are not aligned.

TAPPER: Now, you have called for the U.S. to suspend its involvement and support of this Saudi-led war in Yemen, where thousands, if not millions of individuals, innocent people have been killed or are under the threat of starvation right now.

Beyond that, what actions do you want the Trump administration to take in the wake of Khashoggi's death?

GABBARD: Well, first of all, we need to end this Saudi-U.S. alliance, period. We need to stop selling them these precision-guided missiles, these weapons and these arms that they are using to kill civilians in places like Yemen. We need to end our U.S. military support in Yemen. And this is

something that I want to talk about a little bit, because there has not been much focus placed on what the United States' role has been in partnering with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, something that began in 2015 under the Obama administration, continuing now through the Trump administration, where our U.S. military are refueling Saudi bomber planes.

They are dropping U.S.-made bombs that we have supplied to them. We are providing them with intelligence and targeting support, as has been reported by this administration, and, therefore, very complicit in this genocidal war that Saudi Arabia is waging in Yemen.

As you said, it's causing millions of Yemeni people to starve and suffer, what -- to speak of the innocent civilians and children to the tune in the tens of thousands who have been killed because of this war. This must end now.

We have legislation introduced within Congress. We are trying to push and force a vote on this to end that support for Saudi Arabia in this war in Yemen now.

TAPPER: Let me ask you a question, because you got a lot of criticism after you met with Bashar al-Assad in Syria. You came here. We talked about it.

And one of the arguments you made is, look, this guy is the leader of Syria, whether we like him or not. We need to work with him in order to stop the bloodshed in Syria. We need to work with him to stabilize that country.

What do you say to a critic who says it sounds like you have different standards for Assad than you do for the Saudis?

GABBARD: I think you're misquoting my position and my statements on this.

My position on Syria, as well as countries like Iraq and Libya, has been that it is not in our interest in the United States to continue to wage destructive and costly regime change wars that are not only costly for us, the American people, but that in each of these instances has made the lives of the people in those countries far worse off.

And we can go into detailed examples within these three countries where we have and continue to wage these regime change wars. That's one situation that I continue to push strongly for us to end this destructive United States policy.

And Yemen is a different situation, where we're actively working in concert with Saudi Arabia in waging a genocidal war against the civilians of Yemen.

TAPPER: Yes. No, I...

GABBARD: This must end now. TAPPER: Yes, I didn't mean -- I meant more like the idea that we need

to work with -- I'm not talking with Yemen right.

I mean, the idea that we need to end the relationship with the Saudis, but it's OK to have a relationship with Assad just to end that war, just the realpolitik of that.


GABBARD: No, no, I will just interject here, Jake, because that's not at all I'm saying.

TAPPER: OK. Please explain.

GABBARD: My position has been, we need to be willing to have the conversation with people who may be adversaries or dictators, people like Kim Jong-un in North Korea, if we are serious about the pursuit of peace, if we're serious about trying to alleviate the suffering of people in those countries.

This is a very -- that's a very different statement than saying we need to end our alliance with Saudi Arabia. I'm not saying we don't have a conversation with them.

TAPPER: Got it.

GABBARD: I'm saying we need to stop using our U.S. military to do what Saudi Arabia wants. We need to end this alliance that actually has been counter to serving the interests of the American people and our national security.

TAPPER: I get the distinction. I just wanted to understand it better, and I appreciate your time doing that.


TAPPER: Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, thank you so much for your time.

GABBARD: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: And we've got breaking news about a major shouting match happening inside the West Wing today. We will explain who was involved and why.

Plus, despite the president's constant criticism of the FBI, it turns out he wants to keep them close. We will explain.


[16:18:22] TAPPER: And we're back with breaking news in our politics lead.

A heated argument described as a, quote, shouting match happened in the West Wing today between two of the president's top aides, Chief of Staff John Kelly and national security adviser, Ambassador John Bolton. That's according to two sources familiar with the argument who told our CNN's Kaitlan Collins who is here with us, among our panel of experts.

Kaitlan, how serious was this argument and what was it about?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it got pretty ugly and they were talking about that rise in border crossings. Of course, that's a pretty common topic. It's something that infuriates President Trump. We saw him on Twitter threatened to shut down the border.

And what it got dramatic between was John Kelly and John Bolton today. They were arguing about this. It started in front of President Trump. It continued in the halls of the West Wing. They were shouting at each other. There was profanity.

A big question is what is part of this? But I'm told now and this is a really big part of this argument and why it got so ugly. John Bolton started criticizing DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who, of course, is a sidekick essentially to John Kelly. He brought her to the West Wing with him when he first became chief of staff. She had been his deputy at DHS and then he was the one who convinced President Trump to let her lead DHS.

John Bolton criticized her today, saying essentially that she wasn't doing her job and needed to start doing it and that set John Kelly off and led to this argument. An argument in this West Wing is normal. It's really bitter. It is really divided, and there are people arguing on a regular basis.

But this one was different, and it actually led people to think John Kelly might resign. Now, he's someone who has threatened to resign in the past when he and President Trump had disagreed, but this is so ugly today that people genuinely thought that he could resign because they saw it as President Trump siding with John Bolton in the beginning of this argument, and that is something that only added to John Kelly's fury here.

So, if he does, that's an open question. He's not traveling with the president to Montana.

[16:20:01] He wasn't scheduled to that rally tonight, but John Bolton we know kept about his schedule going on with meetings this afternoon. But this a really ugly fight that startled people in this West Wing and that actually says a lot because they see a lot of fights here.

TAPPER: David?

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, these are both tough guys with very thick skin.


URBAN: Given those -- look --

COLLINS: Does John Kelly have thick skin?

URBAN: John Kelly has got a pretty thick skin and it's a very small space. You know, the West Wing -- people think watching the show on TV, it's this expansive.

TAPPER: Oh, it's not.

URBAN: It's very tiny.

TAPPER: If there's an argument outside the West Wing, you can hear it standing in the briefing room.

URBAN: Yes, exactly. It's pretty tight quarters, so when you have much more than a hush tone conversation, it can be heard.

Look, these folks -- neither of these guys are shrinking violets. They are pretty forceful in their opinions, but, you know, I -- I don't -- I don't take it as much. I think there's been a lot of back and forth between this chief of staff -- and, look, John Bolton is a guy who has got very strongly held opinions, who's going to push back very hard.

What's interesting is, you know, as you point out, the attack on the DHS secretary and if the president sat back on his hands and kind of watched it unfold a little, that's kind of newsworthy if he's letting go on and saying, maybe she should be doing her job a little better.

TAPPER: Well, it's also clear, because I didn't understand when hi first heard that it was about border crossings and perhaps even the caravan making its way through Central America, I didn't understand what they would be disagreeing about because Bolton and Kelly are both anti-illegal immigration hardliners I think it's fair to say, so this makes more sense that it has to do with a personnel matter.

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: A personnel issue. Look, all this drama in the White House, Jake, and they say we can't put the women in charge, I'm just saying.


SANDERS: I'm just saying.

Look, this is -- I don't really know what's going on in this White House, but I can say if it is the fact that, you know, there's criticism of the DHS secretary, I would think there are members on the Congress of the Hill that share that criticism of her. There are many members of Congress from Kamala Harris on down who have noted that she should step down because they think she's lied to Congress. I agree in that assessment, and that president and she's not been truthful with the American people when it comes to DHS' policy on what they are actually doing on the border.


PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, God forbid, forgive me, but I'm going to defend the Trump White House. I used to work in the West Wing. You're right. I couldn't order a lunch without throwing profanities and I still want to apologize to the sailors at the navy mess. It does suggest -- I don't support these people, don't support anything that they do, OK, but it suggests that they are doing their job.

But I think, Symone, you make a real powerful point which is a president has to resolve that, but there has been no real oversight because the same party controls the Congress. It would healthier for the president honestly if there was some real oversight of whether DHS was doing a good job. That's part of why you have these explosions because there is no outside oversight what have they are doing.

But I have no problem with them cursing at each other in the halls of the West Wing.

COLLINS: It's much more than using some ugly words in an argument. It's much more complicated than that, because when John Bolton came into the West Wing, he had essentially as much power as John Kelly. That was when John Kelly had pretty no influence with the president at that time and he really empowered John Bolton, Larry Kudlow and others to really, you know, not to operate, to answer to the chief of staff.

BEGALA: And Bill Shine, isn't he like --

COLLINS: Bill Shine is up there, too. It's a little bit (INAUDIBLE).

But with John Kelly and Kirstjen Nielsen and this dynamic with President Trump, as you brought up, Trump is the one who dressed Kirstjen Nielsen down at that cabinet meeting in front of everybody saying she was not doing her job on immigration. So, he agrees with John Bolton that she needs to step up and start doing her job.

Whether not --

TAPPER: What did she not do? What is she not doing?

COLLINS: President Trump is infuriated that the border crossing numbers are up. You can see that from his tweets. You can see he's enraged about that. He also picks a person to take it out on.

He's taking it out on Kirstjen Nielsen even though John Kelly who is defending her essentially feels that she is doing the job that she's supposed to be doing. That's how we saw President Trump criticize her during one cabinet meeting. Jeff Sessions is the only who kind of stood up for her but she also kind of stood for herself to President Trump, remarking that she feels like she's doing her job.

So, it's a lot more complicated than just a fight. It really lays bear the power dynamics --


COLLINS: -- the arguments between Kelly and Bolton, so much more than that.

TAPPER: But let's also talk about the fact that the president clearly from his tweet today thinks that the immigration issue is an issue, a big issue that could help drive Republican turnouts in the midterm elections. SANDERS: I think the president and a lot of Republicans in their

closing arguments in the midterms are using fear-mongering tactics to try to gin up their base which I think is unfortunate.

Look, if the president doesn't think Kirstjen Nielsen is doing her job and he thinks she should be a little tougher, I remember during the Obama administration, the homeland security secretary went down to Honduras, went down to the South American countries.

TAPPER: Jae Johnson, yes.

SANDERS: Jae Johnson, gave speeches in Spanish, in the native language.

TAPPER: They said don't come down. We're going to --

SANDERS: They said don't come down.

URBAN: How did that work out?

SANDERS: There's valid criticism that have. What I'm saying is the Trump administration ain't even done a little bit, you know what I'm saying? It's not enough to say don't come here.

[16:25:02] What due diligence is the Trump administration doing and also threatening to snatch aid. How is that helpful to the folks in Honduras?


TAPPER: Just to explain, the president saying today that if this caravan doesn't stop, the president is going to cut off foreign aid to Central American countries.

URBAN: Listen, it's a serious crisis. This is a refugee cries, not an immigration crisis, right? The problem lies in the home countries, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala. People aren't fleeing for theirs jobs, and their lives and to the extent that's not addressed, they're going to keep coming.


SANDERS: -- have to do about that.

TAPPER: We'll take a quick break.

President Trump's pick for his new White House counsel may be all about the coming midterms. We'll explain, and, everybody, stick around. We'll talk to you after this.


TAPPER: We're back with our politics lead.

An abrupt change at what had been a relatively stable if embattled part of the West Wing, the White House Counsel's Office, as news broke that Don McGahn is headed for the exit.

Right now, President Trump's lead White House attorney handling the Russia investigation, Emmet Flood will fill that role while the administration waits for the president's new pick, Washington lawyer Pat Cipollone to start. It's an unusual arrangement. Typically, the person in the job stays on until the successor is ready to begin.