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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Roger Stone Associate in Plea Talks With Mueller; White House Chief of Staff in Danger?. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired November 23, 2018 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:10]

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Could President Trump be exchanging his chief of staff this Black Friday?

THE LEAD starts right now.

West Wing clashes, tweet barrages, and self-praise? A Thanksgiving week with all the trimmings for the Trump administration. Could it be capped off with another firing?

Breaking today, another controversial figure possibly ready to flip and help Robert Mueller investigate the Trump campaign. Who he is and what he could know about the Russians.

Plus, throwing shade -- the man who chronicled the Obama years in pictures just keeps on trolling Trump, with a photo to contrast every face-palm of this administration.

Welcome to THE LEAD, this special edition of THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto.

And we begin with politics lead, a very Trumpian Thanksgiving and a rather dark Black Friday for the president of the United States, today a preview of the next two years in Washington with a Democratic- controlled House.

Top House Intelligence Committee Democrat Adam Schiff already declaring that the committee will investigate President Trump's response to the murder, the brutal murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jack Reed, accusing President Trump of lying about the CIA report on the killing.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is in West Palm Beach, Florida, with the president near at least where he's spending the holiday.

Kaitlan, President Trump, meanwhile, now encouraging Democrats and Republicans to come together. Political kumbaya moment here?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, the president still has a few more days here in Palm Beach, but he's already setting the stage for a legislative fight when he gets back to Washington.

He is putting his border wall front and center and he's even threatening to shut down the government if he doesn't get it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS (voice-over): Under sunny skies in Palm Beach, Florida. President Trump volunteering to spend his day on the golf course, after punching out a pair of morning tweets on the border wall and criminal justice reform.

The president's low-key day coming after a Thanksgiving spent listing his complaints.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's a shame. It's a disgrace, frankly. Hello and happy Thanksgiving.

COLLINS: It started with a call to members of the military meant to dial down criticism that he hasn't visited a single war zone since becoming president.

TRUMP: I want to thank you all for serving.

COLLINS: But it quickly turned from a word of thanks to an airing of grievances, as he took aim at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

TRUMP: It's a terrible thing when judges take over your protective services, when they tell you how to protect your border. It's a disgrace.

COLLINS: The caravan.

TRUMP: Tremendously dangerous people in those caravans. And we do not want them coming into the United States.

COLLINS: Even bringing up the border wall.

TRUMP: We took old, broken wall and we wrapped it with barbed wire- plus.

COLLINS: But he didn't stop there. Speaking to reporters after hanging up, Trump brushed off the CIA's assessment that the Saudi crown prince ordered the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi.

TRUMP: They have feelings certain ways.

COLLINS: Giving weight to MBS' denials.

TRUMP: Whether he did or whether he didn't, he denies it vehemently.

COLLINS: The president echoing his doubts about the intelligence community's assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

TRUMP: I have President Putin. He just said it's not Russia. I will say this. I don't see any reason why it would be.

COLLINS: Trump's statement standing with Saudi eliciting criticism from Washington.

SEN. JACK REED (D), RHODE ISLAND: The notion that they didn't reach a conclusion is just unsubstantiated. The CIA has made that clear.

COLLINS: The president also threatened to shut down the southern border and the government.

TRUMP: Could there be a shutdown? There certainly could, and it will be about border security.

COLLINS: Asked what he was thankful for, the president looked inward.

TRUMP: For having made a tremendous difference in this country. I have made a tremendous difference in the country.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Jim, the president feels that he's made a tremendous difference in this country. But now it's a question of if he's going to make a difference in his Cabinet.

He said he's going to be interviewing several job candidates while he's spending time here at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, though he didn't elaborate on which job, whether it's the chief of staff, Department of Homeland Security secretary or the attorney general position.

The White House has called a lid for the day, meaning we aren't expecting to see President Trump again until tomorrow -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Seems a lot of folks might be on the hit list.

Kaitlan Collins, thanks very much.

Let's go to our panel now, as always, surrounded by smart people.

So let me start with you, if I can, Andre Bauer.

Congressman Adam Schiff, of course, he's going to go in a very powerful position as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and he's now told "The Washington Post" the committee is going to investigate the president's handling of the CIA assessment on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

[16:05:01]

Now, we know, our own reporting and the reporting of other outlets is that was a high-confidence assessment, that this was directed by the crown prince.

The president, you heard his comments yesterday, saying that these were just feelings expressed by the CIA and not anything else. That's something the committee can investigate. Should the president be worried that those findings will contradict his public statements on this?

ANDRE BAUER (D), FORMER SOUTH CAROLINA LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR: I don't think so. Adam Schiff is probably one of the most partisan individuals in

Washington. He got more TV time this year than probably Anderson Cooper, and he's made no mistake he's going to go after the president as hard as he possibly can.

He's done it on Russia now for two years. It is sad that he's going to have this powerful position, and he's not talking about what he can do to work with Republicans and other Democrats to move our country forward, but instead he wants to continue on a what I think is an assassination of the president, where he just continues to go after him.

(CROSSTALK)

SCIUTTO: Come on.

Andre, we're talking about how the president handles intelligence. There is a track record here. The president denied previously a high- confidence assessment from the intelligence community that Russia intervened in the election. He did it for months and months. He stood next to the Russian president and said, I believe his denial.

And now we have another high-confidence assessment from the intelligence community, not a partisan organization, whatever you think of Adam Schiff here, and the president again says, I take the accused opinion over the opinion, the assessment of my own intelligence services.

That's the question there. Is that something the president should be concerned about?

BAUER: I don't -- the president doesn't -- I think we know, the president doesn't pay attention to these continued shots over the bow. He focuses on what he thinks is important for the American people.

And he's kind of kept a deaf ear to this stuff and just the continual beating the drum, just like Russia. Nobody -- not yet have they in any way found collusion. The big thing was collusion, collusion with the Trump campaign and Russia. And it's just not there.

And so Adam Schiff has been unsuccessful in this. And this is the new attempt by Adam Schiff. But this will not be the last. He will continue to take things where he thinks he can drive some wedge between the American people and the president instead of moving forward. And it's unfortunate, because, quite frankly, whatever he comes up with is not going to do anything to help the people of this country.

SCIUTTO: OK.

Well, Jackie Kucinich, your point of view on that?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Hmm.

So Adam Schiff is someone that is going to be adversarial with the president. He is the opposing party, and he's about to take over the Intelligence Committee, which, under Devin Nunes, frankly, was broken.

And the Russia investigation was broken there. So we will see how he chooses to approach this, because Democrats do have to worry about overplaying their hands here. That said, he's also not going to be alone.

You know, if he's looking into the president's finances and the Trump Org's finances as it relates to Saudi Arabia, he also has the House Ways and Means Committee is going to be asking for the president's tax returns. So a lot of Democratic House chairmen are going to be coming at the president. And he's not going to be able to, you know, insult his way out of this.

SCIUTTO: Alice Stewart, on the positive side here, in the midst of -- we don't have to say it again, a very divisive, partisan divide in Washington, you had the president tweet this morning: "Republicans and Democrats must come together, finally with a major border security package, which will include funding for the wall."

We have heard the putative exchange here for some time. You give me money for my wall, maybe I will make a deal on DACA.

Is that an exchange you believe this president and this Democratically controlled House would be willing to make?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I would hope so, given the large percentage of Americans that do want some protections for dreamers and want to make some progress on DACA.

And if the president has yet another meeting, as he did with Chuck and Nancy, then we can have this conversation about you give me some money for the wall, and we will make -- I will make sure you have the votes to pass DACA.

That is a good starting point. Now that Republicans no longer have control of the House, we're going to have to start negotiating. We can't just talk about making deals for DACA and the wall. We have to actually follow through.

That is a good starting point. I'm glad to see this is back on the table, because at the end of the day, this president ran and won in large part due to his promise that we're going to build a wall and Mexico will pay for it. I always knew Mexico was not going to pay for it. But this is a good way for him to move forward on a very serious, important campaign.

SCIUTTO: Nina Turner, if I could ask you, because Democrats in these midterms, many ran on the idea, say, listen, I'm going to find a way forward. I'm going to work with the other side of the aisle so that we can get stuff done on issues like health care, DACA as well.

That said, there is a part of the Democratic base, right, who probably never wants to make a deal with this president. What force wins out in these next two years? Or do we just enter 2020 campaign mode and scorched earth on both sides?

[16:10:03]

NINA TURNER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's going to be special interests, ultimately, Jim -- it pains me to say that -- that's going to win out.

Listen, the president had to deal with the Democrats before over the wall. We know not all Democrats agree with that wall, but he did cut a deal, as Alice pointed out earlier, but that deal went nowhere because the president changed his mind. He didn't want to follow through on it.

Wheeling and dealing with the lives of the dreamers, I don't think that that should be the way that we move forward. That being said, the Democrats, again, are going to have to decide whether they're going to implement policy, really standing up for the American people, whether they're going to investigate this entire time, the whole next two years, or whether they're going to push, as some want, an impeachment of the president.

The Democrats are really going to have to decide, are they going to be on the side of the American people or they just going to continue to play partisan politics?

And I want to use another finer point to that.

BAUER: Very well said.

TURNER: Now, the president didn't have any problem when the Republicans were in -- when they controlled both chambers. It was OK. But now that the Democrats control the House, now all of a sudden, it's we going to have to find a way to work together.

Well, you know what, I hope both sides do really, truly find a way to work together. But, Jim, I think special interests are going to win out, ultimately.

SCIUTTO: Washington, D.C., the land of short memories.

A moment, because we have some news just into CNN. And that is that the White House is asking the Supreme Court to immediately take up the administration's controversial policy of banning most transgender individuals from the military.

Since the president announced this policy back in 2016, courts across the country have blocked it from going into effect. This appears to be another aggressive attempt by this president to ramp up his fight with the courts, bypassing, in effect, the courts of appeal around this country, including the Ninth Court -- Circuit Court of Appeals on the West Coast, as well as the D.C. Circuit here, both courts the president has taken shots at as partisan, as roadblocks to his agenda, et cetera.

Let's go back to the panel now.

Alice, if I could ask you, this is a policy that the Pentagon doesn't want. STEWART: Right.

SCIUTTO: That the Pentagon has said does not have the costs, both financial and also to morale in units, et cetera, that the president claims it has. Why is the president pursuing this?

STEWART: That's a good question. I would highly recommend not pursuing this route.

Look, this all started working with social evangelicals. They had some concerns about military paying for sex change operations for members of the military. That is something they voiced early on when -- during the campaign. And that's something that the president really understood and really gave reassurance that I have got your back on that.

This is just a little bit of a bridge too far. He's addressing a lot of concerns that social evangelicals have. But this takes a little bit too far. Ideally, I would recommend they bring it back and really focus on the exact issue that many of his base and those that helped him win, that's what they said. This is a little bit too far.

And this could be a little bit a way of him saying, hey, to the courts, I'm going to flex my muscles and see what you do.

(CROSSTALK)

KUCINICH: But he's not listening to the generals, like he said he would.

(CROSSTALK)

TURNER: Jim, this is wrong.

SCIUTTO: Nina, tell me your point of view.

TURNER: It's wrong. It is ridiculous.

And talking about Christian conservatives, what would Jesus do? He certainly would not be carrying on this foolishness of these so-called Christian conservatives, worrying about whether or not somebody is a transgender or not.

We got some bigger problems to deal with in this country, and not that -- and let me be clear. Being transgendered is not a problem. But in terms of whether or not he's going to just adhere to the Christian conservative base and forget that transgendered women and men who want to serve in uniform, serve this country, take a bullet like anybody else, so he wants to play around with that, when we have got other concerns in this country.

The president should be ashamed of himself, and all Christian conservatives who believe in this nonsense should be ashamed as well.

(CROSSTALK) SCIUTTO: And we should note that there are transgender members of the military, men and women, who are serving today in war zones risking their lives today. That is the view of the Pentagon. That's a view of the generals who command them.

(CROSSTALK)

TURNER: Say that, Jim. That's it.

SCIUTTO: Listen, and it's -- and, listen, you hear it from inside the five-walled building, trust me, and I hear it often.

Stay with us, because we have a lot more to discuss. Another person in Trump's orbit may be ready to cooperate with Robert Mueller. What he could know about the what Russians knew next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:18:31] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: Welcome back.

Sticking with our politics lead: Closing in. Jerome Corsi, an associate of former Trump adviser Roger Stone, telling CNN that he is now in plea talks with the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Corsi, has now sat for multiple interviews with Mueller's team and just days ago says he expects to be indicted for lying. Stone has also said that he expects to be charged.

Let's get right to CNN justice reporter, Laura Jarrett.

So, Laura, I suppose the key with Corsi here for folks following this at home is that he could be or could offer a corroborating testimony to any communications between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks? Is that the focus here?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: That's exactly right, Jim. If Corsi cuts a deal with prosecutors here, it could bring the special counsel's team one step closer to figuring out whether the Trump campaign had any advanced knowledge of WikiLeaks' release of those stolen Democratic emails during the final stretch of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Now, Corsi has been sort of fringe conspiracy theorist. He's not a household name, but he's taking on increasing importance in the recent days, claiming that prosecutors are focused on whether he developed some sort of source who told him about WikiLeaks' plans ahead of time. Now, he claims he didn't have a direct source to the group, and said he developed some sort of theory all on his own that Julian Assange, WikiLeaks' founder, had access to the hacked e-mails belonging to Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta, a prediction that he shared with many people, including longtime Republican operative and Trump confidant Roger Stone.

Now, Stone, of course, denies speaking to Corsi about Podesta's emails, denies ever telling Trump about the WikiLeaks dumps of emails before they came public, saying in his new statement today that Corsi has been under immense pressure, essentially saying he's over head and that he's been asked to say things that he doesn't believe actually happened.

[16:20:18] But I can tell you this, if Corsi does flip, it's a signal he's provided prosecutors with something quite valuable, Jim.

SCIUTTO: That's right. Prosecutors don't like to give up possible jail time, unless they're getting something in return.

Laura Jarrett, thanks very much.

JARRETT: Thanks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: With our legal experts, Kim Wehle and Michael Zeldin.

Michael, you serve as a special assistant to Mueller when he was in government here. Tell us the significance in your view of Corsi being in plea talks, in effect, another cooperator, of course, with Michael Cohen, with Rick Gates and others who had significant positions in the Trump campaign.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Right. So I think Corsi is talking about a plea that involves his lying to Mueller, along the lines of Papadopoulos. Similarly to Papadopoulos, I don't think Mueller got very much from Papadopoulos that was useful to him in his investigation.

And so, it could be that Corsi just came in, lied, and is going to get charged for the lie. If, however, Corsi is talking about something substantive, communications between WikiLeaks and anybody else, then does further investigation on the collusion side of it if WikiLeaks is a party with which someone could collude.

SCIUTTO: And this is the key thing, Kim, right here, because the issue is and again, it's hard for folks back home, because they're like, wait a second, what's going on with that? How does this all add up? But it gets to this key question as to whether folks in the Trump campaign, we don't know if Trump himself, but folks in the Trump campaign had foreknowledge of WikiLeaks' releases and I'll just remind folks that the U.S. intelligence community believes WikiLeaks was a middle man for stolen materials, materials stolen by Russia.

Does this give a flicker of a clue as to what Mueller is going after here?

KIMBERLY WEHLE, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, I think there are there are two things that are significant. The storyline like you're mentioning. The idea that at the time that Obama made public that there was some Russian influence in the campaign, then we had the famous "Access Hollywood" tape, then briefly after that, we started to have these leaks.

SCIUTTO: Which was less than an hour.

WEHLE: Correct, and the information was stolen, we know, by the Russians, or at least that was been alleged by the Mueller probe, as well as other national security entities. And so the question is, what's the relationship between the campaign, the Russians, WikiLeaks, that whole mess, right? And that's of interest I think to all Americans because we don't really want foreign entities influence our election that way.

The second thing I think that's really interesting about this is that it shows that the Mueller probe is going forward, notwithstanding an acting attorney general that was handpicked to potentially interrupt it because he could say, listen, stop this. And so, I think we should there's some benefit to this information, to the extent to which it means the Mueller probe is moving along, and Mr. Whitaker is not interfering with it behind the scenes.

SCIUTTO: To be fair, Corsi, Michael Zeldin, is a bit of a lower fruit in this whole thing. If Mueller were to take a step and died or talk about indicting a Donald Trump for either false statement or any involvement in this Trump Tower meeting, that's where you could hit a roadblock with a new acting attorney general, could you not, because he would have to approve of that indictment, unless there is already a sealed one somewhere on a file somewhere.

ZELDIN: Right. So, let's put that aside for a second. Assuming an ongoing investigation with no sealed indictment, then yes, family is very different than Corsi or Credico or anybody else in this orbit of communications with WikiLeaks.

If the Mueller's team views WikiLeaks in the same way that our intelligence services do, which is to say, a nonstate, hostile intelligence service, as opposed to a First Amendment protected news media outlet, then there are a lot of implications for these people in their communication with WikiLeaks, because then they could be co- conspirators with a criminal -- in a criminal venture.

SCIUTTO: Now, in the midst of all this about continuing Russia investigation, we learned in the last week that president asked the Justice Department to investigate his political enemies, James Cuomo and Loretta Lynch. And as often happens in this news cycle, because everyday there are a hundred of things that are happening, we have short memories and you're like, well, where does that really go? Is that something that would be of interest to the special counsel, in his broader look into possible obstruction of justice by the president?

WEHLE: Sure. The obstruction of justice count requires a showing of corrupt intent, so that's what makes it quite difficult like perjury to demonstrate. That is with proof, climb into the president's mind and to determine whether the decisions he made, for example, firing Comey, had a purpose to influence the campaign, to influence the Russia probe.

[16:25:05] In that instance, yes, the fact that it appears that he asked his Justice Department, to pick up political rivals and without necessarily a factual predicate, or any sort of ongoing investigation that would justify that, that is problematic for him in terms of reliability, but it's also problematic for the country in terms of the separation of powers and ensuring that we don't have any branch that's too much power.

SCIUTTO: Not small things.

WEHLE: Yes.

ZELDIN: One thing to that, which I don't disagree necessarily with, is it also again depends on Mueller's view of whether or not the president acting in his constitutional prerogative can be charged with obstruction. And that's by no means a legal issue that's been --

SCIUTTO: One that might go to the Supreme Court, we don't know.

ZELDIN: Exactly.

SCIUTTO: Michael Zeldin, Kim Wehle, thanks very much. Happy holidays to you and your families.

He is young, rich, loyal and a political operative. Will he be President Trump's next chief of staff?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)