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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Yemeni Mother Blocked By Travel Ban From Seeing Dying Son; Trump Legal Troubles Escalating; What Did Russia Do to Help Elect Trump?; Senate Report: Russian Trolls Tried to Depress Black Votes. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 17, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:15]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: If crimes are not crimes, why are so many people being indicted?

THE LEAD starts right now.

As Washington braces for what's likely to be another tumultuous week, the president's attorney lays out a totally new timeline for that notorious Trump Tower Moscow deal.

Also, it's much worse than we thought. A new report on what Russia did to help elect Trump and influence your vote, including targeting African-Americans, Christians, sex addicts and sowing racial discord.

Plus, a former Green Beret charged with murdering a sudden Taliban bomb-maker and then destroying the body. Now, thanks to the president's favorite news channel, he's wading in.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead.

Surrounded by prosecutors, allegations and close associates being hauled off to prison, President Trump is now shifting his defense by simultaneously claiming that crimes are not crimes, while also changing the timeline for a key aspect of the Mueller investigation.

In addition to his tweets about the -- quote -- "Russian witch-hunt hoax," the president sent his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to admit that then candidate Trump had conversations about the proposed Trump Tower in Moscow even more recently than previously disclosed, saying that Trump told Mueller he discussed the potential deal through the November 2016 presidential election, much, much later than previously claimed.

Recall that Mueller had previously characterized the deal as potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and needing approval from the Kremlin.

Giuliani seeming to say that the answer was given in response to Mueller's written questions, making the comments in an interview with ABC News. But Giuliani also seemed to assert that nothing matters, claiming that none of these issues are crimes. Not the hush money payments to alleged romantic partners. Not any potential heads-up from WikiLeaks about Hillary Clinton e-mails they were about to reveal.

Not any questions of conspiracy between the Trump team and the Russian government. All of it, for Mr. Giuliani, totally kosher.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is at the White House.

Kaitlan, while Giuliani was saying all this, his client, the president, was making some false assertions about the FBI raid on Michael Cohen's office.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

In the president's eyes, the FBI broke into Michael Cohen's office, and in everyone else's eyes, they legally entered to perform an authorized search, with even Michael Cohen, whose office was the one being raided, saying that the agents who did the search were both professional and courteous.

But that doesn't matter to the president, because what he is doing is trying to undermine and discredit the many investigations that are now surrounding him.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS (voice-over): As the cloud of the Russia investigation grows darker, President Trump is remaining calm in public.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it's going to be a really exciting year.

COLLINS: But out of view making clear he's starting to feel boxed in, launching a fresh barrage of attacks on the special counsel, tweeting nine times about the Russia investigation this weekend, claiming it has nothing to do with collusion and is a Democrat scam.

Trump venting after a series of court filings from Robert Mueller and other U.S. attorneys revealed there are investigations touching almost every aspect of his political and personal life.

The president also going after Michael Cohen, his former attorney and fixer, who is now a convicted felon and cooperating witness, calling him a rat and accusing the FBI of breaking into his office last April, despite agents using a search warrant.

As Trump remained behind closed doors Sunday, his lawyer was in front of the camera and on the attack.

RUDY GIULIANI, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You have got a serial liar who taped his own client and lied about it.

COLLINS: Arguing the hush money payments to women alleging affairs weren't campaign finance violations. GIULIANI: Paying $130,000 to Stormy whatever and paying $100,000 to

the other one is not a crime.

COLLINS: And rejecting the idea the president will ever sit down with Robert Mueller.

GIULIANI: Over my dead body. But, you know, I could be dead.

COLLINS: All of this as Washington is bracing for a partial government shutdown Friday and the president and his aides are digging in on the border wall fight.

STEPHEN MILLER, SENIOR ADVISER TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: We're going to do whatever is necessary to build the border wall, to stop this ongoing crisis of illegal immigration.

MARGARET BRENNAN, CBS NEWS: And that means a shutdown?

MILLER: This is a -- this is a very -- if it comes to it, absolutely.

COLLINS: And Trump making good on his promise to shake up his staff, announcing his interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, will lead amid a slew of ethics investigations, just hours after Trump abruptly named White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney as his acting chief of staff.

[16:05:03]

Not long after Trump announced that pick, this video of Mulvaney at a debate in 2016 surfaced.

MICK MULVANEY, WHITE HOUSE BUDGET DIRECTOR: Yes, I'm supporting Donald Trump. I'm doing so as enthusiastically as I can, even though I think he's a terrible human being. But the choice on the other side is just as bad.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, a spokesman for Mulvaney said those comments were old news and that he made them before he met President Trump. But that wasn't the only time he criticized the president before the election.

In one Facebook post, he said that, in a dream world, both he and Hillary Clinton would be disqualified from taking office, which, Jake, is quite a change in tune. Now in recent weeks, he's been lobbying to become the next chief of staff and in just two weeks for today will take over for John Kelly -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins at the White House.

Let's chat about this with my experts.

David, I have to ask you, when it comes to the Trump Tower Moscow, if everything is fine with this deal and there is nothing inappropriate, obviously nothing criminal, according to Rudy Giuliani, why are there so many different answers? First we were told they stopped talking about it in January 2016, then

June 2016, now November 2016. That's suspicious, if there is nothing wrong.

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. It sure is. And, listen, I don't think -- Bill and I were talking about this before we got started here.

The president was running a business before this, and I don't think he had any duty to stop running that business. Michael Cohen was negotiating those deals. It wasn't the president. He wasn't involved in it. Michael Cohen, you know, relayed some things to him.

So I'm not quite sure why he didn't just say, yes, look, there were ongoing discussions and nothing came to fruition and I don't exactly remember the last date I had the conversation, but nothing came of it. And I said that I think this is important to note, that if there was some big quid pro quo, right, we're going to help you become president, we're going to give you this Moscow deal, it never materialized.

There was no Moscow deal. There was no hotel. It was talk by Michael Cohen about getting a deal which he would be paid probably handsomely for. He was out pushing the envelope on it, probably shouldn't have been. And we will see. Mueller obviously knows all.

TAPPER: True that there is no Trump Tower Moscow, but it's also true that Robert Mueller seems to be focused on it quite a bit, based on the sentencing guidelines that he gave for Michael Cohen. He talked about how lucrative it was, potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars, needing Kremlin approval.

So it's of some importance to Mr. Mueller.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right.

And, look, we don't have a lot of understanding of Trump's investments, because he hasn't released his tax returns. So some of this is guesses. But there are a lot of scenarios here, which we don't know. And Mueller knows more than we do, which is, you know, it could be money that they were in the hole for. It could be Jared having trouble.

All of these things we have been debating a little bit publicly. Mueller knows more than we do. But a big question has always been why, what's the motivation? And the follow the money aspect of it, which Mueller is clearly following the money, is something that may lead us to something.

It's also something that the Senate Intelligence Committee has been focused on. So we will see. We don't know enough about his investments. That's the truth.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: If we follow the money, we do see that the people who are culpable, Facebook, Amazon.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: We follow that money, it's pretty clear there were some people who have dirty hands here.

TAPPER: Yes. And we will talk about that in the next segment.

Bill, I want you to take a listen to some of the things that Mr. Giuliani said in which he talked about what is a crime and what is not a crime, because it was very interesting, and I think it differs a little bit with what the Justice Department thinks.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GIULIANI: It's not a crime, George. Paying $130,000 to Stormy whatever and paying $100,000 to the other one is not a crime. If Roger Stone gave anybody a heads-up about WikiLeaks' leaks, that's not a crime. Collusion is not a crime.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Now, in terms of the last one, there is no crime collusion. It's conspiracy. That would actually be the crime. But it seems like he's trying to kind of rewrite the penal code.

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Yes. I don't know, maybe not with so much success. This was Rudy Giuliani, the hard- nosed prosecutor.

Why is Rudy Giuliani Rudy Giuliani? Why do we know who he is today? Because he pushed the boundaries, I would say, of law enforcement, maybe in a good way mostly, and locked up a lot of people in New York.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: The broken windows theory.

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: First as U.S. attorney locking up white-collar people, then becoming famous for that, and then as mayor, I think on the whole doing a lot of good for New York with very tough anti-crime policies. He wasn't quite as lenient when it came to poor kids from the inner city who he was being tough on. Maybe it was good for the city. But still...

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: What?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Stop and frisk was not good for anybody.

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: That's a separate issue.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Wasn't that under Bloomberg?

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: That was Giuliani and then Bloomberg, but certainly the reforms of the '90s did a lot of good.

Anyway, he used to be a tough on guy crime. But you know what? Under Trump -- maybe you haven't noticed this -- the Republican Party not such a law and order party anymore. Right?

TAPPER: Yes. That's the argument I think Symone was about to make.

SANDERS: Absolutely not a law and order party.

Look, Rudy Giuliani, who, again, stuck his claim in locking up large swathes of black and brown poor people, and I would just say poor people in general as well, via stop and frisk policies, policies that were racial profiling, if you ask me.

[16:10:00]

Rudy Giuliani, in my opinion, has really fell off the wagon in this respect. And if this is what the Trump team wants to trot out as their legal defense, I'm concerned about their legal strategy, Jake.

URBAN: I just think what he's talking about are kind of technical. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin here in terms of what constitutes campaign finance violations, right?

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: I would like to be clear. Campaign finance violations and campaign finance laws, they're pretty clear in large respects. There's not a lot of wiggle room.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: I think there are lawyers who disagree with you.

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: If you were trying to pay off women because you thought it would affect your campaign, and you used campaign finances to do that, whether it was paying somebody back.

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: If you did that, I think there's tape.

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: There are tapes where folks said the president thought, then candidate Trump, this would affect his campaign. That is a violation of campaign finance law.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: In the Edwards case, it was a hung jury, and not prosecuted again.

TAPPER: I don't know that it was more clear-cut. Just I don't want to get into the weeds of this, but American Media, Inc., the parent company of "The National Enquirer," they said, they asserted in the non-prosecution statement that they did it to affect the election.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: Right. They said.

TAPPER: They said it, not Trump.

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: And I'm old enough to remember when Republicans disapproved of John Edwards' behavior.

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: Now he's held up as a bright, shining example.

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: He's almost as innocent as John Edwards.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: No, no, no, I'm not saying that.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: I'm trying to explain the Rudy comments, right? I'm trying to explain what Rudy Giuliani I think is trying to say is, this is a very technical part of the law and that there may not be as clear-cut as people may

(CROSSTALK)

PSAKI: What Rudy Giuliani is trying to do is state nothing that Trump did that is horribly wrong and all of the people around him is illegal.

Now, he has a very strange understanding of the law, even given his background. So he's -- I'm not even sure he's the right one to say that. But he's trying a P.R. game right now. That's what he's doing, because he sees it circling around Trump and his people and he's trying to tell people, none of this is bad. Yes, he did all of this, but there is nothing to worry about here.

(CROSSTALK) TAPPER: We can talk about the payoffs to the women and whether or not that was done to affect the election or just to protect his family. You can talk about collusion as a word vs. conspiracy.

But the claim that if Roger Stone gave everybody presumably on the campaign a heads-up on the campaign about WikiLeaks leaks, that's not a crime, I think that that would probably be considered a crime because that would be considered conspiracy, given that even the director of the CIA, Mr. Pompeo, your friend, says that WikiLeaks is a front for Russian intelligence.

URBAN: That's assuming that Roger Stone had talked to Julian Assange or somebody at WikiLeaks and had some knowledge about that, right, and it wasn't just simply guessing. Right?

SANDERS: Yes, but that's not what Rudy Giuliani said. Rudy Giuliani said on the Sunday shows yesterday, if Roger Stone gave the campaign folks a heads-up, it's not a crime.

Well, he couldn't give a heads-up if he didn't have information. So it's assumed he had information. I would like to know -- the goalposts keep moving, Jake. At first, there was no collusion. At first, there were no crimes. At first, there were no payments.

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: We're so beyond goalposts. That whole metaphor has to be abandoned. We don't have goalposts anymore.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: I, like everybody, I think, wants to see the Mueller report. I think it's good for America to get it out quickly and thoroughly.

TAPPER: And he will be the ultimate arbiter, not any of us, not me, not Rudy Giuliani.

Everyone, stick around.

Posts targeting Christians seeking sex addiction therapy, just one of the new details we're learning about how Russian trolls tried to influence your vote at the direction of the Kremlin -- the terrifying new report next.

Plus, a 2-year-old boy struggling to stay alive, his mother is not allowed to come see him. Why is the U.S. government preventing her from seeing her dying son?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:17:36] TAPPER: In our world lead today, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Google, Pinterest, Tumblr, new revelations about how widespread and also meticulous Russia's interference with the 2016 election really was. Two new reports released by the Senate Intelligence Committee show aggressive attempts by the Russians to target Americans by social media to sow discord in the U.S., including how a Russian-linked troll group actively tried to depress votes among black Americans and rile up fears among conservatives about voter fraud. The Russians even tweeted at Jewish reporters, telling them that Trump was, quote, warming up the oven for them.

CNN's Alex Marquardt has the story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Efforts by Russia to meddle in American politics through social media are active and ongoing and far bigger than once thought. That's according to a pair of detailed and stunning new reports commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee released today. The reports tracked Russian activity during the 2016 presidential race and after.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to win back the White House.

MARQUARDT: Activity that during the campaign worked to support Donald Trump's candidacy and undermine Hillary Clinton's, including by trying to depress African-Americans' votes and raise fears of a stolen election on the right.

RENEE DIRESTA, DIRECTOR OF RESEARCH, NEW KNOWLEDGE: They didn't just stop. After the 2016 election, if anything, on Instagram in particular, they really ramped up.

MARQUARDT: The analysis was based on troves of data handed over by Facebook, Twitter and Google. In one data set, analysts found that the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency which is linked to the Kremlin posted more than 10 million tweets, 116,000 Instagram posts, 61,000 Facebook posts and 1,000 videos.

Earlier this year, the same group was indicted by special counsel, Robert Mueller. The Russian group's efforts went beyond misinformation on social media. The group regularly tried to co-opt unsuspecting Americans to do certain tasks or hand over their personal information, developing them as so-called assets. In one example, Russian trolls created a page called Army of Jesus, targeting Christians and offering free counseling to people with sexual addiction. The hotlines posted, the report says created an opportunity to blackmail or manipulate these individuals.

CNN also tracked down this Trump supporter in Florida who was paid by the Internet Research Agency to build a cage to bring to an event to call for the imprisonment of Hillary Clinton.

[16:20:05] HARRY MILLER: There is nothing -- nothing at all to lend you to think that it's anything other than people trying to support a candidate.

MARQUARDT: The group's most prolific efforts specifically targeted black American communities. Not just to depress their vote, but to develop them too as assets. One such operation convinced and paid martial arts instructor Omowale Adewale to run self defense classes for African-Americans to, quote, protect your rights, let them know black power matters.

CNN's Drew Griffin spoke to Adewale.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: They convinced you.

OMOWALE ADEWALE, MARTIAL ARTS INSTRUCTOR: Very easily. Very easily. Some of the things were, you know, sketchy. But at the end of the day, still fitness.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARQUARDT: And, Jake, one of the most important things to note here is that despite the huge amount of evidence of Russian interference, one of the reports says the big social media companies only handed over the bare minimum amount of data required by the Senate Intelligence Committee. So there are likely many more Russian accounts that have not been identified, just as we gear up for the 2020 election -- Jake.

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

Let's bring in CNN's counterterrorism analyst, Phil Mudd, who worked for both the FBI and the CIA.

First off, just as a general impression, is there anything in this report that stands out to you or surprised you?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Yes. There are a couple of things when I look at, I feel like I'm been naive every step of the way. When we first started hearing about this a few years ago, you're thinking, maybe they're trying to manipulate a few Facebook accounts.

Audacity and agility, they're not trying to manipulate a few Facebook accounts. You're looking at, remember, they're managing this thousands of miles away. People who are sophisticated enough to understand geography, how does that change north, south, east, west. To understand that day by day as the messaging from the campaigns change. How do you change that?

Let me get real granular. How do you put that in language, American English, so people don't immediately step back and say, that's foreign propaganda? Whoever was doing this was audacious.

And in terms of agility, understanding the technical environment well enough to say it's not just Twitter and Facebook, we're transitioning to Instagram, which is more of a new generation thing and moving away from Facebook -- I'm stepping back, saying, they weren't trying to change an election, they're trying to change America.

TAPPER: And I guess the basic question I have is, are the Russians on their own sophisticated enough to know how to do this, or could they only do so with help from Americans? I mean, do they know all of this stuff already? Are they that smart? Are they that sophisticated? MUDD: If I were them running this, and as I watch what I witnessed in

the past couple years, I would say, whether it's unwitting or witting, and I suspect most of it is unwitting, they had to be using people who knew how to manipulate this media, who had inside information, not inside in terms of secrets, but inside information, even as simple as how does America work. If you're looking not only at language but looking at geographic differences in this country, looking at how the party messages are changing day to day, to anticipate, you can train native Russians thousands of miles away to keep the pulse on that kind of political change day by day, almost minute by minute from thousands of miles away, I don't buy that. I don't think you could train an American to do that. I don't think you could train a Russian.

TAPPER: So there was a study by the "Washington Post" and "New York Times" looking at the same data that concluded that 4.4 million Americans who voted for Obama in 2012 did not vote at all in 2016, 4.4 million. And a third of them were black.

Now, the big thing that's lacking in all of these reports is we don't know how effective any of this was, any of this interference by the Russians. But when you look at what they were doing, and then you look that it was less than 90,000 votes, fewer than 90,000 votes in three states, may flip the difference. And that it was 4.4 million people who didn't vote, who voted for Obama four years before, and a third were black -- I mean, it looks like, well, this might have -- made a difference.

MUDD: Looks like? Let's cut to the chase. We saw what they were doing in Helsinki. The president may not have liked it, but we forget that Putin got up there said, excuse me, yes, I wanted President Trump to win.

And if you look at the sophistication of the operation, some of it, I'm not a political expert, but even as an average American, I'm looking at this saying this is voter suppression. This is a way to both energize people who support the president and also discourage people who don't potentially support this president.

So I look at this not simply as something that's sort of a minimal effort in the campaign. This is a very sophisticated, huge effort to say, how do we stop people from voting in America? And I thought probably pretty effective.

TAPPER: And doesn't look like Congress knows what to do to stop it in the future.

MUDD: Well, I'll tell you. I think we took a great step today. After all of the time we have spent hammering and I think appropriately, the House divisions in the Congress about how to proceed with this investigation, the Senate got outside expertise and has the information. Next step, what are they going to do with it?

TAPPER: What are they going to do? That's the big question.

Phil Mudd, thanks so much.

President Trump's former national security adviser hours from learning if he will spend time behind bars, and if so, how much?

[16:25:00] Now, two of his friends are facing charges. We'll explain why. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: We have some breaking news for you in the politics lead now.

Former FBI director, James Comey, absolutely unleashed on President Trump and Republicans just moments ago. Comey said President Trump has damaged the FBI's reputation with his, quote, constant lies, and he attempted to shame Republicans for staying silent about it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: Republicans used to understand that the actions of a president matter, the words of a president matter, the rule of law matters and the truth matters.