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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

James Comey Slams Trump and Republicans; Trump Reviews Ex-Green Beret's Case. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired December 17, 2018 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:02]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: 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, and the rule of law matters, and the truth matters.

Where are those Republicans today? At some point, someone has to stand up and, in the face of fear of FOX News, fear of their base, fear of mean tweets, stand up for the values of this country and not slink away into retirement.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: CNN's Manu Raju is live on Capitol Hill.

Manu, you were there questioning Comey as he came out of that closed- door hearing this afternoon. What else did he have to say?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

In addition to slamming Republicans and the president for not defending the rule of law, he also defended the actions that he took as FBI director, including things that have come under scrutiny in recent days, including the interview of Michael Flynn, the president's former national security adviser, by FBI agents.

There has been criticism from the Flynn camp and from some conservatives that that was not done properly. He said it absolutely was. He also defended his decision not to tell the former acting Attorney General Sally Yates that Flynn was being interviewed until the day of the interview, saying had he done that, the White House would have strongly criticized an Obama holdover for going after the national security adviser for President Trump.

And I asked him directly about the president's tweet from over the weekend that Michael Cohen is a rat. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) COMEY: This is the president of the United States calling a witness who has cooperated with his own Justice Department a rat. Say that again to yourself at home and remind yourself where we have ended up.

This is not about Republicans and Democrats. This about, what does it mean to be an American? What are the things that we care about, above our policy disputes, which are important? There is a set of values that represent the glue of this country and they are under attack by things just like that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Now, in the room, James Comey was asked about his decision not to publicly announce that President Trump was not under investigation. And he told members, according to a source briefed on the matter, that he probably made the right decision not to announce that publicly, because based on public reporting, the president appears to be under investigation now.

So Democrats and Republicans were taken aback by those comments, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Manu Raju on Capitol Hill, thanks so much.

I saw you nodding, Jen Psaki, even though I know in October 2016, you weren't nodding much at what James Comey had to do when he announced that Hillary Clinton, they had reopened the case. But you agree with him now.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think he's saying the right things. The problem is that he is somebody who is clearly thinking about his own reputation. He obviously had to testify. But he's out there in public far more than I think either party would prefer.

It's sad, because the point he was making about how the president of the United States should operate, which is what I was nodding to, how he should conduct himself, is absolutely correct. And there are senior nonpartisan Republican members of law enforcement who should be saying those things. But he's just not the right messenger right now.

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, I watched that, Jake. And I watched him in the hallway full of indignation and just being very forceful.

And I think, where was that guy when Donald Trump -- when they had this exchange, when Trump says, hey, can you take it easy on Flynn? And Comey doesn't say anything and runs out and scribbles it down in his notebook.

And when asked under oath by Senator Feinstein at a hearing, he said, I guess -- I just lacked the courage to do that, to come forward and tell the committee.

So here you have this guy now standing in the hallway of the House, full of indignation and being very strong and saying somebody needs to do these things, somebody should have done these things. Why didn't he just walk up to the president, stand up right then, and say, Mr. President, you can't ask me that, you can't ask me to take it easy on General Flynn, because I'm not chief law enforcement guy here in this case, so it's wrong for you to do that?

(CROSSTALK)

PSAKI: He's clearly recognizing the error of his ways at a lot of moments, perhaps that, certainly in the Hillary Clinton moment. But the problem is, it's just a little too little, too late, publicly, is the issue, I think.

TAPPER: President Trump isn't just going after Michael Cohen and calling him a rat.

He went after you, Bill.

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": He didn't call me a rat.

TAPPER: He didn't call you a rat.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: Just an unsuccessful publisher.

TAPPER: He went after you, "The Weekly Standard," RIP, the publication you used to be the editor for. You were I believe editor at large. You worked there for -- how many years was it, 26?

KRISTOL: Well, 23.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Well, 23 years.

And there are now a whole bunch of unemployed conservative journalists. And he attacked you. And what did you think when you heard that?

KRISTOL: Yes. I was one of those who started it in 1995 with Fred Barnes and John Podhoretz, published many fine people like Jake Tapper.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: I have written a couple freelance pieces.

KRISTOL: I came across that in the early part of the -- maybe over a decade ago. And no wonder we didn't make it. No.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: Low standards.

KRISTOL: It was high standards, including your fine piece, which I reread, because someone put it online this weekend. Oh, you know, it was just silly.

[16:35:02]

He said the last line, may they rest in peace. I guess my response to that is, we're not really resting in peace. The magazine may be gone, at least for now. Maybe there will be a successor.

But I think Steve Hayes and I and John McCormick and I and other conservatives who don't think Donald Trump is an appropriate representative of American conservatism and a good president, we will keep on saying what we believe.

TAPPER: What did you make of Comey's remarks today, Symone?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I think that you won't ever hear me jumping out, trying to leap over leaps and bounds to defend the FBI.

But I will say, look, James Comey, I think, has, to Jen's point, realized the error of his ways in many respects. But he just will never be the best messenger on this, even if what he is saying is true. I know a lot of folks inside the building at the FBI love him.

He is very well-respected in the building. He has done a lot when it comes to diversity, a lot promoting younger members of law enforcement, giving them opportunities.

But the fact of the matter is, he made some real blunders and some missteps in 2016, blunders and missteps that he cannot fix with a press conference in the halls of Congress.

TAPPER: So you're with Jen that he should zip it?

SANDERS: I just -- look, he has to go and testify. He's doing his due diligence. But in terms of the pontificating and what is in my opinion grandstanding, he's not the one.

URBAN: I just think this. Mueller will never write a book. That's all I'm saying.

TAPPER: Probably true.

Also in our politics lead, tomorrow, former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn will finally learn if he is going to spend any time in prison. A judge is going to hand down a sentence, one that special counsel Robert Mueller's team argues should be on the lighter side.

His sentencing comes in the shadow of two former associates whose indictments were unsealed earlier today, revealing they illegally lobbied on behalf of Turkey.

Flynn is referenced in the indictment as person A.

CNN's Kara Scannell joins me now.

Kara, these two men were trying to get the U.S. to deport a Turkish cleric back to Turkey. Why? KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, so the Turkish

government blames the Turkish cleric for being behind the 2016 coup to overthrow the government.

And since then, and really beginning with that coup attempt, which the cleric has denied, the Turkish government has been trying to get him extradited back to their country. And so what we have learned through the charges today is that the involvement of the Turkish government was much more extensive than what was believed to have been the case.

And these two men were charged with conspiring to avoid registering as a foreign agent, these FARA charges that we have been talking a lot about. And so what we have learned is that the Turkish government was actually deciding the budget for this program. It was a lobbying and P.R. campaign and that they were very closely involved in it over the several months that it was under way.

So these are the new details that we have learned on this. And it comes, like you said, just ahead of Michael Flynn's sentencing tomorrow, Jake.

TAPPER: These were Flynn's associates. He's Person A in the documents. Why isn't he being charged?

SCANNELL: Well, what we learned from the sentencing memorandums that circulated last week between the government and Michael Flynn's lawyers is that Michael Flynn has been a significant cooperator with not just the special counsel's office, but with other prosecutors.

And we even learned in those filings that Flynn is cooperating with them on three criminal probes. This one appears to be one of them because Flynn, like you said, was involved with this. He had the intimate details.

And he even wrote an op-ed that was a key piece of this lobbying and P.R. campaign, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Kara Scannell, thanks so much.

The president stepping into a legal fight involving a former Green Beret who admitted on national television to killing a suspected bomb- maker. Where did the president get the idea to intervene? We have an idea.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:42:47]

TAPPER: In our world lead, President Trump now says he will review the case of a former Green Beret charged by a military court with premeditated murder.

Army Major Matt Golsteyn has admitted he killed the suspected bomb- maker in 2010. He did so out of fear that the bomb-maker would otherwise retaliate against a local Afghan leader whom the bomb-maker while in U.S. custody had seen cooperating with American soldiers.

That's according to Army documents obtained by "The Washington Post."

Golsteyn and another soldier then took the bomb-maker off base, killed him and ultimately burned his corpse in a trash heap.

Human Rights Watch said Golsteyn's actions appear to be a summary execution.

Let's bring in CNN's Jim Sciutto.

Jim, the Pentagon says is a criminal matter. Why is President Trump even involving himself in it?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, it appears the spark, Jake, was he saw a story on FOX News because of the timing of the tweet and the fact that, in that tweet, he tagged the FOX News anchor who had reported the story.

And the essential facts here, I mean, the open question, as you laid out, is, did he do this under orders or not under orders? And the fact is it's an ongoing investigation. It's an investigation being conducted by the U.S. Army.

And yet the president, as commander in chief at the top of the food chain, the chain of command there, inserting himself into that investigation over the weekend.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): President Trump threatening to insert himself into an ongoing criminal investigation, this time about a former Special Forces officer who admitted on national television to killing an accused bomb-maker who was in U.S. custody in Afghanistan.

Trump tweeting on Sunday -- quote -- "At the request of many, I will be reviewing the case of a U.S. military hero, Major Matt Golsteyn, who is charged with murder."

What sparked his interest? Apparently, a story that aired on FOX News, Mr. Trump tagging the anchor who broadcast the story in his tweet.

Major Golsteyn, the soldier the president referred to, is charged with murdering the accused bomb-maker in Afghanistan in 2010. According to "The Washington Post," the man was suspected of making explosives similar to those used to kill two Marines with Golsteyn's unit.

However, according to "The New York Times" and "Washington Post," the suspected bomb-maker was not on the predetermined kill list, and he was unarmed.

[16:45:00] The US Army has been investigating the incident intermittently since 2011 when Golsteyn admitted to the killing while taking a polygraph test for a job with the CIA. The Army then closed the case after determining it did not have any evidence to prosecute according to the Post. But the military reopened it after Golsteyn again admitted to the killing this time in an interview in 2016 also on Fox News.

BRET BAIER, ANCHOR, FOX NEWS CHANNEL: Did you kill the Taliban bomb maker?

MATTHEW GOLSTEYN, FORMER GREEN BERET: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Golsteyn's lawyers says the killing occurred during a mission ordered by his superiors and that there is no evidence to justify reopening the case.

PHILLIP STACKHOUSE, LAWYER FOR MATT GOLDSTEYN: There was nothing described in Bret's interview that the Army didn't have back in 2011.

SCIUTTO: The President's statement that he will review the matter raises troubling questions about whether his praise for Golsteyn could unduly influence the prosecution. The Pentagon for their part tells CNN "the allegations against major Matt Golsteyn are a law enforcement matter. The Department of Defense will respect the integrity of this process.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: Of course, the question is whether potential jurors, jurors in a court-martial hear the President's word that influences their decision or the prosecutors. Those are open questions. There are legal experts that we spoke to that says that the President is so far removed from the immediate chain of command, that that is unlikely to happen. But certainly, of course, Jake, this is a pattern with this President, is often inserting himself into things that are -- there ongoing and that you want that separation ideally by the rule of law between the executive and the judicial branches even when the military, of course, is involved here as well.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right, Jim Sciutto, thanks so much. Boy, I remember the hue and cry when President Obama said that a police officer in Cambridge had acted stupidly because he asked Professor Henry Louis Gates about whether or not that was his house he was in. Here we have a president inserting himself in a much graver situation.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: The Queen old days of the beer summit may remember it fondly. Look, I think this is a difficult case to hear about because he's obviously somebody who's been served in the military but there are rules of engagement for a reason. This is -- there's a military investigation for a reason. It was going through that process.

So when the President of the United States, the Commander-in-Chief inserts himself, he's really undercutting his own military and that's how we should view this. No doubt a difficult case to look at and I think the details of it are also difficult to hear. I mean he took this person off base and he killed him and burned his body as it said. Now whether this person was obviously accused of doing very terrible, horrible things to Americans, he expressed a concern about what he might do, all of these things are taken into account by the military process.

TAPPER: Yes.

PSAKI: It's in place for a reason.

TAPPER: David, you served, you were in the first Gulf War and I have not served but I know a lot of people who served in Afghanistan. I wrote a book about it. And I've heard their frustrations when they have to let somebody go that they think is likely going to commit acts of violence.

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, the fact -- the fact pattern here this guy was found not alleged or suspected bombmaker but found with you know --

TAPPER: Bomb-making supplies.

URBAN: He's a bomb maker. He killed Americans. He killed Afghans. He would have -- he would have done so again. I think Major Golsteyn said I had to do it because I couldn't live with myself if he killed somebody else. If I let the guy go and he killed other --

TAPPER: That's not the process.

URBAN: I understand. That's what I'm saying. That was -- that was his -- that was a statement I believe he made to folks and I'm not sure the military investigated in 2010 I believe, he was let to -- he was let to resign and other in honorable conditions. He was stripped of his medals and his green beret and allowed to kind of walk away from it. And so I'm not sure what new facts have emerged since that time that are going to overturn that but we'll wait and see.

TAPPER: Your son served in the Marines. I mean, it is -- you know, again, as Jen points out, it's tough because these people put themselves in life-or-death situations not of their own volition but there are rules of engagement.

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Yes. I think most huge majority of soldiers Marines, pilots, went to a lot of trouble to follow rules of engagement. Sometimes they didn't like them. Trump change some of them actually in 2017. Actually, Petraeus changed some when he took over in Afghanistan, I know in 2010 I guess it was in ways that I think the people on the ground liked.

But these were you know, they were very careful though to try not to kill innocent people or even kill guilty people without really being sure they were guilty or and so not to do -- not to do this extrajudicial way. Having said all that, you know, I'm sympathetic to the --

URBAN: This is like Marcus Luttrell, right? In his book, if you read the book Lone Survivor Marcus Luttrell, they have this big debate on the hillside there. They find -- they captured these goat herders, and if we leave these guys go they're going to go get -- a bunch of people are going to come kill us. What should we do? They let him go and sure enough, you had an operation red wing you know, a lot -- the biggest loss of Special Forces life in American history.

TAPPER: But here we had -- this is another instance of President Trump seeing a report on Fox News not finding out more about it, just going by what he saw, what he picked up, and then changing policy or trying to change policy or inserting himself in policy. I've heard some people say we shouldn't really worry about state-run media, its media run state that's the concern here.

[16:50:08] SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Media run state CC Fox News, Fox Business, whatever else is out there. I think folks should I keep saying this and people should be concerned because they actually should be. It used -- there used to be a really high bar about the things that get to the President's desk. The things that they come across the President's purview for he or she hopefully sometime soon, maybe sooner than later to consider.

Now, all Donald Trump had to do was turn on the television in his office or in the residence or wherever he is and see something on Fox News and he'd take -- he thinks this is I'm going to talk about. Now, I -- Fox News -- and I know we don't like to disparage other networks and whatnot but unfortunately the bar that has been applied to other networks such as our network and NBC, MSNBC is not the same bar that is applied at Fox.

There are a whole swath of Americans who only watch Fox News who only get their news from a different network that does not have a high bar, that is not fact-checking, that is not vetting. That is why this is so dangerous. They're not. I mean --

TAPPER: So the President -- the President meanwhile changed the channel at one point this weekend and I think he was watching Saturday Night Live. He possibly saw skit like this when he was watching.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hey, Mr. Trump, I just wanted to say Merry Christmas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's President Trump, Sarah.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's a good one.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: That's from a skit called it's a wonderful Trump. It's like a wonderful -- Donald Trump is not elected president. The President tweeted, "A real scandal is the one-sided coverage hour by hour of networks like NBC and Democrats spin machines like Saturday Night Live. It is all nothing less than unfair news coverage and Dem commercials. Should be tested in courts, can't be legal? Only defame and belittle. Collusion?"

So now the President wants to investigate NBC News and "Saturday Night Live"?

KRISTOL: I mean, he just wants to say he wants to investigate them, I suppose. But I mean, this is -- on the point about Trump, look, if he thinks it's an injustice that the military is involved in CYA or whatever and is doing an injustice to someone, he can pardon that person. He can also say you know, I -- with all due respect to the chain of command, I'm going to call up General Jack Keane and ask five senior officers together and privately look at this for me personally, quietly --

PSAKI: That's a normal --

KRISTOL: And spend two weeks and they're going to report to me offline and I'm going to make my own decision because I'm really concerned about this case. So there are ways if you wish to intervene that it is legitimate to do so and may be appropriate to do so if you take the military bureaucracies messing up. What isn't a good idea is this popping off in a way that both gets everyone up in arms and confused and irritated and diminishes our -- you know, the seats have diminishes concern for the rules of engagement of the rules and law and so forth.

TAPPER: Final word.

URBAN: Listen. I was going to say, the social media in the military world is if you probably follows is really blown up about this so I don't think the President just got this from Fox.

TAPPER: No, a lot of people are --

URBAN: It is -- it is really out there and it's just not one show. He's been hearing about it from lots and lots and lots of people so --

TAPPER: Absolutely. All right everyone. Two desperate fights, a two-year-old boy struggling to stay alive in California and his mother thousands of miles away trying to get to see him one last time. Why won't the U.S. government let that happen. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:00] TAPPER: In our "NATIONAL LEAD" today, religious leaders in California are calling on President Trump to make an exception to his travel ban so that a Yemeni mother can see her dying two-year-old son. The boy is suffering from a brain disease that has left him on life support. His father is a U.S. citizen and by his side at a California hospital. But the President's latest travel ban blocks any travel from seven countries and blocks this mother from coming from Yemen to the United States.

CNN's dan Simon is live for us in Sacramento. And Dan, you just spoke with the boy's father. Do they have any hope?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, I'm not sure hope is the right word. But this family is doing everything they can to get the mother over to the United States so she can say goodbye to her child before he dies.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALI HASSAN, WIFE UNABLE TO SEE DYING SON: Time is running out. Please help us. Get my family together again.

SIMON: As two-year-old Abdullah Hassan lay dying in Oakland, his mother is thousands of miles away unable to see him due to the Trump administration's travel ban which includes five predominantly Muslim countries.

SAAD SWEILEM, CIVIL RIGHTS ATTORNEY, CAIR: This is a United States citizen who's going to die separated from his mother because of our own hateful and bigoted policies.

SIMON: The toddler is on life support. He has a fatal brain condition and is in the final stages. His American father now pleading with U.S. officials to show compassion.

HASSAN: My wife is calling me every day wanting to kiss and hold her son for the one last time.

SIMON: Abdullah was born in Yemen and brought to the U.S. for care. His parents never thought they would spend his final days apart.

HASSAN: He's about to die soon. His mother just is unable to touch him, to see him, to even give him a kiss before he go.

SIMON: How was your wife holding up?

HASSAN: Crying, crying every single day.

SIMON: The family says the State Department is processing their application for a travel waiver. The Council on American-Islamic relations now plans to file court documents to expedite the request.

BASIM ELKARRA, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CAIR SACRAMENTO: We are ready to fly her out at a moment's notice as soon as we receive this waiver hopefully today.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SIMON: Now, we reached out to the State Department. They say they don't comment on any individual cases, but they say they look at each and every case on the merits. Jake?

TAPPER: Is that who we are? Dan Simon, thank you so much. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER or you can tweet the show @ THELEADCNN. Our coverage on CNN continues right now.