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WaPo: Trump Concealed Details of Putin Meetings; FBI Probe into whether Trump Worked for Russia; U.S. Secretary of State to Meet with Saudi Crown Prince; Trump Administration Preparing for Shutdown to Drag on through February. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired January 13, 2019 - 03:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Keeping secrets: "The Washington Post" reports Donald Trump went to great lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Vladimir Putin.

The top U.S. diplomat travels to Saudi Arabia soon. Mike Pompeo promises he'll bring up the murder of Jamal Khashoggi with the Saudi crown prince. We'll have a live report.

And coping with the shutdown: we'll talk to a federal employee in the U.S. who's been working without pay for more than three weeks.

We are live from the CNN Center here in Atlanta. I'm Cyril Vanier and it's great to have you with us.


VANIER: So U.S. president Donald Trump has come out swinging against two newspapers which made explosive allegations against him.

The latest reporting comes from "The Washington Post," which says Mr. Trump went to extraordinary lengths to conceal the details of meetings with Vladimir Putin, that included on at least one occasion confiscating the notes from his interpreter and telling the interpreter not to discuss the meetings with anyone else within the administration.

The U.S. president says he hasn't kept anything under wraps and he calls these allegations ridiculous. He also lashed out at "The New York Times."

On Friday the paper published an article alleging the FBI was so concerned about Trump's actions following the firing of former FBI director James Comey that it opened an investigation into whether the U.S. president was secretly working on behalf of Russia.

Here's how Mr. Trump responded earlier on FOX News.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you now or have you ever worked for Russia, Mr. President?

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it's the most insulting thing I've ever been asked. I think it's the most insulting article I've ever had written and if you read the article, you'd see that they found absolutely nothing.


VANIER: Mr. Trump and his surrogates spent much of Saturday on the defensive. Boris Sanchez has that part of the story from the White House.


BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: President Trump launched a barrage of tweets on Saturday morning, responding to reporting in "The New York Times" that shortly after he fired former FBI director James Comey, the FBI launched an investigation, a counter intelligence investigation, to find out whether President Trump had wittingly or unwittingly begun working for the Russian government potentially against American interests.

CNN has confirmed that that investigation was, in fact, opened. We should point out, the president tweeted this, quote, "Wow, just learning in the failing New York Times that the corrupt former leaders of the FBI, almost all fired or forced to leave the agency for some very bad reasons, opened up an investigation on me for no reason and with no proof after I fired Lyin' James Comey, a total sleaze."

Now the president's own behavior after firing Comey is, according to "The New York Times," what set agents off and raised red flags into the president's behavior and led to the opening of this investigation.

Notably, one of those instances involved a letter that was drafted in May of 2017 before Comey was fired that listed the president's reasons for firing the now former FBI director. That letter was apparently blocked by former White House counsel Don McGahn, who threatened to resign if it was released.

We know that letter is now in the possession of special counsel Robert Mueller and is part of his inquiry into whether the president committed obstruction of justice by firing James Comey.

Now others are coming to the defense of the president, including secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who, on a Sunday morning talk show, called the reporting in "The New York Times" ludicrous. Listen to this.


MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I'm not going to comment on "The New York Times" stories but I'll certainly say this. The notion that President Trump is a threat to American national security is absolutely ludicrous.

MARGARET: Just clarify, since you were CIA director, did you have any idea that this investigation was happening?

POMPEO: Margaret, Margaret, Margaret, I've answered this question repeatedly indeed on your show, the idea that's contained in "The New York Times" story that President Trump was a threat to American national security is silly on its face and not worthy of a response.


SANCHEZ: The press secretary, Sarah Sanders, also weighed in late on Friday evening, putting out a statement that called James Comey "a disgraced partisan hack" and also said that the reporting in "The New York Times" was absurd -- Boris Sanchez, CNN, at the White House.


VANIER: Joining me are former FBI assistant director Tom Fuentes and retired CIA chief of Russia operations, Steve Hall, both of them CNN analysts.

Gentlemen, glad to have you with us today, a necessity really.

Steve, let's start with you. So Mr. Trump didn't want senior administration officials knowing --


VANIER: -- what he and Vladimir Putin talked about during their various meetings and conversations.

Does that concern you?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, absolutely, it does. Having been involved in preparing seniors for these types of meetings in the past, I mean, typically, the way it goes is you start out with a pre-brief with some really good experts, Fiona Hill and her team inside the Trump administration with regard to Russia have amazing expertise that they could have prepared him for.

And in a best-case scenario, those people actually go into the meeting to participate. That sends a strong message to Vladimir Putin and the Russian side that people who really have spent their entire careers doing this are present.

Then afterwards, you have a debrief. There are times, I've seen it when the president or whoever the senior is, says I need to do this one-on-one, but you have to brief your team afterwards as to what happened, because it's a team sport. No one person can carry this.

Donald Trump is not an expert on everything Russia. But his team is. There's only one reason that I can think of where that might not happen and that is if Donald Trump wanted to hide something.

VANIER: Isn't there an innocuous explanation to this, Steve?

I'll stay with you for a second.

Simply that Donald Trump doesn't follow best practice?

But we know that.

HALL: You can make the argument that he doesn't follow best practice. But in this case, if you don't follow best practice, are you not doing what's in the best interest of the United States of America. That's why those people are in the room to help.

Nobody can be an expert on everything, especially something as arcane as Russia. So you have got people to help you do that. If you reject that sort of team approach, then America's interests are not served and, again, you're left wondering, why wouldn't you do that?

VANIER: Tom, 24 hours ago we found out that the FBI investigated the president, the president himself, not his allies or his campaign, Mr. Trump himself, because they were worried that he might be a threat to national security and he might be acting on Russia's behalf.

When you take the two strands of reporting this weekend, that he was hiding his conversations with Putin and that the FBI investigated him personally for national security reasons, what do you see as a whole?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, I think, first of all, I would agree that the idea that complex meetings with foreign leaders, you would want Team USA to be very unified in terms of the experts with the president.

So I would find that unusual, although Trump, you know, did get burned with, it seemed like, many of the things of discussions he was dealing with were immediately being leaked. You recall very early in the administration it was reported that he had a shouting match with the Australian prime minister over taking Syrian refugees and that immediately was reported widely.

So I think he may have gotten to the point where he just wasn't going to share this thing unless he absolutely had to, even though he should.

As far as "The New York Times" article, I closely read that, many, many times and the only problem I have with that is that, you know, what led to that investigation?

Normally in the bureau, we call that predication.

What was the predication that said a case should be open, examining or investigating the president of the United States for possibly his dealings with the Russian Federation and with Putin himself?

So we don't see that. We don't see --


VANIER: Apparently, it was the reasons that the president gave for firing Jim Comey. That's what was alarming to the FBI, that he actually said this has to do with the Russian investigation. So when they saw that -- I mean, I read the same article as you. I

have no further information. But when they saw that, apparently, they thought, oh, this could be against U.S. Interests and this could be actually acting in favor of Russia.

FUENTES: That may be true but that and some of the other issues that were cited, I just thought that that wouldn't have been, in the day when I was, you know, senior executive in the FBI, I don't know that that would have been adequate to automatically say we're going to start an investigation.

Now one of the aspects of this is -- and it doesn't talk about the senior official that would have approved it -- this would have gone all the way to the director. And since Comey was fired, it would have gone to the deputy director, McCabe, who later was fired.

So what we heard in the Horowitz inspector general report was that there was bias on the part of these senior officials, including McCabe and Peter Strzok and a few others but that it didn't affect the investigations.

If they had that bias, it might have taken a little less justification on their part to want to open a case and the so-called -- Strzok had put in his text messages, the so-called insurance policy to have Trump removed. So I just think, the article to me raised many questions, as many questions as it answered. I didn't think it answered very many.

VANIER: Steve, again, I want to take everything we learned this weekend as a whole, if we can. There's just a lot of smoke. There's secrecy about conversations with Vladimir Putin, a foe of the United States.


VANIER: There's this FBI counter intelligence investigation.

All this smoke, does it necessarily mean that there is fire somewhere?

Some foul play from Donald Trump?

Or could it just be Trump being erratic and acting in ways we've never seen from a president before?

HALL: That's a great question, Cyril. There is a distinction between the legal parameters and the legal thresholds that have to be crossed before, say, an investigation is begun or even before some legal conclusions can be made. That's very, very different from the world I come from, which is the counter intelligence world, which is, really, you're looking for patterns. There's not these legal thresholds.

My assessment has always been that, with this particular president, there is way too much smoke for there to be absolutely no fire.

The question then simply becomes, we've already seen some of the results of the fire, we've seen guys like Michael Flynn, we've seen people like Cohen, we've seen Manafort, all end up in serious, serious legal trouble and some of them in jail.

The question has always been, how far back or how far up the chain does it go?

Does it get all the way to the boss?

Does it get to Donald Trump?

And that's what caught my attention with regard to the reporting that we got about the counter intelligence investigation that was launched by the bureau targeting the president specifically.

The other thing I'm concerned about is these continued patterns that we have of Donald Trump meeting with Russians, doing it in a way that is, the best thing you can say, I suppose, is unprofessional.

When you're in the Oval Office talking to the Russian foreign minister, talking about the kook, the crazy guy, meaning in this case the former FBI director that you just fired, that's not something that you want to do in front of the Russians, just like it's not anything that you want to do to show up solo at a meeting with one of the Russians.

The Russians will take advantage of that every single time and I'm afraid that's what's going on.

VANIER: Yes and, according to that reporting, the president took the notes on at least one occasion, took the notes from the only person who was in that meeting, who was his interpreter, and instructed her not to share anything that had been said with anyone, including high- ranking administration officials.

All right, we'll leave it at that for today. Steve Hall, Tom Fuentes, thanks so much to both of you for joining us.

FUENTES: You're welcome.

HALL: Sure.

VANIER: The U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo will meet with the Saudi crown prince on Sunday. He says he will address the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi with Mohammed bin Salman.

Remember, Khashoggi was an outspoken critic of the Saudi government and he was killed last October in the Saudi consulate in Turkey by men with close ties to the Saudi crown prince.

Ben Wedeman is in Cairo.

Ben, three months after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, now the U.S., the U.S.' top diplomat is traveling to Saudi Arabia, meeting the crown prince.

What does that tell us?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, yes, I think it tells you what we've been told all along by President Donald Trump and that is relations with Saudi Arabia and its arms purchases are far more important than anything else, certainly the life of a "Washington Post" columnist.

And this has been, really, the theme of secretary of state Pompeo's trip throughout the region, warmly embracing authoritarian strongmen and, at best, making only passing reference to human rights.

And as far as Secretary Pompeo going, remember that Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on the 2nd of October. On the 16th of October, secretary of state Pompeo went to Saudi Arabia, warmly greeted, as we saw from the pictures put out by the Saudi authorities, warmly greeted.

Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince and the man the CIA believes actually gave the order to murder Jamal Khashoggi. So I don't think we're going to see any change in the American position.

Now yesterday, secretary of state Pompeo, in an interview with the Saudi-sponsored and backed Al Arabiya TV network described Saudi Arabia as a great partner and ally. He said he would bring up with Saudi officials the question of Jamal Khashoggi's murder and that he said the United States believes that everybody who was involved in the murder should be held responsible.

Obviously, he made no mention of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. But summing it up, I don't think the United States, under President Donald Trump and with secretary of state Mike Pompeo, is going to do anything regarding the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. As far as they're concerned, it is ancient history.

VANIER: All right, so tell me about this regional --


VANIER: -- tour that Mr. Pompeo has undertaken. He's touring the Middle East to reassure allies about the U.S. strategy in the region.

Has he done that?

WEDEMAN: I think to a certain extent he has reassured certain allies that the United States isn't just cutting and running completely but, really, the missing piece in this puzzle is the Kurds, the Kurds in Syria that the United States armed and trained and backed and helped in the war against ISIS.

Now they are really left high and dry. Apparently, Secretary Pompeo did speak with Turkish officials and said somehow he believed that Turkey and the United States could work out some sort of agreement or arrangement whereby the pro -- rather, the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria will remain safe.

But at the same time giving Turkey the right to attack what it believes are terrorists. The problem is, what Turkey believes are terrorists and the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters are one and the same. They are the YPG, which is the Kurdish militia, that is affiliated with the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, that has been fighting sort of a low- low-intensity guerilla war with the Turkish state since 1984.

It is significant that when Raqqah, the de facto capital of ISIS, was liberated in the summer of 2017, that the YPG fighters put up great pictures of Abdullah Ocalan, who is the head of the PKK, currently in Turkish prison.

There is no question that the YPG is, in some way, at least ideologically affiliated with the PKK. So maybe, maybe the countries of the Gulf and Jordan and Egypt and Iraq were reassured. But the Kurds, I can guarantee you, are in panic mode -- Cyril.

VANIER: Ben Wedeman, reporting live from Cairo. Thank you so much, Ben.

The Trump White House about a speedy end to the record government shutdown. Coming up, the administration seems to be digging in for the long haul. We'll be speaking with one unpaid worker who must still be on the job every day in the federal prison system.

Plus, parts of Europe already buried under heavy snow and some forecasts suggest it's about to get much, much worse. We'll look at what the next 48 hours might bring -- when we come back.




VANIER: President Trump tweeted on Saturday that he has a plan to end the longest U.S. government shutdown in U.S. history. But he didn't say what --


VANIER: -- that plan was. It's now day 23 and there are signs that the White House is digging in.

An administration official confirms to CNN it is preparing for a shutdown through the month of February; 800,000 federal workers are into their fourth week without pay. That includes 51,000 airport security screeners, who are required to work without pay. Many have been calling in sick.

Those who showed up to work during the holidays have been promised $500 bonuses.

So what's it like to work for the government and be told that you have to go to work because, in fact, you're essential to the running of the country?

That's how it's called. But you're not going to get paid because of yet another political dispute in Washington. Sandy Parr knows the feeling all too well. She's one of the hundreds of thousands of U.S. government employees affected by the shutdown.

Sandy, you are a cook foreman at a federal prison. You have been going to work since the beginning of the shutdown the last 22 days, am I right?


VANIER: Am I also right that you just missed your first full paycheck?

PARR: Yes, we all just missed. Our paycheck was zero as of today.

VANIER: All right, tell me, tell me how that's impacting you, how that's impacting your finances and just how you feel about it.

PARR: Well, it's extremely frustrating and disheartening to know that you have to go to work every day to protect society and this country and know that we aren't getting paid for it. I have bills to pay. I have a mortgage to pay. I have children to feed.

And knowing that our money's not coming in and not knowing when the end in sight is, is terrifying.

As a matter of fact, most of our staff, including myself, don't know how we're going to put medications in our children that need them. How we're going to put food on our table but we're required to go to work with some of the most dangerous felons in this country.

VANIER: And that money will be paid to you when the shutdown ends, that's what's supposed to happen, right?

PARR: Well, if we go to work we will eventually be paid but I can't pull up to a gas tank and fill my gas and then say here's an IOU and when I get paid I'll pay you back. So eventually, we will get paid but that doesn't help us in the here and now.

VANIER: Have you been getting in touch with some of the people to whom you have to pay the bills and finding out whether you can come to some kind of an arrangement, given the circumstances?

PARR: We are reaching out to some of our debtors and some of my staff as well are doing the same. Some are extremely helpful and some are, well, you have to pay your bills.

Our electric companies are, well, and when you fall behind, we'll deal with you. And some of our mortgage companies, some of the banks are actually being pretty, well, they're trying to work with us, make interest payments only.

But still, if there's no money coming in, some of us can't even make the interest payments.

VANIER: Yes. And we've heard from some federal employees who have been looking for a job, for an alternative source of income but you can't even do that, because you have to go to work. PARR: We can't, that's right because we have to go to work and not only just our 80 hours a pay period, most of us are being mandated at least 16-20 hour addition to our 80 because we are essential staff and we don't have enough staff. So there's no way we can actually get another job outside.

VANIER: Some federal employees I know have even been considering resigning.

Is that something that's crossed your mind?

Or you're not there yet?

PARR: Well, for me, I've worked for the government for 20 years, so it's not an option for myself. I do have some friends who have less than a year or maybe even two years and said they will leave in the next couple weeks. They just can't sustain this. And to them, they're not vested yet.

VANIER: You're also one of the many federal employees who's suing the government over this, right, the lawsuit was filed Friday. Tell me more about that.

PARR: So the lawsuit that was filed on Friday is, hopefully, will help the general public and congressional leaders to know what, how this affects us and stop it. But basically it says you cannot make us work without being paid. It's illegal; it's a fundamental part of our Constitution. It's a part of the laws that they put in place to protect people like me, to make sure we get a paycheck and they're violating it themselves.

VANIER: It's a new year. This has been going on throughout the Christmas period, the new year. You have two kids, if I'm not mistaken.

What have you been telling them?

PARR: Well, I try to keep my children at ease and make sure that they know that they're -- they will be taken care of --


PARR: -- and everything will be OK. And as much as I can, I try to keep everything as normal as possible. We have made several cuts that they see and they ask why. And I just tell them eventually it will get back to normal but sometimes we go through some hardships in life.

VANIER: Sandy Parr, thank you so much for your time today and sharing your story with us. We really appreciate it.

PARR: Thank you for having me.


VANIER: Thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier. I'm back with the headlines in just a moment.