Return to Transcripts main page

THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Robert Mueller Investigating Trump Ties to NRA; Rudy Giuliani's Changing Stories; Government Shutdown Continues; Supreme Court Lets Trump Military Transgender Ban Take Effect. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired January 22, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:01]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Using some choice language.

I will read the part I can, where he wrote: "I want to make it perfectly clear this is false."

I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thanks for being with me.

"THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The Trump administration says Tuesday's night State of the Union address will happen. What they're not saying is where.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news in the Mueller probe, the special counsel asking questions about the Trump campaign's ties to the NRA. How does the gun rights organization fit into the Mueller probe?

He's turned himself into a pretzel trying to explain his comments about the president's conversations with Michael Cohen. Today, Rudy Giuliani adding another twist, talking to CNN about whether the president is P.O.ed about all of this.

Also breaking today, the Supreme Court allows President Trump to enforce his transgender military ban, for now. So what happened to that that candidate who proudly waved the rainbow flag?

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with breaking news in our politics lead.

CNN has learned that special counsel Robert Mueller has inquired about the Trump campaign's close relationship with the National Rifle Association and how Mr. Trump came to speak at the organization's annual conference in 2015 two months before he declared his candidacy.

The NRA has been under public scrutiny for months for its ties to prominent Russians. Just last month, Maria Butina, a Russia national, pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court to conspiracy, admitting she tried to use the NRA to infiltrate GOP circles, in hopes of influencing U.S. policy towards the Kremlin.

CNN's Sara Murray joins me now live to break the story.

Sara, how does the NRA fit into the Mueller investigation?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, Jake, we knew that the NRA had already been under scrutiny from some lawmakers, but this is the first time we're getting any indication that Robert Mueller and has been asking questions about it, wanting to better understand the nature of the relationship between the Trump campaign and the National Rifle Association.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): For the first time, a sign the special counsel is interested in the Trump campaign's relationship with the National Rifle Association during the 2016 election.

SAM NUNBERG, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN AIDE: Part of his appeal was that this guy was going to win at all costs.

MURRAY: Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide, telling CNN: "When I was interviewed by the special counsel's office, I was asked about the Trump campaign and our dealings with the NRA."

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Great honor to be here. I love the NRA.

MURRAY: The questions from Nunberg's interview in February 2018 are the first indication Mueller has been probing the Trump campaign's ties to the powerful gun rights group and was still asking questions about it as recently as a month ago, CNN has learned.

While the NRA hasn't been accused of any wrongdoing by law enforcement, it has come under scrutiny for its ties to Russians and massive support of Trump in 2016.

MARIA BUTINA, DEFENDANT: That freedom is very important and the basics of any freedom is, of course, gun rights.

MURRAY: One Russian who had dealings with the NRA, Maria Butina. She recently pleaded guilty to engaging in a conspiracy against the U.S. As part of her deal in December, Butina admitted she tried to build relationships with NRA members as a way to infiltrate Republican political circles and influence U.S. relations with Russia.

She worked at the behest of Aleksandr Torshin, a former Russian banker and lifetime NRA member, who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department last year. Years prior to her arrest, Butina even managed to ask Trump about his views on Russia at a political event.

BUTINA: If you would be elected as the president, what would will be your foreign politics, especially in the relationships with my country?

TRUMP: I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin, OK? MURRAY: Despite Trump's prior support for a ban on assault weapons, he still became a darling of the NRA. The gun rights group shelled out more than $30 million to boost Trump in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

TRUMP: To get the endorsement, believe me, is a fantastic honor.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

MURRAY: Mueller's investigators were interested in how Trump and his early operatives first formed a relationship with the NRA and how Trump wound up speaking at the group's 2015 annual meeting just months before announcing his presidential bid, according to Nunberg.

Trump was helped along by his son Donald Trump Jr., an avid outdoorsman who played a role in his father building ties to the NRA?

TRUMP: They love the NRA more than anyone I know. They happen to be my sons. They're lifetime members.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, Jake, we don't know how far the special counsel is digging into this relationship. A spokesman for the special counsel declined to comment.

The NRA did not respond to our request for comment. But it is worth noting that when President Trump received this list of questions from the special counsel's team, they did not ask the president about his ties to the NRA -- Jake.

[16:05:03]

TAPPER: Hmm. All right, Sara Murray, thank you so much.

Let's chat about this with my expert panel.

And, Margaret, it's not surprising that the NRA would get behind the Republican nominee, but they got behind Donald Trump very early. And he used to support gun control. And he supported a so-called assault weapons ban.

And, normally, it's my impression that they're a lot more skeptical of people who find religion on the road to Damascus, or Des Moines, as the case may be. They would normally, I think, would be cautious, but they went all in for Donald Trump.

MARGARET HOOVER, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I asked Oliver North about this in October, when he did...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: The head of the NRA.

HOOVER: The head of the NRA. And they were very -- they're very, yes, I mean, it might have

happened, they might have shown up at the same event, but completely hands-off and not wanting to take any ownership.

And now we know, we actually know that it was a Russian agent who infiltrated their organization. They're very concerned about the funds that were directed. There were accusations that maybe $30 million. This organization is a huge funnel for money. And that's -- obviously, it remains to be seen.

But the NRA hasn't been doing well financially over the last several years. They haven't been doing well in terms of their membership either. And so it's entirely possible that the innocent answer is that they saw energy behind Donald Trump that could catalyze into membership numbers and real growth for their organization.

TAPPER: Yes.

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: What we know about the reporting to date -- and it's big news that Mueller is looking into this -- is that Aleksandr Torshin former Russian central banker, really sought to build this bridge between Russia and the NRA as a means to influence American politics.

And the fact that Oliver North is not running the NRA indicates a need to clean house. But here's you have got this rock-ribbed conservative organization that during the Cold War was really anti-Soviet all of a sudden finding themselves in a situation where they may have been a conduit for money and influence in American politics from Russia.

It's surreal. It's astounding. And this is a real elevation of what the reporters and the Senate Intel Committee have been looking into for some time.

TAPPER: And let's remind. I want to show this clip again, because it's really just remarkable -- 2015, Donald Trump is in, I think, Nevada doing a town hall of some sort. And Maria Butina asks him a question. This is July 2015. And let's roll that again.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUTINA: If you would be elected as the president, what would will be your foreign politics, especially in the relationships with my country?

TRUMP: I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin, OK, and I mean where we have the strength. I don't think you would need the sanctions. I think that we would get along very, very well. I really believe that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: I'm guessing that you don't think that's a coincidence.

ALICIA MENENDEZ, THE HUFFINGTON POST: I don't think it's a coincidence. And I think we now have a lot of different roads that lead us to that point.

I think part of the challenge that's going to come out of this is you do have a Republican Party that's very closely tied to the NRA. How are they supposed to from their perch within Senate Intelligence Committee actually take a firm look at this without expressing some type of conflict of interest?

TAPPER: And what do you make of all this? I mean, it's just the latest shoe to drop, although we don't exactly know what Mueller has.

PHILIP BUMP, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Right, yes, I mean, which is sort of the caveat that we always apply every time we say Mueller.

I mean, I think it's important to remember the NRA endorsed Donald Trump, but they did so well after he was the front-runner, and I believe well after he had already won some primaries. So it's not as though they were sort of coming out of the box in June 16, 2015, saying, this is our guy.

I mean, they -- it's a political organization.

TAPPER: Sure, of course, wait for the winner. Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

BUMP: Exactly. Right.

That said, the NRA has had this question looming over them for well over a year now. They have already released a statement saying, oh, we only took X-amount of money from Russian interest, which is a question by itself. It certainly is the case, as John pointed out, that I think the Russians or at least Torshin himself saw this as a conduit to the Trump campaign.

And there were multiple ways in which Torshin leveraged people close to the Trump campaign to try and get a meeting with them, ended up -- in another weird coincidence -- sitting at a dinner at the same table with Donald Trump Jr. at this event in Kentucky during the NRA Convention in 2016, which is this whole other question that Mueller is no doubt looking at.

I mean, there are -- part of the issue here that we're all -- we all sort of confront as we talk about Mueller and the Russia investigation is there are so many smoking guns, but we don't know where bullets have been fired or what they have hit, right?

(CROSSTALK)

MENENDEZ: I would add to that if you care about American democracy, and you care about the possible infiltration of our elections, this is a reminder that there are many ways for these elections to be infiltrated.

And we have not figured out yet how to confront them going into 2020.

TAPPER: And, sadly, oversight during the Republican control of the House was not -- let's just be nice and say it was not everything it could have been.

HOOVER: It was better -- the bipartisan oversight on the Senate was much better in the same two-year period.

TAPPER: Sure.

One expects, though, that either Cummings or Schiff, the two chairmen, of Intelligence and Oversight, opposite, respectively, might actually have hearings on that.

HOOVER: They might have hearings on it. They're apparently having a bipartisan retreat for the intel community -- Intel Committee this next week. So, apparently, all of the damage from Devin Nunes' chairmanship may be healed.

[16:10:01]

AVLON: But that damage can't be underestimated.

I mean, yes, it's great that Burr and Warner have led the Senate Intel Committee in a very different direction. And they have done some of the early investigation into these connections with the NRA and Russia.

But what Devin Nunes did to the House committee I think really does demand scrutiny, because they rolled over for the executive branch. They did not apply basic standards of scrutiny and skepticism, in a clear and present situation where a foreign power tried to influence on our election.

And Devin Nunes tried to act like it didn't exist over and over again.

TAPPER: And we should note "The New York Times" is reporting that the Trump administration's plan to ease sanctions on companies owed -- owned, rather by oligarch, Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska could, in fact, benefit him and his cronies by providing debt relief and allowing him to still maintain a significant ownership stake.

I was very surprised, I have to be honest -- maybe I'm naive -- at the vote in the Senate. The Republicans did not allow it to go forward, a bill that would keep those sanctions on Deripaska.

BUMP: Yes, it's a weird issue.

I mean, Donald Trump and his administration are clearly aware of the fact that there Deripaska himself is a particularly touchy subject. Deripaska is the guy who had hired Paul Manafort for years and given him tons and tons of money for his work in Ukraine and other places.

And Manafort had reached out through this guy Konstantin Kilimnik, who has alleged ties to Russian intelligence. He had reached out to Deripaska during the campaign, saying, hey, we will offer you a briefing.

That they would roll over on this in particular at this point time, absolutely baffling. TAPPER: All right, everyone stick around.

With the president's lawyer on a clarification tour, should Rudy Giuliani be worried about his future with President Trump? Our Dana Bash just got off the phone with the mayor himself.

Then, not only are FBI agents not getting a paycheck for the second time this Friday. Now word the shutdown could also be costing the FBI valuable information about terrorists.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:50] TAPPER: Our politics lead now. It is Rudy Giuliani's latest clarification tour. President Trump's lawyer has caused mass confusion in recent days on whether President Trump talked with Michael Cohen about his testimony before Congress and also how long then candidate Trump discussed the Trump Tower Moscow Project with Cohen during the 2016 election.

CNN's Dana Bash talked to Giuliani today about all of this.

Dana, what's the latest on this in terms of what he's saying and his president peeved at all at all this confusion and chaos?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, I asked Giuliani point-blank, is the president pissed?

And here's what he said -- he said, quote: No, he's not pissed. He just wants it clarified. He understands how these things happen. It happens to him all the time.

And I did ask Giuliani if he has any sense that the president or anyone in his orbit will ask Giuliani to take a break for a while, maybe because of all the confusion resulting from interviews recently, like the one he did with you on Sunday, Giuliani told me, I don't think so, I don't get that sense.

And he noted that the special counsel hasn't reached out, so he said, well, they don't seem confused -- which leads to an important point, an open question, is whether Mueller's team will come back to Trump's lawyers and asked for formal clarification on the president's answer, under oath about when he talked to Michael Cohen about the Trump Moscow Project during the campaign. And Giuliani told me, although they had made it clear to Mueller's team no more answers from the president, on this one, they would make an exception. He said if Mueller does ask that question, the answer is really simple. The answer is, we don't know, we don't remember.

TAPPER: Aha, that clears that up.

In "The New Yorker" article in which Giuliani was interviewed, he was asked about whether he's worried about saying things for Trump and the fact that he might not always be truthful about it. Giuliani said, I'm afraid it will be on my gravestone, Rudy Giuliani, he lied for Trump.

And he -- you asked him about this. That seemed an odd statement. Well, what did he mean by that?

BASH: Well, you know, he said he was joking about -- around about the gravestone quote in general. But I said, wait a minute, people are taking that to suggest that you're admitting that you lie for the president.

Here's what he said about that, Jake. He said: I am not lying for the president. The reason I said that is everybody is concerned with legacy. I can't figure out why because you don't get a chance to, whatever you do in life, you don't get a chance to shape the way people see it later, so do what you think is right.

And Giuliani told me the minute he agreed to do this, he knew at least half the country would be angry at him. But he said he thinks that the president is being unfairly treated, as he is said to me and you many, many times. They've been friends for 30 years and he said somebody has to defend him.

TAPPER: Right. He was the only one that would go out on the Sunday shows after that "Access Hollywood" tape broke --

BASH: He was.

TAPPER: -- to defend the president. Kellyanne Conway wouldn't go. Chris Christie wouldn't go. But there was his honor.

Dana Bash, great reporting. Thank you so much.

BASH: Thanks.

TAPPER: Let's talk about this.

I want to start with you because you used to work for Rudy Giuliani, correct?

AVLON: Yes.

HOOVER: We both did.

TAPPER: You both did. But is --

HOOVER: Let me say something that's super polished and lovely, and then I'm going to say something else.

TAPPER: OK. Mr. Polish, you go first and then the candid one after this.

(CROSSTALK)

HOOVER: Because we didn't get married, we wouldn't have been married if it wasn't for Rudy Giuliani is the truth, because we met --

AVLON: We met on his presidential campaign. I was his chief speechwriter in city hall in my 20s.

Look, you know, Rudy's always had a streak of fatalism with regard to his legacy. He's never really cared that much.

But there's no question, this chapter has diminished his legacy and he --

TAPPER: That's after representing Trump.

AVLON: Of representing Donald Trump and he's done it to represent his client aggressively in the court of public opinion. It's really in contrast to the prosecutor and the mayor who believe the laws about the pursuit of the truth. That's not how Donald Trump plays ball. Rudy's tried to defend his client.

The problem is with Donald Trump, ultimately, loyalties one way street and if you think about the gap in stature between the two when he was mayor of New York, the work he did here, 9/11, and when Donald Trump was a -- you know, a multi-bankrupt reality TV star, it really does have a tragic turn. And I hope that his career will be judged his totality, not just by this chapter and I believe ultimately will.

HOOVER: I think that one quote in "The New Yorker" about his legacy and how it doesn't matter really about your legacy, because it's truly, he -- what we have observed in what I have observed in the last decade, especially in this last chapter is that Rudy Giuliani -- remember when he was mayor?

[16:20:06] Rudy's really as a lover of opera. He's a lover of theater. He's a lover of the tabloids and being on the front of them, and he is a lover of being the center of attention.

And the truth is, many people have been concerned about his legacy who were part of some of the earlier chapters of his life, my husband among them. And they have spent a lot of time trying to help focus him on his legacy and the parts of his public service career that are absolutely worth remembering and reflecting on and frankly in some cases emulating right now for a Republican Party, a modern Republican Party that can reach out to a much broader centers of urban America, for example.

AVLON: Yes.

HOOVER: And instead, Rudy has decided that he doesn't care. He wants the adulation and the spotlight now.

TAPPER: I interviewed Giuliani on Sunday. I want to play a couple clips. The first one is when I was talking about the timeline of how long he was discussing the Trump Tower Moscow Project during the campaign because, obviously, I don't think and I think most people don't think he the president was particularly honest or straightforward about that. So let's play that clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: In his written answers, President Trump's written answers the special counsel Robert Mueller's questions, what did President Trump have to say about the Trump Moscow project?

RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S ATTORNEY: He acknowledged that they had conversations about it throughout 2015, 2016.

TAPPER: Through November 2016, through November --

GIULIANI: He answer -- he answered those questions --

TAPPER: Right?

GIULIANI: He answered those questions -- he answered those questions fully and I think to the satisfaction of the special counsel.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So, he said -- he didn't say anything to me there when I tried to pin him down on when, but he had said previously November, and now, he's saying they don't remember.

ALICIA MENENDEZ, CO-HOST, PBS'S AMANPOUR & CO.: Right, this is a goalpost that continues to move. And I understand why we're very focused on the legality of this and on Mueller's investigation. But in the backdrop of that is a bigger question, which is the person who is now president of the United States when asked about this at the peak of his presidential campaign said, I have nothing to do with Russia, I have no connection to Russia.

So, even if you separate out the legal questions from this, there is still a core question of whether or not he misled the American public at the time when they were making a fundamental decision about who's going to lead this country.

TAPPER: And, Philip, one of the points that some people are making is that by not being honest, A, the Russians had something on him at the time, in addition to the fact that he wasn't being honest, and that that in itself was being compromised.

PHILIP BUMP, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, THE WASHINGTON POST: Right. Yes, I mean, this is -- this is one of many things. I mean, if you go back and look at the things that Vladimir Putin would have known on November 8, 2016, that the American public didn't know, he knew they'd Aleksandr Torshin have reached out through the NRA. He knew that Maria Butina was here in the United States.

He knew that there had been this hacking of the DNC. He knew that there was a social media effort. He knew that Donald Trump -- he knew that Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's personal attorney, had talked to his spokesman's assistant for an extended period of time and then there's apparently some follow-up with the Kremlin the day after that.

He knew all of these things, and these are all things that as we judge how Donald Trump has responded to Vladimir Putin in the months since, it's important to keep in mind that Vladimir Putin, all of these things that the American voters didn't and I'm sure that Donald Trump is aware. AVLON: Yes, that frame that felt just suggests I think is pretty profound. I mean, it shows the gap. All we knew was that Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, the one human being on earth he would not say a bad word about was Vladimir Putin. That's peculiar, but why? And all the sudden, we're getting all these insights into why that may be the case.

But the gap between what the American people knew and what Vladimir Putin knew about Donald Trump in his candidacy is stark, and I think that's an important --

TAPPER: Although, Margaret, I have to say, this doesn't excuse anything, but the fact that he thought maybe he was going to have a big deal, a big lucrative deal, is --

HOOVER: It could be just as important, right?

TAPPER: It could be a more innocent explanation.

AVLON: Just greed.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Greed is a better one.

HOOVER: Observing his behavior in the office of the presidency, we also know that oftentimes policy decisions really shouldn't have anything to do with dollars and cents are calculated through the prism of the bottom line. This is a man who's experienced before given the presidency was just business.

TAPPER: All right. Everyone, stick around. We got more to talk about.

Location: TBD. New today, the White House says President Trump plans to give his State of the Union Address next week, whether it's in front of a joint session of Congress or maybe in front of a lot of red hats somewhere?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:23:51] TAPPER: We're back with the politics lead, and what is now the second month of the government shutdown. Day 32 of the federal government of the United States inflicting pain upon its own citizens and a shutdown prompted by President Trump's demand for border wall money.

This week, both Democrats and Republicans are planning to vote on dueling proposals to reopen the government. The Republican proposal it turns out is not a simple compromise the president Trump seemed to propose on Saturday -- border wall money for him temporary relief for some undocumented immigrants to win over Democrats. The legislation also includes what some Republican observers are even calling poison pills, tighter restrictions on who can apply for asylum status in the United States.

And with no agreement between Democrats and Republicans, it seems all but assured that this government will remain closed meaning, 800,000 American workers, not to mention an untold number of contractors will likely miss a second paycheck this Friday. CNN's Abby Phillip picks up the story from the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DEMONSTRATORS: What do we want? Pay! When do we want it? Now!

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump and congressional Democrats locked in a game of chicken as the government shutdown drags on. The president taunting Democrats and promising not to back down, tweeting: Without a wall our country can never have border or national security. Adding: The Dems know this but want to play political games must finally --