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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Sources: Don Jr.'s Blocked Calls Before & After Trump Tower Meeting Weren't With Then-Candidate Trump; Schultz Deletes Tweet Of Column Smearing Dems; Trump Says He's On The Same Page With Intel Chiefs After Refusing To Say He Had Confidence In Them; Military Preps Troop In Withdrawal Despite Intel Findings. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired January 31, 2019 - 16:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:30:13] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: We have some breaking news now on the politics lead. New details about that infamous Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton back in June 2016.

Before and after that meeting, there were calls between Donald Trump Jr. and a blocked number. Congressional investigators have asked Trump Jr. whether the blocked number belonged to his father, President Trump. Donald Trump Jr. has said he doesn't remember.

But we now have some new information.

I want to bring in CNN's Pamela Brown and Manu Raju.

Pamela, I'll start wit you. What are you learning about these calls?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, we have learned that Senate investigators have obtained new information showing Donald Trump Jr.'s mysterious phone calls ahead of that 2016 Trump Tower meeting were not with his father. This is according to three sources with knowledge of the matter talking to CNN.

These are records provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee that show the calls were between Trump Jr. and two of his business associates. And this is significant, Jake, because this new information appears to contradict Democrats' long-held suspicions that the blocked number was from then-candidate Donald Trump and that that would show if it was true that he did have knowledge of the meeting at Trump Tower.

So this information came to light recently, Jake, and it could answer one of those key questions, as I said, over the meeting (VIDEO GAP) had set up to get Russian dirt on the Clinton campaign. Trump Jr.'s phone calls involving blocked numbers have been these lingering issues as investigators have probed the meeting and whether Trump himself had advanced knowledge through any means of that meeting.

Now, we should note, Jake, that Don Jr.'s attorney did not provide a comment for our story.

TAPPER: All right, Pamela.

Let's go to Manu Raju right now.

And, Manu, remind us how we got here and why people had these suspicions, Democrats had these suspicions that Don Jr. was talking to his father.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's the timing of the calls that really raise the suspicion, Jake, just three days before that Trump Tower meeting in 2016 was set up, Donald Trump Jr. had a phone call with Emin Agalarov who was a Russian pop star, who was involved with setting up the meeting, and he talked to him on June 6th, he talked to Emin Agalarov, and immediately afterwards, about 23 minutes after that phone call, there was a phone call that Donald Trump Jr. had with an individual with a blocked number. Now, that phone call lasted about four minutes long, and then afterwards, Trump Jr. once again called Emin Agalarov.

And also after the Trump Tower occurred on June 9th, just two hours later, Trump Jr. had another phone call with a blocked number. Now, Democrats have said it's interesting because the fact that the president himself, then candidate Trump, had a blocked number, according to Corey Lewandowski's own testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. He said that Trump's primary residence has a blocked number.

So, Democrats have raised questions about whether or not it was President Trump who spoke with Donald Trump Jr. And Trump Jr., of course, testified that he did not recall the individual with whom he spoke with. So, that's one reason why they asked if this was his father. And it turns out it was not, according to the information given to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

TAPPER: All right. Manu Raju on Capitol Hill, Pamela Brown at the White House, thanks so much.

Let's talk about this with my experts and Governor Chris Christie, who has been kind enough to join the panel. Thanks so much.

What's your reaction to this news?

CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), FORMER NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR: Well, listen, I mean, that's good news for Don Jr.

And, again, one of the things that I love about the Mueller investigation and have hated about all the political commentary around it is that Bob Mueller doesn't leak a thing. The only reason we got this is because it went to Capitol Hill, which is leak central. So, it's gotten leaked out.

Mueller has known this, you've got to believe, for a very long time. This is why people need to just take a breath on all this stuff, because Bob Mueller knows more than any of us, any of us at this table, anybody on Capitol Hill, and he will act on it when it's appropriate to act on it. And, meantime, people's reputations get damaged and Don Jr.'s has

gotten damaged, it appears, unnecessarily. And so, that's why every -- it's just like, if you trust Bob Mueller, and I do, then let's let him do his job and when the conclusion comes, we're all going to be able to evaluate it and evaluate it fairly. And that's what we should do.

TAPPER: Symone, I suspect you don't think that this absolves Donald Trump Jr. of wrongdoing around the Trump Tower meeting?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, he was in the meeting with the Russians, like we can't ignore the fact that he did, in fact, take the meeting. And I know from being a staffer on multiple campaigns that you do not take meetings with any foreign government, any foreign entities, any foreign representatives. You alert the FBI. You alert the authorities.

So, this doesn't absolve Don Jr. of much. But I do agree with Governor Christie in the respect that we are all pontificating about the Mueller investigation. We only know what we know, and far too many of us don't really know a lot. And so, I am someone who is like let the investigation play itself out because I believe where there's smoke, there is fire, and I think there is fire in this thing, Jake.

[16:35:03] There is fire in that meeting and I think it will eventually come out.

CHRISTIE: See, there's no pontificating there.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: I'm just saying, I believe there's smoke and there's fire. But let the fire come.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: But, again, this is -- Democrats have suspicions and Mueller has facts.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's interesting also why Donald Trump Jr.'s lawyer didn't just reveal this information in an earlier date, because that has what has been, you know, a lot of the fire for those Democratic lawmakers who suspect that he did something wrong, why he wouldn't just reveal that who the phone call was to instead of it came out this way.

But I do think a lot of the reason people talk so much about the Mueller report, a lot -- there's a lot of criticism, that's like media speculation, speculation from lawmakers. I think a lot of it has to do with what the president says about it, because it is something that does loom over the White House at times, sometimes when the president is in an especially irritated mood about it, that's something that staffers know to stay out of his way because he's so angry about that, and he speculates about it. He talks about it a lot himself. So, I think the president's factor in that plays a big role in it. TAPPER: But, Ayesha, it is true that Democrats were talking up a lot

this blocked number phone call as if this was the smoking gun and like this was proof that President Trump was lying, that he knew such and such, and it appears that that has just disappeared now. It's wrong.

AYESHA RASCOE, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, NPR: Yes. The blocked number, that was definitely something that people were curious about. And you would be curious about. And people have been curious about would Don Jr. tell his father about this meeting? Why wouldn't he tell him about this meeting if he thought it was OK or, you know, if they didn't think it were -- or maybe they just didn't think was a big deal?

So there have been questions about that. So, this being something that they can pull out and say, look, he did not have -- these calls were not with his father. That is definitely something that the president and others will be able to point to, to say you guys were accusing us of something and that was not true.

CHRISTIE: And, by the way, the reason that the lawyer doesn't tell everybody is cause if you start there, where do you stop?

COLLINS: That's true.

CHRISTIE: There's privilege between the lawyer and the client. If you start giving out some stuff, there may be stuff you have that you don't want to give out. And if you start to breach that privilege by leaking stuff out of there -- you're better off, if the lawyer -- no matter what the lawyer is, whether he's confident that the client is OK or if he's concerned that his client isn't, the lawyer's job is to make sure that he keeps those confidences and let the process play out and defends his client in court, ultimately, if that's where he has to go, as best he can.

COLLINS: And we've seen that because his legal team did not tell the truth time and time again about what that meeting was about, because, of course, when they were first confronted by "The New York Times" that they were going to report about the meeting, they said it was about Russian adoptions, and then information came out as it was reported and then they were confirming it.

CHRISTIE: Right.

TAPPER: Do you think there's ever a degree to which maybe people on the Donald Trump Jr. side of things want Democrats to overplay their hand, knowing that they have information that is actually exculpatory or a lot more innocent?

CHRISTIE: I don't think so.

TAPPER: No, it's not like that?

CHRISTIE: Here's what I think they want. They want it to be over. There's nothing positive about this.

I mean, this is great news for Donald Jr. today on this one discreet issue, but none of this is good.

TAPPER: Yes.

CHRISTIE: Because all it does is distract from the president's ability to do his job. As you said, it irritates the president to no end. I mean, there is nothing that -- and there's lots of stuff that frustrates this president but there is nothing that frustrates him more than the Mueller investigation.

And so, I don't think what they -- I don't think they're trying to play any games.

COLLINS: (INAUDIBLE) maybe.

CHRISTIE: No, I've got to tell you the truth, this is more because when I've seen him talk about Mueller, he absolutely believes that he had nothing to do with any Russians and nobody did. So, he feels like, you know, this is unjust. Michael Cohen thing runs on a separate track and he believes that's based on Michael Cohen's wrongdoing and what will happen will happen on that based on the investigations.

This where it (ph) frustrates them. They don't want to play any games with this. They want it over.

SANDERS: I guess the only thing I want to say about, is so many people have been indicted about the conversations and their interactions around the Russians with the Russians, and so how at this point can the president feel as though this is an unjust situation? Frankly, in a situation we're only in because he fired James Comey?

And so, I --

CHRISTIE: No, that's not why we're in the situation.

SANDERS: I mean, that's the only reason we have the special counsel.

TAPPER: He blames it on Jeff Sessions not recusing himself or not telling the president he was going to recuse himself.

CHRISTIE: That's right. What you needed -- listen, what you needed from the beginning was an attorney general who was capable of handling this. And if he -- the single best biggest thing in the fall of 2016 we were talking about this, pre-election and post-election.

Jeff Sessions goes and says, I'd like to be attorney general. And, by the way, he doesn't front the thing (ph), oh, by the way, I'll have to recuse on Russia. Little important bit of information you might want to tell the guy who you're asking to give you the job.

And then off to the races we go because then you have a deputy attorney general running the investigation. People aren't as confident as they would be as an attorney general. Then, Jim Comey gets fired. Then you get Bob Mueller.

But the investigation long preceded Jim Comey getting fired. SANDERS: Yes, but there was -- I want to be clear, there was no

special counsel. There was no Bob Mueller until -- the facts support there was no Bob Mueller until the president fired James Comey.

CHRISTIE: But there was an investigation.

TAPPER: But there was an investigation.

SANDERS: That he feels is solely because he fired James Comey.

[16:40:01] CHRISTIE: But no, it's not. There was an investigation. That investigation would have continued no matter what.

And I know Rod Rosenstein. I worked with him for four years when he was U.S. attorney in Maryland and I was in New Jersey. Rod would have followed this investigation to wherever end.

And you know what the proof of that is? He's the guy who picked Bob Mueller. He could have picked anybody and he picked a killer.

TAPPER: Yes.

CHRISTIE: He picked a trained assassin to be the special counsel, OK? So, Rod Rosenstein is not soft on this at all.

SANDERS: I'm just saying I think it's Bob Mueller that keeps Trump up at night.

TAPPER: So, let's -- we're going to keep this panel here, this group of experts.

If you're going to run against Trump for president in 2020, you might want to learn how to use Twitter.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:45:00] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Politics now, he's not officially in the 2020 race yet but former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is getting roasted and he is loving the attention sources tell CNN. A lot of the attention has of course been negative, Democrats and Liberals attacking him. But as CNN's Ryan Nobles reports, Schultz and his team seemed to ascribe to the old adage there's no such thing as bad publicity.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HOWARD SCHULTZ, FORMER CEO, STARBUCKS: Thank you.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO and would-be Independent candidate for president getting a quick lesson in the pitfalls of campaigning in the digital age.

SCHULTZ: I don't want to get into the mud with anybody. NOBLES: Schultz deleted a tweet which linked to a piece on a

conservative Web site that praised his run for office. The article referred to Kamala Harris as shrill and called Elizabeth Warren Fauxcahontas echoing President Trump's racially charged nickname for the Massachusetts Senator.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you not realize he had made those comments.

SCHULTZ: No, I did not.

NOBLES: An aide to Schultz told CNN that "someone posting to digital didn't fully vet the piece." The misstep comes as Schultz attempts to convince voters the two-party system is the problem. Democrats remain skeptical.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ralph Nader.

NOBLES: Worried that an independent bid by Schultz could repeat Green Party candidate Ralph Nader's performance in the 2000 election.

RALPH NADER, FORMER GREEN PARTY PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: To create fresh political movements that will displace the control of the Democratic and Republican parties.

NOBLES: Where Nader's vote total in Florida more than eclipse George W Bush's margin of victory over Al Gore. While Schultz molds a run, the Democratic field is taking shape. Former Congressman Beto O'Rourke is avoiding questions telling The Wall Street Journal he won't talk to reporters until he makes a final decision. But yet has an interview scheduled with Oprah next week.

And the populist Senator Sherrod Brown started what he's calling a dignity of work tour Wednesday in his native Ohio where he did not hold back in his criticism of President Trump.

SEN. SHERROD BROWN (D), OHIO: Donald Trump has used his phony populism to divide Americans and to demonize immigrants.

NOBLES: Browns tour continues tonight in Iowa with future stops planned in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOBLES: And Howard Schultz's team actually believes the attacks against him are helping their candidate. Their argument, well, it's getting plenty of attention and is now a big part of the conversation. They also the more he gets hammered by both Republicans and Democrats that it will only help to shape his image as an outsider appealing to Independent voters. Jake?

TAPPER: All right, Ryan, thank you so much. We're back with the experts and Governor Christie is still with us to talk about the 2020 race. A reminder, his new book Let Me Finish is in stores now and it's a gripping read. OK, because you like to pride yourself on candor --

CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), FORMER GOVERNOR, NEW JERSEY: Yes.

TAPPER: -- candidly who in the Democratic field concerns you? Who do you think might be able to defeat President Trump?

CHRISTIE: Vice President Biden, because he's going to be able to potentially appeal to the white working-class voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio that determined this race in 2016. And I think more than any of the other candidates right now, he has the potential to do that.

Now, I will give this caveat to it that you know the lights in a presidential campaign are the brightest lights in the world and only two options when you get under those lights, you shine or you melt.

TAPPER: Right.

CHRISTIE: And we -- we're going to see what all these folks do including Joe Biden who by the way despite me just saying he's got the best chance, he's old for two running for president.

TAPPER: Right.

CHRISTIE: So you know, he has sets -- Donald Trump helps him with some of the really bold things that the president says --

TAPPER: That's a word for it.

CHRISTIE: People forget people forget some of the really bold things Joe Biden has said in the course of the presidential races before. But I'd say right now if you're -- if you're on the Trump side as I am, the guy you look at and say who's most likely the guy or woman who will most likely give us trouble in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, you got to say at the moment it's Joe Biden.

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, I -- so one, I think that if Vice President Biden and whoever else gets into the race, we need to have a very big robust primary on the Democratic side of the aisle and I think we've got great candidates that have started to jump into the races. Democrats, that means I'm not talking about the previous gentleman that --

TAPPER: Howard Schultz. You're not going to mention his name?

SANDERS: Who? I'm kidding. I know his name.

CHRISTIE: Run Howard, run.

SANDERS: So -- but I have to say that I think that speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of also what also what was happening in 2016. In 2016, a number of folks on the Democratic side of the aisle did not come out particularly young African-American voters, young Latino voters, African-American voters that folks needed in Milwaukee, in Michigan, in Pennsylvania. If those voters come out in 2020 as they did in 2018 in a lot of places, I think the electorate looks very different. And had those voters come out in 2016, Hillary Clinton would be president right now. KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, and that's the

thing inside the White House. The President is focusing on two people Joe Biden and little Elizabeth Warren. That's why you've seen him criticize them so much because those are his two primary worries. But it's interesting because some of his aides in his campaign and even inside the White House are worried more about a generational challenger, someone like Kamala Harris, someone who just presents totally different than Donald Trump. Not in a similar Donald Trump versus Joe Biden a similar age kind of way.

So that's actually becoming more of an increasing current concern for aides, but the President is focused on Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren.

[16:50:18] TAPPER: And Ayesha, The Wall Street Journal reached out to Beto O'Rourk to talk 2020. He responded "I'm not doing interviews right now. I'm not ready to speak to reporters until I've made a decision about what's next." But we should note, on Tuesday he's going to be talking to Oprah.

AYESHA RASCOE, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, NPR: Well, look --

COLLINS: She's not a reporter.

RASCOE: Why just talk to reporters when you could talk to Oprah?

TAPPER: Well, I get it.

RASCOE: You would have a much bigger platform there. I think Symone makes a good point. A big question is going to be who can kind of electrify like the younger voters, get them out there, people of color, black people, have these people come out and get them to go to the polls because that would have made a difference in that last presidential election.

And do you get that by just kind of playing to the middle? Is this a moment where people want something bigger, something bolder, they don't want just kind of like the status quo.

CHRISTIE: I think -- I think Symone and I will agree on the fact that whoever that person is, it isn't Beto O'Rourke.

SANDERS: Come on now, Governor.

CHRISTIE: It's not -- it's not weird --

SANDERS: Beto O'Rourke didn't even win when he need -- look, I think who eve wants more for president in the Democratic side of the aisle should run for president. But if we're going to talk about Beto, why are we not talking about Stacey Abrams?

CHRISTIE: Well, or --

TAPPER: Talk about her Tuesday night after she gets the responses in the State of the Union Address.

CHRISTIE: Yes, Beto O'Rourke doesn't understand that he raised $37.5 million in a quarter not because everybody loved him but because he's running against Ted Cruz and people wanted to take out Ted Cruz, right. This time it could be you know, 15-20 people in the race and it's going to be a whole different thing raising that money than when he was running against Ted Cruz.

TAPPER: Everyone, thanks so much. Governor Christie, thanks for being here. The book again is Let Me Finish, a good read. Sticking -- stick around. It's one of the few areas that Republicans are standing up to the President publicly. Senate Republicans just moments ago issuing a strong rebuke of President Trump foreign policy in one area and specifically stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:00] TAPPER: Breaking news now. Moments ago, President Trump tweeting this image, he's in the Oval Office with his top intelligence officials insisting that they told him what they said at the Senate hearing had been mischaracterized by the media. He says we are very much in agreement on Iran, ISIS, North Korea, etcetera. Their testimony was distorted by the press, he says. That's not accurate.

This comes of course after President Trump told his Intel Chiefs to go back to school in a tweet after they very publicly contradicted him on North Korea, and ISIS, and other matters at a public Senate hearing. All the quotes and testimony is out there. Another point of contention with his Intelligence Committee, Afghanistan, as the Trump Administration negotiates with the Taliban and prepares for the president's plan as of now to withdrawal half of American forces from Afghanistan.

Today, CNN has learned some at the Pentagon think withdrawing that many service members would be a mistake. CNN's Barbara Starr reports that military leaders remain at the ready for any order from President Trump to execute the plan.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: A plea tonight from Afghanistan to President Trump, don't remove U.S. forces as peace talks heat up between the Trump Administration and Taliban without the Afghan government being involved.

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani offering in a letter to Trump to reduce the costs for keeping U.S. Troops in Afghanistan, hoping it will appeal to the president. President Trump says he would bring American troops home if a peace deal is reached with the Taliban.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The first time they're talking about settling, they're talking about making an agreement and we bring our people back home if that happens.

STARR: But a former U.S. Ambassador warns of disaster.

RYAN CROCKER, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO AFGHANISTAN, IRAQ, PAKISTAN, AND SYRIA: The fact that we are holding these talks without the Afghan government in the room is a huge, dangerous concession for us to the Taliban.

STARR: Ryan Crocker going so far as to call it a surrender in a Washington post-op-ed this week. For now, there is no deal but there is plenty of talk that President Trump may use the upcoming State of the Union Address to announce a drawdown of up to half of the 14,000 U.S. troops currently serving there.

Some U.S. military officials tell CNN no drawdown should even be announced without a cease-fire. And some say the Pentagon draft plan to bring 7,000 troops home is too steep a drop as security is fragile and the war remains a stalemate.

DAN COATS, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE, UNITED STATES: We assessed neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban will be able to gain a strategic advantage in the Afghan war in the coming year, even if coalition support remains at current levels.

STARR: With terror networks still undefeated, the Pentagon and the Intelligence Community are not ready to give up too much.

COATS: al-Qaeda is showing signs of confidence as its leaders work to strengthen its networks and encourage attacks against western interests.

STARR: Which has the CIA Director warning if an agreement is reached, it needs to allow the U.S. to deal with any threats.

GINA HASPEL, DIRECTOR, CIA: A very robust monitoring regime would be critical and we would still need the capability to act in our national interest.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: And late today, the Senate voted 68-23 for an amendment that was highly critical of President Trump's efforts to potentially withdraw U.S. troops from both Syria and Afghanistan. And who sponsored that amendment? The Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a real reflection that Republicans may be getting uncomfortable that President Trump is withdrawing from the world stage when terrorists are gaining strength. Jake?

TAPPER: All right, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Thank you so much for that report. You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER, and you can tweet the show @THELEADCNN.