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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Family of Otto Warmbier Rebukes Trump Over Siding With North Korean Dictator; Did Trump Personally Order Jared Kushner's Security Clearance?; Mob-Linked Informant With Ties To Trump To Testify Publicly March 14. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 1, 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: "The night she died, I saw that the moon was exactly half-full, just as I am now, half of what I have been my entire adult life.

Oh, from her husband.

And that's it for me. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thanks for being here.

"THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: You know, I think the best part of the president's week for him was that 20-hour overseas flight.

THE LEAD starts right now.

From bad to worse. Top Democrats now slamming President Trump for putting his children over national security. Did the president ignore the concerns about his son-in-law in giving him a top-secret security clearance?

With us or against us. The House speaker teams up with the young Democratic socialist rising star of her party to lay down a threat to moderate Democrats.

Plus, spawn of terror. Osama bin Laden's son takes the rein of al Qaeda, and the worldwide manhunt sounds frighteningly familiar.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead, an explosive report from "The New York Times." President Trump reportedly ordered his then Chief of Staff John Kelly to grant his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a top-secret security clearance, over the concerns of senior intelligence officials and against the advice of the White House Counsel's Office.

Today, the Democratic chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Elijah Cummings, is demanding that the White House cooperate with his investigation into White House clearances, including Kushner's, warning that he expects a response from the White House to his request for documents and interviews by Monday. It's a fitting end for a rather rough week for President Trump. His

former fixer, Michael Cohen, flipped on him and basically handed congressional Democrats a map of alleged corruption, fraud and cronyism investigations that Cohen suggests all lead back to Trump Tower.

Congressman Cummings also saying that his committee wants interviews with close Trump associates and even family members, such as Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump. Cohen will return to Capitol Hill next week to share even more of what he knows what the House Intelligence Committee.

And we haven't even mentioned the president's failed summit in North Korea or those comments he made defending Kim Jong-un on the torture and essentially the murder of an American college student, Otto Warmbier.

As CNN's Boris Sanchez reports for us now, this has been the story of Donald and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Democrats are furious and threatening to subpoena documents from the White House after reports that President Donald Trump overruled his intelligence community and demanded a top-secret security clearance for his son-in- law, Jared Kushner.

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D), VIRGINIA: After many, many denials by the president himself and the White House, we now learn, well, actually the president did intervene and did order his chief of staff, General Kelly, to provide a security clearance for his son-in-law.

I would love to see Mr. Kelly before our committee.

SANCHEZ: Both Chief of Staff John Kelly and White House counsel Don McGahn wrote memos outlining Trump's demand in May of 2018, according to "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post."

Though the president has the legal authority to grant clearance, he and his family have denied that he was involved, including in this January exchange with "The Times."

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know that there was issues back and forth about security for -- for numbers numerous people, actually. But I don't want to get involved in that stuff.

IVANKA TRUMP, ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: The president had no involvement pertaining to my clearance or my husband's clearance.

SANCHEZ: Pressed on the subject during a CNN interview last May, Kushner's attorney, Abbe Lowell, also denied it.

ABBE LOWELL, ATTORNEY FOR JARED KUSHNER: They're all career people. There was nobody in the political process that had anything to do with it. There was nobody who pressured it. It was just done the normal, regular way.

SANCHEZ: As the House Oversight Committee considers inviting more witnesses, including members of Trump's inner circle, to testify on Capitol Hill, the president blasted Michael Cohen on Twitter, following his former attorneys testimony earlier this week, all this as President Trump deals with coming home empty-handed from his North Korea summit, including fierce backlash for taking the word of Kim Jong-un, who claimed he had nothing to do with the death of American college student Otto Warmbier.

D. TRUMP: He tells me that he didn't know about it, and I will take him at his word.

SANCHEZ: Warmbier's family responding to Trump's comments, issuing a statement, writing -- quote -- "Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto. No excuses or lavish praise can change that."

Top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway tried to play cleanup.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: The president agrees with the Warmbier family and holds North Korea responsible for Otto Warmbier's death. He has said that time and again.

This president is responsible for having Otto Warmbier returned to this country and be reunited with his family in his final hours before he passed.

[16:05:05]

The president is talking about that Chairman Kim did not know what happened to Otto at the time of what happened -- when it happened. And so, of course, he holds North Korea irresponsible.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SANCHEZ: And, Jake, just as we're discussing North Korea, the president actually tweeted about Otto Warmbier and his previous comments in a couple of tweets.

The president writes that he never likes being misinterpreted, especially when it comes to Otto Warmbier and his family. He got Otto out, along with three others, he writes. He says: "The previous administration did nothing. Otto and his family have become a tremendous symbol of strong passion and strength, which will last for many years into the future."

It does not address the actual comments made by Otto Warmbier's family in which they clearly were not happy with the way the president praised Kim Jong-un, someone who they hold responsible for their son's death, Jake.

TAPPER: Yes, I mean, there's no misinterpretation here. It's very clear. The Warmbiers say that Kim is responsible, along with North Korea, and President Trump says he takes Kim at his word that he wasn't. Boris Sanchez, thanks so much.

Let's start with the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, because, of course, the big question is, why? Why did national security officials have concerns about giving him a security clearance?

We got a tip from your newspaper, which reported that -- quote -- "Officials in at least four countries have privately discussed ways they can manipulate Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience."

So that's not the definitive answer, but it's a possible clue.

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's a potential definite hint on why Jared Kushner has had struggles for so long under this administration to get the clearance.

This is going to be a major issue for the House Democrats to investigate, clearly. I mean, I thought it was pretty notable that this is one of the top things that they laid out. They launched their investigation on January 23.

And I think what we heard from Chairman Elijah Cummings earlier today was that he is probably ready to issue a subpoena in the coming days. He said in his letter that this is the final time that I will ask you voluntarily for these records, because this is a very high priority for House Democrats, and obviously not the end of their work on this.

Obviously, there's going to be a desire to question the former Chief of Staff John Kelly, following "The New York Times"' reporting last night, which we at "The Post" were able to match as well, and that memo, that contemporaneous memo, that's -- I'm sure Democrats will certainly want to seek that.

TAPPER: And, Bill, the big question, of course, is, who do you believe, "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" and their thorough journalism, or the denials by Donald Trump and Ivanka Trump and Abbe Lowell, a lawyer for them?

BILL KRISTOL, DIRECTOR, DEFENDING DEMOCRACY TOGETHER: Yes, I notice John Kelly has not exactly come out and denied that there is such a memo and that it's been accurately characterized by "The Times" and "The Post."

What strikes me is -- I was in the White House four years -- plenty of very senior White House people have had complicated business dealings in the past, Don Regan, President Reagan's chief of staff, just -- right? Many of them had a lot of foreign travel, a lot of -- but you tell them everything you have done, and they look at it, and there's no reason to stop.

And they obviously are going to defer to a president's choice, benefit of the doubt, so to speak, for someone very senior. And so it is kind of remarkable. I think people maybe who haven't been in there don't understand how remarkable it is that they were so reluctant to issue the security clearance to Jared Kushner.

And a lot of it must have had to do with the fact that he didn't disclose so much on the first...

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: He filled out those forms. Those forms are really a pain and it takes a long time. If you have been a world traveler, you have to fill in every country you have gone to.

But Jared Kushner has the ability to get some help to fill out those things. So, anyway, I do think it's pretty striking how reluctant the career people there were, who, after all, how many people get appointed to the White House -- 98 percent of them get those clearances, right?

And a lot of them have, as I say, complicated lives and foreign travel and business operations and stuff. So it is pretty striking that they were so reluctant.

TAPPER: And, Jeff, obviously, the president, he's the president. He gets to decide, and he gets to say, I want this person to have a top- secret security clearance, if he wants to.

One of the things that is also striking is that we know what really happened, I mean, that people -- enough people were disturbed by it that they talked to reporters.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Right.

And that's -- I mean, and he has constantly denied -- in his interview with "The New York Times," Maggie Haberman and others, he said he was not involved in the security process at all. But we know, back during 2017, the amending of the reports that happened again and again and again.

So Jared Kushner started filling these reports out after the election, and I'm sort of going into the transition here. So they have been obfuscating and delaying for a long time.

But I think one other -- at the time, I'm thinking about this now. There was also a sense of naivete. He did not have experience in the foreign policy realm, and they were worried about him talking to foreign officials and foreign leaders.

So that was another sense of this, the interviews that they were doing with him as well. But this is certainly John Kelly, if not exacting revenge, he's not correcting this at all today. He's being utterly silent.

TAPPER: Symone, House Oversight Committee -- oversight in general is not supposed to be done for political reasons. It's supposed to be done for oversight reasons.

[16:10:02] And I don't doubt that this is an important oversight responsibility, what Chairman Cummings is talking about doing. Do you think voters care about that, though?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I would like to remind people that, back when Watergate was going down, OK, the voters, if you look at opinion polling at that time, the voters -- quote, unquote -- "didn't care."

There was not widespread -- it wasn't popping up in polls, people were not citing that I'm very concerned about what did and didn't happen in Watergate in opinion polls. It wasn't until after a resignation happened that it started showing up in opinion polls.

And so this question of do the voters care I don't think should lead the chair -- whether it's Chairman Cummings or Chairman Maxine Waters or whoever else is in charge of exercising oversight and doing their jobs as committee chairpeople, I don't think if the voters care should lead the chairpeople in what they decide to take up.

I think, what is in the purview of your duties and what is right and is there something fishy going on and are you exercising your job as Congress in oversight, as a co-equal branch of government?

And if the answer to any of those questions is yes, then you have to do your job.

TAPPER: And, meanwhile, as Congress continues to investigate, Chris Christie, who is a close ally of President Trump, just told CNN that he thinks President Trump should be worried about the U.S. attorney's investigation in the Southern District of New York.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), FORMER NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR: Because what they're doing, I'm confident, is building a case for two things, one, to go after those around the president who may have committed crimes, and, two, to build a case, if they have one -- I don't think they have one at the moment, but if they -- if they were trying -- they're trying to build one -- against the president for when he leaves office.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: That's a pretty stunning thing for him to say. He's a former U.S. attorney.

ZELENY: It absolutely is. And he said at the moment. I don't think they have one at the moment.

But he did not quarrel at all. He's a Republican. He did something that no one on that committee did, is raising the possibility that this is going to be a deeper investigation. So I would stick with Chris Christie on this.

He knows what he's talking about in terms of investigations.

TAPPER: And we have some breaking news just in.

CNN has learned that the U.S. and South Korea are expected to announce annual large-scale military exercises are off. They're being replaced with smaller drills, according to a Pentagon official. The large exercises have long been an irritant to North Korea.

President Trump, additionally, has questioned their usefulness. The U.S. had already suspended some exercises to ease tensions following the first North Korea summit.

Coming up: He has a resume that reads like Tony Soprano's. He once referred to President Trump as his boy, and he claims he led the effort to build Trump Tower Moscow. How dangerous could Felix Sater's testimony be to President Trump?

And al Qaeda, the next generation. Could Osama bin Laden's son lead the terror organization to terrifying new lows?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:16:54] TAPPER: The Politics Lead now not only is the President's former long time lawyer, Michael Cohen, coming back to talk to Congress, so is Felix Sater. Sater, a Russian born businessman also linked to President Trump. Sater claims he led Trump Tower Moscow negotiations and he has quite the CV. In 1991, Sater got into a bar fight and slashed a guy with a margarita glass. In 1998, Sater pleaded guilty to a stock fraud scheme involving the mob. Only a few years later, Sater, says he began working with the Trumps on real estate deals.

In 2015, Sater emailed Michael Cohen, then the lawyer for Mr. Trump, and talked about how the potential Trump Tower Moscow project would help Mr. Trump convince the nation of his negotiating skills and help Mr. Trump win the White House.

According to The New York Times, Sater emailed Cohen, quote, our boy can become President of the U.S.A and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putin's team to buy in on this. I will manage the process.

As CNN's Cristina Alesci reports, now the democrats control the House Intelligence Committee, well they've got some questions for Sater.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CRISTINA ALESCI, CNN BUSINESS AND POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Felix Sater is the man at the center of Donald Trump's Moscow Tower project. And now, he'll testify publicly before Congress, sharing with the world what he knows about the President's business dealings.

FELIX SATER, TRUMP'S FORMER BUSINESS PARTNER: I was trying to use this opportunity because I had tried to build Trump Tower in Moscow as well as London and Paris. ALESCI: Lawmakers will likely grill Sater on what Trump knew about the deal and when, and on possible financing sources. In 2018, Sater told CNN, if the Trump Moscow project had moved forward, he would have made sure Trump was hands on.

SATER: I would have, believe me, turned over every rock to make sure that everyone was involved.

ALESCI: Sater was emailing Donald Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, in 2015 and 2016 about the Moscow deal. That deal would have netted Trump's business of $4 million upfront fee. Special Cunsel prosecutor said, if the deal had been successful, it would have earned hundreds of millions of dollars for the Trump Organization.

Sater is best known for his role in the proposed Moscow deal. But his connection with the President goes well beyond that.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN CUOMO PRIME TIME: And you did licensing agreements involving the Trump name also, which is a huge revenue flow.

SATER: Absolutely. I did it in New York, I did it in Fort Lauderdale, I tried to do it in Phoenix, Arizona. I worked on numerous Trump deals in my career.

ALESCI: Trump downplayed the relationship during a deposition in 2013.

DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: I don't know him well at all.

ALESCI: But in 2010, Sater had an office three doors down from Trump at the Trump Tower in New York according to a person familiar with the office lay out at the time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- that he had an office in the Trump Tower.

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER ATTORNEY TO DONALD TRUMP: And on the 26th floor, Mr. Trump's --

UNIDENTIFIED: And the 26th floor is important, why?

COHEN: Because it's Mr. Trump's floor.

ALESCI: Sater, born in the Soviet Union, moved to the U.S. in the 1970s. He is a former felon turned government cooperator, who says he has shared a wealth of information with the U.S. authorities on a variety of issues for the last 20 years and soon could share some of that with the American people.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[16:20:04]

Jake, lawmakers will likely want to follow the money and ask about the financing of the project during Sater's hearing that's going to happen in two weeks. President Trump has denied any wrong doing with regard to the Trump Tower Moscow deal which continued, as you know, into his Presidential campaign.

Jake?

TAPPER: Cristina Alesci, thank you so much. And, Symone, just to reiterate this. Here is Donald Trump in 2013 in a sworn deposition denying any kind of close relationship with Felix Sater.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: If he was sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn't know what he looked like.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Here is Michael Cohen on Wednesday asked about that deposition.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Isn't it true that President Trump knew convicted Russian mobster Felix Sater in 2013 when he made that statement?

COHEN: Yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SYMONE SANDERS, FORMER NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY: I think I'd like to characterize Donald Trump as the Mariah Carey of politics, Jake. He is very good at pretending he doesn't know someone when it suits him. Mariah Carey - look, look it up, it doesn't mean I don't her, as Mariah Carey would say. And Donald Trump is the Mariah Carey politics, so I don't know her, I don't know him. He is just the errand boy. He he just got the coffee.

Look, this spells trouble for Donald Trump. I think that Cohen testimony was very, very damaging because Michael Cohen left all these bread crumbs for not just the House Oversight Committee but other committees have been their jurisdiction to pick up what he was putting down. And he put down a lot in that hearing, Jake. So I look forward to hearing from Mr. Felix Sater.

TAPPER: And, Bill, I mean he had an office just a few doors down from President Trump. He's in photographs with President Trump. Here is September 2005. That's Sater on the right in Loveland, Colorado after a speech. Trump came two years later, September 2007, the two attended the Trump Soho Hotel condo launch party, another photo from that day, just President Trump standing by, Felix Sater is on the mic. The President's deposition said he wouldn't recognize the guy. I mean, it just seems like why even he lie about this.

BILL KRISTOL, DIRECTOR, DEFENDING DEMOCRACY TOGETHER: He's a pretty shame was liar. Maybe you've noticed that over the last few years, Donald Trump. You know, to get back to the first conversation we're having with the security clearance, I just want come back for one second, which was related. They don't deny you or even holdup your security clearance if they think, gee, he doesn't know as much about foreign policy.

I'm sure I didn't know as much as I should have when I was - became Chief of Staff to the Vice President in - really, when I was 36 or whatever, and a lot I didn't know what they do, what do they care about. Are you in debt to someone that there is stuff that could be used for blackmail? Do you have close friends and associates with dubious characters, either in terms of domestic, criminal organizations or, even worst, foreign intelligence questions?

And I get to come back, that was Trump's circle though and that was Jared's circle, to some degree, and I think that's why they were held up. It wasn't just that Jared Kushner isn't up to the level of Fred Scoproff [ph] or something.

And so Jared Kushner was hanging out with - he couldn't - his father- in-law is the President, so you can't - that's a new question about whether he or who his associates were.

But I'm very intrigued by the fact that they really were so sort of spooked by who Jared Kushner had been hanging around with, which in a sense, is also who Donald Trump had been hanging around with that they thought --

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: But you can't restrict the President's security clearance.

TAPPER: Right. And Seung Min, one of the things that people are very intrigued by is his Trump Tower Moscow project, which the President was not fourth coming about at the very least than 2016. Take a listen to Felix Sater telling CNN last year that Trump personally asked him to look after his adult children during the negotiations over the Trump Tower in Moscow.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SATER: The President asked me to be in Russia at the same time as them, to look after them.

CUOMO: The President asked you?

SATER: Yes, sir.

CUOMO: Directly?

SATER: Directly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: This is relevant to those who are intrigued and want to know more about why the President then candidate wasn't honest about the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations when, during the campaign, he's denying no deals in Russia, no deals in Russia.

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And that project has been such a focal point of all of these investigations. And remember, this the whole reason why Michael Cohen is going to prison in the first place because he lied to Congress about how much these discussions about Moscow, about Trump Tower Moscow extended. And that's why when Mr. Sater is under oath in public in two weeks, what he says about this project will be really critical when he says about that relationship and what the President knew about it at the time. I'm going back to your first point.

I mean, I just kept thinking of what the President kept saying about Paul Manafort as well when his legal troubles really began to develop [ph] more and more. I mean, this was his campaign chairman.

SANDERS: He said, I didn't know him very well.

KIM: And he really downplayed his role in the campaign, says he's a good guy, like a good guy in republican politics, but I don't really know him all that well. But this is your own campaign chairman. So Symone is right, this is pattern that we've seen from sometime for the President.

TAPPER: And meanwhile, we should know as the Mueller investigation seems to be coming down to a close and perhaps the Senate Intelligence Committee as well. We hear a new call from Trump's allies to release everything, not just the Mueller report but all the documents.

[16:25:00]

Take a listen to Donald Trump Jr. and Congressman Devin Nunes, the ranking republican on House Intelligence today at CPAC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP JR.: I've been saying it for a while. I mean, just put it all out there. Put it all out there. How about don't redact anything.

REP. DEVIN NUNES (R), C.A.: But I want everything that Mueller did made public. I want every email. I want everything that - everybody that they wiretapped, every warrant that they got.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What's going on here?

ZELENY: It certainly does not sound like what the President has been talking about being a witch hunt. I mean, they are getting to the edge. It appears it seems like you sort of get the sense that this is - next week could be a big week here in terms of it coming out, not that we'll see it necessarily. But they are, you know, trying to - and I'm not exactly sure what Donald Trump Jr. was trying to do here by saying, release everything. I'm not sure with his motivation. Devin Nunez, I think, is trying to perhaps change his role in some of this history. But I'm not sure what their end game here and I don't think it's endorsed by the President. We've not heard him say that at all. We'll see if he does.

KRISTOL: Well, I think what they are trying to do is just total muddying the water. Release everything is therefore transparency. Well, obviously, no prosecution, no investigation can release random conversations where people speculate about third parties, maybe, say, you should follow this up and there's nothing there, right? And it's totally inappropriate and I believe illegal for the FBI or for Mueller to release this stuff. So it's just a fake attempt to look - were for openness.

TAPPER: Right. Well, we will see. They seem very confident.

Coming up, are Nancy Pelosi and AOC are ganging up on some of their more moderate peers? The drama inside the House Democratic caucus coming up next.

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