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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Cummings: Some Senior White House Officials Using Personal Email to Conduct Government Business. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 21, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:03]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Two of those jets crashed in the past six months, killing hundreds. Investigators want information from Boeing on safety procedures.

"THE LEAD" starts now.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Is the president trying to deflect the meteor that Robert Mueller is about to drop?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Bracing for impact, the White House getting ready for the final Mueller report that could be completed at any moment, as the fired ex- FBI director lays out what he wants to see happen from the report. It may surprise you.

And two for the price of one? New buzz surrounding Joe Biden and his potential running mate before he's actually even in the race.

Plus, President Trump tweets a major policy change regarding Israel. But is this a move about the Middle East or is it about boosting his pal Bibi right before an election?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Brianna Keilar, in for Jake Tapper today.

The White House, Washington and the world waiting for Robert Mueller to submit his final report, that is our politics lead today.

Early this morning, special counsel Robert Mueller was spotted arriving at his office building in Washington as we expect him to finish his report any day now outlining the findings of what is now a nearly two-year-long investigation.

The White House is bracing, but for exactly what and when, they don't know. One official telling CNN they are reading the tea leaves just like everyone else.

But in the meantime, as CNN's Abby Phillip reports, both the White House and the Trump campaign are gearing up to respond.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No collusion. No collusion. I have no idea when it's going to be released.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST (voice-over): The White House on edge today as they await the release of special counsel Robert Mueller's report.

Behind the scenes, aides have been preparing for a number of scenarios while they remain in the dark about what exactly Mueller will reveal. One White House official telling CNN today: "We're tea leaf reading like everyone else."

But Emmet Flood, the White House lawyer charged with dealing with the Russia probe, has held meetings in recent weeks to determine how they might respond. Their response will be based on what Attorney General Bill Barr decides to disclose to Congress about Mueller's conclusions, and what, if anything, implicates the president in wrongdoing.

But as the wait has tracked on, the president this week has ramped up his attacks, apparently seeking to undermine public confidence in the report before it's released.

TRUMP: But it's sort of interesting that a man out of the blue just writes a report. I got 63 million votes. And now somebody just writes a report? I think it's ridiculous.

PHILLIP: Meantime, the White House today also rejecting requests from congressional Democrats to obtain documents tied to President Trump's communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

TRUMP: I have great confidence in my intelligence people. But I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.

PHILLIP: In a letter to three Democratic committee chairmen, the White House counsel claiming presidential communications with foreign leaders is protected and confidential, saying: "While we respectfully seek to accommodate appropriate oversight requests, we are unaware of any precedent supporting such sweeping requests."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIP: As soon as this probe is over, the White House is bracing for a flurry of media attention and attacks from Democrats.

But some aides are actually bracing for something else, a sense of relief that this two-year investigation will finally be over. And some of the president's advisers are happy about one thing, that if this investigation ends at this point, it would have ended without President Trump sitting down for a formal interview with Robert Mueller.

But, of course, the Democrats on Capitol Hill are hoping to pick up right where Robert Mueller leaves off -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, Abby Phillip at the White House, thank you so much. And I want to open this up for questions especially because we have a

little bit of breaking news. Just moments ago, the former FBI Director James Comey wrote in an op-ed about the Mueller report. In it, he makes the argument that he hopes that President Trump is not impeached.

This is the quote . He says: "I hope that Mr. Trump is not impeached and removed from office before the end of his term, because if Mr. Trump were removed from office by Congress, a significant portion of this country would see this as a coup, and it would drive those people farther from the common center of American life, more deeply fracturing our country."

What do you think, Jamal?

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I think this entire op-ed just feels like so much James Comey. It's on the one hand, and on the one hand that, I don't hope that they're going to find anything about him, but I do think that we should find out whether or not he committed any crimes.

And, I mean, just all of it just seems -- there's no there in this piece, to me. And even the point about impeachment, if we have found the president is a national security risk, and if he is a counterintelligence risk, that there are things about his financial background and his personal behavior that make him susceptible to foreign influence, that is something that is a national problem that the Congress should deal with, because that's their job.

[16:05:02]

KEILAR: Mike, what do you think?

MIKE SHIELDS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think, first of all, we're all hoping this report will come out, and I think partly just so we don't have to hear from James Comey anymore, like, well, of course, he's popping back up on the scene again to offer his thoughts.

And, look, I think this is the beginning of the great walk-back. This is what happens when everyone gets out over their skis. And, oh, my gosh, Russian collusion. And now the reports going to come out. And we're going to see how many Democrats and people in the media learn from Ralph Northam how to do the moonwalk and go, well, I'm not really for impeachment, there's probably nothing there.

And we should just sort of make sure that justice happens. I mean, I totally agree with that. We should make sure that this is done properly, and he's exonerated. And when that happens, that people will say, oh, we had a thorough investigation. We didn't find anything. Let's move on.

KEILAR: What do you think?

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I think James Comey wants to be the beacon of even-handedness and fairness, but he destroyed that a couple of years ago when he went out and did the press conference right before the election.

And this is written as from somebody who rarely speaks publicly, who's weighing in, to sort of be the godfather of truth and justice and the American way. But the problem is, he's already destroyed his reputation that front. So they printed it because he's James Comey, but it's not going to have the impact that I think he intends, because he's James Comey.

He has an incredible ability to basically say nothing in this op-ed, because he's basically saying what we should all agree on. Nobody wants the president of the United States in any case to be impeached. Nobody wants the president to be colluding with a foreign government. Nobody should be rooting for that.

But there's a lot of facts on the table beyond that obvious agreement.

KEILAR: You said he rarely speaks publicly, but he sure does pick his moments, right?

(CROSSTALK)

PSAKI: I'm saying he does speak...

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: Oh, he does be publicly a lot.

PSAKI: This is not like a moment where somebody who is -- sits on a high mountaintop and everybody looks to, what is their view, James Comey, what does he think? We hear from him all the time.

And this says very little that is of interest.

(CROSSTALK)

SIMMONS: He might be hoping it impacts his book sales.

KEILAR: But do you think that Robert Mueller wants him out there, Mary Katharine Ham?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No. No.

These days, my kingdom for a former government official who rarely speaks in public. We don't have many of those anymore.

I kind of go contrarian and say something nice about Comey, because everybody's taken whacks, but I can't find a way to do it. Look, I basically agree with the guy and I think he's right about impeachment, that I hope that this is solved through an election, and that people will get to voice their opinions that way, instead of through this other thing, because I will -- I do think it will make people feel more isolated who were already feeling isolated.

But despite the fact that I agree with him, he does find the most preening way to say things, which is maybe a goal of mine in the future. SIMMONS: What if we find that -- which is probably true -- there was

never a meeting where Donald Trump sat with Vladimir Putin and decided to subvert the American election?

That's the standard the White House wants us to have about whether or not there's something here. The question could be, is Donald Trump susceptible to foreign influence because he's running a criminal enterprise out of Trump Tower?

And if they that was the case, that is something that the Congress has responsibility to deal with.

KEILAR: Well, we don't know yet what is going to be in the Mueller report. What's clear is that we are going to know very soon.

So I wonder, Jen, as someone who was communications director at the White House under President Obama, how in that position as a White House official do you approach something like this that is going to come out?

It's -- you don't really know what's in it. It's possibly very damaging. You can possibly spin it to say that it's positive. What do you do?

PSAKI: And they're not going to know today, in all likelihood. I mean, what we're going to know today, potentially, I guess, if it comes out, is that it has been received, and that there will be a period of time where the Department of Justice is going to put together a summary report to go to Congress.

So that's important, because, for the White House, you're going to be -- they're going to be in this never-ending period of not knowing, and that's a terrible place to be in. I'm fortunate I didn't work in a White House where we had a special counsel investigation.

However, I think what they are attempting to do, and it's hard to see how this is actually what's happening, but is, they're trying to focus on other issues and guide the narrative in other directions.

That is strategically what they should do, though, when this comes out, that will be nearly impossible to do, because they don't control the narrative. It is not infrastructure week forever, even if they want it to be.

SHIELDS: And the person that will decide the narrative is not -- is the president. He's the communications director, the chief of staff. He's the press secretary.

(CROSSTALK)

SHIELDS: So whatever comes out of this, everyone's just going to be looking to him to say, what are we doing? He's going to tweet and talk about it. And that's going to set the tone for everybody.

KEILAR: Do you struggle to imagine a situation, Mary Katharine, where even when it's in the hands, even just that much, OK, it's gone over to the Justice Department, that the president isn't tweeting something about it and what should he or should not -- what should he not be tweeting?

HAM: Yes, look, I mean, he can stay his hand occasionally, we have seen, sometimes on important issues that affect him, but not forever, like not for an extended period of time.

[16:10:01]

So I would imagine you will you will get some thoughts from him on this. And like you said, it will dictate what everyone else is able to do. I will say that it does feel like the storyline that we are -- that people are getting the feeling about what's coming out of the Mueller report.

And the feeling is that we're moving in a direction where they can sort of easily say, look, this was sold as a lot bigger than the results of this.

KEILAR: Well, and to that point, there's a source that is telling CNN there's a sense of optimism in the White House, right, when they look at where are the charges that have to do with collusion.

There aren't any at this point. So they're looking at that. They're optimistic. They're predicting that this is something that they will be able to make more rosy for the president, Jamal.

SIMMONS: It certainly seems like they are trying to portray that in public.

The question becomes also the president's son is someone who's in jeopardy here. And perhaps there is a referral out of this report about the president's son that goes to one of these U.S. attorneys. So the president himself, because he seems like he's a pretty deft manipulator at not being one who is ever caught actually doing the thing, but he does seem like, according to Cohen and Manafort and the others, that he sort of suggests things to people or he implies that they should do things.

What happens if Roger Stone, Don Jr., a couple of other people, we have already got Manafort in trouble, convicted, we have got the former national security adviser convicted -- a lot of people here who are facing jail time who are associated with the president of the United States.

Imagine if that happened to anyone else.

KEILAR: And to that point, how do you make rosy, as it sounds the White House is going to do, Mike, 199 criminal counts so far in the Mueller investigation, 37 people and entities charged? Six Trump associates have been charged, found guilty or sentenced to prison.

SHIELDS: Because the Democrats, Adam Schiff, I know for a fact there was collusion, who is now the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, one of their rock stars who just got elected, we're going to impeach the M.F.er. They -- the entire narrative for two years in the Democratic Party and amongst the media has been Russian collusion, Russian collusion. And so they have created that narrative. And, look, I worked in the '90s in the House.

I have been there when we went after Bill Clinton. The base of the Democratic Party is going to go nuts no matter what this thing says. And you're going to have Nancy Pelosi and the leadership, who may not have anything they can take to them that actually has anything materially they can do.

It's going to cause a huge problem for them. And it's going to benefit the White House, because they're going to look crazy. And the White House is going to look exonerated.

SIMMONS: But this is a good point to raise.

Remember, you guys went after the Clinton administration on a land deal that happened when he was governor of Arkansas.

(CROSSTALK)

SHIELDS: The public doesn't go with you.

SIMMONS: Hold on one second. I will finish.

And what you discovered is that the president had an affair with someone in the White House, right? You uncovered something, and then he perjured himself when he was talking about that affair.

So what you may discover here is that there is something more here than what people set out.

(CROSSTALK)

SHIELDS: I love the fact you brought that up.

(CROSSTALK)

SHIELDS: When you start in one place and then shift, the American people go, oh, you're just trying to get him. And then when you use a sex scandal as the reason why you're trying to get someone, they go, this is all a big joke.

The economy's doing great. You guys are so obsessed with the sex scandal. It's all partisan politics. You're just investigating because you don't like him anymore.

(CROSSTALK)

SIMMONS: Well, we know Trump had a sex scandal. That does not seem to be the thing that we're focused on.

(CROSSTALK)

PSAKI: But I think if you look back at the reality of that period of time, we all talk about this like it was a mistake for the Republicans to go in that direction.

But the reality is, the Republicans held on to House states. They won the presidency, however that all happened in 2000. And they held on to control for a while. They actually...

(CROSSTALK)

SHIELDS: We lost six seats in '98.

(CROSSTALK)

SHIELDS: So, the '98 midterm turned. I was there. The '98 midterm turned on impeachment. And it was a rejection of us because we had gone too far.

(CROSSTALK)

SHIELDS: And part of the reason was we started in one place and then we shifted to other things. And the public said, the reason you're shifting is because, politically, you just want to get him.

You have become the get him party, and we want you to do our work, not go to Congress and just get the president.

PSAKI: You won the presidency in 2000 and held on to the House -- I was there too -- until 2006.

So all I'm saying is this notion that it's -- impeachment is always terrible politics is not entirely always true, even historically.

KEILAR: All right, stay with me, you guys, because President Trump also loved talking about Hillary Clinton, but specifically Hillary Clinton's e-mails during the campaign.

Well, now it appears that his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner may have followed in her footsteps. What House Democrats are now claiming next.

Then, President Trump sending a tweet with global consequences that critics say could influence another country's election

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:18:38] KEILAR: We're back with the politics lead.

The top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee accusing Trump administration officials, including Jared Kushner, of using private e- mail and message apps to conduct government business.

I want to bring in CNN's Sunlen Serfaty on Capitol Hill.

And tell us what you're learning here, Sunlen.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, this involves four senior Trump administration officials, including notably, two members of the Trump family, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, along with former top adviser Steve Bannon and K.T. McFarland.

Now, this is information that Chairman Cummings says that he received during a December meeting with Abbe Lowell, who is Jared and Ivanka's lawyer. And Cummings said that this information in that meeting show that they used personal accounts to conduct private government -- excuse me, to conduct government business, potentially in violation of the Presidential Records Act.

And specifically on Jared, Chairman Cummings saying that he was told Jared used the private messaging app WhatsApp to conduct some business specifically to communicate with foreign leaders. Of course, raising the question, if potentially classified information might have been communicated, Brianna. But, Lowell, who is their lawyer, pushing back on many of the details of that conversation today. He says that he never communicated that Jared's communications over WhatsApp were with foreign leaders specifically.

KEILAR: And -- so there are some people who are cooperating, there are some who are not cooperating with Democratic investigations into the Trump administration.

[16:20:07] Tell us, who's who?

SERFATY: That's right. A lot of movement here, certainly, Brianna, specifically former White House communications director Hope Hicks, she says that she will cooperate with the request coming from House Judiciary. She will hand over documents in their investigation related to certainly her time with President Trump, her time on the campaign and the White House.

Meantime, Trump's long-time confidante, you've heard this name a lot, Roger Stone, his lawyers say that he's refusing to cooperate. They say that they won't produce any documents or appear before the committee for any interviews at this time. Certainly, this flurry of activity not only underscores the muscle that Democrats are flexing on oversight but this ongoing tug of war over information.

KEILAR: All right. Sunlen, thank you so much.

I just have to ask, Mike, I mean, the president was so profuse in his criticism for Hillary Clinton over his e-mail. Why would Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump make the same mistake?

SHIELDS: Well, their lawyer has said they take screen shots of these things and send them to their e-mail to keep a public record of them, which is vastly different from creating a server and putting it in your house for the expressed purpose of never having it come through the government. So I think the lawyer for the Kushners have said that they were complying with the law on this.

KEILAR: In the end, Hillary Clinton on her honor, as we would expect here with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, sent her e-mail communications that were pertinent into the system and, therefore, was in compliance the same way that Jared and Ivanka are. They're completely opening themselves up to problems here. Why not just e-mail on your government e-mail and not create the

problem that was clearly such a giant issue for someone in the prior administration?

SHIELDS: I don't know the answer to that. I know he is conducting diplomacy with a foreign leader and that foreign leader and he are talking through this way and he has sought counsel. He's talked to his lawyers about how to do this.

And so, if you're following the advice of counsel and they're telling you how to do it, then you believe that's the right way to proceed.

KEILAR: Aside from following your counsel, you were a top administration official, a top White House official. So -- and at the State Department. What is the process that you go through to understand that you're not supposed to do this?

PSAKI: Well, you're briefed repeatedly when you start working in the White House about how information needs to be preserved, how you should use your government e-mail. It's very clear, there's no confusion about it. And, actually, communicating with a foreign official, using your personal e-mail, is exactly what you should not be doing, because that's the kind of information and kind of interaction over e-mail that should be captured.

That's one of the areas that Secretary Clinton was criticized for, and people who have worked in the State Department have been criticized for because you shouldn't be keeping those off of a server and off of a government server. So, that, actually, to me, is much more jarring than whether if they're talking about recipes, or their evening plans or whatever they're talking about.

HAM: Well, that's what she claims they were talking about. To be fair, which is a very self interested argument, but go ahead.

PSAKI: Let's see. I would also say that Hillary Clinton released tens of thousands of her e-mails. So, I look forward to reading Jared and Ivanka's e-mails when they release tens of thousands of them and we can see if they're talking about, you know, whatever, climate change.

Maybe they're talking about their foreign leaders or their business dealings, we don't know. But that's the standard that should now be applied to them. Let's see.

SIMMONS: When the Obama administration was in place, I had a lot of friends in the administration, if I ever e-mailed them something that had to do with official business, the response was let's discuss this on my professional e-mail. They would CC that e-mail address from their Gmail.

KEILAR: Move the conversation into the official channel.

SIMMONS: And move the conversation over to the official channel.

PSAKI: Even when you -- (CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: Is this really defensible?

HAM: No, it's safe to say that neither WhatsApp nor a private server at your home are part of the briefing. Stick to the briefing, people. Do what is safe. Give all of the public access to the things that we deserve a look at, access to. These things are supposed to go through the server with the government for a reason, so that you can't parse after the fact what is important and what is not because it's actually our stuff, you know, security factors aside.

But look, this is -- I just -- the Trump administration has a very lax idea of what best practices are. And there's a good way to stay safe in this. They don't --

(CROSSTALK)

SHIELDS: One of the things you just mentioned could actually be happening. Something starts somewhere and moves over. What Hillary did was nothing. Everything was going to be on my home server.

Jared and Ivanka are using government e-mail. Someone may contact them in another way, and then they're saying, no, I'm moving this over to the government e-mail. So, the idea that they're doing all of their business on this is not what's being reported.

(CROSSTALK)

SIMMONS: Let's not forget that Jared Kushner is the one reported to have asked for a private communications channel with the Russians --

(CROSSTALK)

SHIELDS: While he was in transition, while he was an official going into the White House, talking to an ambassador because he has a foreign policy portfolio.

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: One of the questions is that Jared Kushner has a history, I think we can all admit, of not accurately giving all information that is required, right?

[16:25:04] SIMMONS: Fair.

KEILAR: That's correct? It is under his honor system that he will provide these communications. That's problematic.

SHIELDS: Well, I believe that they're FOIA-able because he's sending them, as counsel has told him to, to his government e-mail. And yes, he has -- let's be clear. When you're saying that history --

KEILAR: Based on his judgment --

SHIELDS: -- he has amended his documents many times -- (CROSSTALK)

PSAKI: And just to clarify, it's only FOIA-able if you're e-mailing with an agency, not White House e-mails. That's one of the reasons why they need to be part of the Presidential Records Act.

KEILAR: A FOIA is Freedom of Information Act.

PSAKI: Yes.

KEILAR: You can request information, as Mary Katharine said, these are actually ours, these are our communications, a lot of them. So, you can FOIA them.

SHIELDS: The important thing is if you sought -- if you sought counsel, if you've gone to White House counsel's office and said, how should I conduct my business and you're following what the White House counsel is doing, then you're complying. Then you're saying, I'm migrating things over to my government account and the counsel is telling me how to do this. That's apparently what they've done and what counsel is saying they've done.

So, there's kind of -- I don't think -- if you're complying with what the counsel has told you to do, I don't think there's a history here.

PSAKI: I think the challenge is the honor system issue that was raised because if we are relying on Jared and Ivanka by their honor to transfer things over to their government accounts, there are reasons that things are on their government accounts from beginning to end.

SHIELDS: OK. So, what that saying is, maybe someone broke the law and we don't know about it, but let's talk about it as if they did break the law but we don't know. You could say that about every government official --

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: Isn't that why you start on your government e-mail, to get rid of that question?

SHIELDS: Maybe they didn't initiate the conversation. Maybe someone in Saudi Arabia, who uses WhatsApp all the time perhaps says I need to talk to you about this. Hang on, I'm going to forward this --

KEILAR: Do you know that, Mike?

SHIELDS: No.

KEILAR: Or are you assuming?

SHIELDS: It's plausible.

KEILAR: That can't be a defense.

SHIELDS: Well, it's certainly a plausible conversation just like everything else we're talking about. KEILAR: Yes.

SIMMONS: Except there is a history of Jared Kushner not looking for ways to be on the official record of his communication with foreign officials. We -- there's a history of Jared Kushner having contacts with foreign officials and not reporting them. There's a history of Jared Kushner asking for private channels to communicate with foreign government officials and be then being told he can't. And now, we have a story of Jared Kushner communicating on another private e-mail application and being told he shouldn't do it that way.

Why is it that they just can't do business the way everyone else in government does business, on their official government record?

SHIELDS: The way everyone else does business like Hillary Clinton did?

SIMMONS: Hillary Clinton's not president. She's not secretary of state.

SHIELDS: She is not president.

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: What she did wasn't okay. Her doing something that wasn't okay does not make this okay.

SIMMONS: Why are you throwing Hillary Clinton into the mix here? What a red herring.

(CROSSTALK)

HAM: Because, A, he can't pretend everyone's noses are clean. Although we can advocate for best practices, which I don't think is what's going on here. There's a way to keep your nose cleaner even if it does not end up being an actual crime or problem.

SHIELDS: Talk to White House counsel, that's how you keep your nose clean. If they tell you it's OK, it's OK.

KEILAR: Well, we'll see if that's what happened.

All right. So, he hasn't even said he's running for president yet, but there's talk about Joe Biden running mate? We'll discuss.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)