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CNN NEWSROOM

Trump Attempts To Walk Back Comments On Accepting Foreign Dirt; Trump Says Tanker Attacks Have Iran Written All Over It. Aired 10- 10:30a ET

Aired June 14, 2019 - 10:00   ET

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


[10:00:00]

POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: All right, top of the hour. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: And I'm Jim Sciutto in Washington. This Friday, a brand new defense this morning from President Trump to one of the central claims of obstruction of justice in the Mueller report. In the latest installment of what's been an explosive interview with ABC News, the President suggested that his former White House Counsel, Don McGahn, might have been trying to make himself look important when he said the President ordered him to fire the Special Counsel. Keep in mind, these comments by McGahn were under oath. Have a listen to the President.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: I was never going to fire Mueller. I never suggested firing Mueller. I don't care what he says. It doesn't matter. That was to show everyone what a good counsel he was.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: But why would Don McGahn -- why would he lie under oath to Robert Mueller?

TRUMP: Because he wanted to make himself look like a good lawyer, or, or he believed it because I would constantly tell anybody that would listen, including you, including the media, that Robert Mueller was conflicted.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: That's not all. The President spent almost one solid hour this morning of his 73rd birthday, happy birthday, Mr. President, on the phone with Fox and Friends during which he took, by our account, three distinct positions, three different ones, on whether he would take dirt from his political opponents from foreign interests.

Let me read you from the President, quote, of course, you give it to the FBI, which is, by the way, what the law requires. But then he said, quote, you have to look at it. And then there's this third one. On the other hand, quote, I don't think anybody would present me with anything.

Sarah Westwood is at the White House this morning. And thank goodness for that, because, Sarah, if anyone can clear it up, you can.

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Oh, I don't know about that, Poppy and Jim, but President Trump, yes, going from in the span of just a few days from saying that, you know, he's never contacted the FBI for anything in his life, dismissing the idea of contacting the FBI if a foreign power offered him information that was damaging to a political rival, to sort of arguing that it's a given that he would go to the FBI, but saying he really would have to listen to what that foreign national had to say because how would he know what to report to the FBI.

And he's also continuing to compare that hypothetical scenario that wasn't so hypothetical in 2016, but that hypothetical scenario to his diplomatic conversations that he had with foreign leaders. That's an argument we saw him make on Twitter yesterday as well. But take a listen to what the President said in terms of clean-up of the ABC comments on Fox and Friends this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I think it was accurately stated, and I've had a lot of support of this.

STEVE DOOCY, FOX NEWS HOST: And then clarify it.

TRUMP: Yes. I mean, I've had a lot of support. First of all, I don't think anybody would present me with anything bad because they know how much I love this country.

Number two, if I was, and, of course, you have to look at it because if you don't look at it, you're not going to know if it's bad. How are you going to know if it's bad? But, of course, you give it to the FBI or report to the Attorney General or somebody like that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WESTWOOD: Of course, for any American, to accept anything of value from a foreign country, that is illegal. That's a point that the Federal Election Commission Chair had to make in a statement yesterday, saying that it is illegal to solicit, accept or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election, just sort of reminding the President of that after his comments. A lot of the President's potential 2020 rivals have also come out and condemned his comments, including former Vice President Joe Biden, saying that the President is dead wrong on his answer about foreign assistance. Poppy and Jim?

HARLOW: Okay. Well, you explained it better than anyone could. Sarah Westwood, thank you.

Let's keep this conversation going with defense attorney and former prosecutor, Anne Bremner, and Jackie Alemany from The Washington Post. Good morning to you both.

And, Jacqueline, let me start with you, because you bring up an interesting point on a vote that happened just this week in Congress about how to act to prevent foreign interference. And you make an interesting point about you think some republicans not really being willing to hold the President to account on this.

JACKIE ALEMANY, AUTHOR, THE WASHINGTON POST "POWER UP": Right. You know, this is a well worn pattern with the GOP and the Trump era that we've seen time and time again, which is offering these rhetorical lashings for the President's comments, although not always, and then not following it up with the raft of available legislation that Mitch McConnell could bring to the floor for a vote in order to prevent something like this happening.

You know, Marsha Blackburn yesterday blocked a bill from being passed that would unanimously say, you know, it's breaking the law if the President would accept any foreign dirt or information on a political opponent during an election. And then there is, again, a litany of other legislations that Mitch McConnell has been blocking and refusing to bring to the floor for reasons unclear.

You know, I think the GOP, in general, has been reticent to federalize campaign laws even though there are ways to codify election security and make things stronger going into 2020.

[10:05:03]

But Mitch McConnell is up for re-election and it's important he has Trump's support going into his re-elect.

SCIUTTO: Anne, the law is not unclear here. As Jackie cited, the law is explicit. No American can help foreign help in a campaign. The Special Counsel's report, others have found that that information has value. It is foreign support of value here. So the law is clear.

Just as a defense attorney and prosecutor, if Poppy or I or you or Jackie accepted foreign help of value while working for a campaign, would we face criminal prosecution?

ANNE BREMNER, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, sure. Nobody is above the law, not any of us here, and, of course, not the President. And this has kind of gone from the sublime to the ridiculous because we're looking at now his saying I would welcome this kind of help, when we look at what we have been through so far in knowing that that was wrong in the first instance, in 2016, although not prosecuted, and then coming forward today or at least yesterday, the day before, and saying there's nothing wrong with it, it's just like having tea with the Queen of England.

HARLOW: Well, so guys, to that point, it's not just the President. Let's take a moment. Let's listen to Kayleigh McEnany, who is helping run the President's re-election campaign, and she said, essentially, they'd would follow the President's lead if something like this were to happen. Here she is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ELAINE QUIJANO, CBS NEWS HOST: So to be clear though, what is the President's directive? KAYLEIGH MCENANY, NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY, TRUMP 2020: The President's directive, as he said, a case-by-case basis, he said he would likely do both, listen to what they have to say, but also report it to the FBI.

Here's the difference between President Donald Trump and the democrats. He's honest about it while the democrats have cover both from the media and lie about what they have done.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: Jackie, she's actually on the same page as the President's version two answer this morning, which is listen and then tell the feds.

ALEMANY: Yes, that's exactly right. And, you know, I think, Jim, you just conducted an interview where you saw these same talking points being put forth, which is that the democrats are not honest about these actions. At least the President is honest. You know that Christopher Steele was a foreign adversary providing dirt on the President to democrats in 2016. So why should the republicans punish the President for saying that he might potentially do the same thing?

SCIUTTO: Yes. I mean, first of all, you're either for it or against it. I mean, this is the constant refrain of Washington, what aboutism, right? Well, what about this? I mean, on the Steele thing, Steele is British, he wasn't working for a foreign adversary, a U.S. ally, that was not currently interfering in the U.S. election like Russia was. And, of course, Donald Trump Jr. accepted a meeting with a Russian lawyer. I mean, we know that's the history there just to debunk that talking point.

I just wonder, Anne, from your perspective of someone who has worked in the law for so long here, every other day, you have a law or practice that's diminished or ignored. I mean, here we have the FEC regulation, you have the Hash Act regarding Kellyanne Conway. What are the consequences? I know folks at home are probably shaking their heads, like I hear this all the time, politics is politics, but is this not different?

BREMNER: No, the law is the law. I mean, it's like -- I'll use a little Latin, the thing speaks for itself, res ipsa loquitur, in terms of saying, I'd do it again, even though it's illegal, I'd do it again. Value, like you said, it can be nominal, it can be hard to ascertain, but what was alleged in 2016, coming out today as the President saying there's nothing wrong with that, and I'm not going to be wronged by this. I'm not going to follow the law. I'm going to tell you that right now and the inference is his campaign or others on his behalf didn't a long time ago. So the law is important. We have to live by the law.

ALEMANY: Yes. And you know, I also just think people might just pass off this rhetoric. You see a lot of republicans just sort of sweeping it under the rug because this is pretty much the status quo. But., you know, this does undermine the work that the FBI has been doing for the past three years since the 2016 election, to protect our election integrity going into 2020. And putting out something like this just puts out a signal to all of our adversaries, hey, you know, give us the dirt.

HARLOW: I mean, isn't that, Jim, just the definition of a shadow war, right, your new book? I mean, isn't this just something that can encourage showing we're open?

SCIUTTO: It is. Listen, and thank you for mentioning it, but I wrote a whole chapter about it. The thing is the information is the interference. It is. That's how it worked in 2016. Steal from Clinton, from Podesta, release, weaponize them, release them strategically, say, 20 minutes after release of the Access Hollywood tape. The information is the interference. You accept the information, You're aiding and abetting an interference. I mean, it seems so clear cut, but is anything anymore? I don't know. Jackie, Anne, help us out here.

HARLOW: Thank you guys very much.

SCIUTTO: This morning, President Trump squarely placing blame on Iran for a pair of recent tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman, saying it has Iran written all over it.

[10:10:02]

Trump was speaking about this video was released by U.S. Central Command late Thursday. Central Command says it shows Iranian sailors removing an unexploded mine from the hull of one of those ships, a Japanese chemical tanker.

HARLOW: Iran is rejecting all of those allegations, but President Trump says his very tough sanctions have actually had a very big impact on the country. But this statement from him this morning just seemed antithetical. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: When I came into office, they were in an absolute terror. They change said a lot since I have been president, I can tell you. They were unstoppable and now they're in deep, deep trouble.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon for us this morning. He's saying they were worse before my administration. But now they're in deep trouble, but wait, they're attacking tankers so that makes them better? I don't understand it. What do people need to know?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I mean, Iran in under extreme pressure from the pressure campaign, the sanctions that the Trump administration has put on it. That does not mean anything in terms of them being a terrorist threat. These attacks on civilian commercial tankers can be seen probably, I wouldn't think, any other way. They have attacked civilian crews, unarmed, unable to defend themselves, and attacked at sea, according to the U.S. finding here. So Iran, perhaps, lashing out even more as the sanctions continue to pressure the regime.

The U.S. believes that video you're seeing showed that ship coming alongside to take out an unexploded mine that was on the side of one of the tankers so the Iranians apparently wanted to remove evidence so no one could point to them directly. This is the Iranian M.O., to conduct these attacks, leave no evidence behind, try to make it as tough as possible for someone to point a very specific finger at them.

But, really, the bottom line here is you have to ask yourself common sense, who else in the region has the means and the motive? Why would anybody else do it? The U.S. very clear that they believe the Iranians are behind it, very concerned about the security situation, but as we have talked about, also the economic and financial. Oil prices on the rise, and those insurance rates for those tankers is going to make the shipping market very nervous.

SCIUTTO: And you'll see it at the gas stations right away, when oil price goes up, right in the gas price. Barbara Starr, thanks very much.

The President is not making it easy on his own party to explain his foreign dirt comments, but are some republicans hurting themselves by not speaking out against them? The law is very clear here. Why aren't our politicians?

Plus, mishandled messaging, a string of interviews and controversies this week. We take a closer look at the White House Communications operation.

HARLOW: And later, our exclusive interview with Google's CEO as they focus on the Midwest. We flew to Oklahoma to talk to him and got his first response to the reported potential anti-trust probe of the tech giant.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SUNDAR PICHAI, CEO, GOOGLE: Now, there are many countries around the world which aspire to be the next Silicon Valley, and they are supporting their companies too. So we have to balance both.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:15:00]

SCIUTTO: This morning, the President offering more answers, different ones, confusing ones, on his willingness to accept foreign influence, information on a U.S. election, this as more and more republican lawmakers are speaking out against his original remarks.

With me is Republican Congressman Mike McCaul. He's a ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, also, longtime, served as Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, very involved in the security of U.S. elections. Congressman, we appreciate you taking the time this morning. REP. MIKE MCCAUL (R-TX): Thanks for having me, Jim.

SCIUTTO: So, first, I want to begin with the President's comments because they are relevant, not just to 2016, but to 2020 when we know that Russia and other countries are attempting to interfere. The law is clear here, and I'm going to quote from the Chairman of the Federal Elections Commission, Ellen Weintraub.

Let me make something 100 percent clear to the American public or anyone running for public office, it is illegal for any person to solicit, accept or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election. As you know, lawyers, the FEC and others have found that information is something of value here.

Why is the President, by saying that, under some circumstances, he would at least listen not violating the law?

MCCACUL: Well, let me just say, first, I was a federal prosecutor in the public integrity section at Maine Justice. I worked in the campaign finance task force during the Clinton administration, so I have a little bit of background in this. You cannot accept foreign contributions or anything of value from a foreign national or agent of a foreign power. And I think it is very clear, if it were me in this case, I would not accept opposition research from a foreign power or, I mean, I would immediately turn it over to the FBI. And I think that should be the response.

I think the President may be a little confused on the law in perhaps saying that I would like to read it first before I turn it over just to see what was in the report.

SCIUTTO: You're an American. We're all Americans. You've worked on this. You've done your homework on this, right?

[10:20:01]

I mean, you spent your years in public service, often on election security issues like this. Are you disappointed that you don't hear, even as a republican, a more definitive answer from a U.S. President saying no, these countries, they try to mess with our sacred institutions and I'm not going to go there?

MCCAUL: I wouldn't say disappointed. I think that it's just not -- ill informed, I guess, what I would say. And it sends not the right message. As we go into 2020, we know the Russians are going to continue to try to influence the elections, as they did in 2016. And I think all members of Congress need to be aware of that as well, that there will be in our races.

You know, I prosecuted the Johnny Chung case, the director of Chinese intelligence, when the Chinese government were trying to influence the election back in the Clinton campaign. And it was very egregious. And he pled guilty to making foreign contributions to the Clinton campaign.

SCIUTTO: And we know China. We talk a lot about Russia, but China does election interference as well to this day.

MCCAUL: This is nothing new. It's just they have a new tool. It's called the internet.

SCIUTTO: Yes, a powerful one. I want to get to how Congress reacts to this. Because let's set aside 2016, let's talk all about 2020, that's what's coming. Here's Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell defending Trump and turning the tables on democrats. I want to get to what he's doing on the Senate side. Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): You get picked at every day over every different aspect of it, but the fundamental point is they're trying to keep the 2016 election alive.

I would ask the democrats in the House this. Is there anything you're willing to do other than harass the President for the next two years, anything at all?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Two points on that. One, the President was asked about 2020, not 2016. And democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, have introduced a package of legislation addressing election security in 2020. But in the Senate, Mitch McConnell has blocked that, Marsha Blackburn yesterday wouldn't allow a floor debate on it. I wonder, when you look across to the other chamber up on Capitol Hill, are you disappointed with their actions here and are they standing in the way of necessary steps to protect the 2020 election?

MCCAUL: You know, if it's possible to be rational and take the politics out of all this and look at this from a national -- I was one of the gang of eight who got briefed on the Russian interference in October 2016, and I urged then President Obama and his administration to come out and condemn this, as with the current president. They're going to try to do it again. We need to be prepared for that.

I did pass legislation that gives DHS grant money to the States to harden their election machines from potential influence.

This disinformation campaign that they do so well in the internet is already taking place, Jim. And it's going to continue to create chaos in our electoral system. So we need to be able to identify and call it out and let the American people know it's coming from Russia. It's not coming from any of the candidates in the United States.

SCIUTTO: Yes, and information is a weapon. It's the interference.

I want to talk on another topic because it's happening now and you have been vocal on this. This is Iran. You have these attacks on oil tankers, attacks with intent, right, to show, hey, we can shut off the oil supply if we get messy here. I just wonder as you look at the President's, Trump administration's actions here as well, are you concerned that the U.S. and Iran are on a course here for military conflict? MCCAUL: Well, there's no question it's escalating. I think the sanctions are having a crippling impact on Iran's economy. You know, 40 percent of their economy comes from oil. These waivers that were basically not granted to the five countries is having a devastating impact on Iran, which I personally think is a good thing. They're getting more desperate. And their response to this is to conduct strikes.

A week after the waivers were rescinded, they started to attack. They shot a rocket near our embassy. They hit four oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, Houthis sending drones with bombs in the (INAUDIBLE), and a recent rocket hitting 26 people in Saudi. I think they're attempting to shut off all energy supply other than their own out of the Straits of Hormuz.

We are there in a defensive posture, but also we want diplomacy. I think our aircraft carriers are a strong deterrent and provide that measure of diplomacy to work out an agreement with Iran, which is obviously very hard to do when you got the ayatollah.

SCIUTTO: But work out agreement, focus on diplomacy, I imagine, to head off war. Congressman Mike McCaul, thanks for joining the program today.

MCCAUL: We always want peace, not war.

SCIUTTO: I hear you. Thank you, sir.

HARLOW: Amen. Amen to that.

All right. So the President gives a string of interviews and gives his critics just more to attack. Does he need to take a deeper look at the White House messaging machine, especially with his Press Secretary on the way out?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:25:04]

HARLOW: All right. Well, eight days, four interviews and lots of backlash. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: She's incapable of doing deals. She's a nasty, vindictive, horrible person.

We have people on the fed that really weren't -- you know, they're not my people.

[10:30:02]

Somebody comes up and says, hey, I have information on your opponent, do you call the FBI?

STEPHANOPOULOS: If it's coming from Russia, would you do it?

TRUMP: I'll tell you what.