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U.S. Is Escalating Cyberattacks On Russia's Electric Power Grid; House Democrats May Attempt to have Former Trump Aides Testify on Obstruction of Justice; Trump Campaign Polls Leaked; Shooting Takes Place at Graduation Party in Philadelphia. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired June 17, 2019 - 08:00   ET


ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: -- against the president appears to have stalled. Let's discuss now with Bianna Golodyrga, CNN contributor, David Gregory, CNN political analyst, and John Avlon, CNN senior political analyst.

David, I want to start with you as we look at -- we heard from "Politico," there's been a little bit of pushback on this about whether this is an effective strategy in terms of going after those whose would not be able to exert -- or the president would not be able in as many ways exert executive privilege over it. Is something that could, in fact, be fruitful?

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: If you think about what the priority is for Democratic leadership, namely Speaker Pelosi, it's to keep the investigation going, to reveal where the White House is blocking those efforts, and to put some wins on the board investigatively. And they may be able to do that with some of these aides if they will actually operate, that's a big if, and testify before the committee about what they knew, about how and whether President Trump tried to obstruct the investigation.

As John mentioned last hour, having such a witness as Cory Lewandowski on television under oath offering that story could be compelling. I have a question about how that serves the ultimate end in terms of going farther than the independent special prosecutor Robert Mueller did in proving obstruction. And it doesn't deal with the fact that this White House may still assert privilege even if it's legally dubious to do so.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: John Avlon, are you on team Gregory, not sure where this leads, or the winning team, team Berman.


BERMAN: Which is that ultimately if the Democrats want to draw focus to this issue, they have got to paint a picture, a moving picture, a television picture that America can see, which means holding a hearing where someone has to testify.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think a narrative is not enough. I think they need to actually move the ball forward with new information, because what was in the Mueller Robert was damning, but it was not sufficient enough to get bipartisan agreement that impeachment is necessary. And that's really the standard you need to get.

The House has the ability. Mueller had such a narrow vision of his brief. He was so conservative in his approach to the investigation. There are other areas open to investigation. In my mind, that's where the House should be focusing, new information that broadens the argument, not simply a narrative with a cast of characters.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: But remember what one voter told Justin Amash at that town hall. She said that she didn't think that President Trump did anything bad, that nothing bad came out of the Mueller report, until he started detailing excerpts from the Mueller report. I think if you are going to be hearing more from certain people, specifically in public hearings and not closed door hearings, that could change people's views on just the details within Mueller's report. And remember, some of these people have written books. So for them to say now I can't, I don't want to come forward, or the president tells me not to go forward, it's really hard to understand why they would do that now given they have spoken publicly in other venues.

GREGORY: That's true, and how about Don McGahn, who was the White House counsel, who over his own reservations and objections cooperates with the special prosecutor and then says, no, it's executive privilege when it comes to Congress investigating. I think that's right that getting testimony is important. But I think there's another piece of this, and we have to remember where we are in the calendar and who is listening to Congress. We are really in the middle of a presidential campaign. The primary season is well under way.

And until and unless the major Democratic contenders are making this issue front and center, it's going to be a peripheral issue. You haven't heard Biden, for one, talk a good deal about it. Others tend to -- a few of the others, at least, tend to deflect the central question of whether to impeach. And I think as the calendar moves forward, it gets harder and harder for Congressional committees to command the nation's attention on this issue.

BERMAN: You have something?

AVLON: Yes. Just look, candidates say over and over that voters on the campaign trail aren't asking about this as much. Yes, it's a 76 percent issue among Democrats. But they have been trying to actually follow Pelosi's line, which is focus on policies, focus on things that actually relate to folks in the middle of America, middle class folks, and focus on that kind of agenda as opposed to simply beating up Trump, which is I why I think you need new information out there. The missing points of the Mueller report can and should be amplified by other folks, because people haven't read it enough. But the House has unique powers to get new information out there. They should be focused unilaterally on that.

GOLODRYGA: And remember, Nancy Pelosi hasn't eliminated the possibility of impeachment ever. You still have a long time before 2020 as, I think, the Democratic candidate and the pool narrows down, and if down the road Nancy Pelosi does ultimately say now it's time for impeachment given whatever we have heard, if we do hear more Congressional testimony, you may hear more of the Democratic candidates as they become smaller and smaller focus on this issue.

BERMAN: If we can, let's put up these internal polls from the Trump campaign.

AVLON: The ones that don't exist.


[08:05:00] BERMAN: They absolutely exist. They are confirmed to ABC News and others by the Trump campaign itself, despite the fact the president calls them fake. That should tell you something in and of itself.

But look, it's 18 months before the election, no one is saying it will turn out this way. But what does it tell you, David Gregory, the president refuses to acknowledge they exist despite the fact the campaign has confirmed them, and the Trump campaign has fired three of the pollsters behind some of these numbers who may or may not be connected to the leaking.

GREGORY: It tell you that everything we saw that shocked and amazed us in 2016 about how citizen Donald Trump would run for president will only be exceeded by what he'll do as a sitting president of the United States, which is to deny and deflect and lie about such things, especially about these kinds of polls that are easily dismissed as meaningless this far out as head-to-head matchups. But that's not good enough. I think he was justifiable angry. And again, this is part of the story. Why is it that this information gets leaked?

HILL: Thank you. That's what I want to know.

GREGORY: They are people in the Trump world who are thinking you've got to stop the madness and we have to put this out there. And I think that's a real problem and he knows that, and so he tries to hold on really, really tight. And only Donald Trump, who instead of minimizing and being somewhat upset about the leak, would lead the purge. But again, it goes to something else that's larger, too, which is the effort that Trump himself has made to elevate Joe Biden as this singular opponent at this stage. It's very good news for Biden at this point.

GOLODRYGA: We learn two things, I think, from that ABC News interview. One, that the president hates polls that don't make him looking good, and, two, that he hates people coughing in a room during an interview. But when you're focusing on the polls, specifically, I have a theory, again, why do people continue to leak in this administration? Why does he have such an untrustworthy group of people surrounding him? I think David is right. I think that they are looking out for him and this is a cry for help. If he's not listening to the polls, we're going to do public and make him focus.

HILL: Right. I think you're both right. And I think in some ways that's the messaging. It's interesting. So as Tim Naftali, who I think said in the 6:00 hour, the other thing that this shows us, assuming this is something we know, that this is a president who does not deal well with bad news, can't take the bad news. But it's fascinating that we're at the point where the bad news has to be leaked to get to the president somehow.

AVLON: It's not fascinating. It's really, really troubling. But he's been telegraphing this kind of attitude for a long time. Month two of his presidency, February of 2017, he sent an early tweeting saying any bad poll numbers you see are fake news. And now he's just institutionalizing that denial and he's shooting the messenger in a way that's not going to actually help moral inside the team. The firings will continue until morale improves is not actually a winning strategy for team building. But the denial isn't something a little bit deeper of a problem, for the organization, for the country, the president wants to deny that problems exist, that anything that might make him look bad must be disappeared. There are countries in the world where autocrats get away with that. America is not one of them.

BERMAN: There's also apparently this Vitamin C shortage, which Bianna brought.


BERMAN: And I don't want to gloss over this. I thought this video which came out in this ABC news overnight, it was video of the George Stephanopoulos interview with the president we hadn't seen yet. It's extraordinary. In it, he's answering questions about whether or not some of his financial records will go public. But just watch what happens in the middle of this answer.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: At some point, I hope they get it, because it's a fantastic financial statement. It's a fantastic financial statement. And let's do that over, he's coughing in the middle of my answer. I don't like that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Your chief of staff.

TRUMP: If you've got to cough, please leave the room. You just can't.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'll get a shot of. Sorry.

TRUMP: OK, do you want to do that a little differently.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, we just changed the angle.

TRUMP: So at some point -- so at some point I look forward to -- frankly, I'd like to have people see my financial statement.


BERMAN: Did you see that headshake there in the middle? This is no joke. He was seething at that. So David Gregory, if you're keeping story at home, violating the Hatch Act doesn't get you fired. Lying to the press doesn't get you fired or sanctioned in the White House. You can spread bad information or denigrate John McCain, it doesn't get you in any trouble. But God forbid you cough in the Oval Office, then you're in big freaking trouble, David.

GREGORY: It is irritating, though, when you're trying, I have to say.


GREGORY: There's something else that I don't know that people fully appreciate. Everybody says that Reagan or Kennedy was a real TV president. This guy is a TV president. You know how you know, is that somebody who is in the middle of an answer for a television interview stops and starts the answer again, because he, in this case, is thinking about a sound bite, not realizing they are going to play protracted portions of this interview almost as if it's live.

[08:10:02] But the idea that he would stop and restart an answer means that in his mind it is so cinematic that he is thinking about being on television all the time. Pretty extraordinary.

GOLODRYGA: And it's not as though he said let's stop and see if Mick Mulvaney, who was the one coughing, is OK. Does he need anything? No. You see how frustrated he was because, David is right, he is the producer in chief. Everything for him is how visually it will look.

GREGORY: Berman doesn't like when people are coughing on the air.

AVLON: You should see him during the commercial break. It's brutal.

HILL: Yes, it is.

AVLON: But it's not just he's the reality TV presidency. We all get that. It's also at the same time he is talking about how much he wants to release his financial forms, which his administration is actively fighting in every way possible and has done since the beginning with the DOJ releasing an opinion saying he doesn't need to release his taxes. So it's the coughing got in the way of him staging another lie for Oval Office.

GOLODRYGA: And later in the transcript you'll read he goes back to the cough, like he can't get it out of his mind. He says, George, you agree with me, right, that's really frustrating when someone is coughing.

GREGORY: But you know the serious point in all this going back to the poll information, I think John said it, is the idea that the president will, as we know, be unabashed about saying that black is white and white is black or this simply doesn't exist has a huge audience out there. And if he says it enough times, to the point about Justin Amash and the town hall, people will simply believe it, which is why it's so important for those of us in the media and journalists to responsibly keep pointing out what's true and what's false, because people are going to hear from him something completely different.

GOLODRYGA: And Brad Parscale, remember, he said that those are actually the numbers. But they were the numbers months ago when the Mueller report just came out, and it shows the power of Barr's initial four-page memo.

HILL: And the president did say what you're seeing is not happening. I'm paraphrasing, but that's pretty close to what he said.

BERMAN: That's exactly what he said.

AVLON: Orwell or Trump?

HILL: It stuck in my head.

BERMAN: David, John, Bianna, thank you all very much.


BERMAN: Exactly. Never again.


HILL: Not on his show, David Gregory, just remember.

We do want to get now, though, to some serious breaking news out of Philadelphia where a manhunt is under way at this hour following a deadly shooting at a graduation party. And this just one of a number of violent events in the city this weekend. CNN's Polo Sandoval is live now in Philadelphia with these breaking details for us this morning. Polo?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Erica, now that the sun is out, you can basically see what's left of that graduation party, some people's belongings, that lone red balloon that seems to be tied to that white canopy. It is quite the eerie scene. But it really just goes to show how quickly things changed yesterday when a group of about 60 people were gathered at this park on the city's southwest side celebrating a graduation when police say a gunman opened fire, wounding at least six people, one of them fatally. Investigators now following several leads here, police say that they are looking into the possibility whether or not this was just one possible gunman here. But as you're about to hear from the police commissioner of the city, they are also trying to establish a motive here.


RICHARD ROSS JR., COMMISSIONER, PHILADELPHIA POLICE DEPARTMENT: There was nothing that suggested there was a fight that preceded this, at least according to the people here. Again, we don't know if the shooter or shooters left on foot or they left in a car. We're trying to get as much information hopefully.


SANDOVAL: We did speak to several residents in the area here who say this is not the first time that the sound of gunfire interrupts their evening. There have been shootings before. In fact, just last several days, John, according to affiliate KYW, Philadelphia police investigated at least 16 shooting related incidents. So it was a very busy and quite tragic day for police investigators here, John.

AVLON: Indeed, it was. Also, Polo, we're watching this very closely to see what else happens with these investigations. Thank you very much.

President Trump denying a new report that says the U.S. is escalating its cyber campaign against Russia. He's denying it, but we'll talk to the reporter behind the story. He's got some pretty good sources on this. That's next.


ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: A new report in "The New York Times" says the U.S. is escalating cyberattacks on Russia's electric power grid and has placed potentially crippling malware inside the Russian system.

Now President Trump denied the report on Sunday. Two administration officials tell "The Times" they believe the President hasn't been briefed about the operation.

Joining us now, Ian Bremmer, editor-at-large at "Time" and President of the Eurasia Group, and the reporter behind this news story, David Sanger, national security correspondent for "The New York Times" and the author of 'the Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age."

And, David, I do want to start with you because as you know, the President was pushing back on your reporting here, saying in a tweet, calling it a virtual act of treason by a once great paper. But we all know you and your sourcing and your reporting pretty well, so what's your reaction to the President pushing back in and using word "treason"?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, Erica, treason is a pretty strong word to go use and then turn around and say, by the way, he believes the report is false seems to be contradictory.

But let's get to the content of what's going on here. For years, the United States has been trying to figure out how to create some deterrence in cyberspace, and it's much more complicated than it was in the nuclear age.

During the nuclear age, we reported regularly on the effort by the United States to do that, how to develop new kinds of nuclear weapons? How it was targeting Soviet cities and so forth? So there's nothing new here except that there has traditionally been a lot of secrecy wrapped around cyber.

[08:20:04] SANGER: In the case of the power grid, the U.S. government has announced for years that the Russians aredeeply inside the American grid. The Department of Homeland Security has turned out extensive warnings on this, and the big question has been what can the United States do beyond surveillance and preparation here resilience in the United States? And the answer you're hearing and you heard it again, from John Bolton last week was becoming much more aggressive with the Russians themselves, to make it clear that they would have to pay a price.

HILL: Is that message then in this way being made clear, Ian? With these efforts that we're learning?

IAN BREMMER, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, TIME: Oh, I thinkit's being made clear. I mean, there's a reason why they're willing to talk about that. There's a reason why they're willing to say that it's not necessarily requiring the President's direct approval could come from Department of Defense level itself.

John Bolton, you heard David just said, it was last week, National Security adviser of the United States says that we have opened the aperture on offensive capabilities against the Russians.

So clearly, that message is being sent. But I think what's so interesting is, you know, there are many people around the Kremlin, who when Trump was running for President saw that this was a guy that could be Russia's useful idiot?

Well, I'll tell you two and a half years in, they don't think he is very useful. And, you know, you see this in terms of the significant expense that we're having in defense, which is much greater than under Obama, they pulled out the INF, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. There have been a thousand more troops in Poland. They're giving military equipment now to the Ukrainians.

Now, Trump probably doesn't like a lot of that. He may not be personally ordering all of it, but it's happening. And I think it's really interesting that in addition to the fact that we're hitting now, more on cyber than we were before, that in the last week and a half, it's the first time I've ever seen that the Russian state media is starting to go after not just United States, but President Trump, personally.

That's new, and you've got to see this from their perspective, not just from the perspective of the media in the U.S.

HILL: It'll be -- it's fascinating too, though, David, if we look at that to go after President Trump now, personally, Russian-state media, what's your sense of the impact of that on the President and this administration?

SANGER: It's a really interesting question, because it is not entirely clear to all of us that if the Russians have to pick a side in the upcoming presidential electionthat President Trump would necessarily be their favorite candidate.

It's not that he goes out and says anything aggressive about the Russians, quite to the contrary. It's that his administration as Ian has put it out has actually put together a fairly traditional containment policy for dealing with Russia, of which the cyber element of it is the newest and most complex part, because that's the area where the Russians are inside the U.S. most directly. You know, one of the things we noted in the story was that the new authorities that both the President and Congress have given to U.S. Cyber Command considers cyber to be a traditional military activity.

And so they can say, we're not going to brief them on it any more than we would brief him on routine patrols in the Persian Gulf for air flights that would go over Russian sites or something. They can simply say, this is what we do as part of everyday operations.

And my guess is that the part of the President's tweet concerns there came from the fact that he was reading a lot of the details for the first time in this in "The New York Times" as opposed to hearing it in his briefings.

And the degree to which that's part of the structure and part -- and the degree to which it is part of the reluctance of his advisers to talk at length to them about Russia for fear of setting them off, is a really interesting question.

HILL: It's not just the fear of setting him off, though, because also in this piece, you write, "Pentagon and Intelligence officials described broad hesitation to go into detail with Trump about operations against Russia for concern over his reaction, and the possibility that he might countermand it or two discuss it with foreign officials."

I want to get both of your takes on this. But David, just to be clear here, so information being kept from the president because there are concerns within the Intelligence communitythat he can't keep it to himself.

SANGER: Well, we saw an example of this, Erica in 2017, when the Russian Foreign Minister and the Russian Ambassador at the time came into the Oval Office, I think it was the day after you saw the firing of James Comey, the FBI Director.

And when that happened, the President described to them a fairly complex operation in Syria that involved sensitive Intelligence from the Israelis, and he gave it all to them. We then published it, as did "The Washington Post" on the theory that the Russians already knew about it, it wasn't much of a secret anymore. So that was one example.

We've also seen cases where KirstjenNielsen before she was dismissed, was told not to go bring up a big strategy about countering Russian election interference in front of the President. She could go do whatever she needed to do, but she was told -- according to her account and the account of her aides, by Mick Mulvaney, the Chief of Staffthat this kind of thing shouldn't be discussed in front of the President.

HILL: Ian, is the President a threat to national security?

BREMMER: I wouldn't go that far. But certainly, he is someone that has the ability to release information that a lot of people that work for him would say would be inappropriate, and would undercut America's ability to negotiate well.

Look, Russian perspective here again. This is a country that is in decline, their economy is doing badly. Putin's popularity has actually sunk despite no real opposition and control of the media, and they blame the West, they blame the United States.

And like in 2016, there's no question they're going to be trying to undermine the legitimacy of our elections. But I think that it's hard to imagine them putting their finger hard on the scale in favor of Trump. Instead, I think it's going to be massive disinformation and attempts to weaken everybody.

And to the extent that also means that maybe some of the disinformation, leaks on information is not just against the Democratic National Committee, but from the Russians is actually against Trump and against the Republicans, it will be very interesting to see how he personally responds.

Because so far, every time there's been the opportunity to go after Putin, to say Putin has been responsible for some of this and the Russians are bad, Trump himself never does it. I think it would be harder to maintain that as we move up into 2020.

HILL: It would be fascinating to watch. Ian Bremmer, David Sanger, great to have you both with us. Thank you both, John.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: We are following new developments this morning as President Trump has fired a group of pollsters after leaks of polls he didn't like came forward.

But this is a tactic we've seen before -- relentless, vindictive campaign to build his own myth. A reporter who has a fascinating look back at decades of how the President has gone after journalists, that's next.