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President Trump's Communication with Foreign Leader Leads to Whistleblower Complaint by Intelligence Official; Tropical Storm Hits Parts of Texas. Aired 8-8:30a ET
Aired September 19, 2019 - 08:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: -- to the Inspector General. The Inspector General then is obligation to alert the Director of National Intelligence. Then what was supposed to happen, because that's where this breaks down?
SHANE HARRIS, INTELLIGENCE AND NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER, "WASHINGTON POST": Traditionally what would happen and according to the way the statute is written as I think experts understand it is the DNI would then be like a conduit and give this information and the allegation to the intelligence oversight committees, properly secured in a classified or confidential way, it's not to be made public necessarily. That did not happen. At some point in this sequence, this veered off and the DNI decided to go to the Department of Justice and seek their input. They came back and said you've got an issue here because there's communications that could be subject to privilege contained in this complaint.
At that point, we didn't know publicly what this was about. We've since found out, of course, the communication is probably a phone call the president had with a foreign leader. This is highly unusual. I'm not aware of any instance where an Inspector General has essentially gone to the head of an agency and then with the Department of Justice they've decided to kind of freeze this thing and not tell the Congress. Congress only found out because the Inspector General of the intelligence community came forward and let them know we've got this issue here. We can't tell you the substance of the allegation, but there has been an allegation.
CAMEROTA: Lawmakers are understandably annoyed and upset by this. This is their job of oversight. So today, that Inspector General is going before the House Intelligence Committee. Do we know what he can say, what he plans to say?
HARRIS: What he's allowed to say may be restricted on, frankly, what the White House allows him to talk about in this instance. There's obviously been now public information made public. The Inspector General certainly knows what the substance of the allegation is.
Our understanding is that I think that the DNI and the Congress are trying to reach some kind of accommodation here. The DNI's lawyer did put out a letter alluding to that, that he'd written to the House Intelligence Committee Chairman, which was made public. They're going to try and find some kind of compromise.
But I think that the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee has made pretty clear he doesn't want to settle for anything other than what the law normally requires, which is hand over what it is that this whistleblower has said, give us all the documentation about it.
CAMEROTA: Because the Department of Justice is keeping this so tightly under wraps, reporters, like you and John and me, are trying to look for bread crumbs. So here's a bread crumb. And it's just impossible to know if it's connected, but it is a little interesting or strange how this unfolded. On July 31st there was a phone call between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. And the reason we know about this phone call is because the Kremlin put it out. The Kremlin first put out the read out of what they spoke about, and then reporters went to the White House and said what can you give us? And hours later the White House put out their account.
So here's all we know about this phone call. This is from the Kremlin's press service. President Trump offered Putin assistance in fighting forest fires in Siberia. Then what the White House said was President Donald Trump spoke with President Vladimir Putin today and expressed concern over the vast wildfires afflicting Siberia. So one is a promise of assistance. One is expressing concern. So there's a discrepancy, but it can't be about wildfires, right? Would a whistleblower be so concerned about this phone call?
HARRIS: Not as described, no. But, of course, as we know, this White House has routinely now not put out information or full details about meetings that the president has or conversations he has with foreign leaders. And Russia being a good example here, we know from our reporting at "The Post" in early 2017, the president met with two top Russian officials in the Oval Office and divulged classified information about a U.S. counterterrorism program.
So there's a history here, and I think that's important, because whoever this whistleblower is would know that history, would know that presidents do have the authority to disclose classified information, and this one has done it routinely, and some might even say capriciously. I think whatever this person saw doesn't fit perhaps the category of things that we have seen, that maybe there's something even more alarming and that this person is putting it in context with who this president is.
Frankly, also for the Inspector General to find it urgent, as you said, under the statute, I think it's going to have to be something that is not just clearly allowed by the -- the president is allowed to do even if it's a bad idea that he does it. I think there's something potentially more significant here.
CAMEROTA: It seems like it. And just what you were referring to that moment where in the Oval Office, President Trump disclosed classified information to Kislyak and Lavrov. We have the picture here. And we only, again, have the picture because of the Russian Foreign Ministry. No White House photographers were allowed in there. So the lack of transparency, it just raises questions, of course, about what are you hiding? What don't you want us to know? So that's classified information, OK, and there are rules, as we know, around that. But this sounds like it's in a different category of a promise.
HARRIS: Yes, and I think immediately also a promise also raises questions of, well, if the president was promising to do something or to give something, was he asking for something in return? That's only logical to assume, and particularly I think with Donald Trump, this is always a negotiation.
And talking about bread crumbs, there's also another one. The House Intelligence Committee has said publicly that they believe that this whistleblower was going to the inspector general about something that may have been a matter of investigation before the committee. Well, the big matter before the House Intelligence Committee, of course, has been the Russia investigation. There are other areas, too. That kind of helps us narrow it down.
But this really is the world we're in right now is trying to deduce and play 20 questions around this and put together the puzzle pieces. I just think it's so striking that we now know this involves directly the president of the United States and a communication and starts to explain a lot of the really unusual activity, the keeping from Congress, the assertions of privilege, and other things that we've seen.
CAMEROTA: Shane, that is a really interesting element about -- that it was a matter before the Committee. Thank you for sharing that. Thank you for sharing all of your reporting. Maybe we will find out more after the I.G. goes to Capitol Hill today. Thank you very much.
HARRIS: Thank you.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Really interesting discussion there.
Let's go back to Washington right away, CNN's Abby Phillip. Abby, "The Washington Post" says the president made a promise to a foreign leader of urgent concern. What's the White House saying about this, this morning?
ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John and Alisyn, the White House hasn't responded at all to this bombshell report. And the president himself has not responded as he often does on social media even before his aides even get around to it. But the context around all of this is something that has been dogging President Trump since the very beginning of his presidency, his calls and his communications with other foreign leaders and what he says in those private calls.
And as Shane noted, we should be clear that we believe there are about five calls that the president had with foreign leaders. But the White House ended the practice of reading out these calls on a regular and consistent basis over a year ago. And even beyond that, every White House conducts calls with foreign leaders that they don't disclose publicly, so there could be other conversations that happen. But it's clear that over the course of President Trump's presidency there have been a number of times when people within his own administration have had concerns about things that he said on these calls.
For example, in a call last year with Vladimir Putin, when aides wrote in all caps, do not congratulate president Putin on his election victory, President Trump did it anyway, and someone in this administration leaked that information to the media. There have been several cases like this large and small where people have expressed concerns about things President Trump has said, some of which are just embarrassing. And in one case that Shane mentioned, that meeting in the Oval Office with Russian officials where the president revealed classified information, some of these cases have been deadly serious. And so this is something that is not new to this White House, but so far this morning, President Trump and his aides all completely silent on this bombshell report, John.
BERMAN: And there's also a record of the president trying to keep some of these conversations private, so no one ever learns what's going on inside, kicking out everyone but the interpreters, correct?
PHILLIP: Exactly, exactly. Those meetings with Vladimir Putin, that meeting with Vladimir Putin at the G20 where President Trump is alone in a room, where aides -- he has conversations with world leaders with aides not present. So this is a constant concern.
The president, as we know, likes to conduct his own foreign policy. He likes to be the person really putting the deals together. But clearly, people around the president are concerned about this practice, and in this one case, something that President Trump may have said in a conversation prompted a formal whistleblower complaint which is in some ways a true escalation of these types of incidents over the last two-and-a-half years of his presidency.
BERMAN: Abby, keep pressing. We're waiting to hear from the White House. It's unusual the president himself hasn't responded. He has many ways of doing it. One of course is Twitter. So we're watching that very carefully. Abby, thank you.
CAMEROTA: Now to some breaking weather news. More than 7 million people in southeast Texas are under a flash flood watch this morning as the remnants of tropical storm Imelda dump torrential rain on this area. Some cities have already gotten nearly a foot of rain, leaving cars underwater and stranded, as you can see on your screen. A hospital in the town of Winnie, Texas, has been evacuated because of these rising floodwaters.
So let's get right to Chad Myers with the forecast. What do they expect there, Chad?
CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Just to update some of those numbers, now 34 inches already on the ground is the highest number. Flash flood emergencies, Houston calling it a life-threatening situation here.
East of Houston and west of Beaumont there are areas that are picking up five inches of rain per hour, even in Conroe picked up that just in the past hour. And some areas here around Beaumont and toward Winnie, as you talked about that hospital, almost three feet of rain. And 20 inches of it came up in the past 12 hours. It is still raining. It is going to continue to rain throughout the day.
Houston, you dodged a bullet here. That rain is to your east. There still could be some come down around the woodlands, and so that's still kind of on the way. But there will be significant flash flooding. We will get pictures today that will alarm you. That's how fast this water is going up. I'm watching it on Twitter right now. People are scrambling to get out of the first floor of any of these houses. The water is just going up so quickly. We'll keep you advised.
BERMAN: And 34 inches of rain, Chad, that is quite something. Thank you very much. Stay on that for us.
CAMEROTA: Thanks, Chad.
BERMAN: All right, what kind of promise would the president make to a foreign leader that would lead an intelligence official to report it? We're going to speak to a former top FBI official next.
BERMAN: All right. Breaking news: CNN has learned it was President Trump's communication with a foreign leader that led to a U.S. intelligence official to file a whistleblower complaint.
"The Washington Post" reports that the president made a promise, a promise to this foreign leader that was so troubling to an intelligent official it prompted that person to report it. Then, the inspector general of the intelligence community agreed it was a matter of urgent concern.
I want to bring in former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who is now a CNN contributor.
Andy, there's an important distinction here. This is not about disclosing classified information or loose use of intelligence which is something that's come up in the past here. This is about a promise that was made to a foreign leader.
What does that tell you?
ANDREW MCCABE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, John, it's incredibly concerning. I think you're -- you're right. This president has a history of treating classified information and sensitive information questionably at best. But that's also something well-known within the community, and the fact that the president has the discretion to essentially declassify anything he wants is something that's well- known by folks in the intelligence community.
So, from the beginning, this looked like it was probably a complaint that involved something other than the handling of classified information. Now as a result of "The Washington Post" reporting, we understand that it concerns some sort of a promise.
I think it's also helpful to think about that in the context of the letter that the DNI's counsel provided to Congress basically justifying the DNI's decision not to report the -- not to forward the whistleblower report onto Congress. In that letter, the counsel said that it involved a matter that could be privileged so that certainly draws a spotlight on the president's involvement. But he also said it was about something essentially that was not within the authority or the jurisdiction, if you will, of the DNI.
So, now, think about that promise. If -- and this is hypothetical, but if the whistleblower overheard a promise that could have constituted, say, a crime or a criminal matter, that would technically not be an intelligence issue under the jurisdiction or under the authority of the DNI.
So, it's unfortunate that we're left to kind of piece together, you know, try to piece the puzzle together here with what little information we have. But the fact that we now know it was the president and we know it involved some sort of a promise to a world leader is deeply concerning.
BERMAN: Frankly, we just don't know what the promise was. We don't even begin to know the nature of that promise. But what we do know, Andy, is that the intelligence community inspector general, a Trump appointee, found it to be credible and a matter of urgent concern.
So what does that tell you?
MCCABE: Well, it tells you that this is not a kind of -- this is not considered by the intelligence community inspector general or the acting DNI for that matter, is not considered to be a frivolous matter or something that was overblown or overreported. The intelligence community inspector general, as you noted thought it was certainly credible and he thought it qualified as a matter of urgent concern which would trigger the statutory responsibility of the DNI forwarding it over to Congress.
Now, the DNI disagreed with that urgent concern but the DNI did not say I don't find the report to be credible. So, it's almost passed two levels of review, you can think of it that way. And both of those officials, although they differ on the decision about whether or not it needs to be reported to Congress, both of them seem to think it was credible and very important.
BERMAN: A promise made to a foreign leader. "The Washington Post" reports it was made on a phone call.
Who would be privy to the details of that conversation?
MCCABE: Well, that's a great question, John. In my experience overseeing the FBI's counterintelligence and national security matters, it was -- it was common to be aware of and to have been -- to have had the White House share with us the content of the president's phone calls with foreign leaders. You have to remember, these phone -- the purpose of these phone calls
is not to develop a personal relationship between the president and another foreign leader.
These aren't personal issues. These are matters of national business and very often national security. So the purpose of these calls is to discuss policy matters, very important national security issues, things of that nature.
So, there's a whole host of folks who need to know what's happening in those conversations. So we can take that as guidance, understand which direction to move, which way policies are leaning. The folks on the National Security Council need to understand what happens in these calls so they can create and direct policy initiatives for the president that are consistent with the way he is representing our national interests.
So at the call at the time of the call, you could have note takers present. You could have translators present. You could have other aides and staffers to the president who are present in the room for the call. And then typically, in former administrations, those calls are memorialized in a memo and distributed to a small group of folks.
What we know about President Trump is that that typical way of handling these interactions is no longer the case for us. We understand that the president has conversations with leaders in which all but the translators are asked to be removed from the room and we have heard of instances in which the president has asked for the translator's notes after these sort of interactions, conversations or phone calls.
We very rarely ever receive public indication of what takes place on these calls. Often we learn about them from foreign governments releasing what they claim to be the content of these conversations. So we have very little insight into what actually happens but there's a small group of folks who could be present for these engagements and might have some knowledge of it.
BERMAN: That's an important point to make. Your Congress does not currently know the nature of these phone calls, including the intelligence committees. But there is a foreign country, including this foreign leader who does.
So there are people out there who know exactly what the president promised. Andy, what is the current and future situation for the whistleblower who raised the flag?
MCCABE: Well, first of all, it's an incredibly important thing for any individual with a security clearance and any person who has taken an oath to protect and defend this country, it's incredibly important that they also bear the responsibility of reporting things that they believe are threats to national security or transgressions that should be brought to the attention of the authority. So this is someone who essentially did what we hope all people serving in the government will do. They stepped forward. They used the appropriate process in a classified and confidential manner to bring their concerns to the appropriate officials.
That takes incredible courage. It is hard to stand up to an administration, to stand up, particularly to this administration and this president and to live up to those responsibilities in a way that you know would engender all sorts of criticism and controversy around your personal life. This is something, of course, that I know all too well.
But I think we have to say, it's encouraging that people are still standing up and living up to that responsibility as it appears the whistleblower has done in this case.
BERMAN: I just want to make clear on the inspector general. This is a different inspector general than was dealing with your case. But you are saying you endorse the inspector general process even when an inspector general has found issues with the way you handled yourself in your job, correct?
MCCABE: Absolutely. So I have all kinds of issues and disputes with the Department of Justice inspector general over the investigation they did of me. That is an entirely separate matter.
I absolutely believe in the inspector general process. Since my own interactions with the DOJ inspector general, I have continued to cooperate with the inspector general in their review of other matters. I was recently interviewed in accordance with an ongoing investigation.
So I absolutely believe in that process. It is essential that every element of the executive branch, each one of the agencies has a fair and competent and independent inspector general.
And this situation really shines a light on that requirement. I hope that the Department of Justice gets that sort of inspector general some time soon.
BERMAN: Andy McCabe, thank you for being with us this morning. I appreciate it.
MCCABE: Thanks very much, John.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Really interesting conversation there.
So, joining us to talk about the international impact of all of this, CNN's chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward.
Clarissa, there's so much, obviously, going on. This is set against the U.S. trying to figure out what role to play in the attack for instance on the Saudi oil field. And so, as international leaders, foreign leaders watch all of this play out here in the U.S., do they trust the Trump administration?
CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think, you know, Andy McCabe said something that stuck with me. When it comes to the interactions that President Trump is having with various foreign leaders, we have very little insight into these interactions.
It's that complete disregard for the protocols and processes that have traditionally sort of brought together how one behaves diplomatically that have international leaders very nervous, very uncomfortable because there's a reason for these protocols. There's a reason for these almost boilerplate releases about conversations that are held. There's a reason you behave in a certain way when talking to a foreign leader as the president of the United States.
And for world leaders who are looking to the U.S. right now, there's real concerns about the credibility of the information that they're receiving and, of course, that would play in to concerns right now about what's happening with Saudi Arabia and the intelligence implicating Iran and how you respond. There are also real concerns about whether their information can be trusted, whether classified information can be trusted and respected. We've all seen, of course, the famous photographs of President Trump sitting there with the former Russian ambassador to the U.S., Kislyak, talking, we now know, about classified matters.
So, there are very real issues that pertain to credibility, but also to trust. And these are things like everybody understands internationally that President Trump ran on the ticket of being a disruptor and that is part of his identity. But the issue becomes, once President Trump leaves, either after 2020 or 2024, is that legacy still there? Do people still have trouble understanding America, having clarity about the way the Oval Office operates, and does America still have something of a credibility issue in the eyes of the international community.
BERMAN: It's interesting you bring up the issue of trust there. There is also concern in the international community about the way that President Trump relates to U.S. allies versus adversaries. And that comes into play here because we don't know which leader he made a promise to. But he promised someone something that was alarming.
And I know there's concern about things he said to people like Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin, who are on that list of possible people he could have been talking to.
WARD: And I think that particularly speaks to the concerns of European leaders. And when you talk to politicians in Europe, there is a very real anxiety about this traditional alliance, about NATO, about the power of this relationship going back many, many decades and whether that's now in jeopardy.
And as a said before, it's not in jeopardy in the sense of in an existential way but things that European leaders took for granted before in terms of understanding the strength and positivity of that relationship, they now have to sort of second guess it a little bit or double check. And that creates uncertainty. And again, people understand that President Trump -- that this is part
of his identity, but that does little to alleviate concerns especially if you're a European leader right now about looking at this issue specifically. What promise might have been made, to whom and at whose expense?
CAMEROTA: Clarissa Ward, thank you very much for giving us that perspective. Great to have you here in studio.
BERMAN: All right. A member of the Kennedy family in Congress shaking up the political world this morning with a major campaign announcement.
CAMEROTA: The UFO video that the U.S. Navy now confirms is real.
BERMAN: So, literally, the truth is out there.
CAMEROTA: The truth is out there. This is not a hoax. Look at your screen. We'll explain.