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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

The White House In Crisis; Trump Tried To Get Ukraine To Interfere In Election, And White House Tried To Cover It Up. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired September 26, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: In less time than what would be your typical school day, today, we have seen allegations from an intelligence community whistleblower that the president of the United States, according to the whistleblower, abused his power by leaning on a foreign leader to investigate Trump's political rival.

We heard that the White House tried to bury that transcript, using a server only intended for actual intelligence secrets. And now we have some new reporting, out first in "The New York Times," of a president so angry that this all got out, he is seemingly longing for the death penalty for the officials in his own administration who cooperated with the whistleblower.

Take a listen to the audio obtained by "The Los Angeles Times."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Who is the person who gave the whistleblower the information?

Because that's close to a spy. You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart with spies and treason, right? We used to handle it a little different than we do now."

(LAUGHTER)

(END AUDIO CLIP)

TAPPER: See, today, we got our first look at the whistleblower complaint about President Trump, the one that sparked this impeachment inquiry.

It says -- quote -- "I have received information from multiple U.S. government officials that the president of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election."

The whistleblower goes on to talk about the alleged White House efforts to keep all of this under wraps. The acting director of national intelligence testified before Congress earlier today, saying that the whistleblower and the inspector general, both of whom were the ones that brought this issue to the fore, both of whom were acting in good faith, he said.

CNN's Sara Murray has the details of a very busy day here in Washington, details that could spell more trouble for the Trump presidency.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

REP. JACKIE SPEIER (D-CA): Were you shocked at all by what you read?

JOSEPH MAGUIRE, ACTING DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: None of us is above the law in this country.

REP. DEVIN NUNES (R-CA): The complaint relied on hearsay evidence.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A bombshell whistleblower complaint made public today reveals that President Trump not only asked the Ukrainian president to have his 2020 rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter investigated.

TRUMP: That call was perfect. It couldn't have been nicer.

MURRAY: But White House officials were allegedly so alarmed, they quickly moved to lock down records of the call.

'This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call," the whistleblower complaint states.

Officials allegedly moved the transcript of Trump's call to an electronic system typically used to store especially sensitive classified information.

"According to White House officials I spoke with, this was not the first time under this administration that a presidential transcript was placed into this code word-level system solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive, rather than national security sensitive, information," according to the complaint.

The complaint also alleges that Trump told Vice President Mike Pence in May to cancel a planned trip to attend the Ukrainian president's inauguration. Trump wanted to see how Ukrainian President Zelensky chose to act in office, the complaint states.

MAGUIRE: I believe that this matter is unprecedented.

MURRAY: Today, acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire appeared before the House Intelligence Committee and defended his decision to take a whistleblower complaint that names the president straight to the White House.

MAGUIRE: Such calls are typically subject to executive privilege. As a result, we consulted with the White House Counsel's Office, and we were advised that much of the information in the complaint was, in fact, subject to executive privilege, a privilege that I do not have the authority to waive. MURRAY: Maguire refused to say whether he discussed the whistleblower

complaint with the president, but he revealed that Trump never asked him to figure out the identity of the whistleblower.

MAGUIRE: I can say I -- although I would not normally discuss my conversations with the president, I can tell you emphatically no.

MURRAY: President Trump ultimately allowed the complaint to be made public after an outcry from Congress.

While Democrats condemned Trump's conduct outlined in the complaint...

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): The president of the United States has betrayed his oath of office.

MURRAY: ... Republicans mostly slammed Thursday's hearings as an effort to undermine Trump.

NUNES: I want to congratulate the Democrats on the rollout of their latest information warfare operation against the president.

MURRAY: But as Trump and his GOP allies began taking aim at the unknown whistleblower's motives, Maguire said he believes the whistleblower acted in good faith.

MAGUIRE: I think the whistleblower he did the right thing. I think he followed the law every step of the way.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, Jake, ultimately, this was referred to the FBI, as well as the Justice Department. And the Justice Department decided that there were no charges here to bring.

They said the president's phone call with the Ukrainian president essentially wasn't anything of monetary value. He didn't violate any kind of campaign finance or election law there, but, obviously, the ball still rolling on the Hill, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Sara Murray, thanks so much.

Let's chew over all this with our experts.

And let me start with the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers.

You spent your entire career handling classified information with the FBI and then also in Congress. What did you think when you read this whistleblower complaint? What did you make of it and how significant it is?

MIKE ROGERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, the fact that the I.G. did a preliminary review and found it credible, despite the fact that there was some concern up front that there could be some political, bias, right? So that would normally slow things down if there were some thought that this is getting even, I didn't like my boss because he fired me, I had some political bias because I don't like my boss' politics.

[16:05:08]

So that is a real thing that they have to determine in the sense of this. So, the I.G. inspector got through that piece of it. Now, they will have to investigate that part to make sure that all of the other facts are true.

But it's a pretty damning document. I will say, as someone who handled whistleblower complaints, I'm surprised that they released it in the form that they did.

I saw clues as I read it as to who may be involved in having this kind of an access to information. I hope they checked with this individual and the I.G. before they released this report, because I will guarantee you, in this town, everybody and their brother is trying to put these clues together to figure out who this person is.

And they deserve, I think, to be anonymous in this process, until it goes through its full investigation.

But I will say, pretty damning, I think.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.

And, as non-intelligence consumer, one thing that really jumped out on the first day was reading this -- reading the account of the whistleblower of the call, which we -- we were told that the whistleblower did not have access to the call.

The account of it in the complaint is incredibly on target with what was actually revealed in...

TAPPER: The rough transcript we got, yes.

BROWNSTEIN: The rough transcript.

And so it certainly -- I think it establishes a baseline of credibility here, because this person, they described that call to a T.

And thus the other accusations in here, that they withheld a meeting, that they pulled back Pence, that there was a widespread understanding in the administration that the only way Zelensky was going to get a meeting was if he played ball on the Biden investigation, I think the one thing we can compare on this, it comes out pretty well, and it just gives a certain man of credibility to whatever else is in there.

ROGERS: And can I just say this? This is clear to me that this is not somebody who was in office gossip who heard this who wrote it down. This is somebody who was in the chain of being able to legitimately get intelligence surrounding these calls, including the fact that they were read out on one of these calls. Tells me somebody in that chain. So that -- if I'm looking at this from an investigative, I'm thinking that person is of value. And I'm going to guess that's why the I.G. came out and said, this person is -- despite other things, this person is credible to these allegations.

TAPPER: And, Nia, the whistleblower just lays it out there.

It says -- quote -- "I have received information from multiple U.S. government officials that the president of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election," a pretty stunning accusation.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's stunning.

And we have been talking about this for a couple of days now, but any time I digest this information or read it, it's always shocking. It's always stunning, especially given the fact that we just went through the Mueller report, all sorts of accusations leveled at this president about involvement with a foreign government with the 2016 election.

And then we fast-forward to now, and over the last couple of months, with these meetings and these calls that he was having that we have the readout of, here he was doing exactly what people were accusing him of doing in 2016, leveraging the power of the White House and soliciting help from a foreign government to meddle in the 2020 election.

Going forward, what does this mean? It looks like, if you're a Democrat, you're on the road to impeachment. We saw sort of not quite an impeachment hearing, the beginning of it. But that's what's going to happen over these next couple of weeks.

We will see what Republicans do. They didn't put up much of a defense of the president. No one is coming out and saying, the president would never do something like this.

TAPPER: Right.

HENDERSON: This the president loves this country, he would never put his own interests above this country.

And there are sort of crickets on that end. And the president essentially saying, yes, he did it, at least this phone call, and so what?

TAPPER: And the response from Republicans, as Nia points out, is really fascinating.

On Capitol Hill today, the Republicans basically just were attacking the Democrats.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right.

TAPPER: And that was it. It wasn't -- as Nia points out, they weren't saying, President Trump -- you're misconstruing what the transcript says or this is the more innocent explanation.

It's just Democrats, this is a joke, they're horrible people , and really kind of crickets from the White House. No real denials about the essential allegation, which is proven and has been spoken out loud by President Trump and Rudy Giuliani: Yes, we were pushing the Ukrainians to investigate Joe Biden and his son.

PSAKI: That's exactly right.

And I think, watching the Republicans today, it was clear they didn't know what to say. I mean, they went to kind of a knee-jerk place in this hearing, attacked the Democrats, as you said. No one is denying the details and facts of this.

It would be hard to do that, given how damning, as Mike Rogers said, the whistleblower complaint is. But we also have -- this is very different for in a lot of ways, but than the discussion we have been having about the Mueller report for years, because there are Trump's own words that we are looking at in the notes of this call.

This is current. We're talking about a threat to the 2020 election, which is happening right now.

[16:10:03]

So this is a lot more challenging, I think, politically, well, national security purposes certainly, but also politically for Republicans to kind of stay away from.

BROWNSTEIN: But it is worth noting, some of the Senate Republicans basically have dismissed it as, you know, a nothing-burger and that there is no issue here.

And I think the investigation that will kind of fill out some of the other points that the whistleblower raises, particularly this idea that Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, is not getting the meeting he wants until it is clear that he is playing ball, it's going to be awful hard.

If there's strong evidence for that, how do you then turn around and say that the president is not, in fact...

(CROSSTALK)

ROGERS: But where I do think they will go is say, listen, it's all subject to interpretation. There is no slam-dunk here. It's subject to interpretation. This was one person's interpretation. We're going to put together our interpretation.

And now it's a he said/she said. If the administration gets to a he said/she said, I don't think you can impeach. I just don't think you can.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Except, of course, the whistleblower was talking to administration officials, who...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: That's their defense.

ROGERS: No, I'm saying, that's -- if I were them, that's where I would go. I don't know if they have anywhere else to go.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: We have to take a quick break. We have to take a -- we will come back, continue this exact conversation.

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is also going to join us on all of the breaking news for this special edition of THE LEAD: "The White House in Crisis."

Stay with us.

[16:15:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to our special edition of "The Lead: White House in Crisis." I want to continue the conversation with my panel.

And, Jen Psaki, one of the things that the whistleblower alleges in the complaint is that after the conversation with Ukrainian president, between President Trump and the Ukrainian president, the White House locked down that transcript and put it in a place -- in a server, internally, that is usually just only for top secret information, not for politically sensitive information.

PSAKI: Yes.

TAPPER: What does that tell you?

PSAKI: Beyond top secret, I mean, code word clearance is the highest level. I mean, that's for very senior members of the national security apparatus.

TAPPER: That's like the names of spies and sources, and --

PSAKI: Yes, exactly. It's information that is incredibly sensitive that a broad range of people, even in the White House who all have top secret security clearance, wouldn't have an access to. It tells me that they are trying to bury this in the furthest vault from any eyes, even in the White House, that they possibly can.

Now, this is used when the information is extremely sensitive. There's a reason for having a code word clearance, documents and servers. Certainly and most White Houses have used it, you know, with that in mind. This was politically inconvenient for President Trump.

It made him look bad, of course, obviously could be criminally damaging. This would not be the purpose of why you would use this. So, you know, it tells me they were trying to bury it even from many, many eyes in the White House.

TAPPER: Could that be a crime, Chairman Rogers? I mean, could that --

ROGERS: No, because the President has the right to classify and declassify --

TAPPER: Any thing.

ROGERS: -- anything. So, the problem is, did they go outside the channels? My argument is if you -- when I was an FBI guy, we always tell the guys we're looking at, if you don't want people to think you're guilty, then don't act like you're guilty, right? Let's talk about it.

And so, what they could do is if it went out of normal channels, not instructed by the President, then they might have something. I think that's a really hard place to get to. How would that actually happen?

But it is, I think, leads to, you know, certainly all the smoke that you're seeing around this. That certainly is what, you know, in the FBI, we would call a clue --

TAPPER: Yes.

ROGERS: -- that something out of the ordinary was going on with information contained. Because as we saw released, none of that would be code word.

TAPPER: And yes, it completely undermines. If it is true, that White House staffers took this information and put it in this top secret, you know, code word clearance server. Then it completely undermines President Trump's argument. This was a perfect phone call.

HENDERSON: Beautiful, perfect call.

TAPPER: You know, nothing was wrong on it.

HENDERSON: Yes, I think that's right. It undermines his argument and also undermines the argument of his allies who are essentially saying the same thing. That the President was just acting within the bounds of his authority in a normal way. I think Vice President Pence had an interview last night on Fox, where he essentially said the same thing.

I mean, people -- according to this complaint, people in the White House were worried about this call. They were worried about what it meant -- about what the President was doing with his authority.

BROWNSTEIN: And they were worried in part because of the pattern of behavior that led up to it, right. I mean which is going to be, I think, critical in the investigation where you have the allegation that it was widely understood inside the administration that the Ukrainian officials are not going to get the meeting they wanted until they agree to do this.

And, of course, we have the interview with a former advisor to the President, to Zelensky, who told ABS yesterday, that was the widespread understanding in Ukraine as well, from the other side.

And it's the context of the call that becomes much richer and more clear. If you see it, not as a one-off but as a continuation of a message of the administration, according to the whistleblower, had been sending for months.

TAPPER: And you talk about what the Vice President Pence said on the President's favorite channel last night. I want to go back in time, a 100 years, actually just three years, to the vice presidential debate of 2016 and a principle of American politics that then Governor Mike Pence laid out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[16:20:03] MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF USA: Now, you only need to know out there, this is basic stuff. Foreign donors and certainly foreign governments cannot participate in the American political process.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Foreign governments cannot participate in the American political process. It's basic stuff.

PSAKI: Oh, they can.

HENDERSON: Yes. You we're right, it's basic stuff. And you have Pence there and his sort of folksy way, saying that. I mean, it's -- and this I think, is an example of how far Republicans have come from the Republicans that we all know and grew up with.

They have some explaining to do. This is an unfortunate and uncomfortable set of facts for them. And that's why you see Pence sounding very differently now than he did before.

TAPPER: Everyone stick around. We're got a lot more to talk about. What was it like to be in the room during a phone call like the one President Trump had with the Ukrainian president, except not really like that one? The director of National Intelligence under President Obama, James Clapper, may have some ideas. He's coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:25:00]

TAPPER: Welcome back to a special edition of THE LEAD: The White House in Crisis.

Another remarkable day on Capitol Hill, today the acting director of National Intelligence testified about the whistleblower complaint outlining concerns about President Trump's apparent efforts to try to use a foreign power to damage a political rival.

Joining me now to talk about is James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence under President Obama. General Clapper, thanks so much for joining us as always. First of all, I just want to start by asking you your thoughts about the whistleblower complaint which was unclassified and released today.

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Right. Well, first of all, I've seen a lot of whistleblower complaints during the time I was DNI. And this had to be the best composed, best written, best documented such complaint I've ever seen.

Obviously done by a seasoned, mature, capable intelligence professional, written like intelligence document and it's very clear. He makes -- he points out what he knows, what he does, he or she, whoever it is. So, I thought it was very compelling.

TAPPER: Have you ever heard before of an American president, you were in the government long before you worked for President Obama, of an American president pushing a foreign government to dig up dirt to investigate a political rival? Is that something you've ever heard of before?

CLAPPER: No. And in the two positions that I occupied, the last two, in -- for 10 years as undersecretary in the Pentagon, for Intelligence in the Pentagon and then as DNI for six-and-a-half years, I certainly never witnessed anything like that. I can't speak to previous administrations I served in over my 50 years in Intelligence. But I just wasn't in a position to observe that.

TAPPER: And what do you make of White House officials, according to the whistleblower, apparently realizing how damaging this phone call was and putting the transcript in this very secure server only used for top secret information among the national security?

CLAPPER: Well, on its face, it's not improper or illegal to place -- have material of a lower classification placed in a file or on a network that has the capacity for a higher classification. The issue here is, of course, motive or intent, were they trying to restrict this because of embarrassment or worse, wrongdoing, which seems to be the case here.

TAPPER: CNN has learned that earlier today President Trump told some people at the United States mission to the UN that he wants to know who in the administration cooperated with the whistleblower, saying that those people are close to a spy and saying that they were dealt with differently in the old days, an apparent allusion to execution.

CLAPPER: Execution, right.

TAPPER: Yes. Is that witness intimidation? Is that, I mean, what do you think of it?

CLAPPER: At a minimum, it is witness retaliation. It's actually, certainly, it conflicts with the spirit of the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act because that's what is -- one of the purposes is to insulate complainants from retaliation. So clearly, this is retaliation threatened in the worst way. And what's really bad about it is that, this is going to have a very chilling effect on any other potential whistleblowers if this is going to be the result and a threat like that from no less than from the president.

TAPPER: The acting director of National Intelligence, that's the job that you had, except you were confirmed director of National Intelligence. The acting director, Joe Maguire, went before the House Intelligence Committee today and he got some tough questions about how come when he got this complaint, which mentions in the first paragraph President Trump and Attorney General Barr, he went to places where they worked, the White House and the Department of Justice.

His answer was, this was an unprecedented situation and he didn't know what else to do. What did you think of that?

CLAPPER: Well, first, I thought Joe Maguire did a masterful job in a very, very difficult circumstance.