Return to Transcripts main page

THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Russia Already Interfering in 2020 Election; The Trump Administration Purge; Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH) is Interviewed About Trump, Russia and the Intel. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 21, 2020 - 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: Breaking news: the post-acquittal purge hitting a new gear, as the White House tells Cabinet officials they need to start sniffing out anyone who might be disloyal to President Trump in their ranks.

Going for broke, Democratic candidates burning through the cash, trying to keep up with a surging Bernie Sanders and a billionaire with a bottomless a bottomless bank account with just hours until a critical election battle.

Plus: Taliban truce. The Trump administration announcing the first step towards a peace deal in Afghanistan. If no bombs go off for seven days, might we finally be on the road to peace?

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

And we begin with breaking news, President Trump purge, the latest chapter in President Trump's post-acquittal presidency in which he seems quite focused on punishing his perceived enemies and rewarding loyalists.

Breaking today, sources telling CNN that President Trump's new personnel chief, John McEntee, told Cabinet officials that his office wants them to report to him appointees in their agencies and departments who might be seen as disloyal to President Trump and his agenda.

McEntee, you might recall, was among the Trump loyalists brought back to the White House during this post-acquittal vengeance tour.

And, as CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports, McEntee yesterday told Cabinet officials that they should be preparing to name names.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Today, the White House is making another effort at a post-impeachment purge.

Johnny McEntee is the president's former body man who was marched out of the White House for a clearance issue two years ago, but now runs the personnel office in the West Wing, and he's on the lookout for staffers seen as disloyal to Trump.

During a meeting with liaisons from Cabinet agencies first reported by Axios, McEntee asked them to identify political appointees who may be against the president's agenda, warning that changes may be made.

McEntee is expected to focus on the State and Defense Departments, both at the center of Trump's impeachment. And it comes after Trump fired Lieutenant Colonel Alex Vindman and Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland, who were both key impeachment witnesses.

But because he's in charge of political appointees, McEntee will have firing power over career officials, who are typically dealt with at the agency level. This comes after the president named a loyal supporter the new acting director of national intelligence this week. He pushed Joseph Maguire out of the job after intelligence officials warned lawmakers that Russia is at it again, interfering in the 2020 election, which angered the president, who found out about the briefing later.

Today. The president dismissed their findings as another misinformation campaign being launched by Democrats, despite that information coming from his own officials.

Trump has now replaced Maguire with his ambassador to Germany, Ric Grenell, who is a vocal supporter with little intelligent experience. Grenell is only expected to remain in the position temporarily, and Trump says he's considering naming Congressman Doug Collins as a permanent successor. But Collins says he's not interested.

REP. DOUG COLLINS (R-GA): This is not a job that interests me at this time. It's not one that I would accept, because I'm running a Senate race down here in Georgia.

K. COLLINS: Floating Collins for the job was widely seen as a way for the president to avoid choosing sides in a heated Georgia Republican Senate primary. With Collins out of the running, Trump now says he has four great candidates under consideration, but he declined to name them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

K. COLLINS: Now, Jake, is that search is still ongoing, the president is speaking at a rally in Las Vegas talking about this intelligence that shows Russia is trying to interfere in the 2020 election.

But, Jake, he's describing it as Democrats coming up with another witch-hunt, though we should note this information and this intelligence that was shared with lawmakers and the president is coming from his own officials.

TAPPER: That's right, coming from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Kaitlan Collins, thanks so much. So let's chat about this.

The president has always valued loyalty or, to be precise, loyalty to him, not necessarily a two-way street. It seems like he's really been emboldened by this acquittal, when you look at just the vast array of people that have been fired, the people that have been rewarded and now Joe Maguire, Admiral Maguire, the latest to fall on the wrong side of that fence.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely.

This is President Trump seemingly feeling very freed. And one thing to remember is that, when the president's previous chiefs of staff were in the job, John...

TAPPER: John Kelly?

PHILLIP: ... Kelly used to say often to President Trump, don't do this or you will get impeached. Well, he was impeached.

That threat is now no longer operative here. And so President Trump believes he can feel -- he can do whatever he wants. And he's always been very paranoid, particularly about his staff. He's always actually had a loyalty litmus test, frankly, for a lot of political appointees.

They haven't always been able to stick with it because it's been difficult to find candidates for a lot of these government jobs who have a squeaky clean record of not criticizing Trump.

[16:05:04]

But now I think he feels like he has no choice but to not just have a litmus for people coming in, but to get the people out who he thinks are disloyal to him.

I think this is a new phase for Trump, a new era in his administration. And I think it's only going to escalate as we go forward and as we go toward the November election, where he's -- it's a signaling tactic also to supporters that he's fighting back, which is something they love to see.

TAPPER: And John Kelly oversaw when McEntee was shown the door over security concerns. I think he had some gambling issues or something like that. Now he's back in this post-impeachment, post-acquittal purge.

And McEntee telling Cabinet officials to root out disloyalists among their ranks. I have never heard of anything like that, not since the '50s anyway.

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's remarkable.

And as we have seen time and again with President Trump, you are either with him or you're against him. That's at least the lens through which he views his administration. And time and again, he has sought to cast anyone who criticizes him or disagrees with him or even someone who tells him something he doesn't want to hear as disloyal or a traitor. He claimed without evidence that the special counsel investigators are a bunch of angry Democrats, the career officials who testified in the impeachment inquiry, they were never-Trumpers, as he said.

So I think that...

TAPPER: All that not true, right.

SIDDIQUI: All that not true, but then part of that was his calculus to try and erode trust in the institutions, so that he could convince the public that all of these investigations were simply a hoax or a witch-hunt.

Now, because he's emboldened by his acquittal, I think this pattern is even more concerning, because if he does, in fact, just surround himself with yes-men, then it will be a very real question moving forward of how you can really trust anything that comes out of this administration.

TAPPER: And, Nayyera, you worked in the Obama administration. What might something like this -- affect might this have on the political appointees who have just been told,who have heard either from their bosses or from our reporting or Axios, which broke the story, have been told that, if you're disloyal to the president, watch out because we're going to name names and tell it to the director of personnel?

NAYYERA HAQ, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: When you're a political appointee, there's always a certain expectation that you serve at the discretion of the president.

And the president has every right to want people in his inner circle who he trusts and can advise them. The challenge is that Trump's definition of loyalty goes well beyond anything that has to do with national security, the integrity of the country, or what's good for the country.

He is literally incapable of separating rule of law from what is rule of Trump. And that that's where this becomes a challenge, because it not only affects the people who should have expertise who are serving the presidency. It also affects a broad swathe of the civil service.

He's effectively gutted the State Department. He's gutted intel services, and now we know, with firing of Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, he's chilling any type of dissent in the military.

TAPPER: Vindman, Sondland, the guy Rood from the Pentagon who internally was pushing...

HAQ: Vindman's brother, right? Like, you can't even have the same last name as somebody that he doesn't like anymore.

So people are not going to be able to serve their country in a way they used to. And this is going to have implications well beyond the Trump administration, because the building and the work of American national security is not able to happen With transparency.

TAPPER: And, Bill, I was struck by something.

Alex Ward, who is a national security reporter with Vox, tweeted about the firing of Maguire. And I think there a lot of questions. I, personally -- once he stood up for the integrity of the whistle- blower, I didn't think Maguire had long in that job, wasn't going to be long for that job.

But then the question is about this Intelligence Committee briefing where somebody in Maguire's office apparently said that the Russians had a preference for Trump. And there's questions about what intelligence is that based on? We will get to that in a bit in the show.

But Alex Ward wrote this on Twitter -- quote -- "I asked a senior White House official if Trump really removed Maguire over the Russian briefing. The official didn't mince words. That's absolutely why. The official said, anyone from here on out that opposes the president will get fired. That bad, I asked? Yup, official said, he's not F'ing around."

Just because there was a briefing that -- in which something was said that the president didn't like.

BILL KRISTOL, DIRECTOR, DEFENDING DEMOCRACY TOGETHER: Yes.

And I'm struck equally by the firing of Admiral Maguire and bringing in Ric Grenell, a very political Trump supporter who'd been on FOX News and so forth.

And here Abby mentioned the election. There's a practical implication here, beyond bad implications for national security longer term, beyond what it tells us about Trump psychologically. He's got a reelection. He really, really, really wants to be reelected.

He's going to ask, in my judgment, and we have seen this already, obviously, various elements of the federal government to do things to help him politically.

And some of those things are going to be borderline. There's always a little of that in reelection campaigns, right? You schedule your economic good news for a certain state in October. But he...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: You're talking like investigations into his rivals.

KRISTOL: I'm talking about investigations into rivals.

I'm talking about not being clear about what's happening with Russia interference in the election. That's the more particular thing in this. I'm talking about asking people in agencies to make sure that money floods into key parts, key states and key parts of states and accelerated certain spending.

[16:10:00]

There's a lot you can do as president. Nixon did more of this probably than most have. But even there, it was tiny compared to what you can do if you really have intimidated the political appointees and some maybe of the career people, and replace any political appointee who is serving loyally, by the normal definition of loyal, but isn't just simply there to help you do whatever you want to do, whatever you think is right for your own reelection.

TAPPER: Right.

KRISTOL: Again, that's the most striking thing about Ukraine. Right?

It was his personal political agenda. And if you stood in the way of that, you're gone. And are there people who will stand in the way of it, the way they were people who stood in the way of it six months ago?

TAPPER: I don't have an answer to that question. It seems like he's removing a lot of the people from his inner circle or outer circle even who might be willing to do so.

Everyone, stick around. We got more to talk about.

What is Russia actually doing to interfere with the U.S. election 2020? We will have the latest intelligence next.

Then, Senator Bernie Sanders' progressive supporters are not the only ones hoping that he wins the Democratic nomination, or at least according to Republicans. That's what they're saying. Why some Republicans hope so too.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: And we're back with the politics lead.

[16:15:06]

An alarming warning from the intelligence community to bipartisan members of Congress on the Intelligence Committee -- Russia is yet again attempting to interfere in the U.S. presidential election and the U.S. government must do more to stop it, as CNN's Alex Marquardt reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A classified briefing behind closed doors exploding into the open and causing the president to clean house at the highest ranks of his intelligence community.

SHELBY PIERSON, SENIOR INTELLIGENCE OFFICIAL: Cyberthreats.

MARQUARDT: Shelby Pierson, the top intelligence official on election security telling House Intelligence Committee members twice last week that Russia is working in favor of President Donald Trump's re- election, and that they have every intention of meddling again in 2020.

REP. RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI (D-IL): Members of the intelligence community have uniformly said that the Russians are planning to interfere in our 2020 elections.

MARQUARDT: The intelligence community assessed with high confidence after the 2016 election that the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump's election chance. They're at it again, the intelligence briefer said, but she didn't reveal the actual intelligence on Russia, instead offering just the assessment. That angered committee Republicans, many of them allies of the president.

A Trump administration national security official also pushed back, telling CNN it's more that the Russians view Trump as someone they can work with because they see him as a dealmaker.

When Devin Nunes, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, told the president about the briefing, he was angry.

ROBERT BAER, FORMER CIA OPERATIVE: If you're going to talk about the president to Congress, you got give him a heads up. It's very sensitive. It's a question of dysfunction in the White House that that message wasn't transmitted to the White House in time.

MARQUARDT: The president then lit into his acting director of national intelligence , Joseph Maguire. It's happening again, the president said, according to a source, meaning that Democrats like Chairman Adam Schiff who was in the briefing would use the information against the president.

Less than a week later, Maguire is out, and so is his number two. Taking over as the acting DNI, temporarily, is the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Ric Grenell, a staunch Trump loyalist with no experience in intelligence matters.

Democrats blasting the choice as evidence that the president values loyalty above objective intelligence and is risking national security.

BAER: I think what we're seeing more and more is the intelligence community is becoming a propaganda arm of the White House.

MARQUARDT: As November approaches intelligence officials are sounding the alarm about Russia's continuing and evolving tactics. A source familiar with the Pierson's briefing said she told lawmakers that Russia will hack, to weaponize social media, and attack the election infrastructure of the United States, which will fuel chaos and questions about the integrity of the election process.

One new tactic the Russians will use according to "The New York Times" is working from servers inside the United States rather than abroad, to hinder U.S. intelligence agencies who are prohibited from working domestically. JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: But it

shouldn't have come as a shock to anybody that the Russians are going to continue to do what they did in 2016 given the success they enjoyed.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARQUARDT: And, Jake, just moments ago, we learned that Joseph Maguire has resigned from the government officially. Right after that, his number two, Andrew Holman, also putting out a statement that he's leaving, saying that he does have confidence in the stability of the intelligence community which he says will guide them through the uncertainties that come with change -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Alex Marquardt, thanks so much.

Joining me now is a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Congressman Brad Wenstrup of Ohio. He was at the briefing on Capitol Hill.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

Let me start with just the bigger most important question here -- is the U.S. government doing enough to prepare for all of the Russian election interference that is expected and that, in fact, is already going on?

REP. BRAD WENSTRUP (R-OH): Well, you know, you always wonder if you're doing all that you possibly can, but I think we have taken quite a few steps, especially since 2016. And if you look at the results or the report that we came out, at least on the Republican side from the Intelligence Committee after the investigation on foreign influence, we had a lot of findings and made a lot of recommendations, and it's about seven pages between the findings and recommendations, and a lot of those are being enacted.

And I think that we are taking the steps as best we possibly can. People recognize it's a problem, because quite honestly, it's been a problem since the Soviet Union. Russia has always tried to provide discord or create discord within our country. They've been very successful at that, I'm afraid, especially currently, that they've been able to do that, or we've done it to ourselves in some cases.

So, I do think we're doing a lot. And I think people -- the American people are aware that there's this attempt to try to create discord amongst the American people.

[16:20:06]

TAPPER: Uh-huh.

WENSTRUP: And, you know, I work every day to try to bring us back together and realize what our common enemy is in America.

TAPPER: So, let's talk about the briefing last week because there's a lot of controversy about it. And I have been told there were a lot of individuals at the briefing were surprised when the briefer said that the Russians had a clear preference for President Trump. Some people said that the intelligence is not there. Democrats and Republicans all agree they wanted to see the underlying intelligence underneath that.

But just to take a step back, Putin did interfere in the 2016 election and the conclusion of the intelligence community was that he did so to help President Trump and to hurt Hillary Clinton. He has subsequently admitted that he preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton.

Why would you be so skeptical this time?

WENSTRUP: Well, first of all, I'm not going to talk about anything that happened in a classified setting. I'm sorry that some people tend to want to do that, I guess. But maybe it's my military background, because loose lips sink ships. And I'm not going comment on any of that.

But just as an informed observer, which a lot of Americans are, certainly a lot of your viewers are. I just -- I just would sit back and say I just don't understand why Putin would want to prefer Trump? And let me just give you the reasons why.

I mean, one, Trump has put more sanctions on Russia than we have before. He's increased our military. Why? Because of the threat of Russia.

He's strengthened NATO. Why? Because of the threat of Russia. That's really why NATO was formed -- the Soviet Union and Russia.

He's trying to impede as best he can the Nord Stream 2, which is their energy supply to Europe where they make a lot of money and it feeds their government and their country, and we want to get our energy into Europe.

And so, it seems to me that the president is working against -- against Putin more and more often.

TAPPER: Right.

WENSTRUP: And, you know, if you look back, it was President Obama who told Medvedev, hey, I'll have more flexibility after my election.

TAPPER: Right, dealing with missile defense, yes.

WENSTRUP: It's President Trump who gave the Ukrainians lethal aid, and it was President Obama who did not give them lethal aid.

TAPPER: Right.

WENSTRUP: I understand Obama's not running for president.

TAPPER: Right.

WENSTRUP: But it just doesn't seem to make sense to me that that would be their preference, based on what I'm seeing and what I think the American people can see. TAPPER: So, I appreciate the argument. We heard that argument before.

You say he's strengthened NATO. He certainly has strengthened NATO in terms of getting countries to spend more on their own defense, according to agreements in NATO, but many people would argue he has undermined the NATO alliance in some ways, especially in how he's criticized various allies and praised Putin.

In addition, critics might say President Trump has spread this conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia that interfered in the 2016 election, which is not true as you know. He stood next to Putin in Helsinki. He said he backed Putin over U.S. intelligence.

(CROSSTALK)

WENSTRUP: -- as I know.

TAPPER: Yes.

WENSTRUP: Listen, it could --

TAPPER: But you agree that there was though --

WENSTRUP: It would be more than one country that can interfere with our elections, and that has been established. But go on.

But I just want to take it a step further. I was just in Munich at the security conference there.

TAPPER: Uh-huh.

WENSTRUP: And we spoke to the president of NATO and he has talked about how the president's influence has had a great effect on NATO making it stronger.

Now, you may not like some of the things he said and how he went about it, but it's had a positive effect and virtually, every president in my lifetime has said that other countries need to pay their fair share, they just haven't done much about it.

So I would disagree with you on that point. And that would -- that would be coming from the head of NATO himself. So --

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: But I guess the argument is -- I hear what you're saying. I'm --

WENSTRUP: I disagree with you on that one, Jake.

TAPPER: Well, I mean, I think we agree that it's good that other countries are paying more than their fair share -- are paying their fair share, rather, and that President Trump had a lot to do with that, but the question about whether or not he's good for the alliance is what a lot of critics are talking about. But the other picture, though, the other big question is, President

Trump is a major disrupter. I think you and I can agree on that. And one of the results of that and this -- you might disagree with -- is he sows distrust in a lot of American institutions, whether it's the media, whether it's the judiciary, whether it's law enforcement, and he backed -- and Putin backed Trump last time.

So, I guess I don't understand why is it not conceivable to you that potentially they will back him again when it comes to this election interference?

WENSTRUP: Well, again, you know, people want to say that definitively and certainly it was a conclusion of some that Putin backed Trump. And I don't know that I've ever heard Putin say that, but I will say that he's had success in sowing discord, and that's he wants.

And as far as agencies, I don't think you have to look further than what took place in the FISA court, and we've only heard the beginning of that from the inspector general, for him to have distrust in some of these agencies because of the way they conducted themselves in the FISA court.

[16:25:00]

And, you know, 17 errors and omissions? Well, that's a pretty polite way of saying intentional deceit, in my mind, at least what I've seen. And, hopefully, America will get to see more that took place.

So I think this president has a right to have some concerns about what's taking place within agencies. And more of that should come to light in the coming days.

TAPPER: So, that's all the time we have. I'm going to go on Twitter and I'm going to put up Putin explaining how he supported President Trump over Hillary Clinton and why, because he -- I think he said in Helsinki, but we don't have enough time and I don't have the clip available.

Congressman Brad Wenstrup of Ohio, we always appreciate your coming on. Thanks so much.

WENSTRUP: Thanks, Jake. Appreciate it.

TAPPER: We've got breaking news. Michael Bloomberg just responded to Elizabeth Warren's demand from the debate. We'll bring that to you next. Stay.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:30:00]