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Huge Fire Breaks Out At Beirut Port; Whistleblower: DHS Officials Urged to Downplay Russia Threat; Bob Woodward Book: Former DNI Suspected "Putin Had Something on Trump". Aired 7:30-8a ET

Aired September 10, 2020 - 07:30   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: So there was this explosion of news surrounding the White House. Audio recordings of the president admitting to misleading the American people about coronavirus. And it all breaks on the very day that Jake Tapper has an exclusive interview with Democratic nominee, Joe Biden.

And Jake joins us now live from Washington. Jake, you went out to Michigan to interview the vice president with no idea this was going to happen. I'm sure you had an hour's worth of questions planned and then the world gets turned upside down.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Yes, I mean, the pitch was basically Democrats have struggled with blue-collar voters in places like Macomb County, Michigan. Let's talk about those reasons, about trade deals, about China, why Trump has been able to make headway with this group that used to be a vital part of the democratic coalition.

And we still talked about that, to a large degree. But as you note, news overtook the interview and the former Vice President Joe Biden had a lot that he wanted to say about these tapes of President Trump in February, and around then, saying that he knew the virus was a lot deadlier than he was acknowledging to the public at the time. Here's what the former vice president had to say.


TAPPER: In his upcoming book, Bob Woodward reports that President Trump understood the serious risk posed by the novel coronavirus in early February. Take a listen to what the president told Woodward, February 7th?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You just breathe the air, that's how it's passed. And so that's a very tricky one, that's a very delicate one. It's also more deadly than your -- you know, even your strenuous flu. This is deadly stuff.

TAPPER: As you know, the president spent much of February and even March downplaying the risks of the novel coronavirus, saying it would disappear, saying the heat would make it go away. What's your response to this news about what he was telling Bob Woodward on February 7th?

JOE BIDEN, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's disgusting. We learned this on a day that we turned 190,000 Americans dead and he knew this?

My understanding is he had just gotten off the phone, when he did the first interview with Woodward, he'd just gotten off the phone with Xi Jinping, where he's praising Xi Jinping about transparency and this is nothing to worry about, and this is going to go away like a miracle. What in God's name would a man like -- I mean, I don't get it! I truly don't get it. It's like when he's -- the way he talks about our veterans -- I mean, it's just astounding to me.

TAPPER: Well, the way that President Trump explains it, and he said this to Woodward on March 19th, if you take a listen.

TRUMP: I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down --


TRUMP: Because I don't want to create a panic.

TAPPER: He said something similar this afternoon. He said he didn't want to create a panic, that's why he downplayed it. He said, leadership is about confidence.

BIDEN: Yes, and that's why we have no confidence in his leadership. I mean, look, you saw what Columbia Medical School pointed out in March. Had he acted one week earlier, there would be over 31,000 more people alive.

That in two weeks earlier, there would have been 50-some thousand still alive. This caused people to die. And what did he do the whole time? He acknowledged that you breathe it, it's in the air, and he won't put on a mask. He's talking about it's ridiculous to put masks, what do you need social distancing for? Why have any of these rules?


It was all about making sure the stock market didn't come down, that his wealthy friends didn't lose any money, and that he could say that, in fact, anything that happened had nothing to do with him. He waved the white flag. He walked away. He didn't do a damn thing. Think about it. Think about what he did not do, and it's almost criminal.

TAPPER: Woodward also reports that former Defense Secretary James Mattis said that Trump, quote, "has no moral compass", and that even floated collective action with Dan Coats; the director of National Intelligence because Trump is, quote, "unfit". Woodward also says that Coats couldn't shake the suspicion that Putin had something on Trump. What do you make of this from his advisors?

BIDEN: Well, look, I know a lot of those folks and I have served a long time with Dan Coats, I know Mattis, he's a fine -- I just -- I think Trump has just stunned everyone around him as to just how corrupt his thinking is. I mean, think about this.

Remember, he said under oath -- not under oath, I shouldn't say that -- said to the American public that he didn't get that briefing on how dangerous coronavirus was. He didn't get that from the Intelligence Committee. He never read the reports. He didn't have anything to do with that. He saw the reports! He knew them in detail. At least, we know he can read. I mean, think about it. Think about how misleading it was.

And all of those folks, and why did he not -- let's assume that he didn't want to worry people. Why in God's name didn't he move quicker on the Defense Production Act to provide PPP, you know, the protective equipment for doctors and first responders? Why didn't he do that? He -- OK, he says he didn't want to panic people. Well, at least make sure everybody has the equipment they need. Just say this is excess of caution. He didn't even do that.

TAPPER: How do you make the connection -- let me tell you something, I have relatives all over the country and all over the political spectrum. How do you make the argument to a relative I have in Texas who says, yes, this virus is horrible, but it's not Trump's fault, it's China's fault?

BIDEN: Let's assume -- we'll take both your -- both that roll in those points. It's China's fault. If it's China's fault, why did Trump praise China? Why did he say how transparent, how transparent Xi Jinping and the Chinese are going to be? Why did he insist that the 44 people we had there and while I and others are insisting that they go in and have access to see really what is happening to know the detail. Why did he not insist on that?

And the virus is not his fault, but the deaths are his fault, because he could have done something about it, Jake. I say to your uncle, he could have done something about it. But he said nothing. He didn't talk -- he said, there's no need for social distancing, don't bother wearing masks.

He actually went so far as to suggest that it was a violation of American freedom to maintain you had to wear a mask. And look what's happened! Again, 190,000 dead and climbing. And what's he doing now? He still has not moved. Look at the schools that are not opening. School -- we talked -- I mean, I know you have young children.

Well, guess what? They're starting off school like the end of last year, at home. But think of all the people who don't have the resources to do that. Think of the choice the single mom has to make, am I going to go to my $7 an hour job and lose my -- and -- or stay home with my kid? I can't afford anybody. I can't afford to bring anybody in. I mean, he's doing nothing to help. Nothing to help.


BERMAN: And Jake Tapper back with us. Clear from that discussion, Jake, that the Biden campaign primed to talk about coronavirus. We saw it in the convention as well. Any sense that these revelations, this audio has changed how they will move forward in the coming days and weeks?

TAPPER: I think that this was always going to be a focus of Joe Biden and his campaign, the government's failure -- and look, obviously, we want to be fair to President Trump, but every health expert that we've interviewed, who is not paid by the Trump administration acknowledges that this was a failure by the federal government.

That the president and the Trump administration could have done a lot more to have the personal protective equipment ready, to have a whole -- you know, testing up and going nationwide, so that, John, when your kids go to school or my kids go to school, they can all get tested, et cetera.

This has been a failure of the U.S. government. So it would be political malpractice for them not to focus on this. And now, President Trump via Bob Woodward has given them a tremendous gift in the sense that we know now that Trump saying, well, we didn't know how bad it would be is not true. That he knew on February 7th how bad it would be. He knew that it was airborne, in fact, which was something that a lot of people didn't realize or acknowledge until March.


BERMAN: If February 7th, to hear him say in such detail about it being airborne and know exactly how much more deadly it was than what he called the strenuous flu. To hear that on tape today, Jake, is something. Look, very excited to see your full, exclusive interview with Joe Biden on "THE LEAD", that's at 4:00 p.m. today.

You've heard the parts or some of the parts about coronavirus, but there's much more including what Jake was talking about, how the Biden campaign intends to try to win back some of those voters in the Midwest that defected to the Trump team.

All right, so, did Trump appointees water down the intelligence threat from Russia to please the president? Actually, there's a new whistle- blower report with incredible new details from this official who says he was ordered to hide things from the American people.



ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We have some breaking news right now. There is a huge fire again at the port in Beirut, Lebanon. Video shows flames and an enormous cloud of smoke, as you can see. The fire broke out at an oil and tire warehouse just a month after that massive explosion at the port that left 170 people dead and thousands hurt.

BERMAN: Be there this morning. All right, also developing this morning, a story that in and of itself has huge implications, completely separate from what's happening over in Woodward world.

A whistle-blower alleges that top political appointees in the Department of Homeland Security urged officials to bury or change intelligence assessments about Russia so as not to upset the president. CNN's Jessica Schneider live in Washington with the latest on this. What have you learned, Jessica?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, that whistle-blower is Brian Murphy. He was in charge of intelligence and analysis at DHS up until the Summer when he was reassigned.

But he says the two top Trump appointees at DHS, the acting Secretary Chad Wolf as well as Ken Cuccinelli repeatedly pressed officials at DHS to modify intelligence assessments and reports, specifically downplaying the threat of Russian interference in the U.S., including in the upcoming election.

And also downplaying the threat of white supremacist groups, specifically these allegations say that the acting Secretary, Chad Wolf, told officials to, quote, "cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference."

Instead, the acting secretary wanted these officials to actually play up the threat by China and Iran. That was determined by intelligence -- the intelligence community that Iran and China actually favor Biden over Trump in the upcoming election. Now, Chad Wolf allegedly put forth these -- put forth these push at the insistence of the National Security adviser, Robert O'Brien.

Now, in addition, Murphy is also claiming in this whistle-blower report that Cuccinelli and Chad Wolf tried to modify these intelligence assessments to really downplay the threat of white supremacist groups and instead, emphasized these leftist groups like Antifa. And of course, the president and the attorney general have repeatedly blamed leftist groups including Antifa for the unrest unraveling in this country.

Now, this has really set up alarm bells for the Intelligence chairman -- the House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, he's called this a danger to our nation, he's also called on this whistle-blower, Brian Murphy to come testify.

Now, in the meantime, DHS is saying that all of these allegations are patently untrue. But John, it really raises this question once again, are top Trump appointees really just trying to appease the president rather than following the intelligence and the facts here, John?

BERMAN: And to keep things from Congress and the American people. Jessica Schneider, thank you very much for being with us, I'm sure we would hear much more about this in the days ahead. The president's own director of National Intelligence worried that Vladimir Putin had something on Trump. Former FBI agent with firsthand knowledge of the Russia investigation joins us next.



CAMEROTA: So many startling claims in Bob Woodward's new book. One is that Dan Coats; the former director of National Intelligence long as suspected that Russia has some compromising information on President Trump. Here to discuss this and much more, we have former FBI agent Peter Strzok. His new book is called "Compromised: Counterintelligence And The Threat of Donald J. Trump". Mr. Strzok, nice to have you here.

This is fortuitous timing in terms of what has just been revealed in Bob Woodward's book and your book coming out at the same time because that's the premise of your book, is that President Trump is compromised somehow by Russia. Let me just read for you a portion from Bob Woodward's book.

It says "Dan Coats continued to harbor the secret belief, one that had grown, rather than lessened, although unsupported by Intelligence proof that Putin had something on Trump. There was no proof, period. But Coats' doubts continued, never fully dissipating how else to explain the president's behavior? Coats could see no other explanation." Since that's the premise of your book, what is the explanation?

PETER STRZOK, FORMER FBI CHIEF OF COUNTERESPIONAGE SECTION: Well, thanks for having me. Look, this is deeply concerning. That statement came from the man who is in charge of the U.S. government's intelligence community, who had access to every bit of information. Also somebody who worked as a United States senator from Indiana as a Republican.

And I can tell you that after 20 years of working counterintelligence cases, literally thousands and thousands of cases around the world and the United States, there's almost nobody I worked with who would disagree with that premise. So the concern is, this is not a partisan issue. This is a national security issue, and the problem is that the president of the United States, all these people, all these professionals are concerned that there's leverage held over him by the Russians.

CAMEROTA: But couldn't it be as simple as the President Trump wanted to build a Trump Tower in Moscow as we know, and in fact, his own son Eric Trump said, oh, where do we get all of our money? Oh, we get millions from Russia. I mean, it could have been that simple?

STRZOK: No, I don't think so. Look, the problem here is he's lying about it. It isn't what he's doing, it's the fact that he's concealing it. So, in the example you gave, when he is out on the campaign trail and he says I have no business dealings in Russia, at the very same moment, his personal attorney is pursuing that same deal in Moscow.

Well, he's just lied. The Russians and Vladimir Putin know it, Trump knows it, and the FBI knew it at the time. So as soon as he lies, to maintain that lie, that complicity in it, the Russians get leverage over him. And he knows that at any moment, Putin or anybody else can release that information and cause enormous damage to him.


That's what gives them leverage. It's not the fact of what he's doing, it's his concealment, and time and time again, this president has concealed things that the Russians likely know about and can use to coerce his behavior.

CAMEROTA: Do you think that if special counsel Robert Mueller had been more aggressive in his investigating or taken that investigation longer that we could have gotten to the bottom of this?

STRZOK: Well, I think what special counsel Mueller's mandate was is very limited. Now, the special counsel regulation, his appointment order speak to a discreet set of investigations that he did. And if you look at his record, I mean, nearly scores of people who are indicted and charged and prosecuted.

There's a bigger issue though here that's behind all this, and that's the counterintelligence investigation looking at the entirety of what Russia did. That was never a part of the special counsel's mandate, but it's absolutely critical that, that occurred.

Now, it may be going on right now in the FBI, I don't know that. If it is, I wouldn't expect to hear about it. But when you see the Senate Intelligence Committee release nearly a thousand pages signed off on by both Republicans and Democrats, that talk about this huge counterintelligence threat, it's clear that this is something that we absolutely cannot ignore and must be investigated.

CAMEROTA: OK, well, let's talk about what's going on right now because as you know, this whistle-blower has come forward about what he has told to do in terms of information about what Russia is doing right now and has done throughout 2016 until now.

And basically he says that the acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf told him to modify the information or basically sit on it because any information about Russia, he suggests upsets President Trump. So here's the whistle-blower's statement. "In mid May, 2020, Mr. Wolf instructed Mr. Murphy" -- Mr. Murphy is the whistle-blower, "to cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference in the U.S., and instead start reporting on interference activities by China and Iran."

You were trying to get to the bottom of what was happening in 2016. And I've heard you say that you think what's happening now is worse. How do you know? What is your evidence that the next two months here in the U.S. as we lead up to the next election are worse than what Russia was doing?

STRZOK: Well, look, we know that in 2016, the Russians were in a position to do things that they did not do. And that every expectation and what I've seen reported and stated from members of the U.S. Intelligence community is that not only did they return those techniques back into their quiver to hone and improve them to use again, but they're actively working right now.

In the case of the Russians, President Trump's own government, his own intelligence community has said that Russia is attempting to assist him in getting re-elected. As we talk at this moment, there are people in Russia watching social media, watching the press reporting about Americans, where the schism points are within our society. They're attacking our voting infrastructure, they're attacking our voter databases and all the hardware.

And on top of all the routine things that intelligence services do, those are the things that our administration right now has said that they're doing. It's only going to get worse, and I'm particularly concerned that at the time of the election, especially if we don't know the results around election night, that is going to present a prime target for the Russians to attack.

CAMEROTA: You were fired from the Mueller investigation after these texts came to light. The texts that Republicans and many people actually -- even outside of Congress have seized on is this exchange right here. So this is with Lisa Page. She says, "Trump's not ever going to become president, right? Right?" That's from August 2016. You say "no. No, he won't. We'll stop it."

And Republican lawmakers have suggested that, that showed some sort of grand plan to sabotage candidate Donald Trump before the election. I know in 2018, you testified that you couldn't remember what you were referring to in terms of the no, we'll stop it. Do you -- do you have any more context now about that?

STRZOK: Absolutely. I mean, this was an off the cuff comment made outside of any work context whatsoever. What's critical to notice throughout the time period of 2016, in the Summer and Fall, every single action that we took in the FBI -- that I took in the FBI, that came out in the public context ended up hurting candidate Clinton and helping the candidate at the time, Trump. Furthermore, there have been multiple investigations.

Two inspector general investigations, multiple U.S. attorneys who had looked into this matter and congressional committee after congressional committee, examining all of this. And everybody has concluded that my work and the work of the FBI was done objectively and without any basis of -- you know, anything based on personal political belief. And so I point people to the record and the facts.

CAMEROTA: People can read much more about your time and about what happened and your premise in "Compromised". Peter Strzok, thank you very much for being with us --

STRZOK: Great, thanks for having me.

CAMEROTA: All right. We have some stunning new audio of President Trump attempting to downplay the coronavirus and say what he really knew about it. NEW DAY continues now.