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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Interview With Tennessee Senator Bob Corker; Saudi Tensions; Hurricane Michael's Aftermath; America Pastor Freed in Turkey; Lawmakers Demand Trump Administration Reveal What They Knew, and When Regarding Threats to Reporter's Life. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired October 12, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: It's still literally business as usual between the Saudis and the house of Trump.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Turkey now claiming it has video evidence of a journalist being killed inside the Saudi Consulate. Is any American president ever going to be willing to pressure the Saudis?

Death and devastation across several states now. The death toll from Hurricane Michael now rising to more than a dozen, as some are returning home and finding nothing is there.

Plus: Trump TV. Talking over chopper blades to virtually co-hosting his favorite FOX News show, the president feeling really chatty lately. Why the media blitz, and can it backfire?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin today with our world lead. The Trump administration under intense pressure from Congress to send a stronger, decisive message to Saudi Arabia for its alleged role in the disappearance and possible murder of a "Washington Post" journalist.

A source telling CNN that Turkish officials told their American counterparts that they're in possession of video and audio evidence proving the execution of Jamal Khashoggi, a frequent critic of the Saudi regime, inside of the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

This comes as we're learning that, prior to his disappearance, U.S. intelligence officials intercepted Saudi communications about a plan to capture Khashoggi, according to "The Washington Post."

I asked the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, if that's true, why did the U.S. not warn Khashoggi? I was told, "No comment."

U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are demanding consequences for anyone involved. There has been a worldwide backlash, with various corporations and media organizations, including CNN, pulling their support and/or involvement in a major investment summit in Saudi Arabia at the end of this month led by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS.

As of now, the Trump administration still plans on participating. They're sending Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

CNN White House correspondent Boris Sanchez joins me now live from Lebanon, Ohio, where President Trump will speak in a little bit.

Boris, the White House has invested a great deal in its relationship with MBS, with the Saudi regime. And, frankly, the White House doesn't seem eager to talk about this.


President Trump not answering reporters' questions as he left the White House on his way to Ohio. Unclear if he's going to mention Jamal Khashoggi here in his rally in Lebanon or if he's going to repeat his common refrain, his attacks on journalists and the media, something that has become a staple at these events.

One thing the president is likely to mention, though, the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson, that American that had been imprisoned in Turkey, something that the White House had long pressed for, his release, and something that will likely rile up the president's evangelical base.


SANCHEZ (voice-over): As the world focuses on the possible killing of a "Washington Post" journalist in Turkey, allegedly at the hands of U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, President Trump is celebrating the release of American Pastor Andrew Brunson from Turkish custody.

Trump tweeting -- quote -- "My thoughts and prayers are with Pastor Brunson, and we hope to have him safely back home soon," then tweeting, "Pastor Brunson, just released, will be home soon."

Brunson's release comes at a peculiar time, when Turkey is ratcheting up pressure on Saudi Arabia to show evidence that journalist Jamal Khashoggi is still alive. Saudi Arabia has denied any involvement in the disappearance of Khashoggi, a frequent critic of that country's leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who welcomed Trump on his first trip abroad as president and has since maintained close relations with son-in-law Jared Kushner.

QUESTION: Are you concerned about the Saudi journalist?

SANCHEZ: This week, the president has been asked several times about Khashoggi.


SANCHEZ: Despite mounting evidence the journalist was killed, Trump is still not pointing the finger at Saudi Arabia.

QUESTION: Is Saudi Arabia responsible? TRUMP: We will have to find out who did it. But people saw him go

in, but they didn't see him come out, as they understand it. And we're going to take a very serious look at it. It's a terrible thing.

SANCHEZ: The president's focus, a major arms deal with Saudi Arabia, with Republicans and Democrats in Congress are now potentially blocking.

TRUMP: That would be hurting us. We have jobs. We have a lot of things happening in this country. Frankly, I think that that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country.


SANCHEZ: And while more than a dozen global business leaders and prominent organizations, including CNN, pulled out of an upcoming conference hosted by the Saudi crown prince, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin says he will attend.

STEVEN MNUCHIN, U.S. TREASURY SECRETARY: I am planning on going at this point. If more information comes out and changes, we could look at that. But I am planning on going.


SANCHEZ: And, Jake, a quick note about the president's schedule for early next week. He tweeted out this afternoon that he would be visiting areas affected by Hurricane Michael in Georgia and Florida, tweeting out to residents of those areas -- quote -- "We are with you" -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Boris Sanchez with the president in Ohio.

CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon has been digging into this mystery.

She us joins us now live from Istanbul, Turkey.

Arwa, have the Turks presented any of this audio and video evidence they have told U.S. officials they have that would prove that this journalist was, in fact, murdered in the Saudi consulate?


But information that we have been able to obtain about the contents of these video and audio recordings is, to say the least, quite chilling.


DAMON (voice-over): Turkish authorities are claiming they have audio and video recordings from within the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul which prove "Washington Post" columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside.

That's according to a source familiar with the investigation who was briefed by Western intelligence. In the recordings, the source says that you can hear the assault,the struggle that took place, and that there is also evidence of the moment Khashoggi was murdered.

The existence of these tapes would explain why Turkey was quick to blame Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi's killing and that the U.S.' working assumption is that he was murdered in the consulate, according to a U.S. official.

The BBC also released audio of an off-air conversation they had with Khashoggi, a former Saudi royal insider turned critic, three days before his disappearance.

QUESTION: When do you think you might be able to go home again?

JAMAL KHASHOGGI, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I don't think I will be able -- I don't think I will be able to go home.

QUESTION: Do you put out some feelers every now and again, test the temperature or...

KHASHOGGI: See, when I hear of an arrest of a friend who did nothing worth to be arrested, it make me feel I shouldn't go.

DAMON: Turkish authorities have identified 15 Saudi men as persons of interest. Only hours before Khashoggi went missing, several of them were caught on camera arriving in Istanbul.

Saudi officials have denied any involvement in the disappearance of Khashoggi.

But, on Capitol Hill, there are bipartisan calls for actions.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R), ILLINOIS: It's disgusting, and especially if the accusation of killing, dismembering his body, there needs to be some consequences.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: I think sanctions should be applied under the Magnitsky Act if the evidence supports what we believe took place inside that embassy.

DAMON: But the Trump administration has been hesitant to blame Saudi Arabia, especially Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is reportedly close with the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

JOHN BOLTON, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I think the Saudis themselves are being damaged because we don't have the facts out.

DAMON: And as far as getting those facts, the State Department says they are waiting on a report from the Saudi ambassador.

HEATHER NAUERT, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: My understanding is that he's on his way back there. We said, when you come back, we would like to hear -- get a report from you.


DAMON: And, of course, Jake, we're also waiting to hear back on what, if anything, comes out of this joint Turkey-Saudi Arabia working group.

TAPPER: All right, Arwa Damon, thank you so much.

Joining me now is the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who said he thinks that the Saudis likely murdered Khashoggi.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: Thank you, Jake. Always good to be with you.

TAPPER: So, I don't know of any U.S. official who has actually heard the audio evidence or seen the video evidence that the Turkish government says it has. Do you believe the Turks have this evidence, and is the Senate demanding to see it?

CORKER: Well, sure.

I think, typically what happens, Jake, is when we get raw data like that, when the intelligence agencies and the U.S. get that, it takes them a day or two to go through it and try to validate that it's real.

We have a staffer in Washington -- you know I'm in Tennessee today -- who is obviously checking periodically throughout the day to see if we have received anything. To our knowledge, we don't know that we have. But that -- typically, again, it takes a little while for the intel agencies to go through it and make sure it's a valid input.

TAPPER: "The Washington Post" reports that the U.S. picked up intercepts of Saudis talking about capturing Khashoggi ahead of time. Do you know anything about this? Did the U.S. try to warn him?

CORKER: Well, Jake, you're getting into an area that, yes, I do know a lot about. I have read intel reports.

And, sometimes -- let me just create a scenario. Sometimes, when something happens like this, we can then go back and look at old reels where we have had intercepts, and we can find out things.


And so as to -- and I just really can't say. I know what I know through intelligence. I think much of the reporting that has been out there has been pretty valid. As it relates to this one piece, as to whether we're getting these tapes from the Turks, again, I can't verify. And I just don't want to say anything else about it.

Everything I have seen does point to the Saudis. I do believe that likely, unfortunately, this journalist has been murdered. If he was somehow taken to another site, you know, they can produce him.

I know that everybody has demarched them to get us the information, to get this, if it's not true, to get their name cleared, the country's name cleared. But, at this point, Jake, it looks to me like the Saudi government has caused this person to perish. TAPPER: Should Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and the Trump

administration pull out of this Saudi investment conference that's going to be held later this month that many media organizations and corporations have pulled out of?

CORKER: Yes, so I saw this -- his quotes this morning because of this program I'm doing with you. I saw the quotes this morning about, you know, the fact that he's planning to go, unless he finds out other detrimental information about what may have occurred.

It's still, what, 10 to two weeks -- 10 days to two weeks away. My guess is, if they get a pretty valid indication that they have -- that Saudis did this -- that the Saudis did this, then hopefully he would pull out. I would hope he would not go.

But, you know, we have got a little time between now and then for him to know more fully what has occurred. Let's let a few more days play out here. Unfortunately, what I think a few more days will do is more fully prove that Saudi was involved. But let's see.

Maybe we're all mistaken. It sure does not look that way at present. And then let's figure out the steps we might take to punish them. This guy is 33 years old. He's going to be around for a long time. Obviously, he's created a vision for Saudi Arabia that many people have bought into.

But, at 33, you can't be going around for the next 30, 40, 50 years killing journalists. We need to make sure that the international community, not just the United States, reacts firmly, if, in fact, we believe he's done this.

TAPPER: You're referring, of course, to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the Trump administration has heralded as a reformer.

Of course, the reality is, he has conducted a campaign of silencing critics at home, including dissidents. Do you think the U.S., and particularly the Trump administration, has put too much stock in MBS?

CORKER: Well, they have certainly put a lot of stock in him.

And, Jake, if you were to meet him and sit down, you would be really impressed with everything that he says as far as where he would like to take the country. And, as you know, he's now allowing women to drive. He's opened up movie theaters for the first time in 30 years. He plans to diversify away from fossil fuels.

And so all of that is very, very impressive. But, as you mentioned, they basically turned the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh into a detention and torture facility. They basically extorted billions and billions and billions of dollars out of anybody that had opposed them, and maybe they had gotten that corruptly. I don't know.

But he is ruthless. I mean, the fact is, he's ruthless. I know you know right after the president was there with the summit that occurred right after he was elected, they then turned on Qatar. That created a lot of consternation in the region and lack of unity. But he is a ruthless leader. And, again, what he does inside his

country is one thing, and shouldn't be happening, of course. But what he does outside the country with journalists, journalists that work for U.S. companies like "The Washington Post" or anyone else, if, in fact, they did order his execution, obviously, we -- they need to pay a large price for that, a very large price.

TAPPER: Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, thanks so much for your time, sir.

CORKER: Thank you. Thank you very much.

TAPPER: So, oil, money, power, a possible murder, the White House caught in a tough spot. We're going to talk to a former spy about all of this next.

Stay with us.


[16:18:14] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back.

Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill demanding more transparency from the Trump administration about what they knew and when regarding Saudi government threats to the life of "Washington Post" journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, who has disappeared.

Let's discuss.

Phil Mudd, we should point out, in addition to having once worked for the CIA, you did some work for the Saudi interior ministry after leaving government, just to disclose that. You've been in the intel game for a long time.

What do you think happened and why? Would MBS really take this huge risk, just to silence a critic who writes for the "Washington Post"?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Sure. Did you watch the Arab spring and what the U.S. response was to the Arab spring? The Americans said to our allies, including the Egyptians, hey, we support democracy. If that topples dictators, it's fine.

The Saudis looked at that and said, really? What if it happens to us? So I think the Saudis look at us as a sort of ally, but they know what would happen if there were unrest there. And they also know what happened during that round of unrest after 2011, again, the Arab spring.

And they're saying, you might view him as an oppositionist, Khashoggi, who lives in the United States. He's a threat to somebody like a 33- year-old crown prince who says, I want to be around for another 50 years. I think this could have happened. I think there's a lot of information I would like to see. For example, American intelligence corroborates what the Turks have said and stuff you find boring. I want to go back five years, three years, two years, and look at the

travel patterns of the individuals who appear to have gone to Turkey for this operation and see if they went any place else and see if anybody died after they went any place else. There is a lot of intel you can put around this in addition to what the Turks provide.

TAPPER: Oh, interesting.

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: I mean, since you mentioned the Arab spring, one of the places we encouraged democratic change was Egypt. That ended up going in the direction we weren't thrilled with and there is a coup. Sisi takes over and is there any pressure on Sisi now not to locking up journalists he's locking up, not to continue his authoritarian rule.

[16:20:01] So, I think the lesson people like MBS have taken, and they have taken this from opposition with regard to the Chinese government, which is conducting an unbelievable sort of quasi-genocide against the Uyghur in west China, is that, you know, if we provide some -- something useful, oil, counterterrorism Cooperation, we can get away with a lot. It's a terrible signal to send, because people keep escalating and more and more dictators decide that's the way to go.

But I do think someone like MBS may have taken that lesson from the Trump administration in particular, which is particularly unconcerned about human rights. The Obama administration didn't exactly -- Bush was more interested in human rights.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Moral leadership --

KRISTOL: Put more at stake on that, the most. But you can criticize U.S. policy for a lot of years, but Trump in particular with a clear just explicit disregard for anything like human rights.

TAPPER: Except -- Mary Katharine, take a listen to Senator Lindsey Graham talking about this issue.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I want everybody in the world to know who we are when it comes to events like this. And I want everybody to understand that if you're an ally of the United States, because we have strategic interest, that you don't have a blank check to do anything you would like. This is a game-changer for me.


TAPPER: Do you think it actually -- I hate to use the term game- changer. It's such a horrific cliche. But do you think it is a game- changer? I have to say, like, that interception of what the United States stands for is nice in theory, but that's not the reality.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No. Much respect to senator graham. I would like the world in which we are standing for moral precepts and making that stand, but that's not exactly how the relationship with Saudi Arabia has been for a long time. It's not what the president is particularly interested in now.

And then you have a couple of other considerations. One, the Saudis as a counter to Iran in the region. You have the hope -- not from totally nothing, despite these other bad actions that there might be modernization in the future, probably now dashed by this. And then the issue that Jared Kushner is personally close to him and they have praised Trump and treated him well on his visit, which does, as we know, change how Trump reacts to things.

But using consulates for murder of dissidents is not something that allies or people who want to be accepted by the modern community in the world --

MUDD: I mean, can you tell me what Senator Graham is talking about? This is a president who has said I love Kim Jong-un, who murdered an American citizen. I want to call both the Turks -- the Turkish president and Putin, despite the advice of my national security community and say, congratulations on fundamentally flawed elections.

And then a guy who evidently still believes in Santa Claus, Senator Graham, comes out and says, now this human rights violation will fundamentally change the way America operates and the president thinks. The evidence says otherwise.

KRISTOL: Yes, but you can act separately from the president.

TAPPER: Let me bring in, Kirsten, because -- I mean, the Saudis, with a bomb that the United States gave them, or sold them, killed a school bus full of Yemeni children in August.


TAPPER: Why is that OK, and -- not you.

POWERS: Well, yeah. I don't know why this would be the line, right? And that doesn't make sense, because Saudi Arabia has been highly problematic. I mean, the religious police locked a bunch of school girls and let them burn to death because they weren't wearing their proper dress to leave. I mean, these are the kinds of things that happen in that country and we continue to have relationships with them.

By the way, I don't know if people think China is a really wonderful place for human rights, and why, because we have economic relationships with them. But I do think the idea originally of these relationships also was constructive engagement -- at least with China, and hopefully with Saudi Arabia.

TAPPER: Try to improve them. Try to bring them along.

POWERS: And the fact that they also are dependent on us to a certain extent, and try to get some kind of improvement. And, you know, yes, now women can drive. By the way, he's also jailing all the women's rights activists. They're charging them with crimes. So --

TAPPER: Do you think Jared Kushner and by extension President Trump got played by MBS?

KRISTOL: Well, got played, yes. But I think Kushner is a huge problem. The U.S. government has policies that are soft inside Saudi Arabia than I would like. But the government would have a mixture of reaction to State Department, and so forth.

Kushner's personal closeness to MBS is apparent, constant contacts with him, which are offline. I mean, they talk on the phone. This isn't secretary of state talking to someone senior inside Saudi Arabia. It could be discussed in the government. Is it wise to be this forthcoming?

Kushner is having private conversations, his private business relationships with Saudi Arabia. So I think Kushner is a huge part of the problem and works in the White House as a staffer. So, guess what, he can't, I suppose, testify to Congress about it.

TAPPER: What do you think? Is the Trump administration being played? Did Jared Kushner fall in love too quickly with MBS?

MUDD: Well, we're being played, because we want to be played. We're selling billions of dollars of arms. We know a country that talks a good game about human rights. I mean, I lived in Saudi Arabia for a while.

You don't want to live there. It is not a lot of fun. Never went to a movie when I lived in Riyadh. It's a difficult place.

I know they're trying to reform.

[16:25:00] But I think they know what to talk to us about. I think the White House took that bait. But, again, for years, and this goes beyond the Trump administration, we have said, we'll turn a blind eye if you can spend tens of billions of dollars on weapons.

I'll close by saying, the only down side of that is, we typically aren't as blunt as the president is saying, despite the fact that you murdered somebody, we're going to still sell you those weapons. We can have it both ways. We can sell and we can also squeeze. I don't see the squeeze from the president.

TAPPER: No. President Trump --

KRISTOL: The personal relationship is going to be house of Trump and the house of Saud, makes this particularly bad in this case.

TAPPER: And to your point, President Trump has been harsher about Taylor Swift than he has about MBS.

Stick around, everyone.

Hurricane Michael flattened parts of the Gulf Coast and is now killing people hundreds of miles from the Florida Panhandle. The rising death toll and shock setting in for the survivors, live in the disaster zone, next. Stay with us.


TAPPER: The catastrophic situation caused by Hurricane Michael is getting worse now. The death toll is at 13 and keeps going up. There were five deaths in the commonwealth of Virginia alone, where floodwaters took over entire neighborhoods. More than 1 million people across seven states do not currently have power.

Then there are scenes like this one in Mexico beach, Florida, where the hurricane made landfall. It's one of several towns along the Florida Panhandle that has been decimated.