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FBI Scrutinizing Kushner Meeting; Russia Discussed Trump and Associates; Cohen Not Cooperating with Committees; White House Press Briefing. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired May 30, 2017 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Now been asked to cooperate with House and Senate Intelligence Committee investigators. I contacted Michael Cohen over the phone. He said that that is true, he has been requested to provide information and testimony to those committees. He respectfully declined to cooperate he said to me over the phone and described the investigation as a rush to judgement and went on to say that not a single piece of credible evidence, in his view, has been put forward to corroborate what he called the Russian narrative. And so another person connected to the president, connected to the campaign has now been ensnared in this investigation. And, of course, that list of names just keeps growing.

Now, at the same time, there is also a whiff of a staff shakeup here at the White House. The communications director, Michael Dubke, confirmed to reporters earlier this morning that he's stepping aside, that he tendered his resignation on May 18th. No final date on when he's going to be ultimately leaving the White House. But that, obviously, leaves a role to fill. It's an important position inside the West Wing. And we're hearing a lot of talk, a lot of buzz about perhaps a return of some old faces from the campaign. Corey Lewandowsky, the former campaign manager, David Bossi (ph), former deputy campaign manager. Brooke, they were spotted outside the White House and they've been talked about in terms of being part of this war room rapid response team that's being propped up both inside the White House and among the president's outside supporters.

And so a lot to discuss for Sean Spicer and just going by the way things have been going, he might get a note during the middle of this briefing advising him that there are other things to talk about. So we'll have to see how this plays out. But it will be good to see an on camera briefing in all of this, Brooke, because in all seriousness, I was on that foreign trip, eight or nine days. We did not get a presidential news conference. Got very few briefings by top officials. And those briefings that we did get were off camera. And so it is comforting to see this White House put somebody forward on camera, on the record, to take questions from us.


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: It has been a minute since we have seen Sean Spicer's face and doing a formal briefing. We look forward to it as well. Jim Acosta, I'll be listening in, especially for your questions. A long list of issues to address. We'll stand by for that. Thank you.


BALDWIN: Let me bring in now Dana Bash to begin with your reporting that indicates that Russians discussed this derogatory information of a financial nature. Do we know any more about that?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: We don't have specifics on, for example, who in the Trump world and the Trump organization they were focused on. The derogatory information, as you said, the fact that it was financial information, yes, and that it was Russians talking amongst each other. But I should also tell you that, as you were going on the air, our colleague, Simon Prokupecz, just reported the following, which is a little bit different from what we reported, but yet another layer of information about Jared Kushner. And I'll tell you what he said. He said that the FBI is scrutinizing meetings Jared Kushner held with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. and a follow- up meeting that he had with a Russian banker. And what they're looking at specifically, according to Shimon's excellent reporting, is the different explanations given from Kushner's world, which is that he was doing his job as somebody who was focusing on foreign policy as his portfolio, and from the bank, the Russian bank, saying, no, no, no, we were talking to him about his role as, at the time, still the head of the Kushner organization of Kushner enterprises basically that - excuse me, Kushner Companies is the exact word and that Jared Kushner was then the head of it. So the differing explanations, according to Shimon's sources, is one of the things, one of the many things, it seems, that the FBI is looking at in this broad investigation.

BALDWIN: And just a quick follow up on that, since the readout of the two meetings from the bank and then with sources with knowledge of the meetings, it's two entirely different things. You know, one is that it was - as you point out, on business, and the other was talking about Syria and why - you know, one of the questions is, why the heck would Jared Kushner, you know, after having to talk to the ambassador of Russia, you know, talk to this Russian banker, this buddy of Vladimir Putin's, about Syria?

BASH: I don't know the answer to that and I think we all - that's clearly one of the things that the Russian investigators are going at.


BASH: If you listen to the explanation of sort of now White House sources, the idea was that this - that this banker is not just a banker. He is somebody who is incredibly close to Vladimir Putin and perhaps it was a way to get a - get a message to the Russian leader by somebody who the Russian leader trusts and is a confidant of his.

Having said that, you know, that is - that is a - you know, kind of getting from point a to point b without really knowing the truth.


BASH: And, again, it is that truth that the FBI is trying to figure out as we speak.


Off of that, Steve Hall, I know I've got you, our CNN national security analyst. You're a retired CIA chief of Russia operations.

[14:05:05] I mean to my question and to Dana's answer on, you know, this meeting with Jared Kushner and this, you know, compound of Putin's and might this have, you know, been an opportunity to get a message to Vladimir Putin, although we can't make that leap without facts, and also to Dana's reporting on this derogatory information that they apparently pulled. Your thoughts?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: The meeting with - with the Russian banker, with the head of EEB Bank, is interesting and I can only think of two possible options for it. The first is, you know, we've heard a lot of information being thrown around about, you know, Kushner looking for back channels. The Trump administration looking or - you know, before its inauguration looking for back channels. And, of course, somebody like the head of this bank, who was indeed close to Putin - I'm not sure exactly how close, but he is a former intelligence officer having gone through the FSB's training facility, their training school. So it's clearly - clearly there's a connection there. And was just Kushner looking for another way to start some sort of communication with the Kremlin prior to the - to the inauguration? That's one option.

The other thing - and I think it's actually a bit more troubling, to me at least, is, Kushner's, of course, first and foremost a New York businessman who's had ties and business with Russia. So was this some sort of - I don't know, was there a business angle to this? Was there something more than just him acting as a member of the Trump team? And where did those overlap and was there any conflict of interest there or an appearance of conflict of interest? So those are all things that I'm sure that folks are trying to get to the bottom of, guys like, you know, the congressional folks who are investigating this and Mueller as well.

BALDWIN: Yes, and I - just, Steven, on your note on back channeling, I was talking to Evan McMullin yesterday, former CIA, who appropriately corrected me. I think back channel even softens it. I think, you know, it was direct communications, right, with the Kremlin, not just a simple back channel. And the question also being, well, why not wait the 40 days or whatever amount of time it was between the meeting and that inauguration?

HALL: Yes.

BALDWIN: Let's put that on hold. That's an issue we know that will be addressed in this White House briefing.

Gloria Borger, let me bring you in, because, you know, we have - I know you have all this amazing reporting, but let me first ask you about the fact that we've just learned that the president's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, as Jim was telling us, you know, is refusing to cooperate with the House and Senate committees during - in this investigation as it's now widening. Your take on that?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, Michael Cohen is somebody who's very close to Donald Trump. He has worked for him for more than a decade as a personal lawyer, lawyer for the Trump Organization, really. And I think what he is saying today is that they're on a fishing expedition with him and people on the Intelligence Committees would argue that they are not. But as - since he is saying, you know, this is too broad, I wouldn't be surprised if they started to narrow their requests so that they can't be seen as, you know, fishing for anything with Cohen.

We also know that Cohen is close to Trump. He's been involved in helped to set up the legal team representing the president in this 00 in this Russia investigation. So, you know, you cannot discount the closeness between these two men. They are good friends and one is very, very loyal to the other. And so I think the committee may go back and try and narrow its request before they get into some sort of a war with Michael Cohen. We'll have to see.

BALDWIN: We'll see that. And, also, you have this incredible reporting here on the president's state of mind. Not only, you know, news - making news but state of mind. One quote from someone who talks to Trump, quote, "he now lives within himself, which is a dangerous place for Donald Trump to be. I see him emotionally withdrawing."

I want to ask you all about that and we'll take the briefing live in just a couple of minutes. Stay with me.


[14:10:51] BALDWIN: All right, let's go live to the White House. Sean Spicer walking out. Been the first time he's been behind that podium in 15 days. Lots to tackle.

SPICER: Good afternoon. I hope you all had the opportunity to pay your respects to the brave men and women who have given their lives for our freedom yesterday on Memorial Day.

I want to begin by recapping the incredible, historic trip that the president and the first lady have just concluded, because it truly was an extraordinary week for America and our people. In just nine days the president traveled across Europe and the Middle East and interacted with nearly 100 foreign leaders.

It was an unprecedented first trip abroad, just four months into this administration. And it shows how quickly and decisively the president is acting to strengthen alliances, to form new partnerships and to rebuild America's standing in the world.

We've never seen before at this point in a presidency such sweeping reassurance of American interests and the inauguration of a foreign policy strategy designed to bring back the world from growing dangers and perpetual disasters brought on by years of failed leadership.

President Trump started in Saudi Arabia, beginning his first foreign trip as president in the nation that's the custodian to the two holiest sites in the Islamic faith.

The president was greeted on the tarmac by the King of Saudi of Arabia and received with incredible graciousness by the kingdom and its leaders throughout his stay.

The president's address to the leaders of more than 50 Arab and Muslim nations was a historic turning point that people will be talking about for many years to come.

He did exactly as he promised is -- in his inaugural address -- he united the civilized world in the fight against terrorism and extremism.

The president was very direct in calling on the leaders of the region to drive out the terrorists and the extremists from their midsts, and to isolate the Iranian regime that supports so much of this violence.

He let American allies know exactly what they can expect from us going forward. What he called, quote, "A principled realism rooted in common values and shared interest."

He laid out the case in persuasive detail for why the Muslim world must take the lead in combating radicalization.

And he concluded by saying that if those nations go forward, quote, "unified and determined to do what it takes to destroy the terror that threatens our world, then there is no limit to the great future our -- our citizens will have."

The president's historic speech was met with nearly universal praise. Former CIA Director Jim Woolsey called it, quote, "A courageous speech." Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in The Washington Post that we have to look back decades to, quote, "find a comparatively dramatic moment in the history of U.S. foreign policy."

And former Democratic Representative Jane Harman said that she, quote, "loved the idea that he's going to the fount of all three major religions." Countless Arab allies also praised the president's leadership on this visit. President el-Sisi of Egypt said that President Trump is, quote, "A unique personality that is capable of doing the impossible."

The Saudi Foreign Minister said that, quote, "This is the beginning of a turning point in the relationship between the United States and the Arab and Islamic world."

King Salman and other key allies also gave extraordinary praise -- extraordinary speeches at the summit, underscoring just how much President Trump has done to rally the world against terrorism.

We cannot overlook the significance of so many leaders of Muslim countries coming together to recognize the need to fight extremists.

This was a historic event in that regard alone. King Salman said he shares the president's determination to, quote, "renounce extremism and work on countering terrorism in all its forms and manifestations." King Abdullah of Jordan agreed that, quote, "The grave challenges of terrorism and extremism demands coordination and global action at every level." He stated that, quote, "We are all accountable for our commitment to fight radicalization in all of its forms."

The visit also included historic economic development deals for the United States, totaling well over half a trillion dollars and the creation of tens of thousands of American jobs.

These deals include an immediate $110 billion investment which will grow to $350 billion over the next 10 years in defense cooperation from Saudi Arabia that will further enable Muslim troops to take on a greater role in fighting terrorism.

The president also participated in the launch of a new task force to block terror funding in the Gulf, the opening of a new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, and more than 30 commercial deals that include companies like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, G.E., Dow, Honeywell, Emerson, Alcoa, and Cisco, among others, that will result in an additional $270 billion of Saudi investment in American businesses and American jobs.

The president then went to Israel, where he was received with incredible warmth. He strengthened America's unbreakable bonds with Israel, made the first-ever visit by a sitting American president to the Western Wall, and gave a highly praised address at the Israel Museum as part of a continuing effort to rally nations together in the fight against terrorism and common enemies.

The moving address spoke of a future in which, quote, "children around the world will be able to live without fear, to dream without limits, and to prosper without violence." He said, "I ask this land of promise to join me in fighting -- and fight our common enemies, to pursue our shared values, and to protect the dignity of every child of God."

The president also visited Yad Vashem to memorialize -- to memorialize the victims of the Holocaust and to pledge never again.

The president met with both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas to advocate for a renewed push for peace, which they both agreed they were prepared to work towards. He also discussed with both leaders how to increase cooperation against terrorism.

Prime Minister Netanyahu said, quote, "For the first time in my life, I see real hope for change." And a correspondent from one of the leading Israel publications wrote that, quote, "In the short space of three days, Trump carried out a semi-revolution."

From Israel, the president traveled to Rome where he met with Pope Francis at the Vatican. They had a very productive conversation about combating ISIS and other terrorist groups, protecting religious liberty, and numerous other issues. The president and the first lady were incredibly honored by the visit. The president then attended the NATO summit in Brussels, where he boldly stood up for American taxpayers and our common defense by calling on other NATO countries to pay their fair share in a speech delivered with the leaders of NATO's -- of all of NATO's countries all present. Hard-working Americans saw a leader represent them and their security on the international stage.

The president also urged NATO to adapt the alliance to more effectively combat terrorism. Later in the meeting, the member states unanimously agreed on those two priorities and the secretary general was extremely complimentary of the president's work to dramatically strengthen the alliance by getting member states to increase their contributions.

Finally, the president traveled to the G-7 summit in Sicily, where he and other leaders discussed how to better promote prosperity and security for each of their countries. Those meetings were marked by outstanding success that we see reflected in the communique that was issued.

They include a strong statement that G-7 nations will stand against unfair trade practices, and a commitment to fostering a true level playing field. The G-7 leaders also endorsed the right of sovereign nations to control their borders and endorsed in that communique the policy outlined by President Trump to seek resettlement of refugees as close as possible to their home countries so that they can be part of an eventual rebuilding.

This language on migration and refugees was a major shift in policy towards the shift of the president. The G-7 formally also condemned the use of chemical weapons, and needless to say, the president's leadership was critical in setting those priorities for the nation.

In addition, the president also met with Prime Minister Abe of Japan. The two agreed on the need for enhanced sanctions with respect to North Korea. The president concluded his trip with an address to the servicemembers and their families at Naval Air Station Sigonella to thank them for their service on Memorial Day weekend, and to deliver another strong message about the unity in the fight against terrorism.

Then yesterday, President Trump spoke at Arlington National Cemetery for Memorial Day services and visited the gravesites of many of our fallen heroes. This was an extraordinarily successful and historic nine-day trip the president took. He accomplished the return of a strong America to international affairs, rallied civilized nations of the world against terrorism, took real steps towards peace in the Middle East and renewed our alliances on the basis of both shared interests and shared burdens.

The trip sets the stage for a much more safe and prosperous nation here at home and a more peaceful world for all.

We're back at home now and the president and his Cabinet are moving full steam ahead on the president's agenda. As the president noted this weekend, his plan for the most significant tax reform in decades continues to progress, led by Secretary Mnuchin and NEC Director Cohn. While the president was away, the team here held several meetings with members and leadership, in particular Secretary Mnuchin met separately with the House Ways and Means Committee, Republican and Democrat members, the Freedom Caucus, and the Republican Study Committee.

SPICER: The vice president also discussed tax reform with multiple members and with leadership during his regular visits to Capitol Hill.

We'll begin holding industry listening sessions next week, providing an opportunity for business leaders and job creators to give us their inputs on what reforms are necessary to allow us to grow jobs and the economy.

This morning, the president met with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Pruitt. One of the topics that they discussed of course was the president's upcoming decision on the Paris Climate Accords.

As I've told you overseas, this is the subject that the president is spending a great deal of time on, and one that he spoke to the G7 members about during their meetings.

Ultimately, he wants a fair deal for the American people and he will have an announcement coming on that shortly.

Also today, the president's trade representative, Ambassador Robert Lighthizer, is having several meetings with representatives from Vietnamese -- from the Vietnamese government including the prime minister and the trade minister ahead of tomorrow's visit between the president and the prime minister.

U.S. trade representative will have readouts on those meetings available for you this afternoon. Ambassador Lighthizer will also be speaking at the Chamber of Commerce gala this evening for the Vietnamese prime minister. That speech should be available via the U.S. Chamber's Facebook page.

During his speech, Ambassador Lighthizer will highlight the developments from our bilateral relationships with Vietnam over the past two decades while underscoring the work ahead in addressing the challenges presented by the recent sharp increase in our trade deficit with Vietnam.

As the president has made abundantly clear, trade deficits and unfair trade practices have disproportionately hit American workers. Through a robust and varied trade agenda, this administration is strengthening our important relationships with partners like Vietnam by leveling the playing field with American -- with American -- for American businesses throughout the world. And with that, I'll take your questions. Bill (ph)?

QUESTION: Yes, so the issue with the Russia probe, I'm wondering, Sean, if you can tell us when the president knew -- whether the president knew at the time that Jared Kushner was seeking to establish backchannel communications at the Russian embassy to the Russian government. And if he didn't know at the time, when did he find out?

SPICER: I think that assumes a lot, and I would just say that Mr. Kushner's attorney has said that Mr. Kushner has volunteered to share with Congress what he knows about these meetings, and he will do the same if he's contacted in -- and connected with any other inquiry.

QUESTION: Did the president discuss it though?

SPICER: I'm not going to get into what the president did or did not discuss but -- what your question assumes is a lot of facts that are not substantiated by anything but anonymous sources that are so far being leaked out.

QUESTION: Does he approve of that action?

SPICER: Again, you're -- you're asking if he approves of an action that is not a confirmed action.

That being said, I think Secretary Kelly and General McMaster have both discussed that, in general terms, backchannels are an appropriate part of diplomacy.

QUESTION: But does the White House dispute that that happened?

SPICER: I'm not going to get into it but -- but your question presupposes facts that have not been confirmed.

QUESTION: Thank you, Sean.

But the president retweeted this morning an article about that backchannel that was based on an anonymous source, that said that there was an effort to set up a backchannel, that it was the Russians who suggested that, and that it was to talk about Syria. Was the president not confirming that that effort -- that there was an effort in the fact that I just said...


SPICER: I think what I just said speaks for itself.

QUESTION: But he was -- but you said that, first of all, that the article was based on anonymous sources.

SPICER: Which it is.

QUESTION: But the Fox article that the president retweeted was also based on anonymous sources. Why are those sources -- or the source, rather, that they used more credible than the ones in The Washington Post article?

SPICER: Again, I don't -- I don't think -- there's two issues at hand. One is, the statement that Jared's attorney has provided. Second is whether or not -- the action -- the dossier that is largely the basis of this was largely discredited in the first place. Most of the publications here refused to even publish it in the first place. So again, I'm not going to get into confirming stuff; there's an ongoing investigation.

John? Zeke (ph) -- I'm sorry.

QUESTION: Thank you, Sean.

I have two questions. First, the president, for the second time in a month, retweeted his desire for the Senate to reduce the votes to pass anything to 51 which would effectively scuttle the filibuster for legislation as it has been scuttled for nominations. Is this something he discussed with Majority Leader McConnell or any of the Senate leadership before he tweeted it?

SPICER: I think the concerns that he's had with the pace of the Senate has been longstanding. Obviously the use of the filibuster and the rules of the Senate are ultimately up to Senator McConnell. But I think that the frustration that he's had with the pace of some of the legislation, some of the obstructionist tactics that Democrats have employed, whether it's his -- his Cabinet nominees or other pieces of legislation has been well -- well documented.

QUESTION: But he wants to scrap the filibuster entirely is what...

SPICER: I think he wants to see action done, John. That's what the president wants. Whether it's the delays the Democrats posed to his cabinet nominees or pieces of legislation, he wants action. This president was elected to get things done and he's -- he wants to see things moved through the House and the Senate, especially when you've got a majority of support and people to stop playing games.

Zeke (ph)?

QUESTION: My second question, I did want to mention that before he left to go abroad, the president praised Philippine President Duterte for his action against drug dealers, dealing with them. Various human rights groups have condemned President Duterte saying, that a lot of the executions of drug dealers have been done without trial. Does the president stand by his words of praise for the Philippine president?

SPICER: I think the president recognizes the need to combat drugs, but he also believes in human rights. That's something that he's worked with several countries, and that's one of the reasons that he's reviewing the Cuba policy, et cetera. He wants -- human rights is something that's very strong to him, it's something that he's discussed in private with several countries.

Zeke (ph)?

QUESTION: Tomorrow's the deadline for (inaudible) Obama waiver (inaudible). Does -- has the president made the decision whether or not to sign the (inaudible) waiver.


QUESTION: (inaudible) be made in the next 24 hours, typically?

SPICER: When the president has a decision to make, he'll -- we'll let you know. QUESTION: (inaudible) the ISIS review as well as the Afghanistan review.

SPICER: Right.

QUESTION: What -- what is the status of those? You mentioned (inaudible).

SPICER: I think on the Afghanistan review, he's still reviewing that from his -- from the Department of Defense. When we have an announcement, we'll let you know.

Sarah (ph)?

QUESTION: Thanks, Sean. Has the president viewed (ph) on Sunday that he thinks Republicans should quote, "Add more dollars to healthcare and make it the best anywhere." What did he mean by that?

SPICER: Well, there's a lot of savings that are coming out of the repeal-and-replace effort right now. I think we're at $119 billion that we saved through the president's efforts. And I think the healthcare has been something that the president has been very clear on throughout his time as a candidate (inaudible) presidency to make sure that the American people get the care and the accessibility that they need.

He understands how important healthcare is, and the bottom line is, he's going to do whatever it takes to make sure that people have quality, accessible healthcare.

QUESTION: (inaudible) add more dollars, did he mean to the hybrid pools (ph), did he mean to the cost sharing reduction payments, where did he want to...

SPICER: I think this is a -- the bills in progress, obviously it's in the Senate right now and he is willing to -- to work with them to do what it takes.

Olivier (ph)?

QUESTION: Thanks, Sean.

Following on more of Zeke's (ph) questions, Afghanistan is now the countries longest war. How much more American blood and treasure is the president willing to expand? And does he think it's a win-able conflict?

SPICER: I think the conflict that he wants to defeat ISIS. He wants to defeat Al Qaida. He wants to defeat threats -- to defeat terrorism. I think I just read to you, throughout the trip, that was the common thread. That uniting the Muslim world, talking about it with Prime Minister Netanyahu and -- and President Abbas. Talking about it even with the Pope, that wherever he went on this nine-day trip, protecting our country, protecting the world's people, was at the front of that discussion. And I think, he wants to do whatever he has to do to make sure that

our country is safe and our people are safe. That's why he's asked for this review.

Quate (ph)?

QUESTION: Sean, let me ask you a couple if you don't mind. First on tax reform, the president tweeted over the weekend that it was going quote, "very well." You just used the "progress." However, Republicans on the Hill still appear to be divided. The president tweeted today that maybe they should reverse the filibuster rule.

So I'm wondering, what the progress is and what is it that is going very well at this point in time? SPICER: I think the reception that Secretary Mnuchin and others on the staff have gotten from leadership members of the House Ways and Means Committee, Senate Finance, et cetera, has been very welcoming, as well as in the business community. But I think obviously, part of it -- as I just mentioned to the previous question, part of the reason that he is frustrated with the Senate rules is because, when there is a majority of support on key issues, or key people, as the case was in the conformation progress, he thinks it's standing in the way of progress that the American people have asked for.

QUESTION: Let me ask you about the FBI director. Before a foreign trip, Joe Lieberman was a -- was the lead candidate identified by the president.

SPICER: Right.

QUESTION: Mr. Lieberman is out. Where does the FBI director search stand? John Pistole -- is he at the White House interviewing today? Is he the leading candidate at this point?

SPICER: The president will be meeting with two additional candidates this afternoon, both Chris Wray and John Pistole. When the president feels as though he's met with the right candidate, he'll let us know. But he's -- he'll with candidates today and continue to do so until he finds the right leader.


QUESTION: ... finals at this point? Are they the two finalists or two of a...


SPICER: The president is the ultimate decision maker. When he makes a decision as to who he believes is best to lead the FBI, he will let us know.

Katie (ph)?

QUESTION: The president tweeted that tax reform was going well, but you just said that he's actually very frustrated with the lack of progress in the Senate. So does the White House still stand by its August deadline for tax

reform? And does the White House still believe that healthcare, tax reform and infrastructure is going to get done this year?

SPICER: So, just so we're clear, there's two separate issues, right?