Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Newsroom

Trump's Son Changes Story on Russia Meeting; White House Briefing. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired July 10, 2017 - 15:00   ET


GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: This meeting was set up in a chain, that, apparently, people in the Trump campaign knew this person who knew another person, and this meeting was set up to provide this dirt.

Donald Trump Jr., in his statement, said that he was not told her name prior to the meeting. And that's also odd, because when you're the son of somebody who is likely to be the nominee of the party at that point, it would seem to me that you would only be meeting with people with whom you knew or had some interest in, or why would you waste your time?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Right. And not only -- it wasn't just him meeting with him. It was Jared Kushner.

BORGER: Exactly.

BROWN: The president's son-in-law. Paul Manafort.

BORGER: The chairman of the campaign.

BROWN: The chairman of the campaign.

BORGER: Exactly.

BROWN: So, John, on that note, you were formerly with the CIA. What would be your concern, given Russia's M.O., when you find out that a Russian national was offering to help the campaign with incriminating information? What would stick out to you?

JOHN NIXON, FORMER CIA SENIOR ANALYST: Well, just that on itself is enough, but also the fact that he don't -- the president does not want to take the word of the intelligence communities, who are there to serve him and give him the truth.

And instead he seems to take the word of President Putin, who is a former KGB, former intelligence officer, as well as somebody who is kind of a brutal dictator in his own right. And I find that very, very shocking.

And it -- I think it speaks to this larger issue of this administration that it doesn't seem to be ready for prime time on one hand, and also doesn't seem to want to trust the experts and wants to do things their way. But their way seems to be very prone to error and a way of just doing things that is very, very unsophisticated and lacking in any sort of skill or political know-how.

BROWN: Gloria, this raises of question of, A, why didn't Don Jr., why wasn't he transparent about it this earlier, knowing that there was focus on Russia meetings with the campaign, the FBI investigation , investigations on the Hill? Why would did he deny it and then this comes out, and why did he change his story?

BORGER: Right.

Well, first of all, he doesn't have to fill out the SF-86 form. He doesn't have to fill out the form which Jared Kushner does have to fill out because he has a security clearance inside the White House.

Donald Trump Jr. did not have to do that. His story evolved. He says it isn't different. But what it is, in the first statement that he made to the media on Saturday, he did not include that this was supposed to be because he could get some campaign info, some oppo research from the Russians. He said it was about the adoption of Russian children, this human rights issue.

In his second statement, he elaborated and said, yes, it was because I thought we could get some information.

But I go back to, again, what are all these people doing meeting with somebody whose name -- who Donald Trump Jr. had never even met? Why was it considered so important?

BROWN: Yes, and what do you make, John, of this Russian lawyer, this woman who claimed to have incriminating information about Hillary Clinton and then wanted to talk about adoption?

NIXON: If you were to ask me, I would say she's an agent of influence, number one. Number two, she's a cutout. She's there to kind of incriminate.

First of all, she managed to get to speak to not only the head of the campaign, but to the president's son. And that I think again gets to this point of just not understanding the political ramifications of such a meeting.

BROWN: Do you think it's naive?

NIXON: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.

And also, if I can also address this issue about the joint cyber- operations that came out of the Geneva meeting, he wants to work with Putin on this. This is sort of like going to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, and saying, I want to work on Islamic outreach with you.

It's just -- it's crazy. It's absolutely...

BROWN: Well, and, of course, now he's backtracking from that.

NIXON: Of course, yes.

BROWN: But do you think that that's a reflection of he doesn't know, he doesn't care in terms of the threat that Russia poses?

NIXON: Can I tell you this?

I had dinner the other night with a friend who works at the agency, fairly high-level position. And I was talking to her about certainly issues regarding the Middle East. And she just said, listen, all your questions, they are irrelevant. And I said, why are they irrelevant?

And she said, every day, we have to change things because this White House is always -- we think we understand what the president wants and we start working towards something, and then he tweets something or he says something, and it stops everything in its tracks and we have to go back to square one.

And that, to me, is, as I said, a president that's not ready for prime time. And normally I would say look to people like Tillerson or McMaster or Mattis to get your cues, but even they are undercut by the president's inability to stay on message and all of this really amateurism.

BROWN: All right, I'm going to get some legal analysis here from Jennifer and Matt, just to get your perspective.

Jennifer, to you first.


As we were just discussing, it's not unusual for a campaign to want opposition research on the opponent. But is there anything legal about this, now that we know that Don Jr. did meet with a Russian national during the campaign and this person was offering essentially opposition research?

JENNIFER TAUB, VERMONT LAW SCHOOL: So, I think Gloria is right.

This is not your garden-variety meeting to get opposition research from somebody.

Look, I don't know who Donald Trump Jr's lawyer is, but the defense that he has offered up so far sounds a lot more like a confession. And what I mean by that is that it really looks like there's a possible conspiracy here to violate federal law, because taking anything of value, if you're a campaign, from a foreign national is unlawful.

And to the extent that Don Jr. agreed with anybody, whether it is the go-between who set up the meeting or this Kremlin-linked lawyer, to have that meeting to get that information of value about Hillary Clinton, that looks like a conspiracy, which is a federal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison.

BROWN: OK. That's a strong claim. Let's just -- I just want to be clear here that he claims he didn't know exactly who he was meeting with and that nothing came of it. He actually wasn't given anything.

But Matt, what do you have to say to Jennifer's claim... (CROSSTALK)

TAUB: Can I actually jump in there?

BROWN: Go ahead.

TAUB: It's really important.

The fact that he -- even assuming that what he's saying is correct that he did not receive anything of value, remember that conspiracy is itself a crime, even if the object offense is not completed.

So, in this case, if the object offense was, could have been, if this did happen, violating campaign law by taking something of value from a foreign national, even if nothing of value came up from this. We have heard Don Jr. actually say that he thought that the meeting would include obtaining dirt on Hillary Clinton. And he knew the meeting was with a foreign national.

So I think we need to really look at this closely.

BROWN: So, Matt, she's saying that he was involved in this conspiracy to defraud or commit an offense against the United States. Your response?

MATT WHITAKER, CNN LEGAL COMMENTATOR: I disagree with that analysis.

As a former U.S. attorney, we did conspiracies all the time. I prosecuted conspiracies. What happened here is this lawyer used a pretext to get a meeting with some important campaign officials to really talk about the issue she wanted to talk to, which was getting rid of this U.S. policy regarding adoptions and used a quite frankly in Iowa we would call it a B.S. excuse of saying she had opposition research.

And, listen, nobody is talking about what that opposition research is because we all agree it's ludicrous. The fact that Russians are funding the DNC and helping Hillary Clinton, no one's advancing that. And Don Jr. when he heard that certainly dismissed it quickly as based on what he said, and I think sort of to suggest that there's a conspiracy here, I mean, you would always take that meeting.

You would have somebody from your campaign...


BROWN: You would always take that meeting. So, would you take that meeting when you're that high up two weeks of your father was just nominated with someone that you claim to not even know?

Would you really take that meeting? Because speaking to other people on our panel, that said that's not something that's typical.

WHITAKER: But if you have somebody that you trust that is saying you need to meet with this individual because they have information about your opponent, you would take that meeting. There is no suggestion that at the time Donald Trump Jr. knew...


TAUB: Really? You would advise...


BROWN: Finish, Matt.


BROWN: Go ahead. Finish, Matt.

And then I'm going to go to you, Jennifer.


WHITAKER: No, I have run for public office twice, and you certainly want to have any advantage, any legal advantage you can.

And one of those main advantages is to know what your opponent is either -- I mean, all sorts of things that could be happening. Hillary Clinton, there was so much smoke around her.


BROWN: But what if the person providing is a Russian national. Would that create any red flags?

WHITAKER: And I guarantee you after that meeting, once Donald Trump Jr. realized who that person was, that that probably had a dramatic impact into how he felt about that meeting.


BROWN: So, you buy he didn't know at all that this person was connected to Russia, a Russian national, given that his contact was from the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant who set all this up?

WHITAKER: We have no information right now that would suggest that he knew who this individual was that he was meeting with or who the three were going to meet with.

They just knew that they must have been sold the fact that there was some really good information that they needed to hear, and then having been in campaigns, I know what that pitch looks like. And you would always have somebody from the campaign take that meeting and hear that person out.

Now, obviously, as it evolves, it becomes a little concerning, but I don't think when they went into that meeting at the time that they knew that it was a lawyer from Russia that had an issue regarding foreign adoptions.

BROWN: All right. Jennifer, I want you to weigh in.


TAUB: So, I find it hard to believe, but he can correct me if I'm wrong, that Matt would provide legal advice to a campaign right now to go ahead and meet with a foreign national who is promising bad information about their opponent.

But I want to also add one thing which seems really curious, which is this. I'm wondering whether Don Jr. has decided or been asked to take the fall in this situation, because what really strains credulity is the idea that Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner joined him in this meeting in Trump Tower not knowing what the agenda at all of that meeting was.

It's very difficult to believe, and to the extent...


BROWN: He's confirmed the pretext of the meeting, that this person had information on the opponent.

TAUB: Right, but as far as I understand, he said that neither Manafort for Kushner knew the agenda.

And that's really important, whether they did or didn't, because if they did, then they could be co-conspirators with him. So, I think that is important to know.

But even sort of curious to me is, if he is taking the fall, why would the son of the president take the fall for his brother-in-law? This is a very complicated, not only legal, but also family drama here.

BROWN: And we should point out that his brother-in-law -- the attorney for Jared Kushner, his brother-in-law, did say that he provided this information about the meeting on his updated SF-86.

Matt, what do you have to say to Jennifer's claim?

WHITAKER: Well, I am not giving a campaign advice to meet with foreign nationals to get oppo research. And I didn't mean to suggest that, and I don't think I did.

That being said, what happened here is what I think your previous panel said. It was very unsophisticated in taking this meeting and not really knowing what the agenda is and sending some important people to obtain this opposition research.

But I don't think there is anything that I have heard to date except wild speculation that demonstrates that anybody knew it was a foreign national, anybody knew about these connections which I still haven't seen a real connection to the Kremlin, and really other than somebody was sold something false and took the meeting based on that false premise.

BROWN: But, basically, you're dealing with two scenarios here. Either he knew it was a Russian national who was offering up this incriminating meeting and he was willing to take a meeting with someone he knew nothing about and bring in the president's, the soon- to-be president's son-in-law, as well as Paul Manafort, who was overseeing the campaign at the time.

So, the other version is it -- because that is the one you're saying that you believe to be true, right, that he knew nothing and took the meeting anyway?

WHITAKER: Right. And I'm saying that was...


WHITAKER: That's what Kellyanne Conway has talked about today and that's what Donald Trump Jr. has said today.

BROWN: And you find that acceptable?

WHITAKER: I don't have any evidence to the contrary at this point in time.

And I'm sure that people that have the power to subpoena and investigate and do those kind of things are going to ask those kind of questions. To assume that they're lying to us, when that's the only set of facts we have, I think, is taking a side like you would if you were cheering for one team or another.

BROWN: Well, to be clear, he says he doesn't know -- he doesn't know the identity, but that doesn't know that he didn't know that this person was from Russia.

But go ahead, Jennifer. I know you wanted to weigh in. Then we have to wrap it up.

TAUB: Sure.

The thing about the facts that are in evidence right now, just what Don Trump Jr. has admitted himself, I couldn't even put this on an exam for my white-collar crime class, because all of my students would get an A.


BROWN: OK, we have got to go to the briefing. Thank you so much.

Stand by, our panel.




QUESTION: The president today tweeted that it would be imaginable, he can't imagine that Congress would go home from Washington, from Washington in August, take the month off, if they haven't dealt with repeal and replace of Obamacare. Is Congress does the unimaginable, and goes for a month, is the

president prepared to ensure that there are consequences for those vacationing lawmakers in 2018?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I don't know that he's going to lay out a list of consequences.

I think he's focused on the positive component of this. And that's the hope that all of the members of Congress will come together to repeal and replace Obamacare. That's his focus, is making sure it gets done, not on what happens if it doesn't.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) The president also tweeted this morning about Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, said that she was giving away the country, I believe.


At what point is the president going to put Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton and Bill Clinton in the rear-view mirror? He won the election. He won it fair and square.

When does he just let them go and look forward?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I believe this tweet was a response to the attacks on his daughter taking his seat, if I'm correct.

Is that the one you're referring to? Look, this wasn't about putting them in the front. This was about responding to an outrageous attack against a White House senior adviser. And it's pretty standard protocol that, when the leader gets up, someone takes their seat, as Chancellor Merkel also pointed out, and said that this was perfectly standard protocol.

In fact, I think that we should with be proud to have Ivanka sitting in that seat, considering particularly the topic at hand was part of her portfolio. If she didn't have the last name that she has, I think she would be constantly celebrated, instead of constantly attacked. And I frankly think it's a sad thing that they chose to go after her in that moment.


QUESTION: Sarah, first, just a quick clarification on the meeting with Putin in Germany.

Did the president say that he accepted Putin's denial of any involvement in election interference, as Putin said in his press conference?

Have you had a chance to ask the president about that?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president was -- multiple times asked Putin whether or not he was involved. It took up a great deal of the conversation that they had on the front end of their meeting. And the president heard Putin's denial and also realized that they had some very important topics they needed to cover, Ukraine, North Korea, Syria, and decided to move on from that point of the conversation and focus on those issues.

And that was the purpose. Look, he heard Putin's denial, and he knew that, at the end of the day, the important part was them being able to have that conversation, him to directly ask him. He heard his answer, and he moved forward with places that they thought they could work together.

The president's been clear from his statements back in January, and even in his tweets over the last couple of days, his opinion on that matter.

QUESTION: And the question that I want to ask, the reports on this meeting that took place at Trump Tower last June with Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, when did the president learn that that meeting had taken place?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I believe in the last couple of days, is my understanding.

QUESTION: Is he concerned about that, that the top leadership of his campaign would take a meeting with a Russian lawyer promising to give...


HUCKABEE SANDERS: No, I mean, look, I have been on several campaigns, and people call offering information, as I know many of you receive similar calls of people offering information.

Don Jr. took a very short meeting from which there was absolutely no follow-up. Frankly, I think something that may make sense is looking at Democrat National Committee coordinated opposition research directly with the Ukrainian Embassy.

This is not an accusation. That's an on-the-record action that they took. So, if you're looking for an example of a campaign coordinating with a foreign country or a foreign source, look no further than the DNC, who actually coordinated opposition research with the Ukrainian Embassy.

And no one in this room, to my knowledge, really had a big problem with that. The only thing I see inappropriate about the meeting was the people that leaked the information on the meeting after it was voluntarily disclosed.

At this point, I would also like to add Donald Trump Jr. has made a statement on this. The president's outside counsel has made a statement on it. And now I have as well. And I'm not going to add anything further.

Phil. QUESTION: Just to follow up on that, if this sort of meeting is normal and standard practice in the campaign, do you know if there were any other meetings that either Donald Trump Jr. or other representatives of the Trump campaign had with other Russian officials or any other foreign agent?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I don't know of any -- I don't know of -- right, I don't know of any other meetings with Don Jr., but I also haven't had an extensive conversation with him.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) whether there were any others?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I'm not sure, Phil. I have will have to check and get back to you.


QUESTION: I have a question about this cyber-task force with Russia.

Yesterday, the president tweeted about the cyber-security unit being put together and then about 12 hours later said it would never happen.

What went down in those 12 hours that so drastically changed that situation?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: This was part of a discussion in that meeting.

And, look, we recognize that Russia is a cyber-threat. But we also recognize the need to have conversations with our adversaries. And when our adversaries see strength, like they did with the president in the meeting, they can look for other ways to work on shared interests, and look for positive places where they can move the ball forward, particularly on things like the cease-fire.


HUCKABEE SANDERS: And that became a greater focus, and something the president chose to stay focused on is that front.


QUESTION: So, Sarah, just to clarify, that idea is dead?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look, I would say that discussions may still take place, but that's as far as it is right now.


And I know you just said a minute ago you're not going to make any additional statement, but there's a history, and we have been asked very you and others at the podium to respect the statements you make there.

So there's a long history of blanket denials, during the transition and during times of this administration about nobody within the campaign having any meetings under any circumstances at all with Russian officials.

And now one was disclosed this weekend. The original characterization of that meeting was amended within 24 hours, when new information was placed before Don Jr.

How are we to take all of these blanket denials that occurred through the transition and now, when it's been proven and recognized by the president's attorney and Don Jr. that those blanket denials were not factual?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look, I think the point is that we have tried to make every single time, today and then and will continue to make in those statements is that there was simply no collusion that they keep trying to create that there was.

QUESTION: But that's a different question than was asked at the time and different than the statements were about.

The questions originally, as you know and I know, were about contacts. And those were blanket denied. And then when the contacts became confirmed, then it was, well, they were infrequent.

Well, now we have a whole pattern of lots of different meetings that have to be confirmed later, and those original questions were not about collusion, Sarah. They were just about contacts.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Actually, they were originally about that.

That's the whole premise of what you're asking the question is whether or not the campaign colluded with Russia. That's the premise of the entire scope of your questioning. And the point we have tried to make and will continue to make is that there wasn't. And, beyond that, I really can't offer you anything.

QUESTION: Sarah, back to yesterday morning's tweets. Can you tell us what was or what is or what was going to be a cyber-security unit and how this was going to work?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I'm not sure that there was -- there were specific details discussed. I think it was simply just a discussion on cyber- security threats and potential options, not necessarily a formal kind of structure in place.


QUESTION: Sarah, after this two-and-a-half-hour meeting with President Putin that the president had in Germany, how would you describe the state of U.S. relations with Russia? Do you view Russia as a partner? Do you view them as an ally? Do you view them as an adversary?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I would want to have further conversations with members of the -- secretary of state and National Security Council, but I think we saw that there were places of shared interests that we can work together, specifically, things like the Syrian cease-fire, that we both can agree on in order to move forward in some places. I don't think that's going to be the case on everything, but there are

certainly certain instances where we can work together with Russia to make every part of the world a little bit safer.

QUESTION: And does the president trust President Putin?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I haven't asked him that question.

QUESTION: Can you please ask him that question?


QUESTION: Sarah, I have two questions. We know there was no note- taker in the meeting, but did you make an audio recording of the meeting or did the Russians?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Not that I'm aware of. I would have to ask. I'm not sure.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) And the second question is, Director Comey was under oath when he said that the memo he gave to his friend did not include classified information, and the president tweeted this morning that he did leak classified information. Is he accusing Comey of perjury?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think there are a lot of questions out there and a lot of reports where it indicates that Director Comey may have leaked classified information.

That certainly is a threat to the national security and violates policy and law. I think it's something that should be investigated thoroughly.

QUESTION: But the president stated flatly that he leaked classified information.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: He has got a much higher clearance. He may know something I don't.


QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) When you talk about the issue of Don Jr., you're talking -- you said leakers.

What do you think about the word whistle-blower?


QUESTION: You're trying to say people who gave that information were leakers. What about the issue of whistle-blowing? What do you see whistle-blower vs. leaker?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think this is a voluntary disclosure to include some of that information. And I think that it would be inappropriate for that to be shared outside of the scope of the people that should have that information. [15:25:03]

So, John Gizzi.

QUESTION: I have just one more question.

So, on the issue of collusion, are you saying there's no collusion when it comes to the overall arch of the campaign, but what about the individuals? What about individuals that could be suspects of collusion? Are you vouching just for everyone in total or individuals or what?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I'm saying that the president's campaign did not collude in any way. That's...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) different people. What do you say about that? (OFF-MIKE) Don Jr.? Anyone, the names that are coming out?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I would certainly say Don Jr. did not collude with anybody to influence the election.

QUESTION: What about Flynn? What about Flynn?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: To my knowledge, he did not collude with anybody to influence the campaign.

Again, I think I have been very clear. Our position is that no one within the Trump campaign colluded in order to influence the election. I think bottom line is that the Democrats had a weak candidate, and President Trump had a stronger message. And they're constantly looking for ways to undermine the president and delegitimize his election victory.

John Gizzi.

QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.

Two brief questions.

When the president arrived for the G20 summit, it was widely reported that the Putin regime was cracking down on the opposition candidate Mr. Navalny at the time. This has been just the latest in a series of events in which human rights and dissent have been crushed in Russia.

Was human rights raised at all by the president in his conversation with the Russian president?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I'm not sure. I will have to ask, John, and get back to on that.

QUESTION: My other question is...

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I knew there was a second one coming.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) The president did talk privately with Chancellor Merkel, we know.

Days before he arrived there, her party, the Christian Democratic Union, made a much publicized change in its platform and dropped its reference to the United States as a friend, and changed that to important ally.

Was this something that came up in their meeting and did the president ask why she did that?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Again, I haven't heard that that was specifically discussed, but I will be happy to ask and circle back with you.


QUESTION: Two quick questions for you.

Did President Trump discuss sanctions with Russian President Putin at the G20 summit?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I do know that it was mentioned specifically. When you ask about sanctions, I know there's a little bit of a question there. And there were sanctions specific to election meddling that I believe were discussed, but not beyond that.

QUESTION: Did the president's views on sanctions against the Russians change at all after his meeting with President Putin?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Not that I'm aware of.


QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.

This latest meeting with the Russian lawyer, we now have three instances where, including with Ambassador Kislyak and a head of the Russian bank, where Jared Kushner seems to have met with Russians and not disclosed it during his security clearance check.

Is the White House at all concerned about that? And do you think it raises any questions about Kushner's competence or honesty?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I believe actually it was disclosed on his security clearance with an updated -- yes.

QUESTION: It was updated paperwork, not initially.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Right, with all of his contacts from -- during the transition and prior to that. They were all included in the update, not the original submission.

QUESTION: I'm saying, his omission in the original of all these meetings with Russians, is there any concern about that?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: No, because it was just an incomplete form. All of his foreign contacts were listed in the updated version, not in the original. QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Paris climate accord. Is the president willing

to negotiate his position on this?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I certainly think he likes to keep all things on the negotiating table.

At the end of the day, the president is very focused on making sure that he gets the best deal for the American people. He certainly wants to do things to protect the environment, as we have a history of doing in the United States.

He's going to continue that practice and continue to encourage it, but also make sure that he's making the deal that's best for the American people.

Thanks so much, guys.

BROWN: Well, there you heard the White House briefing there, off- camera.

And I want to bring in my panel to discuss everything that was covered in that briefing.

Gloria Borger, John Nixon, and Mark Preston with me now.

Gloria, first to you.

What was the headline for you coming out of this briefing?

BORGER: Well, she did say sanctions were discussed with Vladimir Putin specific to the issue of Russian meddling.

The president had tweeted recently that sanctions were not discussed. So, again, the sort of clarity of what occurred at the meeting, it's fuzzy. It's fuzzy.

She said, in terms of whether the president accepted or how he reacted to Vladimir Putin, his denial --