Return to Transcripts main page
Air Force Orders Probe After Crew Members' Stay at Trump Resort; Kamala Harris Unveils Plan to Overhaul Criminal Justice System; Hurricane Dorian Survivors Desperate to Evacuate as Death Toll Climbs; U.S. Extracted Top Spy from Inside Russia in 2017; Vice President Mike Pence Disagreed with Holding Taliban Talks at Camp David. Aired 9-9:30a ET
Aired September 09, 2019 - 09:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CAMEROTA: All right. Thanks so much for watching NEW DAY. "NEWSROOM" with Poppy Harlow and Jim Sciutto starts right now with a breaking news exclusive.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. I'm Jim Sciutto in New York.
POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Poppy Harlow. We're so glad you're with us this Monday morning. And we do begin with a really significant CNN exclusive, and Jim, this is your reporting. You have learned about a highly secretive intelligence operation by the United States.
SCIUTTO: That's right, Poppy. Multiple Trump administration officials with direct knowledge tell me that in a previously undisclosed secret mission in 2017, the U.S. successfully extracted from Russia one of its highest-level covert sources inside the Russian government.
Knowledge of the Russian covert source's existence was highly restricted within the U.S. government. According to one source, there was, quote, "no equal alternative" inside the Russian government providing both insight and information on Putin. A person directly involved in the discussion said that the removal of the Russian was driven in part by concerns that President Trump and his administration repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence and could contribute to exposing the covert source as a spy.
The decision to carry out the extraction occurred soon after a May 2017 meeting in the Oval Office in which Trump discussed highly classified intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak. The intelligence concerning ISIS in Syria had been provided by Israel.
The disclosure to the Russians by the president, though not about the Russian spy specifically, prompted intelligence officials to renew discussions about the potential risk of exposure according to the source directly involved in the matter. At the time then CIA director Mike Pompeo told other senior Trump
administration officials that too much information was coming out regarding the asset.
HARLOW: This is incredibly significant and great reporting, important reporting. I know you worked for a long time on this.
This is not the first time that they were concerned about this asset.
SCIUTTO: No. And this background is important. At the end of the Obama administration, U.S. intelligence officials had already expressed concerns about the safety of this spy and other Russian assets, given the length of their cooperation with the U.S. This according to a former senior intelligence official.
Those concerns grew in early 2017 after the U.S. intelligence community released its public report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election which said that Putin himself ordered the operation. The intelligence community also shared a classified version of the report with the incoming Trump administration and it included highly protected details on the sources behind that intelligence.
Senior U.S. intelligence officials considered extracting at least one Russian asset at the time, but did not do so according to the former senior intelligence official. Then the meeting with the Russians happened in the Oval Office. That raised new talks and new concerns in the intel community, continuing to grow in the period after Trump's Oval Office meeting with Kislyak and Lavrov.
Weeks after that decision to extract the covert source, the president met privately with Russian president Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Hamburg. You may recall that at the meeting he took the unusual step of confiscating the interpreter's notes. Afterwards, intelligence officials again expressed concern that the president may have improperly discussed classified intelligence with Russia, according to an intelligence source with knowledge of the intelligence community's response to that Trump-Putin meeting.
HARLOW: So the administration, Jim. What is the administration's response to all this?
SCIUTTO: Yes. We've reached out to a number of officials in the administration as well as the CIA. A U.S. official said that before the secret operation, there was media speculation about the existence of such a covert source and such coverage or public speculation poses risks to the safety of anyone, that a foreign government suspects may be involved. However, this official did not identify any public reporting to that effect at the time of this decision and CNN itself could not find any related reference in media.
Asked for comment, Brittany Bramell, the CIA director of public affairs, told CNN, and I'm quoting, "CNN's narrative that the Central Intelligence Agency makes life or death decisions based on anything other than objective analysis and sound collection is simply false. Misguided speculation that the president's handling of our nation's most sensitive intelligence, which he has access to each and every day, drove an alleged exfiltration operation is inaccurate."
A spokesperson for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to comment. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham told me the following, quote, "CNN's reporting is not only incorrect, it has the potential to put lives in danger."
However, we should note this. This removal happened at a time of wide concern in the intelligence community about mishandling of intelligence by Trump and his administration. Those concerns were described to CNN by five sources who served in the Trump administration, intelligence agencies and Congress.
I should also note that CNN is withholding several details about this spy to reduce the risk of the person's identification.
HARLOW: When it comes to the big picture here and the importance of reporting out something like this as you have for weeks on end now, what is the cost to the United States losing an asset like this inside of Russia?
SCIUTTO: It's significant. It has left the U.S. with one of its key sources on the inner workings of the Kremlin and the plans or thinking of the Russian president. This at a time when tensions between the two nations have been growing. U.S. intelligence community considers Russia one of the two greatest threats to U.S. national security along with China.
A former senior intelligence official tells me, quote, "The impact would be huge because it is so hard to develop sources like that in any denied area, particularly Russia, because the surveillance and security there is so stringent." And adding, "You can't reacquire a capability like that overnight."
Joining me now to discuss this is CIA intelligence -- CNN intelligence and security analyst Robert Baer. He's a former CIA operative.
Bob, thanks so much. You have enormous experience handling the nation's most classified intelligence and also you know the weight of covert assets or sources like this in foreign governments.
First of all, tell me what is the damage in your view of losing a source like that in Russia at this time?
ROBERT BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: It's enormous. This guy apparently had access to the Kremlin which is very rare. He would have been handled by the CIA on what's called a BIGOT list, that's maybe five, six, seven people knew his identity and his position. And that's very few people. That would be the director, the deputy director, and so forth.
And Russia house, so losing somebody like this, you know, it's huge. It's just -- you know, I've never heard of a case where an agent was exfiltrated, brought out of Moscow, because the White House had the potential to expose him or that's what the CIA thought. SCIUTTO: How would the U.S. intelligence manage to develop a source
so high in, as the former senior intelligence official told me, what's known as a denied area, a very difficult area for U.S. intelligence to operate in?
BAER: Most of these sources are what are called walk-in. So they'll go into an embassy like in London. They'll ask for the CIA. The CIA will take them outside and meet them, recruit them, and then send them back to Moscow. So, it's pretty much a hit or miss.
The CIA in Moscow is not developing sources inside the Kremlin. It's too risky. The Russians would catch us. So, losing a source like this, as I said, is an enormous loss, especially at a time when the Russians were involved in our elections and will probably be involved in the 2020 elections. So, you know, pulling sources out of Moscow pretty much makes us blind.
SCIUTTO: Yes. As you heard there, I'm told by someone directly involved in the discussions that a factor in this decision to exfiltrate, as it's known, or extract the source from Russia, was the president's handling of classified information. As you know, this is not the first time we've heard of those concerns. I'm told as I noted by five sources, including those serving in a Trump administration -- that serve in Trump administration that were broad concerns even beyond that May 2017 Oval Office meeting, that the Trump-Putin meeting in Hamburg in July 2017. How significant of a concern is that to you?
BAER: Well, look, Jim, the CIA and the FBI has never trusted Trump since he went to Moscow in 1987, a trip sponsored by the KGB. He comes back to the United States and says he's going to run for president. That's never been explained. All the Russian money that has gone through the Trump empire, that's never been explained. And I don't care what the Mueller report says, there's a lot of counter intelligence questions out there. We don't have any answers for.
And so, the CIA, when they look at the president and he spills a secret, a special access program to Kislyak and the foreign minister, red flags went up all over. At the very least, he doesn't understand intelligence and I think if, in fact, the CIA protected the source, they did absolutely the right thing. Even if it was just a suspicion, they didn't know anything, they didn't know of any plans of the president to expose him, they did exactly the right thing.
What you do is protect your assets, your sources, especially in a denied area, bring them to the United States, resettle them in a different name so the Russians can't assassinate them. This is all very predictable with this president.
SCIUTTO: Bob Baer, thanks very much for your analysis.
HARLOW: Incredible reporting and important. Jim, thank you very, very much.
SCIUTTO: Thank you. HARLOW: We'll see if the administration says anything else following
We do have other significant new reporting. We've just learned that the Vice President Mike Pence and National Security adviser John Bolton were both opposed to bringing Taliban leaders to the United States to Camp David specifically for these secret peace talks that were scheduled with the president just days before of course the anniversary of 9/11.
The president apparently overruled them.
SCIUTTO: President Trump both announced and canceled the talks at the same time over Twitter over the weekend. Now even GOP lawmakers are blasting the plan.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R-IL): To have them at Camp David is totally unacceptable. The president did the right thing by walking away. I'm very concerned, though, that we were really close to having Taliban leaders there.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARLOW: Joining us now, Molly Ball, national political correspondent with "TIME," Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for "USA Today."
Good morning, ladies, to you both. Look, that was Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger who has obviously served in the Air Force. You've got Liz Cheney, you've got another Republican representative from the state of Florida, all calling the president out publicly and you've got think what do many Republicans think, you know, and are not saying about this meeting.
Let me just read you from Liz Cheney, "Camp David is where America's leaders plan the response to al Qaeda supported by the Taliban, killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11. No member of the Taliban should ever step foot there ever. The Taliban still harbors al Qaeda," as by the way a U.N. report showed us this July. "The president is right to end the talks."
Molly, I think the question before that, the president is right to end the talks, was he right to start the talks? This is, you know, ended after the 16th American died this year in Afghanistan because of that suicide car bomb attack, but he was willing to have this meeting after the 15th died?
MOLLY BALL, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, and there's a few different issues here, right. You have the -- weather the talks should happen at all and then whether there should have been this sort of spectacle at Camp David.
HARLOW: Sure. BALL: But as you note a lot of Republicans now are taking advantage
of the fact that the president called off the talks to -- they can critique his decision to hold them in the first place while praising him for calling them off. Kind of like when he walked away from the table with Kim Jong-un and a lot of -- that made it possible for a lot of Republicans who were uncomfortable with the meeting in the first place to say, yes, the president did the right thing by walking away.
But I think a lot of Republicans sort of don't know what to think of this because it was announced in the president's usual surprising manner on Twitter and because this process was secret until that happened. But there certainly is a lot of division and discomfort within the president's party with the away he's conducted a lot of foreign policy overall. His sort of impulsive approach to diplomacy, which his allies will say is good because it keeps people off balance, but so far it hasn't seemed to yield a lot of results, whether you're talking about the North Koreans or Afghanistan.
SCIUTTO: Susan, to Molly's point there, what we saw here is that president's diplomacy in a nutshell, really, an unusual outreach to an adversary here, an unusual invitation, but also the reversal via Twitter, of course, his favorite medium to do this, and as Molly said, you've had this unusual outreach, this kind of back and forth with North Korea and others, but hasn't yielded those significant foreign policy victims victories that he's looking for.
How concern is the president about that? Because for instance on the Afghanistan troop withdraw, that was a promise, pre-November 2020.
SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, USA TODAY: You know, on this issue as on others, we see President Trump trying to swing for the fences, right. He wants to do something big and bold, some more magnificent than his predecessors have managed to do. Barack Obama also wanted to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan and failed to complete that particular mission because he was concerned about what it would leave behind.
But it, you know, characterizes whether he wants to buy Greenland or negotiate with North Korea, but what has tripped up this administration on all of those fronts is the failure to do the kind of careful preparation that is involved in big achievements like reaching a peace deal after 18 years of war. There is -- we should note, though, there is more national unanimity on a desire to try to figure out how to eliminate or reduce the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Where there's division is over the manner in which the president is pursuing that goal.
HARLOW: Molly, how significant or do you think it is significant, we've learned in this last hour or so that the vice president opposed this as well, especially he and Bolton especially so close to 9/11 it happening at Camp David? You know, Amy Klobuchar running for president, Democratic senator from Minnesota, said yesterday look, the world is watching, China is watching, Russia is watching. Meaning, if you show this lack of consistency on foreign policy especially within this administration, that's a cause for major concern. Do you agree? BALL: Well, it's certainly a cause of concern for Democrats and for
critics of the president, but yes, we have had these divisions within the administration on a lot of fronts. And the president even -- we've heard jokes about it when he talks about John Bolton because Bolton is known to represent a much more sort of hawkish point of view within the administration than the president necessarily shares, but at the same time, no one necessarily knows where the president is because it seems to change from day to day and because he can, you know, plan something and then reverse and announce both of them in a tweet.
So, it's always been the case that this administration has a lot of divisions within it. I think that also represents a sort of lack of clarity within the Republican Party about what it stands for in the age of Trump and in the arena of foreign policy in particular.
Trump having been all over the map on these issues in the campaign as well, right? This is one of those many areas where he promised all of the things, and some of them were conflicting things.
JIM SCIUTTO, CO-ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Yes --
BALL: So, you know, promising to do this very bellicose foreign policy on the one hand, and then also promising a sort of isolationist --
SCIUTTO: Yes --
BALL: Withdrawal from the world and sometimes those things are incompatible and he doesn't like to make that choice.
POPPY HARLOW, CO-ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Yes --
SCIUTTO: Susan, just before we go quickly, are these key issues in the 2020 election?
SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, USA TODAY: Yes, I think they are. You know, we know the most important issues are going to be what? The economy, immigration, health care. But when you talk about big promises that President Trump made when he was running last time around, one of them was to get the United States out of some of these conflicts and especially in the -- in our nation's longest war in our history now about to hit the 18-year mark.
SCIUTTO: Molly Ball, Susan Page, thanks so much as always.
HARLOW: Thanks ladies as we appreciate it. We have a lot ahead. The Air Force right now is conducting an internal review of all international layovers after reports of crew members staying at the president's golf resort in Scotland, clearly ethical questions there.
Senator Bob Menendez; ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee will be with us next. Plus, Senator Kamala Harris has faced criticism over her career as a prosecutor. This morning, she is releasing her criminal justice reform plan. We'll have those details ahead.
SCIUTTO: And we are covering the unfolding tragedy in the Bahamas in a way CNN only can. We're going to take you there live. The death toll now at 45, sadly, it is expected to rise dramatically.
SCIUTTO: This morning, the Air Force says it is looking into all international layover stays following controversial visits by crew members to President Trump's Turnberry Resort in Scotland.
HARLOW: So, over the weekend, the reporting is that an Air Force crew stayed at Turnberry back in March during a refueling stop on the way to Kuwait. The stop has once again raised ethical questions about taxpayer dollars going to Trump properties. To talk about that and a lot more, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, of course, a ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee. Thank you for being here.
SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D-NJ): Good to be here.
HARLOW: So, it's not just one stay. A number of these stays are being looked into on the house side by the Judiciary and Oversight Committee. I guess my question to you is, even if it were somehow less expensive to stay at Turnberry than, you know, a Holiday Inn sort of level hotel, would it be acceptable?
Because we heard the Air Force say over the weekend they're looking into it because quote, "we must still be considered of perceptions of not being good stewards of taxpayer dollars."
MENENDEZ: Absolutely. I think that in that respect, they're right. I also doubt that it's cheaper to be at Turnberry than any place else. And enriching the president should not be the job of the U.S. military or the United States government.
That's why we have an emoluments clause to ensure that the president doesn't get enriched while he is in office. And so, this is a continuing saga, not only in the context of the military, but in so many other elements the president wanting to hold the next G7 Summit at his establishment, you know, all of these foreign entities going to his hotels. That just isn't happening by chance.
SCIUTTO: As you noted, there is a pattern here. Bob Barr is holding a holiday party at a Trump-owned hotel. We know that foreign dignitaries will often stay there, not clear there's a quid pro quo, but the impression is, we stay there, maybe that's a good idea -- you mentioned the G7, we have this.
I imagine folks at home are saying, we keep seeing this happen, beyond publicizing it, what can lawmakers do about it?
MENENDEZ: Well, I think over on the house side, where they -- the Democrats have a majority, there's actually a pursuit by the relevant committees looking into this as part of their overall inquiry into President Trump, both on questions of the possibility of high crimes and misdemeanors as well as the emoluments clause, enriching himself at the -- through the government and other elements.
So, I think that, that course of events is ultimately what's going to produce the facts to make a determination.
HARLOW: The president was planning to meet with Taliban leaders at Camp David this weekend. We now know that because he publicly announced it and canceled it on Twitter over the weekend. We also now know this morning that it was against the advice of his vice president and his national security adviser John Bolton, especially because it was so close to 9/11.
You called this high wire personal diplomacy. Just in July, the UN Security Council again wrote, quote, "al Qaeda considers Afghanistan a continuing safe haven for its leadership relying on its long-standing and strong relationship with Taliban leadership."
Al Qaeda, Taliban support in Afghanistan, this meeting so close to 9/11. Should the administration host this meeting in the future because Pompeo made clear yesterday, it's not off the table.
MENENDEZ: Yes, well, look, this has been an ill-conceived process from my perspective. First of all, you're negotiating with the Taliban, but you're not including the Afghan government.
There can be no peace and security in the future unless you include the Afghan government, number one. Number two, is to bring the Taliban on the eve of the 18th anniversary of September 11th is about as outrageous as it gets. But this is about the president who is more interested in sizzle than substance. High wired diplomacy as I've said without a safety net and without consequences.
At the end of the day, we all want to see our soldiers back. But it has to be back honoring the lives and national treasure that has been spent in Afghanistan and in creating an environment in which there's security for the United States moving into the future.
And so, a one-sided negotiation where you are given before you even get --
HARLOW: What --
MENENDEZ: A peace agreement is pretty ironic --
HARLOW: Well, the president was having sort of at the same time, the plan was to have it with the Afghan government as well and hope to get the two of them together --
MENENDEZ: But before that --
HARLOW: But that has not proved fruitful in the past -- MENENDEZ: But before this, Poppy, all of these negotiations with the
Taliban, I've -- I met with President Ghani once during this period of time, they -- he was not engaged. He was not informed. It's only at the end -- if you negotiate with one side of the parties, and you leave the other side out, what does it tell the Taliban?
SCIUTTO: Yes --
MENENDEZ: We want to make a deal with you, we don't care what the Afghan government does. And at the end of the day, that's not how you create peace and security.
SCIUTTO: Let me ask you, gun control is a priority for you, you're pushing a bill called Keep America Safe Act, that would limit magazine size to not more than 10 rounds. This of course have been so key in a number of these shootings. You look at Dayton for instance, it was more --
MENENDEZ: Yes --
SCIUTTO: Than 100 rounds, and there's a magazine I've never seen even in war zones, are there enough Republican senators? Because of course, this is going to live or die by Mitch McConnell's --
HARLOW: Sure --
SCIUTTO: Decision here but also the president. Do you have Republican support for a measure like that?
MENENDEZ: I think so. Look, you saw Roy Blunt this weekend say the president needs to define what he's willing to support. I don't believe this is the way the Congress acts. The way the founders created the constitution is a check and balance. Congress passes legislation, the president has the right to sign it or veto it, and then we can override it.
But at the end of the day, being paralyzed by the president who is paralyzed along with leader McConnell by the NRA has taken over a million dollars in campaign contributions from the NRA is not the way the Congress is supposed to work.
Overwhelming the American people in poll after poll, most recently have expressed, Republicans, Democrats and independents alike that they want to see universal background checks, would have stopped the Odessa shooter if had it been in place because he tried to get a gun in the legal process and it was denied.
He got it through a private sale that would have been subject to a universal background checks, and high capacity magazines are about high capacity killing. You don't need a 100 rounds in a magazine to go hunting for deer.
SCIUTTO: Yes --
HARLOW: Senator, Jim brought something up to me this morning that I think really warrants attention and that's Facebook. You have proposed forcing Facebook to block gun sales on its marketplace platform. Talk more about that and about -- I mean, if you think Facebook has abdicated responsibility on this front.
MENENDEZ: Well, you know, Facebook did something that I thought was good, that they said they weren't going to allow gun sales on their marketplace, but then they are allowing everything that basically amounts to that.
So what happens now on marketplace, somebody says I'm selling a gun box or a gun pouch for $400, $500, $700. What that really means I have a gun inside, and have a private conversation with me and I'll tell you what's --
SCIUTTO: Yes --
MENENDEZ: Inside. So, Facebook can do much more to ensure that what they said they were going to do, they do because it shouldn't be with the click of a mouse that you can get a gun that doesn't go through an inspection.
SCIUTTO: Just incredible to imagine to imagine. Senator, always appreciate you taking the time --
HARLOW: Thank you very much --
MENENDEZ: Thank you --
SCIUTTO: To join us. Coming up, it is a race against the clock off the Georgia coast. Four crew members are missing after their cargo ship -- just incredible pictures there capsized.
HARLOW: We're also moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street. There is new data this morning out of China showing both imports and exports from the United States are down significantly. More evidence of the trade war between the U.S. and China and the impact of it.
Stocks set to rise, look at Dow futures, S&P, Nasdaq all higher this morning, just sitting below record highs. The U.S. and China set to resume those trade talks next month.