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Trump Defends Giving Highly Classified Info to Russians; Top House Intel Democrat on Trump Sharing Secret Info; White House Daily Briefing. Aired 11:30-12p ET
Aired May 16, 2017 - 11:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[11:30:00] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Right.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: But he was always scheduled to be holding a briefing this afternoon as part of the daily White House press briefing to talk about the very important first overseas trip --
BOLDUAN: The now overshadowed overseas trip.
ZELENY: Exactly. So, he was always scheduled to be at briefing today, but now he will be talking about this, I am told, and I assume taking questions. It would be quite unusual to have a statement and then walk away, so I believe he will be answering questions, but we'll have to see about that in particular.
But he is someone, Kate, his history so fascinating. He is a very respected leader in the military, but he wrote specifically about how leaders lie, change their stories, credibility in the Vietnam War. He is an expert in that regard, but now he is deep in the middle of these conversations. He sort of landed this job without sort of asking for it. He was the second national security adviser. Mike Flynn of course, was the first. The Russia investigation central to all of this. That's why Michael Flynn is not there anymore. So, he inherited some of this fray and baggage, if you will, here. Now it's his role to try to clean it up or explain it.
BOLDUAN: Absolutely, Jeff.
Jeff's going to be standing by. We're all standing by together.
Let's do this, let's get in a quick break. We're waiting on national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, as Jeff Zeleny lays out perfectly, the challenges, the big job before him as he prepares himself to face the cameras, face reporters, and face some very tough questions of what the president said behind closed doors with Russian officials.
We'll get a quick break and be right back.
DAVID SANGER, REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: We have read descriptions of the conversation. We seem to believe the president didn't issue any -- didn't reveal any sources and methods but described a fairly sensitive intelligence program that concerns the is' ability to put laptops on computers that could be loaded up with explosives and seemed to suggest the city in which some of this was learned and so forth.
So, Congressman Schiff, you sit on Intelligence and are familiar with the difference between revealing sources and methods, which nobody believes here happened, and describing the program in some detail. Tell me what part of this we should be concerned about and what part isn't all that concerning?
[11:34:52] REP. ADAM SCHIFF, (D), CALIFORNIA: Well, what we should be concerned about -- and again, I have not yet been briefed on it, so I can only go on the basis of what's been alleged publicly and what the administration response has been. But the allegation is that the president discussed a threat to the country from ISIS with sufficient detail that the Russians could determine what the source or method of gathering that intelligence was. So, the denials by the administration as I read them, and I'm reading admittedly between the lines, are really a form of nondenial denial, stating that the president did not discuss war plans is a bit of a non-sequitur, saying that the president did not specifically comment on sources or methods is also a bit of a ruse, if in fact what the president did was reveal sufficient detail that the Russians could therefore conclude, reverse engineer, in a way, what the actual source was. And what's the implication of that? Well, it could compromise the source of information, so that source could dry up or go away, or if it's a human source, it could be worse. If the source is a sister intelligence agency of a friendly country, that country could decide it can't trust the United States with information, or worse, that it can't trust the president of the United States with information. That obviously has very serious repercussion repercussions, and particularly if we're talking about information about a threat to Americans posed by ISIS. So, again, I can't say whether these allegations are accurate, but if they are -- and certainly, the president's tweets suggest that he talked about something of concern here -- we immediately have to go into damage mitigation mode, find out what steps can we take to minimize any risk to our sources, and if the damage is to our allies, what steps we can take to reassure our allies that we treasure the relationship, we treasure the information, and we're going to work much harder to protect it in the future. And then I have to hope that someone will counsel the president about just what it means to protect closely held information and why this is so dangerous, ultimately, to our national security.
SANGER: For the interview, Senator Murphy, let's start with you on this.
The president made an argument in his tweet this morning that basically he's trying to bring the Russians over to be more active against ISIS. And we've certainly seen cases of presidents of both parties -- President Obama, President Bush -- revealed some intelligence information without the source in order to go motivate another country to help along. You might, to put it in another context, tell the Chinese more about the North Korean missile program if you're trying to give some urgency to the sense that they've got to back him up on sanctions. So, could you argue that this is the kind of thing that presidents sometimes just have to do?
SEN. CHRIS MURPHY, (D), CONNECTICUT: Well, you could argue that if you were under the belief --
If you're under the belief that this White House was operating in a way that was anything other than foreign policy by improvisation. Yes, you are right that in previous times, other presidents have decided to share classified information with so-called adversaries, but they only did so after consulting with the intelligence agencies and having a whole-of-government approach to declassifying that information. It was strategic. This, clearly, as far as we understand, was not strategic. And the idea that Russia is going to be a responsible partner in the future of Syria is belied by years and years of facts on the ground. We have been trying to get the Russians to be a meaningful partner inside Syria, and they end up doing more damage than good. They end up conducting themselves in a way that kills, hurts, and maims civilians, such that more, not less, people on the ground inside Syria are pushed into the camps of extremists rather than to moderates. So, we have enough experience inside Syria to understand that Russia is not going to be a credible partner. And you are right that there is a reasonable way to use classified information in order to win new friends or influence adversaries, but that's not what happened here. This is a president who was trying to show off how much he knew in the context of that meeting and potentially, you know, did serious jeopardy to immediate U.S. national security concerns, as we are finding out today that some of our allies are already rethinking whether or not they should share information or rethinking what kind of information they should share with the United States.
SCHIFF. Let me just add that Chris is exactly right, and the point he's making is also far broader than this context. If you look at many of the president's statements or tweets that have an impact on foreign policy, they all have an improvisational character. Some have an erratic character to them. We try to look for a method in this when there may be none. And if you look at some of the comments he's made about North Korea, for example, and you ask is this some part of a clever "Art of the Deal" strategy of saber rattling or what not, you might conclude that it was true if this was done in concert with others in the administration in a cohesive fashion, but too often, it's not. And it looks like the president has one foreign policy and his secretary of state has another and the U.N. ambassador has the third, and no one is quite sure who to believe. And as much as we may try to rationalize it and explain it, the reality is that we have created not a strategic ambiguity but a very nonstrategic and dangerous ambiguity about where we are, what we stand for, what we want to see happen, what our policy is.
[11:41:02] SANGER: So, we mentioned North Korea briefly. I wanted to turn to that before we get back into the Russia investigation. So, the other fascinating intelligence leakage story that's going on right now --
BOLDUAN: All right, you're listening right there to Congressman Adam Schiff and Senator Chris Murphy in a panel at a Democratic progressive conference that David Sanger of "The New York Times" is moderating this conversation.
Let me bring in the panel now.
And I also want to draw your attention to that little box in the corner. We are waiting for the president's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, to brief reporters, to come and take questions from reporters in the White House briefing room about this new crisis unfolding at the White House over what the president told Russian officials. Did he disclose highly classified intelligence to Russian officials in his Oval Office meeting? Running a little late at this moment, so he could come out at any moment. We're watching that play out.
With me right now, Kayleigh McEnany is here, a CNN political commentator, contributor for "The Hill" and columnist for "Above the Law"; Keith Boykin, CNN political commentator, Democratic strategist and former Clinton White House aide.
"Above the Law," an interesting name to be playing with. Just kidding, Kayleigh.
Kayleigh, the reaction you've been seeing -- your reaction first to what you've heard from the reporting, what you heard from H.R. McMaster last night and what you read from the president this morning.
KAYLEIGH MCENANY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, H.R. McMaster, I think it's worth remembering what Congressman Schiff said about him just this last February, "I'm happy with the choice. I think he's a bright man, a lot of integrity, certainly very outspoken."
BOLDUAN: I've heard that even this morning. I heard that even this morning from Ben Sasse. Ben Sasse says, "General McMaster, he's a really, really great public servant and honorable man," but goes on to say, "But when I look at McMaster's quote, it's a pretty technical quote. I think it's actually something quite different from a full rebuttal of the story."
MCENANY: Let me tell you what I think was driving McMaster last night. He admitted, look, we did talk about threats to aviation. That was discussed in the meeting. He said we didn't reveal sources and methods information. But I think what was driving McMaster was, in the very beginning of "The Washington Post" article, it said that intelligence was jeopardized, our sources were jeopardized, and I think H.R. McMaster, sitting in on that meeting, did not have that feeling. He thought it was something worth sharing. And I think that frustration was driving him to make that very technical statement, and I think further explanation will confirm that.
BOLDUAN: What further explanation are you looking for, Keith? What is he up against right now and this White House?
KEITH BOYKIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: He gave a 30-second statement in front of the White House to reporters, did not take questions, did not answer any of the details of the questions that people had, didn't deny the specifics of "The Washington Post" story. Instead, denied something that was never even in the story.
Here's what we think we know right now, that last Tuesday, Donald Trump fired the FBI director who was leading the investigation into the Russia story. The very next day, Trump meets with the Russian foreign minister and a known Russian spy, the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, and he gives them highly classified information. And then he talks to the FBI director a few days later about the appearance or a disclosure of possible tapes. We have a president who has become unhinged. We have Senator Susan Collins just yesterday saying these are not normal times. Senator Bob Corker saying the White House is in a downward spiral. The question now is, what will Republicans do about it? They have a duty, a constitutional obligation to stand up to this president and make sure he is held accountable.
BOLDUAN: Do you think the White House's credibility is on the line here, Kayleigh?
MCENANY: No, I don't think so. And I think it's worth reminding everyone --
BOLDUAN: Why not?
MCENANY: -- every legal scholar has said the president has a right to do this, even the "Washington Post" story --
A right to declassify is different than should --
MCENANY: Sure. Phil Mudd on CNN last night made an excellent point that the Russians have been victims of ISIS attacks. We know 220 Russians died on a plane in October of 2015. So, perhaps the president declassified this to warn the Russians.
BOLDUAN: But follow that one step further. This might not have been the president's information to declassify. If this was given from an ally, this was an intelligence-sharing moment, this was intelligence that was shared with the U.S. government, so classified that it was held so tightly that they didn't even share it broadly amongst those in some of the top layers of the U.S. government. Should the president be handing that out?
[11:45:16] MCENANY: Look, I think if his rational is what was tweeted today, which is that I want Russia on board in fighting ISIS, if he shows the Russians, you're as much at risk as is Western Europe, as the United States.
BOLDUAN: Even if it means a stream of intelligence will now dry up?
MCENANY: Well, H.R. McMaster seems to be convinced that it won't. He believes -- (CROSSTALK)
BOLDUAN: John McCain called it deeply disturbing and says that "Regrettably, the time that President Trump spent sharing sensitive information with the Russians was time he did not spend on focusing on Russia's aggressive behavior, including its interference in American and European elections."
MCENANY: That's before John McCain was even briefed on the meeting. I think that Senator McCain --
BOYKIN: Nobody was briefed on the meeting.
MCENANY: No, but Senators are going to be briefed today on what happened. Instead of putting out a statement before you know the facts --
BOYKIN: No, that's exactly what the White House did, put out a statement. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put out a statement. Dina Powell put out a statement.
MCENANY: Because they were in the meeting! They're all first-hand --
BOYKIN: All these people put out the statements and then Donald Trump comes out today and contradicts what his own White House is saying. This is not a normal White House. This is not normal behavior. And the problem is that the president of the United States is rewarding the Russians. If he were making a strategic decision, as Chris Murphy and Adam Schiff just pointed out a moment ago, if you were making a strategic decision to declassify information and went through the bureaucratic process to do declassification, that would be one thing. But he just willy-nilly impromptu decided to disclose highly classified information, compromise an incredibly important U.S. partner and ally. And this is not the behavior we expect from someone --
BOLDUAN: Do you think --
BOYKIN: -- who spent the entire campaign complaining about the disclosure of information from Hillary Clinton.
BOLDUAN: What I'm hearing from some folks is this is part of the learning curve. Right? This is the president learning on the job. Maybe he didn't know he shouldn't disclose it.
At what point, Kayleigh, do we hit the expiration date on that excuse?
MCENANY: I think everyone should back up before we know the facts. John McCain was not in that meeting. You, Keith, were not in that meeting. People in the meeting said it
was a responsible use of information. H.R. McMaster, who Democrats have been praising, said this is a response --
BOYKIN: Why are they contradicting the White House --
MCENANY: They are not contradicting --
BOYKIN: Why is the president saying something different than the White House, Kayleigh?
MCENANY: They're not. They're saying we dealt with threats to aviation --
BOLDUAN: H.R. McMaster obviously will clear that up.
BOYKINS: Where are the tapes?
BOLDUAN: Do you think he should say if there are tapes, we should hand them over?
BOLDUAN: Obviously, putting them out publicly can't be done because it's highly classified information. But I'm a little bit surprised that maybe -- however this played out, that the top intel leaders, top Congressional leaders, they haven't even been briefed yet.
MCENANY: And they should be briefed. And that's where transparency would help in this. I agree that H.R. McMaster should have taken questions last night. They're coming out with this briefing today to respond --
BOLDUAN: And here they are.
BOYKIN: And here we are.
BOLDUAN: Here the briefing begins. Sean Spicer taking to the lectern.
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Good morning.
As you know, the president of Turkey is shortly going to be arriving at the White House. But prior to his arrival, as I promised, General McMaster is going to give an update on the president's trip that starts this Friday.
And I know there are some additional questions regarding some news of the day. So without further ado, General McMaster.
GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Good morning, everybody.
Last week, we discussed the president's upcoming trip. I promised I'd come back and go through the schedule in more detail. I'm happy to do that today. And Sean tells me there's another topic you might want to talk about as well.
So, I'm happy to answer any questions about that after we go through the schedule here.
But first of all, Secretary Tillerson will accompany the president for most of the trip, breaking off just before the G-7 meeting. And as you know, the trip will begin in Saudi Arabia. It's an historic trip. After the arrival ceremony in Riyadh, the president will have coffee with King Salman, attend a royal banquet, and hold bilateral meetings with the king, the crown prince, and the deputy crown prince.
He will also participate in a signing ceremony of several agreements that will further solidify U.S.-Saudi security and economic cooperation. That evening, the president and the first lady will join members of the Saudi royal family for an official dinner.
The next day, the president will hold bilateral meetings with Gulf Cooperation Council leaders, as well as broader meetings with Gulf state leaders. In the afternoon, he will meet and have lunch with leaders of more than 50 Muslim countries where he will deliver an inspiring, yet direct speech on the need to confront radical ideology and his hopes, the president's hopes for a peaceful vision of Islam to dominate across the world.
The speech is intended to unite the broader Muslim world against common enemies of all civilization and to demonstrate America's commitment to our Muslim partners.
The president will then participate in the inauguration of a new center intended to fight radicalism and promote moderation.
[11:50:01] By establishing and operating this center, our Muslim friends, including Saudi Arabia, are taking a firm stand against extremism and those who use a perverted interpretation of -- of religion to advance their criminal and political agendas.
The president also looks forward to participating in a Twitter forum with young people who will be able to live tweet his remarks to people all over the world.
The president will then continue on to Jerusalem, where he will meet with President Rivlin and lay a wreath at Yad Vashem. The president will then deliver remarks at the Israeli -- the Israel Museum, and celebrate the unique history of Israel and of the Jewish people while reaffirming America's unshakable bond with our closest ally in the Middle East.
Later that day, he will meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu. That night, the president and the first lady will join the prime minister and Mrs. Netanyahu for a private dinner.
The following morning, the president will meet President Abbas in Bethlehem, where he will convey his administration's eagerness to facilitate an agreement that ends the conflict.
And he will urge Palestinian leaders to take steps that will help lead to peace. And he will visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and say a prayer at the Western Wall.
In Rome the next day, the president will have an audience with the pope at the Vatican. He looks forward to celebrating the rich contributions of Catholics to America and to the world, and to discussing a range of issues of mutual concern, some of which I summarized last time.
Before leaving the Vatican, the president will meet the cardinal secretary of state and will tour St. Peter's.
Later that afternoon, the president will meet with the king and the prime minister of -- of Belgium and the heads of state and government of the host country to the NATO alliance.
He'll also, though -- he'll also, though, meet President Mattarella before departing -- before departing Rome for Brussels. The next morning, the president will travel to the E.U. headquarters to meet with the presidents of the European Union and of the European Council. He will then hold a working lunch with the newly elected president of France, whom he will meet in person for the first time.
That afternoon, the president will deliver remarks at the unveiling of NATO's memorial to our shared struggle in front of a piece of the Berlin Wall and a segment of the World Trade Center. He will reaffirm America's commitment to the alliance and repeat his insistence that, for the good of the alliance, all members must share responsibility and share burdens.
Joined by Secretary Mattis, he will participate in the NATO leaders' meeting and dinner before then traveling to Sicily for the G- 7. Throughout the summit, he will meet bilaterally with leaders, including the Italian prime minister. In the formal meetings, he will press America's economic agenda and call for greater security cooperation.
On the first night of the summit, he will also attend a concert performed by the La Scala Philharmonic Orchestra, followed by a leaders' dinner hosted by the president of Italy.
Before departing Italy for home, the president will speak to American and allied servicemen and -women and their families. He will thank them for their sacrifices they all make to keep us safe. And he'll also recount the highlights and accomplishments of the trip.
And so I'll ask Sean to call on -- on any of you who have questions. Thanks.
QUESTION: Thanks a lot.
General McMaster, you came out to the stakeout area yesterday and in coming out to the stakeout area you said that the Washington Post story that came out late yesterday afternoon was false.
Do you stick by that assertion? Do you think that every element of that story is false? And do you have anything to correct in terms of what you said at the podium yesterday afternoon?
MCMASTER: No, I -- I stand by my statement that I made yesterday.
What I'm saying is really the premise of that article is false, that in any way the president had a conversation that was inappropriate or that resulted in any kind of lapse in -- in national security.
And so I think the real issue, and I think what I'd like to see really debated more, is that our national security has been put at risk by those violating confidentiality, and those releasing information to the press that -- that could be used, connected with other information available, to make American citizens and others more vulnerable.
QUESTION: General, was classified information leaked?
General, was classified information leaked?
QUESTION: Thank you.
General, can you tell us if (inaudible) Prime Minister Netanyahu will join President Trump at the Western Wall?
[11:55:00] And does the president believe that the Western Wall is part of Israel?
MCMASTER: Part of his what? I'm sorry.
QUESTION: Part of Israel.
MCMASTER: No, the -- no Israeli leaders will join President Trump to the Western Wall.
He's going to the Western Wall mainly in connection with the theme to -- to connect with three of the world's great religions and to -- and to -- to advance -- to pay homage to each of these religious sites that he's visiting, but also to highlight the theme that we all have to be united against what are really the enemies of all civilized people, and that we have to be joined together in -- in a -- with an agenda of -- of tolerance and moderation.
QUESTION: General, I just want to try to dig into some details of this reporting on the president's conversations with the Russians.
Are you denying that he revealed information that was given to the U.S. by an intelligence partner?
MCMASTER: So, what I -- what we don't do is discuss what is and what -- what isn't classified.
What I will tell you, is in the context of that -- that -- that discussion, what the president discussed with the foreign minister was wholly appropriate to that conversation and is consistent with the routine sharing of information between the president and -- and any leaders with whom he's engaged.
QUESTION: But was it...
MCMASTER: And -- and...
QUESTION: ... you had received from an intelligence partner?
MCMASTER: I -- I'm not going to be the one to confirm -- the -- the -- confirm that, because that's sort of information that could -- that could jeopardize -- could jeopardize...
MCMASTER: ... our security.
QUESTION: ... U.S. allies that you have these types of intelligence- sharing relationships with the U.S. will stop providing that information?
MCMASTER: No, I'm not concerned at all.
The -- that -- that conversation was wholly appropriate to the conversation, and I think wholly appropriate what the expectations are of our intelligence partners.
QUESTION: If I can follow on that, General, have you reached out to foreign partners who might've contributed such information to the U.S. and talked to them about it, tried to reassure them? What's -- if so, what was their reaction?
MCMASTER: I -- I have not. And I'm not sure what conversations have been held about that.
SPICER: Carol (ph)? QUESTION: The -- going back to what you were saying earlier, if there was nothing that the president shared that he shouldn't have shared, why does his national -- his counterterrorism adviser contact the NSA and the CIA about what he had said?
MCMASTER: Yeah, I -- I would -- I would say maybe it's from an overabundance of precaution, but I'm not sure. I mean, I -- I not -- I've not talked to -- to -- to Mr. Bossert about -- about that, about why he -- why he reached out.
QUESTION: But he was there, so what -- what...
QUESTION: Presumably you would understand why there was a reason to reach out.
MCMASTER: So, I -- I -- I was in the room, the secretary of state was in the room, as you know, the deputy assistant -- the deputy adviser for national security, Dina Powell, for strategy was in the room. And -- and none of us felt in any way that that conversation was inappropriate.
QUESTION: Thanks, Sean.
General, (inaudible), when was the decision made to share that information with the Russians? Did the president spontaneously on the spot decide to give that information over, or was there an interagency process or some kind of formal decision-making process in advance of that meeting with the Russians last week?
MCMASTER: Well, as -- as you know, the -- the president -- it is wholly appropriate for the president to share whatever information he thinks is necessary to advance the security of the American people. That's what he did.
As to your question on had that information been shared previously, I'm not sure about that.
QUESTION: When -- when did he make that decision (inaudible)?
MCMASTER: When did he make the decision?
QUESTION: When did he make the decision to share the information...
MCMASTER: He made the decision in the context of -- of the conversation, which was wholly appropriate.
So, let's just -- I think one -- one -- I think it's worth recapping one thing here.
The president was meeting with -- with the foreign minister about -- about the terrorist threat. He'd also raised some difficult issues: what he -- what we expected in terms of different behavior from Russia in -- in key areas like -- like -- like Ukraine, and -- and as in Syria.
But then the president was emphasizing, "Hey, we have some common interests here. We have to work together in some critical areas." And we have an area -- we have a -- an area of cooperation with transnational terrorist organizations, ISIS in particular, an organization that had already taken down a Russian airliner and murdered over 200 people in October of 2015.
And so -- so -- so this was the -- the -- the context of the conversation in which it was wholly appropriate to share what the threat was as a basis for common action and coordination and cooperation.
QUESTION: (inaudible) in the moment, then, during the context of that conversation?
QUESTION: Excuse me (ph), I want to follow on first with Jennifer's question, which you didn't answer, about the Western Wall being part of Israel.
MCMASTER: Oh, that's -- that's -- that sounds like a policy decision for -- you know, and -- and -- and that's -- the president's intention --and I -- I did answer the question in terms of what his intention is, would he go with Israeli officials. The president's intention is to visit these religious sites, to highlight the need for unity among three of the world's great religions: unity in confronting a very grave threat to all civilization, and unity in embracing an agenda of -- of tolerance.
QUESTION: And my -- my second (ph) -- can I get to the question that I had, please?
Did the president reveal a city? And that -- I mean, the spin is that the president revealed the name of the city, and that gave away information that undermined an ally.
[12:00:02] MCMASTER: OK, I -- I will answer that.
OK, so, all of you are very familiar with the threat from ISIS. All of you are very familiar with the territory it controls.