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President Trump Holds Meeting on Guns and Safety; The Wild, Wild West Wing; Interview with Senator Richard Blumenthal. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired February 28, 2018 - 16:00   ET



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We've got to be very tough on the black market.


TRUMP: We're on the road to something terrific. Thank you all very much. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you.

QUESTION: Mr. President, could you see yourself supporting an assault weapons ban?

TRUMP: Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Do you still have confidence in Attorney General Sessions?

TRUMP: Thank you.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

You have been watching a lively and interesting discussion among President Trump and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, the president calling on the group to -- quote -- "turn our grief into action" and move in a bipartisan way -- quote -- "to end the senseless violence of mass shootings."

President Trump again bringing up the idea of raising the age of the ability for people to purchase semiautomatic weapons to 21. It's currently 18, though he declined to say whether he would sign a bill specifically that includes that provision. He talked about the need to discuss it.

The president had recently dropped mention of that initial proposal of his. The NRA personally lobbied Trump during a lunch over the weekend to back away from that age raising, a source told CNN. The president, however, did argue just now that arming teachers will prevent school shootings.

He talked about the need for states to look into that. He also mentioned several times that a lot is up to the states in making these changes. He really seemed to make an emphasis -- let's bring in my panel right now -- on background checks and the mentally ill. It was I guess the second time we've something like this. The first

time was with immigration reform, where the president sounded very similar, but then a few days later, seemed to backing away.


I would say, if you were trying to find a firm position from the president, you wouldn't find it watching this. That said, I do think there are three pretty big takeaways.

Number one, he said many times he's willing to take on the NRA. He made a point of saying that. And he broke with them specifically in regard to raising the age of purchasing guns from 18 to 21, which he instructed the group several times to take a look at that.

I believe that is Trump's way of saying that is what he wants. And then the third piece of it was that he kept emphasizing that they have to do something in regards to are mentally ill. What that is specifically, I have no idea. I don't think he fully understands the privacy issues involved with doing that.

But one thing I was frustrated not to hear discussion of was the use of gun violence protection orders, which are implemented in many states, and does have a lot of traction with conservatives. And I think that is an avenue for satisfying the president's need on that front in a way that protects liberty for law-abiding citizens.

TAPPER: That's something that Marco Rubio has talked about quite a bit.

A gun violence protection order is when an immediate family member thinks you might be in danger of harming yourself or others. You go to a judge and you get a gun violence protection order. And the police come and take away your guns and at least temporarily take away your ability to purchase guns.

Phil, what were your thoughts on this?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Can we take a breath here? When you're the president of the United States, you're engaged in a conversation with serious policy officials, in this case people from the United States Congress, you have got to have some takeaways.

Takeaway one, does the president support some sort of action on semiautomatic rifles, yes or no? I don't know.

TAPPER: I don't know.

CARPENTER: I don't know.

MUDD: Takeaway two, when you are talking about serious background checks, as you know, Jake, you're talking about a violation of privacy.

If I'm a mental health professional and you walk in and discuss your mental health problems, am I required to tell the FBI or state and local official I'm concerned about Jake Tapper, yes or no?

He talked about weapons. He talked about mental health. I don't know what he means and I'm not sure he knows what he means.

TAPPER: He did say he wanted a lot of strong actions when it comes to the mentally ill. But you're right. He didn't go into specifics at all.

Symone Sanders, one of the things that was very interesting about this, there were a lot of liberal Democrats in that room, from Dianne Feinstein to Chris Murphy to Ted Deutch of Florida, who represents Broward County, to Amy Klobuchar and others.

They took on a very conciliatory tone with President Trump. They hope, they want him to do something on this.


I think everyone -- Democrats have been to -- this is not the first time that we've had a showdown, if you will, in terms of commonsense gun safety legislation in this country.


If we just Remember, just a few months ago, members in Congress in U.S. House of Representatives took their phones on the floor and Facebooked live from the floor in order to push Paul Ryan to take up some type of gun legislation and force a vote. It did not happen.

And I think Democrats want President Trump to do something. I think America wants him to do something, to say what he will be for, to come to some type of a consensus. But I agree. We didn't really get much out of this meeting.

This was another one of those dog and pony reality TV moments that Donald Trump likes to have. But we did not get enough real good -- I'm not sure what President Trump is for. We definitely know he's for eliminating gun-free zones, I guess, for the matter and arming teachers. And that's just not feasible.

TAPPER: Yesterday, we interviewed Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, and he talked about the problem of Tuesday Trump vs. Thursday Trump, the idea that he might say something, sound like this one day, and then two days later completely turn around and say that exact opposite, which happened with immigration reform.

He said he saw what happened with immigration and he's worried about it happening with guns. We will see, I guess, whether it happens.

We're going to take a very quick break. Stick around.

This is far from the only thing happening at the White House today. Has the West Wing turned into the wild, wild West Wing? That's next.

Stay with us.


[16:15:33] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: And we're back with the "Politics Lead." The wild, wild West Wing. Three stunning stories from the Trump White House and they all happened in just the last 24 hours.

Let's begin with Attorney General Jeff Sessions whom President Trump attacked this morning, again, for following standard procedures.

The president tweeting, quote, "Why is AG Jeff Sessions asking the inspector general to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse? Will take forever. Has no prosecutorial power. And already late with reports on Comey, et cetera. Isn't the IG an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? Disgraceful," unquote.

Sessions this afternoon responded to those attacks saying in part, quote, "As long as I am the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor. Note that as long as I am the attorney general," Sessions saying there, a pointed remember to the heckler-in-chief that he indeed has the power to change Mr. Sessions' employment status if he wants. But as long as Sessions has the job he has, he'll do it the way he sees as appropriate.

This public shaming for the man President Trump hired for this job is just the latest attack President Trump has aimed at Attorney General Sessions. Every time it has been an attack on Sessions for abiding by Justice Department protocols.

Just wondering, has an attorney general ever before in American history been so publicly assailed by his boss and for doing what is considered to be ethical such as his recusal from the Russia investigation or appropriate in today's case having the inspector general look into questions about Justice Department conduct?

The president would seem to value loyalty above all else. Take one of President Trump's most loyal and closest confidantes, White House communications director Hope Hicks. She admitted to congressional investigators that she has said things that are not true on behalf of her boss. The president, according to a source, lies she characterized as white lies, not about anything substantial. And Hicks has insisted she's never lied about the Russia investigation.

But what have these lies been about? And to whom? To the American people? To journalists? And about what? Miss Hicks declined to elaborate when we asked her earlier today but she is hardly the only senior adviser in focus today.

A source has told CNN that Jared Kushner is unlikely to ever get a top secret security clearance as long as the special counsel investigation is ongoing. You might recall that yesterday we learned that the president's son-in-law and senior adviser had his interim security clearance downgraded from top secret SCI to secret, a move that is incredibly significant.

Someone who negotiated Mideast peace for a previous administration -- that's what Kushner does now in addition to other duties -- told me that the job would have been impossible if he had not had a top secret SCI clearance. Quote, "I would have had to quit. You can't even go into meetings in the situation room with a secret clearance. They literally give to anyone without a criminal record on day one. Kushner is basically flying blind in a snowstorm."

The official told me that he cannot imagine how Kushner will be able to continue serving in the role he's been in saying, quote, "It's hard to imagine having any substantive high-level policy conversations that don't include at least top secret information. Plus, it's sometimes hard to keep track of what's classified at which level so if folks are responsible they won't talk about anything classified when Kushner's around."

Some possible insight into why Kushner is having such a tough time getting the security clearance he needs was revealed by sources familiar with intelligence reports on the matter telling the "Washington Post" that 2officials from at least four countries have privately discussed ways they could try to manipulate Kushner by, quote, "taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience," unquote.

We should note that it's not as if top secret clearance has only been granted to a select few dozen people. A 2015 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence reported that 1,363,483 Americans had top secret clearances. The kind that has been denied Jared Kushner.

Think about that. Which when you think about all of this, frankly, it's pretty astounding. For more than a year, someone whom the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel, and Mexico reportedly think of someone they could manipulate had access to the most secret information the U.S. government has.

Now how does that square with the issue of being responsible with top secret information that President Trump described during the 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton?


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This was not just extreme carelessness with classified material, which is still totally disqualifying.

This is calculated, deliberate, premeditated misconduct. Her actions put our national security at risk.


TRUMP: And put the safety and security of your children and your families at risk. I'm going to enforce all laws concerning the protection of classified information.


TAPPER: Hmm. So to sum up, in just the last 24 hours, President Trump attacked attorney general for trying to abide by appropriate protocols instead of running the Justice Department like his own private oppo research shop. His communications director has admitted that she has communicated falsehoods, and we have learned that one of the president's very top aides is potentially so compromised, it's unclear how he can function in his job without the White House seriously compromising top secret information.

Do you know what we call a day like that around here? Wednesday.

I want to turn now to Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senator Blumenthal, thanks for being here. Is there any evidence that Jared Kushner's business interests have impacted policies in any way related to Mexico, China, the UAE or Israel?

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: That is one of the key questions that is going to have to be determined in the debriefing and possible damage control that will follow his downgrading of his status and his denial of access to top secret information now.

But there's no question, Jake, that Jared Kushner simply cannot continue in his present role. He has been fatally compromised by these foreign entanglements. The pressure his family holdings have encountered. The need to rely potentially on foreign debt. His contacts with foreign leaders and the intercepts of those contacts, which may have in turn compromised him further.

So there needs to be some investigative work done here to determine whether or not secrets, our nation's highly classified information, has been compromised as a result of these foreign entanglements and his naivete and lack of experience.

TAPPER: You say he can't do his job. Do you think Kushner should resign?

BLUMENTHAL: The president has to in effect ask him to reconsider his role, if he moves to another position elsewhere in the administration, perhaps more ceremonial, than effective as a negotiator, that would be an alternative. But his present position is in effect untenable and unsustainable and so far he's been assigned to work with foreign leaders in the most sensitive kind of negotiations without access to that highly classified information, which includes the communications among foreign leaders. He simply cannot do the job that he has right now.

TAPPER: Does he need to give up the portfolio that includes relationships with Mexico and China, trying to create a Mideast peace deal? You heard the quote from someone who helped negotiate Mideast peace from a previous administration saying there's no way he could have done his job without top secret security clearance?

BLUMENTHAL: In any other administration, he would be fired from this job. In any other administration, he would have no role in those kinds of negotiations with Mexico, Qatar, China, or any other government where he had these kinds of (INAUDIBLE). Remember, Jared Kushner asked for a back channel, off-the-record communication with Russia in his meeting with the Russian ambassador. He met privately, off the record, with the head of the Russian bank. He had other contacts with the Russians. In no other administration would he still have his job.

TAPPER: Yesterday you demanded that the White House answer your question as to who currently has a temporary security clearance, how they were granted and renewed, and an explanation of what kind of classified information they would have had access to given the actions taken. Are you satisfied?

BLUMENTHAL: In no way am I satisfied. That letter was written with Chairman Grassley, a Republican colleague of the Judiciary Committee. We want information about who had these interim clearances, what was the protocol or procedure by which they were granted? What steps are being taken to make sure it never happens again.

We need to protect our national security. This administration has demonstrated an utter contempt for the protocols and practices that safeguarded our nation's secrets and allowed people like Rob Porter to have access to the most highly classified information, the president's daily brief. When they had secrets of their own, devastating secrets that could have subjected them to blackmail. And so those kinds of questions are ever as real and urgent now as they were yesterday or the day before.

[16:25:03] And these kinds of considerations are the reasons that I asked for Jared Kushner's security clearance to be reviewed nine months ago, along with Michael Flynn.

TAPPER: To your knowledge, does the president's daughter Ivanka Trump who also serves a top adviser, does she still have access to top secret information or classified information?

BLUMENTHAL: We have no reason to believe that Ivanka Trump is no longer privileged to have access to that information. She may still be seeing it. One of the questions we have, a very urgent, pressing question is whether she has been compromised in the way that Jared Kushner has been, and whether she continues to have access to that highly secret information.

Remember, the reason people ought to be concerned is this information concerns the lives of our sources and methods of intelligence abroad, lives are at stake, individuals in uniform who are abroad, in places where they may be in jeopardy. Compromising this information puts them at risk.

TAPPER: Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, thanks for your time, sir. Appreciate it.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

TAPPER: Let's bring back my panel. I guess, first of all, Amanda, the Trump campaign in 2016, and Mr. Trump himself, candidate Trump himself, made a big deal, not without reason of the fact that the FBI had said that Hillary Clinton and her team have been extremely reckless or careless in the handling of top secret or classified information. And yet we have this. I mean --

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, they're immune to charges of hypocrisy. But having Jared Kushner doesn't have the clearance to do his job. This is like finding a guy who failed medical school, letting him perform surgery on you without a scalpel. It just doesn't work. Having him in there. He has no function. Except to bungle things up.

And I'm glad you raised the question about Ivanka. I haven't seen any other people go there because they're married. And if it was some kind of financial entanglement that prevented him from continuing to enjoy this top clearance, then that probably affects Ivanka. And the thing that really boggles my mind is that we probably would not be drawing close scrutiny to these issues had it not been for the Rob Porter issue.


CARPENTER: This is what opened all that up. And so I think everyone knew sort of intuitively Jared Kushner probably had issues with his clearance. But there wasn't a reason to push it until we knew for sure that this other person did. And so I hope people continue to hold the fire in them because they're not the only ones.

TAPPER: So, Phil, as a former CIA and FBI official, help us get some perspective here on the "Washington Post" report. The "Washington Post" report says that individuals who have knowledge of the intelligence reports about this say that there are intercepts, or at least they have -- they know of private conversations of individuals in the UAE, China, Mexico, and Israel.

I think those are the four. Talking about how they can manipulate Jared or they hope to manipulate him because of his naivete, because of his foreign business entanglements and because of the problems that they're having, bankruptcies and the like. And that is one of the reasons potentially for the problem he's having getting a top secret security clearance.

You still have a top secret security clearance.



TAPPER: You're one of the 1.3 million people. This is how we know it.

MUDD: I thought I was special.

CARPENTER: Tell me everything after the show.


TAPPER: But how big a deal is that that there are intelligence reports that say that these four countries think they can manipulate this guy? MUDD: Zero. That's not a big deal. Misguided conversation. The

conversation is not whether he's met with foreign officials who think they can manipulate him. The conversation is about his own personal vulnerability. Why didn't he front it? When you walk in with a polygrapher, the question is not whether I've talked to Russians, I've talked to the former KGB when I was with the FBI. I went to Christmas dinner with the former KGB when I was at the FBI. That's OK.

Don't go in and say I never did it. I didn't report it. The question is, why weren't you truthful on the initial application? The bigger issue is this, it's not about whether he has access to one piece of information or another. You walk into a room. In this case the room is the Oval Office. You're talking about Iran, China, Mexico. You're talking about the Palestinians, the Israelis.

When the conversation shifts, you've got to look at the corner of the room and say, can I really continue this conversation? Because that guy can't get his clearance. It's not about access to one piece of information or another. It's about, why did the deputy attorney general feel compelled to call the White House and say, for an accelerated clearance that the president wants, we can't close it out? That's a problem.

TAPPER: And Symone, we hear now that Jared Kushner feels as though he's being picked on unfairly by the Chief of Staff John Kelly who because of the Rob Porter incident, and the fact that this very blackmailable guy who apparently likes to beat up women, was very blackmailable and had access to the president daily brief and all that.

John Kelly who was the target of a lot of criticism has said I'm going to fix this. Anybody with temporary security clearance from such and such a date that ends on this date and Jared Kushner feels --