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President Trump Is On Defense After Saying He'd Welcome Dirt From A Foreign Country On His 2020 Rival. Tensions Are Flaring Between The United States And Iran. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired June 14, 2019 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hello, I'm Pamela Brown in for Brooke Baldwin on this Friday. You're watching CNN. Thank you so much for joining me.

Well, you could call it a cleanup, a clarification, maybe even a walk back. President Trump is on defense this Friday after saying he'd welcome dirt from a foreign country on his 2020 rival.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES: If somebody called from a country -- Norway, we have information on your opponent. Oh, I think I'd want to hear it.


BROWN: So, 24 hours and a whole lot of outrage later, the President is now saying this.


TRUMP (via phone): I think it was accurately stated and I've had a lot of support on this, I think --

STEVE DOOCY, FOX NEWS HOST: Well then, clarify it.

TRUMP (via phone): Yes, I mean, I've had a lot of support. First of all, I don't think anybody would present me with anything bad because they know how much I love this country. Number two, if I was and of course you have to look at it, because if you don't look at it you're not going to know if it's bad. How are you going to know if it's bad?

But, of course, you give it to the FBI or report it to the Attorney General or somebody like that.


BROWN: And you'll recall that President Trump said FBI Director Chris Wray was wrong that foreign assistance to a U.S. campaign does not need to be reported to the agency. Chris Wray had said, it did need to be reported to the FBI.

The President had said otherwise to ABC, and the head of the Federal Election Commission disagrees with the President on that and much more.

So in a tweet that begins quote, "I would not have thought that I needed to say this." Ellen Weintraub says in part quote, "Let me make something 100 percent clear. It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election." She goes on to say that, "Anyone who solicits or accepts foreign assistance risks being on the wrong end of a Federal Investigation."

I want to bring in CNN's Sarah Westwood at the White House. So Sarah, I'm guessing this latest firestorm, it is not exactly how the President wanted to celebrate his 73rd birthday today.

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN REPORTER: Probably not, Pam, but the President's cleanup attempts here did very little to end the scrutiny of his acknowledgment just a few days ago that he would accept dirt from a foreign national on his political opponents.

And that part, he's not even really walking back. He's still saying that he would accept the dirt if it came from a foreign source in connection to an election. But he's just now saying that he would also alert the FBI or the Attorney General in that hypothetical situation, which also, Pam, wasn't so hypothetical in 2016.

That's a far cry from what the President told ABC, a few days ago, when he said that he's never in his life called the FBI, that he thought the FBI Director was wrong in advising candidates of both parties to go to the Justice Department if they have a foreign national approaching them with information.

But the President here is really trying to have it both ways, still wanting to get that information but also trying to respond to that outrage over his saying that he wouldn't even report it to the proper authorities. And he's also continuing to compare this situation to conversations -- diplomatic talks that he has with foreign leaders of friendly countries.

He presented this hypothetical situation, "What if the President of France criticizes my opponent am I supposed to call the Justice Department?" But of course that's not the context in which this conversation is taking place. That's really the context of what happened in the last Presidential election when people purporting to have dirt coming from Russia did approach the Trump campaign and they were open to that meeting.

So the President's still facing some criticism over his comments about foreign dirt -- Pam.

BROWN: All right. Sarah Westwood, thank you for bringing us the latest there from the White House. The President says he has received support for it this latest self-made controversy and in the Senate, he's actually getting an assist from Mitch McConnell, who is dismissing the outrage while taking a jab at Democrats. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): He gets picked at every day over every

different aspect of it. But the fundamental point is they're trying to keep the 2016 election alive. I would ask the Democrats in the House this. Is there anything you're willing to do other than harass the President for the next two years? Anything at all?


BROWN: Manu Raju, is CNN's senior congressional correspondent. He's on Capitol Hill for us. So Manu, McConnell claims, this is all about Democrats' fixation on the past.

[14:05:02] BROWN: His colleagues across the aisle and even some of McConnell's fellow Republicans say their top concern is keeping future elections free of foreign interference. But the majority leader has made it clear that, look, that topic isn't up for discussion. He's not interested in it, or a vote. Tell us more.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. Republicans and Democrats have called for more action to bolster the election infrastructure heading into the 2020 elections, concerned about the warnings from the intelligence chief said foreign interference could happen again.

But Mitch McConnell is making the case that enough has already been done. He says that, Congress has taken steps to appropriate Federal dollars to bolster to the state and local election systems.

He believes that Washington should not be telling Federal and State localities exactly what to do. Those decisions should be made by those local elections. But also, at the same time, he's attacking Democrats for moving forward on their own legislation that he believes has poisoned the well of sorts.

But the political reality, too, Pamela, is that if he were to move forward with some of the bills that are being discussed, some of the bills that would ordinarily have bipartisan support, such as prohibiting campaigns from getting help from a foreign government or at least requiring the disclosure of foreign offers of help from a foreign government to the FBI.

If you were to move forward on that, that could create a fight with President Trump or be an embarrassment an implicit rebuke of President Trump given the way that his campaign acted in 2016. Having that meeting in Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr. and Russians in which he was promised dirt on the Clinton campaign.

That is a fight that McConnell and Republican leaders certainly do not want to have with this President. So, at the moment, Mitch McConnell putting the brakes on legislation, believing enough has been done to move forward and to help with the current situation, believe that they did a good job in 2018 and certainly not wanting to start a fight with President Trump -- Pamela.

BROWN: Certainly -- he's certainly making his stance clear. Manu Raju, you thank you so much for bringing us the latest from Capitol Hill.

I want to bring in now Josh Dowsey, White House reporter for "The Washington Post" and a CNN political analyst. Also, Larry Noble former General Counsel for the Federal Election Commission. Thank you gentlemen for coming on the show, appreciate it.

So Larry, the FEC chief said that she never thought that she would have to clearly state that a U.S. campaign cannot accept foreign help. You were the FEC's top lawyer. What went through your mind when you heard the President say what he said to ABC?

LARRY NOBLE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: My jaw dropped. It is one of the basic principles of campaign finance law -- that you cannot accept assistance from a foreign national, let alone a foreign government.

It is one of the only provisions in the law -- there's one other one, that applies not only to Federal elections but to State and Local elections.

It is of such concern that you can't accept any help in any election. Everybody knows this or should know this. So I thought it was ridiculous when he said that.

BROWN: And so, what do you think about the way he's trying to walk it back and saying, well you have to listen to then tell the FBI about, you know, what was being offered. What is your reaction to that? And then also, I want you to hit on what this thing of value -- anything of value means because the FEC Chief clearly called that out as well.

NOBLE: Right. No, you don't have to listen. It depends on the -- look, it does depend on the facts. If somebody hands you an envelope and you don't know what's in the envelope, yes, you may have to open the envelope. And as soon as you see it as something to do with interference in the election, you should seal it up and give it to the FBI.

If you're in a conversation and somebody says, I want to talk to you. If they send you an e-mail and says I want to talk to you about information we can give you that will help your election from a foreign government. And this is what happened in 2016, Russia wants to help you. It has information.

You don't have to hear that information. You should immediately say, "No, I will not do that." And you should call the FBI.

It's absurd to say that you can listen to the information and then decide whether or not you're going to report it or if it's really serious. The answer is, no you can't do this.

BROWN: All right, I want to bring in Josh. On that note, Josh, we know that Russia meddled in our elections. That was laid out in Robert Mueller's report. Vladimir Putin said he preferred Trump over Hillary Clinton but the President said today that no one would bring him dirt because of how much he loves the U.S. -- that he is a patriot and therefore no one would bring him dirt.

Is this about sensitivity to speculation about ties to Russia? What do you make of that?

JOSH DOWSEY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, the President's comments today said that no one would. But in the past, we saw people trying to bring dirt to his campaign from low-level advisers, to senior-level advisers, to the President's, you know, family members in Trump Tower.

So, to think that Russia or another country would not want to meddle in the election, it's just kind of hard to believe. Frankly, you know, Russia has meddled in elections before 2016 and there are lots of other harmful foreign powers, adversaries who want to meddle in elections.

So, it's hard to imagine that in going forward to 2020, a contentious election cycle that someone won't try to do that.

BROWN: And I want to get your take on that, Larry, this idea that because you're a patriot, a foreign country or an adversary wouldn't come to you with dirt.

[14:05:11] NOBLE: Again, that there's just no reason to think that's true. And in this particular situation, we know that Russia already came to his campaign. In 2016 they came, the campaign listened.

The only reason the campaign didn't get into further trouble was because the information they offered -- they decided wasn't really worth very much -- and I guess, the value issue.

Opposition research is very valuable. Campaign spent a lot of money on it. And so, it is something you can value. The law says you cannot accept anything of value from a foreign national.

BROWN: Okay, so let me ask you this -- because the other side would say, well what about this idea of the dossier, the Democrats, you know, paid for a dossier, which was compiled by a foreign national, Christopher Steele. Again, he was a former spy with an ally, but what's the difference there?

NOBLE: The law does not prohibit a foreign national getting paid by your campaign and doing work for your campaign. You can hire foreign nationals. You can hire a company that employs foreign nationals and as long as you pay them that's fine.

The Clinton campaign paid for the Steele dossier. They paid Steele, that is okay. If he had done it for free and given it to them for free that would be a problem.

So the difference is whether or not they are providing you something for free, which is a contribution, or whether or not it's a commercial transaction.

BROWN: All right. I want to turn to Josh on Kellyanne Conway. Josh, as you know, a Federal Agency says a long time aide, Kellyanne

Conway should be fired for violating the Hatch Act.

The agency says Conway mixed political views about candidates while working in her official capacity as counselor to the President. Here is how President Trump responded to that.


TRUMP (via phone): It looks to me like they're trying to take away her right a free speech and that's just not fair. You ask a person a question and every time you suppose that I can't answer, I can't answer. I mean, she's got to have the right of responding to questions.


BROWN: So, I guess not a surprise that he won't fire her but we just saw another Trump veteran, Sarah Sanders, announced her departure. What are you hearing from your sources? Josh, could Conway also leave in her own as part of a staff reshuffle ahead of the campaign?

DOWSEY: There's no indication that Kellyanne Conway is leaving. I mean, she takes ultimate pride, Pamela, in being a survivor in the White House and being someone who's been there, you know, two and a half years, she was on the campaign and pretty defiant even after yesterday.

You saw the President was quick to defend her and say, you know, what a great spokesperson she was for him on television. The repudiation of Kellyanne Conway basically said, you know, no one has behaved this way. It's unprecedented behavior, time and time again she's done this. And the President's reaction was to, you know, to defend her vociferously. So, it's hard to believe that she'll be going anywhere anytime soon.

BROWN: What do you think, Larry, about the President sort of dismissing this suggestion from the special counsel?

NOBLE: It's dangerous but it fits into his attitude generally about these laws. The law is very clear, the special counsel has said that she not only violated the law. She did it time and time again after being warned not to do it. And there's no doubt that if she was not working for the President directly that she would be fired.

BROWN: Well let me -- just quickly, I mean, it seems like the White House in general is kind of downplaying the importance of the Hatch Act.

NOBLE: Right.

BROWN: What is the significance of it? Why does it matter that Kellyanne Conway, according the Special Counsel, violated it?

NOBLE: This is a law that's about 80 years old and it prohibits government officials from using their official position to intervene in politics, to criticize candidates, to say who to vote for. Because in that position the government should not be doing that.

Official resources, official authorities should not be used to interfere in our elections. And the government should -- the government in its efficient capacity should stay out of that. And it's a very important law, every Federal employee knows about it.

You're told about it and it is taken very seriously. You cannot use any -- your official position to intervene in elections. She did it and she did it time and time again.

And I think the President just downplaying that is a warning for the future. Does this mean now that he doesn't think any of the people working for the White House have to comply with the Hatch Act? Is he going to start pressuring people to come out and do things that would be in violation of the Hatch Act?

And this is a concern -- and knowing this President, I don't think we've heard the last of this.

BROWN: All right. Thanks so much, Larry. Josh, appreciate you coming on the show. Happy Friday.

Well right now, escalating tensions in the Middle East. Now, there's new video of the oil tanker attacks that the U.S. says directly links Iran. We are live in Tehran with the latest warnings from both sides.

Plus, new video, out of the Dominican Republic. What a suspect in the shooting of David Ortiz had to say to reporters through the window of his jail cell.

And Senator Elizabeth Warren is moments away from talking to voters in New Hampshire, what it looks like -- why it looks like her, "I got a plan - strategy," seems to be gaining traction. We'll be back.


BROWN: Well, tensions are flaring between the United States and Iran. And now, President Trump is putting the blame squarely on Iran for an attack on two tankers in International waters.


TRUMP (via phone): Well, Iran did do it and you know they did it because you saw the boat. I guess, one of the mines didn't explode and it's probably got essentially Iran written all over it.

[14:20:02] TRUMP: They're a nation of terror and they've changed a lot since I've been President. I can tell you, they were unstoppable and now they are in deep, deep trouble. You can't -- they don't have anything. They are doing so poorly.

BRIAN KILMEADE, FOX NEWS HOST: Then how do you stop these outrageous acts when 30 percent of the world's oil comes from there?

TRUMP: Well, we're going to see.


BROWN: So, this comes, as the United States releases this video. Right here, officials say that this shows Iran were moving an unexploded mine from one of the tankers proving, with quote, "virtual certainty, Iran was behind the attack on the two ships."

CNN's senior International correspondent, Fred Pleitgen is in Tehran. So tell me Fred, how is Iran responding to this new video?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the interesting thing is, Pamela, they haven't responded at all to the new video that we've obtained.

I've been watching Iranian news - state news throughout the day and we really haven't seen that video on at all.

However, what the Iranians are continuing to say is, flat out, that they were not behind this attack. And one of the things that you heard from a semi-official news agency here in Tehran, they were saying, look -- they believe that America's narrative is false, as they say because they point to the fact that the owner of the ship in question that was in that video -- apparently the crew of that ship told them that they don't believe that the ship was attack by a mine but they believe that it was attacked by a surface projectile.

But in general, Pamela, the Iranians absolutely ripping into the Trump administration, especially ripping into Secretary of State Pompeo -- very angry at some of the remarks they heard from Secretary of State Pompeo yesterday. And it was quite interesting to hear President Trump just now say that he believes because of his policies that the Iranians are in trouble because the Iranian leadership certainly doesn't seem to think so.

Today you heard -- and Friday prayers here in Tehran, the main sort of speaker there at the prayer saying, he believes that the Supreme Leader of Iran essentially humiliated the U.S. President by rebuffing President Trump's attempts to try and get talks going between the Iranian government, between the Iranian leadership and the Trump administration. And the Iranians essentially are saying that in this conflict they are not going to be the ones who are going to be backing down -- Pamela.

BROWN: All right. Fred Pleitgen, bringing us the latest from Tehran, thanks for that.

I want to bring in CNN National security analyst Sam Vinograd. She was the former senior adviser to the National Security Adviser in the Obama administration. You had a lot of experience working with how the U.S. handles Iran. Where do we go from here? What is the off- ramp, the path forward?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: This is kind of one of those choose-your-own-adventure moments. We have two options here and they could be complementary. The United States and Iran could use this as a moment to call a truce and privately establish some kind of communication. Option B, is continued escalation including the militarization of the strait and the movement of more assets to the region, which increases the risk of direct confrontation.

On option 1, diplomatic contact. Back in 2012, when I was at the White House, Iran threatened to close a Strait of Hormuz. What did we do? We hit a private channel to reach out to the Iranians and to talk them back from that.

In 2015, when we were negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, there were incidences involving ships in the straits and we were able to communicate directly with the Iranians to de-escalate the situation. The problem is, right now, we don't have a John Kerry. We do not have communications ongoing with Iran to talk about the ways to de-escalate the situation.

BROWN: Well, and it sounds like, the U.S. has been more open to talking with them. President Trump has said it. The Iranians though have been very straightforward and look we want to talk to the U.S. Do you think that's more of just an outward posture but that they would have a back-channel communication?

VINOGRAD: I think Iranians and Trump have a few things in common, including trying to look like the toughest guy in the room, and including the desire to play this game of chicken to show who's the biggest and the baddest. While perhaps, there's some opportunity to have private communication.

It's not surprising to me that they would publicly say that it's completely off the table. The difference today from back when I was in the White House. We started these private communications is -- we're not really credible anymore.

President travel violated the Iran nuclear deal, not to mention all the other deals that he pulls out. And so, why would the Iranians trust President Trump right now and think that if he sits down at the table that what he says is what he's actually going to do.

BROWN: So on that note, President Trump on "Fox and Friends" this morning said actually his hard line politics toward Iran is changing Iran's behavior. He said something big --

VINOGRAD: Oh, he's changing Iran's behavior but not in a good way. I mean, let's be clear, Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon today than when President Trump came into office. Iran has quadrupled uranium production since President Trump pulled out of the Iranian nuclear agreement.

So we had the nuclear program which is increasing they changed their behavior. In that way, while they are upping the ante on all the other malign activities that they're engaged in, including terrorism throughout the region, including targeting commercial vessels, and including cyber attacks, which are a whole other sphere of influence for them.

BROWN: And it seems as though, you know, the more the U.S. does, the more Iran wants to be a menace.

[14:25:06] BROWN: I mean, the U.S. announced sending 1,500 troops to the Middle East in response to threats from Iran last month. And now this, again, we don't really know much more about the evidence. We saw the video. It's interesting though that allies aren't really echoing what we're hearing from this administration in terms of blaming Iran. VINOGRAD: This is just bad staff work. There is no reason why

Secretary of State Pompeo had to go out and directly assign blame to the Iranians without waiting and coordinating on talking points with the allies. That's just kind of standard operating procedure in these situations. So that you show a unified front and so that you figure out what to actually do about something before assigning blame.

We had a Saudi Minister on the Situation Room yesterday with Wolf Blitzer really using different talking points on Iran.

BROWN: Which is interesting because Saudi is no friend of Iran.

VINOGRAD: They're such a hawk. So they should have coordinated this with the allies, so that again there's a unified response to the global menace that Iran is presenting.

BROWN: All right, Sam Vinograd, as always, thank you for bringing your smart analysis on the show.

All right, some new developments out of the Dominican Republic in the shooting of baseball legend David Ortiz. What one of the suspects said about the case through the window of his jail cell window.

Elizabeth Warren is moving up. What's behind her recent rise in the polls with just a few weeks before the first debates.