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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Supreme Court Nominee Hearings; Interview With California Congressman Adam Schiff; Comey Confirms FBI Investigating Trump-Russia Links. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 20, 2017 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: For the first time, the FBI declaring that it is investigating whether there was 2016 coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

THE LEAD starts right now.

A bad day for the president, who is now officially under the cloud of an FBI investigation, with the FBI director also telling Congress that he has no information to back up President Trump's claim that President Obama tapped his phone.

Judging the judge. Hearings are under way for President Trump's Supreme Court nominee, as he faces a new claim that, as a professor, he made some controversial remarks about working women gaming maternity leave.

Plus, North Korea warning of a merciless attack. What does new a rocket engine test mean for Kim Jong-un's ability to hit the U.S. with a nuke?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

A truly extraordinary day in Washington, D.C., as we learn unequivocally that the FBI is investigating Russia's meddling into the 2016 election, and has been since late July of last year.

[16:00:08]

That includes, the FBI director says, looking into any possible links between Russia and any individuals associated with President Trump's 2016 campaign.

FBI Director James Comey confirming the existence of the investigation today in a House Intelligence Committee hearing. And as if that were not potentially damaging enough to President Trump, Director Comey and the director of the National Security Agency, Admiral Mike Rogers, also said they knew of zero evidence to back up the latest two conspiracy theories being put out by the president and his team at the White House.

Comey said he has found -- quote -- "no information" that supports President Trump's tweets claiming that he was wiretapped by President Obama, while NSA Director Rogers adamantly denied another evidence- free White House allegation, that the United Kingdom had helped President Obama wiretap Trump Tower.

That bit of nonsense which first appeared on FOX News and was regurgitated by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer last week in an attempt to support his boss' wild wiretapping claim, well, Rogers said it was not true and -- quote -- "It clearly frustrates a key ally of ours."

CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown joins me now.

Pamela, at this congressional hearing, the questions were very partisan, one side and the other side, almost like two completely different hearings on two completely different topics.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Certainly.

It was a fiery partisan hearing, Jake, with different agendas seemingly on both sides to aisle. As you point out, Democrats were focused on possible collusion during the election and Republicans seemingly more focused on leaks to the press.

Center stage was FBI Director James Comey, who, for the first time, acknowledged the FBI counterintelligence investigation into Trump campaign associates and Russia during the election.

In an extraordinary move, he said President Trump was wrong about the wiretapping allegations.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): Tonight, FBI Director James Comey for the first time publicly confirming that the FBI is investigating alleged links between Russia and associates of the Trump campaign, an investigation that began last July.

JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: The FBI, as part of our counterintelligence commission, is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts.

BROWN: In a rebuke to the president, Comey said there is no evidence to support the president's claim that former President Obama had -- quote -- wires tapped inside Trump Tower."

COMEY: I have no information that supports those tweets. And we have looked carefully inside the FBI. The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components.

BROWN: The head of the NSA, Admiral Mike Rogers, also denying a report repeated by the White House that the Obama administration asked British intelligence to spy on the Trump campaign.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: Did you ever request that your counterparts in GCHQ should wiretap Mr. Trump on behalf of President Obama?

ADM. MIKE ROGERS, NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY DIRECTOR: No, sir, nor would I. That would be expressly against the construct of the 5 I's agreement that has been in place for decades.

BROWN: Republicans avoided asking about Trump's wiretapping claims, instead focusing on whether laws were broken in reporting about ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's conversations with the Russia ambassador that were caught on surveillance.

REP. TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Do you know whether director Clapper knew the name of the U.S. citizen that appeared in "The New York Times" and "Washington Post"?

COMEY: I can't say in this forum.

GOWDY: Would Director Brennan have access to an unmasked U.S. citizen's name?

COMEY: In some circumstances, yes.

BROWN: Congressman Trey Gowdy providing no evidence to back up his claims. Republicans wanting to deflect details regarding the investigation into potential collusion between Trump associates and Russia, insisting there was a real crime in the leaks to the press.

GOWDY: Some of that may rise to the level of a crime. Some of it does not rise to the level of a crime. One thing you and I agree on is the felonious dissemination of classified material most definitely is a crime.

BROWN: Democrats zeroed in on the Russia investigation, from the beginning laying out a circumstantial argument about what they believe may have transpired.

SCHIFF: It wasn't simply that the Russians had a negative preference against Secretary Clinton. They also had a positive preference for Donald Trump. Isn't that correct?

COMEY: Correct.

SCHIFF: Would they have a preference for an candidate who expressed open admiration for Putin?

COMEY: Mr. Putin would like people who like him.

BROWN: Comey repeatedly tried to avoid going any further on what the investigation has uncovered.

COMEY: I'm not going to talk about any particular person here today. I can't answer that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And FBI Director James Comey couldn't say when the FBI's counterintelligence investigation will wrap up. [16:05:01]

In fact, one official I have spoken with says counterintel investigations can take a while, even years in some cases, because the intelligence is rarely black and white, rarely conclusive.

So, Jake, it is possible that this could cast a cloud over the Trump White House for months to come.

TAPPER: And also, as you point out, since they're rarely conclusive, all the Democrats hoping for smoking guns, who knows what it is going to turn out. It may turn out nothing.

BROWN: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: All right, Pamela Brown, thank you so much.

The White House today tried to act as though this momentous hearing was of little consequence. The president this morning launched a preemptive tweetstorm calling the Russia story -- quote -- "fake news."

And his team followed his lead.

Jeff Zeleny is in Louisville, where the president has a rally planned.

Jeff, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said following the testimony nothing has changed. But , certainly, the FBI director confirming this investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign, this is not just change, this is huge change.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Without a doubt, Jake.

The assertion that nothing has changed simply is not paying attention to the reality here that was unfolding on that hearing on Capitol Hill, when the FBI director said since July they have been investigating the Trump campaign and any potential connections with the Russia operatives here.

But, look, the White House is in defense mode here. On one respect, they barely answered the questions for why there was no evidence about the surveillance claims, which was also a headline, but the other headline coming out of the hearing, as Pamela was saying, is that there is now this investigation.

This is what Sean Spicer said today at the briefing, trying to say, yes, there may be an investigation, but there is no proof. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Investigating it and having proof of it are two different things. You look at the acting Obama CIA director said there is smoke, but there's no fire, Senator Tom Cotton, not that I have seen and not that I'm aware of.

You look at Director Clapper, not to my knowledge. Senator Chris Coons, Democrat from Delaware, I have no evidence of collusion. There is a point at which you continue to search for something that everybody who has been briefed has not seen or found. I think it's fine to look into it. But at the end of the day, they're going to come to the same conclusion that everybody else has had.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZELENY: Jake, whether the White House press secretary thinks it's fine to look into or not, the FBI is indeed looking into it.

That's the point here. They have not shared all their information with members of Congress. So they simply don't know exactly where this investigation is going. But, Jake, so interesting today, during the middle of the hearing, the president sent out a tweet. He said this. "The NSA and the FBI are telling Congress that Russia did not influence the electoral process."

Well, shortly after he said that, actually, a member of Congress asked the FBI director if that was true. And he said, "I did not mean to convey that at all. We are still investigating this."

Jake, once again this is sort of happening in real time, a hall of mirrors, if you will, about this. But no mistake about it, things have changed today with the FBI confirming for the first time they are investigating this, something that, you know, the White House has denied for months. But now we know it's real, Jake.

TAPPER: Jeff Zeleny, thank you so much.

At the hearing today, the ranking Democratic on the House Intelligence Committee laid out a series of communications between Trump officials and Russia.

And he joins me now, Congressman Adam Schiff, Democrat of California.

Thanks so much for joining us. Really appreciate it.

SCHIFF: You bet.

TAPPER: You were asked yesterday if you knew of evidence between -- of collusion between the Russians and Trump campaign, Trump campaign advisers. You said you knew of circumstantial evidence.

Now, I know you went to Harvard Law, and I went to no law school at all, but circumstantial evidence to me it doesn't sound like you have evidence.

SCHIFF: Well, that's not true at all.

The difference between circumstantial and direct evidence is, you walk out in the morning, there is snow on the ground and you can conclude that it snowed the night before. Direct evidence is you see the snow coming down. Circumstantial evidence can be very, very powerful. Now, I can't go

into what the evidence is that we have seen or been presented. And as the director acknowledged today, there is a certain amount of information he has presented to the Gang of Eight and another set that's been presented to more of the committee.

But I certainly think that an investigation is warranted. I think the FBI is right to investigate this. I think we are right to investigate this.

TAPPER: The House Intelligence Committee.

SCHIFF: Absolutely.

TAPPER: So let's talk about what others have said when it comes to collusion.

Take a listen to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SPICER: Following this testimony, it's clear that nothing has changed. Senior Obama intelligence officials have gone on record to confirm that there is no evidence of a Trump/Russia collusion.

The Obama CIA director said so. Obama's director of national intelligence said so. And we take them at their word.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Now, the former director of national intelligence, General James Clapper, issued a statement, his office issued a statement this afternoon saying, "While Director Clapper was not aware of any conclusive evidence related to collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russians prior to leaving government" -- he left when Obama left -- "he could not account for intelligence or evidence that may have been gathered since the inauguration on January 20."

[16:10:08]

But I guess the larger question is, is there definitely going to be fire? Or is it just going to be a lot of smoke? Isn't it possible that there will be nothing at the end of this?

SCHIFF: I haven't seen the statement that Director Clapper issued.

But if he said that he hasn't seen yet conclusive evidence, that's quite a different issue than whether there is evidence to be investigated.

TAPPER: On Sunday, he said he had seen no evidence. You know the intelligence community report that came out January 6 that was DNI, director of national intelligence, NSA, and CIA, did not include any collusion. SCHIFF: Yes. And I asked the director of the FBI about that today.

Was this because you have an ongoing investigation and you're not going to release that in an assessment for the public? And his answer was, that's right. We're not going to include that. And it wasn't included.

So, to point to that assessment and say there is no evidence in that assessment of collusion, well, yes, that assessment did not cover that issue. Similarly, the Trump administration is trying to argue that there is no evidence that the interference by the Russians affected the outcome in the election. That is not true.

TAPPER: That's now what -- I'm going to get to that in the next panel, because there are some POTUS tweets that need to be fact- checked that we will do.

But just to put a button on this, what Clapper said in addition to referring to the report of January 6 was that he knew of -- and, again, this is only up to January 20, but he knew of no evidence of collusion.

SCHIFF: Yes. And when what I said thereafter was that I did not he could not make that categorical of a statement.

I'm not sure that he intended it to carry the weight that the Republicans now would like to give that statement. It sounds like, from the comments that he issued today, he is clarifying that today in terms of no conclusive evidence. There certainly was not a section of the report that dealt with that for the reasons we discussed. But, again, I wouldn't read too much into that comment.

TAPPER: All right, Congressman Schiff, stick around.

We have a lot more to talk about. We are going to take a very quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:51] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Let's stick with politics.

We're back with the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman Adam Schiff, Democrat of California.

Thanks again.

So, your Republican colleagues today were very, very focused on the leaking of classified information, as well as the leaking of names of individuals who are named in intelligence reports in this whole thing called unmasking. That is when it could say that in their surveillance of an ambassador, they picked up American one. Instead they put Mike Flynn's name there and that name disseminates throughout the government and then gets out to the public.

You joined Chairman Nunes in writing a letter expressing concerns about the unmasking. These are legitimate concerns, don't you think? REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE RANKING MEMBER: Well,

it's certainly legitimate for us to do oversight of whether someone's name has been properly unmasked in the process. And even when it's unmasked, it doesn't go out to everyone but it does allow people who need to understand the context of intelligence to gain access to that person's name.

The standard you have to meet basically is, when you get that intelligence, if it's not possible to figure out, OK, is this meaningful, who were they talking to. You need to know who they're talking to figure it out. Then you can unmask the name. But it's not as if that gives permission to publish it or go public with it. And so, the leak of it is significant.

But the unmasking -- people shouldn't leap to conclusions. I can't talk about any particular case -- that just because something is unmasked, that it's necessarily wrong or a problem. There is a proper way to do that. I wouldn't presume that that was done improperly here. Certainly a public leak is improper.

TAPPER: Well, Trey Gowdy, congressman from South Carolina, was very focused on how Mike Flynn's name got out to the public, who might have found out about it through this unmasked intelligence report, apparently, of the Ambassador Kislyak of Russia. He named seven individuals in the Obama administration who might have had access to the unmasked name of Mike Flynn, including President Obama himself, and he seemed to suggest that one of them might have been responsible for the leak of Mike Flynn's name in the story that ultimately was the end of his career in the Trump White House.

Did any of those seven individuals leak the name that you know of? And what did you think of Gowdy's questions.

SCHIFF: Well, I have no idea who would have leaked his name. But you can't ignore any possibility here. I think the Trump administration would love to say that all the leaks that are coming out are Obama administration leaks. In fact, you saw this tendency in the president when he may have declassified information unintended -- in an unintended fashion the other day when he said the CIA was hacked and they got a lot of stuff but, by the way, that was during the Obama administration.

So, they love to blame the Obama people, but it's equally possible that the leak problem they had is coming from their own team in the White House. It was well known I think that Flynn wasn't particularly highly thought of by some of the Trump administration people.

Certainly, there was a basis for that in how he managed the DIA. So, it's equally possible, I suppose, that the leak could have come from the Trump team that wanted to get rid of him. I don't know. I don't have any particular information about this. But if the House is serious about investigating this, we can't turn our eyes away from the possibility that many of these leaks may actually be coming from Trump's own people.

TAPPER: Like in that famous horror movie from the '70s, the calls are coming from inside the house.

SCHIFF: Yes.

TAPPER: Let me ask -- I want to do a couple of fact-checks here, just because President Trump, his official account, I don't think it's him actually doing the tweeting, but the POTUS account, stated some things from the hearing that I'm not sure are quite accurate depictions of what happened. First, Chairman Nunes asked Director Comey and Director Rogers if there was any evidence that Russian cyber actors had changed any vote tallies in key battleground states. The intelligence official said no.

Then the president's official Twitter account run a tweet of that moment with a tweet, "The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process."

Just to help people understand out there, hacking into an election booth is not the same as influencing an electoral process, right?

SCHIFF: That's exactly right.

[16:20:01] And I think what -- and the president has tried to do this before. Indeed, when they unpublished or the unclassified assessment came out, he said, look, the unclassified assessment shows there was no influence on the election. Well, that's not at all what the assessment showed.

TAPPER: They're not even looking into that.

SCHIFF: They're not even looking into that and the witnesses made clear today, they're not in a position to say whether it influenced votes. They can only say whether the machines were tampered with, and they said there is no evidence that the vote counting machines, as opposed to the vote registration machines, were tampered with.

But it's a whole another matter to say or even argue that it wasn't influential. After all, Hillary Clinton had to respond on almost a daily basis to these leaked e-mails. Clearly, it had an influence or they wouldn't have done it or President Trump, then-candidate Trump would not have been cheering them on and urging them to do more.

TAPPER: Another tweet from the president that we need to fact-check, he tweeted, FBI Director Comey, former DNI Clapper writes -- FBI Director: former Director of National Intelligence Clapper was, quote, "right to say no evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign." I went back and watch the full clip, and what Comey said was that Clapper was right that there was no evidence of collusion in that January 6th intelligence report. He was specifically referring to the intelligence report, not to Clapper's general assessment.

Although as we know, that just talked about, Clapper also did say he knew of no -- what was the term that he used?

SCHIFF: Conclusive intelligence or evidence.

TAPPER: Right. SCHIFF: Well, that's exactly right. What Director Comey talked about today was that they didn't include evidence in that public assessment that went to whether there was coordination, as he called it, between the Trump campaign and the Russians. And the reason, of course, that wasn't included, as I asked the director, is that that was an ongoing investigation. They weren't about to make that public in that assessment.

TAPPER: So, last question is that the FBI director and Admiral Rogers both said today that there is no evidence as far as they know and presumably they would know, of Obama wiretapping Trump in any way. Nor was the Napolitano/Spicer red herring that the British did it, the British wiretapped President Trump, then candidate Trump, that neither were true.

So, given the fact that these two intelligence officials have said this, where do we go from here?

SCHIFF: Well, you know, we have to hope that the president has the character to apologize to his predecessor and to the American people for this and to the British. I don't think any of us had the expectation that that's going to happen. But maybe at a minimum we can expect the president to drop this ridiculous claim that has occupied too much of our time and attention anyway, and done too much damage to relationships with our allies.

TAPPER: One last question, listening to some of the questions from the Democrats today, I couldn't help but think there are a lot of people who seem to be painting a rather -- the possibility of a rather large conspiracy that I don't think is ever going to be proven by anybody, one that involves Jeff Sessions and Rex Tillerson and Carter Page and this person and that person.

Are you ever concerned that Democrats are creating a situation here that there is no amount of evidence and no FBI investigation will ever prove? I mean, they're painting -- some Democrats seem to be suggesting like a 15-Manchurian candidate type scenario.

SCHIFF: You know, I don't think any of us ought to prejudge where this investigation is going to end up and what the FBI will be able to show or what we'll be able to show. I think our responsibility is to try to be objective, try to follow the evidence to wherever it leads, and at the end of the day say, OK, this is what we found. This we could never corroborate or this we could never prove or this, in fact, we have proved and this we believe ought to be prosecuted.

We should leave ourselves open to any conclusion and recognize this is going to be tough. It's not as if the Russians want to fess up. It's not as if the Russians want to hand over all the information we would like. And those that are persons of interest in this aren't exactly inclined to be truthful about it. So, as we have seen, this is going to be a tough investigation to conduct.

TAPPER: All right. House Democrat, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence committee, Adam Schiff -- Congressman, good to see you.

SCHIFF: Good to see you.

TAPPER: Thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it.

SCHIFF: Thank you.

TAPPER: President Trump is trying to control the message about the Comey hearing. Did it work? Our panel will weigh in, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:28:48] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. We're going to stick with politics on this momentous day.

The FBI director today confirming that it is investigating the Trump campaign's possible ties to Russia. We have lots to talk about with our panel. So, let's dive right in.

Any good news, Senator Santorum, for the Trump administration in what seemed like a rather bad news hearing for them?

RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think the good news is that the -- Comey announced that there is an investigation. That is unprecedented. They don't do that very often. That as you heard Devin Nunes, you heard Trey Gowdy, they're on the clock. They're watching, they're going to push to try to move this thing along quickly now that they know it exists.

And, secondly, just like with the Hillary Clinton investigation, if you announce there is one, you've got to announce what you're concluding. You've got to announce when this is over. You can't just let it hang now that they know what's out there.

So, the good news for Trump is, they can start putting pressure externally to get this thing moving. And number two, you know there's going to be a conclusion. And sometimes, that's the worst thing, these things just hang forever and there is no conclusion.

TAPPER: As Brian knows very well from your time with the Clinton campaign, and first of all, what was your first thought when you heard that the FBI investigation into the hacking, the Russian hacking, I don't know when the Trump part of it started, but the Russian hacking started in July. As a former member of the Clinton team, that must have been odd.

BRIAN FALLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think it just affirmed a lot of people's suspicions that the FBI director was playing one standard in terms of how talkative he was about the Hillary Clinton investigation and was following another when it came to Donald Trump.