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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Trump Transition Sought Secret Communications With Russia?; North Korea Test-Fires 3rd Missile in Three Weeks. Aired 4-4:30p ET
Aired May 29, 2017 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Air Force One returns, and the president is out of airplane mode.
THE LEAD starts right now.
President Trump returns home with a tweetstorm, as the Russia investigation hits closer to home. What's next for Jared Kushner, the president's trusted son-in-law, after a new report that he pursued a secret line to the Kremlin?
Testing Trump again. North Korea fires its third ballistic missile in as many weeks, as the Pentagon prepares for the growing threat in an unprecedented way.
Plus, in the rough, the mug shot after Tiger Woods is arrested in Florida -- why he spent part of his morning in jail.
Good afternoon on this Memorial Day, and welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in for Jake Tapper.
President Trump joined Americans today in paying respects to those military men and women who gave their lives for this country at a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. It was the president's first public event since returning from his first foreign trip.
But behind the scenes and naturally on Twitter, the president has been busing, attempting some Trump-style damage control.
CNN senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny joins us now live.
Jeff, tell us what's happening inside the White House on this Memorial Day.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, the White House was hoping the president would return back from his trip abroad with the wind at his back and finally the chance to change the subject. That frankly has not happened.
The Russia investigation remains at the center of everything here in the West Wing, even as the president had a commander in chief moment today at Arlington National Cemetery.
ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump paying respects today at Arlington National Cemetery, on his first Memorial Day as commander in chief, the president honoring heroes from wars gone by.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We pay tribute to those brave souls who raced into gunfire, roared into battle and ran into hell to face down evil.
ZELENY: And hailing those fighting in conflicts still being waged today.
TRUMP: Today, a new generation of American patriots are fighting to win the battle against terrorism.
ZELENY: With the sound of "Taps" echoing across the sacred grounds of Arlington, the president and his top military commanders looking on, a poignant reminder of a decision he's facing, whether to accept their recommendation to send more troops to Afghanistan.
The president making an impromptu stop at Section 60, the final resting place for Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He visited the grave of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly's son killed seven years ago in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.
The Afghanistan decision and a growing lives items on the president's agenda have been overshadowed and in some cases complicated by the internal chaos at the White House.
Jared Kushner, the president's senior adviser and son-in-law, is under fire for trying to establish a secret channel of communications with Russian officials during the transition. He's willing to discuss the matter with the FBI and Congress, officials tell CNN, but the scrutiny is threatening to upend his first-among-equals status in the West Wing.
Trying to move beyond the crisis, the president is still weighing a reshuffling of his staff, although aides tell CNN nothing is imminent, the president making clear his annoyance in a storm of weekend tweets.
"It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the fake news media." He added this: "The fake news media works hard at disparaging and demeaning my use of social media because they don't want America to hear the real story."
After returning from his first international trip, the White House hoped the president's time abroad would change the subject.
TRUMP: I think we hit a home run no matter where we are.
ZELENY: But, tonight, his meetings with world leaders also being seen in a harsher light, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel bluntly saying the U.S. is no longer a reliable partner.
ANGELA MERKEL, GERMAN CHANCELLOR (through translator): The times where we could completely count on others, they are over to a certain extent. I have experienced this in the last few days, and that is why I can only say that we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands.
ZELENY: Now, those words from Angela Merkel, they were not the only words she had for the president. Jim, she tried in meeting after meeting, as did other leaders at the NATO summit and then again at the G7, to urge this president to stay engaged in the Paris climate agreement.
We're told that decision is going to come some time this week. All signs are here that the U.S. is poised to pull out of that. The president has not made his final plan yet, but, Jim, if that should happen, that raises more concerns among many here, including some Republicans in Washington, about the U.S. position and strength in the world -- Jim.
SCIUTTO: That would be a truly remarkable move. Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much.
More now on that deepening crisis here at home, a crisis which is truly hitting home now for President Trump, with the so-called secretary of everything, Mr. Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, getting an even closer look.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight, the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is the subject of intense scrutiny after a source tells CNN that he requested back-channel communications with the Kremlin.
This happened last December when Kushner met with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. during the transition. Now some Democrats are challenging Kushner's role in the White House.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: I do think there ought to be a review of his security clearance to find out whether he was truthful, whether he was candid. If not, then there's no way he can maintain that kind of a clearance.
SCIUTTO: According to "The Washington Post," Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak told his superiors that Kushner wanted to use Russian diplomatic facilities for an off-the-record communications system to evade U.S. intelligence monitoring, a move that even Kislyak thought was risky.
Sources tell CNN that Kushner sought the secure channel for him and now former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to discuss military operations in Syria and other matters with Russian military officials.
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the man now leading the investigation into whether Trump's campaign associates colluded with Russia, spoke at his granddaughter's commencement today, where he urged students never to sacrifice their integrity.
ROBERT MUELLER, JUSTICE DEPARTMENT SPECIAL COUNSEL: If you are not honest, your reputation will suffer, and once lost, a good reputation can never, ever be regained.
SCIUTTO: His first public speech since his appointment, but over the weekend others in the intelligence community raised the alarm. Former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden called Kushner's attempted back channel unprecedented.
MICHAEL HAYDEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: This is off the map, Michael. I know of no other experience like this in our history.
SCIUTTO: Former DNI James Clapper raised similar concerns.
JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER U.S. NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR: My dashboard warning light was clearly on, and I think that was the case with all of us in the intelligence community.
SCIUTTO: Homeland Security Secretary Retired General John Kelly, however, called such clandestine communications perfectly normal.
JOHN KELLY, U.S. HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: It's both normal in my opinion and acceptable. Any way that you can communicate with people, particularly organizations that may be not particularly friendly to us, is a good thing.
SCIUTTO: For Jared Kushner, new contacts with Russia keep surfacing. In addition to the December meeting with Kislyak, Reuters reports that Kushner had several previously undisclosed communications with the Russian ambassador, including two phone calls prior to the election last November.
In response, Kushner's lawyer tells CNN -- quote -- "Mr. Kushner participated in thousands of calls in this time period. He has no recollection of the calls as described."
SCIUTTO: As you just heard, secretary Kelly says that keeping open communication channels with Russia is actually a good thing. A former CIA and NSA director says the way Jared Kushner might have gone about it is -- quote -- "off the map."
General Michael Hayden joins us after this break.
SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD.
Sticking with politics, the fast-moving investigation into the Trump campaign and its contacts with the Russians.
Now the president's son-in-law is under FBI scrutiny. A new report says that Jared Kushner sought to set up a secret back channel with the Russians during the presidential transition.
Joining me now is General Michael Hayden. He's the former director at both the CIA and the NSA. He's now a CNN national security analyst.
So, back channel with Russia.
SCIUTTO: Kushner, obviously a family member, private citizen during the transition. Someone else is president.
SCIUTTO: Is that illegal?
And, look, I have got no argument. Several administration officials mentioned that they thought Jared Kushner was a good person and had the best of intentions. I have got no argument with that.
I just think this was a bad idea, all right? What was he trying to accomplish by creating indebtedness to someone like the Russians, whom we knew at that time had intervened in our electoral process?
I mean, the disregard for the routine practices, I don't want to say contempt, but it might have been that for the administration they were replacing. How about the suspicion of the intelligence community on which they were going to have to rely? All of that have seemed to go into this decision to count on the Russians for this secret back channel.
And, oh, by the way, back channels are fine. I have been a back channel, all right? But you don't do it when you're not the government, and I don't think you do it using your adversary's communication system.
HAYDEN: I think so. I think so, and chaos, maybe a little arrogance, maybe a little hubris, yes.
SCIUTTO: We at the same time had the president with -- in Europe, his first foreign trip. And, of course, he goes to NATO and the ears perking up from European leaders, what is he going to say about NATO?
SCIUTTO: We're hearing disappointment.
You're a former intelligence officer. You look at Jared Kushner's behavior here, plus other things we heard about Trump campaign contacts with the Russians.
HAYDEN: Right. SCIUTTO: You have pieced together incomplete information many times
in your life. What is your best read of that? Do you think it was intentional? Does it look like to you intentional collusion or does it look like something more innocent?
HAYDEN: I'm not prepared to say it was intentional collusion.
I have not seen any evidence of that. People's whose judgment I trust, Jim Clapper, John Brennan, although they had left government, said by the time they left there was no evidence of collusion.
But naivete, disrespect for established processes actually lead you into a position where you could be exploited by an adversary, and we might find that to be true.
SCIUTTO: Now, the thing is, though, Clapper and others have said, when they left, no evidence, but now you hear -- and, well, the once FBI director as recently as March in sworn testimony, and it's our reporting, and you hear from both Republicans and Democrats on the relevant committees, that it's still an open question, the question of collusion.
[16:15:00] HAYDEN: Oh, and it -- well, look, there's -- there's enough circumstantial evidence , there are enough kind of difficult- to-explain contacts, Jim, that this does deserve a full airing. But I'm not predicting it an outcome here. We may -- frankly, you know, the most likely outcome from my judgment is a cloud with people who thought this was mal-intended at the beginning, being convinced and those who thought it was innocent and naive will also be convinced.
SCIUTTO: Ultimately unsatisfying conclusion.
So, let's talk about Europe a little bit.
SCIUTTO: I mean, genuine alarm that you're seeing in public comments, not just in private comments, from the leader of Germany, one of America's closest allies, from the leader of France, one of America's closest allies.
How important was it that President Trump would not say those simple words, that we stand with you, Article 5 of the NATO, we will come to your common defense?
HAYDEN: Yes. So, for someone like me, that's a real big deal. But let's be fair to the president, all right? He campaigned in a certain way, and he's fulfilling many of his campaign promises. Salina Zito, whom I know, from Pittsburg, had the most insightful commentary in all this. She said that people like me took him literally but not seriously. All the people who voted for him took him seriously but not literally.
But he appears to be governing literally, or at least governing literally, Jim, in foreign affairs where the president has got an awful lot more running room than they do in domestic affairs. And I think a core of the Trump campaign, and he said this throughout the campaign, or at least his comments reflected this, that American alliances were a burden, not a strategic advantage. So, literally, on day one, he rips up the transpacific partnership which is a broad strategic alliance I think masquerading as an economic deal, and then he goes to Europe and doesn't say the kinds of things that you would normally expect an American president to say, and the Europeans noticed.
Most interestingly, a lot of his cabinet officials and his vice president have said the things that the Europeans expect Americans to say, but he refused to do it, and now, you've got this response. I think genuine heartfelt response from the Europeans.
SCIUTTO: Genuine alarm, almost palpable coming from those public comments.
General Hayden, thanks so much as always.
HAYDEN: Thanks, Jim.
SCIUTTO: Just hours before the U.S. military tests a system designed to intercept a North Korean missile, the communist nation is scaring the nation once again. Now, at least someone is demanding concrete action.
And then, Tiger Woods arrested and in trouble off the links again. Details on the charges that he will face, ahead.
[16:21:54] SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD.
Topping our world lead: North Korea launching its third ballistic missile in just three weeks. The missile traveled nearly 250 miles before splashing down in the Sea of Japan.
President Trump tweeting this response, quote: North Korea has shown great disrespect for their neighbor China by shooting off yet another ballistic missile, but China is striking hard, exclamation point.
This comes as the U.S. is planning to test an updated missile intercept system tomorrow.
CNN's Will Ripley is in Tokyo.
Will, we know you spent a lot of time, a number of trips to North Korea. How is the region? How are Japan and other powers who are much closer to the North Korean threat reacting to this latest test?
WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: As you would expect, Jim, here in Tokyo, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promising concrete action in South Korea. The repeated threat of military -- strong military response as a result of this, and, of course, President Trump's tweet alluding to the fact that really what the United States is relying on here is for China to do something about this. Remember back in the mid-2000s after North Korea's first nuclear test and the Bush administration was hoping that China would solve the North Korea problem.
Now, we're five nuclear tests and countless missile launches later, and the bottom line is really if Japan and South Korea and the United States could do something to stop North Korea from launching missiles, they would have done it already. They really don't have a solution right now other than the really unpleasant and potentially catastrophic one which, of course, would be military action.
SCIUTTO: A key question here, I imagine for our viewers, is does this latest test demonstrate advancement in the North Korean program?
RIPLEY: What is shows is their determination more than any technological advancement because this missile according to intelligence analysts was a Scud missile that flew less than 300 miles. It did land in the waters very close to the Japanese coast, the waters known as the exclusive economic zone. But this is a typical trajectory for North Korean missiles. Thankfully, it didn't hit any fishing vessels or cargo ships because these are very busy waters and North Korea doesn't give any notice about these things.
But what it shows is that despite the current round of U.N. sanctions and international condemnation and diplomatic isolation, Kim Jong-un is pushing forward with this program, and unless really China does crack down, because billions of Chinese dollars are being pumped into North Korea, I was there just last month. I saw Chinese goods on store shelves, Chinese cars on streets and Chinese dollars frankly that are paying in large part for this missile program. And so, as President Trump alluded, if China doesn't try hard, this is just going to continue.
SCIUTTO: Right, and the Trump administration policy seems to be depending on China to do this.
Will Ripley, thanks very much.
President Trump says that China is trying to put the pressure on North Korea, but is that really the case? A member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee will join us next.
[16:28:43] SCIUTTO: Welcome back.
Congress is in recess but key members are tracking the news out of the White House and overseas. Congressman Gregory Meeks, Democrat of New York state, member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, joins me now.
Congressman, thanks for taking time out of your Memorial Day.
REP. GREGORY MEEKS (D), NEW YORK: Good being with you.
SCIUTTO: We learned this weekend that President Trump's adviser, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, discussed creating a backchannel between the Trump campaign during the transition and the Kremlin in this meeting last December. Many Republicans have come out saying they believe that this kind of backchannel might be a good thing. I wonder if you agree with that.
MEEKS: No, it's puzzling to me. You know, when you are talking about backchannel when you're not yet in office, there's another administration that was in place and you're talking about doing it in the facilities of an adversary and on top of that when Russia had played a tremendous role in this election, all of our intelligence agencies had indicated that and it seemed as though that all of the questions that came in regards to Russia before the president -- then the candidate Trump saying, Russia, keep doing what you're doing.
And then, later, you keep hearing conversations from individuals not admitting their involvement in conversations they've had with the Russians, it just makes it very -- seems very curious and more than just a coincidence that you've had this kind of dialogue and conversation to try to specifically exclude our intelligence individuals.