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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

President Blames GOP-Led Congress, Not Russia; Sources: Democratic West Virginia Governor to Switch Parties at Trump Rally; Interview with Sen. Tom Cotton. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired August 3, 2017 - 16:30   ET

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


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[16:31:25] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

In our world lead today, President Trump reluctantly yesterday signed into law sanctions against Russia for its attempt at election interference and its incursions into Ukraine. The president did so facing veto-proof majorities and congressional rules that would have made the bill become law even if the president had refused to sign it. His statements protesting the sanctions made clear his disapproval.

And as if that were not enough, earlier today, he blamed the dismal state of U.S./Russia relations not on Putin, not on the Russian attempt to interfere in U.S. democratic elections, as stated by every Trump appointed intelligence chief, but on the U.S. Congress, tweeting, quote: our relationship with Russia is at an all-time and very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can't even get us health care.

From Arizona, where he's undergoing radiation and chemotherapy for brain cancer, Senator John McCain had a different take, tweeting, quote: our relationship with Russia is at dangerous low, you can thank Putin for attacking our democracy, invading neighbors, and threatening our allies.

McCain's take, of course, hues closer to what President's Pentagon, State Department, intelligence agencies assert. And just so we're all clear, according to Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson, Intel Chiefs Coats, Rogers, and Pompeo, Vladimir Putin and the Russian government attempted to interfere in the U.S. presidential election with disinformation, hacks, and leaks. Putin further invaded and seized Crimea and is now fomenting armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

But all that said in President Trump's view, bad relations with Russia are the fault of the Republican-led U.S. Congress for attempting to punish Putin for those acts, not with Putin. And this is not even getting into the Putin political adversaries or journalists who have been murdered or the Russian-made missile that downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014, killing almost 300 crew and passengers, including 80 children.

To our knowledge, while President Trump has been willing to criticize everyone from Don Lemon to the cast of "Hamilton", he has never had an ill word about Vladimir Putin. You might recall that when Bill O'Reilly told the president that Putin is a killer, the president's response was this --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A lot of killers. We got a lot of killers. Why, you think our country is so innocent?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: And here again today, we have the president attacking Americans, the U.S. congress for bad relations with Russia, laying no blame at the feet of the former KGB official who runs Russia.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev tweeted last night, quote, and I should say in a clear attempt to goad the president, to troll him even, quote: The Trump administration has shown its total weakness by handing over executive power to Congress in the most humiliating way.

On Facebook, Medvedev said this, quote: The U.S. establishment fully outwitted Trump. The president is not happy about the new sanctions, yet he could not but sign the bill. The issue of new sanctions came about primarily as another way to knock Trump down a peg. New steps are to come, and they will ultimately aim to remove him from power.

You know, give the Kremlin credit for this if for nothing else, while no one on the president's staff or in his cabinet or in his family seems able to exert any control over the president the way they would like, the Russians seem to have figured something out.

Meanwhile, revelations into the president's early interactions with U.S. allies, transcripts, published by "The Washington Post" show the president tried to pressure the Mexican president overpaying for so the-called wall, apparently called New Hampshire a drug-infested den and he fought the Australian prime minister over refugees.

[16:35:01] That was all just one week into his presidency.

Now, a few months ago, when the news outlets including "The Washington Post" and CNN reported some of these details, (AUDIO GAP) fake news. But it turns out the only (AUDIO GAP) were the president's denials.

Let's go to CNN's Athena Jones. She's live in Huntington, West Virginia, where the president will hold a rally later tonight.

Athena, there's a lot for the president to react to when he takes the stage tonight.

ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Jake.

There are most certainly is. We expect the president to take this stage behind me in the next two and a half hours or so. And when it comes to these leaked details of the transcripts, it's yet another blow for a president who is obsessed with stopping the leaks to the media coming out of his administration.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JONES (voice-over): It was one of Donald Trump's signature campaign promises.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will build a wall, and you know who's going to pay for the wall, Mexico. They're going to pay for it.

JONES: But in his first call with Mexican President Enrique Nieto, days after taking office, the president signaled the vow was quickly becoming a political problem for him, after Mexico's leader repeatedly declared his country would do no such thing.

PRESIDENT ENRIQUE PENA NIETO, MEXICO (through translator): Mexico will not pay for any wall.

JONES: Newly revealed transcripts of the January 27th exchange obtained by "The Washington Post" show Trump attempting to pressure Pena Nieto to stop saying Mexico would never pay.

You cannot say that to the press, the president said. Adding: If you're going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, then I do not to want meet with you guys anymore because I cannot live with that.

The transcript of the call also suggests that president realized funding for the wall would have to come from other sources. The president said the wall was the least important we are talking about, but politically, this might be the most important.

Trump later described the conversation in positive terms.

TRUMP: We have a really, I think, a very good relationship, the president and I.

JONES: "The Post" also obtained a transcript of the president's call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull which proved to be even more contentious. During the January exchange, the pair sparred over a deal struck during the Obama administration to transfer some 1,250 refugees to the United States.

I hate taking these people, the president said. I guarantee you they are bad.

Turnbull, also a former businessman, told Trump: There is nothing more important in business or politics than a deal is a deal. You can certainly say that it was not a deal that you would have done, but you are going to stick with it.

He told Turnbull their conversation was the most unpleasant call all day.

But shortly after the conversation took place, the president called reports it was contentious fake news in a February tweet. And even joked with Turnbull about it when the prime minister visited the U.S. in May.

TRUMP: They certainly had a rough phone call, we really didn't have a rough phone call, did we? JONES: The transcript also revealed the president told Turnbull his

conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin was a pleasant call.

Now, more than six months into his presidency and after a lengthy meeting with Putin just weeks ago, Trump is singing a very different tune on Russia, and pointing the finger at the Republican-controlled Congress after it overwhelmingly passed what he called a flawed sanctions bill that has angered Putin.

Tweeting this morning: Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time and very dangerous low. You can thank Congress. The same people that can't even give us health care.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JONES: Now, we could hear the president talk about how upset he is that Republicans in Congress haven't been able to pass a health care repeal bill.

But, Jake, there is breaking news just in the last hour or so. We've learned that West Virginia Governor Jim Justice who is a Democrat is planning to announce that he is switching to the Republican Party. Now, President Trump himself teased a big announcement at the rally here tonight, and that is what we expect that announcement to be according to two sources familiar. Jim Justice was able to win this state as a Democrat, even though President Trump carried the state by more than 40 points in November.

Justice has often spoken about his friendship with Trump and the Trump family. If he does announce a move to the Republican Party, that would increase the advantage Republican governors have over Democrats in the country to 34 to 15 -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Athena Jones in West Virginia, thank you so much.

We'll ask a Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee about the special counsel crossing the president's so-called red line on the Russia investigation. That's next. Stay with us.

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[16:43:42] TAPPER: And we're back with our politics lead. The breaking news this hour: "The Wall Street Journal" is reporting that special counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury here in Washington D.C. in his Russia investigation. This comes as CNN now has new reporting on the scope of the special counsel investigation into President Trump and his associates.

Joining me now is Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He was one of the co- sponsors of that RAISE Immigration Act that President Trump talked about the other day.

Senator, thanks so much for joining me.

REP. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: So, the president has said that if special counsel Bob Mueller were to investigate his and his family's finances, that would cross a red line. As you know, CNN is now reporting that special counsel Bob Mueller has reviewed financial records of the Trump Organization, the president, his family members, campaign associates, looking at shell companies, buyers of Trump-branded real estate properties, also scrutinizing the roster of tenants at Trump Tower reaching back to more than half a dozen years.

Is that within the scope of Bob Mueller's investigation? Because the president suggested the possibility he might fire him if he looked into his finances.

COTTON: Jake, I can't comment on the special counsel's investigation or what's in or inside the scope because I don't have all the facts that Mr. Mueller has.

I can say that as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, our investigation is continuing. It will continue this month as our staff interview witnesses and review documents while we're back in our states. And we'll follow those facts wherever they may lead and hopefully produce an interim report at a minimum sometime in the coming months ahead.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: CNN has learned that the investigators became more suspicious after viewing intercepted communications among suspected Russian operatives claiming that Paul Manafort who was Trump Campaign Chairman for three months was encouraging Russians to coordinate information that could damage Hillary Clinton. I know that you cannot comment on what you may or may not know about this from your perch on the Intel Committee but if the special investigators are able to prove that, would that be evidence of collusion?

COTTON: Jake, I'm definitely not going to comment on reports that are based on alleged intercepts. We've already seen one instance in which the New York Times reported stories earlier this year that Director Comey testified were entirely wrong. And if those things do exist, certainly they're highly classified, so I simply do not to want comment.

TAPPER: Let's talk about something about Russia that you can comment on. Yesterday the President signed the Russia Sanctions Bill overwhelmingly approved by Congress, he obviously did so with reservations. Now today he tweeted "Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time very dangerous low. You can thank Congress the same people that can't even give us health care." The President very clearly is blaming the U.S. Congress instead of Putin, you are something of a Russia hawk, how do you take that?

COTTON: Well Jake, the President's right about health care. He's right that our relationship with Russia is at a dangerous low, I'm not sure I'd say it's quite an all-time low yet but the fault for that relationship relies - or lies primarily at Vladimir Putin's door step. He's the one that's invaded our partners, he's the one that meddled in the democratic processes and in our allies' the democratic processes. He's the one that provided missiles that rebels used to shoot a civilian aircraft out of the sky. I would say that President Obama also deserves part of the blame for emboldening Vladimir Putin to think he can get way with those things. But at bottom, the tension in the U.S.-Russia relationship lies at doorstep of Vladimir Putin.

TAPPER: Well, if you're blaming President Obama, and I take your point on emboldening, but here you have President Trump who has literally criticized everyone in the world from Don Lemon to the cast of Hamilton, but is not willing to say a negative word about Vladimir Putin and is, in fact, saying that you and your colleagues are to blame for the bad relationship with Russia, not Putin.

COTTON: Well, Jake, I would say that Vladimir Putin is to blame for the bad relationship that we have right now with Russia. It'd be better, the relationship improved, but right now, I don't see much run for improvement given Vladimir Putin's stated goals and his actions around the world.

TAPPER: You're the co-sponsor of immigration legislation President Trump backed yesterday. You want to allow fewer low-skilled immigrants, legal immigrants into the country, you say to protect the jobs of U.S. workers, the bill would cut the rate of legal immigration in half. And here's what the Chamber of Commerce has to say about your bill, "Dramatically reducing overall immigration levels won't raise the standard of living for Americans, in fact, it will likely accomplish the opposite making it harder for businesses, communities, and our overall economy to grow, prosper, and create jobs for American workers." What's your response?

COTTON: Jake, we've had 40 years of mass migration in this country, the number of foreign-born persons in this country has not quadrupled of what it was in the 1970s. I don't think it's a coincidence in that time people with the high school degree or less have seen their wages fall. That's because when you have more unskilled and low skilled workers coming into this country, of course, it's going to put pressure on working class wages, and it's going to take jobs away from some working Americans. I think there's broad consensus that we need to reorient our legal immigration system to award green cards to the most talented and capable immigrants who can come here not just support themselves, but help creates new businesses and new jobs for all Americans. Whether their ancestors came over on the May Flower or whether they just took the oath of citizenship last week.

TAPPER: Several of your republican colleagues are criticizing the bill, saying that America needs low-skilled workers for a lot of jobs. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: There are certain areas like meat-packing and tourism and agriculture that you just can't find American-born labor to do those jobs and these legal visas keep the company from going out of business or moving overseas.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: That's just one Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of many critics in your own caucus, the Republican caucus in the Senate. Can you get this bill passed without the support of Senators like Lindsey Graham or Jeff Flake?

COTTON: Jake, that's emotional and opinionated, but uninformed to you. First off, our legislation doesn't affect visas, guest workers. We're only talking about green cards here. The steppingstone in the most precious thing that most people around the world would like to have, American citizenship. Second, it's just not true, as a factual matter that Americans won't do those jobs. In fact, the very jobs just mentioned, things like meat-packing and tourism, those are majority held by American citizens. So, it's just not true that Americans won't do hard, tough jobs.

Now, maybe their wages should be higher and I would say that after 40 years of declining wages for working class Americans, their wages should be higher. And it's not just a lot of Republicans who recognize that many Democrats recognize that as well. So I'm going to work very hard with Senator Perdue and President Trump with colleagues in both the Democratic and Republican parties to try to address working class wages and the impact immigration has had on the working class.

[16:50:23] TAPPER: Senator, you're one of the few veterans in the U.S. Senate, as you know President Trump has yet to outline a strategy for Afghanistan. Today, Senator McCain said he agreed with the U.S. military assessment that our strategy in Afghanistan is failing, and he said President Trump is partially responsible, "The reason for this failure is a lack of successful policy and strategic guidance from Washington over many years which has continued in the first several months of this new administration." Do you agree that U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is failing?

COTTON: We're certainly not making the progress that we should be and I worry very much that what happened in Mosul in 2014 with ISIS could happen in Kandahar, Kabul in2018 if we don't have some level of forces in Afghanistan to ensure the Taliban and al-Qaeda are now ISIS come back to power. And American people should care about that not primarily because of what happens in Afghanistan, but because we've seen in 2001 that what happens there can come to our shores very quickly. That's the one place from which we were attacked and which we objected al-Qaeda from. I don't think many Americans to want see those gangs given back.

TAPPER: Senator Tom Cotton Republican of Arkansas, thanks so much if for your time, Sir, appreciate it as always.

COTTON: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: Much more on the breaking news about the Russia investigation plus President Trump's White House Council reacts. Stay with us.

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TAPPER: And we're back with the breaking news in our "POLITICS LEAD." President Trump's lawyer is responding to a new Wall Street Journal report that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury in the Russia investigation right here Washington, D.C. In a statement, Attorney Ty Cobb said, "The White House favors anything that accelerates the conclusion of his work fairly. The White House is committed to fully cooperating with Mr. Mueller." My panel's back with me. Bill, your reaction.

[16:55:14] BILL KRISTOL, THE WEEKLY STANDARD EDITOR AT LARGE: Well, that's more of a traditional lawyer's statement than the kind we saw from Mr. - President Trump's previous lawyer doesn't really say much, honestly.

PHILIP MUDD, FORMER FBI SENIOR INTELLIGENCE ADVISER: OK, can we throw a penalty flag for just a moment here? The White House favors anything except the President's son couldn't search his e-mails for a year and couldn't tell us what happened in the meeting until the New York Times released the e-mails. Give me a break, that's ridiculous.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: So, I just spoke with Ty Cobb and he said that they did not know anything about this. They still don't know anything about this. And he said as he said in a statement that we're all in favor of finishing all of this. There - I spoke with another source who said look, you know, Mueller had his offices - not Mueller, they started investigating this in Virginia on the Flynn investigation when somebody else was leading the investigation. Mueller's offices are now in D.C., it makes sense to impanel a grand jury in D.C. as opposed to Virginia, and this source was saying, well maybe this isn't so much of an escalation and we think it is.

TAPPER: And that it's just a geography the -

BORGER: Yes.

TAPPER: - previous person in charge was from Virginia, and now Mueller's here in Washington, D.C.

BORGER: Right.

TAPPER: Bill, a lot is being made on the right politically, the political right about how some of the attorneys who Mueller has hired are Democratic donors, one of them I think used to represent the Clinton Foundation, I believe, obviously Bob Mueller is registered Republican and has an impeccable reputation and is known for integrity. Is it fair to bring up where lawyers have given their political dollars?

KRISTOL: Bill Clinton attacked some of the lawyers on Ken Starr's team, at the end of the day, the facts are the facts. I think Donald Trump has given more dollars to Democrats in the last ten years than all of Mueller's lawyers together so - Trump as you know, is a very generous donor, he was to a bunch of Democrats, including Hillary Clinton if I'm not mistaken. I come back to that we were talking before about the Air Force I. Donald - think about that for a minute, just the - flying back from the Summit, right, and Donald Trump's there and he says, I want to work on that statement for Donald Jr. Maybe that's fatherly concern, but I don't know, that's an awful lot of interest for him to have in making sure that the statement says, we were just discussing adoptions.

TAPPER: Well -

KRISTOL: I kind of-I can't - this is your point, I can't get my head around the innocent explanation for that.

TAPPER: Well, and the other thing is that Washington Post story about that said that Donald Trump Jr. and other White House advisors, Donald Trump Jr.'s advisors and other White House advisors wanted to do what you are supposed to do in a situation like this. Get out all the information on your own terms, assuming that the New York Times has it or it's going to come out anyway and don't hide anything, be fully transparent even if late and President Trump was the one who overruled them.

BORGER: Well, that's what the lawyers wanted to do. A lot of these attorneys have a lot of experience in Washington. And they know that this is going to come out anyway. And so, the only conclusion you could reach is that there was -I was told there was a plan that was semi-done in place, and that - and that somehow it got upset, and nobody quite knew why. So the only conclusion you could reach is because of the President.

TAPPER: Phil, I want to talk about something that Pamela and Evan and Shimon broke which is we knew that intercepted had picked-up Manafort or people - Russians talking about Manafort before. They advanced the story today saying that these Russian operatives were discussing how Manafort had expressed interest in dirt on Hillary Clinton.

KRISTOL: Yeah.

TAPPER: How reliable, you're a former CIA officer or operative or official, one of those three O's -

BORGER: Big shot.

TAPPER: And how reliable are intercepts of operatives? I mean, they could be lying, they could be acting as if they had more information than they did.

MUDD: I would rely on - what are you telling, any subordinate tells the boss. In this case, the boss is back in Moscow. I'm really good at my job, I have terrific access. There is one piece that is reliable. There was a meeting, around that there's could be a bunch of data, text messages, phone messages, e-mails, I'm going to take that meeting and draw a spider web around that and if they say nothing happened in that meeting and I see a history of e-mail, phone, text, I'm going to say whoever said nothing's happening in that, with all that other activity, they're not telling me the truth.

TAPPER: All right, great, thank you so much one and all. Appreciate all of you being here. That's it for THE LEAD, I'm Jake Tapper. I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer who is in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks for watching. WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news, Grand Jury probe. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is reportedly impaneled a Grand Jury in his investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. Presidential Election and a separate report says Grand Jury subpoenas have already been issued in connection with Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian lawyer.

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