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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Kushner Turns Over Documents in Trump-Russia Probe; Attorney General's Russia Testimony Under Scrutiny; Mueller Investigators Focus on Kushner's Role in Comey Firing. Aired 4-4:30p ET
Aired November 2, 2017 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
Breaking news on the Russia investigation.
CNN is now learning that President Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has turned over documents in recent weeks to special counsel Robert Mueller, who is obviously investigating possible collusion with the Russian government.
This comes as investigators have begun asking in witness interviews about Kushner's involvement in the firing of FBI Director James Comey, sources tell CNN, which may, may be part of an investigation into obstruction of justice.
Let's get right to CNN justice correspondents Pamela Brown and Evan Perez, who are breaking the story right now for us on THE LEAD.
Evan, tell us what you're learning.
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, Jared Kushner has now turned over documents in recent weeks to special counsel Robert Mueller, as investigators now have begun asking questions about Kushner's role in the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
Sources tell us that Mueller's investigators have expressed interest in Kushner as part of the probe into Russian meddling. As we know, that probe includes potential obstruction of justice, and the motivation for Comey's firing is believed to be part of that.
Now, Mueller's team's questions about Kushner are a sign that investigators are reaching into the president's inner circle and have extended beyond the 2016 campaign to actions taken at the White House by high-level officials. It's not clear how Kushner's advice to the president might play a part in all of this.
Sources close to the White House tell us, Jake, that based on their knowledge, Kushner is not a target of this investigation. Sources tell us that Kushner voluntarily turned over those documents that he had from the campaign and the transition and these related to any contacts to Russia. These are the same documents that Kushner had previously given to
congressional investigators, Jake.
TAPPER: And, Pamela, this obviously -- this is the first time that we are hearing about what they're asking about Kushner. We have known that people have been interested in him in the Mueller investigation, but now we know like more of an idea of why.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right.
So this appears to be the first time we're learning about what investigators are asking witnesses in terms of Kushner's role in firing James Comey. Some sources have told us that Kushner was a driver in the decision, that he was encouraging the decision.
Other sources have downplayed that, just saying that he was merely supportive of the decision, but the president had already made up his mind on May 3, when James Comey testified. Investigators have also asked about how a statement came to be issued in the name of Donald Trump Jr. regarding that Trump Tower meeting with the Russian lawyer that Kushner attended in June of 2016 at Trump Tower between Trump campaign officials and a cadre of Russian figures, including some with links to the Kremlin.
It was arranged after Donald Trump Jr. was told that the Russian government wanted to pass along damaging information about Hillary Clinton as part of its pro-Trump efforts. Now, the meeting was also attended by Paul Manafort, who was Trump's campaign chairman.
And investigators have also asked about the circumstances surrounding the departures of certain White House aides. A White House official says that Mueller's team questions about Kushner, they're -- not a surprised that Kushner would be among a list of people who investigators would be asking. And we should mention a lawyer for Kushner did not comment and the White House declined to comment.
TAPPER: Let me bring in Gloria Borger and Shimon Prokupecz.
What are your biggest takeaways from this reporting?
I will start with you, Shimon.
SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: I think it's important to understand that the obstruction investigation does not -- is not limited just to the president. It is -- it could involve a conspiracy, so, therefore, anyone around the president influencing his decision could be part of that investigation -- Gloria.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, and I think going to this question of obstruction, I think we have two major areas that, from our reporting, we're gleaning that Mueller is looking at.
One is the firing of Comey, and Jared Kushner was at Bedminster that weekend when the president apparently made the decision. Again, there are different stories about whether he was involved at all. Some people say no. Some people say he drove the decision. We don't know the answer to that.
And then the second circle is this question of the Don Jr. meeting and what happened on Air Force One when they came up with a statement about how that occurred...
TAPPER: A false statement.
BORGER: A false statement that had to be amended multiple times. And Jared was also on the airplane there.
I think it's natural, as Kushner's lawyers say, that he would -- that questions would be being asked about this, but these are two areas that we know the special counsel's looking into.
TAPPER: And, Evan, even before Mueller took over, the FBI was looking at other roles of Jared Kushner on the campaign and on the Trump transition team.
After the election, we heard a lot actually from Jared Kushner. He sat for interviews talking about how big a role he had played in sort of overseeing the digital operation, which they claim was instrumental in getting the president elected.
And, of course, that's drawn a lot of attention because of the fact that the intelligence community found that the Russians were doing some funky things to try to influence the way people voted and were perhaps piggybacking on some digital -- whatever digital operation was going on.
It's not clear whether there's -- anybody was aware of that, and certainly we don't know whether Mueller's team has found any evidence of any wrongdoing here. But it is something, we know, that the FBI has been looking at.
And, look, I think, since then, people close to the White House have sort of downplayed the role that Kushner had, said, oh, well, look, he was just the nominal head here. He was in New York. He didn't really have any day-to-day operational oversight of it. So we will see.
TAPPER: It's interesting, and just to remind people in terms of the data-driven part of the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica was a big part of that.
TAPPER: And we just learned last week that the CEO of Cambridge Analytica reached out to Julian Assange sometime during the summer and asked WikiLeaks for access to Hillary Clinton e-mails, although Julian Assange says he turned them down.
Pamela, this shows that the probe is not just about the campaign in 2016, that it's gone far beyond that. It's now about the president and his circle of advisers at the White House. How significant is that?
BROWN: I mean, his closest circle of advisers. This is not only a senior adviser, but his family member. This is the president's son- in-law.
You know, it would be natural for investigators to want to ask these questions, given Kushner's prominent role. Really, he's at the nexus of so many parts of this investigation, as we mentioned, the statement on the plane, the Don Jr. meeting, the data analytics, the firing of James Comey.
And, so, naturally, they would want to look at this. And, as Evan said, the White House sources have said he is a witness, he is not a target. That is what they have relayed to us, just based on what they have been asked from Mueller' shop.
But it is significant in terms of how close this comes to the president.
PEREZ: And, also, Jake, this crosses the red line that the president has kind of intimated he would very, very -- he thinks that Mueller should not cross.
PROKUPECZ: It's also the issue with the security clearance forms, right? I mean, that is now perhaps something that Mueller's team wants to look at too, because there are still -- while his attorneys have said, it was their mistakes or he omitted stuff, there's still a question of why, really.
TAPPER: Omitted meetings with Russian officials.
PROKUPECZ: That's exactly right.
So, that is something that the Mueller team -- as we know, when they released Papadopoulos -- the complaint on Papadopoulos and the arrest, that was a central issue there, about, what was going on at these meetings? So, that is still the focus of Mueller.
PEREZ: And submitting incorrect forms, if you see Paul Manafort's indictment, it's all -- half of it is about submitting incorrect...
TAPPER: It's illegal. Yes.
BROWN: ... clerical error.
BORGER: That's right. BROWN: They say, look, this is a clerical error.
TAPPER: Several clerical errors.
BROWN: Several clerical errors.
TAPPER: Several times.
TAPPER: Right, many times.
BORGER: But it makes sense when -- we just listed all of these areas which involve, you know, one mutual thread, which is Jared Kushner.
Now, that may be, of course, because he's been central to this administration and he was central to the campaign. And he is, of course, close to the president, being his son-in-law. But the questions remain about just how involved he was with each of these decisions, whether it's about Air Force One.
His attorneys say he had nothing to do with the statements that came out of that. Or whether it was about the Comey decision, which his people say he had nothing to do with the firing of Comey. They say he's supported it. Other people say, he drove it 100 percent.
TAPPER: And, Shimon, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, they are under house arrest right now. Manafort's attorney argued that he's not a flight risk, despite the fact that he has three passports, because he's so recognizable. The judge did not rule on this issue today. But that is a fight going on right now.
PROKUPECZ: Yes, and we know that his attorneys plan to fight every step of the way.
They feel that it's unfair how Manafort has been treated. Look, the FBI and the Department of Justice, National Security Division, we know, we have done stories on this, have been investigating Manafort for years. Why all of the sudden did Bob Mueller and the special counsel team now decide to bring charges against him, when previously they didn't?
TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around. We have got much more on our breaking news, including new scrutiny on Attorney General Jeff Sessions also related to the Russia investigation.
Stay with us.
TAPPER: We also have this breaking news on the Russia investigation.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is under renewed scrutiny on Capitol Hill, sources tell us, over that March 2016 Trump campaign meeting during which then foreign policy adviser, now cooperating witness George Papadopoulos raised the idea of a Trump-Putin meeting.
Sessions shut down the idea at the time, according to a person in the room, but Sessions did not reveal any of that discussion when under questioning by lawmakers during multiple hearings.
This comes as Trump nominee to a top Department of Agriculture post, Sam Clovis, this morning withdrew his nomination amid questions about his role in the Russian probe, as Clovis was one of the campaign officials revealed to have corresponded with Papadopoulos, according to "The Washington Post."
Our team of CNN reporters is back with me.
But I want to go to Capitol Hill right now and CNN's Manu Raju.
Manu, what are prosecutors telling you?
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Democrats are raising sharp concerns, Jake. And some Republicans are raising questions as well.
You will recall over three hearings this year, including his confirmation earlier this year, there were a persistent set of questions about what he knew about any communication, contacts with Russian officials.
Time after time, Attorney General Sessions said that he didn't know. He didn't recall some key details. And sometimes he denied that there were such contacts that particularly Democrats are raising questions about.
Well, in the aftermath of the revelation of these court documents being unsealed and showing that George Papadopoulos did in fact propose a meeting with Vladimir Putin and candidate Trump in a meeting that Sessions was president at and that -- and what Sessions rejected, Democrats are saying, well, wait a minute, how come you didn't disclose that under questioning?
[16:15:08] Senator Richard Blumenthal who sits in the Senate Judiciary Committee said that even Sessions presumably could be one of those unnamed aides who was mentioned in the court documents.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Jeff Sessions concealed his meetings with Russians and he had an obligation to become more forthcoming about meeting that involved Papadopoulos as well, and in fact, one of the points of question is whether Papadopoulos in that charging document, where there's a reference to a campaign supervisor was in fact talking to Jeff Sessions.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RAJU: And, Jake, there are also questions from some Republicans as well about Sessions' testimony. Senator Chuck Grassley chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that he's going to look into the matter. He said he's still getting briefed about exactly what happened.
And even Senator John Cornyn, the number two Republican, who sits on the Judiciary Committee and Intelligence Committee, told me that it's a legitimate question worth exploring, Jake.
TAPPER: All right. Manu Raju on Capitol Hill.
Evan Perez, the attorney general originally said he didn't remember any meeting with Papadopoulos.
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right, he doesn't remember and does not remember exactly the circumstances that this might have come up. And, look, I think that's the line you're hearing, not only from the White House, where they're sort of saying, Papa who, to Paul Manafort, I think everybody is saying that they don't remember this 28-year-old kid who might have stood up and in their view was kind of bloviating, and sort of like making himself bigger than he was.
The problem for Jeff Sessions is that he now has to go back and answer these questions, again, and it is something that if he were a senator, by the way, he would be really angry if those questions were not answered in front of him.
TAPPER: And, Gloria, let's talk about the politics of this, Jeff Sessions has been on thin ice with President Trump far long time, starting with his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Now, there is renewed scrutiny over apparently yet another possible time that he was not forthcoming with information. This could imperil him theoretically.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: It could. I mean, these are largely Democrats who were raising this, you know, who are raising this issue and saying that he wasn't forthcoming. So, I'm sure he might have to amend his testimony. The question is what will the president jump on to say, OK, I've had it, that's enough with Jeff Sessions?
They are still have a very rocky relationship I'm told. The president complains him I'm told from one source an awful lot, whether this would be something that would sort of tip him over, I don't -- I really don't know. There's a school of thought inside the White House that now is not the time to start firing people, including Sessions or Mueller or anybody else, so we'll just have to see.
TAPPER: People get fired have a lot of time on their hands to talk. One might make that observation.
Evan, I want to ask you about Sam Clovis, who was nominated to be the top scientist at the Department of Agriculture, he withdraw himself from consideration earlier this morning. He's been under fire himself with connections to the Russia probe and Papadopoulos, tell us.
PEREZ: Right, exactly. "The Washington Post" as you mentioned earlier reported that Clovis was one of the unidentified officials in that document, in those documents with the FBI and the prosecutors disclosed on Monday, being in contact and communication with George Papadopoulos. So, part of the issue here is that Clovis is already under fire for -- he was being nominated for a science position and the Department of Agriculture, and he has no scientific background. So that was the first sort of strike against him, and so this was something that he probably couldn't survive.
We heard in the last couple of days, Jake, from sources that he either he was going to have to pull his nomination or someone at the White House was going to pull it for him. So, it looks like he went the easier way.
TAPPER: How poisonous is this George Papadopoulos since he got arrested over the summer? People must be really examining every conversation he had with him since he was under wire.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, exactly. As you know in the government documents, he's called a proactive cooperator, and so, that would lead you to believe that at the very least, he's talking to federal investigators and handing over information, and as you point out, we don't know. But perhaps he also was wearing a wire, we just don't know. We'd also know what kind of interactions he's had with people close to the White House in recent months because he was arrested this past July.
So, while Jeff Sessions and other people say they don't recall who he is or any conversations, I bet George Papadopoulos recalls a lot of his conversations.
PEREZ: The nervousness I think extends to people, because -- simply because this raises the possibility they might be other cooperators.
TAPPER: Yes. All right. Great reporting to everyone. Thank you so much. Really appreciate it.
Our coverage of the breaking news about Jared Kushner and the Mueller investigation continues. Where does the investigation go next? We'll ask a former federal prosecutor. Stick around.
[16:24:05] TAPPER: Welcome back.
Continuing with our breaking news coverage, I want to bring in CNN senior legal analyst and former U.S. prosecutor, Preet Bharara.
Preet, thanks so much for joining us as always.
PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Sure.
TAPPER: So, White House senior advisor Jared Kushner, CNN has broken the news this hour, that he has handed over documents to Mueller's team, also we've learned that Mueller's team is asking witnesses about Kushner's role in the firing of James Comey. What does that say to you about the direction of the Mueller investigation? BHARARA: Well, I think the clearest thing it says to me that's
reasonable and listening is that Bob Mueller is doing his job. And it's telling you that one of the things that he thinks is part of his job is to figure whether or not the firing of Jim Comey provides a predicate for a potential obstruction, referral to the House of Representatives or charged independently. And it would only make sense that Bob Mueller and his team would be asking everyone in the orbit of Donald Trump who might have had a role in the decision to fire James Comey to talk to them, ask for documents, ask them for e- mails.
[16:25:03] I would expect that's not only happening with respect to Jared Kushner. It's also happening with respect to former chief of staff, to Steve Bannon, and others. And we know there was some dispute according to Steve Bannon at least about whether or not Jim Comey should be fired.
TAPPER: Yes. Bannon he said it was the biggest mistake in modern history.
BHARARA: That's right.
TAPPER: But, Preet, clear this up for me, because a president has the right to fire an FBI director, it's part of his executive privilege. Why -- for want of a better term, why would there be possible obstruction of justice? Can't he do it for whatever reason he wants?
BHARARA: Yes. So this is a point of debate among some people. I think that the better view is, it's absolutely true that the president has the right and authority to take certain action. Just like a member of Congress has the right to vote a certain way on a bill, and there's nothing inherently wrong, at least from a criminal standpoint with firing an FBI director.
The question is, if there are facts that come to life, that puts that firing in context, it can be criminal. And the example I always like to look that's outside of the context of the current controversy, is if Mike Flynn or Paul Manafort, for example, decided that he wanted to pay the president of the United States, pay Donald Trump a million dollars to fire Jim Comey, and there was evidence of that, that's a straight up dead bang, slam dunk, winner of a criminal case, even though as you point out, and other experts point out, Donald Trump has the authority to fire Jim Comey. If it turned out that was done in exchange for a bribe, that would be a crime.
In a parallel way, there's an argument to be made that if the firing of Jim Comey was done for the purpose of shutting down an investigation of Donald Trump or his associates and that was the main reason, there's an argument that that's obstruction.
TAPPER: There's a clear argument that it was a bad decision because Mueller's been more aggressive than Comey would have been. We're told that the Justice Department months ago before Mueller took over thought that there was no charges with Manafort.
I want to ask you about Jeff Sessions. Under oath, he denied any contact with Russian officials during the campaign. Then he amended that and said he did meet with then Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Sessions said that he doesn't remember George Papadopoulos, even though there's a photograph of them sitting next to each other at that March 2016 campaign meeting.
I want to play the sound for you from Sessions' judiciary hearing two weeks ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Did anybody in the campaign, did you ever overhear a conversation between you and anybody on the campaign who talked about meeting with the Russians?
JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Oh, you said the Clinton campaign, the election --
GRAHAM: I'm sorry, the Trump campaign, I apologize.
SESSIONS: I have not seen anything that would indicate a collusion with Russians to impact the campaign.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: And it's interesting there because the question from senator to Senator Lindsey Graham was, did you ever hear anything about meeting with Russians, and he answered more specifically, I haven't seen anything about collusion with Russians.
BHARARA: So, they're look two ships that pass in the night, that often happens with senators asking -- I worked in the Senate, with senators asking questions and witnesses answering the questions that they want to answer. And so, to the extent people are asking did he perjure himself, did he lie on the stand? It's difficult to pin someone down when the question is about meetings and his answer was about something broader. And so, he would have the argument that whether or not there were meetings, he didn't think that there was anything that indicated collusion and so, it's a little bit hard to match-up the misleading nature of the response.
TAPPER: All right. Thank you so much. Really appreciate it.
BHARARA: Thanks, Jake.
TAPPER: The future of your money. Republicans rollout their plan for historic tax cut, they say it'll lift the middle class. Senator Elizabeth Warren weighs in next. Stay with us.