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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Senate Set to Pass Republican Tax Plan; Flynn Pleads Guilty to Lying to FBI: Cooperating in Probe. Aired 4:00-4:30p ET

Aired December 1, 2017 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:08]

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good afternoon, and welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the bombshell news.

Retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, President Trump's former national security adviser, a key member of both his campaign team and his inner circle in the White House, today pleaded guilty in federal court to lying to FBI about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador.

Flynn is now cooperating with the special counsel investigation, we're told, in a move widely interpreted as his only play, in order to guarantee that he and his sign Michael Flynn Jr. avoid jail time for a series of questionable and potentially illegal activities.

It's hard to overstate the significance of today's news. The charge is the first against somebody first in the White House, as opposed to the Trump campaign. And it was for a crime that occurred while he was employed in the Trump White House as a national security adviser.

Flynn is now the fourth member of the team connected to Trump or the Trump campaign to be charged as part of the special counsel investigation. And these questions loom large after today's news.

Why did Flynn lie to the FBI? What was the then national security adviser so afraid of our own federal investigators finding out that would be worth such a risk of lying to them, with so many serious consequences? What was Flynn hiding?

CNN's Jim Sciutto and Evan Perez have some breaking news on this story.

And, Jim, let me start with you.

Flynn is specifically charged with lying to the FBI about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. Now, you're finding out more about one of those conversations and how Flynn may have been acting on the orders of Jared Kushner, although Kushner is not named in the filings. Tell us more.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right.

Sources tell myself and my colleagues Gloria Borger and Dana Bash that the very senior member of the Trump transition team who directed Michael Flynn to reach out to the Russian ambassador, in this case regarding a U.N. Security Council resolution on Israel, that the very senior member of the Trump transition team was, in fact, the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Why is this important? Even in the White House statement today reacting to these charges or, rather, this guilty plea by Flynn, the White House says, well, he's lied in the past, basically putting its distance between itself and Flynn, implying that he was acting on his own here, when, in fact, when you read this statement of offense here, it describes that communications went in both directions.

One, that you had this very senior member of the campaign team, that being Jared Kushner, directing Flynn to reach out to the Russian ambassador on a contact that he later lied to the FBI about, but also that Flynn was reaching back to the Trump transition team, other members, not identified by name, but identified as members of the Trump transition team, that he was keeping informed about other conversations he had with the Russian ambassador during the transition, including conversations about Obama administration sanctions on Russia in response for interference in the election.

So it belies, in effect, the administration narrative here that Flynn was an outlier, a freelancer on these communications. In fact, we learned from the statement of offense that there were members of that Trump transition team, Kushner himself, directing him to have these conversations and there were members of the Trump transition team that Flynn was keeping informed as he was having these conversations with the ambassador to Russia, conversations that he later lied about to the FBI.

TAPPER: And, then, Evan, this is Flynn at the direction or at least in consultation with senior officials of the Trump transition team conducting foreign policy, telling Russia not to retaliate after the Obama administration, which was then in charge of the country, imposed sanctions, asking the Russians to delay or vote against a U.N. Security Council resolution against Israel because of its settlements.

And that obviously, you're not supposed to do. It's a violation of an obscure law called the Logan Act. But, beyond that, I'm wondering is there anything that indicates that -- we know that Flynn is implicated. Kushner is implicated, you're reporting. Is there any other information of anyone else implicated, the president or Pence or anyone else?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, yes, I mean, well, here is what's happened in the last few weeks, Jake.

We have had multiple officials from the White House, meaning we've had Reince Priebus, we've had former officials in the White House and current White House who have gone in for interviews with the special counsel. And they have all been testifying on this. We know recently from our reporting that Jared Kushner was brought in

and that he was asked about Michael Flynn, and we expect that this is one of the questions that was being asked. So what we're hearing in the past hour or so is a bit of spin from people close to the White House, people who tell us that essentially Kushner wasn't alone here, that, at least according to the testimony that has been given, Priebus, Bannon, Flynn and Jared Kushner were all involved in this effort on the U.N. vote.

[16:05:00]

And so what this means, Jake, and this is an important part of this, is that now the prosecutors are going to be able to look at multiple pieces of testimony and decide whether or not anybody has told a falsehood in addition to the falsehoods that we know Flynn has given.

So I think there is a lot more investigation here by the special prosecutor to home in on exactly what you're getting at.

TAPPER: All right, Even Perez and Jim Sciutto, thank you both.

Of course, of paramount importance to special counsel Mueller is the question I referenced earlier, why did Flynn lie? What was he attempting to hide by lying to the FBI, and whether anyone, including President Trump, may have told him to lie or knew that he lied.

Now, the White House today is attempting to spin today's news as unrelated to the White House, which is nonsensical. Not only was Flynn the national security adviser when he committed the crime. President Trump has been trying for months to stop all scrutiny into these various investigations.

Today, "The New York Times" is reporting that President Trump for months has been lobbying various officials to stop their various Russia probes, including the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican Senator Richard Burr, who told "The Times" that the president's words were something along the lines of, "I hope you can conclude this as quickly as possible."

Hmm. Where have I heard something like that before?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I understood him to be saying that what he wanted me to do was drop any investigation connected to Flynn's account of his conversations with the Russians.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: That's right. We heard something like that from FBI Director James Comey, since fired, who was beckoned to the White House earlier this year. And he says he was urged to drop his investigation into Flynn.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Why did you fire Director Comey?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Because he wasn't doing a good job, very simply. He was not doing a good job.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Of course, that concluded with the president firing Comey with, as he later told NBC, the Russia investigation foremost on his mind, despite various bogus cover stories initially pushed to the public that the president was concerned that Hillary Clinton had been treated unfairly by Comey.

Think about that. The White House actually tried to convince you of that lie.

Now, of course, Senator Burr and Comey aren't the only ones the president has pushed to stop their investigations or to say things that weren't factual about them.

To Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Intelligence Committee member Senator Roy Blunt, the president said, "Wrap this up," "The New York Times" reports. "The Washington Post" earlier reported that National Intelligence Director Dan Coats has also received a presidential push to publicly state as a fact that the Trump campaign did not work with Russia.

NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers was also given such a push. Neither of them complied with the president's request.

Now, kindly recall how long the White House has not been telling you the truth about this. The special counsel today noted that in December, as "The Washington Post" reported and shortly thereafter, Flynn called the Russian ambassador, in consultation with Trump transition team senior officials, specifically to discuss the sanctions that the Obama administration had put into place, specifically for meddling in the election.

Now, when asked about it, Press Secretary Sean Spicer on January 13 told the public that that call was to extend holiday greetings.

Now, after "The New York Times" and CNN in February of this year reported that intelligence officials were telling us that Trump campaign officials had had multiple contacts with individuals known to Russian intelligence, then White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus went on television and said this:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REINCE PRIEBUS, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I can assure you, and I have been approved to say this, that the top levels of the intelligence community have assured me that that story is not only inaccurate, but it's grossly overstated.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: But we know now, of course, that there were multiple contacts and conversations between Russians known to U.S. intelligence and members of the Trump team, namely, Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, George Papadopoulos, and Carter Page.

We did not, of course, know that then, but after our story and "The New York Times"' story, the White House, according to "The Washington Post," enlisted Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr and the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Devin Nunes, and Mike Pompeo of the CIA to speak to reporters to push back against what is now established fact, that Russians known to U.S. intelligence had reached out to the Trump campaign.

So, in addition to the question why did Flynn lie about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, we also have to look at the whole year's worth of actions and ask, why has the White House told you so many lies about this story? And why has President Trump been exerting so much time and energy behind the scenes and in front of the cameras to try to get those investigating this matter to stop doing so?

Why did he want Comey to drop the case, to the point that he took the drastic step of firing the FBI director?

Now, Comey had no comment today, though he did post this image on Instagram with the quote: "But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" from the Book of Amos.

My panel is with me.

Bill, take a listen to the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee reacting to "The New York Times" report.

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(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: You have got this repeated pattern of the president of the United States, who is trying desperately to stop this investigation. Cost James Comey his job because he wouldn't stop the investigation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So it's, "You have got this repeated pattern of the president of the United States trying desperately to stop this investigation. It cost Jim Comey his job."

Why is President Trump trying to stop these investigations?

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Well, because he's worried about what the special counsel -- he was worried what Jim Comey would find as director of the FBI, and now he's worried about what special counsel Robert Mueller is finding.

And that's why this is such a big moment. People are focused, in my opinion, a little bit too much on the particulars of the count to which Flynn pled guilty. But what prosecutors do, especially in complicated white-collar cases, is they find some count that is easy to prove, often that doesn't actually show where the investigation is going, because they don't want to tip off all the other defendants.

They take care of that. They have made the deal. It's a generous deal, I think, by Mueller for Flynn. One count. Could have kept him -- could have tried to do much more, presumably, to find -- found many more grounds to prosecute him on.

And then Flynn has to cooperate. That's the most important sentence you said in the opening. Flynn is now cooperating with Mueller. He's cooperating across the board.

TAPPER: He wants to stay out of jail and he wants Michael Flynn Jr. to stay out of jail. He has to give everything.

KRISTOL: Exactly. People kept saying, today, well, I wonder how much he's giving up?

He doesn't get to choose how much he's giving up. He is now going to be meeting with the FBI for hours on end. He doing so under penalty of perjury. He's got to say everything. And if Mueller -- it may well turn out the most important thing Mueller gets from Flynn, and Mueller may already know this, we have indications of this, are about the campaign, not about what happened in the transition or about what Flynn knows about the conversation with Comey on January 27, not about the Kislyak conversations.

So that's why the flipping of such a senior person as Flynn, who was in the room in the campaign, who was in the room in the White House, who spoke with Trump all the time, who spoke to everyone close to Trump all the time -- so if Jared Kushner told Flynn something, Flynn now tells Mueller, Mueller interrogates Kushner.

That's why this is such a big finding.

TAPPER: And if you read the government's findings, Jackie, Kushner is not the only one. It refers to multiple senior Trump transition officials.

There are other people. And a prosecutor I spoke with, a former prosecutor, said if I were Jared Kushner or Steve Bannon, I wouldn't be sleeping very soundly tonight.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: The closer this gets to the president, the worse it is.

He can dismiss Paul Manafort, who was the campaign chairman, as an intern or someone who had a minor part of the campaign, which is laughable. You can -- his lawyer had a statement about Flynn today that referred to him as an Obama appointee. A-plus for trying, but let's be real here.

When it comes to your family, to these ever closer advisers, they can't dismiss Jared Kushner as the coffee guy or Steve Bannon as an intern.

TAPPER: All right. Everybody stay with us. We're going to have the panel here the whole show.

Remember, this is a plea deal, an agreement between two parties. So what type of information did Flynn give up before his guilty plea today? I'm going to talk to a former federal prosecutor next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:17:25] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: We're back with the breaking news.

Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn cooperating with the special counsel investigation after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians.

Let's get right to CNN's Pamela Brown.

And, Pamela, the former national security adviser appeared in court earlier today.

Walk us through what Flynn admitted he did.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: So here's what's at the center of this charge, the charge of lying to the FBI. It's Flynn's conversation with then Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. And we learned in court documents today that Flynn first talked to his senior transition official about new sanctions against Russia, sanctions put in place by the Obama administration. According to Flynn, the transition officials did not want Russia to escalate the situation so Flynn immediately called Kislyak back, asking Russia not to overreact to the sanctions.

Now, keep in mind, this is happening on December 29th when Barack Obama is still president. Then, Flynn calls the transition team back and reports on what Kislyak said about the sanctions. That is noteworthy because Vice President Pence, as you'll recall, stated on national television in January sanctions were not discussed with Kislyak. So, either he didn't know about it and other members of the transition knew and the administration and didn't tell Pence and just allowed him to go on television and lie to the American public, or Pence did know and he lied.

But Pence has claimed he didn't know Flynn discussed sanctions until February around the time Flynn was fired.

TAPPER: And we should point out, Michael Pence was the head of the transition team.

BROWN: He was the head of the transition team, exactly right.

TAPPER: Because they fired Chris Christie and they put Pence in charge. So, for him not to know that is interesting.

Tell us about what happened in court today.

BROWN: Well, Flynn pleaded guilty to the charge of lying to the FBI in court. He released a staple acknowledging wrongdoing, saying my guilty plea in agreement to cooperate with the special counsel's office reflect a decision I made in the best interests of my family and of our country. So, this plea agreement indicates he's providing information to Mueller's team.

And at the hearing today, Flynn said very little. Here he is in this earlier video today walking into the courthouse. He said he was guilty. Just simply guilty, your honor, when asked how he pleaded by the judge. He faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison, according to federal sentencing guidelines, but the judge stressed today he could impose a harsher or lighter sentence. And after the hearing this morning, Michael Flynn was seen visiting his son's house in Virginia. As you see in this video.

Sources have previously told CNN that Flynn has expressed concern about the potential legal exposure of his son who was under scrutiny by the special counsel. So, of course, Jake, it raises the question whether part of his motivation for this plea deal was to protect his son.

[16:20:02] TAPPER: Indeed, it was.

Pamela Brown, thank you so much.

I want to bring in CNN's senior legal analyst Preet Bharara. He's also a former U.S. attorney.

Preet, what's your initial reaction to this bombshell news?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know, in some ways people were expecting there might be charges against Michael Flynn. There's been speculation in the press that among, you know, former prosecutor types, for a lot of weeks that Flynn not only was probably going to be charged but he might plead guilty to those charges. I think in some ways, there is some surprise that the charges are so narrow and it's just one count, a significant count, a serious count, of lying to the FBI, which is something you should never do.

But I think it highlights one very important thing that we've seen not only in this case, but also in the case of the cooperating witness George Papadopoulos. And that is that the Mueller team takes very, very seriously the idea of lying and of obstruction, and I think we also know that the Mueller team still has a long way to go, as I think some of the commentators have been opining about on the show before I came on. There are a lot of other witnesses to talk to. There are a lot of other shoes to drop. They're sort of in some ways just getting started.

And, you know, most sort of tellingly, there is a lot of lying going on and they have to get to the bottom of why that lying was happening. What underlying activity were they trying to hide? I mean, this is a person who was the national security advisor to the president of the United States and these lies that he pled guilty to, they're not allegations anymore, they're proven charges, occurred on the fourth day of the presidency of Donald Trump. TAPPER: And what he was doing, conducting foreign policy before the

Trump team had taken over, before the president had been inaugurated, a violation of the Logan Act, that's not an act that has been enforced quite often. In fact, I think only once before in the history of the United States.

What might this tell us -- what do you suspect it tells you about who he might be looking at next, Jared Kushner, who else?

BHARARA: Yes, look, I think the Mueller team is looking at everyone. You're exactly right, the Logan Act is an obscure statute I think passed in 1799. I don't think ever successfully used, but it's interesting for people to talk about and suggests the seriousness of some of the things that may have happened here. But I think the Mueller team is looking at every member of the campaign. I think they're looking at every member of the transition team. I think they're looking at everyone up to the president of the United States himself.

I mean when Michael Flynn, it's been reported today has said that he's cooperating with the government, that means he must tell if he's asked everything he knows about the conduct of other people up to and including the president of the United States. And it's already been reported on your show and in other places that the senior transition official that directed him to make contact with the Russians was Jared Kushner. The next question is, well, who is Jared Kushner talking to? Was he talking to his father-in-law, who happens to be the president? Was some of this contact only after the election when there was a transition team or did some of it happen during the campaign itself?

That raises a whole other series of questions about whether or not the president through Michael Flynn and others was suggesting that they wanted the Russian government to do things with respect to the election. You know, the things that people understand Mueller to be looking at, interference with the American election. Almost more seriously than that, whether or not in the campaign and afterwards there were promises made or representations made on the part of the future Trump administration of what they would do for Russia in exchange for either, again, speculatively, help in the campaign or less speculatively, an agreement not to press hard on sanctions and to vote a particular way on that U.N. resolution that dealt with Israel. Those are I think very, very important questions that remain unanswered.

TAPPER: All right. Preet Bharara, thank you so much.

Flynn's guilty plea puts enormous pressure on the president's inner circle. How the White House is taking the news today next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:28:22] TAPPER: And we're back with this breaking news. Michael Flynn cooperating with the special counsel investigation after pleading guilty today to lying to the FBI.

My panel's still with me.

Neera, let me go to you. You see Michael Flynn as a pretty important player, not only in what he's being charge with during the transition, but all potentially any possible collusion during the campaign.

NEERA TANDEN, PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Yes, I mean, Mueller is actually, you know, this -- Bill's right, just this charge is actually somewhat irrelevant. He's going to find out information about everything that happened.

And the issue with Flynn is, you know, for those thinking there is a quid pro quo here, he's part of both ends. He knows about all of the contacts on the campaign in which Russia is basically stating that they are trying to help the Trump campaign and then he's central to what the, you know, what the presumed or alleged payoff of that would be, which is President Trump's actions in response to Russia helping.

I would remind everyone of two things. First of all, the president has consistently throughout his year so far taken position after position after position that's helped Russia. That could all be part of the quid pro quo. He's also acted in order to basically discourage this investigation, which basically, you know, I think for most people, if you're innocent, you don't make calls to members of Congress, you don't fire the prosecutor, you don't take a series of actions that basically is designed to hide what you did.

TAPPER: Not to mention, of course, when he met in the Oval Office with Russian officials and told them, hey, I just fired Comey, that weight has been taken off my back.

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: What was the one person he raised with Comey more than once if I'm not mistaken -- Flynn.

TAPPER: Yes.

KRISTOL: I mean, he might have concerns about all kinds of other people, including his son in law and their exposure.