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Jared Kushner's Security Clearance Downgraded; Trump Aide Refusing to Answer Questions Before Congress; Trump Silent on Questions About Kushner's Downgraded Clearance; NSA: Trump Hasn't Directed Us to Disrupt Russian Threats; White House Communications Director Hope Hicks Testifies on Hill. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 27, 2018 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The president's son-in-law just lost his top-secret security clearance.

THE LEAD starts now.

Breaking news. Jared Kushner's security clearance was just significantly downgraded. So, what happens if a senior adviser to the president cannot see the most sensitive material?


Shocking testimony from the head of the NSA about how the president has not yet given him the authority to do everything he can to stop Russia from messing around in our democratic process, this as one of the president's closest confidants testifies behind closed doors before Congress right now.

And accusations of lavish spending plans for office decorations, public money for a private home security system and family meddling at a federal agency. A whistle-blower speaks exclusively to CNN about a Cabinet member under fire.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Good afternoon. And welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with some breaking news. Presidential son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has had his security clearance significantly downgraded, sources tell CNN.

The downgrade will prevent Kushner from viewing the nation's most sensitive secrets. And it comes after new rules were implemented by Chief of Staff John Kelly in the wake of the botched handling of the Rob Porter spousal abuse scandal.

I want to get right to CNN's Jeff Zeleny at the White House.

Jeff, what is the news and what is the White House saying about it?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, we are learning this afternoon, our team is reporting here that the threat essentially and the new action that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said he would take indeed has been taking effect now.

And that, of course, applies to a variety of officials here at the White House who have had temporary security access, top-secret access. That's now being changed. Of course, leading among them, first among them is Jared Kushner, of course, a senior adviser to the president, as well as the president's son-in-law.

He's been operating under a temporary top-secret security clearance since the first days of the administration. He's learned in recent weeks that his permanent clearance is not coming any time soon because of questions about his background.

He's of course been at the center of some of the inquiry that Robert Mueller has been leading. So this is going to be delaying that. But, Jake, it is unclear exactly how this will impact his job. He is a senior adviser to the president who had a very wide portfolio, particularly dealing in Middle East peace, who needs top-secret access to go through all of this if he is going to be effective here.

So he, I am told by another person familiar with this, has not asked the president to intervene in this. He's not asked the president for a special dispensation, if you will, is going to be treated the same as any other White House official.

We saw the president on Friday here at the White House. He said this would be left up to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. He said that Jared Kushner is doing a great job, but it is left up to John Kelly. So, Jake, as it looks line right now, Jared Kushner is losing his top-secret security clearance.

It certainly changes his role here in the White House. Even though people close to him, as well as his lawyer, have said he will still be able to do his work, the same work, but, Jake, it is entirely different not having that top-secret security clearance.

TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny at the White House for us with this breaking news, thanks.

Let's discuss with my political panel.

Kaitlan, as you have been reporting, Jared Kushner until now was one of the most avid consumers of the top top-secret, what is called top- secret, SCI, sensitive compartmentalized information.

He enjoyed that status. Now he's down to secret.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's certainly true. He was one of the top White House officials that requested access to more classified information than anyone else in the White House.

Not only is going to this affect his portfolio, as Jeff just laid out, dealing with the Middle East, that's what he's been tasked with, but also his daily life in the West Wing, because, as we know, he was someone who often read the presidential daily briefings, something the president even doesn't always read. But Jared Kushner did have access to what is referred to as the PDB and did read it often.

But in light of this memo John Kelly sent out a few weeks ago going into effect, clearly now, starting today, affecting Jared Kushner, we are going to see the day-to-day life with him change in the West Wing. He is certainly very frustrated by this.

Those close to Kushner believe he is seeing this as John Kelly taking this out, his frustration for Jared Kushner out specifically by using this clearance process. But those on the other hand, John Kelly sees this as he has got to implement the rules for everyone. And no one can have an exception.

And our reporting does show that Jared Kushner, we do not expect him to appeal to President Trump for an exception to allow him to continue to see that highly classified information.

But it is hard to see how he continues living his West Wing life the way he has been the last 13 months.

TAPPER: Phil Mudd, former CIA, former FBI, explain to us the difference between having top-secret SCI clearance, which is what he had until Friday, and now he has secret clearance. What is the difference?


PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I know it looks odd from the outside. The difference is huge.

Let me give you a couple of examples. If we're intercepting communications of a foreign power, for example, intercepting communications from Iran, Syria, North Korea, he can't see them.

The most sensitive CIA human source penetrations, what we call human source access, informants inside foreign countries, many of those might be classified secret. The most significant ones will be classified top-secret.

The best intercepts, the best human source informants, he can't see them. Let me give you one final piece, Jake, he can't see. When the CIA director walks in, when the secretary of state walks in, when the national security adviser walks in and says, Mr. President, I want to have a conversation about North Korea, about Iran, about Syria, is he supposed to say, the conversation at the secret level because Jared is in the room, or is he supposed say the conversation at the top-secret level, Jared has to leave the room?

This is more significant than it looks. It is a huge difference between secret and top-secret.

TAPPER: Nia, the portfolio that Jared has had, basically everything, but with a focus on U.S./Mexico relations, and there's a lot going on there that we don't know across the border, the Middle East, Israel and the Palestinians and Jordan and Saudi Arabia and Egypt, there's a lot there that none of the people watching right now will ever know because it is top-secret. And now he won't know either.


And Kaitlan talked about the way his life will change in the White House, what his access is at this point. It is also important to think about how the president's life is going to change now. I'm sure he is someone who relied on Jared Kushner being read in on a lot of this highly classified information.

And so now, in some ways, his circle of advisers and people he relies on to get information all of a sudden is very different. Kushner coming in was sort of the secretary of everything. Right? He had this huge, unwieldy portfolio.

The president at one point said if anybody can solve the crisis in the Middle East and move towards Middle East peace, it would be Kushner. And now I think, in so many ways, his profile in the White House diminished and his portfolio affected heavily as well.

TAPPER: And, Kaitlan, you have been reporting on White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. This comes in a context. He's been telling people, according the your reporting, that he is frustrated with Jared and with his wife, Ivanka.

COLLINS: He's been very frustrated with them.

And this goes from them originally pushing for them to come into the White House to become the chief of staff. They thought he was going to impose all this restraint on the West Wing, stop people from leaking. But they didn't necessarily realize just how far that restraint would also apply to them.

But he's since grown very frustrated with the two of them with the way Jared Kushner portfolio has been. We have seen it downgraded since John Kelly came into the West wing. He certainly isn't handling as many matters as he was tasked with at the beginning.

And as well as Ivanka, because he's told people privately that he feels like Ivanka is just playing government, because she often blurs the line between being the president's daughter and being his senior adviser, as we saw with that interview where she said she thought it was inappropriate for her to have to comment on the allegations made against her father.

So, certainly a lot of frustration between these three. And the president is very aware of the tension between Jared Kushner and John Kelly, based on my reporting, especially in light of him being downgraded from top-secret to just secret.

But the read did ultimately leave in it John Kelly's hands, as we heard from him on Friday, when he said he was going to leave it up to him. But during that press conference, he made very clear that he thought Jared was very important to the West wing and he thought he was very valuable. He was sending a message to John Kelly. That's how many other West

Wing staffers saw it, but John Kelly has laid down the law here. And he's not letting him have an exception.

TAPPER: And we need to underline, John Kelly is not the one who decides the status. That's the FBI that does that. The FBI decides whether or not you get the clearance level that you want. Right? Or am I getting that wrong?

MUDD: The FBI is giving him information about the background investigation and saying, let's he had a -- I'm not saying this happened. He had a shoplifting incident when he was 17.

TAPPER: Right.

MUDD: I presume John Kelly is going to say, look -- by the way, when I went through my security clearance, and I still have a top-secret codeword clearance, revelation on national TV -- I had shoplifting when I was 13.

I stole a football. They said that's fine.


MUDD: The significance here, and this is why John Kelly had no option, is that the deputy attorney general, as we know from reporting, called over to John Kelly, and said, we cannot certify that we have closed the investigation yet.

That's code in Washington, for after 13 months of an accelerated investigation into Jared Kushner's background, that there's something really significant the FBI can't reveal.

John Kelly has the option from making the decision, but he had to take that phone call and say, I got no option. I can't give this guy continued top-secret clearance.

TAPPER: And, Nia, this comes with reports that CNN broke a few days ago the fact one of the things Bob Mueller's team is looking into are conversations that Jared Kushner had with foreign leaders during the transition about financing for his projects in his business life, while at the same time he was the point of contact for foreign governments as the aide to the president-elect.


HENDERSON: Yes. And that's the thing.

We don't know what Mueller has. We don't know what is going to come down the line in terms of revelations about Kushner. We have already seen these indictments. You have Kelly in a position and whether or not he wants to give a top-secret clearance, or keep interim clearance for someone who is clearly the target of investigations.

Again, we don't know what that is going to be. But you imagine that he had some of that in mind too, the entanglements that Kushner seems to have in terms of the Russia investigation.

COLLINS: And I think we should put all of this into context, this clearance overhaul and why this is happening.

And it's because John Kelly was so heavily criticized for the way he handled the resignation of Rob Porter, the staff secretary, who also had a very high interim security clearance, who handled the paper flow over the president's desk, who obviously has spousal abuse allegations in his past.

John Kelly got in a lot of trouble for the way he handled that, especially in the media. He was like the center of the firestorm. And that's why John Kelly made the decision to overhaul the way that they were handling the security clearance process in the White House. And that is why this is affecting Jared Kushner now.

TAPPER: Because one of the criticisms was Rob Porter obviously was very blackmailable while he had access to the presidential daily brief and other top-secret information.

Everyone, stick around. We have got a lot more to talk about, lots more breaking coming up.

Plus, what happened behind closed doors when Hope Hicks, one of the president's closest senior aides, went before the House Intelligence Committee?

Stay with us.


[16:15:47] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: That was President Trump just moments ago avoiding questions about the breaking news. His son-in- law, senior adviser Jared Kushner, getting his security clearance downgraded, sources telling CNN. We've also just learned that the FBI is expected to wrap up Kushner's background check within a month.

Now to a stunning statement from the director of the National Security Agency, Admiral Mike Rogers, who's also head of Cyber Command. Rogers disclosed to senators today that President Trump has not be given him the authority to stop Russian cyber attacks where they originate and that Russia has not paid sufficient price to change its behavior after interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

To underline this, it is not at all common for the head of the U.S. intelligence agency to openly acknowledge that his boss, the commander-in-chief, has yet to give him the authority to protect the United States from what he, Rogers, clearly believes is a threat to the United States. So, why has the president not given him the authority to do so?

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was asked that question just a few minutes ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Nobody is denying him the authority. We're looking at a number of different ways that we can put pressure --


TAPPER: Actually, technically, if the White House doesn't give Admiral Rogers the authority, that is effectively denying him authority and the question remains. Why would the White House deny Admiral Rogers the authority to stop Russian cyber attacks where they originate?

The Trump team's posture towards Russia may have something to do with its past relationship with Russia and straight answers frankly are hard to come by on that subject from Sarah Sanders and also as well on Capitol Hill today. As one the of the president's closest confidants, White House's communications director Hope Hicks is testifying before the House Intelligence Committee in its probe of Russian election interference and any possible collision. Two lawmakers telling CNN that Hicks is refusing to answer questions about her time in the White House and during the presidential transition. Not all the questions but some of them.

Let's get right to CNN's Manu Raju on Capitol Hill.

And, Manu, what is the justification behind Hope Hicks refusing to answer some questions?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, today, White House communications director Hope Hicks' attorney has instructed the House Intelligence Committee. He told them that she would answer these questions after the campaign season, in accordance to the request from the White House.

Now, this is in line with what Steve Bannon did when he came aboard the committee on multiple occasions. He would not answer questions about what happened after the campaign season, including the transition in his time at the White House. Now, when Bannon did that, there was bipartisan concerns and threats to hold him in contempt of Congress.

But today, Jake, concerns are mainly from the Democrats about Hick's refusal to answer some key questions.


RAJU (voice-over): Tonight, White House communications director Hope Hicks refusing to anxious key questions in the Russia probe, frustrating Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee.

REP. MIKE QUIGLEY (D), ILLINOIS: I have less hope we'll get to all the answers.

RAJU (on camera): Was there been a subpoena issued for her?

QUIGLEY: No. RAJU: Should there be?


RAJU: Why is that?

QUIGLEY: With anyone who doesn't answer questions, they ought to be subpoenaed and brought forward.

RAJU (voice-over): Republicans and Democrats in the panel have previously called on President Donald Trump's close adviser to answer all questions about the transition and their time in the White House.

But lawmakers from both parties said she wouldn't answer key questions about topics after the 2016 campaign.

Hicks' unwillingness follows former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, saying he was instructed by the White House to invoke executive privilege on behalf of President Trump over matters that occurred after the campaign. And former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski also who wouldn't discuss topics after he left the campaign in June 2016.

The House Intelligence Committee has also been fighting over the FBI surveillance of the former campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page, leading to a war of memos over why he was targeted. The memo from the committee's ranking Democrat Adam Schiff released over the weekend states the FBI was concerned Page was being recruited by the Russians.

A claim Page denied in an interview with CNN's Chris Cuomo.

[16:20:00] CARTER PAGE, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN ADVISER: No one in Russia has ever tried to work me. All the evidence I've seen so far, Chris, indicates that there was more interference by the U.S. government compared to the Russian government.

RAJU: The president this morning tweeting again, calling the Russia investigation a witch hunt. But on Capitol Hill today, National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers warned Congress that he has not been granted the authority by President Trump to disrupt Russian election hacking operations where they originate.

SEN. JACK REED (D), RHODE ISLAND: We have not taken on the Russians yet. We're watching them intrude on our elections, spread misinformation, become more sophisticated, try to achieve objectives, and we're essentially sitting back and waiting.

MIKE ROGERS, NSA DIRECTOR: I don't know if I would characterize it as we're sitting back and waiting. It's probably fair to say that we have not opted to engage in some of the same behaviors that we are seeing, if could I keep it --

RAJU: Yet a new CNN poll shows about six in ten Americans say the president is not taking the investigation into Russian efforts to influence the U.S. elections seriously enough and they also lack confidence the president is doing enough to promote foreign interference in future elections.


RAJU: Now, Jake, that same poll showed a really sharp divide over how Republicans and Democrats view the Russia investigation. Roughly 89 percent of Democrats believe that it is a serious matter. But about 71 percent of Republicans believe the Russia investigation is meant to discredit the Trump presidency.

Still, Jake, about 55 percent of Americans do not believe the president is doing enough to prevent the country from seeing another attack against this democracy during the upcoming elections, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Admiral Rogers appears to be one of them.

Manu Raju, thank you so much.

Just how concerning are the NSA director's comments? And does this mean our democracy is in jeopardy?

Our panel will weigh in next. Stay with us.


TAPPER: We're continuing the conversation with my panel on the Russia investigation, the continuing threat from Russia and, of course, Jared Kushner's security clearance being significantly downgraded as part of potentially perhaps the Russia investigation.

I want to start with an exchange between Admiral Rogers, the head of the NSA, and Senator Blumenthal today. Rogers was asked by the senator why he hadn't asked President Trump for additional authority to confront Russia's cyber threats.


ROGERS: Sir, I am not going to tell the president what he should or should not do.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Without belaboring this point, would you agree with me that the Russians have been in no way deterred?

ROGERS: Oh, yes, sir. I think that's true.

BLUMENTHAL: They're doing with it impunity. They could care less what we think. They're continuing to attack us.

ROGERS: Yes, sir.


TAPPER: I do find it surprising. You normally don't have especially in the Trump administration where loyalty, even if the facts don't line up, what's required of you with loyalty. Loyalty is so rewarded and here you have Admiral Rogers making it very clear, I'm not saying inappropriately so, that the president has not given him the authority to do what he needs to do. Phil?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: The story is bigger than that, Jake. In a real world, here's how this game works.

You're the director of the National Security Agency, you're the director of the CIA, you're the secretary of state. You walk in the Situation Room, that's in the West Wing with the president, the vice president, the national security adviser, the National Security Agency says we're taking down some systems in Moscow. The CIA says this is how we're going to cooperate and you turn to the secretary of state ands you say, you're going to take some heat from the Russians because we're going on engage in covert action. The White House has to authorize that.

What I'm hearing today is, is there any conversation at the White House integrated across the government because this is complicated about what we do? And the answer is no.

TAPPER: And interestingly, Nia, 60 percent of respondents in our new CNN poll are not confident President Trump is doing enough to prevent foreign influence in future elections. Although 60 percent also say Congress isn't doing enough either.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes. And a lot of governors are probably part of that 60 percent. They, of course, were at the White House talking about this in some ways. The fact that they feel like their voting systems are quite vulnerable.

You had Congress try to move to get them some money, big bill $350 million to help them secure their data systems, their voting systems. That hasn't happened. So, there is a lot of frustration.

One of the questions is, is it too late at this point, right? I mean, it's clear that the Russians never really left. That they're still meddling. The primary season starts next month.

Can they do enough to start to ensure some of these voting systems across the country, that are electronic, that are very vulnerable, that are outdated? So far, you have had some meetings. The DHS has met with local officials as well as intelligence agencies.

But my goodness. I mean, the question is, I think, is it too late and can something be done before voting starts? In November and even in March?

TAPPER: And, Kaitlan, I know you hear a lot from when you're at the White House reporting from Sarah Sanders and others who work for the president that the American people don't care about Russia. Our CNN poll found that 61 percent stay Russian investigation is a serious matter, 34 percent view it as an effort to discredit President Trump. That's a clear majority who disagree the White House.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's right. I think every American cares about the integrity of our elections and the White House continues to blame this on the Obama administration. We saw it just again today when the press secretary was being pushed on why hasn't the president made it clear to Mike Rogers that he should disrupt those efforts when they are originate, and they continue to go back to, hey, this happened during the Obama administration, we weren't in office.

But the point is, Donald Trump is in office now. He has been for 13 months. And the White House has still yet to outline any kind of a plan, or even hint that they're working something that would stop this from happening again. The White House did say today that they would be offering some steps later on, that we would find out in the near future. But that's also something that we've heard for weeks now. We still have yet to see anything the White House is doing to make sure this doesn't happen again.