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AT THIS HOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

Flynn's Abrupt Resignation Raises Serious New Questions; Andy Puzder's Confirmation for Labor Secretary in Trouble; Hillary Clinton Weighs in on Flynn Resignation; Ray Buckley Runs for DNC Head, Tells Democrats to Grow Up. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired February 14, 2017 - 11:30   ET

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


[11:30:00] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: One thing that came out on Capitol Hill in response to this is the House Intel chairman suggested that conversations between Flynn and the president -- how the president directed Flynn, if he did at all, could be covered and protected under executive privilege. Would you agree with that?

TONY BLINKIN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It's a close call. There certainly would be probably an assertion of privilege of some kind. On the other hand, you have an active investigation, apparently, by the Justice Department, by the FBI. Congress is going to want to know about that at the appropriate time. I've heard members on the Hill today asking for detailed briefings from Justice, from FBI, and that should happen.

There's something else, too, here, Kate, which is that what happens next is important. The NSC, the NSC staff, is one of the most important things we have in government. This is really the hub of our national security and our foreign policy. And leaving aside this incident, there are also significant reports of dysfunction on the NSC staff at the White House, professionals who are dedicating their lives and careers to this.

BOLDUAN: Tony, what do you think this incident does to the NSC staff?

BLINKEN: There are lots of reports suggesting that the staff was already demoralized because there was no communication. It wasn't being listened to. It wasn't being looped in. I hope very much the next national security adviser takes a different approach.

And in particular, you know, most of the staff on the NSC, they are career professionals who are sent over to the White House from other agencies. They check their politics at the situation room door. And so, bringing politics into it, is a bad thing.

One of the things the next national security adviser should insist on, at least in my judgement, is that he or she does not report to and through Mr. Bannon. It's totally inappropriate to have a political figure in the White House be the person to whom the national security adviser and the national security staff reports. That apparently is what was going on up until now.

BOLDUAN: Not entirely clear on that one. Again, a lot of questions on the order of operation was there. Can I ask you, real quick, since you aren't in the business of giving

advice to this administration, but do you have a favorite between the names that are out there in the public right now of who should be the next national security adviser? David Petraeus being one, Bob Harward being the other?

BLINKEN: Well, I know both of them, they are both extremely competent, serious, accomplished professionals. I think either would be a very strong choice. But that may be, you know, damning from quarters they don't want it from.

BOLDUAN: Keep your comments to yourself then, Tony Blinken.

BLINKEN: Exactly.

BOLDUAN: Great to see you.

BLINKEN: Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: You just ruined their chances with that.

Great to see you. Thanks so much.

For years, Republicans hammered Hillary Clinton over her e-mails, saying that she threatened national security with the way she handled her private server. Of course, that was a huge part of the election. Is the shoe now on the other foot? We'll debate it.

Plus, just days before a make-or-break hearing on Capitol Hill, the president's pick for Labor secretary is facing new opposition. And an old episode of "Oprah Winfrey." What is this all about? That's coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:37:32] BOLDUAN: We are also following breaking news from Capitol Hill. A lot of breaking news from Washington right now. The Senate just voted to approve the president's pick as the new head of the Small Business Administration, former world wrestling entertainment executive, Linda McMahon. She sailed through the confirmation process, relatively speaking, facing very little resistance.

Can't say the same for the president's pick for Labor secretary. Fast-Food Executive Andy Puzder's nomination is in serious trouble right now, because four Republican Senators are currently withholding their support.

CNN's senior congressional reporter, Manu Raju, is looking into all of this right now.

Manu, where is the real trouble for Puzder?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: It's in his past. There are a lot of things he -- his views, ideologically, don't align with a lot of folks on the left. So, they're not expecting many Democrats to support him. But on the -- but there's some liabilities that have emerged during this vetting process that have given some Republicans pause, notably his hiring of an undocumented immigrant as a household employee, later paying back taxes on this -- on his employee after acknowledging having hired this person to work for him.

But also, going through a rather messy divorce back in the 1980s. And at that time, his ex-wife leveled some pretty harsh domestic abuse allegations against him. Now she has since withdrawn those allegations and now supports him as a nominee.

But she also appeared in that -- during that time, in disguise on, "The Oprah Winfrey" show to discuss what happened to her during that time. Now that tape of the "Oprah Winfrey Show" is not public but the Oprah Winfrey show executives have allowed Senators to view this in private to look into exactly what happened during that time.

I just spoke to Senator Patty Murray, of Washington, a Democratic Senator. She said she's troubled by what she saw on that tape. Notably, Kate, this is the ex-wife, who said that she regrets going there to the "Oprah Winfrey Show," saying she was just looking for a free trip to Chicago.

But expect all this to come up at Thursday's rather contentious confirmation hearing.

BOLDUAN: It's a numbers game. If he's going to lose Republicans, for whatever reason, he needs to pick up Democrats to push his nomination over the line. That's why it's in trouble. A lot to listen for at that hearing on Thursday.

But also, Manu, if I could, you just caught up with Senator John McCain. What is his reaction? What is he saying about Michael Flynn's resignation?

[11:40:01] RAJU: He's acting pretty sharply, namely about the issue of Russia. Of course, McCain has been a sharp critic of the way the Trump administration has handled Russia, believing they should take a firmer line on this country.

I just had a chance to ask him, do you think there should be an investigation into this? He says there should be a bipartisan select committee looking into the Russia allegations, as well as Michael Flynn, his involvement there. That's not what Republican leaders want but what John McCain wants -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: He has wanted that all along. I wonder if this changes that dynamic of pushing Mitch McConnell any closer to wanting to have an independent committee. I'm guessing no, but who knows.

Manu, great to see you. Thank you so much.

RAJU: Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: So Michael Flynn resigns his post, and Hillary Clinton is weighing in. Details on that ahead.

Plus, just days after North Korea tests President Trump with a new missile launch, CNN is live on the ground in Pyongyang. Coming up, we'll take you inside that hermit kingdom.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:45:21] BOLDUAN: Here's an interesting element about today's breaking news coming in from the White House. Hillary Clinton is now weighing in about this key Trump adviser, his resignation, Michael Flynn, a key Trump adviser, one of her chief critics during the campaign. And also, remember this element of this long story. Michael Flynn's son, he helped fan the flames of fake news back in the campaign by pushing the baseless Pizzagate conspiracy story against Clinton last year. OK, that leads us to this. Hillary Clinton today retweeted this one from one of her former top advisers, suggesting the Flynns apply for work in the pizza industry. And Clinton said, "Philippe's got his own way of saying things but he has a point about the real consequences of fake news."

Let's discuss right now with senior political commentator and former Pennsylvania Senator, Rick Santorum; also with me, CNN political commentator and Democratic strategist, Paul Begala.

Gentlemen, let's start here.

Senator, was it the cover-up or the crime here when it comes to Michael Flynn, in your opinion?

RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I'm not sure there is a crime. From what I've --

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: In a matter of speaking.

SANTORUM: I think there's really no crime from what I've heard. But the fact of the matter is there is obviously some problem with communication with General Flynn and the vice president, and that's a violation and breach of trust, and that's the problem here. And General Flynn paid a very big price for that.

BOLDUAN: That's for sure.

We're looking at the story, Paul, the Justice Department briefed the White House three weeks ago. What was the last straw then?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That should have been the last straw. Apparently, this is all according to news reports, apparently. three weeks ago, the White House was briefed that the national security adviser in the opinion of the Justice Department and the intelligence community, was subject to blackmail. So, for three weeks, this man who they believe is subject to blackmail, was involved in the most serious sensitive national security issues. That's a big problem. And it goes back to last night my old colleague, David Gergen, from the Clinton White House, the Reagan White House, the Nixon White House.

BOLDUAN: The Lincoln White House. BEGALA: yes. He went back, I think, to Millard Fillmore. But Gergen

reminded us of the question of Watergate. What did the president know and when did he know it? By counsel of Democrats, and Republicans, too, really, focus on the organ grinder not the monkey. That guy's a monkey, even a respected general, like General Flynn. We come and go, staffers. The president is the issue here. He has ties to Russia, separate and apart from General Flynn. If you're going to fire General Flynn for his ties to Russia and his lies about them, Donald Trump has ties to Russia --

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: It's unclear about that.

BEGALA: No, he plainly has ties.

BOLDUAN: But what you're suggesting is the ties that have been talked about is that you would want to see what's be in his tax returns and going down that line.

BEGALA: Right.

BOLDUAN: But we're not going to go there --

(CROSSTAKL)

BEGALA: He is president, in part, because the Russians meddled in our election. The biggest story of the election is Russia. The biggest story in this presidency will be Russia. This will never end.

BOLDUAN: Senator, putting aside some of what --

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: I know, you could disagree more.

SANTORUM: Yeah, I couldn't disagree more.

BOLDUAN: May I ask you this, though, coming from a Republican Senator, you've known for a long time. Lindsey Graham was on the show. And he has, along the lines of what David Gergen has posed out there, he said this clearly. And while he's waiting to learn more, Lindsey Graham wants to know this, "I want to know, did General Flynn do this by himself, or was he directed by somebody to do it?"

That's a real question right now from Senator Lindsey Graham.

SANTORUM: I would say that what General Flynn did -- we don't know specifically what he did -- but certainly, the Trump administration's attitude toward Russia was very different than that of the Obama administration. I'm sure that was reflected in the call, no matter what.

The idea of blackmail -- blackmail means that he was subject to coercion on the part of the Russians, probably because he said things that, quote, "others didn't know about." The fact of the matter is, obviously, others did know about it. They probably didn't see this as, as big a problem as maybe the Justice Department did. So just because the Justice Department says, well, it's a potential for blackmail, means that the administration or the lawyers looking at it, they were the people talking to General Flynn or others felt the same way. So, I think we're presupposing ideas or opinions or facts. In fact, they may not be facts. So, let's really --

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: Really? But coming from the White House, coming from Kellyanne Conway today, it was that the problem that they had is that Michael Flynn misled the vice president.

[11:50:01] SANTORUM: And that's why he was fired. And that's why they may not have been as concerned, as the potential for blackmail or a lot of things that have been put out there as fact, they might have looked at that and said, no, we're not concerned at all because we may know this now. Now, at the time, General Flynn briefed the vice president, which was January 15th, they may not have known that. Subsequently, they did, and they may have looked at it differently.

BOLDUAN: Paul, a lot of Democrats are saying this is the tip of the iceberg. Do you leave open the possibility that General Flynn could have just been freelancing here?

BEGALA: Yes. Your interview with Lindsey Graham was really, really important. Believe me, folks at the White House watched that very closely, I'm sure. I don't know General Flynn. Senator Graham does. He said he is a strong-willed guy. It's not inconceivable, but it's highly unlikely, as Tony Blinken, another national security advisor from the Democratic base, said. It's hard for me to imagine -- Russia was a key issue in the campaign. Hillary, in the debates, accused Trump of being a Putin puppet. This was a major flashpoint. This is not a minor country. I can imagine the incoming national security advisor having a conversation with, say, the ambassador of Botswana, but these are five phone calls on the day that the sanctions were placed. It's hard for me to imagine that Donald Trump didn't know and approve, but maybe he didn't. We need to get to the bottom of it. What did the president know, and when did he know it?

BOLDUAN: Who is going to be tasked with getting to the bottom of it, I think, is a very big question right now. Lindsey Graham would like to be in charge of that, and so would John McCain. Those are two names I'll throw out there.

Senator, great to see you. Thank you so much.

Paul, thank you as well.

Thank you, both, so much.

Coming up for me, he is gunning for the top job in the Democratic Party, and his message, though, for his colleagues, who he is trying to win over, grow up. What a candidate for the next DNC chair says his party just doesn't get about the average American. Details on that ahead. Plus, a short time from now, Sean Spicer, the White House press

secretary, will be holding a White House press briefing where he is sure to face more questions about what the president knew, and when, about Michael Flynn and his contacts with Russia. Sean Spicer, prepping for maybe a tough go of it in just a couple of hours.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:56:23] BOLDUAN: Members of the Democratic National Committee are considering who should lead the party out of the political wilderness. Six candidates are vying for the post. The New Hampshire state chair of the Democratic Party, Ray Buckley, is one of them. He had a rather blunt message for his Democratic friends, the very same friends he is trying to win over. During a candidate forum, Buckley looked back at the 2016 election and said this, in part, "The reality is, we do not offer a positive message to anyone I'm related to. What we do is we said how offensive. Grow up. that's not the -- that's not reality for most of America".

Ray Buckley is joining me right now.

Thank you so much for joining me.

You are trying to win over Democrats to support you as DNC chair, and you just told them to grow up. Why?

RAY BUCKLEY, STATE CHAIR, NEW HAMPSHIRE DEMOCRATIC PARTY: Because I'm actually more interested in winning elections. My candidacy for DNC chair is irrelevant. We failed to address the nominating process, to make sure that people believed that it was a fair and open process. Our DNC itself, lack of transparency and accountability, and the fact that the same parties have been left to wither at the vine. If we had continued the 56 strategy that Governor Dean had put, we would have won Wisconsin, we would have won those other states. I know that because, in New Hampshire, we continued the program without the funding, and we were able to win in New Hampshire, which is a 50-50 state. We were very successful. First time in history, the entire congressional delegation is Democratic.

BOLDUAN: Other big names running for the same spot, let me ask you about them. Why are you better than Congressman Keith Ellison? Why are you better than former Labor secretary, Tom Perez?

BUCKLEY: When I was 18 years old, in 1978, I was elected county chair. I've had five terms as state party chair here in New Hampshire where we have won 11 out of the last 13 statewide races and we've elected more Democrats than ever before in a 10-year period in New Hampshire's history. I've been president of the State Chair's Association for the last eight years, and an officer of the DNC. I actually know where we're broke and what we have to do to fix. They're great spokespersons, but I'm the nuts-and-bolts guy. If you really want to get this party moving, I can do the job.

BOLDUAN: I think they would disagree with that, Mr. Buckley. They would -- Keith Ellison would say he has been fighting for Democrats, he has been fighting for average Americans as a member much Congress for a very long time.

BUCKLEY: Well, and I have nothing to criticize, either the secretary or the congressman about. I just offer a different experience, a proven record of actually leading a party, being involved in the party and the structure. And, frankly, my frustration is that a lot of the folks in Washington simply don't get it anymore. Whether it's the consultant class or the folks that didn't understand in any way the economic fear and disparity that is going on out there. People really cared about their families and they were very nervous about it, and we didn't offer them anything.

BOLDUAN: Really quickly, do you think Democrats are too focused on insulting or fighting back against Donald Trump as a strategy? What's the opposite right here? Hold the fire?

BUCKLEY: I think that we need to offer clear and alternative plans. In reality, Hillary Clinton's economic plan was much better for the working class in America than Donald Trump's. But the problem is not her plans, it was whoever decided that the mail program that was sent to the targeted states and the millions -- hundreds of millions on television were all about repeating Donald Trump's swearing. Well, when you are worried about your home, you're worried about feeding your family, you're worried about their future, a president that swears doesn't come into the equation.

BOLDUAN: Mr. Buckley, thank you so much. Good luck in your candidacy.

BUCKLEY: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: We'll talk to you soon.

Thank you so much for joining me also AT THIS HOUR.

"Inside Politics" with John King starts right now.