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White House Press Briefing; Trump Asked Flynn to Resign; Blackmailing of Flynn; Trump Tough on Russia; Trump Knowledge of Flynn's Lie; Kremlin Response to Flynn Resignation; Conway Investigation. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired February 14, 2017 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: And at that point, as I mentioned, what he asked, and what he believed at the time, and it was confirmed by White House Council, was that there was no legal issue here. Discussing the issue didn't violate anything. It was - it was appropriate in the normal course of action to discuss that. And he immediately asked the White House Council to further confirm what his instincts were at the time.

Thank you, guys. Have a great one. We've got to get ready for a bill signing. We've got a bill signing.


SPICER: I - he's got -- Margaret gets a bill (ph) follow-up because - but he's got -

QUESTION: Are you - is the administration taking any sort of effort, either cabinet wise or like inside the - inside the shop, to make sure that everyone comes forward who had any communications with the Russians about sanctions other otherwise (INAUDIBLE)?

SPICER: There is no other information. I mean that - as far - we are - as far as we are aware, that is an isolated incident that occurred. And, again, the key point in this isn't that there were discussions. There was nothing wrong or inappropriate about those discussions. It purely came down to a matter of trust. That's it.

Thank you, guys, and see you tomorrow. Happy Valentine's Day.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, making it official, the president demanded the resignation of Michael Flynn as national security adviser at the White House after he lost complete trust in his capability to perform his responsibilities. It was not a legal issue as much as it was a political issue, an ethical issue, if you will. The president simply could no longer trust his national security adviser.

Once again we want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting.

Gloria Borger and our team of experts, analysts, reporters, all standing by.

Gloria, he was very tough. Earlier in the day, Kellyanne Conway, the advisor, the councilor to the president, said General Flynn decided that he should resign last night and the president accepted that resignation. Not precise. It was the president who demanded the resignation after he lost complete trust in his ability to carry on those national security responsibilities. Very, very stark words from Sean Spicer.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And if you were to do a word cloud today, I think the word "trust" would be the biggest on the page because what Sean was emphasizing here was that he did not, and the White House does not, consider this a matter of national security or even a legal infraction. What they said is that it came down to an issue of trust and that it was what he called an evolving and eroding process. And what Sean did tell us a lot more about is kind of the timeline of all of this was - and what we learned is that it took the president 18 days from when he first heard about this to when in fact he did tell the national security adviser to resign and that they were informed by the Department of Justice and that they waited and that the Department of Justice, he says, waited to tell them until January 26th. That is when they were told and you'll recall that Mike Pence went out on "Face the Nation" I believe on January 15th. And that they decided, and that the White House Council, Don McGahn, briefed a small group of people inside the White House on this and that they decided that it was not a matter that they were concerned about either legally as a violation of the Logan Act or obviously substantively that he spoke about sanctions to the Russian ambassador, but that then, in fact, it became intolerable to the president, it seems, after he learned that in fact - that Flynn had misinformed Mike Pence and others. But it did take the president 18 days. He called him unbelievably decisive, but it did take quite a while for him to decide that - that Flynn had to go.


Jim Acosta, you're there in the Briefing Room, asked a couple of very important question as well. The White House press secretary made it clear that they - the president had reached what he called the critical mass - mass -


BLITZER: And as a result of losing trust in Michael Flynn, he asked for his resignation and he got it.

ACOSTA: That's right, Wolf. And by the way, I mean just - what you just said there, that the president asked for Michael Flynn's resignation, that is contrary to what we have been told by top officials here at the White House over the last 24 hours. What reporters were told is that the president was hanging in there, was the characterization that was given to me, and that it was ultimately the national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who decided on his own to resign. What you heard from the White House press secretary during this briefing is that, no, that is not the case, that there was an erosion of trust and that in the end the president decided his national security adviser could no serve any longer in that capacity and that he had to step aside.

I think the other interesting thing, Wolf, that came out of this briefing is that there was an acknowledgment there that Michael Flynn was misleading officials, misleading the vice president, misleading Sean Spicer himself, he even said that to me at one point. But I asked the follow-up question, was - was the national security advisors intentionally misleading, and Sean Spicer did not really answer that question.

[14:05:21] I think the other important point here is that - and I think this was important news - is that there was a process, according to Sean Spicer, that developed here. That when the Justice Department informed the White House, the White House Council informed the president, and at that point the president launched an investigation. And it is the view of this White House that during the course of that investigation, it was concluded that Michael Flynn did not break any laws, that there wasn't a legal issue here, and that this was just an issue of trust.

Now, that is the view of the White House. The - I guess the question becomes, what - what happens moving forward? You heard up on Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats are starting to sound eager to hold hearing and that means that presumably that Michael Flynn would be called to testify at some point if the Republicans who control those committees, those relevant committees, decide to hold those hearings. That might be the next chance we get to really get at Michael Flynn and ask him whether or not he was intentionally misleading people from the vice president on down.

And I think, Wolf, the other - just if you'll allow me one more moment - the moment that I thought was very striking, and I think it also raises questions about what we're hearing in this briefing room, when you hear the White House press secretary say that this president has been incredibly tough on Russia, I have to tell you, Wolf, covering this campaign, covering this transition and now covering this administration, that answer just does not hold water. It is - it is conjecture. It is just sort of an over-the-top statement. It is the Trump-like rhetoric that you hear in this White House of the president's been incredibly tough on Russia. But, Wolf, that's just contrary, not consistent with the record. The president has time again declined to criticize Vladimir Putin. You recall that Super Bowl interview with Bill O'Reilly, when Bill O'Reilly described Putin as a killer and the president tried to draw some moral equivalency between Russia, Vladimir Putin and the United States, which just infuriated Republicans and Democrats alike up on Capitol Hill. It is those kinds of statements - and I - and I appreciate Sean Spicer calling on us at CNN today, as well as many other folks here in the front row, that hasn't been happening lately, but I have to say, despite that, that I don't think that was a forthright comment, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, excellent point indeed. Some of his aides, as we pointed out, including Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., have been very tough on Russia, especially the Crimea part.

ACOSTA: Right.

BLITZER: The president, not so much.

ACOSTA: Not the same thing as the president, right.

BLITZER: The president - correct. Sean Spicer said they speak for the president, but still you make an excellent point and it was a strong question.

Jim Sciutto is with us as well.

One of the things that the acting attorney general warned the White House Council about was that the Russians could blackmail, and that was a specific word, blackmail Michael Flynn because of this information they had, information that he was not providing to the vice president, the White House chief of staff, the White House press secretary. What else do we know about this notion that the Russians potentially could blackmail the national security adviser to the president of the United States?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, let's be clear, because blackmail sounds so strong. It does not appear, based on listening to Sean Spicer there, and our own reporting, that they're talking about compromising personal and financial information, talking purely about the fact that the Russians knew as well, in addition to the U.S. intelligence, that sanctions came up during that phone call. It appears that Flynn had told other members of the administration they had not so that Russia could conceivably blackmail based on that - on that information. I'm not sure how powerful that blackmail is. But that appears to be what they're referencing on blackmail.

On another point, I would just echo what Jim's saying there about Trump suddenly saying I'm tough on Russia. Certainly the record doesn't back that up, at least from public comments. But it also raises this question, why Sean Spicer felt the need to do that in these - in these circumstances. There seems to be some realization in the White House that - that, listen, there's a lot going on with Russia now, including a bipartisan investigation on The Hill of the election hacking. You're losing your national security adviser after less than a month with Russia as a central issue. That's a change for this administration. We have yet, though, to hear that kind of commentary from the president's mouth himself, maybe from Nikki Haley, maybe from Sean Spicer making a somewhat thin case there. What is still lacking is the president to come out, whether before or after the election, during the campaign or as president saying, Russia is a major threat, they interfered in the election, I'm going to be tough on them et cetera. And you certainly haven't heard that from the president himself.

BLITZER: Yes, that's an excellent point indeed.

Dana Bash, you know, there's a lot of confusion. The statements coming out of the White House over the past 24 hour or so have led to a lot of that confusion. Kellyanne Conway, as all of us remember, yesterday at 4:00 p.m. Eastern, she said the president has full confidence in Michael Flynn. An hour later, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, says they're evaluating his situation. This morning, Kellyanne Conway was on the "Today" show, among other shows, saying that he, Michael Flynn, offered his resignation. The president accepted it. Let me play that clip for you.

[14:10:27] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: That fact is what became unsustainable, actually. I think misleading the vice president really was the key here. And I spoke with the president this morning. He asked me to speak on his behalf and to reiterate that Mike Flynn had resigned. He decided that he - that this situation had become unsustainable for him.


BLITZER: All right, not exactly what Sean Spicer just said now, that the president asked for and received his resignation after losing confidence and trust in his national security adviser.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And, look, that is a key difference and one of many sort of contradictions that we're hearing out of the White House. But I think one of the most important things that we learned in this briefing, and one we did not know going in is, when did the president get - or did the president even at all get information from the White House Council that he received - now we know January 26th - from the Justice Department that Michael Flynn did talk about sanctions and so forth? So we know the answer to that is immediately. So that was January 26th.

So, couple things. If that is the case and if trust is the issue, we heard trust, trust, trust so many times from the podium today, then why - what is the difference between yesterday and the president not trusting Michael Flynn and January 26th when he was first told about what the Justice Department reported, which is that Michael Flynn didn't tell the truth to the vice president and the president himself about the phone call he had with the Russian ambassador? What happened in the interim there?

You know, we can, you know, go out on a limb, I don't think it's that much of a limb to say what happened is it became public. "The Washington Post" broke the story on Friday that this whole notion of the Justice Department talking to the White House even happened. And - or the notion that Michael Flynn actually did talk about sanctions and that people who were familiar with those conversations, ala the transcripts of it, knew that. And so it seems to me that that is the difference. And the question is whether or not, if this didn't become public starting on Friday with "The Washington Post" report, if Michael Flynn would still have his job if it didn't get out that, you know, in fact he misled the vice president and so on and so forth. So that's a big open question and there are others as well.

BLITZER: Yes, there are many questions.

And, David Chalian, it looks like the investigations up on Capitol Hill are not only being promoted now by Democrats, of course that's understandable, but even some top Republicans are now raise serious questions. They want answers - more answers. When you have someone like Missouri Senator Roy Blunt, for example, saying he wants answers, more answers from Flynn, for example, that's a big deal. DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes, and some of them are going

to want answers inside the regular committee process. Some you hear, like John McCain, calling for an independent investigation. But, Wolf, we need to underscore what Dana just said, that is the most important news that has come out of this entire news conference today. The president of the United States learned on January 26th that Mike Flynn had lied to his vice president of the United States. The vice president was out on Sunday shows on the 15th of January. Eleven days later, the president of the United States learned that the information Pence put out to the public that he got from Flynn was false because Flynn had lied about it. These 18 days later that Flynn gets his resignation accepted.

This is critical because there is no new data point, as Dana's saying, other than a public report from "The Washington Post." I know Sean Spicer said there was an exhaustive investigation by the council's office. If they have data points that they want to share that they learned on that, that aren't part of the public record, I would urge them to put them into the public record. But there is no public data point since the president of the United States learned that Flynn lied, which he learned on the 26th, that changed anything other than that "The Washington Post" went public with it.

So I understand that the White House wants to separate out a legal process about whether or not he violated the Logan Act from the trust issue, but they just put so much weight into the trust issue and how unsustainable it was for this person to serve who had lost the president's trust, but why didn't he lose that trust on the 26th? There's nothing else that occurred between.

BLITZER: That's an excellent question, and I'm sure we're going to be pressing that issue. Stand by.

[14:15:01] I want to go to Moscow right now. Our senior international correspondent Ivan Watson is getting reaction there from the Kremlin on the breaking news involving the now ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn.

What are you learning over there in Moscow?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think one of the strangest things here, Wolf, has been seeing a number of top Russian lawmakers come out and basically interpret the resignation of Mike Flynn, or the firing as we've now heard of Mike Flynn, as being a kind of blow against Russia. So you've got a bunch of senior political figures here seeing this as - interpreting this as a threatening move and essentially defending Mike Flynn.

The Kremlin itself last week, when it was asked about reports of sanctions being discussed between Mike Flynn and the Russian ambassador to Washington, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, he said, that was not discussed. This week when asked about that, he refused to comment any further on this and started calling this an internal domestic U.S. matter. But then, again, you have these top lawmakers, heads of the Foreign Relations Committees and the upper and lower house of parliament here calling this an example of Russophobia, paranoia and a witch hunt.

Perhaps one of the reasons that many of these officials think that Mike Flynn is somebody that they can do business with is because he came here in 2015, he attended a celebration for the Kremlin funded network Russia Today and actually sat at the right hand of the Russian president himself, Vladimir Putin. Perhaps that is part of why people here thought that Mike Flynn would be a pro-Russian figure in the Trump administration and that's part of why some officials here are viewing this negatively.

Of course, the Kremlin position has been that it is open to working with the Trump administration, particularly for fighting against terrorism. It has routinely denied allegations that any Russian intelligence agencies hacked or tried to intervene in the U.S. election back in November. But, again, we're starting to see the Kremlin having to deny fresh allegations, not coming from the U.S. but from France of all places where you have a top candidate for office of president, Emmanuel Macron, his campaign accusing the Russians of also trying to hack their party accounts. And once again you have the Kremlin denying those accusations as well. Clearly not enjoying being at the center of a U.S. political firestorm and now starting to be implicated perhaps in a French political firestorm as well.


BLITZER: It's a - it's an amazing development when you think about all of this.

Ivan Watson in Moscow, thanks very much.

Here with me in New York is our senior media correspondent, the host of "Reliable Sources,' Brian Stelter.

Brian, we're now hearing, and this is pretty amazing also, that the Office of Government Ethics, as it's called, is asking for some potential disciplinary action against Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president, presumably for releasing misleading or completely wrong information to the American public.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: That's right, we saw her walk into the briefing room, sit in there listening to Spicer just a few minutes ago. But while the briefing was going on, the Office of Government Ethics sent a letter to Jason Chaffetz and Elijah Cummings. Reading the letter in part, it says, "I recommend that the White House investigate Miss Conway's actions and consider taking disciplinary action against her."

The reason why? Because of what she said on Fox News last week when she told viewers go buy Ivanka's stuff as a result of that Nordstrom decision to remove Ivanka's line. That behavior on Fox News, which was said at the time to be just a joke, that it was a serious ethical issue and now has the OGE recommending that an investigation be done by the White House.

BLITZER: So the - but they want to investigate her comments about the Ivanka Trump brand, if you will - STELTER: That's right.

BLITZER: Not necessarily misleading the American public about the fate of the national security advisor.


BLITZER: At 4:00 yesterday afternoon she said the president had full confidence in him, which clearly the president did not have full confidence.

STELTER: Yes, for - this was less than a week ago when she said go buy Ivanka's stuff -


STELTER: That created a whole controversy. It feels like a long time ago though.

BLITZER: One other thing. The only comment we have - the only reaction from the actual - from the president is a tweet that he released a few hours ago when he said "the real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on North Korea, et cetera." That's his reaction. He's now complaining, like other presidents have done -


BLITZER: About leaks to the news media and he's very angry about that. And you heard that from Sean Spicer as well.

STELTER: This is the difference between campaigning and governing. When Donald Trump was campaigning, he praised WikiLeaks regularly and said it's amazing how nothing is secret anymore. Of course he was benefitting from the leaks involving the Clinton campaign.

Now, in office, he is against these leaks. Spicer saying Trump is very, very concerned about the leaks. Spicer did not go so far as to say there will be formal leak investigations, but we're hearing some Republicans on Capitol Hill calling for those leak investigations, calling on the FBI to take action.

[14:20:15] These leaks, of course, Wolf, many of these leaks from government officials, anonymous government officials, are, for lack of a better phrase, cries for help. These are sources who, yes, they may have axes to grind, they may be against this president, they many have concerns, but in some of these cases they are trying to call attention to problems or concerns that are happening inside this government. In some cases, a form of dissent and it's very curious to see how aggressively Spicer was talking about leaks today.

BLITZER: Yes, leaks a big issue. And I want to just read a tweet. Kellyanne Conway, about an hour or so ago, said this on Twitter. "I serve at the pleasure of POTUS," president of the United States. "His message is my message. His goals are my goals. Uninformed chatter doesn't matter." So we're getting a lot of reaction. STELTER: Yes, (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: Brian, stand by.

That's it for me. I'll be back, 5:00 p.m. Eastern, in "The Situation Room." Much more on the White House, the breaking news, in just a moment. "Newsroom" with Brooke Baldwin starts right after a quick break.


[14:25:05] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, let's continue on the breaking news. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for being with me.

A major development in the fast moving controversy that has now left a big hole in the Trump administration a mere 25 days in. we just heard from Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary there in the briefing just facing some tough questions, some necessary questions that focused on what the president knew, when he knew it regarding his now former national security adviser Michael Flynn. The retired general resigned late Monday evening after it came out that, according to a White House official this Justice Department warned the Trump administration at least two weeks ago that Flynn could be potentially blackmailed by the Russian.

How do they know that? Because of those December 29th phone calls between General Flynn and the Russian ambassador, where Flynn initially denied at all talking about U.S. sanctions against Russia. Later on reports emerged that sanctions were indeed discusses and Flynn apologized within that resignation letter for giving quote/unquote "incomplete information" to the vice president along with several others.

So in that White House daily briefing, right, we heard from Spicer saying Flynn's quitting was a trust issue. We kept hearing the word "trust" over and over and over. This wasn't a legal issue, it was a trust issue.

Spicer also detailed what the Justice Department had warned the White House about.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We got to a point, not based on a legal issue, but based on a trust issue, where the level of trust between the president and General Flynn had eroded to the point where he felt he had to make a change. The president was very concerned that General Flynn had misled the vice president and others. He was also very concerned in light of sensitive subjects dealt with by that position of national security advisers, like China, North Korea and the Middle East, that the president must have complete and unwavering trust for the person in that position.

The evolving and eroding level of trust as a result of this situation, and a series of other questionable instances, is what led the president to ask for General Flynn's resignation. Immediately after the Department of Justice notified the White House Council of the situation, the White House Council briefed the president and a small group of his senior advisors. The White House Council reviewed and determined that there is not an illegal issue, but rather a trust issue.

The acting attorney general informed the White House Council that they wanted to give, quote, "a heads up" to us on some comments that may have seemed in conflict with what the - he had sent the vice president out in particular. The White House Council informed the president immediately. The president asked them to conduct a review of whether there was a legal situation there. That was immediately determined that there wasn't. That was what the president believed at the time from what he had been told and he was proved to be correct. The issue pure and simple came down to a matter of trust and the president concluded that he no longer had the trust of his national security adviser.


BALDWIN: Let's walk through all of this. First I have Pamela Brown in Washington.

And let's just be crystal clear on the timeline. We know DOJ alerted the White House a month ago. Tell us specifically what was said and when the president knew.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Let me walk you through the timeline. And bottom line, Sean Spicer said that President Trump knew weeks ago - several weeks ago that Michael Flynn, his national security adviser, was misleading him about that phone conversation with the Russian ambassador. So let me just go back that. That was late December when there were phone calls between Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador and this was around the time that the U.S. was announcing sanctions for Russia's interference in the election. There were a lot of questions raised, did they talk about sanctions? Was that part of the conversation? Michael Flynn denied it. Sean Spicer denied it and said that they were exchanging holiday greetings and there were some other topics, but it didn't have to do with sanctions. And then the vice president went on the morning shows mid-January and said that it was just coincidental but they did not discuss sanctions.

All right, fast forward to January 26th, from that point in mid- January, and we have learned that the Department of Justice Acting Attorney General Sally Yates alerted White House Council Don McGahn that Flynn was in fact misleading them about that phone conversation. That, in fact, there were discussions about sanctions, Russian sanctions. We're told from Sean Spicer today during this briefing that the White House immediately - the White House Council, I should say, immediately met with Trump and a small number of senior advisors to discuss this and President Trump, at the time, asked if there was anything illegal done. Apparently there was a fast investigation and within several days Don McGahn said that this wasn't illegal.

[14:29:55] And you heard Sean Spicer today talk about DOJ' role in all this. Actually pointing the finger, in a sense, to the Department of Justice, even though it wasn't until nearly three weeks later that Donald Trump asked for Michael Flynn's resignation last night because of eroding trust. Here's what Sean Spicer had to say.