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Russia Testing Trump?; Flynn Resignation Fallout. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired February 14, 2017 - 15:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: You are watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Breaking news here, a major development in the fast-moving controversy that has now left a massive hole in the Trump administration a mere 25 days in.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer just faced a tough briefing that focused on what the president knew and when regarding his now former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. The retired general resigned late last night after it was revealed the Department of Justice warned the Trump administration late last month that Flynn could be blackmailed by the Russians.

This all stems from those December 29 phone calls where Michael Flynn was on the phone with the Russian ambassador, where General Flynn initially denied speaking about U.S. sanctions with Russia. And then some time later, those reports emerged where yes, indeed, sanctions were discussed on that phone call.

Michael Flynn apologized in his resignation letter for giving -- quote, unquote -- "incomplete information" to the vice president and to others.

So, moments ago, in the White House press briefing, you had Sean Spicer saying that Michael Flynn's quitting was not a legal issue. It was a trust here. Here he was.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The issue isn't whether or not -- what he discussed. There's been a complete legal review of that and there's no issue with that.

The issue is whether or not he failed to properly inform the vice president or not be honest with him or not remember it. But that's the plain and simple issue. And when he lost trust with the president, that's when the president asked for and received his resignation.


BALDWIN: Let's go to the White House to our correspondent there, Sara Murray.

We learned the president found out about all of this 19 days ago. Tell me more about that and this trust issue.


That's maybe one of the most perplexing facts about this whole thing. We know that Donald Trump essentially fired his national security adviser last night, asking for his resignation and accepting it. But one of the big lingering questions is, why did this drag on so long if the president was already aware for weeks of these phone calls?

Take a listen to how Sean Spicer explained some of the timeline today.


SPICER: The acting attorney general informed the White House counsel that they wanted to give -- quote -- "a heads-up" to us on some comments that may have seemed in conflict with what he had sent the vice president out in particular.

The White House counsel informed the president immediately. The president asked him 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.


MURRAY: So, we see they determined, at least from the White House's perspective, that there was no legal issue there.

And that's a good indication, Brooke, that what's been hanging them up is not the question of whether Michael Flynn discussed these sanctions with the Russian ambassador, which a U.S. official tells CNN they did. And Flynn seems to acknowledge in his resignation letter that that was in fact the case.

But the question, at least as far as President Trump was concerned, was always a matter of trust, that you cannot have your national security adviser running around misleading your vice president.

I don't think that explanation is going to be enough for members of Congress on Capitol Hill. We're hearing from both Republicans and Democrats today saying they want more information about the contacts and communications between Donald Trump, his transition effort, Michael Flynn, and Russian emissaries.

BALDWIN: Yes, they are. We have heard from both, both parties calling on this independent investigation. Sara Murray, thank you very much. Philip Rucker, let me bring you in, White House bureau chief of "The

Washington Post," broke this story wide open last night. All of this revolves also around allegations of blackmail.

So, Phil Rucker, so great to have you on. Thank you so much.

PHILIP RUCKER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Glad to be here, Brooke.

BALDWIN: OK. Let me hammer in with you on this issue of blackmail.

If the White House was concerned or DOJ was concerned that somehow Michael Flynn would have been open to blackmail, do we know if that was because of the conversation he had with the Russian ambassador or something else?

RUCKER: It's the combination of the conversation that he had with the Russian ambassador and the fact that he misled Vice President Pence and other administration officials about the conversation and the fact that he was basically lying internally within the White House is what compromised him and created the blackmail situation.


It was something that the Russians knew about Flynn that they could then use against him down the right. And that's something that Sally Yates, who was the acting attorney general at the time, conveyed to the White House counsel, who then, according to Sean Spicer today, conveyed that to the president.

BALDWIN: Sally Yates. Let's talk about Sally Yates, because in your piece she was integral in discussing this with the White House counsel, but she is also someone who the president fired, what, two weeks ago over the travel ban, which leads to questions about potentially muddied issues and why she was let go.

RUCKER: That's right.

Well, we know that her communication with the White House about the Flynn matter came only a few days before she was fired over the travel ban issue. The travel ban issue was that she had instructed her subordinates at the Justice Department not to enforce the travel ban, which was a clear violation of what the president wanted.

And so that is why she was forced to resign that evening. But clearly there were already clearly tensions between her and the White House. She, remember, is a holdover from the Obama administration. She was there until Jeff Sessions, who was Trump's nominee for attorney general, could get confirmed by the Senate, which happened a couple days ago.


On Michael Flynn now, this is the person who Trump has talked to more than anyone as he was candidate Trump, and now President Trump, on intelligence, on national security, briefed the president daily, by his side all the time. Let me just read. This is how the CNN contributor Ryan Lizza put all

this on Twitter. He said this -- quote -- "Isn't it possible that Trump told Flynn to talk to the Russian ambassador about sanctions and knew Flynn lied to Pence?"

This is something Lizza is putting out there. The question now, how, Philip, how will we ever know for sure?

RUCKER: I don't know if we're ever going to know for sure. I wish the president would come forward and answer some questions about this. It's not an issue that he has addressed yet.

But Sean Spicer said today in his briefing that the president did not know about the sanctions conversation until he was notified by the White House counsel. I think we are going to want to learn a little bit more about what exactly the president knew and when.

But you brought up the importance of Flynn's intimacy with the president. He is the top national security adviser. His role is to synthesize all of the information from the intelligence and national security community for the president every morning in that he.

He was with the president over the weekend at Mar-a-Lago. He was briefing the president on classified information just yesterday. So this is a very important figure who had a lot of private one-on-one conversations with the president over many months.

BALDWIN: You bring up an excellent point. I'm going to pose all of this to my panel.

Philip Rucker, excellent, excellent reporting with "The Washington Post." Thank you so much.

RUCKER: Thank you very much.

BALDWIN: Let me just bring in some more voices.

Amy Pope is with us, who once served as deputy homeland security adviser on the National Security Council, Michael O'Hanlon, who wrote "Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy," and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Welcome to both of you. My goodness, what a slow news day it is. I'm joking.

With Phil Rucker's excellent reporting from "The Washington Post" and his point about Michael Flynn, this is the guy who is by the president's side each and every day a recent as this weekend with Prime Minister Abe down at Mar-a-Lago.

If this is trust issue -- and, Michael, I will pose this to you -- as Sean Spicer alluded to multiple times, and the president knew about this back on January 26, why did he allow Michael Flynn to sit in all these very important meetings for 19 days until he asked him to resign?

MICHAEL O'HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: It's a great question, Brooke, and I can only speculate, of course.

And I think there is a chance this has to do with dynamics between the vice president and the president. A lot of we have learned is that the vice president was the one who got the bad information from General Flynn. The vice president's the one whose reputation was put on the line in subsequent public statements that he made which turned out to be incorrect.

And the vice president is the one who apparently first lost faith in the team's national security adviser. So another story angle might be how much influence Mr. Trump has given to his vice president in this crucial decision, since, as you pointed out, Flynn was aligned with Trump a lot longer than Pence.

And so you might have thought there might be a longer period of getting a second chance or a third chance, but there wasn't.

BALDWIN: Right. Now we see ultimately who has emerged is of course the vice president now with the resignation of Michael Flynn.

Amy, you were on the National Security Council. I was just talking to Phil Rucker about this issue of blackmail, right, that Michael Flynn was potentially open to being blackmailed by the Russians.

What do you think President Trump should have done when he first learned about this end of last month?


AMY POPE, FORMER DEPUTY HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISER: So, look, the question of whether a national security member can be blackmailed is one of the very fundamental questions that is investigated when you are being vetted to serve in that sort of role.

And the key reason is, when you are on the National Security Council, and particularly for the national security adviser, that person has access to the most classified and compartmented information that the U.S. government has.

That person knows where men and women who are serving the United States, whether they're in a covert role or otherwise acting in very sensitive situations, that person knows where they're located and they know what they're doing and why they're doing it.

And so the question of whether that person could be blackmailed and put at risk the life and the safety of the men and women serving the United States is absolutely fundamental to whether or not someone should have access to that key information.

BALDWIN: Staying with you, too, Amy, the fact that we know Michael Flynn has been in security, national security for decades, and apparently -- we have looked through the transcript of his phone call. There was no smoking gun. But still he would have known that one would have access to a transcript, that it could be listened to, am I right? POPE: He should have known. And particularly given the role he was

going into, one would assume he would know, which frankly makes it puzzling.

It's absolutely imperative that he not only be a credible actor on the behalf of the United States, but that he appear to be a credible actor on behalf of the United States. And so anything that compromises his impartiality or his ability to defend the United States' interests first and foremost raises pretty significant concerns.

BALDWIN: On the president, Michael, and what he knew and when, there's also the issue of someone who is on Twitter quite a bit. He's been pretty mum on this issue with Michael Flynn until this one tweet.

He wrote -- quote -- "The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal in North Korea, et cetera?"

So, the focus on the leaks, not the fact that Michael Flynn lied to his vice president, that's what he's tweeting about, and had it not been for these leaks, and people like Phil Rucker and my colleagues here at CNN who broke the story wide open, we may not be having this conversation today.

O'HANLON: It's true.

And certainly General Flynn made some serious mistakes. And I'm not going to suggest that the decision was wrong. I'm a little bit of a skeptic that this rose to the level of serious vulnerability to blackmail, however.

BALDWIN: You are?

O'HANLON: I know that technically speaking -- I am skeptical. Technically speaking, it does appear he didn't comply fully with the law, but everyone knew there was going to be a new Russia policy in three weeks.

And Flynn essentially repeating that truism which it had become by that point to me is not a big deal. I really do -- I don't often agree with every word out of Sean Spicer's mouth, but I think this boiled down to a trust issue and an internal Trump administration issue about why the vice president was lied to by the national security adviser.

I think that issue matters more than this supposed vulnerability to blackmail. Amy's point is valid, but I just don't take it to quite to the same level that some people do.

BALDWIN: Sure. No, and I welcome the skepticism.

Let me pivot off of the Michael Flynn story and on to this other investigation, Amy, that we have seen this breaking news on, Republican House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz now announcing he's now opening up the investigation into classified information at Mar-a-Lago. This is the estate and the club down in Palm Beach, where we have the pictures from over the weekend. President Trump takes the prime minister of Japan down there to golf. And, all of a sudden, because of this missile of North Korea, they're reading classified information in the middle of this busy dinner party.

What's your reaction to this newly launched investigation into that?

POPE: So, I think it's important that the facts be investigated.

Protecting our national security, protecting our classified information is critical to keeping the United States safe from a range of various adversaries. And that's kind of the lesson you learn day one when you join the national security community.

We have seen throughout the years people who have been disciplined for failure to abide by the classification requirements. These are serious allegations, and it's not just because of one particular incident, but because of the vulnerability that it introduces into protecting the United States.

And so I think it's appropriate to do an investigation and to make sure that the rules are followed here.

BALDWIN: On balance, the White House does say they were sitting there discussing the details from their joint news conference. That's what we heard.

Amy Pope, Michelle Obama, thank you both so very much.

POPE: Thank you.

O'HANLON: Thank you.

BALDWIN: We are also following more breaking news, new provocative actions by Russia by land and by sea proving to be an early task for the White House. The Kremlin violating a decades-old treaty by firing a contested cruise missile. And what was a Russian spy ship doing off the shores of the U.S. homeland?


We're back in just a moment.



REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: Do you hear that? Do you hear the silence? This is the sound of House Republicans conducting no oversight of President Trump. Zero.


BALDWIN: Congressman Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, ripping House Republicans for their silence regarding the Trump administration and the sudden resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn for his ties to Russia.

Republican Chairman Jason Carroll told reporters there is no need to probe Flynn because it is -- quote -- "taking care of itself."

With that, let me bring in Ana Navarro, our CNN political commentator, and Matt Schlapp, former political director for President George W. Bush and the chairman of the American Conservative Union.

Nice to see both of you.

And we should at least add we have now heard from Republicans and Democrats who are calling for this bipartisan independent investigation of Michael Flynn.


But that said, Ana Navarro, you e-mailed me this morning because you told me you were angry. Why?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Because it's taking Republicans so long to really speak up and get behind folks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who for months have been asking for a select committee to be named to investigate Russian ties into election hacking and all of these different questions that have arisen on Russia.

I just don't understand what my party leadership is doing. We know that Putin is a thug. We know he is no ally or friend of the United States. Why not get to the bottom of this?

The integrity of our democratic institutions, of our political institutions is too important and should be beyond and above partisanship. There are such serious questions here that threaten our political institutions and the democratic integrity.

And Republican leadership needs to say now loud and proud right now our loyalty is with our nation, not with a president who happens to be of our same party.

We all know that if this had been happening under a Hillary Clinton, under a Barack Obama presidency, Republicans would be all over the place trying to investigate it. I just think they need to be consistent with Republican values, the values I grew up with.


MATT SCHLAPP, FORMER WHITE HOUSE DIRECTOR OF POLITICAL AFFAIRS: So, when Susan Rice went on all the Sunday morning talk shows and was not honest about the reasons for the Benghazi disaster, Republicans were upset, but we didn't call it a constitutional crisis.

The fact is, is this. The president decided to not take actions against his aide who did not tell the truth.


BALDWIN: But we ultimately had a mega-Benghazi investigation. SCHLAPP: Benghazi was a disaster.

But the president himself, the president himself did not take any actions against staff. This president, when faced with what seems to be the fact that General Flynn mischaracterized and maybe dissembled about these conversations, he forced his resignation.

So, I think actually it's OK, even if you don't like Donald Trump, in the case to say it was the right thing for him to do to accept the resignation.

BALDWIN: Ana, can you give President Trump credit there?

NAVARRO: No, I can't.

First of all, I don't know if he forced the resignation or if the guy resigned, because all of Trump's aides have gone on TV and said different things. It would be nice if they could at least get on the same page as they're whether they're going to say truths or lies or alternative facts.

It's very hard to follow what happens, because within hours they are totally in conflict with what they are saying. But more than that, look, they had the vice president go out there and say something that wasn't true because he had been lied to.

And, really, we all know that if it wasn't because these lies by Michael Flynn were exposed by the media, he would probably still be in there. I just think we've got to stop covering for this stuff. We are not doing our party, we're not doing our country any favors by looking the other way and playing dumb with what is going on in front of our eyes.

The Russian ties with the Trump administration are very bothersome.


BALDWIN: Hang on, hang on. Both of you, hold on.

Let me just jump in, because I do want to play some sound. I want to react to this. This is a Trump surrogate on CNN this morning. Here is what he said.


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Misled, maybe even lied to members of the White House. Why is everybody so quiet?

REP. CHRIS COLLINS (R), NEW YORK: Well, it's Valentine's Day and I guess they're having breakfast with their wives.

I think it's just time to move on, find the replacement. I certainly know General Kellogg. He would be a great person to replace him, the others well.

So let's move on. We've got a lot of is storm deal with, as was mentioned, North Korea, the travel ban, continuing discussions with Russia.

It's a busy, busy White House. So General Flynn did what he thought was in the best interests of the country. I certainly respect that and I think it just time to move on.


BALDWIN: Matt, move on? You can at least agree we're not moving on from this.

SCHLAPP: No, I agree with Ana that there are questions that need to be answered.

And I have no problem with that. Remember, this whole thing came about because -- not because of what happened in the media. This whole thing came about because General Flynn's -- the transcripts or whatever, his conversations with his Russian counterpart were listened to.


BALDWIN: Right, but there were leaks and great journalism that definitely led to this.

SCHLAPP: Brooke, I'm not saying that the journalism -- I'm not saying they did anything wrong here. I'm sure the journalists did their job.

But I'm also saying the people inside the government did their job and they went up through the ranks at DOJ and eventually this resulted in the president saying, I accept this resignation, which I think is the right thing.

I think it's perfectly adequate for Ana and other people to ask questions about our Russia policy. I think Congress should always investigate. It's their job. They're a separate branch of government. I have no problem with them having hearings.


I just don't think we need to -- let's ask all the questions that the American people want to know. Let's answer them. And let's get about the real issues here. And the real issues here is not rehashing what happened with General Flynn. The real issues here are, what is our stance toward Russia and is it the right policy?


BALDWIN: On Russian policy, this is just what Sean said in the briefing and then I want to talk to you.


SPICER: The irony of this entire situation is that the president has been incredibly tough on Russia. He continues to raise the issue of Crimea, which the president allowed to be seized by Russia. His ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, stood before the U.N. Security Council on her first day and strongly denounced the Russian occupation of Crimea. As Ambassador Haley said at the time, the -- quote -- "dire situation in Eastern Ukraine is once that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions."

President Trump has made it very clear that he expects the Russian government to de-escalate violence in the Ukraine and return Crimea.

At the same time, he fully expects to and wants to be able to get along with Russia, unlike previous administrations, so that we can solve many problems together facing the world, such as the threat of ISIS and terrorism.


BALDWIN: In what alternate universe has Trump ever been tough on Russia? He's never said a bad word about Vladimir Putin, Ana.

NAVARRO: I don't know in what alternative universe. I certainly don't live in that alternative universe.

And I do think that Flynn issue is a very issue, because if he was having conversations with Russian officials during the campaign, I think the American public wants to know. This is just one more level of a mounting, mountain of evidence of troublesome Russia-Trump ties.

No, I'll give you some, Manafort, the second campaign manager who had to quit because of his Russian ties.


SCHLAPP: Can I jump in, Brooke?

NAVARRO: Sure. Go ahead. Jump in.


SCHLAPP: Let's talk about the facts.

What we're talking about is that this conversation, Ana, happened after the election. It happened in December. That's what they're talking about. And some Democrats are saying, yes, but this might have been broke the Logan Act.

Everyone else I talk to in foreign policy circles, Democrats and Republicans, says it was perfectly reasonable for General Flynn to have that conversation. I don't think anybody disagrees with any of the facts that Sean Spicer spoke about at the podium today in terms of Russia.

But I will agree with you that it seems pretty clear that President Trump is intent on thawing our relations with Russia, which are not in a good position, not because he thinks he's a great guy. As a matter of fact,, I think he's a terrible guy.


BALDWIN: Do you think he will pivot now that Flynn is out? Will he change his view on Vladimir Putin?

SCHLAPP: My view is, is that Donald Trump would like to start off with a warmer relationship with Russia and with Vladimir Putin and, over time, Vladimir Putin will prove himself to be, as he has proven to the previous two presidents, nothing but a thug.

NAVARRO: Well, listen, I stand with John McCain.

I think there is a mountain level of evidence here that should be troublesome to every single American, regardless of party. I would like for Congress, for the Intel Committee to be able to talk to the A.G. who was fired and who informed the White House weeks and weeks ago about what was happening with Flynn .

I would like to know why they thought he was blackmailable by the Russian people. And I would like to know what those conversations are.


SCHLAPP: They can do it today, though.


NAVARRO: Right. Well, exactly. So, why don't they? Why hasn't Republican leadership -- we've known about this for so long.

SCHLAPP: They have. The Congress already has.


NAVARRO: Oh, they have a taken a very long time.

SCHLAPP: No, they haven't.


NAVARRO: We have a president who has equated us -- given us a moral equivalency.

SCHLAPP: Stop. Stop. Look, let's talk about the issues.

NAVARRO: No, don't tell me to stop.


NAVARRO: Listen, if you want to tell your -- if you want to tell the people in your house to stop...


SCHLAPP: Ana, you can yell all you want.

NAVARRO: You're the one yelling at me. You're the one telling me to stop.

SCHLAPP: Please, Ana.

NAVARRO: I think you're a little...

SCHLAPP: I'm little? I have never been accused of being little.

NAVARRO: You're talking to the wrong girl, Matt. You're talking to the wrong girl. You can say go stop to somebody else. You can -- you're not going to stop me, baby.


SCHLAPP: Let's talk about the facts.

NAVARRO: Sure. Go ahead.

SCHLAPP: Let's talk about the facts.

Congress has the ability to have those hearings at any time. There are already president who have said -- have you not listened to what Senator Johnson has said? have you not listened to what Senator Blunt has said? They think there are very real issues. They agree that there are real issues that Congress needs to have hearings on.

And I think that they're being responsible in asking for them.

NAVARRO: Great. Then you and I are in unison. We should have a select committee to investigate the Russians.

BALDWIN: Hey, Happy Valentine's Day, guys.

SCHLAPP: Happy Valentine's Day.


BALDWIN: Ana Navarro and Matt Schlapp, thank you both so much. Thank you.


BALDWIN: Breaking news: Russia appears to a break a decades-old treaty by launching a cruise missile and also sends a spy ship off the coast of the U.S.

We're live in Moscow and Washington with those details.