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EARLY START

Michael Flynn Resigns; White House Handed Setback in Travel Ban Case. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired February 14, 2017 - 04:00   ET

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


[04:00:13] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking overnight: the president's national security advisor is out. Michael Flynn resigning amidst growing fallout from his discussions with Moscow. But big questions remain this morning about who knew what and when about those talks. Live coverage from Washington and Moscow begins right now.

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm John Berman. It is Tuesday, February 14th. It is 4:00 a.m. in the East.

Wow, what a night. A flat out stunning turn of events mere 25 days into the Trump administration. Twenty-five days, the president's National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is out. He resigned. The announcement comes amid a mounting evidence that General Flynn spoke to the Russians about sanctions during the transition, and then lied about it to top White House officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, who was then-vice president-elect.

Now, the questions don't stop with General Flynn. Overnight, we learn that the Justice Department warned the White House last month, last month, about Flynn's contacts with Moscow and possible vulnerability to blackmail. The White House knew weeks ago, just one twist in the stunning fall of one of the president's closest confidants.

Let's get the latest from CNN's Ryan Browne live for us in the nation's capital.

Ryan, Flynn is out. And now, there are questions about what the president knew and when.

RYAN BROWNE, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: That's right, John. What this kind of developed in the waning days of the Obama administration, as you mentioned, during the transition, then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, head of the Justice Department, kind of discovered these conversations that they had not quite adhered to what Flynn and then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence had been saying about these conversations between the Russian Ambassador Kislyak and Michael Flynn. They'd actually had intercepts at these conversations, transcripts and they were able to look at those and see that things work, that sanctions were indeed discussed amongst other issues. Now, there was a discussion within the Obama administration, whether

or not to inform the incoming Trump team. Then director of the CIA, the John Brennan, the then-Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, also wanted to inform the Trump administration. So, we believe they were informed that these conversations took place and they differed from the kind of public accounts that Vice President- elect Mike Pence and Mike Flynn had been talking about.

Now, this is when it came to the actual resignation letter that Michael Flynn submitted last night, he specifically mentions that this difference what he told the Vice President-elect Mike Pence, he said, "I inadvertently briefed the vice president-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador. I have sincerely apologized to the president and the vice president, and they have accepted my apology. I am tendering my resignation, honored to have served our nation and the American people in such a distinguished way."

Now, of course, this comes less than a month in his tenure of the, by far making him the shortest lived national security advisor in the history of the United States. Now, right now, taking over his responsibilities in an acting capacity will be retired Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg. He is currently the chief of staff to the NSA. He's a decorated Vietnam veteran and a former commander of the 82nd Airborne.

But in terms of filling that role, permanently, a senior administration official told CNN several names are in the mix, including Kellogg.

Of course, General David Petraeus' name is coming up. He is, of course, well-known for leading U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, of course, one administration official said he does come with some baggage, given that he is still technically under probation for disclosing intelligence information.

And then, Vice Admiral Robert Harward who was Jim Mattis' deputy at Central Command, a former Navy SEAL. His name is also in the mix. So, interesting to see who rises to the top in the coming days.

BERMAN: Indeed. You know, it's an important hole to fill. The future here very important, but I know there will be a lot of questions about what happened over the last month or two as well.

Ryan Browne in Washington for us, which is part of the story -- thanks, Ryan.

ROMANS: All right. The resignation of Michael Flynn followed a day of chaos, contradiction and confusion at the White House. All while the president stayed silent about the state of his national security adviser.

I want to get more from CNN's Dan Merica live in Washington.

Just what a head spinning few hours quite frankly. We'll hear from the president next I think at 10:30. There is an event at the White House this morning. So, maybe within six hours or so, he will be compelled to fill us in on some of these unanswered questions.

And, Dan, there are a lot of unanswered questions, like what did the White House know when? What did they do with the Justice Department's warning? What did the president know about Michael Flynn's interactions with the ambassador?

DAN MERICA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: I'm actually concerned. My head is still spinning.

What happened remarkably yesterday was the pace of the story picked up so quickly in the afternoon.

[04:05:03] You had Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president, telling reporters in the press briefing that Flynn had the full confidence of the president. And mere hours later, at one hour later, actually 64 minutes, Sean Spicer issued a statement saying that the president is evaluating the situation. It's remarkable, as Ryan said. You know, it's the short -- the most short lived national security advisor, but also the fact that we are only in the fourth week of the Trump administration.

Now, Donald Trump is verbose at times, likes to be talkative. But, yesterday, take a look at the clip. He did not want to talk about the story in the Oval Office.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPORTER: Do you have confidence in Michael Flynn, Mr. President?

REPORTER: What exactly will you be evaluating with Michael Flynn?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MERICA: What is interesting is Donald Trump has not made public statements about this. He has had two press conferences since the story came out. Both times, he's been asked four questions by U.S. media. Not a single time has he been asked about this in part because he is calling on reporters that are friendly to his administration.

Now, what we know is that Flynn resigned. He was not fired, despite the fact that Donald Trump, you know, made his name by firing people. And as on administration official put it, Donald Trump is moving on. He is ready to get past the story and name a successor to Mike Flynn.

ROMANS: That clip, Dan, is certainly awkward. That's Steve Mnuchin, who is confirmed as treasury secretary finally got, you know, sort of, the face of the American economy confirmed, but all anybody wants is a comment from the president about Michael Flynn.

All right. Dan Merica, it's going to be interesting, thank you.

BERMAN: Except during the news conference yesterday when a reporter decided that with the -- you know, with the national security advisor situation and turmoil, they weren't going to ask questions about that. If only there was a news conference, where you could ask the president about it. Oh, wait, there was.

ROMANS: All right. Michael Flynn's resignation is raising troubling new questions about his contacts with Russia. Two lawmakers are demanding a briefing by Thursday to find out more about the possible vulnerability by blackmail.

Democrats John Conyers and Elijah Cummings, ranking members of the judiciary, the oversight committee, writing this, "We in Congress need to know who authorized his actions, permitted them and continued to let him have access to our most sensitive national security information despite knowing these risks. We need to know who else within the White House is a current and ongoing risk to our national security."

BERMAN: The top-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, writes, "Flynn's departure does not end questions over his contacts with the Russians. The Trump administration has yet to be forthcoming about who was aware of Flynn's conversations with the ambassador and whether he was acting on the instructions of the president or any other officials or with their knowledge."

ROMANS: One prominent Republican taking the side of the more gentle tone, Congressman Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, says, "Washington, D.C. can be a rough town for honorable people, and Flynn -- who has always been a soldier, not a politician, deserves America's gratitude and respect for dedicating so much of his life to strengthening our national security.

BERMAN: Again, remember here, one of the key questions is if the White House was told about this guy by Sally Yates, by the Justice Department three weeks ago, why is it that as of 4:06 yesterday, Kellyanne Conway was saying Michael Flynn had the full confidence of the president. You know, where is the discrepancy there? What changed? It's fascinating to know and to think about what happened over the last three weeks.

The resignation of Michael Flynn will have ripple effects throughout U.S. security agencies. He needs to be replaced and also international diplomacy.

And then there's the question of Russia. Where are they on this?

Let's go live to Moscow and bring in CNN senior international correspondent Matthew Chance.

Matthew, just yesterday you were on with us saying the Russia still didn't admit that sanctions were discussed in those phone calls or that phone call, that phone call over which now Michael Flynn has resigned.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's just so embarrassing for the Kremlin, isn't it? I mean, just a few minutes ago when I spoke to them on the telephone, they again said, you know, do you now admit these conversations took place about sanctions. They were like, well, you know, we refer you back to the multiple statements we made in the past, all of which, of course, were categorical denials.

The sanctions we discussed, even that, even after the resignation of Michael Flynn, the Kremlin is sticking to its line, that sanctions were not discussed between Michael Flynn and Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States.

What this episode though is underlying for the Russians is the, you know, the problems with having a U.S. president who is so apparently sympathetic toward the Russian view of the world. I mean, the political enemies of Donald Trump, both in the Democratic and the Republicans have made it clear that they are going to use the apparent sympathies of Donald Trump towards the Kremlin and those around him to undermine his presidency. Michael Flynn is perhaps one victim of that.

But here is the real concern in Russia, is what will the response be of the Trump administration.

[04:10:02] I mean, if its political survival is threatened by this, if Trump decides he needs to make peace someway with Congress, is that going to mean there's going to be a political U-turn on the part of the Trump administration when it comes to Russia and he will suddenly sort of hawkish towards the Kremlin and anti-Russian? That's something the Kremlin are very concerned about now, and there's a lot of people speaking about it.

Aleksey Pushkov is a senior Russian lawmaker here saying this, the target of the scandal was not Flynn, but the relationship with Russia. So, the view among the upper echelons of the Russian leadership is Flynn is a pawn in this. The real target is derailing Trump's ambitions to build a better relationship with Moscow.

BERMAN: And, look, there will be congressional investigations. There are into that relationship. Possible contacts that happened during the campaign. There are reports that Michael Flynn had contacts with the Russian ambassador prior to the campaign, all that we'll be investigating going forward.

Matthew Chance, fascinating. Great to talk to you this morning. Thanks so much.

ROMANS: So, while the drama and fascination is surrounding Michael Flynn, one of the president's top money men sworn in to his new posts. But another nominee confirmation seems to be in jeopardy now. I'm going to tell you why. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: President Trump's patio strategy session at Mar-a-Lago is raising questions about national security. The president was dining this weekend with the prime minister of Japan when he was told about North Korea's test of the ballistic missile. The president openly discussed the launch while diners looked and snapped photos at the open air session. They used flashlights to illuminate potentially sensitive documents. It is drawing the ire of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. She

wrote, "There is no excuse for letting an international crisis play out in front of a bunch of country club members like dinner theater."

Brian Fallon, who was the press secretary for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign wrote, "I wonder if Director Comey would consider this careless," a clear reference to the 2016 campaign. The FBI Director James Comey said that Secretary Clinton was careless with her handling of classified information because of her private server.

We should say the White House Sean Spicer the president was informed of the missile launch before the dinner. What they were discussing under the flashlights, he says, they say, was the press conference, the logistics of the press conference.

ROMANS: Coordinating a press conference. That's what the huddle was there, the patio situation.

Two of the president's top money men find themselves in different spots this morning. Labor secretary pick Andrew Puzder's nomination may be in jeopardy after weeks of hearing delays and harsh criticism from Democrats and progressives over his record as a fast food CEO. He is now facing push back from Republicans.

Four GOP senators say they are withholding their support for him. Sources tell CNN the four are Senator Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Tim Scott of South Carolina, and Johnny Isakson of Georgia. Murkowski and Collins were the two GOP defectors in the vote for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. That caused a tie which was broken by Vice President Mike Pence.

Now, GOP leadership is scrambling to save Puzder's nomination. This confirmation hearing is scheduled for Thursday. Another cabinet pick is now officially part of the administration.

Steve Mnuchin is the new secretary of the treasury. He was sworn in after passing a final Senate vote. He is a former partner of Goldman Sachs and a mortgage banker. More recently, he produced movies in Hollywood, including that big, "Lego Batman."

BERMAN: I know "The Intern" was one of your favorites. I think he was involved with that. And "Avatar".

ROMANS: "Avatar".

All right. The lone hold-over from the Obama administration is the first Trump cabinet pick to be embraced by all senators, Republican and Democrat. David Shulkin was confirmed unanimously Monday as secretary of veterans affairs. The 57-year-old will now lead the second largest federal agency after serving 18 months as undersecretary for health, in charge of a sprawling V.A. medical system, which then-candidate Trump called a tragic failure.

BERMAN: A new blow for the Trump administration travel ban. A federal judge in Virginia has granted that state's request to halt the ban. The ruling affects in Virginia, and anyone who attends or works at public university. In her opinion, the judge wrote, "Maximum power does not mean absolute power." The decision came on the same day that the Trump administration was back in the Seattle courtroom where the federal judge who stopped the ban delivered another setback.

Let's get the latest from CNN's Dan Simon in Seattle.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John and Christine, the legal challenge to President Trump's travel ban will proceed here in Seattle federal court, that despite the administration's attempt to postpone things amid the possibility of more appeals. Judge James Robart says he wants the merits of the ban to be argued in his courtroom. He was a little taken aback by the administration's efforts to postpone things, saying, quote, "I'm a little surprised since the president said he wanted to see you in court", a clear reference to one of Donald Trump's tweets.

In the meantime, the administration is still figuring out how to proceed. There is the possibility of rewriting a brand new travel ban. But as long as the current one is being advanced, what the judge in Seattle is saying is that he wants it to be contested in his courtroom -- John and Christine.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN: Dan Simon, thanks so much.

Stunning news out of Pennsylvania. The son of disgraced Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky facing charges eerily similar to those that brought down his father.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[04:23:41] BERMAN: This morning, Jeffery Sandusky, the son of convicted child sex abuser, and former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky is under arrest, charged with sexual involvement with two minors. The 41-year-old Sandusky was arraigned in court Monday. He faces 14 felony and misdemeanor counts involving two girls. It includes soliciting sex from a child under 16 and soliciting child pornography. Sandusky has reportedly been suspended from his job at a correctional facility pending the outcome of the case.

ROMANS: Right. It appears the disaster has been averted at the Oroville Dam in northern California. Officials say they are cautiously optimistic about containing the threat of flooding from the dam, the tallest in the country, by the way. Some 188,000 people were evacuated from surrounding towns after a hole was discovered in an emergency spillway. The evacuation order remains in place for three counties. Governor Jerry Brown has formally requested federal money to help with the response.

BERMAN: There is a truce, thank goodness, between Charles Oakley and James Dolan. This comes after the former New York Knicks forward was forcibly removed from Madison Square Garden last week and banned by the team owner. The peace was negotiated by NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Michael Jordan. He played with Charles Oakley for the Bulls.

That's the connection there.

ROMANS: I see that.

BERMAN: This happened at a summit meeting: It was that important on Monday.

[04:25:00] Dolan now says he hopes Oakley will return to the garden as his guest in the near future.

ROAMNS: All right. Parts of Texas and Gulf Coast facing the risk of severe weather today.

I want to get the forecast for you now from meteorologist Pedram Javaheri.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, John and Christine. The concern for severe storms are in eastern Texas, very high today as we're watching this enhanced risk had been issued across the area. On a scale of one to five, that is a three right there and about 10 million people reside in the area for severe weather. Houston in particular out towards Lake Charles this afternoon, I think around lunchtime here, the highest concern for the storms to roll in.

And around north and central Texas where the active weather is, around San Angelo, eventually towards San Antonio this morning, and then again towards Houston and New Orleans by the afternoon hours. Notice very quick moving disturbance here with the highest concern for hail and wind and isolated shot of tornadoes in the forecast as well.

For Tuesday, quiet for the Northeast. We think by Wednesday afternoon and Wednesday evening, a quick glance here of a storm system that comes in and brings in some snow showers around far northern New England. But today, we'll go with 38 degrees. Boston at 32. Nashville makes it up to 50. Little Rock around 45 degrees. A see- saw trend from New York City, from the upper 30s, to the mid-40s, eventually up to the upper 50s by late this weekend and to early next week -- guys.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROMANS: All right. Thank you for that, Pedram.

All right. Amazing head spinning developments at the White House. Just three weeks on the job, one of the president's biggest backers resigns as national security advisor. Why Michael Flynn could not survive his contacts with Moscow when EARLY START continues.

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