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Michael Flynn Resigns as National Security Adviser; Interview with Senator John Thune; Interview with Senator Jon Tester of Montana. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired February 14, 2017 - 08:00   ET



[08:00:03] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome to your NEW DAY. We begin with breaking news. President Trump's national security adviser Michael Flynn resigning. He says he misled the White House about his communications with Russia before the president took office. The big question is, who knew? Who knew what Flynn was doing with Russia? The roots could go very deep.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We are learning that the Justice Department warned the Trump White House late last month that Flynn may have been compromised somehow and could be vulnerable to blackmail. What did the president know, and why are GOP leaders silent thus far this morning. The major shakeup on day 26 of the Trump administration.

We have it all covered for you, so let's begin with CNN's Joe Johns. He is live at the White House. What you have learned, Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Kellyanne. Presidential -- good morning, I'm sorry, Alisyn. Kellyanne Conway, the president's counselor saying on the record this morning that Michael Flynn flatly misled the vice president on this issue, and he resigned, she says, because he determined that staying on was untenable and unsustainable. But there are still a lot of questions ahead.


JOHNS: President Trump's embattled national security adviser, General Michael Flynn, stepping down Monday night in a firestorm of criticism after misleading Vice President Mike Pence and others about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States. An official telling CNN the Justice Department warned the White House last month that Flynn discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador in December before Trump was sworn in despite repeated denials, a move that could have broken the law.

Acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed the Trump administration prior to being fired that General Flynn was vulnerable to potential blackmail. In his resignation letter Flynn conceding that he inadvertently briefed the vice president elect and others with incomplete information, but falling short of admitting he lied despite reporting by the "Washington Post" that the sanctions on Russia were a main topic of conversation between Flynn and the ambassador.

ADAM ENTOUS, NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER, "WASHINGTON POST": According to two officials that we spoke to who have been briefed on this, it was, as they described it, a main topic of the discussion. It wasn't something that maybe they threw out at the end or anything like that.

JOHNS: With pressure mounting on the White House on Monday afternoon, counselor Kellyanne Conway said the president supported Flynn.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: General Flynn does enjoy the full confidence of the president.

JOHNS: An hour later a different from the White House press secretary -- the president was evaluating the situation. President Trump refusing to answer questions about his controversial adviser. We still don't know what the president knew and when he knew it. In a statement, Democrat Adam Schiff accusing the administration of not being 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.

Democrats now calling for an immediate classified briefing into the situation, writing "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."


JOHNS: There will be attempts to get answers from the president today. He was asked on Air Force One on Friday about developments in the Michael Flynn case. Take a look to what he had to say.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't know about it. I have not seen it. What report is that?


TRUMP: I have not -- I haven't seen that. I will look into that.


JOHNS: The White House saying this morning it's just not clear if the president was briefed on the issue with Michael Flynn before he took office. I did ask Kellyanne Conway about this this morning and she did not answer. Alisyn and Chris?

CUOMO: All right, Joe, well, she's making the rounds on morning television and they seem to be trying to get on message and trying to get away from the facts. What was going on behind the scenes at the White House in the hours leading up to Flynn's resignation? There are more reports of turmoil among President Trump's senior staff. CNN's chief political correspondent Dana Bash is live in Washington with more. Dana? DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I think we should pick it up where Joe Johns just left off, the question of whether or not it is over with regard to General Flynn, and the answer couldn't possibly be yes, Chris, first and foremost because of a question about whether the president was either in the dark about a very important and now we know consequential report from the "Washington Post" that General Flynn did actually talk about sanctions with the Russians, therefore misled the vice president of the United States, or whether he knew about that report and misled the press.

[08:05:15] By the look on his face, it looked like maybe he really didn't know what was going on. The question is why? Why? So that leads to the next question, Chris, which is the way that the structure and the information and the communication is behind the scenes and inside the White House.

The questions about Michael Flynn are one thing, then there's the whole question of just the atmospherics. I am told by multiple sources that the environment among many aides they feel is, frankly, toxic because there's concern every day whether there could be a leak that could get a particular aide in trouble, that the person next to them or around them is potentially out to get them.

And so this is certainly not the greatest environment to be in when you are trying to run the United States government or participate in the running.

One thing that I am told, and we have been reporting since before the inauguration about the sort of fiefdoms and power centers inside the White House, that Steve Bannon, the president's adviser, and the chief of staff, Reince Priebus, are working closely together and are working well together. I am told Bannon considers Priebus a partner and that they have a good working alliance. Chris?

CAMEROTA: I'll take it, Dana. Thank you for all of that reporting. Very interesting to hear what is going on inside from you. Thank you.

Joining us now is Republican Senator John Thune from South Dakota. Senator, good morning.

SEN. JOHN THUNE, (R) SOUTH DAKOTA: Good morning, Alisyn. How are you?

CAMEROTA: I'm well. There's a lot of breaking news, so let's start there. What questions do you have about Michael Flynn and his conversations with the Russians?

THUNE: Well, I am somebody who believes, Alisyn, that we need to take stern actions with regard to the Russians for a lot of reasons, what they are doing in Crimea and Ukraine and Syria and they're meddling in the U.S. election. I think we need to make sure that we are doing everything we can to understand what their objectives and their motives are and know that they are not going to have the best interests of the United States in mind.

And so what proceeds from this I think remains to be scene. I am pleased action was taken. General Flynn resigned and President Trump was right to accept that resignation, and now it's important to go about the business of securing the nation. And I think a lot of it has to do with not only other hot spots around the world but with the Russians as well.

CAMEROTA: But as we sit here speaking this morning, is it your impression that Michael Flynn went rogue and acted alone and decided to tell the Russians that sanctions would be eased all on his own, or do you believe it was countenanced from someone higher up?

THUNE: I don't know the answer to that. I am not sure at this point that anybody does. I think what's clear is that Michael Flynn was acting in a way that was inappropriate, and that's why the action that was taken was taken. And I think, as I said before, it's important now that we move forward. There are a lot of national security threats that we face around the world. All you have to do is pick up a paper or turn on your television set and you see that every day. The world is an increasingly dangerous place, and we need to be focused on what we can do to secure our country and protect Americans.

CAMEROTA: On Friday night on Air Force One President Trump told reporters he didn't know about the reports that Michael Flynn had had conversations with the Russian ambassador about easing sanctions. How is that possible?

THUNE: You will have to ask them, Alisyn. I suspect this afternoon you will probably hear from Sean Spicer at his daily avail and those are questions I am sure that will get raised. But I don't have any answers to those questions.

CAMEROTA: I understand, but do you believe the White House counsel would keep that information from the U.S. president?

THUNE: Again, I don't have access to the inner workings or the conversations or whatever discussions occur. That's a question that is better asked of the president and his team. And you will get that opportunity this afternoon, I think, and I suspect there will be hard questions asked.

CAMEROTA: Absolutely. And I guess I am wondering, what does it tell you? What are your concerns if somehow the White House or the director of national intelligence wasn't sharing this information about this phone call with the president?

THUNE: Obviously I would be very concerned if information that was pertinent to America's national security interests wasn't being shared with the appropriate people at the White House. And, again, I think that's why this step was an important one. They made a move and they made a very decisive move, and hopefully we will get more answers about the questions you are asking, and those are questions that will have to be answered by the White House.

[08:10:01] But my broader concern is America's national security interest and the steps we are taking to ensure we are protecting Americans. And I think what hopefully comes out of this is a renewed focus on that. And, again, Russia is a part of that. And I am one of many members of Congress who believe we need to take strong consequential actions where the Russians are concerned to send a very clear message that we are not going to abide or tolerate this kind of behavior.

CAMEROTA: In other words, if the president did no back at the end of last month when the acting attorney general Sally Yates says she informed the White House, is it fair to say you think they should have acted sooner in getting rid of Michael Flynn?

THUNE: Again, I am just not privy to those conversations. The questions you are asking are all questions that have to be answered by the White House. Obviously they made a decision, and I think the decision happened very quickly yesterday in response to information that they received, and information, I think, that Vice President Pence had received in briefings with General Flynn, and I think it was an appropriate action to take. I think it was the right thing for the general to resign. It was the right thing for the president to accept his resignation. And now they have an important decision to make about who replaces him and also what we are going to do to keep the country safe.

CAMEROTA: Congressman Chris Collins was just on NEW DAY, and he said, I'm paraphrasing, he basically said these things happen and it's a shame. I really like Michael Flynn. It's too bad he had to resign, but now it's time to move on. Do you agree that it's time to move on or do you think that as Congressman Conyers has just said, "We in Congress need to know who authorized Flynn's 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." Which one are you more aligned with?

THUNE: Well, obviously, I fully believe if you have a member of your team that's not getting the job done, or you have questions about actions that they are taking, that you would take decisive action to address that, which they did. These things happen. There's no question about that. There are going to be members of a team sometimes who get out over their skis and have to be reined in. In this case it meant this generals removal.

But with respect to what happens going forward, I think it's important for the White House to be able to address the questions that you are asking, and they'll have that opportunity. And I think many of us are interested and obviously awaiting the responses to those questions.

But for right now, my concern is that the national security office get staffed up again, that they find somebody to replace General Flynn, and they get about the important work of securing the country and protecting Americans. I think that's what most Americans want to see coming out of this. They know that personnel matter. Those things happen, and particularly in a new administration they are still developing the inner workings between the various pieces of their national security team, and in this case they made what I think was a strong, decisive move, an appropriate move, and now we have to get about the important business of protecting the country.

CAMEROTA: Very quickly, do you think we will hear from Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan this morning on this?

THUNE: Well, you'll hear from probably the speaker and from the leader here in the Senate later today. We always do media availability early in the week, and so I suspect like is the case with the administration. There will be an opportunity to pose questions of members of Congress and the leadership up here. But I suspect that they, like me, will be waiting to see what the White House has to say in response to some of your questions.

CAMEROTA: Let's talk about the cabinet. There has been movement. Steve Mnuchin has been confirmed for treasury, David Shulkin for veterans affairs. Andrew Puzder is still awaiting confirmation for labor, and as a result of some questionable things in his past, four of your Republican colleagues say that they won't be on board. What do you think is going to happen with that nomination?

THUNE: He is scheduled for a hearing on Thursday and he will have an opportunity to respond to the many questions that have been raised. And obviously with respect to his record, his background, and some of these issues that have popped up in any confirmation process, there are questions. There isn't anybody who comes to this that doesn't have extensive experience in some world, and in some cases that raises questions about conflicts and other sorts of things, and that's the purpose of a confirmation hearing. So we will find out on Thursday when he has a chance to answer those questions, and then we will proceed from there.

CAMEROTA: But do you support him?

THUNE: Well, I want to hear what he has to say in response to some of these questions. I, like others, have questions about some of these issues that have been raised and I think, in fairness, we have to give him a chance to address those, but I'll make, you know, my decision and inform on how I think he responds to some of those questions later in the week.

[08:15:08] CAMEROTA: And where are you now on Judge Gorsuch, given that Judge Gorsuch, you know, said through channels and confirmed that he was disheartened and demoralized by some of the things that President Trump was saying about the judiciary? Where are you now?

THUNE: I think that he represented in his response to some of the questions, Alisyn, that he is an independent judge. Most of us are very confident that he'll be somebody who judges impartially. He's a very well-qualified. He's somebody who is in the mainstream.

If you look at the decisions that he issued, the 800 opinions that he wrote as a member of the Tenth Circuit, 98 percent of those were unanimous, and that's on a divided court, with seven members appointed by Democrats, five by Republicans. And when he was appealed to the Supremes, on seven of the eight cases, the Supreme Court upheld his opinions.

So, this is somebody who has a great record and I think deserves an up-and-down vote, and I hope that Democrats here in the Senate will permit that to happen, just in the same way we allowed the judges that were put forward by President Clinton and President Obama in their first terms to get an up-and-down next --


CAMEROTA: Well, but not Merrick Garland. I mean, look, you are changing the timeline. As you know, Democrats are very angry that Merrick Garland was sort of twisting in the wind there for ten months.

THUNE: Well, there's a big difference, though, Alisyn, between a vacancy that occurs in the middle of a presidential election when people have already voted, and the start of a presidential term. You look at President Clinton, President Obama, their first terms in office, they had two vacancies in the court -- all four of those nominees were, you know, appointed to the court or voted on to the court --


THUNE: -- without a filibuster in the United States Senate, and that's the precedent we want to see continued.

CAMEROTA: Senator John Thune, thank you very much for rolling with all of the breaking news with us --

THUNE: There's a lot of it today.

CAMEROTA: There sure is. Thank you very much for being on NEW DAY.

THUNE: Thanks, Alisyn.


CUOMO: All right. So, Democrats are demanding an intel briefing immediately on the revelation surrounding General Flynn's communications with Russia. Will they release transcripts of those conversations? Will the American people get the information about what is going on in our government?

Senator Jon Tester of Montana joins us next.


[08:20:49] CUOMO: All right. Democrats are demanding an intelligence briefing from the FBI and Justice Department on what they found in communications between now ousted national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and his Russian counterpart about sanctions and who knows what else.

Let's discuss with Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana.

Senator, I want to talk to you about the V.A. We're going to get to it, our men and women in uniform deserve the best, and I know that interest is deep in your heart. But I want to get to this news because we are hearing a lot of idle curiosity, and it's time to move on and we now know what happened. It begins and ends with Michael Flynn. That's the spin coming out of the White House and coming out of a lot of your Republican counterparts. Do you accept that it is time to move on?

SEN. JON TESTER (D), MONTANA: Well, I will tell you the resignation of General Flynn is very disturbing and I think it's important that Congress does its job of checks and balances and finds out what has transpired.

I think our national security is very, very important to me and everybody that serves in Congress, it should be a top priority. And to find out what transpired between General Flynn and the Russians I think is our job and we need to dig to the bottom of it and find out what really happened.

From an administration standpoint, I will tell you, Chris, I think this is an opportunity to rebuild trust when it comes to national security issues, and everybody had lost faith in General Flynn. I think it's an opportunity for the administration to bring on somebody that the people trust, somebody that has some experience and move forward. In the meantime, Congress just needs to do its job, and our job is at this point in time, is to find out what really transpired.

CUOMO: Well, I mean, we know that the White House counsel was told about this several weeks ago, a couple weeks or more ago. Did the president know? Would the White House counsel keep this to themselves?

I mean, you had Manafort, the chairman of the campaign step down because of ties to Russia. You've had this series of moves of appeasement sheltering from responsibility by the president of the United States. You then had him feign ignorance about the reporting about Michael Flynn, and now, this.

I mean, how deep does your curiosity run about this?

TESTER: Well, I think -- I think we need to find out what the facts are. Trust but verify. And I think there's plenty concern about the president's relationship with Putin and with Russia. There is concern with Tillerson. There was concern with Flynn.

Look, I think this is a time for the administration to right the ship and move forward, but in the meantime, I do think Congress needs to do its job --

CUOMO: But this is a big part of his job, isn't it, Senator? I mean, yesterday, you had Brady come out and different parts of GOP leadership, saying, yes, this 1924 law by compelling the president's taxes and having us review them in the Ways and Means Committee, that's not going to happen.

But now, you have Mike Flynn stepped down because of his dealings with Russia and we still don't have a scratch of transparency about where the financial interest of our president may overlap with Russia, maybe in innocuous ways, maybe in innocent ways.

But don't the people deserve to know some of this stuff? TESTER: They absolutely do. I mean, the truth will set you free. I

think that, do the investigation, find out what really happened and let the facts speak for themselves. And I firmly believe that we need to find out what the facts are. We shouldn't be jumping to conclusions, find out what the facts are and move forward.

Like I said, General Flynn's resignation may be the tip of the iceberg or it may be all there is to it and it's done. But we need to find out what the facts are.

CUOMO: Do you back the call for a briefing right now? Should there be hearings about this and an inquiry, an investigation?

TESTER: Well, I mean, yesterday, before General Flynn even resigned, Claire McCaskill, the ranking member on Homeland Security Committee, had asked for a briefing on this very issue and I support her in that, and I think we need to move forward through the appropriate committees to get to the truth. And I do support making sure that we find out what the facts are and what transpired.

CUOMO: Do you think that these are questions about national security or do you believe that this is just about palace intrigue?

TESTER: No, no, I think this is absolutely about national security, no ifs, ands or buts about it.

[08:25:04] Look, Russia has been a serious concern for the United States since I was born and since before I was born, and the fact is, is that how we move forward, how we treat Russia and deal with them is a critical component of our national security.

CUOMO: They went -- the White House went from saying Flynn has their full confidence to saying they were reviewing to him stepping down in just hours. This is an odd coordination of effort at the least.

All right. Let's pivot to something that certainly matters to every American, what our veterans are going to get in the way of the V.A., services, improvement. We know that the man who will take over the mantle is an Obama holdover named David Shulkin.

What can you tell us about our new secretary of veteran affairs? And why this is good or bad news for our servicemen and women?

TESTER: Well, David worked as an under secretary under Bob McDonald, the former secretary of the V.A. and did a good job. I think that bringing him onboard, he understands the challenges with the V.A., it adds some continuity to that agency, which I think is critically important.

And he's somebody that everybody knew on both sides of the aisle, that's why he came out of committee unanimously. It's why he got in unanimous vote yesterday. I think he's got a tough job ahead of him. There will be no honeymoon period. He's been there. He knows what the problems are, and he needs to step up and fix them, whether that issues on manpower or fixing the choice program, or a myriad of other issues that the V.A. is facing. But the bottom line is, as he made promises in the V.A. committee,

we'll hold him accountable and move forward from there. I mean, we're going to treat him just like we treat anybody else regardless of the number he got in confirmation.

CUOMO: Right.

TESTER: And his job is, and he made this very clear during the confirmation hearing, is to look out for our vets, and the veterans come first. If he does that, he'll be fine. If he waffles on that, of course, we'll hold him accountable.

CUOMO: Let me ask you something, and you talk to vets and their opinion about the V.A., it's mixed. They say, you know, don't get rid of the V.A. You know, don't beat up the V.A. too much. It does a lot of things really well.

But the problem seems to be the intractability of the issues, that what it doesn't do well, it never seems to get better at. Why do you think that is?

TESTER: Well, I think -- I'm going to tell you what I hear from veterans.

Once they get through the door, they like the health care they receive. Getting through the door is a big, big problem, and it's one of the reasons that's why the hiring freeze is a problem. He opened it up so he could get more medical professionals, and I thank the president for that.

But when it comes to veterans benefits and pulling down that backlog, they did not allow for additional folks to be hired in the veteran benefits arena, which I think is really, really important.

But I will tell you, in Montana, at least, once they get through the door, veterans like the health care they receive. On the other side of that coin, the Choice Act that we passed in Congress a few years back, with all the best of intention, has been a total wreck, and the V.A. gets blamed for that and they should get some of the blame for that. But Congress needs to take part of the blame, too. We need to fix that program and make it better, cut the red tape for the veteran and for the hospitals that are working through the V.A.

CUOMO: Senator, we're always listening to our fighting men and women about what's in their best interests. We will stay on this story. Hopefully, it goes better from here.

Thank you for talking to us this morning.

TESTER: Thank you.

CUOMO: Appreciate it.

TESTER: Thanks, Chris.

CUOMO: Alisyn? CUOMO: All right. Who will President Trump pick to be his next national adviser, and there are three names on the short list. Our panel is going to break down the picks and why each is so important.