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Soon: Bipartisan News Conference on Russia Sanctions; Trump Aids in Constant Touch with Senior Russian Officials during Campaign; House members discuss Russia Sanctions Bill. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired February 15, 2017 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: -- no big questions about what Congress will do about it. We might learn in just a few minutes. We're looking at live pictures right now from Capitol Hill. A bipartisan group of lawmakers holds a news conference in just a short bit. Late last night, sources told CNN that senior Trump campaign officials, including Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn were in constant contact with Russian officials before the election.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: U.S. Intelligence officials became alarmed because of a number of things. First of all, the key role of those advisers, their closeness to the president, there are number of their conversations with Russian officials, and the timing, and the timing is key because this has all happening as Russian hackers were targeting the DNC and other Democratic operations including the Clinton campaign. And candidate Trump publicly urged - you remember that, when he told the Russian hackers, he says in jest to find Hillary Clinton's 30,000 missing e-mails. All of this was happening at the same time.

So this morning, no direct response from the White House to CNN's reporting. But the Kremlin and the president -- President Trump are dismissing these reports as "fake news." Our Barbara Starr begins our coverage this morning at the Pentagon. Good morning.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John and Poppy. Well, there is yet no surprise, another tweet from President Donald Trump, a short time ago. Tweeting then, let me read it to you, he says, "This Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton's losing campaign." What that may have to do actually with what's at hand here. May remains a bit unclear to many. I suspect. This press conference may give us an indication of just how much Congressional Democrats and Republicans are going to pursue a potential investigation into all of this.

CNN reporting overnight, in fact, multiple officials, current and former officials associated with multiple government agencies telling CNN that Trump aides had repeated frequent contacts over the Summer with Mr. Trump - those aides with Russian officials and Russian persons. This was all, basically, found out by U.S. Intelligence through so-called routine targeting and monitoring -- of Russian communications.

But when all of this emerged, the Intelligence Community became so concerned, as you said that they not only briefed then-President Obama, but they did brief Mr. Trump about all these communications. What we don't know in the public is what these communications were really about. Were there potential violations of law or regulation? Because all of this was happening as the Intelligence Community was of course, also coming to the conclusion that Russian elements were trying -- supported by the government in Moscow, were trying to interfere with the U.S. presidential election.

Mr. Manafort has said publicly, he did not communicate knowingly with any elements of the Russian government in an inappropriate manner. Mr. Flynn has not yet responded to any queries about all of this. But, you know, this story seems to grow by the day, far from over. And I think the really big question now is how far Congress may pursue this because that would bring it all into the public arena. John, Poppy?

BERMAN: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, what a great segue that is because we want to go to Capitol Hill right now, to perhaps, learn a little bit more about just how far our Congress will go in pursuing this. We're expecting a news conference any minute now from a bipartisan group of Congress members. The news conference is supposed to be about sanctions against Russia, which are not unconnected to the overall story right now.

HARLOW: But they may not be the first question.

BERMAN: Right, exactly.

HARLOW: They won't be the first question. Let's start our Congressional correspondent Phil Mattingly. He's watching this all for us live from Capitol Hill. What are we expecting?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think as John lay out, this press conference is going to be about sanctions. And that's important, because it's just one piece of all of the fallout we're seeing on Capitol Hill right now. We've got Senate Democrats guys are planning an emergency, behind closed doors caucus meeting. The trend figure out how they're going to respond to the revelations we've seen over the last 48 hours. Then, you're going to have another news conference of Democrats coming out and calling for an independent nonpartisan commission to investigate all these issues.

And then you have the longer term, kind of bigger picture issues. And that's what we're about to see right now from this bipartisan group of House members. What they'll be doing today is introducing a bill that would basically require the Trump administration to get Congressional signoff before they can reduce or ease sanctions on Russia that were put into place in the wake of the incursion and the Crimea, some of the aggressive actions in Ukraine.

Obviously, these guys kind of underscores that there is bipartisan concern about the posture the president has taken on this issue pretty much throughout his entire campaign and up until now. And I think why it's important is this. First and foremost, this is a companion piece of legislation. There's already one over in the Senate that's got sponsors like John McCain, like Sherrod Brown, like Marco Rubio.

So this is something that could actually move. This is something that Speaker Paul Ryan has made very clear, if the Trump administration were to move in any way to reduce sanctions against Russia, he would have a problem with it and be willing to take action.

[10:05:00] But most importantly, you're seeing guys, as Barbara was laying out, we're trying to figure out what is the Congressional response here? What investigations will happen?

It's not just on the micro level. What this investigation into the Flynn calls or into Russian contacts. It's kind of throughout the kind of almost entire body. How this can have an impact going forward, whether it's reducing executive power on sanctions, whether they ever get to the point where they're going to consider a nonpartisan investigation. As of now, it looks like the answer is no to that. But most importantly, I think, whether this spurs the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is leading the investigation right now into a more aggressive tack and more aggressive posture.

All of this is swirling. And I can tell you guys, when I talked to not just Democratic aides but Republican aides as well. They feel the pressure here. They recognize it's not going away. That's why you're seeing the responses. I think the big question, which is exactly what Barbara was alluding to is, will that response be considered aggressive enough in a bipartisan fashion. And we don't have an answer to that yet.

BERMAN: No, but we could get a sense in just a few minutes. We're watching that news conference on Capitol Hill, our thanks to Phil Mattingly there. We got a chance to take the temperature of at least some members of Congress who are very, very concerned about the overall Russian issue and perhaps, more concerned about the more finite issue of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

Let's talk more about this. We're joined right now by CNN political analyst, national political reporter for "Real Clear Politics," Rebecca Berg and CNN senior political analyst and former adviser to four presidents, David Gergen. David, you know, you've worked in a lot of administrations. You've seen a lot of administrations deal with a lot of problems and moments of crises. You know what's going on right now in the White House and how big of a problem is this for the White House?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It's become a huge problem for the White House. It's overshadowing everything else they do and they could in fact have long term impact about the viability and capacity of Donald Trump to govern. He's got strong interest in having this resolved quickly and openly.

My experience, have been -- going all the way back to Watergate, and I don't think this is Watergate but I do think some of the parallels are important. And that is -- when a government, when an administration is in trouble like this, accusations are flying around. The very best thing you can do is to be as transparent as possible and push for investigations that I think the White House could help itself a lot right now if it called for an independent committee on Capitol Hill to investigate this.

If it said that our attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is going to be - is going to recuse himself from this. If it said we're going to send everybody up from the White House and anybody else you want to talk to. We're going to waive executive privilege. We want them to be as open as possible. That's what President Reagan did after the Iran- contra scandal. And it really helped to lance the boil, because the administration said, we're going to be totally open, and Reagan, he ultimately went on to govern well. This doesn't need to be a catastrophe for Donald Trump if he now responds well.

HARLOW: David, you make a very interest point and give the historical precedent for it. However, here is how the president is responding this morning on Twitter. "This Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton's losing campaign." So, unless he changes gears, Rebecca, he is focusing on leaks rather than on investigating these conversations with Russia.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST AND NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER "REAL CLEAR POLITICS": Right. It's kind of mixed messages, Poppy, from the president. On the one hand, attacking the Intelligence Community for these unauthorized -- what he says are illegal leaks. And at the same time, saying that none of it is true, that it's fake news. And so, we don't really know what to believe from the president at this point.

But it's certainly a defensive posture in contrast to what David is laying out which would be a much more proactive strategy by the president. To go to the Hill, say, let us help you however we can. We want to resolve this in a public fashion. As it is, you know, although this is going to be sorted out by the Senate Intelligence Committee, -- what we're hearing from many Democrats on the Hill right now is that those discussions and those investigations, because they're part of the Intelligence Committee, are largely likely to remain classified. So we won't get any sort of public airing of this investigation on Michael Flynn and more broadly on the administration's relations with Russia. --

HARLOW: Although, last hour on this show, we had a Republican Congressman and a Democratic Congressman agreeing that they want the transcripts for themselves and to the public.

BERMAN: You know there is an appetite out there. We're hearing Lindsey Graham, says he wants a special select committee. There are different grades of interest right now - to be sure but there is --

BERG: But not with Republican leadership. And as long as the approval rating among Republicans for Donald Trump remains high and it is right now in the latest CNN/ORC polling, around 90 percent of Republicans still approve Donald Trump in spite of all of this controversy. There's not going to be that pressure on Republican leadership from their base to pursue these sorts of open investigations.

HARLOW: Right. -- It's an important point that Paul Ryan made this morning.

[10:10:00] BERMAN: That's a great point. And Paul Ryan is happy to keep it within the committees. A bigger picture, David Gergen, you know we have heard concern from around this sort of governing community about what's going on right now. John McCain says there's enormous dysfunction. Leon Panetta says he's not sure whether or not this country can survive a crisis given the way things are right now.

And Tony Thomas, who is a general -- the Commander of Special Operations, right, this is a nonpolitical general, made a pretty astounding statement, when he was asked about what's going on in Washington right now, yesterday. He said, "Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we're a nation at war. As a commander, I'm concerned our government be as stable as possible." I was surprised to see that from a general, be it he was asked a question about it, David. I wonder your reaction, and if you think it may be overblown.

GERGEN: John, I was surprised as well. And I did not think it was overblown. -- We saw in that flurry of papers in Mar-a-Lago as they were dealing this weekend with the North Korean missile test. Other countries are starting to test us now to see how well we can react to provocations. The Russians themselves have taken provocative actions here in the last 48 hours. You know, moving missiles, you know -- implying past some of our ships, buzzing them. And it's really important in that circumstance that you have a structure in place, a decision making structure that is calm, deliberative, on national security.

The president has two very strong secretaries there, that is reassuring, in his Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. But it now has a national Security Council team that's in some uproar. The one upside possibility of all this is getting Michael Flynn out of there gives him a chance to replace Flynn with a much more stable, much more respected, much more of a heavyweight, similar to Mattis and Tillerson. And that would help the White House in the long run.

But in the meantime, they have to get themselves together, get their act together and stop blaming everybody else, sending out this mad series of tweets this morning. But he had seven tweets from 6:48 a.m. or something like that, I mean, out of the White House. That's exactly what they don't want to do, in trying to calm the country. And say, look, we're going to get to the bottom of this too. We want to get this behind us, so we can move on and do really important things about jobs.

BERMAN: Hang on one second guys. Stand by because we're going to go to Capitol Hill right now, this news conference is underway. What did Steny Hoyer just say?

HARLOW: Let's listen.

BERMAN: Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. STENY HOYER (D), MARYLAND: This is not a partisan issue, which is why in the Senate it is Senator Graham and Senator Rubio have joined with Senator Cardin and Senator McCaskill in introducing a mere piece of legislation, exactly the same legislation. And that is why Mr. Bruni, Mr. Kissinger and others with whom I have talked but who are not co-sponsors at this point in time are carefully considering this action.

It's not partisan. Every American, every Republican, every Democrat is concerned about Russia and what they have been doing to violate international law - not to mention the criminal behavior that they may be pursuing and are pursuing, we believe, in Syria. This is a serious matter of national security, which is why both Democrats and Republicans are putting this bill forward.

I want to thank all of the co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle for their hard work on this important and timely legislation. At this point, I want to yield to my friend and the gentleman from New York and the Ranking Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel. Eliot?

REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D), NEW YORK: Thank you, Steny. I'm pleased to be here with my colleagues, Mr. Hoyer, Mr. Schiff, to say that what Russia has done and is doing is very alarming, and therefore they should not be allowed to weasel out of the sanctions.


HARLOW: All right. There you hear Congressman Eliot Engel of New York speaking. We're going to continue to monitor this bipartisan press conference on Capitol Hill focused on Russian sanctions. And obviously, you can expect some questions on CNN's reporting about the constant contact between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. We're back to our panel. You know, Rebecca, to you. Steny Hoyer just said meddling in our democracy should knuckle without repercussion. In this that could have been said by Democrats or Republicans.

BERG: It could have. I mean, let's not forget. Before Donald Trump was elected president and really came on to the scene in this presidential campaign. The Republican position for the most part was that Barack Obama and his administration were not tough on Russia, not that they were being you know too tough on Russia but that they weren't being tough enough. And generally, the Republican Party has been much more hawkish on Russia than a lot of Democrats.

[10:15:03] And so, now it's this really interesting role reversal. And certainly, we're seeing from both parties, some very tough talk on Capitol Hill. But again, what we really have to question and look at in terms of Congress is what is Republican leadership going to do about this? Because you know, they can talk tough about Russia but when it comes to actually applying pressure to the executive and to Donald Trump, that becomes a very sticky political situation for them and it's not always easy.

BERMAN: David, last question to you. You know, Sean Spicer yesterday essentially denied that there were contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. Mike Pence, when he was vice president-elect, January 15th, he said there were no contacts between the campaign and Russia. Does the White House need to change their story today? The president may be asked about this when he's with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

GERGEN: Absolutely and they need to change it to say at the very minimum, we're not aware of any contacts and we're going to dig into this and find out what we can. Because otherwise, at least, this cloud. And you know the honest truth is here, the way they handled the Flynn situation has given us less reason to be persuaded, that they're going to do the right thing on the more - the bigger picture.

Because you know when they got the information from the Justice Department, that Mike Flynn had this -- had a conversation about sanctions and he was vulnerable to blackmail, they left him in place. Even though they knew he was vulnerable to blackmail, they left him in place and they didn't tell the vice president, who had been lied to. They kept him out of the loop for two weeks. Clearly, John, what they were doing was trying to ride it out, make sure nothing ever came out. And it was only because of the leaks that went to the newspapers that in fact this has all come to light.

BERMAN: All right. David Gergen, you've been in the White House so you know what it is like - to try to write something out.

HARLOW: A few of them.

BERMAN: Thanks for being with us. Rebecca Berg, you as well, great discussion.

BERG: Thank you.

HARLOW: All right. Straight ahead for us, the fallout from Michael Flynn's resignation only one of several controversies, as we've been discussing all morning, surrounding the Trump administration, which is facing intense and increased scrutiny and criticism this morning over everything from ties to Russia, to how the president handles sensitive information. A member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Angus King of Maine, will join us next.


[10:21:10] BERMAN: All right, the news this morning, senior Trump campaign advisers in constant communication with Russia. This has sparked a strong response just a short time ago from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham who raised the possibility of a select committee to investigate.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence officials outside the norm, that's not only big league bad, that's a game changer. And I would change my view as to what Congress should do.

If there are contacts between Trump officials and Russian intelligence operatives during the campaign we need a joint select committee in Congress to get to the bottom of it and also look at Trump's business ties to Russia.


HARLOW: Joining us now, Senator Angus King. He's an independent from the great State of Maine and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. It is nice to have you on, sir. Thank you for being with us. Senator Lindsey Graham also said Congress is not fake and he said there are Democrats and Republicans who love our country and want to make sure checks and balances are in place.

Do you believe that Republicans, your Republican colleagues there, are serious about getting answers and serious about potentially having a select committee do this, that would have broader subpoena power and investigative power and more would be available to the public in that way?

SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE ANDINTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, you've asked a lot of questions, Poppy. Let me take them one at a time. I do -- I have detected and realized and heard over the last few days, I think the Republicans are really taking this quite seriously. And I think they realize, as Lindsey Graham mentioned, that this is a -- I think he used the term "big league bad." And this is a serious question.

As far as the committee, we already have a select committee. It's called the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. We've already -- I'm a member of that committee. We've begun an investigation into this. Part of that investigation explicitly is going to include contacts between the campaign and the Russians as well as what the Russians did, why they did it, how they did it. So -- and we have subpoena power. So that's in place.

It's a bipartisan committee. We've been working together very well. And we're already beginning our work. We had about a two-hour meeting on this subject yesterday afternoon. So, I think we're in a position to move forward on this. I'm not sure we need to appoint another committee because the Intelligence Community is the job of the Intelligence Committee that's already on the case.

BERMAN: Senator, after that two-hour meeting you had yesterday, you came out, you told your local paper, "The Portland Press Herald," that not only did you want to look at Michael Flynn, but the idea of this wider conversations between Trump campaign officials and the Russians. That was before the CNN report came out that said there were constant frequent contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. How significant do you believe that contact to be? I know you can't tell us what you hear in your classified briefings, but, you know, the frequency of these contacts, the senior people involved, the timing of it in the heart of campaign season, how important do you think that is?

KING: It's extremely important. And all of those are questions that I do not have the answer to now. But those are exactly the questions that we're going to be asking. When we were beginning the discussions of doing this work back in January with the leadership of the committee, we expressly said, Mark Warner and I insisted that part of the charge to the committee was looking into whether or not there were contacts between -- either of the campaigns and the Russians during the period leading up to the election.

We didn't have any intelligence or data at that time that indicated that that was the case, although there were some signals. For example, the relationship of Mr. Manafort, who was the campaign manager for a time, we know, had relationships to the Ukrainians and then suddenly at the Republican convention, the provision about arming the Ukrainians disappeared from the platform.

[10:25:08] I mean, that's public knowledge that raised the implication that there may have been some connection. So, it is part of our charge and it's absolutely something that I think we have to look into.

HARLOW: And in our reporting, CNN did speak to Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman of Trump's campaign, and he wrote all of this off as being nonsense, saying he didn't have that communication and that his work for the Yanukovych Government in Ukraine had nothing to do with this. I do want your take on whether or not you believe -- or what you make of the president tweeting multiple times that this is really just a problem of leaking intelligence and that the Russian reporting is nonsense? Given the fact that the main story is these talks with Russia, do you give some credence to his argument that the American people should be concerned about the level of leaks and the sensitivity of the information that is leaking out?

KING: Well, they absolutely. I think the leak is a significant question. But it should not be used as a smokescreen to obscure the underlying grave issue of -- Russian interference with our election process. And by the way, nobody knows where these leaks -- or somebody knows, but we don't know where the leaks are coming from. We know over the last month or so we've had information that's been in the Intelligence Community but it was relayed to the Justice Department and relayed to the Trump White House. They had this information for 2 1/2 weeks.

And as you know, this White House hasn't exactly been hermetically sealed when it comes to leaks. So I think the leaks are an important issue. But that's shooting the messenger. That's an issue that needs to be dealt with. The FBI should deal with it. It's against the law. But that shouldn't divert us from the fact that the information that's come forward, if it's credible, if it's based upon solid information, is very disturbing, and we've got to follow it up. I mean, the question is would Michael Flynn still be national security adviser but for the leaks, which led us, everyone, to realize he wasn't telling us the truth when he said he didn't discuss sanctions with the Russians.

BERMAN: Are you confident that the White House is leveling with us now about the nature of the contacts that the campaign had with the Russians?

KING: No. No, I'm not.

BERMAN: Senator Angus King of Maine, thank you so much for being with us, I appreciate your time, sir. Wow.


BERMAN: I mean, when the Senate -- when you have sitting senators who are concerned about the honesty of the White House, that is something. He is saying he thinks that the Republican conservatives --

HARLOW: He still hasn't responded to CNN's reporting. We still have not gotten a response from the White House. --

BERMAN: Press conference in what - two hours from now.


BERMAN: We should hear from the president -

HARLOW: We'll see it here.

BERMAN: Still to come for us, investigations, unanswered questions, and one resignation so far. Is the Trump team just off to a rocky start or are they in the midst of true turmoil?