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Report: Democrat Says Trump Advisers Committed Treason; Trump Avoids Tough Questions at Press Conference; DOD May Recommend US Troops to Syria. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired February 15, 2017 - 15:30   ET


[15:30:00] BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN: Let me move on to the news of the day, on Russia and our reporting here at CNN, that a number of Trump aides during the campaign were in constant communication with senior Russian officials. You, sir, floated the word treason. That is a serious allegation, how do you mean?

REP. BRENDAN BOYLE, D-PENNSYLVANIA: My exact quote was, if it is shown that someone actively conspired with a foreign enemy agent of the United States to subvert our democracy that I believe is actually close to the textbook definition of treason. I put an if beforehand, here at least is what we know now thanks in part to CNN's reporting that four members, senior officials in the Trump campaign for a year were actively communicating with Russian intelligence officials. It was so concerning that it was our intelligence officials who caught it by accident because of their routine surveillance of Russian officials.

That is deeply disturbing and there's really no precedent of what we are talking about. There were whispers about that during the campaign and frankly I was

skeptical, I did not believe they would go that far, unfortunately, because of reporting from CNN and the "New York Times" we now had. This is exactly why we need an independent outside bipartisan investigation to find out if that conspiring was taking place between the two parties.

I'm glad you brought up the investigation. Let me just play some sound this from the Republican senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul, this is what he said.


SEN. RAND PAUL, R-KENTUCKY: I don't think it's useful to do investigation after investigation of your own party, we'll never get started with doing things we need to do like repealing Obamacare If we are spending our whole time having Republicans investigate

Republicans. It makes no sense.


BALDWIN: Congressman Boyle what do you say to your colleagues across the aisle who don't really want to rush into this.

BOYLE: I at least have to give Rand Paul for some honesty, unlike Mitch McConnell and Jason Chaffetz and others who are twisting themselves in knots to come up with all these supposed reasons why they won't investigate this. It is

clear that is a moment not for partisanship but really where Democrats and Republicans should come together and investigate for the best interests of our democracy. I thought Chuck Schumer's remarks yesterday, talking about the unprecedented nature of this and how we needed a 9/11 outside commission in order to investigate this. That really struck me, something I tweeted last night from Dan Rather talking about the parallels to Watergate and said this would be worse if in fact it did happen. So,

it's time to put country ahead of party and find out exactly what Russian intelligence agencies were able to pull off.

BALDWIN: I do think to be fair to Republicans though there are a number of Republicans who agree with an investigation.

BOYLE: There are some.

BALDWIN: McCain, Blunt, Corker so some are on the record.

BOYLE: I would highlight that as correct. There have been very few voices unfortunately in the body I serve over on the house side. I do give credit and thank for those Republicans calling for an investigation, that's a patriot patriotic thing.

BALDWIN: I understand you actually met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and coincidentally you were on board the day the Iran deal was announced. I'm sure you follow President Trump and his meeting with the Netanyahu.

BOYLE: Have one thing that both Democrats and Republicans and all folks who analyzed this issue and work on it can agree is that this is an enormously complex issue, so to hear Donald Trump say there could be one-state, two-state, you know, whatever. It is mind boggling he is taking this approach to what has been the most complex problem over the last 100 years. I hope there are others in the Republican party who take a much smarter approach.

BALDWIN: Thank you much for your time.

President Trump continues to harp on the quote unquote "illegal leaks" that uncovered the details of his campaign's communication with Russia.

[15:35:00] We will dig into whether the leaks are actually against the law, we'll talk to Jeff Toobin and Carl Bernstein.


BALDWIN: As the white house faces perhaps its most serious controversy yet the President is attacking anonymous sources who leaked the information tying his then campaign aides to Russian officials. He also refused to answer CNN's questions today as he met with the Israeli Prime Minister.


CNN REPORTER: Mr. President, are you answering questions about your associates contact with the Russians during your campaign?

[15:40:00] CNN REPORTER: Do you have a comment of the report that there was contact between your senior advisers and suspected Russian operative during the presidential campaign?


BALDWIN: We tried. The President once again only took questions from a conservative news outlet. You can check out the screen for the track record today, it was the Christian Broadcasting Network and They did not ask him to confirm about the conversations with Russians. Let's talk about this with CNN political analyst Carl Bernstein and CNN's senior legal analyst Jeffery Toobin.

Jeff Toobin let me turn to you and ask you off the top, because it is these leaks that the President keeps harping on. And every white house has had to deal with this, he said there are illegal leaks but not all leaks are illegal.

JEFF TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Correct. It is illegal to disclose classified information to reporters or anyone else, it is illegal to disclose material to a grand jury. But most of what reporters get about internal deliberations in the white house, it's not classified, not illegal to disclose it, it could be a firing offense, but certainly not illegal.

BALDWIN: OK. Now that Jeff Toobin set that up, Carl Bernstein you saw question after question from CNN reporters asking about the most pressuring issues of the day, and getting silence. What's at stake here?

CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: We have seen very little indication For months and months now that Donald Trump has any predilection toward answering these questions and especially he's been telling lies about many of these things under discussion. There has been a real attempt to stonewall the press, to stonewall the FBI to stonewall congressional investigators. That's what we know so far from people around the Trump campaign, where this goes and the seriousness of it we don't know in terms of the ultimate disposition and what all the facts are. What we do know is that there are very serious allegations out there many of which have gotten to the point where some to have substance has been confirmed about these contacts which raise the most serious of questions that can possibly be raised about a President's aides and organization.

TOOBIN: But I think in fairness to President Trump it is worth pointing out that some of these leaks are undoubtedly illegal that do include classified information but all great investigative reporting has included information that people are not to disclose, one of the reasons I became a journalist -- Don't interrupt me Bernstein I'm about to say something nice about you, it is that I became a journalist because people like Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were my heroes, and a lot of people disclosed things to them that it was improper or illegal to disclose. And so, this mix of leaking and illegal leaking is a real thing and our democracy does depend on it. BALDWIN: Go ahead, Carl, how about that for a compliment, I'll second


BERNSTEIN: Look, nobody knows better than Donald Trump how reporters go about their business. They assemble information from many people including in the instance perhaps some people closer to Donald Trump than he might be comfortable with. Who knows. But the process is not about a spigot being turned on and people spilling their guts, it's about trying to go to many people and get deep into what's happening, in this instance what we are finding out is that there appears to be some attempt somewhere to cover up what has occurred and we are trying to penetrate that cover up. Whether or not the cover up involves those closest to the President of the United States, independent operators, former campaign aides, all of that will be determined.


BERNSTEIN: But so far there's a lot of information we need to look at and get past.

BALDWIN: I just got some more information, I just want to get you to respond to this breaking piece of news, we have learned Andrew Puzder, picked to be labor secretary, from our own John King, he is officially withdrawing, quote does not want to proceed.

[15:45:00] This is the very first cabinet pick not going through for the Trump administration. Carl Bernstein your response?

BERNSTEIN: My response is that he was unable to be confirmed and for good reason, he withdrew. I don't think this is the most important thing going on in Washington right now. They will find a suitable substitute for this gentleman. But right now, we're dealing with the most important questions about the honesty and integrity of our electoral process of the presidency itself and that's what we need to keep our eye on as journalists and follow whoever his successor might be.

TOOBIN: But it is also true that as wonderful as journalists are, one thing we don't have is subpoena power, we can't force people to testify to answer our questions. That's why it's so important the Congressional investigations take place. And grand jury investigations with the work of the FBI because ultimately, they can force people to testify and we can't, and that's why it's so important that Congress try to get to the bottom of this.

BALDWIN: We heard Senator Elizabeth Warren a while ago and multiple Democrats talking to Manu Raju, speaking of Manu, I hear he has his microphone on, are you with me on Capitol Hill?


BALDWIN: Go ahead you're live.

RAJU: Thanks. A source telling John King that Andrew Puzder told the white house he does not see a viable path forward and does not believe he should move forward as secretary labor nominee. According to our colleague John King, this after a pretty dramatic turn of events as Republican senators communicated to the white house they believed there were going to be four firm no votes on the confirmation and sources telling me there could be up to 12 no votes. Because of his views on immigration, and conservative groups, people on the right not supportive of him and also controversies of the past, allegations of domestic abuse, decades old messy divorce proceeding, all sorts of issues are bound to come up to that confirmation hearing tomorrow.

But Republicans did not want to stomach another very controversial nominee after having to deal with so many other nominees and taken such a political hit for backing those nominees and were not ready to support Andrew Puzder. I'm told they could not move forward, they did not want to move forward on Puzder because they did not have the votes and looks like Mr. Puzder saw the writing on the wall, told the white house he did not want to go forward and now Donald Trump lost his first cabinet nominee.

TOOBIN: Speaking of great journalism, Manu has owned this story, he's been ahead of everybody on that. Second, what does it say about the Trump vetting operation that you nominate someone for a cabinet post whose ex-wife goes on Oprah to talk about domestic violence? Oprah? It's not exactly an obscure outlet.

BALDWIN: She's walked it back.

TOOBIN: She's walked it back, but that tape was going to come out in a hearing, I mean come on.

BALDWIN: Carl, I heard you laughing. Jump in.

BERNSTEIN: The point is exactly right. This vetting procedure has been insufficient throughout and it is clear that Donald Trump has been looking for kind of ideological soul mates who subscribe to his campaign themes without thinking through enough, he and his aides, whether these people are really qualified in terms of their abilities and histories.

BALDWIN: Okay. Carl, Jeff, Manu. I think you're all wonderful. Compliments all around, gentlemen. Awesome job. My goodness, thank you so much. We do have more breaking news now. Sources tell CNN that Trump's defense department is now considering combat troops in Syria in the fight against ISIS. We'll be right back.


BALDWIN: This is CNN breaking news.

Breaking news, here's what we have out of the Pentagon. The defense department is considering sending proposing combat forces into northern Syria for the very first time with the aim of speeding up the fight against is. I have Barbara Starr standing by, our Pentagon correspondent, as well as Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and contributing editor that focuses on national security. Barbara Starr, first to you. This is huge, huge, huge news. Where is this coming from? BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, hi there.

What we now know and have learned here this afternoon is the pentagon is looking at this idea because, as you will recall, President Trump has given the military until the end of the month to come back with some ideas how to speed up the fight against is. This is one of many ideas. It is not fully baked yet. We want to emphasize that. They have not yet proposed it to the President by all accounts, but it is significant that they are talking about it. What they're talking about is the notion of sending, for the first time, conventional ground forces into northern Syria. This is something the Obama administration had always rejected.

[15:55:00] It's a very high-risk idea. If you're going to put U.S. ground troops into Syria, you have to be able to protect them on the ground and from the air. It is a very risky idea. But would the Trump administration be willing to take that risk on? That may wind up being the key question now. President Trump has wanted to speed up the fight against is, but almost any direction you turn in with a new military option, you are looking at increased risk to U.S. troops. So, where are we right now? The pentagon looking at it, looking at several additional ideas, but this may be the most controversial one. If President Trump goes for it, it will fundamentally alter the risk. It will fundamentally alter how the U.S. is prosecuting the war against is. Brooke?

BALDWIN: Barbara, just quickly following up with you, and again I know this is, to quote you, not fully baked, how many troops potentially, or how soon?

STARR: Well, you know, it could -- we are being led to understand that actually it could happen relatively soon after this sort of deadline at the end of the month when the military and the pentagon are supposed to go back to the white house with their ideas. What could happen, we are led to under, which may give us an indication of how far along this is, you could send some troops, for example, into Kuwait. You could send them with some additional ground weapons, that kind of thing, and then they could move from Kuwait into Syria. At any point at which the proposal would be approved by President Trump.

So, what the military is looking at right now is do they want to proceed with this, are they comfortable with the level of risk, what they might precisely recommend to the President, and how they could be ready to move fairly quickly if a decision were to come. But there's other pieces that would have to be put into place. You know, are you going to start cooperating more, for example, with the Russian military in Syria? Again, both on the ground and in the air. That is another huge if. That would be a very fundamental shift for the U.S., Brooke?

BALDWIN: OK, Barbara, I'm listening to you. I've also got a military voice on the other end of this. Let me put a button on this Andrew Puzder story. He has officially withdrawn. He was President Trump's pick to be the labor secretary. His whole confirmation hearing was set for tomorrow so, there you have it, officially withdrawn. Back now to the other breaking story, though, with the defense department considering, considering, considering sending conventional ground combat troops into Syria to fight ISIS. Barbara start just perfectly laid it out for us. It could be one of the options. She points out it hasn't been taken to the President yet. Gayle, stay with me. I have Rick Francona. What do you make of this possibility?

RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Oh, this is a big step. This would be a major shift in our policy and it really gets into a political nightmare. If you look at what's going on in Syria right now, you've got a conglomeration of the Syrians. That means the Syrians are supported by the Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah operating. You have the Free Syrians backed by the Turks and this American backed organization called the Syrian Democratic forces. If we're going to go in there and work with them, that's going to put us at political odds with both the Russians and the Turks.

So, this is going to be not only a military problem, but it's going to be a huge political mountain that we're going to have to climb. We have tried to take a hands-off approach with the Turks so far, but this will put us in direct confrontation because we're going to want to put American troops there to take Raqqa, that's the big key there who takes Raqqa. The Turks want to do I, the Syrians want to do it and we would rather have our forces do it.

BALDWIN: Gayle, you heard the colonel. What do you think?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON, SENIOR FELLOW, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: I think this is a policy discussion that's been going on since 2013, you know, at the latest. I think you have the foreign policy of unpredict ability from the Trump administration meeting the reality of the complicated nature of the Syrian war which has killed already the equivalent of Oakland, California. Left homeless and without their country, the equivalent of Los Angeles. So, you see the Trump administration trying to figure out what is the way forward, every single policy option that, as Barbara Starr reports with great skill, has already been examined by the Obama administration which really felt that it was elected to end wars in the middle east, not to start them. And, so, the question now is what they do going forward from the Trump administration in order to fight ISIS and how willing are they to take on the Russians and the Turks.

BALDWIN: Barbara, I have 40 seconds to hand the show over to Washington. Do you have any idea when they would take this to the President?

STARR: Well, they're going to have the deadline at the end of the month when they owe him the answers he wants. It has been held up most likely to some extent by the turmoil at the national security council. You get a new NSA advisor in there and you are going to start -- begin to see some of this moving forward.

BALDWIN: OK. Barbara Starr, thank you so much. Gayle, thank you. Lieutenant Colonel Francona, thank you so much. Again, on the breaking news from the D.O.D. considering proposing conventional ground troops into northern Syria. This would be a first. We know President Obama has opted not to do this, special forces yes, but conventional ground troops no. So, that's a possibility that could be taken up to the President. I am Brooke Baldwin. Thank you so much for being here with me today. We're going to send things from New York to Washington. "The Lead" starts now.