Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Aides in Constant Touch with Senior Russian Officials During Campaign; Netanyahu to Meet with Trump Wednesday in White House; Russian Military Actions Could Test Trump White House; Kim Jong-un's Half Brother Murdered in Malaysia Airport; James Mattis to Meet with NATO Allies; Aired 2-3a ET

Aired February 15, 2017 - 02:00   ET


[02:00:10] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, and welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Michael Holmes in Los Angeles where it just turned 11:00 Tuesday night.

ISA SOARES, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Isa Soares in London where it is now 7:00 on Wednesday morning. Thank you very much for joining us.

HOLMES: And we do begin with the breaking news. New controversy for the U.S. president Donald Trump and his campaign advisers' contacts with Russia.

SOARES: That's right. Multiple officials tell CNN Trump aides were regularly in contact with top Russian officials throughout the presidential campaign.

Our Pamela Brown has all the details for you.


PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, high-level advisers close to then presidential nominee Donald Trump were in constant communication during the campaign with Russians known to U.S. Intelligence. Multiple current and former intelligence, law enforcement and administration officials tells CNN President-elect Trump and then President Barack Obama were both briefed on details of the extensive communications between suspected Russian operatives and people associated with the Trump campaign and the Trump business.

Now according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter both the frequency of the communications and the proximity to Trump of those involved, raised a red flag with U.S. intelligence and law enforcement. According to these officials the communications were intercepted during routine intelligence collection targeting Russian officials and other Russian nationals known to U.S. intelligence.

Among several senior Trump advisers regularly communicating with Russian nationals were then campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and then adviser Michael Flynn. Manafort joined the campaign in March and was out mid-August. Flynn stayed on and resigned as Trump's National Security adviser last night. Now officials emphasized that communications between campaign staff

and representatives of foreign governments are not unusual. However, these communications stood out to investigators due to the frequency and the level of the Trump advisers involved. Investigators have not reached a judgment on the intent of those conversations, but adding to U.S. investigators' concerns were intercepted communications between Russian officials before and after the election discussing their beliefs that they had special access to Trump.

Now it's unclear whether they were exaggerating that claim or not. But this all came at a time when the U.S. intelligence Community was growing in confidence that Russians were trying tilt the election in Donald Trump's favor.

This investigation, still very much under-way in the FBI and the intelligence community.

Pamela Brown, CNN, Washington.


SOARES: Well, let's get more on this. Joining me now from Seattle, Washington, is former CNN Moscow bureau chief, Jill Dougherty.

And Jill, as we heard there from that Pamela Brown report, Trump advisers we're learning had frequent communication it seems with Russian operatives during the Trump campaign.

Having covered Russia for so long, Jill, would this communication be considered at all normal and routine during a campaign?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Because the reports talk about constant or very frequent the level of communication and the frequency of it, it does appear not to be your average communication. That's, I think, a red flag.

Now what it means is unclear and this is where it gets really murky. I mean, you can have a benign interpretation perhaps or more benign which would be -- perhaps it was business, you know. Some of the people who are in communication, you know, have business interests or in the case of Paul Manafort, who was the chairman of his campaign for a while, you know, political consultant who had some type of may reason for doing that.

But then, because we don't know exactly what they were talking about, then you can interpret that in different ways. It can be more -- let's say a darker scenario which some are alleging, saying that there was -- they were talking about interference in the American election.

So until we really know precisely what those communications were, it's really impossible to say that the frequency, again, I think is not -- is not normal, not average.

SOARES: Yes. And whilst we wait to know more about those communications, one thing it does raise -- one question it does raise is what type of relationship does President Trump have with President Putin? Have you ever seen an administration, Jill, so close to Russia?

DOUGHERTY: No, I haven't. I mean, I have to be honest, and certainly the comments of President Trump has made, let's say, the moral equivalence comment that he made about a week ago saying, when the person who was leading the discussion said, well, Putin is a killer and then Mr. Trump said, well, we do a lot of killing, too. So that type of thing is very rare. You don't find that, you know, at all among somebody who is a candidate, let alone a president of the United States.

[02:05:10] There's a lot that's very, very different about this presidency. And I think, you know, in the Kremlin, they understand that very well. They're looking at this very carefully. Yes, during the campaign they heard a lot of nice things about, you know, better relations and can't we get along. But now they realized, there is really no policy yet.

And so as we watch the policy develop, the Russians are looking at it -- look at the stronger comments about Crimea. Look at the stronger comments about Ukraine. Look at some more critical comments coming out by this administration about Russia. So it's beginning to look a little bit different in the way it looked during the campaign. And so Russia, I don't think has any idea that they can predict what Mr. Trump is going to say or do. They're standing back, probably hopeful but I think probably a little bit of concern about where all of this is heading.

SOARES: And I'm guessing it's a bit too early to find out exactly whether Kremlin -- how the Kremlin is going to react to this.

But, Jill, what do we know -- more than we know, I should say, about Michael Flynn's connections in Moscow because this is just coming 24 hours or so? Obviously he was forced to step down.

DOUGHERTY: Well, we do know that he had been communicating with Ambassador Kislyak who's the Russian ambassador to the United States. We do know that he appeared, I believe it was last year at a dinner for RT, which is the Russian Television. There are, you know, other comments that he has made. But there, too, we don't know exactly why he was doing that. I mean, we haven't seen that transcript of the communications with Ambassador Kislyak. So was it kind of a general conversation?

We believe, according to reports that it was about sanctions. The Russians are saying that it was not. So there's a lot of murkiness. And until the facts and the actual, let's say, communications are released, we won't know. But I can say one thing and this is such an irony that the president who came in to office saying that he wanted to improve relations, it may ultimately end up to be worst than ever.

And I think that's really ironic because right now you have a lot of knives out in Washington, you know, for the administration. They're worried and they want to have investigations and they want to have hearings. And this is going to keep it roiling and it would be much harder to have some type of same balanced relationship with Russia in that circumstance. SOARES: Yes, plenty of murkiness and plenty of unknowns, too.

Jill Dougherty, always great to get your perspective. Thanks very much, Jill. Good to see you.

HOLMES: And joining me here in Los Angeles, Republican pollster Justin Wallin and political strategist Mac Zilber.

Gentlemen, thanks for being here.

Justin, let's start with you. I mean, why would you think that campaign officials -- high-level campaign officials would be in such regular contact with Russian operatives during the campaign?

JUSTIN WALLIN, REPUBLICAN POLLSTER: Well, it's an interesting thing because what's amazing about this story is just how much we don't know. It could be categorized into two things. What we do know is there seems to be a lot of activity. So it seems to be more than in previous administrations but then this administration does things differently than others and the campaign did things differently.

When people are talking about there were five calls made or six calls made, how was that flow? Were they calling back? What we forget is we do have Russia involved.

HOLMES: You're talking about Michael Flynn there. We're talking about during the campaign, though, these are guys like Paul Manafort.


HOLMES: Why would they be in such regular contact? What would be a reason for that?

WALLIN: Well, I mean, it could just simply be that intent to establish some kind of relations or it could be sinister, and I know that the president doesn't like to think that the Russians aren't our friends. But the Russians do like to destabilize. They're masters of it and there's no reason why they wouldn't be doing it to both sides.

So, again, we know that the calls were made. But we don't know if they were call backs. So we don't know how they were prompted. And what we don't know this content. I mean, to this day, none of us has seen what actually was said.

HOLMES: Democrats are certainly asking for them. What do you make of the latest allegations?

MACLEN ZILBER, DEMOCRATIC CONSULTANT: Sure. So there's a lot that we don't know but what we do know is stunning and frankly unprecedented. I mean, first of all, the cover-up on its own is major. Hope Hicks, the Trump spokeswoman, after the campaign said there was no communication between Trump's campaign and Russia. It was a lie. Sean Spicer, who more recently said the same thing, it was a lie. Michael Flynn said that he didn't talk about sanctions or that he didn't remember if he talked about sanctions with Russia and it was a lie. [02:10:02] There must be something pretty serious if there's a cover-

up of this size going on.

WALLIN: Or it's something totally minor. I take a very different thing. I don't jump to the conclusion that people are lying necessarily. People may literally -- and I think Flynn especially -- may look at this, this is a man who's done important global things.

HOLMES: Well, clearly he was lying.

WALLIN: Well, he was certainly misinforming. He may have not thought it important enough to speak in detail.

ZILBER: I think --


HOLMES: Well, he said they didn't discuss sanctions and he did. So I mean --

ZILBER: The day of the sanctions, you call the Russian ambassador -- I mean, none of us as private citizens think, oh, a major geopolitical event just happened. I mean, I think I'm going to interfere and try to tell them that --


HOLMES: One of the issues is the question being asked all day is it was about trust, that the president lost trust in Michael Flynn. But he knew about this on January 26th.

ZILBER: Right. He knew about it for weeks.

HOLMES: Then why was it until the "Washington Post" came out and broke the news that all of a sudden trust became a reason to resign?

WALLIN: Well, I think that comes back to content again. And that really is the elephant in the room for Flynn and it's a dangerous elephant because what did he say that would take someone who's been in his corner from the beginning? He's been a staunch ally. And Flynn's not an easy person to get along with, by all accounts, who's put up with him, who's been a staunch ally. What would get the president to say, all right, we have to jettison this?

And I think at some point along there, you're going to see at the very least something that says he was disingenuous, quite blatantly with the vice president and that just simply doesn't fly, I think.

HOLMES: We also heard more calls for Kellyanne Conway to face disciplinary action over that ethics issue. I just want to remind people by playing the sound where basically she was rooting for Ivanka Trump's line. Have a listen.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: Go buy Ivanka's stuff is what I would tell you. I'm going to get -- I hate shopping, I'm going to get some on myself today. It's a wonderful line. I own some of it. I fully -- I'm going to just give her -- I'm going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.


HOLMES: So there's a call for her to face ethics charges. The other thing, you got Flynn resigning, you've got this happening with Kellyanne Conway, you've got scrutiny over an open air discussion of matters of state at Mar-a-Lago with the Japanese prime minister there. And Donald Trump tweeted out, and I think we've got this as well. He said, "The real story here is why there are so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal with North Korea?"

That's not the real story. Surely there's a sense of chaos there. We're three weeks in.

ZILBER: Right. Well, I mean, first of all, there's not just calls for Kellyanne Conway to be censured. I mean, this is the Office of Government Ethics. But the reality is in a normal administration that would be the biggest scandal of the year. In a normal administration, letting someone who's paying your company money take a selfie with the nuclear football will be the biggest scandal of the year.

Those two things didn't even become the biggest scandals of the week because we may have an administration that was collaborating with Russia on its way in and then tried to cover it up. I mean, this is providing aid and comfort to a foreign power. And I mean frankly, there needs to be an independent investigation and I'm thrilled that a lot of Republican senators have said the same thing.

HOLMES: What do you think, Justin? I mean, when it comes to investigations particularly when it comes to Russia, the Republican Party has always been the party that's been most hawkish about Russia. We're not hearing a lot of that other than from John McCain.

WALLIN: Well, two things real quickly just on the question of there's been a lot. Well, in any other administration, comparatively nothing had been done by this time. I mean, there's been an extraordinary amount of activity. And if you like the activity or don't like the activity, you certainly have to look at it and say, these people are intent on accomplishing their agenda. So with all that activity, they're all newbies, you're going to have mess-ups, and I think we're seeing some that are ostensibly quite embarrassing.


HOLMES: Well, as Mr. Trump faces more questions about ties to Russia, the Kremlin taking some bold military actions in what could be a new test for the White House.

SOARES: Plus the Trump administration's new policy on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and now it's going to impact a White House meeting. We'll bring you both those stories after a very short break.



[02:17:41] SOARES: If you're just joining us this hour, let me bring you up-to-date. The breaking news, multiple sources tell CNN that top aides to then candidate Donald Trump were in constant communication with Russian officials during the president campaign. Now normally this kind of contact is not considered unusual.

HOLMES: But investigators say these talks stood out for a few reasons because they happen so frequently and involved senior campaign officials. On Monday National Security adviser Michael Flynn, you may remember, resigned due to his contact with Russian officials.

SOARES: Now we're getting a glimpse into the Trump administration's policy concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Trump will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday in Washington. On Tuesday night, a White House official said Mr. Trump will not insist on a two-state solution, which would be an about-face from the previous administration. The leaders are also expected to talk about Syria and Iran.

Let's get more on this. We have Oren Liebermann who joins us from Jerusalem and then Frederik Pleitgen, you can see there, joins us from Tehran.

And Oren, I wanted to started to start with you, if I may, because as you said there, President Trump not -- will not insist, we're being told in a two-state solution, which is an about-face from previous administration.

Is this seen as a huge shift or is this being interpreted where you are as a tactical and perhaps a temporary solution to help Netanyahu at home?

OREN LIEBERMAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's an about- face from some 50 years of U.S. foreign policy. But the assessment is that it may be simply that President Donald Trump hasn't formulated his Middle East policy. We've already seen him back off from some of his campaign pledges, to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He has criticized settlements many here believe, many especially on the right-wing and settlers believed he was pro-settlement, but has been criticized as being unhelpful to please so it seems his Middle East policy is simply hasn't been formulated yet. But it may very well also be a political favor, a political gift to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because he's under tremendous pressure from the right-wing to abandon the two-state solution.

Trump's position there allows Netanyahu to stand where he is. It allows him to say I still support a two-state resolution, but now is not the time. A statement like that means he can get away with not angering his own coalition and his own party and at the same time not backing away from peace and not angering the international community, so it could be a set-up for Prime Minister Netanyahu to make some sort of statement like that saying, I still favor peace but now is not the time or the conditions. [02:20:09] SOARES: Oren, do stay with us. I want to bring in Fred.

Because, Fred, many expect Mr. Netanyahu to push for American support to block the Iran nuclear deal. Is there -- is there a real fear in Tehran ahead of this meeting or does Iran believed this is just about optics?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, absolutely. There is certainly a fear here in Iran that the nuclear agreement is in jeopardy. And you could see that by the statement of Iranian officials that had been made over the past couple of days. In fact, late last night, the head of Iran's atomic energy agency said that look, all the rhetoric that's coming out currently on the Trump administration criticizing the nuclear deal shows how good that agreement is for Iran and how well that deal was negotiated by Iran. Of course there's a lot of backlash here in Iran as well by some of the hardliners against that nuclear agreement.

And so there are people here who think of that deal is really in jeopardy. And it's interesting, because there's many people here in Tehran who are not necessarily happy with that agreement, who felt it should have brought them more economic benefit that it has so far but there's very few people who actually want to get rid of it. And some of the things that they've been hearing out of the Trump administration and then also of course out of the Netanyahu administration as well, saying look, we want to get rid of the nuclear agreement, Donald Trump saying he believes that it's a very bad deal.

That certainly is something that concerns a lot of people. And it's interesting because I spoke to a top Iranian official a couple of days ago and he told me, look, we believe that the Trump administration is heavily influenced by the Israelis. They believe that a lot of the decision-making and louder rhetoric that's coming out is something that shows very good ties between Donald Trump and the Israeli Prime Minister Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu now and that certainly is something that's a great concern here in Iran and that the Iranians are also very vocal about, Isa.

SOARES: And Oren, I was struck by an opinion piece I read in Israel's Haaretz newspaper, the Haaretz's headline, I'm going to read it here. "How Will America Look After Years of Trump and Bannon? See Israel," basically pointing to both leaders facing crisis that are destabilizing their administration. How much pressure is there at home on Prime Minister Netanyahu ahead of this meeting? What is he trying to get out of this?

LIEBERMANN: There's a tremendous amount of political pressure on Netanyahu, especially from his coalition and his party to abandon the prosperous for a Palestinian state, abandon a two-state solution. Again that's coming not only from the more right-wing members and more right-wing parties of his own coalition. But even from within his own party. It was his public security minister who went on Army Radio just a couple of days ago and said all of the ministers in the Israeli security cabinet, he said, including the prime minister himself, don't want a two-state solution, want one greater state of Israel. Now that's something Netanyahu has never publicly stated. Publicly

he's always said he's in favor of a two-state solution but there is tremendous pressure on him to come out of this meeting with President Trump and step away from that, perhaps even to move towards what -- some of the more right-wing members, one, and that's a partial annexation of all or parts of the West Bank.

Isa, it is worth noting something that's back and forth with me and Fred. The questions you're asking me are the questions Netanyahu wants to avoid. He doesn't want to talk about settlements coming out of this. He wants this whole thing focused on the Iran deal. That's his strength, that's where he's most comfortable. Detailed questions about settlements, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not where he wants to go coming out of this meeting.

SOARES: Very good point. And Fred, I was speaking to an expert, an Israeli expert in the last 20 minutes or so, he was saying, look, the Iran deal is a done deal, that Netanyahu will not be pushing to change that. But perhaps asking for further pressure on Iran sanctions or verification. But we also know, Fred, that many considered the biggest hook on Iran to being Michael Flynn. He was the one who said that Iran was being put on notice early this month.

So is there a feeling that with Flynn no longer in the picture, perhaps Iran might not be the focal point here, despite the fact that Netanyahu may want that to be the case?

PLEITGEN: Well, I mean, certainly one of the things that the Iranians here knew was that Michael Flynn was definitely a hawk on the Iran issue and many believe that it would've been Michael Flynn who would have shaped America's policies towards Iran. And some of the rhetoric that they've been hearing out of Washington from Michael Flynn of course saying that Iran was on notice after that ballistic missile test, those sanctions, they believe that that was coming from Michael Flynn and that he was going to be one who was going to shape the policy towards Iran.

So certainly, there weren't many bad feelings here in Iran when Michael Flynn had to step down. In fact, there was one senior columnist here in Iran who said that this was a big victory for the country, that they believe that relations could get easier. However, Donald Trump, of course, has been very strong in his rhetoric as well on Iran, as has General Mattis, of course as well, the Defense secretary, so right now the Iranians really are in this wait-and-see mode. It's really interesting to see they realize they're in a very, very delicate situation with the United States, they realized that any sort of problems that they have with the U.S., any sort of a different diplomatic moves, military moves could lead to a further escalation.

So right now the Iranians know they're treading a fine line. They're obviously not unhappy about Michael Flynn having to step down or stepping down but at the same time they realized that the Trump administration is going to take a very staunch line towards Iran as well -- Isa.

[02:25:14] SOARES: Gentlemen, thank you very much. I could speak to you both for hours.

Oren Liebermann there for us in Jerusalem and Fred Pleitgen for us in Tehran. Thanks to you both.

HOLMES: David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy joins me now.

We're going to start with this new development that the U.S. apparently is no longer going to push at least of this meeting for two-state solution as part of policy when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians. On the face of it, it's a major departure from the norm. What's you're thinking of it?

DAVID MAKOVSKY, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: I agree with you. On its face, it's a huge shift, but it could also be done for much more short-term political tactical reasons and that is to help Netanyahu with the domestic conundrum. Namely, he's been under pressure from his right saying, you know, renounce the idea of two- state. Netanyahu does not want to do it, but the journalist would then say, well, then, reaffirm it. And so I think what the Trump people seem to be wanting to do is let's just get this issue out of the way. We weren't going to be able to implement the grand deal tomorrow morning anyway.

HOLMES: Right.

MAKOVSKY: And make sure this is yesterday's news so we could focus the summit on the warmth and the reset between the two countries and not be distracted by what seems to be a very big headline. So it might just be a tactical move.

HOLMES: Right. So you're thinking it could be just a temporary thing. We shall see, I suppose. Now you touched on his. Eight years of, well, let's just say difficult relationship with President Obama. Now Mr. Netanyahu feels it has a frame in Washington and is going to get a different reception.

Optics are important to Benjamin Netanyahu. How much is he wanting the world to see that new administration greeting him warmly?

MAKOVSKY: Extremely important. You know, he takes a lot of pride that he is only the fourth visitor to what the new Washington after traditional American allies like Britain, Canada, Japan. That means a lot to him. The time where he felt that he was marginalized over the last eight years. That he's suddenly a very wanted visitor. So the symbolism is critical for him. And I think also for Trump, who really campaigned on a reset with Israel as well that here -- that, you know, the message is the music that it's a -- it's a new tone. And despite that, in the Obama years there was extremely close security relations in many ways unprecedented. There is no hiding the very bruising, you know, policy disagreements that existed between Washington and Jerusalem over Iran and differences over the Palestinian issue.

HOLMES: Right. This is the reality that Benjamin Netanyahu, no matter what he says, he heads up a very right-wing gap. And a lot of members of his coalition cite no two-state solution ever. Donald Trump campaigned on a confidant. He said he was going to do

the ultimate deal in the Middle East. What chance that?

MAKOVSKY: Well, I think in a weird way that this statement tonight might put more pressure on the president because the world might interpret this not as a tactical way to help Netanyahu with his own domestic politics. They might wonder, is this a huge shift and they will say, Mr. Trump, now square for us your commitment,. You keep saying it over and over again at the television cameras since you've been -- since you won, I'm going to do the ultimate deal. So how are you going to do the ultimate deal if you're not committed to two- state?

So I think it could create more pressure on him going forward. But the most important thing, though, is to find a way that even if you don't get to the final, you know, grand deal moment is at least what are the steps now to keep the door open to two states in the future that doesn't shut the door. And here, I think, it's very important that the U.S. and Israel synchronize their position on settlements and that there is no blind siding.

HOLMES: The reality is as settlements expand particularly in East Jerusalem but elsewhere, I mean, the two-state solution gets further and further away. I mean, we haven't talk about the Palestinians. What do you see is the risks in all of that? More violence, perhaps, by Palestinians resistance?


HOLMES: All the option where the Palestinians could have their nuclear option, which is say, OK, fine, one country, one ban, one vote, which of course threatens Israel's existence.

MAKOVSKY: Right. You --you put your finger exactly on the right point that, you know, there could be violence and they could just throw in the towel and say, we give up. We want to be Israelis. Give us the vote. I mean, those are the two -- you know, are the two poles I think of danger. And, therefore, for me, even if there cannot be a grand deal, and I don't believe there can be tomorrow morning, I think it's very key to say, OK, give me a sense of how you're leaving the door open.

The settlers about as 75 percent to 85 -- depending how you count -- percent live in a narrow area, you know, inside what's known as the security barrier.

[02:30:04] But 92 percent of the West Bank is outside of that barrier and almost all the Palestinians lived there. So that's why, I think, it's very important that all sides know what's coming and they don't blindside each other. And that Israel doesn't build outside the barrier because I think if you do that then you do start closing that door on the two states.

HOLMES: Right.

MAKOVSKY: So it's not about implementing it tomorrow. It's more about how you leave it open for the future and that requires synchronization by all the parties.

HOLMES: David, thanks so much. David Makovsky of Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Grateful to get your thoughts. Thanks so much.

MAKOVSKY: Anytime, Michael. Anytime.

SOARES: Now Russia may be testing the Trump White House. More on the Kremlin's latest military provocations. We'll have it coming to you next.

HOLMES: Also still to come, a new mystery surrounding the North Korean regime. Kim Jong-un's half brother has died rather suddenly and some believe he was murdered. We'll be right back.


HOLMES: Welcome back. We are following breaking news for you out of Washington, as multiple officials confirmed President Donald Trump's campaign aides were in constant communication with Russian officials as he vied for the White House.

[02:35:10] SOARES: Yes. Investigators say contact by itself isn't unusual but the frequency of the talk and high status of the people involved, well, that raised concerns. Mr. Trump's national security adviser and one of his earlier supporters resigned after it became public he had misled the vice president over his talks with Russian officials.

HOLMES: Let's go to Clare Sebastian now, standing by in Moscow. And it is of course still early there. But wondering where there's been any reaction in Moscow or is there likely to be to this news that Trump advisers were in frequent communication with, let's say, Russian operatives?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Michael, no official reaction from the Kremlin as yet. But just to tell you what we know from this side, we do know from days after the election that there contacts after between the Trump team and Russia. That came from the deputy foreign minister. He didn't elaborate on the nature of those contacts or even the frequency. There were certainly no suggestion from the Russian side that there was anything out of the ordinary here.

We also know from the Russian side that the conversations between General Flynn and Ambassador Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., did take place, although as to the suggestion as to whether sanctions were discussed and whether that had any influence on President Putin's decision not to respond to U.S. sanctions on Russia, the Kremlin has said that information is incorrect.

But aside from the official comments from the Kremlin, we are definitely getting the sense here in Moscow that high-ranking politicians are extremely worried about how this could turn out for their hope for, you know, rejuvenation of the relationship with Russian. Aleksey Pushkov, a senior politician, tweeting today that he thinks that this is Trump's enemies trying to destroy him right up until impeachment, that the target is now Trump.

He's also blamed the media for stirring up this controversy and for how he says they're beating Trump with the Russia card. So certainly this is causing some concern in political circles here in Russia -- Michael.

HOLMES: Blaming the media, heaven forbid. I wanted to ask you, Clare, too. You've touched on this, that, you know, Russians -- the Russian leadership has been saying they want to improve relations with the U.S. and yet there's been a few odd things that have been some in the U.S. say provocative. Missile deployment, a spy ship wandering around, buzzing planes. Fill us in on all of that.

SEBASTIAN: Yes. These three separate incidents -- the information that we're getting on this is coming from the U.S. side so the deployment of a cruise missile in violation of a 1987 treaty that was designed to help deescalate Cold War tensions. We actually did hear from the head of the -- the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Upper House of the Russian parliament today, Konstantin Kosachev, on that saying that that was again an attempt by the media to stir up, you know, fear around a supposed Russian threat.

The other incidence, say, the presence of a Russian spy ship in international waters off the coast of Delaware. That has happened before. Now officials comment on that from the U.S. side. And finally the alleged incident that happened last week in the Black Sea. Three close encounters between Russian planes or Russian warplanes and a U.S. naval ship that's suddenly seen as a dangerous incident from the U.S. side. The Russians say they're surprised the Pentagon is concerned and that those incidents didn't take place. So, you know, the same rhetoric, though we're hearing different stories from each side there, Michael.

HOLMES: Yes. Both sides wanting better relations. Let's see how it all develops.

Clare Sebastian, in Moscow, thanks -- Isa.

SOARES: Thanks, Michael.

Now the man once considered to be next in line to lead North Korea has died rather mysteriously. Now we're hearing Kim Jong-un's half brother may have been murdered with poison. Our Matt Rivers has all the details for us, next, right here on CNN.


[02:43:08] SOARES: We are following breaking news out of Washington. As multiple officials confirmed President Donald Trump's campaign aides were in constant communication with Russian officials as he vied for the White House.

HOLMES: Investigators say contact by itself isn't all that unusual but the frequency of the talks and the high standing of the people involved certainly have raised concerns. Mr. Trump's National Security adviser and one of his earlier supporters resigned after it became public that he had misled the vice president over his talks with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.

SOARES: Let's get more on another story we have been following.

South Korea says the man who was once considered to be next in line to lead North Korea has been murdered with poison. The half brother of leader Kim Jong-un suddenly fell ill while at Kuala Lumpur Airport on Monday. You're looking at him there. That's Kim Jong-nam. He was critical of his family's dynasty and he was living in exile.

Matt Rivers is covering this story. A rather complicated story. He joins us now from Seoul, in South Korea and he's here to make sense of it for us.

Matt, this is quite a revelation. Do we know how he was poisoned and by whom? What are you learning this hour?

MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: As of yet, those are two questions that we don't know the answer to, but we are learning more as the day goes on. So it was early this morning that here in South Korea the National Security Council met and it was after that meeting in a briefing with the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, the National Assembly here, from South Korea that he -- he gave a very short briefing and he told reporters that he could confirm that Kim Jong- nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong-un, was murdered by poison at the airport in Malaysia. He was apparently poisoned at the airport and died en route to the hospital.

Now reports as of yet any proof of that. He wouldn't go into any proof that he may or may not have. We have reporters asked if there was any specifics as to how Kim Jong-nam was poisoned or any motivations or by whom, and he said he didn't have a lot of details.

[02:45:05] The one thing he did say is that there were two Asian women, as he put it, that were the main suspects in this murder, as he calls it. Now he didn't go into any details on how he discovered that they were suspects or why he thinks they're suspects or who these two women might be.

So a lot of answers still need to be fleshed out here, but we should be getting more. We know the Malaysian police say that you and I went to the airport Monday morning, said he felt ill, went to a check-in counter there, told a person behind the counter he was feeling ill, that he had felt like someone had grabbed him from behind the back of the head, according to a police chief that talked to Reuters. He went to the hospital, died on the route to the hospital in the ambulance.

An autopsy is expected to be conducted by the Malaysians and the results of that will be released at some point presumably, although we're not sure when yet. So you can imagine given all these open- ended questions and the fact that this is Kim Jong-un's half-brother, there is a lot of speculation as to the motivation and why this might have happened.

SOARES: Yes. A lot of speculation on social media that perhaps he was -- those women used a poisoned pen but now we have to wait for officials to come out with more details. I was reading here a fascinating article that basically said that he'd been -- there's some speculation that he could replace his younger half brother as the country's third generation leader and the loyalists may want to get rid of him.

I know this is only speculation but do we know where he stood politically?

RIVERS: Well, we know that he hadn't been afraid, according to some reporters and an author of a book about him in 2012 that he hadn't been afraid to criticize his younger brother as someone who is unfit to take that job but he himself told reporters -- Kim Jong-nam, that is, that he didn't want to assume any type of political role in North Korea. This was a man who at one point was the favorite son of Kim Jong-il, the former leader of North Korea who died in 2011, and was presumed to be the heir apparent, but at some point ran afoul of the regime. And over the last 10 years or so has been living outside of North Korea. Living the life of a playboy, according to people in the know, kind of a big gambler, and presumably has been banished from North Korea.

There's a lot of speculation that maybe the Chinese have something to do with him, that maybe there's some loyalists who say Kim Jong-un would falter that Kim Jong-nam could to go back to North Korea and take over the leadership role. But that is pure speculation. There is absolutely no facts to back that up. At least that CNN can independently confirm. So it's a lot of speculation but perhaps unsurprising given that this is North Korea were talking about here in the leadership there is always is subject to intense speculation and scrutiny.

SOARES: We shall wait for the hard facts.

Matt Rivers, thank you very much. Good to see you.

HOLMES: And still to come here on the program. The new U.S. Defense secretary will soon attend his first NATO meeting and allies are seeking some reassurance that the U.S. is still committed to the organization. We'll be right back. Stay with us.




[02:51:49] SOARES: Now while the White House is in turmoil, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis is about to attend his first meeting with NATO defense ministers. NATO allies will be looking for reassurance from Mattis after President Trump make several disparaging remarks about the organization before and after the election.

Joining me now is Michael Clarke. He's a former director of the Royal United Services Institute.

Michael, thank you very much for coming in. Before we talk about Mattis and what we can get out of this meeting, how do you think, as he goes into this meeting with the NATO allies, the background from what we've heard in the last -- I would say in the last hours here on CNN, the fact that high-level advisers close to President Trump were in constant communication with Russians known to U.S. intelligence. How do you think? Will that worry some of them? That Russian-U.S. connection?

MICHAEL CLARKE, FORMER DIRECTOR OF ROYAL UNITED SERVICES INSTITUTE: Yes, it deepens the fact that they're already worried because the thing that really follows the European allies of NATO is that the -- President Trump may be preparing to do some big strategic deal over their heads with President Putin.

I mean, the idea that President Trump even before he became president was thinking in terms of a Trump-Putin access in world politics is deeply troubling to them. And so this meeting in a sense, the historic meeting will confirm the fears that they have. And Jim Mattis' job really is to reassure them that things are getting back to normal. Don't worry about it and President Trump has got his own views on these things, but the American policy establishment knows what he thinks. That's the message he will bring.

SOARES: And what about his views on NATO? Because we've heard him say -- I know he had this disparaging comments, we heard him say that NATO is obsolete. Do you think that Mattis going into this meeting having to reassure them and to show that there is loyalty behind NATO and behind the allies?

CLARKE: What I think Jim Mattis will be saying is that there is an American version of the word obsolete. The European version. The American version of obsolete just means in need of modernization. So a British and European version of obsolete means it's finished.


CLARKE: Well, I think Jim Mattis will say no, NATO of course is not finished but it needs modernization. And in that respect one of the things that NATO has got to modernize is that they've got to spend more on defense. They've got to create more defense capability. And in that respect Jim Mattis may be bringing a pretty tough message to say, look, President Trump means this. Other presidents have said it, and you've not done it and you've kind of just turn a blind eye. But President Trump won't turn a blind eye if you do not increase your defense capabilities by some considerable measure.


SOARES: Percentage of GDP, right? Is that what they are calling?

CLARKE: That's the standard.

SOARES: So how many countries actually meet that requirement?

CLARKE: Within NATO, the whole five, including United States, four European allies presently just meet the 2 percent which is Britain, Poland, Estonia and Greece. All the rest are way below that. Some of them are down to 1.1 percent which is very poor. SOARES: So what Europe say about this? Are they prepared to budge on


CLARKE: The Europeans will say yes, of course, we intend to do more. And the question is how much more and by when. Everybody is at the bottom of the spending cycle at the moment. They're all saying they will spend more on defense. But it edges up very, very gradually. And then of course the Europeans will say, well, look, it's not all about spending money. It's how we spend it, how efficient we are. We can produce. But again they've got to produce a developed plan to convince the White House that they're really serious. And President Trump has going for him the sense that they're scared of him.


CLARKE: They're frightened of his unpredictability.

[02:55:01] So in a way Jim Mattis has got one Trump card to play, which is of course we believe in NATO but you have got to show my president that you're serious about increasing defense capability and then you may have something to bargain with over his relationship with President Putin which they're not very happy about.

SOARES: What else is on the table? Aside from defense, we know perhaps Russia may be on the table. Any other topics in terms -- what about fighting terrorism? Because where does NATO sit on this in terms of providing support?

CLARKE: Yes, NATO always say things about fighting terrorism. And in reality, of course, NATO's contribution is on the anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria. I mean, NATO nations, European nations are doing various things within the coalition. But fighting terrorism at home is a home affairs matter. It's a matter for the policing and the intelligence services. But NATO can provide certain specialist capabilities as in anti-chemical and biological countering and in some cyber elements that help counter cyber terrorism. So there's certain things they do. They always put it on their communique.


CLARKE: In reality it's not NATO's strong suit. It's not what they're there to really deal in.

SOARES: Plenty to talk about, I'm sure, in that meeting.

Michael Clarke, thank you very much.

And you have been watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Isa Soares. Thank you very much for joining us.

HOLMES: And I'm Michael Holmes. Indeed thanks for your company. Rosemarie Church picks up our breaking news coverage from the CNN center right after this.