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Trump Campaign's Russia Contacts; Flynn Fallout; Kim Jong-Un's Half-Brother Murdered. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired February 15, 2017 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:23] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking overnight -- top adviser to Donald Trump's presidential campaign in frequent contact with Russians at the same time Moscow was executing the hack of the DNC.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN ANCHOR: And the White House struggling to limit the damage following the resignation of Michael Flynn. New questions are emerging about why key information was kept from the vice president.

A very busy morning. Good morning to you, and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Alison Kosik.

BERMAN: I'm John Berman. It is Wednesday, February 15th. It's 4:00 a.m. in the East. You can't sleep at all these days.

KOSIK: You're going to miss everything, right?

BERMAN: The phase of the news developing right now.

Breaking overnight, a swirl of controversy surrounding the White House, Russia in the eye of the storm. Sources tell CNN there was constant communication during the 2016 campaign between Russian operatives and top aides to then-candidate Donald Trump. The extensive contact was picked up as part of routine surveillance of Russian officials and others. Our sources say it drew the attention of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement partly because it came as Russia was known to be hacking mostly Democratic organizations.

Now, this new revelations come as the White House tries to limit the damage following the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, after he misled the White House about his own contact with Russia during the transition.

For the latest, let's bring in CNN's Pamela Brown in Washington.


PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, John and Alison. 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 tell CNN, President-elect Trump and then President Obama were both briefed on the details of the existence of communications between suspected Russian operatives and people associated with the Trump campaign and the Trump business, according to U.S. officials familiar with this matter.

And both the frequency of the communications and proximity to Trump of those involved raised a red flag with U.S. intelligence and law enforcement. And 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 the adviser Michael Flynn, according to our sources.

Now, officials emphasized that communications between campaign staff and representatives of foreign governments are not unusual. However, these communications sent 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' concern were intercepted communications between Russian officials before and after the election, discussing their belief that they had special access to Trump. Now, two law enforcement officials tell CNN these officials cautioned the Russians could have been exaggerating their access -- John and Alison.


KOSIK: All right. Pamela, thank you.

I think it's certainly moving fast. The new revelations coming just hours after at the White House faced a barrage of tough questions about the forced resignation of Michael Flynn as national security adviser. Now, Flynn was fired over his contacts with Russians during the transition.

At Tuesday's briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer, he was asked to confirm that no one on the Trump team spoke with Russia before Election Day. Listen to this.


REPORTER: Back in January, the president said that nobody in hi campaign had been in touch with the Russians. Now, today, can you still say definitively that nobody on the Trump campaign, not even General Flynn, had any contact with the Russians before the election?

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: My understanding is what General Flynn has now expressed is that during the transition period, well, we were very clear that during the transition period, he did -- he did speak with the ambassador --

REPORTER: I'm talking about during the campaign.

SPICER: I don't have any -- there there's nothing that would conclude that anything different has changed with respect to that time period.


BERMAN: All right. And where have we seen this before? Then Vice President-elect Mike Pence also refuted the idea that any of Trump's associates had contact with Russian officials during the campaign.


CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Was there any contact in any way between Trump and his associates and the Kremlin or cutouts?

MIKE PENCE, THEN-VICE PRESIDENT-ELECT: Well, of course, not. Why would there be any contacts between the campaign? Chris, the -- this is all a distraction, it's all part of a narrative to delegitimize the election and question the legitimacy of this presidency.


BERMAN: Of course, not, said Vice President-elect Mike Pence, again finally denying there were any contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians.

[04:05:02] That is not the reporting this morning. And, of course, there is irony in this. The same day of the interview you just saw right there, January 15th, Mike Pence was on another Sunday show. He denied that Mike Flynn had spoken to the Russian ambassador about sanctions and now, that turned out to be false.

Former Clinton campaign staffers are expressing deep frustrations this morning with these developments, coming as they see it, too late to help their candidate. Clinton campaign press secretary Brian Fallon told CNN's Don Lemon overnight that red flags between Trump aides and Russia were raised and ignored.


BRIAN FALLON, CLINTON CAMPAIGN PRESS SECRETARY: It's nothing short of a bombshell. And it collaborates a lot of what those of us that worked on the campaign suspected all along during those months, where we had a lot of trouble quite frankly getting people to pay attention to it because it seemed so surreal. But the more reporting coming up since the election, more and more of it is being confirmed as true.


BERMAN: As Brian Fallon, the campaign manager Robbie Mook wrote, "I'd like the FBI to explain why they sent a letter about Clinton but not this." What he's talking about, of course, is a lot of the Clinton team believes the letter from James Comey saying the FBI was investigating more e-mails connected to Hillary Clinton, 11 days before the election, cost her the presidency.

KOSIK: Through every twist and turn in the Trump-Russia saga, Moscow has denied again and again that it did anything to influence the U.S. election, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. So, what does the Kremlin has to say now?

Let's go to CNN's Clare Sebastian. She's joining us now live from Moscow with the latest.

So, what is Moscow saying now?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Alison, certainly the issue of whether there were any contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia is nothing new here. We heard from the deputy foreigner minister in the days following the election that there were contacts, certainly no suggestions that there was anything unusual about that and we don't know anymore about the content or frequency.

But there is -- we are expecting to get the first high-level face-to- face meeting between Russia and the U.S. That should happen tomorrow between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Certainly, they will be looking for clarity from each other on the future part of this relationship, because this comes at a time of heightened tension, news coming out of the U.S. of three separate military incidents from Russia, plus a military source telling CNN that Russia has deployed a ground launch missile in violation of a 1987 treaty.

We also hear from military sources in the U.S. that a Russian spy ship is floating in international waters off Delaware. That has happened before, but certainly not that often. And the final incident happened last week, three Russian planes, according to the U.S., bumping a U.S. Navy vessel in the Black Sea. Russia is denying that saying those incidents didn't happen and is frankly surprised that Pentagon is worried about it.

But certainly, this is raising concern in Washington, and mixed messages coming out of Moscow, and then, Moscow, as well, mixed messages, concerned over that coming out of the U.S., particularly that comment that we had from Sean Spicer that President Trump might -- he would like to see Crimea returned to Ukraine. That's causing great consternation here in Moscow.

One senior Russian official saying it was like a cold shower over expectations of improved relations between Russia and the U.S.

KOSIK: So many headlines coming out of Moscow as well. It will be interesting to hear perhaps in that meeting.

Clare Sebastian, thanks so much.

And turmoil at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, that's to say the least. Sources telling CNN the White House is in chaos as it tries to move past the Michael Flynn controversy. Now, we're told top officials aren't even speaking to each other because they're too busy trying to take each other down. Our sources describing it as a "Game of Thrones" and we're finding out more about the lead-up to Flynn's resignation, the White House says the level of trust between the president and General Flynn had deteriorated, forcing a change.

BERMAN: It turns out Vice President pence, one of the last to find out about the investigation that led to the resignation of the national security adviser, even though Mike Pence is the one that Michael Flynn misled about his talks to the Russian ambassador, the White House claims the president knew about the Justice Department probe into those calls two weeks before the V.P. but apparently kept him out of the loop.

Flynn was questioned by the FBI before the Justice Department warned the White House about his contacts with Russia on January 26th. Sources say he was cooperative with no sign he tried to mislead the bureau. All of this triggering a rather unusual, sort of ominous warning from the head of Special Operations Command, General Raymond Thomas.

He said, "Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we're a nation of war." We rarely hear that from senior officers.

General Thomas oversees U.S. elites Special Operations Forces, including Navy SEALs and the Army Green Beret.

[04:10:05] KOSIK: (INAUDIBLE) dealing here, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are agreeing there's a need to investigate the Trump administration's ties to Russia. But who should conduct that investigation? What exactly needs investigating? That remains points of contention.

Let's get now from -- more now from CNN senior congressional reporter Manu Raju.



Now, Democrats on Capitol Hill really seizing on this Flynn news, trying to push for a separate independent investigation to look into the whole Russia issue, as well as Flynn's role and talking to the ambassador during that transition period. But that is something that so far Republicans aren't willing to go that far. The most they're willing to go at this point is for an investigation for the existing committees in Congress, notably the House Intelligence Committee and Senate Intelligence Committee.

Now, on the House side, there's a little bit more resistance to looking into specific context between President Trump, who is President-elect Trump at the time, and then Michael Flynn, and whether or not he told Michael Flynn to talk to the Russian ambassador. The chairman of that House Intelligence Committee told me yesterday that he doesn't think those contacts between Trump and Flynn would be subject to their review because of executive privilege.

Now, on the other side of the Capitol, Senate Republicans are suggesting that intelligence committee will look into that aspect, as well as will look into more broadly speaking, Russia's meddling in the election as well. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell addressed this yesterday when I asked him specifically about the Flynn controversy.

Are you confident that President Trump did not direct Mike Flynn to talk about the issue of sanctions with the Russian ambassador?

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: The fundamental question for us is, what is our involvement and who ought to look at it? And the intelligence committee is already looking at Russia involvement in our election. As Senator Blunt has indicated, it's highly likely they will want to take a look at this episode as well. They have the broad jurisdiction to do it, and any question as to why the president did what he did, ought to be directed to the White House.

RAJU: Now, the question is what if any of this information will be revealed publicly? As we know, the intelligence committee typically does its work behind closed-doors in a classified setting -- John and Alison.


KOSIK: All right. Manu, thank you.

You know, it's interesting that today marks the day 27 of the Trump administration and -- wow.

BERMAN: Things are happening awfully quickly.

KOSIK: They really are. And, of course, the White House is hoping to shift the conversation today, hosting the Israeli prime minister. We are live in Jerusalem with a preview.


[04:16:40] BERMAN: Everything else going on, all the questions about White House turmoil and Russian contact, President Trump hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House today. Their meeting comes on the heels of the disclosure that a two-state solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict is not something that president Trump will now insist on.

The White House tells CNN the administration's policy on Israel is still a work in progress.

I want to go live to Jerusalem to bring you CNN's Oren Liebermann.

Oren, the idea that the two-state solution is no longer at the forefront of the White House agenda, or the U.S. agenda I should say more accurately. That's a major development.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is, and that will be a major break from some 50 years of U.S. foreign policy. The senior White House official saying the White House won't insist on a two-state solution but is open to any other suggestions or any other ideas that bring about peace.

Now, the Palestinians have said, look, it's clear and it's the international consensus that there is only one option here, and that is a two-state solution, an Israeli state next to a Palestinian state. But all this is more evidence of what you just pointed out, the White

House is still formulating its Middle East policy and we've seen that change over the last few months. President Donald Trump in his campaign had promised to move the embassy. He's backed away from that promise. He appeared to be very pro-Israeli settlements in the West Bank. He's now criticized them as being unhelpful to the peace process. So, that policy, that Middle East policy still being formulated here.

As from what we're learning President Trump has taken input from Arab diplomats to figure out how to navigate such as complex region.

For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, this is also, of course, an important meeting. He wants to keep it focused on Iran. He wants to keep it focused on security. But it's important to note that he's under domestic political pressure back home. His coalition, his party wants him to back away from his public compliment to a two-state solution. That is something he's not likely to do because that would fly in the face of the international community.

Now, John, also important to note, there is a statement coming before the meeting. Because it's before the meeting, they won't have to discuss any substantial policies. So, it's unlikely they'll say anything big coming from the statement. But the optics here are important. Both Trump and Netanyahu want to make it clear that this relationship is off to so much better a start than the rocky relationship between President Obama and Netanyahu.

That's important for them. They want to make it look like --

BERMAN: We just lost Oren at the end there.

But as report come to a full extent, we should also note if there's anyone who understands U.S. politics, it's Benjamin Netanyahu. So, he comes in here. It will be very interesting to see how he operates inside all of the chaos that's taking place in Washington right now.

So, our thanks to Oren for that.

KOSIK: OK. And let's moving to some business news. A major exit for Obamacare.

Humana saying next year, it's going to drop coverage in the 11 states where it sells individual policies both on the Obamacare exchange and outside of it. Now, it covers 152,000 policyholders in those states. They will be covered through the end of this year, though. Humana saying it expects to lose $45 million.

Humana saying costs are too high. It's already seeing sicker, more expensive patients. And it has been the major knock on Obamacare that insurers are saying that there's just not enough healthy enrollees to offset those sicker ones coming into the pool. It is the first major surge to exit Obamacare under President Trump who has promised to repeal the law.

[04:20:00] Now, the president tweeting on the news saying, "Obamacare continues to fail. Humana is pulling out in 2018."

But insurers are getting more and more jittery about this. Congressional Republicans remain divided over how to repair and replace Obamacare. And several large carriers, along with the industry's lobbying group, have warned that they're going to drop coverage unless lawmakers provide more clarity about their plans. And guess who is -- sort of al the fall guys in all of this -- people, Americans, average Americans trying to get insurance.

You look at Tennessee because Humana is going to be dropping out in 2018. I think it's 16 Tennessee counties, it's 50,000 people could have no Obamacare exchange to go to, or insurance company to go to unless another insurance company goes into those counties to pick up what was lost.

BERMAN: It could be an impetus to get politicians to act more quickly.

KOSIK: Absolutely.

BERMAN: All right. A really strange story out of Malaysia. Kim Jong-un's half brother poisoned to death. Is there a link to the North Korean dictator?


[04:25:30] KOSIK: Officials in South Korea say the sudden death of Kim Jong-nam, he's the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong- un, was murdered. They say Kim Jong-nam was poisoned and two women are believed to be the suspects.

CNN's Saima Mohsin joins us live now from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with the latest.

What more are you learned about how he died and these suspects?

SAIMA MOHSIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Alison. Well, right now, an autopsy is being carried out in the morgue outside of the hospital here in Kuala Lumpur. We understand that North Korean diplomats are inside, perhaps they have gone in perhaps to help out with identification.

Now, as you say, he is believed to have been poisoned. He was at Kuala Lumpur international airport Monday when he was due to boards a flight to Macau. That's a territorial China.

And when he came to a counter and said that he was grabbed from behind and his face smothered, he was rushed to a medical clinic on site at the airport. I went there today. And then he was rushed to the hospital because they couldn't help him.

Now, the most information we've gotten so far is actually from the South Korean government. They held a national security council meeting early this morning, Wednesday, here in Kuala Lumpur time. And they told the media that they believed that two Asian women carried out the attack at the international airport in Kuala Lumpur. They believe that Kim Jong-nam was traveling to Macau to visit his

family. He wasn't in Malaysia to seek asylum as some people have suggested. And they confirmed that this was poisons, but they couldn't tell us how he was poisoned. And that's why we're here at the morgue here waiting to find out the details -- Alison.

KOSIK: All right. Saima, such a mystery at this point. We look forward to hearing more details. Thanks very much.

BERMAN: There are major developments overnight that have a lot of people questioning whether Russian official had influence over Donald Trump's presidential campaign.