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Trump Aides in Constant Touch with Senior Russian Officials During Campaign; Flynn Resignation Becomes Crisis for Trump White House. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired February 15, 2017 - 06:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[05:58:38] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is NEW DAY. It's Wednesday, February 15, 6 a.m. here in New York. And we do begin with breaking news. The White House just said there was no contact between the Trump campaign and Russia before the election. And yet, multiple sources tell CNN several high-level advisers to the president repeatedly made contact with senior Russian intelligence officials during the presidential campaign.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Among the names captured in intercepted phone calls are Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort; and the now-ousted national security adviser, Michael Flynn. So what is the connection between Russia and the Trump administration?

It is day 27 of Mr. Trump's presidency. Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Jim Sciutto. He is live in Washington with all of the breaking details. What have you learned, Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Chris and Alisyn, good morning. This is what we know.

High-level advisers very close to then-presidential nominee Donald Trump were in constant communication during the campaign with Russians known to U.S. intelligence. This according to multiple current and former intelligence, law enforcement and administration officials. President-elect Trump and then-President Barack Obama were both briefed on details of these extensive communications between suspected Russian operatives and people associated with the Trump campaign and the Trump business, again, according to officials familiar with the matter.

Both the frequency of these communications and the proximity to Trump of those involved, quote, "raised a red flag with U.S. intelligence and law enforcement."

I should say the communications were intercepted during routine intelligence collection targeting Russian officials, other Russian nationals that are known to U.S. intelligence. Officials emphasize that, yes, communications between campaign staff and representatives of foreign governments are not unusual. However, this different. These communications stood out to investigators due to the frequency and the level of the Trump advisors involved. I should say investigators have not reached a judgement on the intent

of these conversations. We're going to have a meeting tomorrow between the new secretary of state, Tillerson, and the current Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. That's going to be in Germany tomorrow. Does this kind of stuff come up during that conversation? We will see. We're going to keep watching, Chris and Alisyn.

And obviously, Jim, we know from your reporting and from "The New York Times" that investigators were trying to see if there was any collusion around hacking. They have not found any evidence of that yet. But there are also now proof that there are multiple probes going on. So stay with us. Let's discuss this.

Let's bring in CNN political analyst and Washington bureau chief for "The Daily Beast," Jackie Kucinich; CNN political commentator and senior columnist for "The Daily Beast," Matt Lewis.

Matt, Sean Spicer comes out and said -- let's play it. He's talking to ABC's Jonathan Carl. Here's what happened at the presser.


JONATHAN CARL, ABC NEWS: Back in January, the president said that nobody in his 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 that 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.

CARL: I'm talking about during campaign.

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


CUOMO: Sean probably meant "nothing that would convince me". But how can that be true if the reporting from "The New York Times" and our reporting with Sciutto and the rest of the team is true?

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Right, and I think Mike Pence, the vice president, was out even further on that saying -- I think he was asked on a Sunday show, and he flatly denied no, there was no communication during the campaign. Now, of course, reports indicate that, in fact, there was. That in and of itself...

CUOMO: Constant is the word that the officials...


LEWIS: It could be that he's not on top of all of what's happening with some of Donald Trump's other -- the other wing. You know, so look, I think that, in and of itself, even that isn't, you know -- isn't the end of the world.

The real question though, obviously, is what were they saying? Were they coordinating the leaking of Hillary Clinton's information? That, of course, would be a complete game changer; but this does not look good in and of itself.

CAMEROTA: What else -- what could they have been doing? I mean, now that we have intelligence officials telling CNN and "The New York Times" that, again, the word was constant contact. What could people on the Trump team have been in constant contact with Russian operatives about?

KUCINICH: Well, and that -- that is the biggest question. As Matt said, was this about the leaking of Hillary Clinton's information? There's no evidence to that yet. But they're still digging into this.

CAMEROTA: We don't know the content.

KUCINICH: We don't know the content, but what this does politically is this reopens and restarts the conversation about what the Trump campaign was doing when it came to Russia during the campaign. And it's not just Democrats who are saying this. There are Republicans that want to look into this, too. And they don't want to be talking about this anymore.

CUOMO: Right. But look, and that's understandable, but, you know, facts lead to conclusions. What they were talking about, why they were talking about it, save it for another day. Right now, what you have, let's bring in Maggie Haberman, "New York Times" political reporter.

Nice of you to join us.


CUOMO: Good to see you. So the idea of whether they can be believed in the White House, if they are telling us the truth, is a fundamental bond of trust with the American people. So why this was happening and all that, we'll get to that.

But the facts, constant communications and exchange between members of the campaign and Russian fill in the blank -- you know, operatives, government people, whatever. Sean Spicer says, "I know of nothing that would" and he misspoke, I think, saying, "conclude me" -- convince me that this is true. How can both of those things be true?

HABERMAN: Well, I think you hit on the most important thing, which is the public trust aspect of this job. And I think that this White House has had a really hard time embracing that and seeing this as an act of public trust.

That you are in the people's building; you are doing the people's work. We have seen stories change repeatedly over the last couple of days. What we heard from Sean Spicer yesterday is very different than what I was hearing and my colleagues were hearing the night before about what happened with Flynn, just on a simplistic issue, which was did the president ask for his resignation?

[06:05:07] There is no evidence that he actually did ask for it. It seems aides asked for it. Yet, according to the narrative that came out in the briefing room yesterday, the president was decisive.

So I think that you raise a fundamental point, which is I don't think the White House understands how eroded their sense of credibility is over the last three weeks. Three weeks. We are three and a half weeks into this administration. And it's very hard to get it back. Not to mention that whatever other work they want to be doing right now, you're right they don't want to be talking about this. They'd like to be talking about repealing the Affordable Healthcare Act, or they'd like to be talking about infrastructure or they'd like to be talking about a tax reform plan.

There even isn't work going on, on those, as best as I can tell. It's impossible to tell who's actually in charge in this White House. In a way, all of the cloud on this obscures other major questions about how this White House is running. But this is hardly a good place to be.

And there seemed to be yesterday a lack of appreciation for the fact that this is not the campaign anymore, and yet, they all seem to be in campaign mode still: jockeying for position, fighting with each other and not really understanding why it is that, say, firing your national security advisor three weeks in is not the same as firing Paul Manafort or firing Corey Lewandowski or firing whomever. And there was a reluctance to understand why this isn't just changing the news cycle. It's a big deal.

CAMEROTA: Jim Sciutto, you are in the thick of reporting on all of this. And I know that Chris is saying we shouldn't get out ahead of it and talk about the content. But do we know anything about -- I mean, other than the constant contact that was being made between the Trump team and the Russian operatives? Do we know what they were talking about?

SCIUTTO: We don't know yet, but let's look at this progression here. A month ago, we reported that the contents of this now-famous dossier compiled by British intelligence agent, alleging that Russia believes it has compromising information on the president, that that was briefed to the president and president-elect. They haven't made any conclusions about the contents of that, but they considered it important enough to let the president-elect, the then-president-elect know about it.

A couple weeks later, we learned that they had begun to corroborate some of the aspects of that dossier. And actually, they said, "We won't comment on the veracity. We just let them know."

The progression since then is they have confirmed that some, not all, but some of what's in the dossier, specifically, Russia to Russian contacts were corroborated by intercepted communications.

Now we know that it wasn't just Russians talking to Russians. It was Trump campaign people talking to Russians. And not just here and there occasionally -- that happens in any campaign -- but repeatedly, constantly and at a very high level.

And keep in mind the context of this. If that kind of communication happened in any other year but 2016, you might begin to think you could forget about it, although it still raises a lot of questions. But it happened in the midst of an unprecedented Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election. This is happening in real time; and the Trump campaign is talking to Russia.

We don't know that there was any conclusion. But even if there wasn't, that's a strange time for a U.S. presidential campaign to be speaking to officials and others with an adversarial foreign government.

CUOMO: Right. And the contrast that you've picked up on through your reporting is also as newsworthy as anything here, because all of this is being said. CNN is not the only ones reporting it. And you have Paul Manafort says this is absolutely not true, at least about me. I didn't knowingly talk to any Russians. You have Sean Spicer who yesterday stared the press in the face and said, "I don't know of anything that would make me think that we had any exchange."

And then there was this from Vice President Mike Pence talking to Chris Wallace. Listen to this.


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

MIKE PENCE (R), VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Of course not. Why would there be any contacts between the campaign? Chris, the -- this is all a distraction, and it's all a part of a narrative to de- legitimate the election and to question the legitimacy of this presidency.


CUOMO: Jim, do you think that there's -- what is your confidence in the reporting versus all of these stark denials? Does this go to the sufficiency of the reporting, or does this go to who is in the loop in the Trump side of the equation?

SCIUTTO: Chris, I have zero doubt in my, my colleague, Pamela Brown, and Evan Perez's reporting. We have multiple officials, current and former, from multiple agencies in Washington -- law enforcement, intelligence and administration -- telling us this. And as you know, we at CNN take this kind of stuff very seriously. We don't go to air with stuff unless we're very confident. So we believe very strongly there is and intelligence officials telling us that these calls and these conversations took place at a level and with a frequency that alarmed them.

[06:10:03] Now, you see Vice President Pence there saying, "No, there were no conversations." You see Sean Spicer yesterday saying, to his knowledge, there weren't any conversations. It may very well be true that, to neither of their knowledge, they just didn't know, right? And apparently, that was the case with the conversations with Flynn. We now know that Flynn was not forthcoming with his colleagues in the administration. So it's possible that...

CUOMO: Do you believe that?

SCIUTTO: ... some elements of the campaign didn't tell other elements?

CUOMO: Do you believe that Flynn was all out on his own? That nobody knew what he was doing? That nobody discussed with Mike Flynn what the agenda as with Russia and what operations and communications they have? Do you really think he was just a rogue agent?

SCIUTTO: Do I believe that personally? I can't answer that question, because I don't know. But I do know that both Democrats and Republicans, we've heard Lindsey Graham, we heard John McCain raise that very question. Would Flynn have gone out there without some direction from more senior people in the White House? They raised that question. It's a reasonable question that needs to be answered.

CAMEROTA: And yet, Matt, Jason Chaffetz of the House who has launched many an investigation says, "You know what? This is over. Mike Flynn re-signed. End of story."

LEWIS: That's what he says today. This could snowball. Donald Trump has a real problem. I mean, first of all, he's very lucky that Republicans control Congress right now.

CUOMO: And he's got Senator Paul, Rand Paul saying Republicans shouldn't be investigating Republicans. So much for his independence.

LEWIS: But I think this could -- I think this could shift very quickly, not in Donald Trump's favor.

The problem is, unlike almost any other politician of either party, he doesn't have a natural constituency in amongst Republican politicians or conservative opinion leaders. And so the relationship that they have with Donald Trump is transactional. Right? We support him not out of personal loyalty but because we want to get a good -- Neil Gorsuch is going to be our Supreme Court justice.

What happens, though, when the pain of supporting Donald Trump, if it happens, overwhelms the benefits? In other words, I think that the problem is these Republican leaders don't have the normal loyalty that you would have to a president of your party. That's not good for Donald Trump if this, you know, continues.

KUCINICH: They still don't want to be talking about someone else's mistakes or someone else's problems day after day. I mean, you saw all over Paul Ryan's face yesterday that he had to address this again instead of tax reforms.

CUOMO: Maggie, context on this? The same fundamental question when this first came up remains. Who knew about what Flynn was doing? People close to him say the idea that he was on his own is absurd; but they're banking on loyalty. His most of all and, by all accounts, Michael Flynn is willing to take one for the team.

HABERMAN: Seems so right now. To Matt's point, we don't know, and to Jim's point, we don't know. It's an unanswerable question, but it is a legitimate one that I think is going to continue to get press.

I think what we are seeing here, too, is the extent to which it is very dangerous for a president to be, essentially, at war with his own intelligence community. And Donald Trump took office with that as the backdrop, and you are seeing that play out in real time. I mean, you had elements of the intelligence community that were opposed to Hillary Clinton. You saw that coming out during the campaign. Now we have the flip side of that coin.

There's a lot we don't know, to be clear. There is no evidence so far that anything improper was discussed. A lot of it raises more questions, but it does keep the focus on things they don't want to be discussing.

CUOMO: We do know this: they were told that Mike Flynn was having these conversations about sanctions, and they did nothing for days.

CAMEROTA: Panel, thank you very much. Stick around. We have more questions. The fallout from Michael Flynn's resignation as national security advisor becoming a crisis for the Trump White House. President Trump knew that Flynn had misled his administration for weeks, we now know.

So why was Vice President Mike Pence kept out of the loop and allowed to speak about this publicly? CNN senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns live at the White House with more.

What have you learned, Joe?


Lies about ties to Russia now part of the shockwaves here at the White House, quite frankly, as the administration tries to deal with what's next.


SPICER: The evolving and eroding level of trust as a result of this situation is what led the president to ask for General Flynn's resignation.

JOHNS (voice-over): Some key Republicans now joining Democrats, demanding investigations into Flynn and the administration's ties to Russia.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: We have no idea why Flynn was doing all of this and why he was trying desperately to help Russia. He's not going to get off that easy. We need some answers to a whole lot of questions.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: The Intelligence Committee is already looking at Russia involvement in our election is highly (AUDIO GAP).

JOHNS: As the White House reveals that the president knew for weeks about Flynn's calls with Russia. On January 26, the Justice Department first warning the White House counsel that intercepted calls showed that Flynn misled them, lying about discussing sanctions with a Russian ambassador, making him vulnerable to blackmail. That same day the White House says the president was briefed.

[06:15:18] SPICER: The president from day one, from minute one, was unbelievably decisive in asking for and demanding that his White House council and their team review the situation.

JOHNS: But the president waited 18 days to demand Flynn's resignation and kept Vice President Pence in the dark the entire time the West Wing was investigating Flynn's account.

Flynn's call to the Russian ambassador happened on the same day President Obama announced new sanctions against Russia for their cyberattacks attempting to influence the U.S. election. Weeks later, Vice-President-elect Pence went on national TV, defending Flynn and denying that he discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador.

PENCE: The conversations that took place at that time were not in any way related to new U.S. sanctions against Russia.

JOHNS: The vice president only finding out that Flynn misled him last week after an explosive "Washington Post" report uncovered the truth, two weeks after President Trump first learned of it.

Before resigning, Flynn spoke to the conservative website "The Daily Caller," insisting he crossed no lines in his dealings with Russia and raising questions about who may have leaked details of his call.

President Trump's only public comments on the firestorm this week, a tweet: "The real story here is why there are so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington. Will these leaks happening as I deal on North Korea, et cetera?"


JOHNS: The continuing swirl over Russia has the potential to be a distraction today as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes to the White House for a meeting with the president -- Chris and Alisyn.

CUOMO: Joe, appreciate it.

The White House is certainly dealing with its first major political crisis. The fallout from Michael Flynn. Could it be just the dip of the iceberg? We explore, next.


[06:21:14] CAMEROTA: The Trump White House is in damage control mode this morning as the firestorm intensifies over ousted national security advisor Michael Flynn for misleading the administration and the American public about conversations with a Russian ambassador.

So what will congressional investigations do? What will Congress do? What will they uncover? Let's bring back our panel. We have Jim Sciutto, Jackie Kucinich, Matt Lewis, Maggie Haberman.

Matt, as we know, sometimes congressional investigations start in one thing, and then they unearth other things.

LEWIS: Right.

CAMEROTA: Whitewater started as an investigation into a land deal, and Monica Lewinsky was uncovered years later. So who knows what's going to -- I mean, I guess the point is...

LEWIS: Right.

CAMEROTA: ... first Congress has to agree to investigate it.

LEWIS: Yes and, you know, again, Donald Trump very lucky that he has a Republican Congress. Things could be entirely different if that were different.

But these things can spiral out of control, if there are special prosecutors, if there's some form of discovery. And on top of that, of course, we have these leaks. So...

CAMEROTA: When you say "these leaks," that means that people inside the White House are giving information to reporters. That happened.

CUOMO: And maybe the intel community.

CAMEROTA: OK. And the intel community. But what is different is that President Trump is calling them illegal and saying he's going to crack down on those.

LEWIS: Right. Well, I actually do think that there could be a potential problem with the trend that we have of leaking. Whether it's leaking against Hillary Clinton and the presidential campaign or against the presidency now, where you have, you know, sort of career bureaucrats, maybe Obama holdovers who are selectively leaking things. I do think there's a -- this is the stuff of a police state. So I'm not keen on that.

I would also say, though, that does not obviate the bigger story, which I think right now is Mike Flynn and Russia. And I've always thought it was weird that, for whatever reason, Donald Trump would say all sorts of negative critical things about anybody -- Pope Francis -- except Russia.

CUOMO: Also, though, when it comes to leaks, you know, leaks are only as good as they are true, and until they start showing that false information is coming out of their intelligence community or whatever it is, no one is going to question that it's coming out through leaks.

But Jimmy, let me ask you something. You and I have known each other since we were teenagers. We've been following this stuff. Mike Flynn, if he got forced to resign, because he misled about having a discussion about sanctions, where Flynn and everyone around him swears didn't break the law, that he never talked about changing policy, I will have never have heard of a guy getting kicked out for less than that. And it does fuel the speculation who knew? Was this part of a plan they had with Russia? Is Mike Flynn being made a fall guy? I mean, isn't that the way this starts to go.

SCIUTTO: Clearly it is. I mean, you hate to repeat the questions. But the people are starting to ask the question. "What did the president know and when did he know it?" -- right? -- about this.

And again, it's not reporters. It's not even Democrats solely. It's Republican lawmakers who are saying, "Would he have done this?" Lindsey Graham saying on our air yesterday it just doesn't stand to reason to him that Flynn would be freelancing so much on such a key issue of national security with such a key partner. We don't know the answer to that question, but it's a fair question. Were the discussions of the administration, was Flynn given a signal to pursue that?

And let's put this in a larger context, as you noted, Chris, there. This does not come out of the blue, right? It comes from an administration that, as Matt was saying, will -- is very reluctant to say critical things about Russia and, in fact, is very happy to say very positive things about Russian. And you have a president who has said he wanted to have a friendlier relationship with Russia.

So in that context, it's a fair question. We don't know the answer yet, but it's a legitimate question.

[06:25:07] CAMEROTA: Here are some of the things that President Trump has said or candidate Trump about Russia.


TRUMP: Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing.

They say, "Putin likes Trump," and he said nice things about me. He called me a genius. He said we're going to win. That's good. That's not bad. That's good.

I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds. OK?

If we could have a good relationship with Russia, that would be a good thing, not a bad thing.

If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That's called an asset not a liability.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS HOST: Putin is a killer.

TRUMP: There's a lot of killers. We've got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent? Do you think our country is so innocent?


CAMEROTA: Now somehow, these take on a different feel in light of now it being confirmed that Michael Flynn was in touch with Russia, as well as other high-level Trump advisors.

HABERMAN: I think the piece of this that -- and there are many questions still outstanding -- but I think the piece of this that is hardest to discern is why the president knew this for whatever it was, 14 days. And then suddenly, when it became public in "The Washington Post," which is when Mike Pence is said to have learned about it. That became the impetus for moving on this.

It's not clear why the president didn't do something for two weeks. And it wasn't clear to me, listening to Sean Spicer yesterday, explaining this devolution of trust. There's also -- Spicer said something yesterday about how there were other issues with Flynn. And he has yet to detail what those are. We picked up on some of them over the last couple of weeks.

Trump has been -- or is said to have been uncomfortable with Flynn, basically since he was appointed to this role...


HABERMAN: ... for a variety of reasons. Stylistically, Flynn was not, as it was described to me by one person close to Trump yesterday, wouldn't subjugate himself to the president quite the same way as a lot of his other aides. Mattis, for instance, the defense secretary, is very deferential to Trump. Flynn is not quite like that.

I suspect there are other things that we don't know. But a lot of this is a mystery. And conjecture is dangerous, right? And in terms of the criminalizing of leaks, President Obama criminalized leaks, too. So it's not like what he is saying is new. What he is saying, the president, the current president, is a deflection from these massive questions.

We are three weeks -- I keep saying this. We are three weeks into a new administration.

CUOMO: And then putting the mouth on Michael Flynn. And by that, I mean criticizing him now -- is very possibly out of convenience, Jackie. I mean, this is the appointed fall guy for this.

But counterfactual to that notion of Trump not liking Mike Flynn. This is one of the few guys in uniform, high-profile, who came out for Trump. He was not looking for a job. He'd been building his own business on the outside, and he was chased for a job. He wasn't asking for one. So this was someone they had been solicitous of in the past.

KUCINICH: Oh, yes, someone who was very loyal to Trump throughout the campaign when no one else was even taking him seriously. But the other thing we have to mention is how leaks are all fun and games until they're against you. I mean, remember, this is the same guy who said, "I love WikiLeaks. They're great." So this is kind of coming back in some...

CUOMO: This same man who can use Julian Assange...

KUCINICH: Totally, yes.

CUOMO: ... as a counterpoint to his own intelligence community for proof about who was behind the hack.

KUCINICH: Absolutely. So it's kind of coming back.

CAMEROTA: All right. Panel, thank you very much.

CUOMO: All right. So at least one powerful House Republican is getting into this game, launching an investigation into security protocols at the president's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. You remember these pictures, them using cell phones that could possibly be compromised to illuminate documents about the North Korean missile launch. We're going to talk about this situation, coming up.