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Trump Aides in Constant Touch with Senior Russian Officials During Ceremony; Spicer: 'Eroding Levels of Trust' Led to Flynn's Resignation. Aired 7-7:30a ET
Aired February 15, 2017 - 07:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CAMEROTA: ... repeatedly made contact with senior Russian intelligence officials during the presidential campaign.
[07:00:07] CUOMO: Now remember, the press secretary for the White House just said yesterday that he knew of nothing that could make this true. Among those captured in intercepted calls talking to the Russians was former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who also says this is completely untrue and that now-ousted national security advisor, Michael Flynn, who has never claimed that he has done anything wrong.
All this as the cloud of Russia hangs over the Trump administration. This is the 27th day of the presidency.
Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Jim Sciutto, live in Washington. You're on top of this story, and the facts don't follow what's coming out of the White House.
SCIUTTO: No question, Chris. These are the two headlines from our reporting this morning. What alarmed U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials: one, the frequency of contacts, described to us as constant communication between the Trump campaign and Russian officials during the campaign. This is last summer in the midst of Russian interference in the election, of course, that timing important and two, how high-level those Trump advisors were. Very close proximity to the president. Not low-level campaign advisors. The highest, the most senior advisors. Both those raising red flags with U.S. investigators.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): Multiple sources tell CNN that senior advisors to Donald Trump were in constant communication with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign, U.S. intelligence intercepting repeated calls since last summer, raising red flags due to the frequency of communications and the high-level campaign advisors involved. Those advisors include former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and recently- resigned national security advisor Michael Flynn.
President-elect Trump and then-President Barack Obama were both briefed on details of these extensive communications, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter. Manafort, who has business ties with Russia and Ukraine, told CNN that he was not in contact with Russian officials during the campaign, calling the allegations, quote, "boggling" and noting the FBI has not contacted him.
Asked about possible contacts between Trump advisers and Russia, White House spokesman Sean Spicer gave this somewhat confusing answer on Tuesday.
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There's nothing that would conclude me that anything different has changed with respect to that time period.
SCIUTTO: But U.S. officials say the timing of the communications was alarming. The calls taking place while Russian hackers were targeting U.S. political organizations with cyberattacks meant to undermine the election.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing.
SCIUTTO: Paul Manafort addressed those concerns in July.
PAUL MANAFORT, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN CHAIRMAN: It's just absurd.
I don't know anything about what you just said. You may know it. but if you do, then you ought to expose it. You say you know. I don't even know what you're talking about. It's crazy. The fact that we're having this conversation is the wrong conversation.
SCIUTTO: Today, the Kremlin says reports of contact between them and Trump's team before the election are not based on any facts.
SCIUTTO: Well, tomorrow the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, he's going to meet with his counterpart in Russia. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister that's in Germany at a security conference. A great deal for them to talk about, including, Chris, new provocations from Russia testing a new cruise missile, a Russian spy ship off the coast of Delaware. A lot going on between the U.S. and Russia right now, Chris.
CUOMO: Especially when this was supposed to be a renewed friendly period, according to the Trump administration. Jimmy, thank you so much for keeping us in front on this.
The fallout from Mike Flynn's resignation as national security advisor is becoming a true crisis for the Trump White House. President Trump knew that Flynn misled his administration for weeks, at least. So why was Vice President Mike Pence out of the loop until supposedly the last week?
CNN senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns, live at the White House with more -- Joe.
JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Chris.
Ties to Russia. The big question here and new calls for new investigations all part of the equation. The White House trying to figure out what's going to happen 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 Russian involvement in our election. It is highly likely they want to take a look at this.
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.
[07:05:22] 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 be happening as I deal on North Korea, et cetera?" (END VIDEOTAPE)
JOHNS: The continuing swirl over Russia has the potential to be a real distraction today as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes to a White House with a meeting with the president -- Alisyn.
CAMEROTA: OK, John. Thank you very much.
Let's discuss all of this with Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa. He's a member of the House Judiciary Committee. Good morning, Congressman.
REP. STEVE KING (R), IOWA: Good morning, Alisyn.
CAMEROTA: Congressman, what do you make of the reporting by "The New York Times" and CNN this morning that many high-level Trump advisers during the campaign were having regular communication and contact with Russian operatives?
KING: Well, the first thing I would say, this is a very, very complex issue, and it's strung out through a long period of time. It's put together through back-channel information that comes from leakers in the intelligence community who, if they do this and it seems to be obvious that they did, if there's any truth in "The New York Times" or "The Washington Post" articles, they're likely in violation of 18 USC 798, which prohibits...
CAMEROTA: So that's what you think is the issue? So, it sounds like you think the issue is the leaking, not the constant contact, as it was described by CNN and "The New York Times," with Russian operatives.
KING: Well, I think -- I think that if this is constant contact I'd like to see some evidence. I mean, I think there's some substance to these, at least, rumors and innuendoes, but we've got to have some facts to work with here. And what troubles me is -- let's just say there's -- it's clear that there are people within the Intelligence Community that disagree with President Trump, that don't want to see his administration succeed. That's part of the configuration of these timed leaks that's came out.
CAMEROTA: So, do you think...
KING: And General Flynn has been subject to a political assassination, irregardless of what he did or didn't say to President Trump or Vice President Pence.
CAMEROTA: OK, so you don't think that it was right that he needed to be let go after having...
KING: No, I...
CAMEROTA: ... after having conversations about sanctions with the Russian ambassador?
KING: We don't know the extent of those conversations, but I think that it came to the place where the change needed to be made. And -- but I think we should be very concerned.
Let's just say, for example, if President Trump has put together an operation to take out the caliphates and maybe in Syria, maybe Boko Haram, and presume that the intelligence community thinks it's a bad idea and they leak that intel information in the same fashion that they leaked this information, what happens to our ability as a nation?
We're at great risk if we have these kind of moles with this low-level of integrity that are leaking information out to move their political agenda. Why didn't they -- if they really cared, why didn't they take it directly to President Trump...
KING: ... to Vice President Pence, have that conversation, rather than leak it out to "The New York Times" and the "Post"?
CAMEROTA: So, you don't...
KING: That is unpatriotic, and it's an act that undermines our American security.
CAMEROTA: Do you believe the intelligence officials are lying?
KING: I don't know. I don't have the -- I don't have the transcript. We haven't seen that. Even General Flynn wasn't allowed to read the transcript. I'd like to read that in a classified setting and understand the flow of this. It may change my overall view on this.
But I don't -- and I'm not concerned if a national security adviser has a general conversation with his counterpart in any of the foreign countries that he'll be dealing with. I think that's expected as a duty of him.
[07:10:04] And if he spoke in general terms about sanctions to the extent if he's asked by the ambassador what happens if there are sanctions -- the sanctions were put on by Obama, same day as you reported a few minutes ago -- and General Flynn would have answered, "Well, that's something we can look at," there's nothing wrong that it. I think it's an appropriate thing to deal with foreign policy in that fashion...
KING: ... and lay the foundation to be effective when you're sworn in.
CAMEROTA: So, are you troubled at all by the idea that it was beyond Michael Flynn and that there were other top-level advisers that intelligence officials say were also communicating regularly with the Russians at the same time that the Russians were accused of meddling with the -- hacking with the DNC, and at the same time that President Trump seemed to be using very mild language about Vladimir Putin?
KING: Well, I'm concerned, and I think it's worth looking into, but we don't yet know -- we don't know who these officials are that apparently illegally leaked this information to the press. We don't know what the transcripts are over those telephone calls that they assert that they have captured. And so, I don't know the level of those communications, and it's hard for us to speculate and essentially publicly indict someone when we don't have any real facts.
We just have illegally leaked facts, if they are facts at all, into the news media that's now got this story and filling in the blanks. We're starting with blanks and filling in the blanks.
CAMEROTA: Well, OK, so you're calling for more information. You obviously want to get to the bottom of it, I would imagine. So, congressional investigations? Should committees be set up to investigate Michael Flynn?
KING: Well, I would say this. We already have a committee set up. It's the House Select Committee on Intelligence. This is an intelligence issue, and much of this is classified.
By the way, this information that's been leaked is classified information. And the chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, Devin Nunes of California, has already said that he is willing to take a look at this. I think it's the right thing to do.
CAMEROTA: But he is looking at the leaks. I mean, he's looking at what you want.
CAMEROTA: He wants to look at the leaks. I'm talking about...
CAMEROTA: ... looking at the substance of it. Do you want to know what Michael Flynn actually said in those exchanges with the Russian ambassador?
KING: If the Select Committee on Intelligence looks at the leaks, they will be able to look at the substance, and that will be the transcripts of these calls. And I'm hopeful that it will go all the way back to mid-summer if it needs to -- if we pull that all together. That's a useful thing to do.
And in the process of this, we need to find out who the leaking moles are who are violating federal law inside this government, because we can't function at a national security standpoint if we've got that kind of spillage coming out of the intelligence community.
CAMEROTA: The president has just tweeted this. I'm reading it for the first time that you'll be hearing it, so let's do this together. "The Russian connection nonsense is merely an attempt to cover up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton's losing campaign." Huh? KING: Well, that's tempting for me to take that bait this morning, but I -- you know, to keep the subject separate -- I just -- I think there's -- I will say this on, that the Hillary Clinton investigation, that's a Justice Department issue. We -- I sit on the Judiciary Committee and I chair the Constitution Subcommittee.
KING: But it could become our responsibility to look at that topic. I just should not...
CAMEROTA: But what does Hillary Clinton's campaign...
KING: I'd rather that be the Justice Department.
CAMEROTA: ... have to do with Michael Flynn talking to the Russian ambassador in possibly a way that violates a law?
KING: Well, I think it's a -- I think it's a CNN narrative that the allegations that the Russians were trying to influence the U.S. election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, so that's the connection that...
CAMEROTA: Well, hold on a second.
CAMEROTA: CNN didn't invent this. As you know, there were a score of intelligence agencies, 17 of them that concluded that Russia had hacked and meddled in our election.
KING: Alisyn, there was dissent among that and furthermore I sat in on that classified briefing, and they divulged not one fact. And they only gave us their opinions. So, we're back to the same place again.
CAMEROTA: So you don't believe it.
KING: We need facts to work with.
CAMEROTA: You don't -- just so that I'm clear, Congressman. You do not believe that Russia meddled?
KING: I don't -- I don't -- I don't know. I don't -- I don't have -- I don't know whether they meddled or not. I want to see a transcript. I want to hear some audio. I want to see a chronological timeline that we can say these things we know that are facts. Because what we're dealing with are opinions and obviously now, they're opinions of people from the intelligence community that are the direct enemies of Donald Trump, that don't want to see him succeed.
KING: And we know that from Clapper and Brennan and their attitudes and the way they've come out aggressively after they left their positions within the Obama administration.
CAMEROTA: Do you...
KING: Not to mention Ben Rhodes, who may well be behind this, too.
CAMEROTA: Do you agree with Congressman Jason Chaffetz, who has basically said the Flynn thing has taken care of itself. He resigned?
KING: Well, that would be nice if it were packaged up that way and we could move on, but I don't think the Democrats are going to let us do that. They smell blood in the water. And they're going to keep beating the drum until they have another drum that will beat louder than this one.
CAMEROTA: Well, hold on a second, Congressman.
KING: So that's what we're...
CAMEROTA: Hold on one second. It's not just the Democrats. Senator John Cornyn of Texas has said yes, it needs to be looked into. Senator Roy Blunt says an investigation needs to happen. Senator Lindsey Graham and John McCain say, yes, Congress needs to look into this.
KING: And you've heard me say the Select Committee on Intel should; and the trail will follow to this if we start with the facts and trace our way into this.
But, you know, I noticed that as quick as the Democrats were to jump on this, they weren't troubled by Susan Rice coming before America and five networks and telling us something that obviously wasn't true. I mean, that's a lot bigger whopper than what General Flynn was alleged to have said.
CAMEROTA: Is it, Congressman? Is it a bigger whopper, because Susan Rice is the equivalent -- you're right -- of Michael Flynn -- they shared the same position? And basically it -- she went on and said something erroneous about the origin of the -- what started Benghazi.
But she didn't have a phone conversation with an al Qaeda-connected group in which she may have told them, "Don't worry, when we get into the White House everything will be fine for you."
He had a phone conversation with a Russian ambassador in which people believe that he discussed easing sanctions. How is...
KING: But you...
CAMEROTA: How can Susan...
KING: You said an al Qaeda-connected group?
KING: Are you asserting that the -- that the Russian ambassador is somehow affiliated or connected with al Qaeda?
CAMEROTA: No, I'm saying...
KING: They're fighting them like we are.
CAMEROTA: Hold on, Congressman. I'm saying that you're using Benghazi as an analogy and you're saying to look at what Susan Rice did. She went on the Sunday shows and said something erroneous. Well, so did Vice President Pence. He went on and said something erroneous. He was misled, we believe, by Michael Flynn, who had a conversation with a Russian ambassador, possibly about sanctions. Susan Rice didn't go to that point.
KING: I would say Susan Rice finished out her term as national security adviser, and Michael Flynn is gone. She never faced any repercussions from the Obama administration. She was never called on the carpet for that. Hillary Clinton defended it.
And, in fact, she came to a classified briefing of members of Congress and let us know the same thing that Susan Rice had told the networks the Sunday before, which was a massive amount of misinformation and may have been the single pivotal point that allowed Barack Obama to be reelected in his second term.
CAMEROTA: OK, so what you're saying...
KING: A lot of people with less...
CAMEROTA: OK, so just so I'm clear. The messaging to you is more important and more significant than the content or the substance of what was discussed?
KING: I think what's most important here is the leaks that are coming out of the intelligence community that appear to be designed to politically assassinate some of the members of the Trump administration or at least weaken the Trump administration. And if you cannot trust the intelligence community to maintain classified information that's protected by law and facing with a potential 10- year sentence in the federal penitentiary, you've got to do something to clean up the intelligence community. That's what concerns me the most.
I want to be able to keep national secrets and use them to protect our national security, and we need to have a national security adviser that can do that and do that effectively. And they have to find the people that are working against this administration; and they need to be purged from the Intelligence Community.
CAMEROTA: Congressman Steve King, thank you for your perspective. We appreciate having you on NEW DAY.
KING: Thank you, Alisyn.
Democrats at least are demanding answers. What is the connection between the Trump administration and Russia? Senator Jeff Merkley joins us next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
[07:22:11] CUOMO: All right. There is growing intrigue into the ties of President Trump's campaign advisors and Russia. Multiple sources tell CNN intercepted phone calls reveal associated with the president had repeated contact with Russian officials before the election.
Why does that matter so much? Because the Trump administration keeps denying it.
Joining us now is Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley. He serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Now, in terms of the quality of response, we're getting the real question, there seems to be a stream of fake answers.
The president just tweeted something I want your take on. He says -- put it up on the screen, please -- "Information is being illegally given to the failing 'New York Times' and 'Washington Post' by the intelligence community. NSA and FBI? Just like Russia."
Senator, is the president suggesting that our intelligence, the United States intelligence community is akin to what Putin does in the Kremlin?
SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D), OREGON: Well, certainly, that sounds like what he's saying. It's entirely inappropriate. But what is the purpose behind -- behind his tweet? His purpose is to distract attention from two very serious issues. Communication between his team and the Russian team during the campaign, and communication between his team and the Russians after the election and before he came into office.
CUOMO: But doesn't he get that he is encouraging once again, like when he likened the intelligence community to Nazis, that he's basically encouraging the intelligence community to prove its worth? To prove that it knows things. It's not the problem that there are leaks. There are always leaks from all of you guys and all branches of government. It's whether or not that information is intentionally false or is true. And has anything come out yet from the White House to rebut any of the facts that have been developed surrounding the Flynn resignation.
MERKLEY: Well, I think that's exactly the point. We now have information from the British dossier, which was unsubstantiated, but some of it is -- for example, the role of Paul Manafort is now being mentioned coming out of U.S. intelligence sources. And so I'm very concerned about the president equating our system of government, our intelligence to the operations of the Russians. But I'm even more concerned about these very potentially illegal connections that were created during the campaign. Possibly to influence the outcome of the campaign, and this would be profoundly disturbing, profoundly inappropriate, profoundly illegal and we need to get to the bottom of it.
CUOMO: Very often an allegation is heightened in importance by a denial to it. Contact with the Russians could mean a lot of things during the election, many of them innocuous. All of them could be legal, but when you deny it and then proof comes out, now you have a problem.
Similarly with the Flynn resignation. Where do you want to go with this? Because the main sets of questions we have fall into two words: who knew? The idea that Flynn was all alone and going rogue with a kind of Russian agenda. And yet, when they found out, if that's true, nobody knew. They had two weeks where they did know, and they did nothing. What do you want to know?
[07:25:15] MERKLEY: Absolutely. The question to mind is what did the Trump team do and when did they do it? We want to get to the bottom of these activities.
And I would like the president to stand up and say, "I absolutely am committed to full transparency. We're going to have an independent investigation. We're going to have a special prosecutor. These are grave concerns to America and our system of government. And I'm going to make sure that we get the answers."
CUOMO: All right. Let's roll the dice and say that's not going to happen. What can you do?
MERKLEY: Well, I think the mounting pressure from -- from the media and the conversations on Capitol Hill are going to drive us forward. I don't think forever the administration can keep saying, "Don't pay attention to the fire. Look over here. We want to talk about some other issues, some other diversion." That's what they're engaged in now by saying all the tension should be on who's leaking and investigating the leaks. By the way, they also really desire to bury the -- any substantive investigation inside the intelligence committees.
We know it's incredibly difficult to get information out of the intelligence committee. We've seen that through the torture report. And so, if there is not a congressional investigation that is separate from the intelligence community, we won't get the congressional side to do serious work.
But we should also see a special prosecutor in terms of the executive branch.
CUOMO: Do you see any indication that that's even possible at this point? I mean, Rand Paul kind of prizes himself on his independence, saying Republicans shouldn't be investigating Republicans.
MERKLEY: Yes. No, that was -- really bothered me to hear that statement. I -- I would like to think that Rand, after he thinks about it, will say there's illegal activity. We need to get to the bottom of it. We shouldn't be taking a -- putting up a partisan shield and trying to engage in a cover-up.
CUOMO: What is your biggest concern here?
MERKLEY: Well, my biggest concern is that, potentially, the Trump team, the Trump campaign team coordinated with the Russians to alter the outcome of the election. Through the Russian hacking and through the Russian application... CUOMO: Now, you know that -- you know that all of the reporting so far, even part and parcel of the reporting that established these communications, that the White House keeps denying says they found no indication of collusion on the matter of hacking the election.
MERKLEY: Well, this is why we want to get to the bottom of it and actually find out. I mean, the various accounts I've read and have not on the Intelligence Committee, it enables me to speak more freely. But have said that they haven't reached a conclusion about the intent of the conversations. We need to get to the heart of, really, what was the intent. What actually did go on?
CUOMO: There's a new fact introduced to this. Jim Comey, the director of the FBI didn't want the administration to know what was known. These suggestions about Flynn, because of his own probe that he has going on. How does that figure into it? There are a lot of questions that we're not getting great answers. Anything you can do, Senator, to get true information to people is appreciated. Be well.
MERKLEY: Absolutely. Thank you.
CAMEROTA: The Trump administration battling its first crisis, looking at what happened with Michael Flynn. Is that the tip of the iceberg? We have a panel on internationally to discuss it.