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Lawmakers Call for Investigations; Labor Nominee Out; Major Middle East Policy Shift; Tillerson in Germany for G20 Summit. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired February 16, 2017 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:11] ALISON KOSIK, CNN ANCHOR: The growing series of leaks in Washington has Congress demanding answers. Top members of the House and Senate are speaking up after the president himself went on the offensive.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: The White House is looking for a new nominee to head up the Labor Department. Andrew Puzder pulls his name. We'll tell you who can be next in line.

KOSIK: And the president with the big shift on U.S. policy. He says the two-state solution may not be the only answer to Mideast peace. But he did have one big warning for the Israeli prime minister.

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Alison Kosik.

BERMAN: Nice to see you this morning. I'm John Berman. It is Thursday, February 16th. It's 4:00 a.m. in the East.

And this morning in Washington, new calls for answers but to very, very different questions. Certain Republicans are not looking for information about our reports of constant contacts between Trump campaign advisers and Russian officials, nor are they looking for more details about the call with the ambassador that ultimately brought down former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. No, they want to know who leaked the information. Jason Chaffetz, the chair of the House Oversight Committee, and Bob Goodlatte, chair of the Judiciary Committee, have written to Justice Department's inspector general, seeking an investigation into whether classified information was mishandled.

They say, "We have serious concerns about the potential inadequate protection of classified information. Federal laws and the Constitution distinguish law enforcement investigation authorities from intelligence collection authorities for good reason. The release of classified national security information can, by definition, have grave effects on national security."

Now, this comes after Chaffetz said his committee will not look into the circumstances that led to Michael Flynn stepping down.

KOSIK: But a partisan pair of senators is very interested in the facts surrounding Flynn's downfall. Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein, the senior Republican and Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, they have written to the Justice Department and FBI as well. They are looking for an official briefing in two weeks, along with transcripts of Flynn's call with the Russian ambassador, which happened last December.

They wrote this, "Media reports raised substantial questions about the content and context of Mr. Flynn's discussions with Russian officials. The conclusions reached by the Justice Department and the actions it took in response, as well as possible leaks of classified information by current and former government employees."

BERMAN: Again, instead of focusing on the substance of the reports, the administration is focused on the leaks, including the president. He took direct aim at the intelligence community, accusing it of leaking. He also attacked the media for reporting those leaks. This was during his news conference at the White House.

CNN's Jim Acosta was there and has the latest.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John and Alison, President Trump is defending his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn despite the fact that he just fired him this week. At a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the president slammed the news media and leakers in the government for disclosing that Flynn lied about his calls with the Russian ambassador to the vice president.

Here's what the president had to say at that news conference.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: General Flynn is a wonderful man. I think he has been treated unfairly by the media. As I call it, the fake media in many cases.

From intelligence, papers are being leaked. Things are being leaked. It's criminal action, criminal act. And it's been going on for a long time before me. But now, it's really going on. People are trying to cover up for a terrible loss that the Democrats had under Hillary Clinton.

ACOSTA: The president declined to answer questions from CNN about reports that Trump advisers were in contact with the Russians during the campaign. And we're learning that Vice President Pence is focused on getting to the bottom of how he was misled. Pence was not informed about the matter for roughly two weeks after the president learned the Justice Department had questions about Flynn's actions -- John and Alison.


BERMAN: Our thanks to Jim for that.

The administration is denying our report that the vice president is focused on the Flynn firing and looking for answers on how he was misled. An administration official says the vice president moved beyond the topic, calling any claims to the contrary false.

Also, a senior Republican source with knowledge of the investigation in the Trump campaign contacts with Russian officials says it is likely General Flynn will be called to testify, along with former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former CIA Director John Brennan. This is an effort to figure out in the Senate Intelligence Committee perhaps what the president knew and when he knew it.

An intelligence spokesperson says that General Flynn's access to classified information has been suspended pending review. This was described as standard procedure when questions are raised about an individual's compliance with standards.

KOSIK: Meantime, the Trump administration is looking for a new labor secretary this morning.

[04:05:02] Andrew Puzder withdrawing his name just one day before his confirmation hearing. That decision comes amid growing concerns he would not be confirmed. GOP senators even asking the White House earlier in the day to pull his nomination as support deteriorated. This is a big blow to the administration, but also Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He was Puzder's biggest cheerleader on Capitol, saying he would be one of the best labor secretaries in history.

Well, that raised eyebrows because McConnell's wife held the position under President George W. Bush. She's now transportation secretary. And despite his efforts, McConnell couldn't muster support.

But Andrew Puzder also had quite the checkered past as the CEO of the company that owns Hardee's and Carl's Jr. Decades ago, Puzder's ex- wife levied charges on domestic abuse against him which she later dropped. She also appeared in disguise on the Oprah Winfrey's TV show to talk about domestic violence. His confirmation hearing was delayed five times.

He revealed recently that he had hired a housekeeper who was undocumented. Puzder's company is facing numerous lawsuits and he's also been a critic of Obamacare. He's been a critic of the $15 minimum wage and also the accuracy of the unemployment rate. So, all that upsetting some Democrats.

Well, now, the search is on for a new labor secretary. Take a look. A senior administration official says the president already has a short list. It's right there. It includes former National Labor Relations Board members Peter Kirsanow and Alexander Acosta, as well as former South Carolina Labor Secretary Catherine Templeton.

BERMAN: All right. The nomination battles may not be over. The president's pick to head up the EPA will now not have the support of one Republican senator, Susan Collins of Maine. Collins is the first Senate Republican to break ranks over this nomination. She says she has a fundamentally different views from Pruitt when it comes to the EPA's role and mission.

Despite this defection, Pruitt is expected to be confirmed as early as Friday, if she's the only who splits, then he will still get through.

About 10:30 Eastern Time this morning, Mick Mulvaney, a congressman from South Carolina, he is expected to be confirmed at the next White House budget director. This is despite an opposition from Senator John McCain. Again, if McCain is the only Republican who splits, Mulvaney will still be confirmed.

KOSIK: All right. Meantime, the White House could unveil a new executive order on immigration and travel today. If that is the strategy, it is expected to come before the next court action on the president's halted travel ban at 2:00 Eastern this afternoon. And that's when attorneys for Washington state and Minnesota on one side, and the Justice Department on the other filed briefs in the Ninth Circuit. After those briefs are submitted, a decision will be made to rehear the case.

There is some support for the travel ban. The attorney general of Texas filing a brief with the Ninth Circuit, arguing for a fuller panel of judges to reconsider the case, arguing the president has the authority to act based on public safety.

BERMAN: CNN has learned that the option of deploying conventional U.S. ground forces to Syria is now on the table. The Pentagon might present that strategy to President Trump in the coming days, with the aim of speeding up the fight against ISIS. The president has asked for new proposals to battle ISIS by the end of the month. That defense official tells CNN nothing has been finalized. It's up to the president to make this call.

The two-state solution, is it the answer to peace in the Middle East? For the first time in decades, the president is not necessarily saying yes. We're live in Jerusalem, next.



[04:12:41] TRUMP: I am looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I'm very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one. I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two. But honestly, if Bibi and if Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I'm happy with the one they like the best.


KOSIK: President Trump backing away from decades of U.S. policy in the Mideast, saying he would not insist on a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The big shift coming at a joint news conference before meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu largely overshadowed by the questions surrounding the Trump's campaign involving Russia. The president did urge Netanyahu to curb settlement construction.

But what is the reaction coming out of Israel this morning?

CNN's Oren Liebermann live for us in Jerusalem for us.

You know, it was interesting to watch Donald Trump on the campaign trail telling Benjamin Netanyahu, keep those settlements going, and now, he is saying, wait a minute. Let's put a hold on those settlements. And, by the way, that two-state solution, one-state solution kind of doesn't matter. Donald Trump's -- the president's reaction kind of seems little casual to one of the biggest problems in the Mideast.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Casual and noncommittal, almost hands off, saying, look, whatever works for you, guys, works for me. Just figure it all out on that end, and I'm OK with it.

Israel's government, the right wing government here is absolutely celebrating that press conference between President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Many have called it the end of a Palestinian state, and some are even calling on Israel to begin annexing parts or all of the West Bank.

Netanyahu, when asked directly, does he still support a two-state solution, dodged the question. He said that term. Two-state solution is a label. He doesn't want to talk about labels. He wants to talk about substance.

He was under the pressure from politicians in his government to revoke his commitment to a two-state solution before he went to Washington. His answers, his dodging of that question made his coalition and made his government very happy.

The one line effectively ignored, as you pointed out, is the line where Trump said he'd like to see settlement construction halted for a bit so he can work on a peace deal. That line is what the Palestinian has seized upon, saying this is what Israel needs to do right now. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas saying he still supports a two- state solution, Israel needs to listen to Trump and halt settlement construction and negotiations can continue.

[04:15:06] What's clear here is that Trump's Middle East policy is still not yet formulated. We know he's been in touch with our diplomats. Obviously, he just met with the prime minister Of Israel. But in that noncommittal answer, that almost hands off, figure it out on your own there, showing that he hasn't formulated how he wants to handle this policy.

Alison, as you pointed out, he's already had some pretty dramatic shifts than what he promised in his campaign. He's backed off the promise to move from the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He's backed off what appeared to be support of settlements, saying their expansion is unhelpful to the peace process. And we'll see how his policies shift, especially after this meeting with Netanyahu.

KOSIK: But I guess the Israelis see it, at least the relationship between Netanyahu and Trump is good. They almost seemed like buddies yesterday, compared to what Netanyahu and Obama were together.

LIEBERMANN: And the optics of that were very important. That perhaps explaining why they chose to do this in very untraditional way. The press conference before the meeting, before they had a chance to talk about substance.

It was so important to both of these leaders to show how strong this relationship is from the very beginning and how dramatically different it is than how the relationship ended between former President Barack Obama and Netanyahu, which was at its best incredibly rocky.

So, just that appearance, regardless of disagreements on policy, disagreements on settlements and how to move forward on a peace process, it was so important for both Trump and Netanyahu to appear to have a very strong relationship from the beginning, especially as both of these leaders face their own challenges. Trump with Flynn's resignation and then Netanyahu facing a criminal investigation here.

KOSIK: So much at stake here. CNN's Oren Liebermann, thanks so much.

BERMAN: The president seemed to be trying to avoid some tough questions at some of these news conferences by not calling on reporters for the traditional larger media outlets. At the conference with the Israeli prime minister, he only called on reporters from organizations seen to be somewhat sympathetic to the administration, the Christian Broadcasting Network and town hall. CNN reporters at these events tried to ask the president questions about the administration's ties to Russia, more specifically the campaigns. The Trump campaign ties to Russia. But those questions were ignored.


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

REPORTER: Do you have any comment on the report that there was contact between your senior advisers and suspected Russian operatives during your presidential campaign, Mr. Trump?

President Trump, no comment on that?


BERMAN: Pure silence. We have seen that all week. On Monday, when he had the conference with the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he only called on outlets that were favorable to the White House.

We should note, I mean, look, presidents in the White House, they will always try to manage their own story and manage the narrative. And they often do interviews with sympathetic reporters or sympathetic outlets. But at these news conferences in the past, always, you know, some of the major outlets have been called on. If you are not with one of the major outlet, you know, it's on you. You'd ask a question about a story that's in the news.

KOSIK: But the questions that were asked and clearly ignored are the questions of the day. I think, well, many analysts are saying, I should, are saying, listen, if the president wants this problem to have the chance of going away, he's got to at least engage in some of these questions.

BERMAN: That's not how he is handling it so far.

All right. Big meetings overseas. Top diplomats from U.S. and Russia set to meet at a summit this morning. We're live in Germany, next.


[04:23:00] BERMAN: With growing scrutiny over the Trump campaign's possible ties and contacts to Russia, the newly minted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Germany for the G20 summit. In just a few hours, he's scheduled to meet with the Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The summit is the first big test of Tillerson's new diplomatic post and how he will handle it.

Let's go live to Germany right now and bring in international diplomatic editor, Nic Robertson.

Nic, what are the two men expected to discuss?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, John, big day for Rex Tillerson for sure. Look, what we have been told by the State Department is expected to discuss issues of mutual interest. And here, we're told, ISIS and counterterrorism.

Obviously, we heard from President Trump talking about how he can see a way to work with Russia to tackle the problem of ISIS in Syria. So, that seems to be on the able. But then, you're going to factor in what we have been hearing over the past 24 hours, that there's a possibility of U.S. troops being put on the ground in Syria.

Already, just the Syria part of the conversation is going to be a busy one. But the message that we're told by the State Department as well that Tillerson is bringing here (AUDIO GAP) is that the United States supports transatlantic alliance over Ukraine, which means Russia and the Ukrainians, but Russia needs to meet the terms of the Minsk agreement over Ukraine before sanctions can be lifted.

And beyond that, the White House position that Russian troops must get out of Crimea before U.S. sanctions can be lifted on Russia, something the foreign ministry, Sergey Lavrov, from Russia, who's already been pushing back on. There are issues here of mutual interest, there are certainly issues of contention. Not the least the discussion about usage of missiles recently, of fly-bys and, of course, the Kremlin wondering how good its understanding of what's going on in the White House is following the departure of Michael Flynn.

So, Rex Tillerson will have a full discussion. That's happening on the margins of the G20.

[04:25:00] He's already met with the Saudi foreign minister talking about Yemen and what can happen there and talking more widely with others about Syria too -- John.

BERMAN: All right. A lot on the plate for this first big meeting. Nic Robertson for us in Germany, thanks so much, Nic. KOSIK: The future of U.S. funding for NATO could hang in the balance,

hinging on whether NATO allies decide to pay up. Defense Secretary James Mattis echoing the president's tone at the Brussels meeting with NATO defense ministers, and while reaffirming U.S. support for the alliance, Mattis said members must be willing to pull their weight.


JAMES MATTIS, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: It's a fair demand of those who benefit from the best defense in the world carry their proportionate share of the necessary cost to defend freedom. And we should never forget that ultimately, it is freedom that we defend here at NATO.


KOSIK: And the NATO secretary-general says the message from Secretary Mattis is fair and they need to do a better job of burden sharing.

BERMAN: All right. Following the news of constant contact between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials, some in Washington now calling for investigation into that. They want to know who leaked the story.

Stay with us.