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White House Denies Wrongdoing in FBI Conversations About Russia Reporting; Source: Trump Frustrated with Stories About Staff; Trump Praises 1st Amendment While Slamming Press; WH Blocks CNN, Others from Briefing; Trump Denounces the FBI Over Leaks; Conservatives Embrace Trump at Conference He Once Spurned; Trump Touts Hardline, Non- Traditional Agenda; Police: Nerve Agent Killed Kim Jong-un's Half Brother

Aired February 24, 2017 - 21:00   ET


[21:00:05] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ACNHOR: Well, topping this hour "360", new reporting on the story that CNN first broke. The White House pressuring the FBI to knock down reports of Trump campaign contact with Russia. Tonight, White House reaction and their timeline of who said what to whom. Also this hour, two former top FBI officials weigh in, so with legendary investigative reporter Carl Bernstein. But first, the very latest from CNN chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tonight, the White House vehemently defending, asking the FBI to deny reports of communications between Trump campaign associates and Russians known to U.S. intelligence. The administration's intense push back follows CNN's exclusive reporting of the White House request.

Senior administration officials insisting it only asked for the denial after a top FBI official himself volunteered that the "New York Times" story on those communications was inaccurate. White House officials who asked not to be named today outlined their timeline of events, saying the conversation happened on February 15th, after a 7:30 a.m. meeting led by White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe asked Priebus for five minutes alone after the meeting ends. This according to senior administration officials and calls a report linking Trump campaign advisers to Russian intelligence total B.S. Priebus at the White House says ask McCabe "Can we do anything about it?" And whether there is something the FBI can do to "set the record straight."

Later in separate conversations, McCabe and FBI Director James Comey tell Priebus the FBI cannot comment on the reports. Priebus then asks Comey if he can cite McCabe and Comey as "top intelligence officials" in pushing back on the story himself in T.V. interviews last Sunday, which he did. REINCE PRIEBUS, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I've talked to the top levels of the intelligence community, and they have assured me that that "New York Times" story was grossly overstated and inaccurate and totally wrong.

SCIUTTO (voice-over): The direct communications between the White House and the FBI were unusual, because of decade-old restrictions on such contacts concerning pending investigations.

ALBERTO GONZALES, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: You don't even want the appearance of political influence with respect to an investigation of prosecution. That's why the protocols are in place.

SCIUTTO (voice-over): MR. Trump also criticized the FBI directly, tweeting today, "The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security leakers that have permeated our government for a long time. They can't even find the leakers within the FBI itself. Classified information is being given to media that could have a devastating effect on U.S. Find now."


COOPER: So, Jim, what more are you learning?

SCIUTTO: Well, this is the key here, on the broader issue of communications between Trump advisers during the campaign and Russians and other Russian officials and other Russians known to U.S. intelligence, the White House is actually not denying that such communications took place. And in fact, we know that today, right now, the FBI is investigating those communications. In addition to that, both the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, keep in mind, both led by Republicans, with the Republicans majorities, they are still investigate those communications.

So Reince Priebus and some of these public comment seemed to be saying there's nothing to these stories, the fact is the FBI, the Senate and House Intelligence Committees they discreet, they're still investigating those communications.

COOPER: And what Reince Priebus has been particularly point to is "New York Times" reporting which is different than CNN's reporting.

SCIUTTO: It's true, Reince Priebus -- the White House seem to be zeroing in on this detail. "New York Times" reported these communications were with "Russian intelligence." Our reporting is that the communications between Trump advisers and Russians where with Russians known to U.S. intelligence, Russian officials, diplomat, et cetera. And the FBI, the Senate and House Intelligence Committees are still trying to establish what those Russians connections are to the Kremlin, to Russian itelligence, et cetera. They haven't established it yet. They have eliminated those connections but they haven't established it yet. And it appears to be that detail the White House is zeroing in on.

COOPER: All right. Jim Sciutto, thanks.

SCIUTTO: Thank you.

COOPER: One other quick note on reaction inside the White House, the source telling CNN this is being seen as a "distraction the President doesn't need right now."

Back with us is former FBI Deputy Director John Pistole who's now president of Anderson University. Also, Phil Mudd, a former senior official at the FBI, as well as the CIA, and journalist Carl Bernstein.

John, I mean, direct conversations between the White House and the FBI over an ongoing investigation, it's certainly understandable why Reince Priebus would want the FBI to knock down a story that the deputy director of the FBI has said to him is total B.S., do you see this is unusual?

JOHN PISTOLE, PRESIDENT, ANDERSON UNIVERSITY: Well, it's unusual in the aspect of having a chief of staff ask for the FBI to get involved in some type of media campaign or something along those lines. It's not unusual, obviously, for the FBI and the Department of Justice to brief the White House on ongoing national security matters as a, in fact, broader policy issues.

[21:05:14] So, I think the parsing might be on what was exactly said, what did the chief of staff ask, the deputy director, what was offered and then how that was played out. And I think that's again, where are some of the information may be conflated with the ongoing investigations of did somebody in the Trump campaign say or do something in terms of contacts with Russian officials, whether intelligence officers or otherwise, was there some type of violation while there? Or was there something improper or did it impact national security in some respect? And that's why that investigation is ongoing. So it would not be proper for the FBI to comment on ongoing investigation.

COOPER: Phil, do you think the White House has sort of handled this poorly by making it almost bigger than it is?

PHILIP MUDD, FORMER SENIOR OFFICIAL, FBI AND CIA: No, that's exactly right, Anderson. I can't understand this. Let me pick up on what John Pistole was saying about how you parse this. It looks from the surface if you're looking at this outside Washington that the FBI discussed inappropriately a case with the White House. I don't believe that happened.

I suspect what's happened here is somebody from the FBI, Andy McCabe, whom I worked with, John's work with, he's unimpeachable. The deputy director of the FBI might have said something like, "We saw that 'New York Times' article, we want to work with you on a variety of issues. We weren't responsible for that leak, and we don't think the article's accurate." That's not a conversation about an ongoing investigation. That's a reassurance of someone who wants to keep from the FBI, who wants to keep working with the Department of Justice.

The story, Anderson, is why the White House now made this into a multi-day problem instead of a one-day interesting page 813 new story. It's not that interesting that the deputy director talked to Reince Preibus.

It's interesting why the White House is stepping back, trying to stamp down a story that people on the inside would say doesn't merit this kind of consideration. It's almost like the rollout in immigration. People who are dealing with national security and who have not dealt with that much before are trying to realize what it's like to interact with the FBI and CIA and they have not done that well yet.

COOPER: Carl, is that how you see it?

CARL BERNSTEIN, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: First of all, it's inappropriate. If President Obama had done this, if his chief of staff had done this, there would be a call for congressional investigation and possible impeachment. Exaggerated responses that might be. But more important, this is diversionary noise by President Trump, by his chief of staff. We are looking at a White House, a president who just lost his national security adviser in the first days of his administration for lying to the Vice President of the United States about his talks in secret with the Russians. This is a huge story.

The subject of investigations on Capitol Hill by journalists. This is not going away. We need to find out what happened and the President of the United States and the people around him, they know that there is a determination, not just by the press, but by Republicans and Congress as well as Democrats, to find out what the hell happened here during the campaign with the Russians, were there contacts? What were the contacts between the Trump organization if there were and the Russians or ethno Russians or people from around that part of the world?

And more important than that, it goes back to Donald Trump's business interests in that part of the world. All of this is now open for a can of worms of investigation and that's what's got the White House so exercised.

COOPER: John, when you hear the President going -- talking about the FBI that they can't stop leaks, they can't even stop leaks from within the agency. Is that constructive?

PISTOLE: Just to the heart of the issue in terms of what is a leak and is it classified information for example or is it simply commenting on ongoing publications as opposed to ongoing investigations or ongoing articles, news reporting. So I think it's a question of whether the President is making something constructive or is it something that it's just more noise that is distracting from the issues that have been articulated.

COOPER: And, Phil, you -- I mean you said this -- sorry, that you dealt with leaks before, you don't consider this an example of a leak, which is leaking classified information to those who are not, you know, authorized to have it.

MUDD: Let's step inside this for just a moment, Anderson. What you've seen a conversation over a couple of days that talks about White House interactions with the FBI. You tell me. What national security issue was revealed? What did the Russians or Chinese learn about that could have affected national security? It's embarrassing for the White House. I don't consider that a leak. What's a leak to me is a revelation for example about a military operation to get sizes, about a CIA operation against terrorist.

[21:10:01] I mentioned earlier and let me give you a snapshot. I remember a leak investigation 12, 14 years ago, we at the agency were closing in weeks maybe, a month or two away from taking down a terrorist overseas, an al-Qaeda guy. He was unknown in America. Someone leaked that to a major National newspaper and they were beginning to do a profile not only on that terrorist but about what we were doing. If that story had run, that terrorist would have seen it and he would go underground.

We went to that newspaper and I personally said, this is what we know, this is how we're going to take him down, and if you publish this and this guy stays alive, he's going to kill people. That's a leak, Anderson. What we have here is an embarrassment. Let's not confuse the two.

COOPER: Just for our interest, can I ask what the paper did?

MUDD: They stopped publishing.

COOPER: All right.

MUDD: They told us, we will stop publishing if you give us the story first. And when we went after this guy and we did, we gave them the story first.

COOPER: Interesting. Phil, John, Carl, thank you all for being us, appreciate it.

Just ahead, what President Trump had to say about the press, and not flattering, nor surprise in addition to this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I love the First Amendment. Nobody know -- loves it better than me, nobody.



COOPER: Well, President Trump did today what many presidents do, but rarely in public. He launched another full-throated attack on the news media, especially what he calls "fake news" especially the use of unnamed sources. He couched it in a claimed that he's not condemning the entire profession.


TRUMP: I am only against the fake news media or press. Fake. Fake. They have to leave that word. I'm against the people that make up stories and make up sources. They shouldn't be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody's name. Let their name be put out there. Let their name be put out.


COOPER: All that said as we reported in our last hour, Mr. Trump himself has cited unnamed sources on plenty of occasions in the past when it suited him. Reports are he also has phoned up media outlets using fake names when he was a civilian to plant stories favorable to himself. John Miller, I believe, and John Barron, I believe, were the two names he used.

[21:15:06] Here to talk about president, the press and the people, Cal. Berkeley professor of Public Policy and former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, he is the author of "Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few". Also with us, Jeffrey Lord, he's a Trump supporter and a contributing editor at "The American Spectator" and well, you know, Ronal Reagan.

Jeff, I would like to mention Reagan before you do. How do you square President Trump today attacking the press saying they're, "the enemy" condemning the use of unnamed sources by the press when he himself and his campaign has -- have been those very sources in the past. And then in almost the same breath, saying, he "loves the First Amendment. Nobody loves it better than me."

JEFFREY LORD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think he does love the First Amendment. He makes great use of it. But, you know, Anderson, I want to congratulate you. You played just the second. The absolute correct truth of what he said today about the American media.

And I just to want to hold up as an illustration. "The New York Times" today along with CNN face the ban from the White House for gaggles as they've say. I just want to hold up the story from "The New York Times" February 17th, a few days ago. Trump calls the news media the enemy of the American people as the headline and that is the essence of the first sentence.

And then eventually, they get around to the tweet which actually says the fake news and he puts -- the President's puts fake news in caps. The fake news media, failing "New York Times", failing "New York Times" CNN, NBC News and many more, is not my enemy. It is the enemy of the American people.

In other words, this story from "The New York Times" is itself fake news because his -- he was saying, "Fake news media." What they did is take that out of the headline and put media in there. You just get it correctly, "The New York Times" did it incorrectly and that's the kind of thing --.

COOPER: But he's saying the "New York Times"--


LORD: -- is what's wrong with the media.

COOPER: But he's saying the "New York Times", CNN are all fake. LORD: What he's saying is that they are publishing fake stories. This story is clearly fake. He did not say, "You've got the whole import of the story." Is that he's saying that media is the enemy the American people. Only when you scroll down, do you see the actually tweet which he said, "Fake new media."


LORD: That's a huge difference.

COOPER: Secretary Reich, do you see a difference there because it seems like he is labeling pretty much, you know, some of the most mainstream sources of news fake news media.

ROBERT REICH, FORMER LABOR SECRETARY: Clearly, Anderson, we have a president who does not want to be criticized. He doesn't like the media exposing anything or talking back to him or arguing with him or holding him accountable for anything that he's saying. He has repeatedly singled out "The New York Times" and CNN and the few others up for propagating fake news without being specific about what they're doing except that are holding him accountable. And he did say in that clearly that they are the enemy of the American people. I've never heard a president say anything like that.

Today, he went on and on at the Conservative Political Action Conference, again, attacking the media, attacking "The New York Times", attacking CNN and several others. And then Sean Spicer had an informal press briefing, but they kept the "New York Times" and CNN and a couple of other so-called unfriendly news outlets outside the White House and outside the press briefing. That's the first time I've heard anything like that.

COOPER: What do you think the strategy? Is it just to distract from the Russia stories and to distract from stories and to kind of set the stage for any future negative stories to just discount them by saying, "Well, the people reporting them are just fake?"

REICH: Yes, Anderson, I think that that's exactly it in terms of undermining the credibility of the media that dislikes or at least -- in Trump's view, dislikes Trump and is crossing Trump or is criticizing Trump. And therefore, the President keeps on saying, "Don't pay attention to, don't believe these media. They are propagating so-called fake news." And so, as "The New York Times" and CNN and a couple of other outlets presumably get closer and closer to maybe, maybe, some Russian connection -- Trump can turn around and say, "Well, I told you all along that's fake news and we cannot, in any way, give it any credibility."

Look, this is partly ego. I think that it is clear that this is a man who is hugely narcissistic and doesn't like anybody and any news agency to be in any way critical about him, but he goes beyond that. I think there's some strategic basis for what he is doing.


LORD: Anderson, all the way back in 1964, and I will not mention the R word, Barry Goldwater was about to be nominated for president in San Francisco and CBS News ran a story, saying that when the convention was over, and my source for this is Barry Goldwater's autobiography, which I have right here, that Barry Goldwater when the convention was over was going to go to Hitler's old playground in Berchtesgaden, Germany to address a neo-Nazi group. There was not a shred of truth to it. It was reported as gospel by Dan Schorr of CBS News. Twenty- four years later, Barry Goldwater was still angry about this.

[21:20:21] My point is, this kind of thing, they didn't even have the term fake news in that 1964. This kind of thing has been done over and over and over again by conservative Republicans. So, therefore -- to conservative Republicans. So, therefore, when you hear President Trump today say this to CPAC, the people of CPAC get it. This is gospel with these folks.


COOPER: Go ahead.

REICH: With due respect, that is utterly ridiculous. We have a president here who is telling big lies over and over again. About the size of his mandates. I mean, today, he went on and on at CPAC about how many people voted for him, you've never seen anything like it, when in fact the mandate, his so-called mandate, his Electoral College mandate is one of the smallest in history between one quarter and one fist of what it normally gets.

And secondly, he lost the popular vote by almost a record number. Almost 3 million people and yet he lies over and over again. There is no end of his lies. And on top of that, he is accusing the media that criticize him of being fake news.

COOPER: All right.

REICH: That combination of telling big lies and then accusing the media of being fake news outlets, these are the kind of strategy that -- what do you have, I mean, dictators and tyrants have used traditionally in this country.

COOPER: I got to wrap this up.

LORD: Barry Goldwater bans CBS from his briefing.

COOPER: OK. I'm glad we're not going to talk about the size of anybody's mandate anymore. Robert Reich, thank you very much. Jeffrey Lord.

LORD: Thanks.

COOPER: Appreciate it.

Coming up, more on President Trump's tweet rant directed at the FBI this time, saying, the Bureau is, "Totally unable to stop the national security leakers." Is that really the issue or is the bigger picture the White House asked the FBI to knock down the story? We'll dig deeper on that next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[21:25:57] COOPER: Democrats in Congress are calling it a breach of the FBI's independence deeply disturbing and abuse of power. They are talking about the White House asking the FBI to knock down news reports about the Trump team communicating with Russians known to U.S. intelligence during the presidential campaign. The FBI rejected that requested. CNN first reported this yesterday and reaction has been coming in ever since from Capitol Hill and beyond.

Joining us are our CNN senior political commentator and former Obama senior adviser, David Axelrod and chief national correspondent and "Inside Politics" anchor, John King.

David, your argument, which you posted on Twitter earlier, is that -- if President Obama's chief of staff had called the FBI to knock down a story on an ongoing probe of the president's allies, Congress would have raised hell. Is it that simple because White House officials now say it was the deputy FBI director who asked to talk to Reince Priebus about this and that's how the conversation got started?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, this wasn't a casual conversation. This was a conversation about an ongoing investigation, coverage of an ongoing investigation. How often does the FBI say, well, we don't comment on ongoing investigations?

And it appears that, I don't know -- what the genesis of the conversation was, but that the chief of staff was trying to enlist the FBI knocking down a story about an ongoing investigation involving the President and his allies during the campaign. And that seems to me to be a very troubling area. And I do believe that had it been another administration, had there been a Democratic president, this Republican Congress would be well down the road on hearings having seen the story.

COOPER: John, I mean you also hear Trump critics invoking the Republican outrage when former President Bill Clinton met with Attorney General Loretta Lynch on the plane during the campaign, essentially asking why aren't Republicans similarly outraged now? Initially apples to apples but -- I mean, it underscores the third rail of even the appearance of politics mixing with FBI investigations.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It does and Congress is out of town this week. So, we'll see what happens when they come back next week. We'll see if this comes up maybe weekend town halls. But you're right during the campaign, remember they said it was inappropriate that Bill Clinton was trying to influence the investigation when he had an inappropriate conversation with the attorney general. They have every right and every reason to say that the president of the United States should never have gone on that plane. Republicans we're right to make that case.

Republican throughout the campaign repeatedly said the Clinton's thing, they live by their own set of rules. They think they can do it their way despite the guideline through in place that everybody else has to follow, whether it's that conversation with Loretta Lynch or whether it up setting of a private e-mail server.

Now, Reince Priebus is at the same situation. He needs to know better, Anderson, even if you accept their facts. And unless and until this reporting contract, let's accept them at their word, that the deputy FBI director initiated this conversation. The chief of staff's job is to put his hand up and say, "Whoa, stop. The White House Counsel's office is down the hall. If you have anything to say about that, take it up with the Counsel, not with me. I'm the president's political gatekeeper. I am not the person who should be involved in that conversation."

COOPER: David, as you know, President Trump tweeted today, and it been put on the screen said "The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security leakers that have permeated our government for a long time. They can't even find the leakers within the FBI itself. Classified information's being given to the media that could have a devastating effect on U.S. Find now."

I mean, not only is that his prerogative, I mean to be fair as our president, but the Obama administration was certainly very aggressive in prosecuting leakers. Why shouldn't President Trump be as well?

AXELROD: Yeah. Well, he should be in a sense that if there are leaks that jeopardize national security or operations in the field, that is a concern that needs to be pursued. I'm not sure stories about the chief of staff calling the FBI to try and quash stories that are unflattering to the president, qualifies as a national security or classified matter.

But there's something larger here, Anderson. We have seen since the President took office a systematic effort to impeach all kinds of institutions. So, whether it's the courts, whether it's the news media, or in this case, the FBI when he sees stories that displease him. And it is, you know, this very same organization, the FBI, the intelligence community that he's regularly impugned are organizations that he, as president, is going to have to rely on to actually keep America safe.

[21:30:09] And if he starts impeaching the credibility of these organizations, what happens when he turns around and base his decisions on the information that they've given him? So I think he ought to sit back and consider the implications of waging this multi- pronged war against all the institutions of our democracy when they displease him.

COOPER: John, I mean you are a former White House correspondent. I wanted to get your thoughts about the President's comments about the First Amendment today, which is really the bigger issue, and then it was followed obviously hours later by the incident with the CNN and the other news organizations, "The New York times", Politico, were denied access during the off cam or press gaggle with Sean Spicer in the West Wing.

KING: Well, first, what the President said is simply is inaccurate. He said we complain that he can't criticize us for fake news. There's a difference between fake news and fake spin, he criticizes the CNN reporting that is well-documented as fake news. That is not fake news. It may be a tough story. We know from the history of the campaign, this president does not like stories that are about investigations of him, which the story is, stories that are about maybe questions of confidence inside the White House. He lashes out of those things.

That's a political strategy, that's OK. We need to be ducks. Let it hit us and roll up like water. I covered the White House for nine and a half years, you're right. This administration is taking an age-old tactic, beating up the media, picking favorites within the media to a new level.

So, let's hope today is just one of those peaks and valleys. There are often peaks and valleys in a relationship. And it's early in this relationship. However, if they make it harder for us to do our job, we just need to work harder.

Now, we shouldn't whine, we shouldn't complain. We should make our case quietly that we deserve access. But listen, the President of the United States, if he wants to invite the One American News Network into briefings of the press secretary and not CNN, Breitbart, not "The New York Times", he's limiting the scope of his message. If he denies CNN, he's denying himself and the president a global platform. That's his choice, let him make it. We'll just work harder.

COOPER: David, I guess the question is whose choice is it? I mean, is Sean Spicer the one who would do this on his own and deny access to certain outlets or this -- would this have been green lit from higher up?

AXELROD: Well, the suspicion is it would come from higher up. If you listen to what both the President and Steve Bannon have said in the last 48 hours, they've essentially declared war on the news media. So this looks like a tactic in service of that war.

The question is -- and I agree with John completely. I don't think banning news organizations from gaggles is going to stop those news organizations from doing their jobs. So, if the notion is to try to muzzle coverage of the administration, I don't think they're going to be successful in that. And then it's not a very strong move to try and insulate yourself from difficult questions.

COOPER: It is, John, as you said though, such a tried and true method of attacking the media. I meant it just goes back -- you know, it's not the first time this is happen but certainly, this is a new level, and clearly, the Trump White House believes it's an effective tactic, certainly for their base.

KING: It is another example of a strategic decision they have made out of the box. Will it succeed in the long run? Let's watch. Let's check in six months. Let's check in two years. Let's see what's happens in the midterm elections and beyond. This is their choice politically. We'll see how it plays out going forward. Again, when it comes to the media, we should do our jobs, we should protest when we're excluded from things, but we should not be so self- important that we whine about these things. Just do your job and if they make it harder, get up earlier, stay up later.

COOPER: We're up late tonight. John King, thanks very much, David Axelrod as well. Thanks guys.

Just ahead, at the Conservative Political Action Conference today, President Trump got an enthusiastic reaction from the group that he stood up just one year ago. The question is, how long will the love last given how far President Trump's agenda is from some of the Republican orthodoxy. We'll look at that ahead.


[21:32:38] COOPER: As we've been talking about, President Trump wrapped up his fifth week in office with a speech to a group that he shunned just one year ago. His debut at the Conservative Political Action Conference stay was a reminder that politics, as the saying goes, "Often makes strange bedfellows." Tom Foreman, tonight, reports.


TRUMP: You finally have a president, finally. It took you a long time.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For all the cheering at CPAC, Donald Trump is hardly the champion many conservatives expected. And much of the nomination process, his support among them was extremely low. He's a former Democrat married three times, the voice behind those vulgar comments about women.

TRUMP: Grab them by the (beep). You can do anything.

FOREMAN (voice-over): He struggles to explain his faith.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you ever asked God for forgiveness?

TRUMP: That's a tough question.

FOREMAN (voice-over): He has slammed Republican Party cornerstones, such as broad free trade deals and on abortion rights here's Donald Trump in 1999.

TRUMP: I'm very pro-choice. I hate the concept of abortion. I hate it. I hate everything it stands for. I cringe when I listen to people debating the subject. But you still, I just believe in choice.

FOREMAN (voice-over): That changed over the years, and after the election, he made sure his position was very clear.

TRUMP: I'm pro-life. The judges will be pro-life.

FOREMAN (voice-over): So aside from that last answer, what do conservatives like about him? Listen to the applause lines at CPAC.

TRUMP: It's time for all Americans to get off of welfare and get back to work. You're going to love it. We're going to repeal and replace Obamacare.

We are going to keep radical Islamic terrorists the hell out of our country. I'm not representing the globe. I'm representing your country.

FOREMAN (voice-over): Those stances have drawn traditional party Republicans like White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus much closer to more radical social conservatives like White House Adviser Steve Bannon.

PRIEBUS: And I've got to tell you, if the party and the conservative movement are together, similar to Steve and I, it can't be stop.


FOREMAN: Conservatives may yet find their faith tested to President Trump strays too far from their orthodoxy, and he could find party support softening if his approval ratings continue to fall.

[21:00:35] But for right now, as they say everyone loves the winner and conservatives believe they are winning big. Anderson?

COOPER: Tom, thanks a lot.

To discuss with the panel, joining me is CNN political commentators, Mary Katharine Ham, Amanda Carpenter and Matt Lewis.

Amanda, you heard the President today obviously a very friendly room. How do you think it played with conservatives watching around the country?

AMAND CARPENTER, FMR COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR FOR SEN. TED CRUZ: Well, I feel like this is the first time I've really heard something new from Donald Trump in it and probably it's because (inaudible) by remarks from Steven Bannon.

What Trump laid out in this speech, if you take away the media critique, if you take away the bragging about his electoral prowess, was a vision for how he approaches the presidency. There were three big things he kept hitting again and again. Safety, sovereignty and work. It was a departure from previous presidents, previous conservative leaders who talked about the free market, often approach their role in government through a Judeo Christian lens. Those things were gone. And this is how Donald Trump is remaking the GOP in the presidency.

COOPER: And do you think it's a message that conservatives will buy into?

CARPENTER: Well, as long as it works for them. I think a lot of people -- listen, everyone in that room was excited to hear from President Trump. They're excited Republicans won. But they expect him to deliver. I really think he has until August to start delivering on Obamacare repeal, tax reform. But if President Trump comes back to CPAC next year and say, listen, here's all we achieved together and everyone has something to celebrate, of course, he's going to be a successful president.

COOPER: Mary Katherine, what do you think?

MARY KATHERINE HAM, SENIOR WRITER, THE FEDERALIST: Well, I think, Amanda's really wise in laying out the things that he put forward as his principles. And I think the principles themselves conservatives go, rah, rah. And they've got a president in power and they go, OK, well this is -- that's why they're excited, that's why they're listening. But the way he accomplishes those things and whether it's, you know, the economic nationalism and a little bit more of protectionist party. Those things don't fall in with the conservative orthodoxy we've known from the past.

And some people -- myself included, are wondering how that's going to play out. So they're wrestling with a lot here including being excited about being empower as a party but also concern about how we're taking this for and how he actually accomplishes these things. If he does, which Amanda notes, it's very important.

COOPER: Matt, it is an extraordinary change, though, for Donald Trump who, you know, in two years ago, I think some folks booed him at CPAC, he didn't show up last year, he didn't attend. He said today that he didn't show up because he was too controversial. It's actually not what his campaign said at the time. They said obviously it was a scheduling conflict. It was a decision that caused a big uproar back then. But it made it all the more interesting to see him up there today and the degree to which at least in the room, he's won over conservative skeptics.

MATT LEWIS, SENIOR COLUMNIST, THE DAILY BEAST: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Look, I think we could divide conservatives into three groups. There's a small number of people who are part of a resistant. These are mostly conservative opinion leaders and intellectuals. Then there's a second category of people who sort of let's go along with Trump and see what we can get. Maybe we'll get a good Supreme Court pick out of him, maybe we can get some tax reform out of it. And then I think there's the larger group, which are the rank and file conservatives and grassroots conservatives. And I think they have bought in on Trumpism.

You know, Kellyanne Conway yesterday said that it's not CPAC, it's going to be TPAC. And I think it was today. Donald Trump, most Republican politicians who come to a meeting of conservatives will tailor their message for that meeting. Just like if you're speaking to a labor unions, you might talk about jobs and make the populist approach. If you're talking to a group of conservatives, normally, you might talk about Ronald Reagan or Edmund Burke or defending the right to life or health -- you know, free trade. Donald Trump didn't do that. He did not tailor his message. It was -- he came there, he attacked the press. He did sort of nationalistic demagoguery. And the audience ate it up. And they were applauding him for criticizing free trade at a conservative conference. COOPER: Yeah, and Amanda, I mean, as you said, it's similar to what we heard from Steve Bannon yesterday at CPAC overly talking about economic nationalism, populalism, dismantling the administrator structures of the state, not --


COOPER: -- typically expressed themes at a conservative rally.

CARPENTER: Well, listen, all conservatives for a long time at CPAC and other places talk about how we reduce the size itself from government. The different here is how Steve Bannon phrases it.

This administration has a really hard edge in the way that they speak about things. But the question is, can they make it work? Can they deliver? Because if Republicans, they may not like this talk, especially, you know, people would be very skeptical previously if somebody would have stood up at a Republican conference and say, "We are now the workers party." That was radical departure in rhetoric from what we hear at a conservative conference.

But if Trump can make that work, if he can push policies that do benefit the American worker, that do get the economy going, I just don't see what Republicans will have to quibble with down the road.

[21:44:58] COOPER: Mary Katherine, I mean, how much of this is a Trump doctrine? How much of it is a Bannon doctrine or is that a distinction will have a difference at this point?

HAM: You know, I think they might sort of be one and the same for the most part. What I think is interesting about CPAC is to watch, for someone like me who believes in conservative values to watch -- born in 1973 when conservatism was in the wilderness and then through the '80s and '90s and 2000s even sort of became the default de facto position of the Republican Party. And I feel like this CPAC felt like to me, a little bit being in the wilderness again even though there all the powers in Republican hands because many of those messages are not the things that I was actually fighting for in the reasons that I was at CPAC. And that's -- that may make me in the minority of that crowd in the room.

But there is part of this where policy and the people who believe those policies, they do rub up against each other. And this is the conservative PAC, who is CPAC. Not TPAC just yet officially. And so it's a little bit of an identity crisis even though people are granted having a lot of fun sort of being on top of the heap right now.

COOPER: We got to go. I appreciate all of you. Matt Lewis, Mary Katherine Ham and Amanda Carpenter, thanks so much.

LEWIS: Thank you.

COOPER: Up next, one piece of the puzzle and an international murder mystery snaps into place. Authorities have identified the nerve agent that killed Kim Jong-un's half brother. What we now know, coming up.


COOPER: Authorities have identified the chemical substance that killed North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's half brother. It is a highly lethal nerve agent who represents a disturbing new twist in a murder mystery that already has the air of the international intrigue. Clarissa Ward has details.


[21:50:04] CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Some of the last moments of Kim Jong-nam's life, he approaches airport security to complain that someone grabbed his face and that he is feeling dizzy. He's escorted to the airport medical clinic. A Malaysian newspaper shows a photograph of him slumped over in his chair apparently unconscious. He dies before reaching the hospital.

In a twist that reads like the script of a Hollywood thriller, Malaysian authorities now confirmed that the half brother of the North Korean dictator was killed by VX, an internationally banned, highly lethal nerve agent that can kill within minutes.

ROBERT BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: If you get any of it on you, you're dead. There's nothing a doctor can do for you. You know, you just die, you get microscopic dot on you of VX and you die.

WARD (voice-over): South Korea is pointing to the volatile North Korean state and the leader himself is the prime suspect. The dramatic assassination took place in broad daylight moments after Kim entered a crowded check-in hall.

Malaysian police claim that two women who can just be made out here wiped Kim's face with some kind of liquid. One of the women can be seen walking off wearing a bizarrely eye catching LOL t-shirt. Two female suspects one from Indonesia and one from Vietnam are now in custody. And it gets more surreal. Indonesian authorities say, one of the women told police she believed she was participating in a prank for a T.V. show, a claim Malaysian official dismissed.

KHALID ABU BAKAR, MALAYSIA'S INSPECTOR GENERAL OF POLICE: These two ladies were trained to swab the deceased face and after that they were instructed to clean their hands. And they know it is toxic.

WARD (voice-over): The hunt is now on for these four North Korean suspects who left the country on the day of the attack, among them a senior official with the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur. In yet another bizarre twist, police said someone tried to break into the mortuary where Kim's the body is being kept. After which they stepped up security.

ABU BAKAR: We know who they are. So, no need for me to tell you.

WARD (voice-over): So why would North Korea's erratic leader want his own half brother dead? A more concern to U.S. officials is how the dangerous dictator got his hands on one of the most deadly chemical weapons in the world and what else he could do with it. BAER: It's a nerve agent that has terrified intelligence agencies in the west for a long time because it's so lethal. Saddam Hussein was accused of having it. In fact, he didn't. They couldn't figure out how to weaponize it. What disturbs me is they have figured out how to weaponize it and deliver it. Would he use it in South Korea, would he use it in the United States? There's simply no way for us to know.


COOPER: Clarissa joins me now. What's the Pentagon saying about all this?

WARD: Well, Anderson the Pentagon is saying that should come as no surprise to anyone that North Korea would engage in assassination practices is the phase that they used, but at the same time they are not confirming use of VX. But it's hard to believe that this is not of grave concern to U.S. officials. The fact is, this happened in broad daylight in a major international airport. And if the VX had been more widely dispersed, many, many more people could have been killed, among them potentially Americans. Anderson.

COOPER: It's just incredible. Clarissa, thanks.

Joining me with more on this deadly chemical substance, CNN chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Sanjay, what exactly is this nerve agent used on Kim Jong-nam? How does it work?

SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's called VX and I think best way to think about it, sort of a very powerful pesticide in a way you think about pesticide, what they can do to pests, they're trying to do the same thing to humans with the nerve agents like this. And specifically what it does, you know, constantly -- our muscles are constantly firing and then relaxing. That's happening all the time. Right now, your muscles are doing that Anderson, mine are as well.

What this does, it turns off the off switch so muscles are just firing all the time. They start to really contract and eventually get tired. And that's ultimately what can lead to death. Someone may stop breathing as result of this.

COOPER: How does it differ from nerve gasses like sarin and how close do you have to be, to be effective?

GUPTA: Sarin is the one that a lot of people hear about. And there's been various attacks over the years. Sarin is a gas. It's more of a gas. So that's something that people will often release, you know, disperse and they can affect a lot of people.

VX can affect a lot of people as well but it's not typically a gas. It's almost sort of the consistency of motor oil. I mean, it's harder to turn into a gas.

[21:55:00] So it's something that typically comes in contact with somebody's skin. That's typically what happens with VX. It can be used, you know, in the water supply or food as well to be ingested, but typically it's just a small amount on the skin that can serve to cause all these symptoms.

COOPER: And what are chances of survival if you're exposed? Is there an antidote? If you've gotten to hospital and they knew what it was? Could they have saved him?

GUPTA: You know, it works very fast, so it's unlikely -- you know, this is very toxic stuff. And Anderson, you may remember when you and I have covered conflicts and those concerns about chemical weapons. We're often given a vial of atropine, that's sort of an antidote. And what we're often told, you may remember is that, if there's any concern at all about a chemical weapon release, you go ahead and give the antidote, because you don't have any time really, very little time if there's an actual release.

But when it comes to something like VX, I mean, you can get a lethal dose in just a drop of the stuff. So that gives you an idea. And also brings that this issue, Anderson, the people who are handling it, people who are actually moving it around, they're at risk. The people who may have cared for this gentleman, they're at risk. If they don't know what they're dealing with and come in contact with the VX gas, they can also become poisoned as result. That's part of the reason it's banned and it's part of the reason people don't use it very often, because it is so dangerous for everyone involved.

COOPER: It's just incredible. Sanjay, thanks very much.

GUPTA: Yes, thank you.

COOPER: And we'll be right back.


[22:00:02] COOPER: Hey, thanks for watching. I hope you have a great weekend. Time to hand things over to Don Lemon. CNN TONIGHT starts right now.