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FBI Refused White House Request to Knock Down Trump/Russia Stories; Trump Requests Intel Report to Justify Travel Ban. Aired 9- 9:30a ET

Aired February 24, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: -- Harlow. John Berman is off today. Thanks so much for joining us.

President Trump takes the stage this hour. He will speak at CPAC, the nation's premier gathering for conservative leaders and activists. We'll bring you those comments live as soon as they begin.

But we do begin this morning with exclusive reporting from CNN on the Trump White House and a very unusual request, it is raising eyebrows. Sources tell us the administration wanted the FBI to publicly dismiss reports of contact between Russian officials and Trump campaign advisers before the election.

Now, the President responding this morning on Twitter. We'll have what he said in just a moment. But first, let's go straight to our Justice Correspondent Pamela Brown who has been working her sources all day and night breaking this news.

Pam, what can you tell us?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Poppy, CNN is told by multiple sources that the FBI rejected a request from the White House recently to publicly knock down media reports about communications during the 2016 presidential campaign between Donald Trump's associates and Russians known to U.S. intelligence. But a White House official said that the request was made only after the FBI indicated to the White House, it did not believe all of the reporting was accurate.

Now, multiple U.S. officials telling CNN the White House sought the help of the Bureau and other agencies investigating the Russian matter to say that the reports were wrong and that there had been no contacts, the officials said. FBI Director James Comey responded by rejecting this request, according to sources, in part because the alleged communications are the subject of an ongoing investigation.

Now, the White House spokesperson, Sean Spicer, says, "We didn't try to knock the story down. We asked them to tell the truth." The FBI declined to comment, Poppy.

HARLOW: But, Pamela, this is not a typical request at all. How did it all begin?

BROWN: It is not a typical request. This began with FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus on the sidelines of a separate White House meeting. On the day after the stories were published, a White House official says McCabe told Priebus that "The New York Times" story vastly overstated what the FBI knows about the context.

A U.S. official says McCabe didn't discuss specific aspects of the case but wouldn't say exactly what McCabe told Priebus. A White House official said that Priebus later reached out, and again to McCabe and to the FBI Director James Comey, asking for the FBI to, at least, talk to reporters on background to dispute the stories. The FBI refused.

And again, it's worth noting that they didn't just reach out to the FBI, they also reached out to other agencies in an effort to publicly knock down the reporting.

HARLOW: Right, which ultimately didn't happen, so you had Reince Priebus going on the Sunday shows saying it himself.


HARLOW: But, Pam, why is this not just sort of a typical back and forth between the White House talking with the FBI and their own Justice Department? What makes this so odd and perhaps against, you know, regulations?

BROWN: Well, there are decade-old restrictions, Poppy, on such contacts between the White House and the FBI, limiting those discussions only when it is important for the President's duties and where appropriate, from a law enforcement perspective.

Now, if the Deputy Director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, said this to the White House, he may have overstepped since it is an ongoing investigation, not to mention an investigation involving the President's associates and Russia. The request from the White House is a violation of procedures that limit communications with the FBI on pending investigations, Poppy.

HARLOW: Right, and this is an investigation that's still ongoing.

BROWN: It is very much still ongoing. And the FBI's counterintelligence division, they are investigating the contacts between Trump associates during the campaign as well as Russia. Also the House and Senate Intelligence Committees tell CNN that Congress is still investigating those alleged contacts. That has already begun.

And they're starting to collect documents and records, so these investigations are in full swing, Poppy.

HARLOW: Yes. Absolutely. Pamela Brown, stay with us because we have some more breaking news. I'm going to take you to the White House where we're getting some reaction, finally, directly from the White House on all this. That's where we find our Joe Johns.

What are you hearing, Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, a senior administration official briefed reporters just a little while ago. And I think the overall take away, number one, is they say they did nothing wrong. And they do accuse CNN of trying to make a situation look nefarious when they say it was not nefarious at all.

And much of the recounting of the conversations, as detailed in CNN's reporting you just heard from Pamela Brown, the White House administration's versions of events spoken on background suggest that Reince Priebus, the Chief of Staff, was having a conversation with a group of individuals about intelligence, an unrelated matter.

And at the end of that conversation, Mr. McCabe, the deputy director pulled Reince Priebus aside and essentially told Mr. Priebus, according to these administration officials, that the story in "The New York Times" as relates to constant contacts involving the Russians was, quote, "B.S."

[09:05:07] And the response from Reince Priebus, according to the accounting we got today, he told McCabe in one word or another, well, what can we do about it? And the message back to Mr. Priebus was, the FBI cannot get engaged in responding to every news story because that's essentially all the FBI would be doing.

After a series of additional conversations, it was determined that it would be OK for Reince Priebus to say that he'd been briefed by FBI officials or words to that effect and that they had told him the story in "The New York Times" was not true. So the White House strongly denies trying to apply influence or pressure on the FBI on this, and also takes issue with the question of whether they were actually even trying to influence an investigation at all.

They say they weren't trying to influence an investigation. They were simply trying to get out in front of a news story after it had already happened. So I think those are the finer points.

As to the question that Pam Brown raised in her reporting just a minute ago, about the decades-old policy that pretty much puts a firewall between the White House and the FBI, they say there's a carve-out there for public affairs.

And the other point they continue to make is, they were talking about shooting down a news story, not shooting down an investigation. Even though the fact of the matter is, and I raised this point, if the FBI had come out and shot down "The New York Times" story, they would have had to make a substantive statement about the investigation.

HARLOW: Right.

JOHNS: The takeaway from that is, that is something the FBI would have had to deal with, Poppy.

HARLOW: Important reporting and reaction now that we're getting from the White House. Joe Johns, thank you very much for that.

The President, as I mentioned, a little bit ago this morning taking to Twitter, hitting leakers within the intelligence community about all of this exclusive CNN reporting. Here is what he tweeted. "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 the United States. Find now!"

Meaning, I think, find the leakers now. Let's talk about all of this, and then we'll get to more other CNN exclusive reporting from our Pamela Brown in just a moment.

Juliette Kayyem is with me, our national security analyst and former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. And Norm Eisen joins us, former White House ethics czar under former President Obama. Nice to have you both here.

Juliette, let me go to you first. So the President is hitting back on Twitter to the leakers, not to the substance of CNN's exclusive reporting. He is saying, look, people are leaking this. It is a danger to the United States. Just explain to the American people why it matters so much if indeed this is the action, that CNN has multiple sources reporting, that took place between the White House and the FBI.

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: So the call itself by the White House to the FBI, even if they claim that it only had to do with, oh, the P.R. aspects of it, clearly went to the core of an investigation into this White House, the ties or collusiveness between Trump and potentially his people and Russia during the campaign. The idea that that call would even happen was, at best, very bad judgment by the Chief of Staff; at worst, suggests that they were trying to quiet the story.

I will tell you, if "The New York Times" story was about, you know, if it was totally erroneous, right, the FBI would have said so. And so the idea that the White House can ask the FBI to get dangerously close to facts about an investigation ongoing, it just breaks not just guidelines but I think sort of good politics on their part.

And it's why people like me who generally do not like independent investigations -- I have confidence in law enforcement -- think there's too much talking between the White House and the FBI. And I will say, you know, on Trump's point, McCabe should have never said anything to the Chief of Staff in that meeting, even if it was innocuous. Everyone needs to stop talking.

HARLOW: Norm Eisen, in your position running the ethics office in the Obama White House, I mean, what do you make of Sean Spicer's argument? The White House pushing back and saying, look, we didn't do anything wrong.

He said, quote, "We didn't try to knock the story down. We asked them," the FBI, "to tell the truth." How do you see it?

NORMAN EISEN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE SPECIAL COUNSEL FOR ETHICS AND GOVERNMENT REFORM: Poppy, good morning. Thanks for having me. Good morning, Juliette. [09:09:58] I think that it's very concerning, and the explanation that

we just heard, that this was a conversation at the end of a meeting between the Chief of Staff and the FBI representative, does not give me any comfort whatsoever.

The right answer from the White House should have been, there are clear rules that prohibit communications about investigations. This, if it had happened in the Obama White House, would have resulted in a job action, an investigation of whether the Chief of Staff could keep his job.

And the excuse that the White House is offering, that it related to a newspaper story, is not applicable here. If there's an investigation ongoing, you are not supposed to talk about it. It's the first thing that we briefed, that I briefed, our White House officials on, and we very strictly enforced it.

The final thing I'll say is, the comments that we just heard from the White House and from Mr. Trump only demonstrate the need for an independent review here. If there's a dispute about the facts, we need to have an independent party look at it. I think the DOJ I.G. should have a look at it. I think bipartisan members of Congress should have a look at it. Let's figure out what's going on.

And Donald Trump's attacking the leakers is wrong. He should be saying, let's get to the bottom of whether rules were broken by my own people.

HARLOW: Right. Well, this is a trend we've seen from the President, going after the leakers, not the substance of what was leaked. We'll get to that in a moment.

I do want to bring in our Justice Correspondent Pamela Brown again because she's been breaking this news with our colleagues.

Pamela, to this, what the White House is pointing to, this sort of carve-out in these guidelines, do they have justification for that? Does their argument make sense?

BROWN: So I've just been reading through the memos again. And essentially, there is an allowance for public affairs officers between the White House and the Department of Justice to communicate when they're coordinating something on a particular issue, not when you're talking about a pending investigation.

And I know that the White House is basically trying to say this was an article. This was a news story. You know, we're not trying to shoot down an investigation. But essentially, no matter how you look at it, this is about an investigation, and it is an investigation involving President Trump Trump's associates during the campaign and alleged contacts with the Russians.

And so these memos from 2007 and 2009 preclude any interaction between a White House Chief of Staff and the Deputy Director of the FBI discussing any pending investigation. It says, if there has to be any discussion about a pending investigation, it can only be if it applies to the President's duties. So if it's important enough where it applies to the President's duties or it is a law enforcement sensitive matter and it must be discussed.

But even that aside, it is very specific with how the contact should happen, the single point of contact, between the highest levels of the Department of Justice -- the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General -- and the President or Vice President or Counsel to the President, the White House Counsel or Deputy Counsel.

So it's very clear here that the White House Chief of Staff and the Deputy Director of the FBI should have no communication, whatsoever, when it comes to a pending investigation, which is what this is, no matter how you cut it. So I think what the White House said today on background actually raises more questions than answers, Poppy.

HARLOW: And that's right, it's not only justification for the conversation, in general, that is in question. It's who had the conversation and who the regulations allow to hold conversations like that.

Also, Pamela, a lot to unpack here because you have more CNN exclusive reporting on something different. This is the White House looking to prop up support for and really get justification for its travel ban, the new one expected next week, basically going to DHS and going to other agencies asking them to draft memos and reports that would give meat and substance to backing up a new travel ban. Is that right?

BROWN: That's right, Poppy. So sources tell my colleague, Jake Tapper, and me, the White House made this request to DHS to basically bolster its case for why the seven countries listed in the travel ban should remain after it was blocked by the courts.

A senior White House official tells CNN the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department are working on an intelligence report that will demonstrate that the security threat for these seven countries is substantial, and that these countries have all been exporters of terrorism into the United States.

The situation has gotten more dangerous in recent years and more broadly, the refugee program has been a major incubator for terrorism, that according to a senior White House official telling my colleague, Jake Tapper, talking to him.

But this report was requested in light of that 9th Circuit Court of Appeals conclusion that the Trump administration had pointed to no evidence about why the citizens from those seven countries pose a threat. But CNN has learned, Poppy, that some current rank and file intelligence officials are concerned about this assignment.

[09:15:02] HARLOW: They're concerned about it for a number of reasons, but what is their key concern about the request coming with the timing that it's come by?

BROWN: So, there are a couple key issues they have. First of all, it's viewed by some officials at DHS and elsewhere that this is an attempt to politicize intelligence to fit a policy rather than the other way around. And some officials, officials within DHS disagree with the Trump White House position on the seven countries.

In fact, Poppy, the Department of Homeland Security in-house intelligence agency, the office of Intelligence and Analysis or I&A, has filed a report disagreeing with the White House view that blocking immigration from all seven countries is justified according to our sources. They do not think nationality is the best indicator of potential terrorism.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security confirmed this report to CNN basically saying that, "While DHS was asked to draft a comprehensive report on this issue, the document you're referencing was commentary from a single intelligence source versus a single robust document with thorough interagency vetting."

And our sources, Poppy, say, the new head of I&A, David Glawe, may also be trying to politicize intelligence. He initially objected to his division's assessment that was at odds with the White House assessment. But the DHS spokeswoman says the notion any intelligence within the agency is politicized is absurd and factually inaccurate.

The White House says the new travel ban is expected to be signed next week.

Back to you.

HARLOW: Great reporting on all fronts. Pamela, stay with us.

Let's bring back in Juliette Kayyem and Norm Eisen.

You know, Juliette, one of the key problems with the first travel ban was, as you heard on the call with the Ninth Circuit justices, the White House could not provide justification for why these countries were selected. They were asked, you know, what terror attacks, et cetera, can you point to, and the White House, you know, their counsel arguing this did not have it.

These reports would arguably give them more justification from a new more narrow travel ban. That's what we're getting at here. The issue, though, that Pamela brings up of politicizing this is a big risk and a big concern.

How do you see it?

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Exactly. This was 2003 all over again, obviously less dramatic than a war in Iraq.

But when you have a political mission, either going to war or having a Muslim ban and you drive the intelligence that way, it will tell you what you want to find, but it may not necessarily be true. Based on Pamela's reporting that come out of the Department of Homeland Security, there's no question the seven countries are dangerous as compared to, say, Great Britain or France.

But the question that needs to be answered to a court -- and it's clear the White House is trying to bolster its evidentiary claim in potential litigation, is are those countries responsible for exporting refugees to the United States that would justify a ban? And I think there's no -- I know there's no evidence for that.

And so, this is I think a dangerous way to treat intelligence agencies. Policies should be driven by what the intelligence is telling you because reality sort of ends up showing its face, right? Eventually the facts are going to catch up.

And so, that's sort of what's going on at least at the Department of Homeland Security at this stage.

HARLOW: I would note one thing, the White House pushes back against any notion this is a Muslim ban, right? They say these are the seven countries outlined by the Obama administration. They're right to an extent. The Obama administration said you have to vet them more. They didn't say you ban everyone from these countries.

KAYYEM: Poppy, this is a misconception. I was part of the Obama administration during this time. This is a misconception about what those seven countries were. So, I just want to clarify for viewers.

Those seven countries were chosen because after Paris, it became clear that nations that we do not require visas from, say, France, for example, had citizens who were dangerous, right, because those were French nationals. So, what the Obama administration decided was, OK, anyone from those countries can no longer have a visa waiver. If they have gone to seven countries, the seven listed, and want to come to the United States. In other words, if there's a Frenchman who went to Syria and that's on his passport, he no longer can get automatically into the United States. So, that's the difference.

HARLOW: It's an important clarification, absolutely.

And, Norm, to you, given all this, CNN has also learned that the White House hopes to make its case this time in the courts if it needs to with this travel ban by using a much more expansive definition of terrorist activity, more so than they believe the narrow one that was considered by the courts the first time around.

Does that strike you as odd? Does that raise eyebrows?

NORM EISEN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE ETHICS CZAR UNDER PRESIDENT OBAMA: Poppy, the whole procedure is odd. And what we just heard from Pamela I think is going to be an exhibit in the litigation that is sure to result next week when the new Muslim ban, Muslim ban 2.0, is uttered by the White House.

[09:20:03] And the fact of the matter is that constitutionally, if the courts believe -- and Pamela's story suggests this is happening, that there's backfilling to fit a preconceived notion. We already heard evidence the first time around. Trump wants to ban Muslims.

They're going to look at this with strict scrutiny. It may not hold up to muster. I have the question further to Juliette's point and I've written about this with my Bush-era counterpart in "The New York Times," why is it Trump is banning countries that are too poor to do business with him, banning migrants from those countries, but neighboring countries that have accounted for nationals who committed terrorist acts on U.S. soil, Saudi, Egypt, UAE, where he has business ties, no ban?

Those kind of questions and the evidence now of this after the fact request to justify a pre-existing already drafted executive order are going to be looked at very skeptically by the courts starting next week.

HARLOW: Guys, I got to breaking in. A lot of reporting to dive into. Thank you very much, Juliette Kayyem, Norm Eisen. Have a good weekend.

Still to come, lawmakers sit face-to-face with furious voters slamming the president's policies. Well, one Florida Republican congressman shocked an angry crowd last night with this answer.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely Donald Trump should release his tax returns.


HARLOW: The Republican promise to repeal and replace Obamacare, former House Speaker John Boehner saying it's not going to happen, at least not exactly like that -- straight ahead.


[09:25:52] HARLOW: All right. Back to our breaking news this morning, the White House pushing back hard this morning against CNN's exclusive reporting that White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus had discussions with his counterparts at the FBI, requesting that the FBI knock down reporting about contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign. This is something, though, that FBI refused to come out and do.

Let's bring in my panel, Errol Louis, CNN commentator and political anchor for Spectrum News. Maria Cardona is also with us, CNN political commentator and Democratic strategist. And Dana Loesch, spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association and a conservative.

Thank you all for being here very much.

Dana, let me just get your reaction to this. The White House says, look, we weren't doing anything inappropriate here. However, CNN has multiple sources telling them, and if you look at the guidelines, you're not allowed to have the chief of staff calling a deputy at the FBI and the Justice Department saying, here, come out and say all this just isn't true. They can't do that with an ongoing investigation.



LOESCH: If the FBI says there's nothing, the same FBI that exonerated Hillary Clinton, if they say, look, there's nothing here, then I tend to kind of go along with where they stand on this.


HARLOW: But they didn't come out and say that. They actually said no to the White House request to do just that.

LOESCH: Well, what's the accusation? There has been multiple accusations against this new administration in a million different ways to try to delegitimize it. There's been accusations over Flynn talking to Russians and so many -- I mean, look, the bottom line --

HARLOW: Let's stick with the reporting. We just had a 20-minute report on all of CNN's exclusive reporting that Pamela Brown went through item by item.

I'm asking you, do you think what the White House did is justified?

LOESCH: I actually don't think the White House did anything wrong at this point. I don't.


LOESCH: Look, if more evidence comes out, then by all means, then by all means have an investigation, then put pressure on the FBI.

But at this point, no, I do not believe there's anything to warrant any sort of concern at this point. Persuade me, though. I'm completely open to it. I'm not sitting here trying to win a debate on who is going to be right in an argument. I want to be right on principle.

So, if there's wrongdoing, then by all means. Put pressure on the FBI, go to the proper committees in Congress, that's why they exist. Go to House Intelligence, go to House Oversight. That's why we have these protocols in place.

Take it there, put pressure on the FBI, get an investigation. If that's true, if that's where the evidence leads, by all means do it.

HARLOW: Right, I hear you. You have a number of Republicans and Democrats on your side calling for investigations, independent investigations into the overall Russia alleged contact with the Trump campaign.

However, that's not what the president is calling for this morning. Here are his tweets, "The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security leakers that have permeated or 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 the U.S. Find now."

Talking about find the leakers now.

Errol Louis, he's going after once again the leakers and not the substance here. How do you see it? ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. I mean, some of this is

reminiscent to those of us who remember the Watergate scandals, those tweets sound very much like what was later heard on audio tapes of Richard Nixon saying, find the leaks, find -- you know, he had a whole squad called the plumbers who were supposed to go and try to find the leaks.

Every administration deals with this. It is, in fact, bedeviling I think if you have something you don't want the press to necessarily find out about.

But to the extent that we've got multiple investigations already going on, to the extent we've got in every case what we just heard, sort of a political response, getting to the motives or alleged motives of people trying to find the truth. That, oh, they just want to delegitimize the election.

No, we're way past that point. There's credible evidence from multiple sources, and today's reporting is one more example of it, that there's a serious problem with foreign infiltration into the last election and frankly, elections before that.