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White House Asks FBI to Knock Down Media Reports on Russia Ties; Steve Bannon Star at CPAC; Kim Jong-Nam Murdered with Near Gas; John Kelly, Rex Tillerson Try to Smooth Out U.S/Mexico Relations; Trump Rescinds Obama Guidelines on Transgender Bathrooms; Iraq Army Closer to Retaking Mosul Airport; Trump Lawyer Denies Pushing Pro Russian Ukraine Deal; Pope: Bad Christians Worse than Atheists. Aired 2-3a ET

Aired February 24, 2017 - 02:00   ET



[02:00:11] JOHN VAUSE, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. I'm John Vause, in Los Angeles. It has just gone 11:00 Thursday night.

ISA SOARES, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Isa Soares, in London. It's just gone 7:00 on Friday morning.

Ahead this hour --


VAUSE: We begin with exclusive new reporting about a White House request to the FBI to knock down media reports that during the presidential campaign senior Trump officials had contact with Russians known to U.S. Intelligence. Jim Sciutto, even Perez broke the story with Pamela Brown and Manu Raju.

Here is Jim with the details.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPODNENT: CNN has learned that the FBI rejected a recent White House request 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. Multiple U.S. officials tell 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. These officials said. You may recall that CNN and "The New York Times" first reported on this just over a week ago, and so far, the White House has not commented on the record, I should say, that the FBI is still investigating these alleged communications. Several members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees the Congress are still investigating them as well and the investigation has begun. They will call witnesses. Communication between the White House and the FBI is unusual because of decades-old restrictions on such contacts. Requests from the White House, a violation of procedures that limits communication with the FBI on pending investigations. The Trump administration's efforts to press Comey suggested when contrary to Justice Department procedure memos issued in 2007 and 2009 that limit direct communications on pending investigations between the White House and the FBI. FBI Director James Comey rejected the request according to sources because the alleged communications are the subject of an ongoing investigation.

Jim Sciutto, CNN, Washington.


SOARES: And then there's growing concern the Trump White House is asking the intelligence community to come up with information to justify a travel ban. A senior White House official tells CNN the president has assigned the Department of Homeland Security, working with the Justice Department, to help build the legal case for the travel ban, but some intelligence professionals in the administration are taking issues with the assignment. Many officials in Homeland Security say nationality is not the best indicator for potential terrorist activity.

VAUSE: President Trump will speak at CPAC on Friday. And how things have changed in the past year. At the last conference, they were trying to derail his campaign for the House. Many hard feelings seem to have vanished in the wake of his upset in November.

Vice President Mike Pence likened Donald Trump to Ronald Reagan and said this new administration is determined to seize an historic moment.




PENCE: This is the chance we worked so hard for so long to see. This is the time to prove again that our answers are the right answers for America.


VAUSE: Joining me here now, California talk radio host, Ethan Bearman; and Republican consultant, John Thomas.

We heard from Mike Pence. He spoke a few hours ago.

But the real star of today was essentially Steve Bannon, the guy called the master manipulator, some say Donald Trump's brain, some say the real president in the White House. He opened up about a lot of goings on behind the scenes at the White House, and a low opinion he has of the media. Listen to Steve Bannon.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) [02:05:01] STEVE BANNON, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: If you look at the opposition party and how they portrayed the campaign, how they portrayed the transition, and how they are portraying the administration, it's always wrong. On the first day Kellyanne Conway and I started, we reached out to Sean Spicer, it's the same team that was on the campaign, the same team that did the transition. And the campaign was the most chaotic, by the description, most chaotic, most unprofessional, had no idea what they were doing, and then you saw them crying and weeping that night.


VAUSE: So the White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Maybe I'm taking this a little too personally. But this was not just your average run of the mill anger at the White House. Leave your guts on the side of the road to be eaten by a crow. Where is this coming from?

JOHN THOMAS, REPUBLICAN CONSULTANT: It's no secret that Steve Bannon doesn't like the media, but most Republicans don't either. And it's not just because of the cute mantras about CNN and other networks. It's because Republicans see editorial boards at a lot of major papers across the country tend to be skews against Republicans. And if you look at the Trump administration and what they went through in the primary when they said they never had a chance and they're -- the polling said they didn't have a chance. They're tired of it. I think they've had it up to here.

VAUSE: The difference is, Ethan, people can have whatever opinion they want of journalist. That's their right, but not everyone is the chief strategist for the White House and they have to work with the media in some respects.

ETHAN BEARMAN, CALIFORNIA TALK RADIO HOST: In this case, no. We're starting to see this with the press conferences. The biggest issue I see is the tone that this sets and it's a dangerous one that is used by autocrats and dictators, and the point is that is the tool that is used. You start by making everybody question the media so those who can hold them accountable are suspect, and then you can begin to make dangerous changes to our country. And we heard Bannon say today, he wants to destroy -- destroy -- the administrative state. He didn't see clean up regulation regulations. He said destroy.

VAUSE: Break it down and start over, essentially.

Let's listen from more from Steve Bannon. He opened windows on some of the inner workings of the White House.


BANNON: He's laid out an agenda with the speeches for the promises he made, and our job every day is just to execute on that. It's simply to get a path to how those get executed. He's manically focused on that.

(END VIDEO CLIP) VAUSE: Manically focused, John. He also went on to talk about a new world order. This is something we have not heard certainly in a White House before.

THOMAS: He's a nationalist, and focused on the agenda, I think Steve Bannon is right. One thing he recognizes is President Trump did not get elected because of his favorable numbers. It was because of his agenda, and he needs to deliver the agenda and stay focused.

VAUSE: Should he get out of the D.C. bubble? This is a safe space for Bannon. Maybe they should go to the town halls where people don't want that agenda.

BEARMAN: He would never do that. That would put him in the cross hairs to be challenged. He clearly doesn't like to be challenged. The keyword was maniacal. I'm going to go with that word in relation to this president. We are seeing falsehoods stated on a daily basis. He tweets it out real-time that we're able to fact check, but we're the enemy because he said the words like military in relation to immigration and saying it's not a military operation. The president used those words. Everything about this is so Orwellian and strange, but it's happening.

VAUSE: The president has to govern for everybody. How does that square with this Steve Bannon is saying?

THOMAS: Well, in relation to the media or --


VAUSE: No. Being manically focused on putting the agenda through. No everyone supports the agenda.

THOMAS: Sure. I think you have to look at it. The country is divided. Trump has to focus on the people that voted for him knowing what his agenda would be, and those are people he's going to need again in Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania if he wants to stay in office.

BEARMAN: But it's not 50. His approval ratings go down. It's less than 40percent. 50 percent of the people don't support President Trump. If you believe anything, although they're fake polls is what we're hearing. He doesn't have that support. He had a minority of the popular vote.

THOMAS: Liking him and liking his agenda are two things.

BERMAN: They are, but even with that, I'm telling you now that people -- he's done the best job of selling the Affordable Care Act. But he has done a better job of selling it by saying I'm going to take it away. People are like I need that thing. It's getting better defense than it got from President Obama.

[02:10:10] VAUSE: The approval of the ACA, the numbers are rising and people want to hang onto what they got.

A couple hours ago, President Trump did an interview with Reuters, throwing out it might be a good idea for a nuclear arm's race.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It would be wonderful, a dream would be that no country would have nukes, but if countries are going to have nukes, we're going to be at the top of the pack.


VAUSE: Again, this seems cavalier about something that's a serious issue.

THOMAS: I think for the president, he takes it seriously. Just like Reagan believed in peace through strength. President Trump said we need to rebuild our military. And in classic Trumpism, whatever you do, you're going to be the biggest and best. It's consistent with who he is.

VAUSE: Three years ago, if you were having a discussion with nuclear arms and somebody said bring in a reality TV star to get his take on what he thinks, would people have taken you seriously?

BEARMAN: No, and they might have said a better choice for that conversation would be Kim Jong-Un from North Korea. He has nuclear ambitions. This is borderline insane when you talk about having a nuclear arms race. I've heard in the past Republicans saying no, what he really meant was modern size. Those aren't the words he's using. Words have meaning. He's not using these words.

VAUSE: There always seems to be a day where there's a lot of cleanup about the president. Today, the secretary of Homeland Security was in Mexico talking about the fact that we have no deportations and also clarifying a few things coming from the White House. Listen to this.


JOHN KELLY, HOEMLAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Again, listen to this. No, repeat, no use of military force in immigration operations. None. So, again, I repeat, there will be no use of military forces in immigration. At least half of you try to get that right. Because it continually comes up in the reporting.


VAUSE: One more sound byte here. We'll explain why it continually comes up in the reporting, because of this.


TRUMP: We're getting really bad dudes out of this country. And at a rate that nobody has ever seen before. And they're the bad ones. And it's a military operation, because of what has been allowed to come into our country. When you see gang violence that you've read about never before, and much of it is people here illegally. And they're rough and tough, but they're not tough like our people.


VAUSE: John, I use this as an example of the fact the president says something, we report it, and then we get accused by the administration of misreporting into the president says.

THOMAS: No one is going to accuse President Trump of being a wordsmith, but part of his charm is he's plain spoken in terms of his intentions and does that require cleanup occasionally? Yes, it does, but I think it was made clear that military operation is not on the table.

VAUSE: Do you think he knew the implication of military operation when he used that term?

BEARMAN: We have the Posse Comitatus Act, 1890 is when it's from. We can't have military forces involved in immigration raids, but hiring all the new ICE agents will start to look like a military force, and then we found out there's reports here in California of DHS lying to local police about what they were doing. I am all for getting gang members, criminals out of the country, violent criminals. Deporting them, we don't want them here. I agree with that. But now they're lying and rounding up people who just happened to be in the area at the time?

THOMAS: And illegal.

BEARMAN: That are here without proper documentation.

THOMAS: Illegal.

BEARMAN: But the point is, we have never had that policy where we start knocking on everybody's doors. That is a deportation force.

VAUSE: And with that, we'll say thank you to you both.

BEARMAN: Thanks, John.

THOMAS: Thanks, John.


[02:14:15] SOARES: Thank you very much, John.

Next, on CNN NEWSROOM, chilling new details on how half-brother of North Korea's leader was murdered. We'll bring you that story live from Kuala Lumpur next.




SOARES: Welcome back. We are following new developments out of Malaysia. Police there say Kim Jong-Nam was poisoned with VX nerve agent. The half-brother of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-Un, was killed at the Kuala Lumpur airport. At least two women are in custody. Authorities have asked Interpol to issue an alert for four other suspects.

Let's get more on the story. Alexandra Field joins us from Kuala Lumpur.

Alexandra, what more are authorities telling you regarding this highly toxic nerve agent?

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is the first time they've identified what they believe killed Kim Jong-Nam, calling it an internationally banned chemical weapon. It's a lethal weapon. It's something that was first used in the 1950s. In very small amounts it can be lethal. See onset of symptoms within minutes or even up to 18 hours after exposure. Essentially, experts say it paralyzes your breathing. We know Kim Jong-Nam reported feeling dizzy after he was approached by two women in Kuala Lumpur airport. Police in Malaysia say the women were trained to apply a poison to his face and it appears that's what you're seeing in the TV video reported inside the airport when you see a woman approach him from the front and also the back -- Isa?

SOARES: We have these two women. We're looking at a photo of them. These two women held in custody. What about the other man? I know there are other people involved here.

[02:20:51] FIELD: This continues to widen and expand. At this point, officials in Malaysia have the women in custody, and then another man. They're looking for three more North Koreans who they believe are in country. They've asked North Korea for help in finding the people and speaking to them. They're also looking for four North Korean man who they think may have provided the chemical weapon. It's believed they have actually returned to Pyongyang at this point. As far as how anyone would have been able to get that chemical weapon into the airport, police have not said how they believe it arrived in this country or at the airport, but only a small amount is needed. So it could have been difficult to detect while it was being transported.

VAUSE: In the meantime, do we know what will happen to the body of Kim Jong-Nam? It's waiting for next of kin to arrive?

FIELD: Yeah. It's really at the center of what is an increasingly tense diplomatic fight between Malaysian officials and North Korean officials. Malaysian officials have said they'll keep the body here in the morgue at this hospital until a family member arrives to provide a DNA sample. North Korean officials say this is somebody who was found with a diplomatic passport on his bodies and the Malaysians are acting in violation of diplomatic international norms. They want the body back. Malaysia is not giving it up.

VAUSE: Alexandra Field, thank you very much, in Kuala Lumpur.

VAUSE: Another day of mixed signals from the Trump administration, this time on the relationship with Mexico. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with senior officials in Mexico City on Thursday. Kelly praised the trade relation between the two countries, calling it dynamic. He said there would be no mass deportations and the military will not be used as part of a crackdown on illegal immigration. Earlier, though, at the White House the president called the trade deficit between the United States and Mexico unsustainable and he said the deportation of undocumented immigrants would, in fact, be a military operation.

SOARES: I'm joined by Jorge Castaneda, the former Mexican foreign minister. He joins me from Mexico City.

Senor Castaneda, thank you for joining us this hour.


SOARES: We heard there the U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly say there won't be massive deportation. Instead, the U.S. will be focusing on the criminal element. Do you believe what you heard? How do you view the discussions?

CASTANEDA: I'll believe it, Isa, when Secretary Kelly changes the drafting of the guidelines he made public two days ago with a series of measures that imply inevitable mass deportations. If he changes the guidelines, I will believe him entirely. Until he does that, I will believe not a word of his, and nobody should. Because what he says in Mexico City is absolutely irrelevant as long as the guidelines that were published two days ago in Washington, D.C., continue to say that they will hire 15,000 more CBP and ICE agents as long as those guidelines say that they will deport anybody all over the U.S. territory, not just within 100 miles of the border, and not only those who are in the U.S. For 14 days but for two years, and also those who can be suspected of having committed a chargeable act whatever that means. So I don't care what Kelly says. I'm interested in what the executive degrees and guidelines issued by the government a couple days ago.

SOARES: You don't care what Kelly says, you care with the president says. Meanwhile, in Washington, we heard President Trump talk of a military operation of bad dudes. Those were his words. How does Mexico make sense of the mixed messages and perhaps of the inconsistencies from this administration?

CASTANEDA: I think in this case they're not mixed. Degrees are decrees. Guidelines are guidelines. They are written texts. These are not statements by either President Trump or by Secretary Kelly. These are guidelines issued by Secretary Kelly to the ICE and CBP agents in the field. If he wants to change them, he can. The guidelines say that the U.S. will try to send non-Mexican nationals back to Mexico to await asylum hearings. Secretary Kelly says no, we're not going to do that. Well, then change the guidelines. I am interested in what's written. I don't care what he says. And I think this is the hypocrisy of this American administration. They are not mixed messages. It's one message. What we're not learning to do is to listen to the right one.

SOARES: OK. Give me the view of Mexico. You were talking there about potentially sending thousands of Central Americans into -- back into Mexico. How does Mexico view this? If this does happen, what -- how can Mexico handle this?

[02:25:16] CASTANEDA: Well, I think on this account, I agree completely with President Pena Nieto and his foreign minister who stated clearly yesterday that under no circumstances will Mexico admit any refugee, my deportee anyone from the United States who is not a Mexican national. If they are from another country, the United States has to send them back to their countries. Not to Mexico. That's the U.S. problem. And I think on this, all Mexicans grew there is no way we are going to admit anybody back to Mexico who is not Mexican.

SOARES: Very quickly, what leverage is Mexico have on this front?

CASTANEDA: It has enormous leverage which is to open the southern border to tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people from other countries, fleeing from the violence in their country and going north, trying to reach the United States, entering the United States, and then being apprehended and asking for asylum. We have enormous leverage on this account, and I think we should use it.

SOARES: Jorge Castaneda, the former Mexican foreign minister.

Mr. Castaneda, thank you very much. Great to talk to you, sir.

CASTANEDA: Thank you.

VAUSE: Coming up to 11:27 here in Los Angeles. We'll take a break. When we come back, a transgender woman and activist says Candidate Trump said one thing to American voters but now President Trump has done the opposite.





[02:30:21] JOHN VAUSE, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to our viewers in the United States and around the world. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm John Vause, live in Los Angeles.

ISA SOARES, CNN ANCHOR: Isa Soares, in London.

Let me bring you up to date on the main headlines this hour.



KAYLEIGH MCENANY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: A lot of news has been made in the last 24 hours. President Trump rescinded the Obama guidelines on transgender.



VAUSE: Yes, there was clapping and cheering was for the White House repeal of Obama-era protections for transgender students that allowed them to use the bathroom that corresponded with their gender identity. But civil rights groups and LGBT activists, doctors and businesses are warning of the impact this could have on children already marginalized and misunderstood.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, "Transgender children are already at increased risk for violence, bullying, harassment and suicide. They may be more prone to depression and engaging in self-harm. Policies excluding transgender youth from facilities consistent with their gender identity has detrimental effects on their mental and physical health, safety and wellbeing."

Tech giant, Apple, weighed in, "We support efforts towards great acceptance, not less. We strongly believe transgender students should be treated as equals. We disagree with any effort to limit to rescind their rights and protections."




VAUSE: Even Jackie Evancho, the 16-year-old girl who sang the national anthem at Trump's inauguration, asked the president to rethink his decision. She knows a lot about this. Her sister, Juliette, is a transgender woman.


JULIETTE EVANCHO, TRANSGENDER WOMAN: What I want to say to Donald Trump is can we please sit down and talk, how can we make transgenders safe? And basically, we just really want to calmly sit down with him.

JACKIE EVANCHO, SINGER: Maybe there's a way to create a federal law or something. Something that's just going to help with transgender discrimination.


VAUSE: Well, for more, we're joined by Jessica Taylor, an airline captain, based in Denver, and an advocate for transgender rights.

Jessica, thank you for being with us.

Can you explain how much of a big deal this bathroom issue is to transgender kids. It covers locker rooms, clothing, even if kids can attend the prom.

JESSICA TAYLOR, TRANSGENDER RIGHTS ACTIVIST & AIRLINE CAPTAIN: We're talking about the basic protection of a minority group in our community. These children who are already at a 43percent risk of suicide and death, we've marginalized it again. And opened discrimination up not only in the public era of every community, but now our schools. When this president promised to protect the transgender community in an open forum in New York City, he is now going against the fundamentals of what he was elected on, and this is what's dangerous. What's next? Our transgender community is already at great risk.

VAUSE: For the transgender kids struggling, they hear the news. What will be the immediate impact right now on this decision by the Trump administration?

TAYLOR: I can tell you what the kids are thinking. I can tell you what the kids are thinking. They're hurt. They're in tears. I dealt with parents in response to their children in schools today having to hold it until the end of the day because they're in so much fear to use the restroom in their school. This is preschool to high school. These parents and children are in fear to even move outside of their protected class rooms with their teachers they trust, because they're afraid of getting bullied. They're afraid of going home. One parent said her daughter won't even talk to her. Something happened at school. She's not sure how to respond. All he can do is hug her daughter and tell her it's going to be OK.

[02:35:25] VAUSE: Apparently, the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, tried to fight this move but she eventually fell in line with the White House. She explained why the administration took this action.


BETSY DEVOS, EDUCATION SECRETARY: This issue was of a very huge example of the Obama administration's overreach to suggest a one-size- fits-all federal government approach, top-down approach to issues that are best dealt with and solved at a personal and local level. And I have made clear from the moment I've been in this job that it's our job to protect students and to do that to the fullest extent that we can.


VAUSE: OK. It's just a states right issue. States like Alabama and Mississippi will protect some of the most vulnerable kids in their schools, right?

TAYLOR: They're going to throw them to the wolves. Our community is already marginalized in society as a whole, not only in their finances but as a person. You think a family that's already struggling with trying to get their transgender son or daughter integrated into society can afford to fight some sort of high level case that goes all the way to the Supreme Court? That's not going to happen. This protection that was removed, it broke down the absolute fundamentals of the United States, which is to protect the least of these.

VAUSE: During the election campaign -- you touched on this -- Donald Trump was specifically asked about this issue. I want to go back to what he said. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: If Caitlyn Jenner walked into Trump Tower and wanted to use the bathroom, you'd be fine with her using any bathroom she chooses?



VAUSE: Can you explain how Candidate Trump can say one thing but President Trump appears to do the opposite?

TAYLOR: Let's call it a lie. We've caught him in not only one lie but this is a multitude of lies now. And this one is a bold-face lie. By our president of the United States. He ran on this premise. People that are transgender in our community, Caitlyn Jenner voted for Donald Trump because of his progressive views with our community. And now he's turned his back with Vice President Mike pence and said we're not going to protect that class. We're not going to look out for the children of that class anymore. And I think this is just the beginning. This is just a guidance. This was not a legislative order. This was just a guidance on what could be the beginning of a lot of lawsuits coming to the Supreme Court.

VAUSE: Yeah. Well, obviously, a difficult time for so many families who are already dealing with tough issues right now.

Jessica, thank you for being with us.

TAYLOR: Thank you for having me.

SOARES: Iraqi forces are inching closer to major victory in the battle in retaking a destroyed airport that's crucial in trying to liberate the ISIS-held city of Mosul. We'll bring you that story after a break.


[02:41:37] VAUSE: 11:40 on the west coast. Welcome back, everybody.

The Iraqi military is close to securing the Mosul airport, a key piece of real estate in the fight to retake the city from ISIS. Commanders are expecting fierce resistance as they make that advance.

CNN's Nina Dos Santos is following the story. She joins us live from Istanbul in Turkey.

Nina, what's the strategic advantage for having total control of Mosul's airport?

NINA DOS SANTOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is strategically important, John, because not only is it a big portion of land in the southwest of the western side of the Tigris River, but it's also their first stronghold so far from which they can then spring board to try and take other parts of the city as well. So the airport I should point out in terms of the infrastructure, that's not in good condition. Basically, rendered unusable, reportedly, after three years under ISIS control. They're hoping to secure nearby villages and key infrastructure assets as they push north and west as you were pointing out into the more densely populated parts of the city, securing the key routes in western parts of Mosul will be crucial. That's the main corridor to the self-declared capitol. That will be one of the fiercest battles for some time from here, probably.

VAUSE: As far as retaking the western half of the city of Mosul, do we know how much progress the Iraqi led forces have made so far?

DOS SANTOS: Well, so far if you look at the geography of Mosul, in the southwest there's a large airport facility. If they manage to secure that and capture it, it's unclear how much they've managed to capture and hold onto. The hope is by the end of yesterday, they were trying to get hold of key infrastructure assets like the power plant nearby as well as the former military base. At present, we're not entirely sure whether they've managed to capture and secure the areas, but they have managed to capture a former ISIS weapons facility in this part of western Mosul and two villages nearby. The idea here is to capture key assets before moving knot toward the more densely populated parts of the town, and for the various reasons the terrain there is going to be harder. They're expecting a far more fraught battle toward the west.

VAUSE: How many civilians are trapped on the western side of the city and what happens to them as the Iraqi forces move in?

DOS SANTOS: Yes. It's estimated about 650,000 civilians are probably trapped in the western part of Mosul. And because this is the oldest part of the city, the streets are narrow. The buildings are older. It's more densely populated. That's where there's the biggest risk of civilian casualties. Humanitarian agencies are sounding the alert here about the potential for loss of life. It's going to be difficult for the Iraqi forces to distinguish friend and foe. They won't be able to send in military vehicles. People are worried about the use of heavy weaponry in these parts of the town. It took 100 days to take east Mosul. People are expecting it to take some time for the west -- John?

[02:45:08] VAUSE: Nina, thank you. Nina Dos Santos with a live update on the situation in Mosul.

SOARES: A member of Ukraine's parliament said he presented a peace plan for eastern Ukraine to Donald Trump's personal lawyer, who promised to take it to the top White House officials. That's something the lawyer and White House denies.

The Ukrainian at the heart of this diplomatic controversy is now speaking to CNN. He spoke to Nick Paton Walsh.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORERSPONDENT (voice-over): It was a peace plan as controversial as the war in Ukraine seems endless. It began with a story of how one obscure Ukrainian MP dined at a luxury New York hotel with Donald Trump 's personal lawyer. Found his left field-ideas passed on to the president's short-lived national security adviser and was then caught in a diplomatic storm. Now investigated for treason in his own homeland.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He told me that Michael Flynn is the best person, the best -- my connections in the Trump administration, if he likes, it's going to be huge support.

PATON WALSH: And he gave us a hurried interview and tells us of a January dinner in Manhattan. He said he had it with Donald Trump 's personal lawyer, arranged by their mutual friend.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We probably spoke around 20 minutes where I present my intentions, my peace plan for the Ukraine, how we can stop the war, how we can finish this, and also he says, listen, this is it's potential, and he wants to send a message to Trump administration.

PATON WALSH: Mr. Cohen says the dinner happened but they didn't talk about peace for Ukraine. But the man says Cohen insisted the plan be given to Trump 's short lived and then national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who resigned 24 days into his job due to his comments over sanctions on Russia because of Moscow's actions in Ukraine.

(on camera): Did you ever imagine your peace plan would end up on national security advisor Michael Flynn's desk?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely not. It was Michael Cohen's idea. He mentioned his name first in our meetings. He said listen, Michael Flynn, for his personal opinion, is most powerful man who can really support this idea, can help you and provide his information to President Trump.

PATON WALSH: The White House flatly denies any contact with Cohen or the man on this issue.


PATON WALSH: Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and then sent military help in the country's east where the war drags onto this day.

The man says his plan may have involved the lease of Crimea to Russia in exchange for Russian troops leaving the east.

Michael Cohen told CNN, in a text message, "If this continued fake news narrative wasn't so ridiculous, I would be angered. I acknowledge that the brief meeting took place, but emphatically deny discussing this topic or delivering any document to the White House and/or General Flynn, something I stated to 'The New York Times'."

According to the times, he said he left the plan in a sealed envelope on Flynn's desk, although Cohen lat3er denied ever delivering Flynn the plan. The White House says it has no record of receiving such a document.

These men didn't respond to requests for comment. Both Russia and Ukraine have rejected the plan. The man has since been expelled from his political faction and has to

hurry off, he says, to meet the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, although the president's office denies it. He promises to return, but doesn't. Moments after he leaves, Ukrainian prosecutors announce he's being investigated for treason for even suggesting the plan.


SOARES: Let's get more on the story. Nick joins us with more.

Nick, I believe you have an update for us on the story. What have you been hearing?

PATON WALSH: Well, we've heard back from Felix, one of the three men at that Manhattan dinner that is now getting infamy. He confirms peace was discussed between the three man and said the plan involved peace falling in the east of Ukraine for a referendum couple in Crimea. He goes onto say that, "I am always sympathetic and enthusiastic about peace and, because it was a war situation, Mr. Michael Cohen" -- that's Donald Trump 's personal lawyer who was at that dinner -- "Mr. Cohen thought it was probably a national security adviser Flynn issue," end quote here.

Obviously, what's important is we now have two of the three men at that dinner saying peace was discussed and two of the men saying Mr. Cohen, who denies peace being discussed, said he would pass the plan onto Michael Flynn. We don't know if it ever got to Michael Flynn. Mr. Cohen denies discussing peace and offering to pass it onto Michael Flynn. It's a complicated issue.

But what's at stake is the perception of foreign policy and diplomacy in what many see as a chaotic Trump White House. That a private initiative like this can be seen to be publicly, with reports, potentially landing on the desk on the national security adviser.

I'm sure many in Kiev would be delighted to find there are initiatives floating around to end this war, but they will be alarmed there's such scope for unofficial initiatives, given the pressure the West is trying to put on Russia to withdraw support for separatists in the east -- Isa?

[02:50:49] SOARES: Nick Paton Walsh, for us there in Kiev. Thank you.


VAUSE: Pope Francis says bad Christians are damaging the church and saying they may not be Christians at all. Details in a moment.




SOARES: Pope Francis has fierce words for Christians who don't live by Christian values. In Rome, Frances said Christians who exploit others may as well call themselves atheists.

Our Delia Gallagher reports from Rome


[02:55:12] DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN VATICAN CORRESPONDENT: The pope's remarks came for a reflection on a gospel passage where Jesus says not to call scandal. The pope said one of the ways Christians give scandal is by being hypocritical. He gave the example of a business owner who goes to mass and doesn't pay his workers a just wage. And the pope says the problem with this is that other people see that behavior and say if that's being a Christian, then it's better to be an atheist. But the pope in these comments is not advocating atheism over Christianity. He's telling Christians to be better Christians, to live out more coherently what they believe and what they do, so that other people who see them will not think it is better to be an atheist.

Delia Gallagher, CNN, Rome.


SOARES: You have been watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Isa Soares, in London.

Thank you for having me on the show, John Vause, for the last couple of weeks. It's been a pleasure.

VAUSE: The pleasure is all ours.

I was just going to say, that Pope Francis is a wise man.

Thank you for watching. Stay with us. The news continues next with George Howell and Natalie Allen.


[03:00:11] NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Exclusive CNN reporting, the White House asking the FBI --