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FBI Refused White House Request to Knock Down Recent Trump- Russia Stories; Trump Heads to CPAC; Mixing Politics With Intel? Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired February 24, 2017 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:11] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Did the White House try to get the FBI to reject reports the Trump campaign spoke with Russia? And did it violate procedures by speaking with the bureau? Exclusive CNN reporting and the White House response you don't want to miss.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump getting ready to take the stage at CPAC. His vice president and top advisors setting the stage for him. We'll show what you they said.

ROMANS: And is the White House injecting politics into intelligence agencies to soothe its needs on the upcoming travel ban? The concern from some intel officials ahead.

Good morning, everyone. Good Friday morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: And I'm Dave Briggs. The best kind of week is a two-day workweek.

ROMANS: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

BRIGGS: We should stick with this.

ROMANS: I know.

BRIGGS: It's Friday, February 24th, 4:00 a.m. in the East.

The White House overnight voicing objections to exclusive CNN reporting about communications between the Trump campaign and Russia. Multiple U.S. officials telling CNN the FBI rejected a White House request that it knock down reports about constant communication between Trump campaign officials and Russians known to U.S. intelligence.

CNN and "The New York Times" first reported on those contacts last week. Late last night, Press Secretary Sean Spicer objected to our characterization of the White House request to the FBI. He told us, quote, "We did not try to knock down the story. We asked them, the FBI, to tell the truth."

ROMANS: Another White House official said that the request was made only after the FBI indicated to the White House it did not believe the reporting on communications during the campaign was accurate. Even if that were the case, the White House reaching out to the FBI would violate procedures on communications with the bureau about active investigations.

CNN's Evan Perez was part of the team that broke this story. He has more this morning from Washington.


EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Dave, a U.S. official says this all 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 offer the stories were published. A White House official says that McCabe told Priebus that "The New York Times" story overstated what the FBI knows about these contacts.

But a U.S. official says that McCabe didn't discuss the aspects of this case and we don't know exactly what McCabe told Priebus. A White House official says that Priebus did later on reach out again to McCabe and to FBI Director James Comey asking for the FBI to at least talk to reporters on background, to dispute the stories. The FBI refused.

The FBI has refused to comment on this story.

The communication with the White House and the FBI was unusual because of a decade restriction on such contacts. The request from the White House would appear to violate procedures that limit these types of communications with the FBI on pending investigations. A White House official says that McCabe initiated these conversations.

But either way, the White House asking the FBI to help refute these stories runs contrary to Justice Department procedure memos that were issued in 2007 and 2009 that are supposed to limit direct communications on pending investigations with the White House and the FBI -- Christine, Dave.


BRIGGS: Thank you, Evan.

Today, President Trump addresses the conservatives who helped him in office. The president speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, this morning, shortly after 10:00. His warm-up act went before the conservative faith for Thursday. Vice President Pence ripping Obamacare and dismissing the angry town halls we've seen across the country this week.


MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let me assure you. America's Obamacare nightmare is about to end despite the best efforts of liberals at town halls around the country, the American people know better. Obamacare has failed and Obamacare must go.


ROMANS: The vice president followed a revealing on stage chat with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and this guy, the chief strategist Steve Bannon. You know, this was a rare chance to hear directly from Bannon. You seldom hear him speaking in public since joining the administration. Many Americans probably never heard his voice before yesterday quite frankly.

More now from CNN's Jeff Zeleny at the White House.



President Trump is heading to the Conservative Political Action Committee just outside Washington for the annual conference today, giving a speech later this morning to conservative activists.

Now, it was only a year ago where he skipped this annual event. Republicans there were working actively against him, saying they did not want him to win the nomination. They did not think he was a true conservative. But, boy, what a difference and a victory a year makes. He is going back to this gallery today as the man of the moment.

[04:05:00] Activists are excited to see him. They're excited to hear his agenda and rally him forward.

Now, Steve Bannon, the White House chief strategist who has influence all over the White House is seldom heard from. He made an appearance yesterday and gave a clear sense of his world view and what the president plans to do in office.

STEVE BANNON, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: If you think they're going to give you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken. Every day, every day, it is going to be a fight, and that is what I'm proudest about Donald Trump, that all the opportunities he had to waiver off this. All of the people who have come to him and said, you've got to moderate.

Every day in the Oval Office, he tells Reince and I, "I committed this to the American people. I promised this when I ran. And I'm going to deliver on this."

ZELENY: Now, that, of course, will be music to the conservatives ears there, except for how all these programs will be paid for. There is still talk of tax reform, health care reform and, of course, paying for that wall with Mexico.

And don't look for any of those specific details to come in the president's speech today. I'm told this is more of a rallying moment, a rah-rah moment if you will. But, boy, again, a difference a year makes. Donald Trump now clearly the man of the moment today at CPAC -- Christine and Dave.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ROMANS: We will hear from the president in about six hours or so.

BRIGGS: Safe bet he will address the story and criticize the leaks once again.

It is interesting. Bannon, you can see his world view. There is some that can't figure out president Trump.

ROMANS: Oh, yes.

BRIGGS: There's no question about. You know Bannon's world view. And this economic nationalism he talked about yesterday. Interesting.

There is concern among some of the intelligence community that the White House may be politicizing intelligence related to its travel ban. A senior White House official tells CNN that President Trump has assigned the Department of Justice and Homeland Security to help build the case for the temporary ban on travelers from the seven Muslim majority countries. The ban was blocked by the federal courts. The official says the evidence were a security threat from those countries is, quote, "substantial".

But some intelligence officials tell CNN that they are worried the Trump White House is shopping around among agencies seeking an intelligence report to fit its policy, instead of the other way around. The White House declined to make an on-the-record comment for the story.

ROMANS: The White House putting the brakes on two more policies from the Obama administration. The Justice Department rescinding an order to discourage the use of private prisons to house federal inmates. The aim is to support what is future needs, which may include the detention of undocumented immigrants. Most inmates were steered to state facilities under Obama administration directive.

BRIGGS: The White House also stepping up enforcement of recreational marijuana laws. Even in states where it's legal, the Obama administration had directed officials not to interfere in states which legalized recreational use. The decision to give more power to the federal government came a day after the administration did the opposite on guidance protecting transgender students, saying the policy is best left in the hands of states and school districts.

ROMANS: All right. Mixed messages on trade from the Trump administration. At a meeting with manufacturers at the White House, the president said this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: With Mexico, we have $70 billion in deficit, trade deficits. And it's unsustainable. We're not going to let it happen. We can't let it happen. We're going to have a good relationship with Mexico, I hope. If we don't, we don't. But we can't let that happen.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ROMANS: Later in the day, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly said this while at a meeting in Mexico with top officials.


JOHN KELLY, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: The relationship with the United States and Mexico is among, I believe, the most critical in the world. Every day, more than $1.5 billion in trade passes between the United States and Mexico. It is my responsibility to make sure that trade is speedily crossed between the two countries. This dynamic trade and relationship has also helped create millions of jobs on both sides of the border.


ROMANS: Interesting. One -- the president calling it almost a disaster and he is focusing on the two-way trade, a dynamic relationship. This illustrates the tricky nature of trade and the uncertain path forward for the administration. Both men are correct, the U.S. ran a $63 million trade deficit with Mexico last year. The means the U.S. bought more from Mexico than it sold to Mexico.

As for Kelly's job claims between 5 million and 6 million U.S. jobs depend on that two-way trade with Mexico.

BRIGGS: The Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare is getting a harsh reality check this morning from someone who ought to know how hard it will be to achieve. That's former House Speaker John Boehner. During an on stage chat at a health care industry conference in Florida, Boehner said the president and Congress will repair, not repealing Obamacare.


JOHN BOEHNER (R), FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER: I shouldn't call it repeal and replace because that's not what's going to happen. Basically, he will fix the flaws and put a more conservative box around it.

[04:10:02] It's not all that hard to figure out, except this, in the 25 years I served in the United States Congress, Republicans never ever one time agreed on what a health care proposal should look like. Not once.

All of this happy talk went on in November, December and January about repeal, repeal. Yes, we'll do replace, replace. I started laughing because if you pass repeal without replace, first, anything that happens is your fault.


BRIGGS: Former speaker also weighed in on the first month of the Trump administration, saying the Trump administration will likely look much like the Trump campaign -- sometimes divisive, incoherent or disrespectful. But he says, also, sometimes effective.

ROMANS: All right. Will the U.S. really make a long term strategy to stay in Iraq? The chairman of the Joint Chiefs says it could happen. More next.


[04:15:04] ROMANS: The U.S. military is considering a long term presence in Iraq to stabilize the country after the anticipated fall of ISIS. That's according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs Staff, General Joseph Dunford. He says the U.S. and NATO have begun discussions with Iraq about helping to grow and improve Iraqi security forces, but he cautions no decisions have been made. This comes as U.S. backed Iraqi forces gained ground against ISIS. Iraqi warplanes bombed in three different cities, killing at least 85 ISIS fighters. This includes ten militants in Mosul, where Iraqi forces are looking to liberate that city.

I want to bring in CNN international correspondent Nina Dos Santos. She joins with more this morning from Istanbul.

And this is remarkable. We'll be talking about a post-ISIS Iraq, even as they are still sort of fighting tooth and nail in Western Mosul right now.

NINA DOS SANTOS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's a very good point, Christine. And also, this is the second largest city in Iraq which gives you an idea of how strategically important it is, how strategically important it is that the Iraqi forces now have managed to gain a foothold not just on the eastern side of the city which they did mange to liberate towards the end of last year, but now, the western side, on the other side of the Tigris River after they captured the airport yesterday.

And now, over the last hour, we heard confirmation that they have managed to capture a key military facility adjacent to that airport where they said they discovered large stashes of ISIS weaponry which is now being destroyed. There's also reports, no number as yet about ISIS casualties as well. From here, they're going to be trying to make that push towards the more difficult side of the battle which will be in the more densely populated residential part of western Mosul.

Between the airport and those areas, they've also got to try to secure the electric power station. There's some fierce fighting there yesterday. As yet, we have not had confirmation if they managed to secure that key facility. But the really difficult phase of the operation will be when they get to the older and more western parts of Mosul. Some 650,000 civilians are expected to be still living in the parts of the town.

What we've seen is the Iraqi air force dropped letters that were penned by people in liberated eastern Mosul, along on those houses to be picked up by people inside saying stay inside your houses. When the Iraqi forces come in the part of town, they are friendly forces and help them. Back to you.

ROMANS: All right. Nina Dos Santos for us covering that from Istanbul this morning -- thank you, Nina. BRIGGS: We're now learning that a chemical weapon known VX nerve

agent was used to kill Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of North Korea's dictator. A preliminary report from authorities say the potent poison was found on Kim's eyes and face. He was attacked at an airport by two women earlier this month in Kuala Lumpur. Three North Korean nationals are still wanted for questioning, including one who works at the North Korean embassy in Malaysia.

ROMANS: That story has -- every twist and turn of that story is just like a spy novel.

BRIGGS: It is, like a movie someday. It is terrifying story and video adds to that.

Well, did President Trump's lawyer really promise to deliver a controversial peace plan for the Ukraine directly to the White House? A Ukrainian lawmaker says yes and he is speaking out to CNN. We are live in Kiev.


[04:22:51] ROMANS: All right. Twenty-three minutes past the hour. Good morning, everyone.

New revelations this morning about a controversial peace plan to settle the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. A Ukrainian lawmaker says he presented his plan for peace to President Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen. His lawyer says Cohen planned to take that plan to the national security adviser.

Now, that lawmaker facing a treason investigation in Ukraine. He's given his first western TV interview to CNN.

Senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh is live in Kiev.

It's kind of a complicated story, Nick. But we understand you have new information this morning. Walk us through this.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, bizarre claims and counterclaims here. But at the heart of it is the Ukrainian private businessman and Michael Cohen. This is a bizarre window into publicly it is perceived here in Kiev. Diplomacy and foreign policy through the Trump White House. Here is what they had to say to me.

ANDRII ARTEMENKO, UKRANIAN LAWMAKER: We probably spoke around 20, 25 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 a gentleman that's very potential and he wants to send your message to Trump administration.

WALSH: When you first spoke to Felix Sater, did you ever mentioned that your peace plan would end up on the then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn's desk? ARTEMENKO: No, absolutely not. It was the Michael Cohen idea. He

mentioned his name first in my meetings. He said, listen, Michael Flynn for his personal opinion is most powerful man who can really support this idea, who really support -- who can help you, who can provide his information to President Trump.


WALSH: Now, disagreement about what was said about that and the businessman Felix Sater confirms to us that the peace was discussed and says he's always sympathetic and enthusiastic about it. And that Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen talked about how it was a Michael Flynn issue, that it needed to go to the national security adviser.

[04:25:04] Mr. Cohen emphatically denies discussing peace and says this is an example of fake news. The White House denies discussing anything of that matter with Mr. Cohen or Mr. Artemenko.

It goes back and forth here, but really in Kiev is this perception that an unofficial window is open maybe to the White House. We've even heard from a former president of Ukraine that he's written to Donald Trump directly with his own peace plan. That undermines the official initiative to end the very bitter and nasty war in the east there, Christine.

ROMANS: Really fascinating. All right. Nick Paton Walsh for us in Kiev -- thank you for that, Nick. And keep us posted on any developments.

BRIGGS: Another story missing from that is Rex Tillerson, who, again, seems to be on the sideline on a lot of issues regarding State.

The FBI rejecting the request to publicly knock down reports that the Trump campaign had communicated with Russia. More from this CNN exclusive, next.