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FBI Refused White House Request to Knock Down Recent Trump- Russia Stories; Trump Heads to CPAC; Mixing Politics With Intel?; U.S. Contemplating "Long-Term Commitment" in Iraq. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired February 24, 2017 - 05:00   ET



STEVEN MNUCHIN, TREASURY SECRETARY: We are committed to pass tax reform. It will be very significant.

[05:00:01] It's going to be focused on middle income tax cuts, simplification and making the business tax competitive with the rest of the world, which has been a big problem and a lot of reason why companies are leaving and cash is sitting offshore.

So, that's really our focus. We want to get this done by the August recess.


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Done by the August recess. The president says his plan for tax reform, replacement for Obamacare, a budget proposal will all be ready before his speech to Congress next week.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: That is a full plate, my friend.

ROMANS: It sure is.

BRIGGS: He'll touch on those issues this morning at CPAC.

EARLY START continues right now.


BRIGGS: Did the White House try to get the FBI to reject reports that Donald Trump campaign spoke with Russia and did it violate procedure by speaking with the bureau? Exclusive CNN reporting and the White House response you don't want to miss.

TRUMP: President Trump getting ready to take the stage at CPAC. His vice president and his top advisers setting the scene for him. We'll show you what they said.

BRIGGS: Is the White House injecting politics into intelligence agencies to suit its needs on the upcoming travel ban? A concern from some intel officials ahead. Live coverage on all of our political headlines right now.

Good morning and thanks for getting EARLY START with us. I'm Dave Briggs.

ROMANS: Nice to see you this Friday morning. I'm Christine Romans. It is Friday, February 24th, 5:00 a.m. in the East.

Let's begin with this. The White House overnight voicing objections to exclusive CNN reporting about communications between the Trump campaign and Russia. Multiple U.S. officials tell CNN the FBI rejected a White House request that it knock down reports about constant communications between Trump campaign officials and Russians known to U.S. intelligence. CNN and "The New York Times" first reported on that last week.

Late last night, Press Secretary Sean Spicer objected to CNN's characterization of the White House request to the FBI. He told us, "We didn't try to knock the story down. We asked them, the FBI, to tell the truth."

BRIGGS: 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. Now, 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 that go back to 2007.

CNN's Evan Perez was part of the team that broke the story. He has more now 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.


ROMANS: All right. Evan Perez in Washington with that exclusive reporting, thank you, Evan.

Today, President Trump addressed the conservatives who put him in office. The president speaks to the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, this morning, shortly after 10:00 a.m.

CNN's Tal Kopan is leading our digital team covering. She joins us live from Washington.

A big day yesterday and the president is the main event today.

TAL KOPAN, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: Yes, good morning, Christine.

Absolutely, it's the marquee event. And even yesterday, they were already talking about looking forward to the president's speech. In fact, the first time they say a sitting president in his first year will be addressing CPAC since Reagan, who, of course, is a conservative icon.

So, everyone looking forward to see what President Trump says when he addresses CPAC a little bit later this morning.

And, you know, keep in mind, in some ways, he is in his element in front of a conservative crowd. But this is not the same thing as a campaign rally. Folks who go to CPAC certainly are the conservative base, but it's also a lot of political operatives in Washington, folks who are really in the weeds on this stuff. So, it will be interesting how Trump sort of fires them up, but also gives them a little bit of policy to sink their teeth into.

[05:05:08] We got a hint of that yesterday, you know, Mike Pence in some ways is Donald Trump's conservative whisperer, even though, you know, Donald Trump certainly has his faith. Mike Pence has been in tune with the CPAC crowd for years, is beloved on the Hill by many of the conservatives.

And he really laid out policy in the speech and really, you know, took it to Democrats on Obamacare. I think we can listen to some of that now.


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.


KOPAN: So, you know, we really heard a strong message from him there as we continue to see some problems on the Hill developing what exactly Republicans want to do on Obamacare. Mike Pence said in no uncertain terms the White House expect it to be gone. And you know, he was really dismissive of the real passion we've seen at some of the town halls around the town country as lawmakers go home.

And, you know, earlier in the day, another interesting event was when White House chief of staff and strategist, Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon, appeared on stage together to send a united front. But Steve Bannon really delivered a strong, populist, economic nationalist message that went over quite well with some of the deep conservatives in the room, but not necessarily some of the other folks outside the room.

ROMANS: I'll you something, Tal -- I mean, the front page of every major newspaper this morning, "The Washington Post", "The Wall Street Journal" shows Bannon and Reince Priebus, you know, arm on the shoulder, best buds there at CPAC yesterday.

All right. Tal Kopan, thanks so much for that.

You know, it is interesting on the Mike Pence knocking down the angry town halls. "The Wall Street Journal" also, its analysis this morning saying it's more organic than organized. So, that was the real view of "The Wall Street Journal", which is interesting.

BRIGGS: Well, there is organization to it, but all those movements are going to need some sort of --

ROMANS: Political newcomer is the theme we are finding. A lot of the people who are protesting are political newcomers.

BRIGGS: A lot to get to in terms of politics this morning.

ROMANS: Oh, yes.

BRIGGS: Joining us to break it all down, CNN politics reporter Eugene Scott, and from Washington, CNN contributor Salina Zito.

Good morning to both of you. She's in Washington, with "Washington Examiner" and "New York Post".

All right. Let's start, of course, with what's going at CPAC. And, Salina, you are there. So, let's talk about the feeling in the room. Donald Trump speaks this morning. Yesterday, Steve Bannon.

What is the feeling there? There's a piece on asking people, is Donald Trump a conservative? Are they happy with what they're hearing and the vision they're talking about?

SALINA ZITO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: In the room at CPAC, everyone is very happy. Unlike the past few years, people have been sort of agitated and, you know, agonizing over the direction of the party. And are we ever going to win the presidency and who are we? Last year, Trump didn't even speak at CPAC, which left a lot of people

wondering, you know, is he one of us?

But the mood at CPAC all day yesterday, all week has been happy. People are -- I mean, think about it. They have the House. They have the Senate. They have the presidency. They are about to have another person on the bench in the Supreme Court.

So, you know, this is a very happy crowd right now. Pence was very well-received. Bannon and Priebus is in the early reporting, you know, the White House is showing this very unified message coming in to CPAC. That's for their own good.

ROMANS: Let's talk about the deconstruction of the administrative state, if you will, Eugene Scott, because on the front page, that was just saying of every newspaper, these two guys here today. Steve Bannon -- you know, the president's -- they call him "reclusive mastermind" in "The Washington Post". But, you know, he's the president's strategist there. He talked about the deconstruction of the administrative state.

What does that mean?

EUGENE SCOTT, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: From what I can tell, I mean, I think it goes to the core idea that Donald Trump wants to be a disrupter, or that's at least what Steve Bannon is hoping he would be. The concept of administrative state usually refers to the idea that the government's run by political and professional class and that its real focus should be on public service and helping the people.

I think one thing that's so interesting about just the whole Steve Bannon story is the fact we are talking about this coming from an executive who graduated from Harvard. But the reality is it is resonating with many of these people, and people who are hoping that Donald Trump is actually able to carry that out.

BRIGGS: Yes, he made one thing clear. The media is his enemy. He called us once again the party -- the opposition party.

[[05:10:03] The big story also this morning is the CNN reporting about the discussions between the FBI and the White House regarding the communications between Russia. Now this some say is hypocritical because of how Donald Trump criticized a tarmac meeting earlier in the campaign between Bill Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Oh, gee. There's the attorney general. Let me go say hello. Plane's on the runway. They met for 39 minutes. Remember, he said, we talked golf and we talked about our grandchildren.

Three minutes for the grandchildren. Two minutes for the golf. Then they sat there and twiddled her thumbs.

Now, I believe they talked about her remaining in her position under a crooked Hillary Clinton administration. That's what I believe.


ROMANS: What do you make of the story and what it means for the White House?

ZITO: Well, I mean, this is sort of the difference between campaigning and governing, right? So, when you are campaigning, you know, you can point out all of the things that the opposition is doing. But once you're governing, especially with a White House that is sort of -- as Eugene said -- disruptive and doesn't have the institutional knowledge that you would have, say, from a Clinton or maybe a Jeb Bush administration, you know, there is some loose ends they sort of haven't figured out how to navigate what you are and aren't supposed to do as part of protocol in the administration.

BRIGGS: Now, we know how Sean Spicer played this, Eugene. How do you expect Donald Trump, the president now, to address this and these types of stories today at CPAC, 10:00 a.m.?

SCOTT: Well, I think he's going to continue the Steve Bannon approach saying that every single thing that comes out of the media is a lie and is false and wrong. What he has not done and we asked the president to do this is specify and let us know what is really happening.

I think what will be interesting is to see if the president and his staff transition from realizing that the media isn't the opposition party. Some of their strongest opposition are these people in the White House constantly leaking things. And maybe he needs to get that ship in order.

ROMANS: I think that image yesterday of Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon on the stage chummy, you know, in close proximity.

BRIGGS: A lot of touching.

ROMANS: Yes, exactly.

BRIGGS: Yes, a lot of that.

ROMANS: I think that was really meant to show a different face of the leaks we're hearing and all that.

OK, guys, we'll talk about this again in a few minutes. Stick around. Friday morning, get a cup of coffee. Come back, all right? Thanks, guys.

Would the U.S. really make a long term commitment to stay in Iraq? The chairman of the Joint Chiefs says it could happen. More on that next.


[05:17:01] BRIGGS: The U.S. military is considering a long term presence in Iraq to stabilize the country after anticipated fall of ISIS. That's according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joseph Dunford. He says the U.S. and NATO had begun discussion 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 gain ground against ISIS. Iraqi warplanes bombing three different cities, including western Mosul which Iraqi forces are working to liberate.

CNN international correspondent Nina Dos Santos joins us live with more.

Nina, it's that the long term commitment part that a lot of Americans are nervous about this morning. Good morning.


Yes, and if you look at the immediate battle we are seeing ramping up in western Mosul, well, it will take time Iraqi forces think, to completely capture the more densely populated residential neighborhoods of the city. Already, they have managed to make some big advances just in the last five days since the offensive began on western Mosul began.

Iraqi forces have managed to capture a big swath of the southwest of the town, thanks to the capture of the airport facility there. And then, earlier today, they also managed to liberate "100 percent," quote/unquote, a key military camp as well. We have the Iraqi flags flying over that. They managed to recover a lot of ISIS weaponry and also a number of reports of ISIS militants who have been killed in that battle.

But from here, as you rightfully points you, it will be through the tighter narrow streets of the older part of Mosul where the fight really gets more entrenched, 600,000 people call that their home and they are scared. It's also going to be difficult for fighters to distinguish friends from foe. And they're probably going to have to face ISIS suicide bombers as well. It could take months some fear for them to take the rest of western Mosul -- Dave.

BRIGGS: Complex situation there. Nina, thank you.

ROMANS: All right. So, how long can you make one ping pong rally last?

BRIGGS: About 30 seconds.

ROMANS: These two -- I know -- took it to a new whole level. Andy Scholes with this morning's "Bleacher Report", that's next.


[05:23:31] BRIGGS: Bucs QB Jameis Winston under fire this morning for comments he made at an elementary school on Wednesday.

ROMANS: Andy Scholes has more in this morning's "Bleacher Report". Hey, Andy.


Jameis Winston, he was speaking to third and fifth graders earlier this week at a Florida school and what he said did not go over well. Winston, he was giving an inspirational speech to the kids, and he told all of the boys to stand up and the girls to sit down. He went on to say, quote, "But the ladies, they are supposed to be silent, polite, gentle. My men, my men supposed to be strong."

Now, that was a comment that drew criticism. Winston later said he used poor word choice and was just trying to motivate a certain male student without singling him out. Winston was accused of sexual assault IN 2012, but was never charged. And in December, he settled the federal lawsuit with his accuser.

For the first time since being banned and arrested at Madison Square Garden, Charles Oakley was court side watching his Knicks play. But the game, not in New York. It was in Cleveland.

Oakley, who's a Cleveland native, was sitting with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert. Oakley's ban from the garden was lifted after a meeting with Knicks owner James Dolan and NBA commissioner Adam Silver. But Oakley told ESPN that he doesn't know when he will attend another game at the Garden.

All right. Finally, most of us have all played ping pong. You know you get excited with a 30-second rally. Well, these two players here at the Qatar Open hit the ball back and forth for more than 10 minutes.

[05:25:06] The only thing that actually stopped this rally was another ball from another table came into their area. They had to stop.

Guys, they hit the ball back and forth 766 times. I would get happy if I hit it back and forth probably ten times.

BRIGGS: At best. How do they play beer pong? I mean, can they keep a rally in that? I mean, that is more my speed.

SCHOLES: That is the impressive thing if they can do that, right? Right, Dave?

ROMANS: All right. Andy, nice to see you. Thank you.

SCHOLES: All right. Have good one.

ROMANS: That was something. Ten minutes.

All right. Twenty minutes past the hour. The FBI rejecting a White House request to publicly knockdown reports the Trump campaign communicated with Russia. More from the CNN exclusive, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) ROMANS: Did the White House try to get the FBI to push back against reports the Trump campaign spoke with Russia and did the White House violate procedure by speaking with the bureau?