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Democrats to Elect New DNC Chair; White House Denies Wrongdoing in FBI Conversations About Russia Reporting; Trump Takes a Victory Lap at CPAC; Lawmakers Face Rowdy Crowd During Town Halls; Aired 11-12a ET

Aired February 25, 2017 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:33] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. Good morning on this Saturday. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. We begin this hour with the fight in the Democratic Party for a new leader.

You're looking at live pictures right now at the Democratic National Committee meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, at this moment. And we can also see at any moment votes rolling in for the next chair of the DNC. The two front runners emerging for the DNC's top post are former Labor secretary Tom Perez and Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison. Each representing the two forces that currently divide that party, the progressive movement versus the establishment.

CNN Washington correspondent Ryan Nobles is at the DNC meeting in Atlanta.

So, Ryan, what exactly is happening?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fredricka, right now what's happening is pretty interesting. This is a battle right now over the use of corporate money when it comes to the Democratic Party. It kind of an example of the larger fight in the Democratic Party between the Bernie Sanders and more progressive wing of the party versus the Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama more establishment wing of the party.

And that's what we're going to see play out later here maybe in an hour or two when they go to elect the chair of the party. And Tom Perez, the former Labor secretary in the Obama administration, was on the short list as Hillary Clinton's potential vice president. He is considered the front runner, but Keith Ellison is mounting a serious challenge.

Now I'm told by at least one Democratic committee member who is supporting Tom Perez that they feel that they have the votes to win on that first ballot. If they don't win on the first ballot, it could get interesting. But there's certainly a lot of passion here in Atlanta as Democrats are ready to get organized and unite in opposition against Donald Trump -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: You know, and unite. That's going to be the big potential challenge, right? As the DNC or members there kind of agreeing that whoever that new leader is, they have a big job at hand to try to unite this party.

NOBLES: There's no doubt about that. And that's why I think whoever ends up as the next chair is going to make special effort to reach out to those committee members who didn't necessarily vote for them, particularly Tom Perez.

Again there's a sense that there are still more establishment members that are actually voting members of the DNC, but Perez understands that the passionate support right now from the party comes from the progressive wing. These are the activists that are marching in women's marches and the Obamacare marches today, marching in a variety of different fashions and are energized right now and that he needs to tap into that if the Democratic Party is once again going to become a force.

Because, Fred, it's important to keep in mind that sure, they don't own the White House right now. They don't own either side of Congress. But they also have a serious problem at the state level. They have a severe deficiency when it comes to state legislatures. They own far few governorships. And so the Democrats have a lot of work to do here today and they've got their eyes on 2020 but there's a lot of work to do between now and then as well.

WHITFIELD: All right. Ryan Nobles, thank you so much for that.

All right. Meantime President Trump's newly appointed National Security Adviser, Lieutenant General HR McMaster, is rejecting one of the president's main viewpoints when it comes to fighting terror abroad. A source tells CNN that McMaster told the National Security Council that the term "radical Islamic terrorism" is not helpful when working with allies to fight ISIS and other terror organizations.

But just Friday Trump used the term emphatically at the Conservative Political Action Conference.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So let me state this as clearly as I can. We are going to keep radical Islamic terrorists the hell out of our country.


WHITFIELD: This as the White House is pushing back hard on CNN's exclusive reporting, denying any wrongdoing when they asked the FBI to tamp down reports of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

Let's go now to chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto in Washington -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fred, in the midst of the White House criticism of the media's coverage of this story, the White House did in fact admit that it did communicate with the FBI about an ongoing investigation into communications between Trump advisers and Russian officials, and that it did ask for the FBI's help in tamping these stories down.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight the White House vehemently defending, asking the FBI to deny reports of communications between Trump campaign associates and Russians known to U.S. intelligence.

[11:05:07] The administration's intense pushback follows CNN's exclusive reporting of the White House request. Senior administration officials insisting it only asked for the denial after a top FBI official himself volunteered that "The New York Times"' story on those communications was inaccurate.

White House officials, who asked not to be named, outlined their timeline of events, saying, the conversation happened on February 15th, after a 7:30 a.m. meeting led by White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe asked Priebus for five minutes alone after the meeting ends.

This according to senior administration officials and calls a report linking Trump campaign advisers to Russian intelligence total B.S.

Priebus, the White House says, asked McCabe, quote, "Can we do anything about it?" And whether there is something the FBI can do to, quote, "set the record straight." Later, in separate conversations, McCabe and FBI Director James Comey tell Priebus the FBI cannot comment on the reports.

Priebus then asks Comey if he can cite McCabe and Comey as, quote, "top intelligence officials" in pushing back on the story himself in TV interviews last Sunday, which he did.

REINCE PRIEBUS, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I have talked to the top levels of the intelligence community and they have assured me that that "New York Times" story was grossly overstated and inaccurate and totally wrong.

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

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

SCIUTTO: President Trump on Friday ranted against the leaks that have plagued his administration, making a case reporters should only used named sources, even as White House officials spoke to reporters asking not to be named.

TRUMP: I'm against the people that make up stories and make up sources. They shouldn't be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody's name. Let their name be put out there. Let their name be put out.

A source says that Donald Trump is a horrible, horrible human being. Let them say it to my face.

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


SCIUTTO: And on the larger question of the existence of communications between advisers to Trump during the campaign and Russian officials and other Russians known to U.S. intelligence, though, Reince Priebus has said there's nothing to it, fact is, the FBI is still investigating these communications as are both the Senate and House Intelligence Committees --Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right. Thanks so much, Jim Sciutto.

Minority leader Nancy Pelosi is calling the White House's contact with the FBI, quote, "an outrageous breach of the FBI's independence."

I want to talk more about this with CNN political commentator David Swerdlick. He is an assistant editor at the "Washington Post."

Good to see you this morning, David.


WHITFIELD: All right. So today your paper, the "Washington Post," is also reporting the Trump administration reached out to some members of Congress to dispute these news reports, to try to undermine those reports. What more can you tell us about that?

SWERDLICK: Yes. So, I mean, this has been stellar reporting going back weeks now by my colleagues Greg Miller and Adam Entous on this issue of exactly what the timeline is and what the circumstances were with contacts between folks in the Trump circle and potentially members of the Russian government.

Not to get ahead of the reporting, Fred, but I mean, I think this is a situation where if you're talking about, you know, members of the Trump administration or going back to the Trump transition, you know, reaching out first to the FBI to essentially ask or -- excuse me Trump administration reaching out to the FBI to ask if they would bat down these stories as has been reported by CNN, and then later as has been reported by the "Washington Post," where -- you know, asking other unnamed senior intelligence officials to bat down these stories, it jus continues this cloud of questions about why the administration is so eager and so aggressive to bat all these stories down while there are ongoing investigations.

You know, the FBI has an investigation going. Senator Burr and Senator Warner from the Senate Intelligence Committee have said they're proceeding with an investigation. If nothing is going on, you know, the question remains why bat these down? Why not let it play out? And if there isn't anything going on, why not let these investigations sort of reveal that in the natural course of things.

[11:10:01] WHITFIELD: And all of this as the autonomy of the branches of government has -- you know, continues to be a big issue in Trump's first 100 days.

I want to play for you some sound from Republican Congressman Darrell Issa. He says Attorney General Jeff Sessions should actually recuse himself from the investigation into Russia's meddling in the U.S.'s elections. Listen.


REP. DARRELL ISSA (R), CALIFORNIA: You cannot have somebody, a friend of mine, Jeff Sessions, who was on the campaign and who was an appointee. You're going to need to use the special prosecutor's statute and office to take -- not just to recuse. That's -- you can't just give it to your deputy. That's another political appointee. You do have to do that. We're going to have to do it.


WHITFIELD: All right. So, David, do you see that a special prosecutor would be appointed?

SWERDLICK: You know, I'm not sure yet, Fred, but I mean, the logic that Congressman Issa is using there in that clip from last night seems pretty clear, right? He's simply saying look, since this is an issue that potentially touches, you know, members of the Trump team, the Trump inner circle, that the more transparent, more arm's length way to go about investigating it would be with the efforts of a special prosecutor rather than someone reporting directly up through Attorney General Sessions.

That doesn't mean he's saying that there's, you know, something going on that hasn't been reported yet. Just that it would be the better way to proceed and get to the real answers behind this issue.

WHITFIELD: Right. But particularly before Jeff Sessions was confirmed as attorney general, he was on the campaign and so thereby kind of underscoring that concern.


WHITFIELD: Being expressed by so many.

SWERDLICK: Yes. An early endorser of President Trump, one -- someone seen by all involved as a close adviser and now the attorney general.

WHITFIELD: All right. So now let's talk about the president's newly appointed National Security adviser. An official, you know, telling CNN that Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster says the term radical Islamic terrorism is not helpful among allies when fighting terror abroad. And that is a major break with the president. So do you see in any way that this might influence change of the dialogue for the president of the United States? SWERDLICK: Well, as you pointed out at the top of the hour, Fred, in

your report, the president just as recently as yesterday at his speech at the CPAC convention did use the -- the phrase radical Islamic terror rather emphatically in his speech. So clearly there's not an immediate stop to him pushing that kind of rhetoric out there.

WHITFIELD: Not immediate, but do you see McMaster eventually kind of wearing on Trump in terms of that language?

SWERDLICK: My sense is that President Trump does what President Trump wants to do. I do think, though, that the fact that McMaster has reported as having said this to his staff in his first all hands meeting suggests to me that there's sort of a -- he's poking a hole, whether intentionally or not, in this narrative that Trump has put out there all throughout the campaign as well as a lot of other Republicans throughout the 2016 campaign that President Obama was hampered in combating terror because he wouldn't use the phrase radical Islamic terror.

You know, one of the things that Republicans have pushed throughout the Obama years was this idea that Obama was soft on terror even though Obama has used phrases like calling ISIS a vicious death cult in 2015 at the National Prayer Breakfast is one example that comes to mind. He has talked about terrorism, but he hasn't used that specific phrase. Republicans used it against him.

Now that President Obama is no longer in the picture, Republicans are sort of responsible for matching the rhetoric with their actions and responsible for the results that ensue if they break from the tradition of both the Bush and the Obama administration in trying to tamp down this rhetoric even as they fight these wars in the Middle East that have to do with terror and the Islamic State, et cetera.

WHITFIELD: All right. David Swerdlick, we'll see you soon. Thanks so much.

SWERDLICK: Thanks, Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right. Republicans by the way meeting today for their annual spring gathering of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. President Trump set the tone this week promising massive new military spending, among other things. We'll talk about all that next.


[11:17:25] WHITFIELD: All right. Welcome back. The conservatives' annual spring gathering underway just outside of Washington, D.C. and all eyes will be on EPA administrator Scott Pruitt today as he takes the stage in just a few hours from now. His remarks will follow those of President Donald Trump who yesterday outlined his "America First" agenda. Trump saying he would support several environmental protection regulations.

Let's bring in now CNN contributor and "Washington Examiner" reporter Salena Zito. So, Salena, good to see you. You are there at the conference. Things

getting under way. And you're also on the docket to actually speak. What are you planning to say?

SALENA ZITO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I'm going to be talking about sort of taking a look at the blue wall that President Trump sort of breached when he won the election in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, sort of Great Lakes rustbelt states that no president has won in a general -- a Republican president has won in a generation. Take a look at why that happened, the economic conditions that made it easier for him and the message that he brought in those states.

WHITFIELD: The new head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, will be speaking in just a couple of hours. What's the expectation about what he will say if it will be in step with what was heard from Donald Trump?

ZITO: You know, energy has really been at the heart of the Republican message and movement for the past I would say about eight years. If you remember during Sarah Palin and John McCain, there was the drill, baby drill. That continued through 2012. Energy is the sort of wild, wild west, for the new jobs, especially for working class people and blue-collar workers. There are well-paying jobs and there have been a lot of regulations that have impacted them, not only in the coal industry, but also in the natural gas industry.

So I suspect that he will talk about that, about the future, about those jobs, and sort of lifting those regulations up to make those jobs more plentiful.

WHITFIELD: When Donald Trump was speaking, it appeared he was in a very -- in the environment of a very friendly crowd, quite the contrast when he was, you know, last there. But there were some cheering going on there, but overall how would you describe the reception to Donald Trump there?

ZITO: Well, night and day between 2011 and yesterday, right? In fact, last year he canceled at the last -- I think it was at the last moment. You know, everyone was very enthusiastic. Everyone was very excited. Even if Trump was not their initial pick during the primary process, Republicans here are very happy.

[11:20:08] They have the House. They have the Senate. They have the presidency. They have the Supreme Court pick about to happen. And they have the majority of governor seats and legislative bodies. So right now they're at that moment and they understand the moment doesn't last long, but they have the majority and they're going to relish it.

WHITFIELD: And what have people been saying there since we heard from, you know, key strategist Steve Bannon as well there? And he seemed to really spell out in detail the blueprint of this administration and that in step, you know, with Donald Trump speaking in much more, you know, vagaries. What do people say about, you know, the contrast in word choice, in vision from those two? ZITO: Well, there was a contrast as you said in word choice and in

vision. But what people have been really sort of happy about in this -- as the White House has sort of rolled out their team beginning with Kellyanne Conway and then with Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus, Vice President Pence, Trump, everyone is -- has a solid, you know, message of, you know, this is our moment, this is our movement, we have to stay strong with this movement. And there's sort of this conciseness that you haven't seen all the time within people within the Trump administration. So people here are pretty happy about that. To see this sort of overall united front together.

WHITFIELD: All right. Salena Zito, thanks so much.

ZITO: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: All right. Still ahead, rowdy town halls which Republican lawmakers have suffered through for two weeks now.




WHITFIELD: And then many of these town halls continue throughout this weekend. We'll be talking to some of the voters about their biggest concerns.

Live pictures right now out of Hoover, Alabama. We'll be right back.


[11:26:01] WHITFIELD: All right. Lawmakers are facing the heat at more town halls this weekend.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Obamacare is a wreck to our economy --


WHITFIELD: Republican lawmakers have endured two weeks of rowdy town halls and they have been facing a lot of angry protesters as well.

Take a look right now. Live pictures from a town hall going on, seemingly so far rather placid there, in Hoover, Alabama. The crowd -- or we understand many people in the crowd have been holding up red and green signs showing their feelings on some of the more heated issues.

This is just one of several town halls being held across the country by both parties today.

CNN's Sara Ganim joining us live with more on this -- Sara.

SARA GANIM, CNN INVESTIGATIONS CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And we're seeing this morning some angry protesters causing contentious town halls and it's making some lawmakers reconsider holding the middle.

New York Congressman Peter King said on Friday he won't hold town halls if they'll just devolve into, quote, "a screaming session," saying that angry town halls trivialize and diminish democracy.

But it's not just Republicans who are backing off the traditional more brashy meetings with constituents. Some Democrats particularly those in states that went for Trump in 2016, they're in vulnerable positions, up for reelection in 2018, they're also shying away from town halls to avoid a possibly contentious situation. Senator Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Senator Joe Manchin in West Virginia, North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly.

Now to be fair, Fredricka, some of them -- all of them are holding events, not just the traditional town halls. They're holding different kinds of events. For example, Joe Manchin, held an invitation only event and Senator Joe Tester in Montana, he opted for an online town hall via Facebook Live, which is a more controlled environment.

Now Democratic strategists are telling me that the opportunity for those traditional town hall is simply too risky right now. They see no upside in putting themselves in positions where an exchange with an angry protester could end up going viral and they're going to end up watching it on CNN.

I talked to University of Virginia political strategist Larry Sabato who told me there is another reason some Democrats might want to hold off on a town hall right now. Take a listen.


LARRY SABATO, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA POLITICAL STRATEGIST: I think they are avoiding stepping on the anti-Republican story because it is the Republican town halls that have become very controversial. And it's video clips from those town halls that have made it on to the national news night after night. So if a Democrat has a town hall and it turns messy, that steps on the story. That makes it a bipartisan story. Probably less interesting or less potent politically.


GANIM: So you heard that. They don't want to step on the story. Another Democratic strategist told me there is at least one group out there that's raising money to put up primary candidates against sitting Democrats who are in states that went for Trump targeting senators who may be more likely to side with the president on certain issues.

And you know, as we're seeing across the country, as you're seeing in these live pictures, these town halls are getting a little messy and they're opting for some more -- some senators are opting for some more controlled environments -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right. Sara Ganim, thank you so much.

All right. Coming up the battle for the DNC chair, at any moment now we could know the next leader of the Democratic National Committee and what it could mean for the future of the party. We'll talk to the vice chair of the committee next.


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: A showdown is under way right now for the top post at the Democratic National Committee, 447 Democrats are gathering in Atlanta to vote on who will be the next chair of the DNC. That's the number of people who were actually participating in the vote. The party is looking to rebuild just three months after a shellacking from the Republican Party both nationally and in state houses.

I want to bring R.T. Rybak, the vice chair of the DNC and the former mayor of Minneapolis. Good to see you, R.T. So is rebuilding the party going to be the primary objective for the new chair?

R.T. RYBAK, VICE CHAIR, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE: Well, absolutely. I think what you're seeing is a party that sometimes has been too close. Opening up the doors and bringing in a lot of grass roots energy. I'm supporting Keith Ellison but people are all over the map on this. Almost everyone is completely united here. That hasn't always been the case. Bluntly, the past four years under Debbie Wasserman Schultz is a nightmare, but this is a dream come true.

WHITFIELD: Because particularly the favoritism that Debbie Wasserman Schultz showed for Hillary Clinton certainly meant that the party as a whole took a big hit in the credibility. But when you say that everyone seemed as though they are on board or there seems to be a real united front there, in what way?

RYBAK: Well, name me a political party where everyone agrees and certainly Democrats have disagreed in the past, but the amazing thing is here people who are supporting different candidates in this race are universally seeing not only in public but over a beer or whatever that, hey, we're all about moving in one direction here.

We know the threat that is out there with the current president and we need to hold the Republican Party accountable for going along with some of the incredibly outrageous things happening right now. So we're ready to move.

WHITFIELD: So R.T., you say you are throwing your support behind Keith Ellison and he's receiving a lot of support from, you know, a lot of progressive groups, even Bernie Sanders has thrown his support behind Keith Ellison.

But at the same time, wasn't there a lot of criticism about Wasserman Schultz, particularly because she was a member of Congress. He is a sitting member of Congress.

[11:35:07]How -- and the criticism was can you do both jobs? Can you be an elected official, do your job as a member of Congress and also take the lead of the Democratic Party?

RYBAK: Well, unlike Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz, Keith Ellison have resigned his position. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Keith Ellison work in the same big building in Washington, but that's the only similarity. I've worked with Keith. He's somebody who knows how to mobilize grass roots activists in an incredible way.

Tom Perez is great. We have phenomenal people in this race. I think what we're really looking at here is not only who's elected, but what are we talking about. In this last election, we saved the auto industry and lost the industrial Midwest. We got big business out of student loans and didn't mobilize students.

We fought for the environment and not enough environmentalists took this as a major vote. Our issue isn't about trying to do the right things. It's trying to get all of those constituencies to hear and see that we're on their side. That's a message issue.

The Republicans have a values issue and I'd rather figure out how to communicate and organize better than to try to explain to the American people why the Republican Party, a once great party has sold out its value system to someone who's taking this quasi authoritarian view that I think is jeopardizing our liberty.

The future is at stake here. People get it and it's not about who wins this thing. It's about how we move forward.

WHITFIELD: And in this moving forward --

RYBAK: And people are cheering.

WHITFIELD: All right, I'll try to ask my question in between the cheering. In an effort to build on the future, how much of that is predicated on a rebranding of sorts of the Democratic Party?

RYBAK: I don't think it's a rebranding, but I think it's taking a series of messages we've had directly to individuals and tying them together. Dr. Martin Luther King's daughter just spoke and she talked about a hole in the left side of the boat.

Well, that left side or the right side has a hole in the boat, but we're all on the same boat, and I think that's the sort of thing we're talking a lot about. I campaigned a lot in Wisconsin. There are a lot of people tied to the auto industry. There are certainly more in Michigan.

We didn't do a good enough job of talking about the fact that when the auto industry was collapsing, the Republican Party fought the saving of the auto industry. There are 20 million people in this country who have health care who may lose it right now, but they've primarily, many of them voted for Trump.

That's a communications and organizing challenge. We didn't do that well enough. I also think, you know, there's a lot wrong with Donald Trump, but the key is you vote for people and the Democrats have been doing I think the right things, but I think we need to do a better job of messaging that and organizing that.

It's not just language. It's listening and it's campaigning where people don't expect Democrats to win. We're in Georgia because we're so excited about how well it's actually going in Georgia. This could be a swing state some day and it only does that if Democrats campaign in all 50 states, which I think there's a new commitment to do which frankly wasn't the deal before.

WHITFIELD: All right, R.T. Rybak, thank you so much. Appreciate it. And we will be right back.


WHITFIELD: An unprecedented decision to block CNN and other news outlets from attending an off camera White House briefing on Friday. Well, it's escalating tension now in the already storming relationship between the Trump administration and the press. The decision to hand pick who could attend the press gaggle came shortly after a Trump mocked and disparaged the news media.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: So I'm not against the media and the press and I don't mind bad stories if I deserve them. I love good stories. I don't get too many of them, but I am only against the fake news media or press. Fake. Fake. They have to leave that word. I'm against the people that make up stories and make up sources. They shouldn't be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody's name. Let their name be put out there.


WHITFIELD: Joining me right now to discuss this is CNN senior media correspondent, Brian Stelter, who is also host of "RELIABLE SOURCES." Also with me is Jeff Mason, a White House correspondent for "Reuters" and also the president of the White House Press Association.

All right, Brian, let me begin with you. How concerning is this, a decision like this would be made about a gaggle hand wicking, cherry picking?

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's one of these inches in the erosion of freedoms for the press at the White House. This is not taking a foot or taking a mile, but inch by inch we're seeing this White House try to change the rules, the norms that govern the relationship between the press corps and the president.

To be clear this is not something that former Republican or Democrat presidents did. This is Republican versus Democratic thing. This is brand new with President Trump. In some ways maybe he's fulfilling a campaign promise. He attacked the media all throughout the campaign.

So he's continuing those attacks now that he's in office. But we saw a lot of news outlets, including ones not affected by this yesterday, all come out and say this is inappropriate, we're not going to stand for this and I think groups like Jeff's group are trying to make a statement about this to ensure this doesn't become the new normal.

WHITFIELD: And Jeff, it does seem like it's really full circle because it was inauguration we all had that conversation, you and I and brain, we all had that conversation about how the White House was talking about moving the White House press corps kind of off premises. Creating a distance between the White House, the information, and the mainstream press. And isn't this kind of an evolution of that by hand picking who gets to be a part of the gaggle?

JEFF MASON, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "REUTERS": I'm actually glad you brought that up, Fredricka, because I think it's important to put this in the context of generally how the first month has gone covering the Trump White House. We have had in the press corps pretty good access to President Trump, to Sean Spicer and other officials who work with the press.

Sean has been giving daily briefings that have been televised very regularly from the press room as you say, which is what we have asked for. Yesterday did not go the way we would like. We objected to that. It is not a trend we want to see continue.

[11:45:03]And we have articulated that to Sean and the rest of the staff. But I am optimistic or at least hopeful at this point that the trend that has been set more broadly in terms of regular briefings in the White House press room is the one that will continue.

WHITFIELD: So then, Jeff, you say you all have objected, the president of the White House Correspondents Association, you've objected, but then you're objecting to the very body of folks who said these are the new rules, you know. There is a new sheriff in town. This is the way it's going to work. So what happens after you've expressed disappointment? What do you expect from them?

MASON: For starters, we made those objections clear before it happened. We recommended that instead of holding that gaggle in his office that the gaggle be held in the press briefing room. There's precedent for doing that. It doesn't have to be televised. You can still hold a briefing there without it being on camera.

But that's not the decision that they made and so we told them again afterwards that would be preferable and better in the future. There is some precedent for occasionally holding gaggles or small briefings with smaller groups of reporters, but what happened yesterday was basically substituting that for the broader news of the day briefing.

STELTER: Yes, this was premeditated.

MASON: Not including major organizations like CNN and that's why we objected to it.

STELTER: I think we're seeing this us versus them dynamic. The same dynamic we hear in President Trump's speeches. We're seeing it in the press dynamic as well. Trying to leave out CNN and the "New York Times" and "Politico" and other outlets that might be especially aggressive in their coverage. And then having these more favorable outlets, the president is more willing to cooperate with or talk with, that's a worrisome dynamic because people like Sean Spicer work for the American people. They are paid by the taxpayers.

So if they're leaving out CNN, which is a big news organization or "The New York Times," which is a huge news organization, but then bringing in OANN, which is a nice channel, but it's a very small conservative channel. So small it doesn't have Nielsen ratings. That would seem to me to be cherry picking.

WHITFIELD: And you say premeditated because just prior to that happening, Brian, we saw the president at CPAC, you know, who once again singled out and targeted the media as being the opposition, as being enemy number one?

STELTER: Partly I say it because of that and it seemed that Spicer had a list ahead of time who was not going to be invited in so it wasn't an accident that the "New York Times" and "Politico" and the "L.A. Times" and CNN were excluded. It seemed to be intentional.

But you know, his rhetoric at CPAC, it was very appealing for his base. We heard live on CNN his crowd at CPAC cheering for him. I don't think it appeals to the rest of the country, which is relying on the press to figure out the good, the bad and the ugly of this administration.

WHITFIELD: And so Jeff, real quick, you know, this president, this White House is saying it's more accessible than any of its predecessors. Is the White House saying that because they're using the form of tweeting, the president tweeting out, you know, as exemplifying, you know, being accessible?

MASON: Well, I don't think a tweet is an example of accessibility. You can't ask questions of a tweet, but generally, we have, as I said before, had the opportunity to ask the president questions pretty regularly and the same for his staff.

But Brian is right and the Correspondents Association is mindful that we have to stay vigilant, that something like what happened yesterday is not the start of a trend. I again would just reiterate that the general trend of the last month has been fairly positive in terms of access.

But I said to Sean that one of the reasons people got especially excited about what happened yesterday is because it came in the context of the broader remarks that President Trump made about the media.

And if people start thinking that, the press office is implementing some sort of shift in policy towards how it deals with the press because of that rhetoric, then people are going to object and with good reason.

STELTER: And access is not everything. If you have access, then the president tells them it's not true, then what was the value of the access? There's an awkward dynamic in play because this president has a pattern of misstatements. But I think Spicer is trying his best in a really awkward situation and yesterday it was a troubling day. I think the CNN statement said it really well. We're going to keep reporting regardless.

MASON: That's our job. It's our job to keep reporting and I think that's the way we show that we are upholding the protections and the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment regardless of the tone that is being set by the president.

WHITFIELD: All right. Brian Stelter and Jeff Mason, thanks so much, Gentlemen. Appreciate it. We'll be right back.



WHITFIELD: All right, the Oscars are tomorrow night and we have a preview of the show. Here now is CNN's Stephanie Elam.


STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Musical romance, family drama, and extraterrestrial life, all competing for Oscars. "Lala Land" is the film to watch with 14 nominations tying "All About Eve" and "Titanic" for the most nods in Oscar history. The musical is up for Best Picture along with "Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, Lion, Manchester By The Sea, and Moonlight."

RAMIN SETOODEH, NEW YORK BUREAU CHIEF, "VARIETY: Some people think that maybe "Hidden Figures" could eke out in the end, but I think that in the end, "Lala Land" will prevail.

ELAM: "Lala Land's" Emma Stone is up for best actress as is Isabelle Huppert for "Elle," Ruth Negga in "Loving," and return winners, Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins, and Natalie Portman as Jackie but Stone is the frontrunner.

SETOODEH: Emma Stone has essentially won every single award you can win.

ELAM: The race for best actor however is tight. Andrew Garfield in "Hacksaw Ridge," Ryan Gosling in "Lala Land," and Viggo Mortensen in "Captain Fantastic" are all up for the honor. But the momentum is with Denzel Washington for "Fences" and Casey Affleck in "Manchester By The Sea."

SETOODEH: Everyone is going to be on the edge of their seat for that competition.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you know who's hosting this year he's touching your face.

[11:55:07]ELAM: Jimmy Kimmel is taking on Hollywood's most notoriously challenging role. The late night host will emcee the Oscars for the first time.

SETOODEH: He really is going to rely on his relationship with the actors in the room to try to make them comfortable and relax.

ELAM: Although a few will probably be excited and emotional after striking Oscar gold.


WHITFIELD: All right, the next hour of the CNN NEWSROOM begins right after short break.


WHITFIELD: Hello, again, everyone. Thank you so much for joining me. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. All right, right now, a battle is underway for the top post of the Democratic Party. You're looking at live pictures now of the Democratic National Committee meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.

At any moment, we can see votes rolling in for the next chair of the DNC. The two frontrunners emerging for the DNC's top post are former labor secretary, Tom Perez, and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison. Each representing the two forces that currently divide the party, the progressive moment versus the establishment.

CNN Washington correspondent, Ryan Nobles, is at the DNC meeting in Atlanta, so Ryan, what is happening? I thought voting was to begin around 10:45, 11 a.m. Eastern. There might be several rounds. So what's going on?