Return to Transcripts main page


Democrats Voting Today On New Party Leader; McMaster: Saying "Radical Islamic Terrorism" Isn't Helpful; White House Denies Wrongdoing In FBI Conversations About Russia Reporting; Trump Still Has To Fill Nearly 2,000 Appointed Positions; U.S. Soldiers Help Iraqi Troops Near Front Lines; Democrats Voting Today On New Party Leader; Manhunt For Killer After 2 Missing Girls Found Dead. Aired 12-1p ET

Aired February 25, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: 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, though. What's going on?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we're not quite to voting yet, Fredricka, but they just finished up all the early morning speakers and they're beginning the process of the voting. Now, this is going to take a while. All the candidates up for election day, not just the chairs, will get the opportunity to speak briefly to the crowd.

So that could take more than an hour to get through all them, before the actual voting begins. But already this morning, we heard a call for unity from a number of different speakers that spoke to this crowd.

And you're right, there is a battle right now in this Democratic Party between the progressive wing of the party and the establishment wink of the party, perhaps the Hillary Clinton wing and the Bernie Sanders wing.

But Bernice King, who is the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. gave a very passionate speech to this crowd, saying that the time for this party to unite is now. Take a listen.


BERNICE KING, DAUGHTER OF REVEREND MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: When evil men and women shout ugly words of hatred, good men and women must commit themselves to the glories of love. When evil men and women would seek to perpetuate an unjust status quo, good men and women must seek to bring into being, a real order of justice. These are the words from my father, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It is my hope and prayer going forward that these are the words that will resonate with this party.

(END VIDEO CLIP) NOBLES: So now, we await the vote. We'll hear from these candidates, Tom Perez, a former labor secretary is considered to be the frontrunner. There's even a chance he could win on the first ballot. If he doesn't, watch what happens with Keith Ellison, the Minnesota Congressman who comes from that progressive wing of the party.

And then there is the man, who many considered to be in third place right now, the mayor of South Bend, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Buttigieg is an interesting character. Nobody really has him as their top pick right now. But he's considered to be the number two pick for many here.

So if there's a battle between the Perez wing and the Ellison wing, they may settle on Buttigieg as a compromise pick. But regardless, it's probably not the last we're going to hear from him if he's not successful here today.

So, Fred, voting could begin here in an hour or so. We'll keep an eye on it for you and have updates later today.

WHITFIELD: All right, Ryan Nobles, keep us posted. Thanks so much.

All right, meanwhile, President Donald Trump's newly appointed national security adviser is contradicting one of the president's ideologies when it comes to fighting terrorism abroad.

CNN's Athena Jones joins us now from the White House with more on this. So Athena, Lt. General H.R. McMaster was just appointed Monday and he's already I guess differentiating himself with the president on certain things.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Fred. That's right. It's the use of the term radical Islamic terrorist or radical Islamic terrorism. The new national security adviser does not agree with the president on the use of that term.

Let's first listen to what President Trump had to say yesterday at CPAC, that gathering of conservatives that was taking place right outside of Washington and then we'll talk about what his new national security adviser says.


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


JONES: Now, that line that we heard from the president yesterday is exactly what he said a week ago today at that campaign rally in Melbourne. It's a phrase he used repeatedly on the campaign trail and not just President Trump, but a lot of other Republicans like the senator, Ted Cruz from Texas.

Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster says that Jihadist terrorists aren't true to their religion and that use of the term radical Islamic terrorism isn't helpful for U.S. goals of working with allies to defeat terrorist groups.

That is what the new national security adviser told an all hands meeting of the National Security Council. Just a couple of days ago on Thursday night and so you can see the disconnect there. It's a pretty clear one.

And let's remember that President Trump repeatedly criticized his predecessor, President Obama, for not using that phrase. Not using that exact terminology that McMaster takes issue with and the argument that President Obama and others who are against using the phrase radical Islamic terrorism have made is exactly the one that the White House, the president has disagreed with.

[12:05:03]I should mention this is not new. Lt. General McMaster has said this sort of thing before. He said it at a speech in November at a speech last May. Talking about how, you know, jihadists and groups like ISIL are cynically pervert this interpretation of religion.

So you would think it's something that the White House would have been aware of, but it doesn't seem like something that the president would want to hear from his top national security adviser.

WHITFIELD: And able to observe whether McMaster's words is at all influential on the language that the president chooses to use from this point forward. All right, Athena Jones, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

All right, so all this as the White House is pushing back hard on CNN's exclusive reporting, denying any wrong doing when those, with the Trump campaign and the White House asked the FBI to tamp down reports of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

Let's go now to CNN 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 and the 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. The administration's intense push back 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 today 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 something 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 asked Comey if he can cite the McCabe and Comey as, quote, "top intelligence officials" and pushing back on the story himself in TV interviews last Sunday, which he did.

REINCE PRIEBUS, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I've talked to the top levels of the intelligence community and they've 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 ATTORNEY GENERAL: You don't want the appearance of political influence because that's 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 use name sources, even as White House officials spoke to reporters asking not to be named.

PRESIDENT 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 devastated 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 intelligence, Reince Priebus has said there's nothing to it. The fact is the FBI is still investigating these communications as are both the Senate and House Intelligence Communities -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right, Jim Sciutto, thanks so much. Now, "The Washington Post" is reporting that the Trump administration also reached out to some members of Congress to dispute these news reports.

Let's talk more about that with Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for the "Chicago Sun-Times" and Jay Newton-Small, a contributor for "Time" magazine. Good to see you, Ladies.

All right, so Lynn, you first, Democrats are calling this a breach of the FBI's independence.

[12:10:04]It clearly raises a decade's old question, can the White House discuss an open investigation with the FBI as Jim was spelling out. So what's the conclusion?

LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "CHICAGO SUN TIMES": Well, the conclusion is that this is very, very dangerous ground to go over if you are not really up on -- you should not do this until you are absolutely sure that you have followed every protocol and regulation or else you get into the controversy that the Trump administration is now in.

David Axelrod put out in a tweet that he could only imagine what would happen if this kind of a story came out during the Obama presidency. Congress would be -- the Republicans in Congress would be calling for a program inquiry. So I think this one is a meritorious inquiry into what happened and find out all the details.

WHITFIELD: And we know what the outcome was when a former president by the name of Bill Clinton had conversations with this sitting attorney general. You know, as it pertained to FBI investigations.

SWEET: Right. So at the least, this should be a wakeup call in terms of the proper communications the White House can have with the Justice Department and what you shouldn't do.

WHITFIELD: So, Jay, should there be repercussion us for the chief of staff, Reince Priebus? Should there be repercussions for the deputy director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe?

JAY NEWTON-SMALL, CONTRIBUTOR, "TIME" MAGAZINE: I think certainly there should be some repercussions. If you look at what happened as you mentioned, Fred, what happened when Bill Clinton went and met Loretta Lynch on her plane during the campaign, people cried foul and she actually had to recuse herself from having anything to do with the FBI's investigations in Hillary's case.

Is the same thing going to happen now? Is McCabe going to recuse himself in any part of this investigation? Is Comey going to recuse himself from these investigations? And potentially a point as Darrell Issa, you know, a Republican congressman from California just today called for an independent investigator into all of this because so many people have so conflicts of interest in all of this.

WHITFIELD: In fact, this was Darrell Issa when he was on Bill Maher's show last night. This is what he said as it pertains to going forward.


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


WHITFIELD: All right, so, Jay, do you see potentially what would happen?

NEWTON-SMALL: When you've got Republicans calling for it, that's a very powerful message. I mean, when you have your own party calling to investigate their own White House. I mean, that's really when it's going to happen especially if there are a lot of -- you've heard a lot of unhappiness.

A lot of worries from particularly the moderate members of the Republican Party, who face re-election in blue states, saying they have to distance themselves and this president. They have to be able convince purple states and blue states to elect them and they believe that an independent prosecutor would be helpful in that case.

WHITFIELD: Go ahead, Lynn.

SWEET: Here's the danger for the White House. These independent prosecutors just follow the stream wherever it goes. We've seen that in the Bill Clinton investigation and how that has metastasized into many other subject areas.

So this is a very important period for the Trump White House and if Trump is seen as trying to put out the fire that Darrell Issa lit, somebody who has been head of an investigative congressional committee who knows how it's done when you want to do it.

I mean, you're now looking at potential congressional communities and a special prosecutor and the administration is only five weeks old.

WHITFIELD: Yes, hard to believe. All right, and then there's this. Let's turn to the president's newly appointed national security adviser and an official is telling CNN that Lt. General H.R. McMaster says the term radical Islamic terrorism is not helpful among allies when fighting terror abroad.

You heard this coming from the Obama administration in terms of why the president wouldn't use that language. So, is there a feeling, Lynn, that McMaster's logic here would rub off on President Trump?

SWEET: Absolutely. President Trump is very influenced by the generals who he picked to advise him. And even though this is a reversal of the Trump policy as expressed as recently as yesterday, this national security adviser has supporters on both sides of the aisle.

He has written well received book on and is seen as somebody who when he talks, President Trump should listen and we will see, I bet, some kind of reaction to this. I'm not sure how or what, but this will have to be factored in one way or the other with President Trump because I think he cannot afford a second national security adviser to depart so soon.

[12:15:12]WHITFIELD: And Jay, how do you suppose Donald Trump would turn the tables on that? Because he doesn't like to retreat and especially publicly. It would be an admission that perhaps everything he said before was not the right approach. We don't see that from him often.

NEWTON-SMALL: Well, Fred, actually I would argue we do. I mean, you remember early on in his administration, he basically challenged the "One China" policy, and then a few weeks later on the phone with President Xi in the middle of the night, he was like, oh, yes, I kind of do believe in the "One China" policy.

A few weeks later, he said, well, I don't know about the two state policy in Israel and Palestine, and then just two days ago in an interview with Reuters, he said, of course, I believe in the two state policy.

So he's definitely the kind of president who seems to -- he's often been on both sides of the fence of a lot of issues and when it make sense for him to be on one side, he does it and when it make sense to him to retreat the other way, he also does that.

So it would not surprise me at all if he at some point says, well, perhaps it isn't the best idea or maybe just never mentioned the words radical Islamic terrorist ever again.

I think it's clear that the preponderance of experts in the field have said it's an incredibly insulting term to Muslims and it's not a good idea to use it.

WHITFIELD: All right, we will see. He's been pretty emphatic about the use of radical Islamic terrorism. All right, Ladies, appreciate it. Thank you.

All right, coming up, Republicans meeting today at the Conservative Political Action Conference known as CPAC. What's next for the party still riding high after a big win and the president's fiery speech yesterday?


WHITFIELD: All right, this just in. The Trump administration still has to fill nearly 2,000 openings, many of them in government agencies, according to data reviewed by CNN.

[12:20:00]The president is also way behind the last three presidents when it comes to getting his cabinet picks confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Only 14 Trump nominations have been confirmed as of February 21st.

All right, conservatives are gathering for their annual spring conference outside of Washington, D.C. and all eyes will be on EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt today as he takes the stage in just a couple of hours. His remarks will follow those of President Trump, who yesterday outlined his America first agenda.


PRESIDENT TRUMP: There's no such thing as a global anthem, a global currency or a global flag. This is the United States of America that I'm representing. I'm not representing the globe. I'm representing your country.


WHITFIELD: And let's bring in Paul Bonicelli. He was a foreign policy adviser for former President George W. Bush. Good to see you, Paul. So, your thoughts on the president's speech yesterday that lasted almost an hour?

PAUL BONICELLI, FORMER FOREIGN POLICY ADVISER FOR PRESIDENT G.W. BUSH: Yes, probably one of his best in many ways in terms of the politics of it. This is a crowd that loves hip. He won them oaf. It took a few year, but he won them over fully. This has really been a Trump event in many ways.

But also in policy, you know, he was hitting harder on specific policies. Not necessarily a lot of details, but specific policies in terms of things he promised and things that he is doing. So I think it was a great success for him.

WHITFIELD: President Trump will be speaking to Congress on Tuesday and he's also promised to roll out a brand-new travel ban. What's your expectation about his demeanor, his message to this joint members of Congress?

BONICELLI: I think that we are seeing this transition from the campaign, Trump to the governing Trump. It may not be as fast as a lot of people wanted, but people are going to have to get used to Donald Trump being a different kind of president, doing it the way that he does it.

But I think it is very clear the way he works with people. Whether it's going to be with Republicans or Democrats, whether it's with the courts who tell him this order is not right, back it up, do it over.

He's acquiesced to that with the firm intention that he's going to have the policy. Not only going through the Ninth Circuit process, but also with the new order. I think you're seeing a different kind of president, but one who is governing and focused on that.

WHITFIELD: And so what's encouraging you most about what you believed to be his governing style?

BONICELLI: I am encouraged first of all by the cabinet picks. You know, personnel is policy. The people that he has chosen are stellar people. A lot of commentators have noticed that there is well over half of his cabinet could have been in a Democratic administration as well or another kind of Republican.

But it's also a style that has a lot to do with the outsider, the business person, who is always setting the negotiating table. Trump is determined that when he sits down to negotiate with another country, with Congress, whoever it is, he will have a range of conversation that fits him as best as he can.

And that is a normal tactic of diplomats for hundreds of years. It's what good business negotiators do as well and I think that's what we're seeing and I think there's if not genius because he's been around a while, it is very smart. It's a good way for an outsider president to get his way, I think.

WHITFIELD: So National Security Adviser Lt. General H.R. McMaster says the term radical Islamic terrorism is not helpful when fighting terror aboard. That's a huge break with the president who used those words, you know, quite regularly. Do you think this is an indicator of a new kind of President Trump as it pertains to that vernacular or even his approach to fighting global terrorism?

BONICELLI: You know, I don't expect the president to change his words or thoughts about it. He's been very clear starting with the cabinet nominations, go and say whatever you believe. Don't worry about what I have said.

That's the kind of cabinet he wants. I think the same thing will be true here, if General McMaster sees it that way, that's fine. That's probably how he's going to talk about it, but I don't expect that to be some hardened fast rule around the administration.

It was in the Obama administration, you couldn't say that. In this administration, I think people will say it based on what they think makes the most sense.

WHITFIELD: OK, and then, you know, on the issue of mixed messaging, the vice president, the secretary of defense, you know, all had to reassure European allies last weekend about the U.S. commitment to NATO during their trip.

We've also seen other top officials having to explain or contradict Trump's stance on issues. I know we just exemplified one, you know, on the radical Islamic terrorism. So how does this compliment or complicate, in your view, foreign policy?

BONICELLI: Yes. I think it can do both. I think though that if you're a diplomat, anywhere else, you should have the sensibility and the ability to appreciate. If these people were chosen to be cabinet officers and they're freely speaking what they think and the president is saying something different or in a nuance way, there's still one government of the United States.

[12:25:08]The actions are what matter not just the words. With this caveat, as I said earlier, President Trump tries to arrange the conversations to fit where he's going. And if he wants to be out in front of his cabinet on something, they should be perfectly fine with it.

And others should interpret it that way, because add the end of the day, the Germans have added more troops to their allotment for NATO, and countries are responding to the main paint point of the whole NATO disagreement, which was please pay your fair share. We will not carry this burden ourselves forever and I think that Trump is succeeding with that.

WHITFIELD: All right. Paul Bonicelli, thank you so much. Good to see you.

Coming up, a CNN exclusive report, American troops just a mile away from an intense fight for the city of Mosul. We're live near the front lines in the battle against ISIS, next.


GORANI: Welcome back. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. So with the help of soldiers serving as spotters near the frontlines, Iraqi forces are gaining ground as they battle ISIS militants in Western Mosul. ISIS is fighting back, burning down businesses as Iraqi forces close in on the terror group's last major stronghold in that country.

CNN senior correspondent, Ben Wedeman spent time with those American soldiers helping Iraqi forces.

[12:30:00] You got incredible access to locations near the battle front and joins us now live from Erbil, Iraq not far from Mosul. So, Ben, what more can you tell us about this mission and its involvement with U.S. soldiers?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Before I get to that, Fredricka, let me tell that we're getting news from inside Mosul that ISIS is in some parts of the city, the western part of the city is rounding up families with the purpose of using them as human shields. We're also learning that ISIS fighters are starting to consolidate in the old city. That's a part of Mosul where they'll be able to take full advantage of their ability to fight in crowded spaces.

Yes, we did, just by chance, run into these American spotters and advisers. Spotters, they are the guys who locate targets and then provide that information to aircraft overhead. This is not new. Americans have been doing it for quite some time. What is new within the last month or so is that the Americans are getting ever closer to the fighting.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We go ahead and bring up the smoke for megabyte and take it now and move up and try to mark that location.

WEDEMAN: American soldiers, they decline to share their names, are setting coordinates for ISIS positions. Just a little over a mile away from the extremists. They never fired their sniper rifle, but used it to identify targets. Nearby, they assemble a drone.

Pentagon officials say U.S. service personnel are operating ever closer to the action. The bombardment is western Mosul is intense and steady. Iraqis find Russian-made MI-35 attack helicopters blasted ISIS targets inside the city.

Rapid Response Force Major Wissam says resistance has been stiff because ISIS fighters realize they're cornered.


WEDEMAN: They're surrounded, he tells me. There's no escape, either they die fighting or they surrender.

The airport on the southern edge of the city is in ruins, the runway strewn with concrete blocks. The fighting is preceding that in accelerated rate, Iraqi forces maybe eager to avoid a repeat of the grueling three-month offensive to liberate the eastern part of the city.

WEDEMAN: Taking Mosul airport was really just the first step. Now, these Iraqi forces are heading into the city proper. That's where the real battle will begin.

A battle in which Americans may play an even greater role.


WEDEMAN: And it's important that this battle concludes as soon as possible because the situation for hundreds and thousands of civilians inside western Mosul is becoming increasingly desperate. They're running low on food, they're running out low on heating oil and they're having to drink water out of contaminated wells in the river. Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right, dire situation. Ben Wedeman, thank you so much in Iraq.

All right, coming up, the Democratic Party plotting its path forward, voting on its next leader today, what's next for the parties still re- grouping from a bruising election loss? Our panel weighs in, next.


[12:36:55] WHITFIELD: All right. Right now, live pictures right now from 450 Democratic National Committee members are gathering in Atlanta to choose the new head of the party. The party is trying to find its way and re-group after a devastating loss in November.

I want to bring in Symone Sanders, she is a CNN political commentator and former national press secretary for Bernie Sanders, Bernie 2016 campaign that is and Michael Hopkins, the deputy director of voter protection for Hillary Clinton's 2016 in Colorado. All right, good to see both of you.


WHITFIELD: Symone, you're there at a potentially rowdy location. Just want to give folks a warning just in case there's a big applause that takes place.

All right, so given the protest that we're seeing across the country, the President's low approval rating, you know, does it appear, Michael, that this is an all out war against Trump. And this is really the best strategy that Democrats could hold on to?

HOPKINS: It is. Look, Fredricka, we're in at really challenging time right now. We have an administration that is pushing back on civil liberties. They're looking to restrict rights to abortion, to travel, first amendment rights. And so, yes, Democrats do need to take that head on and be aggressive in challenging the administration and be aggressive in making sure that the Democratic principles that this country is standing on are still legitimate and still something that every American can strive to have.

WHITFIELD: So, then, Symone, if that's the case, how does the Democratic Party use that perhaps as a spring board to do more, to take the party into a new direction or more unified front, what?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I think the party has to continue to challenge Donald Trump to week to drive (ph) and they've been doing that, you know, under our chair, our current interim Chairwoman Donna Brazile. They've set up a Trump war room, but they also have to be able to paint the picture for Democrats and who they are and I think that's what these elections are about today.

So, whoever wins chair by chair, whoever the new leadership is elective Democratic Party, I think we'll be in good hands. But we have to be able to paint the picture of who we are as Democrats. Why folks should support the party and our candidates and what we're going to do for the American people. That's what folks haven't heard and that's they need to hear.

FREDRICKA: And Symone, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison is a leading contender. Bernie Sanders, who you have been working with for many months now leading up to the 2016 race. Bernie Sanders has been backing Ellison. Why do you suppose that is? What is it about Keith Ellison that makes an appealing candidate for progressive, particularly?

SANDERS: I mean, look, so I think folks who have thrown support behind Keith Ellison because they believe what he's talking about. He's an authentic candidate. He's good on the issues and they believe he'll be a fighter for the people, you know. Concurrently, I think people have thrown their support behind Tom Perez for the same reason, you know.

I'm not voting DNC member. So I haven't thrown my support behind anybody because I know how the voting DNC members feel. But I really believe that who -- I think we've got good candidates in both these folks and I think Keith Ellison is a great pick, so same thing for Tom Perez. [12:39:58] WHITFIELD: And so Michael, you know, Tom Perez is a leading candidate as well. You know, he had the backing from, you know, the vice president. But he's also considered, you know, representative of the establishment. And if the Democratic Party is saying once you do something different, it wants to be energized in a new direction. How or why would Tom Perez be appealing to a great majority they're voting?

HOPKINS: Look, Tom Perez is a very qualified candidate. Absolutely. He was labor secretary. He's been endorsed by a lot of the labor unions. He's -- President Obama has thrown his support behind him. He's absolutely qualified.

I do think that Democratic Party needs to be careful of continuing to use the same people and not growing the party. They use a sports analogy. When sports teams are successful, it's because they have a bench, it's because they have a minor league system. And I think the Democrats need to do the same. They need to make sure they not only have candidates that are front and center, but they're growing the bench. And I think that that's one of the worries about a Perez or even an Ellison candidacy.

WHITFIELD: And so Symone, you know, if reshaping the party is priority number one, another priority also would likely be, you know, the fact that the Democrats have lost hundreds, you know, of House seats over the last decade. So, what would be the focus on how to reclaim those lost seats?

SANDERS: I think we have to rebuild the state parties. We can't talk about building a bench. And we're not supporting the folks whose job is to go out there and build a bench. So I think the first task of this chair and the new leadership of the Democratic National Committee will be to talk, to put together a plan for how to support these state parties.

Are we going to do a pipeline program? I believe in that. I believe in millennial leadership, bringing in these folk from a new blue crew as I call it, people who don't identify as Democrats. And that's the plan we need to see. So, hopefully, we'll get one of those tomorrow or Monday.

WHITFIELD: OK. And so behind you, you know, a lot happening now. Keith Ellison is there at the podium. It's our understanding right, Symone, that all of the candidates will get a chance to kind of make their case, their last case before the balloting begins. What's your, I guess, you know, prediction here on how soon this voting will actually get underway in the room there?

SANDERS: So, Keith Ellison is going to give his.

WHITFIELD: Yes. So he's talking right now. We understand -- they're all get a chance to talk. I'm just wondering if you know, will that take, you know, 30 minutes, 45 minutes or something like that before everyone will get a chance to lead or cast for ballots or digital ballots, you understand?

SANDERS: Yes, right after. So --


SANDERS: So Keith Ellison and there are seven candidates.

WHITFIELD: Right. I know it's so hard to hear there right now.

SANDERS: I'm sorry, I couldn't --

WHITFIELD: I know it is. I'm kind of using you as a reporter as well. We've got our Ryan Nobles there who will give us a quick replay. But I figure that you're in the room. Symone Sanders, thank you so much and Michael, appreciate it. Glad you could be with us as well. Michael Hopkins, appreciate it.

HOPKINS: Thank you so much. Appreciate it.

WHITFIELD: All right. So, for more now on the future of the Democratic Party, don't miss Bernie Sanders tomorrow on State of the Union, the Vermont senator to stand with Jake Tapper at 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time right here on CNN.

And we will be b right back.


WHITFIELD: All right, welcome back. The FBI now flooded with tips on the investigation to two missing teens found dead in Indiana. This comes after police release audio and a picture from one of the teens phones already, almost 6,000 calls have come in to help authorities catch whoever killed these girls.

CNN's Jean Casarez has more.


[12:46:46] JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is this picture and this audio that Indiana Police and the FBI say provide the biggest leads yet in who murdered 13-year-old Abigail Williams and her 14- year-old friend Liberty German. Listen to the voice again.

Down the hill, the voice says. Abigail and Liberty went hiking Monday, February 13th, along the Delphi Historic Trail, 70 miles northwest of Indianapolis. They were dropped off by a family member about 1:00. And Liberty posted this photo of Abigail at approximately 2:07. The last time she was seen alive.

Their bodies were found the next day on private property close to the trail. And yes, down some hills from where the trail was located. With no leads to go from, police soon realized Liberty's iPhone could provide the biggest help. She may have captured her own killer on video before she died. That video is of a man who authorities now say is the prime suspect. At this point, only a still photo has been released.

SGT. TONY SLOCUM, INDIANA STATE POLICE: This young lady is a hero. There's no doubt, to have enough presence of mind to activate the video system on her cell phone to record.

CASAREZ: Law enforcement say, they cannot confirm the voice on the tape and image in the picture are the same person.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, we don't know if we're looking for one suspect or multiple suspects.

CASAREZ: The FBI is asking people across the country as they look at the image and listen to the audio, ask yourself the following questions.

GREG MASSA, FBI SPECIAL AGENT: Did this individual travel unexpectedly? Did they change their appearance? Did they shave their beard or cut their hair or change the color of their hair?

CASAREZ: The stunned community of 3,000 has never before had a double murder. But authorities are desperate to find their prime suspect before it happens again.

SUPT. DOUG CARTER, INDIANA STATE POLICE: Who's next? I hate to ask you that question. I'll give my life to not have to.


WHITFIELD: Thanks to Jean Casarez reporting.

All right, coming up, we'll take you live to the annual CPAC, Conservative gathering where EPA Chief, Scott Pruitt will be speaking next hour. What we expect to hear from him on the heels of President Trump's fiery speech there yesterday.

[12:49:34] Stay with us.


WHITFIELD: All right, welcome back. So how do you deal with stress? Well, some eat, some people work out and for others, its meditation. So, how well does it work? Dr. Sanjay Gupta went straight to the meditation expert to find out. Sanjay, what was it like to go one-on- one with the Dalai Lama.

SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fred, there's no question that it was a special thing to be able to meditate with the Dalai Lama. But honestly, I was pretty nervous going into the whole thing because, look, I wasn't sure that I was going to be the greatest meditation partner. I do meditate. But I'm not always sure that I'm doing it properly.

And it's hard for me, which is why I found this exchange so particularly interesting. Take a listen.


GUPTA: People who try to be mindful, who try to meditate, but say they have difficulty doing it.

DALAI LAMA: Yes, no question. Difficulties.

GUPTA: What would you tell them?


GUPTA: You too.

DALAI LAMA: Not easy.

You should remember now, a 1 year old person, you see, the last 50, 60 years daily basis effort, effort. Then is some experience come.


GUPTA: So, Fred, it's hard for the Dalai Lama as well. I mean, he's been doing it for 60 years, which is why obviously he's so proficient at it. And he talks about analytical meditation. If you don't clear your mind, instead, you may focus on something very specific. It could be a problem you're dealing with, something you've just read. Something you're trying to solve, whatever it may be. That seemed to fit much more naturally for my mind. And I think a lot of people's minds.

He also talked a lot about the benefits of meditation and simply being mindful. And again, I think people know that there's a benefit. But now, there's much better science behind this as well. We know for example, meditation can lower blood pressure, can lower your heart rate, it can also lower the thing that's driving those things, your stress hormones, such as your cortisol levels, pretty good science behind that.

On the emotional side, Fred, we know that there's been studies around post-traumatic stress and around anxiety in particular, fairly good science there, that shows the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. Again, people I think generally know these are good things. But exactly how good, exactly how to practice it, it's what we really tried to find out. And I'll tell you there's no better teacher, Fred, than the Dalai Lama.

WHITFIELD: And you got that right, all right. Well, I haven't tried it. Maybe it's time. All right, Sanjay Gupta, thanks so much.

[12:54:50] We've got so much more straight ahead in the NEWSROOM. And it starts right after this.


WHITFIELD: All right, hello again. Thank you so much for joining me. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.

Happening right now, live pictures out of Atlanta where the Democratic National Committee is about to start voting for their next party chairman after all the candidates complete their closing arguments. We'll bring you the results as soon as they come in.

Meanwhile, back in Washington. New details on the denials of the Trump administration into any wrong doing when the White House asked the FBI -- rather, to dispute recent media reports on contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.

CNN is now learning that it appears some congressional lawmakers have reached out to the media organization in order to benefit the White House. CNN's Athena Jones, joins us now from the White House with more on this.

So Athena, first explain the nature of this request and why the White House says they did nothing wrong.

[12:59:59] ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Fred. That's right. The White House denies any wrong doing here. They don't believe they acted inappropriately. Here's what we know from administration officials. This conversation, they say was initiated by the FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. This happened on February 15th, after an early morning meeting --