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White House Attempts to Counter Stories Regarding Ties Between Trump Campaign and Russian Officials; Democratic National Committee Holds Vote to Elect Next Chairman; Residents of Coal Mining Town Discuss Support For Trump. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired February 25, 2017 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: -- attempts to tamp down media reports on campaign communications with Russia. We know the White House asked the FBI to dispute the same reporting, and CNN can now confirm at least one congressperson is joining that effort, contacting "The New York Times" in order to benefit the White House.

CNN's Athena Jones joins me right now from the White House with more on this. So Athena, the kicker here is the White House and the lawmaker both say there's nothing wrong with this.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Fredricka. That's exactly right. Of course there are others who disagree. Let's look at the statement that my colleague, senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta, got from the communications director for the House Intelligence Committee. This is one of the folks the White House reached out to for help in knocking down these reports about contact between Trump aides and Russian officials. This is what the communications director says, "Chairman Nunes did nothing inappropriate. He made inquiries into the allegations published by "The New York Times" and couldn't find any evidence to support them, so he told that to multiple supporters. And then a White House aide asked if he would speak to one more."

So he spoke to that reporter as well, telling the person the same thing he told other reporters. And so as far as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee is concerned, this was not at all inappropriate. We know the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Chairman Richard Burr, told something similar to the "Washington Post."

But of course, this is something that's raised the ire of people like the Democratic vice chairman of that committee who said he had raised concerns with the director of the CIA Mike Pompeo and with Chairman Burr about what it might mean for the independence of the investigations that are taking place. And speaking more broadly about the investigation into this matter of contact with Russia, a GOP Congressman Darrell Issa is now suggesting that it might be necessary to have a special prosecutor. This was in an interview last night on "Real Time with Bill Maher." Issa said the intelligence should investigate, but then he went further. Take a listen to what he said.

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


JONES: And so there you heard talking about concerns that Attorney General Jeff Sessions who was an early supporter of Trump, an early endorser, and he campaigned frequently with then candidate Trump, the fact that he's arguing that it's not a good idea to have him heading up this investigation. So it's a complicated matter. It's certainly not over. We're going to hear a lot more about this, Fred.

WHITFIELD: So has there been any reaction among members of Congress, especially those investigating any campaign ties to Russia?

JONES: Well, one of the chief reactions we're talking about is from the vice chairperson of the Senate intelligence committee, Mark Warner, the Democrat from Virginia who said that he had reached out to the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, and also to Chairman Burr, his colleague on that committee, to say he wanted to make sure that this could be an impartial investigation. He said that he's consulting with members of the intelligence committee to determine an appropriate course of action and to ensure that the American people can get the thorough impartiral investigation that they deserve.

We've also heard from folks like Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi who has raised concerns about all of these contacts as well. So this is not a simple thing. We've got a lot of people who are watching this closely and who are concerned about it, putting out statements, tweeting about it. And now you have this Republican who is saying that some sort of independent special prosecutor is going to be necessary. Fred?

WHITFIELD: All right, thank you so much. Athena Jones, appreciate that.

So the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is taking center stage this hour as Republicans gather just outside of Washington at the Conservative Political Action Conference known as CPAC. His remarks follow a campaign style speech by President Trump yesterday where Trump laid out his agenda and promised to put America first.

Let's bring in now CNN White House reporter Stephen Collinson who is at the conference now. So Pruitt sued the EPA several times as Oklahoma's attorney general. What can we expect to hear from him as the head of the EPA there now at CPAC?

STEPHEN COLLINSON, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: I think he's going to lay out his plans to gut some of the regulations that the Obama administration introduced on the environment. Environmental groups have complained that Scott Pruitt who, as you said, sued the EPA when he was attorney general of Oklahoma, is basically going to shield the fossil fuel industry from some of these environmental regulations. [14:05:06] In a wider sense, he is one of the key figures in enacting Donald Trump's agenda of slashing regulation, making the size of government smaller. And as Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's political advisor said earlier this week at CPAC, sort of dismantling the administrative state, Fred.

WHITFIELD: And Stephen, you also wrote that initially conservatives doubted, had big doubts about President Trump and whether he was really one of them. They have changed their minds because the reception for him, of course, he's president now, is far different than what was seen a few years ago.

COLLINSON: That's right. Everyone loves a winner, after all. And the president, I think, his speech here was very interesting yesterday. A lot of the headlines were taken by his media bashing which was sort of first 10 minutes or so of the speech. But I think some of that took away from the political significance of what we saw yesterday. Donald Trump made clear he's trying to evolve a conservative movement and the Republican Party itself into a much more populist party where the message of economic nationalism.

And I think what he's trying to do here, if he does manage to succeed in that to advance his agenda and has a successful presidency, I think the speech we saw here yesterday from Donald Trump will be seen in a very significant light historically because that was the most clear and laid out version of Donald Trump's political ideology, philosophy, and agenda that we've seen, I think, even during the campaign. So it was a very significant speech, and I think Donald Trump is trying to make CPAC a source of emotional and political support for his presidency much as Ronald Reagan did throughout his eight years in office.

WHITFIELD: Stephen Collinson. Thank you so much.

In the meantime, we're also continuing to follow the vote count in Atlanta where the Democratic National Committee is about to learn who the next party chairperson will be. We'll bring you results as soon as they come in. And we'll be right back.


[14:10:47] WHITFIELD: Welcome back. Live pictures right now in Atlanta where ballots are being counted to decide on who will be the next Democratic National Committee chairperson. The two front runners are former Labor secretary Tom Perez and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, each representing the two forces that currently divide the party, the progressive movement versus the establishment. All of these candidates made their kind of last arguments of why they are the best candidates, and then it went to the 447 members who had an opportunity to cast their digital ballots. And now we understand the counting is under way. CNN's Washington correspondent Ryan Nobles is at that meeting in Atlanta. So Ryan, tell us what's happening.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Fredericka, a lot of members here on the edge of their seats waiting to see what the results are of this first ballot and if it will be enough for one of the candidates to move over the top and become the next DNC chair.

There are 447 voting members of the Democratic National Committee, but there will only be 441 votes cast here today. So in order to win, you need to get 50 percent of that vote plus one. So that's the magic number we're looking for here in the next few minutes.

We were told by the interim chair Donna Brazile about 10 minutes ago that the vote result was imminent and that could come within the next five or 10 minutes. So she could walk out at any moment to deliver those results.

There's a sense that remains that it's down to the Tom Perez, the former labor secretary, and Keith Ellison, the congressman from Minnesota. I talked to two committee people who both cast votes, one for Ellison, the other for Perez. And neither were willing to say that they felt confident that they were going to be able to pull through on this first ballot. And if one doesn't win on this first ballot, that's when things will get a little interesting because some of the candidates further down on the roster will then drop off and there will be some horse trading in an attempt to come over the top.

But one of the things we really need to keep an eye on, Fredricka, is how this crowd responds to the winner, especially if it's not Keith Ellison. Even though there may be more people behind me in the front of the room that support Tom Perez, there are substantially more people in the back of the room who don't have votes but consider themselves Democrats who support Keith Ellison. Will they embrace a Tom Perez chairmanship? That's going to be a big clue as to what the future of this party is because they represent a larger group of Democrats from the progressive wing of the party that have been frustrated with the Democratic Party over time. So that's going to be a big thing for us to watch here in the next few minutes when the results of this first ballot come in. Fred?

WHITFIELD: So it has been expected that there would be many ballots because, like you mentioned, 441 that are cast but the majority are needing at least 221 or 221.5 or 222, and you've got five in the running even though you mentioned the two kind of leading candidates there. Is there even a timeframe? Must they do this by a certain amount of time, or is it simply whoever gets the majority no matter how many ballots, phases are cast?

NOBLES: That's exactly right, Fredericka. They'll just keep voting. They'll continue to do ballot after ballot until they find a candidate that gets over that 50 percent threshold. But in terms of the full fleet of five candidates, if they don't meet a bare minimum percentage, they actually come off of the roster and then it goes to the next group of voters.

But we should strengthen that those bottom three candidates really make up a small portion of the support. The former mayor of South Bend, Pete Buttigieg, who was considered the third candidate, maybe a consensus choice, he was a lot of people's second choice if their preferred candidate didn't win, he dropped out before the voting even began. So that really relegated a lot of that vote to those top two candidates. So it's really a battle between Ellison and Perez right now, and we're going to have to see who the winner is here in the next few minutes.

WHITFIELD: All right, we're going to continue to monitor as I know you are as well. We'll check back with you as we get any closer to having some results. Thank you so much, Ryan Nobles there in Atlanta. And we'll be right back.


[14:18:52] WHITFIELD: And a presidential candidate, Donald Trump promised to help revive the struggling coal industry. But it looks like this is a tough promise to keep. CNN's Martin Savidge talks with some Trump voters who want coal jobs to return to their Ohio town.


MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: In Ohio, it's hard to find an area more remote or more red than Manchester, where two of every three votes were for Donald Trump.





SAVIDGE: The tiny town sits along the bucolic banks of the Ohio River.

WILSON: It's something about the water here. You get it in your blood and you don't want to leave.

SAVIDGE: Folks can tell you when the town started -- 1791, and when they believe it will die.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: June of 2018 is the last I'm personally heard.

SAVIDGE: That's when two large coal fired power plants on either side of the town are projected to close. The news broke just after the election.

RICHARDS: It was definitely a shock to myself and my friends and coworkers, family, people in the local community. I think some people are still in shock.

[14:20:00] SAVIDGE: As it stands now, the union says about 700 jobs will be lost in a town of just 2,000 people. The coal supplier said it will cut additional 1,500 jobs. Tax revenues and property values will plummet. So what about all of those rallies?

DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I love Ohio. You know, I worked in Ohio.

SAVIDGE: All those promises of jobs and the reenergizing coal?

TRUMP: Jobs, jobs, jobs.

SAVIDGE: So if he is the energy coal president, why are coal plants still shutting down?

SHELTON: I don't think it's 100 percent up to Trump. I think he's got a lot of say so in it. But to me it's poor business decisions.

SAVIDGE: The mayor agrees. It's not Trump's fault. He blames plant owners and management.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Men in overalls built this country. Men in suits have destroyed it.

SAVIDGE: But he's a man in a suit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But he has touched the working people. He stood up for the working people.

SAVIDGE: Did you vote for Trump hoping he would save your job?

RICHARDS: That's not the only reason I voted for him, but I did vote for Trump because I liked the way his views are on stuff, and I like the way he don't try to be all political correct on everything.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was positive towards coal where others weren't.

SAVIDGE: You don't feel like despite all this talk of coal, bring jobs back, that somehow your coal related job?

SHELTON: I personally don't feel let down, but I personally hope that he steps in on this part as well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Put some pressure on. Let's rework this coal industry around.

SAVIDGE: These Trump voters are trying to convince now President Trump to keep his promises about jobs and coals.

If he can't, if he doesn't?

SHELTON: Well, I don't know. I guess I'll see what the future holds. I don't necessarily hold it against him, but I guess it's more of a disappointment.

SAVIDGE: If they were just empty promises, then in Manchester and other towns with coal fired power plants, futures once so bright will soon face much darker days.

Martin Savidge, CNN, Manchester, Ohio.


WHITFIELD: Thanks so much, Martin. Back to Atlanta now and the vote for a new chairperson for the

Democratic National Committee. Let's check in with our Ryan Nobles because the first round of balloting has taken place. But is there a final count, a new chairperson?

NOBLES: Fredricka, there is results that have come in, and it couldn't have been any closer, and there is not a Democratic chair as of yet. Tom Perez collected 213.5 votes. The threshold to win was 214 votes. So he falls basically a half a vote short at this point. Keith Ellison collected 200 votes. So as close as you could possibly come to not winning on the first ballot is where Tom Perez has landed at this point.

So we're going to have another round of voting. Right now they're speaking. The lower tier candidates are getting the opportunity to give one last speech, and some of them are electing to drop out. So a pretty remarkable development here, Fredricka. Tom Perez came as close as you possibly could without going over. So the question is now, Keith Ellison collecting 200 votes, so he's only 14 votes away from winning this Democratic National Committee chairmanship. You could imagine, there's going to be a lot of horse trading with the end of this particular round of voting and the next round. And we'll have to see how this all shakes out. This race is not over as of yet.

WHITFIELD: All right, so there are five candidates. So does this mean that the lower tier, as you put it, someone will drop out before the next round of ballot casting takes place?

NOBLES: Yes. In fact, a few them, they all have the opportunity to withdraw if they like. It's hard to tell because I'm talking to you.

WHITFIELD: So it's an elective. They can elect to drop out, but they're not asked to drop out.

NOBLES: Right, exactly. So at least one of those candidates has just dropped out right now. So now we have another person speaking right now who has the opportunity, Sam Ronan. And it look as though just by the way he's talking right now that he may also drop out. So we could see more of these lower tier candidates, they all had pretty low vote totals. But it's interesting, Fredericka, is that Pete Buttigeig, who dropped out of the race, did get one vote. That one vote would have been the difference between putting Perez over the top or not putting him over the top.


NOBLES: So that's pretty significant as well. It's that close. And it looks as though Ronan has just endorsed Keith Ellison based on the cheers that have come from the back of the room. So this race is certainly not over yet.

WHITFIELD: Oh my goodness. OK, this is quite the horse race. You're in an exciting place right now, Ryan Bobles. Thank you so much. We, of course, will check back with you as another round of balloting gets under way to select the new chair of the Democratic National Committee. All right, thank you so much. [14:25:00] And thank you so much for being with me today. I'm Fredericka Whitfield. We'll have much more in the newsroom straight ahead with Brianna Keilar at the top of the hour.

So in today's turning points, before we go, an army vet finds that fighting saved his life.


TODD VANCE, P.O.W. FOUNDER: Bang, boom, boom. Come in here, put that body lock.

I'm Todd Vance, founder of P.O.W. When I was in the Army, I was a squad leader, and we ran over 250 combat missions. I got back from Iraq in 2005, and I thought I was on top of the world. Slowly but surely, reality was setting in about what I had seen and what I had done. I turned into a recluse. I was drinking too much. I did self- medicate.

I ended up going to the V.A. for help and counseling, and they had diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress. So I started training at the local MMA gym. It gave me that stability and discipline, the camaraderie that I was missing so much from the military. Martial arts 100 percent saved my life.

I realized that I had a passion for working with and for military veterans. The P.O.W. program started here in San Diego, California. We got our non-profit status in 2012 and we basically started off as a veteran competition team. We're actually doing a lot of group therapy that helps people with trauma, be present in the moment. It's so therapeutic for me to be able to revisit things that bothered me in the past and to help a younger veteran process that stuff and to get them on track.

One, two, three.