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New Russia Revelations Stoke Controversy; Russia Cries "False News" In Trump Stories; Trump Alternates Between Two Very Different Tones. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired March 3, 2017 - 21:00   ET


[21:00:34] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Topping this hour of "360," President Trump tweeting again about leaks and witch-hunts. Others are talking about their previously undisposed contacts with Russia on behalf the Trump campaign and continuing into their transitions. Still, others are investigating there's contacts and all of it is producing one unwelcome headline after the other for the White House that just three days ago was enjoying great reviews for the president's address to Congress. All that and more in the next hour.

First, CNN's Manu Raju with the very latest on the investigations, including to focus on Attorney General Jeff Sessions. So, Manu, what are the next steps?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, Anderson, next step is that, Dana Boente, who's the number two with the justice department, a 33-year veteran is going to oversee this investigation that the FBI is conducting into Russia, but there are other investigations that are also taking place, including on Capitol Hill, namely the House Intelligence Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Now, this all comes as the nine Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee tonight demanded that Jeff Sessions come back before the committee and clarify his testimony, answer questions under oath, explain why he didn't disclose those meetings with the Russian ambassador.

Now, this is something that Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the committee said, "No, that is not going to happen." Now, Anderson, I talked to one of those Democrats on the committee, Sheldon Whitehouse, of Rhode Island. He said that Sessions could appear before the committee, but he also may be a witness to that FBI investigation. Take a listen.


SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE, (D) RHODE ISLAND: The only hesitation that I have about saying that he absolutely ought to come before the committee is that he is now a witness into any legitimate investigation about connections between the Russian election- influenced operation and the Trump campaign. So, whatever the FBI's doing in this area, they now have him as an extremely logical witness to ask the same questions that we would want to ask in the committee.


RAJU: Now, it's interesting, Anderson, that actually yesterday the White House met with FBI Director James Comey to talk about the issue of Russia. So we'll see if he learned anything there, which is why he perhaps made those remarks there. I'm not quite sure about that.

But, Anderson, also other Democrats on the judiciary committee requesting an inspector general investigation into why Jeff Sessions recused himself, so perhaps another inquiry taking place on the issue of Russia.

COOPER: Could there be a special prosecutor pointed on those connections to Russia?

RAJU: Well, that's can be decision not only for the Trump administration, but also for both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, whether to do it administratively on their own, whether the justice department decides to do that or if they pass legislation in Congress. Right now, we're not getting any sense that either the White House has any inkling to do this and any desire to do this.

And certainly, Republican leaders don't seem eager to do that. Either, I asked Paul Ryan that specifically yesterday, he really dismissed that notion. So it sounds like this is not where they want to go at the moment.

COOPER: Right. I mean, Republicans could block an investigation from happening or at least the special prosecutor.

RAJU: Certainly, at least a special prosecutor and they could certainly limit the scope, both the House and Senate Intelligence Committee investigations. Remember, in the House Intelligence Committee, you need bipartisan support to subpoena records and documents. Now, Republicans don't want to give that support, perhaps, that will not happen.

And on the Senate side, Democrats could subpoena themselves from the Senate Intelligence Committee, perhaps get those records, but to declassify some of that information, Anderson, you're going to need support from the White House. The president will have to sign off on what to declassify. So at the end of the day, its unclear what the public will ultimately see, Anderson.

COOPER: Manu Raju, Manu thanks.

RAJU: Thank you.

COOPER: Well, the story is playing out in Russia as well, of course, and some of the language Russian officials are using to describe it was sound quite familiar.

CNN's Matthew Chance is staying up late in Moscow for us. He joins us now. Has there been any reaction from the Russian government to these reports? MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. I mean, there's been a lot of reaction and a lot of the terms and the language they're using, Anderson, that is very similar to the kind of language we hear coming out of Washington, for instance, witch-hunt. That (inaudible) Donald Trump has called these investigations into the connection with Russia.

It's what the Russian media are saying is going on as well, and it's what the Russian government as to Sergey Lavrov has referred to as being behind these investigations and these allegations into the connections between the Trump administration and Russian officials.

There's also a fake news website, which the Russian foreign ministry has set up over the past couple of week and CNN is on the top of that website at the moment over the reports that Sergei Kislyak, the Russian foreign minister -- sorry, the Russian ambassador to the United States is engaged in espionage activities.

[21:05:04] That's something, as you know, we've been reporting over the past couple days. The foreign ministry saying this is a blatant informational provocation. But, when I spoke to the Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova yesterday, she was much more for the right. She said, "Stop CNN, stop spreading lies and false news," which is obviously, again, a very familiar refrain to us.

COOPER: Where does the diplomatic relationship with the U.S. and Russia stand right now?

CHANCE: Well, I mean, I think from the Kremlin point of view, it's a confusing picture. They were expecting Donald Trump to come into office with a pro-Russian agenda, the kind of stuff that he'd spoken about during his campaign, about for instance doing a deal over Syria, doing a deal over Ukraine, cooperating over international terrorism.

But, you know, because the issue of Russia and its connection with American politics has become so toxic in the United States, none of that has been followed through. And so now, I think there's an understanding in the Russian press con about this a lot at the moment that Donald Trump is not going to be the sort of president who -- the American president who's sympathetic to the Russian point of view. The idea that Donald Trump was going to transform the relationship between Washington and Moscow has now been swept to one side.

And so, I think the Russians at the moment are looking to a future relationship, which is going to be, you know, probably tense, certainly not as good as they thought it would be when Donald Trump was elected.

COOPER: Matthew Chance, appreciate it. Thanks. Reaction now to the Russian reaction from Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton. I spoke to him just before airtime.


COOPER: Congressman, what do you make of the similarities between the White House and Kremlin push back in all this in terms of false news, witch-hunt time? Presumably, that doesn't squash or quash skepticism from those in Congress, you know, pushing for more information.

REP. SETH MOULTON, (D) ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: No, absolutely not. In fact, it's strikingly how similar the push back is from the Kremlin and the White House and that's obviously a cause for concern.

But we need to know the facts. The American people deserve to know the facts and that's why we've got to continue to push for a bipartisan independent investigation.

COOPER: You talked about the independent investigation, I mean, Republicans control Congress. There's no indication that they support a special select committee investigation. There's no indication at this point that the justice department will appoint a special counsel.

So, at least for now, that leaves the FBI investigation, the House and Senate Intelligence Committee investigations as the official inquiries into all of this. Do you have confidence in them?

MOULTON: I have concerns. I mean, look, because Republicans control the House and Senate Intel Committees, these things can be political. In fact, Chairman Devin Nunes, who is a chairman of the House Intelligence Committee was called upon by the White House to make call to the press to try to make this FBI story go away. So, obviously, this has a potential to be political.

And on top of that, if this investigation just relegated to the intelligence committees, then a lot of their findings will be classified and the American people will never know. So we deserve to know the truth. We need Director Comey to come clean with the American people. We need to know if the FBI is investigating the President of the United States.

COOPER: Do you have confidence in the FBI?

MOULTON: Look, I don't have any reason not to have confidence in the FBI at this point, but there is some concern in Congress. There's definitely some concern in Congress that some of Director Comey's actions have been partisan in nature.

And obviously, people have in mind the history of an FBI that hasn't always been above partisan politics. So, we need Director Comey to come clean. We need to know the truth. Everybody deserves to know whether the President of the United States is under investigation.

COOPER: You know, do you get the president's allies past and present and he's lacking (ph) so far as, you know, there are valid reasons to be meeting with the representatives of foreign governments. Talking with the Russian ambassador is not automatically wrong, correct?

MOULTEN: Sure. But, you're not allowed to lie about it. You certainly - I mean, not allowed to lie about it when you're under oath in a Senate committee. So, when the Attorney General of the United States commits perjury, when he lies under oath -- I mean, he's the top law enforcement agent in the country. If we can't trust him to tell the truth under oath, then who are we to trust?


COOPER: So you don't buy it when --

MOULTON: -- to resign immediately.

COOPER: You don't buy when he says, "Well, look, I just wasn't thinking about that that meeting had anything to do with my capacity as spokesperson."

MOULTON: That have -- I mean, that sounds ridiculous. The number one story with all of Trump's nominees has been their connections with Russia. I mean, that would be the first thing that a nominee thinks about when he comes before Senate committee. So the idea that he hasn't thought of that is just ridiculous. He's not fooling anyone.

I think the Attorney General should resign. But more -- but even beyond that, we just need to know the truth about what's going on and how far, how high this conspiracy goes in the administration.

COOPER: You really think it's a conspiracy?

[21:10:02] MOULTON: I just don't know what the other answer would be. I mean, why are all these people, including the Attorney General of the United States lying, lying under oath in his case. If these were just innocent meetings, if these were meetings in the regular course of business, then why didn't they just come clean about them from the beginning?

COOPER: Congressman Moulton, appreciate your time. Thank you.


Well, a lot to talk about. The panel is back, Kirsten Powers, Maggie Haberman, Jack Kingston, Paris Dennard, Jonathan Tasini and Carl Bernstein.

I mean, Kirsten, I guess that is the question if, you know, and again, there's no evidence. Everything could be -- there could be nothing untoward about any of these conversations, why not just come clean from the get-go? I guess one argument is, you know, clearly Donald Trump has perceived this as some attempt to delegitimize his election.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Definitely. I mean, I think it's true that usually the best explanation for something that happens in Washington is incompetence, and not a conspiracy. That actually tends to bear it out. That doesn't mean there wasn't a conspiracy here and -- but it's very possible that it wasn't competence that people didn't disclose information, but they should have. And it's also possible that Jeff Sessions really did misunderstand the question.

Now, why he then -- afterwards didn't clarify it? That's where we get into the -- where the incompetence area. I don't think, actually, that we have enough information to say that he perjured himself at this point, because that really does go to intent. COOPER: Right.

POWERS: And we don't know actually what he was thinking. So, I just think it raises a lot of questions, and we already have a lot of questions that need to be answered, which is why we do need to have some sort of public investigation.

And if I was Donald Trump, I would want to put this to rest, right, because we have all these questions now. And if they have nothing to hide, then why not just have an investigation where we can get everything out in the open and figure out what happened.

COOPER: Paris, what about that? Why not just, you know, somebody in the White House kind of just put out a timeline of these people met and it was a 5-minute meeting, it was a 10-second meeting, whatever it is?

PARIS DENNARD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Listen, I think that that might be a good idea. But I believe fundamentally the Trump administration believes that the Russians did not play a role in getting him elected, because when you look at the situation going that was going on in our country, the Russians, while they may have hacked the e-mails and things like that, they did not create this illegal immigration problem. They didn't have the cost from rising health care premiums. They didn't create the student loan debts. They didn't be -- they weren't responsible for the things that I believe drove the American people to the polls.

COOPER: Right. But there's a distinction between whether or not they actually impacted the elect -- the results of the election and whether they attempted to involved themselves in the election, which the intelligence committee clearly believes they did.

DENNARD: Right. I believe that back to the point that Kirsten made is like, is this a point, is this media attention a way to detract from the fact that Donald Trump won the election fair and square that he's a legitimate president. So these are two different questions I think that the American people are trying to get answers, too.

COOPER: And that's clearly the White House view that this is part of a Democrats --


COOPER: -- can't accept the fact they lost.

POWERS: Fair enough, you know, if they want to think that. But most of the information actually isn't coming from Democrats. It's coming from the intelligence community. So --

COOPER: Well, the allegation now is that it's, you know, Obama holdovers --

POWERS: Right.

COOPER: -- or (inaudible) stake or -- POWERS: Yeah.

COOPER: -- in the case of Carter Page, the Clinton --

POWERS: That's far-fetched. I think that's far-fetched. But, I mean, I guess Paris I'd ask you like, wouldn't -- if you're Donald Trump, don't you want to just clear your name? I mean, if there isn't anything that --

DENNARD: There's a lot for him (ph). I mean, he's trying to clear his name from being a racist. He's trying to clear his name from being a bigot. He's trying to clear his name from being a Russian enthusiast.


DENNARD: No, it won't be, because he's doing a lot of things, especially the black community which you don't know anything about. But I'm going to tell you that this is why --

JONATHAN TASINI, POLITICAL STRATEGIST: You mean the fact that he wants to deport people --

COOPER: Let him finish. Let him finish.

DENNARD: If you want to argue that --

TASINI: Why you don't want to go down that road, trust me, but keep -- let's stick with that --

DENNARD: No, you brought so let's go back to the fact that he had over 70 HBCU presidents in the Oval Office (inaudible) that never did that. Let's talk about the fact that --

TASINI: Yeah. Let's talk about the fact he basically ran the entire campaign base on bigotry and racism. And --

DENNARD: That's not true.


COOPER: Congressman Kingston?

TASINI: So if you want to actually debate that --

JACK KINGSTON, (R) FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN, GEORGIA: I want to make a couple of points. I talked to Peter King yesterday, intel committee (ph), I talked to Jason Chaffetz yesterday. And, you know, Jason was one of the ones who early in the day who said that Sessions should recuse himself.

But he also was saying the intel community -- committee is looking at the stuff and then the House oversight committee as well, they're not worried about anything. I actually really do believe that there's no there, there. I think that's how most people who are close to it and following it are. I think there's a hell of a lot of politics involved in it.

And I think, the interesting things to me is while the Democrats are scrambling about Russia, I think they want a mulligan, because for eight years, Russia wasn't relevant to them except for the -- have a reset.

But while they're doing that, we're moving -- Republicans are moving ahead with health care reform, moving ahead with education choice, moving ahead with tax reform, moving ahead -- reaching out to unions and things like that. The Democrats are taking their eye off the ball one more time on what's relevant to the American people.

TASINI: Well, I just want to say before -- what I said before in the last hour that one thing -- two things Donald Trump could do is he could declassify all the conversations. And I do think he should agree to a special prosecutor.

But you are right. I'm actually concerned about what the Democratic Party is doing, in terms of sucking up the options is going to be focus on this, because what you said is right.

[21:15:05] Next week, you're going to try to repeal health care. That's what we should be focus at. All the other issues that the Trump administration I think is unwinding the society that we're trying to build from my point of view --

COOPER: Right. It's also interesting -- Carl Berstein, it's also interesting. I mean, there is concern that the focus on what Trump administration, what contacts there were, whether it was nefarious, was it not, also kind of distracts from the idea of just focussing on what actually Russia did to try to influence the election.

CARL BERSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That is what we need to get to the bottom of with an investigation, but -- that is by selecting committee or something like the 9/11 commission that is beyond the political realm that would get us out of these contra attempts between Jack and the rest of the panel here, all of this.

We need to find out what happened with a foreign power trying to hijack our election according to all of the of the U.S. intelligence agencies. But beyond that, look, Donald Trump is the legitimate President of the United States, because the Electoral College certified his victory and elected him. And let's get past that.

And -- but he ought to be the first person to say, "I want the integrity of our electoral politics to be assured and we need to find out everything there is to know that occurred in this election that a foreign power did." And the fact that he is not doing that, and the fact that his top aides have lied, both General Flynn and Mr. Sessions, indicates that yes, they are trying to cover something up. Tell us what it is, Mr. President.


BERSTEIN: And get it out of there. Otherwise, let's have this huge investigation that needs to be done in the national interests. COOPER: We're going to continue this conversation after a quick break. Later, I'll ask a former top diplomat and ambassador to Russia what me makes of all the nice thing the president has been saying about Vladimir Putin and the relationship with Moscow.


[21:20:32] COOPER: We're back with the panel, talking about all the unanswered questions about contacts, some of the previous undisclosed between the Trump campaign or transition team in Russia.

In the last hour, I spoke with former Trump campaign -- former Policy Adviser Carter Page who denied it recently 2.5 weeks ago having contact with any -- or any meetings with Russian officials during the campaign or at any time. Yesterday, he admitted that he had.

Tonight, he told me well -- he told me many times at times minimizing the contacts saying he was just saying hello to Russians ambassador at the Republican convention and other times he refused to disclose confidential details, although it turn (ph) to see I mention this at high constitutes breaking in the confidences.

Anyway, we'll have the entire interview with Carter Page up on our Facebook page shortly. It was fascinating. Here's what he had to say about whether he thought Russia had in fact hacked into DNC during the campaign.


COOPER: Can you really sit here and say you don't have any believe or you can't even imagine that Moscow might do that?

CARTER PAGE, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN ADVISER: I don't imagine that. You know, I don't think about those things, Anderson. All I know --

COOPER: Well, you said -- you tell me, you spent a lot of time in Russia and you don't think about what Russian intelligence is capable of?

PAGE: What I think about --

COOPER: You tell me you don't carry a second phone when you go to Moscow because you know that they're going to hack into your phone. Everybody who goes to Moscow does that. Do you do that?

PAGE: You know, what --

COOPER: Do you do that?

PAGE: Yeah, I do have a second phone.

COOPER: OK. So, you carry a second phone when you get to Moscow, because you know Russian intelligence is likely to hack in to your phone, but you can't imagine that Russian intelligence would hack into the DNC?

PAGE: I didn't say that.


COOPER: Back now with the panel. Again, we'll put that whole interview online. It is in singled, the similar language that we're hearing out of Moscow and from the Trump White House whether, you know, Moscow's just picking up on the language they're using about witch-hunts and false news that sort of thing.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, NEW YORK TIMES WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: This has been a line that Trump critics had drawn for a while as similarity answer and talking points. Again, I don't know exactly what it means. As it been said here earlier tonight, this may be nothing. There has been nothing proved so far.

COOPER: Right, yeah.

HABERMAN: What we have is the intelligence community has put out not with names to it in public, but has put out word, although I think there was some congressional testimony about this that they believe that Russia was behind these hacks. That's all we know. The rest of this is largely conjecture.

If it stays at this kind of low-grade Russia fever and there is no more details that emerge that are conclusive, then I suspect that what happens is the president gets judged on -- if he can avoid swinging back at everything each day, then he gets judged on what he accomplishes and what he does legislatively in office.

If there is more, then I think that becomes potentially problematic, and I think the thing for the president is as you know somebody has covered him, I know somebody has covered on him.

He is used to having control. He is used to having employee sign on disclosure agreements. He is used to being able to impose some measure of-- if not order, some kind of stricture on his environment. And he's now at the mercy of this leaky bureaucracy and that's difficult for him.

COOPER: It simple for any president, but, I mean, for particularly somebody from the private sector, who, again, you know, I think everybody had worked from his side signed of, you know, nondisclosure agreement.

POWERS: Right. Well, I mean, and you have the situation with Sean Spicer basically, you know, asking everybody for their phones and then, of course, that leak. So, I mean, they can't-- they really-- they can't control these people. And so, I think it has to be incredibly unnerving and I think Maggie is right.

I mean, what-- this is going to stop I guess when things stop getting leaked about the Trump administration and their relationships. And so, we don't know when that's going to stop or if it's going to stop.

COOPER: Doesn't-- I mean, to the point that Jonathan raised, Congressman, about, you know, he's concerned that the Democrats are going to kind of take their eye off other things that are happening based on this. Does it-- could it actually help the White House?

KINGSTON: I think it could. And I'll combine what Maggie and Jonathan have said. If it's just a low-grade constant Russia, Russia, Russia, that's not helping the people in Middle America who need jobs, who need cheaper health care, who need better education and safer community.

And sooner or later, the Democrat Party needs to address that and say, "Look, this is what Trump's doing wrong, we have a better idea." And if the shoe -- another shoe doesn't fall, that's what's going to happen. And, you know, in my feeling that probably is what's going to happen.

TASINI: One of the things that doesn't get mentioned about and we talk about this low-grade Russia, Russia, Russia, but, you know, this reminds me what happen during the Soviet Union era where everything was that Soviet Union -- did at the Soviet Union is almost this McCarthyite whipping up against Russia and progressives and liberals and Democrats are doing it, too.

And, I'm worried actually about the long-term effect on whether you try to deescalate U.S.-Russia tensions that this is constantly Russia, Russia, Russia, every day.

[21:25:06] That's not going to help building any kind of (inaudible).

KINGSTON: Yeah. And talking -- I'll make a quick comment about that. We would always laugh when I was in Congress, if you haven't to tell me and everybody's get rowdy and (inaudible), bring up China. Instantly, everybody comes together. That seems to be now Russia is the new weapon size.

DENNARD: There are several things that the Democrat Party could go in and talk about, which they're not. They're destructive. They could talk about things that are factual. They could talk about Obamacare. They could talk about why that's important. They could about jobs. They could talk about unemployment. They could talk about energy. They're not doing that. And so, they're going to hang their hat on something like you said that's highly speculative and there's no proof, there is no facts coming out. It's a very dangerous --

TASINI: And on rebuilding the party, I was just at the DNC meeting and all they talked about is Russians. I got news for you, Vladimir Putin did not destroy the Democratic Party.

HABERMAN: Right. The problem for Democrats is that they are being -- the artery is being squeezed from both sides, essentially. They don't really have a base that is in the mood for compromise with Trump. So their only real option would be to go in to the president and say here's an infrastructure bill. Sign our infrastructure bill. This is what we would like to do and try to essentially not necessarily call his bluff, but get him to try to come to the table on their terms.

They have a base that doesn't want any sense of compromise that is very upset for all of the reasons that Jonathan is talking about, but they are focussing all of it on Russia. And it is a very hard-line to maintain, especially when you keep having these images show up of Democratic officials meeting with the same Russian ambassador.

COOPER: I want to thank everybody.

Coming up, President Trump says the investigations who is ties to Russia are nothing ruse or witch-hunts since the revelations stock up about people round him. We'll take stock of what we actually know right now. Is there any actual -- I mean if there's smoke, there's a fire. What is it? We'll take a look.


[21:30:41] COOPER: President Trump calls Russia a ruse. Moscow calls questions about contact with false news. Other on both sides the political aisle call a series of unanswered potentially damaging questions keeps (ph) among them why candidate Trump, and then President Trump has said so many nice things about what is after all a series of geostrategic rival at America's prime nuclear adversary.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESDIENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I respect Putin. He's a strong leader, I can tell you that.

Putin said Trump is brilliant, run by a very smart cookie, much smarter, much more cunning than our president.

Putin likes Trump and he said nice things about me. He called me genius.

If we could have a good relationship with Russia, that would be a good thing, not a bad thing.

If he says great things about me, I'm going to say great things about him. I've already said, he is really very much of a leader.

I would treat Vladimir Putin firmly, but there's nothing I can think off that I'd rather do than have Russia friendly as opposed to the way they are right now.


COOPER: Just a small look back at some of the things Donald Trump has said. More now from our Randi Kaye.


TRUMP: I have nothing to do with Russia to the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with that.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): That was President Donald Trump last month, brushing off any connection to Russia. But since he made that statement, it's become clear that five of his advisers did indeed have contact with a Russian.

This man, the Russian ambassador, U.S. intelligence officials consider a top-level spy. Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in July and September and is now having to explain why he didn't share that during his confirmation hearings.

JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Retrospect if I should have slow down and said, but I did meet one Russian official a couple times, that would be the ambassador.

KAYE (voice-over): On the heels of that, more undisclosed meetings, this time at Trump Tower. That's where Donald Trump's son-in-law and Senior Adviser Jared Kushner met with the Russian ambassador in December. Also in that meeting, the former head of the NSA, Michael Flynn, who was fired for misleading the administration about his conversations with the ambassador.

A senior administration official tells CNN, Kushner's meeting lasted about 10 minutes and characterized it as an introductory meeting, an inconsequential hello.

(on camera): Why does any of this matter, because at least some of those meetings with the Russian ambassador occurred while the Trump administrations relationship with Russia was under close scrutiny. And despite push back from White House, there are still some questions about whether or not Russia influenced the U.S. presidential election.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think it Russia's involvement and activity has been investigated up and down. So the question becomes at some point, if there's nothing to further investigate, what are you asking people to investigate?

TRUMP: How many times do I have to answer this question? Russia is a ruse. I know you have to get up and ask a question so important. Russia is a ruse. I have nothing to do with Russia.

KAYE (voice-over): So what about that growing list of private meetings with the Russian ambassador? Trump Campaign National Security Adviser J.D. Gordon has disclosed that he, too, met with Kislyak at the Republican National Convention in July.

He emphasized, there wasn't any inappropriate chatter with the Russians to help the Trump campaign. And there's more, he says two other national security advisers were also part of that meeting, Walid Phares and Carter Page. More meetings and more denials only leads to more questions.

TRUMP: If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability.

KAYE (voice-over): Randi Kaye, CNN, Norfolk, Virginia.


COOPER: Well, joining us now, someone who brings a lot of experience to bear on the story. Alexander Vershbow is the former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, South Korea and to Russia. He joins us now. Ambassador, thanks for be being with us.

So, I mean, the allegations and connections between this administration and Russia, what's your reaction, because -- I mean, it does seem that every week or so there's a new, you know, new questions are raised, something else emerges and yet we don't really know if there is any there, there.

ALEXANDER VERSHBOW, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: Yeah. Well, clearly, those questions just keep mounting day by day and it's not because of meetings such with the Russian ambassador and that's a normal thing. I used to meet with the Russian ambassador all the time. Senators can do that. But is why these things have been coverup and why there's so much defensiveness about it, it's just raising more suspicions day by day.

[21:35:03] Plus, the big story, of course, is the fact that the Russians hacked our election. That's where we need a thorough investigation where the American people need to know all the facts. If there was complicity between the campaign and the rest, that would be quite explosive. But right now, we don't know anything. It's all speculation, but the suspicions continue to mount up.

COOPER: What about the Russian ambassador? I mean, you've known him. I understand for 25 years or so. What can you tell us about him?

VERSHBOW: Yeah. Well, he's a very impressive, professional diplomat. He's a real arms control expert. I used to know him working on the strategic arms talks. We together negotiated some parts of the NATO- Russia Founding Act 20 years ago. So, you know, he's a patriotic representative of his country. But he's known as a problem solver, not overly polemical. More of behind the scenes guy, so I think all of this publicity must have him a little rattled.

But, obviously, he runs an embassy which has a lot of people engaged in espionage. I don't think he personally is a spy, contrary to what you've been saying for the last couple of days. But, clearly, the Russia embassy must have some connection to the ethics to undermine our democratic process during the election. And so we need to find out the facts.

COOPER: Yeah. I mean, there have been-- according to our reporting, there has been some in U.S. intelligence who consider him to be one of Russia's top spies or spy recruiters in Washington (ph). You think that's not true?

VERSHBOW: Ambassadors don't do the recruiting. They've got people working for them that do that kind of dirty works. So, I've known him more as a regular professional interlock either on a lot of different subjects. Part of his job is to make contact with policy makers, with politicians and he was very good at that. But calling him a super spy, I think may be little much.

COOPER: The-- I mean, given your, you know, the time you spent in Russia, would it surprise you if Russia was attempting to hack into the elections attempting to influence -- I mean, is this part -- is that sort of a long-standing? I've read a lot recently, there's a great article in "New Yorker" about this. Is this part of kind of a long-standing pattern with Russia and the former Soviet Union?

VERSHBOW: Well, yes and no. I mean, they have for years going back to Soviet at times practiced what they call officially active measures, which are designed to generate influence, to subvert hostile countries, to embarrass people with compromising material, you know, there's handicrafts, all these things apart of their tool kit.

I think what was difference about the hacking of our election was the ambitiousness of what they tried to do to, not only steal the information from the Democratic National Committee, but to specifically target leaks of information, the strategic moments through WikiLeaks to try to influence the outcome of the election.

And, of course, we have to understand how they did it because they're trying the same thing right now with the French elections next month. Angela Merkel's up for reelection in September. This is something that threatens all of western societies and so we need to get to the bottom of it right away.

COOPER: Would you like to see -- I mean, you know, there's apparently-- I mean, if there's going to be investigations, it's the FBI, House and Senate Intelligence Committees, would you like to see a select committee?

VERSHBOW: I think it would be better. I mean, I hope that the two intelligence committees will do a thorough job and that they'll find some way to publicize their findings, so it's not all classified.

But I think given the gravity of what the Russians tried to do to our democratic system, I think a bipartisan select committee or commission like the 9/11 commission would be fully appropriate. You know, the stakes were just as high in this case as they were with respect to 9/11.

COOPER: Alexander Vershbow, I appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

VERSHBOW: You're welcome.

COOPER: Coming up, there was lots of talk this week about President Trump's calmer tone in his speech to Congress, but there's other side of him we're going to continue to see, especially concerning this -- well, this was just two weeks ago.


TRUMP: He said he's going to ask a very simple, easy question. And it's not. It's not. Not a simple question. Not a fair question. OK, sit down. I understand the rest of your question.



[21:43:11] COOPER: It's been another whirlwind of the week in the Trump presidency. We are ending with Russia revelations coming in at a breakneck speed. But earlier in the week, some of the pundits thought it might be the dawn of a different President Trump, and not kindler and gentler than at least calmer. He hadn't bashed the media for a few days. There hadn't been a fall on early-morning Twitter rants and his speech to Congress seems to be an exercise and sticking to the teleprompter restrained.


TRUMP: A new national pride is sweeping across our nation, and a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp. What we are witnessing today is the renewal of the American spirit. Our allies will find that America is once again ready to lead.


COOPER: Compare that to the press conference he held just two weeks ago.


TRUMP: I won with news conference and probably speeches. I certainly didn't win by people listening to you people, that's for sure. But, I'm having a good time. Tomorrow they will say, "Donald Trump rants and raves at the press." I'm not ranting and raving, I'm just telling you. You know, you're dishonest people.

But, I'm not ranting and raving. I love this. I'm having a good time doing it. But tomorrow the headlines are going to be, "Donald Trump rants and raves." I'm not ranting and raving.


COOPER: Well, those two appearances were just 12 days apart. So, if there's anything we can count on the presidency, it may be that you can't really count on anything.

Joining us are two biographers who know the subject well, Michael D'Antonio, author of the Trump -- "The Truth About Trump" and Timothy O'Brien, author of "TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald."

So, Tim, this whole idea of a new President Trump that we saw at the speech earlier in the week, do you see it lasting? I mean, is it even lasting now?

TIMOTHY O'BRIEN, AUTHOR, "TRUMPNATION: THE ART OF BEING THE DONALD": No. I mean, I think Trump has handlers around him who are able to get him on a certain tracks for certain performances, whether it's the State of the Union Address or a debate or whatever it might be, but over time, he always reverts the form.

[21:45:05] And the form he reverts to is someone who operates by the seat of his pants very viscerally and often in a kind of high school playground bullying way.

COOPER: He can't help himself is what you're saying.

O'BRIEN: He can't help himself. He's, you know, and we've known this about. We've talked about this on multiple occasions. Now, he lacks a lot of self-control and discipline, both emotionally and intellectually that would keep him in check in the public sphere.

COOPER: You know, Michael, I mean, it is kind of fascinating for all the criticism of the president using Twitter and his sort of off the top of his head or impromptu remarks. We are given a window into the mind of a President of the United States, perhaps, unlike any we've ever seen before.

I mean, whether they are intentionally trying to be transparent or not, which, you know, you can argue they're not, this president is pretty transparent, because he cannot help himself. You know, it took hearing the Nixon tapes to actually hear into like the inner workings of President Nixon. We sort of get a running sense of what Donald Trump is thinking at any given time.

MICHAEL D'ANTONIO, TRUMP BIOGRAPHER: Well, we really do. And I think the Nixon comparison is important, because Donald's political thought was formed in the early 1970s, during the Nixon years. I think he's seen embattled presidents in the past. And the lesson he took away from that was to be combative. And that is the authentic Trump. He loves to fight. So, he's not afraid to be seen fighting. And I think he reads his supporters as people who are going to be thrilled by this.

COOPER: It's interesting, Tim, I mean, he was asked earlier in the week, I think on "Fox and Friends" about what sort of a grade, you know, he'd give himself so far, and he gave himself very high marks on all his policies. But on communicating them, he gave low marks, and there were a lot of people who initially said, "Oh, look, he's actually giving himself a low mark."

He actually didn't give himself a low mark. He's essentially giving his communications team a low mark. In that press conference he gave was finally kind of an effort to take control, you know, of -- it's like he couldn't stand at any longer to have other people speaking for him. He had just to get out there and directly talk to the media.

O'BRIEN: That's -- it's a great insight, because the one thing he has been true throughout his whole career around is he's had a singular set of messages that he's always stuck with throughout his career. And basically that he's excellent, he's infallible, he's unimaginably successful, he's worth billions of dollars and he's a great deal maker. And there's a lot of hoo-ha behind all of that.

But he stays on message with it over time to the point where by virtue of repeating it, it becomes reality. And what he's discovered, I think in Washington, and what he's discovered in his presidency is it's very hard to maintain control of a message when you're at center stage every minute of every day like he is. And he doesn't really support the people around him in terms of trying to help him have a more sophisticated message, and so you're seeing him now throwing Sean Spicer under the bus to a ceratin extent.

Now, I think Spicer has had his own problems, but I don't think Trump is suddenly becoming reflective and saying, "Yes, I could be a better communicator." What he's saying is, "The people around me are dropping the ball." COOPER: Tim O'Brien, Michael D'Antonio, thank you so much.

O'BRIEN: Thank you.

D'ANTONIO: Thank you, Anderson.

COOPER: Just ahead, I'll talk with Reza Aslan about his new spiritual adventure series "Believer," which debuts this weekend on CNN. It looks fascinating. In episode one, Reza tracks down a secretive sect in India. Things get pretty interesting.


[21:52:41] COOPER: The CNN original series "Believer" with Reza Aslan premieres this weekend. It's unlike anything you've seen, "Spiritual Adventure Series." And the debut episode, Reza travels to India to learn about an insular religious sect. At one point, things sort of escalate. Take a look.


REZA ASLAN, HOST, CNN'S "BELIEVER": Why are people on that side of the river so afraid of the Aghori?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Should we eat the living? Shall I show you by eating my own flesh?

ASLAN: I see. Why --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I will cut off your head if you keep talking so much.

ASLAN: I feel like this may have been a mistake. Maybe it was just like somebody distracts him and might just leave.

BEN SELKOW, DIRECTOR: I see where it goes.

ASLAN: I can be polite. I can be very polite about it.


COOPER: Now, we know why it's called the "Spiritual Adventure Series." Reza Aslan is here tonight to tell us how that moment ended.

I was actually worried about you in this segment. Well, why did he want to cut off your head?

ASLAN: I was worried about me as well. You know, my mom hasn't seen this yet, and I'm just -- I can't -- the phone call that's coming to me.

He is a guru for the sects called the Aghorians (ph). It's a Hindu sect. It's been around for like 500 years, but their concept is that because they reject notions of purity and pollution, which is fundamental to Hinduism, they want to shock the system by self- polluting. So they will -- they live off the cremation grounds. They cover themselves in the ashes of the dead. That's what I've got all over me. They eat rotted bits of meat. They sometimes will eat corpses, what's left on the cremation things. And all of this is to basically say, there is no such thing as pollution. There's no such thing as purity. It's all an illusion.

COOPER: I used to read a lot of Joseph Campbell, who --

ASLAN: You too?

COOPER: Yeah. I mean, a lot of his writing was about sort of commonalities between various religious faiths. Is that something you found in your travels?

ASLAN: I wanted to be Joseph Campbell ever since I was 14. This is -- I came up with the idea of this show when I was like 16, 17 years old.

COOPER: Is that right, really?

ASLAN: I'm not kidding. I was like, this is what I want to do. And I think it's the same thing is that I've learned in my studies and in my travels that while we all speak different religious languages, we're expressing the same faith, the sentiment behind it is the same.

[21:55:11] That's exactly what Campbell was saying. He was saying, all these myths, all these metaphors, they're essentially telling the same story over and over again.

COOPER: Well, they do the journey of the hero that --

ASLAN: Exactly. And that's what -- this what (inaudible) what the show is about. You know, what I'm trying to do by immersing myself in these different religions, religions that are often demonized and marginalized, you know, misrepresented or misunderstood is to say that even though this may look weird and scary and frightening to you, when you really dig down deep, what you find is something very similar, very familiar.

In fact, the Aghori mystics that I was talking to you aren't the only Aghoris. I eventually find another guru who has changed everything about Aghorism and instead has said, "You can prove that there's no such thing as pollution, not by eating the flesh of a corpse, but by taking care of a leper, by opening an orphanage for outcast kids, and so putting your faith into practice." And I think a lot of people at home would really associate with that, would identify with that.

COOPER: It's fascinating. I'm really looking forward to this. Reza thanks.

ASLAN: Thanks Anderson.

COOPER: Don't miss the debut of "Believer" with Reza Aslan this Sunday, 10:00 p.m. Eastern and Pacific on CNN. We'll be right back.


[22:00:01] COOPER: Thanks for watching. Time to hand things over to Don Lemon. "CNN Tonight" starts right now. Have a great weekend.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump is at Mar-a-Lago, but his Russia trouble has followed him there. This is "CNN Tonight." I'm Don Lemon.