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Obama Spokesman: Trump Wiretapping Claim "Simply False"; Sessions to Meet With Trump at Mar-A-Lago Tonight; Lindsey Graham Worried by Trump Wiretapping Allegations; Did "Breitbart," Radio Host Mark Levin Influence Trump on Wiretaps; Florida Undecided on 16-Year- Old Voucher Program. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired March 4, 2017 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[16:59:37] PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: You're in the CNN NEWSROOM on this Saturday, I'm Pamela Brown in Washington, great to have you with us.
So, we begin with the breaking news, President Trump firing off unsubstantiated allegations of wire-tapping. Allegations that stun even members of his own administration. President Trump tweeting, "Terrible, just found out that Obama had my wires tapped in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism."
He went on to clarify that his personal phone was tapped. A spokesman for former president flatly denies those claims saying this. "A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice. As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizens. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false."
White House correspondent Athena Jones joins me live near Mar-A-Lago. Also with us, CNN crime and justice producer Shimon Prokupecz. Athena, I want to go to you first. What kinds of response are you getting from the White House about these major allegations? Have they said anything?
ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: All right, Pamela. Well, look, we've been asking since early this morning. White House officials here in Florida and also in Washington. We've been asking for them to provide any evidence to back up the President's unsubstantiated allegations. We have not received any evidence from them. But my colleague, a senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny did speak with a senior administration official in Washington who said that White House colleagues learned of the President's tweet storm only after he sent them, this was early this morning.
And it's not uncommon for the President to get up and be tweeting early in the morning. Today he started around 6:30 a.m. This official pointed to a story on the conservative website, Breitbart News that has been circulating in the west wing. That story followed up on comments from radio talk show host Mark Levin who claimed that President Obama worked to undermine Trump's presidential campaign and his administration, including through various investigations on Russia and these possible ties between Russians and Trump associates.
This official said that Breitbart News story infuriated the President. And just a couple of hours ago, the President's social media Director Dan Scavino, also a top advisor tweeted out a link to that very same Breitbart News story. So, that lends credence to the idea that it was that story that the President was basing this angry tweets on. But he clearly didn't run them by his communications' staff and they were caught flatfooted. And we haven't heard any official comment from them -- Pamela.
BROWN: And Shimon, you've been speaking with a former senior U.S. official with direct knowledge of the investigation. What is the reaction been from the Obama team on these wiretapping claims?
SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE PRODUCER: Well, bigger than just the Obama team, Pamela. This is a former official who has direct knowledge of the FBI and the Department of Justice investigation. And there's just been flat denial. And I'll read you something this person told me. Which is -- "This didn't happen. It is made up, false. Wrong." There was no equivocation. It just isn't like oh, well maybe it happened here or maybe it happened there. Or we may have been looking at something else. I mean, this person just flatly denied that anyone at the Department of Justice had done this. Had gone before a judge, to try and seek some sort of authorization to wiretap Donald Trump's phones.
BROWN: Yes. Some strong language there from that official that you spoke with basically saying that this claim is false. Athena, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff called the allegations outlandish and baseless, what about Republican lawmakers? What are they saying?
JONES: We are seeing some responses from Republicans. For instance, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham had a town hall this morning in South Carolina where he talked about this. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I don't know if it's true or not. But if it is true, illegally -- it would be the biggest political scandal since Watergate. So -- it's my job, as United States senator to get to the bottom of this.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
JONES: And that sentiment about it being his job to get to the bottom of this as a United States senator, that sentiment is being echoed by other Republican colleagues, including Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska who put out a statement a little while ago saying that the public needs more information about the President's allegations. He says that if there was wiretapping, it was either with or without a warrant from a special court known as a FISA court. If it was without that warrant then the President needs to explain what kind of wire-tap this was and how he knows about it.
If it was with the legal court order, he says the President should ask that the application for surveillance be made public. To everyone, or at the very least to the U.S. Senate. He went on to say, we're in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of trust and the President's allegations today demand the thorough and dispassionate attention of serious patriots. And it's worth restating here, Pamela, just what Shimon was saying, and that is that former senior officials are saying that the idea that then-candidate Trump's phones were wire-tapped is just wrong. One other official said it was just nonsense -- Pamela.
[17:05:01] BROWN: And Shimon, you know, for the FBI to be able to wiretap someone's phone. A U.S. citizen, it would have to go to the FISA court and prove why that needs to happen. A President can't just order someone's phone to be wiretapped which is what Donald Trump seemed to be saying in his tweet. That President Obama ordered this. Walk us through the process.
PROKUPECZ: Well, that's exactly right. This isn't something that would come even from the White House or a sitting president. Obama in this case. So basically what would have to happen is the FBI would have to go to the Department of Justice and then the Department of Justice would then have to go before a secret court known as, you know, where they do this, as the FISA court and ask for permission, for authorization to tap Donald Trump's phone.
You know, there's some argument over how easy is that. I think in this case and certainly from the source, this official former official with direct knowledge of this investigation, said it would have been really tough for them to get this kind of permission. To wiretap Donald Trump's phones. The other thing is if there was a criminal investigation, which was being handled by the FBI and the Department of Justice, they would have had to have shown that there was some sort of criminality to a judge or perhaps some sort of crime was being committed, there were allegations made.
They would have to go before a federal judge and try and get a warrant. Also, you know, various steps would need to be met before a judge would grant that this kind of authorization. It's a pretty tough burden to meet. This happens every day in federal courts, but I think given who Donald Trump was at the time, and who he is now, you know, this official stressed it would have been really tough for us to get this kind of authorization.
BROWN: And again, he stressed that it's false, that is simply not true. Shimon Prokupecz, Athena Jones, thank you very much.
And I want to bring in my panel now, Bob Baer, CNN's intelligence and security analyst and a former CIA operative. Betsy Woodruff, politics reporter for the "Daily Beast." And Julian Zelizer, Princeton University historian and CNN contributor.
Bob, we're hearing from former CIA analyst Ned Price who quit the agency a few weeks ago. He also donated $5,000 to the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton's campaign last year. He tells CNN that this is either a calculated attempt to distract from this administration's multi-pronged and yet unexplained Russian ties, or a fundamental misunderstanding of how intelligence and law enforcement authorities operate, either way. This outburst should frighten all Americans. So, that's what he says.
Bob, do you agree, disagree, is this a calculated move in your view or misunderstanding or neither of those? What's your take?
ROBERT BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: Oh, Pamela. I don't know how much he calculates. But it's ludicrous to think that Obama went to the FBI, got a FISA warrant, FISA court agreed to tap Donald Trump's phone. First of all, there's no probable cause to ask for it. The FBI would go into full revolt. This would have been leaked. There would be a record of it. Which the President could get right now.
So it's ludicrous, and I think he's under a lot of pressure, under this Russian, this Russian thing which we still don't know what it is. And he's striking out against Obama. To say his phones were tapped, you know, I would bet the ranch on it, they weren't. It's impossible. Getting a FISA warrant as I said is extremely difficult on a presidential candidate -- no way. So, I think he's lashing out. As he has been for so long.
BROWN: And Betsy, he's not only saying that his phone was tapped, but also that the former president was responsible for it. I mean if this was true this would be a mega scandal. An affair with Watergate, I mean, and we still haven't heard from the White House. It's been nearly 12 hours. What do you think about that? What should be said and what's your expectation?
BETSY WOODRUFF, POLITICS REPORTER, "THE DAILY BEAST": Right. Well, to use a hallowed journalism cliche, these are what we call bombshell allegations in the big "if true" category. And the fact that the White House isn't supporting the President in the comment that he made on twitter this morning thus far. Besides the few scattered tweets from the White House officials is telling, of course.
And it suggests that there may not be a "there" there. I think the larger issue that this points to is that the President doesn't seem to have a very sophisticated understanding of the way the intelligence community works. Of course, President Obama could not have asked a FISA court to authorize wiretapping, because that's not how it works. That's not how you get a FISA authorization.
BROWN: And the FBI can't do that, either.
WOODRUFF: Exactly. Exactly. There's just no reason to think that this is specifically what happened. And this isn't the only example of Trump and his team not seeming to know some of the stuff that most folks who work in this world know about intelligence-gathering. For instance there's a lot of panic about the facts that leaked that Mike Flynn spoke with the Russian ambassador. But in the intelligence community, it's common knowledge that the Russian ambassador was being wiretapped.
That many ambassadors for country the U.S. has fraught relationships with, those guys are getting wiretapped. If you're an intelligence official and you call them, someone is probably listening to your call. The fact that Trump, his advisers, his own former national security adviser didn't seem to understand that, just points I think to what we've been talking about, the fact that the understanding of these issues is fairly thin.
[17:10:26] BROWN: All of this comes on the heels of President Trump's widely praised speech before Congress on Tuesday. Let's watch that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRES. DONALD TRUMP (R), UNITED STATES: The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us. We just need the courage to share the dreams that fill our hearts. The bravery to express the hopes that share our souls.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BROWN: So Julian, does his predawn twitter storm wipe out that positive balance? I mean how do these unsubstantiated wiretapping allegations affect the general public's perception of their new president?
JULIAN ZELIZER, HISTORIAN AND PROFESSOR, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY: I think it was probably too much to make an argument that that address represented some pivot to a new Donald Trump. President Trump is the same person he's always been and I think the tweets this morning reflect much more of the kind of politician he has become. These are unsubstantiated claims. We're not hearing that there's a lot of evidence behind what he's now accused the former president of doing and the irony is he ends the tweet saying this is McCarthyism.
It is, but it's what he's done, rather than what's being done to him. I think this is about distracting people from the discussions of investigation into the Russia connections, which have been front and center all week. And suddenly, the conversation is turning to Obama. So this is who President Trump is. And I think that speech really didn't reflect the kind of shift people are talking about.
BROWN: So, bob, I want to go back to you, because you were a CIA agent. How would anyone prove wiretapping had taken place? I mean, this is the whole point of wiretapping to keep surveillance covert, under the radar?
BAER: You can't prove it. I mean, if the implication is that the President went out and sort of a black bag operation with private operatives, you know, it would it involve a break-in? Would it involve listening to a cell phone? He wasn't specific. How does he know this? And I think he's been citing Breitbart. And I read that Breitbart report and there's some interesting things in it. There's nothing about tapping President's phone. The Breitbart phone, you know, if the FBI did ask for a FISA warrant on a campaign, you know, a guy working for Trump, that's something different. Why did they do it, what was the probable cause. But you know, getting into the bottom of this, he's making accusations he cannot prove.
BROWN: Right. And just on that note, sorry to cut you off there. But I mean, he sent this tweet early this morning. Said he just learned presumably he's not getting an intelligence briefing early on a Saturday morning. So it does appear, Betsy that this information came from this Breitbart report or a right-wing radio talk show host. It appears once again he's relying on the right-wing media reports to make these allegations. The last time I recall it was about Sweden in a FOX News report he saw about attacks in Sweden. Do you think this is reckless?
WOODRUFF: That is really interesting things about the Trump presidency is that perhaps more than any previous president, we know exactly what his media diet is like. He reads a lot of Breitbart. He watches "FOX AND FRIENDS." He pays attention to the things that are said on conservative talk radio. And the reality is that Breitbart has a spotty record when it comes to reporting things that are consistently, factually accurate.
They draw lots of criticism for getting stories wrong in the past and in the case when Steve Bannon was running the site, for refusing to apologize for stories that were incorrect. They ran a story about a women named Loretta Lynch. And they said that she was the Loretta Lynch who've been named to run the Justice Department but it was just completely wrong. The fact that the President is relying so overwhelmingly on this site for his news about pivotal National Security issues, pivotal intelligence issues is unprecedented. It's not the way most presidents get their information about Intel and I think the larger root issue here is that the President himself has long telegraphed an extremely low level of confidence in the American intelligence community.
He's extremely skeptical. We know he's often been prone to believing conspiracy theories. Believing that there are nefarious forces at work that we don't have good information on and of course that's a level of suspicion, distrust that's very much of a piece that the way Breitbart covers these issues. So, it makes sense that he would rely on them. That said it's something that I imagine would give many observers pause.
BROWN: All right. Stick around. We have a lot more to discuss, we'll be back in just a few.
And coming up, Attorney General Jeff Sessions set to meet with the President next hour after days of heat about his contact with the Russian ambassador. How the Trump administration is fighting to untangle itself from the controversy. Up next.
[17:19:21] BROWN: We're keeping a close watch on Mar-A-Lago where next hour Attorney General Jeff Sessions will meet with President Trump. Tonight's meeting comes amid the growing controversy over Sessions' changing story of his meetings with the Russian ambassador. On Monday, Sessions is set to amend the testimony he gave before Congress, concerning his contacts with the ambassador.
All of this after the Attorney General recused himself from any investigations into possible ties between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. President Trump calling the controversy over Sessions' testimony, quote, "a witch hunt." And is reportedly angry that Sessions recused himself.
So let's bring in my panel. Bob Baer, Betsy Woodruff and Julian Zelizer. Great to have you all back. Betsy, first to you. Are you reading into this meeting tonight between the President and his Attorney General? Apparently it was a last-minute add for him to join this meeting at Mar-A-Lago. What do you make of it?
WOODRUFF: Well, of course, let's talk about regarding Sessions' decision to recuse himself the way that Sessions talked about recusal was wildly different than the way the White House talked about it. I believe Sean Spicer said a few hours before Sessions announced the recusal, that he would have nothing to recuse himself from. Of course Sessions disagreed with that. Sessions told reporters on Friday, in fact, that he had been considering or maybe Thursday -- that he had been recusing himself going through the typical DOJ process for weeks before the "Washington Post" story broke. So it's likely that will come up.
However the larger issue might in fact be the fact that the President is poised at some point or hearing this week to release a new executive order banning travel from certain Muslim majority countries so that's definitely going to be a key issue that the White House and the Justice Department will need to be working on in the coming days. Of course they've been saying that executive order was imminent going back for several weeks now so a grain of salt as far as the timing here but it certainly looks like we might get a new one this week. And of course the Justice Department will be key in defending that executive order from the inevitable legal challenges.
BROWN: Absolutely. So, I have to ask you, Julian, Sessions recused himself saying that because he was part of the Trump campaign that it's only appropriate to recuse himself from any Trump campaign investigations. Do you think his recusal is enough to satisfy Democrats? Or the critics?
ZELIZER: No, I don't think it is. This point to have the second in command for example at the Justice Department conduct this investigation would not be satisfactory to Democrats. And nor are many Democrats happy with the Intelligence Committee. Run by Republicans sympathetic to the President handling this. So that is why this week, you've heard more about the possibility of a special prosecutor or creating some kind of select committee. A Watergate style committee to launch a full investigation into the connections between Russia and Trump's advisers. If any existed that affected the election. So, I don't think his recusing himself is going to end this kind of controversy. I think people are suspicious of the Justice Department really handling this at all at this point.
BROWN: But we do know, we have reporting that the FBI's counterintelligence division is investigating these ties between Trump's associates during the campaign and the Russians. And when you look at this list of the meetings, Bob Baer, I mean, it's striking how many meetings there were between Trump's inner circle and the Russia's Ambassador Kislyak. That they had previously denied and those meetings included Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the President's son- in-law, Jared Kushner, ousted National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, the campaign to National Security Representative J.D. Gordon, adviser Carter Page.
What do you think is going on here? I mean, of course, meeting with an ambassador. I mean, you know, the argument could be made that there's nothing wrong with that. It doesn't mean anything sinister is going on. But the fact that they denied these meetings, what do you make of that?
BAER: Well, exactly, Pamela. It's the push-back. And as a former intelligence officer, the way I'm looking at it is the counterintelligence investigation. You have to look at things like motivation. You know, contacts with Russia with the KGB, they've accused Kislyak of being a KGB agent or possibly a co-optee which is very important. I don't know that, but the CIA would. The FBI would. That needs to be looked into. But for me, for any, in any counterintelligence investigation, what you need to look at is the money. Is anybody getting paid? Is anybody getting business favors?
Carter Page, Manafort has been accused of taking money. In the Ukraine, and even people the accusation is circling Washington right now as we speak, that Trump ultimately borrowed money to support his businesses from Russia. Maybe came through Deutsche Bank or somewhere else. We don't know that. So, to get to properly investigate this you have to take it out of the administration select committee or special prosecutor. This is not a partisan you know, view of it. You just have to. You have to get somebody who is neutral to take a look at this. At the end of the day, there may be absolutely nothing there but for a piece of mind in this country, we have to look into it, and somebody we trust.
[17:24:30] BROWN: Right. And just important to reiterate that point you made, at this point there's no evidence that any of those accusations swirling around are credible. But of course there's an ongoing investigation. Bob Baer, Betsy Woodruff, Julian Zelizer, thank you very much, the three of you for coming on. We do appreciate it.
BAER: Thank you.
BROWN: And Russia and the Trump administration likely to be a hot topic tomorrow when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senator Marco Rubio join Jake Tapper on "STATE OF THE UNION." That is tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. Eastern right here on CNN. And we'll be right back.
[17:29:31] BROWN: Well, President Trump this morning sending ripples through Washington even before the sun came up. A tirade of tweets, one after another, claiming that he had been spied upon. His phones at Trump Tower tapped, he says, and in those tweets he blames one man by name -- former President Barack Obama. Exactly what Trump accuses the former president of overhearing or stealing, we don't know.
[17:30:00] And since those tweets, there's been no clarification or additional information from the White House. Absolutely nothing.
Democratic leaders in Congress outraged, calling the president's claims outlandish and destructive.
And Republican Senator Lindsey Graham says he's worried that such allegations are being made with nothing to back them up.
I want to bring in CNN's Polo Sandoval.
Polo, Senator Graham held a town hall this morning in his home state of South Carolina right after the tweets came out. What did he say?
POLO SANDOVAL, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Pamela, it was a fairly heated town hall at first. And he dove straight into this issue of the latest Trump Twitter tirade, as we heard from Lindsey Graham, who was very skeptical of the latest claims made by the commander-in- chief, claiming that the Obama administration in some way had tapped into some of his phones at Trump Tower. Of course, that's a claim that the administration continues to deny here.
I want you to hear directly from Senator Graham about the latest tweets posted by President Trump.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: If it is true, illegally --
GRAHAM: -- it would be the biggest political scandal since Watergate.
If the former president of the United States was able to obtain a warrant, lawfully, to monitor Trump's campaign for violating law, that would be the biggest scandal since Watergate. I'm very worried that our president is suggesting that the former president has done something illegally.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SANDOVAL: There are two scenarios laid out by Senator Graham at Clemson University.
Also, Russia dominating part of the conversation as well, Pamela. The Senator there saying he supports an increase in sanctions against Russia for hacking into some of those DNC e-mails.
And some other topics touched on were veterans' issues, the economy, and Obamacare and the potential repeal of that -- of Obamacare. That by the way, Pamela, did trigger a lot of boos from the crowd. So a mix of support and opposition in his home state.
BROWN: There's been strong support -- strong reaction, I say, across the country when that's brought up at the town halls.
BROWN: Polo Sandoval, thank you very much.
SANDOVAL: Thanks. BROWN: Appreciate it.
With me, Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic strategist and former Hillary Clinton fundraiser; also CNN political commentator, Ben Ferguson, joining us.
Thank you, gentlemen, for coming on.
Robert, I'm going start with you.
Not a word from the White House since these tweets this morning. It's been almost 12 hours. These tweets and the startling claims about wire-tapping and the former president behind it. What's your take here?
ROBERT ZIMMERMAN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST & FORMER HILLARY CLINTON FUNDRAISER: One of two scenarios, either the sedatives wore off from the State of the Union or it's another tactic by Donald Trump it to try to change the focus and change the topic. We've seen that play many times before. His false claims about voter fraud, bipartisanly rejected. His recent claims about a Sweden terrorist attack. His false charges about refugees. And of course, the original strategy of bringing up the birther lie to try to change the focus and engage in character assassination. No matter what tactic he wants to pursue, you're seeing a bipartisan coalition emerge in Congress calling for an independent investigation. Some like Darrell Issa calling for a special prosecutor. Because the issue about the contacts between Donald Trump and his campaign and Russia are not going to go away. The intelligence wiretaps picked up by Europe and American officials, that's one example of them. The signals between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign is another. And of course, the fact that his staff continues to either misstate the facts or continue to lie about their relationships with Russian contacts, also just adds to it.
BROWN: OK, and we don't -- just to be clear, we don't know if any concrete links between WikiLeaks and members of his staff. We do know that the FBI is investigating a lot of the contacts.
ZIMMERMAN: But we do, know, Pamela --
ZIMMERMAN: We do know that Donald Trump encouraged WikiLeaks to leak information about Hillary Clinton's e-mails. He bragged about doing that.
BROWN: He did encourage the Russians, that is true, during the campaign. He did do that. I want to make sure that we're clear with our audience.
But, Ben, I mean you know, he's --
(CROSSTALK) BEN FERGUSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Let me say a couple of things here. What George (ph) said there was a brilliant, "I think that you know the sky is falling" commentary, not based on facts. The classic example is the last point that he made there that somehow the staff of Donald Trump was speaking directly with WikiLeaks, which is, there is no evidence to show that. That is just fear-mongering and I would say misleading the same way you accuse the Trump administration of misleading people.
Second thing is this, let's be clear about something here, there is a very decent chance that what Donald Trump was implying today, the phones that were tapped at Trump Tower, absolutely, could have happened. The reason I say this is that you have a former Obama speechwriter, who said in a tweet earlier today that there's a chance while they were investigating Russia, if those Russians were speaking with Paul Manafort or other people at the campaign, that those actual phone calls could have been tapped and the conversations could have been tapped and the phone numbers they were dialing could have been tapped.
I'll also say this. There does need to be some clarification here from the White House very soon about this. To make it clear that I do not believe that, you know, the president sitting then, Obama, would have called for that wiretapping. I do think that that is probably accurate, and what Valerie Jarrett tweeted out and what the president's spokesman said today. But neither of them denied there was any tap that was ever made that could have covered Donald Trump, Donald Trump's tower and his phone lines there. So I think that's where there might be some serious smoke on the story.
[17:35:44] BROWN: Just to be clear, again, I got to be the fact checker here.
BROWN: Our Shimon Prokupecz has been speaking to officials who say it was wrong that Donald Trump's phone was wiretapped during the election. There's a lot we don't know in terms of other wiretaps that could have been part of the investigation. But in terms of his phone, which is what he claimed in Twitter, there's no evidence about it, according to the officials.
BROWN: Go ahead.
FERGUSON: That's the reason I think the White House needs to clarify this. I think --
BROWN: It's been 12 hours and they haven't. What do you make of that?
FERGUSON: I think if you're Donald Trump and you find out, all of a sudden, that there's, apparently, phone conversations between possibly you and also your top advisers, staff members during your campaign, were a part of a -- of a wiretap that involved whoever you were talking to. This isn't a laughing matter. This isn't a funny matter.
FERGUSON: I would be --
ZIMMERMAN: This is a pathetic matter.
FERGUSON: I would be outraged and furious about this. I think what you saw from the president is someone who is very upset and angry that somehow his phone calls or staff's phone calls could have been listened to.
BROWN: OK. Go ahead. Robert.
ZIMMERMAN: Pamela, if I can make a point. From any report that we have, the president is basing his Twitter outburst upon right-wing radio commentator, Mark Levin, and "Breitbart" --
ZIMMERMAN: -- which is a leading perpetrator of fake news.
ZIMMERMAN: Let's understand, if I can finish my point, Ben.
BROWN: Let Robert finish and I'll go to you, Ben.
ZIMMERMAN: Let me point out, if in fact President Trump's conduct or his staff's conduct was so extreme that it merited a FISA wiretap, which is very, very, very high threshold to get by the FISA court, very difficult, a very difficult wiretap to get by the FISA courts, all the more reason for us to have an independent special prosecutor, to the independent commission with a special prosecutor to investigate this, to find out about the relationships, and to find out, most of all, why the Trump team continues to lie about their relationships and lie about their meetings.
BROWN: Ben, go ahead.
FERGUSON: -- it would not be extreme, first off, for the FISA court to give a wiretap that would cover Russian individuals, including the ambassador, including anyone basically working with the Russian government. If you look back in history, we've done a heck of a job on surveillance of the Russian ambassador, every Russian ambassador and almost everybody that's in this country that's representing Russia. And let's remember you had the president that kicked out many of the people connected with the Russian government recently, right before he left office, and they were under surveillance as well. So this idea that somehow this would not have happened or that it is unprecedented for the FISA court to make a decision is absolutely absurd. This would be a very normal --
BROWN: OK, let's take a step back here, Ben. Because he tweeted it this morning, he said he had just learned about it. So presumably, he wasn't involved in intelligence briefing before dawn on a Saturday morning. We have reporting that this "Breitbart" report had been circulating around and that this right-wing radio talk show host had been talking about the "Breitbart" report. And so, it appears that the president tweeted this based on these unsubstantiated allegations and these reports from right-wing media. What --
FERGUSON: I would --
ZIMMERMAN: Can I just point out --
BROWN: No, no. I want to ask -- I want just quickly ask, though, and I'll let you say what you want to say. But what would you feel comfortable with for the president to have before tweeting out something like this, Ben?
FERGUSON: I think if you look at what he probably has seen from this, also if you look at Mark Levin, who is not a guy who has been accused in his career or ever of putting out false or misinformation, who is also a guy who is - again, give me one example. If you're going to laugh about it, then back it up, my friend.
FERGUSON: No, no, no. That's a hack job attack that you just did. You didn't give a fact here. I've known Mark a long time. He's a lawyer, constitutional lawyer. He's a lawyer that's fought very serious cases, very high up in the U.S. government, and he's won the vast majority of those.
ZIMMERMAN: Do you think --
FERGUSON: If you're implying, somehow, he's put out misinformation, you've got to give me an example of it. Otherwise, you're just being a hack.
BROWN: Hold on.
Ben, this goes to my -- it's unsubstantiated. In other words, there's nothing to substantiate the allegations --
[17:40:11] BROWN: -- that President Obama was listening in to Donald Trump's phone calls during the campaign. That's what was being said.
But it appears the president looked at these reports and tweeted about the allegations in these reports that -- so I mean is that appropriate to you?
FERGUSON: Look, this is what I would have done. I would have said to the president, Mr. President, I think we need to look into this a little bit more, and I don't know if you want to say that the president directly, Obama, ordered this or implied that he ordered this. I'm one to say, I'm a realist on this stuff, I don't think the president ordered this.
FERGUSON: But I do think it was under his administration and that is something that would be very concerning for someone running for president of the United States of America, to have any of their phone calls or some of their phone calls being monitored by the government. That is very concerning.
BROWN: And really --
BROWN: Hold on, Robert, I'm going get to you.
I want to ask my producers. Do we have that sound from the -- from Mark talking about this? I would like to play it, rather than me paraphrasing what he said.
I'll get your reaction.
If we could play that sound, guys, that would be great.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MARK LEVIN, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST (voice-over): How many phone calls by Trump, if any, have been intercepted by the Obama administration and recorded by the Obama administration? And all the other transition officials involved in foreign policy and national security and defense policy? This, ladies and gentlemen, is the real scandal.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BROWN: Robert, your reaction?
ZIMMERMAN: As I said before, Mark Levin has a litany of lying and spreading false information about Hillary Clinton --
ZIMMERMAN: -- about her record as secretary of state.
BROWN: You have to be specific --
BROWN: -- then, if you're going to make that accusation.
ZIMMERMAN: If I can finish my point. I would be glad to.
His commentary about Hillary Clinton and, for example, on the Benghazi probe, the claims he made about the Clinton Foundation, the attacks he made --
FERGUSON: Give me one example.
ZIMMERMAN: Oh, my goodness.
FERGUSON: You're basing generalities here.
BROWN: Let him talk, Ben.
ZIMMERMAN: Excuse me, Ben, let me finish.
This is a much bigger topic than Mark Levin. The fact that he claimed there was undue influence and there was -- the fact that he spread false reports about the Clinton Foundation improperly benefitted or there were favors granted. The bigger issue is not here of Mark Levin, as much as Ben wants to distract and talk about that. The bigger issue is that Russia is materially benefitting from the Trump administration. If the Donald Trump was to clear this up, let him release his tax returns and disclose whether he borrowed money from Russia and document it. Let him stand up to Russian aggression.
ZIMMERMAN: Let him support the Obama sanctions put in place to crack down on Russia because they attacked our democracy.
FERGUSON: All right --
ZIMMERMAN: That's what Donald Trump could clearly do--
ZIMMERMAN: -- if he had any integrity, any commitment to clear up this issue. FERGUSON: I've got to say --
BROWN: You got, you got -- you know the drill, Ben, Robert. We're out of time. I'm so sorry.
BROWN: I was generous, too.
FERGUSON: -- give me one example of Mark Levin backing up anything. It was all generalizations.
BROWN: We got to go. But we'll be sure to have you guys back on the show and we can continue the discussion.
Thank you, Gentlemen. Do appreciate it.
BROWN: And we'll be right back.
ZIMMERMAN: Thank you.
[17:47:20] BROWN: Well, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been outspoken in her support for some controversial education programs, like voucher programs. In Florida, there are disagreements about whether it's helping students,
CNN's Boris Sanchez reports.
LANA MONDELEY, STUDENT: Math, science, social studies.
BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For 7-year-old Lana Mondeley, going to public school was miserable. She had trouble making friends, didn't get enough attention from teachers, and even hated the food. Her grandparents say that almost every day ended in tears.
ANA MONDELEY, GRANDMOTHER: So why are you crying? I don't like it here, I don't like it.
SANCHEZ: So Ana and Anibal brought their second grader here to Kingdom Academy just outside Miami, where Lana has flourished.
LANA MONDELEY: I think it's better here.
SANCHEZ: But Lana can only attend the school because of a controversial voucher program, one that's been at the center of a heated political battle in Florida for 16 years. Instead of paying taxes to the state, corporations get dollar-for-
dollar tax credits by donating money to organizations like step up for students, who gave many of the 98,000 scholarships to lower-income students, enabling them to go to private schools statewide.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think that low-income children should have less opportunities than more wealthy children. Kids don't get to choose their parents or choose the environment they grow up in. Why do we have all of these opportunities for affluent families and don't have the same opportunities for lower-income families.
SANCHEZ: But opponents say of the voucher program says it's leaving many students behind?
CALIBRA JACOBS REED, FRENCH TEACHER: We're at the point where we don't have enough books for each kid to take home.
SANCHEZ: French teacher Calibra Jacobs Reed says by not paying taxes, corporations are robbing public schools of funding.
REED: If the money that went to vouchers was reinvested into the schools, we would have the schools that parents are looking for. And we wouldn't have the need for vouchers. By funneling this money away, it hurts the kids.
SANCHEZ: Program supporters say there have been eight different independent reports and several court decisions that show the program does not cost public schools money.
Still, Frederick Ingram, with the state teacher's union, disagrees.
FREDERICK INGRAM, TEACHERS UNION MEMBER: You go to many schools in the state of Florida, you see the lack of programming. The lack of band classes, the lack of art classes, fewer vocational classes. You see teachers that are not paid what they need to be paid for doing the work that they do.
SANCHEZ: Despite the politics, there is no debate.
[17:55:00] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If I did not have a choice, I would probably have to move to a place where I was able to choose. Like I said, when it comes to my children, there is -- the sky's the limit. I will do whatever I need to relocate and do whatever I need to, to make sure their needs are accommodated.
BROWN: And that was Boris Sanchez reporting.
We'll be right back. Stick around.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ready to ride? UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yes!
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Bring it in, girl.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah!
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST, A.C.360: Every year, "CNN Heroes" honors everyday people doing extraordinary work to change lives.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm so proud of you.
COOPER: We crossed the globe to tell the stories of these amazing heroes.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Come on, go all the way to the end.
[17:55:02] COOPER: But we can't do it without you. We need you to tell us who you think should be a "CNN Hero."
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look at how far we've come in a week. It's fantastic.
COOPER: You can nominate someone in just a few simple steps. Go to CNNheroes.com and fill I the form to tell us about your hero. It's that easy. You can help make your hero a "CNN Hero" and shine some light on their amazing work.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you. Thank you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BROWN: Well, thank you so much for being here with me. I'm Pamela Brown, in Washington on this Saturday. I'll see you an hour from now live in the CNN NEWSROOM.
"Smerconish" is next.