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Defense over Wiretapping Claims; DOJ Called on to Refute Wiretapping Claims; Iraq Removed from Travel Ban; Russia-Trump Probe Poll; Trump Angry with Staff; Iraqi Pressure on Travel Ban. Aired 2- 2:30p ET

Aired March 6, 2017 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Easter in "The Situation Room." The news continues on CNN.

DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: Good afternoon. I'm Dana Bash, in for Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for joining me.

President Trump signed his revised travel ban restricting U.S. entry from six predominantly Muslim nations. That's down from seven as Iraq has been taken off the list. We're going to dig into all the details soon, including how the only image of the order signing, you see right there, was taken by somebody at the White House. No one from the press corps was allowed in to witness and document what the president has touted as a critical part of this agenda.

But first, let's begin with yet another presidential conspiracy theory. Perhaps the most serious one yet. President Trump's baseless allegation that former President Obama wiretapped him during the 2016 campaign. Today, the White House is defending the need for an investigation, despite the fact that former President Obama denies it and the FBI, according to two sources, has asked the Department of Justice to publicly refute President Trump's claim. Here's what White House spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said earlier.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sarah, the president made these allegations 48 horse ago. Has he called the FBI director since he made those allegations and asked if they were true?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOSE SPOKESMAN: I don't know that he has talked directly with the FBI director. All we're asking is that we let Congress do its job. Let's let the House Intelligence Committee review this, investigate it, as they committed to do over the weekend.


BASH: Now the context here is everything. The president's early morning weekend Twitter frenzy about this came on the heels of the president lashing out at his staff for missteps with the Russia investigation and other issues going on inside the administration. And I'm told the president has been voicing concern to friends questioning the competence of his own White House aides. Let's turn now to CNN's senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns at

the White House for us.

Joe, you have been covering this White House. You have been talking to aides inside that building. How much do you think all of this is a distraction and how much do you think that this is Donald Trump just trying to take matters into his own hands?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Well, as you know, Dana, on the outside there are people who argue that the whole point is distraction, an attempt by the president, the administration, to try to change the subject from people looking into contacts between the staff and Russia.

But on another level, they also admit here inside the administration, people like Kellyanne Conway, that covering this story and having to deal with this story, especially the president's tweets over the weekend, also create a distraction. Today, they were rolling out their travel ban. And the first question and the second question to members of the administration was always about the tweets, the president's assertions against President Obama.

And when you ask and try to take it to a deep - deeper level, what they'll tell you is, well, we know there's no evidence right now, or there's apparently no evidence right now, but Donald Trump is president of the United States, and he knows things that other people don't know. So the argument turns kind of circular and we've heard that argument before. A big distraction for this administration as they try to push through a number of things on their agenda, Dana.

BASH: Joe, and you make a good point, the distraction isn't just from things necessarily that are not good for the White House, but thing that are parts of their agenda, like this travel ban that is actually getting some kudos from Republicans who didn't like the first one. We're going to talk about that later.

Joe Johns, thank you for that report.

And I want to turn now to John Negroponte, who served as the director of national intelligence, America's first DNI, and is also the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Mexico.

Mr. Ambassador, thank you so much for joining me.

I want to first start by getting your reaction to what you thought when you heard the president of the United States make the kind of accusation he did against his predecessor, offering no proof.

JOHN NEGROPONTE, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Well, I found it surprising, to say the least. Then I heard what General Clapper, my successor - one of my successors as DNI had to say. And I found that reassuring when he said that he thought there was no basis in fact for that assertion by the president.

On the other hand, you might ask, well, could Mr. Clapper know all the different circumstances under which some kind of warrant might have been issued? And since most of those are issued by the FBI or by the NSA. But, you know, I have confidence in him. And now we have the FBI director saying he wished the Justice Department would deny it. So I'm reasonably satisfied that it hasn't happened. There's just a certain reluctance on the part of an administration official to come out and say, no, it hasn't happened. I think more out of fear of contradicting the president than anything else.

[14:05:16] BASH: You say that you breathed a sigh of relief hearing one of your successors, James Clapper, say that he sees no evidence that former President Obama called for and asked for and got a wiretap of the current president in Trump Tower. But the whole concept of relief, I think would probably be surprising to a lot of people who are more concerned about the allegation in the first place from President Trump. Did that concern you?

NEGROPONTE: Well, yes, it did. But I say relief in the sense that it satisfied me that it didn't really happen and that this was one of these spontaneous tweets by the president in the middle of the night. And there was pushback. And quite quick and convincing pushback.

BASH: Just take a step back and tell me about just the notion of the president doing this kind of thing on Twitter, given the fact that you have such an understanding of how the systems work, that you were the country's first director of national intelligence?

NEGROPONTE: Well - yes. Well, a lot of people have commented on the issue of whether the president should be commenting on deeply substantive issues through the use of his Twitter account. I would also say, in my recollection, and I've worked for several presidents, I don't ever remember a prior president personally ordering a wiretap. That usually goes through a process. And I suspect that was the case in the Obama administration.

BASH: And presidents - and president, I think, legally, correct me if I'm wrong, aren't allowed to do that. I mean, as you said, there's a process, and that is separate from the presidency.

NEGROPONTE: Well, they could conceivably express an interest in it, but it ultimately has got to go - course itself through a process that's quit carefully spelled out.

BASH: White House Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders talked about this today and she contrasted the wiretap story with multiple reports about links between the Trump campaign and ties to Russia. Take a listen.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESWOMAN: Look, there have been a constant allegations, the hypocrisy on this story is absolutely outrageous. We have dealt with this for the last six months where "The New York Times" calls this story false. The FBI comes out and says it's B.S. The House Intelligence Committee says there's no evidence. Yet you - the people in the media continue to report a false narrative, that there are connections between the Trump campaign and the Russians when there simply aren't. All we're asking is the same fair deal here that the House intelligence committee is given the opportunity to investigate and review this and see if there's anything there.


BASH: Mr. Ambassador, a false narrative or is the Russia - potential Russia connection between anybody in Trump world and Russians back in and around the campaign, should that be investigated and investigated to the fullest extent?

NEGROPONTE: Well - right. Seems to me two things have to happen. With regard to this latest allegation by - accusation by the president, I think we need to get a statement from the Justice Department. I realize they have difficulty at the moment because there's no presidential appointee serving at the top who hasn't recused himself from the issue. But we need a clear statement from the Justice Department.

On the question about the interference - Russian interference in the elections, seems to me there are a couple of paths that have already been drawn out for that and that the matter will be investigated. And I think that is highly to be desired. I think we ought to leave it now in investigative hands and see what the outcome is.

BASH: Before I let you go, I just have to ask you about the revised travel ban. As I said at the beginning of the show, Iraq, a country to which you were the ambassador, has been taken off the list. I assume that makes you happy. But, more broadly, do you think that this travel ban is necessary?

NEGROPONTE: Well, there are questions about whether it was necessary or not, particularly with regard to -

BASH: Do you have questions?

NEGROPONTE: Well, certainly with regard to refugees. I think they were already vetted extremely well and they don't have a record of having caused terrorist acts, at least not in the United States.

But the other point that I would make is that it is a good thing that Iraq was taken off. They are an ally. We worked hand in hand with them. We have troops stationed in that country. And I think that it was quite offensive to them that we should involve them in this ban at the same time.

And the last point I would make is that various aspects of the ban have been toned down and I think it's probably in considerably better shape now than it was before and it has taken into account a number of the legal objections that were raised earlier.

[14:10:06] BASH: John Negroponte, thank you so much for your time and your insight. Appreciate it.

NEGROPONTE: Thank you.

BASH: And for more on this, let me bring in CNN political director David Chalian.

Welcome, my friend.

President Trump calls for an investigation into wiretapping, as we've been talking about. He doesn't have many allies in this fight. CNN learned that the FBI asked the Justice Department to publicly reject this accusation. Many Republicans, like Marco Rubio on CNN yesterday, Senator Ben Sasse are saying that the president needs to offer more information. Just politically speaking, is this Republicans running from the hills and trying to, you know, make this go away issue? Or is this kind of one of those that might have more legs?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: You know, I think we've seen this play out a couple different times now in this young Trump administration where there are issues Republicans are willing to go to bat for, and usually on policies that they really want to see implemented. Look at the travel ban for one of them today. You're starting to see Republicans rally around that because the administration brought them in.

On an issue like this, where there is no evidence and the president is off tweeting on a Saturday morning, you just see that they are not interested in rallying around. So a traditional environment where you sort of rally around the president of your own party almost no matter what is not the case with this president. And you can understand, if you were Marco Rubio or Ben Sasse, if you had President Obama and you have the FBI and you have Director Clapper, the former head of the national intelligence - the director of national intelligence all saying this didn't happen, I'm not sure you want to side up to President Trump, who's provided zero evidence that it has.

BASH: He sure has, or has not, I should say.

Let's talk about your expertise polling. I want to look at some of CNN's new polling -

CHALIAN: Just one of my expertises, Dana.

BASH: One of your expertises. I mean that goes without saying, David, right? Let's take a look at this, though. Two-thirds of Americans - about two-thirds say a special prosecutor should investigate contacts between Russians and Trump campaign associates. Do you think that this will put any pressure on congressional Republicans or do you think that probably as I'm hearing that the whole concept of a special prosecutor could open up so many different flood gates that public pressure would have to get a lot steeper than that?

CHALIAN: Although it is pretty steep, yes, I'm hearing what you're hearing, which is that nobody quite knows what happens when you open up that Pandora's box of having a completely independent prosecutor. All of a sudden, you know, you're not in control of the process. But two-thirds there saying that that is - that is how this should be investigated. And, Dana, 43 percent of Republicans say that. So, granted, a majority of Republicans still favor Congress being in charge of these investigations, but 43 percent is not small. And so if indeed the drip, drip, drip of this story continues, you could imagine that number going even higher, that people who already don't really - largely the country doesn't have a ton of faith in Congress - if the allegations keep emerging, you could imagine it will be more than two- thirds who would like this to be done by - handled by an outside prosecutor.

BASH: That is for sure. No question about it. And the drip, drip, drip is definitely what Democrats are relying on to keep the pressure on them. But, you know, we'll see. We'll see how this bears out.

David Chalian, always great to talk to you.

CHALIAN: Thank you.

BASH: Thanks, my friend.

And one source says it's the most upset they've seen the president ever. President Trump furious with his staff over recent dramas at the White House. Let's talk about what happened behind closed doors, next.

Plus, from birth certificates to crowd sizes to JFK's killer, why Trump continues to embrace conspiracy theories.

And CNN watches the new travel ban announcement with refugees currently inside the U.S. Hear their reaction straight ahead.


[14:18:09] BASH: Sources are telling CNN that President Trump is angry and frustrated with his senior staff for allowing the firestorm involving Attorney General Jeff Sessions to overshadow a shining moment that he had last week, a very well-received speech to Congress. Everything came to a head last Friday. You see the picture there on your screen. Cameras catching White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon in a heated conversation inside the Oval Office.

And this is just in to CNN. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus had to use this morning's staff meeting to regain control of the narrative, or at least try to do so. That's reporting that comes from Sara Murray.

Let's talk about all this with Gloria Borger, our chief political analyst, and Phil Rucker, who is the White House bureau chief for "The Washington Post."

Hi, guys.



BASH: Gloria, let me start with you and the reporting that we're getting here about how the president feels and the fact that he left Washington for Florida on Friday really upset at his senior staff about the way last week ended.

BORGER: Well, I was told by one source close to the president that he's been furious, and that's the word that was used with me, because he feels that after his great speech to a joint session of Congress, the white House staff let him down and didn't keep that narrative running, that he was disappointed in the way the whole Sessions issue played out. Perhaps he didn't even think Sessions should have recused himself at all. But that the White House wasn't prepared for it one way or another. And that this is generally the way it's been going the last couple of weeks and that the president has displayed more sort of flashes of anger, if you will, at his own staff. And, of course, because Reince Priebus is the chief of staff, he probably takes the brunt of it, Dana.

[14:20:03] BASH: And, Phil, you know, one source inside the White House described the whole Russia situation as a series of paper cuts. That they kind of can't get their mojo on their agenda because of so many issues affecting them and taking them off course. Is it your sense from your reporting that, you know, Reince Priebus, who has been kind of caught in the cross hairs, now is kind of in the same boat, along with Steve Bannon and others, who were originally sort of - you know, we're looking at the palace intrigue here, thought of as in different fiefdoms, but now they're kind of all banned together. It's like all for one and one for all. Are you hearing that?

RUCKER: I am. I'm hearing that they're trying to work together.

BASH: Yes.

RUCKER: They're both under extraordinary pressure, as are others in the White House. The president, in addition to being upset about all the things Gloria mentioned, is frustrated that he's now entering week seven without any signature accomplishments and he's looking back eight years ago to the things that Barack Obama was able to do in his first month or two in office, the stimulus bill, a number of - a number of other big-ticket items and Trump just doesn't yet have anything big that he can claim as a big accomplishment. There have been executive orders, there have been speeches, but there's no big legislative piece and he's frustrated. He wants health care to move. You know, he wants immigration to get going. He wants this infrastructure plan and he feels like his staff is not moving fast enough and hard enough.

BASH: Well, that is understandable. It has been a slow process.


BASH: Gloria, I want to tell you about something that Sean Spicer just told the press corps inside the White House. He said that there's quote, "no question something happened" regarding wiretap claims that the president made over the weekend, even though he, just like the president, didn't offer any proof. Doubling down, tripping down, does that surprise you?

BORGER: No. Look, I think if you're in the White House now, you're - you're continually running around trying and justify what it is the president has tweeted. So, for example, earlier Sean Spicer called for a congressional investigation into this. But we've - we've heard what Comey has asked the Justice Department to do. The FBI director has said, look, there wasn't any. Just, you know, DOJ, please tell everyone there wasn't any. And in doing that, and in letting that be leaked, what the FBI director has said is, we didn't do that. The president never - President Obama never did that. He never got the approval to do that. And so I think you have a White House staff just eternally trying to justify whatever it is that President Trump tweets about.

BASH: And, Phil, before we let you go, I just have to ask, I was told by a source who is in contact with the president over the weekend that maybe the president is realizing that he needs a, quote/ unquote, James Baker type. A senior statesman. Somebody who understands Washington and who the president can sort of see as somebody who can guide him in a way that he doesn't feel that maybe he has right now.


BASH: Do you think that's, knowing what you know about the White House and the president, do you think that's at all possible? Does that person exist?

RUCKER: You know, I don't know who that person would be. I think James Baker is not interested in the job. But there are some people who have been floating around on the outside, like Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor, for example, had lunch with Trump a couple of weeks ago and is seen as somebody who, if things got really in a difficult position for Trump, could potentially come in and help restore some order. I think for now Reince Priebus is safe as the chief of staff and he's trying to create some order and get these trains running in a smoother fashion on his own with the existing White House team. But certainly the president is talking to friends about their performance and about, you know, weighing some possibilities for what he could do down the road.

BORGER: You know, Dana, I think that - I think that Donald Trump thinks he's his own Jim Baker and I think -


BORGER: I think that may be part of the problem.

BASH: Yes, and it's really hard to keep trains running on time when the president pushes them off track with his early morning tweets.

Thank you both so much for your great reporting and insights.


RUCKER: Thank you.

BASH: Gloria and Phil, thanks.

And up next, reaction is pouring in from overseas on the president's new travel ban. We've got reporters live in Iraq, in Turkey, and Iran and we're going to take you there.

Plus, is there anything substantial at all behind President Trump's wiretap claim? We're going to ask a Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, next.


[14:28:41] BASH: President Trump's travel ban take two. Iraqis should no longer have any trouble getting into the U.S. after the president revised the travel ban and removed Iraq from the list. You'll remember, of course, that the president's original executive order was rolled out into chaos and confusion. At airports across the nation, protests ensued and eventually a federal court blocked it. But the new, softer order makes clear that lawful permanent residents, otherwise known as green card holders, or those with a visa, are excluded from the ban.

We have a lot of angles to talk about on this story and we have them covered across the globe starting with CNN's international correspondent Ben Wedeman. He's going to be live for us in Irbil, Iraq. Arwa Damon is live in Istanbul, Turkey. CNN's Nick Valencia is in Clarkson, Georgia, speaking with immigrant about the ban. And also Ramin Mostaghim, reporter for "The L.A. Times," live with us from Tehran, Iran.

Ben, we want to start with you. What is the Trump administration's rationale for removing Iraq? Or as I ask that question, I should probably ask, what do you think their rational was to put them out in the first place given the fact that Iraq has been a partner of the U.S. and the U.S. has American troops there still?

[14:30:00] BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the original rationale for the 27th of January travel order was probably that ISIS did, at the time, control a large part of the country, that is where it got its start. But