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Critical Week for Trump as Russia, Wiretapping Hearing Begins; Lawmakers Reject Trump's Wiretap Claims; Key Republicans Gather at Mar-a-Lago to Discuss Health Care; GOP Lawmakers Make Key Changes to Health Care Bill; Neil Gorsuch Confirmation Hearing Starts Tomorrow; 3 U.S. Soldiers Wounded in Afghanistan Attack; North Korea Tests New Rocket Engine; Tillerson Meets With Chinese President; Everyday Russians Growing Weary of U.S. Politics. Aired 3-4p ET.

Aired March 19, 2017 - 15:00   ET



[15:00:02] REP. PAUL RYAN, (R) HOUSE SPEAKER: The president is being -- bringing people to his table, and I'm very impressed with how the president is helping us close this bill, making the improvements that we've been making, getting the votes. And so we feel very good where we are.


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we're covering all the angles with our team of reporters and political experts. Let's begin with CNN Washington Correspondent Ryan Nobles. So Ryan, what are lawmakers saying about alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia leading into tomorrow's hearing?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, these hearings Fredricka are really going to mark a flash point in the ongoing controversy about Russia's attempt to influence the American election. And while there certainly been a lot of attention paid to the president's claim that President Obama tapped him at Trump Tower, the bigger reveal may be if investigators have found any evidence of the Russians working directly with the Trump campaign.

This is something the administration has forcefully denied. The Republican House Chair of the Intel Committee Devin Nunes has said, he's not seen evidence to suggest that there was collusion, but his Democratic counterpart, Adam Schiff is not so sure. Listen to what he said this morning on "Meet the Press".


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), RANKING MEMBER, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: There is circumstantial evidence of collusion. There is direct evidence, I think of deception. And that's where we begin the investigation.

Now, I don't want to prejudge where we ultimately end up. And of course there's one thing to say there's evidence, there's another thing to say we can prove this or prove it a reasonable doubt, or there's enough evidence to bring to a grand jury for purposes of a criminal indictment. But there is certainly enough for us to conduct an investigation.


NOBLES: And this is important Fredricka because this is really where the divide could break down this congressional investigation. If the findings of the committee break down over party lines, that's where there is danger that the whole probe could be just written off by critics as being too political. It's something the leaders of both the House and Senate Intel committees have promised that they will work to avoid. And we may find out tomorrow at this hearing if keeping that promise will even be possible. Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: All right. Ryan Nobles, thank you so much for that.

NOBLES: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: All right, let's discuss this with my political panel now. Joining me right now, Patrick Healy, CNN political analyst and deputy culture editor for "The New York Times", and David Rohde, CNN global affairs analyst and national security investigations editor for Reuters. Good to see both of you.

OK, so this chorus of no evidence is getting louder on the eve of this pivotal testimony from FBI Director James Comey. Just listen.


REP. DEVIN NUNES (R), CHAIRMAN, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: A president doesn't go and physically wiretap something. So if you take the president literally, it didn't happen.

CHRIS WALLANCE, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: No evidence of any wiretapping of Trump Tower?

NUNES: No -- there was no FISA warrant that I'm aware of to Trump -- to tap Trump Tower.

SCHIFF: I hope we can put an end to this wild goose chase because what the president said was just patently false, and the wrecking ball it created now has banged into our British allies and our German allies. It's continuing to grow in terms of damage. And he needs to put an end to this.


WHITFIELD: All right, so Patrick, James Comey is under a lot of pressure. How much detail can he reveal when he testifies?

PATRICK HEALY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: There's going to be real reluctance Fredricka. I mean, traditionally the FBI director does not speak about ongoing investigations that something that Director Comey could be citing here. But the issue is, is that for millions of Americans, there's going to be still pretty fresh memory about how Director Comey talked about the investigations that Hillary Clinton was under back last summer in 2016. And then as he made his statement in a letter just before the November election, sort of saying that, well, they were still looking into questions regarding Hillary Clinton.

So I think you're going to see a lot of Democrats challenging Director Comey if he decides to say, you know, I'm going to keep this very general, I'm not going to go into whether even President Trump or his campaign is under some kind of investigation regarding Russia. But what you can be guaranteed Fredricka is that both Republicans and Democrats are going to want kind of answers from their different angles.

And one of the things that kind of unite them is this wiretapping question that is still out there. And it sounds like Director Comey does want to address. He wanted the Justice Department to knock it down. So whether r he's willing to go on record and really kind of undercut the president and the White House is one of the main things we'll be looking for.

WHITFIELD: Right. And one has to wonder, David, especially since he apparently did go to the, you know, attorney general, he went to the Justice Department to say, hey, knock this stuff down. That didn't happen. If he feels even more compelled to try to put this to rest, try to reveal as much of, you know, of these allegations that he can, you know, possible especially after you have this chorus of those who say there is no evidence.

[15:05:03] DAVID ROHDE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Yes. I think he will speak out. I mean, he had frankly sort of a disastrous summer. People close to him told me that he, he made the first statement in July sort of criticizing Hillary Clinton's handling of e-mails but not charging her with any criminal wrong doing. He thought his own sort of personal stature would sort of end the controversy. That didn't happen.

The letters that Patrick talked about, there's lots of Democrats angry at him. So, I think he will be open tomorrow in an effort to kind of defend the credibility of the FBI. That's what he claims as his main mission.

WHITFIELD: So meantime, from the president's point of view, you know, by pushing these claims despite no evidence, you know, how much is the president hurting his relationship with Republicans? I ask this because, you know, this is what some of them have said this week.


REP. TOM COLE (R), OKLAHOMA: And I think the president should (inaudible) President Obama he owed him an apology in that regard because, you know, if he didn't do it, we shouldn't be, you know, reckless in accusations that he did.

REP. CHARLIE DENT (R), PENNSYLVANIA: The president only has so much political capital to expend and so much moral authority as well. And so any time, you know, your credibility takes a hit, I think in many ways it weakens the officeholder.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R), CHAIRMAN, HOUSE OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE: Well, if the president has evidence, I wish he could share it with us. I haven't seen evidence of mass voter fraud, and I have not seen evidence of wiretapping by President Obama.


WHITFIELD: All right. So Patrick, you know, this is it a time when Republicans are also, you know, trying to push through their agenda. Is the president hurting that confidence, credibility, not just of himself but the entire party perhaps?

HEALY: The credibility issue is, is real and is significant but it seems like I think what a lot of those Republicans who we just heard from, you know, who Manu talked to, they're trying to send the message to the president more about his Twitter behavior I think than sort of suggesting, well, because of this behavior we're not going to pass your budget or we're going to, you know, have a problem with you on repealing and replacing ObamaCare. The reality is Republicans want to enact an agenda that President Trump has largely signed on to. They want to enact a new health care law. They want this very hard look and hit on discretionary spending, at least, at least some of them do.

They want tax reform. So they're not going to write off the president because of, you know, some of his tweets. But what they want to do is basically send a message that says you're not helping us, you're not helping the party, you're not helping your agenda, and you're not helping your own credibility President Trump when you tweet out these things and don't have any evidence.

WHITFIELD: And then, David, there's the credibility of the United States on the world stage. Might these hearings help repair some damage caused?

ROHDE: They might. I mean, I -- there's a danger it will just devolve into a political divide with Democrats saying there's evidence of collusion and Republicans saying there's not. But back to this point on President Trump, we just, you know, broke investigative story this weekend of the president said in the past he had no business ties with Russia. We looked into, you know, who had bought into his buildings in the United States. We found nearly $100 million in investment from dozens of members of the Russian elite just in his buildings in Florida.

We didn't find any wrongdoing on the president's part. But again, he makes this statement, I have, you know, flow business ties with Russia. His organization wouldn't sort of disclose to us how much money he made personally from these investments. And it's just this problem of sort of overstatement, a lack of disclosure that does undermine his credibility. It wastes political capital as those Republicans said.

WHITFIELD: It will be even a bigger problem if collusion, as we heard Adam Schiff, you know, says -- as we heard him say if it's substantiated in any way, that's even bigger problem. So President Trump, you know, remains pretty defiant on the wiretapping thing and that the president -- the previous President Obama is to blame. This is Trump on Fox just last night.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He's been very nice to me personally but his people haven't been nice. And there's great animosity out there, there's great anger. Leaking is just one example of it. In some cases, a very serious example of it. But leaking and the, the level of anger is hard to believe. So while he's nice personally, there doesn't seem to be a lot of nice things happening behind the scenes.


WHITFIELD: David, is this more personal than it is political?

ROHDE: I think it's political. I mean, these are -- this is a former president and the current president of the United States so -- look, it's political. It's calling into credibility, calling -- you know, questioning the credibility of the people who are leaking these things to the news media.

I, I got a leak, we wrote a story about, you know, President Trump's first phone call with President Putin. There was some details the White House didn't like in our story and they said they were going to do a leak investigation. That source was -- for me, was a sort of, you know, a public servant who was, you know, disturbed by the tenor of that call.

But you know, the White House is going to discredit those, that kind of person as somehow being pro-Obama. In this one case, and I can just speak about this one case, this is a longtime public servant, served Republicans and Democrats. But yes, it's political, it's whose message is going to win out.

WHITFIELD: And Patrick, do you agree? Political or personal?

[15:10:02] HEALY: Oh, I think it's -- I think ultimately it's political. I mean, you have only a couple weeks to go, President Trump saying that President Obama was a bad or sick guy. And now he goes on Fox and he says, well, we get along, you know, pretty well personally, but it's these, you know, sort of unnamed figures behind the scenes who are leaking and trying to discredit me. I mean, you can't go from calling literally your predecessor, former president of the United States, a bad or sick guy and then flip and say, well, no, we get along OK and it doesn't seem political.

WHITFIELD: Yes. But previous, even on inauguration day he talked about how gracious and kind he was. So some thing or some things have changed for sure.

HEALY: Like if it's Saturday, one thing. If it's Monday, another. The question is ,does it really help the president's credibility? A lot of Republicans say no.

WHITFIELD: Patrick Healy, David Rohde, thanks so much gentlemen, appreciate it.

So tonight is CNN's special preview of tomorrow's all important hearing on Capitol Hill. John Berman kicking off our special at 11:00 p.m. Eastern Time right here on CNN.

Also happening this week, the House will vote on the ObamaCare replacement plan. And CNN is learning that three key GOP holdouts of that plan met at Mar-a-Lago with senior White House staff just yesterday. What that may signal for the fate of the bill, next.


[15:15:33] WHITFIELD: A crucial vote on the house GOP's health care bill happens this Thursday. President trump has a lot riding on its passing. The White House team and Republican leaders are working overtime making changes that could woo undecided lawmakers. And CNN has learned that three leading conservatives who have opposed the bill in the past were meeting at Mar-a-Lago on Saturday. Athena Jones is live for us now from West Palm Beach, Florida. So Athena, who was there, and do we know if minds were changed?

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi Fred. Not yet clear on whether those minds were changed but I'll get to yesterday's meeting in one moment. Just the big picture here. Let's play what House Speaker Paul Ryan had to say about all of these this morning on Fox News. He sounded confident that they were going to succeed in getting enough GOP members on board to get this bill passed.

Take a listen.


RYAN: We feel very good where we are. We're still having conversations with our members, we're making fine tuning improvements to the bill to reflect people's concerns, to reflect people's improvements. The president, you say people being at the seat of the table, the president is being -- bringing people to his table. And I'm very impressed with how the president is helping us close this bill, making the improvements that we've been making, getting the votes, and so we feel very good where we are.


JONES: So there you heard Speaker Ryan talked about conversations that Republican leaders on Capitol Hill and White House officials are having with members. That's exactly what went down at Mar-a-Lago yesterday. Three conservatives, Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee and Congressman Mark Meadows who have been pretty vocal in their opposition to this bill, people who have been arguing that it doesn't go far enough in undoing the Affordable Care Act.

Those three came down to Mar-a-Lago and met with the president's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and with Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. We're told that meeting lasted for three hours. And that the, the -- an aide, a senior republican aide familiar with the meeting told my colleague Lauren Fox that the meeting was intense and productive. They said that Steve Bannon was receptive to some of the concerns these conservative members of congress talked about. Priebus -- Reince Priebus was pushing the approach that House Speaker Paul Ryan is advocating. We know that they want more done to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Among the ideas offered during the meeting, the idea of phasing out Medicaid sooner. That is something conservatives want to see.

So far that is not changing although they are making other changes to how states handle Medicaid funds and the program. These, these members of Congress also wanted to see other regulations repealed like the requirement that health plans cover certain essential health benefits and also that provision that 26-year-old children can stay on their parents' plan until the age of 26. They want that undone. That's something the president supports so that seems less likely.

So, the point here is that the White House and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are doing their best to try to allay the concerns of folks in their parties that they can cobble together enough votes to get this bill through the House.

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

So the proposed changes to Medicaid have been a key sticking point of the president's American health care act. Republican critics say states want more flexibility within the program. Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Tom Price defending the plan this morning with Jake Tapper.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, it sounds utopian but I have to say, you criticized the Medicaid program bounce one in three doctors don't take Medicaid patients and then you talk -- but the reason that they don't, according to experts, is because the reimbursement rate is so low. I don't know how you're going to improve Medicaid if you're taking money away from Medicaid. The problem is that doctors are not getting paid enough, and you're saying, OK, but we're going to do better with less money. And I don't know an economist who thinks that's going to work.

DR. TOM PRICE, HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: Every time you, you peel back that onion a little bit, you drill down and look at it specifically, you can see where there are wonderful opportunities for improvement in the system. The Medicaid program actually covers four different groups in our population, seniors, disabled, healthy moms, and kids. And yet what the federal government says to the states is, you must treat those healthy moms and kids. You must have a plan for those healthy moms and kids that's exactly the same as the seniors and the disabled.

[15:20:10] That doesn't make sense to anybody who's looking at this -- not just to health care economists or individuals who are experts on financing and delivery of health care, but the common American ordinary people say, well, that doesn't make any sense if you're caring for moms and kids in the same way you're caring for disabled and the aged. So think about -- imagine a system, if you will that actually responds to the needs of those healthy moms and kids in a much more flexible and responsive manner. You could save huge amounts of money so that you've got greater resources to care for those who are aged and disabled.


WHITFIELD: All right, here now to discuss MIT economics professor Jonathan Gruber. He is one of the key architects of ObamaCare. All right. So, you just heard from, you know, Dr. Price there and he talked about how, you know, it's, it's not cost effective for a healthy mother with children to be paying the same or benefiting in the same manner as a disabled or elderly person. Is he right?

JONATHAN GRUBER, MIT ECONOMICS PROFESSOR: Well, first of all, he's wrong that they're treated the same. The Medicaid program is not one monolithic program. Indeed, the first thing about the Medicaid program is 80 percent of people in Medicaid get their care from private managed care organizations. It's not even a government- delivered plan anymore. And those managed care organizations deliver care very differently to children and mothers and the elderly and disabled.

So he's wrong. Second of all, if there are problems in Medicaid -- and of course there are problems. There are problems -- any program could be improved. There is no evidence, none, that cutting the program by 25 percent which is what this proposal does, would improve the program in any way. As Jake Tapper pointed out, it's a program which already pays physicians and hospitals poorly.

Therefore, if you cut reimbursement, what's going to happen according to nonpartisan CBO is they're going to kick people off the program.

WHITFIELD: Do you think that a revision in ObamaCare should be that perhaps more doctors' offices would, you know, providing more of an incentive so instead of just one out of three Medicaid patients being cared for, that the number would increase?

GRUBER: Well, first of all, it's two -- one-third of doctors don't see Medicaid patients. Let's get the facts right. Two-thirds do.

So it's two out of three doctors who will see it. I think that if you pay doctors more -- in fact I've done research to show that if you pay doctors more, more doctors will see Medicaid patients. I think ideally we would. But it's basically a budget game. You've got to decide how to devote your dollars.

Right now I think Medicaid is working well. Actually, if you ask Medicaid recipients, they have a higher satisfaction with their plan than those with private insurance. Once again, you hear all these horror tales from Price and others about Medicaid's terrible. But, you know what, ask the people, you ask the people and they are more satisfied with Medicaid than people with private insurance. So I think our first priority is not to take that away, but rather to build on it. WHITFIELD: What are the areas that you believe need to be built on? How in your view should this plan, ObamaCare since you were the architect or one of the architects behind it, be improved?

GRUBER: I think the first step is to actually implement ObamaCare. What do I mean by that? ObamaCare featured Medicaid expansions to ensure that every low-income American had access to affordable health care. Twenty states or 19 states have still not enacted those Medicaid expansions. If they do, three good things happen.

First of all, low-income Americans get health insurance. Second of all, states get a massive injection of funds from the federal government, improving their state economies. And third of all, you get a situation where sick people come out of the exchanges into Medicaid, improving the health and exchanges and lowering premiums.

WHITFIELD: But the vice president -- sorry, go ahead.

GRUBER: And the second thing is -- and once again, Republicans have undercut this very law because this law included money to insurers to help them function in this new volatile market. Republicans have not honored those obligations, and that's part of why premiums have gone up as well.

WHITFIELD: Just yesterday the vice president while visiting in Florida, you know, said that the federal funding should not help, you know, support Medicaid, but it really should be up to states to address that. Why do you dispute that?

GRUBER: Well, I dispute that because states can't afford it. Look, the federal government has always helped fund Medicaid --

WHITFIELD: But it sounds like you're saying they can.

GRUBER: Well, they can't. I mean, literally it's just -- this is already the biggest budget item in every single state or most states. Certainly nationally it's the biggest item. It's the fastest growing item.

If you pull the federal support back, states can't fill that in. They literally can't. They -- and that's once again, that's not just me, that's all experts, that's the correctional budget office saying, if you pull that support from states, they will kick people off the program.

OK. This is not a simple, oh, there's some magical efficiencies that Tom Price talks about and obfuscates and says, oh well, there's four different groups. Forget it. The bottom line is, you have a program which is bare bones, which if you cut it, people will lose the program, and there's no other alternative.

WHITFIELD: Professor Jonathan Gruber, thanks so much for your time.

GRUBER: My pleasure.

WHITFIELD: All right, Trump's pick for the U.S. Supreme Court heads to Capitol Hill for his confirmation hearing tomorrow. Up next, the biggest hurdles ahead for Neil Gorsuch.


[15:29:16] WHITFIELD: President Trump's pick for Supreme Court will be on Capitol Hill tomorrow for the start of his confirmation hearing. And Neil Gorsuch could be in for several days of intense questioning. The president tapped the Colorado appellate judge to replace the late Antonin Scalia. And on the eve of the hearing, many Democrats are expressing serious doubts about Gorsuch.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER: I think many of my colleagues are skeptical but waiting for the hearings. I have touched base with a good number of my colleagues after the hearings. I intend to make my views very strongly known to them. Each member will make his or her own decision. But I think there's a great deal of skepticism in the caucus about Judge Gorsuch based on his record.


[15:30:02] WHITFIELD: Let's talk more about this with CNN Supreme Court Reporter Ariane de Vogue. Also with me here in the studio is CNN Legal Analyst and Constitutional Attorney Page Pate.

All right, Ariane, let me begin with you. So what is expected tomorrow?

ARIANE DE VOGUE, CNN SUPREME COURT REPORTER: Well, you know, Fred, these Supreme Court confirmation hearings, they represent the first and really the last chance for Congress to grill a potential nominee. Remember, if Gorsuch is confirmed, he gets life tenure. He's almost untouchable.

So you'll see the Republicans going hard on his paper trail, examining his opinions. They really like opinions on religious liberty and other issues. But Democrats, they're kind of in a tough position. They're still furious that Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland didn't get a hearing.

But they also know here that they're basically replacing a conservative with a conservative. They're returning the court to the status quo before Scalia's death. They may decide to save some firepower in case Trump gets another retirement some time down the road of a more liberal justice.

WHITFIELD: So page, you know, on Gorsuch, Chuck Schumer said there's a lot of skepticism. Is there large concern about whether Gorsuch would be able to, you know, rein in the executive branch, particularly as it pertains to case -- potential upcoming case involving the travel ban? That there may be some favoritism. Is that why there might be skepticism?

PAGE PATE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think they're certainly concerned about the potential for that. But these days, everything is going to be confrontational in the Washington especially with a Supreme Court pick. I think with Neil Gorsuch, you get a judge who is a little bit hostile to the idea of an expansive executive power. He has ruled in other cases that he does not think the courts should have to defer to an agency's interpretation of its own rules. So in that way, you may see him push back against the president.

But, when he was in George W. Bush's Justice Department, he was one of the key legal backers of the enhanced interrogation and the memos that they wrote about the war on terror. So in that way, I could see him as a big proponent of what Trump is trying to do in connection with the Muslim ban.

WHITFIELD: So Senator Ted Cruz, you know, talked about of course which is the upcoming hearing and he seems pretty confident that Republicans can confirm him despite Democrats' skepticism. So, here's what he had to say this morning.


SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: You know, I think it's 50/50 whether the Democrats filibuster it. They don't have any good arguments against Gorsuch but they're furious that we're going to have a conservative nominated and confirmed. I'll tell you this, Judge Gorsuch will be confirmed. He will either get 60 votes and be confirmed, or otherwise whatever procedural steps are necessary, I believe within a month or two, Neil Gorsuch will be an associate justice of the Supreme Court.


WHITFIELD: All right, so Ariane, what is the potential about a potential filibuster even?

DE VOUGE: Well, you know, it -- it's hard to tell and it depends how hard they will go at him in these hearings. You'll know there's a ritual that goes on in these confirmation hearings. The senators try to get him on hot button issues, abortion, gay marriage, immigration. But he's likely to dodge those kinds of questions, to guard his impartiality. But when we see the tenor of the Democrats Monday and really Tuesday, we'll get a sense of how hard they will go at the end of the day and whether they're going to really try their best to block this nominee or save something for a potential next nominee. WHITFIELD: And oftentimes you don't know much about the personal opinions about a Supreme Court justice or even a nominee, Page. And so in the case of Gorsuch, we did get a chance to hear that he was disappointed with Donald Trump's criticism of judges, particularly, you know, as it pertains to issues that Donald Trump has been passionate about. Might that bode well for him, particularly among those who are skeptical of him?

PATE: Oh, I think so. I think that was a critical comment. It really shows you what he thinks as a judge. And almost any judge was going to be upset by what the president said about a so-called judge.

But Neil Gorsuch is a judge's judge in many ways. He's very faithful to the rule of law. And even if you don't agree with him on certain political issues, I think you're going to find that he is probably the best out of the possible picks that we could have gotten for this president, as far as someone who's going to try to weigh both sides and try to decide a case based on the law instead of politics.

WHITFIELD: All right, thanks so much, Page, Ariane. Appreciate it. Hearings start tomorrow.

All right, North Korea is calling last night's successful testing of a new high-thrust rocket engine a great leap forward. So what does this mean for U.S.-North Korea tensions? That is next.


[15:38:50] WHITFIELD: An attack in Afghanistan has left three U.S. soldiers wounded. U.S. officials say they came under fire from an Afghan soldier who was killed by coalition forces. The attack happened near a military base in Helmand province. No word on the condition of the three soldiers.

In Southeast Asia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on his way home after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping this morning. Xi urged more coordination on what he called regional hot spots. It's being called a friendly meeting, but CNN has learned that away from the cameras, the conversation between the two turned very candid.

Hours before the meeting took place, North Korea claimed success in testing a new type of rocket engine. The U.S. has repeatedly called on Beijing to use its leverage to help rein in North Korea. Tillerson said on his trip that the U.S. is prepared to consider military options if provoked by North Korea.

[15:40:00] And in Russia, all eyes will be on tomorrow's congressional testimony in the U.S. where FBI Director James Comey will answer questions over the Trump campaign's possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 election. CNN's Fred Pleitgen is in Moscow. So Fred, what is the mood on the ground there in terms of how closely people will be watching?

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's interesting Fredricka, because we actually asked senior Russian officials just that how concerned were they about the things that could be mentioned or said during those congressional hearings. And they said in the form of the spokesman for Vladimir Putin, that they wouldn't be watching the hearings at all. That they had other things to do and that they believe nothing new would come out of them.

But, of course, they are going to be watching them very, very closely. And we do expect that there will be reactions to some of the things that will be said tomorrow. And you can really feel some of the frustration here in Moscow among the Russian leadership, many of them, of course, hoping that the topic about the possible ties between Donald Trump and the Russians would simply go away. Here's what we found out when we were on the streets of Moscow.


(voice-over) Does President Trump really have any ties to the Russian government? Did Russia really meddle in the U.S. election? Questions that persist in the U.S. but that many Russians wish would just go away.

We got unnerved reactions on the streets of Moscow. No, of course we're not interfering in any elections, this woman says. And this man adds, in Russia, we have an old saying, a bad dancer always has an excuse. The Americans blame Russia for everything. It's not true.

I like Americans, he says. They're normal people, but this is just crazy. If they say all this, it means that Russia is more powerful than the U.S.

Russian mostly state-run media has been lashing out at western coverage of the Trump-Russia relationship, especially at CNN. Vladimir Putin's spokesman lamenting what he calls American hysteria.

DMITRY PESKOV, KRELMIN SPOKESMAN: And the fact that Russia is being demonized in that sense comes very strange to us. And we are really sorry about that.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): All this after both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin expressed mutual admiration during the campaign.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): He is a brilliant and intelligent person without a doubt.

TRUMP: In terms of leadership, he's getting an A.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Russian officials acknowledged they were pleased when Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the U.S. election. But they also expected results, better U.S.-Russian relations and possibly an easing of sanctions slapped on Russia over the Ukraine crisis. Now, that hope is fading, one expert says.

DIMTRI, TRENIN, CARNEGIE MOSCOW CENTER: They were giving him a chance. They still are giving him a chance. But they're becoming more realistic about Trump, about the United States more generally. And I think that basically they're not looking for a major breakthrough.


PLEITGEN: Narrative, Fredricka, about Russia being demonized by the U.S. was some of the things that were being said. You know, that's something that is very broadly used here by Russian politicians and of course, also by that Russian state-owned media. Again, many people here had been hoping that with the Trump administration and office that there would be real progress in U.S.-Russian relations and that progress would have started very, very quickly. But of course, that hasn't materialized yet, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: So Fred, in your conversations with people, largely is there a feeling that these accusations about, you know, Russia's potential involvement really does kind of embolden or even make Putin appear to be more powerful or even popular?

PLEITGEN: Yes, and that's one of the interesting things that we found out when we've been speaking to people is that it certainly hasn't hurt, you know, his popularity or whatsoever here in this country. And many people do believe that he seems a lot stronger than they had even thought before. You know, many of them saying that if the Americans really feel that Russia meddled in their election, that Russia could have maybe changed the outcome of the election in the U.S., that it would make Vladimir Putin appear very, very powerful.

So, it certainly hasn't hurt Vladimir Putin at all. And you can really feel a lot of people rushing to Vladimir Putin's and the government's defense when a lot of these accusations come out, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right. Fred Pleitgen, thanks so much from Moscow. Appreciate it.

All right, tonight, John Berman is live with the special preview of James Comey's testimony on Russia and Trump's wiretapping claims. That's tonight, 11:00 p.m. Eastern Time right here on CNN. And we'll be right back.


[15:48:] WHITFIELD: In tonight's episode of "Believer with Reza Aslan", Aslan ventures to Haiti where he explores the roots of vodou and the rising influence of evangelical churches.


REZA ASLAN, CNN HOST, BELIEVER: How did you reconnect with vodou? How did that happen?

BEATRICE DALEUS, VODOU PRIESTESS, MAMBO: They got connected to me, I guess.

ASLAN: (Inaudible) has found you?

DALEUS: Yes. And for me it was really a defining moment because I wanted to come back to Haiti.

ASLAN: I feel like Catholicism in Haiti has come to terms with vodou in a way that Protestant Christianity has not

DALEUS: We're still the devil to them.

ASLAN: You're still the devil for them.


ASLAN: You're still the devil for them. Yes. But Haitians are believing it and adapting that message.

DALEUS: True, because it's drilled into their skull. They're giving them food for faith. But I do believe that we need to be respected because I don't go and attack their religion. Just respect the fact that I worship my ancestors.

There were free people in Africa minding their business, invaders came and took everything from them. The only thing that they brought with them was vodou. And I believe that their lives and the sacrifice of their lives was not done in vain.


[15:50:06] WHITFIELD: Reza Aslan joining me live now from Los Angeles. Good to see you. Oh, this is so fascinating, all of these pieces are. So, what was the most eye-opening experience for you in Haiti as it pertains to vodou?

ASLAN: Well, I got to be honest. I went to Haiti with the same preconceptions that so many people have about vodou, you know, what you see on movies about, you know, demon worship and zombies and witchcraft and things like that. And what I found was a deeply beautiful religious tradition that has deep roots, not just in the Afro-Cuban -- Afro-Caribbean tradition, but especially in Haiti. I mean, vodou is how Haiti became free, it's how it broke off the shackles of slavery against the French. And so, it's part of the very -- the core identity of what it means to be Haitian. And as you saw on that clip, it's under attack right now.

WHITFIELD: So, those misconceptions, I can guess, you know, a lot of people would think about, you know, vodou dolls and think about the manipulation of someone's soul, you know, invading their body, that kind of thing, how about all those? What did you discover?

ASLAN: Here's the best way to think about vodou. Vodou believes that there really isn't a separation between the material and the spiritual world, right. That, that the spirits live among us, that they are part of us. And that if you are open to it, they will come and take over your body. They will give you an opportunity to sort of connect with the world beyond ours. All you have to do is ask.

That's called mounting, and it's sort of the goal of a vodou ceremony. And I got an opportunity to experience what that is like --

WHITFIELD: What do you mean?

ASLAN: -- up close and personal. We had a very long -- I mean, we had a very long -- we -- I took part in the 10-hour vodou ceremony which was just one of the most incredible spiritual experiences of my life. And during that ceremony, various people around me were mounted by these spirits. And I could see the way that everything about them changed, not just their facial expressions but their personality, the very energy that they exuded change.

And I got to be honest with you, Fredricka, like being near that, being close to it, it was an extraordinary experience. I could feel the power that was just emanating from that temple, from that ceremony. It was unlike anything I've ever experienced.

WHITFIELD: So, you witnessed it. Was there ever a moment during all of that where you were even doubting it or you had a hard time believing that it was true or did you embrace it all the way because of the subjects that you talked about were being mounted? ASLAN: Well look, I take faith very seriously. I go into these very open. It's sort of the deal that I make with these communities. Let me in and I will be a part of it.

But, you know, I'll be honest with you, I'm watching these things around happen around me and I don't know how to respond. But then when I see a mounted priest come up to me and start to feed me the blood of a sacrificed animal, start to speak to me in this kind of spiritual language that I don't understand, start to actually put his hands on me and try to get me to feel what he feels, there is a part of me in the middle of that experience that is just taken over by it, carried away by it. It's a-- and it really pops off the screen. I got to say this, we did lot of amazing episodes, this one is my favorite.

WHITFIELD: Oh wow. I can't wait to see all of it. OK. So, vodou is one thing, you also talked about the role of evangelicals in Haiti, you know, since that earthquake in 2010. And what was revealing about that to you?

ASLAN: Well look, the vast majority of evangelical missionaries in Haiti are doing great work feeding the poor and the hungry and rebuilding the schools and the churches and all that stuff. But there is a core group of evangelical missionaries there who were there to essentially rid the island of vodou. They believe that all of Haiti's problems, its social and economic problems, are a result of this what they would refer to as a pact with the devil, that Haitians have made as a result of vodou.

And so, there is a concerted effort to really strip the island of vodou all together. And what we see are these group of vodouists who are doing everything in their power to make sure that this heritage stays, that it doesn't disappear, that it's taught to their children. It's in many ways a losing battle because, you know, they've got the faith, but they don't have the money that these evangelical missionaries have.

WHITFIELD: Wow, this is powerful stuff. Can't wait to see all of it. Reza Aslan, thank you so much. Good to see you.

ASLAN: Take care.

WHITFIELD: So in tonight's new episode of "Believer", Reza is in Haiti as we just saw to explore the often misunderstood religion of vodou. And also, he taps into the evangelical influence in Haiti as well. Watch Believer tonight 10:00 Eastern right here on CNN.

There's so much straight ahead in the Newsroom right after this.


[15:59:25] WHITFIELD: Hello again everyone, thanks so much for joining me. I'm, Fredricka Whitfield.

All right, President Trump gears up for what could be one of the most consequential weeks of his presidency. It all starts tomorrow on Capitol Hill when FBI Chief James Comey testifies before Congress. The focus, the Trump campaign's possible ties with Russia during the election. And the president's unfounded claims that he was wiretapped by President Obama.

This morning, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are distancing themselves from the president saying, there is just no evidence.


NUNES: Was there a physical wiretap of Trump Tower, no. But there -- there never was.

SCHIFF: No evidence to support the president's claim that we wiretapped by his predecessor.

RYAN: We have not seen evidence of an even like that you just described.

TAPPER: Do you know of any evidence to support that allegation?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jake, not that I've seen and not that I'm aware of.