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Trump's Wiretapping Claims, Russian Contacts Set to Hit Dramatic Climax. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired March 20, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: -- now a dramatic moment in the wild saga over President Trump's accusations that his predecessor, the former President Barack Obama, wiretapped him inside Trump Tower in New York City.

The head of the FBI is expected to publicly rebuke the President's claims, a truly historic moment. James Comey testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, not only on the wiretapping claims but also the investigations into the extent of Russia's interference in the U.S. presidential election.

The head of the National Security Agency will also testify. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle demanding answers into the Trump campaign's possible ties to Russia.

The burning questions this morning, will Comey publicly admit whether there is an investigation? Are there any smoking guns or evidence of collusion? And how will Comey respond to the President's wiretapping allegations?

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Also this morning, President Trump's Supreme Court nominee facing his highly anticipated confirmation hearing. At least one Democratic senator is not ruling out staging a filibuster of Judge Neil Gorsuch.

We'll have more on that in a moment, but, first, the testimony from FBI Director Comey and what we know going into it. Let's bring in CNN's Senior Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju who's live for us on Capitol Hill.

Manu, what are we anticipating this morning?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, Jake, we're anticipating a pretty contentious hearing. And I'm here with Congressman Eric Swalwell, a Democratic congressman who sits on the committee.

Mr. Swalwell, what is the most important thing you want to hear from James Comey today?

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D), CALIFORNIA: I think it's important for the American people to understand the evidence behind the interference campaign that Russia ran. Also to know if any U.S. persons were involved in that campaign, if he can say. We need to debunk the wiretapping claim, which was nothing more than a smoke bomb that the President rolled into this investigation. But it's important to clear that up and get back to this investigation.

But this is the first inning of what will be a long investigation. And I hope that the American people walk away understanding Russia is not our friend. They attacked us. We need to know whether U.S. persons were involved because right now, there are a lot of dots that are connecting on Donald Trump's team with the Russians and their government.

RAJU: Now, at CNN and other news outlets, we've reported that the FBI is conducting this investigation into Russia, looking into the alleged contacts with Trump officials, Russian officials. Do you think it's important for Comey to publicly confirm that there is an FBI investigation?

SWALWELL: If there is an active investigation, we don't want him to compromise that investigation. We just want a pledge that he will follow the evidence, pursue all leads. And we actually believe that that's what the FBI traditionally does, and we don't have any reason to believe they won't do that now. So if there's an active investigation, we may not learn more about that today.

RAJU: Yesterday, Devin Nunes, the chairman of the committee, said there's no evidence yet of any contacts, collusion between Trump officials, Russian officials. Do you agree with that assessment?

SWALWELL: I don't agree. It's also very early in the investigation, but we do know that Carter Page, who was the senior foreign policy adviser for the Trump team, with permission of the Trump team, went over to Moscow a month after it was revealed that Russia was attacking us.

We know Roger Stone was in contact with Guccifer 2.0 who were releasing the Russian hacked e-mails of John Podesta's e-mail. And that is pretty out there, and he's admitted to doing that. So that, to me, is working with the Russians as they're attacking us.

RAJU: Do you want to hear from Stone, Carter Page, Manafort, before the committee?

SWALWELL: Yes. I'd like to hear from Stone, Manafort, Page, Michael Flynn, Donald Trump's personal security team who traveled over to Russia when the President went there in 2013 as well.

RAJU: Do you think that the committee will call those people forward?

SWALWELL: I hope we do. And I also think no investigation would be complete unless we're able to look at the President's tax returns.

RAJU: And one other thing, the issue of wiretapping. Over the weekend, Devin Nunes and Adam Schiff both said that those documents that the Justice Department sent to the committee do not confirm what the President has been saying, that he had been wiretapped under the orders of President Obama. But I'm wondering, do those documents at all suggest any incidental collection of Donald Trump's communications, at all? SWALWELL: I hope that's cleared up more today, but what we know about

the President's claim is that it was deceitful. It was intended to really, you know, obstruct this investigation. And juries are instructed every day in America's courtrooms that if a witness in an investigation lies about any material fact in an investigation, you should consider not believing anything they say. And I think Donald Trump's credibility has been devastated by this claim, which has been debunked.

RAJU: Do you know if there has been any incidental collection, if there's any evidence to suggest that?

SWALWELL: We're hoping to learn more about that today.

RAJU: OK. All right. Congressman Swalwell, I know you have a very busy day. Jake and Wolf, back to you.

TAPPER: Thanks, Manu Raju. Appreciate it.

BLITZER: The President has already made his feelings about the FBI hearing known. This morning, he sent out a series of tweets, repeating claims he's made in the past, calling any allegation of collusion with Russia, in his words, fake news, accusing Democrats of making up the story as an excuse for losing the election and saying the real story is the leak of classified information. Let's go to our White House Correspondent Sara Murray.

Sara, exactly two months after he took the oath of office, Donald Trump is looking at what could be the most significant week, potentially, of his presidency.

[09:04:59] SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: That's right, Wolf. And what is very clear is this President could use a win.

If you look at his approval rating -- Gallup does a daily tracking poll -- it has hit a low for this presidency. Donald Trump now has a 37 percent approval rating. He is clearly looking to turn that around.

He is clearly looking to notch some victories, and he has a very busy day ahead of him to try to move toward that goal. So he's beginning today with a meeting with Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, also someone who has been very critical of the President's plans to cut foreign aid.

Now, after that, he is transitioning over to health care. We know this is his big, legislative agenda item. We know the House is expected to vote on the bill later this week, so he's going to be meeting today with House speaker Paul Ryan, as well as Health and Human Services Secretary Price, as well as Dr. Zeke Emanuel, to continue to go over some of the details of this, to figure out how they can get the support they need to move this, at least, through the House before it gets to the Senate.

After that, he will be welcoming the Iraqi Prime Minister here for a bilateral meeting. All of these before he heads out of the White House, out of Washington, out of the bubble, later today, and go to Louisville, Kentucky. We're expecting him to talk about health care there.

But I think the thing to watch, Wolf, is really just how hard he sells this new plan. Again, they're getting closer to this vote. They still need to pick up a number of supporters, so we'll see how he makes the pitch this evening. Back to you, guys.

BLITZER: All right. Sara, thanks very much. Sara Murray over at the White House.

You know, Jake, we're going to get a bunch of answers today, but we're not going to get all of the answers that these members of the House Intelligence Committee want.

TAPPER: That's right. Democrats are going to be focused on what evidence is there, if any, to back up the charge that President Trump made, about whether or not he was wiretapped by President Obama.

So far, every intelligence expert, including the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, and the Republican Speaker of the House, and the FBI Director speaking through aides, and the former Director of National Intelligence, has said there's no evidence of what President Trump claimed.

Republicans, on the other hand, are going to be focusing on, well, is there any evidence, so far, of actual collusion between the Trump team and any Russians of relevance? And the Director of National Intelligence said that he hadn't see -- the former one, that he hadn't seen any evidence of that.

The former CIA Director, Mike Morell, who had endorsed Hillary Clinton, also said that there's a lot of smoke but no fire, not even one iota of a fire. So you're going to see different sides emphasizing the lack of evidence of charges made by the other side.

BLITZER: And the President tweeted this morning, the real story that Congress, the FBI, and all others should be looking into is the leaking of classified information, "Must find leaker now."

Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who's going to be opening up this committee hearing fairly soon, that's what he says. Someone or a bunch of people violated the law in leaking classified information.

TAPPER: This is a point where it might be difficult if you're on one side or the other. But in Washington, D.C., one can actually hold two fairly conflicting ideas in one's head at the same time, which is we should get to the bottom of what happened with Russia and also these leaks are a problem.

It's the same thing with Trump tax returns. Perhaps President Trump should release his tax returns to get all the evidence out there or lack thereof, but also the leaking of his tax returns, also very problematic. But, again, in this town where everything is so delineated down the

middle, you're on one side or the other, sometimes it's difficult for people to hold those two thoughts at the same time.

BLITZER: And I don't think we can overstate the enormous amount of pressure that James Comey is under during this open public hearing today, the FBI Director.

TAPPER: Yes. Although, I have to say, just as we've watched Director Comey over the last few years, I don't know that it's pressure that he doesn't welcome. He seems to like being the center, especially when he is able to demonstrate before the crowd his integrity. This is something that he seems to be fairly fond of, his reputation and his own integrity.

This is one of the reasons why the Clinton people, that we'll hear from in a few minutes, I'm sure, are so against him for what he did during the campaign. That here is an opportunity where he likes to be the only straight shooter in town, the only one whose integrity is unimpeachable. So, yes, a lot of pressure but I think he kind of likes it.

BLITZER: The other witness, Admiral Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, the super sensitive spying operation, eavesdropping, electronic intelligence, he was being considered for a different position, Director of National Intelligence, in the Trump administration. He's going to be under a lot of pressure today as well.

TAPPER: Although we did see, over the weekend, that an official from the National Security Agency told, I believe, the BBC, that the charge -- again, this is a different conspiracy theory that we've heard, this one from the White House, referring to Judge Napolitano on Fox News, the idea that the British spies actually were the ones who tapped President Trump, then candidate Trump's phones. The National Security Agency, an official there, referring to that as errant nonsense.

Actually, there's so many conspiracy theories around here and stuff that we need a special chart for each one of them. That is the latest conspiracy theory, this one that the British actually spied. Also, zero evidence to back it up. Everyone who knows anything saying completely untrue.

BLITZER: Yes. The claim was repeated, if you will, by the White House Press Secretary and later by the President himself.

[09:10:02] TAPPER: Yes.

BLITZER: Let's discuss with our panel. Our Senior International Correspondent Clarissa Ward, she's here in Washington with us; our Chief National Correspondent John King; our Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash.

Also with us, our Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger; our Justice Correspondents Evan Perez and Pamela Brown; and our CNN National Security Analyst and retired CIA Chief of Russia Operations Steve Hall.

Steve, I'm curious, what are you going to be looking for?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: You know, Wolf, there's so chop up in the air. I mean, some of the stuff that Jake was just going over in terms of all the stuff that people are talking about, you know, what's going on at the GCHQ? What about these --

BLITZER: Which is the British intelligence.

HALL: The British NSA equivalent. All this stuff that's up in the air is just amazing and in my view, a complete distraction, away from what is the most critical piece of all of these, which is, was there contact, cooperation, or collaboration between the Russian government and the Trump team, the Trump campaign, prior to the election?

For me, that's the central question in all of these because, in my view, what Russia is really about is trying to undermine western democracies and, of course, the United States is the jewel in the crown for them. So I think that's what I'm really looking at.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: But I don't think we're going to get an answer to that question today from Comey, do you? I really don't think so. I think the most we may get out of him is this answer to the direct question about whether Trump Tower was wiretapped or not.

And I think that's kind of an easy answer for him to do because he doesn't have to discuss classified information if he's answering in the negative here, which is we did not do that. And that was something that we know from reporting, that he wanted the Justice Department to announce and they didn't announce it. But you guys would know better than I.


BORGER: Are we going to get an answer to that?

PEREZ: What I think is going to happen is, you know, this idea of the collusion, which is the big question that hangs in the air. I think, for Comey, in particular, there's a lot the FBI still does not know.

This is an investigation that is being handled by the counterintelligence section. It's still in its early beginnings. And so, you know, even if he's able to answer that question right now, some of that information may change.


PEREZ: His agents might be able to find additional information which changes the answer.

BROWN: Exactly. I spoke to someone recently who was involved in the investigation who said, look, we're dealing with shades of gray in this investigation. It's not black and white. We don't have, at this point, any smoking gun. And so I would be shocked if Director Comey comes out and speaks to

anything in regards to the contacts or the meaning behind these contacts between Trump associates during the campaign and the Russians, given the state of the investigation and given the fact that, historically, the FBI Director does not come out and talk about investigations while they're ongoing. And the Director, as said, when it came to the Clinton e-mail server investigation, he only spoke about that once it was a closed investigation.

So to Gloria's point, he has been wanting to come out and knock down this allegation by President Trump that his phone was wiretapped. But beyond that, whether there was incidental collection on anyone or whether there was surveillance on any Trump associates, I would be very surprised if he gives a direct answer.

TAPPER: But let me ask you a question because what you reported, you and Evan, was that what Director Comey wanted was for the Department of Justice to go out and knock it down, and they did not. Why did they not? Was it because Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, had recused himself or what --

PEREZ: Well, I think it's a combination of things. I think, part of the problem with the Justice Department right now, and I think across the Trump administration, is that you have a lack of political appointees who are in positions to be able to engage on some of this. We don't have a Deputy Attorney general, who would be the one that would be leading this investigation. Jeff Sessions has recused.

Right now, Comey is kind of the only guy who can go up there to Capitol Hill and do this testimony, which he really, frankly, would rather not do, involving an ongoing investigation.

BROWN: Right.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You used an important word, distraction. And that was -- there's no question -- was the intent that the President had behind his 6:30 a.m. tweet a couple of Saturdays ago, making the accusation against his predecessor of this wiretapping of Trump Tower.

Distraction from what you guys are talking about, the heart of the investigation, which is, was there any collusion or even something short of collusion between anybody in Russia and anybody involved in Trump world during the campaign regarding the election? But what the President has done with this distraction is created a series of international incidents.

And so that is why what started out as an investigation and an invitation to the FBI Director and the NSA Director to come and testify and, perhaps, to try to get things out of him in a way that would be difficult has now turned into an unbelievable, show stopping event, where you're going to have the FBI Director forced to and really, frankly, as you guys have been reporting, eager to say that the President of the United States was wrong.

[09:15:01] And so, yes, the President was successful in the distraction, but clearly, this distraction has taken on a life of its own that's really caused problems.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And consider the moment, you're 60 days into a new administration. In a few days, you're supposed to vote on the signature health care bill. We would be talking about the beginning of the Supreme Court hearings today. We will talk about that, but it's not the dominant story in Washington.

And you have a president who has been under water from the beginning, but has a historically low 37 percent approval rating in the Gallup poll. That the Republicans allow this public hearing to go forward knowing that they assume the FBI director is going to say the president was winging it.

There's no evidence of this. How embarrassing is that to the president of the United States, having his own FBI director saying no, there's no evidence. The Justice Department did send a letter to the committee. They haven't said anything publicly.

But we're told that letter to the committee says we've checked all the documents. There's no record, A, of the president doing an illegal wiretap. President Obama can't do that himself. There's no evidence of that and there's no evidence they went to the FISA courts, the intelligence courts and got a legal warrant.

So how embarrassing is this for the president that the Republican leadership let this go forward, is their way of trying to send the president a message. Saying, Mr. President, we've repeatedly asked you not to do these things.

Mr. President, we've repeatedly in political conversations whether it's the speaker, Leader McConnell, please, stop doing this. We have an important agenda. Let's go forward. The Republican leadership, even though they've been polite in their public words about the president, is trying to send him a message.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Only one person in the president's inner circle can tell him stop that and that's Jared Kushner, his son-in- law. The other people around him either like it or are too afraid to say anything. I want to ask you, Clarissa. You've been in Moscow the few months, years.


TAPPER: Forever. How is the story being taken in there?

WARD: Well, it's amazing because officially, it's an affront. It's how dare they accuse us of this? This is absurd, ridiculous. But then unofficially, they are absolutely enjoying this. They're watching this play out. The fact that we're having this panel, having this discussion, the fact that Russia has become, once again, a household word and everybody is talking about it.

It gives them this unique ability to simultaneously -- and we've seen President Putin do this over and over again, to deny something while at the exact same time seemingly bragging about it, and it really is extraordinary. We saw it before with the poisoning of Alexander (inaudible) where Andrei (inaudible), who accused of poisoning him with radioactive polonium. Of course, I didn't do it. That's outrageous. But then he was celebrated as a hero in Russia. He became a lawmaker, made a ton of money. He was on TV all the time.

We saw it in Crimea with the little green men when they suddenly appeared and President Putin saying I have no idea who these guys are, with a big grin on his face at the same time. I think you're seeing that again in this situation. Of course, we have nothing to do with this.

We have absolutely no interest in getting involved in your election. But at the same time, boy, are we relishing this moment. The idea that we would have this power, that we would have this influence, and that we have had this incredibly destabilizing effect on the democratic process.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Applauded by sort of Russian people?

WARD: The real snag for Russia here is that they would really like to see those sanctions lifted and they're very politically savvy and do understand that this entire sort of brouhaha that has evolved around Russia makes it now impossible for President Trump to really steam ahead and ultimately lift those sanctions.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It's not just Russia, now Britain has been thrust into the middle of all this. You're based in London. You spent a lot of time in Moscow. You just come from London. How angry is British intelligence right now that all of a sudden they have been accused of wiretapping Trump Tower?

WARD: It's not just Britain. Europe is pulling its collective hair out right now, OK, because Russia is more aggressive than ever before, is interfering internationally more than ever before. Europe is desperately looking across the Atlantic at the linchpin of the global liberal world order and is finding don't really want to talk about this right now.

Don't really have a lot invested in the future of NATO right now. Don't really see America any longer as playing that role on the world stage as global leader, favoring a much more isolationist approach. So I think everyone in Europe is kind of used to hearing this, you spied, you did this.

And no one takes the daily tweets that seriously, but what they do take very seriously is the idea that America potentially no longer has Europe's back.

BASH: And I think that you hit on something that kind of brings this all together, which is why is President Trump so nice to Russia? Why is he so kind to President Putin when he goes after everybody else on the planet even and especially as we've seen over the past week, his allies, America's longstanding allies? So that sort of brings in and that is one of the underlying fundamental question that is driving the investigation into what happened.

[09:20:07]Is there any connection, never mind the discussion about the election and Russia's involvement in the election but even before that, is there a connection between President Trump and his businesses in Russia, and why is he so nice?

And I think that what you're talking about kind of the frustration on the global stage, particularly in Europe, it's all connected.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: What's interesting is that I think Europeans want the answer that we are trying to get to the bottom of here. All of them want the answer. But they're also mindful, Clarissa, you know this, obviously, that they have elections coming up.

You got Germany, just had the election in Netherlands. You have France, Czechs having an election later this year and next year. And so all of them are watching what's happened here because they are all trying to figure out how to prevent the same thing from happening there. They also want to know what happened here for those very reasons.

TAPPER: A few weeks ago, President Putin had a press conference and he came out and he did something very unusual, he defended President Trump while also repeating the uncorroborated charges from that dossier by the former British intelligence agent.

He started repeating them, the most salacious ones and ones that we have not reported on. I was there and we were watching with Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA, and he said that this is Putin toying with President Trump because it wasn't a defense.

He was putting out all the allegations, the most salacious ones, while at same time pretending that he was defending President Trump. What did you make of that?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: You have to remember -- this can be overstated a bit. Vladimir Putin is a former intelligence officer and I think that he looks at guys like President Trump and says, this is somebody that I understand. This is somebody whose motivations and vulnerabilities I can probably exploit as a human being.

This is what I was trained to do. This is what I understand and so I believe that he looks at somebody like Trump and says how is it that I can get this individual to where I need them to be and to further Russian interests on this?

I think he sees a unique opportunity with this particular president because he's so different from other presidents. He comes from a very different background and is unused to politics to a certain extent. So I think Vladimir Putin sees some real opportunities to, in effect, manipulate or attempt to manipulate the president of the United States to get what he wants.

And to your point earlier with regard to all these other countries that are also looking at upcoming elections, if you look at what Putin has accomplished in the United States -- in other words, running a multi-pronged information and influence operation.

The goal of which was to hopefully increase the likelihood that Trump would become president, he is looking to do exactly the same thing in France with Marie Le Pen, the exact same thing in the Czech Republic, wherever he can to try to again attempt to divide the west, which he sees as a fundamental blockade against Russia. So he's clever enough.

BLITZER: Yes, everybody stand by. There's a lot more coming up and there's another major event we're following later this morning as well, the president -- the fate of the president's Supreme Court nominee. You'll hear what the Democrats are vowing to do as Neil Gorsuch steps into the confirmation hearing. Our special coverage continues right after this.



BLITZER: We're standing by, looking at live pictures of the House Intelligence Committee. They're about to have an open public hearing of the director of the FBI, the director of the National Security Agency will be testifying on all the allegations out there, involving Russia, the Trump administration, all of that. We're expecting live -- we have live coverage coming up. Stand by.

Also in a couple of hours, Judge Neil Gorsuch will be in the hot seat on Capitol Hill, confirmation hearing for the president's Supreme Court nominee is set to begin. Gorsuch will testify in front of senators who are looking to pin down his philosophy on a whole host of issues.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is joining us from just outside the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room. Sunlen, set the scene for us.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Today is such an important day, Wolf, for Neil Gorsuch, Trump's nominee for Supreme Court justice. We are outside the Senate Judiciary Committee where in just a few hours his confirmation hearing will start likely just day one of a four-day process.

But the key thing to watch out for today, Democrats on the committee. In their opening statements, expect them to give a preview of what line of attack, what line of questioning they will bring to this confirmation process and a lot of them have already signaled that they do intend to turn this into something of a referendum on President Trump.

Not only talk about Gorsuch's judicial philosophies, constitutional philosophies, but get into some of the more controversial aspects of President Trump, his so-called travel ban. He's likely to discuss Gorsuch's willingness to stand up to President Trump.

So all those things likely to be hit by Democrats. We've heard from Senator Blumenthal. He's been very outspoken on all of this. He has pledged to use every tool at his disposal, including the filibuster if his answers aren't satisfactory to block his nomination. Here is what he said earlier today on "NEW DAY."


SENATOR RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (R), CONNECTICUT: I want him to be more explicit and forthcoming on that issue, judicial independence and also on some of the other areas, worker safety, privacy rights, Roe v. Wade. Let's remember that the Supreme Court is more than just marble pillars and judicial robes. It is the flesh and embodiment of American justice.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: I mean, what other tools are you prepared to use? Because if they can't get eight Democratic votes to get to the 60 count it's likely that the nuclear option will be invoked. So what are other tools you are talking about?

BLUMENTHAL: The main tool is in fact that 60-vote threshold and the filibuster.


SERFATY: Now that's just a preview there of a potential larger fight to come if and when Gorsuch gets out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. This moves to a full vote in the Senate.