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Report: Comey Confirms FBI Looking into Trump-Russia Links; WH Refuses to Back Off Wiretap Claims. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired March 20, 2017 - 15:30   ET


[15:30:00] EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Even though it has been going on since last July, this is a counter-intelligence investigation and they notoriously go on for months, sometimes years. There is no time line yet of how long this will go on. And so, they cannot answer that question right now, Wolf, because if it changes then he's going to be facing the same problem he had back last year which is where he promised at the end of the investigation to update members of Congress and right now he has a certain amount of information but he doesn't know yet what the FBI will uncover as far as this investigation is concerned.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Can I say something about last July? I want to ask Brian Fallon about it because you were in the middle of it with the Clinton campaign. At the time of comedy's letter in October about the Clinton e-mails, the FBI had been investigated Donald Trump's associates for three months. And you guys were the ones complaining about the cloud. And we didn't know about this.

BRIAN FALLON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. And so, I take Congressman Nunez's point that this has created a cloud over the Trump White House right now. It will probably impair their ability to advance their legislative agenda. I think you wouldn't have written it up worse for the Trump white house today in terms of the worse of all worlds testimony. And so, while I understand the situation and I think it's an unfair predicament, I have no simple thee for the Trump white house because in our case director Comey actually, the FBI went out in February of 2016 and confirmed the fact that the e-mail investigation at the heart of the campaign. We have no cloud over us for almost a year. At the same time, we have now learned as of today, there was an investigation launched in July. We can only assume it expanded to include these allegations of possible collusion. Some point shortly thereafter. And at that point the FBI director breathed not a word about that prior to November 8th. There were two candidates facing FBI public scrutiny. The public only knew about one. I didn't hear follow up questions, I think a question would have been appropriate about why he chose to only speak about one investigation and not the other.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Rick Santorum, let me get your reaction.

RICK SANTORUM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: The thing I keep coming back to is this is a huge cloud. I agree with that. What is the end point? What were the Russians trying to accomplish? What is the point of this investigation? The Russians were trying to influence the election. We found out conclusively they didn't influence the vote count. They tried to hack into databases with voter files, were unsuccessful. They tried to get into the RNC and the DNC. Didn't get into the RNC but got into the DNC and released the e-mails. What are they trying to find? What's the point here?

JEFFERY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I think there is a specific answer to your question.


TOOBIN: It is a crime to aid and abet hacking. If there was collusion. If there was involvement on the part of the Trump administration in the Wikipedia hacks -- that is a crime.

SANTORUM: OK. That's great. But listen to who they are talking about. Who are the people involved in the Trump campaign that were quote potentially colluding? None of them have experience this this area, none of them are hackers, none of them are folks who have understandings of how this works. What's the collusion?

PEREZ: Senator, it's bigger than the hacking. This is about a disinformation campaign. This is about a program that the Russians have which they have used, you know, in countries around the world before.


PEREZ: And that's what the FBI is focused on. Because they want to know what happened. And for us to understand how it happened and to prevent it from happening again.

SANTORUM: What evidence do they have that any of the people that we are talking about had any role to play?

PEREZ: We don't know. I agree. In the end this is going to be a political issue.

SANTORUM: We don't have evidence that it occurred. And you don't have any evidence that there was some beneficial -- something that benefitted the Trump campaign.

[15:35:00] FALLON: They have some significant extenuating circumstances Adam Schiff did a good job of laying it out today. Number one, a pattern of the Trump campaign and President Trump taking a series of pro-Russian positions that are completely out of line with party orthodoxy on the Republican side of aisle.

SANTORUM: He's completely out of line with a lot of party orthodoxy when it comes to foreign policy, Russia is just one of them.

FALLON: A series of misstatements. When it comes to admitting or describing the nature of these meetings that Trump associates have taken with Russians officials.

SANTORUM: Cover up worse than the crime? Is that it? FALLON: It begs the question if the nature of the conversations were

benign, why were they dissembling and lying about it in the case of Michael Flynn?

TOOBIN: Something to keep in mind also is ask members of the Clinton administration what it's like to be under criminal investigation for months if not years. Ask members of the Bush administration. Ask Nixon veterans what it's liking to investigated for Watergate. This takes a toll on an administration. We now know that an investigation is underway. Maybe, like Iran -- like the Monica Lewinsky investigation it will not lead to any criminal charges although that of course led to impeachment. These things take on lives of their own and they are difficult to deal with.

BLITZER: I want to be precise. You use to work with the U.S. attorney's office. When the director of the FBI says this, as with any counter-intelligence investigation he says that's been going on since July, which will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed?

TOOBIN: This is an even more complicated investigation because of what he said, because the way the FBI is organized traditionally as a national security investigation group and criminal investigators. They usually don't work together. Since 9/11, they have made efforts to share information more. But it is extremely complicated to deal with those two sides of the FBI together and it takes a longer time.

BLITZER: Hold on for a moment. I want to bring in CNN national security analyst Steve Hall. He is a retired CIA chief of Russia operations. What's your major takeaway, Steve, from what we just heard over these past many hours?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Wonderful, the thing that really struck -- stuck with me and struck me as well was I had gone into this perhaps with somewhat of an innocent hope that we could be bipartisan about this and that the intelligence oversight committees which I have dealt with during my career at CIA could actually all come together. Perhaps that was naive on my part. I saw so much partisan ship, so much chapping thrown up I don't think there is any way forward on this with regard to getting to the bottom of the critical questions people have been raising without some sort of independent commission. Schiff himself indicated this was the case. That was a big deal for me.

BLITZER: The main point I think they were making ABOUT what Russia's motivation was, first their motivation, they said, was to try to undermine democracy here in the United States, embarrass the United States. Their second motivation was to hurt Hillary Clinton as much as possible because they hated Hillary Clinton. The third motivation may have been to actually try to help Donald Trump get elected President. Although even the Russians, according to Comey and the admiral suggested they really believed the polls that it was unlikely he was going to be elected. But if she was going to be elected, they wanted her to come into office as weak as possible. Steve, is that your assessment as well? HALL: I actually think that it's not a great analytical leap from an

intelligence perspective or much of a partisan statement to say that the Russians would have of course favored Donald Trump. Why? You look at candidate Trump's position vis-a-vis Russia. Whether NATO, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, all these issues that candidate Trump held out were much more beneficial to Russia than his opponent's. There was also of course apparently personal animus between Vladimir Putin and Hillary Clinton dating back to her time as secretary of state. But it's not that much of a leap to say, yeah, it would have been simply better for Putin had Trump been elected.

BLITZER: But they didn't really believe he could be. They believed the polls as well, right?

HALL: Well, I think -- I think what we saw during the testimony here, it sort of went back and forth. There were times when they thought perhaps like many there is no way that this candidate can be elected. But at the end of the day saw an opportunity. But I also think that director Comey made interesting points about look you can be against one candidate and supportive of another candidate at the same time. And if one of those falls away you can still be against one of them. It's not an either-or type of thing. There is no doubt that candidate Trump's positions were more favorable to Russia and therefore the end result for them would have been better had he been elected and he was.

[15:40:00] BLITZER: The FBI director says there is a criminal investigation underway right now. Actually, it's been underway since July, that represents a significant development. And as the chairman of the committee pointed out a cloud is now hanging over this new white house?

HALL: I really -- I sort of feel for the FBI for their counter- intelligence unit and investigation that's doing this because of course the political impetus was indicated there at the end by Nunes was can wrap this up, can you get rid of the cloud that's over the -- but the problem is counter-intelligence did and the criminal part of that investigations are extremely complicated. It's going to take time. Director Comey said I can't tell you when. It's because of the complexities and the intelligence gathering and the using of them in fact and prosecutions.

BLITZER: Everybody stand by, I want to bring in Congresswoman Jackie Speier, she's a Democrat from California, a member of the house intelligence committee, thanks for joining us. We heard Director Comey say there is no evidence that he knows of to suggest that President Trump was wiretapped by President Obama. Does -- I assume you believe that that issue is resolved now, that President Trump owes an apology to the former President?

REP. JACKIE SPEIER, D-CALIFORNIA: Absolutely, Wolf. It was never in my mind worthy of the kind of time and energy that has been placed in the discussion about it. It was a reckless statement. It was false. The President owes President Obama an apology. I hope it's swift in coming forward. I have never seen this president apologize for anything. It's going to be interesting to see if he does. BLITZER: We heard the ranking Democrat, Adam Schiff, cite

circumstantial evidence as far as potential cooperation, collusion, between Trump associates and Russians. Do you have any hard evidence?

SPEIER: Well first of all, you know, the chair and the ranking member are privy to more information than the other members of the committee. So, he may be looking at information that I don't have access to. Certainly, we can connect the dots. You know, I refer to it as a spider-web of relationships. The fact that there appears to be conversations that took place between Russian operatives and members of the campaign would suggest that there was a level of aiding and abetting.

BLITZER: But that's still circumstantial. You don't have that hard evidence?

SPEIER: That's correct.

BLITZER: Tell me where does your committee, the intelligence committee go from here?

SPEIER: The investigation moves forward. We have our staffs that are going to be hopefully in a position to see more of the evidence that the department made available for a very brief period of time last Friday and only to the chair and the ranking member and a couple of key staff members. That information has to be made available to all committee members much like the CIA is making that information available as well. I have for a long time felt that it's going to be very unlikely that this is going to be a thorough and in-depth investigation in part because it's going to take many more resources than we have and I'm not convinced yet that my Republican colleague who is are in the majority really are interested in seeing whether or not there is this level of completion or engagement between those who are in the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin.

BLITZER: Do you have confidence in the FBI director that he's doing what he's supposed to be doing?

SPEIER: I certainly have a lot of confidence today. Both he and Admiral Rogers showed I think great restraint but also were trying to be as open as possible. It was very important for the American people to be able to have an open hearing and to see from an open source standpoint what's at stake here and to hear from them speaking about Russia as being an adversary, undermining our country, and why it is important for us to ask the question, why are there so many in the Trump cabinet that have relationships, long term relationships, with Russia? And how does that further the United States' interests.

BLITZER: Congresswoman, thanks very much for joining us.

SPEIER: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just a few moments ago, we heard again from the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, and he said this.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) REP. DEVIN NUNES, R-CALIFORNIA: I still don't have evidence of people that are in the white house -- all the name out there in the press that you all know about, we don't have any evidence on them either. So, until we get evidence it's hard to really conduct an investigation. The best thing that can happen here is for the FBI to move as quickly as possible to get to the bottom of this.

[15:45:00] MANU RAJU, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Should they -- should Comey have said that publicly in your view? Do you wish he did not do that?

NUNES: Look, if there is evidence -- that's what I said at the end. If there is evidence about anyone that's working in the administration that they have ties to Russian intelligence services, I think you should be able to answer that.

RAJU: Will the committee ask to talk to Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Carter Page, Trump associates who apparently had contacts with Russians? Will your committee ask to talk to them?

NUNES: You have to look at it on an individual base. Clearly Mike Flynn is somebody that obvious lease was in the administration we know he is part of a crime that occurred in terms of his name being leaked. But the others I don't have evidence of wrongdoing.

RAJU: Will you bring them in?

NUNES: I'm not saying I won't bring them in. If evidence surfaces they were doing something with Russian agents then we will bring them in, Russian intelligence agencies.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What does the cloud do to the work of the White House?

NUNES: I think this needs to be cleared up. The I think the investigation needs to be conducted and they need to get to the bottom this, as quickly as possible. And until that's done, and that was the point of my last statement. If they are not going to ask the most basic questions of people in the White House whether or not, they had ties to Russian intelligence services I think it's a bit ridiculous.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: In light of what you heard today do you think the President's credibility has taken a hit?

NUNES: No, I don't think.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Why would you say that? Just that point when he was tweeting you during the hearing.

NUNES: I didn't see that.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And he was in direct conflict with what you, your colleagues and what the FBI director says how does his credibility not take a hit?

NUNES: I think you are referring to whether or not he was wiretapped, right. It all goes back to, I said this several times, if you take it literally, that didn't happen. The President is not taking it literally. What the President is saying now that surveillance activities were used. We don't know that yet until all these agencies get us the information by the end of the week. Hopefully by the end of the week. Then we can answer that question.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: But isn't he kind of, you know, kinds of parsing this a little bit. The average person in the public hears that and they don't understand the nuance that you are referring to when you say there is no physical evidence.

NUNES: Right, I think it goes to there was not a wiretap, physical wiretap. That we know. But I've said -- I can't say it any other way, guys, than I've said it before. Until we get all the names that were unmasked and we look at all the intelligence products that had American names in it, we won't know until we get to see that.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mentioned a number of former Obama administration officials. Do you think any of those officials he mentioned could have been behind some of these stories?

NUNES: If they were involved in unmasking the names yes. Of course, we don't know that until we get a lot of the same information.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Including the former President I think he mentioned.

NUNES: But I don't think the President would ask for an unmasking. I don't believe. I mean, maybe they could but not that I'm aware of.

RAJU: As one member on the committee asked Comey whether or not the President himself is being investigated and Comey said he is not going to comment. But he said he briefed you and Mr. Chiffon this. Is President Trump part of this investigation?

NUNES: I think this is the whole problem about announcing an investigation and not being able -- because then all of a sudden if you can't say absolutely no one is under investigation it's impossible -- that's the whole cloud here, right. Like, I don't have evidence of that, I continue to say that I would like to receive evidence if it exists but it doesn't exists.

RAJU: As of right now? Do you know if the FBI is looking into the President himself and his business ties.

NUNES: I highly doubt that. But you know what, we don't know everything.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Would you like to see the President apologize now --


BLITZER: All right. The chairman of the house intelligence committee, Jeffrey Toobin, that last statement he made when he was asked by Manu Raju if the President himself might be under investigation receipt now. Couldn't completely rule that out?

TOOBIN: Well, if you look at what they have acknowledged is the scope of the investigation, certainly candidate Trump, the actions of candidate Trump, would be within the ambit about it. Does that mean he is personally is suspected of any wrongdoing? I don't know. But it is certainly possible given the fact that there is a criminal investigation ongoing of the Trump campaign.

SANTORUM: If you continue to read between the lines -- he said first off I have seen no evidence and then he wanted to say something, and he said I highly doubt it. I mean, come on. Let's read between the lines here.

[15:50:00] PEREZ: Could be clear, Wolf, we have done reporting on this, and everything we've learned from talking to sources is that there is, at this point, the FBI is not looking at the President. Again, what the FBI director said there, we should listen to exactly what he said. He was talking about a associates, people associated with the campaign. And I think that's part of this. Now, he also muddled things by mentioning a criminal investigation a. Lot of these counter intelligence investigations never ends up there. I'm not sure exactly how it's going to go because a lot of these -- a lot of the evidence, a lot of the things that they are looking at is stuff they are never going to be able to present

TOOBIN: That's an important point, that the evidence collection used in a national security investigation is highly classified. How it's collected, what the results are. So, in addition to just finding out what happened, the ability of Congress to tell a story of what happened is going to be extremely difficult because the intelligence agencies are going to be very reluctant to disclose, so in addition to just finding out what happened, the ability of Congress to tell a story of what happened is going to be extremely difficult because the intelligence agencies are going to be very reluctant to disclose any of how this all works.

BORGER: To Nunes' point, though, this goes back to Comey's letter in October. Comey said he felt he had a responsibility to tell the committee when there were new developments. I didn't hear any question to that today, that, you know, anybody asking Comey to come back.

PEREZ: That's relief on Comey's part.

BORGER: Do you expect -- because Nunes seems -- Republicans want to get this over with and want an endpoint and have people cleared. Do you expect that Comey would come back?

PEREZ: I'm sure the senators who watched the hearing today will want their own version of this.

BLITZER: They'll have their own hearing. Quickly to Manu Raju on Capitol Hill. You were doing the question of the house intelligence committee chairman over there. What's been the reaction so far, Manu?

RAJU: It's been surprise. I don't think members expected James Comey to make that rather bombshell statement out of the gate that the investigation is ongoing between the Trump campaign, its alleged contacts with Russian officials. This is a question that a lot of members sitting on the committee have not gotten an answer to themselves, only that so-called gang of eight, the top leaders of Congress have gotten the information. Interestingly, wolf, when I just talked to Devin Nunes I asked him when he learned about the investigation, when the FBI announced it has been conducting since late July, he said he did not learn about it until the last couple of weeks.

So, last year during the campaign, as we knew about the Hillary Clinton investigation that was ongoing, even the chairman of the house intelligence committee did not know that there was an FBI investigation ongoing into the Trump campaign and any coordination that was taking place with Russian officials. That was a pretty interesting and revelatory remark from Devin Nunes. He also does not believe that there is any evidence yet of coordination. He is standing by what he said, wolf, but he is waiting for the evidence to come forward. That's one thing, of course, that Comey is looking to.

BLITZER: Dana, the justice department and FBI, they never speak about ongoing investigations.


BLITZER: That's what I was about to say. Especially those investigations, Comey said, that involved classified matters.

BASH: Right.

BLITZER: But in unusual circumstances where it is in the public interest, it may be appropriate to release that kind of information. The bombshell was released.

BASH: Look, this genie cannot be put back in the bottle. It's out there. It's official. It's formal. Under oath, public testimony, that this investigation is going on. So, what that means is, you know, Devin Nunes, the chairman, said please, please, please make this fast. The time line, who knows. But what that does mean is that we're going to hear either Comey do what he did with the Clinton -- with the Clinton investigation, come out and say no indictments, there is no "there" there, or not. It's going to have to happen publicly because of the fact that the investigation is going on was broadcast in such a public way.

BLITZER: John, we know because we've covered justice department, FBI criminal investigations, where they start is not necessarily where they finish. They could expand and expand.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: You mean whitewater?

BASH: Yes.

KING: That was a special prosecutor. Yes. Look, the President had a choice today after his government went on the record saying the wiretapping allegation, there is no evidence for it. He could have said I accept them at their word. Instead his staff decided to ramp it up again. That tells us something about this President. We saw it during the campaign. He only recalibrates when he believes it's in his interest to do so. In the campaign, he pulled back sometimes. They obviously think at the White House they're going full-speed ahead here. We'll see how it plays out. 60 days into the administration. A supreme court confirmation process going on. Big health care vote on Thursday. And this -- the President lost this day to this. It's only 60 days in. We've got a ways to go.

[15:55:00] BLITZER: This will dominate the news at least for now despite the other big issues.

BORGER: Look, he has got a very well respected supreme court nominee going up there that's likely to be confirmed. That's very good news for him. Maybe he'll get his health care bill through. We don't know. This hearing today was bad news for him. I wonder whether they're going to need an independent counsel.

SANTORUM: The point you made, the fact that we know there is an investigation and now they're on the clock. Before today this could have gone on forever and ever. Now they're on the clock. There is accountability. That is the only good news.

BLITZER: We'll have more coming up. That's it for me. I'll be back one hour from now in "The Situation Room," the news continues with Jake Tapper and "The Lead," after a very quick break.