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THE SITUATION ROOM
Dem Response to Revelations about Trump Communications. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired March 22, 2017 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: breaking news. Terror attack. Three people are dead and 20 injured after an attacker plows through pedestrians right in the center of London and crashes his vehicle into a fence outside the Parliament building. The assailant, shot dead after fatally stabbing a police officer on the Parliament grounds.
[16:58:38] Trump overheard? The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee goes public, saying normal incidental intelligence collection may have picked up communications related to President Trump. But the committee's top Democrat is very angry and is about to go public himself. We're standing by.
Ties to Russia. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort confirms he worked for a Russian billionaire tied to President Putin. But did the -- did he represent Russian political interests?
And down to the wire. The president has been shaking hands, twisting arms, counting heads, trying to line up enough House Republicans to pass the Obamacare replacement bill, but it's still too close to call, and the White House says there is no Plan B.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking news. We're covering two major fast-moving stories tonight: a bloody attack right in the heart of London, in the shadow of Big Ben, puts Parliament on lockdown, closes the gates of Buckingham Palace, and triggers a full-scale terror investigation. At least three people were killed and 20 were hurt.
It began when an attacker ran the car into pedestrians on the Westminster Bridge over the River Thames, then crashed into a gate outside Parliament, got out and fatally stabbed a police officer on the Parliament grounds. The assailant was shot dead. Some of the injuries are described as catastrophic. One woman was pulled alive from the river.
Also breaking at this moment, we're standing by to hear directly from the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff. He's furious over actions by the committee's chairman who, without informing the committee, went public just hours ago, saying communications related to President Trump may have been picked up by investigators through, quote, "normal incidental collection." Congressman Devin Nunes says the information he found is not related
to the investigation of Russian meddling in the election. Nunes rushed to the White House to brief President Trump, claiming the information is related to possible surveillance activities. The -- Nunes also says none of the information was classified; and one committee member says the material in question involved people talking about the president; in other words, gossip.
Let's go there, right now live. Adam Schiff is speaking.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE RANKING MEMBER: It is pertinent to the scope of our investigation and, instead of sharing that information with the committee, would share that information with the White House. The committee has still not received the intercepts or other information that the chairman was referring to, and, therefore, it is really impossible for us to evaluate any of the merits of what the chairman has said.
But I can say this. The chairman will need to decide whether he is the chairman of an independent investigation into conduct which includes allegations of potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, or he is going to act as a surrogate of the White House, because he cannot do both. And unfortunately, I think the actions of today throw great doubt into the ability of both the chairman and the committee to conduct the investigation the way it ought to be conducted.
I have expressed these grave concerns with the chairman. I only learned about this the way that all of you did, when the chairman briefed the press in advance of briefing his own committee members, and that is a deep, deep problem.
I think it does underscore the importance of establishing an independent commission, some -- a body that is fully independent of any political considerations including those that may emanate from the White House. That would certainly give me a lot of confidence that, in addition to whatever work our committee does and the Senate Intelligence Committee does, that there is a truly independent body that is looking into the grave issues that have been raised.
Second, with respect to the intercepts themselves that the chairman referenced, those have not been provided to the committee for evaluation. But on the basis of what the chairman has said and on the basis of my conversation with the chairman, I can say this. There is still no evidence that the president was wiretapped by his predecessor.
President Trump's claims that he was remain as baseless today as they were yesterday and they were the day before, when the directors of the FBI and NSA testified that they were made without any basis in fact.
If the incident today is an indication that, after making the baseless claim, the president then aggravated the damage by implicating the British in a potential plot to have the British surveil him on behalf of President Obama, and now is attempting to interfere in the congressional investigation, again with the effort of trying to provide some substance to a claim without substance, then they damage the wrecking ball of this allegation has just claimed another victim, that being our own committee.
What I understand from the chairman is that he has reviewed intercepts of foreign intelligence. And what I understand from the chairman is there's no indication that that surveillance was anything but lawful. And what people need to understand about foreign intelligence gathering and incidental collection is, if we are listening to two foreign spies, for example, talking to each other on foreign soil, or two representatives of a foreign government, and they mention a U.S. person, that is incidental collection. It doesn't necessarily mean there is a call from a foreign party to a U.S. person. Even a mention of U.S. person is incidental collection, and that name would be masked.
If there is a call with a U.S. person or U.S. person identities are involved at all, those names are masked. But there are proper procedures for unmasking a name. When it is necessary for the intelligence agencies to understand the significance of the intercept, and they cannot do that when the names are masked, you can properly unmask the name. The chairman has provided no evidence that any names that were unmasked were unmasked improperly. And of course without the ability for the committee to look at the intercepts, we're not in a position to evaluate whether the procedures were followed or were not followed.
[17:05:05] Moreover, as I understand from my conversation with the chairman, most of the names in the intercepts were, in fact, masked. And the chairman's concern was that he could still figure out the identities of some of the parties even though the names were masked. Well, that doesn't mean that the masking was improper.
And, so, again, it is impossible to evaluate whether there is any "there" there, in terms of these intercepts, without the committee being able to look at them, and thus far the chair has not provided this evidence to the committee.
So, this is deeply troubling along many levels. But among the most significant levels is it really impedes our ability to do this investigation the way we should. I've been part of investigations that were conducted properly, when the House Intelligence Committee investigated Benghazi, and I've been part of investigations that were not, such as the Benghazi Select Committee.
It was my hope that our investigation could be conducted properly. It's still my hope that this investigation should be conducted properly, but unfortunately the actions of the chair throw that very much in doubt.
And I'd be happy to respond to your questions. Yes.
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Two parts. One, what are the Democrats' next step here? Are you planning on pulling out of this investigation the way that you did during the Benghazi inquiry? And, two, did Chairman Nunes reveal any classified information today by his disclosures to the press? SCHIFF: Well, on the first point, we actually stayed on the Benghazi
Select Committee, though we knew from the outset that it was -- essentially going to be a political instrument to tear down Secretary Clinton's numbers.
And, of course, we will have to analyze what this development means. I do think that, if there is any chance remaining for us to conduct this investigation, we need to do it. As I said earlier in the week, we could do a tremendous service to the country if we're able to do a credible investigation and at the end of the day, provide a report to the American people that has Democrats and Republicans on the same page.
But if you have a chairman who is interacting with the White House and sharing information with the White House when people around the White House are the subject of the investigation, and doing so before sharing it with the committee, it make -- it throws a profound doubt over whether that can be done credibly.
RAJU: Did Chairman Nunes reveal any classified information today?
SCHIFF: Well, it's certainly -- it's certainly inappropriate for us to be discussing whether specific people were the subject of collection or incidental collection to any degree that can divulge who the targets of that surveillance may be.
So, I'm not prepared to say that what the chairman said was classified or unclassified. I can say that it is beyond irregular to receive any evidence that's within the scope of an investigation, and clearly, if the chairman is right about the content here, it's when the scope of the issues we're looking at, about whether masking procedures are followed and whether things are being leaked. And I would -- I would say that the most profound concern here I have is that these actions simply raise enormous doubt about whether the committee can do its work. And I think that more than anything else I've seen, this makes the most profound case for the formation of an independent commission.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To follow-up on this question, on Monday we heard quite a bit about -- from several committee members about improper unmasking of individuals who were collected in warranted surveillance. What is the fundamental difference between what the chairman did today and what the complaints were on Monday?
SCHIFF: Well, first of all, with respect to what we were discussing on Monday, we could actually discuss concrete things. We could -- if there were a specific instance where there was an unmasking that we were concerned about, we could ask the questions about it.
Here, we have no information about who was masked or who was unmasked and, indeed, based on what the chairman told me, the names were masked apart from a single name, which wasn't necessarily anyone connected with the Trump Organization. The concern the chair raised with me was that the names that were masked he believed were associated with the president or his associates.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did he unmask the president today in this...
SCHIFF: I don't know. You know, again, this is the problem. This is the precise problem when the information is not shared with the committee itself.
[17:10:11] We will be seeking this information. We will be evaluating it. And once we've had a chance to review it, I will issue a statement about what I think it says and what I think it doesn't say. But here we are operating on hearsay on hearsay, and this is simply not a way to conduct an investigation. Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On that point, had the committee been previously briefed about intercepts in general, or had you had any background knowledge about these intercepts? You say you don't have these intercepts, but were you aware of these intercepts? Do members of the committee have information about those?
SCHIFF: It's impossible to know, because we don't know what intercepts the chairman is referring to.
So, again, my assumption from what the chair said is that these are intercepts that we don't have. But he also said this doesn't relate to the Russia investigation. So, if it doesn't relate to the Russia investigation, if they were lawfully conducted -- and he said there's no reason to believe they weren't -- then we wouldn't have them as a part of the investigation.
And now we have made a request of the intelligence agencies for information about their masking procedures. If indeed it's within the scope of our request, then it's information we should be getting. And if that's true, and I think the chairman indicated he thought that the information he'd received is within the scope of what we've asked for, then it's a significant question that if this is within the information we've asked for that the agencies are going to be delivering to us later this week, then why make the statement to the press before we have it. It just begs more questions, frankly, than it answers. Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is there any reason to believe -- I know we discussed briefly the president, but just trying to clarify. Is there any reason to believe that the president or members of his family were people present in these documents?
SCHIFF: You know, again, you would have to ask the chairman, because he's the only one on the committee that I'm aware of that's been able to see this.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did he express that to you? Did he say, "I think these people are involved"?
SCHIFF: You know, I don't want to characterize precisely what the chair said. And I think if you look at what he has said publicly, it's not very clear, because he's used words like "may have been," or "it might be," and how can we evaluate the strength of that formation? We just can't.
And, again, this just underscores why this is not how you conduct an investigation. You don't take information that the committee hasn't seen and present it orally to the press and to the White House before the committee has a chance to vet whether it's even significant. Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How many assurances did you receive from Chairman Nunes that committee could move forward in bipartisan...
SCHIFF: I'm sorry?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What assurances did you receive from Chairman Nunes at the committee report and bipartisan...?
SCHIFF: Well, I expressed my grave concerns about how this was handled. And I'm not sure that at this point we're likely to get those kind of assurances.
Certainly, we're going to have a much more lengthy discussion of this when we meet as a committee. But it casts quite a profound cloud over our ability to do our work.
And I do think that the concern over Russian intervention in our election is one that permeates the Congress. And it's a concern that Democrats have, and it's a concern that Republicans have. And I have to think that most of the members of the House want a bipartisan investigation to be done, but this is not the way to do it. Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did Devin Nunes tell you how or where or in what way he viewed these documents or was aware of their existence? And also, you said that you're gravely concerned and criticized the chairman right now. But are you considering more formal censuring of him in light of what happened?
SCHIFF: This is not a situation, I think, where you can pursue something like that. You know, we still have a very important job to do, even apart from this investigation. But right now, the country is counting on us, because in the House of Representatives, we're the only investigation there is. If we don't do it, no one is going to do it.
Now, perhaps the White House would like it that way, but the American people, I think, want there to be a credible investigation. And if we're not going to conduct it, then we need to have a commission do it. And if the chairman is going to continue to go to the White House rather than his own committee, there's no way we can conduct this investigation.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And did he tell you how or where -- or what led him to being able to view these documents?
SCHIFF: You know, I don't have a lot of details on it. The most I think he was able to say is that it was shared with him alone. So, it doesn't appear to have been shared with the other Republican members of his committee. And, so, all of us are in the dark. And that makes what the chairman did today all the more extraordinary. Yes. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you have any concerns about the way in which
he got this information or who it might have come from? You said he doesn't have the documents in his possession, so -- but he knows where they are.
SCHIFF: You know, obviously, there are a lot of questions. I mean, if this came from people within the intelligence community, then you're looking at sort of a channel for a leak to the press, which raises a whole 'nother category of concerns.
If this is within the intelligence community, it ought to be shared with us by the intelligence community. I don't know if that's the source of it. And...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You said he also called the NSA and the CIA and the FBI.
SCHIFF: You'd have to ask the chairman. Again, we have no idea where these documents came from, whether they even show what they purport to show. But even if they do, on the basis of what the chairman said, the underlying fact is still the same. There's no evidence to support the president's contention that he was wiretapped by his predecessor.
So, I'm not sure what the point of this extraordinary process is, and I have to hope that this is not part of a broader campaign by the White House aimed to deflect from the director's testimony earlier this week.
But again, not having seen the documents, not having the chairman share those documents with either Democrats or Republicans on the committee, there's simply no way for us to evaluate.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you have any idea of how many names were either masked or unmasked?
SCHIFF: I have no idea. There's no way for us to know. Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It seems like a fair decision about an independent commission is in the hands of Paul Ryan. Have you talked to him about that? And do you have any plans to do so, if not ?
SCHIFF: I certainly intend to do so. The request has been made by our minority leader as well as the entire membership of the Democratic membership of the House of Representatives in the form of sponsorship of legislation by my colleague Eric Swalwell and Elijah Cummings.
So, we have certainly made it clear now for many weeks that we ought to follow the model we did after 9/11, where we do an investigation through our intelligence communities -- committees, but we also have a truly independent commission.
And there are two reasons why I think the commission now is more essential than ever. The first is that a commission would have a dedicated staff and resources focused solely on this issue. An investigation of this magnitude really justifies that kind of investment. But second, it takes it completely out of the political realm. And
today's events show why that is just so essential. A commission like the 9/11 commission wouldn't have one of its chairs go to the White House when it obtained new information. And we just cannot continue along that kind of a path. So, I think more than anything else, today's events have underscored the imperative of an independent commission.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did he tell you...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did the chairman give you any indication of why he decided to go to the White House before he came to you with any information?
SCHIFF: No, and that's a good question for the chairman. I certainly did express my concern that that is simply not the way to conduct a credible investigation. Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What did he say to you in response to this?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did he tell you when you'll get to see that?
BLITZER: All right, Adam Schiff, the ranking member -- the ranking Democrat of the House Intelligence Committee, with a very, very tough attack on the chairman of that committee, Devin Nunes, mincing no words what the chairman did today, according to Adam Schiff, was totally, totally inappropriate, calling for a truly independent commission right now to take over and to investigate.
Gloria and David Chalian, this is a moment. Phil Mudd is here, as well. This is a moment you don't see very often in the House Intelligence Committee, a blistering, blistering feud that has now developed.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, and I don't see how they work with each other, honestly. I mean, Adam Schiff just came out and called his Republican counterpart a surrogate for the Trump administration.
And he said -- and also, he further said he hopes this isn't part of a broader campaign by the White House to deflect from the Comey testimony. So, he also seemed to be hinting, at least, that maybe this came from the White House or somebody -- or someone in the administration is part of doing that. He basically said that Nunes is working for them. And I don't see how they work together.
And what he was also saying is this isn't our job. Our job is oversight. Our job is not to alert anybody whose name may be picked up in any kind of investigation.
[17:20:12] And, by the way, he also gave it to Devin Nunes when he said, "These names were not unmasked," as Devin Nunes had said. He said that the chairman said to him they were masked, but he kind of knew who they were by reading further into the document. DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: So, Devin Nunes unmasked them
BORGER: That's right. And then I think we have to ask these other questions, and you're better to answer this than I am, which is what else isn't being investigated? Is this part of routine surveillance that is perhaps taking place in New York at Trump Tower or whatever? Or is there something else that we just don't know about?
BLITZER: I'll have Phil Mudd walk us through this -- this whole issue of foreign intercepts, incidental collection in just a moment. This is a big deal coming at such a sensitive moment, 2 1/2 weeks after the president tweeted against the former president, making those unsubstantiated allegations against President Obama.
CHALIAN: Wolf, basically Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, just told the American people, "You can't trust what's coming out of this committee on this hugely important investigation." That's basically what he just said. They're not going to be able to hold an actual independent real thorough investigation.
So, now if you're an American at home watching all this information, watching Jim Comey testify on Monday, and you're wondering what's going on, you are now being told by the No. 2 on the committee here, don't trust this committee.
So, now I guess people are going to have to look to the Senate intel committee, maybe there will be a head of steam, but I don't see...
BORGER: Or an independent commission.
CHALIAN: This call for an independent commission is going to be very difficult, I think, for Republicans in Congress to move on.
And what we saw earlier in Devin Nunes was somebody trying to provide cover to Donald Trump, give him some political cover for what he's been out there saying and talking when he said, more evidence on this stuff will come out.
BORGER: You know, he seemed to be making the case for the White House rather than...
BLITZER: You're talking about Devin Nunes.
BORGER: Devin Nunes. Rather than serve as the chair of an impartial committee. You have to ask the question, why did he go to the West Wing before he called Adam Schiff, his Democratic counterpart? Why did he -- why did he do that?
I mean, his answer, you know, Jake Tapper had a great interview with him and asked those questions. And he said, well, you know, I was -- it was -- this concerned me enough to notify the president. So, what he has succeeded in doing is raising more questions than he has answered. BLITZER: Well, Phil -- Phil, you've worked at the CIA, the FBI.
You've dealt with foreign intelligence collection. You've dealt with incidental collection.
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Yes.
BLITZER: Walk us, the allegations from Devin Nunes the chairman were very specific, and we heard the rebuttal from the ranking Democrat.
MUDD: That's right. This is not an intelligence story. I'll step through, it's a political story.
It's 5:22 in THE SITUATION ROOM with Wolf Blitzer. We haven't talked about Russia fir one moment. This is a shell game.
Let me step you through the intel, because it's not that interesting. You're collecting against Wolf Blitzer, an ambassador. Wolf Blitzer is a foreign ambassador. An American calls him. That's incidental collection. It's a significant call, because we now know the FBI has an investigation based on concerns that the Russian interfered with elections. So if Wolf is the Russian ambassador, I'm curious that Gloria is calling him. Her name to the investigators is going to be unmasked. That's common procedure within. I need to know who's talking to the ambassador. It's Gloria.
It's not just whether she passed money to you or you passed money to her. I want know if you're going to dinner. I want know the nature of the social relationship.
At that point the investigators are going to say there's a certain small number of people in U.S. government, at the FBI, the CIA, elsewhere, the Department of Justice investigators, who need to understand this. Meanwhile, there's a court that has to approve that collection to ensure that it's legal. This is not complicated. It's common.
I personally have spoken to political officials who have appeared in this coverage. You know what they say? They don't say, "I'm concerned that I was picked up." They say, "That's interesting. This foreign official reporting back to his home country is saying something that's fundamentally different than what I said in that meeting. Fascinating."
BORGER: It could be gossip, right?
BORGER: It could just be gossip that was -- that was picked up. But, you know, you have to ask the question of whether or Nunes was trying in a way to prove the president's point, which of course, he doesn't prove when he said Barack Obama was wiretapping him in Trump Tower.
This does not prove the point, but you have to ask the question about whether the administration believes that this gives the president some cover, which, of course, they would think it would.
BLITZER: To the president...
CHALIAN: It muddies the water, though. And that's why the president says he feels somewhat vindicated by this, which of course, he's not vindicated at all in what Devin Nunes said.
The other thing I just want to say that Phil is talking about, because you went right to Russia. But Chairman Nunes said this had nothing to do with Russia.
BLITZER: And he also said the foreign intelligence collection was legal, meaning it was done through a search warrant, a FISA warrant and all of that.
BORGER: It should be...
[17:25:12] BLITZER: David Axelrod is with us. It looks, certainly looks at this point, David -- and you tell me if it could be fixed -- this entire House Intelligence Committee investigation, beginning this past Monday with an extraordinary testimony from the FBI director, the National Security Agency, it looks like the whole thing has now been compromised.
DAVID AXELROD, FORMER OBAMA SENIOR ADVISOR: Well, there's no question. Look, this is a mind-boggling development. For the chairman of this committee to ankle on down to the White House before he even informs the members of the committee...
BORGER: Right, exactly.
AXELROD: ... on the matters in which he's briefing the president is -- is just unfathomable. And you have to wonder what kind of pressure Devin Nunes was under from the White House and other sources because of the fact that he had been proceeding on a bipartisan basis. He had stepped forward with Adam Schiff to say, "Nothing we've seen supports the president's allegations."
And now all of a sudden, he takes a sharp turn. And his interview with Jake, he at one point said, "Well, this seems to lend some credence to what the president was saying." Not really, not at all.
And yet now he seems to be playing not the role of an impartial committee chairman trying to get to the facts, but the role of a political apparatchik trying to help the White House out of a jam. I think it's a big, big problem.
And one question I have, Wolf, is when and if we ever find out how this information came to him. Remember, the president said the other day -- "I think there are going to be some interesting things that are going to surface in the next few days." How did this information get to the chairman and not to the other members of the committee?
BLITZER: A statement just released, by the way, David, from the Democratic National Committee. Let me read to you: "The former Trump transition member Devin Nunes blew what little credibility he had left with this pathetic charade. This isn't an investigation. It's a protection racket for Donald Trump and his fragile ego. All Nunes has achieved is to prove that we need a real independent investigation and to raise serious questions about why the Trump team was in communication with foreign individuals under FISA warrant. It's time for an independent 9/11-style commission and a special prosecutor."
Now, that formal statement, it makes the point that Nunes is not an impartial investigator or an intelligence expert. He's a former Trump transition member. That's how they call him. Those are serious charges.
AXELROD: Yes, those are serious charges, and they're -- he's brought that on himself through his behavior just in the last day. Until now, I don't think people would have accused him of conducting himself in a way that brought suspicion on himself.
Look, Congress is a political body, so let's -- let's be honest about that. Adam Schiff supported Hillary Clinton. He wasn't necessarily on her transition team, but he supported Hillary Clinton. That's not the issue.
The issue is here and now, how are they conducting themselves? Are they following standard procedure? Are they consulting each other? Are they going where the facts lead them? Or are they behaving in a fundamentally political way? And in going down to the White House instead of going to his committee, the chairman behaved in a fundamentally political way.
BLITZER: You know, Phil Mudd, a lot of people are going to conclude if it was, in fact, the Russian intention to cause some disruption here in the United States, we sure saw that today.
MUDD: They sure did. But let's step back. If you're looking at this from a Russian angle or from an American angle, I think they may have a covert action here that over succeeded.
If you wanted Donald Trump in in Moscow, your hope was presumably in places like Syria or Iran or Crimea, Eastern Ukraine. Your hope might have been, "He can do more for us than Hillary Clinton."
What is his latitude to go to the Congress now and say, "I want to be easier with the Russians on sanctions"? I think this might be historic, in terms of as a former CIA officer, a covert action that over succeeded. The Russians might be saying, "We've got to step back for a moment, because this might blow up in our faces."
BORGER: You know, here's the question. If this collection was completely lawful and if it was court ordered and if it was done in the right way, which Nunes seems to be saying...
BLITZER: Nunes says it was lawful.
BORGER: Totally lawful. Then why is he running to the White House? If there were something really bad about the way it was done and the intelligence agencies had overstepped, why would he be running to the White House?
BLITZER: Joining us right now is the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Adam Schiff of California.
Congressman, thanks for joining us.
SCHIFF: You bet.
BLITZER: All right, so your basic charge is that the chairman of your committee acted totally inappropriate by going to the White House, going to the president, sharing this information even before he spoke with you or any other member of the committee. So, is any cooperation on the House Intelligence Committee really possible now, or is it over?
SCHIFF: Well, I wouldn't declare it over, but I want to certainly have a chance to sit down as a committee and discuss what just took place, because we can't conduct a credible investigation this way. And the chairman really has to make a decision about whether that's his intention and that's what he wants to do. Or whether he's still acting as a surrogate for the president.
But he can't do both, particularly when the allegations involve the president's own campaign. So, it was a deeply disturbing turn today and certainly a body blow to the investigation, and we'll have to see whether we can overcome it.
BLITZER: Well, do you think he was acting as a member of the Trump transition team today or was he acting as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee?
SCHIFF: You know, Wolf, I think you'll have to ask him that question. But I found the actions today quite inexplicable. We are really trying and have been really trying to conduct this investigation aboveboard and pursue the evidence where it leads. But things like this, I think, have to raise a profound question in the public about whether that's where the chairman is headed.
And, again, I think just a deeply disturbing development today. The best public service that we can do is to do this in a bipartisan, indeed, nonpartisan way. And that just got a lot more difficult.
BLITZER: The FBI director, James Comey; the National Security Agency director, Admiral Mike Rogers, they testified before your committee on Monday and said none of this in the course of their testimony. What does that tell you?
SCHIFF: Well, you know, it certainly tells me that both directors have seen no evidence to support the president's claim. And if this is an effort by the president and by the White House to throw a cloud over that or create some uncertainty, it's not going to work because, ultimately, they're going to have to produce these intercepts. The chairman will have to produce them to substantiate any suggestion that they support the president's claim.
I think ultimately that will be debunked, because as a fundamental matter, if there was any wiretapping of the president, the director of the FBI would know about it. He spoke not only for himself, but he also spoke for the Justice Department and, of course, you had the director of the NSA speaking for the NSA. There's no way that those three agencies wouldn't know if the president was the subject of wiretapping.
So, I don't think anything is vindicated here, except the president's commitment to now quadruple down on a baseless accusation against his predecessor.
BLITZER: Who do you believe, Congressman, gave these reports, this information, to Chairman Nunes?
SCHIFF: I really don't know. You'd have to ask the chairman that, who gave them to the chairman, what their motivation was. But again, we can't read too much into it, because by the chairman's own estimation, there's nothing unlawful in the intercepts he was given.
BLITZER: Tell us about the conversation you had with him. I know you had a chance to speak with him. That was after he left the White House. Is that right?
SCHIFF: Yes, it was very late this afternoon. Of course, I expressed my grave concern about his taking evidence or information that may be within the scope of our investigation, not to the committee, but to the White House.
And, of course, we got the first indication that something was amiss this morning when, instead of doing our usual joint press conference, he decided to speak to the press independently. He has every right to do that, but they were unwilling to disclose to us even what the subject matter was. That doesn't sound like someone who's running a credible investigation, and unfortunately, what we saw this afternoon was a real setback for the committee.
BLITZER: Is this the first time he's ever done something like this to you?
SCHIFF: Well, you know, I think this is a very serious aberration from an independent investigation. I've been a part of many. I've conducted some as a prosecutor way back in the day, and you just don't go to someone who is potentially associated with the subject of the investigation with evidence before you go to the committee itself or to the grand jury in the case of a criminal investigation.
I guess to put this in analogous terms, it would be like taking information that you receive as an investigator or prosecutor, not to the grand jury, but to someone associated with the subject of the investigation. You just can't do that if you're really running a credible investigation.
BLITZER: Are you ready at this point, Congressman, to say that the chairman, Chairman Nunes, should step down as committee chairman?
SCHIFF: I think we need to have a conversation in committee with all the members and the chairman; and I need to continue to hash this out, because I think this tremendously undermines our efforts.
And again, we need to keep in mind what the overriding national interest is, and the overriding national interest is a nonpartisan investigation, get to the bottom of the truth in terms of what the Russians did, whether there were U.S. persons involved. And I understand the stakes are very high, but that doesn't let us off the hook in terms of our responsibility.
[17:35:12] And, Wolf, I just want to make sure at the end of the day, whether we can do that or not, that I'm doing everything I can to make that happen. But, you know, I can only act for myself, speak for myself. And -- and if the chairman is not willing to divide or differentiate himself from the White House and run this investigation independently, then it simply won't be credible.
BLITZER: Have you -- I take it you have not yet seen any of the documents, any of the specific reports cited by the chairman. Is that right?
SCHIFF: To my knowledge, the only one who has seen them is the chairman and perhaps the White House. I don't believe anyone on the committee, Democrats or Republicans, have any independent basis to evaluate what the chairman has said or seen.
BLITZER: He says that this surveillance that was going on and the incidental collection of names of Americans, maybe including the president, had nothing to do with surveillance of any Russian contacts. So who was being surveilled, as far as you know?
SCHIFF: Well, you know, there's really no way of telling. If this was foreign surveillance of foreigners talking to other foreigners, they may have been talking about people that are associated with the Trump Organization. If it involved businesses that they were pursuing in other countries, if it involved potential allegations of -- who knows what.
You know, I really can't tell you, Wolf. This is precisely the problem with not bringing the information to the committee. It leaves everybody to wonder just what is the chairman referring to here? Is there any significance to it? And we simply don't know.
BLITZER: Final question. Where do you go from here?
SCHIFF: Well, you know, I think we have to have a real head to head, frankly, in the committee about how we're going to run this investigation. I do think that, probably more so than any other single act during the course of this investigation, today's events underscore the need for a truly independent commission.
BLITZER: And just before I let you go, did you believe that by revealing this information today, the chairman actually revealed classified information in the process?
SCHIFF: You know, I don't know enough about what the chairman was reviewing, and it's very difficult to tell. Certainly, if the chairman visited one of the elements of the intelligence community and then went to the public to talk about it, it is highly problematic; and I'll leave it at that.
BLITZER: We appreciate your coming to our camera, Congressman, and changing your schedule. Thanks very much for joining us.
SCHIFF: You bet. Thank you.
BLITZER: Adam Schiff is the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Joining us now is another Democratic member of the committee, Jim Himes of Connecticut. Congressman, thanks for joining us.
REP. JIM HIMES (D-CT), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Good evening, Wolf.
BLITZER: So you just heard your chair -- your ranking member say he won't say if he thinks that the chairman, Nunes, should step down. Are you among those who think he should step down?
HIMES: Well, I am with Adam on this one. It's sort of hard to imagine how this investigation proceeds with any credibility. I am hopeful that maybe Adam and Congressman Nunes can come to some sort of agreement.
But remember, there's now a pattern, and I'm kind of a believer in three strikes and you're out. And look, just a couple weeks ago, Devin Nunes is standing up for Michael Flynn, saying he's been brought down by Washington swamp creatures, that he deserves to be thanked. And of course, he turns around and gets fired by the White House for lying to the V.P.
You know, it turns out that both Chairman Burr and Nunes a couple of weeks ago are asked to knock down stories with the "The New York Times." And now we have today's events, where Devin, acting in a very irregular way, takes potentially classified information to the media and then to the White House.
So I mean, we're at a point here where all reasonable and thoughtful people would say, "Get this investigation the heck out of the partisan fray that is in the Congress, and put it in an outside, fully fair and bipartisan commission."
BLITZER: Do you think the president has reason to feel at least partially vindicated by the information the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Devin Nunes, provided him today? Because that's what the president said.
HIMES: Well, interesting that you say that, because that's exactly what the president is saying, and of course, Speaker Ryan is sort of saying similar things.
Look, that whole wiretapping fiasco, which badly damaged our relationship with the British, our absolutely critical allies in intelligence gathering, which completely torched the White House's and the president's credibility, now you know why this craziness happened. Why would Devin Nunes damage his own investigation, leave the rest of us sort of hanging high and dry, reading about critical information in the newspaper, and then rush off to the White House?
Well, you want to know the answer to that question? It is the president standing up, saying, "I feel partially vindicated," and the speaker of the House saying, "Oh, look, there was something there."
Now, the reality is, as you know, that this has absolutely nothing to do with the outrageous claim that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. But it gives them just the thinnest thread now to say, "I'm partially vindicated," and in the spirit of sort of muddying the waters, I guess this is going to make Donald Trump and his people sleep a little better tonight.
[17:40:14] BLITZER: If the president's conversations were, in fact, picked up through this, what's called this incidental collection, would that have violated any laws if his name was then unmasked and circulated within the law enforcement and intelligence community?
HIMES: Well, Wolf, first of all, there's no indication that it's the president or who it is who's -- whatever U.S. person was incidentally collected.
And no, by no means is it in any way illegal. Look, as Congressman Schiff explained, we listen to targets abroad. That's what the CIA and NSA -- we listen in, and sometimes those non-U.S. citizens will talk about a U.S. citizen. Sometimes they will call a U.S. citizen. Those are things that, if that individual is a legitimate target, the foreigner, that you can't avoid. Sometimes people talk about Americans.
But the intelligence community takes very careful measures to make sure that U.S. persons' confidentiality is protected, unless there's a very compelling reason to unmask that individual. If there is a compelling reason, there are a whole set of procedures that need to be followed.
So, again, Devin Nunes himself has said that this was all lawfully collected, that it was incidental, meaning that, you know, none of the president's people were the targets of this surveillance. And that's the reason why this is one of the most pathetic band-aids imaginable on top of the president's outright lie that President Barack Obama had him wiretapped in Trump Tower or that the British intelligence community helped him do it.
BLITZER: Our congressional reporter, Manu Raju, was told by a member of your Intelligence Committee that the communication was mostly, in his words, "gossip" among Trump transition team members about plans for his administration; included discussions about the president's family.
Did that merit, if in fact, that was what it was all about -- did that merit the chairman of the committee going directly to the White House, briefing the president on all of this before briefing the ranking Democrat and other members of the committee?
HIMES: There's nothing that would justify going first to the media with potentially classified information. We'll see. And then running to the White House, which is involved in this investigation.
Remember, FBI Comey -- FBI Director Comey said, "We are examining links and possible coordination with the Trump campaign." And, so, the chairman runs to someone who is potentially a target of this investigation. No, it's beyond absurd.
And why did it happen? Again, it was the sort of tiniest, most frayed, pathetic fig leaf that has actually nothing to do with the president's original charge of wiretapping in Trump Tower. But it is this tiny pathetic fig leaf Donald Trump and his people can use to say, "Well, we were partially vindicated," even though nothing about this in any way, shape or form vindicates the outrageous claim that President Obama wiretapped him.
BLITZER: Congressman, you've been very generous with your time. I know you've been standing there for a while. We greatly appreciate...
HIMES: No worries.
BLITZER: ... your joining us. Congressman Jim Himes, thank you very much.
HIMES: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. David Chalian, you just got two Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, including the ranking member. They are really upset, and they're angry at their chairman.
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: You can understand why. I mean, what he did today was out of the norm of how this business is usually conducted. I'm sure anybody watching them, even though they're partisans, and obviously, people can view it through that lens, but you can certainly understand why they're not pleased with the way that the chairman handled himself today.
I also think, Wolf, we've got to put this in context for people this week. You remember the end of that hearing on Monday, that Devin Nunes chaired.
BLITZER: With Jim Comey, the FBI director...
CHALIAN: FBI director.
BLITZER: ... Admiral Rogers, the National Security Agency director.
CHALIAN: At the end of that hearing, it was Devin Nunes, the Republican ally, former transition official to the Trump transition, who declared there is now a dark cloud over this Trump White House. He said that, in his plea to FBI Director Comey, to finish his work as quickly as possible. That generated a ton of headlines, "a dark cloud" from his own Republican ally. And then today he runs to the White House. I mean, like, "I got something that can help you muddy these waters."
BLITZER: All right. You know what? I have a clip. Let me play that specific clip of the chairman, Devin Nunes, on Monday.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. DEVIN NUNES (R-CA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: You've announced that you're going to -- that you have this big investigation, but now you have people that are involved in our government that are the secretary of state, for example. These are important players. And the longer this hangs out here, the bigger the cloud is.
And I know that you're not going to tell me whether or not you have any evidence, but I can tell you that we don't have any evidence and we're conducting our own investigation here. And if you have some -- if you have evidence, especially as it relates to people in the White House that are working in the White House, or the administration, I mean, that would be something that we really should know about and we should know about quickly.
And so, if you can't give it to the entire committee, I hope you can at least give it to myself and Mr. Schiff, because there is a big gray cloud that you've now put over people who have very important work to do to lead this country. And, so, the faster you can get to the bottom of this, it's going to be better for all Americans.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Gloria, strong words that came after James Comey, the FBI Director, said that they were investigating whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian efforts. And he said, as with any counter intelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed. And that's the cloud that is hanging over the White House right now.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And the FBI Director said when he was asked how long is this going to take, he obviously said, we don't know. We can't tell.
And, so, I think what you see today is something really remarkable. You have the Chairman saying that there was nothing illegal done in the collection of this information, and you have Congressman Schiff, the ranking Democrat, saying, in his conversation with the Chairman, there was no unmasking, which is what Devin Nunes was talking about, saying, look, it's not fair to these people if their names were unmasked because they really shouldn't have been.
So you have Schiff saying, well, that didn't happen, so it was legal and no names were unmasked and it could be gossip. And yet, the Chairman of the Committee felt that it was so urgent and important that he had to run right down to the West Wing, tell the President about it, have a press conference. And then there's the photo op and the President suddenly says, well, I feel somewhat vindicated.
And you have to look at this chain of events and, I think, put one and one together. And Adam Schiff said, look, you can't have a bipartisan investigation if the Chairman of the Committee is working for the President.
BLITZER: David Axelrod, you know the President and his supporters and his surrogates out there, they're going to say not partially vindicated, vindicated. The President was right in what he alleged, maybe not precisely using the words wiretap but, in a broader sense, surveillance.
DAVID AXELROD, FORMER SENIOR ADVISOR TO PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, what's interesting is that Chairman Nunes, on Monday, raised this point about the cloud that the investigation casts on the administration. Today, he attempted, apparently, to resolve this by casting a cloud on the investigation itself and did a big disservice, I think, to his Committee and to the public confidence in their actions.
You know, you think back to the 9/11 Commission. That was an exercise in appropriate government oversight. Or go back decades, Wolf. Some of us are old enough to remember during the Watergate era and the level of cooperation between Sam Irvin, a Democrat, and Howard Baker, a Republican, to follow the facts wherever they led. This was disappointing when you consider those traditions of government oversight.
BLITZER: Let me play this brief little clip. The President reacting to what he learned. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you feel vindicated by Chairman Nunes coming over here?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I somewhat do. I must tell you I somewhat do. I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Do you think, Phil Mudd, he has a right to feel somewhat vindicated?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, zero. Other than that, yes. Zero right.
Let's put these side by side. You have a legal process that we're talking about today where the intelligence community, operating under, presumably, the FBI and the Department of Justice, goes to a court we call the FISA court and surveils a foreign entity. That foreign entity speaks to a U.S. person who crops up in the collection. Legal, done without the President of the United States, been done for decades.
The President of the United States alleged that his predecessor illegally advised other elements of the government or directed them to tap him, not a foreign entity, him personally. Illegal, outside anything the FBI and Department of Justice would do. And you want to tell me he's vindicated? That looks like cats and dogs to me. There's no vindication in my world.
BLITZER: But they're going to claim he was vindicated. His supporters will.
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: You heard Congressman Hudson. I think he said it right, Donald Trump, his allies in the West Wing of the White House, and his supporters around the country may sleep more easily tonight because they will feel they have now something to push back on this notion.
But Phil just explained it as clear as day. It's not the same thing. This is not vindication of those tweets you've been reading for the last 2 1/2 weeks.
BORGER: I think they are just more clouds, is what it is. There is no vindication, but the cloud that Devin Nunes is talking about has just spread everywhere.
BLITZER: And his instinct, I guess, Devin Nunes, when he learned this information was, you know what, this is going to help the President. I better go over to the White House and tell them as quickly as possible.
[17:50:05] BORGER: And, again, I mean, his explanation of that was that he was concerned about this so-called unmasking, that there was something that was done and it was done in the wrong way.
BLITZER: He said the President had a right to know about it.
BORGER: And the President should know about it. It may have mentioned the President himself, it may have mentioned his family. And so he felt a need to go to the White House.
You tell me why he didn't also feel the need, when he got these documents which, by the way, now the Democrats will be looking at -- and I'm sure we'll be hearing a lot more about these intercepts -- why when he got these documents didn't he call Adam Schiff and say, you know, I want you to come over to my office and take a look at this. I'm a little concerned about the way this appears to me. I'm concerned that names were unfairly unmasked. I don't know why he didn't do that.
MUDD: One more quick follow up. You want to tell me why the CIA and the FBI get a little nervous about when their oversight chairman says, tell us all the details, when his first response is, this is not held within the umbrella of the Committee, I'm going to the White House. That's why they get nervous. Leaks not just within the median Washington, leaks in the executive branch is being investigated. Unbelievable!
BLITZER: You served in the White House, David Axelrod, during the Obama administration. You remember tensions like this? There have been plenty of controversy involving President Obama, but do you remember anything like this, anything along the lines of this?
AXELROD: Well, I have to report to you, Wolf, that I can't remember us, when I was over there, ever being engaged in any controversy of this sort. There were controversies for sure, but nothing quite like this. Obviously, there was a very heated and partisan-tinged investigation
relative to Benghazi, but there was nothing like this. And certainly, there was nothing like the chairman of a committee in the middle of something incredibly freighted as this coming over and reporting to the President before he talked to members of his own committee. I don't recall anything like that.
BLITZER: And, David Chalian, let's take a look, step back a little bit. This is clearly overshadowing. There's a critical vote on the floor tomorrow to repeal and replace ObamaCare that could affect millions and millions of people. And all of a sudden, what are we talking about?
CHALIAN: Well, this is exactly what we mean by muddying the water, right? We are consumed with this, talking about this, all, you know, the dust cloud that Devin Nunes put in front of us today. And we're all now going to chase this down and Adam Schiff responds, and we are not, at all, continuing to look at if that healthcare bill, are they getting the votes? Are they not? What kind of deals are they scoring to try to get the votes?
That, now, has sort of gone away from cable television news coverage, from the headlines of the moment. Might that give them a little more breathing room to actually put a deal together? I'll be curious to see tomorrow when that voting takes place. This might alleviate some of that pressure for them to try to actually accomplish that goal.
BORGER: Right. And can I just add one other thing about Devin Nunes, which interested me when he spoke to Jake? He said the last administration had a pretty good idea of what he, meaning Trump, was up to. And the implication there, again, is Obama.
It's, you know, saying that, well, the last administration clearly had these conversations, knew what was going on, knew the political gossip, maybe knew who he was going to put in what job or all other kinds of things. And then he brought that to Donald Trump whom he said did not know about it before.
BLITZER: So, Phil, take us inside the CIA --
AXELROD: Wolf, can I just say --
BLITZER: Hold on just one second. I just want to get Phil Mudd. Inside the CIA right now, the FBI, how are they reacting, the career professionals?
MUDD: They're sitting there saying we have a fundamental responsibility, and that is there is interference in election that both sides of the aisle have looked at. And furthermore, there is an added piece that just came in this week.
The Director of the FBI, I thought mistakenly, publicly acknowledged an investigation. That means before the next election cycle, he's going to have to come around and say we concluded that people in the administration were involved or we didn't. So there is a timeline now for them. BLITZER: David Axelrod, go ahead.
AXELROD: Yes. I just want to say, I also think there's some heavy irony in the fact that we're dealing today with yet another apparent incident of terrorism overseas. And, you know, we rely on our intelligence community. We rely on our FBI to be a front line in that fight. And this effort to kind of constantly erode the credibility of the intelligence community and the FBI, at the very same time when there is this sense of urgency about dealing with these threats, I think, is very destructive.
BLITZER: All right. We're going to stay on top of the breaking news. Everybody, stand by.
[17:54:59] We're also following other major developments including tomorrow's showdown vote on the effort by Republicans to repeal and replace ObamaCare. The President's spokesman says there is no Plan B if that bill fails, but do Republicans have enough votes to pass it?
BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news.
Trump team intercept. The House Intelligence Committee Chairman says some of the communications related to President Trump may have been picked up during routine and legal surveillance. Republican Devin Nunes raising more questions than he answered about what he learned and why he went public. Tonight, a key Democrat says he has grave doubts.