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House Intel Chair Won't Step Aside in Russia Probe; Senate to Investigate Kushner Meeting with Russian Banker; House GOP Hold First News Conference Since Health Care Failure; Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired March 28, 2017 - 10:30   ET



[10:30:44] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, this morning the House Intelligence chair, Devin Nunes, under siege.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, critics are demanding he step down from leading his committee's investigation of alleged Russia ties to Trump associates, and now some Republican senators are questioning his judgment.

Let's go straight to our Manu Raju. He has been applying his own brand of pressure to Nunes this morning, keeping up with him at every step.

What did you make of his answers and non-answers to you this morning on -- you know, on his position leading this committee?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it sounds like he's going to stay as chairman of the committee and continue to run this Russia investigation, despite these Democratic calls for him to recuse himself, angrily rejecting those calls, believing that they're really out of bounds. He continually said, ask Democrats those questions, don't ask me. I'm moving forward with this Russia investigation, and Republicans on the committee support him staying in that position.

A number of Republicans going into this conference meeting where Republicans just met signal that they do support him, including Pete King of New York, who said to me, absolutely not should Nunes step down. This would be just giving in to Democrats. So Nunes really rejecting any notion that his standing may -- is undermining this investigation, believing that it's going to go forward, but he did not answer some key questions, including whether or not the White House itself asked him to cancel a public hearing scheduled for today with three intelligence officials, including Sally Yates, the former deputy of the Justice Department, because they did not want her to testify about what she knew about Michael Flynn, those contacts with the Russian ambassador.

When we asked Nunes that directly, he would not say, and he continually discussed how the committee plans to move forward, not getting into the back and forth. I also tried to get him on the issue of whether or not the Russia investigation itself came up in those private -- in that private briefing he had with President Trump last week as he got that new surveillance information, and he would not go there either. He said, I've already addressed that issue, and it was just a simple yes or no question, did you talk about Russia at all?

And why that's significant is that some members on the committee believe that he may have compromised this investigation by talking about Russia at the same time that the committee's investigating Russia and those alleged contacts that happened with the Trump campaign. But the upshot being that Devin Nunes says he's not going anywhere, and it will take Republicans, and particularly Speaker Ryan, who we're going to hear from momentarily to call for him to step down, and we're not getting any indication that will happen as of yet, guys.

BERMAN: You know, Manu, that's a good point. You are standing in a room right now right behind you is where Speaker Ryan will speak any second, so we forgive you if you have to duck down at any minute or stop mid-answer here, but you brought some great points. The fact remains that there are questions that Chairman Nunes will not answer and in fact there are new questions being raised every day that he seems not to answer.

We now know that he canceled what was supposed to be a public hearing for today that was going to have former DNI Clapper, I think former CIA director John Brennan, and Sally Yates, who was the deputy attorney general -- acting attorney general for a period of time. That meeting was answered. And the question he would not answer to you flat out and was asked point blank was, did the White House pressure you to cancel that, correct? He would not answer that question?

MANU: He would not answer that. He said that -- he really dodged that question, then talked about how they wanted to have a private briefing today from FBI Director James Comey as well as Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency. Of course, that private briefing also canceled today as the House Intelligence Committee has scrapped any other full committee briefings this week because the two sides just could not get together.

And he also would not really discuss, of course, the source of that information, that surveillance information which he briefed President Trump on. There's been some speculation that a former Nunes attorney who now works at the White House may have been involved. I asked him about that, too. He said, I'm not going to discuss any of my sources. Right now you can look at what I've said in the past.

So a lot of questions still about how he's handled this and whether or not this committee can move forward in a credible way or if not the Senate Intelligence Committee continue to move forward. Perhaps that's where the focus will move if this committee does indeed break down, John and Poppy.

HARLOW: All right. Manu Raju, great reporting. I can't emphasize that enough, getting the answers in real time. Thank you so much for --

[10:35:05] BERMAN: And getting to 10,000 steps, you know, reaching that milestone by chasing -- HARLOW: On his -- yes.

BERMAN: By chasing Chairman Nunes through the halls.

HARLOW: Exactly. Exactly. Manu, great work, thank you.

Let's bring in our panel as we await House Speaker Paul Ryan. With us, CNN political commentators Alice Stewart, a Republican strategist, former communications director for Ted Cruz, and Dan Pfeiffer is here, a former senior adviser to President Obama.

Nice to have you both as we await Paul Ryan.

Alice, let me just ask you, what do you make of the confidence Nunes is not exactly instilling in people by not answering these questions, very direct questions that he could have answered to Manu? And he says, no, no, no, you already asked that, why are you asking so many questions? Go back and look at your transcripts. I mean, that is not being transparent.

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No. And I will say this, he has done the Manu tango for many miles throughout the halls of Congress. And he has --

HARLOW: The Manu Tango, I like that.

STEWART: Yes. That's what we call it. When you know Manu is waiting, that's what it is. He has answered a lot of questions, but now it's where the rubber meets the road. And when you have Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi and Schiff and Castro saying that he's compromising the investigation, time to step aside. But in addition to that, we also have Republicans Lindsey Graham and John McCain say that this is too much of a distraction, this is disrupting the House, and they're saying it's time for him to recuse himself. That is a time when you really need to step back and reflect, is this too much of a distraction, is it too much to overcome in order for us to do what the ultimate goal is, to have a fair and impartial investigation about Russian interference and possible influence in our elections?

BERMAN: You know, Dan Pfeiffer, we have you here with us. You worked in the White House, obviously, for a long time. You are no impartial, you know, jury on this, but could a chairman --


BERMAN: Could a chair of an Intelligence Committee -- how would it work when you were at the White House for that person to come on to the White House grounds, whether it be the White House or in this case the old executive office building? Is it -- would it be unusual for that to happen without someone in the West Wing knowing?

PFEIFFER: It would be impossible. Someone in the White House would have to know because someone in the White House would have had to, what we would call wave in a visitor, someone who does not have a hard pass to the White House. There is a record of that. If this was the Obama administration, those records would be released monthly. To date, the Trump administration has refused to say whether they were going to follow that path of transparency, but there's an answer to this question that's sitting in a computer database in the White House, and the White House could provide that answer to you guys or the rest of the world with the push of a button.

HARLOW: Alice, the president's talking about everything except this, this morning, I mean, truly tweeting about almost everything except this, all this morning. This as he's staring at an approval rating, 36 percent, a record low for him, according to Gallup, and one of the lowest, you know, on the books for a president two months in.

You ran strategy and communications for Ted Cruz. What's the strategy here for the White House to try to get somewhat in front of all of this as four people close to the president now, including his son-in- law, Jared Kushner, will have to answer questions from these intel committees?

STEWART: Well, understandably, this is something that you want to distance yourself from, because it's muddy waters. And that being said, there are plenty of positive things he can be talking about. He's doing -- meeting with business leaders yesterday. What's going to be next with regard to the budget? What is he going to do with regard to climate efforts as well as some other issues that he is going to be focusing on? That's what he needs to do, anything and everything he can do to distance himself from this current Russian ties is the best thing to do.

And certainly looking at what are the lessons learned from the failure of the American Health Care Act and what will they do moving forward. I am encouraged by what we're hearing now, is that originally there was talk that they were just going to forget all about reforming health care and focus on other things. I am encouraged by the talks that we're hearing from the administration. They're willing to work together. Hopefully, they'll work with Democrats as well as moderate and conservative Republicans --


HARLOW: We've actually had Representative Richard Hudson, Republican of North Carolina, coming forward today to tell CNN they may bring up this bill as early as later this week, the health care bill, for another vote, if they get the votes.

STEWART: I think that's a little optimistic, but it would be nice, if so. But I think what we learned the first time is you can't rush something like this through. It took the Obama administration almost a year and a half. And here in this case, we tried to work something that dealt with one-sixth of the economy in 18 days. That's just not feasible. I think having a conversation on the front end with all sides involved will help alleviate the problems that we had this time with regard to getting something passed.

BERMAN: You know, Dan Pfeiffer, as a communications expert, not as a Democrat or a Republican here, do you think it would be smart for this White House to -- you know, to keep a toe in the water when it comes to health care? And again, we're hearing from this meeting right now that Paul Ryan, the House speaker, said, you know, health care's not over. People are coming from that meeting saying maybe, maybe something else could come up soon.

Is that something that would be smart for the White House to try to get involved in again?

PFEIFFER: I think from a communications perspective what they -- a message perspective, what they need to do is get on to what is more friendly territory for Trump.

[10:40:03] They should get to the economy, get to, you know, keeping jobs here in America, the sort of things he ran on. Health care is a political loser for Republicans. Right? It is just not possible to -- it splits the party. You know, your argument is --


BERMAN: That's a pretty ironic -- pretty ironic that you're saying health care is a political loser for Republicans, when it's what they, you know, rode to a majority in 2010, you know, 2014, and the White House this time around.

PFEIFFER: Well, I would say two things. One, giving health care to millions of Americans is politically very challenging, as I have the scars to prove. Taking it away from people -- actually taking it away from people and the policy of actually doing it where the rubber hits the road of governing is a very different thing than yelling about it on the House floor and on FOX News. It's a different world.

You know, they are -- I would describe them as the dog that caught the car when it comes to health care. Move on. Move on to something else that is friendlier territory that gets beyond just the 36 percent of Republicans who still -- Americans who still like Donald Trump. Get to something that has a broader appeal. And repeal of the ACA does not have that broad appeal. It's more popular than it's ever been.

HARLOW: Thank you very much, Dan Pfeiffer, Alice Stewart. We appreciate it. We're going to get a quick break in. Again, we're waiting for Paul Ryan to take the podium there and answer some of these tough questions about Devin Nunes and the future of that investigation.

Before that, though, new intrigue surrounding the Trump administration and Russia. The president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, facing increased scrutiny for a meeting he had with a very big-named Russian banker who has close ties to Vladimir Putin. We're going to take you to Moscow for more on that, next.


[10:46:04] BERMAN: All right, you're looking at live pictures from the U.S. Capitol, where we are waiting on House Speaker Paul Ryan. He will speak to the press, this after a closed-door meeting among House Republicans. They talked about a number of issues. It was pretty tense, from what we are told. We are expecting Speaker Ryan to face questions on his opinion of House Intelligence chair Devin Nunes. Does he continue to have faith in the embattled intel chair?

Meanwhile, President Trump's son-in-law and trusted adviser, Jared Kushner, he will face questions by senators for his previously unannounced meeting with a Russian banker. Now today the Kremlin claimed it was not aware of this meeting.

HARLOW: That's right. Kushner met with Sergey Gorkov, the chairman of VEB, which is a big, big Russian bank under sanction right now from the United States. All of this means that Kushner is going to answer questions from senators that are investigating ties between the Trump campaign -- alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives.

The White House, for its part, trying to downplay it.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Jared did a job during the transition in the campaign where he was a conduit in to leaders, and that's until we had a State Department, and a functioning place for people to go. Remember we had a delay in some of these things and that was his role.


HARLOW: CNN senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen joins us now from Moscow with more.

So let's just begin with what we know about this bank, VEB Bank, and this banker that Kushner met with.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, both of them, both the bank and Sergey Gorkov, the chairman of this bank, Poppy, are very, very close to the highest power circles here in Russia, especially to Vladimir Putin.

Now Sergey Gorkov, apparently met with Jared Kushner in December of 2016 and he actually only became chairman of this bank, of the VEB Bank in 2016, in February of 2016, and he was appointed directly by Vladimir Putin. So he hasn't been in this office for very long, but this bank is very, very important here in Russia. It's directly owned by the Russian government. The chairman, as I said, is directly appointed by Vladimir Putin.

And Sergey Gorkov himself really has a long record in the Russian banking sector and also being very, very close to the Russian state. He graduated in 1994 from the Intelligence Academy of the FSB and then went on into the banking sector, even making it to the highest positions at Spare Bank, which is Russia's largest government-owned bank.

And the bank itself, VEB Bank, is really important for the Kremlin as well. It does a lot of the big infrastructure projects, finances them for the Kremlin, especially the infrastructure projects around the Sochi Olympics in 2014. But apparently, it was also responsible for bailing out some oligarchs, especially after the sanctions kicked in. And the bank itself, Poppy, has been under U.S. sanction since 2014,

so quite a long time, ever since Russia annexed Crimea, it does have some holdings, apparently, as well in the east of Ukraine, Poppy.

BERMAN: Interesting. A bank under sanctions, a banker with close ties to the Kremlin meeting with Jared Kushner. The Kremlin now claims they didn't know the meeting happened. Is that believable? We will wait and see.

Frederik Pleitgen in Moscow, thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate it.

Now we are waiting on House Speaker Paul Ryan. He is due to address the press any minute. This after a closed-door meeting with House Republicans. We'll bring that to you the minute it happens.

And we're getting new information from inside Iraq, where more than 100 civilians were killed in an airstrike. There's an investigation under way.


[10:50:22] HARLOW: All right, let's listen in to House Speaker Paul Ryan.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: Good morning. We just had a very, very good meeting with our members. As I said on Friday, we all had to reflect on what we could have done better and this discussion was an honest and very constructive step forward. We are united around a common set of principles. We are united around our agenda. And we all want to advance the cause of freedom and limited government. We all want to make it easier for families to pay the bills and take care of their loved ones.

We all want a system in health care where everybody can have access to affordable coverage. We have more choice and competition. We don't want a government-run health care system. We all agree on these things. So we're not going to retrench into our corners or put up dividing lines.

Today we broke down many of those dividing lines within our conference. There is too much at stake to get bogged down in all of that. We are going to move forward on the things the American people sent us here to do. Today the House is going to act on another congressional measure to reverse bad regulations. So far Congress has sent 10 of these measures to the president's desk.

In the 20 years before this Congress did one of these. We are also committed to securing our border, rebuilding our military and fixing our infrastructure, and we want this to be the last tax season Americans have to put up with this broken tax code.

Since I became speaker, I have talked about the need to go from being an opposition party to being a proposition party and a governing party. It may take a little bit more time, but we are certainly listening, and we are going to get there. The way I would just describe the meeting we just had with our members

is we are going to work together and listen together until we get this right. It is just too important. Obamacare is a collapsing law. Obamacare is doing too much damage to families. And so we're going to get this right. And in the meantime, we're going to do all of our other work that we came here to do.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R), MAJORITY LEADER: Well, I want to convey exactly what the speaker just said. We had a very good conference, a conference that, from a microcosm, people on all sides. And the discussion was exactly what the American people are talking about. We promised that we would repeal and replace Obamacare, and that's exactly what we're going to do.

Friday, the timeline wasn't there, the votes were not there yet. That doesn't mean that we're not going to get there, and that's what this conference was about and what we're actually working towards. In the meantime, we will go back on to the floor, as the speaker talked about, for our regulatory reform. As you watched, prior to this Congress, only one has ever been signed into law.

Well, we will take the FCC privacy regulation up. That will be the 15th one that has passed the House. The president signed four others into law yesterday, again, surpassing the total. This is the part of the plan of putting America back to work, bringing commonsense regulation back and continuing on our path to repeal and replace Obamacare. And coming out of that conference, I have more confidence that we will get it done.

REP. STEVE SCALISE (R), MAJORITY WHIP: After this morning, the resolve of our conference to repeal Obamacare and replace it has never been stronger. I think it was really positive, the openness that members have to working to get to yes that weren't there, and I do think it was important again to point out that the vast majority of our conference was already there in support of the bill that we want to put on President Trump's desk.

To my Democrat colleagues who were celebrating Friday's action, I think their celebration is premature because I think we're closer today to repealing Obamacare than we've ever been before, and surely even closer than we were Friday. So we're going to keep working. This issue isn't going away. Obamacare continues to fail the American people. You're going to continue to see double-digit increases in premiums because Obamacare doesn't work.

And so the fact that our conference is more resolved than ever to repeal this law is very encouraging, and we're not going to stop until we get it done.

REP. CATHY MCMORRIS RODGERS (R), HOUSE REPUBLICAN CONFERENCE CHAIRWOMAN: Coming out of the conference, I remain very optimistic about our agenda. And from the beginning, we've known that it is a very aggressive agenda that we have, and we remain committed to a better health care future to every person in this country. We also want to get to tax reform, keeping America safe, rolling back the regulations. We're working on that again this week. Putting people back at the center of this government.

We are committed, fully committed to rethinking this government from top to bottom because if there's one thing that last week taught us, is that we are united around shared goals.

[10:55:04] Now how we go about implementing our vision is sometimes where we differ, but I am confident. I'm confident in our ability to come together, unify around shared goals, and improve everybody's lives in this country. More freedom, more opportunity for everyone in this country.

PAUL: Does anyone have any questions?


PAUL: Casey.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Two questions, if I may. One --

PAUL: Two?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Should Devin Nunes recuse himself from the Russia investigation? And two, do you know the source of his information?

PAUL: No and no. No.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Can you talk about exactly what you mean by (INAUDIBLE) on the Affordable Care Act now, obviously (INAUDIBLE) decisions by June?

PAUL: Right. Probably before then.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Yes. So do you anticipate some action (INAUDIBLE)?

PAUL: I won't tell you the timeline because we want to get it right. We have an aggressive agenda and we've been moving quickly on this aggressive agenda, but we want to make sure that we get it right.

We had a very constructive meeting with our members. Some of those who were in the no camp expressed a willingness to work on getting to yes and to making this work. We want to get it right. We're going to keep talking to each other until we get it right. I'm not going to put a timeline on it because this is too important to not get right and to put an artificial timeline on it.

You're right, the insurers, yes, they've got to -- that's why I am so worried about this issue. This law is collapsing. You're going to see big -- if Obamacare just stays as is, that's not acceptable for the American people. That's not what we said we would do. So we're going to go figure out how we get this done.

And I think what's confusing to everybody is we have to use these Senate rules. We call them reconciliation. You know what that is, that means you can't pass the bill you really want to pass in the House because it gets filibustered in the Senate. You have to pass a bill in the House that can get through and prevent a filibuster, and it is that frustration that our members are grappling with right now.

Yes, what's your name? The lady behind you. Sorry. Who are you with?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: "The Talking Point Journal." A lot of outside groups are calling on Republicans to use the upcoming (INAUDIBLE) to defund Planned Parenthood. Is there any --

PAUL: We think reconciliation is the tool because that gets it involved. Reconciliation's the way to go. Go ahead, I'll give you one more.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mr. Speaker, any sign that the Freedom Caucus members are willing to compromise?

PAUL: Yes, we -- that's what I was saying. We have our members -- I don't want us to become a factionalized majority. I want us to become a unified majority and that means we're going to sit down and talk things out until we get there, and that's exactly what we're doing. And we saw good overtures from those members from different parts of our conference to get there because we all share these goals and we're just going to have to figure out how to get it done. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mr. Speaker? Mr. Speaker?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. You're listening right there to House Republican leaders speaking to reporters after what was a very emotional sounding, is what it sounds like, conference between House Republicans -- members of the House Republican conference, the first kind of huddle that Republicans have had since their failure to pass a Republican health care bill on Friday.

A lot going on here right now. If I can, let me bring in Phil Mattingly, who has been trying to get some clues as to what has been going on, what was going on inside that closed-door meeting.

Paul Ryan, he had an interesting message coming out, saying that they all are united around their shared goals, around their agenda. Even Steve Scalise, saying, though, Phil, that they're closer to passing -- passing a repeal and replace of Obamacare today than they were Friday.

What went on in that meeting?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That might be the case, according to what the whip, Steve Scalise, had to say, but that still doesn't mean they have the requisite number of votes, Kate, or else it would actually be on the House floor.

Look, going into this meeting, a really interesting thing happened from the start. They kicked all of the staff out of this closed-door meeting. It happens, but it's very rare, it doesn't happen a lot, and that underscored kind of what I heard going into this meeting, that this was a meeting where members needed to get a lot of frustration, a lot of anger, and mostly just kind of disappointment out about failing to move forward on something that they've campaigned on cycle after cycle after cycle.

I was texting with one member who was in the room as this was all happening, and he said, look, ostensibly, this meeting is about the path forward. What it is in reality, it's an airing of grievances. And we heard a lot about that. But the point of the meeting was to try and bring everybody back together. There is no question about it. Friday was an enormous defeat for the conference, there was a major divide inside the conference that was kind of laid bare for everybody.

And coming out of that meeting, really two things you heard. They need to unify or else nothing on their agenda will be accomplished, and when it comes to health care -- the speaker kind of laying it out very clearly -- there's no timeline right now, but what was made clear inside the meeting, 'I'm told, is member after member after member said, even though the president himself said it's time to turn the page, it's time to move on to tax reform, health care is too important, it's too important politically, it's too important policy- wise for these members to move on. So while there's no timeline on health care, work will continue behind the scenes -- Kate.