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House Intel Panel Meets Today on Russia Probe; GOP Considers Changes to Revive ObamaCare Repeal; Paul Ryan: Health Care Talks Continue; Trump Associate Defends Interactions With Russia; Optimism Wearing Thin On Wall Street. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired April 4, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: -- Russia to associates of President Trump, contacts with Russian intelligence, reports of a secret meeting on a remote set of islands. All of these as new debate emerges over whether the Obama administration was eyeballing the Trump campaign.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: It is alive. Late night media on Capitol Hill appears to bring health care reform back from the dead, but could coverage of pre-existing conditions be in jeopardy? In minutes, we could learn what is really going on behind closed doors.

Plus a horrific attack. Dozens killed, hundreds injured in northern Syria after air strikes give off what we're told was a poisonous gas. We have the latest.

Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

HARLOW: I'm Poppy Harlow. So glad you're with us. Enough developments this morning for a spy novel, maybe even a Russian spy novel.

BERMAN: That's a special kind.

HARLOW: That's a special kind. Carter Page, the man who would end up as a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign, acknowledges he was once contacted by Russian intelligence. Separately this morning, "The Washington Post" with details of a meeting between in the Seychelle Islands between a connected Russian and an international man of intrigue, working reportedly and unofficially on behalf of the Trump team.

All of this as, hours from now, the House Intelligence Committee is expected to meet to discuss their investigation on all of this and Russia. This comes after weeks of discord between members and calls for Chairman Devin Nunes to recuse himself after his controversial trip to the White House to review that classified information.

BERMAN: We want to get straight to CNN's Senior Congressional Reporter Manu Raju on Capitol Hill.

Manu, moments ago, we saw you chasing down House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes. It seemed to be to no avail. What can you tell us? MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Yes, that's right.

Actually, right now, the House Republican conference meeting behind closed doors to discuss health care issues and other matters but of course, this issue of Russia continues to dominate the House Intelligence Committee, including the Chairman, Devin Nunes, who is facing those Democratic calls to recuse himself, something, of course, that he has not done.

There'd been a lot of questions since those reports surfaced last week about White House officials presumably helping Mr. Nunes access that surveillance information on White House grounds. And he had said previously to our own Wolf Blitzer that no one in the West Wing was aware of his appearance on White House grounds. And he had also told House Speaker Paul Ryan that this was a whistle blower who was a source beyond this information.

I tried to ask him that on his way into this conference meeting, he wouldn't really answer. Take a listen.


RAJU: -- good. What do you think about this idea of giving Flynn immunity? Can you just stop for a second?


RAJU: Can you just take one for a second?

NUNES: No, I've got to get into the --

RAJU: What do you think of this idea of giving Flynn immunity?

NUNES: God, I hear them starting here, our conference, so --

RAJU: Do you still standby the notion that he is a whistle blower, that your source was a whistle blower?


RAJU: So not exactly answering there. The issue of immunity, of course, something that has really consumed the discussion about the witnesses who will come forward behind House and Senate Intelligence Committee, whether or not to give Michael Flynn the immunity that he is seeking now.

Actually, Devin Nunes told one of our colleagues, Tom LoBianco, yesterday that he does not believe that Michael Flynn's ask, the letter that Michael Flynn's attorney sent out last week, is actually an ask for an immunity, something that he believe that a formal ask for immunity has not been made to the House Intelligence Committee.

And this comes, guys, as the House Intelligence Committee is trying to restart its investigation after weeks of turmoil. There was a closed- door meeting that occurred yesterday. There's another one that's expected later today. Expect some discussions about Russia. Now, one of the other key players in all this is Senator John McCain.

He's not on the Intelligence Committee, but he is heavily involved on the issue of Russia. He spoke on "NEW DAY" earlier today.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: We need this like we need to get to the bottom of it. I have great confidence in Richard Burr and Senator Warner of Virginia, but the dimensions of this require a broader scope if we are going to get to the bottom of all of it.


RAJU: Now, a select committee is really something that most Republicans do not support. They believe that they can do this in the standing committees in the House and the Senate. McCain is in the minority of his party, but most Democrats, of course, are calling for a select committee. So that's one reason why Nunes wants to get this investigation back on track, tamp down those calls for an independent investigation, believing they can do it perfectly well here on Capitol Hill, guys.

BERMAN: All right, Manu Raju for us on Capitol Hill, busy as always. Thanks so much, Manu.

As we said, there are new threads, though, this morning of possible connections between Russians and Trump associates. And this morning, one associate of President Trump is defending his actions after a report reveals his ties, or at least contact, to an alleged Russian spy.

[09:05:04] Carter Page. That is a name you have heard before. He once served as an advisor to candidate Trump. He confirms he met with a Russian intelligence operative, but he denies sharing any sensitive information. His role on a 2015 Russian counter intelligence case was first reported last night by BuzzFeed.

We want to bring in CNN's Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto to explain what is going on here. Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, we have to look at this in the bigger picture because we're learning about other attempts to back channel negotiations with Russians involving Jared Kushner meeting with the head of a Russian bank or an official from a Russian bank that was currently under and still is under U.S. sanctions. And then you have this other meeting brokered by people from the United Arab Emirates via Erik Prince who founded Blackwater, who happens to be the brother of Betsy DeVos, the Education Secretary. So you have more than one taking place and some of these during the transition.

The fact is -- you know this, John; you know this, Poppy -- that all administrations, Democrats and Republicans, will do back channel negotiations. It was actually a back channel negotiation with Iran that led to the Iran nuclear negotiations. Even going back to Nixon time. The thing is, one, you want to keep it secret if it is meant to be a secret back channel. Two, typically, you'd wait until you were president as opposed to during the transition period.

And that's raised some objections about this idea of one president at a time where, these negotiations, were things being offered? Were discussions being had before Trump was President about possible changes in U.S. policy with regards to Russia? That's the question. We don't know the answer to that question, but we do know that there were more contacts there than we knew of before.

BERMAN: Jim, this is just part of the story overnight, right? There are reports that Susan Rice, who was national security advisor to President Obama, was involved in unmasking names, in other words making known, internally at least, names from surveillance of foreign individuals, that she was involved in that. You've got some response from people close to her.

SCIUTTO: That's right, not denying that she would have requested an unmasking but saying would not have done so inappropriately or improperly. And the fact is let's set Susan Rice's response aside. I have spoken to senior U.S. intelligence officials who served both Republican and Democratic administrations. They say a number of things.

One, unmasking is not unusual. Senior national security officials do that to better understand the information behind intelligence reports they receive every day. It is not illegal. There are protocols put in place, at least since 9/11, to allow this to happen.

And it can't happen on the orders of one official. You have to ask the intelligence community, specifically the NSA, in this case, for permission to unmask those names. And it's the I.C., the intelligence community, that makes a judgment as to whether that is appropriate. And these requests are meticulously logged, so it can't happen in the dark.

And finally, unmasking does not mean revealing or leaking. You know, that information is shared between the briefer and the national security intelligence official.

What we don't know, John and Poppy, is were those identities unmasked and then leaked by Rice or others? We don't know that. It is possible, but with the information we have now, we don't know that to be true. And that seems to be what the Trump administration and officials and Devin Nunes or others are equating here, that unmasking equals making public. That is not true, and we don't know that to be the case yet.

HARLOW: All right. Jim Sciutto, thank you for all of the reporting on all of the very complex threads. We appreciate it.

BERMAN: All right. The plan to repeal and replace ObamaCare, it might not be dead this morning. Last night, Vice President Pence met with the House Freedom Caucus. And the leader of the conservative group that helped, really, tanked the first bill, he left saying he is intrigued.

HARLOW: Indeed. So is this a sign that a compromise may be within reach, and what is the White House willing to give at this point? We may learn within an hour when Republican leaders hold their weekly news conference. Let's go to Sunlen Serfaty. She's on Capitol Hill with more.

Look, Mark Meadow says he's intrigued. But it sounds like, from the reporting this morning, the Freedom Caucus is asking for even more. They're essentially asking for something that would really change the pre-existing conditions clause.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Poppy. Overall, I think you can say the status of all this is it is way too early to call this a comeback for the health care bill. There, yes, are some negotiations, some behind the scenes meetings and movement going on, but there is no actual legislation. There's no actual deal. People are still contributing to the negotiations, and no one has signed on to anything yet.

But as you noted, the focus here that the White House is trying to make is really to make some changes that might be amenable to bridge the divide between the two groups that essentially brought down this bill about 10 days ago, House conservatives and House moderates. So that's why we are seeing the White House reach out to the House Freedom Caucus, Mike Pence up here on Capitol Hill last night.

And they also had members of the Tuesday Group, the moderate group, up to the White House yesterday, all trying to see what changes can be made to make this bill potentially resuscitated.

[09:10:05] Now, one of the big changes that we're hearing floated in this new plan is giving states potentially more flexibility to opt out of those ObamaCare provisions. So essential health benefits, they could have a waiver instead to get out of those provisions, things like maternity leave, maternity care, and hospitalization.

There were some other notables on the table as well, but the big thing we're hearing up here on Capitol Hill, John and Poppy, is that it's too early to tell right now. There just aren't enough details. There is no actual text. And until they see something, you're not going to have members sign on the dotted line. Back to you, guys.

BERMAN: All right, Sunlen Serfaty for us on Capitol Hill. Let's bring in our panel right now. We're joined by CNN Political Analyst, Editor-in-Chief for "The Daily Beast," John Avlon; CNN Political Commentator, Republican Consultant Margaret Hoover; and CNN Political Commentator Ben Ferguson.

Margaret, let me start with you. Community rating is a technical term, but what it essentially means is that you need to charge the same amount for premiums for everyone at an age group in a geographic area. You can't charge more for someone with pre-existing conditions. If you allow states to opt out of, it may effectively mean that people with pre-existing conditions pay way, way more. I thought President Trump promised repeatedly that he would protect the pre-existing conditions situations.

MARGARET HOOVER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Not only that. In that first meeting he had with President Obama, that was President Obama's first ask of him and first, really, entreaty was, whatever you do to the Health Care Act, at least keep the pre-existing conditions clause because it's the most popular element of the Affordable Care Act.

But here's really what -- you know, I love this talk of resurrecting the ACHA. Leadership in the House of Representatives is not driving it, which they are not. This is simply Vice President Pence going and sitting with the Freedom Caucus, the people how tanked it in the first place and didn't want this to happen. This is not real.

HARLOW: I just think it is astonishing. I mean, Mark Meadows says he's intrigued. The door, clearly, is open. The President talking to NBC's Kristen's Welker last night, like, really signaling now he wants to get this done. Why would the White House trust the Freedom Caucus again? Why would they put themselves up for potentially another embarrassment?

JOHN AVLON, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, THE DAILY BEAST: Yes. So you get a, you know, Charlie Brown and the football potential situation where they're trying to negotiate with the people who tanked it the first time around. That said, you know, the hundred days' number is closing in, and the Trump administration and the Republican Congress desperately needs a win that isn't named Gorsuch.

And so the Pence and everybody's trying to get a re-do, golfing with Paul Ryan, President Trump saying, look, if the House Caucus won't come in, maybe I'll work with the Democrats instead, they desperately need a win. They're trying to frame the failure last week as kind of a Reagan and Ray Cubic (ph) moment, you know, the good dealmaker walks away when he knew he couldn't get it done to show he's serious.

But this a long way from being a Lazarus. They really need to find common ground. And if they ditch pre-existing conditions, not only is a bill with 70 percent approval going to go even lower, they will have shown themselves to have just lied in every campaign speech and presidential promise given on this issue.

HOOVER: Right. Where are you going to get the other 215 votes? I mean, that's the problem, is that you can get the Freedom Caucus --

HARLOW: Yes. And if it makes it to the Senate --

HOOVER: -- but where do you get the rest of the Republicans?

HARLOW: OK, forget it.

AVLON: Right. Toast. Tostada.

HOOVER: Well, it might not even going to pass the House.

BERMAN: Ben Ferguson, do you want to jump in here on health care?


BERMAN: Because I want to ask you about the Seychelles, which I know is one of your favorite vacations resorts, but jump into health care first.


FERGUSON: Here's what I'll say. There's two things here. One, the Freedom Caucus has taken a lot of heat from people around the country, specifically in their districts, over the last 10 days when they heard the real possibility that the White House might have to work with Democrats. And I think that's one of the things that's brought them back to the table.

I also think that this idea that we're going to get rid of pre- existing conditions, based on Freedom Caucus members I have spoken over the last two days, is probably not a reality. They understand that they're going to get a better deal and a better bill if they work with the White House.

And here's the other thing, Mike Pence going up there and sitting down with these individuals, they realize both of their necks are on the line here. And the White House has got four years until they are up for re-election. The Freedom Caucus members and everybody in the Congress and the House side, they've got less than two years. They need this, you could argue, even more than the White House because if they go up for re-election and they did not get this done and their whole idea is, well, we won and then we let ObamaCare implode, a lot of them are going to lose their seats.

So I think what you're seeing now is the White House is admitting, look, we went too fast on this. Paul Ryan, I think, is even, behind the scenes, admitting that. Let's slow down. Let's try to find common ground on this.

And let's move slower and in a more organized fashion instead of saying, hey, here is the deadline, get it together. Get on board or we're going to run over you. It didn't work and now they got to start all over on this. I think it's the smart way to do it, actually, this time.

BERMAN: All right. You guys are all in agreement. They are talking, it is moving forward.

Ben, let me ask you now about the Seychelles because I know you like the sun. Look, there are reports in "The Washington Post." Erik Prince, the guy who used to run Blackwater, which is a name that a lot of people know, mercenaries around the world, essentially, went to the Seychelles, "The Post" reports, to meet with an associate of Vladimir Putin, "The Post" reports, to open up a back channel perhaps, "The Post" reports, between the incoming Trump administration and the Russians.

That's a lot going on right there, Ben. Why would you need to go to the Seychelles to open up a back channel to a foreign leader who you're going to be interacting with in eight days?

[09:15:02] FERGUSON: Well, I think there's two things. One, you are introducing yourself to world leaders right before you become the president. I don't think most Americans have a real issue with that. The second issue is if you are dealing with anybody in the Russian government that's high up, it is not like they are going to be clean.

I mean, for goodness sakes, the president of the country is former KGB and a killer. So let's not act like anybody in Russia that you are going to deal with at the highest levels is somehow, you know, above reproach here.

You are going to be dealing with shady people. Russia is a shady country. The leader is a shady individual. So when people try to act as if, oh, the Trump campaign or people associated met with x, y or z, none of them are going to be good people.

I don't think there is a big issue here with reaching out to them saying there is a lot going on right now. I know this administration has kicked out a lot of your diplomats.

I know they are trying to make statement the last moment here. We're going to have a reset with you. Let's calm down on how you are going to respond and we'll see you in a couple days. I think that's smart leadership.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Then why, John, do you send a guy who ran Blackwater, who is the brother of Betsy Devos, now you're education secretary, who is not officially allowed to be connected to the Trump campaign? Why do you send him to do it if it's all fine?

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You don't. That's the obvious point here, people. Look, at some point you are looking at the level of back channel and front door communications with Russia from at least early summer, late spring through days before inauguration.

This is an unnatural and not normal amount of communication and coordination with a hostile foreign power. If you are dispatching the head of Blackwater to do secret back channel negotiations while there are also conversations occurring by Paul Manafort and his successors, this is so much smoke that we would be idiots not to investigate independently where there is fire.

BERMAN: First of all, he meant shady as in not sunny. The time line he said out, yes, Paul Manafort and Carter Page, that was all back in the summer during the campaign.

HARLOW: Carter Page is 2012.

BERMAN: And even further. That was the meeting with the intelligence officer, which we haven't even discussed. But Carter Page working in the Trump campaign within the summer, my point, Eric Prince from Blackwater, maybe an interesting choice, right, but if it's a week before the inauguration, shouldn't Trump associates be having conversations with other countries to get ready for --

MARGARET HOOVER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, yes. In Washington, D.C. and in the place of government where the transition is taking place. Why are you going to the middle of the Indian Ocean? It is curious. Of course, we need to know more and let them respond to it. But, look, where there is a lot of smoke, there is a lot of fire and it is very hot over here. BERMAN: All right. Ben Ferguson, Margaret and John, great to have you with us. Really appreciate it.

All right. The House Intelligence Committee, with all of this going on, it is a good day to get back to work, right? They will be meeting but after so much turmoil, can they get their act together and get on the same page?

HARLOW: And the pictures are just unbearable. A poisonous gas killing dozens if not hundreds in Northern Syria. Hundreds more injured among them children. More on that straight ahead.



HARLOW: All right. Some breaking news for you out of Capitol Hill, Paul Ryan, the House speaker saying, yes, they are trying to move forward on health care, but no substantive movement to announce. Of course, the context of this is the vice president meeting with the House Freedom Caucus last night and Mark Meadows, the head of the caucus coming out very intrigued.

Let's talk about all of this and all the Russia developments with Democratic Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi. He is the ranking member on the Homeland Security. Thank you. Nice to have you here.


HARLOW: So it looks like the House Freedom Caucus and the White House are getting along a lot better right now. Pence had that meeting last night. Are you at all concerned that perhaps Democrats are losing out on this moment to work with the White House and work with the president specifically on health care?

I mean, he came out blasting members of the House Freedom Caucus and made it sound a whole lot like he'd like to work with you guys rather than some of his fellow Republicans?

THOMPSON: Well, easily said than done. Democrats are willing to work on improving the Affordable Care Act. What we have to do, though, is become partners. To my knowledge, there has been no ouch reach to Democrats. All the Democrats I know are perfectly willing to work with anybody to improve the health care, but obviously we're not interested in penalizing people. We're not interested in kicking people off their existing health care. We want to improve it.

BERMAN: So Congressman, you are the ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee. So you have your eye obviously on a lot of these developments with Russia. This morning, you know, we're hearing from Carter Page, who was a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign that he was contacted by Russian intelligence a few years before.

We also learned in this meeting through "Washington Post" reporting someone who thought he was speaking on behalf of the Trump campaign and Russian officials, what questions do you have about this news this morning?

THOMPSON: Well, John, to be honest with you, a lot is going on, and because of that, a lot of us are supporting this independent commission. There are just too many things happening on a daily basis that's almost the next shoe falling.

So what we have to do is to make sure that a body is put together that has credibility to look at these issues. So I'm not certain what will happen tomorrow. But to be honest with you, it is no secret the Russians are trying to compromise our election system.

They want to make sure that they are the person in charge of running things, and they use spies and covert operations on a daily basis. All the briefings we've had tell us that this is what the Russians are doing.

[09:25:11]This is their modus operandi. So it is not news. It's only news when we hear about it for the first time.

HARLOW: Someone else who is calling for an independent investigation of this is Republican Senator John McCain just called for that this morning on CNN's "NEW DAY." He also said yesterday that if Susan Rice, the former national security adviser under President Obama, did ask for these names to be unmasked because of political purposes that would be a dereliction of duty. What is your response?

THOMPSON: Well, I'm not -- I don't think it's dereliction of duties. I think it is within her purview to ask for it and if it's on record, and you can determine to an independent commission whether it was lawful or not.

And, so, looking down the road, a purpose of why someone did something can only be interpreted and investigated by this independent commission. I would think that Mrs. Rice in her capacity can access any information.

And if she did it in a manner that's lawful, it's fine. But again because every day something else is coming up, I think it's only fitting and proper that this independent commission be put together to look at everything and to have the authority to do that and do a good job.

BERMAN: Right.

THOMPSON: The intelligence commission, committee, it is a problem. Chairman Nunes has compromised whatever objectivity that existed there with his recent actions. So clearly, the independent commission is the direction we should take.

BERMAN: And you have actually proposed a resolution to have the House Homeland Security Committee, which you sit on, get involved in the some investigation, hold hearings. I hear what you say about Russia, whether or not Russians contacted or coordinated with Trump associates during the campaign is a completely separate issue as to who was unmasked or masked and why.

But do you think there are legitimate questions about unmasking by an outgoing administration here? Look, if this had happened during an outgoing Bush administration with an incoming Obama administration, would it be nothing?

THOMPSON: Well, let me say this. I have no problem looking at anything and we will go where the facts lead us. If the facts say this is wrong, then it was wrong, but let's deal with the facts. The law is the law. We can't conjure up what a purpose was.

Let's go with whether or not the authority was there and whether the risk associated with getting the facts was also there. So I'm not going to condemn Mrs. Rice, but I am encouraging that commission to look at any and everything that occurred during this time.

BERMAN: Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson in Mississippi, great to have you with us today. Thanks so much, sir.

THOMPSON: Thank you for having me.

HARLOW: All right, Wall Street optimism for the president's policy maybe wearing a little bit experts say without real action, tax reform, et cetera, that Trump bump may have seen its highest point. CNN Money chief business correspondent, Christine Romans joins us live. What do you think?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Hi there. There are a lot of roadblocks, too, in that Trump bump if you look at this week, for example, there is the President Xi meeting from China on Thursday. There could be headline risk as they say about trades.

There is a jobs report on Friday and you're right, Poppy, optimism has been priced into stocks so far. That's why I think you are seeing a little bit of a pause here. You could see stocks go lower here today.

Today is also equal payday. This is a day every year, it is a little different day every year when we kind of look back and remark about how the money a man, the typical male made in 2016, it took a woman all of 2016 and up until today to make the same amount of money.

It is about 20 cents on the dollar on average women earn compared with men, and that's -- 20 cents is a lot of money. The annual loss on average about $10,500. Over the course of a lifetime of a 40-year career, that's $418,000.

And even when you adjust by industry, it isn't that women are choosing industries that pay less. Even within the same industry, you see that men make a different amount of money than women. The average is 80 cents.

Engineering, a higher paid industry, 82 cents on the dollar. Education, 78 cents on the dollar. Sales, you can see there and legal, the law career is really, really dramatic when you see it there. Ivanka Trump from her seat at the White House today tweeting about this just maybe two hours ago. She retweeted a "USA Today" story that remarked some interesting statistics.

It will take about 44 years for women to catch up with men.