Return to Transcripts main page


House Republicans Hold News Conference; Trump Associates Defends Interactions with Russia; House Intel Panel Meets Today on Russia Probe. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired April 4, 2017 - 10:00   ET



PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: -- in a way that can get everybody to 216. It's important that we don't just win the votes of one caucus or one group, but that we get the votes and consensus of 216 of our members and that's kind of where we are right now. So, it's premature to say where we are or what we are on because we're at the conceptual stage right now.


RYAN: No. I won't get into the details of these things, other than to say that this is all about getting to the conceptual stage. We don't have a bill text or an agreement yet, but this is the kind of conversations we want.

The authorizers, all the various Caucus members, the administration, those productive conversations are happening right now and we're all just talking about conceptual levels about how to improve the ability to get lower -- it's all about getting premiums down. This is all about making more affordable premiums and we have other members who have brought some really constructive ideas to the table, like Gary Palmer and David Schweikert, which all revolve around making sure that there are solid protections for people but getting everybody lower premiums. Manu?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Thank you Mr. Speaker. Last week, you said that when Chairman Nunes briefed you about the information that he got, that it was a whistleblower who gave him the information. Then it was revealed that at least two White House officials helped him get this information. What gives you confidence that it was a whistleblower and that Chairman Nunes is being truthful? --

RYAN: I don't know who it was, but I'll just say this. Chairman Nunes has my confidence. I've met with the committee. They have my confidence. This -- what's important is that this committee does its investigation on a bipartisan basis to get to the bottom of things and -- investigate all things Russia.

That's what this committee is going to do. It's going to take some time. It's not going to be played out in a 24-hour news cycle. It's going to be following the facts, wherever those facts go, and then giving a real account all things Russia-related, to the American people.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Just to follow up on health care, it doesn't sound like you think it's realistic if there could be a vote in the House by the end -

RYAN: I don't know the answer to that question because what we -- I don't want to put some kind of an artificial deadline because we're at the conceptual stage. We have very productive conversations occurring among our members, but those are productive conversations. That doesn't mean that we have language and text that's ready to go and the votes are lined up. But that's what you need to do in order to get to that.

Meaning, get members talking that's happening, get everybody engaged with one another, that's happening. Now we're throwing around concepts to improve the bill. That's occurring right now, but that is not to say that we are ready to go. Because we want to make sure that when we go, we have the votes to pass this bill. We've got the consensus that we've long been looking for.

We're very close on consensus. Like I said, 90 percent of our conference was already there, 10 percent was not. And now, we're having the kinds of productive conversations among our members interacting through the committees of jurisdiction and with the administration, and that's just where we are right now. Andy?

ANDY, REPORTER: What kind of wins are you going to deliver for conservatives on this Big Spending Bill that you couldn't have gotten last week?

RYAN: Well, the good news is we don't have to deal with the Obama administration and riders of the Obama administration. We have the Trump administration. And so, you know me, Andy, I'm a regular order guy.

That means I want the Appropriations Committee to write the appropriations bill. The Appropriations Committee to negotiate a bill. And the good thing is we're working hand in glove with the Trump administration on these things.

That's point number one. We don't have to fight an administration that we disagree with on so many issues. We are now working with an administration we agree with. The appropriators are going to go get the best kind of agreement they can. That's the way the process should work and I anticipate we'll be moving on that.


RYAN: I'm not going to get ahead of where the appropriators are. The appropriators are the ones who are negotiating, writing this bill and you'll see it at the end of the month.

Thanks, everybody. Appreciate it.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, you just heard House Speaker Paul Ryan explaining, yes, the House of Representatives, Republicans are working on hammering out some kind of language, perhaps work toward a deal on health care.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And he said we're in the beginning stages, really, the collaborative stages.

BERMAN: Now, contrast that with another piece of news that we're just getting. Our Phil Mattingly joins us right now. And Phil Mattingly, you are reporting that the White House is going to put pens to paper today and send some language up to the Capitol on health care, because that would be a big development.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no question about it. But look, I think it's really important. You watched what Speaker Ryan just said and it really kind of underscores where this actually stands right now. The White House has been laser focused over the last couple of days in trying to reach out to those conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus that they simply couldn't get on board two weeks ago, that were largely a driving force behind the implosion of this bill.

And what they told in a private, closed-door meeting last night with Vice President Mike Pence, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told this group of members, this conservative group of members, that they had a proposal that they wanted to put on the table. Now, that proposal would give states the ability to opt out of the essential health benefits that are in Obamacare, the kind of ten minimum requirements that have to be in any insurance plan and also give states the opportunity to opt out of the community rating system, which basically doesn't allow insurance companies to discriminate based on age or gender, areas like that. These are the types of issues that these conservatives have said they want on the table.

[10:05:00] Now, they want them fully repealed. The White House is trying to strike a middle ground here. But I think what Speaker Ryan said was very important at the top of that press conference, saying, look, we're not trying to reach out to one group or one caucus. We need all of our members to come together because one group and one caucus does not 216 votes make. They need 216 to move this forward. Freedom Caucus is only about three dozen members.

So, what you heard from the speaker right there is I think a really important point to keep in mind as these talks are ongoing. And there is no question, guys. The talks have ticked up in a major way over the last couple of days. The White House is very involved, and as you noted, the White House telling those Freedom Caucus members last night they are willing to put pen to paper. They are willing to send legislative text up to Capitol Hill that would outline the proposal they currently have on the table. But there are major questions about whether or not that proposal is viable and that's why you see some reticence from the speaker right now.

I'm told that in that closed-door meeting of House Republicans this morning, the speaker was very noncommittal. He made the point, talks are ongoing. This is a positive thing. The idea of pulling the party back from kind of the intraparty sniping that's been going on over the last two weeks is a positive development, but in terms of a timeline, in terms of what a deal or a possible compromise would actually entail, that remains an open door.

So, I think it's worth noting that there's some caution here that there's some big breakthrough coming. But there's no question about it, we are a long way from where we were 11 days ago, where health care was done and we were moving on to tax reform.

HARLOW: But Phil, is it -- I mean, what's your take, on what sounds like the Trump administration possibly being willing to completely reverse course on this community rating thing and what it means for pre-existing conditions? I mean, that is one thing that he said he would not get rid of, those protections for those with pre-existing conditions. The polling shows that 87 percent of Americans like that protection. And now, it sounds like after this meeting between the House Freedom Caucus and Vice President Pence last night, the Trump administration may give on that.

MATTINGLY: So, the big question now is what the actual bill, what the legislative language looks like. According to Freedom Caucus members after this meeting, they said there would be carve out for pre- existing conditions. But if you look at insurance markets and if you look at how they actually work, it's unclear that any carve out would actually work or be viable.

I think the big question now is as part of this proposal as has been put on the table, they are planning to send more money to what they call a state stability fund that's kind of designed to plus up high risk pools that they hope at the state level will kind of come into play, come into place and help address some of these issues, but there's no question about it. I think this is why it's important to note as we move forward on this, as we look at what's being put on the table, that there are still real problems, both politically and on the policy side of things that are still at play.

So you get 30 members of the House Freedom Caucus, you get 25 members of the House Freedom Caucus. What about those moderates, who it's worth noting, were also bleeding away towards the end of those original health care negotiations as it looked like this bill was moving more towards the Freedom Caucus? Those are the most kind of politically endangered members of the conference. Those are the members that made very clear that pre-existing conditions, keeping kids on their parents' plans until age 26, were not only core components of what the president campaigned on. They were core components of what they campaigned on as well.

So, -- you kind of get inside how difficult threading this needle actually is and why there's still a lot more work to do, even though the White House has very clearly taken the lead on this and has decided that they want to actually put proposals on the table, guys.

BERMAN: And when we see what they put on paper, they will be taking a position, and we'll see how hard they stand behind that position. Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill, fascinating reporting. Thanks so much.

We have more reporting from Capitol Hill, more perhaps breaking news. We're joined now by CNN senior Congressional reporter Manu Raju on Capitol Hill. You've been covering the Intelligence Committee and questions about what they're doing, and there is some news about how they may proceed. Manu?

RAJU: Yes, that's right. The House Intelligence Committee, they believe they're making some progress, particularly the Republicans on the committee, this after weeks of turmoil and questions over Devin Nunes, the chairman of the committee, his role running this investigation, the curious trip he took to the White House to brief the President of the United States on surveillance information he says he got from a secret source.

But in a signs of things are moving forward, Republicans emerging from this meeting today said to me, we believe we have an agreement, at least on the witnesses, to discuss who to interview behind closed doors, depositions, people including Trump associates, including one member, Peter King of New York, who sits on the committee, said all the people that you've been reporting about, Trump associates -- I asked about Michael Flynn, about Paul Manafort, about Carter Page, those Trump advisers. Those people he has suggested will be part of this witness list.

Now, we don't really have a time frame yet, but at least some signs that this investigation, which had been stymied appears to be moving forward. Now, Devin Nunes, the chairman of the committee who's been under a lot of pressure and criticism for his handling of the investigation and his decision to cancel a public hearing last week emerged before this conference meeting today.

[10:10:01] And I tried to ask him about multiple things -- whether or not Michael Flynn deserves immunity, as what his lawyer seemed to suggest, as well as -- whether or not he stands by his contention that when he went to the White House, nobody in the west wing seemed to have known that he was there. He didn't exactly answer those questions. Take a listen.


RAJU: What do you think about this idea of giving Flynn immunity? Can you just stop for a second, take one quick second? --


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

NUNES: We've got our hearing starting here, conference -

RAJU: Do you still stand by the notion that he is a whistleblower, that your source was a whistleblower?


RAJU: Now, I got a chance to ask Paul Ryan about that issue, about being a whistleblower. That's something that, actually, the speaker said last week that he was told by Devin Nunes that the information that he got about the surveillance, some incidental collection, potentially of Trump associates that occurred by U.S. surveillance. He suggested that came from a whistleblower. At least that's what he told House Speaker Ryan.

I asked Paul Ryan if he still believes that. If he still believes it's a whistleblower and if he still has confidence in Devin Nunes, especially in light of those reports last week that suggested the White House officials were involved in that information in which you heard just moments ago from Paul Ryan that he does have confidence in Chairman Nunes. He does have confidence in this committee moving forward. He says he has met with that committee. So, at least some push from the Republicans to move forward on a committee that had seemed gridlocked just a week ago, guys.

BERMAN: All right, Manu Raju for us on Capitol Hill. Manu thank you so much for being with us. We're going to talk about this and the great many other things that are happening on Capitol Hill right now. Joining us, Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat from Connecticut, he sits on the Judiciary Committee.

And Senator, you know, we heard you yesterday speaking as you voted against Neil Gorsuch to be the next Supreme Court Justice and you suggested that the FBI investigation, the various investigations, Congressional, into possible ties between Trump associates and the Russians, that that in and of itself is a reason, perhaps, not to confirm Judge Gorsuch. Is that the case?

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), JUDICIARY COMMITEE: Well, here is the link -- it's judicial independence. Never has judicial independence been more important or more threatened than right now. Why more important? Well, the possibility of the United States Supreme Court enforcing a subpoena against the President of the United States is far from idle speculation. It happened in United States versus Nixon. It could well happen again.

As you just heard, the Intelligence Committees of Congress are moving forward. So is the FBI. And all the more reason, as I have advocated for some time now, that there be a special prosecutor. Only a special prosecutor can bring criminal charges and hold accountable the wrongdoers who violated criminal law. The Intelligence Committees can't do it. An independent commission can't do it. Only a special prosecutor can do it with the help of the courts and that's the reason why judicial independence is so important. And Neil Gorsuch, in my view, fails to pass that test.

HARLOW: Look, and I know you were not happy with what you believe and some other Democrats really believe were evasive answers on his part. However, this investigation could go on, will go on for a very long time. We've already had the High Court without a justice for 400-plus days now. It's been split 4-4.

You said last year -- and let me quote, "There's a duty to fill that vacancy to make the system work. Our constitutional system depends on nine members serving on the Supreme Court, which is why there has never been a vacancy in the last, I think, 30 years lasting longer than 237 days." Those are your own words, sir.

BLUMENTHAL: They are, indeed, and I believe strongly that the Supreme Court needs and deserves nine members, but this nominee has shown himself to be outside the mainstream. If he would vote against a subpoena that's necessary to prosecute wrongdoing, simply because -

HARLOW: But how do you know that he would do that? It sounds like you're saying that any justice put forward by the Trump administration cannot be confirmed while a Russia investigation is going on. That is what you're saying, is it not?

BLUMENTHAL: No, I'm very glad you asked the question, because a judge nominee, whether a justice on the Supreme Court or the lower court, who is in the mainstream, who has demonstrated judicial independence, as I asked him to do again and again, and he evaded my questions on that issue as well as on core constitutional precedence and principles like Roe v. Wade, privacy rights, a commitment to worker safety and consumer protection as well as really fundamental equality under the law.

[10:15:01] This kind of candidate should not be confirmed to the United States Supreme Court, as much as I believe it needs nine members.

BERMAN: So, I guess what you're saying is that perhaps another Trump nominee would be more independent than Neil Gorsuch. I guess we have no way of testing whether that's the case. I'm skeptical if it would pass your judgment, Senator, given you know, your tight conditions for Trump nominees.

But I wanted to move on, because Democrats have the votes to filibuster, right? Republicans, they have the votes to invoke what is known as the "nuclear option." Neil Gorsuch is going to be on the Supreme Court after Friday, you know, he will be confirmed. And my question to you is, after this week, after the filibuster, after your votes, what will you have accomplished?

BLUMENTHAL: The tradition was, year after year, president after president, that there would be consultation between the president and both sides of the aisle in Congress. Presidents Obama, Bush, Clinton all did it that way. And my proposal -- and it's shared by many of my colleagues -- is we go back to that tradition.

Republicans and Democrats come together, select nominees that are in the judicial mainstream, and that is the kind of tradition that we need to restore. Whether it will be possible after the so-called "nuclear option" is invoked I can't say. There's a reason they call it the "nuclear option." It has tremendously destructive, rippling repercussions that may be enduring, but I'm still hopeful that we can work together.

HARLOW: So, if the "nuclear option" is invoked, which it looks like it will be, and you despise it so much -- I mean, Lindsey Graham even said it will haunt the Senate, just this whole process. Do you think then Democrats should not use it next time around, if needed?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, the Democrats are not in the position to use the "nuclear option." --

HARLOW: Yes, I'm talking about down the road. I'm talking about down the road, when you are in that position, if you feel so adamantly about this, even if Republicans use it this time, should Democrats not use it down the road when you are in power?

BLUMENTHAL: That is a really important question, and I believe very strongly that for a nominee on the United States Supreme Court, there ought to be more than a razor-thin majority. So, I would be against Democrats using the "nuclear option," very strongly against it, and I believe there ought to be bipartisan consensus behind a lifetime appointment to the nation's highest court that has such immense power, not only over the administration of justice if there's a subpoena, but over rights of privacy and equality.

A nominee who fails to commit as -- by the way, Roberts, Alito, Kennedy all agreed to do. This nominee would not. And that's one of the reasons why I think that the 60-vote majority is so important.

HARLOW: All right, but again, the headline there, you do not think that even if Republicans use it this time around your fellow Democrats should use it, should the opportunity present itself down the road. Senator Blumenthal, thank you.

BERMAN: For Supreme Court Justice, by the way, because the Democrats already had done it -

HARLOW: Of course, they started it in November 2013.

BERMAN: -- for the lower courts. Everyone has different lines here and different --

HARLOW: Thank you very much. All right, still to come for us, much more on the breaking news this hour, the White House drafting, our Phil Mattingly is reporting, a new Health Care Bill. Going to send it to the Hill today? Really?

BERMAN: Plus, reads like a spy drama, new threads connecting Russia to associates of President Trump, a secret meeting on the Seychelles. What happens there? Stay with us.


[10:22:35] BERMAN: All right. This morning, new intrigue and new threads potentially connecting associates of then-candidate Donald Trump with Russia, and one of these associates is defending his actions, Carter Page, after a report revealed ties to an alleged Russian spy, or at least contacts with an alleged Russian spy.

HARLOW: That's right. So, Page once served as an adviser to the Trump team over the summer of 2015. And he does confirm that he did meet, or at least have contact, with a suspected Russian intelligence operative back in 2012, but he denies sharing any sensitive information, his role in a 2015 Russian counterintelligence case as first reported by "BuzzFeed."

Let's bring in Jessica Schneider for more. Look, it's really complex. He's not denying that he is the man in these basically, tapped- conversations, but he's saying there's no there, there, I did nothing wrong, and this was quite a while ago. JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Poppy. We heard from Carter Page today. So, let me break it down for you. Carter Page was loosely associated with the Trump campaign as a foreign policy adviser. But Page now admits that he was in fact in contact with at least one Russian spy back in 2013.

Now, the Russian he corresponded with was eventually charged by the FBI for his actions as a spy, but Page released a statement saying that he simply shared research with the Russian who he understood to be working in Moscow's United Nations office. Page stressed that the information was immaterial and amounted to lectures he gave at NYU on energy policy.

But whether Page knew it or not, it turns out that Russian spy was part of the same spy ring as another Russian who worked for the bank VEB. Now, if that name rings a bell, that's because that's the same bank whose chairman met with Jared Kushner in December during the transition. It's a state-run, Russian bank, and the meeting with Jared Kushner was set up by the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. So, all of these ties are part of the broader display of back-channel meetings and efforts by the Russians to meet with Trump associates and the Trump team.

Now, one other one for you, the "Washington Post" is also reporting that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' brother, Erik Prince, met with a Russian connected to President Putin in the Seychelles in January during the transition. Both Erik Prince and the White House deny that this meeting was on behalf of the Trump administration.

But again, Poppy and John, all of these separate meetings, they're raising questions about the Trump team's ties to Russia, especially as there's this ongoing investigation by the FBI into whether or not President Trump and his team may have colluded at all with the Russian government, so a lot to unpack here and a lot of these dots just beginning to be connected. Poppy and John?

[10:25:12] BERMAN: All right. Jessica Schneider, thank you so much. Want to talk about this now with our panel, joining us, CNN political commentator, Democratic strategist, Maria Cardona, CNN political commentator, Republican strategist Kevin Madden, and CNN political analyst and Washington bureau chief for "The Daily Beast," Jackie Kucinich.

So, Jackie, Carter Page, one Trump adviser during the campaign, he met with a Russian Intel source prior to the campaign. You know, Erik Prince, who ran Blackwater Security, met with an associate of Vladimir Putin, the "Washington Post" reports, after the campaign, during the transition, in the Seychelles. A lot of meetings with Russians going on here. What does it all mean, Jackie?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST AND WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF "THE DAILY BEAST": You know, if the flow chart with the Trump administration leads to Russia, it's not good for the Trump administration. This has been a huge distraction with them pushing a very ambitious agenda coming into this term. And right now, this is a constant distraction. They're having to deal with this every day because of -- we talk about a lot, the drip, drip, drip. Have they gotten all of this out there at the end of the day or at the beginning of this, perhaps we wouldn't still be talking about it. But as these stories roll out, it just provides more fodder and raises more questions about what the relationship with Trump administration officials and transition officials that have with Russia.

Now, the White House is pushing back on this Erik Prince meeting, saying that they -- he was not part of the transition. Yet, he was a major donor to the effort to get Donald Trump elected, so a lot of questions. --

HARLOW: And I think -- $250,000 when you look at all of the super PACs, et cetera. Two points of facts here. Just reading the statement from Carter Page, he says, basically, this is a political vendetta tactic because he wrote these public foreign policy papers really criticizing the Obama administration's Russia reset attempts. And then, Kevin Madden to you, when you read into this more, you do have Sean Spicer did come out and say, the White House Press Secretary last month, that the campaign had even gone as far as sending the cease and desist letter to Carter Page, saying stop associating yourself with the campaign. That all may be fact, but does this still hurt the appearance for the Trump team.

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Right. And look, that is something that I think the White House has to continue to hammer home. The fact that on any campaign, there are core senior staff that have direct access to the principal, and then there are many satellites around that are trying to associate themselves with the campaign, oftentimes booking themselves as campaign surrogates when, in fact, they are only tangentially -- connected to the campaign. That happens a lot. So, I expect that you're going to see the White House continue to try and disassociate themselves from Mr. Page.

But Jackie's right, -- any time that you have anybody connected with your campaign meeting with Russian intelligence agents, it is not a good sign, and it will continue to raise questions. And when you raise questions, you raise doubts. When you raise doubts, you continue to have this serve as a distraction. I think Jackie pointed out this is a distraction for the White House, but because of the House Intel and the Senate Intel Committees having to open probes into this, it also becomes a distraction for members of Congress and this is the last thing they want to be talking about when we have as ambitious an agenda on things like infrastructure and tax reform and health care reform, as this Congress has. So it's not going away anytime soon and that is not a good thing right now.

BERMAN: So, you have Carter Page, you have Erik Prince, Maria Cardona, and Susan Rice, who is the president's national security adviser. Now there are these reports from "Bloomberg" and other outlets that Susan Rice wanted to unmask names that were picked up in incidental collection of foreign officials, and those names she wanted to unmask were of at least one Trump associate. Now, unmasking may not be illegal, and often, it isn't illegal. You can unmask quite legally. Leaking would be illegal. We don't know if Susan Rice leaked it. Democrats are saying this is a smoke screen. We've heard it again and again that really the focus should be on the Russia investigation. Is there not a legitimate discussion about masking and unmasking in government, whether or not American names should be opened up, at least even to a small group of people?

MARIA CARDONA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Sure, and that's a conversation that we should be having, but we should be having it apart and separate from the real conversation here, which is what are Trump and his aides' ties to Russia, Russian intelligence, Russian banks, Russian operatives. And I think what's going on here, clearly, is that the Trump administration is really feeling the heat from all of these revelations that seem to be happening on a daily basis about people close to his campaign, whether they claim to be close to his campaign.

And the White House is pushing back, saying that's not true, or whether they are actually close to his campaign, like Paul Manafort was, who was his campaign chairman and the White House tries to pretend that he had nothing to do with the campaign. So, the White House really isn't credible on that either.