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Report: Secret Meeting Sought Trump-Putin Back Channel; Russia Spies Tries to Recruit Trump Ex-adviser; Divided House Intel Gets Russia Probe Back on Track; Republicans Try to Revive Plan to Replace ObamaCare; Gas Attack Reportedly Kills 70 in Syria. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired April 4, 2017 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:01] BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Here we go. You're watching CNN, I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for being with me.

We begin with the latest in what some are describing as this Washington spy drama, shadowy characters, secret meetings, and a Russian plan to set up back channel communications between the Trump team and the Kremlin. If you picked up "The Washington Post" today, there's an exclusive report about this secret meeting back in early January just days before the president's inauguration between a Russian connected to President Vladimir Putin and the founder of the Blackwater security firm Erik Prince who has ties to the Trump campaign. Also worth mentioning here that Prince is the brother of Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education. And this wave of connections between Russia and Trump's associates appears to go even further with revelation that Russian spies actually tried to recruit former Trump advisor Carter Page before he joined -- a couple years before he joined the Trump campaign.

All of this, just another day of the investigation here of Russia's election meddling and it's a critical one for the troubled House Intelligence Committee. Its investigation which as you know was stalled by all of that partisan infighting is finally today getting back on track with committee members actually meeting. So let's begin the hour with Jeff Zeleny, our CNN's senior White House correspondent. Jeff Zeleny, nice to see you sir.


BALDWIN: We just heard that interview meeting between Wolf Blitzer and the ranking Dem on that House Intel Committee Adam Schiff. What was the (inaudible) of that conversation?

ZELENY: Well, Brooke let's -- when I think, you know, when you listen to Congressman Schiff talk overall, I think one of his biggest points is that he believes the White House is trying to, in his words, cause people to lose focus of the actual Russia investigation to get caught up in the, you know, who was looking at what document, where, and who was being invited into the White House, and a lot of sort of smoke around there. But Congressman Schiff told Wolf Blitzer that he believes, you know, the -- all of this is being sort of conflated, that unmasking is not the same as surveillance, is not the same as leaking here. Unmasking, and what that is, we should explain is when someone's name comes up in an intelligence report which is a routine if they were having a conversation with a foreign national or someone else. It's listed as U.S. person one or individual a. Or a top national security official like Susan Rice in the last administration can ask the intelligence committee for more information on that and say, look, who is this but that is not to be given out widely it's just to be shared with, you know, a small group of people. That is unmasking.

And they do that to see, you know, if, you know, there's something that they should have known about. And Dr. Rice was explaining this earlier and she said, look, if there is a -- heard of someone who is being investigated for making a bomb, you want to know if this is someone who, you know, is the owner of a chemical factory or if it's someone who just sitting in their living room here. So, anyway, Congressman Schiff making the point that unmasking not illegal here and they're trying to get back on track here. So he believes that this investigation in the House can get back on track.

But Brooke I think there's a lot of skepticism now that the House investigation will ever get back to where it was. But important to point out, the Senate investigation still going forward, the FBI investigation of any Russian collusion also still going forward. And Brooke, the White House is just trying to hope it all goes away and try to change the subject today quite frankly.

BALDWIN: Jeff Zeleny, more on that, thank you sir very much. Let's get back to Carter Page here. Carter Page, a former senior advisor to the Trump campaign. He just confirmed his role in that 2013 FBI investigation into a Russian spy ring. This admission coming after BuzzFeed News identified him as a subject referred to as male 1 in this criminal complaint about an undercover Russian agent posing as a bank executive in New York City.

Jessica Schneider has been digging into this piece of the puzzle today. And so the investigation, when you read into this in details, this secretly recorded conversation, you have these three Russians and they're all trying to essentially recruit Carter Page to bring him on as some kind of counter intelligence agent. What was revealed in those recordings?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: As you said Brooke, a lot of details coming out of the complaints. It shows that these Russian spies, they had conversations about Carter Page and they tried to recruit him as an intelligence source. And it showed that they talked about how Carter Page would travel often to Moscow and he was even trying to learn the Russian language.

Now, I talked to Carter Page. He tells me he didn't know that these were Russian spies. Page was under the belief that the Russian he was talking with worked for Moscow's office at the United Nations in New York City and Page said he's simply gave that Russian documents and research on energy policy. Now the Trump administration has repeatedly tried to distance itself from Carter Page but the truth of the matter is, Page did work for the campaign as a foreign policy adviser and then candidate Trump even talked about it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) [14:05:05] FREDERICK RYAN JR., WASHINGTON POST PUBLISHER: Perhaps we heard you might be announcing your foreign policy advisor soon. If there's any --

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, you know, I hadn't thought in terms of doing it. If you want I can give me some of the names I would.

RYAN: I'll be delighted.

TRUMP: Walid Phares, who you probably know, PhD, adviser to the House of Representatives Caucus and counterterrorism expert Carter Page, PhD.


SCNEIDER: So then candidate Donald Trump acknowledging there that Carter Page was part of the team. I talked to Page, he says -- he insist he cooperated with the feds in this investigation. And into these Russian spies and, Brooke, Carter Page says he did nothing illegal or nefarious.

BALDWIN: OK, Jessica Schneider, thank you on that piece. Let me play some sound from the ranking Democrat on the House Intel Committee, from Adam Schiff, we just talking about in the top of the hour just spoke with my colleague Wolf Blitzer. Here he was.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I think to the degree that the White House still won't explain its role in providing these materials to the chairman to the degree that still remains shrouded in secrecy why did the White House want to hide its hand on this that cloud persists. But nonetheless, we're not going anywhere. If we were to walk away from this investigation in the House, it would literary cut in half the resources devoted to the Russia investigation and it's just too important that this will go forward.


BALDWIN: Let me begin there. To Gloria Borger standing by, CNN's chief political analyst, Josh Rogin, CNN political analyst, and Mike Baker, former CIA covert operations officer. But Gloria, on the bit from Adam Schiff, you know, his whole thing is their task with investigating if were there ties, right, between the Trump campaign and Russia, and he's essentially saying this is a distraction, this is a bright, shiny object that the White House wants you to follow, right. This unmasking, this collection brought on by this document and Chairman Nunes versus the task at hand.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, he said there's a strong desire by the White House that we lose our focus. And by focus he means the investigation you're talking about, the Russia investigation. And so, you know, we see this committee trying to get itself together again, agreeing on a witness list, and we have yet to see though whether they're going to be able to pursue the same investigation. Because clearly, there's much more interest on the Republican side in talking about whether there was something nefarious going on from the Obama administration in terms of unmasking names of people in the Trump transition or whether in fact there is a legitimate investigation that ought to continue about any ties that folks in the Trump transition might have to Russian officials. And as you were talking about with Jessica Schneider just a moment ago, I mean, there's a lot of threads here. There are a lot of tentacles.

BALDWIN: Quite a web.

BORGER: Yes, a web. Whatever cliche I can come up with, there are a lot. And so, you know, there at some point, somebody's got to figure out what was going on with folks in the Trump transition and Russia.

BALDWIN: Before we get on to more on, you know, Carter Page, we just want to you about this Washington Post piece about Erik Prince. Josh Rogin, just on all of this, you know, this investigation versus this bright, shiny object, what do you make of it?

JOSH ROGIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think they're two separate stories. And we have that as sort of a political quest and as a news media and as an American public --

BALDWIN: Treating that way.

ROGIN: We can -- yes, we can separate them and they can both be important and we can get to the bottom of both of them. But this effort to conflate them into one thing is really unhelpful and the fact that the president of the United States is behind the effort to conflate them is supremely unhelpful, OK. Unmasking is a real thing. You know, Susan rice addressed it. There's no real evidence that it was politically motivated but we should check that out. Why not check that out.

BALDWIN: Sure, yes.

ROGIN: But let's take that and put that to the side because that has nothing to do with Russia. It doesn't speak to the Russian interference in our election and doesn't speak to the collusion -- alleged collusion between the Trump team and the Russians. So, OK, let's have that debate but let's not lose focus on what essentially is an attack on our democracy by an adversary which is a very important and crucial issue that we can't afford to just let go because something has come along.

BALDWIN: OK, got it. Two investigations. Let's move on to the latter and, you know, extremely important. Mike, to you, let's talk about Carter Page and this report out today. This is President Trump's foreign policy advisor. You know, this report out of BuzzFeed, you know, not only did he meet with Russians, but this Russian spy actually tried to, you know, bring him over to their side. And this secretly recorded transcript, they described this Male 1, M- A-L-E 1 who is Carter Page as quoted idiot who, quote, obviously wants to earn a lot of money. [14:10:05] Can you tell me just about this Russian ring of spies and how they go about trying to recruit Americans, why they would want him, how would they select?

MIKE BAKER, FORMER CIA COVERT OPERATIONS OFFICER: Well, look, first of all, you can't swing a dead cat in Moscow without hitting an FSB spy or (inaudible). And they look for people and they constantly spot and try to assess and look, because this is how they get promoted, right. So think about it in very simple business terms, you've got an FSB officer in some cover, whether he's in Moscow looking for, you know, individuals, U.S. citizens or Chinese or anyone else who maybe in positions of interests. Or whether he's based here in the states or anywhere else. This is what they do.

And in order for them to get promoted, they have to, you know, keep stuffing the pipeline with potential developmental assets. And so, there looking, you know, to bump into somebody, whether it's somebody in a position like Carter Page a few years back or whether it's somebody in finance or somebody in business. It could be anything, pharmaceuticals, it doesn't matter. They're out there looking to hover (ph) up everything they can and then they'll write a report. You know, write a contact report back to the home office, back to Moscow saying, I've met somebody of interest.

And typically -- and, you know, I have no idea what the situation was in terms of the spotting and this contact related to Carter Page, but typically, you know, they're jazzing that up. Because what are they doing, they're trying to make themselves look better. So they're out there busy trying to spot, trying to develop individuals who have access to, again, anything. Whether it's a government person or whether it's a business person. This is what the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, this is what the French, the Germans, this is what everybody does in the world of operational intelligence.

ROGIN: Yes. Brooke, can I just jump in real quick here?

BALDWIN: Go for it.

ROGIN: First of all, this was three years before the campaign. It was revealed in the documents that Carter Page didn't actually know that they were Russian spies, he didn't actually really help them. And, you know, it doesn't speak to the actual investigation that's going on. Carter Page is not the center of a Trump/Kremlin conspiracy. He was a low level guys, for a few months, he was in the campaign, he was there, he was doing stuff but he's not the guy they would use to plan, you know, a subterfuge that would, you know, throw the American democracy. It's just not true, OK.

So it's interesting that he was caught up in this little spy novel situation --

BALDWIN: Sure. No I think (inaudible) you're pointing out exactly the right way was a couple years before, you know, and this notion, it is somebody who became in the Trump orbit who actually had this odd connection with the Russian spy but he absolutely cooperated with the FBI. The spies ends up, you know, the spy ring gets busted (inaudible). But let's move on --

BAKER: And it's not related to this.

BALDWIN: And it's not related. But let me move on as this is all coming out today. These reports, you know, you read the Washington Post today, it have -- they have this incredible piece about Erik Prince, right? Erik Prince of Blackwater firm, he meets, you know, on the Seychelles, this island off of Africa with this Russian connected with Putin reportedly to establish some sort of back channel between Trump -- this is a couple of days before the inauguration and Putin. And so we know that Prince gave -- I want to say something like a quarter million dollars to the Trump campaign. And, you know, there is no smoking gun here, Josh and Gloria, but it leaves one to wonder, why, you know, would people in the Trump orbit want to do any sort of back channel deals?

BORGER: Well, we also had that with Jared Kushner. I mean, Jared Kushner meets with Sergey Gorkov to establish a, quote, back channel to Putin. And one would argue that, you know, the son-in-law of the president-elect might not need that hymn to establish a back channel, that he could establish his own. But I think you see -- you know, I think you see a preponderance of this, of people deciding for some reason they want to act on behalf of Donald Trump perhaps without getting permission or to represent themselves that way to looking towards Vladimir Putin and a way to communicate with him and perhaps deal with him, whether it's on Syria or anything else.


ROGIN: Because it's deniable if someone is going to find out.

BALDWIN: Go ahead Mike.

BAKER: Josh hit it right on the head here. I mean, I've never heard anybody kind of say things that really cut through all of the smoke and all these (inaudible). We're conflating everything. We're conflating this idea that, you know, it's a brand new concept for an incoming administration to --

BALDWIN: Hang on your every word there but your signal is not amazing. Finish his sentence Josh.

[14:15:02] ROGIN: I'm going to jump in. You're saying we're conflating everything and it helps us to understand nothing, OK and we have to separate what they're doing, that's OK, and what they're doing, that's a little shady, and what people are saying that might be illegal and a threat to our democracy and those are all different things. And the problem --

BALDWIN: So no big deal, no big deal. The back channel, why --

ROGIN: No, no, it's a -- I think it's a big deal buy, you know, that's -- again, that's a separate story, OK. And, you know, it's one thing if Jared Kushner wants to have a line with Putin, he's the White House whatever secretary of everything, OK. But Erik Prince, that's a whole another animal, OK. And that's well below the public visibility and that raises additional concerns because of who Erik Prince is and what he's done.

BORGER: You know, and lots of times here people who say well, I'm plugged into Donald Trump. I'm plugged into the transition and of course, they're misrepresenting themselves.

ROGIN: That's true.

BORGER: They are not plugged in. As we know with Carter Page -- I mean, I spoke with somebody in the administration who said that, you know, Trump wouldn't recognize Carter Page if he ran into him in an elevator.

ROGIN: BUT Erik Prince is plugged in. And his sister is the secretary of education so --

BALDWIN: Well and his sister by the way -- his sister is Betsy DeVos. We've got to go. This is an amazing conversation. I love you all because you can finish each other's sentences and secretary of everything was (inaudible). Josh, Gloria, Mike, thank you all so very much.

Coming up here on this (inaudible) afternoon here on CNN, we're going to talk about Republicans working behind the scenes to revive the Republican health care bill. We know that the vice president himself met overnight with members of the House Freedom Caucus. What now is being proposed, might they be able to find a consensus this go-around?

Also ahead, a major development along the U.S.-Mexico border involving illegal crossings. We're learning of this dramatic shift in the numbers. Does the Trump administration get the credit for that? Let's talk about it. I'm Brooke Baldwin. You're watching CNN.


[14:20:42] BALDWIN: Welcome back. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Eleven days after the nation saw the Republican health care plan die before ever reaching a floor vote, there are signs of resuscitation. V ice President Mike Pence just talked to members of the House Freedom Caucus. Here are pictures of him walking out of that meeting from last evening

The House Freedom Caucus, you know, there that conservative wing of the Republican Party that President Trump directly blamed in sinking the Republican plan to replace ObamaCare. Members in the meeting were offered possible changes to the bill that would give states more control. We also heard today from House Speaker Paul Ryan saying there's a lot of talk going on but as far as when the country could actually see action, well, here's what he said.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: Get members talking, that's happening. Get everyone engaging with one another, that's happening. Now we're throwing they wrong concepts to improve the bill, that's occurring right now. But it does 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 got the consensus that we've long been looking for. We're very close in consensus -- like I said 90 percent of our conference was already there. Ten percent was not and now we're having the kinds of productive conversations among our members interacting on through the committee's jurisdiction and with the administration and that is where we are right now.


BALDWIN: With me now, CNN national politics reporter, she's been covering every step of this health care story, MJ Lee. With regard to what's being offered to the House Freedom Caucus to maybe get them on the "yes" train, what is it and can that get them to the magic number of 216?

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Well, the conversations right now really are focused between the White House led by Vice President Mike Pence and then as you said, the Freedom Caucus members who did not get on board the first time that they tried to move this bill through the House. This is what we are hearing in terms of what is being offered to these conservative members. First, it is the option for states to opt out of covering these so-called essential health benefits. We know about this because we discussed this the first time around. We're talking about things like maternity care, prescription drug coverage, hospitalization.

So this is not a surprise that this would still be on the table if the goal is for the White House to bring on board these conservative members.


LEE: The second thing that is new is that they are talking about the option of states opting out of what is referred to as the community ratings provision. And this is very important because a key pillar of ObamaCare as you know, is to not discriminate basically against people who have pre-existing conditions. This is something --

BALDWIN: Or gender.

LEE: Or gender, right. And what they're talking about is giving states the option to basically sort of cherry pick the kinds of pieces that they might cover, the insurance companies might cover. And this is going to be a big concern for a lot of the moderates who are not on board at the first bill in the first place and maybe sort of concern them that the bill that they could not get on board the first time is being pulled even more to the right.

BALDWIN: What about just quickly -- so they've talked to the Freedom Caucus, that's one thing. What about talking to the moderates? Have they done that yet?

LEE: Right. So we know that Vice President Pence is going to be -- going back to the Hill. He has been busy making that trip down Pennsylvania Avenue to talk to the non-Freedom Caucus members. And I think seeing what sort of conversations come out of that meeting is going to be very interesting.

Remember, this bill not only failed the first time around because of the concerns that were raised by conservative members but there were plenty of non-Freedom Caucus members who simply said, look, this is not a bill and a proposal that I can support now and go back home during recess. Recess is coming up next week and tell them this is something I supported, something that could potentially hurt some of the more vulnerable members of my community. They were not able to get on board the last time.

BALDWIN: We'll see how the Tuesday group meeting goes tonight. Thank you so much MJ Lee with that.

Now, to just an extraordinarily gut-wrenching story. The images are tough to look at. Shock and outrage after a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria. Seventy killed, including many, many children, 10 among the dead. You can see here many injured, hundreds injured. The White House is responding to this. How will the White House respond? Who they believe is responsible? That is next.


[14:29:21] BALDWIN: Breaking news out of Syria. But before we tell the story, I just want to warn you that the images you're about to see are incredibly disturbing. Chemical weapons are suspected of being used to massacre innocent women and children.

So far, we are hearing from the Aleppo Media Center that 70 people have been killed, including at least 10 kids. While hundreds of others have been injured by air strikes that according to activists gave off a poisonous gas. One doctor near the Northern Syrian village of Idlib tells CNN 500 wounded patients covered the floors of one hospital. Entire families are dying of asphyxiation, foam were covering the mouths of mothers and their children.

Let's go to Jomana Karadsheh, she's a CNN correspondent there who's covering the story out of Syria. And Jomana, the pictures, we remember that back in 2013 when the Obama administration --