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Obama Warned Trump about Hiring Flynn; Sally Yates Testifies on Probe; Yates Fired By Trump; Flynn's Security Clearance. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired May 8, 2017 - 14:00   ET



[14:00:06] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. This is CNN's special live coverage of what's expected to be rather explosive testimony from the former acting attorney general of the United States, Sally Yates. It's the first time we're hearing directly from Yates since President Trump fired her for defying his travel ban.

Minutes from now she's expected to reveal to a Senate subcommittee what she told the Trump administration about Michael Flynn. And it's coming on the heels of a bombshell from the former Obama - from former Obama administration officials. They say the former president personally warned then President-elect Trump against hiring Michael Flynn only two days after he won the presidential election on November 8th. Their meeting was November 10th.

The retired three star Army general was forced to resign as national security adviser only 24 days into the job for allegedly lying about his discussions with the Russian ambassador to the United States. The Pentagon is now investigating Flynn for allegedly taking payments from a foreign government without disclosing those payments.

Moments ago, the White House responded to news that President Obama had warned President-elect Trump about Flynn.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president doesn't disclose details of meetings that he has, which, in this case, was an hour-long meeting. But it's true that the president made it - President Obama made it known that he wasn't exactly a fan of General Flynn's, which is - frankly, shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone given that General Flynn had worked for President Obama, was an outspoken critic of President Obama's shortcomings specifically as it related to his lack of strategy confronting ISIS and other threats around - that were facing America.

So the question that you have to ask yourself really is, if President Obama was truly concerned about General Flynn, why didn't he suspend General Flynn's security clearance, which they had just reapproved months earlier? Additionally, why did the Obama administration let Flynn go to Russia for a paid speaking engagement and receive a fee. There were steps that they could have taken that if - if that was truly a concern more than just a person that didn't - had bad blood.

QUESTION: That didn't give him any pause at all?

SPICER: No. I think - again, I think you - if you know what we knew at the time, which is that the security clearance that he had, had been reapproved in April of that year, and they took - not only did they reapprove it, but then they took no steps to suspend it.

QUESTION: Did you not vet him yourselves?

SPICER: Well, you don't vet on a security clearance that - that's what - that's why you get a security clearance. Everyone in the government goes through the same process. So the answer is, that those same - that same process worked for General Flynn as it did for me or for anyone else who works here. There's no difference of a security clearance once it's issued.


BLITZER: Let's get to our White House correspondent Sara Murray.

Sara, tell us what you know about the conversation then President Obama had with then President-elect Trump, only two days after the presidential election.

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, sources are telling my colleague, Jim Acosta, that essentially in this meeting, President Obama expressed concern about General Flynn, urged President Trump not to hire him for the job of national security adviser, but clearly he saw Sean Spicer downplaying that warning from their view. They sort of dismissed it as this idea of bad blood between former President Obama and retired General Michael Flynn, basically saying obviously it's clear that the president didn't like this guy. and that's sort of how they say they took the warning, not as a concern that General Flynn might have done anything wrong, but just as sort of this past bad blood between the Obama administration and General Flynn.

Now, obviously, as they've come to learn there were many headaches awaiting them when it came to this, but it is interesting to see the Trump administration try to pin the blame about General Flynn's activities and the concerns surrounding him on the Obama administration. And it is worth noting, Wolf, that usually when you are going to put someone in this position, a position of national security adviser, you would do some of your own vetting beyond just the question of whether or not you have a security clearance. Obviously the Trump administration has decided they're going to spin this, try to pin it on Obama. But it's clear there are going to be many, many more questions about Flynn's activities and why President Trump still felt like he was a good fit for this job.

BLITZER: Yes, those are excellent questions indeed. All right, Sara, thanks very much.

Joining us now, our CNN global affairs analyst, Tony Blinken. Tony also served as the deputy national security adviser to President Obama. He was also deputy secretary of state. Tony, let's start by getting your reaction to this news from former

Obama administration officials that the former president himself warned Mr. Trump in person only two days after the November 8th election against hiring Michael Flynn.

TONY BLINKEN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Wolf, I don't have any direct knowledge of that - of that warning. It wouldn't - it wouldn't surprise me. I think if the president - knowing President Obama, knowing that Mr. Flynn had not been a good manager of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and indeed that's why he was let go, and then knowing that he was tapped to be national security adviser wouldn't surprise me that that came up in conversation, but I don't have direct knowledge of that.

[14:05:17] BLITZER: What about the argument we just heard from Sean Spicer that in April of 2016 the Obama administration renewed his security clearances?

BLINKEN: It's a huge effort at distraction, Wolf. In April 2016, Mr. Flynn was no longer working for the Obama administration. He had been let go in 2014. But what happens with former officials is, they sometimes try to hold on to their security clearances. And when those clearances expire, they get re-upped. And that's done by the agency that the person in question used to work for, in this case the Defense Intelligence Agency. That's totally different than bringing someone in as national security adviser who then has to go through a much more elaborate clearance process and vetting process. That apparently didn't happen with Mr. Flynn under the Trump administration's watch. I sincerely doubt that the White House had an knowledge that Mr. Flynn's security clearance was re-upped in 2016. This was a fairly routine matter that goes back to the agency that he used to work for.

BLITZER: And when they re-upped his secretary clearances, the DIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, maybe the U.S. Army as well, did they know about his paid speaking engagements in 2015 in Moscow? We all saw the video of him having dinner, it was at this Russian TV dinner with Putin.

BLINKEN: I don't know, Wolf, and it's a very good question. Now, I think there were some public reports about the - about those meetings, about those events. Certainly the RT dinner. So, arguably, that's something that - that they should have known and they might have looked into when they were re-upping the clearance, but that's not something that went to the White House or went to senior levels of the Obama administration. It's something that was done by the Defense Intelligence Agency and usually it's a pretty routine matter.

BLITZER: When you re-up clearances like that, I assume you have to fill out forms. The suggestion out there, the allegation is, he wasn't completely honest about the money he received from Russian TV when he was updating his security clearances. Do you know anything about that?

BLINKEN: Again, no firsthand knowledge, but you're exactly right, Wolf, as a normal process, when you re-up a clearance, you'd have to report on any foreign contacts you've had since the previous clearance, any payments you've received from foreign sources, et cetera. So that's something that Mr. Flynn presumably should have done in re-upping the clearance.

BLITZER: The former acting attorney general, Sally Yates, she's about to testify before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee. She's going to tell - presumably tell all of us what she told the Trump administration about Michael Flynn after he was national security adviser. In the past the White House has said Yates simply gave them a heads-up about some conflicting statements that Flynn had made to the vice president. What do you expect to hear from Sally Yates today? How far, in other words, do you expect her to go?

BLINKEN: Look, knowing Sally Yates as I do, which is very well, we worked closely together in the last administration, I expect to hear from her the facts. She is the straightest of straight shooters. And, Wolf, remember this, she was initially hired as an assistant U.S. attorney down in Georgia by Bob Barr (ph). You remember Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman, who led the impeachment effort against President Clinton. When she was an assistant U.S. attorney in Georgia, she went after anyone and everyone who violated the law. In fact, she helped take down a Democratic mayor in Atlanta who was convicted of tax evasion.

So Sally is, as I said, the straightest of straight shooters. She follows the law. She follows the facts. And if she was concerned about Mr. Flynn and told the White House, I have no doubt that that happened and it's unfortunate they didn't take her seriously. There's a huge gap, as you know, in time between when she reportedly raised these concerns about Mr. Flynn with the White House and when he was actually let go. And then he was only let go after the media started talking about it.

BLITZER: And - but there are some problems, she has to be careful, in terms of revealing what's called sources and methods, how she found out, for example, about her - about Flynn's phone conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States. She has to be very careful in revealing those kinds of details, right?

BLINKEN: Yes, that's exactly right. And it may be that there are some things that need to happen in a closed session, in a classified session. She can only go so far in a public setting.

BLITZER: That's a good point.

All right, Tony Blinken, thanks very much.

BLINKEN: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's bring in our panel to discuss all of this. Our chief political analyst Gloria Borger is with us, our chief political correspondent Dana Bash, our CNN political director David Chalian, and our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto.

This is a very, very sensitive matter that Sally Yates is about to discuss with members of this Judiciary Subcommittee.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. She's in a difficult spot because she can't, in public testimony, talk about exactly what was in these highly classified intercepts that she read, that she felt strongly enough to go meet with the White House Counsel about. What she can talk about is question why it took Don McGahn such a long time, the White House Counsel, such a long time to alert the president, what - what the president did with this information, what the White House did with this information, why it didn't send up a red flag or two.

[14:10:23] You know, we've been told in our reporting that she told them quite strongly that Flynn had been compromised, which would mean that he would be subject to blackmail. And, you know, if you're hearing that and you're the White House Counsel, I can't imagine you wouldn't take that directly to the president of the United States and say, we have a - we have a real problem here.

BLITZER: But what they're trying to suggest, Dana, is that, you know what, she was an Obama administration official. She was subsequently fired by the Trump administration because she didn't think the travel ban was constitutional.


BLITZER: That she could implement it as the acting attorney general. They're going to raise questions about her credibility.

BASH: Absolutely. That is - I mean the president of the United States unveiled that not so secret strategy in his quite inappropriate tweet this morning going after her. But despite the fact that is going to be some Republican's strategy, it's going to be very hard to really get that to stick.

Our colleague, Evan Perez, showed me a story that he wrote back when he was at "The Wall Street Journal" in 2009 about the fact that John Lewis, the civil rights icon, Democratic congressman from Georgia, was trying to block her from being the U.S. attorney from Georgia because she had gone after Democratic members - Democratic politicians in Atlanta because of corruption and other issues because - and that he thought she was a Republican. So that kind of gives you a sense of, if Republicans think that she's a democrat and Democrats think she's a Republican, kind of like reporters, maybe we're all doing - doing our job and maybe she is too.

BLITZER: Step back, David. Give us some perspective on what we're about to see during this hearing.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, I think what we're about to see is a tale as specific as possible, but probably not all the juicy details, of somebody sounding the alarm to the Trump administration. And, Wolf, I think we have to also step back here. Combine this Sally Yates testimony with what we learned today about President Obama delivering this message of concern about Flynn to President Trump in their first meeting. You had the most inexperienced person in these matters elected to the presidency, surrounding themself with a team of perhaps the least experienced people in dealing with these matters, in terms of the closest advisers, and you have from President Obama to Sally Yates, you have people who have been steeped in this starting to raise red flags and sound alarms. And to Gloria's point, I think what - what certainly some senators on this panel are going to look for is, what did you do about those alarms? What - what were the steps that you've taken because this was not anything that Donald Trump had encountered in his entire life. Nothing like this. And so he receives this information, so what - a very inexperienced person in these matters, what do you do with that information in that moment that you get it?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Here's the thing, you - she can't go into classified information, but she could tell us the why. Why she delivered that warning. And Gloria and I, we've reported this. The why is that she believed that he was lying when - and that she had evidence that Michael Flynn was lying when he said he did not discuss U.S. sanctions on Russia in his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak. That's the message she delivered to Don McGahn. We've been able to report that -

BLITZER: The White House Counsel.

SCIUTTO: To the White House Counsel on January 26th, 18 days before General Flynn was eventually fired. So without saying sources and methods and without raising a transcript from an intercepted conversation, she can still say, I told the White House that we had evidence he was lying when he said he didn't discuss that. That's a pretty damning -

BLITZER: You can say evidence, but she can't say that phone conversations were being monitored.

SCIUTTO: Well, she could say phone - I mean she could reference that because we know that kind of thing happens, but she can't -

BLITZER: But she's not going to say -

SCIUTTO: But she can't go to the root intelligence. But - but, still, you get to the why, as to why that warning was delivered. And that's pretty damning because if the argument is - and you heard that from Sean Spicer just a few minutes ago, that, yes, President Obama gave us some - some warning about Flynn but, you know what, you never liked Flynn. Of course you wouldn't like Flynn because Flynn was critical of him, you know, as simple as that. OK, so if President Obama didn't give you the basis for his concerns then, which, you know, I would find surprising, but if he didn't, that's fine. Several days later, Sally Yates did. And it took nearly three weeks before he was fired. And, again, remember, he was fired after it went public in a "Washington Post" story (ph).

BLITZER: All right, hold your thought. Everybody hold your thought. There's a lot more coming up.

We want to get ready for this very, very important hearing. Moments away from now, Sally Yates will testify about what she told the Trump administration about Michael Flynn. This is the first time we're going to be hearing directly from Sally Yates and the president fired her over his travel ban back in January.

Stay with us. This is CNN's special live coverage. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[14:18:51] BLITZER: One of the most high-profile witnesses in the investigation into Russia's election medaling is about to break her silence. We're talking about Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general. She will testify before Congress some - Congress moments for now for the very first time about contacts between former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. Yates is expected to contradict the White House on what happened leading up to the firing of Flynn.

I want to bring in our senior congressional reporter, Manu Raju.

Manu, what do we expect to hear?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, we expect that one of the first questions right out of the bat from Senator Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the subcommittee, from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, the top Democrat on the committee, to ask about exactly what she told the White House in communicating those concerns that Michael Flynn may have been compromised by the Russians. What we don't know is whether she's going to be able to provide any detail from anything that she learned, and particularly in classified settings, about why she raised some of those concerns and whether she's going to detail any other contacts that Flynn may have had with other Russian officials beyond the ones that have already been reported with Russian Ambassador Kislyak, but what can she really say. Well, I am told by a source familiar with that - with Yates' account, that she's really not going to be able to say much more than - than that. That she had serious concerns. She raised them with the White House. And that will be a contradiction that would directly contradict what Sean Spicer said at the podium in February, that he was - she was just simply giving a heads-up.

[12:20:23] But we're also expecting pretty rather dramatic testimony from James Clapper, the former head of the - director of national intelligence. Expect a lot of questions about those concerns about any possible collusion or ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, specifically Lindsey Graham told me earlier that he wants to ask about this FISA warrant that was issued to surveil that former Trump foreign policy adviser, Carter Page. He wants to learn more about that process. He wants to know if there were other people within the Trump universe who were also surveilled. So this is going to be a key part of that testimony going forward.

Sheldon Whitehouse just walking into the room here, not taking questions on his way in. And Lindsey Graham, too, also just walking in now. so we're getting ready for this hearing to take place. A key hearing, a key moment here in this Russia investigation. We'll see how it ends up playing out here, Wolf, in just a matter of minutes.

BLITZER: And will they - will they both be making opening statements, Clapper and Yates, and then responding to questions, is that how it's going to work?

RAJU: Yes. I think this is - I think we're probably going to see a traditional format here. It will may be interesting to see from this committee is the extent to which any (ph) it does break down along party lines where we've seen some of these past hearings that Republicans tend to focus their questioning say on leaks, for instance, that are - that they're very concerned about. Democrats trying to pull out those issues about those Trump/Russia ties. Will this subcommittee be any different than say the House Intelligence Committee, which had its own Russia investigation in March.

We do know that Lindsey Graham is a sharp Russia critic and he told me that he wants to get to the bottom of Russia's involvement in the elections. So expect to hear a lot of questions about any of those Trump campaign ties that occurred, questions - will these witnesses be able to say anything given the fact that a lot of this stuff is still classified, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Both Lindsey Graham and Sheldon Whitehouse, they are tough questioners, so I assume this is going to be significant.

All right, Manu, we're going to get back to you. Stand by.

I want to bring back our panel, including Pamela Brown, our justice correspondent. Also joining us, Susan Hennessey, our national security and legal analyst, former council to the National Security Agency.

Pamela, you're learning some new information about all of this as well. Update our viewers.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we're learning more information about the concern about Michael Flynn within the intelligence community and, of course, it's previously reported within the actual transition. And people I've spoken with within the intelligence community say that certainly eyebrows were raised back in December of 2015 when Flynn traveled to Russia and, you know, was at the Russia Today Gala sitting close to Vladimir Putin. Certainly people within the intelligence community, that caught their attention. And then the press release came out. And so the word spread pretty quickly. But then after that, there - they noticed an uptick in communications with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. And so, of course, that raised the question, does Michael Flynn know exactly who he's dealing with here? Does he understand what Kislyak's motives may be?

Now, some could argue, look, he was the head of DIA. He should know. But the more communications happened and the content of the communication, the concern was raised that perhaps he doesn't know of who he's dealing with here. And then, of course, we learned that the transition was so concerned that they brought in the CIA file about Kislyak for him to read. And so certainly it does raise the question about how he was able to get so far in this highly prominent role of national security advisor to the president.

BLITZER: Very interesting.

Susan, what do you make of the fact that the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, says it was no secret - no secret that President Obama was not a fan of General Flynn and that his warnings to Trump were simply a case of bad blood?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY & LEGAL ANALYST: Well, considering the fact that President Trump has brought in a lot of people that were highly critical of President Obama during the campaign at least, the - sort of the notion that Obama shared that concern about Flynn specifically and not any of the others, it sort of undercuts the question of, this was just Obama being petty.

There was an enormous amount of public information that was known that would have caused most presidents to not hire Michael Flynn. The most concerning behavior certainly occurred after Flynn had already been fired by Obama. So really the question here is for the president, knowing what he knew, why did he hire Flynn anyway?

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting. Stand by, Susan.

But, Dana, I want to read this tweet from the president of the United States this morning about Sally Yates. She's going to be at the center of this hearing momentarily. "Ask Sally Yates under oath," the president tweeted, "if she knows how classified information got into the newspapers soon after she explained it to White House Counsel." The implication is she may have leaked this kind of classified information.

[14:25:01] BASH: It is a very clear implication and to have that implication coming from the president of the United States just hours before a very important witness goes before Congress under oath to talk about it is really mind blowing. And, you know, we've kind of all gotten used to his tweets that nobody else would do, but this, even for Donald Trump, is a little much because it really goes to the question of, I mean, witness tampering. I mean, let's just face it, in any other, you know, context, that's exactly what it would be, to come from the president of the United States.

The thing about this committee is, Manu was talking about the head Republican and Democrat, Lindsey Graham and Sheldon Whitehouse. I know for a fact that the two of them have been working very, very closely together in a genuine bipartisan way. So at least when you're talking about the heads of the committee, that it's hard to imagine that they're going to go there. When it comes to the rank and file, who knows. But this tone will not be set in a partisan way.

SCIUTTO: It's something we saw last week, kind of a tale of two hearings, right, depending on which party the questioner is with. Expect the Republicans, not all of them because some, like the chairman, are very interested in delving into Russian interference in the election.

BASH: Right.

SCIUTTO: But for many Republicans, look for a focus on leaks, who was leaking. Look for questions on unmasking to Director Clapper that relates to Susan Rice, et cetera, from Democrats. Look for interference in the election. That kind of - and we're seeing that more and more in public session in these hearings. Even in the classified session, we heard on - in Thursday's classified session, again you have that split - party split. Not - not across the board, but you're seeing it more and more as the bipartisanship, at least a showing - some cracks in it going forward.

BORGER: It's diversionary because it's not - the president was not talking about Flynn and Flynn's problems and why he appointed him and all the red flags that were raised and what Sally Yates actually said to Don McGahn, the White House Counsel. Instead, the president is saying, everybody on the committee asked her about the leaks. And as Dana says, it's completely inappropriate for the president to send this flag up and say, by the way, this is what you really ought to be concerned about with Sally Yates, not the information that she brought to the White House which said that General Flynn was compromised, period.

BASH: And everything you need to know about that tweet could be summed up in Sean Spicer's non-answer.

BORGER: Right.

BASH: Sean Spicer, who was sort of sent to the - to the wolves to try to defend and twist himself in pretzels to explain and clarify what the president said didn't do it today. The tweet speaks for itself.

BLITZER: Yes. That's what he said, the tweet speaks for itself.

BORGER: Which doesn't really -


BASH: It tells you - well, but it tells you a lot about -

BORGER: A lot about him.


SCIUTTO: There's a fundamental -

BLITZER: Hold on a second. Hold on. Manu has go some guests with him there.

MANU: Going after her early like this and should - is that a question you have for her (ph)?

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: I'm not going to - I'm not going to act surprised at any tweet from this president. But I hope that we'll have a good, honest, thorough hearing here.

RAJU: Should he do that? Was it appropriate for the president to do that?

DURBIN: Come on, is he waiting for my advice?

QUESTION: Senator, are you concerned about the unmasking issue? Republicans have raised that issue.

DURBIN: Yes, they have. Well, of course, they have. Let's wait and see. And I think we're going to find out it's a routine procedure to figure out who the suspect is speaking to. And, in this case, when they ask for unmasking, they don't know the identity when they ask. So some sinister plot being alleged here -

QUESTION: No political overtones here?

DURBIN: Well, I don't know. Let's wait and hear the testimony. But from what I've been told, no.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir.


RAJU: Dana (ph).

BLITZER: All right, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. He's a member of the subcommittee on crime and terrorism.

The other tweet from the president this morning, Gloria, "General Flynn was given the highest security clearance by the Obama administration, but the fake news seldom likes to talk about that."

BORGER: Well, as we've said many times, and Sean Spicer repeated that today, and as we've said many times just in the last hour, there's a very different kind of security clearance that is given from somebody who is renewed as a courtesy basically and he was renewed in April of 2016, as a curtesy. And Tony Blinken said this to you, that is done many times.

There is a distinction between that and somebody who is going to be the national security adviser. And that is a much more substantiate and elaborate process that goes to our finances, that goes to your behavior, that delves much more deeply into your life, which, by the way, most people would expect when you're appointing somebody who deals with the most highly classified information we have in this country and reports directly to the president.

BLITZER: And, Pamela, you can update us because you've been investigating this yourself. General Flynn is now being questioned or being investigated for not necessarily being completely honest when he was applying for that re-upping of his security clearance.

BROWN: Right, because we know that he received payments from Russia that went to his speakers' bureau. And the number isn't coming to me right now -

BLITZER: $45,000.

[14:29:58] BROWN: $45,000 from Russia. He was also paid, I believe, more than 600,000 from Turkey to his consulting firm and he, according to congressmen who have actually looked at the disclosure forms, he did not disclose that information. And so when you're applying for a security clearance, you --