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Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates Testifies Before Congress; Trump Administration's Failure to Fire Michael Flynn in First 18 Days of Trump Presidency Examined; Interview with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. Aired 8-8:30a ET
Aired May 9, 2017 - 08:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
SEN. BILL CASSIDY (R), LOUISIANA: But on an American plan, that will work for the American people. By the way, I think Cassidy-Collins, which returns power back to the states, allowing blue states to do a blue thing, red states to do what's best for them, actually accomplishes that, and that's obviously why I'm partial to our bill.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: OK, Senator Bill Cassidy, we will look forward to seeing what the Senate cobbles together. Thank you very much for sharing your ideas with us.
CASSIDY: Thank you, Alisyn.
CAMEROTA: Following a lot of news this morning, so let's get to it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We believed the national security advisor could be blackmailed by the Russians.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The warnings to the White House were unmistakable and strong.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's a real question, who knew what when in the White House.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If President Obama was truly concerned, why didn't he suspend General Flynn's security clearance?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The vetting process or someone working in the White House is far, far more thorough than a standard clearance process.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He made clear he was not talking about Muslims all over the world and that's why this is not a Muslim ban.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I believed that any argument that we would have to make in its defense would not be grounded in the truth.
(END VIDEO CLIP) ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.
CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome to your NEW DAY. It is Tuesday, May 9th, 8:00 in the east. Former acting attorney general Sally Yates sounding the alarm, saying she repeatedly warned the Trump White House that Michael Flynn was vulnerable to blackmail after uncovering that he lied to the administration about his contacts with Russia.
CAMEROTA: We are also learning that former President Obama personally warned Mr. Trump after hiring Michael Flynn two days after the election in November. So why did it take President Trump 18 days to fire Flynn as his national security adviser? Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Jessica Schneider. Good morning, Jessica.
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alisyn. Former acting attorney general Sally Yates tried to lay it out for lawmakers, disclosing that she did warn the White House three times about Michael Flynn's misstatements. Yates also filled in the chain of events that eventually led to General Flynn's ouster as national security adviser.
SALLY YATES, FORMER ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: We felt like it was critical that we get this information to the White House. We believed that General Flynn was compromised with respect to the Russians.
SCHNEIDER: Sally Yates testifying that she urgently warned the White House on three separate occasions that former national security adviser Michael Flynn misled Vice President Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
YATES: Not only did we believe that the Russians knew this, but they likely had proof of this information. And that created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security advisor essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.
SCHNEIDER: Her testimony directly contradicting the White House's muted account in mid-February.
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The acting attorney general informed the White House council that they wanted to give, quote, "a head's up" to us.
SCHNEIDER: Yates explaining that she stressed to White House Council Don McGahn that Flynn has engaged in problematic conduct just two days after President Trump's inauguration.
YATES: We told them that they we were giving them all of this information so that they could take action.
SCHNEIDER: But President Trump didn't take action, waiting 18 days to fire Flynn, only after Flynn's false statement became public.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: Michael Flynn might still be but for the "Washington Post" report that in effect shamed them into getting rid of him.
SCHNEIDER: President Trump attempting to downplay the hearing in a tweet storm Monday night, pointing to former director of national intelligence James Clapper's testimony that he has seen in evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia before he retired in January.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Is that still accurate?
JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: It is.
SCHNEIDER: But Clapper noted that he was unaware of the FBI's investigation until it was announced publicly by James Comey in March. Hours before the hearing, CNN learned that President Obama warned Trump against hiring Flynn just two days after he was elected when the two men met in the Oval Office.
SPICER: President Obama made it known he wasn't exactly a fan of General Flynn's, which frankly shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone given that General Flynn had worked for President Obama, was an outspoken of President Obama's shortcomings.
SCHNEIDER: Press Secretary Sean Spicer continuing to blame Obama for the Trump administration's failure to properly vet Flynn.
SPICER: So if President Obama was truly concerned about General Flynn, why didn't he suspend General Flynn's security clearance?
SCHNEIDER: But Clapper challenging that assertion, saying Flynn's high profile position would typically require extensive vetting.
CLAPPER: The vetting process for either a political appointee or someone working in the White House is far, far more invasive and far, far more thorough than a standard TSSCI clearance process.
SCHNEIDER: But one question not definitely answered that that hearing, whether Sally Yates warnings made it from the White House counsel all the way to President Trump. Sally Yates also doesn't know if the White House reviewed the information it requested from the Justice Department since Sally Yates was fired just days later for refusing to defend the president's first travel ban executive order. Chris?
[08:05:05] CUOMO: All right, Jessica, appreciate the reporting.
Many are asking, how much warning about Michael Flynn did the administration need, and why weren't those warning heeded for 18 days? Obama administration officials say the former president himself warned Trump about Flynn on November 10th, two days after the election, all but telling him not to hire Flynn as his national security adviser. Defenders of the president say he acted quickly.
Let's take a look at the timeline and figure out for yourself what we're looking at here, OK? This is where it all starts November 18th, right. "General Flynn, one of the country's foremost experts on military on intelligence matters will be an invaluable asset to me and my administration." By all accounts Trump and his people went after Flynn. They wanted him on the team. It wasn't Flynn seeking out a job here. That matters.
Then comes the big moment, December 29th. This is when Flynn discussions sanctions with the Russian ambassador. And the idea of it what were they talking about at that time? What did it mean? This is the vice president.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That conversation they did not discuss anything having to do with the United States decision to expel diplomats or impose a censure against Russia.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CUOMO: All right, so remember, that's the critical moment. Flynn gets tapped. They have this phone call December 29th. But then in January we hear the vice president. What does that do? That's a big moment. The FBI calls in Michael Flynn. They talk to him about this. They remind him about his answer on sanctions. He says it didn't happen. They say, are you sure? The reporting is he said "I don't remember." The FBI winds up saying this report is maybe there won't be charges.
But Sally Yates believes there is something there and she goes and talks to the White House, not once by twice to the White House counsel and doesn't give a head's up. She says he could be compromised by the Russians. Flynn of course denies this and puts out a statement saying it didn't happen. He didn't talk about them. The spokesman said Flynn indicated that while he has no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn't be certain that the topic never came up.
Remember, if "The Washington Post" hadn't broken this story, would anything have been done before that resignation that we saw on February 13? So that's the big question.
So now let's talk about what we still don't know, which is this 18-day period we all keep talking about, right, Alisyn? Because if they knew and it wasn't a head's up and she said something like, don't forget we don't like him, us lefties or the Obama administration, they say he could be compromised. Why did nothing happen?
CAMEROTA: Let's bring in our panel to discuss that. We have CNN politics reporter and editor at large Chris Cillizza, CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, and CNN counterterrorism analyst Phil Mudd. What is the answer, Chris Cillizza, to Chris Cuomo's question? Why the 18-day lag and only when the Washington Post broke the story did Mr. Trump get rid of Michael Flynn?
CHRIS CILLIZZA, EDITOR AT LARGE, CNN POLITICS: Let me throw one other thing on the timeline. Donald Trump does a press conference on February 16th in which he talks about the conversation he had with Don McGahn and says he was just doing his job. Not a big deal. When in fact it suggested, unless Don McGahn pulled punches and didn't tell the president what Sally Yates told him, it wasn't just about doing his job meeting with Sergey Kisylak. It is about not telling the truth about it. It's about the Justice Department having concerns that he was blackmail bait given what the Russians knew about him.
There's just a lot of questions there. You either have to believe that Donald Trump didn't -- was not told, didn't believe what he was told, or thought sally Yates was lying or not telling the truth, because otherwise there is no obvious solution for why it took so long, why in the wake of it he continued to defend Michael Flynn publically as, well, he was just doing his job by talking to the Russian ambassador, if he knew what Yates told McGahn. That circle doesn't line up.
CAMEROTA: Not only did we learn that Sally Yates told McGahn twice, we also learned that President Obama told president-elect Trump about his concerns of Michael Flynn and basically admonished him or at least I guess warned him not to include Michael Flynn in the cabinet.
CILLIZZA: And just one thing, Alisyn, on that. Sean Spicer's spin is we all know that President Obama didn't like Michael Flynn. OK, but President Obama took a lot of incoming from lots of people over the years. I mean, this is not someone who is not used to people saying bad stuff about him. That he specifically chose to talk to incoming president Trump about Mike Flynn is not to me President Obama settling scores about people who said mean things about him on Twitter.
[08:10:00] It seems to be a higher level that he would raise it that is a bigger deal than sort of a, well, Mike Flynn didn't like him and President Obama be didn't like him. That spin seems to me doesn't make sense when it is a president versus incoming president conversation.
CUOMO: What is your take, Mudd?
PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think it's simpler than this. I think there are explanations about the 18 days that are pretty straightforward. The first is these guys are brand-new and this is a huge potential scandal. They don't have experience dealing with national security information. They haven't seen the intelligence. They don't trust Sally Yates. Remember, that's a judgment about whether Mike Flynn could be blackmailed. That is not a fact. Then we have a president being who is known worldwide for being so confident in his judgment that he steps in it all the time. So if you look at these characteristics, to me 18 days doesn't seem that long. You have people sitting around saying what the heck do we do with this one, and I'm betting the president is saying, don't worry about it. I trust him. He's OK.
CUOMO: We don't know if President Obama knew what kind of investigation was going on of Michael Flynn when he talked to him November 10th. We don't know if Don McGahn communicated to the president. But I have to tell you, it's not just Anthony Scaramucci. Sources around the president suggest that they were all figuring out what to do about Mike Flynn. Do you think part of the answer could be that every time they hear about Russia, earmuffs go on and they believe that this is just a political salvo trying to tar the president and they don't pay it any mind?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I think they certainly believe that every time Russia comes up it is a political salvo. There is obviously a defensive crouch that the Trump campaign and now the Trump administration has been in from the beginning.
But let me add one point here, that we, as compelling as Sally Yates' testimony was yesterday, there is still a hole at the center of it, which is the classified information that prompted her to go to Don McGahn, the White House counsel. What did the intelligence show that convinced her that Flynn was subject to blackmail? That has not been declassified yet. And I think that is something that we're going to want to know before making judgments about whether the White House was derelict in not firing him earlier. But that information remains classified.
CAMEROTA: So where does that leave us, Chris Cillizza? In terms of all of these probes, all these lawmakers who are spending all of this time looking into whether there was collusion and what Russia's influence was, where are we today after what happened yesterday?
CILLIZZA: I mean, it seems to me the ball is firmly in the White House's court. I take Phil Mudd's point on this and defer to him on this stuff. And I think he's right. It is possible that this was simply, well, you know, Sally Yates, we don't necessarily trust her. It maybe took them some time to do some investigating of their own. Although, I would note Flynn was fired as a result of the "Washington Post" story exposing this, not necessarily of what Sally Yates told McGahn.
But regardless of the reasons, it seems to me the White House has to do more to explain the why. If it is that reason, if it is that they wanted to conduct their own investigation, they should talk about that. They should say we wanted to fully examine this and make sure it was right. To simply say, as Donald Trump did on Twitter, four tweets in nine minutes last night before 6:41 and 6:50 p.m. to say this is the fake news media. We didn't learn anything new. This is all a hoax. James Clapper exonerated us as it relates to collusion. That's OK for his supporters. They're going to believe him no matter what. But in terms of trying to get to the bottom of what actually happened here, that is not instructive or helpful in any meaningful way. They have to shine a light here. Sally Yates has had her say. Ok, what is the White House's explanation of those 18 days? And we have to be open to listening to it.
TOOBIN: But the problem is not just Michael Flynn. The problem is there were lots of people connected to the Trump campaign who had contacts with Russia. It was Carter Page. It was Paul Manafort. It was Roger Stone. It was Jared Kushner. It was Jeff Sessions. All of them had contacts with the Russians. None of it has been fully explained at this point. So it is not like there is going to be one simple explanation that's going to tie it all together.
CUOMO: Spicer has one, Phil Mudd. It's Obama did it. Flynn is Obama's problem. He should have done it. And if he knew so much about these other investigations that Jeffrey is talking about, he was told during the campaign, they should have done something. They didn't. It can't be that big of a job. And they gave the guy clearance in the first place, Flynn, so it's on them.
MUDD: Excuse me. I wish the president of the United States knew how the government worked. First of all, the former president fired him. Secondly, the White House doesn't hold security clearances. The agencies do.
[08:15:02] President Trump doesn't issue a security clearance.
And I got to tell you. Let me echo what Jim Clapper said yesterday. I have been through multiple security clearances. I was re-cleared every five years and I was vetted during a White House process in 2009.
The White House process should be run by people like those involved in the Trump campaign who are going into the White House. The White House process I went through is far more intrusive than the security clearance I received. They are asking questioning like whether I paid my taxes on my maid three years ago.
CAMEROTA: And what's the answer to that, Phil?
MUDD: They're asking questions -- the answer was I paid every tax, all the time and then I got rid of the maid because the taxes were so complicated I couldn't figure it out.
But my point is the president doesn't know what he's talking about it.
CAMEROTA: Thank you for always reminding us of how arduous and onerous the security clearance process is.
Gentlemen, thank you very much for all the analysis.
CUOMO: Why does he need a maid? He lives alone.
CAMEROTA: Great point. That's the next segment.
CUOMO: It casts a shadow on everything he said.
CAMEROTA: It does.
So, we heard from Anthony Scaramucci. He represented the administration's position on Michael Flynn. How do Democrats feel about what happened yesterday? What did they learn? We have a Democratic senator who questioned Sally Yates and James Clapper on, next.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Many years ago, an 18- minute gap transfixed the country and got everybody's attention in another investigation. [08:20:05] In this case, we have an 18-day gap between the
notification of the White House that a senior official had potentially been compromised and action taken against that senior official's role. At best, the Trump administration has displayed serious errors of judgment. At worst, these irregularities may reflect efforts that compromise or corruption at the hands of the Russian intelligence.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CUOMO: That is a Senator Sheldon Whitehouse drawing parallels between the Trump administration and Watergate. That, of course, during the dramatic hearing on Russian interference in the U.S. election.
Lot of information got brought out yesterday. What did it mean to the senator?
Let's discuss. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, ranking member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism. He was questioning Yates and Clapper yesterday.
Senator, thank you for joining us.
What did you learn?
WHITEHOUSE: Well, one thing we learned was that the interview of General Flynn by the FBI took place in the White House, which shows a pretty high degree of predication. The FBI doesn't get to send FBI agents willy-nilly into the White House. So, that was interesting.
The other thing we learned was the very high degree of immediate alarm that that caused among the intelligence community and at the Department of Justice, causing the acting attorney general of the United States, even before the agent's full 302 report was completed, to rush up to White House council and say we've got something sensitive, we've got to brief you on this.
CUOMO: Do you think --
WHITEHOUSE: We discovered there was a second meeting with White House counsel the following day where they expressed further what their concerns were, and then, off we go into this mysterious 18-day gap.
CUOMO: Mysterious 18-day gap, you say. Do you have any reason to believe that the president knew about the communications with the White House counsel?
WHITEHOUSE: Yes, because Spicer -- Sean Spicer has said that the White House council, after he first heard this from the acting attorney general went and briefed the president to use Spicer's word immediately.
CUOMO: So, if the president knew, then we start counting until something happened. Why do you believe that 18 days was too long?
WHITEHOUSE: Well, I think that if you have evidence from the acting attorney general of the United States that a senior White House staffer may very well be compromised by the Russians, at a minimum, you firewall that staffer until you get to the bottom of what is going on. You separate them from classified material. You don't let them make hiring decisions. You keep them out of highly sensitive meetings with foreign officials. You don't put them in the room when the president is on the phone with Vladimir Putin.
None of that was done. It also isn't clear that they did very good due diligence about this to look into it themselves.
CUOMO: Isn't there a big if, which is whatever Sally Yates showed to back up her feeling that he could be blackmailed by Russia was compelling, we don't know what she used to prove the threat of blackmail. Do you know?
WHITEHOUSE: She was unwilling to absolutely confirm it. But it's pretty clear, I think, from all of the evidence and from what Director Comey said just a few days ago that they knew that General Flynn was telling everybody at the White House one thing about his conversations with Ambassador Kislyak and from the transcripts of those conversations, they knew he was not telling the truth.
And they also knew that the Russians knew that he was not telling the truth. And it was the Russians knowing that Flynn was lying to everybody in the White House about this that gave him the leverage that could turn into compromise. And call up the --
CUOMO: What do you --
WHITEHOUSE: Go ahead.
CUOMO: What do you make up of a other things they may have known? One, that the FBI in their interview with Michael Flynn reportedly had felt he wasn't lying to them, that he gave truthful answers and they didn't see charges coming that way and that the Obama administration had renewed the security clearance for Michael Flynn.
What do those factors mean, if true?
WHITEHOUSE: Not much to me. I think that the question of the interview and the 302 statement, I don't know if they actually went down and took up acting Attorney General Yates invitation to look at those materials, so I don't know how much they knew, but you had to know pretty quickly.
I mean, what you have here is a transcript of the calls with Ambassador Kislyak because they were recorded and an FBI agent's 302, the investigation report that reported that Flynn had said something completely inconsistent with the transcript. So, what you have there is a slam dunk felony false statement case against Michael Flynn and the idea the White House wouldn't see that seems pretty improbable.
[08:25:08] CUOMO: By all indications, it seems that the White House is unable in terms of political perspective to separate efforts to tie Trump staffers to Russian collusion and Russian interference in the election. They see them as the same. And I think as a result you wind up seeing a lot of these things being ignored by the White House because they just seem like political attacks. What do you make of that?
WHITEHOUSE: Yes, I think that's true. I think they may have seen Sally Yates warning as just a political attack and not seen the fact that she was there with a very serious national security concerned that she emphasized over and over again yesterday in the hearing. They're attuned it seems more to defending the president than to taking care of national security business in an appropriate way.
And that would help explain why for these 18 days, until the story appeared in "The Washington Post" and threatened to embarrass the president, that they didn't appear to take any serious action to limit this guy's access to classified information or sensitive meetings.
CUOMO: And yet, at the end of the day, Senator, at this point, for all the high dudgeon, do you have any degree of certainty that there was any collusion between any member of the Trump administration and Russia?
WHITEHOUSE: There are so many different links between Trump votes and the Russians that it's hard to believe that nothing took place and there are lots of leads that need to be run down. But until those leads are run down, it would be impossible to say. That's why I continued to investigate this matter so we know and can settle that question is so important.
CUOMO: And you don't believe that the investigations have gone on long enough, that there should be proof by now?
WHITEHOUSE: No, because there's -- you know, this takes time. Let's say that the FBI has a cooperator. They need to fully debrief that person. Then, they -- you know, they've got to put the cooperation agreement together. Then, they've got to start to look down those leads, those leads, and they turn to other leads. They may flip a second cooperator at that point.
I mean, it can take years for a full-on, very well-staffed and thorough FBI investigation to work its way through to conclusion. Particularly, where there is such a broad array of evidence that needs looking into at this stage.
So, I don't fault the FBI for not having rushed to a conclusion on this. They have a huge investigative task in front of them.
Senator, thank you very much --
CUOMO: -- for coming on NEW DAY, as always.
WHITEHOUSE: My pleasure.
CAMEROTA: All right, Chris. As you've just demonstrated, there were plenty of interviews about yesterday's hearing, including why the Trump White House did not heed the repeated warnings about Michael Flynn. So, we have the bottom line for you on that, next.