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Washington Post: Kushner And Russia Discussed Secret Communication Channel; Reuters: Kushner Didn't Disclose Two Phone Calls With Russian Ambassador

Aired May 26, 2017 - 21:00   ET



[21:00:56] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Our breaking news tonight, a potential bombshell, new reporting in "The Washington Post." According to "The Post," Jared Kushner, the president son-in-law and senior advisor, proposed setting up a secret means of communicating with the Kremlin and reportedly took place at a meeting with Russia's ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, back in December at Trump Tower in New York City.

Our Justice Correspondent Pamela Brown has late word on all of this. She is joining us now. Pamela, so what are you learning?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we've learned, Wolf, to "The Washington Post" that Jared Kushner asked Russia's Ambassador Sergey Kislyak last December about creating a secret back channel communication to Moscow by using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring from intelligence agencies.

Now, as we know, we've reported, Wolf, that the FBI is scrutinizing this meeting along with at least one other one that Kushner have with the Russian banker as part of its larger probe into Russia's interference in the U.S. election. The meeting in question right now, though, was also attended by Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser who was fired up for a conversation he have with Kislyak.

And according to "The Washington Post" during the December meeting, Kislyak was reportedly caught off-guard by the unusual request that an American would use Russian communications gear in its embassy. The meeting was relayed back to Russia by Kislyak.

It is important to note, though, Wolf, that Russians will sometimes feed false information into communication because they're well aware that U.S. Intel is listening in. But according to "The Post" officials -- to "The Washington Post" officials believe that the information he provided was a reliable characterization. The White House has declined to comment tonight, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yeah. And, again, Jared Kushner's attorney has declined to comment as well. Very, very thunder of silence I should say. I understand the Obama administration, Pamela, had concerns about Ambassador Kislyak's interactions with people on the Trump transition team. What can you tell us about that?

BROWN: That's right, Wolf. I'm told by former Obama administration officials that they were alarmed by the interactions Kislyak was having with members of the Trump campaign and transition, and they took note of these interactions.

As one official told me when Kislyak came to the White House under Obama, it was normally to be reprimanded and then in contrast the officials says members of the Trump campaign and transition appeared to be meeting with him on a fairly regular basis more so than within the other foreign officials.

Now, the repeated meetings were happening as we know through different channels throughout the campaign and transition and it was puzzling, I'm told, that it was -- because it was not clear to those in the Obama administration what the Trump transition folks were trying to avoid -- trying to do by avoiding regular channels.

Now, the officials were also aware, Wolf, of the phone conversations from Kislyak where he would report back to Russia about cultivating relationships with members on the Trump campaign and transition. And there was those conversations between Russian government officials both seeing if they could use those members to influence Trump. So all of this put together created concern in the Obama administration, particularly during the transition, Wolf.

BLITZER: Pamela Brown, thanks very much.

I want to bring in our panel, Phil Mudd is with us, Dana Bash, "The Washington Post" Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter, David Fahrenthold, is with us, Laura Coates, Professor Alan Dershowitz, and Steve Hall. Every one is here, a lot of good people.

So, Dana, first of all, what do you make of this bombshell report in the "The Washington Post"?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, it's hard for us to wrap our minds around it. How many times have we said that in the 15-minute news cycles that we're living in these days? But, there are a lot of the reporting in here, but also a lot of unanswered questions.

You know, the biggest and most obvious is why would Jared Kushner make such a, frankly, naive request to do something like ask the Russians to see if he can use their communications to have a back channel? It doesn't make sense on its face.

Having said that, this meeting supposedly happened at the beginning of December. This was a campaign that frankly thought it would be disbanded and would go back to their businesses and were suddenly a transition to the presidency of the United States, and they were trying to get their sea legs.

[21:05:13] And Jared Kushner wanted to be and became the guy who his father-in-law/president-elect will rely on to have, you know, foreign policy contacts and be the foreign policy guy.

So, look, "The Post" suggests this base on the officials that they've talked to. And I think that there could be something to the fact that this is a 36-year-old who lived his life in the business world of New York City and this was brand new and he did something really, really naive if, if this actually happened.

BLITZER: You know, Phil Mudd, the only thing I could imagine they would want to setup this secret channel of communications through the Russian embassy during the transition is because Kushner and Michael Flynn that was also at Trump Tower for that meeting with Kislyak, the president's later fired national security advisor, were afraid that they didn't want Obama administration officials to know what they were telling the Russians.

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: That's right. If you want me to give you an explanation for this, I will. Let me not tell you it's not credible, but I'll give you an explanation. Let's understand also, we're hearing half of the story from a source that it's a Russian ambassador. I'm not sure I trust. We haven't heard Kushner's side. That said, let's assumed this is all accurate.

We're going into an environment where the President of the United States repeatedly, despites statements by the FBI director, alleged that Trump Towers was not only wiretapped by federal officials, but in a wiretapped ordered by the President of the United States. So you have an environment where people want to work with Putin, that environment was created during the campaign, but where they don't trust the administration they're entering.

I supposed you could see Jared Kushner say, "I got to find a way outside the American bureaucracy to talk to these guys, especially after we just won the election when things are getting real, because I don't trust the American Bureaucracy." And remember, I think we're being wiretapped.

BASH: Because President Obama was still the president.

MUDD: That's correct, yeah.

BASH: So his people were still in place at the time.

MUDD: That's right.

BLITZER: President Obama was president until January 20th.

BASH: Exactly.

BLITZER: This is early December. David, what do you make of this reporting from your colleagues at the "The Washington Post"?

DAVID FAHRENTHOLD, REPORTER, WASHINGTON POST: Its amazing reporting. I had nothing to do with it and I can't claim any credit for it. The thing that standout to me is -- we talk about the naivety of Jared Kushner, which is certainly understandable, a guy entering government with no experience, he's accompanied by this meeting by the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Michael Flynn, more than anybody you think would understand what it would mean to request to the Russians, "Let me come to your embassy and use your communications gear." I'm really surprised by that and to me it seems like naivety is not the whole explanation if you bring an actual expert and espionage with you.

BLITZER: But remember, Michael Flynn, he was the head of the DIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, President Obama for all practical purposes fired him. They didn't like his style over there. And a year -- in 2015, he actually went to Moscow, had dinner at a fancy Russian television sponsored dinner and Putin was sitting at his table.

FAHRENTHOLD: That's what I'm saying. I don't think Mike Flynn makes this -- if this is a mistake by Michael Flynn and Mike Flynn participates in, it's hard for me to imagine it happens because Mike Flynn doesn't understand how these things work.

BLITZER: Of course, he understands.

FAHRENTHOLD: And so Mike Flynn would seem to be going along with this, not out of naivety, but perhaps on purpose.

BLITZER: Yeah. Well, Professor Dershowitz, if this reporting of "The Washington Post" is true, does this point, and you're an expert, to some evidence of collusion?

ALAN DERSHOWITZ, PROFESSOR EMERITUS, HARVARD LAW SCHOOL: Well, evidence of collusion is not a crime, even collusion is not a crime. This is another example of a political bombshell that doesn't rise to the level of criminal conduct. And special counsel is supposed to be investigating only criminal conduct and that supposed to be investigating evil doing or bad politics or things that would incline you not to vote for Trump's re-election.

They're supposed to look for evidence of criminal conduct and violation of federal criminal statutes. The only thing this, I think, suggests is that they ought to be looking hard at why Kushner and Flynn and the others, and Sessions, didn't completely disclose their meetings with Russian the authorities during this interim period.

Remember, there are three periods of time that are relevant during the campaign, before the election, because that could have been efforts to influence the election by Russia. Once they're in office after the inauguration because he's the President of the United States and we have an administration.

But then there's this interim period, which is the least likely to contain any kind of criminal behavior because they're still private citizens and they're not -- and they've already been elected.

So, again, this is another example of very important information. The public has the right to know, but not necessarily information that will lead to a criminal investigation, or criminal indictment, or criminal prosecution.

BLITZER: Well, let me press you on that Professor Dershowitz. You're the expert.


BLITZER: You're the Harvard Law scholar. If in fact, we don't know if this is true by any means, but if in fact during the campaign there were Trump associates instructing -- working with the Russians, colluding with the Russians on how to interfere in the elections and get bad stories out there in Wisconsin or Michigan or Pennsylvania, and do that, wouldn't that be illegal to work with a foreign country and try to interfere in our Democratic process?

[21:10:17] DERSHOWITZ: Well, I've gone through all the federal -- relevant federal criminal statutes, and I can't find a crime in the existing law. It certainly should be a crime, and I would hope Congress would have hearings and make that criminal.

The only way it could be a crime is if the Trump administration has no evidence unless, of course, told them to hack the Democratic National Committee, gave them information about how to be hacked it, targeted who to be hack. But if they just took advantage of the fact that the Russians on their own hacked the DNC, that too would not be a crime.

These are things that probably ought to be made criminal and I think Congress would probably want to have hearings to make sure that in the future this can't ever be allowed to happen. But you always have to point to a specific criminal statute, and I haven't seen any.

BLITZER: Yeah. And I want to be precise. We haven't seen any evidence of that type of formal collusion to be sure, but that's what these investigators are certainly looking for.

Laura, you're a former federal prosecutor. Was there potentially some sort of legal criminal activity here?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, there are if it result that what Mr. Dershowitz just talking about in the sense that there was an initiative on the behalf of the Trump administration or campaign to try to facilitate the illegal activity like hacking, like trying -- you know, what actually attached to a criminal statute.

But remember, any prudent and diligent prosecutor or investigator knows there will be dozens if not hundreds of rabbit holes to pursue. Robert Mueller is no -- by no means an Elmer Fudd in this scenario. There are may be some dead ends here, but there will some indication through the process of an investigation to figure out, listen, who did what, why, and to what gain and was there a criminal connection?

Right now we want to have the answers immediately and the litany of whys that we all have lead us to only one conclusion, we need an investigation why, because there's a lot of unanswered questions. If what it happened in this case is that the Trump campaign was the passive recipient of information, of this information and just aqueous to the distribution of it, well, you don't only have the type of crime we've been talking about.

If, however, they are in the driver seat and trying to facilitate a criminal activity and using Russian agents or Russian intelligence or whatever it is, to do that to undermine the election, that pendulum shifts right back into the halls of the Department of Justice where it will remain.

But right now, we are at a loss. And what we do not have from the story from "The Washington Post" is what did Jared Kushner want to say?

BLITZER: All right. Let me get Professor Dershowitz to respond to that. Go ahead.

DERSHOWITZ: Well, I think there should be an investigation. The question is, who should conduct it? I think it's very dangerous to have prosecutors authorized to conduct fishing expeditions or giving them kind of general commissions to investigation, to see whether they can find crimes.

This is very appropriately done more by a Congress if they want to change the law or by an independent commission at the time it was appointed by Congress after 9/11. And that way the public sees everything, we learn the answers, everything is done in public, the witnesses have lawyers.

What -- the investigation is being conducted now is being conducted in secret, behind closed doors, in front of a grand jury where witnesses don't have lawyers. We'll never find out the whole truth because we'll probably end up just hearing indictment or no indictment. So I think a public, public investigation is really what's warranty (ph), because so far up to now we've seen political sins, but no federal statutory crimes.

BLITZER: You're talking about like a 9/11 public commission of inquiry, right?

DERSHOWITZ: That's right, with a nonpartisan people, real experts who could get to the bottom of this and find out the truth. And then we would know who to vote for in the next election, rather than leaving it only to a criminal investigation that will end either with no indictment or perhaps the indictment of Flynn or one or two other people.

BLITZER: Yeah. There's a criminal investigation. There are several congressional investigations in the House and Senate. Everybody standby. We have a lot more coming in on the breaking news, much more with our panel.

We're also standing by for White House reaction. That's ahead. And so is the latest stuff from another key stop in the president's first overseas trip. We're going to get the very latest from the G7 Summit in Sicily when "360" continues.


[21:18:03] BLITZER: More now on the breaking news. Reporting in the "The Washington Post" that Jared Kushner back in early December proposed setting up a secret communications system with the Kremlin. According to "The Post," the request came from intercepts of conversations between Russia's ambassador to the United States and Moscow. Let's get back to our panel.

And, Steve, what motivation would Ambassador Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., have to tell the Russians about this, knowing that -- presuming, I assume that U.S. intelligence officials were listening in, especially if the Russians saw an improved relationship under the Trump administration as opposed to the Obama administration?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yeah, yet another thing in the story that just -- it just sort of defies logic. Your presumption is an important one, which you eluded too there in the question which is presuming that he was speaking over open communications.

If Kislyak was speaking in an open line or some of the phone with open communications with Moscow, then I can guarantee you what he said cannot be taken at face value. If he was not communicating via open communication, then that's another matter.

Another thing that would never happen, I can tell you, is that the Russians would never agree to have an Americans, especially, you know, somebody like Kushner who's going to be part of the incoming administration, you know, sit down in front of some sort of Russian communication system and communicate securely back to Moscow.

That's ridiculous because it would expose all sorts of secrets in terms of that communication, but the Russians would never want to expose and why? He could simply sit with the ambassador in some place, in the embassy or elsewhere convey his information and then the ambassador himself, Kislyak, could convey that information securely back to Moscow.

So, there's a whole lot that just doesn't make a whole lot of sense why in this interim period, Professor Dershowitz was correct, you've got this interim period after election but before inauguration it's not that long of the period. What was so urgent that they're needed to be some sort of secret communication that couldn't wait until the administration was in place, and then they could speak to Russians whenever and however they wanted to pretty much. That part I don't understand.

[21:20:11] BLITZER: Well, Phil Mudd, the only thing I can imagine is if, in fact, you know, Kushner wanted to have a dialogue with someone in the Kremlin, wanted to get on the phone, so can I come over to the Russian embassy, you have secure communications, we can dial this individual in Moscow, and I can have a private conversation with this person, and Kislyak may or may not have thought that was strange, but maybe Kushner thought it was a legitimate idea.

MUDD: Darn right he thought that was strange the Russian ambassador. I could see a scenario -- forget about sensitive communications material or devices of going over saying I don't trust this going through American communications channels because the White House is using this. I want to talk to you over in your spaces so that you will transmit this back through at your channels and the White House won't see it. One thing that hasn't been mention here is a word that has come up repeatedly in the past several months, and that is unmasking. If this story is true and you want to understand why the national security advisor under President Obama, that is Susan Rice, wants to understand which Americans in the Trump campaign are talking to Russian ambassador and saying, who's that U.S. person number one mentioned that communication? This story today tells you why.

This is the kind of name that would be unmasked at the communication to help the White House understand what's going on with the incoming administration and secret communications with the Russians. The story is starting to clarify.

BLITZER: You know, a lot of people are saying, you know, Dana, this -- there's been a lot of bombshells over these past few weeks, but this a major bombshell.

BASH: It is. Look, I mean, I think it's hard to top the President of the United States in the Oval Office allegedly telling the Russian foreign minister and ambassador that the FBI director just fired is a nut job or allegedly giving them intelligence and saying it is the Israelis that were a source or telling the FBI -- NSA director and the head of the CIA to go public and say that nothing bad happened with Flynn or -- I mean, I can or, or, or. And this is about what happened when the President of the United States was already president.

Having said that with regard to trying to figure out what really went on -- not the motivation because we don't really have 100 percent, you know, really have much of an understanding of what the motivation was, but what went on in some of these meetings that Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn, but in this case Jared Kushner, didn't even talk about at first, didn't even reveal at first. And now we have more information about what he wanted to do in these meetings that, there's no question.

BLITZER: Professor Dershowitz, if Jared Kushner called you and said, "I need some legal advice," what would you tell him?

DERSHOWITZ: I'll tell him to hire a Jamie Gorelick, which he has done. She's a brilliant lawyer, my former student and she is giving him the best possible advice. I would be completely up front and frank.

I would first write to the special counsel and find out what they're investigating, what statutes they think may have been violated. But then it seems to me like he has really nothing to hide and nothing he can hide anyway, because everything will come out because everything is tapped, everything is recorded these days. And so he should be completely candid.

And what he should say if it's the truth is that, "I didn't trust the Obama administration. I thought they would leak this information to the disadvantage of the incoming president. I wanted to have a source of contact with Russia, who we wanted to have better relationships with and I wanted to do it without the Obama administration listening in." Now, the fact that you trust the Russians more than you trust your own incumbent president is an interesting political story. But I don't see the criminal law implications of this. To me a much more serious story, and I know you're going to get to it later is the Comey revelation that, "My God, he relied on information that he knew was probably false coming from the Russians in order to make statements that may have had an impact on the election." That is really a bombshell.

And some of things that Dana mentioned are much, much more serious. The leaking of the intelligence of what city the surveillance came from very, very serious the fact that the president may have asked national security people to tell him something that turned out not to be the case. Those are much more serious.

So I think we have to have priorities here and we also have to always focus on whether or not civil liberties are being violated in the restored (ph) partisan results.

BLITZER: But very quickly, Professor Dershowitz, you mentioned Jamie Gorelick, the lawyer representing Jared Kushner. She's a former deputy attorney general during the Bill Clinton administration.

"The Washington Post" asked her for comment. We've asked her for comment. We've asked the White House for comment to this bombshell report in the "The Washington Post." "The Washington Post" asked for comment, and for hours now they're not commenting. How do you explain that?

[21:25:02] DERSHOWITZ: Well, I think for very good reason. I wouldn't have commented either if I had been his lawyer until I found out whether the story is true. First of all, I'd want to check with my client to find out whether or not this meeting actually took place. I'd want to hear his story, his account of it, and then I'd want to make decision about whether to make a public at this time or to make it public to the special counsel outside of the context of any kind of public disclosure.

I'm sure that you will get responses from Jamie Gorelick, but you'll get it at a time when she knows for sure that what's she's saying is credible. She depends on her credibility. As you said, she's a Democrat. She worked for the Obama administration, the Clinton administration. She's a very, very prominent Democrat, and yet she's here as a lawyer representing a Republican. That is in the highest tradition of the bar and civil liberty.

She's probably getting as much flack as I am because every time I speak out and I say anything that serves to the advantage of the incumbent president, all of my liberal and radical friends condemning. I'm sure Jamie Gorelick is the same thing, but that's what lawyers and civil libertarians and public intellectuals and professors have to do. We have to call it as we see it. We have to call it straight in a nonpartisan way.

BLITZER: All right, everybody standby. Professor, we're going to get to you. We have some new reporting coming in on additional and previously undisclosed contacts between Jared Kushner and Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States.


BLITZER: In addition to "The Washington Post" reporting that Jared Kushner back in early December suggested setting up a secret communications system with Moscow.

[21:30:02] There's now new reporting as well from Routers. They're sources telling them that Kushner had at least three previously undisclosed contacts with Russian ambassador of the United States, Sergey Kislyak, and that includes two phone calls according to Reuters between April and November of last year.

Reached for comment by the Reuters news service, Kushner's attorney says his client has no recollection of those calls in any case. It's yet another contact or alleged contact with this ambassador. It seems to be everywhere in this story. Kushner is one of at least four people has contacts with the Ambassador Kislyak have come under scrutiny.

David Fahrenthold, Ryan Lizza, Alan Dershowitz, they are back with us. They're also joining, my old friend and colleague, Jill Dougherty, an expert on Russia. She's with the University of Washington right now under Woodrow Wilson Center.

I want to get to all of that, but Ryan Lizza, I think that Jamie Gorelick, the attorney representing Jared Kushner has just put out a statement?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yeah. This is a text I just received from an official at the White House when I asked her response earlier to the ongoing stories. This is actually response that's put in the name of Jamie Gorelick coming via White House official to me.

It says regarding the Reuters story, "Mr. Kushner participated in thousands of calls in this time period. He has no recollection of the calls as described. We have asked Reuters for the dates of such alleged calls so we may look into it and respond, but we have not received such information."

So that's being attributed to Kushner's lawyer coming to me via a White House official and they are pushing back against this Reuters story saying that Kushner participated in thousands of calls in this time, but he doesn't have any recollection of the calls that Reuters has described.

BLITZER: Reuters talking about these two previously undisclosed phone calls in April and November of last year.

LIZZA: Important to note, there is not a respond still to "The Washington Post."

BLITZER: Right. That's Jamie Gorelick statement regarding the Reuters story, but still silence as far as "The Washington Post" story is concerned. Jill, let's talk a little bit. We haven't heard from you yet. Does it make sense to you that a high ranking official with an incoming U.S. administration would propose using secure equipment at the Russian embassy in Washington to communicate with the Kremlin?

JILL DOUGHERTY, GLOBAL FELLOW, WOODROW WILSON CENTER: Wolf, I think it's flabbergasting both from the American perspective and from the Russian perspective. But in a way, I was trying to get my head around this.

In a way it does make some sense. I mean, I think he could argue. We all know that the president distained really disliked and distrusted the intelligence community. So he would definitely try to go around them to do whatever he wanted to do and General Flynn was the same way perhaps even more so.

Then you had his desire to do a deal with the Russians. And if you look at the way the president deals with other leaders, et cetera, a lot of it is personal connection. You know, going out -- remember, the early phone calls that he made, they were direct pick up the phone and do it yourself. It's kind of his businessman approach.

So I can see this in some way they would say, "Let's go to them directly. Let's communicate with the Kremlin directly. Let's find our contact there." And then finally the president's desire to do the biggest deal in history, which would be improving relations with Russia.

So all of those factors, I think, you know, at least give some type of, to me, a little bit of a framework where you could make sense of this even though it is astounding and pretty incredible, but not totally implausible.

BLITZER: Interesting. Professor Dershowitz, let me ask you about a U.S. law called the Logan Act. It's never been use, but it successfully prosecutes someone. But it essentially prohibits private citizens having unauthorized dealings with foreign governments. I assume you're going to be skeptical of this, but it could come into play if -- and it's a big if --


BLITZER: -- if Jared Kushner or Michael Flynn or anyone else was discussing making promises about sanctions against Russia to Russian government officials.

DERSHOWITZ: No, absolutely not. There's a concept called desuetude in the law. A law disappears from the books and practice if it has never been used or never been used for a long period of time. The last time this was used was in the beginning of the 19th century.

If it had been used, you'd been going (ph) to Jimmy Carter in imprison because Jimmy Carter did this all the time. Jimmy Carter advised, you know, Arsi Arfa (ph), not to accept the deal that President Clinton -- and he had Barack put on the table. President Reagan negotiated through his staff with the Iranians to make sure that the hostages were released after he was inaugurated not before. Jesse Jackson has had many, many dealings with foreign leaders.

[21:35:03] You just have to forget about the Logan Act. It is not the law of the United States even though the words still appear on the book. You cannot enforce a law after 200 years of desuetude. That is, in fact, the law.

BLITZER: All right. David, you work at the "The Washington Post." Your colleagues have this major story, this bombshell. You and I are journalists and it's surprising to me as journalist, you know, your paper gave the White House, gave Kushner's attorney hours to respond and they're still silence.

FAHRENTHOLD: Yes. That is -- I think it's hard to read anything into that. As Professor Dershowitz said, it could be that they're reviewing records or preparing a response. I think it's hard to say anything right now about what that means. Also this is an unusual White House, which often responds to a lot of things with radio silence. I don't think we know exactly now what that means.

BLITZER: Do you think, Jill Dougherty, that the Russian ambassador simply fooling around, playing games, he's trying to embarrass the United States and saying these crazy things in a phone conversation that he suspected the U.S. was listening in on?

DOUGHERTY: You know, Wolf, for some reason I don't believe that. I mean, let's play it out because if that's what he was trying to do, it puts Donald Trump in a bad light, I would think. I mean, it would explode as it is domestically in the United States.

Why would they want to kind of damage Donald Trump by doing that? All be it, of course, they want to saw disinformation and shake it up and put a out a whole lot of, you know, chaff out there. But that to me does not make sense. I don't think he would want to damage him.

BLITZER: All right, everybody standby. We have a lot more coming up, including more on where the White House now stands on all of this as well as the president's trip overseas, what he's doing and the subject he's avoiding.


[21:40:33] BLITZER: In addition to tonight's breaking news on Jared Kushner and Russia's ambassador, there's a lot more happening, including the president's day at the G7 Summit.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is joining us now from Sicily with more on that reaction to the Russia reporting. Jeff, what if anything our White House officials saying?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I can tell you the White House is not commenting on any of these reports this evening. A senior administration official telling me earlier they simply are not going to react individually to each one of these stories.

But, Wolf, I can tell you, Russia is hanging over the president's head, even as he is been over here for the last week. He's been watching, I am told, every incremental development of the story. But Russia is also hanging over him here at the G7. European leaders are wondering why he's so silent on Vladimir Putin and if he'll be able to stand up to him.


ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump and members of his new club of world leaders stood watch today as the Italian Air Force put on an impressive show at the Group of Seven Summit in Sicily. As the president's debut on the world stage draws to a close, one thing has been clear along the way. He's not eager to talk about Russia.


ZELENY (voice-over): : His silence has fueled more questions, not only about the Russia investigation back in Washington, but also among European leaders quietly wondering whether he's willing to confront the aggression of Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

DONALD TUSK, PRESIDENT EUROPEAN COUNCIL: That I'm not 100 percent sure that we can say today. We, meaning Mr. President and myself, that we have a common position, common opinion about Russia.

ZELENY (voice-over): Russia is not allowed to attend the summit, thrown out in 2014 after its incursion into Crimea. On Russian sanctions, the White House raised eyebrows yesterday when Gary Cohn, the president's top economic adviser declared, "We don't have a position." Amid criticism, the administration backtracked with Cohn outlining a new position in a briefing call with reporters.

GARY COHN, SENIOR ECONOMIC ADVISER TO THE PRESIDENT (via telephone): "We're not lowering our sanctions in Russia. If anything, we would probably look to get tougher on Russia. So the president wants to continue to, you know, keep the sanctions in place.

ZELENY (voice-over): At a Cliffside Resort on the Sicilian Coast, the president and other new members of the G7 took another one another's measure. He also signed a statement calling for unity in the global fight against terrorism.

Tonight, the president holding a private session with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one item likely on the agenda is trade after the president raised eyebrows for saying he believes Germany is very bad on trade while visiting NATO headquarters yesterday. Cohn rushed to clarify the president's remark saying, "He said, 'I don't have a problem with Germany. I have a problem with German trade.'"

Unlike his new counter parts, Mr. Trump refused to answer questions from the press. British Prime Minister Theresa May and a parade of leaders stood before reporters here and at NATO headquarters. It's one of the best ways to deliver their message like May did on the intelligence sharing controversy. THERESA MAY, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Yes, I did raise issues the issue of leaks of information that's being shared by the police with the FBI with President Trump. He has made clear that that was unacceptable.

ZELENY (voice-over): But President Trump has not hold a single formal question and answer session with reporters, a break in protocol of most U.S. presidents. A press conference once expected for Saturday is no longer. His lower profile has concede it's because of that Russia storm cloud still brewing back at home.


ZELENY: Now, we have not heard from the president directly, Wolf, which again is very unusual here. But he is hearing from world leaders, specifically on climate change. We were told that they are trying to influence him to stay in the Paris Climate Agreement. And we are told by senior administration officials he is leaning, he's learning, he's evolving and he does not want people to think he doesn't like the environment.

So, Wolf, as this trip here comes to an end, as he returns to Washington tomorrow, so many questions hanging over him from climate change and that Russia investigation. It's all waiting for him back at the White House.

BLITZER: Yeah, coming back here tomorrow. All right, Jeff Zeleny in Sicily for us. Thanks very much.

Much more on the breaking news coming up, also how the health care bill and proposed budget cuts are playing in Kentucky where Donald Trump won big.


[21:48:48] BLITZER: With so many stories about President Trump and Russia, we want to focus now on the president and the country, this country. Tonight, Gary Tuchman returns to Kentucky to talk to voters who helped put President Trump in office. The question is, are they losing faith or standing by their man?


GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Wesley Easterling and his 2-year-old daughter Wiley (ph) live in the heart of Appalachia, Elliott County, Kentucky.


TUCHMAN (voice-over): Which is not worthy, because Donald Trump is the first Republican presidential candidates he has ever voted for.

(on camera): Elliott County was found in 1869. There have been 37 presidential elections since then. Remarkably in this county, the Democratic candidate has won every one of vote elections until this one. (voice-over): And Donald Trump won big here, getting more than 70 percent of the vote. Many people like Wesley Easterling believing --

EASTERLING: He had a lot of amazing ideas. He just had this charisma about and just -- he was something different.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): This County is one of the poorest ones in a country. The poverty rate is over 34 percent and it has one of the highest percentages of people in the nation who rely on federal benefit programs and Wesley Easterling is one of them.

[21:50:05] He and his family benefited from Medicaid and food stamps. During the presidential campaign, he took candidate Trump at his word.

TRUMP: Save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security without cuts. Have to do it.

EASTERLING: When he said that he, you know, he wasn't going to cut Medicaid or, you know, the benefits, I believed that.


TUCHMAN (voice-over): But the proposed new health care plan and the proposed federal budget cut hundreds of millions of dollars a year from Medicaid. The budget also makes cuts in programs ranging from food stamps to Social Security disability insurance.

EASTERLING: I mean, I felt just like I was in -- so just like he played me for a fool. I mean, I kind of took it personal.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): If you could do it over again, if Election Day were today, who would you vote for?

EASTERLING: Hillary, without a doubt.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): Inside Elliott County's Penny Mart, we talked with other Trump voters, like BlueGrass musician, Sammy Adkins. If the election were held today, who would you vote for?

SAMMY ADKINS, VOTED FOR TRUMP: Well, I'd probably have to wait and see a little more into the -- I mean, in his office, you know. I mean, if he does a lot of cutting and stuff, I'm sure I might go the other way, you know.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): But Trump voter Tim Fannin says he would enthusiastically cast his ballot for Donald Trump again.

(on camera): So what do you say to other people in this county who are upset about this federal program as possibly being cut?

TIM FANNIN, VOTED FOR TRUMP: Tough luck. I mean, you have to nip it in the bud as (inaudible) as you get nip in the bud and you got to start somewhere.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): Wesley Easterling just graduated from a pipe welding program at a community college and hopes to get a refinery job soon so he can be off federal assistance.

(on camera): Donald Trump during the campaign said he's going to fight for the little guy. You're the little guy, right?

EASTERLING: I am the little guy.

TUCHMAN (on camera): Do you feel he's fighting for you?

EASTERLING: No, not at all. Little guy's going out to fight for himself.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): In the meantime, he says he is praying for his family, his country and his president.

Gary Tuchman, CNN, Elliott County, Kentucky.


BLITZER: Joining us now, Scott Jennings, former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush and Bakari Sellers, CNN Political Commentator, former South Carolina State House member. Guys, thanks very much.

Scott, president campaigned on various populist ideals, the Rust Belt, a big part of his winning strategy. So how big of a problem is it if the residents there feel sort of betrayed by him right now?

SCOTT JENNINGS, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, I think you can always anecdotally find people who don't like a politician that they recently voted for. But on the whole here, Wolf, in Kentucky, where I live, Donald Trump is still overwhelmingly popular.

And I also think there's some degree of nuance you have to look at in this reporting, because while he is proposing to cut some things that some people say they still want, there is a recognition here in Kentucky that we cannot necessarily afford everything that's been promised by the previous administration both at the federal level and here at the state level.

And so what you have in Kentucky is recognition that at this point we now have one in three people on Medicaid and there is a discussion going on. Is this something we can actual afford and is Donald Trump been left with making the hard decision to get this program back into a place where we can actually afford it and it can then take care of the people who truly need it?

So, there's a balance that has to go on here. But I think in Kentucky, Donald Trump would overwhelmingly win the electoral votes if the election were held again today.

BLITZER: Yeah, it's a fair point.

Bakari, we should point out, it's not all that they stairs across the board. There are plenty of conservatives like we just saw in Gary's piece who are, in fact, championing these cuts by the president. Go ahead, respond.

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN ANALYST: Well, I think, Wolf, one of the things that we're seeing is that Donald Trump has come through and he said that he was going to preserve Medicare. He was going to preserve Medicaid. And those just simply aren't things that he's doing.

He's cutting Medicaid. He's cutting (inaudible). He's cutting food stamps. He's cutting these things that people depend on, especially right there in Kentucky. And what we're seeing is not anything new. It's not a Donald Trump phenomenon. We're seeing rural working class white voters who are voting against their own self-interests.

But even more, I love how "The Atlantic," I love how "The New York Times" and even us at CNN oftentimes go out and we go on these missions where we try to find these voters who are economic anxiety voters. But that is not what it is, Wolf. What it is, its cultural anxiety.

We're seeing individuals who are voting in issues that are coming about whether or not it's gay marriage, whether or not it's transgender rights, whether or not it's the browning (ph) of the country who are voting against that image, that picture. So it's not as much economics as it is the direction of the country and that's a larger discussion that has to be had.

BLITZER: Well, let any ask Scott to respond to that. Go ahead, Scott.

JENNINGS: Well, I think there's some arrogance and condescension in that viewpoint. Look, Kentuckians are proud Americans. And, yes, there is some self-interest in any vote you cast in any election, but there's also national interest.

[21:55:11] And I do agree, there are some cultural issues that play in this last election. Hillary Clinton was openly disdainful of Appalachia. She said she was going to put coal miners and coal companies out of business and there was a real disconnect between the National Democratic Party and rural American.

Not just in Kentucky, but in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, all these states that Donald Trump won. They have one thing in common. They're in this part of the country where the Democratic Party lacked a message that appealed to the people that they had previously relied upon to win in presidential elections.

And so until the Democrats come up with a message that actually appeals to rural America, they're going to keep losing elections here. And, yes, some of that is cultural, but you have to remember, not every voter goes to the polls and says who can I vote for based solely on who's going to send me the most money? Some people like to vote on national security, terrorism, pro-life issues that was mentioned. That was absolutely true. There are other things at play.

BLITZER: All right.

JENNINGS: Donald Trump checked way more boxes than Hillary Clinton. BLITZER: We're going to have plenty of opportunity down the road guys to continue this important conversation. Scott Jennings, Bakari Sellers, thanks very much. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Thanks very much for watching "360." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. "United Shades of America" starts right now.

[22:00:11] W. KAMAU BELL, HOST, "UNITED SHADES OF AMERICA": On this show, we're talking about Muslims and Arabs.