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Mueller Indicts 13 Russian Nationals; Russians Traveled to U.S. for Intel; Communications with Trump Aides. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired February 16, 2018 - 13:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Hi there, I'm Brianna Keilar in for Wolf Blitzer. Wherever you are watching from around the world, thank you so much for joining us.

Two enormous stories that are developing right now. A major warning sign missed and the shocking admission from the FBI.

The agency says a person close to the Florida school shooter contacted the FBI tip line on January 5th to report concerns about him, including details about his guns and his desire to kill people. But protocols were not followed and the information was not provided to the Miami field office.

But first, this story, special counsel, Robert Mueller, dropping new indictments in the Russia investigation.

I'm going to start now with Justice Correspondent Evan Perez on this story. What's happening, Evan?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, right now, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, has announced charges against 13 Russian individuals and three Russian entities related to violations, trying to interfere with the U.S. elections in 2016 elections.

We're still going through the indictment that's been returned here. But it appears this has to do with the Russian interference into the 2016 elections.

And some of these individuals, we assume, are still in Russia, and probably will never be arrested by U.S. authorities. But this is the first action that we are seeing right now that directly relates to the interference that occurred in the 2016 election that President Trump still doesn't really believe actually occurred.

Robert Mueller basically now saying, not only did it occur, but we know who did it. And this includes this outfit in St. Petersburg, Russia called the Internet Research Agency which is the agency -- the front for the Russian spy agencies that U.S. investigators believe was being used.

Not only to manipulate social media, but also to foment, essentially, help people, supporters of Donald Trump. And try to turn people against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.

KEILAR: This brings this investigation back to the entire point of the investigation which is meddling by Russia in the 2016 election.

PEREZ: Right.

KEILAR: There has been so much political back and forth when it comes to the president. You know, whether there was collusion between some members of his campaign.

PEREZ: Right.

KEILAR: And Russian operatives, knowingly or unknowingly, was there some obstruction of justice?

But it all stems from this. And I wonder -- I wonder what this does for the investigation, for Mueller, as he seems to be making his point that this is what this is about, Russian meddling.

PEREZ: Right, exactly. And the criticism, so far, of this investigation which, again, Mueller was appointed only in May and it's been pretty quick movement in this investigation. But the charges that were brought against Paul Manafort, which was -- who was the former chairman of the Trump campaign, Rick Gates, who was his deputy, that it had nothing to do with the conduct during the campaign, during the 2016 election.

The charges that Mike Flynn has pleaded guilty to do mention, you know, his conversations. And he lied to the FBI about conversations with the Russian ambassador. But, again, it had nothing to do with the Russian interference in the 2016 election.

So, the criticism, by President Trump and others, is that there's nothing to see here. Mueller's been wasting all our time.

Well, now we see, again, 13 Russian individuals. The charges against three Russian entities, including the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia which tells us that this is what this has always been about.

We knew that the FBI pretty quickly had identified some individuals. And so, they wanted to bring charges on this as early as early 2017. Mueller has been handling this now. We knew this has been handed over to Mueller's team.

And now, we see that the charges have been brought.

KEILAR: I want to bring your colleague, my colleague, Shimon Prokupecz, into this.

Shimon, you have some developments. You're joining us here as well with Josh Campbell. What's going on? What are you hearing?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I just wanted to read -- this comes from, you know, our colleague, Manu Raju, who points out that there's a count in the indictment, count six, he -- which he has read the indictment, says.

And there's a line in there that says, the Russians. They're talking about Russians buying ads, posting derogatory information about a number of candidates.

And, by mid-2016, the Russians supported Trump and disparaged Clinton. Then, this count and this indictment goes on to say, they bought ads and communicated with unwitting people tied to the Trump campaign and others to coordinate political activities.

[13:05:02] That is a count in the indictment that the special counsel is now alleging. That Russians allegedly, according to this indictment, bought ads and communicated with unwitting people tied to Trump campaign and others to coordinate political activities.

That is a significant line there. And it'll be -- let's see what -- how they explain it and what else they say on that. But certainly an important point to make.

KEILAR: Yes, very important point.

Josh, I wonder what you think. You wanted to say something about that, Evan?

PEREZ: Well, I just wanted to add on. And I think one of the questions from President Trump and his supporters have been, where is the collusion? Where is the collusion? This is the first language we're seeing from the special counsel that indicates that there was something happening here. That there, perhaps, may have been unwitting.

But there was something going on. Communications between people in Russia and people connected to the campaign that has been driving this investigation. Sorry.

KEILAR: That's huge, right? That's huge if we know -- so, explain that again, what Shimon is reporting here and about how this is such an important thread.

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, so, we are at a new, significant phase of this investigation. As we've talked about before, there's a lot of speculation, right? Where is this headed?

If you look at the way Robert Mueller's handled this investigation to date, much of this has been done in secret. And I know, you know, as the FBI does, you conduct your investigations in secret, so you find out what it is that you need to know.

What it -- is it that, you know, is going to drive the direction of the investigation. And you don't release information until you think that there's a purpose.

We're see something now. Again, that new phase where we have individuals not only tied to Russia.

You know, one of the quotes from this indictment that reads there, the strategy -- the strategic goal was to sow discord in the U.S. political system. Which, again, up until now has been a debate and there have been a lot of politics.

But, here, you have a prosecutor, a career prosecutor, someone who's leading this investigation, filing a court document indicating this is the purpose. This is what they found.

And I'll -- the last thing I'll point out is this. This is not one indictment. This is not two people. It's not 10 people. These are 13 individuals.

KEILAR: A systemic effort, right?

CAMPBELL: Correct.

KEILAR: What does that tell you, when you're looking at 13 people?

CAMPBELL: Well, it tells me a couple of things. First of all, that the special counsel's office understands that this is a large effort. This is something that involved multiple people.

Because, again, if you look at the strategy of releasing information publicly. You may have, you know, one or two people that you want to release information on in order to use that -- those people to maybe help you get to other witness.

But when you're at a point now, where you're going to lay out such a large -- a long document that's going to lay out this investigation. There's a purpose and it shows the breadth -- the depth of this case.

PEREZ: And we're talking about a conspiracy here, at this point.

KEILAR: Yes. I want to bring in Shimon.

Shimon, I know you have new information. Just to recap here for our viewers, this is a huge development here.

We have news now that the special counsel, so Robert Mueller's team, has issued indictments against 13 Russian nationals over 2016 election interference. Real interference, challenging certainly assumption or some of the claims by President Trump about whether or not this is real or just how real it is.

I mean, you are looking here at proof of a systematic effort to meddle in the U.S. election by Russian operatives. What are you learning? I know you have some new information.

PROKUPECZ: Yes, it's quite systemic, Brianna. I mean, you're talking about Facebook. They're talking about Facebook in here.

We've certainly done a lot of reporting about Facebook, about Twitter, and the role that they had on the election. And here, it's plainly laid out in this indictment.

I want to give you a number here that the indictment alleges. I have to tell you -- and I'll get into this in a second about the work that went into this.

It is stunning. The level of detail that the Department of Justice, that the FBI agents have put together here.

They say, in one of the lines here, that the Russians spent over $1 million, $1.2 million, on this project. They call it a project. That included the U.S. -- that included the U.S. interference operation.

So, they spent over $1 million. It's 73 million rubles, Russian rubles, and over $1.25 million in this operation.

And when you read this indictment, what it tells you is the level of sophistication of this about how the FBI, other national security folks, were able to probably infiltrate this operation. To learn all this stunning detail about the operation.

So, it's a lot of what we've been reporting on, on some of the information that the FBI has gathered in this, no doubt using FISAs to gather some of this information. Other intelligence, human resources.

This is 37 pages of details, like right down to the amount of money that the Russians spent to do this operation.

KEILAR: All right, Shimon, you're going -- stand by for me as we cover this breaking story that we have of the special counsel indicting 13 Russian nationals for meddling in the 2016 election.

I want to bring in Jim Sciutto. Jim, this is really a stunning turn and this is a huge development.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: On a number of levels, Brianna. And let's run through them, if we can here.

[13:10:02] First of all, the legal standard, much higher than the standard for an intelligence assessment. You already had the intelligence agencies come out, as we remember in October before the election, and then since then with more detail.

They believe they have the evidence. Russia interfered in the election with approval from the very top, meaning Vladimir Putin.

To reach a legal standard, you need a lot more evidence to get there. So, that's important.

Two, and because of that, this blows up the president's doubts, and, really, the doubts that you've heard expressed from many of the president's allies. That, well, the intel community wasn't quite sure about this. That there was disagreement in the intelligence community.

Set that aside. You now have a special counsel that believes he's reached the legal standard on 13 Russian individuals. That they were actively involved in interfering in the U.S. election.

Let's talk about these 13 individuals. These folks worked what -- for what's called the Internet Research Agency, the IRA as it's known. Not the one in Ireland, different one. Internet Research Agency based in St. Petersburg.

We did a story on this and a number of weeks ago. This is funded by a close Putin ally. It's where the money comes from. It's where the direction comes from.

It's another direct connection between the interference in the election and Vladimir Putin, himself. Which, of course, was the intel community's assessment, was that this was ordered on high and backed by -- backed by the Russian president.

Just a final point I would make is that this is a step -- indicting individuals from a foreign government, for cyber activity is a step that the U.S. took prior to this on China, you may remember, a few years ago. They indicted, named, with photographs and mug shots, individuals tied to the Chinese military for hacking into the U.S. -- for cyberattacks into the U.S.

And that is something that -- you know, this is a nation-to-nation response. It was something on the, kind of, depth chart of responses that the Obama administration had to Chinese hacking.

And this, to indictment Russian individuals, something, again, that was on the depth charts of options, to call out Russia for its interference and take this step.

It's significant to see Russian names and faces, identified specifically for indictable crimes here in the U.S. It's a very remarkable step for the U.S. to take.

And, again, I might add, while the president, himself, and it's CNN's reporting, still is not convinced that Russia interfered in the elections.

KEILAR: Well, and this really is supposed to put that to rest, right, Jim Sciutto? What does this do to this investigation moving forward? What kind of cover does this give Robert Mueller as he pursues this?

Clearly, there has to be, as you've laid out, evidence for him --


KEILAR: -- to move forward with something as detailed and serious as this.

SCIUTTO: Well, it'll be interesting to see what the president, himself, bases his doubts on or his allies. I mean, we've heard them. We've heard them, on our air and elsewhere, say that while there was disagreement between the intel agencies. That it wasn't really 17 intel agencies that were behind this, et cetera.

And you've heard all those -- all those memes out there to try to undermine the intelligence community's assessment and confidence that Russia interfered in the election.

Now, you've met a different standard. Now, I'm sure there will be attacks on Robert Mueller, et cetera. But, you know, to get indictments like this, you've got -- you've got

to show a court, you know, real hard proof that you can trace interference in the election back to this agency here and these individuals involved.

So, it'll be interesting to see what they come back with to continue to express doubts or maybe they don't. But it's just hard to see how this doesn't blow up those attempts to undermine the intelligence committee's assessment as to who was behind the election interference and just the very fact that Russia interfered in the election.

KEILAR: A very good point. All right, Jim Sciutto, stand by for us as we follow this breaking news. These developments really driving home the point that the intelligence community was right, and the president was wrong on this. Evidence exists of meddling. There is no so-called hoax.

And joining me now to talk about this is a Democrat on the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees. Eric Swalwell with us now.

Congressman, what's your reaction to these indictments of 13 Russian nationals involved, per the special counsel, with meddling in the 2016 presidential election?


We now know that crimes are alleged to have been committed. The intelligence community assessed that Russia was responsible but it was never clear whether crimes had been committed.

And now, we know that crimes were committed. Russians are responsible for those crimes. And now, I think we want to know, did they work in partnership with any U.S. persons?

Also, you know, the fact that this occur -- that these indictments are coming over a year after the election interference campaign, shows how long it takes and the patience we must have to wait -- to seek the evidence and wait for special counsel Mueller to come back.

[13:15:02] But also I just ask the president, do you believe it now? Because your Department of Justice has indicted Russian individuals. And are we going to take this threat seriously? Because I don't think they've ever left our democracy.

KEILAR: And this -- when you see this -- these indictments come out and you consider what we heard from the intelligence community before the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this week, I mean, fierce warnings coming from the head of our intel agencies about, not only the meddling that Russia had involved itself in, in 2016, but looking towards this year, looking towards the midterm elections, looking towards the next presidential election, how does that make you think about those warnings and what is required from the president in the way of leadership on this issue?

SWALWELL: Well, leadership comes from the top, Brianna. And you can't help but listen to our intelligence chiefs describe that Russia is still seeking to meddle and feel that we have a responsibility to do something about it.

And, so, Brianna, I don't know what the wake-up call is for us to do something. I don't know if it was the U.S. persons who have already been indicted. I don't know if it was Internet companies coming to Congress and saying that their platforms were weaponized, or if it's now these criminal indictments that show interference. But we better get our act together because there's still a lot of reforms we can put in place to secure the ballot box as we go to the polls this November, including giving states resources to defend their election systems, requiring people to report if they're contacted by foreign agents, and also having better partnerships between social media companies and the FBI if they see something on their system before the FBI does.

KEILAR: All right, congressman, stay with me. I have more questions for you. But I do want to have our law enforcement analyst, Josh Campbell, who's a former FBI special agent, weigh in on this.

This really puts the onus on the president to, in a full throated way, admit that this is a problem. Although one wonders if he is going to do that. But I know, Josh, we've spoken about this. It's so imperative that he does. And these indictments drive that home because the president has a very important role in shepherding a coordinated effort on meddling.

CAMPBELL: No, you're exactly right. And let me -- let me give you just a law enforcement perspective that it may be a little bit different as folks are looking at this, trying to make sense of it.

You know, we've seen, in this case, and law enforcement is used to, criticism, they're used to side shows, especially, you know, when there's -- there are important issues that are being debated. There's an important case.

If you'll recall, I mean, there was a whole debate, for example, the prosecutors on the team and their political donations. There's obviously these issues in the FBI with the two people who were texting each other with, you know, making bad judgment. But all that was a side show because if you look at what we're seeing now, and as our colleague Jim Sciutto mentioned a second ago, all of this has to hold up in court. All of this has to be laid out. And, you know, these are allegations. These are charges that will stand up. But you can rest assured that, you know, the political nonsense has to be -- has to be a thing of the past because this is real. This is information that has been filed in a court of law.

KEILAR: I want to bring the congressman back in because what we do know is we're expecting any moment now Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, to announce these multiple indictments. This is according to a Justice Department source telling our Laura Jarrett this, congressman.

Is that problematic in a way? Rosenstein, who has come under so much fire from the White House, from President Trump, his name is going to be attached, obviously, to these indictments as he's announcing them. Do you expect that that's going to give an opportunity for this to be politicized?

SWALWELL: I hope not because, as the former agent just described, we need to end the attacks on the process and stop attacking the government and start going after the root of the problem, which is Russia and its meddlers. So we could -- in -- in Congress, Brianna, we can protect Mr. Rosenstein and Mr. Mueller. There's legislation that would protect Bob Mueller and require a judge to have oversight if there was any attempt to fire him.

But, again, we are so mired in attacks on the process and putting the FBI on trial, rather than going after the people who attacked us and who are still here in our democracy. I hope that, again, this has to be a wake-up call. They're still in our systems and our democracy is threatened if we just continue to be -- to see the disunity that you have in Congress.

KEILAR: All right, stay with us, congressman.

My colleague, Evan Perez, wants to weigh in here.

PEREZ: Well, I think one of the -- all of this, the context of all of this, also, if you put it -- if you think about the fact that the president and his legal team are considering whether or not he should grant an interview to Robert Mueller and his team who are doing this investigation, I think all of this now has to be weighed with that in mind, because the indictment that's been returned by the district -- by the grand jury here in Washington names individuals that are directly connected to Vladimir Putin.

[13:20:02] You have Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who's -- who runs this catering company that's a front essentially for Russian intelligence that was doing this. These were people who were showing up to work, taking the identities of Americans, posing as Americans online, and then trying to foment decent. They were trying to -- according to this indictment, they were essentially trying to depress minority turnout as a way to basically hurt Hillary Clinton's candidacy and to help Donald Trump. That is as plain as day from reading this indictment, that there is no doubt, according to the special counsel, that this entire operation, $1.25 million a month, that this agency in Russia was doing, was done specifically to try to help get Donald Trump elected and to depress any support for Hillary Clinton.

CAMPBELL: No, you're right, Evan. And I think it shows just what we're dealing with here with a foreign adversary that's attempting to, you know, change our democratic systems.

PEREZ: Right.

CAMPBELL: And looking through the indictment, I mean this went back to 2014. This wasn't something that just came about, you know, in the run-up to the election. This was well thought out. It was something that they strategized and then, as we see, executed.

PEREZ: Right.

KEILAR: Carrie -- I want to bring in our legal analyst, Carrie Cordero.

So when you -- when you look at the news here, indictments of 13 Russian nationals when it comes to meddling in the 2016 election, in a way, in a normal world, you would have expected an acknowledgement by the president, as we've had from so many other American officials, that, yes, this was a real thing. But he's been so tepid in that acknowledgement and he's going back and forth on it.

But is this undeniable when you look at these indictments coming through? I mean just explain to the lay person who maybe isn't familiar with this process about what it would require to get to this.

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Sure. So, it's a huge deal. I mean particularly because we've had, on one hand, a president who has been saying that the whole thing is a hoax. There's nothing to this. But to get to the point to actually indict foreign nationals in a huge national security case like this, what this revealed is that there was a long-standing investigation. This wasn't -- we have to remember, this was not an investigation that just started with the special counsel last summer. This is a long-standing investigation that the FBI and the intelligence community probably supporting the FBI has been engaged in for a significant period of time, would have involved every investigative technique under the sun, from records, to review of documents, to interviews, to surveillance techniques on the national security and possibly on the criminal side as well. And so this is a huge, comprehensive investigation.

It is a big deal for the Justice Department to indictment foreign nationals in a national security case like this. We've seen them do it in cybersecurity cases. But it really not only is it intended to bring justice to the specific crime that was committed, but it is also intended to send a diplomatic and foreign affairs message to the foreign government involved.

PEREZ: And usually -- I mean usually when you're doing a case like this that has, like you said, foreign nationals, people who are directly -- who are believed to be connected to the Russian government, you would actually go to the White House, you'd go to the State Department, you'd get all their input. I'm not sure that Robert Mueller would have done this. And Rob Rosenstein is sort of the ultimate authority here in deciding whether or not to bring these charges. But under normal circumstance, if this were not an investigation that involved the sitting president, you'd go to the White House, you'd go through the entire -- the inner agency process to get the input, to make sure that the State Department doesn't think this is going to up-end relations with -- diplomatic relations with the Russians. In this case, it appears Rod Rosenstein was the final -- had the final say.

KEILAR: And as we follow this breaking news here, the special counsel indicting 13 Russian nationals for U.S. election meddling. Really crossing a very high threshold in order to prove that this has happened. This really goes to the heart of what the special counsel's investigation is about, meddling in the U.S. election by really a front for Russia intel. Ad it really speaks against what we've heard from the president himself, as he's thrown doubts on whether or not this was a real thing. It is a real thing.

This is a big deal. This is proof that this is not a hoax.

And I want to bring in our Shimon Prokupecz, who is working his sources and getting new information.

What have you learned, Shimon?

PROKUPECZ: Yes, Brianna, I'm just reading through this indictment and just, keep in mind, we have producers and other folks here going through this because it's quite stunning. There's so much detail in this indictment. It really is stunning.

So, some of the allegations here says that some of the people that are named in this indictment traveled to the United States. And when they traveled, according to the indictment, they planned their itineraries, purchased equipment, such as camera, sim cards and drop phones and discussed security measures, including evacuation scenarios for -- about should they have been identified in some way, how they would get out of the country if the government, if the FBI or other law enforcement-type officials identify them.

[13:25:02] So here we have not only Russians perhaps overseas that were conducting this operation, but some of them, according to this indictment, traveled to the United States as part of this operation to meddle in the election. Really stunning details. Really -- this indictment is so extensive. It's remarkable. In terms of the work that went into this. The intelligence that was gathered by the FBI, by the Department of Justice, perhaps others, to put this together, it's truly -- it gives you a really good idea of just how well planned, how well thought out the money behind this operation. Everything that the Russians were dealing with here and how sophisticated they were in infiltrating the election.

KEILAR: So speak to that, Shimon, and maybe as we're going through, we literally have a team of people going through this indictment right now, as we learn more information, we're bringing it to you. But this idea that Russian nationals would have traveled to the United States, do we have any idea where they would have traveled? Do we have an idea of what the objective would have been? Was this about doing recon on the election so that these meddling efforts could be extraordinarily targeted? Has that been -- have those been some of the questions that we know this investigation is aiming to answer?

PROKUPECZ: Yes, I think it is. And some of that is laid out there. Some contacts in Florida. Some contacts that the Russians had with people at rallies. So things of that nature is what's the indictment explains.

I don't have the specific information as to where some folks traveled. I think some of that is in the indictment. I mean there's just so much detail in there, it's taking us time to go through it.

But there seems to be a pretty good operation here, pretty good contacts within the U.S. People that they were talking to here in this country who were helping them, who they were using money to try and put this together, to try and infiltrate the election. And when you read all this and when you see all this, and when you see what's going on now, this was a very sophisticated and very successful operation.

PEREZ: And keep in mind, Brianna, one of the things that -- from this indictment we're seeing is that, you know, what we --

KEILAR: This is the indictment here, right?

PEREZ: Right. And what we had heard when we were doing -- when we were covering this initially, was certainly the FBI had some -- had a view that there -- it wasn't necessarily about supporting Trump, that they were basically trying to sow discord. And there's indications --

KEILAR: A lack of trust in institutions. Some sort of doubt in the outcome of the election.

PEREZ: Right. And as time went on --

KEILAR: Which they succeed clearly in doing.

PEREZ: Right, and as time went on, as it became clear that Trump was going to be the nominee for the Republican Party, they then essentially coalesced around supporting Donald Trump.

And it also says that there was a period where they were doing things to support Bernie Sanders. They were trying to hurt the candidacy of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. So those senators who obviously are still in office are going to have something to say about this because the Republicans -- I mean the Republicans have been sort of, you know, sort of going along with this investigation. But Donald Trump has been saying that this never happened.

KEILAR: I want -- I want to just let our viewers know that what you're looking at on the right there is at the Department of Justice because we are awaiting the official announcement of these indictments by the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

While we wait for him, Jim Sciutto, I want to bring you into this because when you -- as you've been poring over this indictment, these indictments, I think -- there's a part that I think anyone who's been following this a little bit knows we certainly expected, which was the defendants had posed as people that they were not, and they had tried to create a sense of being American, supporting a certain candidate or supporting a certain message. I think that online promoting of misinformation was something we expected.

But when we just heard Shimon's reporting there, that certain defendants travelled to the U.S. under false pretenses for the purpose of collecting intel to inform defendants operations, they actually, according to him, some of them went to Florida. There were contacts at rallies. I mean, this is detailing an operation that we didn't -- we didn't know about. This is extraordinarily complicated.

SCIUTTO: It's a level of detail we have not seen before. Intelligence assessments can't go that far in revealing some of the detail they have. Here we have it laid out like a recipe, right, a recipe for interfering in the U.S. election. And, keep in mind, until a few weeks ago, we've heard the president use the phrase "hoax." He's never wavered from that, before or after the election. He has called the talk of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election a hoax. His allies have done the same.

[13:29:53] In fact, frankly, in the wake of this horrible shooting in Florida, you've heard that argument again, making the argument that the FBI has been wasting its time on a hoax investigation into Russian interference when they should have been doing things to prevent shootings here in the U.S.