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AT THIS HOUR

Trump Rips Democratic Memo, Calls Schiff "Bad Guy"; Former Trump Aide Gates Pleads Guilty in Mueller Probe; South Korea & North Korea Open to Talks with U.S; China to Drop Term Limits, Clearing Way for Xi Jinping; Mexican President Calls Off Washington Visit; Axios: Trump Wants Personal Pilot to Run FAA. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired February 26, 2018 - 11:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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[11:31:52] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. President Trump spent part of the weekend tearing into the newly released Democratic House intelligence memo. He blasted out tweets calling the memo a "nothing," and calling the author, Congressman Adam Schiff, "a phony and bad guy" and the Russian investigation an "illegal disgrace." Those are the words of the president via tweet.

Schiff's memo is a rebuttal to the Republican memo released earlier in the month. The GOP memo, from Congressman Devin Nunes, accused FBI and Justice Department officials of abusing their powers when they put a former Trump campaign aide under surveillance.

CNN crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz, is live in Washington.

Shimon, walk us through the Democratic memo, how it differs from the Republican version?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME & JUSTICE REPORTER: That's right, Fred, major differences in the two memos. The Dems' memo, the Schiff memo, it gave us a fuller picture of what exactly the information the FBI and the Department of Justice provided the judges in seeking the highly secretive and sensitive warrants. For instance, the Nunes memo shows us that -- says the dossier was an essential part of getting this FISA warrant, this wiretap warrant on the former campaign adviser, whereas the Schiff memo, the Dems memo, says that the dossier was used -- and the info from the dossier was narrowly used. And one of the other differences, the Nunes memo says the FBI made no mention that the author of this Steele dossier, Christopher Steele, and he was working for the DNC and the Clinton campaign. And then the Schiff memo, the Dems memo, says the Department of Justice did tell the court that Steele was hired by politically motivated U.S. persons and entities and was really compiled for political reasons and purposes. So that was clear in the Schiff memo. Now, the FBI has complained that the Nunes memo was unfair and partially showed what the FBI, what their investigators told the court. And there has been, Fred, a lot of concern that the Nunes memo was seeking to discredit the FBI and the Russia investigation now being handled by the Mueller team.

WHITFIELD: Shimon Prokupecz, thank you so much for that. Let's talk more about all of this. Joining me now, CNN legal and

national security analyst, Asha Rangappa. She's also a former FBI special agent and now a lecturer at Yale. Very busy.

Good to see you, Asha.

What is your biggest takeaway from the Schiff memo? Does it fill in the blanks or clarify things or create more confusion?

ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL & NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, as someone who has gotten FISA orders before, I think that the Schiff memo definitely fills in some of the gaps in the Nunes memo and is much more consistent with actually how the FBI obtains these things. It demonstrates that there was an investigation that existed prior to obtaining this FISA order that was independent of the Steele dossier, and that was also based on evidence of other cases relating to Russian election interference. It discloses that the FBI did let the court know that the Steele dossier had political backing and, you know, was someone who had worked with the FBI before and had been terminated. So this is -- this is consistent with how the Department of Justice and the FBI work in presenting these things. They do present a full picture. And I think that the Nunes memo was misleading and didn't provide the full picture.

[11:35:34] WHITFIELD: Former Trump campaign aide, Rick Gates, pleaded guilty, now cooperating in the Mueller probe. Do you see any real significance there?

RANGAPPA: Yes. This is going to be yet another person that Mueller is going to be able to talk to do get information. He already has Michael Flynn. He already has George Papadopoulos. And now Rick Gates, who is not only going to be able to provide Mueller with information about Manafort's activities and potentially give Mueller even -- potentially more charges that could be brought against Manafort at this point, who can bring more pressure to bear there, but remember that gate was also himself present at many meetings and also has firsthand knowledge of other workings of the campaign. So this is a big boon to Mueller and his investigation. And I think that to the extent that other people maybe in the cross hairs, they should be nervous right now.

WHITFIELD: It has been dizzying, what just transpired in the last week and a half, looking at the big picture. Ten days, you know, in the Mueller investigation, the past 10 days, you had 13 Russians indicted for meddling, Gates pleading guilty, prosecutors adding new charges against Paul Manafort, including conspiracy against the United States. In your view, where do you believe the Mueller investigation is going?

RANGAPPA: I believe that at its core, Fredricka, I think Mueller's investigation really is going to expose the full breadth of Russia's attempts to interfere with our election. The indictment against the 13 nationals of Russia and the three companies really gave the public a -- you know, a big scope into how they did the propaganda and social media aspect of that operation. Nut there are still other fronts, potential hacking, there are, you know, attempts to compromise voting machines. I think he really wants to lay this out. To the extent there were Americans who were assisting in those efforts, I think you will see criminal charges there. But I think the big problem is to make this, you know, on the radar of Americans that, regardless of party, this is something we all need to be concerned about.

WHITFIELD: All right, Asha, thanks so much for that. Appreciate it.

RANGAPPA: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: It sounds simple. A phone call between two presidents. Oh, but then it got really ugly. It ended with a canceled trip to visit the White House. Coming up, what does the contentious conversation say about the state of the U.S. and Mexico relations? That's next.

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[11:42:42] WHITFIELD: New this morning, South Korea's president is calling on both the U.S. and North Korea to soften their stances so that negotiations can take place. This comes after officials from the North suggested the regime is ready to open the doors of dialogue with Washington. The White House responded saying it is only willing to take part in talks that would result in the North's denuclearization.

Here now, CNN global affairs analyst and former deputy secretary of state under President Obama, Tony Blinken.

Tony, how serious do you think North Korea is about these talks?

TONY BLINKEN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: North Korea is playing this hand very well. We had this Olympic pause, it put on a very smiling face at the Olympics. It's kind of gotten the upper hand. And the South Korean president, President Moon is eager to try to engage the North Koreans. The rhetoric that has come out of the United States, the threats, the potential for a bloody nose attack on North Korea has sort of frightened the South Koreans into wanting to engage more with the North to avoid that. And so we have very difficult moment because of the charm offensive by the North, the South Korean president is susceptible to that, and we need to make sure that if even if he engages the North, he keeps the pressure on because that is what ultimately is bringing them to the table, the economic pressure, the isolation that the Trump administration pursued. Trying to navigate all of this will get very complicated.

WHITFIELD: Does the North's offer, this latest offer, seem any more genuine, because at the beginning of the Olympic games, there was the invitation that perhaps the South would come to North's soil and actually have some dialogue. This is the second invitation of coming together here, in just a couple of weeks' time. Is that a good indicator that North Korea is really serious?

BLINKEN: I think the North is feel something pressure from the economic sanctions that have been levied against it, the Security Council resolutions increased that pressure, and it is trying to get some relief. And it is trying to use the good marks it got in the Olympics for showing up and putting on a smiling face to see if it can basically peel away the South Koreans from the United States, to put some kind of leverage into breaking that relationship apart. That's why this is such a challenging moment to navigate. I think we have to give President Moon a little leeway to see if he can engage the North Koreans, but to do it in a way that doesn't remove the pressure that is what is bringing the North Koreans to the table.

[11:45:08] WHITFIELD: Let's talk about China, where the government is paving the way for President Xi to stay in power indefinitely. How worried should the U.S. be about this kind of step toward authoritarianism.

BLINKEN: We have seen, this is really remarkable, Xi Jinping consolidating his power, making it clear he's going to pursue a third term, and basically doing away with term limits. It puts us in an interesting position because all at once we have a partner in Xi Jinping who has remarkable control over China and its destiny. It is going to possibly make him more assertive in everything he's doing in the region and around the world. We have to do two things. We have to somehow avoid these twin shoals, on the one hand, of confrontation, which is in no one's interest, but also abdication, by which I mean we can't let China set all the rules and the norms in the region. So somehow steering the ship with cooperation where we can and competition where we have to is where we have to go.

I think the danger for Xi Jinping is, as this power is consolidated, he overplays his hand, to say there are no checks on his power, no checks on his decisions. And if he makes a wrong move there is no one to tell him, stop, that's not a good idea. That could lead China in a difficult direction. This is going to be very interesting to navigate over the coming years.

WHITFIELD: Finally, let's talk about relationships between Mexico and the U.S. It wasn't good, and now it seems to have worsened after reports that the Mexican president, Enrique Pena Nieto, canceled his trip after that very fiery 50-minute phone call with the president all over who is paying for that wall. So now what?

BLINKEN: This is another case where America First really is America alone. President Pena Nieto could not come to the United States and visit without getting President Trump to make clear that Mexico would not be paying for any wall. Public opinion in Mexico is dead set against President Trump and the United States. The paying for the wall, the brow beating, bullying, renegotiation of NAFTA, all of that created a toxic public environment. So Pena Nieto couldn't come here with public opinion so set against it without getting that backdown from President Trump on the wall. President Trump made clear he wasn't going to give it. This is complicated because the relationship with Mexico is arguably one of the most important, probably one of the most important we have in the world. There's 350 million legal crossings, every year, our second largest export market, and, of course, issues of crime and drugs, et cetera. We have to have an effective ongoing strong relationship with Mexico starting at the top. So having this problem, having this roadblock, having this wall, in the relationship, isn't good for either side.

WHITFIELD: All right. Tony Blinken, thank you so much. BLINKEN: Thanks.

WHITFIELD: The Trump administration needs a new administrator at the FAA and, once again, the president is turning to a familiar face to him from the Trump Organization to fill an important slot. Straight ahead, we'll hear who this person is and whether he's qualified for the job.

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[11:52:33] WHITFIELD: The Trump administration is looking for someone to head up the Federal Aviation Administration, and at the top of the short list, Donald Trump's personal pilot. Axios reports that the president is pushing to have John Dunkin to lead the agency which oversees the country's civil aviation and has a $16 billion budget.

Joining me right now with details is CNN aviation and government regulation correspondent, Rene Marsh.

Rene, what do you know about all this?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION & GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: So, Fred, Dunkin oversaw the president's presidential campaign air fleet. He's worked for the president as his pilot since the late '80s when, as you remember, Trump launched his own airline company, which later folded.

Now, when talking to Axios about this potential of, you know, Dunkin being chosen to head the FAA, an official told Axios that he's not just a pilot, but he's on the list to lead the agency because he -- and I'm quoting now -- "He managed airline and corporate flight departments, he certified airplanes from start-up under the FAA regulations, and oversaw the Trump presidential campaign's air fleet, which included managing all aviation transportation for travel to 203 cities and 43 states over the course of 21 months."

So it is clear that the president thinks very highly of his long-time pilot. If you remember, back in February of 2017, when the president met with top airline executives, he mentioned one of his most trusted sources of information about the nation's aviation system is his personal pilot. And the president actually said at the time, "I have a pilot who is a real expert. He's a smart guy. He knows what's going on."

Well, Dunkin certainly does have experience as a pilot. But I have been speaking to several people within the industry today, and they really say that, you know, this may be a tough one to get through Congress. Of course, he would have to be confirmed. They point out that being a pilot and running an agency like the FAA, two totally different things, as you pointed out off the top. They have a $16 billion budget and they have thousands and thousands of employees. So there are many other issues that come along with running the agency beyond knowing, you know, how to manage an air fleet, essentially.

WHITFIELD: We'll leave it there.

Rene Marsh, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

MARSH: Sure.

[11:55:03] WHITFIELD: Meantime, we're also keeping a close eye on the White House. Right now, the president is meeting with the nation's governors talking about how to stop gun violence in America in the wake of that school shooting in Florida. We should hear from the president at any moment.

Also, we're expecting to hear from first lady, Melania Trump. She'll be making her first public comments of the year. We're told that she'll talk about the Florida school shooting and gun violence in America.

I'm Fredricka Whitfield. We'll bring you that and more after this.

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