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Source: Mueller Pushed for Gates' Help on Collusion; Russia Test-Fires "Satan 2" Missile; Senior White House Official: "Still Trying to Figure Out" Trump's Silly policy. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired March 30, 2018 - 10:00   ET



JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They will stay in hotels for what the judge has said can easily be a month long trial. Back to you.

ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Jean Casarez, thank you.

Be sure to watch the CNN Special Report The Case Against Bill Cosby. It starts tomorrow at 8:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

The next hour of CNN NEWSROOM begins right now.

Thank you for staying with me. I'm Ana Cabrera in New York.

Lots to get to on this Friday, this morning, we have new developments in the special counsel's Russia investigation. Did members of the Trump team meet with Russian spies during the campaign? Did they know the Russians were spies? And can this finally be answered? Was there collusion?

CNN has learned why Robert Mueller wanted former Trump campaign deputy Rick Gates to cooperate with his probe. And how Gates could help Mueller's team connect the Trump campaign to the Russian intelligence agency.

CNN's Shimon Prokupecz has been following every development. He's joining us now to explain the connection. Shimon, first, tell us about how we learned of this new development and its significance.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, certainly, Ana. As you say, significant development and we really learned from one of our great reporters Caitlin Poland's who've been working this story for quite some time and has developed a lot of this information and we worked with other sources obviously to confirm it. And basically the significance here has to do with, like you said, the collusion investigation, and that Robert Mueller's investigators, when they met with Rick Gates about cooperating, they essentially told him that they did not need his help on the Paul Manafort investigation, which is finances and taxes, that they really need him for the central mission, which is the Russia collusion, Russia interference investigation.

Now, Rick Gates connects through -- to Paul Manafort also, besides their business association. There was a Russian agent, someone who is working for the Russian intelligence. It was revealed couple of days ago in court had been communicating during the campaign with Rick Gates. The Russian agent, also an associate of Paul Manafort, and all this really suggests is that this collusion investigation is still ongoing, that there is some significance to the Mueller investigation, concerning this alleged Russian agent. And really this really goes to the heart of what Mueller has been doing for the past several months in this investigation.

CABRERA: All right, Shimon Prokupecz, thank you.

Joining us now to help make sense of this development, CNN contributor and law professor at the University of Texas, Steve Vladeck. Steve, thanks for being here. What kind of questions would Mueller want to ask Gates?

STEVE VLADECK, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes. I mean, Ana, I think Shimon's report is spot on here. The question for Rick Gates is exactly what information, what evidence, what firsthand understanding does he have about contacts between senior members of the Trump campaign, the Russian government, Russian intelligence sources, even private Russian interests. It is increasingly clear that's the role Rick Gates might ultimately play in the story, and increasingly less of a role with regard to the charges against Paul Manafort.

CABRERA: Does this tell us then that collusion is still on the table?

VLADECK: Well, again, yes, but let's be clear, right? Collusion as such is not a federal crime. The question is to what extent were members of the Trump team involved in facilitating potentially other crimes by Russians, trying to interfere with and influence the election, to what extent have those folks lied to federal investigators, perhaps including the special counsel and his team about their contacts, about these relationships.

And Ana, just to be clear, how far beyond perhaps the Russian government does this spread? I think we're all so fixated on Russia, but increasingly the special counsel investigation seems to be looking much more holistically at all of the ways in which the president's financial interests and complications could potentially have been brought to bear to exert pressure on him, to shape both campaign choices and perhaps now even federal policy. And so, I think, you know what all of this leads to is an undeniable conclusion that we're going to hear a lot more from the special counsel, from his investigation, before we're done, that he's not anywhere close to wrapping this thing up.

CABRERA: And you point out there is so much we still don't know about where this investigation is headed, what kind of evidence the special counsel may have, but we do know the president doesn't like that there is a special counsel, period. And he blames his attorney general for this investigation since Jeff Sessions recused himself. Well, now, Jeff Sessions has done another thing that has some GOP members upset. He -- they have been calling for a second special counsel. Instead, he is appointed a federal prosecutor to look into possible abuse of power, the FBI, and Hillary Clinton's ties to a Russian nuclear agency, commonly referred to as Uranium One. What is the impact of Jeff Sessions' appointment of a federal prosecutor in Utah instead of a special counsel?

VLADECK: Yes, Ana. It is a great question. I mean it's a really interesting moments that the attorney general, who frankly has received a fair amount of perhaps deserved criticism for how aggressive he's been on various social policies, is increasingly have been pushing back against some of the more transparent efforts especially by congressional Republicans to hijack the Russia story and make it more about Hillary Clinton and FBI abuse.

[10:05:20] The other letter he sent yesterday to Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, saying that he's not going to appoint a special counsel to look into FBI abuses. Ana, it was really by the book.

I mean, it was the attorney general saying, we only have special counsels in unique situations, where there are reasons to doubt the ability of the Justice Department to fully and fairly investigate the underlying matter. He said here I have no concern that if there was abuse, if there was something to find, we could do it ourselves. We can be our own investigators here, so why he appointed the federal prosecutor for Utah to look into this.

You know I think that's how any other attorney general in a similar situation should have and would have reacted and frankly, I think it is a pretty good sign from the perspective of Jeff Sessions continuing to try to push for at least a modicum of political independence at the Justice Department.

CABRERA: Just real quickly, a follow there because when we spoke with Representative Mike Turner in the last hour, he suggested that there could be a conflict with the Justice Department essentially investigating itself. You don't see it that way.

VLADECK: No, I mean, again, let's be clear. The Justice Department here would be investigating not itself so much as the FBI. And I know that the FBI is part of the Justice Department, but they're different for these purposes. The special counsel regulation is very specific that we only need a special counsel in circumstances where the folks who are potentially being investigated are those who are in a position to alter and affect and impede the investigation. So senior DOJ officials, the president, other senior administration officials, if there was abuse of the FBI, and I think the jury is still very much out on that. You know, contra to congressmen.

I think the attorney general's position is that's the kind of thing the Justice Department is very good at finding. And basically, everyone should, you know, trust the Justice Department at least here to run through its ordinary processes, to run the traps and to not try to further politicize what is such an obviously, you know, political matter and debate.

CABRERA: OK, Steve Vladeck thanks so much. Good to see you and Happy Friday.

VLADECK: Thanks, Ana.

CABRERA: Let's bring in now Rachel Bade, CNN political analyst, CNN political commentator, Bakari Sellers as well as Scott Jennings.

Rachel, so on the Russia probe, Mueller pushed for Gates help on collusion, we have learned. A word Trump has consistently and continuously denied. What should be our takeaway from this development?

RACHEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: The main thing I would say is basically that this investigation is very much still centered on Russia, right? There has been a lot of talk on -- talk about obstruction of justice, the president's lawyers most recently reporting that they had potentially talked about pardons for top officials who were under scrutiny at the Justice Department, maybe to keep them from talking or cooperating or entering into plea deals. The Mueller investigation has started looking into the Trump organization documents. Obviously, they're looking into Manafort's sort of questionable business dealings.

But what this report tells us is that the heart of this is still Russia and any sort of coordination that may or may not have been with the Trump administration or Trump campaign at the time. And I think it is really interesting that Gates apparently, according to the reporting that you guys had done, has basically said that Gates has some sort of information about contacts that he had with Russian officials who were close to the intelligence agency and he knew that they were spies. And so, it is very interesting, will be interesting to see, hear his testimony, but, again, this is all about Russia still and I think that's the main take away.

CABRERA: And there is still no conclusion on the issue of collusion, Bakari. Here we are well over a year into the investigation and Mueller is going after some big fish, there is no proof of collusion. So could this Gates' headline be much ado about nothing?

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, no. In fact, let's take a step back. What we saw in this plea deal by Rick Gates is the fact that we now have a direct link between the Trump campaign and someone from a Russian spy agency. That link now has been established. For a long period of time, there was just this leak that Russia or someone affiliated with Russia had offered the goods on Hillary Clinton.

We go back to the Trump Tower meeting. That there was an offer of goods, that there was nothing that had been accepted, there had been no direct communications, but now we have the deputy campaign manager, Rick Gates. And the most important part about this is knowingly meeting with a Russian spy. I mean this sound like something out of a novel, but if we want to take a step back and collusion is not a crime, right?


SELLERS: We understand that. But there are so many other crimes that are associated with what is going on between Russia and the Trump campaign.

[10:10:04] For example, conspiracy, violation of federal elections laws because of the fact that you're taking something of value to further your campaign initiatives. I mean, there are so many other things that they can be charged with, that this is a really, really interesting point.

And my last thing is, I'll tell you this, and many others will, when we were sitting on air during 2016, the e-mails would be released and they were not released in order by date. But they would be released and the Trump campaign surrogates would have talking points in line with those e-mails being released. I mean, I understand brilliance, but that took me aback and caught -- and I found that to be a little strange.

CABRERA: Scott, Trump by his standards at least has been relatively quiet this week, up until yesterday when he spoke in Ohio. It was an infrastructure speech there, but he also addressed a whole slew of other things including foreign policy, notably missing, however, was Russia and Vladimir Putin. This was despite the White House taking a major step this week to expel 60 Russian diplomats and now Russia retaliating about that. Why does Trump choose to not publicly call out Putin when so many other members of his team and Republicans can?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't know. But I think the administration's actions speak for themselves, they're expelling Russian diplomats, sanctions have been ordered. His administration -- Nikki Haley has been a forceful voice at the United Nations, standing up with the United Kingdom regarding this latest attack.

I mean, the Trump administration's actions show the administration it is moving harder against Putin. Perhaps President Trump thinks he's trying to build some kind of a personal relationship with another world leader. I admit there is some incongruity in the rhetoric and actions, and it may also be that his lawyers have advised him to can it -- cool it on these Russia topics as this investigation unfolds.

But as a conservative Republican, who doesn't trust the Russians and thinks they did meddle in our elections, and who generally thinks they're bad actors in the world. I'm glad to see the Trump administration doing some tougher stuff against them as they continue to bully and do the things we don't like.

CABRERA: OK, everyone, you're all coming back. So stay with me.

Meantime, Russia has testing a new missile, called the "Satan 2." I have a live report from Moscow on that.

And President Trump isn't losing a doctor. He's gaining a VA secretary in the Senate. They will be voting on whether to confirm Ronny Jackson. We'll have much more about why his confirmation is up in the air.


[10:16:42] CABRERA: New this morning, Russia releasing video of a test-firing of their newest intercontinental ballistic missile nicknamed "Satan 2," saying this is capable of striking targets from the North and South Poles, making it harder for the U.S. to protect against it. Russia. And also, this just in, Russia announcing they're expelling diplomats from at least 10 countries, this coming after over 20 countries joined the U.S. in expelling Russian diplomats after Russian double agent and his daughter were poisoned in the UK.

Joining us now live from Moscow, with the latest on all of this, Phil Black. Phil?

PHIL BLACK, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The "Satan 2" missile that you mentioned there, the new ICBM, that's been under development by Russia for some years now. It's part of a vast modernization of all of its military, in particular its nuclear arsenal. And this particular weapon is said to be big and powerful, big range, multiple warheads or delivery vehicles and also said to be according to the Russian president, pretty much invincible when it comes to anti- ballistic missile systems. So it has been tested again today, successfully, we understand, according to the Russian government.

The timing will raise eyebrows. We do not know if it is connected to the fact that this has been a pretty grim week for relations between Russia and the west, but the development of this weapon certainly has a lot to say about the way Russia wants to be seen in the world going forward.

In addition to that, you mentioned that there are - a big key, really, at the Foreign Ministry building here today. As ambassadors and senior diplomats has been summoned to be given letters of formal protest and to be told just how many of their own staff they have to tell to leave the country now. This is all the reciprocal measure, the retaliation against those countries that you mentioned which stood in solidarity with the United Kingdom and who whether in the week announced that they were expelling Russian diplomats of many host countries suspected spies. Russia says it is meeting all of those figures one for one, tit for tat, it is reciprocity, says. It says it doesn't want to do this but is being forced to do because of the unjust actions -- it's view by says by the U.S. and the UK. Ana?

CABRERA: So they're saying they're victims it sounds like. Phil Black in Moscow, thank you.

Let's bring in former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Thomas Pickering. Ambassador, good to see you. What do you make of this missile first, this provocation amid the international backlash following the poisoning of that former Russian spy in the UK?

THOMAS PICKERING, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: Thank you, Ana. I think we need to be concerned. Normally states test missiles when missiles need to be tested. Kim Jong-un maybe instituted a different practice and maybe it has been adopted here. We don't know. But any linkage of nuclear deterrence with the current spat is an upgrade that I think one needs to be careful about. I worry about accident and miscommunication. It is hard to know whether we're close or far away from that. But the mere notion that there is a minor chance of something going awry on the nuclear side should disturb us all. We need to be very careful about that. And I think it is unwise to, in fact, take the present game of chicken or competition into the nuclear era -- area, I'm sorry. We ought to move quickly to make sure that the Russians understand the message is here, no more assassinations, stop it.

[10:20:06] It is not part of how and in what way we can improve a relationship. President Putin has said at times he wants to improve the relationship. Here is a good way to do it. It certainly can be reciprocal as far as I know there have been no accusations against us and there shouldn't be of acting that way inside Russia or any place else in the area where we have diplomats and others functioning effectively.

It is a mistake. And it shouldn't be there. And maybe we've reached the time with the Russians talking about absolute reciprocity and moving perhaps to a discussion in Holland, in the organization, for the prohibition of chemical weapons. We don't know. The data should help us here. If indeed the data will ever come out.

CABRERA: So the president of Russia, Putin and President Trump had a phone call last week and we heard that the arms race came up in that phone call. Do you think this missile test was meant to send a message to the U.S.?

PICKERING: Well, I think it is impossible to separate it now from the current condition. We have seen things happening now on the U.S. side which I would find hard to connect but have deleterious problems. Tariffs against China at the very time we want China to help us with North Korea is an example.

So things can happen inadvertently. But on the other side, you have to take them seriously and you have to understand what their impact is, and then you have to have a strategy for dealing with them, and we seem at the moment to be in a -- in a tit for tat situation. Can we move out of that into something that can be more constructive, even in this terrible set of relationships we are having with the Russians and them with us, is there something that can be done - can move ahead. That doesn't mean on our knees pleading, it means using the pressure we have and can put behind us to say, hey, boys, it is time to wake up and let's get sensible and let's act like adults.

CABRERA: Let's talk about diplomacy, because I know you are one of about 200 retired U.S. diplomats who signed an open letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee expressing concerns about what is happening in the State Department. What is your main concern right now?

PICKERING: Deep concern that the leadership of the State Department, the professionals with 15, 20, and 25 years' experience are leaving and leaving in droves and clearly leaving under pressure, not leaving as a result of their desire suddenly to move to Sunny Florida. And this is number one.

Secondly, the deep cut in money for the State Department propounded by this administration, so far resisted by the Congress, and as a former State Department Foreign Service officer, I thank the Congress for their good sense in this, but nevertheless, it is there.

Thirdly, the seeming isolation of the State Department as a source of knowledge, expertise and policy advice, the firing summarily of Secretary Tillerson, the notion that a new group of people can be brought on, who seem -- the data and information is true, to seem to be on the much more hawkish side of the ledger in terms of policy. I believe in strongly pushing back. But I also believe you keep the door open to use your pressure. To create advantageous situations for yourself when you're vital interests and other interests are at stake here.

CABRERA: Thank you so much, Ambassador Thomas Pickering. -

PICKERING: Thank you very much, Ana.

CABRERA: Good to have you with us.

Another wild week at the White House for staff and I'm not just talking about the revolving door, a new report that some senior officials are confused now about the president's comments on foreign policy. Don't go away.


[10:28:17] CABRERA: That's our thing.

After his sole public appearance of the week, President Trump is back at Mar-a-Lago after what has been a rather busy and chaotic week at the White House.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is in West Palm Beach. Let's start with what we are just learning in fact, Kaitlan, regarding some comments the president made yesterday in Ohio taking members of his own administration by surprise.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, Ana, that's right. We have seen a week now where the president's official press secretary and other administration officials have been a little skeptical to speak on behalf of the president for fear he might contradict them later on and now we have seen the president make remarks during that speech in Cleveland, Ohio, yesterday, about pulling the United States out of Syria when he was discussing ISIS. Saying that ISIS is on the run, and they are beating ISIS.

And now his administration officials are telling my colleague Jim Acosta that they're not really sure what the president meant when he was saying that, and haven't been able to offer any clarity on the president's remarks. And, of course, that comes after a week where we saw the White House skeptical to say whether the president had confidence in his Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin for fear he may fire him at any minute, which he did choose to replace earlier this week. We found that out via Twitter when he said he was going to replace him with a White House physician Dr. Ronny Jackson.

But that also comes as you recall a few weeks ago when the press secretary expressed confidence in the U.S. Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Saying he wasn't go anywhere and then of course the president fired him and decided to replace him with John Bolton. All of this comes amid this very tumultuous week at the White House, where staffers weren't sure who was going to be here from one day to the next, even though they had been assured by the chief of staff John Kelly just weeks ago there would be no major personnel changes here at the White House. But this goes as we're seeing the president here now spending the long Easter weekend here in Palm Beach, Florida, away from most of his West Wing staff, away from his chief of Stave.