Return to Transcripts main page


Interview With Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson; Town Hall Rage; Did National Security Adviser Lie to Country?; Trump: New Security Action to Come Next Week; GOP Lawmakers Face Angry Crowds Back Home. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 10, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: When it comes to the Russians, he's in like Flynn.

THE LEAD starts right now.

The White House rocked. Were they caught in a lie? There is a report that says that before President Trump took office, his national security adviser may have reassured Russia not to sweat Obama's sanctions. Was the vice president even kept in the dark about this?


AUDIENCE: Do your job! Do your job! Do your job!


TAPPER: Town hall rage. The Republican had the House Oversight Committee blasted for not conducting oversight over the president, allegedly. And he's not the only one feeling the wrath of angry voters.

Plus, just in time, French police saying they foiled an imminent terror attack, a suspected terror cell, ISIS-inspired, including a teenage girl, making bombs with the same powerful explosive that was used in Paris and in Brussels.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

So, before President Trump took office, did his incoming national security adviser, retired General Michael Flynn, reach out to Russia to tell them, hey, don't worry about these sanctions that President Obama is putting in place?

Flynn and Vice President Pence and the Trump team first said, no, sanctions, were never mentioned when Flynn talked to the Russian ambassador. They said, adamantly, indignantly, no.

But now in a major scoop from "The Washington Post" that is corroborated by multiple current and former government sources who were listening in on the Russian ambassador's phone, it seems like there is a different answer. Today, Flynn says he cannot recall if he discussed sanctions.

Behind the smokescreen of falsehoods from the Trump White House on this issue are continued questions about the curious relationship between the White House and the Kremlin.

One Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee today tweeting -- quote -- "The arrows continue to point in just one direction. Russian hacking helped President Trump win. And the president's team may have broken the law to return the favor."


TAPPER (voice-over): A bombshell out of Washington today. Nine current and former government officials told "The Washington Post" that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with Russia's ambassador before taking office, despite both Flynn and the White House insisting that was not the case.

Sources tell CNN the communications occurred in December, just as the Obama administration was announcing retaliatory sanctions against Russia for interfering with U.S. elections.


GREG MILLER, NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Some officials were actually characterizing what was said in the calls, right? It's not just, oh, this subject came up. It is, Flynn was conveying a signal here, a clear signal to the Russian ambassador, don't overreact to the sanctions the Obama team is announcing; we're going to have time to revisit this later.

TAPPER: Sources told "The Washington Post" the private conversations between Flynn and Russia's Sergey Kislyak were explicit contradictions to President Obama's actions.

But this is what Vice President Mike Pence told CBS.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What I can confirm, having spoken to him about it, is that those conversations that happened to occur around the time that the United States took action to expel diplomats had nothing whatsoever to do with those sanctions.

TAPPER: That forceful denial turns out to be false. Did the vice president know he was repeating a falsehood? Or did General Flynn lie to Pence? Vice President Pence's office today said the reports are a problem they will get to the bottom of, adding that the vice president had only conveyed what he had been told, creating tension between Flynn and Pence seen here earlier today.

And here's what Sean Spicer had to say about Flynn's call with the Russian ambassador.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The call centered around logistics of setting up a call with the president of Russia and the president-elect. They exchanged logistical information on how to initiate and to schedule that call. That was it, plain and simple.

TAPPER: Flynn himself denied the contents of the call when asked Wednesday by "The Post."

MILLER: He was adamant. He said no. In fact, he said no twice. We asked him, did you ever discuss this subject with the Russian ambassador? No was the answer. And then the answer changed the next day.

TAPPER: But an aide close to Flynn now tells CNN his boss -- quote -- "can't rule it out" that they discussed the sanctions.

The shocking revelations also might shed light on the likely reason Vladimir Putin did not retaliate against the Obama sanctions.

TONY BLINKEN, FORMER U.S. DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE: That's been past practice. And you have to wonder whether, in fact, he was told, hold off, don't do anything.

TAPPER: Soon after Putin's decision in December, then president-elect Trump tweeted: "Great move on delay by Vladimir Putin. I always knew he was very smart."


Was Putin being smart, or did he just have information the rest of us did not?


TAPPER: Today, the Kremlin denied that Flynn and the Russian ambassador discussed sanctions in their talk.

Let's talk about this now with Republican Senator Ron Johnson. He's chairman of the Homeland Security Committee and serves on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator Johnson, thanks so much for being here, as always.

So, this "Washington Post" scoop has now been corroborated by multiple outlets. Flynn did discuss sanctions with the Russian ambassador, leaving the impression with the ambassador they would be revisited, these sanctions.

Then, he and the White House were not honest about this to the American people. What's your reaction?

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: Well, hello, Jake.

I have always felt the best policy is to be truthful. I haven't been briefed on this. I probably will be. We will follow this story. Beyond that, I really can't comment.

TAPPER: Will you request access to the transcripts of this conversation, should they exist? JOHNSON: I'm sure I will be briefed. So, we will find out how this

all unfolds. We will find out what the information actually is. We will find out what the truths is.

TAPPER: So, there are nine current and former government officials that told "The Washington Post" -- and these are great reporters that broke the story -- that this call happened, they were discussing sanctions, and they were leaving the impression, Flynn was leaving the impression that they would be revisited at a later date.

If this is proven that he did this, do you think he should be disciplined in any way? Should he leave the White House?

JOHNSON: Again, let's find out what the actual truth is.

From my standpoint, what I want to focus on is Russian behavior. We had a hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday and we had General Breedlove and we also had a Democrat witness. You couldn't tell any difference between the two witnesses. Both want to make sure that we address Russia with strength, with resolve. We need to push back.

From my questioning, I was talking about the facts on the ground in Ukraine, where Russia has basically invaded not only Crimea, but Eastern Ukraine. They pretty well set up shop there, similar situation they did in 2008 in terms of Georgia.

So, from the standpoint of Congress and Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we're going to be laying out these realities and make sure that the United States' policy toward Russia is one of strength and resolve and pushing back and trying to prevent further aggression on the part of Vladimir Putin.

TAPPER: Do you think President Trump shares your point of view, shares that goal?

JOHNSON: Well, that's one of the reasons we're holding the hearings is to lay out these kind of realities. And I think it is pretty obvious that we need to address Russia fully understanding who Vladimir Putin is.

But let's face it. We had another freedom fighter in Russia probably poisoned. In my European Subcommittee, we held hearings on the poisonings, the political assassinations, somewhere around 30 of them since Vladimir Putin took power. And we have also held the hearings on the pervasive Russian propaganda and disinformation campaigns around the world, but in particular in Eastern Europe.

So, no, I view Vladimir Putin is a real menace. And certainly take a look at their actions in Syria, the genocide that's been occurring over in Syria for years, close to half-a-million Syrians have been slaughtered. So, no, I address Vladimir Putin and Russia with a great deal of wariness.

TAPPER: Conservative blogger Ed Morrissey wrote at Hot Air -- quote -- "Had an incoming Democratic president done this to a Republican, it would have produced a lot of angry demands for someone's head and arguably rightly so."

Do you really think that you would have the same attitude had "The Washington Post" broken the story about Susan Rice doing this to George W. Bush?

JOHNSON: I always make sure that I understand exactly what the facts are. I have not been briefed on this. I'm not disputing the reports.

But let's face it. There is another side of the story and there is denial. So, again, I just don't know the truth, Jake. That's why I'm not commenting any further.

TAPPER: What did you make of it on Sunday when Bill O'Reilly talked to President Trump and asked him about Putin, and at one point O'Reilly said he's a killer and the president said, there are a lot of killers, do you think the United States is so innocent?

What was your reaction to that, sir?

JOHNSON: There is no moral equivalence.

And, again, we have been on this, from my standpoint, the facts of the situation, the reality. As I said, we held a hearing specifically to highlight the assassinations that have occurred in Russia on political enemies of Putin. And we laid that out.

Boris Nemtsov was gunned down I think the day before we held that hearing, totally unrelated, but tragic coincidence from that standpoint.

And now we have Mr. Kara-Murza, who we believe was probably poisoned for the second time. Hopefully, he will recover.

TAPPER: Exactly. We have been covering that all week.

Shifting topics for one second, since you're the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, take a listen to what James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence under President Obama, told my colleague Jim Sciutto about President Trump's travel ban.



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Does the terror threat necessitate the ban from these seven countries?

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR: Well, I don't believe we in the I.C. were aware of any extraordinary threats that we weren't already deal with.

SCIUTTO: Does a ban like this, in your view, does it damage U.S. image, but also counterterror partnership?


TAPPER: Your reaction, sir? Do you think -- first of all, are there threats that you know of now that the homeland security apparatus and people like the director of national intelligence didn't know of before President Trump took office from those seven countries? And, second of all, do you think the ban, were it to be reimplemented, makes us safer?

JOHNSON: Well, first of all, nothing specific.

But, personally, I think it was a reasonable precaution. When you take a look at the failed states that have been really isolated in this -- that the executive order was all targeting, these governments do not have access to the kind of information that we can access to make sure that we know who the identities of people are.

Identities are sold very cheaply in these countries. So, let's face it. I am concerned about the real growing, evolving, metastasizing risk that we face from Islamic terror as it relates to ISIS emanating from those types of countries.

So, from my standpoint, I think it was a reasonable precaution. I think what will continue to happen is, we will continue to review the vetting process. I think that is entirely appropriate. So, I have got a great deal of faith in General Kelly, now Secretary Kelly, as the secretary of homeland security to do a good job of trying to keep this nation safe.

TAPPER: Senator Ron Johnson from Wisconsin joining us today from the city of Milwaukee, thanks so much for joining us, as always, sir.

JOHNSON: Have a great day.

TAPPER: "See you in court," those words from Donald Trump after the Ninth Circuit kept his travel ban suspended. Now one source says the White House is working on possible changes to the executive order. What could they be? That story next.


[16:15:46] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: We're back with more on our politics lead.

Even after a rough day in court, President Donald Trump is not backing down on his travel ban. Without giving specifics today, the president said he would unveil new security measures sometime next week. This after last night, hinting at more legal action, saying in a tweet in all caps, "See you in court. The security of our nation is at stake!" exclamation point all caps.

His message came within minutes of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upholding a suspension of his travel ban, the ban would otherwise prohibit the entry into the U.S. of citizens from seven Muslim majority countries designated security concerns by the previous administration. But, today, a federal district court in Virginia is weighing whether

the executive order is even constitutional.

Let's bring in CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown.

And, Pamela, I guess it's ultimately up to President Trump right now as to what happens next. What are the options?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. So, one option we've learned from our sources at the administration is considering is rewriting the executive order. In fact, one source says the White House is already working on possible tweaks.

As the Trump White House weighs its next step, one thing is clear, Mr. Trump just three weeks into his presidency is not going to give up the fight over his signature travel ban.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I welcome you to the very famous White House.

BROWN (voice-over): Today, President Trump speaking at a joint press conference with Japan's prime minister -- vowing not to give up the legal fight over his controversial travel ban.

TRUMP: We'll be doing something very rapidly, having to do with additional security for our country. You'll be seeing that sometime next week. In addition, we will continue to go through the court process and, ultimately, I have no doubt that we'll win that particular case.

BROWN: Trump's announcement comes in the wake of a strong rebuke from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals over his travel ban. Today, he tweeted the decision was, quote, "disgraceful," and again sounded the alarm that there's an urgent need for the travel ban to keep the country safe.

TRUMP: While I've been president, which is just for a very short period of time, I've learned tremendous things that you can only learn frankly if you were in a certain position, namely president. And there are tremendous threats to our country. We will not allow that to happen.

BROWN: But the court said the administration failed to present evidence to back up Trump's national security claim, saying, quote, "The government has pointed to no evidence that any alien from any of the countries named in the order has perpetrated a terrorist attack in the United States." Those countries listed in the ban, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Syria.

And the court pushed back against the notion that matters of national security should only be left up to the president, saying, quote, "rather than present evidence to explain the need for the executive order, the government has taken the position that we must not review its decision at all. We disagree." Now, the Trump administration has to figure out what's next.

ELIZABETH WYDRA, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: There does seem to be some chaos in the Trump administration over the way that this order was written and how to go forward here.

BROWN: The Justice Department is weighing its options. It could did to the Supreme Court on appeal, or go back to the 9th Circuit before a larger panel of judges, or it could return to the district court in Seattle to bolster its case.

Another option is to rewrite the executive order, but that could be tricky because the 9th Circuit already expressed concern about a more limited ban that only applies to people who have never step foot in the U.S.

WYDRA: But even if they did that, if seems there still could be some issues because the 9th Circuit thought that while those were the most troubling aspects of the order, these other parts were on shaky legal ground as well. So, even if they rewrote it, it's not clear whether that could pass legal muster either.


BROWN: And the Washington state district judge, James Robart, who initially halted the ban has asked them to submit plans for the next steps for the legal battle by 3:00 a.m. Eastern Monday. So, of course, we'll be watching all of this closely -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Pamela Brown, thanks so much.

Anger erupting at a town hall with Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shut the hell up! Shut the hell up!



TAPPER: Why are these Utah constituents so angry?

Plus, the new education secretary blocked by protesters as she tries to enter a public school.

[16:20:03] Now, Secretary DeVos is responding. That story next.


TAPPER: Sticking with politics now.

We're back with the new ground swell of opposition rocking the political landscape between the daily rallies, the flood of phone calls, and now, rowdy town halls. Many members of Congress are getting quite the earful from voters.

Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah faced an uproar in his home state, the Beehive State, last night.


CROWD: Do your job! Do your job! Do your job! Do your job!


TAPPER: Some harsh buzzes there in the Beehive State.

The uproar later got so intense, Chaffetz had to cut short his town hall.

Let's go to CNN's Phil Mattingly who's live for us on Capitol Hill.

Phil, is there any one particular issue that is motivating these voters?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Now, Jake, it's clear there's been a visceral response really to the Trump presidency on the whole, but the most strident emotional outcry has come related to the Affordable Care Act, and that makes Republicans nervous, obviously in the midst of the repeal and replace process and very wary about what these early town halls could mean politically.


MATTINGY (voice-over): The bold promises made on the campaign trail now running head long into the very real repercussions.

CROWD: Do your job! Do your job!

MATTINGLY: Some of the reddish corners of the country are suddenly a hot bed of, in large part, blue backlash.

Thursday night, it was Utah, where Congressman Jason Chaffetz could barely get a word out before being shouted down.

Issues ranging from his oversight of President Trump to his health care positions.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R), UTAH: If you want me to answer the question, give me more than five seconds to do it.

MATTINGLY: Or Tennessee when pleas to save the Affordable Care Act --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You want to take away this coverage and have nothing to replace it with.

MATTINGLY: -- were not only numerous, but pointed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can't put all my trust in someone saying, we're going to make a plan, but we've had six years and we don't have a plan. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Exactly.

MATTINGLY: For Democrats, the initial town hall returns are a jolt of energy for a party still reeling after its November defeat.

It's the boots on the ground, not the lead party officials who up to this point have been leading the way, officials tell CNN, and Democrats would know, because if this looks familiar, well, it is, even if top GOP officials aren't certain how big it is yet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Tea Party movement was a true grassroots movement. This will look like a grassroots movement when it happens all over the country.

MATTINGLY: Tea Party-driven town hall tornado swept through the country, taking Democrat after Democrat through out 2009 and 2010.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It needs to be dumped orderly.

MATTINGLY: Eventually leading to the GOP wave that thrust Republicans back into power in the House. It's something that already has GOP lawmakers on edge.

The topic of how to protect themselves both politically and physically from the ruckus events coming up at a closed door meeting in Washington this week, sources say, including the presentation this video, Congressman Tom McLintock, being escorted out of a town hall by police.

The message, sources say, this backlash is real. But whatever you do, don't do this.


MATTINGLY: And, Jake, House Republican leadership concerned about the political optics of that video you just saw, telling their teams and their members, look, work harder on your advance. Make sure you're prepared for this very real backlash that's occurring right now.

And, Jake, we're going to see a lot more of it. Talking to Democratic officials, they believe this is the seeds to what they hope is their next tea party. The big question is, is it sustainable and will it help them electorally in 2018? Jake?

TAPPER: All right. Phil Mattingly, thank you.

Let's bring in our political panel. We have with us, political writer for "The Atlantic", Molly Ball, contributing editor for "The Atlantic", Michelle Cottle, and senior writer for "The Federalist", Mary Katharine Ham.

Let's just go down the line. Is -- I mean, this was shockingly similar to the same reports going on, except angry conservatives and Democratic lawmakers in 2009 and 2010. Is it the same thing, do you think? MICHELLE COTTLE, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, THE ATLANTIC: As far as the

Democrats go, this is, you know, what goes around comes around. They don't have any power base in Washington. They feel like they have to take it to the grassroots to get their message heard. And they're really kind of stoking up the anger out there across the country.

So, they thoroughly intend to focus on this and make it as painful as possible for Republicans to repeal any part of this.

TAPPER: And, Molly, of course, the Tea Party protest in 2009, 2010 did foreshadow electoral victories for conservatives and Republicans in the House and then later the Senate. But Obamacare still passed.

MOLLY BALL, POLITICAL WRITER, THE ATLANTIC: That's a very good point. And the reaction to Obamacare I think was in large part of why they reaped the electoral whirlwind. And so, that you have Republicans really not sure how this is going to play out. Sort of paralyzed, do we do something, do we not do something. They want to see if this has staying power. They want to see if it's real.

Most Republicans I talk to still think this is being ginned up, George Soros money, its Democratic operatives, it's Planned Parenthood. This isn't real grassroots.

And, you know, I remember Republicans eight years ago -- or Democrats saying this is all Koch brothers money.

TAPPER: Right.

BALL: This isn't a real phenomenon. And so, only time will tell. I think you can't fake the passion we're seeing. But only time will tell if those activists are engaged in the long run and if they're organizing the way the Tea Party did. Because remember, the Tea Party had local chapters. They had people who stayed involved. It was a long-term phenomenon.

TAPPER: And what do you think? I'm hearing skeptic -- I'm hearing similar skepticism from conservatives and Republicans that this is all George Soros and whatever, but I don't know. It looks exactly the same as what we saw by conservatives 7 years ago.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, SENIOR WRITER AT THE FEDERALIST: Right. Democratic lawmakers at the time called them Astroturf or extremist mobs, un-American brown shirts.