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Interview With Virginia Senator Mark Warner; Russia Testing Trump?; Flynn Resignation Fallout; McConnell: Senate Probe of Flynn Contacts "Highly Likely"; "Sudden Death" of Kim Jong Un's Half Brother Investigated; White House: Trump Fired Flynn After Trust Eroded. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 14, 2017 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: broken trust.

The White House says President Trump asked for Michael Flynn's resignation after he lost confidence in his national security adviser. Tonight, members of both parties are demanding investigations into Flynn's contacts with Russia, his misleading statements and President Trump's response.

Eighteen days. The White House confirms the president was warned nearly three weeks ago that Flynn wasn't telling the truth. What changed between then and now? And why was Flynn allowed to stay on the job?

Russian provocation. Moscow deploys spy ships and missiles, even as U.S. relations with the Kremlin are under scrutiny. Is Vladimir Putin trying to test President Trump in new ways tonight?

And inside North Korea. We have a live report from Kim Jong-un's capital, as his regime makes new advances toward producing a nuclear weapon that could strike the U.S.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news tonight: growing momentum for new investigations into Michael Flynn's contacts with Russia, as the White House confirms the president knew for nearly three weeks that Flynn wasn't telling the truth.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer says Mr. Trump finally asked for Flynn's resignation as national security adviser overnight because of a lack of trust. He says the White House counsel determined Flynn did nothing illegal by discussing sanctions with the Russian ambassador to the United States before Mr. Trump took office and then denying it happened.

Tonight, a White House official tells CNN the FBI interviewed Flynn in the early days of the new administration about his phone calls with the Russian ambassador, and that could raise the legal stakes for Flynn as lawmakers push for new investigations.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell now says it's highly likely that the Intelligence Committee will look into Flynn's Russian contacts. Some Democrats want a broader investigation, and they want Flynn to testify about the Trump administration's relations with Moscow.

Questions have been raised about whether the president instructed Flynn to discuss sanctions with Russia. The White House flatly denies that. As for the president, he hasn't said anything publicly about the exploding scandal, despite multiple appearances today.

He did tweet earlier suggesting that leaks to the news media are the real story.

I will talk about all of that and more with Senator Mark Warner. He's the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He's standing by live, along with our correspondents and analysts, as we bring you all the news that's breaking right now.

Let's begin with our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, there's a lot of ground to cover on this breaking story. First, what are you learning about the FBI interview with Michael Flynn?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we are told, Wolf, that the FBI did interview Michael Flynn, the national security adviser, when he was still at his post in the early days of the administration. Not clear yet what the FBI did with that investigation or with that information that they drew out of that interview.

But the White House laid out its version of events today, Wolf, surrounding the resignation after national security adviser Michael Flynn. After senior administration officials told reporters that Flynn stepped down on his own, the White House now says President Trump asked for Flynn's resignation.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the White House was contacted by the Justice Department on January 26 about its concerns regarding Flynn's conversations with the Russian ambassador. Spicer says White House counsel Don McGahn immediately briefed the president on the matter. All of that means the president has known about all of this for nearly three weeks.

Still, Spicer says it was yesterday when the president finally lost confidence in Flynn.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He needs to rely on a national security adviser to give him sage advice. And I think at a certain point, that guidance, that trust eroded and the president, as he does on all matters, ultimately decides that when he's ready to make a decision, he executes.


ACOSTA: Now, getting back to a White House official confirming that the FBI did interview Flynn in the early days of the administration, we should point out that was before the Justice Department warned the White House about Flynn's contacts with the Russian ambassador.

And, Wolf, another wrinkle in all of this, we are told it wasn't until February 9 that the vice president was made aware of the Justice Department's concerns. Of course, that is very important because the vice president vouched for Michael Flynn during that appearance on CBS during the transition, but the White House insists tonight, Wolf, that Pence was not being kept out of the loop -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's pretty surprising that he was, in fact, out of the loop until February 9 for all practical purposes.

Jim, what about Spicer? What did he say about whether Flynn intentionally lied or misled about the information to anyone inside the White House?


ACOSTA: I think it's a key question, Wolf, because they repeatedly said today that the reason why Flynn was let go, or forced to resign, was that he misled top officials inside this administration, including the vice president.

But Sean Spicer said time and again that while he had misled top officials at the White House, he would not say whether or not Flynn had intentionally misled officials. Here's what he had to say.


ACOSTA: Are you saying that the national security adviser was intentionally misleading the president, the vice president, yourself, when he made these comments to...

SPICER: No, look, the trust is given by the president. It's a relationship between he and any individual.

And so, as I mentioned in the comments, maybe it was because -- I don't know that it was intentional. He may have just forgotten. But I think at some point, trust...


SPICER: But that's the point, Jim, is that at some point that trust eroded to a point where the president did not feel comfortable with him serving in that position and asked for and received his resignation.


ACOSTA: Now, the president has not commented on the departure of his national security adviser today. He was asked about it during one photo opportunity, Wolf. He declined to comment on it. The only response from the president today came in the form of a tweet

that slammed the leaks coming out of this administration to the press, Wolf. It may be Valentine's Day but you cannot feel the love around here, officials contradicting officials, different stories coming from officials as to what happened and still more questions for this president.

He has a news conference with the prime minister from Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, tomorrow. Perhaps tomorrow, we will hear from the president on this -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We will see if that happens.

All right, Jim Acosta, thank you.

Tonight, we're also learning more about the timeline of the events, including the exact date when the Justice Department warned the Trump administration that Michael Flynn might be vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

Our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, is joining us to break it all down for us.

The situation escalated weeks ago on January 26, right?


The White House saying today for the first time that the president has known for several weeks now that his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was withholding the truth about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. And tonight we have learned from law enforcement sources that the FBI interviewed Flynn before that warning weeks ago from the Justice Department to the White House.


BROWN (voice-over): Tonight, CNN has learned the FBI interviewed Michael Flynn in the early days of the Trump administration. On January 26, the White House says it was first warned by the Justice Department that Flynn misled the president and top administration officials about his communications with the Russian ambassador.

At the same time, the top official at justice also told the White House counsel she was concerned that the national security adviser was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail because of his denial.

SPICER: The president was informed of this. He asked the White House counsel to review the situation. The first matter was whether there was a legal issue. We had to review whether there was a legal issue, which the White House counsel concluded there was not.

BROWN: But it wasn't until nearly three weeks after hearing from the Justice Department that the White House says President Trump asked Flynn to step down following news reports last night of DOJ's warning.

In his resignation letter to the president, Flynn wrote -- quote -- "Unfortunately, because of the fast pace of events, I inadvertently briefed the vice president-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador. I have sincerely apologized to the president and the vice president."

Back in December, Flynn had the conversations in question with the Russian ambassador around the same time the U.S. was imposing sanctions against Russia for its interference in the U.S. election. On January 15, Vice President Mike Pence defended Flynn, saying unequivocally he had not discussed sanctions.

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.

BROWN: Eleven days later, DOJ alerted the White House Flynn was withholding the truth, a discovery the FBI made during a broader ongoing probe of ties between Trump surrogates and Russian officials.

More than two weeks after that, "The Washington Post" published an article saying sanctions were discussed. President Trump was asked about the article aboard Air Force One.

QUESTION: What do you make of reports out that General Flynn had conversations with the Russians about sanctions before you were sworn in?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't know about it. I haven't seen it. What report is that?

QUESTION: "The Washington Post" is reporting that he talked to the ambassador of Russia before you were inaugurated. (OFF-MIKE)

TRUMP: I haven't seen that. I'll look at that.

SPICER: What he was asked specifically is, was he aware of a "Washington Post" story? He hadn't seen that at the time. Of course he was involved.

BROWN: Today, the White House is putting the blame on the Justice Department.

SPICER: This idea of why did it take so long, I think the first question should be, where was the Department of Justice in this?



BROWN: So, it's still unclear what happened in that gap of time of DOJ finding out about the Flynn calls and alerting the White House, but what's also still unclear is what changed between January 26, when the White House was warned, and Trump asking for Flynn's resignation yesterday, other than the news reports, Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Pamela, thank you, Pamela Brown reporting. Also tonight, quite a few Senate Republicans are now supporting an

investigation into Michael Flynn's contacts with Russia.

Let's bring in our senior congressional reporter, Manu Raju.

Manu, you had a chance to speak with the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I did, in fact, Wolf, about the idea of investigating exactly what happened here.

And McConnell made clear he supports this investigation that's happening in the Senate Intelligence Committee right now about Russia and Russia's meddling in the elections, but also saying that that is a venue in which Michael Flynn's contacts with the Russian ambassador will also be explored. Take a listen to what he had to say.


RAJU: Are you confident that President Trump did not direct Mike Flynn to talk about the issue of sanctions with the Russian ambassador?

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: Look, I -- you will have to ask those -- the White House those kinds of questions. I think the fundamental question for us is, what is our involvement in it and who ought to look at it?

And the Intelligence Committee is already looking at Russian involvement in our election. Senator Blunt has indicated it is highly likely they want to take a look at this episode as well. They have the broad jurisdiction to do it. And any questions as to why the president did what he did ought to be directed to the White House.


RAJU: Now, McConnell made clear he does not support a separate bipartisan committee to look into this, something independent of the existing committees in Congress. And that's what a lot of Democrats are calling for.

But he did go further than Paul Ryan, the House speaker, who I asked today, do you think the American public deserves to know whether Trump directed Flynn to talk to the Russian ambassador about sanctions? He would not go there, other than saying it was the right decision for Flynn to step down, Wolf.

BLITZER: Also today, Manu, the House Oversight Government Reform Committee chairman, Jason Chaffetz, sent a letter to the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, asking questions about the handling of sensitive information at the Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach over the weekend. What can you tell us about that?

RAJU: Yes, of course, this came after our colleague Kevin Liptak reported over the weekend that after that North Korea missile test that the Japanese leader, as well as Trump, talking in this public setting about information, appearing to be talking about this missile test in this public setting.

Now, this has raised a lot of concerns about whether or not there was any discussion of classified material, whether any of these classified discussions were -- protocols were breached in any way. And Jason Chaffetz sending this rather pointed letter to Reince Priebus asking for a number of things, including an explanation of whether proper security protocols were followed.

He wanted to know the specific documents they were looking at, at the dinner, looking at it on flashlights, and whether there was any classified information discussed. Now, the White House has said that there was no classified information discussed, but Chaffetz, a Republican who actually has been resistant to investigate other aspects of the Trump administration, believes this is one area to push on.

So we will see if the Trump White House complies, and if it does not comply, what does he do then? Does he subpoena? Does he call for hearings? We don't know yet. So, the first step in a process, but a sign that that move by the Trump -- by Trump on the eve of his first foreign policy crisis has caused some concern on Capitol Hill -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Manu, thank you, Manu Raju reporting from Capitol Hill.

Let's bring in the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, the vice chairman, Mike Warner of Virginia.

Senator, thanks for joining us.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: Yes, Wolf, you actually can't believe all this stuff. It is pretty remarkable, isn't it?

BLITZER: It certainly is.

I know you have been briefed. And you have got a lot more information than we have. Talk a little bit about what you have learned. I know there's sensitive information, classified information. But do you think that the former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, acted alone when he spoke with the Russian ambassador about sanctions?

WARNER: Well, we don't know the answer to that.

First thing we have got to look at is the transcript of what happened between Flynn and the Russian ambassador. Then you have got to back up from that, assuming that it is what the press has reported is accurate and there was a discussion about taking off the sanctions.

And, remember, this was coming immediately after the Obama administration had put on sanctions because of the massive Russian intervention in the election. That raises huge concerns to me.

Then you have got the series of questions of, what did the president know? Did he know about it beforehand? Did he instruct him? How was the vice president informed or not informed, or was he left basically to hang out to dry and had to put forward positive comments about Flynn without knowing what's going on?


This gets more and more complicated. It's one of the reasons why this investigation that we're conducting is so important. We're looking at Russian intervention in terms of false information and fake news. We're looking at Russian intervention in terms of selective leaking of hacked information from the DNC and John Podesta's e-mails.

And, most importantly, we're looking at actions between potential contacts from the Trump Organization or the Trump campaign and Russian agents both before the election and after the election, as we see in the case of Mr. Flynn.

BLITZER: Have you actually seen, read the transcript of what Flynn told the Russian ambassador in Washington on that day when the Obama administration launched those sanctions against Russia and expelled 35 Russian diplomats?

WARNER: We have not seen the transcripts yet. I know we will see them. And, frankly, we should have seen them by now in terms of just normal reporting of counterintelligence. And one of the reasons why we have not seen them is something I need to get to the bottom of as well.

BLITZER: Were there also, as far as you know, encrypted communications between Flynn and the Russian ambassador, in addition to the phone conversations?

WARNER: I'm not going to comment on the type of intelligence we may have.

But I would say this. Anybody with even a basic security clearance should understand that if they're talking to somebody at the Russian Embassy, chances are that conversation is monitored.

BLITZER: Explain what you know about the potential for the Russians supposedly to be able to blackmail Michael Flynn, because that was the warning the Justice Department gave the White House when they brought that information to the White House counsel.

WARNER: Well, I don't want to speculate, but there are a couple of different options here.

You may have the case of where Mr. Flynn did not represent truthfully to the American public -- and we don't know what he said to the president -- about the nature of his conversation with the Russian ambassador.

We also have, in my mind, a number of unanswered questions about General Flynn's contacts and relationships with R.T. news, which is an organ of the Russian disinformation campaign. We have got questions about General Flynn's visit to Moscow, where he was seated next to leader Putin.

There are a series of questions. And the Russians are experts at trying to get compromising information about an individual and using that for their intelligence purposes. Now, we don't know whether that's happened in terms of General Flynn, but it is clearly part of this investigation and should give us all a great deal of pause.

BLITZER: Do you know how much he was paid to make that trip to Russia for R.T., that Russian TV station, and when he had that dinner seated next to Putin in Moscow? He went on a paid speaking engagement, if you will.

WARNER: Wolf, these are all things that we have got to get to the bottom of, and that's one of the reasons why we already have asked the FBI, the CIA, director of national intelligence, the NSA to give us all the relevant information.

We have got a team looking through that information right now, but virtually every day we hear new information, we hear new facts that come to light. We have got to get to the bottom of this as quickly as we can.

And let me guarantee the American public, we're going to make as much of this public as possible, because the American public deserves to have these answers.

BLITZER: Flynn, himself, insists he crossed no lines. Today, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said General Flynn did not do anything wrong and that he was well within his duties to have these kinds of conversations.

Does that concern you that the White House seems to be more focused right now on leaks to the news media than the actions of Flynn?

WARNER: Well, let's let the Justice Department make that adjudication of whether what General Flynn did was appropriate or not.

All I know is this, that the then-president of the United States, President Obama, put sanctions in place to go after Russia for their unprecedented intervention in our elections. To have at that point a private citizen, in effect, contact the Russians and, in effect, try to undermine those sanctions, that raises huge concerns to me.

Again, the Justice Department will have to make the judgment, but that does not sound appropriate in any size, shape or form to me.

BLITZER: Senator, CNN now reporting that the vice president didn't learn that General Flynn had misled him until February 9. That's 14 days after the president was told. And, according to our reporting, the vice president only learned about this because of the public news reports that coming out.

We did some checking. February 9 is when "The Washington Post" broke the story. Are you concerned that the vice president appears to have been kept in the dark about all of this?


WARNER: Wolf, we have got to find that out as well. I mean, the unfortunate thing is if the vice president, who put his

credibility on the line by defending General Flynn, when it was clear that Flynn knew that was not accurate, and it may be clear the president knew that was not accurate, really raises a whole host of additional questions that I think, again, we need to get to the bottom of.

And I would think the administration, if they want to remove this cloud that's over the whole administration in terms of these contacts and ties with Russia, they need to cooperate with this investigation in every way, because we have got a lot of questions that we need answered as policy-makers, and, quite honestly, the American people deserve answers, too.

BLITZER: Are you going to call on General Flynn to testify?

WARNER: We, first of all, have to make sure that the transcript verifies what the press has reported. But if the transcript verifies that information, I think it's absolutely appropriate that General Flynn testify before our committee.

BLITZER: Senator, stand by. There's more information coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.

We will continue our conversation right after this.



BLITZER: We're back with Senator Mark Warner. He's the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. We're following the breaking news on the ouster of the national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

Senator, I want you to stand by for a moment.

We're learning some more now about new and very provocative actions by Russia challenging President Trump, even as his relationship with Moscow is under enormous scrutiny right now.

I want to go to our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

Jim, what are you learning?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Two provocative steps, Wolf, both of them military steps.

One -- and this is crucial -- the deployment of a new type, a more advanced cruise missile, this is a cruise missile that the U.S. believes violates an existing arms reduction treaty between the U.S. and Russia. It was tested during the Obama administration, but this is the first time it's actually been deployed.

At the same time, Russia deploying a spy ship close to the U.S. coast, both of these signals being read as challenges to the Trump administration.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's resignation is raising new questions about the Trump administration's ties to Moscow. In particular, when Flynn spoke with the Russian ambassador about U.S. sanctions, was he acting on orders from higher up?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Did General Flynn do this by himself? If he didn't do it by himself, who directed him to engage the Russians?

SCIUTTO: And did any direction go as high as the president himself?

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: It certainly begs the question of whether Flynn was doing exactly what the president wanted, whether he was doing it with the president's knowledge, with the president's approval.

SCIUTTO: Today, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said, emphatically, no.

SPICER: No, absolutely not, no, no, no, but that -- no.

SCIUTTO: Still, the FBI is now leading multiple investigations of current and former Trump advisers and ties to Russia, including a year-long investigation of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his alleged connections to pro-Putin figures in Ukraine, and alleged meetings between former Trump adviser Carter Page and Russian individuals under U.S. sanctions. Manafort and Page have denied any wrongdoing.

The FBI also continues to investigate a 35-page dossier compiled by a former British intelligence agent alleging that Russia has compromising personal and financial information about Donald Trump. CNN was first to report on Friday that intelligence agencies have now corroborated aspects of the dossier, specifically calls between Russian officials and other Russia nationals known by U.S. intelligence for sharing information damaging to Hillary Clinton and helpful to Donald Trump.

Former top Obama adviser Ben Rhodes tweeting today: "When campaign chairman and national security adviser both resign over Russia ties, there is more. Manafort and Flynn have nothing in common, except Russia and Trump."

President Trump, for his part, continues to make public statements seemingly defending Vladimir Putin, telling FOX News he respects the Russian leader earlier this month.


TRUMP: A lot of killers. We have got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent? SCIUTTO: Today, the White House said the president is, in fact, tough on Russia, even if the statements are coming from staff other than himself.

SPICER: His ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, stood before the U.N. Security Council on her first day and strongly denounced the Russian occupation of Crimea.


SCIUTTO: The president certainly hasn't lacked opportunity to call out Russia for provocative actions. Recently, we have had a pickup in military activity inside Eastern Ukraine, as the U.S. believes that's being directed by Russia, and now the deployment of this new cruise missile, both of those things that the president has yet to comment on publicly, to criticize publicly from the bully pulpit, Wolf, of the White House.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto reporting for us, good report. Thanks very much.

We're back with Senator Mark Warner. He's the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

And reacting to Jim Sciutto's report, is your committee now, Democrats and Republicans, looking into all those issues that we just discussed?

WARNER: Wolf, every one of those issues, we're looking into, and every one of those issues, we're going to follow the facts wherever they lead, and the American public deserves answers, in terms of those investigations with some of the individuals that were named, in terms of the fact of why this continual efforts of President Trump to compliment Vladimir Putin at every chance.

We have never seen an American leader in my lifetime ever treat a Russian leader with such kid gloves. And now you're seeing potentially Putin try to take advantage of this new president.

This raises enormous serious concerns in terms of prior relationships, in terms of Russian interference, and now in terms of some of these provocative actions.

[18:30:17] The good news is -- and this may be one of the few things where there's still broad bipartisan support -- Democrats and Republicans alike realize that Vladimir Putin is no friend of the United States. He's got a horrible human rights record; and he needs to be viewed as an adversary, not as someone that the president is trying to buddy up with.

BLITZER: I know you've suggested you may want Flynn, himself, to testify before your committee, but you also plan to subpoena phone, for example, for any evidence of conversations he may have had with Russians.

WARNER: We absolutely expect to get the transcript so we can know the accurate information. Again, we're hearing this secondhand. We owe him the obligation to see what was actually said, but if the words that he said reflect some of the news reports, it really raises a whole host of questions.

Why was he trying to undermine then-President Obama's current policy? When did the president know? Why did he not inform the vice president and leave the vice president hanging out to dry, making him, in effect, vouch for him when he knew that was incorrect information?

How far back does this go in terms of Flynn's contacts with Russia and the R.T. News? How much money was exchanged? The list goes on and on, and this is just vis-a-vis Flynn. As your reporter just mentioned, there are a series of other individuals that were affiliated with the Trump campaign or organization that also have very unusual ties to Russia. All of which we need to get to the bottom of.

BLITZER: Well, I just want to repeat the question, though. The transcripts are one thing, but the physical phone could contain other evidence, especially if there were what some are suggesting now encrypted conversations between Flynn and the Russian ambassador or other Russians for that matter.

So let me rephrase the question. Do you want to actually get ahold of that phone?

WARNER: We want to make sure that we have all of the information. And, again, as you realize, for these devices to work, you have to have encryption on both ends. But I'm not going to get into sources and methods on this show or any time that's appropriately kept confidential.

BLITZER: Sounds like you've got a lot of work...

WARNER: We've got a lot of work in front of us..

BLITZER: All right. We'll be watching it every step of the way. Senator Warner, thanks very much.

WARNER: Thank you, sir.

BLITZER: There's much more breaking news we're following here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Did bad publicity drive President Trump's decision to fire his national security advisor, Michael Flynn?

Plus the half-brother of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un dies suddenly reportedly under mysterious circumstances.


[18:37:35] BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. The White House now confirms that President Trump was informed on January 26th that Michael Flynn had not told the truth about his phone call with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. Mr. Trump waited 18 days to demand Flynn's resignation after deciding he had lost trust in his national security adviser.

Let's bring in our political, legal and national security experts. Jim Sciutto, the Justice Department, as we say, it informed the White House legal counsel on January 26 that Flynn had misrepresented his phone conversation with the Russian ambassador. Yet Flynn remained on his job, a very sensitive job, for a full 18 days before resigning last night under pressure, under orders from the president. Wasn't until public news reports began to emerge that the White House took action. Did bad publicity drive the president's decision?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Listen, it's a fair question. Sean Spicer's answer to that question from the podium today was "We were doing due process," in effect, that "We had to explore every end of this. First we eliminated that there was a legal problem. And then it became clear over time that there was sort of a critical mass of this being a trust problem, but there's still some hard questions about that because it didn't really come to a head until it appears they got a phone call from the "Washington Post" that they're about to go with the story, to go public about this. And that was -- seemed to be -- or at least that happened at the same time as there was an acceleration in the decision to push him out.

Now, is it also possible that just the president decided with the wealth of evidence before him that he couldn't stand this anymore? It's possible, but the timing certainly raises questions.

BLITZER: Ryan,-- Ryan Lizza, some have suggested that Flynn's context with the Russians were directed from the president, himself. The White House has denied that accusation. Is there any evidence to support that theory?

RYAN LIZZA, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORKER": None that I've seen yet, but it is the obvious question sort of hanging over the whole chronology here because, Wolf, as you -- I think you pointed this out before, if you go back to December, the crucial period here that sparked this entire episode on December 29, the former president, Barack Obama, publicly made known what the sanctions against Russia were going to be for the election hacking. That included the, you know, expulsion of the diplomats and the closing of two compounds.

[18:40:00] As soon as he announced that, the entire Russian system put out statements saying that they would respond in kind. The foreign minister, the foreign minister's spokesperson, Vladimir Putin's own spokesperson, the Twitter feed of the Russian embassy in America, they all said, "We will respond in kind" and laid out very specific steps they would take.

Well, by the following morning East Coast time, afternoon in Russia, Vladimir Putin shocked everyone and said, no, he was not going to do any of that.

So what happened in between Obama's announcement and Putin's pullback? Well, that's when Michael Flynn was talking to the Russian ambassador and had some half a dozen phone calls, at least that we know about so far. And that's why everyone suspects, of course, that there was some kind of discussion of these sanctions made that may have influenced Putin's decision. And of course, that's why lots -- as your question indicated, many people are asking, "Well, if that happened, did he, indeed, do that at the direction of the president?" Now, there's a lot of speculation embedded in what I just said; and

that's why it needs to be investigated and we need to get to the bottom of what -- what was the true nature of those phone calls.

BLITZER: And it was followed, don't forget, the next day by a tweet from the president-elect at that time, congratulating Putin for his decision, saying he's also a very, very smart guy.

LIZZA: Exactly.

BLITZER: There you see it, "Great move on delay by V. Putin. I always knew he was very smart."

All right, Jeffrey, Sean Spicer insisted the president's decision to ask for Flynn's resignation was based purely on a lack of trust, not on the possibility that Flynn could be in any sort of legal trouble for his actions. Is that an accurate statement?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's -- I mean, it's really preposterous. I mean, it's now quite clear that Flynn and the entire Trump campaign has been under FBI investigation for quite some time. And that's -- that's a very significant fact that, quite appropriately, would be something that Donald Trump would consider in deciding whether -- whether to fire him.

There is so much here that we don't know and so much here that cries out for investigation. That doesn't mean, of course, that Flynn or anyone else is guilty of any crime, but there is such a great deal of smoke here that any reasonable person would say, "Look, this calls for a continuing investigation," and Michael Flynn would certainly be one of the main subjects of that.

BLITZER: All right. Everyone, stand by. There's more that we need to report on and assess. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.


[18:47:25] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're back with our political, legal and national security experts. We're following the breaking news on Michael Flynn's resignation as the president's national security adviser.

It now looks increasingly likely that the Senate will investigate Flynn's contacts with Russia.

Rebecca Berg, Sean Spicer, the press secretary, also claimed during today's briefing that the president has been, in his words, incredibly tough on Russia. What did you make of that statement?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Sean Spicer's only evidence of that, Wolf, was Nikki Haley and her remarks to the United Nations that she made a couple of weeks ago. He didn't point to anything that Donald Trump has said or done to back up that statement and, frankly, any of us would be hard-pressed to think of anything Donald Trump has said or done that has been particularly tough on Russia.

Really, all of it has been from people like Nikki Haley, or Rex Tillerson or General Mattis in his administration, not from the top of this White House. And so, I think the question moving forward is going to be, what does Donald Trump do when presented with his first big test on Russia? Just today, we learned that they've used a ballistic missile in violation of a treaty with the United States. Is he going to address that issue?

And there are going to be more and more tests down the line. Will he keep the sanctions in place that were put in place by the Obama administration?

We don't know the answers to this, but all of that will be a lot more telling than anything Trump has said to this point. But, of course, what Donald Trump has said to this point has been actually quite positive regarding Russia.

BLITZER: It certainly has been.

All right. Ryan, the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says it's highly likely that the Senate Intelligence Committee will, in fact, investigate Flynn's contacts with Russia. So, what might that investigation look like?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think as Senator Warner was stating on our air earlier, it all starts with making public the transcripts of the phone calls that are at the center of this drama. You know, it might be that what Flynn did is completely innocent, right? That he -- it's not unusual for incoming national security officials to have contacts with important countries, right? I mean, we shouldn't jump to the conclusion just because he talked to the ambassador, there's something unsavory went on.

So, to clear it all up, it starts with letting the public know exactly what was said and did he cross a line in those conversations? Did he promise anything to the ambassador with respect to sanctions?

And, you know, did -- you know, if he didn't, then his only crime is of course lying to his superiors at the White House.

[18:50:04] But I think that's where -- that's obviously where the investigation has to start, and obviously, they need to hear from Michael Flynn. And then, you know, you might get into some executive privilege issues if they call him to testify.

Jeff might know this better than me. I don't know if executive privilege actually applies to the period before --

BLITZER: All right.

LIZZA: -- the president and Flynn were in office, but certainly it does with when he was, you know -- after January 20th.

BLITZER: All right, Jeff. What's the answer? JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think the answer is you need to

be the president to be able to assert executive privilege, and so, anything before January 20th would not be covered by executive privilege. Now, there might be issues with classified information and what the National Security Agency wants to release. They are very sensitive about disclosing the kind of monitoring that goes on.

But as for executive privilege, I do think after January 20th, there could be some very complicated questions about that. But before, I think it's a nonissue.


BLITZER: Hold on, hold on. We're running out of time.

I just want to alert our viewers there's new information we're getting. We're about to go inside North Korea at a very sensitive time, just days after new missile launch that's testing President Trump. We're going to have a live report from Pyongyang in North Korea. Will Ripley is standing by.


[18:55:49] BLITZER: Tonight, the half brother of the North Korean strong man Kim Jong-un has died suddenly and mysteriously in Malaysia. There are unsubstantiated reports that he may have been attacked.

Brian Todd has been digging into this for us.

Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Malaysian say they have no suspects in the death of Kim Jong-un's half brother. His name is Kim Jong-nam. He was 45 years old.

Police tell "Reuters" Kim Jong-nam took ill at the Kuala Lumpur airport. They say he felt like someone grabbed or held his face from behind. But he felt dizzy and asked for help at an airport counter. He died on the way to the hospital.

Analysts are divided over whether Kim Jong-nam was actually a threat to his younger half brother. There have been some incidents inside North Korea recently indicating there is unrest in Kim Jong-un's inner circle. The North Korean leader recently fired his minister of state security. That's a key position in charge of rooting out spies, of interrogating prisoners, and he was responsible for the personal security of Kim Jong-un.

Also, there's been a rash of high-profile defectors recently from North Korea including the number two official at North Korea's embassy in London. So, Wolf, Kim Jong-un has dealt with some real turmoil in his inner circle recently and this could be seen as a move to get rid of any potential rival if, in fact, Kim Jong-un was involved in his half brother's death -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Quick question, Brian. Who was supporting and protecting the half brother?

TODD: Analysts, Wolf, are saying China was actively supporting Kim Jong-nam and that they were protecting him. He lived in Macau and in Beijing. He was known as a playboy and as a gambler, known to frequent the casinos and dance clubs of Macau.

Analysts say there have been rumors that the Chinese were kind of keeping Kim Jong-nam in reserve in case something might happen to Kim Jong-un. But Kim Jong-nam had been in exile for more than a decade since he was caught in 2001 trying to sneak into Japan on a fake Dominican passport, trying to go and visit Tokyo's Disneyland.

BLITZER: I just want to point out to our viewers, we've been trying to get in touch, trying to reconnect with Will Ripley, our correspondent who's now in Pyongyang. We've got some technical issues going on, Brian. So, as soon as we reconnect with him, we'll go there.

But the whole disappearance, the whole death now of this half brother raising all sorts of questions as you accurately point out and it comes at a very sensitive moment in the international relationship with North Korea based on its recent ballistic missile test which has the clearly alarmed South Korea, clearly alarmed Japan and the Trump administration as well.

TODD: Absolutely, Wolf. This is a very, very dangerous time in the Korean Peninsula. Just a couple days ago, the North Korean test fired an intercontinental ballistic missile. It went about 500 kilometers into the Sea of Japan. It's been condemned, of course, by the United States, by Japan, by South Korea.

The Trump administration is viewing this as a very, very serious matter. This is considered a real test of the Trump administration.

This is Kim Jong-un's pattern. He does things like this when a new administration takes office. This was a real provocation as seen by the allies out there and this is making many of the allies, including the South Koreans, really pushing hard for this new missile defense system, which the U.S. and South Korea want to install inside South Korea. It's called THAAD. It's designed to shoot missiles like this out of the sky.

So -- but the Chinese and Russians have been resisting that. There's a real push now today to deploy that missile system and now this development tonight with Kim Jong-un's half brother is just adding to the intrigue. Is there turmoil in the inner circle? That's the big question tonight, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, a lot of people think North Korea, that represents the major national security threat to U.S. at the start of this Trump administration. Brian, thanks very much.

And very quickly, I just want to alert our viewers the tens of thousands of northern Californians are being allowed back into their homes right now as that potential dam disaster is avoided, once again, at least for now. Workers rushed to shore up a damaged emergency spillway in the nation's tallest dam amid fears of catastrophic flooding. Now, authorities say the water level at Lake Oroville is dropping. Residents are being warned the threat could re-escalate. A series of storms forecast later this week.

That's it for me. Thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.