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Reports Indicate That Top Trump Campaign Officials Were In Constant Contact With Russian Intelligence As Michael Flynn Resigns As National Security Advisor; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu To Hold A Joint Press Conference With President Trump; Democrats And Some Republicans Call For A Joint Select Committee To Investigate The Contacts Between Trump Campaign Aides And Russian Intelligence. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 15, 2017 - 11:00   ET


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN HOST, AT THIS HOUR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. I want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. A lot going on today. Just a short time from now, President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be holding a joint news conference. And this, of course, comes amid a bombshell report involving the new White House, the US intelligence community and the Russians.

CNN is now learning from multiple officials that senior Trump campaign aides were in constant contact with senior Russian officials during the presidential election. This, just 24 hours, of course, after Trump asked his National Security Advisor Michael Flynn to resign over his post-election interactions with the Russian ambassador.

The president's response this morning, saying this on Twitter. "The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by "intelligence" like candy. Very un-American!" Lots of ground to cover. Let's begin right now with CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown for much more on this.

Pamela, where does our reporting stand right now?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: So, we are being told by our sources that high level advisers close to then presidential nominee Donald Trump were in constant communication during the campaign with Russians known to US intelligence and this was at a time that the US intelligence community believed Russia was stealing DNC emails to interfere in the election. This is according to multiple current and former intelligence, law enforcement and administration officials.

Now, president-elect Trump and then President Barack Obama were both briefed on the details of these extensive communications between suspected Russian operatives and people associated with the Trump campaign and the Trump business according to US officials familiar with the matter. And both the frequency of their communications and the proximity to Trump of those involved raised a red flag with US intelligence and law enforcement.

According to these officials, the communications were intercepted during routine intelligence collection targeting Russian officials and other Russian nationals known to US intelligence. And among several senior Trump advisors regularly communicating with Russian nationals were then campaign manager Paul Manafort and then advisor Michael Flynn.

Now, Manafort joined the campaign in March. He left mid-August. Flynn stayed on, as we know, and resigned as Trump's national security advisor two days ago. Officials emphasize that communications between staff and representatives of foreign governments, Kate, are not unusual, but these communications stood out due to the frequency and the level of the Trump advisors involved.

Investigators have not reached a judgment on the intent of those conversations. We should point out we have reached out to Paul Manafort, to Michael Flynn, to the White House. Haven't heard back from the White House. We have not heard back from Michael Flynn. And Paul Manafort denies the allegations. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Denying vehemently still. A lot of reporting out there right now from you. Pamela, thank you so much. Great to see you. So, this is kind of the big story at the moment.

We do expect another big story, though, to hear from President Trump very shortly. His focus today, not on Russia, but you heard him speaking to retail industry leaders, but also a very big focus today on Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who will be arriving at the White House shortly. And in the next hour, the two leaders are going to hold a joint news conference. Interestingly, they're actually holding the joint news conference before sitting down for meetings.

Let's go right now to the White House with White House correspondent Athena Jones. She is there. So, Athena, what are you learning - what does each leader want to get out of this visit today?

ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Kate. You're right. It is interesting to have these two leaders meeting the press before they meet each other. The Prime Minister is scheduled to arrive at the bottom of the hour and they head straight into this press conference and then they have a private meeting, a bilateral meeting and a working lunch, and so it kind of takes off the table them talking about what they had talked because they won't have talks.

But we did learn from senior White House officials in the background briefing last night what we can expect to come up. When it comes to that word deliverables, meaning what are they going to get out of this meeting, the senior officials said to look for a common vision.

The subjects we expect to come up are settlements, this potential move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and also Iran. Iran is a topic that is certainly expected to come up, but we'll have to wait until, I guess, later in the day to get some sort of other peep or statement, not the kind of readout you would get verbally at this press conference next hour. Kate?

BOLDUAN: And not only the issue of settlements, it will be interesting what clarity President Trump provides on where the White House stands on settlements?

JONES: This is interesting. We know that, in the past, before he was president, Trump has donated to a settlement. He nominated a pro- settlement person to be the next - the US ambassador to Israel. But in recent weeks, he's tempered that view, describing settlement construction as "not helpful." He told an Israeli newspaper that - he described himself as not somebody that believes that going forward with settlements is a good thing for peace. That is much more in line with the international community.

[11:05:08] And remember, back in December, the then-president-elect Trump was very, very angry about that speech that then Secretary of State John Kerry gave about settlements and talked a lot about how the US and Israel would have a much better relationship. That may be true. But when it comes to things like settlements and also that move of the embassy, it looks as though the White House is walking that back a little bit, putting the brakes at least on developments there.

BOLDUAN: And also, the question of a two-state solution, what the president says about that, everyone will be listening very closely today. Athena, thank you so much. We'll keep our eye on the White House.

This important meeting with an American ally is set against a bit of a strange backdrop. The president's campaign past now causing problems in his present. For more on this new reporting about this constant contact with Russian intelligence, former Chief of Russia Operations for the CIA Steve Hall - he is here - and also, former CIA operative Bob Baer is here as well.

So, Bob, we still do not know the contents of those conversations. We may never know, but if it was constant contact, which is how - where the CNN reporting stands, would that raise suspicion in your mind?

BOB BAER, FORMER CIA OPERATIVE: Oh, absolutely. They're identifying Russian intelligence officers. They know the names. The Russians target the United States. They would target the Trump campaign. And there's no conceivable reason these aides should be in touch with Russian intelligence. There's just none at all.

I mean, this raises a counterintelligence red flag. And as for the conversations, the content, we simply don't know whether the National Security Agency has recordings of those. I would like to know that. I would also like to know if there were encrypted communications between the Trump aide campaigns and, you know -

BOLDUAN: What would that tell you?

BAER: These are key indicators for - that there was something very untoward going on. There was some coordination, but perhaps hacking emails of Hillary Clinton. This is really - you know, from my perspective, a former intelligence officer, lot of suspicion here and this needs independent investigation. No doubt about it.

BOLDUAN: But we just don't know. We don't - you have a lot of questions. We just don't know because we do not know the contents of those communications. Again, we need to reiterate.

Steve, your reaction to all this?

STEVE HALL, FORMER CHIEF OF RUSSIA OPERATIONS, CIA: We talk about what we don't know. But one thing that we do know is that there is absolutely no good reason for any campaign - any members of the campaign team to be meeting with Russian intelligence officers. Russian intelligence officers -

BOLDUAN: Could they not know that it was Russian intelligence officer? I ask that because Paul Manafort in responding to all this, he said something to the effect of it's not like they wore badges that say I'm with Russian intelligence.

HALL: I think it's a bit ludicrous for a guy like Manafort, who spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe, a lot of time with guys like Yanukovych and others with ties to Moscow to say, well, I'm not quite sure of who these people are. It doesn't make any sense for the campaign team to be associating with them unless you ask what is it that they have in common.

The Russians and the Trump campaign at the time had in common one thing - and that was getting Trump elected to be the president of the United States. It is not a partisan statement. If you look at Trump's positions vis-a-vis Russia, they were simply much more favorable to Russia than Hillary Clinton's words. So, that's what they had in common and my suspicion is that's why they were meeting.

BOLDUAN: You know, Republican senators - some big hawkish Republican senators, Bob, have been out this morning talking about these contacts. And Lindsey Graham essentially saying that it's fine to differ on policy, his view is that, though, it's not OK if Trump is receiving assistance from the Russians. Again, that's a big question mark. That would be a game changer. Do you agree that that would be a game changer? Is that the line?

BAER: Oh, I think it's a game changer. There's never been an occasion in American history where a foreign country has interfered in our elections like this or so much suspicion has descended on a president.

I'm overwhelmed with emails and calls about people wondering just what his relationship to Russia is. Is it financial? Should we look at his tax returns? Did he coordinate with Russian intelligence to bring Hillary Clinton down, make her lose the election? I don't - I simply don't have the answers to that and the only way we're going to clear the air is, again, an independent investigation, people we trust looking at this data. And when you get into the data, whether it's FBI or CIA or NSA data, you will be able to tell the nature of this relationship. It's very good. And until we see that, we just don't know.

BOLDUAN: If there was a lot of contacts, Steve, constant contact, do you leave open the possibility it could have been benign?

HALL: Not really. I think the Russians would hope that we would think that. I think that's a bit quaint to think it was benign. Look, the Russian intelligence services, unlike Western intelligence services, really, really focus on what we would refer to as covert action, influence operations. They collect, for their policymakers, just like we do, the Russians are very strong believers in using that information, not just collecting it, so that somebody can read it. So, I think a lot of contacts with a campaign implies really what the intelligence community has already - the conclusion they've already arrived at, which is that there was indeed an influence campaign aimed at increasing the likelihood that Donald Trump would be elected because that's beneficial to Russia.

[11:10:20] BOLDUAN: Many questions to be answered. Bob, Steve, thank you very much for your time there. Appreciate it.

So, a friendly reminder, it is just day 26 of the Trump administration. With that in mind, consider, if you will, these three descriptions on the current state of affairs in Washington.

First here, Republican Sen. John McCain.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I think there is significant dysfunction in the national security apparatus of the Trump administration. When you see that you don't know who is in charge, this Flynn situation, the whole environment is one of dysfunction in the Trump administration.


BOLDUAN: And here is now former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta saying this, "I've never been so nervous in my lifetime about what may or may not happen in Washington."

And this from Gen. Tony Thomas, the Head of Military Special Operations Command, him saying this, "Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we are a nation at war."

Joining me now, Michael Gerson, he's the former speechwriter, of course, for George W. Bush and a columnist for "The Washington Post." His latest piece, along these lines, is headlined, A White House Where No One is in Charge. Michael, it's great to see you. Thanks for coming in.


BOLDUAN: Thank you. So, the news today and the news of this week, do you see the problems for President Trump here are borne out of this chaos as you write in your piece?

GERSON: Yes, I think so. This is a story now of misplaced outrage. We have all of these revelations and the president of the present United States is focused on his own intelligence community, attacking them, which is really an extraordinary misdirection. I think the White House itself is in chaos because it has several power centers, maybe five or six, that compete for the favor of the president instead of serving him with good information, good analysis and confronting him when necessary when his instincts are bad.

BOLDUAN: You write in your piece along these lines, you write that a president needs aides who will give him honest information and analysis, not compete for his favor. We, of course, know, Michael, the aides are often on TV and they are speaking to one audience at times, the president. We know that that definitely happens with this White House, but doesn't it happen with any White House? Why is this situation particularly counterproductive in your mind?

GERSON: Well, there are always power centers at a White House. That's not new. There are always people who speak and try to gain favor. The question is, is there a strong chief of staff in charge of the process at the White House, so that competitive views result in productive changes and policies instead of terrible leaks or conflict that's carried on in other settings. So, this is a situation where you really don't have a chief of staff that seems to be in charge of the process, and that's causing chaos rather than a healthy competition.

BOLDUAN: Do you see a quick fix for getting the White House back on track?

GERSON: No, I really don't. He would - he has a very tough time analyzing his own behavior and regarding it as failed. He would need to bring in a chief of staff that has actual order and that he puts faith and trust in and doesn't undermine by working outside of a normal system. He doesn't work that way. He surrounds himself - has always surrounded himself with organizational chaos, but that does not work in the presidency. And I think he needs to learn that and somehow react to it.

BOLDUAN: Speaking of learning, are these things that happen in the early days of a new administration, of a new White House or do you think that in some way he's building a plane as he's flying in?

GERSON: Well, I think at this point I've never seen a president of the United States attacking the intelligence services of his own country, many of whom - all of whom are taking risks for the benefit of the country. That is so wrong, so unprecedented, so different from the past that it's hard for me to even register that a president of the United States would do that sort of thing. If we had known what we know now four months ago, there would be a different president of the United States. And on this trajectory, who knows what will happen four months from now.

BOLDUAN: I think there will be questions as to what's going to happen one day from now the way things are going at this moment. Michael, it's great to have you. Thanks so much.

GERSON: Good to be with you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you. You can read Michael's column, of course, on "The Washington Post." One Democrat coming up for us. One Democrat now using word treason to describe the new Russian revelations. And now, Senate Democrats are going to be holding an emergency meeting. I'm going to speak live with one congressman - one Democratic congressman about all this next.

[11:15:00] Plus, former Clinton staffers are speaking out today asking where was the James Comey letter about the Trump campaign. A double standard? Clinton's campaign manager Robby Mook will be joining me.

And after nationwide raids on undocumented immigrants, moments from now, one mother of three is going to learn her fate. Her story has grabbed national headlines. CNN is there live. Stay with us.



SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I can tell you this. The Congress is not fake. There are real members of Congress up here, Republicans and Democrats, who love our country and going to make sure that checks and balances that have been in place for 200 years work even when the president's in your own party.


BOLDUAN: Republican Senator Lindsey Graham right there demanding answers about the new revelations of the Trump campaign contacts with Russian intelligence. So, so will Democrats. Some already suggesting treason find some Republican allies in their quest. For answers here, let's find out.

Joining me now, Democratic Congressman Jim Himes. He is, of course, a member of the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman, it's great to have you here. Thank you so much.


[11:20:00] BOLDUAN: So, we think on that one you're going to agree with Sen. Lindsey Graham. You don't have a lot of areas of agreement, and on that point, you will agree with him. But as far as the committee that you sit on, the House Intelligence Committee, yesterday, the chairman - the Republican chairman said with regard to what was happening yesterday, Flynn, he wants to investigate the leaks of the Flynn reports, not the Flynn communications or conversations that he had with the president. Have you talked to your chairman this morning?

HIMES: No, I haven't talked to him about it. I'm really discouraged by what has been now a pattern of, first of all, lies from the White House, lies starting with the lies that got Gen. Flynn fired. We're seeing ongoing lies. It has been a hallmark of this administration, misdirection. Of course, now we're talking about -

BOLDUAN: Where specifically do you see lies coming from the White House, though?

HIMES: Well, Flynn said and he said to the vice president and he said to others that that he had no contact -

BOLDUAN: From Flynn.

HIMES: He had no contact with the ambassador. Sean Spicer came out and said they talked about Christmas greetings. All of that turned out to be inaccurate, which is why Gen. Flynn is no longer national security advisor. This is a pattern with this White House.

The president persists in his statements that there were 3 to 5 million fraudulent votes. That is why he lost the election. I could go on and on and on. But the hallmark of this administration is lies and then, of course, misdirection.

So, the idea here that, though, we have evidence of the - or at least the press has floated the notion that there were - contacts between the campaign and Russian intelligence officers, no, the real story here is leaks, it's insane, Kate.

BOLDUAN: I want to ask you about that. How insane it is? We know that President Obama investigated and prosecuted leakers. He has done that. Donald Trump is tweeting - President Trump was tweeting about illegal leaks this morning. Your chairman says he wants to investigate leaks. Are intelligence leaks serious, though, and worth investigating?

HIMES: Of course. Of course. They are very serious and they're worth investigating and we should do that. We should absolutely do that. And as you point out, President Obama was aggressive about doing that.

But in the meantime, these leaks are being used as - and they should be investigated, but they're being used as misdirection. Look, let's think back here. You know, Secretary Clinton has sloppy email practices, there is no evidence that foreign powers got those emails, the classified information in those emails was not particularly dangerous, no harm was ever shown with respect to Secretary Clinton's emails. We had investigation after investigation after investigation. The FBI comes out and talks about their investigation.

Now, what we're hearing is, oh, don't worry about the contacts that appear to have existed between a presidential campaign and an antagonistic foreign power, what we really need to focus on is leaks. Yes, we should investigate the leaks, but this is an effort at misdirection to take attention away from what is an absolute challenge to our national security.

Meanwhile, the president is actually attacking the intelligence community, calling the CIA and calling the NSA unpatriotic. This is a national security issue that we need to deal with along with looking into the leaks.

BOLDUAN: What about the new reporting of constant contacts between Donald Trump's campaign officials and Russian intelligence members? Where is that going to go on Congress? Where do you think?

HIMES: At this point, there is really only one answer, which is that the transcripts of the conversations that Gen. Flynn had with the ambassador, whatever these contacts were, with whomever it was - and it would appear, according to press reports, like there were lots of them - those all need to be brought into the light of day.

And by the way, that's important for justice and patriotism. It's also really important for this administration because this is the kind of thing that doesn't get buried. Two years from now, if we haven't had a thorough outing of all of these allegations and really given the public a chance to examine them, this is a cloud that this administration will not recover from.

So, it is absolutely essential that the committees that are at work - and now, by the way, we need to revisit of the idea of a non-partisan commission that actually people, who aren't like all of us are, concerned with political issues. That commission needs to be created and needs to get to work.

BOLDUAN: It is not unusual, congressman, and you know this, for campaign staff to be in touch and reach out to representatives of foreign governments. Do you leave open the possibility that the communications were benign?

HIMES: Absent knowing what is in them, there's no way to know. I will make the observation that this - and as somebody who spends a lot of his day thinking about national security, it has been very discouraging.

This issue which, of course, developed from nothing and denials on the part of the Trump administration that they were involved - that the Russians were in any way involved in the election, that turns out not to be true. Gen. Flynn had no conversations - or who called the ambassador to wish him Merry Christmas, that turns out not to be true. And all of this day by day gets much more serious than it was the day before.

So, of course, it's possible that these contacts were benign. We're not going to know that until the facts are outed, which is why the facts need to be outed by a commission.

BOLDUAN: Do you think you're going to see those transcripts?

HIMES: Eventually, we're going to see them. Look, the leak issue is serious, but this president has alienated the people who put their lives on the line every single day for us, people who are in places like Afghanistan and in really dangerous places putting their lives at risk.

[11:25:06] The president is attacking them. He has created an environment where there is going to be, in probably ways good and bad, an effort by the bureaucracy to say this is insane. We need to sort of stand up for our country. And if there's evidence of something illegal, that will eventually see the light of day for better or for worse.

BOLDUAN: We will stay on it and see where the committee - yours especially, where they head with them. We'll continue to invite the chairman of the committee on to give us his take as well. Thanks so much, Congressman. We appreciate it.

We're hearing from Republican Sen. John McCain, the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee on all of this. He spoke with CNN's senior congressional reporter Manu Raju just a moment ago about his concerns. Listen to this.


MCCAIN: Of course, I'm concerned. All of us should be concerned.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Do you think there is any evidence of coordination between the Trump campaign and -

MCCAIN: It's too early. I think it's too early, but it raises serious questions. And also, my concern is also that with now no national security advisor and the turmoil within the administration, it makes it very difficult for us to exercise the responsibilities to defend our nation. On the Flynn issue, I think that we need to ask questions for us then to find out what the scope of that (inaudible) investigations to be expanded.

RAJU: Senator, you said the Republican leaders should join you on this. They've been very resistant.

MCCAIN: You'll have to ask them.


BOLDUAN: John McCain for one - he has also - as we were speaking with Congressman Jim Himes, John McCain, for one, has also been all along a supporter of getting a joint select committee to investigate this.

Coming up for us, coming up next, we've got, President Trump calls reports of connections between his campaign and Russian intelligence officials - he calls it nonsense and says that they're actually just a cover-up for the mistakes of Hillary Clinton's presidential run.

Clinton's presidential campaign manager Robby Mook is joining me live to respond.

And also this, any minute now, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will arrive at the White House for a very important meeting with President Trump. They're going to hold a joint news conference at the top of the hour. We're going to bring that to you live.