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Trump-Russia Connections?; Labor Secretary Nominee Out; Interview with Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 15, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump losing his first ever Cabinet pick.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news: President Trump's labor secretary choice is out, a source saying Andrew Puzder has withdrawn his name. Did Oprah play a role?

Inner circle red square, brand-new CNN exposing repeated contact between some of President Trump's top campaign advisers and Russian operatives. Did Mr. Trump know about those calls?

Plus, a dictator's brother poisoned to death. Today, a new arrest. Is the assassin connected to Kim Jong-un?

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

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

We are beginning with breaking news in our politics lead. It involves one of President Trump's Cabinet nominees, now former Cabinet nominees. Sources say Andrew Puzder, the president's pick for labor secretary, has just moments ago withdrawn his nomination. He was set to testify before a Senate committee tomorrow morning.

CNN's senior congressional reporter Manu Raju joins me now.

Manu, what happened?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake he didn't have the support. And, in fact, actually, just moments ago, Sean Spicer confirming this news on the record, telling reporters that he withdrew and that the president is going to have a statement soon, but this after hours, Jake, I am told, of Republicans sending the message to the White House that he did not have the support to get confirmed, a message first conveyed last night, I am told by a source, as well as this morning.

They said there were four firm no votes on the Republican side and up to 11 no votes on the Republican side as well. So, that means that Puzder's chances of confirmation were incredibly slim. There were a whole bunch of liabilities piling up, from his views on immigration that some folks on the right did not like because they were a little bit too moderate, but also some personal liabilities from the past, including a messy divorce from some three decades ago involving domestic abuse allegations that have since been withdrawn.

But at that time, his ex-wife appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to discuss the issues of abuse. And that tape has been viewed by members on the committee considering his nomination and we actually obtained a copy of that tape as well. Take a look at what we have found.


LISA FIERSTEIN, EX-WIFE OF ANDREW PUZDER: The most (INAUDIBLE) thing was leaving, because once I made that break and once I made it public -- and, remember, my ex-husband was a public figure. Everyone knew him and knew what he was doing.

And once I made that public, he vowed revenge. He said: "I will see you in the gutter. This will never be over. You will pay for this."


RAJU: Now, Jake, his ex-wife has actually since regretted going on show. She actually sent a letter to the committee saying, look, I should not have done that, he is a good man, he is a kind man, he was not abusive. She said that she was manipulated. That's why she leveled those domestic abuse charges.

She said she went on the Oprah show only to get a -- quote -- "free trip to Chicago."

But, nonetheless, these things were bound to get aired at the confirmation hearing which was scheduled for tomorrow. It would have been potentially a very ugly confirmation process. Some Republicans just did not want to go through with it and they wanted Donald Trump to pull back from the nomination.

It's one reason why, probably the biggest reason why Andrew Puzder said he couldn't go through with it himself, Jake.

TAPPER: And also there's this case of the undocumented immigrant that he had working at his house and he only paid taxes on that individual recently.

Is there any one issue that the Republicans who were withdrawing their support or expressing ambivalence cited as the reason why they could not support him?

RAJU: You know, it was the sum total of that.

Some were very troubled by the episode, Jake, that you referenced, not -- hiring the undocumented immigrant, but also just a number of issues continuing to pile up. And the timing is also important here. Republicans had just taken a political hit for backing Betsy DeVos to be education secretary, as well as other controversial picks like Rex Tillerson to run secretary of state, some nominee that a lot of Republicans did not want to support, but ultimately did.

This was a bridge too far. With all the things that are piling up against him and some conservatives on the outside coming forward opposing his nomination, one thing, Jake, I'm hearing some finger- pointing as well. Republicans are angry that outside groups, big business groups did not spend enough money to protect him, so, some finger-pointing happening as well, Jake.

TAPPER: Well, it is Washington. Manu Raju, thank you so much.

More breaking news now. New levels of alarm and concern on Capitol Hill today. Sources telling CNN that during the campaign,investigators in the federal government became alarmed because high-level advisers of candidate Trump were in constant contact with Russians known to U.S. intelligence.


CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown is covering this story for us.

Pamela, communications between campaign staffs and foreign governments not necessarily so unusual. What made this different for these investigators?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It was the frequency of these communications, Jake, and the fact that these were high-level advisers within the Trump campaign.

And all this is coming as we're learning the security clearance for President Trump's former embattled National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has been suspended pending review of any wrongdoing, according to my colleagues Dana Bash and Jim Sciutto.

This as investigators scrutinize the communications Flynn and other Trump aides had with Russians during the campaign.


BROWN (voice-over): During his presidential campaign, high-level advisers close to Donald Trump maintained constant communication with Russians known to U.S. intelligence, multiple sources tell CNN.

The sources, current and former law enforcement intelligence and administration officials, say the frequency of the conversations and proximity to Trump of those involved raised a red flag with U.S. intelligence and law enforcement. The timing, as it became clear to investigators that Russia was seeking to undermine the U.S. elections by hacking e-mails of Democratic institutions, added to the alarm.

And CNN is told that then president-elect Trump and then President Barack Obama were briefed on concerns about the extensive communications in January, Trump in January denying any knowledge of contacts with the Russians.

QUESTION: Did you or anyone in your campaign have any contact with Russia leading up or during the campaign? Nothing at all? BROWN: Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer denied

there was any contact.

QUESTION: Can you still say definitively that nobody on the Trump campaign, not even General Flynn, had any contact with the Russians before the election?

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: My understanding is that what General Flynn has now expressed is that during the transition period -- well, we were very clear that during the transition period he did speak with the ambassador.

QUESTION: I'm talking about during the campaign.

SPICER: I don't have any -- there is nothing that would conclude me that anything different has changed with respect to that time period.

BROWN: Officials say the communications were intercepted during routine intelligence collection targeting Russians known to U.S. intelligence.

And among those who regularly communicated with Russian nationals, then campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and Michael Flynn, who resigned his post as Trump's national security adviser Monday night after news reports about a call with Russia's ambassador regarding U.S. sanctions.

Manafort denied the claims in an interview with CNN, calling the allegations "boggling," saying: "That is not 100 percent true, at least as far as me. I don't remember talking to any Russian officials ever, certainly during the time we're talking about."


BROWN: And the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies continue to try to determine what the motive for the communications was between people close to Trump and Russians. The reason is inconclusive.

One concern, though, that investigators have been looking at is whether Trump associates were coordinating with the Russian intelligence operatives over the release of damaging information about the Hillary Clinton campaign. As one source said, if that were the case, then that would certainly escalate things. But, again, there is nothing to prove that at this stage in the investigation -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Pamela Brown, thank you so much.

As is the pattern, today, the president again tried to write off multiple credibly sourced news reports as fake news. He also attacked his own intelligence agencies. And almost a month into his presidency, he continues to invoke his Electoral College victory and attack Democrat Hillary Clinton.

CNN's Sara Murray is live for us at the White House.

And, Sara, obviously, there are many Americans, including many Republicans on Capitol Hill, who are very concerned about these reports of contact between Trump's officials and his campaign staff and Russians known to U.S. intelligence.

Did the president today address the substance of these reports in any way?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, like you said, there are members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, who want answers on this, and we are not getting them today from President Trump.

We have tried repeatedly to ask him about reports of these communications between his campaign advisers and Russian intelligence. He has not responded. But he did today heap praise on the national security adviser he fired on Monday.


MURRAY (voice-over): Today, President Trump is lashing out about the news that his top advisers were in constant communication with suspected Russian operatives during the presidential campaign. But rather than address the substance of those communications, Trump is lampooning the press, slamming the coverage of ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, the man Trump fired just two days ago for misleading the vice president about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: General Flynn is a wonderful man. I think he's been treated very, very unfairly by the media. Things are being leaked. It's criminal action, criminal act, and it's been going on for a long time, before me. But now it's really going on.


MURRAY: The president airing his grievances after multiple current and former intelligence officials told CNN that communications between Trump advisers and Russian officials could be cause for alarm.

Between cries of fake news, the president took to Twitter to say, "The Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton's losing campaign."

He also took aim yet again at the intelligence community, tweeting: "The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by 'intelligence' like candy, very un-American."

Throughout the day, the president ignored repeated questions about communications between Russians and his campaign advisers. And top administration officials have repeatedly denied any contact.

QUESTION: Did any adviser or anybody in the Trump campaign have any contact with the Russians who are trying to meddle in the election?


QUESTION: Any contact with Russians trying to meddle with the election?

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: Absolutely not. And I discussed that with the president-elect just last night. Those conversations never happened.

MURRAY: Trump often spoke glowingly about Russia during the presidential campaign. Even in the wake of intelligence findings that Russia attempted to meddle in the U.S. election, Trump predicted U.S. and Russian relations would improve under his presidency.

TRUMP: Russia will have far greater respect for our country when I'm leading it.

MURRAY: He still insisted to reporters in January, though, that there was no contact between his campaign and Russian official.

QUESTION: Did you or anyone in your campaign have any contact with Russia leading up to or during the campaign? Nothing at all?

MURRAY: And as recently as Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said he had no reason to revise the record.


MURRAY: Now, even though the White House may not want to elaborate on conversations between Russian intelligence officials and Donald Trump's campaign aides, the Senate Intelligence Committee says they want to see more answers. They were already looking into reports of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, and, of course, the intelligence reports of Russian cyber-hacking.

Now they're going to expand that probe to look at outgoing National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, as well as these possible contacts between campaign aides and Russian intelligence -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Sara Murray, thanks so much.

And as you just heard, the president today attacked the story of high- level campaign advisers having frequent communications with Russians known to U.S. intelligence. Those advisers, of course, include Michael Flynn, whom President Trump fired as his national security adviser on Monday night after Flynn was shown to have lied to the public and to the vice president about the contents of his phone call with the Russian ambassador in December.


SPICER: The issue, pure and simple, came down to a matter of, trust and the president concluded that he no longer had the trust of his national security adviser.


TAPPER: That was White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Tuesday. But, today, President Trump gave a quite different explanation.


TRUMP: Michael Flynn, General Flynn, is a wonderful man. I think he's been treated very, very unfairly by the media, as I call it, the fake media in many cases.


TAPPER: The media, of course, did not fire General Flynn. President Trump did.

Now, what the media did do was reveal to the nation that General Flynn had lied to the country and to the Trump team, including Vice President Pence, when he claimed he never discussed Obama's sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador.

President Trump knew this at least as early as January 26, but he did not act on this until the media revealed the truth to you and, as it turns out, to Vice President Pence, who learned about it through the media, sources say.

The president reacted to this all on Twitter today -- quote -- "The fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred. MSNBC and CNN are unwatchable. 'FOX & Friends' is great."

Of course, these stories in "The New York Times," "The Washington Post," CNN and elsewhere are not conspiracy theories. These are news stories sourced by government officials.

Conspiracy theories are different. They're false. They're crackpot. They're nonsense.

How do I illustrate what a conspiracy theory is? How about this one about Ted Cruz's father?


TRUMP: His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald being, you know, shot. I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous. What is this, prior to his being shot? And nobody even brings it up.


TAPPER: That's a conspiracy theory.

Or how about this one about President Obama?


TRUMP: I wish he would, because, if he doesn't, it's one of the greatest scams in the history of politics and in the history, period. You are not allowed to be a president if you're not born in this country.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: Those are conspiracy theories. These are facts, as established by former and current national security and intelligence officials, as President Trump almost seemed to simultaneously acknowledge today.


TRUMP: From intelligence, papers are being leaked, things are being leaked. It's criminal action, criminal act.


TAPPER: Now, no president likes leaks, especially ones that reflect poorly on his administration.

[16:15:03] But it's worth noting candidate Trump's path to power was tread on a road of leaks, leaks against Hillary Clinton. Some came from WikiLeaks.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: WikiLeaks. The wonder of WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks, some new stuff. WikiLeaks.


TAPPER: And many of the ones about Hillary Clinton's private e-mail server, those leaks came from the FBI, right before Election Day, in fact, FOX News reported and then had to retract a report based on erroneous leaks that the FBI investigation into the Clinton Foundation was going to likely lead to indictments almost immediately. Now, retraction, notwithstanding, candidate Trump, well, he had at it.


TRUMP: The FBI agents say their investigation is likely to yield an indictment.


TAPPER: He didn't have a problem with leaks then.

It's worth pointing out -- it's not a moral position if you only hold it when it applies to you.

Coming up, so, just how concerned are members of President Trump's own party about his campaign's constant contact with Russia during the campaign? We'll talk to Republican Senator Jeff Flake, next.


[16:20:02] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Let's stick with politics now. CNN, of course, has learned high-level advisors to then presidential candidate Donald Trump were in constant communication during the campaign with Russian operatives known to U.S. intelligence. This directly contradicts what White House press Secretary Sean Spicer said just yesterday.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for a comprehensive probe.

Joining me now is Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. He serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, always good to see you. Thanks so much for joining us.


TAPPER: So, what is your reaction to this news, that these high level advisors in the Trump campaign were apparently talking to people known to Russian -- I mean, to Russians known to U.S. intelligence? Does this upset you? Does it concern you?

FLAKE: Yes, if true, it would be concerning. All we have is a report, I think, in the "New York Times" so far. So, obviously, we'll want to find out if that is true.

It would seem odd to be in contact with Russian intelligence officials. Sometimes you don't know who they are, but for the campaign to be in contact with any group like that would seem strange and like I said, I would want to find out if it's true before commenting further.

TAPPER: Yes. I mean, other media organizations including CNN have matched it, but I understand. Do you think that this needs to be explored by the Senate Intelligence Committee, by an independent counsel, by a select committee?

FLAKE: My understanding is the Senate is already looking into it, the Intelligence Committee. I don't think a special committee is needed. I think the standing committees can do it just fine.

TAPPER: I have to ask you, Senator, whether it's intelligence officials a few weeks ago briefing the president on possibly compromising information that the Russians claim to have on him, or this Flynn call to the Russian ambassador and his subsequent lies about it, or the new story, the communications with Russian operatives by senior staffers, senior advisor of the Trump campaign -- do you ever stop and say to yourself, just what the hell is going on here?

FLAKE: Well, we have an agenda in Congress to get through. In terms of regulations, we're working with the administration on that. We've got Obamacare to deal with. We've got tax policy. So, we have a full agenda and, so, we're anxious to get working on that.

Frankly, we are moving ahead in Congress. So, I hope the White House can move ahead as well and put this behind them. It sounds like they have.

I think it was wise to seek the resignation of Mr. Flynn, and he was wise to offer it. So, I'm glad they moved forward. TAPPER: Well, I mean, you say that it's behind them. But the head of

U.S. Special Operations Commander, Army General Raymond "Tony" Thomas said Tuesday that in his view the U.S. government, quote, "continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we are a nation at war. As a commander, I'm concerned our government be as stable as possible."

I mean, for a sitting general to say such a thing publicly that the government is in turmoil and he's worried about how it's going to affect his ability to fight adversaries such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, that's not putting it behind them.

FLAKE: Well, I hope -- I mean, there are other issues obviously, and the House and the Senate will look into that. But the White House hopefully can move forward because these challenges don't stop just because the White House is having some issues.

So, I think they're going to put it behind them. I hope they do. We all wish for success there. And we need a partner to work with on a lot of these issues obviously. So, we're hoping that we can move ahead.

TAPPER: There is a joint press conference obviously today with President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. The two men showed a big disagreement on settlement expansion and also when President Trump said, "One state solution, two state solutions, we'll see what the parties agree to."

What was your take on these areas where there did seem to be some disagreement?

FLAKE: Well, my take is with regard to the two or one-state solution, President Trump seemed to be simply saying that they will accept whatever the parties negotiate and those parties are Israel and Palestinians. That's been the long-held position that the United States has had. So, I don't think that that's a break from the past.

Obviously, Israel is a valued ally. We need to work with them. We need to make sure that organizations like the U.N. doesn't gang up on them, and I think we can move forward.

TAPPER: Hasn't it been pretty much U.S. policy, whether under Obama or George W. Bush, that there be a two-state solution as a way of trying to push the Israelis towards a more lasting peace? Isn't it actually a disagreement and a break from the past?

FLAKE: That has long been the framework most of us have accepted as the most possible way for lasting peace and stability. So, yes, that has been it. But I don't think that what was said today signals a departure. It simply acknowledges that the two parties are going to have to negotiate that.

[16:25:03] And when two parties are negotiating that, it's most likely to be a two-state solution. So, I don't think it was a departure.

TAPPER: Senator Jeff Flake, thank you so much. Always good to see you, sir.

FLAKE: Thanks for having me.

TAPPER: President Trump promises to shake up Washington. Is this what he had in mind? We'll have more on that ahead.

And what's next for Mideast peace after the president says he's OK not pursuing a two-state solution? We'll talk with the former U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Obama, coming up.


TAPPER: We're back with the world lead. And President Trump's afternoon with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they very well could have been today's top story. The two met at the White House essentially hitting a reset after Israel's strained relationship with President Obama.