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Trump Praises Flynn; Trump Campaign Russian Contacts; Trump on Israeli Settlements; Trump on Illegal Leaks; GOP Urge Withdraw of Labor Pick; White House Chaos. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired February 15, 2017 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Very, very much. That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'll be back 5:00 p.m. Eastern in "The Situation Room." The news continues right now on CNN.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

You saw it, breaking news beginning with multiple major headlines for another day here coming out of the historic first joint news conference between President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They talked West Bank settlements and a one-state versus two-state solution in the Middle East. News was made there. However, the dominating issue had absolutely nothing to do with Israel, rather Russia. Russia, amid news that during the campaign then candidate Trump's aides were in constant communication with senior Russian officials.

All of this coming to light after the president's national security adviser has resigned. Michael Flynn admitted he gave, quote, "incomplete information" about his calls with the Russian ambassador back in late December. Yo know the story. He initially denied that they had talked sanctions and later that story changed. Today the president did not address that or the fact that his campaign aides were frequently talking to Russia. But he did praise the man whose resignation he just tendered.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think 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. And I think it's really a sad thing that he was treated so badly.

I think in addition to that, from intelligence, papers are being leaked, things are being leaked. It's criminal action. It's a criminal act. And it's been going on for a long time. Before me. But now it's really going on. And people are trying to cover up for a terrible loss that the Democrats had under Hillary Clinton. I think it's very, very unfair what's happened to General Flynn, the way he was treated, and the documents and papers that were illegally - I stress that - illegally leaked.


BALDWIN: Let's start there with CNN political director David Chalian and CNN's senior international correspondent Clarissa Ward.

David, first to you.

I mean you just heard the sound from the president, right, praising Flynn as a great guy. And he, you know, had to go because of unfair, you know, media reports and these leaks. Twenty-four hours ago we heard a very different story from Sean Spicer in that White House briefing, said, no, no, it was an erosion of trust and that he misled the vice president. Two very different statements. Who's telling the truth?


BALDWIN: Who's telling the truth?

CHALIAN: We don't know who's telling the truth, but we know that the president clearly doesn't feel the same way as Sean Spicer put out, the sort of official line from the administration as to why Flynn had to go. Because both things can't really be true, right? Donald Trump can't say that he was - he had to go simply because of unfair treatment in the media when yesterday we're told from his spokesman that there was this evolving erosion of trust that became totally unsustainable. In Donald Trump's version that we heard from the president himself today, what was quite clear is that what seems to be the flaw here for Michael Flynn is that his lying to Vice President Pence became exposed to the public. That seems to be why he had to go in Donald Trump's mind, from a PR point of view, not - he didn't say one - one iota about the issue of trust that Sean Spicer presented yesterday.

BALDWIN: And just staying with you, quickly, the issue - the big headline of the day - and CNN's been all over - the fact that his campaign aides were in constant contact with Russia even before he was elected. He was not directly asked about that again.

CHALIAN: Other than our own Jim Acosta trying to shout the question (INAUDIBLE) -

BALDWIN: Shouting. Shouting isn't counting because he's not responding to shouts.

CHALIAN: Yes. No, exactly. It is befuddling to me why the administration is not seeing an opportunity to actually answer these questions about this reporting, about constant communication between the campaign - or people in the campaign or in Trump's larger orbit with Russian officials. Donald Trump, in January, said flat out no.

Well, this reporting is the opposite of that. So that needs to be squared in some way and Donald Trump should relish the opportunity because what is not being reported on, we should be really clear, neither "The New York Times" nor us, Brooke, nobody is reporting the content of these communications and somehow even suggesting that it had to do with the DNC hack, or the Russian desire to interfere with U.S. elections.


CHALIAN: But that hangs out there -


CHALIAN: Until Trump gets out there and addresses it. So put - put everything out and say what was the nature of the contact so that they can try to turn the corner on this story.

BALDWIN: No one knows the content. No one knows the motive. And so that's just Russia, right? Then you have what happened with Israel, Clarissa, and this is where I want to bring you in, because there was this moment when the president was asked about Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Here was his answer.

[14:05:11] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As far as settlements, I'd like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit. We'll work something out. But I would like to see a deal be made. I think a deal will be made.

Bibi and I have known each other a long time. A smart man. A great negotiator. And I think we're going to make a deal. It might be a bigger and better deal than people in this room even understand. That's a possibility. So let's see what we do.


TRUMP: Doesn't sound too optimistic, but he's a good negotiator.

NETANYAHU: That's the art of the deal.

TRUMP: So I'm looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I'm very happy with the one that both parties like. I could live with either one. I thought for a while the two- state looked like it may be the easier of the two, but, honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians - or if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I'm happy with the one they like the best.


BALDWIN: He's a good negotiator. That's the art of the deal. There's laughter. But, Clarissa, amidst all of that, it's the headline, hold back on settlements? That is not what Prime Minister Netanyahu wanted to hear.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think, Brooke, it's not what he wanted to hear, but it's definitely what he expected to hear because we have seen several member of the Trump administration, including the president himself, come out in recent weeks and say that they don't think that this is conducive or helpful towards establishing peace. I think what was, to me, a little more eye-catching or alarming was the idea of, it can be a two-state solution or it can be a one-state solution -

BALDWIN: Or a one-state.

WARD: As if it's the kind of tomato-tomato issue. And, of course, you know, that really is kind of breaking with decades of international protocol and also of U.S. presidents who have, for a long time now, all espoused the idea that a two-state solution is the preferable option here. So I don't think Prime Minister Netanyahu will have been disappointed but this press conference. But I also think it's just bizarre to have a press conference before you've actually had a meeting where you really get into the nitty gritty and the nuts and bolts of how this is all going to pan out. Basically this was about optics. This was about showing the world a united front, a new page, a new chapter in the Israeli-U.S. relationships, Brooke.

BALDWIN: I'm so glad you pointed that out. Forgive me for not even just reminding the viewers. We saw, you know, the Israeli prime minister and his wife walking into the White House. Five steps later, they're in front of, you know, global press before they have the chat, which is not normal protocol.

Let me add another layer to the bizarre files, David Chalian, and on this Israel conversation where you had this other Israeli reporter who was asking Trump about the rise of these hate attacks, these anti- Semitic attacks and then the president's response. Here it was.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are going to have peace in this country. We are going to stop crime in the country. We are going to do everything within our power to stop long-simmering racism and everything other thing that's going on. I think one of the reasons I won the election is we have a very, very divided nation, very divided, and hopefully I'll be able to do something about that.

You're going to see a lot of love. You're going to see a lot of love.


BALDWIN: So he didn't condemn the attacks, mentions the Electoral College again and then talks about love. Bizarre?

CHALIAN: Yes, I - I - my ears perked up also. I thought that last part you played about him diagnosing that we are as divided as we've ever been, a very divided nation, deeply divided, and that is true. And he said he hopes to do something about that. I - you know, he did talk about this a little bit on his election night victory speech as well about needing to reach out, but it would be really great to see what actions he wants to put behind that notion of healing the divisions. I think this is - you know, Barack Obama talked about this as he was leaving office, Brooke. One of his great frustrations and I think one of - what he sees as his own sort of failings in the administration was he wasn't able to break through that divide as much as he had hoped at the beginning of his presidency. Donald Trump starting out his presidency, thinks there's an opportunity to do it, and it would be great to hear from him as sort of what his proposals are to bring the country together to heal some of those divisions.

BALDWIN: David Chalian, thank you. Clarissa Ward, thank you.

Let's move on to this. A senior Republican source says it is likely the president's now former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, could be called to testify as the Senate Intelligence Committee investigates. No doubt if and when the retired general is called upon, he will face tough questions about which staffers, which aides within the Trump campaign were in that frequent and constant communication with which senior Russian officials.

[14:10:09] Let's dig deeper now. I have with me the author of "Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein," John Nixon. He is also a former senior analyst at the CIA, who was the first to question Hussein after his capture in 2003. Also with us, Eli Lake, columnist for "Bloomberg View," who wrote this stunning, stunning piece, Eli. Not often does a piece of journalism get praise from President Trump and Glenn Greenwald (ph). So, congrats. We're thrilled to have you on, Eli. Thank you so much for joining me.

And let me just begin with you. You know, you gave this sobering sort of 30,000-foot view of this current situation with the White House and with Flynn. And when you read through this piece, you show how both sides could be in the right here.

ELI LAKE, WRITER, "THE POLITICAL ASSASSINATION OF MICHAEL FLYNN": Well, I think that on the one hand, I am one of the journalists who has raised a lot of concerns about Russian interference and the election, and I hope that it is investigated fully. But there is an extraordinary moment where, through anonymous leaks of monitored conversations with an American citizen before he was a national security adviser, they were able to, within less than a month of a new presidency, knockout the national security adviser. And I guess to use a word that's sort of gaining a lot of traction these days, my hope is that that is not normalized in our country because I believe that those - that is a kind of policed state tactic where you do not have an opportunity to confront your accusers and you're - this is a public trust, the ability to eavesdrop. And we need, I believe, the government to do this in order to stop terrorism and criminals and foreign intelligence subversion. But when that is then made public selectively, it can be used as a weapon to destroy people's reputations and exact political revenge. That's the kind of thing we associate with countries like Egypt, not liberal democracies. So I think we need to be very worried about that.

BALDWIN: John, you heard Eli, what do you think?

JOHN NIXON, FORMER CIA SENIOR ANALYST: I agree will much of the - much that Eli has said. I will say this, though. I think that General Flynn was the author and architect of his own downfall. He was kind of a loose cannon to begin with and that's what - from - I've heard that from a number of people. I've also been told that some of the things that he wanted to do, he was being wanted were illegal in terms of foreign policy for the United States. And I think if we really want to get to the bottom of things, we should be able to see the transcripts that were of these phone calls that were picked up. Quite often the intelligence - if the leaks are coming from the intelligence community they usually are not caused by personal petty vendettas. The intelligence -

BALDWIN: Well, then why? Why is - why is this intel - why are they leaking so much?

NIXON: Well, the intelligence community doesn't burn methods and sources over personal vendettas, but they will do something like that over what they think are poorly thought out ideas or policy changes or for policy proposals. And you know something - let me put it this way, if President Trump wants to have say new relations with Russia, if he wants Russian help with ISIS, if he wants to get NATO allies to pay more of their share in defense costs, that's - that's - that's fine. That's what President Trump was elected to do. But h needs to build support for those policy changes. If he - if he just has the national security adviser - well, if the national security adviser has the president's ear, and then is going behind his back and talking to the Russian ambassador telling, oh, we're going to make these changes, don't worry about it, that's another story all together, and that could lead to disaster. And so I think that - if - if this is coming from the intelligence community, it's probably concern over the proposed policy changes that the White House is thinking about.

BALDWIN: I - Eli, I'd love to hear your thoughts on those leaks as well, if it is coming from the intel.

LAKE: If the intelligence community has problems with proposed policy changes, there are channels within the government for which they should do that.

NIXON: Sure.

LAKE: I am a big proponent of leaks. I like them very much. But I do think that when you're talking about the communications of American citizens like this that are monitored, we're crossing a line. Also considering that these articles quoted numerous sources, nine in the case of the original "Washington Post," of current and former officials -

BALDWIN: The Greg Miller (ph) piece.

LAKE: The former part does lead one to think that maybe there are Obama holdovers who are motivated here politically. It smells really fishy to me.

And I just want to say, I don't buy at all the argument that they had to inform and do all of this because, you know, Flynn might be susceptible to blackmail. That strikes me as the thinnest read in this entire story.

BALDWIN: I've heard that.

LAKE: As I understand it, there are many different ways to read those conversations. In and of itself, for Mike Flynn to have a conversation with the Russian ambassador in that transition as he's preparing to be the national security adviser is neither illegal or improper. If it was raised by the Russian ambassador, what are you going to do about sanctions, and the answer was, give us a couple weeks, we're going to get in and then review Russia policy, I don't understand what the problem is there. I agree with you, let's see those transcripts. But, I mean, I'm sorry, but this looks like abuse of power and abuse of trust in a lot of ways.

[14:15:23] BALDWIN: But despite all of that, Eli, just quickly, and we've got to go, you say that Flynn is just the appetizer.

LAKE: Yes, I -


LAKE: Because I think that as a general rule, not just Democrats, but I do think a lot of permanent Washington, the swamp for lack of a better word, and I'm part of that swamp, wants to destroy Trump. It's pretty obvious. And I'm not trying to give Trump a free pass here. Read my work, I've been very critical. But I think that by basically caving in at this point and letting Trump go, it will continue to be open season. Chum is in the water.

NIXON: Can I - can I add something?

BALDWIN: Quickly, John, go ahead.

NIXON: Yes, I think that as hard as it is for now - for President Trump to do this now, a year from now he might be glad that Flynn left and that if he gets this guy Harward in, that he has him as his national security adviser. He needs to have professionals and he needs to have solid people helping him.

BALDWIN: John Nixon, thank you.

LAKE: Flynn was the director of the DIA and a lieutenant general. He's also a professional.

BALDWIN: And now he's out.

LAKE: Yes.

BALDWIN: And he was out under Obama and he's out under Trump.

BALDWIN: John Nixon, Eli Lake, gentlemen, thank you both so much.

LAKE: Thank you.

NIXON: Thank you for having me.

BALDWIN: Thank you.

Coming up next, one of President Trump's fiercest rivals, a former CIA officer - operative joins me live on his reaction to Trump and why one of the president's tweets is making him furious.

Plus, more breaking news. He may become the first of the president's cabinet picks to go down in flames. Why top Republicans are urging the president to withdraw the nomination of his labor secretary pick.

You're watching CNN.


[14:20:49] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BALDWIN: Breaking news now from Capitol Hill. Top Senate Republicans urging the White House to withdraw Andrew Puzder nomination for labor secretary.

So, let's go straight to CNN's senior congressional reporter Manu Raju, and I have CNN's special correspondent Jamie Gangel also standing by.

But, Manu, first to you there on Capitol Hill, how much jeopardy now does this mean for Andy Puzder?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Significant. I mean it's unclear whether or not he survives the night.


RAJU: We are hearing that - we're - Republicans in the Senate are waiting for a decision from the White House whether to continue with the Puzder nomination. Right now there is no comment from the White House or from Puzder's spokesman himself.

Now, I am told by a source that there are up to 12 Republican senators who could vote "no" on Puzder and there are four firm "no" votes. And if you look at the math, that means he's not going to get confirmed if those numbers hold true. Now, there are 52 Republican senators. That means you can't lose more than two.

This is all happening behind the scenes as Republicans try to determine whether or not Puzder has enough support to get confirmed. Tomorrow is a critical confirmation hearing. It is still scheduled at this point because Donald Trump has a choice whether to move forward. But a significant number of liabilities continue to pile up for Puzder. Everything ranging from details from a messy divorce from three decades ago, to hiring of an undocumented immigrant, to concerns on the right over his views on immigration policy, all leading to a perfect storm of sorts, insuring that Puzder probably does not have the votes to get confirmed. And I'm told, Brooke, that Republicans don't want to go through all of this, take a hit for supporting him if, at the end of the day, he actually does not get the votes to get confirmed. So they say, why not pull the plug on the nomination right now, Brooke.

BALDWIN: OK. And as you rightly pointed, still no comment from the White House.

Manu, thank you.

And, Jamie, just your quick reaction. It's like, you know, we talked about from Democrats on The Hill, they didn't like Betsy DeVos, they didn't like Jeff Sessions. What is it about Andy Puzder, and Manu alluded to it, why is he the one that looks to be going down in flames?

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, in some ways this isn't surprising because he has a lot of problems with his nomination that we just talked about. On the other hand, what a difference a week makes. I really think that what you're seeing is a change with the Republicans. They are now willing to say to the White House, we're not going to go here. You're not going to get the votes on it.

BALDWIN: Say "no."

GANGEL: And just the fact they didn't do it privately, right? Manu is a great reporter and they came out and they told him this is not happening. So this is a pushback that we didn't see a week ago.

BALDWIN: OK. Stay with me because meantime, leaks, legal challenges, forced resignations, possible ethics violations, secret communications with an American adversary. Is the Trump administration in turmoil just three weeks in? Senator John McCain seems to think so.


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's in charge, this Flynn situation. The whole environment is one of dysfunction in the Trump administration.


BALDWIN: He is not alone. Former director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, echoes this as well. The man who has served in high-level positions spanning nine presidents, saying, quote, "I have never been so nervous in my lifetime about what may or may not happen in Washington."

Let me add to that. The head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, General Tony Thomas says, quote, "our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we're a nation at war."

So, Jamie, we heard the sound also from Senator McCain and these are the - these are the usual suspects on Capitol Hill, Senator McCain, Senator Graham, Senator Rubio. But it's dissenting voices as well who are jumping in.

GANGEL: Absolutely. And I spoke to several senior Republican officials who pointed to two people in particular, Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri and Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee. These are two senior people who have been very quiet the first three and a half, four weeks and now we have some sound of them speaking out. They're concerned about these links with Russia.

[14:25:14] BALDWIN: Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. ROY BLUNT (R), MISSOURI: I think it's likely that General Flynn will b, at some point, asked to come and talk to the committee about both post-election activities and any other activities that he would be aware of.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: The base issue is - is getting to the bottom of what the Russian interference was and what the relationship was with associates of the Trump effort. And so that is the big elephant this the room that has got to be dealt with in the most appropriate way.


BALDWIN: What specifically do they want to know? What are they saying about the investigation?

GANGEL: Look, Senator McCain, Lindsey Graham, they have been after this for a long time. This is a change in attitude. And what I'm hearing is that the Senate Intelligence Committee - really that it is likely that they are going to call General Mike Flynn. They -

BALDWIN: To testify.

GANGEL: To testify. That they also are likely to ask two former officials, former DNI Clapper, former CIA Director Brennan. Those were the former intelligence officials who briefed Donald Trump. And what they want to know is, to go back to the Howard Baker line from Watergate, what did the president know and when did he know it?

BALDWIN: And when did he know it.

GANGEL: And so they're really - I am told that this is going to be a very serious investigation, that the Senate Intelligence Committee had an almost two-hour conversation about broadening the scope of it.

BALDWIN: Jamie, thank you.


BALDWIN: Thank you.

More breaking news. President Trump pointing fingers at the media and intelligence leaks for the firing of national security adviser Michael Flynn. My next guest is a former CIA agent, ran against Trump, wanted to be president himself. Evan McMullin will join me live. His reaction to everything that has been unfolding today.

Also ahead, can President Trump have it both ways, you know, criticize intelligence leaks but also praise leaks? Let's discuss that.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (October 10,2016): This just came out. This just came out. WikiLeaks. I love WikiLeaks.